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LITTLE

SISTER NEXT DOOR


RILEY ROLLINS
Copyright 2017 by Riley Rollins
All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical
means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written
permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the
author's imagination. Any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental.
Little Sister Next Door is a full-length novel. You can expect it to
end around 50% on your Kindle.
After Little Sister Next Door Ive included a bonus book, The
Baby Contract. Its my way of saying thank you for reading!
Enjoy!
-Riley
CONTENTS

Rileys Dirty List


Little Sister Next Door
1. Maggie
2. Joe
3. Joe
4. Maggie
5. Joe
6. Maggie
7. Joe
8. Maggie
9. Joe
10. Maggie
11. Joe
12. Maggie
13. Joe
14. Maggie
15. Joe
16. Maggie
17. Joe
18. Maggie
19. Joe
20. Maggie
21. Joe
22. Maggie
23. Joe
24. Maggie
25. Joe
26. Maggie
27. Joe
28. Maggie
29. Joe
30. Maggie
31. Joe
32. Maggie
33. Maggie
34. Joe
35. Maggie
36. Joe
37. Maggie
38. Joe
39. Maggie
40. Joe
41. Maggie
42. Joe
43. Joe
44. Maggie
45. Joe
46. Maggie
47. Joe
48. Maggie
The Baby Contract
1. Jack
2. Libby
3. Jack
4. Libby
5. Jack
6. Libby
7. Jack
8. Libby
9. Jack
10. Libby
11. Jack
12. Libby
13. Jack
14. Libby
15. Jack
16. Libby
17. Jack
18. Libby
19. Jack
20. Libby
21. Jack
22. Libby
23. Jack
24. Libby
25. Jack
26. Libby
27. Jack
28. Libby
29. Jack
30. Libby
31. Jack
32. Libby
33. Jack
34. Libby
35. Jack
36. Libby
37. Jack
38. Libby
39. Jack
40. Libby
41. Jack
42. Libby
43. Jack
44. Libby
45. Jack
46. Libby
47. Jack
48. Libby
49. Epilogue, Pt. 1 - Jack
50. Epilogue, Pt. 2 - Liberty
Thank You
Also by Riley Rollins
RILEYS DIRTY LIST

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LITTLE SISTER NEXT DOOR

Me, break my promise to marry my best friends little sister?


Come on. I was a kid, and hell, so was Maggie.
Promises like that are made to be broken.
But now Im back in town, and Im hooked on that hot f*cking
blonde in boots.
After all these years... Could it really be her?

Trouble starts when I find out she is my Maggie. My best friends


little sister is all grown up, and shes off limits. Way off limits
Im Decker, the biggest news name in the south.
Maggies a young college grad, hell-bent on saving the world.
A match made in heaven? Only till we collide.
Shes adventurous and demanding, a passionate whirlwind.
Loving her means I could lose an empire. Loving me means she
could lose the only family shes got left.
Storm seasons here and the temperatures rising. We cant
happen Except we already have. The girl next door is becoming
my everything.
So f*ck the consequences.
For Maggie, Im charging in...
...to the eye of the storm.
1

MAGGIE

M AY FORECAST : Unseasonably hot, humid. Highs nearing 100.


Shit not again
The thuk, thuk, thuk of ragged rubber on asphalt had me easing
off the gas and gripping the wheel for all I was worth. Only a
hundred damned miles outside of Texas and this was my second
flat in the last six hours. I let the jeep slow on its own and pulled
off onto the shoulder. Hell, I was getting good at this.
I shut off the engine and took my last long swallow of tepid
water. Leaning back in the seat, I allowed myself a few quiet
moments to watch the thunderhead growing on the horizon. It
was hot. Fucking hot for spring, and Id already stripped as far as
I dared. Tiny pink tee and shorts. Sweat trickled down the back
of my neck and I sighed impatiently. I wasnt up for this.
I threw on my beat-up old Stetson and climbed out to survey the
damage. Not good. The tire was the newest one on the vehicle,
and the tread trailed in shreds. I used the elastic band on my
wrist to bundle up way too much hair, and crammed my hat
down to hold it in place. I dug out the lug wrench, again, and
went to work.
But not before I gave the tire the ass-kicking it deserved with the
pointed toe of my boot.
W ELL , HEY THERE , HONEY . Y OU LOOK LIKE YOU COULD USE A COLD
drink.
The waitress was thick around the middle, a nametag perched
over her generous bosom, and wiping down the lunch counter
with a cloth. The little bell tinkled above me as I paused in the
doorway, and the first cold wave of blessed air conditioning
washed over me.
You sit right on down here, the little woman waved her hand.
My names Doris, and you just take your time with the menu.
She eyeballed me hard. How long you been drivin, honey? You
look done in. She wiped her hands on her pink and white apron.
I picked up the glass of ice water she put in front of me and
downed it in two swallows. She refilled it, and I resisted the urge
to pour it over my head. Just barely.
Two days, more or less, I answered, holding the red plastic
glass to the side of my neck. Shouldve made it in one. I shook
my head and she smiled, wrinkles lining her face.
Well, the road usually has its own timing, she said, nodding.
Where you headed?
Home, I blurted. Well Texas anyway. Im not sure if it is
still home. Or if it ever really was. Doris cocked an eyebrow,
waiting. My brother Dean still lives there, I offered. I guess
thats close enough.
I ordered the club salad special and watched as Doris handed the
order slip back to the cook. He stared at me a little too long as he
took it, just like the old man whod patched my first flat back in
Kansas. But I was used to it. All through college it had been the
same. Guys with eyes. And little else. I wasnt much interested,
then or now. I hadnt gone to Kansas U to have a good time. Id
gone there to get my degree. And I had.
The Decker family matriarch had reluctantly condescended to
pay my tuition and my brothers as well. So long as we kept our
noses clean and our grade point averages up. Id figured it was
probably the only chance Id ever get, so Id worked my butt off. I
might have left Texas a scared kid, but I was coming home a
magna cum laude graduate with a degree in social work. I was
coming home to help people whod grown up just like me,
helpless as their lives fell in around them. Only now I was a
grown woman, strong and capable. And no one was ever going to
see me as helpless again. Especially Joe
There you go? Doris put the heaping plate of salad in front
of me, an expectant look on her face.
Maggie, I supplied.
There you go, Maggie. She smiled and tipped her head over
her shoulder. Looks like Jimmys got a sweet spot for you. He
never gives anybody extra bacon bits. I sighed and dug in,
wishing Id had the sense to pull a shirt on over my tank top.
You plannin to push on through tonight? Doris asked kindly.
I gotta work the overnight tonight, and you look like you could
use a shower and a little shut-eye. Tell you what. I got a little
motel just a quarter mile down the road. Only three units and
one is mine. But the others are empty right now. Wont hurt me
any if you take one for the night.
She reached in her pocket and selected a key from the tangle of
others. She pushed it across the counter. I have a daughter who
looks a lot like you. Havent seen her in ten no, twelve years
now. She patted my hand and I smiled into her warm, tired
eyes. Just drop the key back in the morning, honey. I know all
about goin home again. Its bittersweet, for certain. Sometimes
a touch heavy on the bitter
I reached for my bag, searching for my wallet. I cant thank you
enough, I said, relaxing for the first time since Id loaded up the
car and left the last four years of my life behind me. But Im
happy to pay
Not a chance, honey. Doris pushed a lank curl back under her
hairnet. Thiss my treat. You just think of this as home sayin
its happy youre back. She slid the glass door open and reached
into the pie case, pulling out a slice of banana cream. On the
house, she said, smiling. You sure do favor my Alice. She was
beautiful, too
Whys she been away from home for so long? I pushed the
remains of the salad aside and took a cold, creamy bite of pie.
Pure heaven.
She ran off with some no-good. I told her as much and never
heard from her again. It was my turn to pat Doriss hand. I
could see her tears starting to build.
What about you, Maggie? She wiped at her eyes brusquely.
You got a man waiting for you at home? Forgive me for sayin,
but youve got the look of a woman whos been apart from her
man too long. She smiled shyly. You know sorta
impatient?
I smiled back and let out my breath. Joe, I said, more to myself
than to her. It had been so long since Id said his name out loud.
It felt foreign on my tongue. Sweet.
No bittersweet, just like Doris had said. I wasnt coming home
to Texas. I was coming home to Joe. And I had no idea what that
meant. I couldnt even be sure he remembered me Last I saw
him was four years ago, just before I left for my freshman year.
But he hadnt seen me. Hed been too busy with the hot little
redhead on his arm.
And the last time hed seen me, Id been only seven years old. A
scared little kid with knobby knees and unbrushed hair. Dad was
still alive then, but too deep into the bottle and his flashbacks to
care. Dean had been fifteen, and more interested in his own
friends than a needy little sister.
Joe had been my whole world back then. And ever since, Id
never been able to completely shake that feeling. Hed watched
out for me, the way my dad never had. Joe had wiped my nose
and bandaged my scraped elbows. Hed read me stories and told
me jokes until Id rolled with laughter. Hed been the one bright
spot in a lonely childhood, and Id grown up loving him. How the
hell could I not?
Will you marry me someday, when I get big? Youll keep me safe,
wont you, Joe? Promise me?
I still cringed whenever I remembered begging him to promise
me and seeing the pity in his eyes. But that was a damned long
time ago. So long, he might not remember. Or recognize the
woman I was now.
I looked back into Doriss careworn face. She was searching mine
gently. Is Joe your boyfriend, honey? Is he a good man?
He is a good man, I answered softly. The only man I ever
looked up to in my whole life The best man I ever knew
You two gonna get married?
Were kind of engaged, I said with a wistful smile, thinking
back. I shook my head slowly. But I dont think so Were from
two different worlds.
And by now, hes forgotten all about me
2

JOE

I MPERIOUS . Thats the word for it.


Bess was the grande dame of the Decker empire and all that was
left, except for my brother Ryan and me. Shed outlived her three
children, including our father. And by the tone of her voice, she
wasnt going to be kept waiting any longer
Joseph! Her voice cut through the warm air. Tea, now. And
dont go running off. I want a word.
I took the tea tray from Maria and headed out to the patio. The
housekeeper shot me a look of gratitude and turned for the
kitchen. It was her job, not mine, but I could hardly blame her.
Grandmother, I said cheerfully, setting the tray down in front
of her. Youre looking well this morning. Picture of health.
Hhmmph, she replied testily, as she poured and handed me a
steaming cup. Damnably hot for spring, she muttered, her
voice surprisingly strong coming from such a tiny old woman.
White-haired and wrinkled, her eyes were as bright and clear as
theyd been in her youth. They were Decker blue, brilliant and
flecked with violet. She was still a startlingly attractive woman,
even in her eighties.
Youre heading in later than usual. It wasnt a question.
I am, I replied. The managing editor took the morning
meetings. I had some details to tie up late last night on the
Fairfax shootings.
She shifted and blew into her cup. Well, just dont make a habit
of it. I didnt make you executive editor just for show, just
because you were the eldest the next in line after my poor
Davis. Her eyes always misted over when she thought of my
dad. Hed died only two short years ago. The wounds were still
fresh.
I patted her hand comfortingly as she sat up straighter. Ill
make him proud, Grandma Bess. You, too. TexStar has already
added a dozen new dailies and another channel. Were bigger
and better than ever. I stood, and put down my china cup. And
I need to get moving now, what with the weight of the family
empire on my shoulders
She chuckled, pleased. Well see, she said. Its not as if
youre the only Decker heir. Theres always your brother, she
threatened.
She knew goddamn well Id keep my promise. Id always kept my
promises, even though taking control of TexStar Newsmedia had
pretty much been the end of my career as a photojournalist. Id
given up the camera for a big corner office and the backbreaking
burden of leadership. And I couldnt seem to shake the feeling
that something was missing Maybe a sense of purpose
maybe the passion Id felt when I was looking through the
camera lens. But I was damned good. Even better than my
father. And Bess knew it.
I dropped a kiss on her dry forehead and turned to leave.
Joseph?
I turned back to see her twisting her hands. Hesitation wasnt
like her. I stood, intrigued waiting
Be at the bus station at two. She looked like the words
tasted sour on her lips. One of those charity children is coming
back for a brief stay in the cottage. Ive given her my
permission.
One of Maggie. Oh, my God Maggie For a moment, I
forgot my grandmothers disdainful tone. I forgot everything
around me. I could still see Maggies pale coppery-blonde curls
and the tears in her big brown eyes. That poor little kid, with her
dirty toes and her broken heart...
Maggies back? Little Mags
Was that her name? Its the girl, I know that much. Bess
patted her skirts. I received a message that her car didnt make
the entire trip back from Kansas. She was picked up by one of
those passenger buses, and will be arriving this
I interrupted, making her blink. Ill collect her, I said firmly,
forcing down my own irritation. I know you never cared for any
of their family, Bess. But Dad made them a promise. It was my
turn to sound imperious. The Decker family owes the Blakes,
and Im going to make damned sure we honor it. Have Maria
make a special dinner tonight. Little Maggies going to have a
proper welcome home.
I left Bess with her thin lips parted, speechless for once, and
headed out to the garage. I selected a black sports car for the
day it was the least pretentious of the lot. It started with a soft
growl and I was on the road minutes later. It would take the
better part of half an hour to get from Southlake to Dallas-Fort
Worth. I stepped on the gas, driving on autopilot, as the
memories flooded back. It was the first time I ever remembered
being grateful for the drive
F IFTEEN YEARS AGO

Theyre not leaving the guest house, and thats the end of it,
Mother.
My fathers voice was loud with anger, still louder from the
scotch in his hand. I was passing by in the hall and paused at the
door. It was unheard of, in this house, to oppose Grandma Bess.
Blake is a known drunkard and those children Her voice was
as loud as Dads, and shrill. I wont have their kind living a
stones throw from my own family. If you wont think of me, or
your wife, think of your sons, Davis. I believe in kindness and
charity for those in need. Ill write them a check a generous
one. She shuffled around in a desk drawer. But I wont have
them in my own backyard anymore. Mixing with my grandsons
influencing them
I wasnt asking your permission, Mother. And Ill thank you to
keep your outdated opinions to yourself. I heard her gasp as he
continued. I was glued to the doorframe, amazed and
impressed.
I listened to my father as he continued. War brings out the
best and the worst in men And John had my back when it
counted. The least I can do is give him a place to stay while he
pulls himself together. Theyve only been here for two years. I
heard my grandmother huff. You dont know what it was like in
the war, my father went on, his voice suddenly sounding as
distant as the past. Nobody does
I heard a clatter in the hall behind me and moved away from the
door. I hadnt intended to eavesdrop, but I was glad to hear Dad
standing up for himself. And for the Blakes. Hed been doing
less and less of that for years, as his health had started to fail.
Just outside the kitchen doors, I ran into Blakes son, Dean. He
was fifteen, one of my best friends, and already taking after his
father.
You want a beer? I scored a six-pack from the back of the
fridge. Dadll never miss it. Hes got vodka. Dean smiled slyly
and motioned for me to follow him. The guesthouse was settled
into the wooded area, just beyond the sloping grass hill behind
our estate.
Nah, Im good. I slapped Deans back. I got a shitload of
chem homework. Gotta keep a clear head.
Dean laughed and shook his head. Yeah, the old ladys already
got your college tuition paid up. You fuckin better not
disappoint her. He paused as we reached the split rail fence
that surrounded the little cottage. Id hate to have your life,
Joey. All mapped out before youre even officially eighteen.
Wheres the fun in that? He opened the front door and his little
sisters face poked out. She was seven and small for her age. She
had big brown eyes that always seemed too large for her face.
Mags had followed me around since the day theyd arrived. Shed
been five then, with no mother and a father who rarely
remembered she was around. She was a quiet kid, but she had
moments when she could be bossy, demanding even. Mostly she
was sweet, and there was something about her that kinda broke
my heart.
Theres a party Friday night at Teresas, Dean said. You in?
Maybe well see. I watched as he shrugged his shoulders and
headed inside.
Gonna be a good one. One of the last, before youre on your way
to Brown. I heard the fridge door slam shut. You better
show up.
Whats Brown? Maggie asked, letting the door click shut
behind her. Id been putting it off for as long as I could, but I
knew I had to tell her. Probably better sooner than later.
Its a school Im going to, after I graduate high school. Its a big
university and Ill be living there soon. I watched as her big
eyes got bigger.
Youre leaving me? Her voice was faint and her lip had started
to quiver. I sat her down beside me on a wooden bench and put
my arm around her thin shoulders. Big, silent tears rolled down
her cheeks, and I took out my handkerchief and made her blow
her nose.
I have to go to school, Maggie, just like you do. But Ill be home
for vacations. I took her little hand and led her to the old
wooden swing. I picked her up and helped her into it. Well still
see each other. And youll have so many friends, youll forget all
about me.
I watched as she stared up at me, her eyes red-rimmed, but as
bright and serious as any adults. She set her lips, stubbornness
wrinkling her forehead. Push me, she ordered. I gave the
swing a little shove. Higher, she demanded. Push me all the
way up to the sky.
She squeezed her eyes shut, letting the rushing air dry her
cheeks. Ill never forget you, she called out. And someday Ill
be just as grown up as you. Her little girl voice was suddenly
bold. Will you marry me when Im big, Joe? Youll keep me
safe wont you?
I let the swing slow to a stop and she climbed off, wrapping her
skinny arms around my neck. Then you wont ever leave me
Promise me, she said next to my ear. Promise me you will
I wrapped my arms around her, sick at the thought of
abandoning a little kid who had no one who really cared for her.
What the hell was going to become of her? What kind of future
did she really have?
Sure, I said as kindly as I could. What could it hurt to tell her a
little white lie?
Youll always be my best girl, Mags. Of course, I will.
3

JOE

R YAN HAD TAKEN over in the office so I could leave early. But traffic
had been awful, and thered been an accident that slowed the
freeway to a dead crawl. Now it was two-thirty and the bus
terminal was nearly empty. The last goddamned thing Id
wanted was to let her down
I scanned the room, looking for a skinny girl with big brown
eyes. There was only a man with a brown paper sack, asleep
under a trash bag, and a woman with two small children
standing at the ticket counter. A slim, leggy blonde stood near
the windows, the sun flashing strawberry highlights in tresses
that just touched the curve of her ass. Cut-off shorts and a white
tee showed off tanned legs and perfect breasts. But it was the
boots that almost made me forget why I was there. The girl was
sexy as hell and didnt even seem to know it. I dragged my eyes
away to look at my watch. Maggies bus had arrived and left
almost half an hour ago. Where the hell was she?
I sat down on a smooth wooden bench just as my phone started
to vibrate. Dean?
Hey, Joey. Im sorry, I didnt make it out of class in time. Is
Maggie with you? Can I talk to her?
Shes not here. The bus was on schedule, but I got here late. She
must have taken a cab
Hang on, Ill get back to you. The phone went dead in my
hand. I slipped it back in my pocket and sighed. Dean had gotten
a slower start than the rest of us, but once hed grown out of his
partying days, hed enrolled in the local community college. He
was studying to be a nurse, and I was damned proud of him. At
thirty, it seemed he was finally growing up, becoming more
responsible. I knew he was looking forward to seeing Maggie,
too. It had been years since wed all been together.
I headed to the ticket counter as the woman led her children
toward the restroom door. The man at the desk wore a logo t-
shirt stretched over a middle-aged belly and a name tag with
Tiny printed in white letters. Did a Maggie Blake come in on the
last bus?
Dont give out names, Tiny answered. If you dont see her,
she probably aint here.
I ran a hand through my hair and turned around. No one had
come out of the restrooms. And new passengers were beginning
to trickle in for the next bus. I shot a glance at the girl in shorts
and watched her pull her phone out of her worn leather bag. She
was half-turned away I wanted to see her face, but settled for
the view of long, lovely legs. She tossed a thick mass of hair over
one shoulder and I heard her laugh. The sound of it was under
my skin in a second throaty and deep. The kind of voice a man
imagines waking up to in the morning or in the night It was
sexy and vibrant, just like the girl herself. For the first time in
years, my fingers itched to be holding a camera. The light
through the clerestory windows struck her hair just so, bringing
out a coppery hue in the blonde strands. She crossed one leg over
the other and I felt a surge of heat. I hadnt felt this kind of
animal attraction in years or maybe ever. She was exquisite.
Ive been here waiting, I heard her say. I inched closer and
watched her weave a strand of hair between her fingers. No, I
dont think so Ive just been sitting here
She stood and turned to look around the room. For a moment,
the sun was in my eyes. Then I shifted, hooding them with one
hand. I heard her breath catch.
Hes here No Ill meet you at the cottage Yes, Im fine.
Me, too see you later
I stepped away from the shaft of blinding light and saw her.
Really saw her Only a few feet away, face to face for the first
time. Her eyes were too big, too brown, just the way I
remembered them
Joe?
I struggled for a second, trying to fit my memories to the
beautiful girl standing in front of me. Christ the desire shed
stirred in me and all the while it had been little Mags
Maggie? I swallowed hard and pushed back a whole host of
conflicting emotions. My God look at you
She smiled, and for a moment she was that little girl Id left
behind. Then she threw her arms around my neck, stretching up
on tiptoe to pull me close, and she was all woman. Grown and
luscious, her breasts pushing into my chest as she dug her
fingertips into the back of my suit jacket My arms moved on
their own, wrapping around her little waist, grazing the swell of
her hip
Mags I didnt even see you Didnt recognize you, I
corrected, putting my hands firmly on her waist and pushing her
gently away from me. Youre taller than I remember.
And youre just the same, she smiled up at me. A little
broader, maybe. Same serious expression Oh, Joe. Its been so
long. I held her gaze, as a riot of warring impulses shot through
me. I watched as her lips parted softly.
Ill get your bags. I bent down, collecting her suitcases. She
reached down to pick up a backpack and I caught a glimpse of
round, creamy
The cars this way. I turned away fast and headed for the
double doors. I could hear the click of her boots on the tile
behind me, and groaned inwardly. How the fuck was I going to
handle those legs in the tiny sports car so damned close and
with my hormones pushing common sense out the window? This
was all so fucking wrong.
I held the car door as she climbed inside, closing it as she tucked
those goddamned boots underneath her. I slammed it shut,
harder than necessary, and went to work stuffing her bags into
the tiny trunk. For all my thirty-three years, I was acting more
like that dumb-ass kid I used to be. So was my traitorous dick.
Hell, Maggie wasnt my sister, but she was my best friends.
This was all so fucking wrong
4

MAGGIE

F OUR YEARS ago


I was leaving for college first thing in the morning. All packed up
and driving my first car all the way to Kansas. Id had butterflies
for days, in spite of Ryans reassurance. He was twenty-five,
older than me, and had already graduated.
The jeepll be fine, Maggie. I looked it over myself. So did Joe.
You know damned well neither one of us would let you go if it
wasnt safe.
I know, I smiled back, bumping my shoulder into his. Ryan
was eight years younger than his brother, all light in contrast to
Joes darkness, but they both had the same blue eyes. Warm and
kind. Id always been able to tell Ryan anything.
He feels responsible for you, you know. Hell, Joe feels
responsible for the whole damned world Ryan put his arm
around my shoulders and I rested my head comfortably
against him.
Have you told him yet? Hes up at the house tonight, you know.
And you may not a get a better chance before you leave.
I know. I went up, but
Thank God, they hadnt seen me. It had taken weeks to screw up
the courage to even consider telling Joe how I felt about him. Id
talked myself out of it a hundred times, but in the end, Id
realized I didnt have a choice. Hed only been back home for a
short time, and now I was the one leaving for the next four years.
Mrs. Decker had been generous enough to pay my tuition
something to do with an agreement she and Dad had made
before he died. Id only been ten at the time, but I still
remembered. He said it was a debt come due.
Id gone up to the main house, nails bitten down with nerves,
but in the best dress I owned and my hair combed into smooth
waves. It had lightened some over the years and was blonder
than when I was little. I wanted Joe to finally see me. Really see
me, as a grown woman about to start life as an adult. Not as the
kid who had needed him so badly, but as a young woman who
cared for him. Who wanted him
I had my speech planned. Id even practiced a few seductive
moves from movie scenes. It was going to be that all-or-nothing
moment, when the hero realizes the girl of his dreams was right
in front of him all along
But when Id reached the stairs leading up to the sunroom, Id
stopped dead in my tracks. I heard his voice and then Id heard
hers. My stomach had turned with a sickening lurch as Id crept
into the bushes like a thief or a child
You know how I feel about you, Joe. The girls voice was syrupy
sweet and made my stomach tighten even more. There hasnt
been anybody since you, sweetheart. There never will be
I leaned over the shrubs in time to see her wrap her arms around
his neck. Her hair was bright, boldly red, and she rubbed herself
like a cat against him. I squeezed my eyes shut and felt the
burning sting of childhood tears. Kiss me, baby, she purred.
Just kiss me again
I watched long enough to see her touch the muscle along his jaw.
The one I dreamed about the one I ached to touch Then Id
turned and run, all the way back to the guesthouse without
stopping. Id torn off the dress, tangling my hair and ripping a
sleeve, sick at how close Id come to complete humiliation. Id
stood in front of the old dresser mirror, watching the mascara Id
so carefully applied run down my cheeks
Whatever feelings I had for Joe needed to stay buried in the past.
Dead and gone. And Id never, ever take such a foolish chance
again. I vowed to keep my heart close that night. And to keep my
secrets even closer
I shifted next to Ryan, grateful for his friendship. I saw him.
But no. I I there just wasnt anything to say.
How about, I love you, you big blind jackass?
I pulled back and cuffed him on the shoulder. Yeah, well its not
so easy.
And what about you? Have you told him? I watched as his blue
eyes turned serious. He pulled me back against his shoulder and
I relaxed into him.
No, he said softly, compassion warming his gentle voice.
Youre right. Its not so easy
5

JOE

B ESS SAID the old jeep finally gave it up.


What the hell was the matter with me? Five minutes in the car
with her and I felt like a tongue-tied teenager again. She
uncrossed her legs and wiped a smudge off the toe of one boot.
Christ I shifted my eyes back to the road and kept them there.
Yeah, I had to leave it on the side of the road. I got a ride into
Norman and took the bus from there. Will Dean be home when
we get there?
Yeah, I think so What the hell do you mean, you got a ride? I
locked my eyes on the road and shifted uneasily. I reached down
and turned the A/C up to high. My goddamned knuckles brushed
against her knee
I got a ride. You know She bobbed one bare leg up and down.
Fellow road warriors, giving a girl a break.
Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? I shot her a hard
look. A girl on the road by herself Youve got no idea what
kind of men are out there the sick things on their minds I
coughed self-consciously.
Relax, she said, laughing at my warning. She reached out and
patted my thigh. It was a highway patrol officer. And I doubt
she had any sick ideas.
I ground the gears and stepped on the gas. I sounded like her
father or her big brother. But one touch of her hand on my leg
and I had the hard-on of a horny high school kid. I was thirty-
three years old, and the head of a billion dollar corporation. Yet
here I was, next to a girl young enough to be
Bess said you wont be staying with us for long. I tried
distraction. Your degrees in social work?
She nodded. Ive got a business plan and a few amazing
colleagues. Im hoping our funding will come through by the end
of May. She turned so she was facing me and tucked one leg
under her shorts. Were starting a non-profit, based right here
in Texas. Support for children and families. Especially
emergency aid. I spent all four years at KU amazed at how much
need there was. Fires storms, and just good old-fashioned
neglect
Theres the Red Cross, FEMA, too. They do amazing work
They do, she agreed. But sometimes a private foundation can
respond more quickly, do even more. Ive got a therapist on
board and two nurses. Even Deans expressed interest. Theres
always a need for more people, willing to be right there hands-
on. There are too many kids too many people who are alone
when everything starts crumbling around them. Plenty of people
write checks, but Im going to be there, Joe. I have to be there.
I watched as she spoke, passion evident in every word, her dark
eyes sparkling with youth and energy. She was bright and lovely,
fierce in her conviction. It was how Id felt when Id covered my
very first news story.
Its a hell of a goal, Mags, I said. A lot to bite off, fresh out of
school.
I know how it feels, Joe, she shot back, to have little to begin
with, and lose even that She looked out the side window,
shifting her body away from me. I know how it feels to be
alone and to need. You dont know what thats like Youve
always been one of the philanthropists.
The last few miles passed in silence. She never turned back
toward me. The bright, passionate woman who had opened
herself to me was quiet and distant now. I pulled up into the
drive and saw Deans car door open. He stood, smiling, and
headed toward us.
Maggie glanced back at me for a split second before she climbed
out to greet him. Her eyes were huge and dark. Too big for her
delicate face.
6

MAGGIE

D AMN IT , Maggie! You went and grew up while nobody was


looking.
Dean wrapped his arms around me and gave me a big kiss on the
cheek. I could feel myself blushing red. My brother had changed
plenty himself.
Went away a girl and came back a woman, I said pointedly. I
could feel Joe standing behind us, still near his expensive
roadster. Im not a kid anymore.
Well, no shit, Mags. Im not sure Id have recognized you at the
bus station either. Its been way too long. Dean took my hand,
making me blush again. Youre downright pretty now. You
must have had to beat those college guys away with a stick.
I glanced over at Joe, who was head down in the trunk, wrestling
with my suitcases. He shot me a dark look and I looked away.
What the hell would it hurt a little white lie?
Yeah, well they say college is the time to spread your wings,
kick your heels up a little. I tossed my hair over my shoulder. I
might have broken a heart or two.
Maggie!
I turned to see Ryan flying down the gravel drive. He caught me
up in his arms and spun me like I was weightless. We were both
dizzy and panting by the time he put me down. God, honey. Its
so good to see you again. More beautiful than ever
I wiped the tears off my cheeks and gave him a big kiss. We
broke away, both of us laughing. Rye, oh my God, its so good to
see you. Thanks for the great sweater you sent for my birthday.
I stroked his blond curls. Ive missed you so much
He smiled, his eyes lit with delight. Come on, he said, pulling
me by the arm. Marias planning a crab boil for dinner, but
weve got plenty of time for margaritas by the pool. Weve got all
evening to catch up, and I want to hear everything.

T HANK G OD I D THROWN MY OLD BLACK BIKINI INTO A SUITCASE INSTEAD OF


the donation box when Id cleared out my dorm room. The last
time Id been invited to swim at the big house, Id been an
embarrassed kid in a polka-dot one-piece. This time was going
to be different. I took my sweet time drying off.
I lifted my arms high, pressing the water out of my hair with the
towel. My curves might not be the biggest in the world, but they
were graceful enough and in the right places. The tiny black
bottoms showed my legs to their best advantage, and as long as I
tied the top tight, it still stayed in place well enough. Ryan
teased me gently about how grown up I was, and handed me a
frozen margarita. My brother frowned, and draped his shirt
around my shoulders.
Joe had made the drinks and taken a quick dip in the pool
himself but hed kept his distance, letting the rest of us have
time to catch up and relax. I caught a fast glimpse when he
climbed out of the water and grabbed a towel. He dragged it
across the broad expanse of tanned chest, and water ran in thick
rivulets from his dark hair. He shook his head hard, and it curled
back into a rough mane, just brushing the line of his shoulders
Maria had managed to make something as casual as a crab boil
into an elegant outdoor event. The long wrought-iron table was
spread with a creamy linen cloth. Candles lit the evening with
pinpoints of flickering gold. There were bowls of sliced lemon
and steamed crab legs, along with clams and corn on the cob.
So, Dean punctuated the word with a crash of his wooden
mallet. Elegance be damned, nothing opened a crab shell
better Tell me how its going with the funding. Im expecting
RemedAid to be up and running by the time I finish nursing
school. He sucked at the broken end of the claw. You know,
your enthusiasm is contagious. You must have half a dozen
millionaires in line to write you checks by now.
I smiled over the table. Not exactly lined up, but yeah, were
getting there. I pushed the empty shells away and wiped my
hands on my napkin. Im really proud of you, Dean. Going back
to school I could feel my face growing warm. I know it
hasnt been easy.
We locked eyes for a moment, and I could feel his pleasure. Then
he went back to work on his crab leg and I leaned back to look up
at the night sky. It was still hot, the air heavy and humid. I
sipped my drink and savored the moment. It really did feel like I
was home. After so many years
Dean had started having trouble in high school, partly because of
his drinking and mostly from skipping classes. But hed
cleaned up his act in the last several years, and hed made up for
a lot of lost time. In another year, hed have his nursing degree,
and hed earned it. Wed kept in touch while I was gone, and in
spite of the distance, wed become closer than ever. It finally felt
like I had a brother who cared about me. And now it was my turn,
to show him I was responsible and capable, too.
Maria came out after we were finished and began to clear away
what was left of our dinner. Dean and Ryan stood talking near
the bar. Welcome home, Miss Maggie, she said with a shy
smile. Madam says youll be staying with us in the guest
house?
Yes, Maria I
No, Joes voice interrupted, catching us both off guard. Hed
been quiet during dinner. Too quiet. And Id been all too aware of
his eyes on me all evening. He seemed unsettled somehow
distant, until now.
Shes staying in the main house, he added firmly. Theres
more than enough room, and I dont want her in the cottage by
herself. Its too isolated down there.
Im perfectly capable of taking care of myself, I answered
sharply. Its not like I havent stayed there alone before. I met
his eyes and set my jaw determinedly. Ive grown up in case
you havent noticed
I saw his eyes flicker downward for a fraction of a second, and I
felt a surge of satisfaction. My bikini top accentuated the curves I
had, lifting my breasts and displaying them to their best
advantage. He stayed silent, but when his eyes lifted back up to
mine, I felt my short-lived confidence drain away. There was
something in his sharp blue eyes that Id never seen before.
Something I didnt understand Suddenly I felt heated and
foolish, like a child caught playing dress-up, lipstick smeared
across her face
As you like, he said shortly.
And without a backward glance, he disappeared inside the house.
7

JOE

IN CASE I hadnt noticed


She was all the fuck I had noticed. That was the goddamned
problem.
I had eleven years on her. I was supposed to be the grown-up,
the responsible one in her life. I had always been the one man
she could depend on, and yet I knew Id hurt her badly, maybe
broken her trust beyond repair Shed felt completely
abandoned when Id left for Brown. So much so, that years later,
when it was her turn to leave for college, she hadnt even said
goodbye.
Now shed grown up, and clearly didnt need me anymore, but
shed come home feeling like she had to prove herself anyway. I
felt like I was betraying her yet again, by looking at her the way I
was by feeling the way I did I peeled off my wet swim trunks
and threw them over the side of the tub. I turned on the shower
and stepped under the cooling blast.
Id kept my distance all evening, even in the pool while the
others had splashed and dunked each other playfully. I was glad
to see she and Dean had reconnected. Glad, too, that hed
reached out to me for help when his drinking had gotten out of
control. The last thing I wanted was for him to end up the way
his father had. But he was sober now, finally happy and
achieving his dreams. He was becoming the brother Maggie had
deserved all along
Id watched as Ryan had put his arm comfortably around
Maggies waist and theyd laughed together. They had been
close, almost like brother and sister themselves growing up. It
had been natural enough they were close in age. Id often
wondered if they wouldnt end up together one day
Id liked the idea well enough, back when they were kids and I
was the eldest in the group. But somehow seeing them
together tonight They were so easy together, so
uncomplicated laughing and teasing. Maggie was beautiful,
her eyes flashing, her long silky hair licking at the delicious tips
of her breasts She had glanced at me, but shed always
looked away.
There was a wall between us. And I didnt fucking like it. I
wanted her laughing in my arms. I wanted to touch her skin and
stroke her hair. I wanted her to open up to me, to trust me the
way she did Ryan. I wanted to take care of her the way that I used
to, and I wanted her to need me, the way it had always been.
Except that she didnt. And it wasnt. Nothing was the same as it
used to be, and it was my fault, not hers. As hard as I tried, I
couldnt see little Mags anymore. One look at her in that fucking
hot bikini, dripping wet and sexy as hell, and I knew Id never
see her the same way again. Id kept my distance in the pool
because my cock had been hard as fuck from the minute Id seen
her in those boots. And Id hardly dared speak to her over
dinner. I knew shed see it in my eyes, hear it in the timbre of my
voice. I was a man, and she was no longer a little girl. I wanted
everything a man wants with a woman, and that very thing was a
betrayal in itself. I hoped she still trusted me. I knew that Dean
did. And if my brother Ryan had intentions of his own towards
Maggie
It was for the best shed refused my invitation to stay in the
main house. Id regretted it the minute Id said it Almost.
No, the best thing I could do for everyone was to stay the hell
away from her. She didnt plan on staying in Southlake long
anyway. She had a world to change, out there waiting for her,
and enough ambition to probably do it. The best thing for both of
us was to simply leave her alone. I toweled off roughly, working
hard to ignore the throbbing ache of my erection.
I climbed into bed that night, imagining her alone in the
cottage just down the hill. And I knew it was going to be a long,
hot, fucking night.

I T S HOT OUT TONIGHT , SHE SAID , STRETCHING OUT BESIDE ME IN THE


grass. She was wearing a tiny little denim skirt and those fucking
delicious boots She licked at a long, frozen ice pop. Her lips
were bright red and I knew they would taste like cherries
Somewhere inside I knew I was dreaming. I rolled over struggling
to wake up, but I could still feel her next to me, fully grown and
fully ready. I could smell the scent of her hair
She lifted one long leg and pointed her boot to the sky. Thats
Scorpius there near the center of the Milky Way. I used to
look up into the stars when I was little and wonder if there was
someone out there looking back. My mother maybe or my dad,
after he died
I rolled onto my side to watch her. Her hair splayed out over the
soft, cool grass. But the air was hot and there were rumbles of
thunder in the distance. A damp, sticky breeze blew over us and I
pushed her hair off her forehead. She looked up at me with those
enormous brown eyes and smiled, her lips parted, delicious
I want you, Joe, she said softly. Ive loved you forever, and
now Im here She touched the cold, sweet melting ice to my
lips and smiled. Taste, she said, and I did. She smiled again as
she watched me. Do you want me, too? she asked huskily.
I watched as she reached down between her legs, and drew a trail
up the inside of her thigh with the very tip of the ice pop. I saw
her flesh tighten as it melted and left a delicate, dripping pink
line behind. She raised her legs and I saw she was naked under
the denim skirt. She spread her legs wider and moaned, catching
her lip in her teeth as she pushed the cherry tip just inside her
pussy
I was over her then, using my hand instead I pushed the ice
further inside her, pumping it back and forth until the heat of
her body melted it away. Then I leaned in and lapped away at the
sticky, delicious fluid. She wrapped her legs around my neck and
rode me until Id licked her clean Then I spread her apart with
my hands and pushed ten long inches of hard, needy cock inside
her. She was hot and cold at the same time, tight and wet The
head of my cock had her stretched to the max I felt wetness
flood us both as she clamped down, and I
Woke up Gasping and aching with a fantasy I shouldnt have
and a need I didnt dare satisfy. I rolled onto my side and worked
to slow the pounding in my chest. Sweat ran, without the power
to cool me.
The air around me was thick and heavy. And thunder rolled
darkly in the distance
8

MAGGIE

J UNE FORECAST : Excessive heat warning, highs near 113, humid


with scattered thunderstorms likely.
I closed my laptop with an irritated snap and pushed the sticky,
heavy hair off my neck. The last nine hours had consisted of
nothing but work and a growing restlessness. In spite of getting
a dozen new volunteers on board and hitting almost seventy
percent of our funding goal, I felt cross and frustrated. Two cold
showers and a lukewarm beer had done nothing to help. I stood
up and looked out the living room window into the darkening
twilight. Four goddamned weeks had passed since Id come
home. And there was no reason to be unhappy with the progress
we were making.
RemedAid Foundation was already bigger than even I had
thought possible. In a single month, wed established a daily
mobile food service and a twice-weekly afterschool reading
assistance program. We had a full warehouse of donated
emergency supplies and clothing, and three massive trucks to
get it all onsite. We were up to seven full-timers and almost two
dozen volunteers. I should have been the happiest girl in the
world but
Joe and I had only seen each other a handful of times since the
night at the pool. And every time had been the same. Id been
distant, wary. And hed been the perfect gentleman, polite and
courteous. At least until wed started talking.
Its risky and I dont like it. The aftermath of a tornado can be
like walking into a war zone, Maggie. There are people in the
world who see events such as a natural disaster as a signal that
the rules of civilization simply dont apply anymore. Its no
goddamn place for a young girl
His eyes had burned with almost frightening intensity and taken
me completely by surprise. Id only mentioned the foundations
new mobile capabilities because I thought hed be impressed.
With the storm season directly ahead, I was proud we were
already prepared to respond. But hed gripped me by the arms
and lectured me instead.
Its dangerous, Mags. And I wont have you taking risks, in
places where I cant be there to protect you
I dont remember asking for your protection, Id shot back
rudely. I lived through my fathers death without you. I made it
through college intact. And I started an organization to help
people who need help, all without you or your charity. Hed
held me a moment longer, staring down at me, taking in every
detail. For a moment it had felt
I shook my head clear of the memory and peeled off the damp
tank top I was wearing. God, for a moment, Id almost thought
he had moved closer to me. As if, for a second, hed allowed
himself to consider the one single thought I couldnt seem to
shake. What it would feel like to have his generous, full lips
devouring mine how his big rough hands would feel cupping
my breasts or the curve of my ass
But hed turned instead, and left me watching in silence as hed
walked away. Id regretted the words as soon as Id said them,
but I hadnt seen him again. Now it had been two long weeks,
holed up in the cottage with nothing but work, and an occasional
dinner with Dean or Ryan. Id wanted to apologize, but the more
time that passed, the more awkward I felt.
I resented that Joe and his brother had grown up with wealth and
privilege. But the truth was, Dean and I had benefited from it,
too. The cottage had been a safe shelter, keeping our little family
together far longer than Dad could have managed. Hed been
drunk more often than sober, and it had been Joe who had made
sure Dean and I were fed and taken to school.
I peeled off my shorts and panties, but even naked I wasnt any
cooler. The air sat heavily, like a hot, wet blanket. Even a storm
would be better than all this aggravating stillness. I threw on a
thin silk robe and climbed up the little hill to look at the main
house. It stood like a sentinel, quiet and dark. All the lights were
off, even the ones that usually lit the patio. What could it hurt? I
thought. It wasnt like anyone would even know
I crossed the lawn and quietly opened the iron gate that led to
the pool house. Seconds later, I was in the water, deliciously cool
for the first time in days. I swam a few long strokes and rolled
over onto my back to float. I looked up into the night sky,
watching as the first stars began to twinkle. Tiny, perfect
pinpoints of light. I thought about my father, and about the
mother I barely remembered. But as I closed my eyes and let the
water soothe the heat inside me, it was only Joes face I saw.
I spread my arms and legs wide and let my body bob along the
surface. Tiny laps of cold water flickered like a tongue against my
breasts along the inner flesh of my thighs. I pushed the jumble
of thoughts and emotions away and focused on the sensation of
the water. So delicate and sensuous. Erotic on my virgin flesh I
reached up to touch the cold, tight nipple of my breast and my
eyes shot instantly open. I wasnt alone and I had no idea how
long hed been watching me.
Maggie
9

JOE

I REACHED for the robe shed left puddled on the pools edge and
tossed it to cover her. The thin, wet silk did little to conceal her,
but she clutched it around her anyway. Through the silk and the
water, I could still see the outline of tight, high nipples.
Fuck, Joe, she sputtered, as she sidestroked to the edge. She
held on with one hand and struggled to find a sleeve. You
scared me to death you could have said something
As I recall, I did, I answered back, trying hard not to smile.
Damned good thing she hadnt asked how long Id been standing
there.
Well, either go away, or give me one of those, she pointed to a
stack of towels.
I sat down on a deck chair, enjoying her discomfort way more
than I should have. Suddenly I had her at a disadvantage. No
longer the driven and capable woman, she was vulnerable and
suddenly modest. Both things that made me ache to draw out
the moment.
The underwater lighting is off. Youre hidden well enough. I
laid back and crossed my arms behind my head. I havent seen
much of you lately, I said softly, pausing for effect.
So youre spying on me now? she shot back.
I believe youre trespassing
I heard a hiss of air as she exhaled in exasperation. I smiled in
spite of myself. I didnt want her angry with me. I wanted her
soft and warm in my arms. I wanted her bare flesh pressed up
against mine. I wanted to take her under the stars in the
water her legs spread wide and her heels digging into
my back
I didnt know anyone was home, or I wouldnt have, she
offered. Ill leave if youll just hand me a towel
I will, if you apologize. I didnt even try to check the grin on
my face. You owe me one, you know. It wasnt nice what you
said about Decker charity.
I could see the struggle on her face, even in the darkness. More
than that, I could feel the struggle inside her. That was just fine.
I had all night
You know I appreciate all youve done, she finally said. We
all do.
I heard her sigh and waited.
Neither Dean nor I would have gone to college Hell, Dad
couldnt even keep a job long enough to provide us a place to
live. I saw her big, dark eyes look at me over the cement edge.
I dont think Ive ever really thanked you. Not just for the
cottage but for how you looked after us looked after me
It was my turn to be silent, and I watched her, watching me
What had started as a tease had suddenly sobered. She wasnt a
kid anymore. God knows, Id seen that for myself. The picture of
her floating naked under the stars was burned into my memory.
Old habits die hard, I guess, I said softly. I dont have the
right to tell you how to live your life or run your foundation
Im sorry
The corners of her eyes lifted with her smile. She reached up to
smooth her wet hair, bobbing up and down in the water as she
moved. I still wanted her to be safe. And I hated the idea of her
putting herself in harms way. But the woman in front of me was
no longer my little Maggie. And the protectiveness I felt was no
longer that of a substitute older brother. Every time we crossed
paths, it became clearer. And it became even clearer still, that I
had no right to such feelings
I stood up and took a towel from the top of the stack. Knowing
better, I still walked to the waters edge to offer it to her. I looked
down and her eyes were huge, dark pools I could drown in. I let
the towel drop next to her fingertips.
Maggie? I began. The silvery water reflected all around her.
Her lovely body swam like a mirage under its surface
Yes? she asked in a whisper.
Ill walk you home tonight. But next time dont go swimming
by yourself.
10
MAGGIE

I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER . One minute, hes apologizing for


treating me like a child, and in the next breath, hes doing it all
over again.
He turned his back while I dragged myself gracelessly from the
water and stood dripping on the concrete. I pulled off the
tangled, clinging silk of my robe and wrapped the huge towel
around me, tucking the edge in over my breasts. It was large and
bulky, and made me feel foolishly small. I turned and stomped
off toward the cottage without waiting. But he caught up to me
in a few short strides. I felt myself heating up again inside. So
much for my cooling skinny dip.
I reached the door before he did and pulled hard to open the
screen. Wed walked the entire way in silence, and I expected
him to just turn and leave. But he reached for the doorknob, and
strode in ahead of me like he owned the place. I exhaled, forcing
patience that I didnt feel, and closed the door behind us. After
all, he did fucking own the place
Do you need anything? he asked, looking around at the
comfortable furnishings and my messy work table. No ones
been living here since you left
I raised my brows. It was perfect when I arrived. Neat as a pin.
You must have had it cleaned
I cleaned it myself, he replied. Youre not the only one
around here who knows how to be hands-on.
He was close, closer even than he needed to be in the small
room. I could smell a touch of aftershave and the clean male
scent of him I remembered so well. I was suddenly very aware of
being naked and still damp under my towel. I headed away from
him, toward the refrigerator and felt my thighs too slippery wet
against each other
I can offer you, I stopped short, looking in at empty shelves.
Im out of beer, Im afraid. I got so busy with work, I guess its
been a few days since Ive been out for groceries.
He came into the kitchen and stood next to me again, and the
tension was almost unbearable. I wanted him to touch me, to
hold me. I wanted to shake him until he stripped me back to
naked and gave me the one thing Id wanted through all the
lonely years in college. I wanted him to take away the yearning in
my heart and the building heat in my core. It felt like I was
waiting for a storm to finally break
I opened the freezer door and let a cloud of white, cold air rush
out over us both. I wanted to drop my damp and heavy towel on
the floor and let the cold shock me back to my senses.
These are all I have to offer, I said, grabbing an icy handful of
frozen fruit pops. Ive got to get to the market tomorrow, I
stumbled over the words. Theyre cold, at least. I watched his
jaw tighten
I turned back to face him and my breath caught in my chest. His
lips were moist parted. His breath was so close I could feel it
on my hair. He was hot, standing so close to me. Hotter than I
could bear in this unbearable weather. But I took a step even
closer anyway drawn in by the sharp and dangerous promise in
his eyes.
T HANKS NO , HE SAID , TAKING A STEP BACK WITHOUT HIS EYES LEAVING
my face. The distance allowed me a single deep breath, but I
could still feel my throbbing pulse and the growing, eager
slickness between my legs. He watched me steadily, but he took
another step back. Whatever I was feeling for him, it was
painfully clear he didnt feel the same.
Im going to just go, I gestured toward the bedroom door
and he nodded. He stood where he was, watching as I closed the
door behind me. I let my towel drop, kicked it away in frustration
and dug out a clean pair of shorts and a black tank top. I dragged
a quick comb through my hair and put on a swipe of lip gloss.
Not that it mattered much.
Every girlfriend Id had in college had lost her virginity by her
sophomore year. Wed sat long into the night, for hours, as
theyd poured out every juicy detail. And theyd teased me
without mercy.
Id had dates almost every weekend, and Id made a lot of good
and lasting friendships. Once Id even come close, with my
roommates brother. Wed all had a little too much to drink and
it had felt so good when hed taken my breasts out of my bra, one
by one and kissed them all over. But Id pulled myself back
together pretty quickly when Id opened my eyes. His bright
blond head had been nestled in my cleavage, and the sight of it
had sobered me fast. It hadnt been right. He hadnt been Joe.
And it hadnt happened for me that night Or any other night
since.
Id had enough X-rated advice from my friends over the years to
open a sex shop, but not much good it had done me. Id saved
myself, for my whole life, wanting no one but my Joe. He, on the
other hand, was on the other side of the door, had seen me bare
naked, and still wouldnt touch me. Overheated, I opened the
door to find him calmly looking over a stack of papers on
my desk.
This is good, he said, holding up a framed copy of our mission
statement. Damned good, Maggie. He smiled, and I felt myself
go all hot and slick. Again.
I crossed the room and opened the freezer, pulling out a pop and
peeling the white paper off. I stuck it in my mouth and sat down
on the sofa, tucking a leg underneath me. I saw his eyes touch
my leg and then shift slowly, almost reluctantly up to my face. I
twisted the cold ice in my mouth and gave him a quizzical look.
Of course, its good, I answered coolly. I have good sense and
good people around me. My nurse, Jackie, has a business degree
as well as her RN. Shes in her forties and has a fucking lot of
experience under her belt.
I respect what youre doing, Maggie. Hell I remember back
when Id just graduated All I needed was a camera in my
hands, and I felt like there was nothing I couldnt achieve.
I once had the kind of drive you do now. His eyes rested again
on my mouth and I saw him lick his lips. He moved closer and
looked down at me. Something in his face that held me captive
an intensity that turned his eyes a more brilliant shade of blue
He reached out and touched a strand of my hair and something
deep inside me shuddered. Id known him all my life, but he was
suddenly different Everything was different
Having you home again, he said, in a voice so deep I could
feel it in my core. Youve reminded me of something Id almost
forgotten. What it feels like to have passion in your life.
Whats its like, to take a chance for something you want more
than anything
He reached down and took my chin in his hand, lifting me to my
feet. I licked the sticky cherry sweetness from my bottom lip and
stared up at him, holding my breath.
11
JOE

I HELD HER , that sweet red mouth so fucking close. I wanted to


kiss her. The way you want your heart to beat the next beat. The
way you want air in your lungs when you breathe in
I could tell by the way she looked at me that shed let me. Hell,
shed probably kiss me back, even let me peel off that tiny little
tank top that made her look even sexier than if she was still
naked
Id watched her in the water for too goddamned long. That was
the problem. I should have let her finish her swim and just go
home, like a good little girl. But I couldnt drag my eyes away,
once Id seen her. And Id stood at the waters edge with my cock
getting harder and harder, while she floated, oblivious. I could
have taken her then. I could take full advantage of her now. It
was the only fucking thing I wanted since Id seen her in the bus
station It was the only fucking thing I wanted now
Youre lovely, Maggie, I said down into the dark depths of her
eyes. The loveliest woman Ive ever seen
But this cant happen between us. Ive lived a fucking hell of a
lot more life than you have
I want you, she said, boldly. I came back because of how I
feel. Im not ashamed.
Christ, Mags. I know its what you want. I can see it in your
eyes the way your body moves. I know when a woman wants
me. And I know when not to take advantage
Though Id never admit it, there was something sexy as hell
about how shed just come out and said it. I want you I felt my
cock, stiff against my belly and wet with need for her. It would be
so fucking easy
This isnt just about you and me, I said, distracted by her
nearness her scent. Youre my best friends sister, for hells
sake. I watched out for all of you like a brother. It was my job.
Well, its not your job anymore, Joe. She reached up a slim
hand and pressed it against my chest. It felt like my heart was
trying to break its way out to find her. I can take care of myself.
So can Dean. So can Ryan. None of us are children anymore.
I stood motionless as she reached up to twine her fingers into my
hair. She was so close, the tips of her breasts brushed my shirt.
I dont want to be your responsibility anymore, she breathed.
I want you to touch me. Im a woman, Joe, and Ive waited more
than long enough. Im not waiting for what I want any longer
She tangled her hands in my hair and lifted herself up onto her
toes. The second the length of her body hit mine, I wrapped her
in my arms, crushing her against me and taking her sweet, hot
mouth. She tasted like she had in my dream and I plunged my
tongue in deeper, drinking in her sweetness. It was like fever and
delirium. She was hot, soft flesh in my arms, and yet it seemed
wholly unreal. Maggie was kissing me back with a passion that
matched my own, and I was fast losing control. The steaming
heat of the night drove us both recklessly on, until her clothes
were in a pile on the floor and shed stripped me of my shirt. She
reached for my jeans, and I felt cool air hit fire as she freed my
massive cock.
Oh my God I heard her voice through the rushing sound of
my own blood in my ears. Oh my God
I felt her go tense in my arms, and used what was left of my self-
control to pull myself back. She was staring, wide-eyed and still,
her fingertips resting against the most powerful erection Id
ever had.
Im oversized tonight, Maggie, I caught my ragged breath back
with my teeth. Its been a fucking long time, and Ive never
wanted anyone like this. I wont hurt you, baby. Id never do
anything that hurt you.
I tipped her face up to mine and thats when I knew. I could see it
in those big, innocent brown eyes of hers. It wasnt that I was so
much bigger than the others. It was that there hadnt been any
others
Oh God, Maggie. Why didnt you tell me? Id have never oh,
Christ.
I picked up my shirt and wrapped it around her shoulders. I
turned away to zip up my jeans.
Because I knew if I told you, you wouldnt youd never She
sat down on the sofa and pulled my huge shirt over her bare
breasts. I never wanted anybody but you, Joe. It would never
have been right with anyone else.
I stood where I was, not daring to sit down beside her. Id spared
her tonight, but just by the skin of my teeth. There was only so
goddamned much a man could stand But I ached to pull her
into my shoulder and comfort her.
Im not the one, Maggie, I said, as gently as I could. You need
to be with someone closer to your own age. Someone new,
without all the history we have. Without all the complications
of us.
I moved toward the door and opened it. I wanted a breeze, a
cooling breeze, but there was nothing but a heavy stillness. I
looked back, begging her silently to meet my eyes.
I love you, I offered. I always have.
And I always will.
She looked up as I let the screen door fall shut.
Me, too, she said. Always.
12
MAGGIE

I F I HAD LEARNED anything in college, it was this: If a girl offered


herself up for sex, she usually got it.
Whether or not the guy actually loved her. And regardless if he
ever would. She might hope and sometimes it all worked out.
Usually not. But she still got herself laid
I pulled Joes shirt closer around me, burrowing my nose into the
soft cotton cloth. Joe and I already had the love. Id felt it my
whole life But instead of bringing us together, it was the very
reason hed turned his back on me tonight and just
walked away
Sure, my snarky conscience piped up. That, and the fact that you
just announced youre still a virgin. Way to make him see you as
all grown up, Maggie
I balled up his shirt and threw it into the short hallway. Right
where he would have dropped it, on the way to the bedroom if
youd been woman enough to get him there...
Oh, shut the fuck up, I grumbled in irritation. Even naked, I
still felt prickly from the overbearing heat. I grabbed another ice
pop from the freezer and rummaged in my bag for my phone.
There was only one solution for the fix I was in, and it had been
too goddamned long since wed spoken.
Jackie? Its me
Hey, Maggie! I thought maybe youd lost your damned phone.
Emails dont cut it, honey. I can see the foundations doing
great. But hows home? How is Joe?
For a second, I just let myself relax into the familiar sound of
Jackies cheerful, no-nonsense voice. It was deep for a woman,
and suited her shapely little body. Wed met three years ago, and
she had been the first to sign on with RemedAid. She was
forcefully optimistic, and had a maternal instinct a mile wide.
God, Jackie, I stopped, too many emotions surfacing all at
once. I were Joes just fine, I managed to stammer out. I
dont have any right to complain about anything but but
Hes not seeing someone else, is he? Her voice had dropped
another whole octave.
No, I said as a reflex. Well, I dont think so, anyway. I sighed
through my nose. Its not like it would matter, anyway. All I
know for sure is that hes got no interest in me. Certainly not
after tonight
Hmph, she snorted. Then hes a damned fool and you
deserve better. If he cant see that, then he cant see you,
Maggie. Youre young and beautiful, smart as a whip and
courageous as hell. How many women have achieved what you
have, at the tender age of twenty-two?
It was my turn to snort. I think thats the problem, Jackie. No
matter what I do, Joes always gonna see me as Deans kid
sister. I bit into lime-flavored ice and braced as the cold shot
through my teeth. He loves the little girl he remembers, but not
who I am now. Not the way I want him to I finished and
chewed thoughtfully on the wooden stick, my thoughts grinding.
Well, Ive lived a damned lot longer than you, Maggie, and if
theres one thing I know I know about men Sometimes, the
hardest thing for them to see is whats right in front of their
eyes. And their brains and their dicks often dont share clear
lines of communication. She paused.
But he loves you and thats good. Let him.
And in the meantime, you and I have work to do. Dont let
yourself forget that Joes not the only passion in your life. Youve
helped a hell of a lot of people already, and this is only the
beginning. The tornados this year
I know. Thereve already been more than a hundred in
Oklahoma alone. And theyre not slowing down. Storm
prediction is saying the worst of it may hit in June this year.
Well, the moving van is packed and Ill be in Dallas by Sunday
night. Give me a few days to get settled in and Im all yours,
Maggie.
I love you, you know that right? I wiped the tears away with
the back of my hand.
Of course you do, she replied, and I could hear the smile in her
voice. Take a deep breath, Maggie. And keep on moving
forward. Theres no better salve for a wounded heart than
damned hard work. That, I promise you.
We said our goodbyes and I shut off the phone for the night. For
the first time since Id gotten home, I turned the thermostat all
the way down. Screw the electric bill For one night I needed
relief. From the heat, from the heaviness of the air pressing
down on me From thinking about Joe, and from the need that
was thrumming in the very deepest parts of me. Id been naked
and willing in his arms, and Id seen the long, hard proof that he
hadnt been completely indifferent
I turned out the lights and settled in under the fast cooling
sheets. Jackie had been right, as always. There was more than
enough work to do, and plenty of people waiting for the services
I could provide. I had over a thousand disaster kits packed and
ready for transport. Jackie would be here in a few days and was in
charge of teaching our basic first aid classes. In a week, we could
start packing the trucks and head for some of the poorest and
hardest hit areas of Oklahoma. There had already been several
devastating storms, and the worst was yet to come. Work was
exactly what I needed and exactly where I was going to focus.
Joe had neither the desire, nor the power, to stop me. As always,
we lived in two very different worlds
But in spite of my resolve, and the bliss of air conditioning, it
was hours before I fell asleep.
And even then, it was only after Id climbed out of bed and
gathered up the shirt Id left tossed on the floor. I spread it over
my pillow and hugged it close, breathing in the complex and
comforting scent
13
JOE

T HIS ONE S AN F-3, Joe. Fuck, look at that. That car is in the
goddamned middle of the living room!
Ryan sat next to me as we went over the footage. It touched the
ground three times, all within a half mile. And there were half a
dozen more, before the day was out. Almost as powerful, and
clustered here and here
He gestured to an area in southern Oklahoma. Choctaw
Countys getting hit hard, way harder than usual this year. Its
only a moderate risk area, and yet
I looked over dozens of still shots of the damage. The storms
seem to be focusing here, Ryan went on. They havent had an
F-5 since the eighties, but Sheilas saying this could be the year.
Shes predicting at least one storm over an F-3, and right
around here
Sheilas a hell of a meteorologist, Ryan. I hired her because
shes good its almost like shes got a sixth sense, I said. But
the prediction center isnt overly concerned. And these
goddamned funnels, I shook my head, trying to shake a
growing sense of unease. These things are so unpredictable,
even in the best of circumstances
Thirteen minutes, from the warning till it hits, Ryan said,
taking a sip of coffee. Its never enough time, no matter how
close to shelter these people are. I remember my first time. It
sounded like a train heading straight for us. I nodded, unable to
take my eyes off the footage. I remembered, too.
Id been fourteen, and Ryan had only been six. Maggies family
hadnt moved into the guest house yet, and Mom and Dad were
still alive. The warning had come over the television and wed
been in the basement within minutes. I remembered the sound,
too. It isnt something anybody ever forgets. But wed been
lucky. The storm had skipped right over the house, destroying
half a block south of us and reducing it to rubble. I flipped past a
few images, and stopped at a photograph of a small girl with
dark eyes, clutching a mans hand
I thought about the team Maggie was putting together, and her
heartfelt drive to help people just like that nameless child. While
I was damned proud of TexStar and its reputation in the news
world, it was crises like this one that made me itch to get out of
the fucking office and back into the gritty reality of being at
ground zero. I had been there, years ago before Dad had died. Id
been in the center of floods and wildfires. Id taken video and
stills of some of the worst disasters the South had suffered. And
I also knew how it felt to put the camera down and reach out to
help someone who had just lost everything and everyone they
loved.
I want to talk to you, Joe about Maggie
I blinked, suddenly aware of Ryans eyes on me. What about
Maggie? I asked sharply. Shes home, and she and Dean seem
to be working on their relationship. I realized how little Id seen
of Dean since shed come back. Hed called me a number of
times to get together for lunch, but Id let the calls go to
voicemail, or put him off with an excuse about work. It had
simply been easier to avoid him. The way Id tried to avoid
Maggie.
They are, Ryan said. Ive never seen Dean acting so much like
a big brother before. We all had dinner a few nights ago, and he
was giving her a hard time about the guys she dated at school. I
guess she never figured he was interested enough to tell,
until now.
She talked about boyfriends? I asked, not daring to look up
from the computer screen. I had firsthand knowledge that she
was a virgin, but that didnt mean she was innocent. The
thought made my guts tighten, and I pressed my lips into a thin,
hard line.
Nobody special, Ryan said casually. She dated a lot, but it
didnt sound like shed ever met Mr. Right. He glanced at me,
but I didnt meet his look.
I wanted to talk to you about her assistance foundation, Joe.
Shes got a good group of people together and more joining every
day. I believe in what shes doing, and Id like to be a part of it.
He cleared his throat. Im asking for a leave of absence. Theres
something about the kind of fire inside her thats inspiring,
somehow. I want to be part of the solution. It isnt enough
anymore, just to report on whats happening out there. I want to
be part of it, Joe.
I looked at the earnest expression on his young face and smiled. I
knew exactly how he was feeling. Maggies passion had struck
me just as hard. And maybe it would be good for her to have Ryan
working alongside her. They were so close.
She gets under your skin, doesnt she? I asked softly, more to
myself than to my brother. Ive already arranged for her to
receive an anonymous donation that will far exceed RemedAids
financial goals. I had to do something, too
Why not come with us? Ryan asked. You havent taken a day
off since Dad died. Two years is a long damned time to lock
yourself in an office with nothing but responsibility to keep you
company. Why not get out there again? You were one of the best
damned photojournalists in the country before you had to take
over running this place. And theres no telling how much it could
benefit Maggies work. More news attention means more
volunteers. More money means more full-time positions.
Maggies goals are big, Joe
Thats one girl who just doesnt know the meaning of the word
limit.
14
MAGGIE

I TOOK my time with the finishing touches, even if it was just a


casual dinner with Ryan and my brother. It had been a long time
since Id put on a little makeup and taken some time with my
clothes. I flicked on an extra bit of mascara and smoothed my
hair one last time. In spite of the humidity, Id finally gotten it to
fall in a long, silky curtain of coppery gold. I smiled into the
mirror, pleased with the confident young woman staring back
at me.
You ready? Dean called out as the screen door banged shut
behind him. Were meeting at La Casita, and were already
running late.
I slipped my feet into strappy heels and pulled at the hem of my
skirt. It was shorter than I was usually comfortable with, but I
hadnt done laundry in a week. It was either this, or old denim
jeans with the knees torn out. I had settled for too-short.
Im starving, I replied, as I grabbed up my bag and keys. I
havent had Casitas tacos in a hundred years. Lets get a
move on.
Dean opened the door for me and closed it again, before heading
around to the drivers side. He put the car into drive and we
headed out. Hed changed a lot physically in the last four years,
just as I had. The boyish hands I remembered from childhood
were calloused and thickly veined now. They were the hands of
a man.
You look great, sis, he said, as he merged into the freeway
traffic. He looked over and gave me a warm smile. Smart,
pretty, ambitious as hell, he shook his head and smiled out over
the road. You make me proud, Maggie. You really do.
I grinned, dipping my head to hide how foolish I must have
looked. But it felt good, so damned good to hear those words.
Im proud of you, too, Dean, I said honestly. Neither one of
us had it easy after Dad died. And just think, next time this year
youll be a nurse. I know how hard youve worked. And I respect
what youve accomplished.
His smile widened, too, and we drove on in silence for a few
moments.
Ive wanted to tell you this for a long time now, he began.
How sorry I am that I wasnt really there for you, when we were
kids. He cleared his throat and stared at the road ahead. It was
rough between me and Dad back then. And I never really saw
how hard it must have been for you, too. You were so little and
somehow I just convinced myself that Dads problems, and
mine, didnt really affect you. He glanced over at me and I saw
the depth of his emotion in his eyes. I was a kid, too, really. All
caught up in myself and my own feelings. I wasnt the kind of
brother you deserved, and Ive wanted to tell you how sorry I am.
That I wasnt there for you.
I put my hand on his shoulder. Youre here now, Dean. We may
not be kids anymore, but Ill always need my big brother.
And Ill always be here for you, Maggie. I want us to make up for
lost time. Even though Im still in school, I want to do whatever I
can to help with your foundation. Volunteer, load trucks, wipe
noses, or hand out bandages I want to support you any way
that I can. I want to prove that Ive finally grown up, and that
Ive got my kid sisters back.
I caught back a choking mix of laughter and tearful sobs. He gave
my fingers a squeeze and patted the back of my hand so
comfortingly that the tears eventually won out. He handed me a
tissue and patted my back with one hand as he drove, as I wiped
away the streaks of my carefully applied makeup
Thank God, Joe was there, he said as he pulled into the
restaurant parking lot and shut off the engine. He wasnt just
Ryans brother, or my best friend. He was a big brother to all of
us, back then. Hell, he kind of still is. Im glad he was there to
take care of you, when I wasnt. When Dad wasnt. But youve
got me now, Maggie. And Im not going anywhere.

W ELL , YOU RE LATE . T YPICAL . R YAN WAS ALREADY SEATED , A SWEATY


pitcher of iced tea forming a puddle on the tabletop.
Dean pulled out my chair, and I blinked, hesitating only a second
before sitting down. La Casita wasnt fancy, not by the plainest
of standards, but they had the best Tex-Mex for at least a
hundred miles and a house salsa that people crossed state lines
for. Across from me was an empty seat, a half-full glass sat on
the damp, wrinkling paper placemat.
Sorry, Rye, I said, leaning over the table to drop a light kiss on
his lips. My fault. Did you bring someone? I asked hopefully. I
knew only too well how Ryans tastes ran, but he had always kept
his private life very private, in spite of my encouragements.
Hello, Maggie.
Joes voice came from behind me, and I felt the tiny hairs at the
back of my neck rise, like the prickly sensation before lightning
strikes
He was close enough I could feel the heat of his body, but he
never touched me. He stepped around, and sat across from me,
looking deeply disquietingly, into my eyes. I felt a flush of heat
rising to my cheeks, and I looked away.
I talked Joe into joining us, Maggie, Ryan offered. We got to
talking about your work over at the Star, and it sounds like the
two of you might have some business to discuss.
Business? I shot a look across the table. Joes blue eyes were
watching me steadily. What business?
The waitress came over with her pad and pencil in her hand and
a greedy smile on her face. Her gaze blew right over me,
wandered over Dean and Ryan appreciatively before settling on
Joe. His white shirt was immaculate even in the unbearable heat,
and it was stretched tight by the heavy cords of muscle
underneath. I couldnt blame her for looking. So was I. So was
every woman in the room over fifteen. Didnt mean I had to
like it.
Hey, sweetie, she said to Joe, in a voice that set my teeth on
edge. I havent seen you in here for ages. Hey, Ryan. Is this your
baby sister?
I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand and smiled up at
her. Maggie, I said, with a curt nod. Im Deans sister
She gave him a sweet smile, too, and wrote down our orders. Joe,
it seemed, hadnt even noticed her. Hed never taken his eyes off
my face.
I want to help out with the foundation, he said, once the
waitress had gone. Do a few stories, get attention where its
needed. I want to show the world what one girl with vision can
accomplish. He lowered his eyes ever so slightly. I find y
I find it inspiring, he finished.
Then have a reporter ready to head out with us, I said,
watching the waitresss exaggerated hip swing as she walked by.
Were loading up the trucks and heading for Osage on Friday. I
turned to Dean and Ryan. Jackie will be here by Sunday. Itll
give us most of the week to pack up the supplies, the emergency
kits were passing out. Thisll be our first major aid dispersal,
and well be getting there before the worst of the storms. I dont
intend for this to be aftercare. Were shooting for advance care.
The words came out pricklier than I intended. Joes use of the
word girl had hit a fucking nerve.
Consider it done, he said, as the waitress headed back over
with our plates. She served Joe first, leaning in to display more
ample bosom than was strictly necessary. I put my head down
and let the delicious scent of carne asada tacos waft up. Delicious
distraction.
I bit in, letting the juices slide down the side of my cheek as she
put the rest of the plates down and gave Joe one more lingering
look. He nodded politely to her, signaling to her that we were
good, but he continued to watch me. I wiped my mouth self-
consciously and swallowed.
Can you and Ryan take the big delivery truck? I want Jackie in
the van with the volunteers, and I figure Ill bring up the rear
with the box truck. I took a sip of tea and looked over at Joes
face. His eyes were dark, his lips in a tight, flat line.
You can help us pack, I offered shortly, unsure why everything
I said came out sounding like a challenge. If you want to do
more than just supply some kid reporter, youre welcome to get
your hands dirty with some real work
You think youre driving into an active tornado zone? That
areas already been hit, and the worst is still yet to come.
I dont think so, Joe, I shot back testily. I am going.
The decision has already been made.
15
JOE

WED GONE MORE than a few rounds before Dean intervened.


Christ, Joe. Its not like Im letting her go alone. Ill be there, so
will Ryan and we all know he wont be letting her out of his
sight. Dean shot Joe a meaningful glance. Neither one of us is
gonna let anything happen to her
Letting me go alone? Maggie said too loudly. Out of the
corner of my eye, I saw a few heads turn in our direction. She did,
too, and took a deep breath.
I appreciate all the brotherly concern, she said more quietly.
But since when do I have to ask anyones permission to do my
job? Theres need out there. Helping is what I do. She pushed
her plate away. In case you all need reminding, I dont need to
be looked after anymore. Now Im the one who looks after
others.
Ryan took the hint and changed the subject, engaging Dean in a
conversation about a Rangers game. I refilled Maggies glass.
I know this is your job, Maggie, but youve got plenty of people
on board. Theres no reason for you to take these kinds of risks
yourself.
How can I send someone else in to do a job, if Im not willing to
do it myself? she snapped back. Especially if theres some
danger involved.
Damn it, Mags, youre the director. You cant keep any of your
people safe, if youre not safe yourself. I know you feel like you
have something to prove. Hell, theres been a chip on your
shoulder ever since you got home. I ran a hand through my
hair. The room was hot, in spite of the air conditioning.
She sat in silence while the waitress preened, waiting for me to
pull out my wallet. I counted out the bills and handed them to
her without looking up.
Long minutes passed with only the clink of silverware. Dean and
Ryan tried to maintain the conversation, asking Maggie
questions here and there about schedules and deadlines. She
answered every one with confidence and efficiency. But the
casual tone of the evening was gone.
Dean was the first to stand, forcing a cheerful tone as he said his
goodbyes. He glanced at Maggie and she shifted, scooting her
chair back and reaching down for her bag.
Take Ryan home, will you? Maggies coming with me. I shot a
look at Dean, who had raised his brows at my tone, but knew
better than to challenge me. Ill make sure she gets home.
Dean fished out his keys and bent down to give Maggie a kiss on
the cheek. You two okay? he asked. Were fine. Im fine, she
nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. You guys go ahead. Ill
give you a call in the morning.
Five minutes later, Maggie and I were back in the tight quarters
of his hot little sports car and tempers were flaring.
If its a matter of money Shit, I was going to put the
foundation well over its funding goal anyway. Id intended to
offer it all along
Its not money and you know it, Joe. We could have a thousand
staff members and Id still be going. Its my decision, and I dont
intend to justify it again. Not even to you.
I reached over and took her hand. Impulse made her jerk it back,
but I tightened my fingers and held her hand prisoner in mine.
Im sorry, I breathed out. Youre right, Maggie.
You dont owe anyone an explanation. Maybe me, least of all.
Its not your abilities that concern me, baby. Its the fucking
storms I dont trust. This years been vicious so far, and its far
from over. Weve already had stronger storms with greater
frequency than in decades. I know that you know your business.
But even under the best circumstances, these fucking things are
unpredictable.
We drove the rest of the way in silence and I never let go of her
hand. With every passing day, the air was growing denser,
heavier and more ominous. I parked outside the cottage, and
turned to face her. I saw a trickle of sweat roll down between her
breasts and felt my cock rise in response.
I know youre not a kid anymore, Maggie. I see it more clearly
with every moment we spend together But this is a risky
game, baby.
Maybe more than you know
16
MAGGIE

H E LEANED FORWARD to press his forehead gently into mine. For a


minute it felt like old times. The Joe of my childhood, who had
always been right there to protect me. I let that safe feeling wash
over me.
As a child, those had been the moments Id lived for, the harbor
of Joes big, strong arms. Hed always had the power to make
everything better, no matter how terrible the situation. Id loved
him for that
Im a big girl now. And Ive learned how to take care of myself,
I said, sounding calmer than I felt. He was so damned close,
making my skin tighten into goosebumps in spite of the heat. I
know I take risks, Joe, I said quietly. Its how I made it on my
own for the last four years. No family not much Dean
no you
He caught the back of my neck in one warm hand and let his
fingers tangle in my hair. My breath caught... sharp, audible
and his fingers pulled my head back. He was close, way too close.
I could heard the harsh sound of his own breathing and a warm
gush of fluid soaked my panties in response.
Risks are what make it all worth the struggle, Joe. The words
came out in a rough whisper, sexier than I intended. Theres
fear but theres exhilaration, too, I said. My face was inches
from his, my throat arched and vulnerable. I met his eyes, my
gaze as intense and demanding as his. Maybe there are too
many risks in my life, Joe. Ill give you that one. But maybe there
havent been enough of them in yours.
He kissed me the way a thunderstorm breaks. A second of calm
a feeling of timelessness, followed by a crashing violence with a
power all its own. I felt myself lift up and I felt the rock hard
heat of his cock underneath me. His lips never left mine, his
hands must have shifted me from my seat to his lap. The whole
world was spinning out of control and there was nothing to stop
it. My tiny skirt hiked up to my waist and I felt his long, hard
fingers push my thin panties aside
Fuck you, Maggie, he ground out against my mouth. I bit into
his lip and heard him moan. Fuck you back, Joe, I said without
letting him go. I ground my hips against his hand, making it
slick with my wetness.
He pushed one long finger inside me and I was lost. I didnt
know what drove us on harder how much was passion, and
how much was anger? I only knew he wanted me as powerfully as
I wanted him. He pulled back to watch me, as he pushed in one
more finger. I went dizzy with the sensation, but I held his eyes.
If he needed to see, then I was going to show him.
Youre tight, he rasped out. Hot, fucking tight He pushed
in deep and I felt my eyes flutter and my legs begin to shake.
Am I the first man inside you? he growled against my throat.
His fingers kept moving punishing me, rewarding me Tell
me Maggie, I need to know
Yes, I gasped out. No one else has ever touched me I
wanted this I wanted you
This is madness, Maggie, he answered back, but I could hear
the pleasure in his voice along with the warning. We cant
do this
Because I havent done it before? I shot back, pushing my
dripping wet pussy hard into his palm. Teach me Im a fast
learner
Because once we start, I wont be able to stop. Because I could
hurt you, Maggie. Because I want you so much I cant think
The sound of tires on the drive stopped him short. There was a
sweeping flash of headlights and the next thing I knew, I was
back in my own seat and Joe was trying to tug my skirt back
down into place.
Hey guys. Dean tapped against the car window. I just thought
Id make sure you two hadnt come to blows. Joe opened the
door and got out, giving me a few moments to recover myself.
Were fine, I heard him say. Your sister can be very
persuasive although I still dont like the idea.
I got out, trying to look as normal as Joe sounded. But my knees
felt unsteady, and I had to rest a hand on the hood of the car.
We are fine, I said. And this job is going to be a hell of a
success, I promise you. I looked back and forth between the two
men. Great rewards come from great challenges, I said
confidently. And I want both. So if youll excuse me, Ive got
one hell of a day ahead of me tomorrow.
I headed for the cottage without looking back, closing the door
and listening until I heard both cars eventually disappear down
the drive. I locked the door, leaning against it to keep me from
sagging to the floor. Facing Dean had taken everything I had left.
I was hot and exhausted, weary of the tug of war Joe and I
seemed to be playing. I peeled of my top and let my skirt and
panties fall on the floor. My body was throbbing with pent-up
frustration. I headed for the shower and turned the cold on full
blast.
Fuck you, Joe, I said into pounding stream of water. Fuck you
for not fucking me
I ran my hands over my breasts and down my belly. I could still
feel the sensation of his fingers inside me. Theyd been thick and
long, but not like his cock would be I could still feel the huge,
hard outline of him, pressed against my panties
One of my friends in the dorm had a collection of cock shots in
her phone, and had shown me one night when shed had too
much to drink. A few beers and theyre all pretty happy to show
it off, shed said. Id been shocked at the size of some of them.
But none had been like Joe. None of them could ever be like Joe
I closed my eyes and squeezed my pussy tight. My walls were
tender, opened and stretched for the first time. I touched a
fingertip to my clit and rolled it in circles. I trembled,
remembering the sensation of how it had felt, pressing and
rubbing it into Joes calloused palm. In minutes, I was right on
the edge. It had been too long I had waited too long There
was so much inside me, raging like a storm, impatient and
lustful
And ready to break free
17
JOE

D EAN and I had said our goodnights and gone our separate ways. I
tried to tell myself it had been for the best that Dean had come
along when he had. God only knew what might have happened if
he hadnt. I hadnt lied when Id said Maggie was persuasive.
Every instinct I had, every hard-won drop of common sense in
me, told me I was playing with fire. I should have kept my
distance, from the first moment Id laid eyes on her at the
station. Definitely as soon as Id found out who she was.
But something between us was already out of control. Id been so
goddamned close, more than once, to taking her in a fury of
passion and driving desire. Every day, she got deeper under my
skin. Not only because I needed her body, but because I wanted
her. I craved her presence, I waited for the look in her eyes. All I
could think about was the feel of her skin and the scent of her
flesh. She pushed me, challenging me with her ideas and her
spirit. No woman had ever had the power to move me like
Maggie could
I headed upstairs in the dark, silent house. Bess had turned in
hours ago, and I had the entire left wing of the house to myself. I
closed the bedroom door behind me and exhaled long and hard.
It was wrong, all fucking wrong, but there was no holding back
any longer. I stripped, air hissing through my teeth as I set my
cock free. It bobbed and twitched, the head darkening with its
freedom and anticipation
I moved to the window and looked out over the dark, sweltering
night. The only light was the one down the hill, just outside
Maggies door. My cock raged again and my balls tightened,
almost to the point of agony. I wrapped my hand, still bearing
traces of Maggies wet desire, hard around my cock and started
to stroke. I pictured her, naked in the heat, and languid on top of
the sheets. She wanted me and I fucking wanted her. My hand
sped up as I imagined my cock where my fingers had been. Id be
wet with her juices, filling her like shed never imagined. My
cock was the challenge, and I wanted to watch as she took it
every long, thick inch until
I exploded, pulsing hard, violent streams of seed onto the
window glass. I cursed it for separating us, hating the distance
between us. But my body drove on, and my climax seemed to
threaten sanity itself. For a split second, I felt like I was with her,
and my skin tingled with cold and the feel of rushing water. The
moment I tried to grasp it, the feeling was gone. But the last
powerful waves emptied my body completely, and I staggered
from the release and the strength of emotion behind it. I
collapsed on the bed and dragged an arm over my eyes.
There was housekeeping to take care of but for the moment, it
could wait. My heart was still pounding. So was my cock. And I
wanted to savor that fleeting moment when it had seemed like
I was with her. My body was spent, but my climax had freed
something inside me. It was out there now searching in the
dark. Hunting for the one feeling I never wanted to lose again
My Maggie.

T HURSDAY
Fuck the paper. It would wait. First thing in the morning, I had
headed for the warehouse. Maggies warehouse.
It was early, but she was already there. So was Dean along with a
handful of workers. They all wore tees with the RemedAid logo.
Maggie had hers tied at the waist, and she was wearing the same
cut-off shorts shed been wearing at the bus station. And the
same distracting boots...
Joe? She stood up, leaving the box still on the ground. Shed
been about to pick it up, and had the proper body mechanics
down pat. Her legs had been apart, her knees wide and bent.
Damned unladylike And so fucking hot.
I thought about what you said last night about taking a
chance. I couldnt help letting my eyes roam, however briefly,
over her bare skin, already glossed by a sheen of fine
perspiration. Im here to help.
I you you want to volunteer? she asked, looking up at me
with wide eyes. Its only packing up the trucks right now but
we had a few people call out. I could use all the help we can get.
She showed me around, indicating which stacks needed to be
moved to which vehicle. Some of the other volunteers would
briefly interrupt for directions, and she would answer without
hesitation. She had an air of cool authority about her that kept
the entire operation running smoothly. And she clearly had the
respect of every man and woman there. Id always known she
was incredible and capable of amazing things. But seeing the
scope of her vision and all she had accomplished was still
impressive as hell.
By the time we headed back to the empty, waiting trucks, the
sun had risen in the sky and yet another day had turned
swelteringly hot. Two hours later, and Id soaked through my
shirt.
Here, she said, offering me a cold bottle of water and a dry
logo shirt. Wed worked side by side almost the entire time.
There had been too much to do to spend energy on conversation.
So instead, wed settled into the rhythm of hard, physical work.
It felt natural with her, and for the first time in a long while,
wed been completely comfortable in each others presence.
I took the water and downed it in a single swallow. Then I
stripped off my sweaty shirt and tossed it aside. Im good as
is, I replied. Too fucking hot for more clothes than necessary.
I went back to work, feeling her eyes on my back as she leaned
against a stack of boxes and finished her own water. Tiny as she
was, she set a hell of a pace.
A few minutes later, she was back at my side. We finished the
first truck, and while Maggie dealt with phone calls and last
minute organizational details, I finished the second. The other
volunteers had packed up the last of the few remaining supplies,
and Id tucked them into the back of the van. Dean had left for
class hours ago. Clouds were dark on the horizon as the long day
started to wind down.
We make a good team, Maggie said, as she closed and locked
the warehouse doors. She pulled a cooler out of the front seat of
the van and handed me a tall, ice-cold bottle of beer. I took it
and twisted the top off and handed it back to her. We do, I
answered. And I see the boss always comes prepared
She laughed, as I opened the second bottle and drained it off by
half. She sipped at hers, and I felt her eyes again on my skin.
I cant thank you enough, she said. Were leaving in the
morning, and Im not sure wed have made it without your
help. She took another swallow a longer one.
I know it hasnt always come across, Maggie, but I respect what
youre doing. Its a hell of an operation youve got here. I
reached over to tuck a long strand of hair behind her ear. Im
starting to believe that if anyone has the ability to save the
whole world, it just might be you.
The last volunteer raised a hand in farewell, and we watched as
he climbed into an old pickup and drove away, clattering out of
view. Maggie turned and took a breath, stopping before she
spoke.
What? I asked.
Like I said, we leave in the morning I was just wondering if
you had picked out that reporter wed talked about. You were
interested in getting our trip on film
I did, I answered back, without looking at her. He hasnt
been behind a camera in a while. But hes good and hes
trustworthy. I felt her eyes on my bare chest, on my arms. I
wondered if she was thinking the same thing I was,
remembering the same things I was He wants this
opportunity damned badly.
She let out a short breath and her shoulders relaxed. Can he be
ready and here at the warehouse by four a.m.? Im hoping to get
on the road before five.
He can, I smiled. And he will. Ill make sure of it. I walked
her over to her car and opened the door for her. Thank you for
today, Maggie. This was good. Good for us, I mean. I reached
out and touched her cheek. She leaned into it, ever so slightly,
and smiled back.
Yeah, she said. I Im going to miss you while were gone.
She looked up at me with those big, dark eyes, looking suddenly
vulnerable. The reporter Four in the morning. You wont
forget to tell him?
I wont forget, Maggie. You can count on him.
She climbed into the car and headed down the road, a haze of
dust magnifying the tail lights behind her. I stood for a few
minutes longer until shed disappeared from view.
You can count on it, baby, I said into the thickening night air.
Four a.m. sharp
18
MAGGIE

F RIDAY FORECAST : Highs near 114 with severe thunderstorms


likely. Funnel clouds possible in north Texas and southern
portions of Oklahoma.
I gave Jackie a hug that finally made her struggle to regain her
freedom.
It hasnt been that long, she gasped, laughing. Sunrise was
still a long way off. Jackie had, so far, been the first to arrive.
How are you, honey? she asked, as I poured out coffee from a
thermos bottle. Im seein you took my advice about hard work
for the lovelorn.
I sat down beside her and sipped at the steaming mug. And you
were right, Jackie. I bumped my shoulder into hers. Weve
accomplished so much, and in so little time. I know the
foundations going to be a success
But you and Joe not so much?
I sighed and caught sight of cars in the distance. The troops were
starting to arrive. It wasnt the time for the real heart-to-heart
that I needed.
Not so much, I said, standing up and stuffing my hair under
my old hat. I was starting to think so maybe But now were
leaving. The timing could have been better, but I guess hell still
be here when I get back. I shook out the dregs of my coffee.
For a while, I couldnt wait to leave. And now that we are Im
not so sure
Hey, sis, Dean came up behind us, wrapping a brotherly arm
around our shoulders. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and made
Jackie blush to her toes by doing the same to her.
You rascal, she scolded, clearly pleased. I hear youre joining
up with the nursing team, come next spring.
I am that, he teased back. Just a friendly warning Im going
to be following you around like a puppy on this trip. I intend to
fully exploit your wealth of experience.
Jackie giggled like a girl, and I smiled as the two of them walked
toward the van to greet a few new arrivals. People who sign on
for this kind of job tend to thrive on adventure, and the hum of
excitement filled the air.
By four-thirty, everyone had arrived and the last minute
decisions were being made. Jackie was taking the lead, with Dean
riding shotgun. All but two of the volunteers would ride with
them. Our one married couple, Margie and Ron Walker, would
follow in their own pickup, and Ryan would follow in the largest
of the trucks. Our newest full-timer, a tall, gentle medical
student named Henry, was riding with him. Id bring up the rear
with the box truck that carried most of our personal gear and
supplies.
I took one last look around and double-checked the locks on the
warehouse doors. I flipped on the office radio to listen to the
weather forecast one last time, and looked at my watch. Where
the hell was the damned journalist Joe had promised me?
I listened for a few minutes to catch the high temp and the even
more dire-sounding storm predictions. We needed to get moving
soon. I gathered up the last of my things and locked the office
behind me. The hell with it, I thought irritably. If the guy shows
up, he can try to catch up, or go back home. But we werent
waiting any longer. It was time to move out.
I grabbed the two-way radio off the side of my belt and gave
Jackie the go ahead. Once the other vehicles had lined up to form
our little caravan, I headed for my truck. Snapping my radio back
onto my belt, I reached for the door handle and yanked the heavy
door open
Keys?
Joe was in the drivers seat with his hand extended and open. He
wiggled his fingers impatiently as I stood stock still, staring. And
angry.

J UST WHAT IN HELL S NAME DO YOU THINK YOU RE DOING ? I SHOT OUT .

Trying to catch up with the others before theyre completely


out of sight, he answered casually. Sorry I was late but were
still getting out before five. He wiggled his fingers again, and I
saw his eyes glitter. He was enjoying this. I wasnt.
Youre the photojournalist, I said, catching sight of his gear.
You intended to come all along and didnt tell me
He bent down, bringing his face within inches of mine. I caught
my breath and then felt him gently tug the leather strap with
the truck key out of my back pocket.
Would you have agreed to it? he asked, as he turned the key in
the ignition and the engine roared to life.
Hell no, I wouldnt have! And get out of the drivers seat. This is
my goddamned truck and my responsibility.
He grinned in a way that made me clench my teeth, but he slid
over to the passengers side. Then he patted the spot where
hed been.
Lead-foot it, if you intend to catch up with the pack, he said,
reaching for my thermos and pouring coffee into its lid. Burnin
daylight, baby.
Im not your baby, I ground out, shifting the gears awkwardly.
And I dont appreciate you treating me like a damned child.
He sipped his coffee. I wasnt aware that I was.
I hit the gas hard, and the engine roared resentfully. Youre
here to keep an eye on me. Just like always, just like when I was
little. You still think its your job to pick up where my dad
failed. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the road. I
stopped being that little girl who begged you for protection a
long time ago, Joe. Im tired of having to fight for the right to
grow up.
We were both quiet as the miles passed. Eventually we caught up
to the others, and I eased back on the pedal.
I didnt come because you needed me to, Maggie, he finally
said, breaking the silence. I came along because I needed to.
Packing up the trucks yesterday, seeing how hard youve
worked to make your dream a reality He shook his head as he
watched the road. You gave me a taste of what Ive been
missing, Maggie. Ive made the Star more successful than ever,
but somethings always been missing. Life isnt just about
success its about aspirations and purpose and the struggle
along the way. I used to know all that, when I first started out
with a camera and vision. You told me I didnt take risks
anymore and you were right.
He handed me the coffee, a peace offering of sorts. I took it and
smiled, unable not to. His face was bright, his eyes shining with
excitement. I was still a little pissed, but he looked so like the
boy hed been at eighteen
I lifted the cup and gave him a gentle, understanding nod and
drank.
19
JOE

I T FELT like an enormous weight had been lifted off my chest. For
the first time since Maggie had seen me in the truck, the tension
between us had shifted. Hell, it was still fucking there, but her
exasperation with me had eased, at least. It felt almost like the
old us except now the air fairly crackled between us.
Weve lined up to distribute supplies in four different
locations, she explained. Jackies teaching basic first aid at
one of the high schools. I think Deans probably going to stick
close to her.
I snapped a few shots out the window. Wed hit a long stretch of
flat prairie and had about an hour to go before we reconnoitered
at a roadside diner for breakfast.
You can take the van if you want, and move between locations,
she went on. She stretched, and smiled when she caught my eyes
on her bare legs. You can decide where you can get the best
shots.
I snapped a shot of her, looking beautiful and free, as the wind
whipped her hair.
I meant the distribution areas, she said, turning her face away.
Shorts and a t-shirt dont exactly make me look like a
foundation head.
I laughed. No cheesecake, I promise. This one isnt for the
story. Youre beautiful, Maggie. And its almost like you dont
even see it.
She rested one arm on the window frame and steered with the
other. I was a scared, skinny kid all through high school. Hell,
most of the way through college, too. What mattered to me was
how Id grown up feeling kind of invisible, and mostly alone. I
saw kids who had grown up in situations way worse than mine,
and theyd turned to alcohol sometimes drugs. I didnt have
time for pretty. There was too damned much work to do.
Is it why you never took the next step in your relationships? I
knew it was dangerous territory even before I saw her shoulders
raise and tighten. You must have had plenty of chances.
She glanced over at me, and for a second I flashed back to little
Mags in the swing, begging a promise from me Shed been so
young, I doubted she even remembered. But I did. Id never
forgotten...
Its not like I dont know how sex works, Joe. Her temper
seemed to rise along with the temperature. It just wasnt ever
right, thats all. The timing the guy I havent found it all that
easy to trust the men in my life
She hauled the wheel over as the vehicles ahead of us pulled off
into the diner parking lot. Chow, she said shortly, as she
climbed out.

J OE , WHAT THE HELL ?

Dean came up and clapped a heavy hand on my back. Did your


junior reporter flake on the job?
Something like that, I answered back absently. Figured it had
been too long since Id been in the field instead of the office. I
watched as Maggie sat down next to Ryan at the far end of the
table.
You just didnt trust us, thats all, Dean said, pulling a chair
back from the table, its legs scraping the tile floor. I can take
care of my own baby sister, he inclined his head in her
direction, and it looks like those two have picked up right
where they left off.
I picked up my coffee and took a scalding mouthful. Maggie and
Ryan had their heads bent close together and were talking
quietly. She looked up and smiled at Henry, the med student
whod been riding with Ryan. I knew it was only business it
had to be But my gut was burning and it wasnt just the hot
coffee.
She and Ryan have always been friends. Theyre only a few
years apart.
Yeah, Dean said. But its more than that, I think. Even when
they were little. Kinda like they had something special between
them. They were always off sharing secrets. He spread his
paper napkin over his lap and dug into a plate of scrambled eggs
and home fries. I kinda always hoped they were gonna end up
together one day, even though itd probably give old Bess a
stroke. Shed never approve of a relationship between a Decker
and a poor kid. He smacked his lips. But they seem so
comfortable together, so natural. Now that shes back home
maybe its finally their time.
I ate my meal, smiling and responding to the conversation
around me. But I never lost sight of Maggie. And she never met
my eye. It wasnt like Id never considered the thought before. I
had, several times over the years This was just the first time it
hit me in the gut like a punch.
Bills were paid, and we all shuffled back outside into the
stifling heat.
Thanks for coming with us, Joe, Dean said, before he headed
back for the van and Jackie. Its like old times, having you here
looking after everyone. Take care of the kid for me. He gave
Maggie a peck on the cheek as she came over.
Kid, my ass, she shot him a look. Right now, Im your boss.
Go. She gave him a teasing punch in the shoulder, and he
grinned as he backed away, holding up his hands in surrender.
She laughed and turned back to me, holding out the truck key.
Would you mind? she asked. My day started at three this the
morning. Maybe I do need a little taking care of
20
MAGGIE

I CLIMBED in beside Joe and leaned back heavily in the seat. The
strain of being so close, and yet so far apart, was beginning to
wear on me. No matter whether we were getting along or
arguing, on the verge of giving in to the attraction, or bickering
like children the tension was always there, and I wasnt sure
how much longer I could bear it.
You dont mind if I try to catch a few winks? I asked, shifting
uncomfortably as he started up the engine and took the wheel in
his hands. I loved the sight of them, almost as much as the
sensations they could give. They were rough and veined big
enough to span my waist, strong enough to pick me up. The last
few hours with him had only made me want him more. If only we
could get past
Here, he said, taking my arm and pulling me closer. He
wrapped an arm around my shoulder and tipped me over until
my head was resting on his lap. You cant get any sleep at all
sitting up in a damned truck with bad shocks. He stroked my
hair as I started to rise back up. Just lay down and rest, Maggie.
Im not a goddamned animal
I shifted so that I was resting on my back, at least. Somehow it
seemed less intimate. Until I looked up to see his eyes flicker
down at me.
My knees were bent, resting against the back of the seat. I could
feel my breasts, curving heavily to the sides. I let my eyes move
slowly up the length of his body, and I could see the outline of
the hard muscles Id had right under my hands against my
naked skin. I knew how his flesh felt, and his scent filled my
lungs. It seemed to reach right into my core and heat my very
center. He smiled down at me, letting his eyes linger before
looking back to the road.
Hows Ryan doing? he asked. I could feel his thigh muscles
stiffen as he pushed on the gas.
He and Henry have hit it off, I answered, thoroughly
distracted by the gentle bouncing motion of my head against his
crotch. Theyve got a lot in common
So do you and my brother.
It took a minute to register. Ryan and me?
Youve always been close, Maggie. And he hasnt dated anyone
that Ive been aware of, ever since you left.
Hes my friend, Joe. Its never been more than that. I smiled
up at him, feeling for the first time, like he was the one at the
disadvantage. I thought Id made my preference of Decker men
pretty clear
Or maybe not
I rolled onto my side and curled my body toward him. I could feel
his cock thickening against my cheek. I reached my hand up
under his shirt and hit hard, defined muscle.
Fuck, Maggie, he shot out, as he jerked the wheel straight.
You were supposed to be tired.
But Im not now, I said, my voice low and sultry. You really
want me to take a nap? I purred. I can think of better things
to do.
His cock was rock hard by now, and I could feel it, throbbing and
eager. I unzipped his jeans and he sprang free. Thick and huge, it
was dark and heavily veined. Id never seen it so close. Id never
seen any cock so close. He reached down
Hands on the wheel, I demanded, enjoying my newly found
power. If you crash my truck, Ill have no choice but to
fire you.
Christ
Id slipped my mouth over him before he could stop me. His
heat, along with the taste of him, was as overwhelming as his
size. It was new everything was new but I moved with the
drive of instinct. Taking his base with my hands and wrapping
them tightly around him, I used my mouth to cover the rest. The
hunger inside made me greedy for more, and I started to move
on him. The vibration of the truck made my nipples tingle and
my clit harden. When I got my first taste of his slippery precum,
I was utterly lost.
Oh fuck, baby His voice was harsh with pent-up desire. I
tightened my cheeks against him and felt him spread his thighs
in response. His hips lifted and he pushed his cock deeper into
my mouth. I ached to climb on top and straddle him, but even I
didnt dare take that kind of risk. He reached one hand inside my
tee and cupped one breast. I tasted salt and musk
Stop, Maggie, I heard him beg. I felt his hand tighten hard on
my flesh. Fuck Dont make me come This isnt the time,
baby. He eased me off his glistening length. The head was dark
and huge. I wanted more
No not here not like this, he worked hard to get the words
out. Ill roll the goddamned truck, if you go on.
He looked down at me, taking in the picture of my face next to
his rampant erection. He exhaled through his teeth, his
expression dark and threatening. Then he reached his hand
down between my legs under the tattered edge of my shorts
and dipped his fingers into my hot, wet pussy. It was my turn to
gasp, as my walls grasped and clenched in desperation.
But I like... how you taste, I gasped, drawing out his torture
and mine.
He slid his fingers in deep, curving them around my mound and
squeezed his hand. He had my swelling clit trapped in his rough
palm. He squeezed again hard, savoring the transition of power.
Then he drew his fingers out and put them up to his own lips,
tasting them and smiling with the look of savage, promising
desire
Then I guess that makes us even, baby girl.
21
JOE

I REACHED down to run my damp fingers along the hollow


between her breasts and gently pushed her onto her back. Id
have given anything to have pulled off the road and taken her
right there but that was no way for a girl to experience her first
time And Dean was driving the van right directly in front of
usI shifted, trying to ease way too much rigid cock back into
my jeans. I zipped up uncomfortably, and shook my head at the
sweet disappointment on her face whens she looked up at me.
I should have put a stop to this game a long time ago. Maybe it
was the freedom of the open road, maybe it was the sweet-hot
taste of my Maggie She was seductive as hell, a virgin to boot
More than any man could stand
I simply couldnt stop myself
I kept one hand tight on the wheel and my eyes on the road, but I
unzipped her shorts and slipped my whole hand inside her
panties. There wasnt a goddamned innocent thing about the
look in her deep, brown eyes, as I used my fingertips to spread
her slippery juices up over her clit. It was hard and thick, like
me, and I rubbed her in slow, delicious circles.
No, baby, I ordered firmly, as she arched and reached up to
touch me. No distracting the driver
Put your hands under your ass and keep them there, I
demanded. Or Ill have to stop I pressed her clit tight and
stroked harder. You dont want me to stop?
Oh Christ Joe, she gasped out. I was torturing her and I
knew it, but she did what I told her. Dont stop oh God
dont stop
I eased up on the gas, enough to focus on Maggie, but without
falling too far behind the others. I needed to see her when she
came I wanted to know what she needed what she liked. The
girl might never have had a mans cock inside her, but she was
no stranger to orgasms. I could tell by her breathing the way
she responded to my touch. In minutes, she was so close.
I want you, Maggie, my words sounded almost like a threat.
They hissed through my teeth and made her arch hard in my lap.
Theres no going back now. It doesnt matter whether its
wrong anymore. I curved my fingers inside her and used my
thumb on her clit. She was soaking her thighs spread apart
for me
Theres going to be a place, baby when theres no one
around I felt her walls clenching with the first hard frenzy of
her release. No one to stop us. She cried out as I met her
thundering climax with a desperate intensity of my own.
Im going to fuck you, baby Nobody but me
And with everything Ive got

H ER CLIMAX SEEMED TO LINGER ON FOREVER . I WANTED IT TO .

It seemed she could have orgasm after orgasm All I needed to


do was shift the angle of my fingers, the pressure I used to touch
her. By the time shed collapsed in exhaustion, Id been fucking
close to coming myself, just from watching. Id never
experienced anything like her.
I shook my head. It had been a goddamned irresponsible thing to
do, on a hundred different levels, but I didnt regret a second.
This had gone way beyond right or wrong. Beyond Deans
disapproval, or even Besss. Maggie was grown now. My woman.
And I was going to be the man to bring her into the full
awareness of that womanhood. My claim had been made.
She slept easily in my lap as I drove on, and a whisper of
conscience rose up. She was twenty-two, but that was still so
damned young. In sleep, she looked even younger.
Thunder rolled in the distance and I scanned the flat, empty land
that stretched for miles. Dark clouds were building in every
direction, but wed be pulling into town within the hour. We
should be well into unpacking the trucks before the rains came.
Though the sky was dark, it had none of the eerie, green coloring
that warned of a developing twister.
Maggie turned and snuggled her face into the aching bulge of my
crotch. I tipped my head back and let out a long, unsteady breath
and felt perspiration trickle down my back. There was another,
closer boom of thunder
It was going to be a long, hot fucking summer.
22
MAGGIE

W AKE UP , BABY .

The sound of Joes deep voice startled me out of a dream I didnt


want to let go. Id been cold on the outside hot on the inside
Joes voice in my ear and his hands on my body...
Were here, he said, as I blinked my eyes, readjusting them to
the light. For a minute, I didnt know what he meant.
I sat up just as we passed the sign by the road. Pawtauk? I
asked, starting to get my bearings. How long did I sleep?
He chuckled as warmth flooded my face. I remembered and it
showed.
Long enough to be even more beautiful, he said. But I hated
to wake you. He smiled a smile that made me thoroughly
ashamed and equally pleased. I like being your pillow.
I sat up and brushed the hair back from my neck, blushing again.
Joe I
The two-way radio on the dash interrupted us with a rush of
static. Then Deans voice came over.
You two alright back there? The static hit again. You guys
were hanging back there for a while. We were starting to wonder
if you were at each other again.
Joe and I exchanged a look that held a whole riot of thoughts and
feelings behind it. Were good, Dean, I answered. Stop being
a big brother and lead the other vehicles over to Baker Street. Its
the biggest location, and well unpack and regroup there. I
looked at my watch. Were early. The events arent scheduled to
start for another three hours. The radio squawked in reply.
The storms are building, Joe said, peering under the visor at
the darkening sky. Weather service says no funnels have been
spotted yet but I dont know Theres something I cant put
my finger on
I looked out and shifted a little closer to him. I know. I
shivered in spite of the heat. Like the airs too calm for all
those thunderheads.
He put an arm around me and pulled me beside him. It felt so
natural. I curved my body to fit against his lean side. The worn
denim of his jeans was pulled tight over his thick muscles. The
way you touched me, Joe Did you mean it? What you said when
I was when I was coming
He looked at me, his dark curls rough and his eyes a brilliant
blue. He smiled, and I felt it all the way to my toes. Yes, I meant
it, Maggie. I keep all my promises, sooner or later. This one,
most of all. Im going to have you, sweetheart. Every
luscious inch
He pulled the truck into the parking lot behind the others, and
then kissed me hungrily, desperately, until there wasnt a single
doubt left in my mind.

I WAS FLUSHED , BUT NO LONGER COMPLETELY DISHEVELED , BY THE TIME THE


others were beginning to pile out. Jackie headed into the church
to announce our arrival, and Ryan came over with Henry to get
their instructions.
The next few hours were hot and busy. Dean and Joe worked side
by side, with the comfortable familiarity of lifelong friendship.
But Joe took on the heaviest labor himself, quickly, efficiently,
giving my brother a much-needed break and allowing me to give
out the last of the instructions. Even as he worked, Joe would
pause to capture photographs. His steadiness and easy humor
had a calming effect on everyone, and what could have been a
frantic scramble became orderly and fluid.
Dean and Jackie were almost ready to head for the high school to
teach their class. Ryan and Henry were staying on to head up the
event at the church, while Margie and Ron were taking the
remaining volunteers with them to a park on the north end of
town. I was taking the truck with all our own supplies to the old
farmhouse on the south side. The town had offered it as a place
for us to stay for the next few days. Joe and I would unload there,
and then head back to the church.
In all, wed be covering ten square miles and serving more than
three hundred peoples needs over the next few days, handing
out shelf-stable foods and first aid supplies, emergency kits and
information packets. Half an hour before the doors were
scheduled to open, we were ready. I was watching my dream
come true. And Joe was in the center of it all. He had been the
quiet in the storm.
Youre amazing, he said. He tucked his lips closer to my ear
and my neck. His breath touched my skin. I was watching you
the whole time, baby.
Hey guys I jerked away as Dean came up behind us. You
two Be back as soon as you can, okay? He gave me a strange
look, and then turned his eyes to Joe with a frown. Were gonna
be short-handed until you get back.
I saw a look pass between the two men, a look I didnt
understand. For a minute, neither moved.
Well be back, Dean, I said, reaching up to give him a quick
hug. With the look of that sky, we dont want to get stuck out
on the road.
Dean stuck his hand out and Joe took it, pulling him close as the
two men exchanged claps on the shoulder.
Shes my kid sister, Dean said pointedly. Make sure
shes safe
Im trusting you
23
JOE

W E CAN T . You heard what he said, Maggie. He trusts me to


protect you.
And were back to that, she bristled. Everybody thinks little
Maggie cant take care of herself
Goddamn it, thats not it at all. I tossed my hair out of my eyes
in irritation. I want you and you want me. There isnt
anything in hell thats going to keep us from happening, Maggie.
But I need to find a way to talk to your brother. Well be
together But I want it to be the right way. I cant have Dean
thinking that Im taking advantage of his little sister. He has to
see this, to see us, in a different way. Maggie stomped the gas
and the old engine whined in response.
I know, she said finally. Youre right. I just dont care for
the feeling that I need anyones permission to live my life.
I smiled, and stroked my finger leisurely up the long expanse of
her thigh. She turned to look at me, her dark eyes even darker,
her pupils large with arousal. Patience, I said, has many,
many rewards
Dean will accept us, or he wont. But I owe it to him, to tell him
things have changed. I dont want to destroy a lifelong
friendship and I dont want this to come between the two of
you. Especially when you guys are just starting to get close. I
reached up to tangle my fingers in the damp ringlets at the nape
of her neck.
Ive waited so long, she said, leaning the weight of her head
back into my hand. Ive waited my whole life for you
In a strange way, I have, too, I answered, letting my thumb fall
into the delicate valley below her ear. Im a decade older than
you Ive had relationships
But Ive always loved you, Maggie. When you were a sad little
kid, I just loved you like a brother. But its sure as hell not what
Im feeling now. Not since I first laid eyes on you at the bus
station and didnt even recognize you. I brushed my thumb
over the soft skin of her cheek. I want the woman, not the
child Although the history between us seems to make it all
even more powerful
She caught her breath, turning to take the tip of my thumb
between her teeth. Then it was my turn to suffer the ache of
impatience.
We were meant to be, Maggie. I think somewhere deep inside I
always knew
But you had to grow up, and I had to be patient. She was
sucking my thumb now, and threatening all my hard-won self-
control. I want your first time to be more than you ever could
have dreamed of, Maggie. I want you to be fully ready there are
so many different ways for us to explore and to learn
A crash of thunder hit close, startling us. For a moment, the
delicious tension between us seemed to pause, and we both
sucked in a deep breath. I took her hand and held it as she drove
on, faster now, towards the old farmhouse.
T HE FIRST WAVE OF HAIL BEGAN JUST AS WE D GOTTEN MOST OF THE BOXES
packed into the large, mostly empty living room. The wooden
floors creaked in objection, but at least the owners had cleared
out most of the dust in advance of our arrival. As we climbed the
stairs to explore the bedrooms and bath, the hail grew even
louder. I said nothing to Maggie, but I was concerned. Hail,
without rain, can be a bad sign
I should call Dean and tell him we might be a while, she said,
looking out a casement window over the wide, empty land. We
cant head back in this.
I was behind her and put my arms around her waist, looking over
her shoulder. Im not sure theres a landline that works out
here, I said. I pulled out my phone. No cell reception either. I
should have called him before we were too far out of range.
The room, dark already, grew even darker. The pounding rhythm
of the hail on the rooftop seemed to quicken the pace of my
heart. I could feel her warmth, and in spite of the heat, it drew
me in closer. She leaned back against me and her scent filled my
lungs. The thunder outside had stopped, but the air between us
crackled with electricity. Maggie turned in my arms and the
weight of her breasts dragged across my chest
I want you to teach me, Joe, she said so softly I almost didnt
hear. Maybe we have to be patient for other things But you
said theres so much for us to explore. She reached up and
touched her fingertips to my jaw and kissed me slowly at first,
almost shyly, until a moan came from deep inside her, and I
gripped her waist, her hips pulling her to me with a fury that
matched the storm outside I want you to touch me, she
gasped. I need to feel your skin
The winds blew and the house groaned around us. I drew her to
the bed, and in the dim, ethereal light I undressed her. The last
thing to go were the boots, and I groaned inwardly at the sight as
she kicked them off. Her breasts bounced hard with the effort,
and I wondered if I had the strength to hold anything back.
God, youre lovely, Maggie, I breathed, unable to tear my eyes
away. The loveliest woman the loveliest soul
She smiled, an irresistible mix of both innocence and vixen, and
slipped her hands underneath my shirt. She stripped it off over
my head. Then we stood inches apart, not touching but
devouring each other with our eyes. I could feel her gaze like fire
on my skin. I had to reach for her
I picked her up and lifted her onto the down-filled coverlet. Her
huge eyes never left mine as I climbed in beside her, hovering
over her sweet, young flesh. As powerfully as I wanted her, I
wanted to take my time just as much. This moment was once in a
lifetime not just for her, but for me as well. Shed remain a
virgin for now. But she would learn every inch of me.
And I would learn every inch of her.
24
MAGGIE

O H , MY G OD The velvety heat of his body swept over me,


enveloping me. For the very first time, I felt the heavy and
powerful weight of a mans body on mine. Not any man. Joe.
My Joe.
God, Maggie, he groaned against my ear. I want you more
than my life, baby I want to bury myself inside you
I lifted my legs and wrapped them tightly around his hips, and
felt his hard, granite shaft pulse against my sex. He moaned
again and thrust his hips, and his cock slid hard against my
slippery wet opening.
When he started to kiss me, it felt as if the world itself had
started to spin round and round, until I was dizzy and
breathless. I love you, my darling girl I heard the words and
knew they were his. His voice his heart Pulling me toward
him, as though from miles away
I love you. All my life with all my soul I love you
His mouth moved against mine, drinking in my breath, my
taste my very self. He touched me as if he could see me with
his fingers. He kissed me as if he could taste my soul. It felt like
hours, as he took his time leaving no trace of my skin
unadored. What had been desire before had become as
unstoppable as a cyclone. We were wrapped together in heat, and
passion, and in love. We were inevitable.
He turned, ferocious with need, and took my hips with his
hands. Open for me, baby, he demanded. And I did...
Spreading my thighs wide and shaking with the first hot touch of
his mouth on me.
Delicious fucking girl, he said, deep into my aching core.
The words vibrated against my flesh, and I shuddered and
bucked. Im going to make you come in my mouth, and Im
going feel when it happens. He pushed two fingers deep inside
me and brilliant colors flashed behind my eyes. Lay back let
me give you this
Not without you. I could barely manage the words. He was
relentless, pushing me higher, demanding my response. I
reached out for him and took his throbbing cock in my hands.
Let me, I ordered breathlessly.
He shifted us both without effort. Then I was on my back, knees
up and spread wide, as he never let me go. My head fell back
gently over the edge of the bed, as he stood on the floor and
leaned over me.
Legs braced and spread wide, his rampant cock
swayed...hovering just above my lips. His balls were huge and
heavy, but tight against his body. He never stopped using his
hands and his mouth on me. But now he was offering himself.
I took him in both hands and slipped him into my mouth. His
huge cock was shockingly heavy and already slick. The white hot
current shot through us both and my clit hardened on his
tongue. His hips jerked with the need to drive deeper, but he
held himself back, letting me rock my mouth along his length. I
had control of my movements I could take as much or as little
of him as I wanted. I already knew his shape and his taste. What
I needed was to know what shook him to the core Greed and
desire made me reckless as I swallowed up his every hard inch.
My hands roamed over his back and his hard, tight buttocks. I
felt him back away, ever so slightly, and knew he was afraid I
couldnt take it all. I gripped him harder and swallowed him
deeper. The fuck, youre getting away, I thought mercilessly.
We drove each other on pushing and demanding. I relented
only when he did, knowing he was prolonging the pleasure as
long as he could. I followed his lead, trusting him, both of us
desperate for climax, but not wanting this feeling to ever end
For a fast second he took his mouth away. Im going to come,
Maggie I cant I dont want to
His breath was hot on my wet, swollen pussy. I knew he was
giving me the chance to let go
I answered by taking his balls in my hands, guiding him deeper
and squeezing my lips and cheeks tight. He dropped his chest
onto my belly and pushed both his fingers and his cock into me.
The moment I felt the head of his cock swell, I was lost. The taste
of his orgasm made me climax like Id never done before.
Together we rocked into each other, against each other
pushing and pulling in the struggle of exquisite pleasure. We
writhed together until there was no more left in us.
Spent, we collapsed alongside each other, slick with sweat and
heavy with the musk of passion. He eased his heaving chest
beside me and cupped one damp breast in the curve of his palm.
He kissed the swollen bud of my nipple as we both drifted off
lulled by exhausted fulfillment, and the thunder in the
distance
25
JOE

I WOKE up to the memory of Maggie in my arms, and the picture


of her face on my pillow. I turned without waking her, to watch
her sleep in the silvery morning light.
She stretched, sensuous as a cat, and opened her big brown eyes.
Youre here. She smiled as the memories flooded back. And
were naked
I kissed her long achingly long, aroused all over again by the
teasing look in her eyes and the taste of our mingled flesh on her
tongue. Its six-thirty. We ought to get back on the road. I
plucked a pale strand of her hair out of her eyes. Deans going
to be out of his mind.
She sat up, forgetting the coverlet that slipped down and bared
her beautiful breasts. Oh God, hell be thinking something
terrible has happened. She got out of bed and gathered up her
clothes. Do I have time for a shower? she asked. I stood up and
collected my own clothes from the floor. Her eyes stopped at my
erection, and I couldnt help but laugh.
Go on, Maggie, I said, giving her sweet little ass a swat. Ill
scare us up some breakfast and we can be on the road by seven.
She gave me a pouty look that dared me to change the plan. If I
join you in there, Dean will be sending a whole posse after us.
She grinned and turned her back on me. I headed for the kitchen
with everything but breakfast on my mind. As the coffee perked,
I leaned back against the tile counter and pictured Maggies
tender body, lathered and slick with soap.

W HERE IN THE HELL HAVE THE TWO OF YOU BEEN ALL NIGHT ? D EAN
asked without stopping. He was unloading CPR dummies for the
first aid class. He and Jackie were teaching at the church today.
Ryan and Henry had taken kits to distribute at the school.
Ryan said the two of you never made it back yesterday. Whats
with that?
I looked over at Maggies face. We got caught by a storm on the
road, I said calmly. Hail big stuff. I didnt dare head back.
Hail like that can be a sign that something worse is on its way.
Dean straightened up and looked at me, then Maggie. Well, I
asked you to keep her safe for me, he said. I guess you kept
your word Thanks. He clapped his heavy hand sharply on my
shoulder and headed back to the truck for more. Could use a
hand, he shot out over his shoulder.
Maggie and I shot a look between us, and I left her to welcome a
handful of students whod arrived for the class. I caught up with
Dean and gathered up an armload of headless plastic torsos. His
back muscles were visibly tight and the veins stood out on the
sides of his neck.
How was the class?
Great. How the fuck was my sister? he shot back without
facing me.
Keep your voice down, I began. He cut me off.
Goddamn it, Joe. He finally turned to look me in the eye. His
were dark, menacing. Ive known you for a lot of fucking years,
and I know that look Yeah, that one. The one that says you got
laid last night. He slammed the back of the truck shut.
It isnt anything like youre thinking, Dean. I swear to God, its
not. I ran a hand roughly through my hair and down my bristly
jaw. We need to talk.
Fuck you and your talk. I know youre no asshole, Joe. Ive seen
you with women in the past. Youd never intentionally hurt
anyone I know that. He sighed hard, from the gut. But this
is little Mags were talking about. Youre thirty-three shes
twenty fucking two. She isnt like the others, Joe. Youll hurt
her. His eyes, still dark with anger, pleaded with me. Shes
just a kid.
I opened my mouth to reply, but that was the moment Ron and
Margie burst through the back doors to lend a hand. They were
tirelessly cheerful and oblivious to what theyd just interrupted.
Together, we all gathered up the last of the supplies and headed
back inside.

I SPENT THE REST OF THE DAY SNAPPING STILLS AND MAKING NOTES ON MY
laptop for the TexStar spread. Deans words echoed in my head.
Ron and Margie had taken one of the trucks back to the
farmhouse to pick up Ryans forgotten laptop. And Maggie and I
had shared a brief moment before I took the van and made a
circle, visiting all the other locations to check on their progress.
But I couldnt bring myself to tell her what Dean had said. In
only a single day, wed handed out almost half of the materials
wed brought. And more than a hundred people had been given
disaster prep kits that they could never have afforded to buy.
This trip was already an enormous success for her, and I didnt
want a cloud hanging over it. Id talk to Dean again Id make
him understand. Somehow, I had to find a way to make him
accept us.
Thunderstorms, violent ones, had been building all day. Walls of
dense, dark clouds formed in the distance, and a tornado watch
had been announced for the entire area. It was hardly unusual
this time of year, and watches were common enough. But as I
drove back to the church and back to Maggie, I felt a deep
unsettling in my chest and in my belly. Like the moment of
stillness, when a glass falls from your hand but hasnt yet hit
the floor.
26
MAGGIE

Y OU LOOK DIFFERENT , Jackie said directly. She cocked her head


and put her little feet up as I handed her a cup of coffee. We had
almost half an hour before her next class started. The turnout
had been amazing. People had come from miles away
Different? I smiled without meaning to, feeling the blush
creep up from my chest to my face.
Holy shit, Mags! It happened, didnt it? Joe finally got the hell
over it, and figured out what he wants. She put her cup down
hard, and the coffee spilled up and over the rim. I knew thats
why he showed up for this trip.
He came for the story, Jackie. I looked up to meet her eyes.
And I think he felt like he had to. Its that damned protective
streak. Hes always felt so responsible for me and for Dean,
too, in a way. I leaned closer and lowered my voice. It always
made me so angry. Like he was treating me like a child
You dont look angry anymore. You look like a cat with a
mouthful of cream. She smiled when I turned crimson. How
was it, honey? By the looks of you, I think I can guess She
took my hand. He knew to be gentle enough to be careful?
I knew what she meant. All those years of nursing were showing
in the concern on her face.
He didnt knock me up, Jackie. I took a deep breath and wiped
the damp skin under my neck. I smiled like a kid with a secret.
Hes got plans for our first time. He wants it to be special I
looked around at the new wave of people coming through the
doors. These arent exactly the ideal circumstances for a girls
deflowering. My smile began to fade. And he wants to talk
to Dean
She smiled at his name and nodded quietly, lost for a moment in
her own thoughts. It wont be easy for him. You two have only
just mended your own relationship. And hes only just started to
get the hang of the big brother thing.
Can you talk to him, Jackie? I know its a lot to ask, but you two
seem to have a connection. He respects you he listens to you.
It was Jackies turn to turn pink.
Hes man who knows his own mind, Maggie. I saw the hint of
a smile and her eyes seemed to wander for a second. They settled
on Dean, at the far end of the room. I cant promise anything
but Ill try.

B Y FIVE O CLOCK , THE LAST CLASS WAS OVER . W E D PLANNED TO STAY


another day, but the event had been such an enormous success,
only two small boxes of leftover handouts remained. RemedAid
had been invited to come back next year, and Id made more
than a dozen valuable contacts offering both funding and
services. By this time next year, we could easily be serving half a
dozen or more needy communities just like this one. It was
better than I ever could have wished for.
But we would also be able to head back home a day earlier than
expected, and it was that, more than anything, that had my
heart beating too fast. Joe would be back anytime, along with the
others, and there would only be one more night apart. Once we
were home, the cottage would be all the privacy we needed. And
for me, it seemed like the perfect place Young as Id been, it
was still and would always be the place where Id fallen in love
with Joe.
I helped to fold up the tables and clear away the last of our
materials. Everyone pitched in, working in silent satisfaction
after two long and demanding days. Joe hadnt gotten back yet,
and even I was amazed at how hungry I was just for a glimpse of
him. It had always been like that. Even when I was little. Nothing
in my life had ever felt right until he was beside me.
There were a handful of people who hadnt left yet an older
couple who were talking animatedly with Jackie, and a few others
who were clustered by the main doors. A woman stood, holding
her little daughters hand and laughing with Henry. He and Ryan
had shown up almost twenty minutes ago.
Hey, guys. I walked over, smiling at the little girl. She was
skinny, and her knobby knees were pressed together.
Has anybody heard from Joe? I looked up at Ryan. Wasnt the
school gonna be his last stop? He should be here by now
We left a little before he did, Mags, he replied. He said
something about making a stop at the corner market. Ryan
looked at his watch. Shouldnt be too much longer. He smiled
at me knowingly, and I couldnt help but smile back. Ryan had
always been able to read my mind. Hell be here.
It was only late afternoon, but the light that came through the
stained glass windows had started to dim. I opened one of the
heavy wooden doors and the hinges creaked dully. The sky was a
shapeless wall of clouds, and the road was flat and empty as it
disappeared into them. No truck no Joe I shivered and felt
sweat trickle between my shoulder blades
I gotta pee, Mama, the little girl whined, as she crossed one
leg over the other and stood on one foot. Mama
Ill take her if you like, I offered, as the young woman let go of
her hand. There are restrooms at the far end of the hall. The
woman nodded and turned her attention back to Ryan. The little
girl took my hand and skipped along beside me, hurrying.
Whats your name? she asked.
Im Maggie, I said, smiling down at her. She was sweet with
her blonde curls and big blue eyes. Whats your name?
Im Emily, she answered politely. And I gotta pee.
I pushed the big door open for her and she rushed past. Ill wait
for you here, Emily. A few seconds later, I heard a gentle tinkle
and a sigh.
The next sound I heard wiped the smile off my face. It was off in
the distance like the dull roar of thunder. But instead of
rumbling away, the sound only grew louder. There was the
crashing sound of rain on the rooftop and the light shifted
then for a second the sound was gone and it was dead, cold
silence. In that pause, I heard Emilys tiny voice cry out in fear.
The next thing I knew, the rain was beating down again, harder
than ever, and the howling wind mixed with the groans of the
wooden walls around us. I ran toward the stall where Emily
shrieked.
Maggie!
I heard his voice and reached out, searching with my
hands Joe!
Another howl from the storm cut me off, but I felt his strong
arms capture me and pull me against his chest. Emily! I called
out. But the thunderstorm took no pity and drowned my words
in its vengeance.
C HRIST , M AGGIE TALK TO ME !

I coughed and opened my eyes to a dark and shadowy


underworld
Where is this? I asked. I felt a cup pressed to my lips and I
drank. He wiped my face and my eyes with a cool, damp cloth. I
blinked hard and saw Joes blue eyes close to mine.
He kissed me, tenderly at first, then savagely. I could hear the
rustle of bodies around us, but it didnt matter. Nothing
mattered except that he was safe and next to me. No matter
what happened now nothing else mattered.
Youre all right? he asked intently. I felt his hands roaming
my arms and legs. Does it hurt anywhere? Fuck, Maggie I
should have been here.
You are here, I said, holding onto his arms for support. I sat up
gingerly and felt the room tilt. I was afraid, I broke off in a
sob. I thought you were caught in the storm.
He pulled me into his arms again and kissed me until the
dizziness passed and the fear along with it. He was big and
strong and real in my arms. He lifted his mouth from mine and
even in the pale lantern light his eyes were blue so beautifully
blue Emilys still upstairs, I whispered, the words
catching in my throat.
I sat up in a panic and looked around. Dean and Jackie Ryan
and Henry the rest of our crew Then I saw her. Shocked and
huddled into a corner of the basement. Emilys mother
Theres a little girl, Joe shes still up there. She was in the
bathroom. I took her in there I was waiting for her to come
out I saw the look on his face. And I watched his lips form a
thin, grim line.
Are you all right? Do you promise me? he asked. He searched
my face for the truth.
Im fine, I swear it. You have to find her. Just go!
He tore his eyes from me and jerked his head toward Dean.
Jackie came to sit beside me, and the next thing I knew, they
were gone. Joe in the lead, and Dean right behind him. I could
hear the storms fury, and wondered what the hell Id just done.
27
JOE

I D SEEN the goddamned storm touch down twice behind me, as


Id recklessly torn up the asphalt racing it back. Id prayed to
reach the church before it did, and I had but only by seconds.
Dean had gotten everyone downstairs. Everyone but Maggie
and I hadnt stopped until Id found her.
Lift. I heaved one end of a shattered beam and Dean took the
other. Together we dragged it out of the way and climbed the
stairs. The winds werent as loud now, and the storm had
shifted. It was moving but it could always shift back
Here, Dean coughed and pointed. We ran for the end of a long
hall, and I looked up to see patches of sky through the rooftop.
Bathrooms are here.
Emily? I pushed the door and it fell away from its last
remaining hinge. Emily!
The stall walls had collapsed in on themselves and water was
pouring from a broken pipe. I could see tiny legs.
Mama, the little girl wailed. My heart broke at the sound,
but her voice was strong and she was very much alive.
Hold still, Emily, I said, as soothingly as I could. Dean reached
to support the metal walls, as I dragged the door aside. Your
mama is just fine, sweetie. I swallowed a thick lump of
gratitude as I caught sight of her. She was wet and she was dirty,
but in spite of the chaos, there wasnt a scratch on her.
I want Mama, she said, reaching her arms out for me as I
gathered her up. Dean and I shared a look over her shoulder, a
split second of mutual heart-stopping relief, and he smiled.
Then I guess wed better go find her.

E MILY S MOTHER MET US ON THE STAIRS . R YAN AND H ENRY HAD DONE
their best to hold her back, but shed become almost hysterical
once the initial shock had worn off. She flew towards us and
smothered the little girl with kisses. Emily wrapped her arms
around her mothers neck and smiled back at me.
Are you okay, baby? I asked. Maggies face was pale. She threw
herself into my arms and buried her face in my chest.
Fine, now, she said, as I wrapped my arms around her. But I
dont think Im ready to let you out of my sight again. I felt her
chest rising and falling unevenly with her breath. Where you
go, I go
I chuckled and kissed her forehead, leaving my lips on her as I
scanned the room, listened for the storm. It wasnt gone, but it
was distant now. I could hear the crackle of the radio. For the
moment at least, the warning was over.
How is everyone, Jackie?
She came over and smiled at us. Nothing, it appeared, could
shake her calm exterior.
Good, she answered. A few scrapes and bruises. She
brushed her hair back with both hands. That fucker hit fast.
Dean came over with a bottle of water and handed it to her. She
looked up at him gratefully and drank. You forget to take of
yourself, Jackie, he chided. You were the last damned one
down here.
Only second to you, she shot back. Their glance held a
moment longer.
Where are the Walkers? I asked, looking for them in the
wavering light. Everyones here except for them
Oh my God, Maggie pulled back from me sharply. How the
hell could I have forgotten? She grabbed at me arm. They left
for the farmhouse hours ago. What if they got caught on
the road?
Emergency services had arrived and were busy clearing the
remaining debris from the staircase. A paramedic was checking
each person before they were taken back up and into the
mottled, fading daylight. The four of us stayed together. And we
were the last ones up to see the devastation.
It could have been a hell of a lot worse, I said aloud, keeping
Maggie at my side. F-1 2, maybe Mother Nature might have
blown off enough steam for now I glanced around, getting
my bearings. The Walkers are most likely fine, but I have to
make sure, Maggie. I want you to stay here with Ryan and Dean.
Ill use the two-way to keep in touch as long as I can Ill only
be gone
No! she spat out. Not without me, not again. Im not letting
you leave me again.
Dean took her arm gently, but she pulled away sharply. Im not
leaving him, she said, her eyes strong, her voice firm. You
may not like it, Dean you may not understand the way that I
feel the way that Ive always felt. She looked from his face to
mine. I love you, Joe, she said simply. She turned to face her
brother. I love him.
And I love her, too, I said gently to Dean, facing him.
I dont want this to come between us not between any of us.
But Maggies no child anymore. Shes the strongest woman Ive
ever known and she knows her own mind. I love her, and Ill
never hurt her. Ill also never give her up.
Dean drew in a breath to speak. Then I saw Jackie reach over and
take his hand. It was a tiny movement, but it was there. He
exhaled and stayed silent, but I could see in his eyes that he
hadnt accepted it.
We have to go find them, Maggie said determinedly. If they
didnt make it to the farmhouse, and theres another storm
I looked at Dean and his face was grim. She isnt going with
you, he said to me. He turned to face her. Youre staying here
with me, where its safe. Hell, Ill go with Joe, but I want you
here Its too damned dangerous
Hes right, Maggie, I added. Im going alone. I want you
here Stay with Jackie and the others. Ill be back in a few
hours I touched her face and felt Dean bristle. I need you
to wait
The Walkers are my responsibility, she said stiffly. I could tell
by the set of her mouth how angry she was. And to hell with
you both, if you think you can discuss me as if Im not even
here. She planted her feet and stared us both down.
Dont do this, Maggie, Dean said, his eyes dark and his tone a
warning
Its already done, she replied coldly.
28
MAGGIE

T HE SKY HAD GROWN darker by the time we were on the road. The
thunderheads were still visible, but the winds had died down fast
and the air was finally still. We were both a mess, tired, and
dirty Joe was angry at me, but I flattered myself that he was
proud, too. I watched him at the wheel, and he was the most
beautiful thing Id ever seen.
Come here, he said, seeing my look from the corner of his eye.
He pulled me next to him and I took my first deep breath in
forever.
I was afraid youd never come back, I confessed. The storm
hit and you hadnt made it back. I felt the way I did when I was
little and youd left for college. Like Id never see you again like
it was all over.
Im not that easy to get rid of, Maggie, he said back easily.
And Im going to have hell to pay when we get back. Ive never
seen Dean so furious Hes right, you know. You should have
stayed behind you do take risks. And he may never forgive me
for wanting you He doesnt want to see you hurt. Neither do I.
You wont hurt me, Joe not as long as were together
He lifted my hand and kissed the back of it. Do you remember
the day I pushed you on the swing? I promised you Id always be
here And I am.
I also made you promise to marry me, I thought, feeling foolish
at the memory. But it was just a promise to a child, to soothe her
aching heart. A promise easily made and forgotten. But I still
treasured the memory.
Joe turned the radio on and it hissed static. He turned the old
knob back and forth, finally giving up. His hand came to rest
comfortably on my thigh, and suddenly I wished Id worn
anything but long denim jeans. It felt like forever since Id felt
his hands on my skin.
It had only been yesterday
I fought to stay awake as the old tires bumped a steady rhythm
along the road. I kept my eyes open until I knew we were close.
The light was almost entirely gone, and I rested my head against
Joes solid shoulder and let the silence soothe me. I wanted to
sleep, in a warm, safe bed. I wanted to wake up, back home in
his arms
Were here, baby. I opened my eyes. Surely it had only been a
minute...?
Their truck is here It looks like they made it just fine.
The porch light flickered on and the front door opened.
Maggie Joe! Margie leaned on the screen door as Ron came
out to greet us. You two look like oh, my God we heard on
the news that a storm touched down close to town
It touched down on top of the church, Joe said, as we sagged
down onto the sofa together. Everybodys fine we just had to
make sure you were, too.

W E SPENT THE EVENING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE , SHARING THE SOUP THAT
Margie had made and telling them all that had happened.
Its been quiet as a mouse out here, Ron said. Whod have
thought? Wed end up missing all the excitement
I leaned heavily against Joes arm. It had only been an hour since
wed arrived, and the food had made me relaxed and sleepy.
Margie smiled at me indulgently. Why dont you two head up.
Ive got the dishes, and Id imagine a hot shower would feel
pretty good before bed. Weve got the room off the kitchen
She tipped her head toward a short hall. Plenty of rooms
upstairs
I thanked her from the bottom of my exhausted heart, and
leaned against Joe as we climbed the stairs. Tired as I was,
images of us flashed in my mind. The silky feel of his skin the
way that hed touched me. He opened the door to the room wed
shared just last night a lifetime ago And I remembered the
taste of him on my tongue
He laughed softly when I reached out for him and caught my
wrists in his big hands. I know, Maggie Me, too. But youre
exhausted, sweetheart. You need to sleep.
I pressed my body against him, even as he held my wrists. My
breasts pressed into his chest I knew he wanted me, too
Tomorrow, he promised gently, as he picked me up and
carried me to the bathroom. He undressed me, as the old
clawfoot tub filled with deliciously steamy water. Then he picked
me up and put me in. Desire fought hard against the weight of
weariness. My body responded to his touch as he began to wash
me. But sleep was pulling me away, as teasingly and seductively
as his gentle hands. The winds began to blow again outside, and
the last thing I remembered was his voice as I drifted off
Theres nothing that wont wait until morning, sweetheart. We
have tomorrow, and a thousand more after that. Just sleep,
Maggie
Just sleep.
29
JOE

F ORECAST HIGHS NEAR 115, tornado watch in effect for the next
twenty-four hours. Warnings imminent.
Although everything had turned out fine, at least in regard to the
Walkers, I was still unsettled about Maggies decision to come
along. Dean would be imagining the worst right about now, and I
couldnt blame him. Id crossed the line way the fuck past the
line and I wasnt sure Id ever be able to fix that between us.
Maggie should have stayed behind. But she was stubborn, and
driven, and determined to have her way. And it was one of the
things I loved about her most
We hadnt been asleep longer than an hour or two, Maggie a
little longer. When shed fallen asleep in the tub, Id eased her
out and wrapped her in a towel, drying her without waking her. I
had tucked her into bed and quickly washed myself. Id brushed
my clothes off as well as I could. Then after taking a long, hard
look at her, innocent and vulnerable, Id dressed again before
laying down next to her. It was my own best chance at a little
sleep.
But the winds had started again. Enough to rattle the old
windows enough to wake me out of a dream. It had been all
about Maggie, luscious and sweet and wet and when I opened
my eyes, she was there. Real and warm and soft beside me. She
reached out and lit a fire inside me
Is it starting again? she asked. I pulled her close and wrapped
my arms around her. The sheet that had covered her was gone.
She was all bare, tender skin.
No, baby, I said, reassuringly. Its just the wake behind the
storm. I ran my hands down her body gently and felt her
nipples begin to stiffen. I ran my thumb over one until it was
hard and thick as a marble. Then I shifted her onto her back and
took it into my mouth.
Oh Joe, she moaned in the darkness. I sucked harder and
she writhed underneath me. I dont want to wait for anymore
tomorrows, she gasped. She tangled her hands in my hair and
arched her back. No more tomorrows no more waiting
This is what I want, she said, unzipping my jeans and taking me
into her hands. There is no perfect moment to wait for
Theres just now and now is whats perfect
I stripped away the last of my clothes and eased my weight down
on top of her. She opened her thighs and wrapped her legs
around me, cradling my hips in hers my cock buried in the
warmth of her swollen lips. As far as wed gone before, it was the
first time, touching her this way my cock to her sweet pussy.
As badly as I needed to thrust my way inside, I knew I had to hold
back She needed to be ready, very fucking ready, to take me.
I reached down, leaving my cock where it was, and slipped my
fingers into her liquid depths. She was tight, but she was soaking
wet and slippery, too. I pushed in another finger, working her
hard little clit with the head of my cock. She spasmed on my
fingers, and I thrust them in deeper.
Give me one, sweetheart, I groaned into her ear. I licked and
sucked at her nipples, pushing her on. She responded like flame
to open air, and the heat from her body rose, carrying her scent
to me. The civilized man in me gritted his teeth and held back.
The animal in me responded to his mate. I took her earlobe in
my teeth and pulled her to me, biting and kissing along the long
stretch of her neck. I pushed three fingers into the hilt and felt
her push back against me for more. She was ready she was so
fucking ready Whatever pain she would feel would be lost in
her pleasure
I felt her orgasm begin to swell and thats when I took her. In
one swift movement, my fingers were gone and my head was
pushed just inside her swollen lips. Christ Maggie, it was
my turn to moan. Id tried to go slowly, but shed wrapped my
waist with her hips, crying out with demands of her own. She
bucked with her hips and I felt the head of my cock reach her
sweetest, deepest spot. My balls were tight against her ass. Shed
taken every last inch of me
I ached to take her in long, pounding thrusts. But she was tight
so fucking tight I bit into my lip and rocked gently, an inch at a
time until she was moving along with me. We worked slowly at
first, but our bodies were made for each other, and before long
we had found a rhythm all our own. I was moving in full, deep
strokes now, and our breathing was as fast as our heartbeats.
I love you my sweetheart my darling. I buried my face in
the curve of her throat, my cock in the heat of her precious flesh.
You belong to me now, I breathed. I pulled a long stroke out
and paused to see the look in her eyes. Tell me, I demanded
harshly. Tell me now
I love you, she gasped out, clutching my back and digging in
her nails. I belong to you
In one hard stroke, I was inside her again our bodies one
along with our flesh and our blood and our souls. I felt her climax
explode as I felt the first hard pulse of my seed spill inside her
I filled her with everything in me the love and the desire. I
filled her with the promise of every tomorrow, and I felt the
answer in her response. She held on, biting my shoulder and
calling my name. I could feel the amazing power of her climax,
and still I pushed her on. We demanded everything from each
other and gave everything we had. Together, we rode the storm
that enveloped us wave after crashing wave of need and its
fulfillment.
The last thought in my mind was her just her. Shed been so
fucking right...
There could be nothing more perfect than now.
30
MAGGIE

I T WAS the wind that woke me again. The glass windowpanes


rattled in their wooden frames, and I could feel the old house
shift almost imperceptibly.
Maggie, Joe was already up. Get up, baby. I need you to get up
and get dressed.
It was the warning in his voice. I was alert in seconds and pulling
on my jeans and shirt. It cant be happening again. It was
over it blew itself out.
I hope to God youre right, he answered. But these fucking
things have a will of their own. She may have just been
gathering
I pulled on a boot and grabbed a storm lantern. We need to get
downstairs wake up the Walkers. I opened the bedroom door
shouting over the building roar. Theres got to be a cellar! We
were halfway down to the kitchen when the winds began to
shriek in earnest.
Ron Margie! Joe tore open the door to their room, finding
them up and terrified. Is there a storm cellar? Did you see a
door? He was screaming over the storm now, not knowing if
they could even hear him.
Ron was moving his mouth, but the words were lost. He had
Margie by the arm and was pulling her toward the hall. She
grabbed hold of the bedpost, shaking her head, her eyes wide
and her face stricken with terror. Together, the two men half
dragged, half carried her down the narrow hall. Ron pointed to
the door at the back of the kitchen.
Storm cellar Storm! he screamed, and suddenly I knew.
Joe did, too. I could see it in his face.
We had to go out into the tornado.
You hold on, he yelled, taking my hands and wrapping
them around his heavy belt. I pressed myself against his back
and made fists around the leather. He opened the door and the
wind screamed around us. Through the rain and the flying
debris, we could see the mounded outline of an arched stone
cavern.
Go! he screamed, and Ron wrapped his arms around his wife,
and together they ran. Just then, there was a shattering sound
and the house moaned as if in agony. I looked up in time to see
the old roof above us dissolve and fly away, up into the swirling
vortex of the night. For a moment, I stood spellbound and then
Joes powerful hands locked over mine. The next thing I knew,
he was running I tried to run, too, but the wind swept my feet
from the ground. I saw the old truck lift from the ground and
crash into the gnarled remains of an oak. I squeezed my eyes
shut at the sound of tearing metal Just as we reached the
cellars entrance, all sound stopped.
The entire world had fallen into utter silence
A gentle dusting fell around us, almost like snowfall the fine,
silty remains of devastation.
The eye, I whispered in the still air
Move now! Joe grabbed me by the arms, and we ran the last
few yards to the cellar. The entrance was narrow and low to the
ground. I had to scramble on hands and knees to get through
to get down inside the long, dank cavern.
As soon as I was safe, he stood up, searching for the Walkers.
You stay there, he ordered. No matter what, you stay there,
Maggie. We looked at each other for one last moment, a
moment filled with love and fear and understanding
I love you, he said simply, before he turned away.
I called back to him, but I knew he couldnt hear. The winds had
begun to moan again.
I watched through the narrow stones for as long as I could
see him
And before I could take another breath, he was gone.
31
JOE

M AGGIE WAS SAFE . No matter what happened, at least she was safe.
I hooded my eyes with one hand, searching for Ron and his wife.
Theyd been right behind us I ran for what was left of the
house. The walls stood like rows of shattered teeth the roof
was gone the entire upstairs
I found Margie yards away, injured but conscious, and picked her
up in my arms. She had an ugly gash across her forehead and
both knees were bleeding badly. My husband, she said, her
eyelids flickering. He was holding my hand wheres my
husband?
I ran with her for the shelter. Maggie was waiting and helped me
to get her inside. Together, we laid her down on the cold stone
floor. Her head lolled from side to side, as she called
Rons name.
Is he alive? Maggie whispered. Did you see him? She had
the storm lantern in her hand and gave it to me.
I shook my head and pulled her roughly to me. I rested my cheek
on her hair for a moment, working to catch my breath.
Ive got to go back out, I said. Theres not much time I
didnt see him He may already be gone. But I have to know
for sure
Maggie pulled my face down to hers, and I kissed her with every
ounce of strength left inside me. It lasted only a moment, but in
the touch of her lips and the sweetness of her tongue, I felt the
promise of the years that waited ahead of us. She was all I ever
wanted but now I had to go
I crushed her against me and inhaled her warmth, her love her
strength. I looked through the shadowy darkness and saw the
love shining in her eyes.
When you were seven years old, you asked me to marry you, I
said. And I said yes. Now Im asking you, Maggie the woman
youve become the love of my life
Her answer was stolen by the rush of the wind, but I felt it in her
kiss, and deep in my heart.

I FOUND HIM FAR FROM THE SHELTER , EVEN FARTHER FROM THE HOUSE . T HE
area Id searched was huge, all within the eye of the storm. The
fucking twister had to be enormous
Walker! I called out. I landed on my knees next to him,
surveying the damage and trying to gauge how much time we
had left. The south wall of the storm was closing in fast.
He groaned and tried to sit up, but his legs were tangled in a pile
of rubble. I cleared the bulk of it away with my hands, and he
screamed.
Fuck ah, fuck I put a hand on his shoulder and felt him
heave with pain. Youre pinned I tried to move the rusted
metal shaft and he screamed again. I searched with my hands as
the rain began to pour down again. The water ran red in the dim
light of the lantern, and formed a pool under his leg. I reached
under the shaft and found the cause. A thick barb of metal had
pierced his thigh.
Leave me, he screamed. Theres no time. Go!
Not without you, I yelled back. But this is gonna
fucking hurt
I took off my shirt and rolled it at tight as I could. He screamed
out one last time, as I pulled the shaft off and tied the tourniquet
as quickly as I could. By then, he was unconscious and it took
everything I had left in me to haul him over my shoulder and run
for the cavern.
My lungs were gasping for air, the muscles in my legs burning
like fire. My heartbeat thundered like a drum against my ribs,
drowned by the deafening roar around us. I stumbled and fell,
heaving myself back up with Walkers dead weight across my
back. In the distance, I could barely see the arch of the shelter.
Joe! I heard Maggie call to me.
I didnt know if her voice had been carried on the wind, or if I
had only imagined it. But she called again and I followed the
sound. I moved on blindly then, closing my eyes to the
pummeling and gritty rain. I stumbled again, and still kept
moving forward. I was close and I could feel her, as if she was
pulling me towards her.
Maggie! I shouted.
Joe Im here Joe!
I felt her hands on my arm and I fell to my knees, letting Ron roll
off my back and onto the soaking ground. I pushed and Maggie
pulled together we rolled him through the stone opening and
into Margies waiting arms.
I thought Id lost you, Maggie mouthed words I couldnt
hear but could see it in her eyes. She gripped my hand in hers,
trying to pull me inside. We were close, so fucking close I was
almost in almost beside her a sudden flash of lightning lit
the sky and I could see her face, her beautiful mouth and her
wide, dark eyes.
Then the world went black, and I felt her hands slip away
Nothing was left, but the picture of her face.
32
MAGGIE

J OE !!
I screamed uselessly into the wind, driven back by its force. One
moment hed been there, and the next he was gone. I could hear
my own voice, shrill and echoing off the dank stone walls. I
scrambled back up towards the opening, calling into
nothingness. Sharp bits of flying debris ripped into my skin,
tearing at my face and hands. I had to squeeze my eyes shut It
was only when Margie pulled me back that I collapsed in shock
and utter exhaustion.
I sat in a heap at the bottom of our stone crypt, in a haze of pain
and disbelief. Joe had saved me he had saved all of us even
little Emily He was bigger than life, stronger than any man Id
ever known. He was all Id ever wanted for as long as I could
remember.
He had asked me to marry him
I sat staring out as the storm lifted, gently and easily dissolving
into nothingness. It was suddenly as if it had never been
I climbed out, ignoring Margies warnings and stood staring into
what was left of the night. Hours before, Joe and I had been
swept away in a storm of our own I could still feel the ache
between my legs that hed left behind. Id become a woman in
his arms his woman
I was going to be his wife...
But the world I saw now wasnt the same world Id left behind.
Nothing remained of the farmhouse but the foundation and a
tangle of wreckage. Our truck was on its side and almost
unrecognizable. The one the Walkers had brought was
simply gone.
Empty plains stretched out in every direction in the dim morning
light. A few remaining stars twinkled overhead before fading
into the dawn. I helped Margie get her husband out of the cellar
and we made him a bed on the ground with anything we could
scavenge. Rainwater sat in the broken shells of a random cup or
bowl. We found what we could, under a clear sky and a
rising sun.
I picked up a wooden bucket, its handle still intact and put a few
scraps of the food inside. I found a bottle and filled it with water
from an upturned china bowl. It sat at the top of a pile of broken
plates and chairs. Legs stuck out at odd angles, and the old pink
towel Joe had used to dry me after my bath was tangled amongst
them. The world had turned on its head and wed been shaken
out by the heels. But the china bowl sat perfectly atop, as if it
had been placed there with care
I grabbed the last of what I found and crammed it into the
bucket. Dean and Ryan knew where wed been headed before the
twister hit. There wasnt a cloud in the sky now, and I knew
rescue crews would soon be on their way.
Margie looked up at me from where she sat next to her husband.
His color had come back and she had been giving him water as
often as he would drink. She looked down at him and back to me.
I could see that she knew and she understood.
I have to find him, I said simply. He isnt gone Id know it
in my heart.
But he needs me.
She smiled and offered her hand, squeezing mine I could feel
the strength in the gesture, in the bond between us. Two women
who loved their men
I let go, closing my eyes and turning my face into the sun. I
opened my heart wide and listened as it whispered
I turned to the left and headed out.

T HANK G OD , MY CELL HAD BEEN IN THE POCKET OF MY JEANS . I N


everything that had happened, it was still there. I turned it on
and stuck it into my shirt pocket. The battery was low, but it was
better than nothing. At least it offered a chance that a rescue
team could find us.
Talk to me, Joe, I whispered through dry lips. Im
right here
I watched the movement of the sun through the sky to keep my
bearings. But I followed my heart. Miles of empty, desolate land
passed under my feet. There was nothing to do but go forward.
But as my legs moved me forward, my mind drifted back. A
thousand memories of him
When Dean had been off with his friends, it had been Joe whod
stayed behind, helping me with my math and making sure I had
dinner. Hed taken me up to the big house when my dad had
been too drunk to stand. Hed tucked me in with a blanket when
Id fallen asleep on the couch, and taken me back home only
when Dad had sobered up. I could only imagine the hell his
grandmother must have given him. Shed resented all of us from
the day her son had allowed us to move in. We hadnt had much
of a family once Dad died, but at least Dean and I hadnt lost each
other. Wed been able to stay together. Joe had made sure of it.
I flashed to all the times Id needed him and all the times hed
been there. All the times wed said goodbye, and life had taken
us in different directions But even in the absences, hed always
been there. Never a day had passed, in all the years apart, that he
hadnt been my first thought in the morning and the last one at
night. In my dreams, wed always been together, and it seemed
as if the binding thread between us had only grown stronger in
the years apart. I felt it when I saw his face in the bus station. I
felt it in his touch when he first kissed me. The longer I walked
without finding him, the less hope I should have had. But each
step drove the next I could still feel his skin on my skin and
hear the echoes of our love in the night
I would find him there was no other choice. As faint as it was, I
could hear my name on his lips and I followed.
33
MAGGIE

B Y THE TIME I saw another house on the horizon, the light was
waning and so was my strength. Id left the path of destruction,
cut by the storm behind long ago. And thered been nothing but
emptiness ahead of me.
But this house stood solid and whole like a sign of hope. I
trudged my way up the narrow dirt drive and saw a pair of sleepy
dogs resting on the porch. I could hear a television and the sound
of a child laughing
Please? I knocked at the door. Is there anyone there?
I almost fainted at the sight of her. A tiny, grey-haired woman
opened the screen door and caught hold of my arm. The delicious
smell of cooking made me lightheaded, and I leaned against the
doorframe. The womans face began to swim in front of my eyes
and I felt my knees start to buckle underneath me Oh,
heavens, I heard her cry out. I need some help

I LOVE YOU , M AGGIE , J OE SAID , AS HIS BODY MOVED AGAINST MINE . M Y


flesh was hot and I could feel trickles of moisture running down
my sides and soaking the bed underneath me. His cock was
inside me and he was moving in and out in and out He held
my face between his hands and filled me and emptied me
filled me and emptied me
I found you? I asked him, as I felt the deep, humming energy
building inside me. The rhythm of his thrusts made me dizzy
we seemed to be weightless moving
I was never gone, Maggie, he answered back. His voice was
warm and his breath hot against my ear. He reached one hand
down between my breasts and put his hot palm in the center of
my chest. Ive been here all along right here I never left
you, my love. I never could
I felt his cock swelling inside my tender flesh. He was deep and
hard heating from inside until I threatened to burst. Can you
feel me? he whispered. When I do this? He thrust inside,
stopping my breath. When I do this?
His cock churned inside me, and my lips clenched to hold him.
Every muscle in my body seemed to burn with the need to hold
him. Every time he filled me, I touched the limit of pleasure and
pain every time he withdrew, I ached with emptiness and loss.
I rode the movement of his body as he pushed me closer and
closer to the edge. I felt my flesh as it dissolved and became part
of him I reached out to touch him, and never let him go
Always, Maggie, he whispered. Always
Together we exploded in a fury of love and desire. I felt his seed
pump hot and deep. Lightning flashed behind my eyes and I
squeezed them tight. The climax seemed to go on forever, with
wave after wave of heat and pleasure. Our bodies were slick,
drenched with our passion. Every pulse of his come seemed to
heat my body I was burning burning wet with sweat
... Joe, I gasped out weakly. My voice seemed so far
away Joe
T HERE , HONEY IT S ALL GONNA BE OKAY

I felt a cool, wet cloth on my aching forehead and struggled to


open my eyes. They ached deep into the back of my skull, and
the daylight burned
Whats your name, honey? the old woman asked. I blinked,
working to focus on her face. She was the woman at the
doorway I remembered
Maggie, I croaked. Where is he?
She lifted my head off the pillow and I felt sweat drip down my
neck. She put a cup to my lips and I drank greedily. My names
Elsie, she said kindly. Bill went for the doctor again as soon as
your fever started to spike. They should be back by evening. She
patted my shoulder soothingly. Looks like you got caught in the
storm, too. She clucked her tongue. Poor old Docs never made
two trips in less than a day. But I think youre past the worst of it
now. She rested the cool, papery skin of her hand on my
forehead. I think its broken now.
She pulled a dry sheet over my damp, cooling body. I was dressed
only in my underthings. She tucked it around my shoulders as I
began to shiver. Ive got soup on the stove, honey. You need it
to get your strength back. She gave me such a kind look, I could
feel the tears sting at the back of my eyes. Ill just be a minute,
honey I promise Ill be right back.
As she left the room, I rolled onto my side and curled into a tight,
painful ball. For a moment, I was numb. My feelings and
thoughts seemed to float up above me somehow They lingered
a second longer and came crashing down all at once. The tears
came flooding out, in a wave of pain and anguish that promised
no end. The sound of my own racking sobs filled my ears the
sound of a heart breaking a heart wrenched in two
I was alive but I was alone. Joe was gone
and it was more than I could ever hope to bear.
34
JOE

T HE LAST THING I saw was her. And she was the only thing I
remembered when I first woke up. She was the strongest
memory I had.
I rolled over in bed and winced. The doctor had done a good job
stitching the jagged gash on my arm. It was my head he was
worried about. Hell so was I.
My feet had left the ground, that much I knew. For how long and
how far? I doubted I would ever know for sure. But the storm
had dropped me gently enough that my arm and a bruised
forehead were the worst of my injuries. The doctor had told me
to stay in bed for a few days, but it was the man who had found
me and brought me into his home who had kept me there.
Hey, Joe, Gus said, coming in with a tray. You look like you
might make it after all.
He put the tray down and the scent of chicken soup filled the air.
He sat down in the chair next to the bed and eyed me hard. You
aint thinkin a leaving again? Not been a single day yet, and
you spent most of the night thrashin and callin out. He ran a
hand over his bald pate. Hell of a storm, that. It blew almost a
damned mile wide, and didnt so much as lift one of my hens off
her nest. Damned miracle, you lived.
I put the tray aside and sat up, swinging my legs over the edge of
the bed. Dark splotches swam in front of me and the room
tipped on its side
You just lay your behind back down there, boy, Gus said,
putting a firm hand on my shoulder. Docs comin out again this
evenin And you aint getting past me nor the missus. You
have some of that soup or youll hear about it, I promise
Sent the boy to town hell tell your people where to find you.
He nodded kindly, wrinkles lining his leathery face. Then he
closed the door firmly behind him.
I waited until his footsteps fell silent on the stairs. Then I pushed
myself upright again, waiting for the wave of vertigo to pass. I
focused on the dresser across from the window. My clothes were
washed and neatly folded waiting for me
All through the night, the vision of Maggies face had haunted
me. To the point of madness, Id dreamed of her her lovely
face disappearing in the darkness. Id dreamed of her voice,
calling to me. Even as the morning light had broken, Id
imagined I could hear her far in the distance and calling
my name
I slipped into my jeans, pushed bare feet into my boots, and
grunted with the effort to pull on my shirt. For a moment I
stood, waiting for the shifting room to settle around me.
Rescue crews had most likely already found her. Dean would
have headed for the farmhouse himself as soon as news of the
storm had reached him. I knew in my gut Maggie was safe. I
knew it because it had to be true But I also knew Id never rest
until I held her in my arms again. Even fully awake no longer
dreaming, I could still hear her. Maybe it was the injury to my
head, an auditory delusion But whatever it might cost, I would
find her
I worked my way slowly down the creaking stairs, careful not to
bring old Gus rushing back to my side. My room had been on the
top floor by the time I reached the second, the rushing sound
in my ears had changed. It sounded like a woman sobbing her
heart broken beyond all healing
I knew the sound wasnt real. All through the night Id heard
phantom voices and seen flashes of color and light in the pitch
black darkness. But my feet carried me of their own accord, down
the end of the hallway. And it seemed as if the sound grew
louder, and its tenor reached deep inside my chest and pulled me
ever closer
I stopped, resting my aching forehead against the door.
Hallucination or not, the sound was loudest here. I turned the
glass doorknob and half fell, half stumbled into the room.
35
MAGGIE

I FELT strong hands lifting me up, cradling me tenderly. I


squeezed my swollen eyes tight and sobbed all the harder. For a
second, I thought those arms felt like Joes I could almost
catch the scent of him
Maggie, he groaned
Words Id never thought to hear again sweet and anguished
and full of love I opened my eyes and felt my chest fill with air
again. Maggie my darling my heart
He collapsed onto the bed, half beside me, half on top of me. He
moaned my name as if in a delirium, but his eyes were clear,
bright and blue He looked at me, desperate, and crushed me to
his chest.
I thought I was mad, he said harshly, his lips ravenously
taking mine. I met him with a passion that matched his own. I
tangled my limbs with his
You were gone, I gasped out against his hot mouth. I
searched
I thought you were dead You saved us all and I thought I had
lost you
He leaned his face into the softness of my breasts, and I cradled
him. I was lost, until now, he answered. He reached his
hands under the sheets and ran them over my flesh, as if to
reassure himself I was real. I pushed his shirt open and pressed
my face against his muscled chest
There were a thousand questions how and why But as I
listened to the steady beat of his heart, none of them mattered.
I love you, he said softly. From that last moment until the
storm took me I could hear you, sweetheart. I could feel you.
I followed you as soon as I could, I said, stroking the hair back
from his eyes. I didnt know where to start I just knew I had to
find you.
Youre the most obstinate and maddening woman Ive ever
met, Maggie. I dont think youve ever met a line you didnt have
to cross. His voice was broken and harsh. You could have
gotten yourself killed
He reached down and slipped off my underthings. Then he
shifted to strip off his jeans and shirt. But I need it all,
sweetheart. He pulled me to him with that familiar sizzle of
flesh on bare flesh. I need your skin your maddening,
delicious skin. He cupped my ass and used the curve of my belly
to cradle his cock.
You need to rest, I argued, pushing uselessly at his chest, even
as my body responded. Youre hurt this isnt the time I
touched the bandage on his arm.
He chuckled softly as his mouth tasted the hollow of my throat
the curve of my shoulder
Ahhh no Thats where youre wrong He licked at the
skin underneath my breast and moved slowly upwards He
looked in my eyes and my skin tightened tingled. A very wise
woman told me there is no perfect moment. Theres only now.
He teased my nipple with his rough thumb. And I plan to be
ever so gentle
He touched every inch of my skin tenderly, exploring as he
moved, finding every tiny mark and bruise. He kissed them all,
one at a time, making sure he didnt hurt me. He dragged his lips
between my breasts and down my belly he flicked his tongue
over the top of my mound, spreading my lips with his fingers
He enveloped my clit with his mouth, his tongue he let my
pussy lips close around his lips and he rocked his head back and
forth. His tongue pushed on me, creating the friction I needed so
badly. And his lips sealed against mine formed a suction that left
me aching for the heat of his cock. It pounded against my leg
impatiently as he took his sweet time, making easy circles
against me until I was frantic with desire. I reached down and
took his girth in my hand, pumping his length
Fair is fair, I thought darkly. I gathered his dripping slickness in
the palm of my hand and spread it over the velvet head of his
cock. Two more strokes and his entire length was slippery. I
pushed him to the very edge as he pushed back. We battled
bravely, each secure in our own approaching victory
By the time he touched the tip of my clit with the head of his
cock, I was so sensitive and desperate, I spread my legs wide and
lifted my hips. He groaned as he slid his length into me His
mouth was against my ear, his breath harsh and demanding
You didnt answer my question, he said, between long,
deep, maddeningly slow thrusts.
God oh, my God, I moaned as my only response. He was
pulling my climax up and out of me it hovered over me like a
sweet promise. I took his ass in my hands and shuddered as he
drove himself deep
I asked you to marry me, Maggie, he panted with the heat of
his own need. I never heard your answer
God, yes, I gasped into his lips. Only you, I panted. Its
only ever been you
He groaned in pleasure and took the curve of my shoulder in his
teeth. Brilliant sparks of flame ignited behind my eyes, and I felt
his body stiffen. What was gentle before turned into a fury of
hard, driving passion. He took me with every ounce of his
strength and I met him, thrust for thrust, demand for demand.
We drove each other on in a fury, sweat made our bodies slick
and mingled with the slippery gush of my own juices. I felt his
ass tighten his balls were hard against me Maggie, he
called out and I felt his cock stretch my walls beyond
imagining My love
My climax hit, and I felt his cock explode in response. He
pumped his seed inside me, so thick and hot, I could feel it
spilling underneath us. His mouth took my mouth, his chest to
my breasts we drove our hips into a frenzy that burst like
fireworks and lit the whole world. Then a scatter of sparkling
trails spread and trickled down every nerve was alive
tingling and bright And as our breathing finally began to
slow and our bodies to relax the fire eased to a deep and
penetrating warmth. His head rested heavily against my chest
I sighed, complete and the world slipped away
36
JOE

O H , MY HEAVENS !

Cover your eyes, Mother.


I woke to the creak of the door and Guss astonished voice. I
threw the sheet over us and shielded Maggie with my body.
Now I dont know just what in damnation you think youre
doing, he shot me a fierce look from under his bushy grey
brows, but I wont have this under my roof not for one more
minute
Hes my husband, Maggie said gently, peeking out from under
the sheet. You must be Elsies husband. She smiled
beguilingly, appealing to the old woman. This is my husband,
Joe Hes the man I was searching for
Go back downstairs, Elsie, he grumbled, giving her a gentle
push. Gus cleared his throat awkwardly and averted his eyes
politely. Pardon, missus, he apologized with a nod. Mother
told me you were callin out a name all night long. He clucked
his tongue and his eyes brightened. Imagine that The two of
you windin up right here
He suddenly seemed to remember himself, and hurried to close
the door. Just came up to say the doctors here. Your friends,
too. Ill send them up, if youre feelin strong enough.
No, we said in unison. Ill be down shortly, I added, as Gus
closed the door.
If thats Dean downstairs
Then hell be relieved to find you safe and sound, I said, with
more confidence than I felt. He cant possibly think the worst
of the situation when he finds out whats happened.
He will if he finds out everything thats happened, she said,
biting her lip.
Mmmm., I groaned, watching her. Thats my job
I kissed her and took that swollen lip between my own teeth. The
sheet fell away and I crushed her nipples into my chest. I
should go downstairs, I said with difficulty.
Theyre waiting, she agreed. I could go with you
Its better if I go alone, Maggie. Especially if your brothers
here. Theres already a fucking hell of a lot for the two of us to
work through. I could hear voices coming from downstairs.
Let me talk to him
I moved to get out of bed and she pulled me back. One more
kiss, she begged. I feel like I only just got you back Im not
ready to let go
I smiled and kissed her, pushing her body back down on the bed.
I stretched my length over her naked body and felt her lush
curves mold to fit me. She wrapped her arms and legs around
me, holding me tight, and I kissed her, losing myself in the pure
sweet pleasure of loving her.
Any other time, I would have heard the warning signs. Id have
heard the voices growing louder and the footsteps on the
stairs. There might have been enough time, if I hadnt been lost
in the energy building again between us. But I heard nothing but
her voice, nothing but my name on her lips...until it was too late.
The door flew open
...You fucking bastard! Dean stood in the open doorway, his
face was red with fury.
It isnt what you think, Maggie cried out, as he grabbed my
bandaged arm, tearing the stitches underneath and half dragging
me out of bed. Maggie scrambled to cover herself as Dean shot
daggers with his eyes.
I asked her to marry me, Dean. You have to know that I love
her. Id give my life for her
His fist shot out and caught me hard in the jaw. I stood naked
and bleeding, but unwilling to strike back. He was my friend, and
I understood his anger.
The people downstairs said youre already married, he spat
out. How many more lies have you told, Joe? I trusted you to
keep her safe, and I find you here like this
Get the fuck out of my sight, he ground out. So fucking help
me if you ever lay so much as a finger on Maggie again
He saved my life, Dean, Maggie said angrily, clutching the
sheet up to her chin. He asked me to marry him and Im going
to. Hes the only reason Im alive right now the Walkers, too.
Did you find them? Are they all right?
Theyre fine, he said through gritted teeth. Get dressed,
Maggie. The doctor is going to make sure youre all right, too
then Im taking you home.
You can find your own way back, he said to me, gathering up my
clothes from the floor and tossing them at me in a ball. You
fucking stay away from both of us, he said, grabbing my blood-
streaked arm and pulling me into the hallway. He closed the door
against Maggies shrill objections. Get the hell out of my sight.
I dont ever want to lay eyes on you again.
37
MAGGIE

B Y THE TIME Id recovered from being caught naked with Joe, I was
dressed and buckled into Deans rental car like a child. And I was
livid.
Most of the crew had already headed back for home. Only Ryan
and Jackie had come along with Dean. Wed left them behind as
my brother had hustled me into the car.
Youre treating me like a child and youre not listening, I
argued. He didnt take me with him, I went on my own. And
when that storm hit, he was the one who got us all to safety. He
could have been killed, but he took care of us all. You wanted
him to protect me and he did.
I wanted him to keep his goddamned hands off my sister,
Dean shot back as he drove. Hes a decade older than you are,
Maggie. Hes got a whole lifetime of experience on you. He
snorted derisively. Youre a kid out of college.
Did he offer to fund the foundation? he asked.
Hes mentioned it, I replied.
And he doesnt like the risks you take by heading up operations
like this yourself?
He understands how important my work is, I shot back. He
loves me
Hes trying to control you, Maggie, and you dont even see it.
Ive watched him with women for a lot of years. He doesnt bend
to them, honey. They bend to him. Hes lived for TexStar since
he graduated college. Thats where his drive is thats where his
real passion lies.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and looked out the window.
Everything about this was wrong. I should have been driving
back home with Joe. But I was here listening to this
Hell control your foundation, Mags, Dean said more gently.
And hell control you, too. I trusted him not to cross the line
with you and he did it anyway. I dont want you to be hurt,
honey and I think its already too late. Hes got you convinced
that he loves you but its just sex. Youre looking at him as
some kind of hero but hes never stayed with any woman,
Maggie. Hes left every one That grandmother of his would
take his company away before shed allow him to permanently
link their family to ours. We were always the charity kids. He
glanced at me. If it comes down to a choice you know where
hell land.
You cant really believe hed give it all up for you?

W E MADE THE REST OF THE TRIP IN SILENCE . I WAS TOO TIRED TO ARGUE ANY
longer. Deep in my heart, I knew he was wrong. He had to be. It
was Dean who was seeing the circumstances through the eyes of
a child. He couldnt see me as an adult and he refused to see
that people might grow and change over the years.
We reached the cottage long after nightfall. Dean stretched out
on the couch, refusing to leave me alone. I closed the bedroom
door on him and collapsed in utter exhaustion. I needed a
shower, but I settled for stripping off my filthy clothes and
splashing water on my face. I climbed into bed and could smell
the blend of Joes body and mine. What if Dean is right? My
conscience whispered. What if none of it is real?
I was worn too thin, in body and spirit, to fight off the wave of
fear that washed over me. In the darkness, it grew like the
childhood monster hiding in the closet
If Joe had been beside me, I could have leaned on his strength,
borrowed his courage. But as tired as I was, sleep wouldnt come.
The years of our history flew past in my mind. Joe and I had
spent so many years apart And as close as wed gotten since Id
been home, Dean was the one who had been his friend and at
his side for the last four years
Nothing in my gut told me Joe was that guy. The one who cant
resist taking what a girl shows up offering
But Id thrown myself at him. Pretty shamelessly, as I
remembered. I felt my cheeks burn with the memory. Id fallen
in love with the man Id remembered how could I be sure I
even knew the man he was today? Id been a virgin, throwing
myself into the arms of a memory. It had happened so fast, and
Id been so sure he would feel the same Who could blame him
for responding and giving me what Id begged him for? Jackies
crude words of wisdom came back, ringing in my ears Their
brains and their dicks often dont share clear lines of
communication
Wed been caught together in the most extraordinary
circumstances. It would hardly be the first time love and desire
had tangled in a snarl of confusion. Maybe what we shared was
just the kind of thing that happens between two people, under
desperate circumstances
I turned over and buried my face in the hot pillow. My heart was
screaming to be heard, telling me all my fears were wrong. But
the truth was, my fears were growing Id never had a real
relationship with a man before any man
How could I possibly know for sure what was truly real?
38
JOE

S HE HEADED OUT INTO THIS on foot...? Jackie surveyed the broken


landscape out the van window. How the hell could she have
known where to even begin looking? Ryan was quiet as he
drove.
I dont know, I answered. But we ended up in the same place,
only hours apart I shook my head and leaned my forehead
against the air conditioned glass. She never should have been
out here in the first place. Dean fucking ordered her not to and
she came along anyway. I should have stopped her. Willful is one
thing reckless is another
Maggie wants to save the whole world, Ryan said, looking over
at me. She always has. Just like shes always loved you.
I caught his eye. You know, I always thought the two of you
were the ones whod end up together. You seemed so
comfortable you had so much more in common
Ryan smiled. Not so much as youd think. Mostly, it was just
you. He looked back to the road.
It wasnt easy, growing up under the weight of the Decker
empire, he sighed. Dad, before he died then Grandma
Bess We grew up with a narrow set of rules and a wide set of
expectations, Joe. There were things I didnt feel like I could tell
a soul, but her. She got me through some awful times, growing
up. She was my friend But you were always the only man
for her.
I asked her to marry me, I said. I want that more than
anything Ive ever wanted in my life. But the look on her
brothers face when he saw us the betrayal in his eyes My
bandaged arm throbbed with my heartbeat. I dont think hell
ever fucking forgive me. I could live with that if I had to, but I
could never live with coming between Maggie and the only
family shes got left. They were just finding each other again
Dean will forgive Maggie, Jackie piped up from the back seat.
And whether he realizes it yet or not, it isnt his decision how
two grown people live their lives.
Its not just Dean, Ryan added. You know how Bess always
felt about the Blakes living in the guesthouse. She and Dad
spent the last part of his life going at each other about it. Shes
always used TexStar as a bargaining chip a way to have and
maintain total control over all of us. But she never won the Blake
battle with Dad. Even after his death He made her sign legal
papers to allow Dean and Maggie to stay on after their father
died. He shot me a look thick with meaning. Shell take
everything if you cross her on this. The money, the company
everything. She resented those two kids from the beginning, and
if you marry Maggie
Bess will have the retribution she always wanted, one way or
another. I know Maggie loves you, Joe. She has her whole life.
And youre a damned fool who doesnt deserve her, if you dont
love her back. But there will be a price to pay. And youd better
make goddamned sure youre willing to pay it before you put
Maggies heart on the line. Because if you hurt her, Dean wont
be your only concern. Youll have to answer to me, too.
I DRAGGED MYSELF UP THE STAIRS TO MY ROOM , ACHING FROM HEAD TO TOE .
Id seen Deans rental in front of the cottage and I knew he was
there. Like a watchdog keeping danger at bay.
I ached for a shower, but settled for running a hot bath. My arm
was throbbing painfully, and the doctor had warned me to keep
the bandages dry.
I settled in and turned on the water jets. Leaning back, I let the
water pound against my back. I dipped my head and let the water
stream from my hair. Slowly, my muscles began to unknot and I
relaxed into the heat. The last few days had felt like an entire
lifetime. I ran one hand over my gritty chest.
The immaculate house looked just as Id left it. The maid had
straightened my room and made up the bed with fresh linens.
The bath towels were perfectly folded and the suits in my closet
perfectly pressed. Id lived my whole tidy life in a perfect routine
of organization and efficiency. Nothing had ever challenged that
routine, and nothing had ever changed Not in thirty-three
years Not until Maggie
I ran my hand down to my cock. It was hard, pummeled by the
bubbling water and my memories of her. Never in my life had I
met a woman who challenged me, maddened me, pushed me
loved me the way she did. I knew in my gut, there had never
been a choice. The moment Id seen her, the second Id touched
her, Id known there was nothing I wouldnt give for more.
Now that Id found her, Id never risk losing her again
From now on, the risks would all be mine.
39
MAGGIE

G ET OUT , I said irritably. You have a class to teach with Jackie,


not a babysitting job here with me. I handed Dean a mug of
coffee and aimed him toward the door.
Did you at least think about what I said? he asked, casting me
a doubtful glance. Obviously, youre going to do what you want,
but think about it. He smiled a concerned smile. Joe has a lot
to lose. So do you.
I love you for caring, I said sincerely. Ive got a lot on my
plate right now
Just give yourselves a little space, he said. Let the dust
settle. He headed for the car. I love you, Mags. Believe it or
not, Im here for you.
I nodded and waved, watching the car roll off. It was early still,
but the day was already stifling hot. There was a childrens
outreach event scheduled for the afternoon near Waco. Wed be
giving out clothing and school supplies. Jackie had arranged for a
free immunization clinic and food boxes for those most in need.
For a country so wealthy, the needs out there were still
staggering. It was hard to believe, without seeing it for yourself.
I stuffed the remains of the last stale donut in my mouth and
shot an eye at the clock. If I hurried, I had time for the shower I
hadnt had last night. The lack of sleep? Well, that would have
to work itself out. All in all, I was grateful to have a long drive
and a busy day ahead of me. Thinking was the last thing I needed
right now. I needed work good hard work and a concrete sense
of accomplishment. I stripped off my cotton nightgown, lifted
the handle, and stepped under the flood of cold water.
I shampooed my hair within an inch of its life, but lathered and
rinsed the rest of my body quickly. All my tender places were still
very sore and even the touch of my own hands reminded me of
his. It had only been yesterday
I dried off brusquely and dressed in jeans and a pink cotton tee. I
brushed out my hair and twisted it up onto the back of my head
and clipped it into place. Long soft strands were already escaping
in the heat and curling around my face.
I made a few fast phone calls and poured the last of the coffee
into a travel mug. Hesitating at the door, I went back to grab a
nice business jacket. What harm was there in looking the part?
Maggie?
My heart stopped at the sound of his voice. I knew wed have to
talk at some point, but
Joe. I opened the screen door and he smiled.
You look lovely, he said, his voice deep, his eyes sparkling
sensuously. I felt my heart quicken its pace.
I was just heading out, I said awkwardly. Weve got an event
today I cant be late.
We need to talk, Maggie. A hell of a lot has happened between
us, and whether we like it or not, it involves other people, too.
Theres so much I need to say
Part of me wanted to forget the day forget my responsibilities.
We did need to talk But I was afraid of what he might tell me.
Ill be back late, I said, unable to meet his eyes. We could
meet tomorrow morning, I offered.
Or I could come with you, he said, smiling again, in his
irresistible way. Give me three minutes and Ill be back with my
gear. Ill get some more photos for my story, and you can hear
me out.
Ive got a proposition to make.

C OMPLETE FUNDING ? T HE WORDS CAUGHT IN MY THROAT . Y OU RE


offering me full funding for RemedAid? I took a deep, cleansing
breath and gripped the wheel a little tighter.
Not just limited to Texas. Not even the U.S. Im offering you
the chance to make your foundation international, if you like.
The Decker money, I whispered.
Ive seen what youre capable of, Maggie. Up close in
person. He put a warm hand on my thigh, and the sensation
shot all the way up. If theres anyone who can make a real
difference, its you, sweetheart.
All the years I spent in an office, managing the news, growing
the business I lost track of the passion behind it all. I forgot
what it feels like, to have a vision. You gave that back to me,
Maggie. He reached up and tangled a finger in one loose curl. I
love you
He traced the line of my neck with his fingertip down my
arm he took my hand and held it, captured in his lap. I
promised you a lifetime of tomorrows and I meant it. All of it
Every touch, every word every second between us was real, and
I cant live without that. I wont
The sense of relief and happiness that flooded me left me giddy
and breathless. I pulled off the road
Maggie, he moaned, as I threw myself into his arms. I dont
want to be apart again, not for a single night of our lives
Theres so much ahead of us He kissed me until my whole
body burned with need. I wont ever let you go
I was afraid it couldnt be real, I admitted, looking into his
eyes. Dean was so angry he almost made me believe
That I couldnt see you, Maggie? he asked gently. That I just
wanted your body without really seeing and loving the amazing
woman youve become? He caressed my face, my lips my
body all of me, like he was touching me for the very first time.
Im not a kid anymore, he said softly. And you are wiser than
you may ever know, sweetheart. I love you all of you. And
theres nothing I wouldnt do for you.
I traced the line of his strong jaw and sighed deeply. What if
wanting me means losing your company? I asked. You would
be risking everything by crossing your grandmother. Even if
Dean eventually came around, she never would And she has a
great deal of power.
Not the power to choose my wife, he answered steadily. Dad
left money behind that even she cant touch. And Ive made
more than a few lucrative investments over the years. He
kissed me again. Theres more than enough to make all our
dreams come true. Your foundation, for you and for me?
Youre all the dream I need
And I still owe you a promise.
40
JOE

C ALL ME OLD - SCHOOL , but I like good old-fashioned film.


I had taken a dozen rolls already and had plenty more in my bag.
There was even a digital camera for backup. But I liked the solid
snap of a shutter.
Less than two miles outside of one of the largest cities in Texas
and the poverty was just astounding. Families had come up from
some of the very poorest areas. Maggie was incredible,
effortlessly in the center of it all. I kneeled, and from a distance,
snapped a shot of her holding a stick-thin child on her lap, as
Jackie peered down the childs throat.
Joe
I looked up. Dean.
You cant be following her around like this, he said. She has
work to do hell, so do you. Im not saying you guys dont have
plenty to sort out. But just give her some space. Shes been
through a hell of a lot in the last few days mostly because of
you She should have the chance to clear her head.
I am working, I said patiently. I started a story and I intend to
finish it. I saw Maggie look over, concern showing on her face.
Can we talk? I took his arm and we walked out into the
heavy, stagnant air.
Shes the love of my life, Dean. This isnt just sex or some brief
infatuation. I saw him blanch at the word sex. I went on
anyway We risked our lives for each other out there, I jerked
my head at the horizon. Because of the bond between us the
love between us
Because I need her more than she could ever possibly need me.
I dont want to lose your friendship over this, I went on as he
watched my face. I hope you can come to accept this to accept
us. Ill be right here, for as long as it takes. But I wont give her
up, not for anything.
And what about TexStar? Are you willing to give that up, too?
He looked down, and peered back up from under his brows
Bess would strip you out of your own company for being seen in
public with a girl of Maggies background A poor kid with a
deadbeat, alcoholic dad.
Nobodys to blame for the past, I said, sitting down under the
thin shade of a mesquite tree. And not every man is always the
man he seems. My own dad taught me that
But yes, Im willing to give up anything for her, as long as I can
keep her safe. Shes given me her whole heart, and Ill love her
until the day I die. But she gave me something else, too.
Something thats been missing for a long time.
What? Dean asked gently.
Purpose, I answered.

I SIGHED WITH SATISFACTION AS THE DAY WRAPPED UP . W ATCHING M AGGIE


and her brother work alongside each other without clashing had
felt incredible. Hed given me a look, when we packed up and I
climbed into the drivers seat of her truck. But he hadnt
objected.
Did you get what you came for? she asked, smiling and sinking
into her seat. You looked as busy as I was I expect one hell of
an article.
I laughed at her tone and started the engine. I got it all, Maggie.
Ive got a story planned thatll put the foundation on the map.
What youre doing is incredible.
It almost seems too good to be true, she said, pushing her hair
back. It had come loose hours ago and flowed softly, riotously
around her shoulders. I preferred it like this. Ive dreamed of
expanding into South America, even Africa Theres so much
work just waiting to be done. I hoped but I never really
expected
Are you ready to head a multi-million dollar organization? I
asked. What I have of the Decker fortune is yours. And Ill be at
your disposal, too, you know Every inch of me
She wiggled her brows at me, teasingly. That much, she
breathed. No fair distracting the
executive director. At least not during business hours.
Good thing its getting dark, I replied, catching hold of her
hand and drawing it to my thigh. I have plans that include
after-hours, as well.
She laughed softly and curled against my shoulder. Will you
stay with me tonight?
Dont imagine you could stop me, I answered. After all, I
havent kept that promise yet.
And which one is that? she teased.
That long first night together, I answered. One with no risks,
no storms no fear. I slipped my hand between her warm, soft
thighs. That perfect first time

I PEELED HER CLOTHES OFF AND RAN A FINGER DOWN TO THE TIP OF HER
nipple.
Im not a virgin anymore, she said, almost shyly. There cant
really be a second first time
Mmmm, I know I was there, I growled out softly. But
theres so much to learn about each other so much to explore.
I let my finger blaze a trail downwards There are so many
firsts ahead of us, sweetheart. Well get to all of them
eventually We have a whole lifetime.
I stripped down and pulled her softness against the length of my
body. Id been sore and aching all day, but the second we
touched, it had all disappeared. She was everything
I took my time, exploring every curve, every delicate hollow. Her
skin was like velvet, drawing me in, demanding my touch. Lay
back, I ordered gently. I need the taste of you
I eased her gently on the bed and turned her, so that she rested
on her belly and her breasts. Beautiful, I whispered So
fuckingly beautiful
Her delicate ankles were where I began. Mere touch would never
be enough, I had to find her flesh with my lips Those aching
long legs that had looked delicious from a distance made me
maddeningly hungry. She moaned my name as I tasted the
length of her, coming to a stop at the round, sweet curve of
her ass.
I let my hands roam up her back, curving in above her ass and
widening out into the V of her shoulders. I let my fingers linger
in the hollow of her spine, and then followed it back down to the
cleft of her cheeks. I spread those long legs wide and dipped my
face into her warm center. Reaching deep with my tongue, I
swept her clit in one long, tantalizing lick
God oh, God Joe, she gasped out, writhing on the bed as
I took my fill. Then I turned her so I could see the look in those
dark, deep eyes.
Tell me what you need, sweetheart, I crooned softly. I can
see it in your eyes but I want you to tell me
You, she moaned, and she took my thick, stiff cock in her
hands. I need to suck you
She pushed me back, turning the tables and making my aching
cock even harder. She held me by the base and I shuddered hard
from the power in her hands. Then she dropped taking my
cock deep in her throat, punishing me with her tongue. I felt her
squeeze the first slippery drops of fluid from me, and she
responded like a wildfire. She arched and sucked, driving me
almost to the edge
Maggie, I gasped, holding her back, willing her to slow
herself. Sweet, hungry girl
Youre mouth isnt all that needs feeding
I drew her up by the hips, sinking my fingers into her flesh and
spreading her wide open. Fuck me back, I demanded.
She dropped down, straddling my shaft and swallowing it
greedily. The sound she made had me close to coming I bit into
my lip as she rocked her clit against my base and churned her
tight walls against my shaft. I held my breath until she was
gasping and I was almost beyond control.
I leaned up, moving over her and rolling her onto her back. Her
legs wrapped around my back and I dipped my face to her
breasts I moved slowly at first, working her in long, full
strokes. But the ragged sound of her breathing pushed me
faster I could feel her climax building like a tidal wave and I
drove her on shifting my hips so my cock worked her inside
and out. Together we climbed and together we came, giving and
taking struggling, yielding
41
MAGGIE

S O , WHAT DO YOU THINK ?

My footsteps echoed in the huge empty space. Joe had brought


me here, his hand over my eyes until the elevator doors had
opened.
Youll have to use your imagination, he said, drawing me over
to the expansive glass windows. The view was amazing from this
height. Weve got the entire floor, he added, his excitement
obvious. This half will be the publication Your foundation will
have this entire space, he swept his hand wide. Side by side.
Were going to make one hell of a team.
Over the last few weeks, Joe had worked with a drive that had
exceeded my own. From the ground up, he was building a news
organization all his own, entirely independent from the Decker
family influence. It would focus almost exclusively on increasing
awareness of worldwide hunger and disease; he had named it
Hands On Deck. Word was already out, mostly from the front
page features hed run on RemedAids efforts. Donations and
volunteers had been pouring in to both organizations ever since.
I can hardly believe it, I said, my breath coming in shallow
pants. Its so much so quickly I threw my arms around his
neck and he kissed me soundly.
Im thinking your desk over here, he pointed to a lovely
corner office with walls of old red brick framing and tall glass
panels. And me over here, he walked me about a dozen feet
away. I want my muse close you know, for inspiration.
I laughed and curled against his chest. You should take the
corner, Joe. Its bigger more private. I wont be around enough
to get much use out of it.
He leaned back and looked down at me. Youll be spending
more time here than you think, Maggie. It takes a hell of a lot of
desk time to run a foundation like yours. Just organizing your
workers alone
Im not going to be organizing them, Joe. Im going to be one of
them. Im putting a staff together to handle the business end.
Im going to be out there, hands-on, just the way Ive
always been.
You cant head something this immense from the field,
sweetheart. Not when youre sending people halfway around the
world on an assignment
Then Im going with them, I shot back. How can I lead the
way, if Im not there, Joe? And how can I ask them to take time
away from their own lives and their own loved ones, if Im not
willing to do the same?
Damn it, Maggie, he raked his hand over his head and
scrubbed the back of his neck. Do you have any idea how close a
fucking call that tornado was? If you think Im letting you fly off
to third world countries without
Let me? I snapped, cutting him off. Let me?
I shook my head and pulled away. You know how I feel about
my work. This is what I do its who I am. I thought thats what
you fell in love with. I stared up into his eyes as he
frowned down.
Headstrong and reckless, he said, nodding darkly. He took a
deep breath and let it out. Im sorry, sweetheart. But you have
no idea of the risks out there. Some of the areas youre looking to
serve are fucking war zones, Maggie. People with a hell of a lot
more experience than you have are injured or killed every day. I
had an assignment in Afghanistan before Dad died. There are
things out there that no one should ever see. He took my face
gently in his hands. Youre twenty-two years old
Part of me knew he was right something deep down inside. I
knew I didnt have the experience, but I also knew that if I didnt
follow the path Id set in front of me, that I never would. A life
without some risk was a life that had never been fully lived.
I set my lips into a grim line as Deans warning flashed through
my mind
Hell control the foundation, Mags and hell control you.

I DON T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT THE MONEY , M AGGIE .


The argument had lasted the entire way home. Well, it matters
to me, I muttered back. I dont want it, if its just a tool to
control me. Ill find my own funding just like I always have. I
slammed the guest house door behind me.
Youre being childish, he retorted, making me bristle all the
more. To refuse my help means taking life-saving assistance
out of the hands of those who need it most. This isnt about
pride. Not mine and not yours. Its about doing the best we can,
in the safest way possible. I dont want any of the volunteers in
danger, sweetheart. But youre the only one I love. The only one I
cant take the chance of losing
I shook my head, my arms wrapped tightly around me. I dont
want to lose you either, Joe. But I need you to believe in me. Not
just my work, but me. I love you for loving me, but I dont need
rescuing anymore. This only works if you can see me as your
partner your equal
And what about us, Maggie? he asked gently. We have so
much history between us. And so much future ahead. Marriage
and a family of our own to protect. He reached out and put his
arms around me. He lifted my chin and made me meet his eyes.
Sometimes I wonder if Im the one who isnt entirely equal. I
know you didnt need me to rescue you, Maggie. But Im damned
glad I was there. I dont ever want to wonder if youre safe again.
You have so much spirit inside you So much courage.
I want you to stay with me, Maggie.
I want you to trust me, Joe.

WE ENDED IN STALEMATE .

Joe went back up to the main house after I shook my head,


refusing his offer of continued and generous funding. I tossed
under the hot sheets for a few hours and finally gave up. I went
out to sit on the porch, praying for even the hint of a cooling
breeze in the night air. As much as I hated to admit it, I knew Joe
was right. Well at least in part.
I was behaving childishly, especially by refusing his offer to help.
And he was right. Every dollar I turned away came directly out of
the mouth of a hungry child. I wanted a life with Joe, and a
family of our own someday. With babies to care for, I knew I
would be just as fiercely protective as he. I could hardly fault him
for that
I walked out to the old swing, my feet bare in the long grass, and
sat in the old wooden seat. I stared at the sky as I moved gently,
back and forth. So many memories flooded my mind I couldnt
imagine a life without him. Hed been the most important
person in my life for as long as I could remember. And I couldnt
accept the idea that I might have to make a choice. My work was
my purpose, but Joe was my life
I couldnt begin to imagine a future in which Id have to turn my
back on either one.
42
JOE

B Y THREE A . M ., Id given up. I climbed into the car and headed for
the offices at TexStar. Bess might have had her suspicions about
Maggie and me, but she hadnt stripped me of my title just yet. I
still had my privileges
I unlocked the dark room adjoining my office. Id had my private
washroom converted when Id first taken over as executive
editor. Developing film was an archaic art, but the hands-on
work soothed me somehow.
I took out a handful of undeveloped rolls of film, setting out
paper and chemical baths. There were machines out there that
could do most of the work on their own, but I liked handling each
part of the process myself. There was satisfaction in the feel of
the glossy paper in my hands, the mystery of watching the
images form like magic Several hours later, I had dozens of
black and white photos hung out on a thin line to dry. There were
pictures of Dean and Jackie, working side by side and smiling.
Candid shots of Ryan and Henry talking to a concerned-looking
mother. But mostly it was Maggies face that stared out at me.
Crisp and striking she took my breath away.
Maggie, looking lean and elegant in jeans and a v-neck tee.
Another with her hair tied up, businesslike and confident.
Maggie with a group of children, smiling and tossing her head.
Another, as she listened compassionately to a care-worn old
woman with tears shining in her eyes
Soon the tiny room was filled, crisscrossed with drying
photographs. Their edges curled, but the images were crystal
clear. Maggie filled the room the way she filled my heart. She
was everywhere I looked
I sat staring for a long, long time as the wise words of an old
college professor came back to me. Hed taught journalism for
decades and Id looked up to him, perhaps even more than I did
my own father
Theres power in every photograph you take, hed said. You dont
have the luxury of forgetting that power, not even for a single
second
What youre capturing is a unique, irreplaceable moment of life,
one that will live on for decades, if not centuries to come. The
right photograph can help people see the mundane world around
them in a whole new light, allow them to understand what they
see for the very first time In a sense,
its like giving sight to the blind

A S SOON AS THE PHOTOGRAPHS WERE DRY , I GATHERED THEM UP AND


tucked them flat into my briefcase. One fast glance around the
room, and I locked the door behind me and headed out. With any
luck, I could get back to the cottage before Maggie was even
awake. There was something I had to tell her something I had
to show her and it damned well wouldnt wait. I headed out for
the car. I pulled out my cell as I walked, and tapped the screen.
Joseph? Bess answered. Its about time you called. She
began to complain in a long, breathless stretch. You leave your
responsibilities and go off chasing storms, like a junior
reporter I was beginning to wonder if you were still in one
piece. There was a big one that hit, up that direction
Im fine, Grandmother. All of us are, I cut her off gently. We
have a lot to discuss and I wondered if youre free this evening.
I have something I need to tell you
I ground the engine and the tires squealed, echoing in the dim
parking garage. Then I hit the gas hard and headed for the
cottage.
I didnt want an all-out confrontation. But if it was the only
way I was all in.

I DON T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOU , J ACKIE SAID . I HAVEN T HEARD


from her today. I know she planned to get together with Ryan at
some point. He and Dean went over to the warehouse to pack up
donations. But she hasnt been by here. She looked at me and
smiled, draping her stethoscope around her neck. Shes not
always easy, is she?
No but fuck, neither am I, I answered. Jackie led me away
from the clinic and into a more private corner. People waited
patiently in a long line out the door. I thought I could catch her
before she left this morning, but she wasnt home. And the truck
was gone.
Blood pressures and vaccines today, she sighed. No matter
how many people you see, the lines never seem to end
Coffee? she offered. I shook my head.
So, spill, she said. You have that trouble-in-paradise look all
over you. Were you an ass, or did Maggie go mule on you?
I laughed at her bluntness, in spite of all my concerns. Some of
both, I guess, I answered. Shes refusing my donations to the
foundation. Shes afraid I dont trust her to take care of herself,
to make her own decisions like Im trying to control her.
Are you? Jackie asked quietly, tilting her head perceptively.
I dont want her to put herself in danger again, I said,
honestly. Theres so much work she can do right here, and
more than enough just organizing daily operations But shes
determined to keep working in the field, no matter the cost. I
intend to marry her, Jackie. Isnt it my job to keep her safe?
Is it, Joe? she asked. Its none of my business, telling people
how to live their lives. Me, least of anyone. But let me ask
you this
Is it the woman Maggie is, right now, that you fell in love with
or the woman you want her to be? She looked at me kindly.
Can you be sure youll still love her, if you try to change the
very essence of who she is?

S ORRY , R YAN SAID . S HE SAID SHE D BE BY AT SOME POINT , BUT WE


havent heard from her yet. I listened as my call went to her
voicemail again, and shoved the phone into my pocket.
Dean looked up over a stack of boxes at the back of the
warehouse. Who?... Hey, Joe Please tell me youre here to
lend a hand
Im trying to find Maggie, I said. Shes not answering
her cell.
Is she with Jackie? Theyre supposed to be over at the
auditorium today
I tried the clinic. They havent heard from her either. I paced
impatiently. We had a disagreement last night
You mean you had a fight, Dean said with an understanding
smile. Nobody has just a disagreement with my sister.
What happened? Ryan asked, his brow furrowed.
It was over the funding, I admitted. And my own goddamned
failure to recognize what it was she really needed from me all
along. I looked at my brother pleadingly.
I remember she used to disappear sometimes when she was
little, I said. When her dad was drunk and she was afraid I
stared hard into Ryans face. You were her closest friend if
you have any idea, Im begging you I have to talk to her.
I havent been there for years Its not far from the cottage,
he answered gently. We both went there sometimes when we
were kids, when it felt like no one really understood I can take
you Henry came around the corner and stood next to Ryan.
Well all go, Dean said. There are several miles of woods
behind the house. We can spread out and cover more ground.
Well find her, Joe. Itll be all right. You two are gonna be all
right.
He clapped me on the back and nodded.
I gripped his hand, and smiled back gratefully.
43
JOE

I T WAS ALREADY LATE in the day by the time we made it back to the
cottage. One fast phone call and Jackie had met us there, too.
Shes gonna be pissed as hell, with an entire search party
coming after her, she said, taking the flashlight I handed her.
Wed better pray she really needs finding, because if she
doesnt were all fucked.
Dean laughed, and leaned in to brush her shoulder with his.
Youre right there, he said. But its not like her to be out of
touch for this long. I dont see that we have any choice.
Ryan and I headed off straight down the sloping hill into the
thickest part of woods. Dean and Jackie went left and Henry
would come around from the right.
Theres a shallow rock cave near a cluster of old oaks, down at
the bottom, about a mile or so in. Ryan pointed in the fading
light. By the time we reach it, someone should have
found her.
We separated as the last of the light fled.

M AGGIE ! I CALLED OUT AGAIN . M AGGIE


If shes inside the cave, she probably wont hear you, Ryan
said. We used to hide there when Maggies dad was drunk and
in one of his tempers. He never found us but we never heard
him coming either. Wed both jump out of our skins when we
saw him heading right on past us.
I cant believe I was lucky enough to find her again, and thick-
skulled enough to risk losing her. I couldnt let go of feeling
responsible Hell, I still cant. I just hope shell give me the
chance to make it right
If anythings happened to her, I crashed noisily through the
fallen leaves with Ryan at my side. I was such a damned fool. I
love her with my whole heart, but I just didnt get it. Not until
this morning. I didnt understand but I do now
What? he asked, catching at my arm for support. Hed
stumbled over a fallen branch in the darkness.
That she doesnt need rescuing and that she never did, I
answered. What she needs from me is my support. For what
she does, for what she wants But most of all, for who she is.

S HE SAT , BLINKING UP AT US AS IF THERE WAS NOTHING AT ALL UNUSUAL


about the circumstances.
Maggie for Gods sake? Dean came scrambling over to us.
What the hell were you thinking? You had us all scared half to
death.
I left a note on the kitchen counter, she said, looking only at
me. The truck wouldnt start, so I had it towed.
You didnt answer your calls, Dean pressed.
She needed some time to herself, I said softly. She nodded up
at me and smiled.
Henry caught up with the rest of us, just as Jackie took Deans
arm. Shes fine, she said soothingly, pulling at him gently.
How bout we give them a little privacy
If you dont mind, I said, without breaking our locked gaze,
Go on up to the main house. Bess and I have some things to
discuss things that involve all of you. Ill be up shortly But I
need to talk to Maggie first.
Dean lingered a moment longer as Jackie leaned up to speak in
his ear. They looked at each other and he nodded finally. The
four of them began to make their way back up the hill, the beams
from their flashlights sweeping and crossing the ground as they
went. I sat down next to Maggie and took her hand in mine.
I love you, Joe, she began. I always have Ive never felt
about anyone the way I feel about you. I lifted her hand up to
my lips and held it there. She was warm, and her skin smelled
green and fresh like the earth. But weve been apart for a long
time. I cant imagine a future without you but I cant give up
who I am
I inhaled deeply, savoring her scent, and the comfort of her
presence beside me. I turned off my flashlight and let the damp
night air surround us. I turned to face her and curved my arms
and legs around her, sheltering her our faces close.
I always cared about you when we were kids, Maggie, but I fell
in love with the woman youve become For a while I couldnt
see that you didnt need me to look out for you anymore. But I
see it now. Youve shaken up my whole world, sweetheart and
I dont want it any other way. I dont want you any other way.
You push me, and you challenge me Ive never felt this kind of
passion in my entire life Ive never seen things so clearly
before
She kissed me, savagely hungrily, and pushed my hands
underneath her and lifted her onto my lap. She gripped my waist
with her legs and pushed her breasts hard against my chest.
I love you so much, Maggie, I groaned between kisses. Id
follow you to the ends of the earth if I had to so long as
youre mine
I belong to you, Joe I always have She pulled back and
looked in my face. Her eyes were so big, so loving. I
always will.
I laid her back in the soft grass, cool and damp with the night air.
I traced the long line of her body, gently with my hands, taking
my time, drinking in her skin. I knew the others were waiting
and there were obstacles yet to face
Let them wait, my heart said. And I covered Maggies strong
and lovely body with my own.
44
MAGGIE

W E CLIMBED BACK up the hill slowly, hand in hand, stopping at the


cottage so I could brush my hair out and change into fresh
clothes.
She wont welcome me there, Joe. I can only imagine how
uncomfortable Dean is right now. I dont see why you want us all
there
He laid back on the bed, watching me change, smiling at the
view. The Blakes and the Deckers are going to be family. Bess
may not like it, but shes going to have to accept it. There are
things shes refused to acknowledge for years, Maggie,
preferring to blind herself to the truth. Whether she likes it or
not, its time she faced it, and that truth involves all of us
You and Dean.
Shell take TexStar away from you. I buttoned my shirt and
reached for my hairbrush.
Will she? he asked, taking it from hand and sweeping it
through my hair. He stood behind me and I felt my skin begin to
tingle all over again.
Shes always tried to keep our families apart, I replied. From
the day your father allowed us to move into the cottage. She only
agreed to allow it because she loved him so much. She was so
proud of how hed saved my dads life during the war So she
accepted it, when he wanted to keep on being the hero. I think
she enjoyed that part. I turned to face him again. Her son
saved us. And now all the Blakes are beholden to her, whether
we like it or not. But Bess has no obligation to like us or to ever
approve of me as your wife Shes going to fight this, Joe.
Any way she can.

W AIT HERE , HE SAID , KISSING ME LIGHTLY AND LEAVING ME STANDING AT


the top of the stairs. I just need a second.
He disappeared behind one of the tall, carved wooden doors. I
could hear voices below us, coming from the enormous living
room. I looked around, feeling nervous and out of place. Id only
been inside the house a dozen or so times in my life. Id always
found it frighteningly large, its opulence intimidating
What is it? I asked, as he came from the room with a small,
worn box under his arm.
Letters my father gave me a long time ago, he answered
simply. He took my arm and we headed downstairs. The voices
grew louder as we approached
Ryan, if you please Im tired and I dont intend to wait any
longer. Whatever Joseph has to say can wait until morning. Now
if youd kindly see these people out
Im here, Grandmother, Joe said, striding into the immense
room. Bess sat, swallowed by the size of her chair like a queen on
a throne. And this wont wait any longer. Its already been far
too long.
Ill speak with you in private, Joseph, she said, lifting her chin
proudly. But I see no reason for the Blake children to be
present Nor the others She cast a disparaging glance
toward Jackie and Henry. They stood close together, holding
their drinks and the ice tinkled nervously.
These are my friends, Bess. And what I have to say involves
them as well as you. The room fell silent, all eyes trained on Joe
expectantly. Im in love with Maggie, he said, turning to look
at me. His eyes sparkled, blue and bright. Ive asked her to
marry me, and shes accepted.
He turned to look at Dean, who straightened and squared his
shoulders. Youre her family, Joe said simply. Im not asking
for your permission, but Id be grateful for your blessing. You
and I have been like family, too for a damned lot of years,
Dean. I dont want that to change. I want to make it official.
Jackie took a breath, paused and stepped up beside Dean. She
looked up, drawing his eyes down to hers. She lifted her brows
with an unspoken question.
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. I drew a quick
breath at the look in their eyes, understanding dawning slowly.
Id never noticed it before, maybe because of the difference in
their ages It was an even greater difference than the one
between me and Joe. Or maybe it was because what might be
obvious, isnt always necessarily clear But I could feel the
strength of the love between them. And Dean put his hand out to
clasp Joes.
I simply wont have it, Bess cried out, her usual composure
shattered. Ive endured a lifetime of that family taking
advantage of the Decker familys generosity. And I suffered it
willingly, in honor of my Daviss memory. I made good on his
efforts at charity, and accepted a drunkard and a coward living
on my grounds. I endured it because your father felt a misguided
sense of responsibility toward the man. But I will not have that
mans blood running through my great-grandchildrens veins.
She stood, holding onto the arm of her chair, breathless from
her effort but fury driving her on
If that is what you choose, Joseph, she said, nodding her head
in my direction without even looking at me, you will be leaving
everything the Decker name has to offer behind. Everything.
Your decision will be quite final, I assure you. She took a deep
breath, her chin jutting forward. I suggest you choose wisely.
Her last words seemed to echo for a moment before the room
fell silent. No one seemed to breathe, and the only sound was the
pounding of my heart.
Ive already chosen, Joe said quietly. He reached inside his
jacket and pulled out a thick, sealed envelope. My resignation,
he said, offering it to Bess with a steady hand. I dont want the
company in fact, I never did. Im a photojournalist, not a CEO.
And Id almost forgotten that
He turned to me and took both my hands in his. When Dad
died, I gave up my own dreams. I inherited a life of routine and
responsibility. I forgot how it felt to live from the heart to
open yourself up to take a chance
He knelt down. I want every day, every tomorrow with you,
Maggie, for the rest of my life, but Ill risk all of them if I have to,
for one more single moment of loving you. Whether were side
by side, or separated by half the world
He reached into his pocket and the ruby he held up flashed like
fire. I looked down, stunned as he slipped it onto my finger.
Sparks of red and violet flared as the diamonds surrounding it
sparkled brilliantly. I looked into the depths of his eyes and the
power of his love. My Joe my only love
my whole world
45
JOE

T HAT RING BELONGED TO MY MOTHER , Bess cried shrilly.


And to my mother, as well, I replied without taking my eyes
off Maggie. Now it belongs to my wife, if youll have me
Ohhh, yes, she whispered as I wrapped her in my arms,
rocking her gently. She tilted her face up to mine. Ill find
someone to take my place at the foundation, she whispered. I
was being selfish and stubborn
I stopped her with my lips, drowning her words and drinking her
sweetness. Time seemed to stand still as if nothing and no one
existed outside of us. No, sweetheart, I said, kissing her
cheek her delicate ear Youll follow your heart, and follow
your dreams. Wherever they take you. I want to be part of your
work, and I want to support you in any way that I can.
I set her gently back so that I could look at her. What point is
there, in power or wealth, if they cant be used in service?
For the advancement and honor of your family name, Bess
retorted, haughtily. Though those ideals seem to be lost upon
you. She swept out of her chair and looked past Maggie, directly
at me. Dont think this is over, she warned. You cant force
me to accept this Youve pushed me too far
I picked up the old box from the table where Id left it. I love
you, Grandmother, I said gently. And Im sorry. I handed it
to her.
Whats this? she demanded.
The truth, I replied.

C ONGRATULATIONS , J ACKIE SAID , BEAMING . W E D ALL WALKED BACK TO


the cottage where the cars were waiting.
Why in Gods name didnt you tell me? Maggie asked, hugging
Jackie tight and giving her a hard, sideways look. You
and Dean?
Im old enough to be his well his older sister, she said
sheepishly. Its only been a few months, and I have no idea
where were headed I guess I was afraid of being judged, she
admitted.
You had a hell of a nerve, I said, giving Dean a thumping
punch in the shoulder. Making me feel like a hypocrite and a
cradle robber.
That would be me, Jackie said, as straightforward as ever.
Dean shifted next to her, and swallowed hard. Dean may take
his time coming around but eventually he recognizes a good
thing when he sees it. They exchanged a look and they both
blushed. Dean took my hand apologetically in his. Take care
of, he began
Take care of each other, he finished. We each clapped a hand
on the others shoulder. It shows How much you love her,
he said. And God knows, you were all shes ever wanted.
He turned to Maggie and they stood, just looking at each other
for moment. Then she threw herself into his arms and he held
her tight. I love you, she said, her voice filled with warmth and
happiness.
I love you, Maggie, Dean said, sitting her back onto her feet
and smiling. I still think youre reckless, he teased. My
brave, reckless little sister
He and Jackie climbed into their car, waving back at us as they
disappeared down the twisting drive. Ryan came up to put a hand
on my shoulder.
I cant tell you how happy I am for you, for both of you, he said
as I turned to face him. I held Maggies hand tightly in mine and
felt the huge ruby twist on her finger. I felt a deep, sweet
tightening inside that she was mine and I was hers
The two of you together, he went on, its how it was always
meant to be. Im not sure Grandmother will ever accept it, but I
want you to know that I do. We hugged each other tight and I
felt my heart flood with love and gratitude.
What was it you gave her? he asked, when I finally let him go.
That old box you said it was the truth?
I nodded and looked up into the night sky. A few thin, grey
clouds stood out against the darkness. I dont think it holds any
secrets she doesnt already know, I answered. She loved Dad
so much she probably knew him better than anyone. But she
blinded herself to his faults to his own problem with
alcohol Ryan looked at me, and looked away. She told
herself for all those years that the Blakes were the ones who
owed us. I shook my head and smiled as Henry came to stand
next to Ryan. She didnt want to see maybe shell never see,
or even look inside that box. We all have our own choices to
make. But I had to offer her the chance
Ryan smiled, and looked over at Henrys kind face. A moment
passed between them, and then Ryan took Henrys hand in his.
He looked back at me, and smiled a nervous smile His eyes
were bright, afraid but hopeful, too. Henry leaned closer and
together they formed a perfect picture. My brother looked
happy, truly happy for the first time It took a second to
register. Like giving sight to the blind the words echoed in
my mind.
I pulled Ryan back into my arms, this time bringing Henry along,
too. By the time we let go, everyones eyes were moist and
Maggie took her turn to give Ryans neck a loving squeeze.
I told you, I heard her whisper in his ear. He blinked and gave
her ear a hard kiss.
Well, it looks like old Bess isnt the only one who couldnt see,
I said softly. Forgive me
Ryan shook his head with relief. Just dont say anything to
Grandmother just yet. Shes already got a lot to adjust to, he
said, smiling widely, his eyes twinkling.
Something tells me its not quite the right moment.
46
MAGGIE

Y OU KNEW ALL ALONG

We were best buddies, Joe, I said. We told each other


everything. I told him when I was seven years old that youd
promised to marry me one day. I reached under his shirt and
eased it over his head. I held up my hand and waggled my fingers
teasingly. The ruby twisted and sparkled. Looks like youre
finally gonna have to hold up your end of the bargain He
pushed me back onto the bed and lifted one foot. He smiled
devilishly and stripped off my boot.
Name the day and the place, he said with a gleam in his eyes
and a challenge in his voice. He pulled off my other boot and I
heard the flatteringly harsh intake of his breath. Next week
next year Tonight? Ill be there, he said, unzipping my jeans
and peeling them down. Have I ever told you how hot you look
in those fucking boots? he growled.
Have you? I asked faintly. He was running his warm, rough
palm up the inside of my calf. Tell me again
I wanted to fuck you right there in the bus station, he said
harshly, and I felt my breasts tingle in response. I wanted to
know how you feel how you taste I wanted to bend you over
and take you right there. He ran his fingers up the curve of my
thigh. My God these legs of yours
I rolled over onto my hands and knees and pushed my hips back
wantonly. Like this? I teased, looking at him over my shoulder
and deepening the curve in the small of my back. You want me
like this?
I spread my knees on the bed and felt my pussy tighten in
anticipation. I watched, feeling my own moisture pool and
finally run down the inside of my leg. He kicked off his own
boots and unbuckled I watched him release his thick, swaying
shaft.
Do you want me deep? he asked. His quiet voice was like
thunder in the distance. Dark and rolling with the hint of
danger underneath. Youll have to take all of me this way,
sweetheart He nudged the head of his cock between my slick
lips and I felt him widen his stance
Last chance, Maggie, he breathed, and I felt the head of his
cock swell against me. I spread my arms out in front of me, my
fingers wide, offering myself like a penitent
Fuck me, I begged.
He filled me in a single thrust, arching his back over mine
holding my hips as he drove his own over and over again. I
braced, refusing to let my body move with the power of his
thrusts. I held on and held still, reveling in the hard slap of his
flesh into mine.
My God, he gasped, grasping my ankles in his hands and
pushing my knees up to my chest. You fucking amazing
woman
He turned me slowly, carefully on his cock, until I was on my
back and he could see the look of hunger in my eyes. He pulled
my ankles up until the backs of my legs rested along his
sweating chest. Then he held me from below, supporting my
hips and my ass, sliding me easily, weightlessly along his shaft.
He shifted one hand between my legs and rubbed circles against
my clit, slowly at first gaining speed as his cock moved faster.
My breasts bounced hard with every thrust He was watching
them move, and the hungry look in his eyes pushed me even
closer to the edge.
Touch them, sweetheart, he ground out, biting into his own
lip and pushing his cock to the limit. He held still for a moment
and I could feel him swelling inside me. Go on, he
demanded, I want to see
I reached up and cupped my own flesh, awkward at first, but
drawing courage from his response. He sucked in a hard breath
and held it, pumping his hips into me in tiny, restrained thrusts.
Like this? My question was soft, barely breaking the silence.
I squeezed until my breasts were high and mounded, the nipples
only inches apart Then I pinched my nipples with my fingers
and thumbs, lengthening them and stretching them up
A second later, he was no longer standing. His chest was on
mine, hard and slick and heavy my legs were pushed up,
resting along my own sides, my own shoulders. I was folded
sharply in two, with my sex tight, exposed and utterly
vulnerable. He buried his face in my neck and I held on as he
drove into me. We breathed the same air, beat the same
heartbeat, matched the same rhythm, thrust for exquisite
thrust. When I gasped and cried his name, he exploded as well,
and the storm hit us together. We rode the pummeling waves of
pleasure, holding on never letting go. We lost ourselves in its
power and in its strength, both finding and creating the meaning
in our love. When we were finally spent, I cradled him in my
arms, stroking his hair as his breathing began to steady.
Tomorrow, I whispered finally. ...I think Ill marry you
tomorrow
The gentle smell of rain filled the air, and a cool breeze blew
softly through the open window.
47
JOE

T HERE S STILL a lot left to do, Maggie, I said, lazily twisting a


strand of her hair around my finger. She smiled, looking sexy
and satisfied, the sheet draped over the curve of her hip.
Jackies got the flowers handled, she said, with a relaxed sigh.
And Ryans handling the classy invitations. She dropped her
cell on the nightstand.
Last minute phone calls I looked at her and lifted an
eyebrow. Are you sure this is what you want? We could put a
fairy tale wedding together in a matter of weeks, sweetheart. I
dont want you looking back and wishing She cut me off with
a kiss, sweet and lingering and damnably tempting
Its not about the wedding, she said. Its about the marriage.
And I cant think of a more perfect place. Cozy and intimate
and right here, where I fell in love with you
I dont expect Bess will trouble herself to walk down the hill, I
said with a sigh. But I suppose if I expect her to accept my
choices, I have to accept hers.
Dean will be here, she said, smiling and running her finger
along my jaw. For now, I think thats victory enough. And Ryan
is bringing Henry. She kissed the tip of my nose.
I still dont understand why he never told me. I shifted onto
my side and propped my head on one hand. Didnt he
trust me?
She pursed her lips and gave me a look. He trusts you, she said
firmly. But he grew up in the same family you did, Joe. He
always felt the same weight of expectation that you did.
Differently, maybe but just as heavily. A few quiet moments
passed, and I drew a line along her brow with the tip of my
finger.
What did you mean when you told Ryan that Bess had blinded
herself to your fathers faults? Maggie put her cool hand on my
chest. What was in that box you gave her?
I cupped her face in my hand and looked deeply into her lovely,
dark eyes and took a breath. Your father wasnt the only one
who had a problem with alcohol, I began. The words felt
uncomfortable against my tongue, but there was relief, too
What he drank was more expensive, I went on, and he
managed to hide it better, under a thin veneer of social
propriety. Your father drank out in the open, Maggie. Mine did it
in boardroom meetings and locked away alone in the library.
They were both alcoholics, sweetheart, but my dad was also a
coward. For all those years, he made us all believe that he was
the one who had come to your fathers rescue. But it was all a lie
from the start
But he gave my family a place to stay He fought Bess to
do it
He wanted to see himself as a hero, Maggie. And he didnt want
anyone to find out the truth. That it was your dad who saved
mine, back during the war. Dad was nothing but a coward and
it was your father who prevented him from deserting and
bringing shame to the grand Decker name.
Dad owed your family far more than he ever actually gave.
And, no matter his faults, your father had enough honor to never
betray his secret. I ran my thumb across Maggies soft, parted
lips. I only found the letters a few months ago. Written years
ago, before you and your family ever moved into this cottage.
Your dad was sober when he wrote them, and I believe he was a
good man It came through in the letters very strongly,
Maggie
That he loved you very much

I NCREDIBLE , J ACKIE
How did you find a string quartet with only a few hours notice?
I looked around the lawns surrounding the cottage. The sun was
just starting to drop in the sky. Magnificent
I had help, she said back, pleased with herself as Dean came
up and curled his arms around her waist. Its the reason Maggie
loves me. Im great in a pinch. Dean whispered in her ear, and
she giggled and blushed.
Truckloads of white flowers had been coming in all afternoon,
and more than a dozen of Maggies coworkers had arrived to
arrange them. The old oak had become the perfect backdrop, and
mounds of blooms were heaped at its base. Long swags of
flowers draped its spreading branches. Even the old wooden
swing had tendrils of white winding its ropes.
Nervous? Dean asked, tucking a bloom into my buttonhole. I
pulled on the back of my jacket and stuck a finger down the
collar of my shirt.
Perfect, I answered dryly. Where the hell is Maggie? She
disappeared hours ago. The guests were already arriving and
beginning to take their seats.
She had a dress to buy, Joe, Jackie shot back. And she got
back twenty minutes ago. No matter how casual she wanted this
to be, a girl still wants to look like a bride on her wedding day.
She gave Dean an exasperated look. Im going to go give her
a hand.
Maggie told me about Dad, Dean said quietly, brushing at my
jacket. It doesnt change how we grew up but it helps
somehow, just to know
He had a hard life and fought lot of battles both inside and
out, I said. But underneath it all, he was an honorable man.
Growing up, you were the one I looked up to, Joe. His dark eyes
were sincere, so much like his sisters. Im sorry for not
accepting for not seeing it sooner. How much you love Maggie.
And how she could never have loved anyone else
But life isnt going to be easy. Maggies a handful on her best
day. Shes going to push the limits, every chance she gets.
I know, I admitted with a smile. I love her and her passion
is part of the reason why. I took Deans palm in mine. After
all, whats life?... without an occasional storm to break
the calm...
I gripped his hand, pulling him to my chest, wrapping our
forearms together in a strong and solid bond. I love you, too,
Dean. Weve always been family we always will be.
I swear it.
Swear it to her, he said, with a smile and a tilt of his head.
...Here comes your bride
48
MAGGIE

T OMORROW S FORECAST : Unseasonably mild, with high clouds and


clear skies.
It had taken most of the afternoon, but it had been worth it to
see the look on his face.
Id buckled to convention, giving in to the salesgirls insistence
on white. The dress Id chosen had long, elegant lace sleeves and
a neckline that swept modestly from one shoulder to the other.
But it was hardly traditional. The skirt was daringly short, edged
with a delicate fringe, and exposed the long length of my legs
And Id found the perfect pair of tiny, white leather boots
Dean took my arm and walked me the last few steps down the
grassy aisle. I stood next to Joe and was rewarded by the tremble
of his lips and the hungry glimmer in his eyes. He looked down
at me and smiled. I saw the tip of his tongue sweep discreetly
across his bottom lip, and it was my turn to tremble
I adore you for those, he whispered lasciviously. His lips
touched the curve of my ear and I felt my knees weaken. Ill
show you later how much I have a little gift for you
I slipped my hand into his and looked around, at all the friends
and family who surrounded us. I turned and gave Jackie a
grateful smile, finding her damp-eyed and smiling, too, next to
my brother. Ryan was at Joes side, looking pleased and proud.
But as the ceremony began, it felt like Joe and I were the only two
people left in the whole world. There was music I could barely
hear words that swept past us in a whisper. Everything that
happened around us seemed soft, and distant. The one real thing
was Joe. He held my hands in his, never letting go. He held my
eyes with his gaze, as if I was all he could see.
A thousand memories of us filled his eyes.
I looked around, at the only home Id ever known, the only man
Id ever wanted. I saw the only future Id ever dreamed of
there, in his strong, beautiful face. He slipped the ring on my
finger and we made our solemn vows. But it was the bond in
our hearts, strengthened by the joining of our bodies, that had
already made us one.
He drew me into his arms and kissed me. And the joy that filled
me was like the very first time

H OURS LATER , AFTER WE D SAID OUR GOODBYES AND WAVED THE LAST OF
the guests away, I collapsed gratefully into his arms. We sat
together on the front porch steps, his legs spread wide, and I
nestled comfortably between them. I rested the back of my head
in the curve of his shoulder and sighed deeply.
He held up my hand and turned it in under the gentle, yellow
porchlight. My ruby sparkled, spitting tiny flames, and the
diamond band glittered cooly beside it. Mrs. Decker, he said
against the side of my head. I like the sound of that.
Blake-Decker, I corrected, butting him gently with my
shoulder. How about Joseph Decker-Blake? I teased.
Hmm Ill have to think on that one, he replied, kissing my
neck and getting to his feet. I almost forgot I have a wedding
present for you. He disappeared inside the screen door.
Bring me another piece of cake? I called out. I looked up and
took a long delicious breath of cool night air. The stars were
finally out, shining like tiny points of celebration in the dark.
The white flowers from the ceremony seemed to light the yard,
as well. Everything had been so beautiful.
He handed me a paper plate with an indulgent smile. What...? I
like cake, I said, as he sat back down beside me. He held a
wide, shallow box in his hands.
For my wife, he said, dipping his finger in my frosting. This
is how I spent our wedding day, while you were out finding those
fucking delicious boots He ran his finger up my thigh, leaving
a trail of sweet, white sugar Open it.
I lifted the lid. An album? I asked, pulling the book out of the
box. Pictures from the article you published? Oh, Joe
I turned the cover back, excited at the idea of having all the
originals put together into a collection. As I flipped the pages,
my excitement turned to wonder. I felt my jaw go slack as I
turned page after page.
I wanted you to see what I see, Joe said, tucking his face into
the curve of my neck. He looked over my shoulder and turned
the pages for me slowly, as I sat stunned and staring. Each
photograph was of me. Holding a child, or holding a hand. One
image after another, creating a larger whole the bigger picture.
I saw myself through Joes eyes, and what I saw was love.
All grown up, Maggie. A woman with enough courage and
strength to give us all hope. Thats who I see when I look at you,
sweetheart. You reminded me what it feels like to have
passion to have purpose. Dont ever stop, Maggie. No matter
what our tomorrows bring
Dont ever stop
He reached into the bottom of the box and drew out an envelope.
I opened it and took out two tickets
I didnt think an ordinary honeymoon laying out on a beach
would satisfy you, he said. But I thought perhaps Africa
might
A little honeymoon maybe a little foundation work mixed in,
too He caught me into his arms as I held his hands tight. I
dont know if we can change the whole world, sweetheart. But if
anyone can its you
He stood, pulling me against him and kissing me until my blood
was pounding in my veins. He looked down at me, his eyes filled
with love and promise. The heat of his body and the challenge in
his eyes made me hot and shameless in the cool night air. I could
feel his eyes on my flesh my legs His jaw tensed and that
muscle twitched, pulsing deliciously. I bit into my lip and smiled
my most wicked smile
I took his hand and led him under the wide, sprawling branches
of the old oak. I gasped, needy and breathless, as I sat down on
the rough wooden seat and felt his delicious warmth behind me.
His scent filled the air as I lifted the tiny skirt of my gown,
bending forward and baring my naked, waiting flesh. I looked
over my shoulder, met his dangerous gaze and smiled boldly
Push me?
THE BABY CONTRACT

Marriage and promises and white picket fences...?


Mistakes I'll never make again. I'm over that fantasy.
So is Libby, and that's why she's the perfect surrogate for
my baby.
She gets paid, and I get an heir to the Mason family name.
No fuss, no muss. Easy, right?

I need a woman who'll let me impregnate her for pay.


Libby's got zero interest in babies or a husband. She needs
money, not complications.
Yeah, I'll marry her to make it look legit, but I want a f*cking
business deal. A contract. Legal, straightforward... Shatterproof.
After Libby gives birth, she's gone for good.
...But once she's got my baby in her belly...
Simple gets complicated.
Ripe and luscious, with fertile curves that beg me to plant my
seed, damned right I'm going to spread Libby's thighs and put
my rock hard plow to work... Over and over again.
Nine months? I've got to have more. Her body is my
responsibility, my possession, my addiction.
F*ck the agreement... This is gonna get dirty.
1

JACK

I STARE out into the steel grey sky of the city, through the
crystalline wall of glass that separates me from the clouds and
the sixty floor drop to the concrete below. My office is on the top
of the tallest structure in Asheville. Mason Steel Corporation.
From here, I can look out over this city like a king. Or a tyrant.
I'm Mason, The Jack Mason. So I was born with a silver spoon in
my mouth. It was pure grit and determination that saved this
company from ruin. What allowed my parents to keep the family
manse in Biltmore. Decades of overly conservative business
moves and dwindling capital had almost brought Mason Steel to
her knees. Then I took over. And it wasn't our old-money name,
or even my Ivy League education that had been responsible for
bringing her back over the last fifteen long years. That had been
me, my sheer force of will. Along with seventeen-hour work
days and a thousand sleepless nights.
Lights flicker at a distance from the surrounding buildings and a
few shine up from the streets below. The clouds shift thick and
thin as the cold evening breeze shapes them. A thin mist of rain
collects in tiny rivulets and runs down the enormous windows. It
reminds me of the past. The painful past and I work hard to
push it down a little deeper.
I'm not a man who knows how to fail. Not ever. From the
outside, it looks like I have everything I could possibly want.
Fuck, I pretty much do. All except for the one thing I've wanted
my whole life, the one thing that matters more than anything.
And no amount of money or success can make up for that kind of
emptiness. It's my one real need. My one true weakness. The
only thing all my fucking ambition and determination ever failed
to force into reality.
I stare into the endless grey night and it all comes
flooding back

"G ODDAMN IT , J ACK ," SHE SCREAMED , " DID YOU EVER THINK FOR O NE .
Fucking. Minute that it just might be your fault?"
Elaine was angrier than I'd ever seen her, and had more than a
few drinks on board. It was a pattern that had been repeating
itself for far too many months now. I ran my hand through my
hair, forcing myself into a calmness I couldn't feel. I knew the
last two years had been fucking hard for both of us.
"Lainey, honey," I reached out to touch her hair and she turned
away, a curtain of sleek bottle blonde falling between us. "This
was never about fault. Lots of couples have trouble conceiving.
What matters is that we're both committed to this that we
both want to have this family." I took a step closer and ran my
hand down her back. The tension in her body made the bones
just under her skin feel sharp, angular. "I don't care if our baby
comes from my body or from yours That's the only reason I
brought up the idea of a surrogate."
I reached down to take her hand. Well-manicured nails bit into
my palm, her fingers cold in mine. "This isn't about fault, or
about giving up on our dream, Lainey. It's about making you a
mom. And making me a dad." I swallowed hard, feeling a painful
squeeze in my chest. "It's about becoming a family together,
however that can happen for us."
"We tried for two goddamn years, Jack. If it had been meant to
happen it would have." Her voice was oddly calm as she turned
to face me. "And you were never even home. It was always work
with you, wasn't it? Always the fucking business and your
goddamn family honor." She stepped toward the desk by the
windows and sat down behind it. "Well, congratulations," she
said, looking me squarely in the face. "You saved your family
business. Mason is everything it ever was, and more. You're
positively filthy rich again, and now I get what I really wanted all
these years"
"Exactly, honey," I began. "The long hours are over for me now.
Mason's stable and performing consistently, and there's nothing
that Blake and Bennett can't handle." Two of my three brothers
had been in with me neck deep for the long haul and knew
almost as much about running the company as I did. "I can work
three, four days a week tops now. We can go on that cruise
you've been wanting. We'll make things right between us
again." I looked into her eyes, made startlingly blue by her
contacts. "We're secure now, baby. There couldn't be a better
time to focus all our efforts on a family of our own."
Elaine dipped her head, her hair shielding her face as she fiddled
with the locked drawer and pulled out a thick cream-colored
envelope. She straightened and looked up to meet my eyes. Her
jaw was crisp, her chin as sharp as her gaze. She pushed the
envelope toward me with the tips of her perfect nails. The edge
of her lip turned upwards, but she wasn't smiling.
"As usual," she said softly, "You weren't listening to me." She
blinked and leaned back in the chair. "I said, it's time for me to
get what I wanted." She looked at the envelope and then
pointedly back at me. I took a step forward and picked it up,
sliding my thumb under the flap. "I stuck it out, Jack. All those
years with you working day and night. Recreating the fucking
family empire."
I pulled out a thick sheaf of papers and unfolded them. The
paper was smooth, expensive. Her voice seemed far away
suddenly, as my eyes scanned the embossed heading, the formal
words on the page.
"You did what you had to do, Jack. Just like I did," her voice said
distantly. "You got your dream come true, and now it's my turn.
In so many ways, we're really two of a kind"
Jackson Fletcher Mason, Respondent
Petition for Dissolution of Marriage
The words jumped out at me from the page and swam as I
struggled to focus, to understand. Her words were cool in the
background
"You wanted to save the family jewels, Jack. And you've done it,
against all odds." She shifted in her chair like a cat settling in.
"But that was your dream, not mine. Mine was to be the wife of a
fucking wealthy man. And now I am."
I looked up at her cool smoothness and held up the papers in my
fist. "Yes," she answered the question burning in my eyes. "I
stayed long enough to make sure you'd be rich enough to make
both of us happy. And now that you are, I want what's coming to
me." She smoothed sleek hair behind her diamond earring. "I've
changed my mind about the whole mommy scene." Her hand
dropped to her perfectly flat tummy. "Now I just want out. And I
want what I earned by staying this long."

T HE RAIN OUTSIDE HAS STARTED TO SLOW . T HAT NIGHT HAD BEEN FOURTEEN
long months ago. I had moved out of the house we'd shared the
following day. It might as well have been a lifetime ago.
I sat down at my desk and smoothed the papers in front of me.
The creases had softened with time and handling, but the ink
was still crisp. The words still sharp. Divorce. For the first time
in a dozen generations at least, a divorce in the Mason family.
It wasn't that I wanted her back. Whatever we had shared was
long, long over. Even though I'd tried to make it work, deep
down I'd known the marriage had been a mistake from the start.
Elaine and I had come from a similar background, a similar
lifestyle and at first I'd thought that would be enough for us to
build a life on. But the clashes had started soon after the
wedding and had never really stopped. She'd turned to alcohol
and shopping binges, I'd turned to work and burying myself in
the seemingly insurmountable task of saving a failing business.
The worse things had gotten at home, the more driven and
successful I'd become in the boardroom. It was all for the family
who depended on me, I'd told myself. And for the family of my
own that I'd wanted my whole life. Growing up with a sister and
three brothers, I'd always imagined being a dad. I couldn't
imagine any other kind of life. And right when I'd thought I was
on the verge of seeing it all come true
I picked up a pen and held my hand, poised over the blank,
waiting signature line.
I'd known things weren't perfect between Elaine and me. But
she'd always said she wanted kids as much as I did. Maybe we'd
both thought it could help fix whatever had gone wrong between
us. Or maybe we both wanted the right things, but with the
wrong person. In any case, she'd made her desires painfully
clear, and her financial demands even clearer. She wanted an
extra four million a year just as compensation for the children
she claimed I had failed to give her
I shook my head, deep in thought. In the last year I'd realized
that, deep down, I didn't miss her. I wondered now, if I'd ever
even loved her. It was the shock mostly, of thinking we'd been
on the same page all along, only to find out in a single moment
just how wrong I'd really been. That one partner's sole decision
could so painfully destroy the other's dreams I clicked the back
of the pen and the point appeared.
Even so, we'd spent too many of our youthful years together for
me to hold onto the anger anymore. The ache I carried inside me
wasn't about her or the divorce. It was an empty hole in my
heart that still longed for the babies we would never have. I
scratched out my full name and sealed the envelope. Turning my
chair, I stared out into the deepening night.

S OMEWHERE BEFORE THE DARKNESS STARTED SHIFTING BACK TOWARD


daylight, I had made the decision. I go after business deals. It's
what I do. It's what I know how to do. And it's never failed yet, to
give me what I want.
Fuck whether I had to do this alone. The fact was, it had to be
done. I was going to be a father and there was nothing, no one,
that could stop me this time. I might be all through with
relationships and the drama that goes with them, but there's
more than one way to make a baby
I unlocked the bottom drawer of my desk and pulled out the
contract my lawyers had finished only yesterday. My sister,
India, had already told me everything I needed to know about the
girl, and I'd done a full background check as well. She seemed
perfect. There were only a few more formal steps left
It was early, too early really, but I pounded out the numbers on
my phone anyway. Seven rings later, India picked up, her voice
raspy.
"Whaaat?" she demanded irritably, knowing full well it was me.
"Yes," I said firmly, in answer to the idea she'd put to me weeks
ago. "Yes on the surrogacy. And I'm not waiting any fucking
longer.
Call her and set up the meeting Bring her to the lake house.
Today."
2

LIBBY

I MAGINARY M OM WOULD SAY , get your head examined. Or at least I


think she would. How the hell would I know, really? Imaginary
Mom is, well imaginary. And Real Mom gave me up when I was
four months old. Sometimes I think I can still remember her. A
smell, or a color. But the second I try to catch ahold of it, the
feeling's gone. All she honestly gave me was her genes, my
name and the gold locket around my neck. Now I'm on my own.
Like I've always been. Just like I plan to always be.
I've shoved the last of pitifully few boxes into my rusty old
Beetle. Books, clothes, shampoo. Today is moving day. Again.
But I'm nothing if not resilient. You have to be, with a life like
mine. I looked up one last time and watched the pink curtains
fluttering in my bedroom window. Well, what had been my
window. The lease ran out about the same time my money did,
and I'm not one to overstay my welcome. Today's the thirty-first
and I'm leaving the apartment cleaner than I found it. It's not so
much the living space I hate to leave. It's that I'm losing my
work space too. My first real studio the place I found the gift of
my own two hands. My passion. My value in this world.
Next to me on the seat were the boxes that matter the most. The
ones holding my sculptures. Little clay figures that I put my
whole soul into, tiny beings that carry the imprints of my fingers
and hour upon hour of my entire creative purpose. Maybe I'm
not as alone as I think, I pondered as I pulled the plastic sheeting
up and tucked it carefully around a tiny, exposed limb.
My friend India, said I could crash at her place for as long as I
need. God knows, she's got the space. I could stay in her condo
for the better part of a month without even running into her.
She's an artist, like me, so I knew right off her money came from
somewhere other than her sales. Neither one of us has had many
of those lately, even though we both have pieces in one of the
better galleries in town.
The car started on the fourth attempt and I took a long, brave
breath in. I'd hesitated to take her up on her offer, but in the end
I had. And gratefully. Resourceful as I am, I was also equally
broke and pretty much at the end of my options.
India and I had hit it off instantly about six months ago. We were
both attending a seminar on bronze casting techniques and
bonded over the fruit and cheese plates. For her, it was
refreshment. For me, my first and last meal of the day. I floored
the gas and hit max speed of forty-three miles an hour. I'd be at
India's condo before nightfall, anyway
It's not like we were actually friends, not really. But she's bright
and fun, and as passionate about art as I am. I could tell she's
conventional, probably grew up wanting for nothing. But she's
also free spirited and adventurous, and you just can't help
admiring that in a person. But like I said, we're not really
friends. Not that she wouldn't be a great one. It's just that I
don't do friendships. Or relationships. Or any very meaningful,
permanent-type deals. It's just not who I am.
Twenty-four years ago, Real Mom gave me up for adoption. A
sort of Birth Day present for the girl who had nothing. All I know
for sure is that she couldn't keep me, but legally gave me the
name I've kept ever since. I've been the same Libby Jones in
every one of a dozen foster homes throughout my short
childhood. Some good, some not so good. I grew up with a sense
of living both everywhere and nowhere all at once, with no
family to belong to, but with an artistic drive that made up for
whatever else I might have missed out on
I know how to be strong, creative and obstinate. I'm a survivor,
and in many ways it may be Real Mom I have to thank for that.
I'm also smart enough not to get too close, too attached. I'll take
risks, try new and scary things. I'll do what I have to do, in order
to keep making the tiny living, breathing sculptures that I'm
driven to create. Anything, everything I might go through in life
is worth it, to keep shaping the clay. Call it my best shot at
immortality.
The Bug shudders like something important may be looser than
it should be, but I'm only five minutes from India's. Like I said,
I'm grateful for a place to crash, but I'm not one for owing
favors. I need to pay my own way and soon. I want to be out of
her condo within the next two weeks, tops. That's why I'm
hoping she'll have good news when I get there.
I've been seriously considering the idea she proposed some
weeks ago. And I really think I'm up for it. If her brother agrees,
that is. She told me he's a divorced man, considering hiring a
surrogate to carry his child. It would involve meetings and
interviews and medical exams the whole nine yards and then
some. He may not even go for it in the end, or he may choose
another woman for the job. But she says he wants a family more
than anything and would be able to give a baby every advantage
in life. And he'd pay a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for my
services. Many times the standard rate for surrogacy. Enough to
set me up in a real studio of my own. It could be my one real
break in life. I decided pretty quickly that if Jack Mason picked
me, I was in.
But could I have a baby, and give it away, never to watch it grow
up, or walk, or see its first smile? That was something I'd
thought about long and hard. And frankly, I figure it's probably
what I'm best suited for. Even though my body has been giving
me all the signals for a while now that it's ripe and ready, eager
to get on with what it was designed for, I have no skills and no
desire to raise a child. Oh, and did I mention no resources?
A baby needs a parent who can provide a loving, stable home.
Someone who's always dreamed of having a family and is
committed to the long haul. Someone who had great parents of
their own as role models and maybe a big, extended family.
That's the kind of parent every baby really needs. And that's just
not me. I'd make a much better Imaginary Mom than a real one.
So from everything India told about Jack, it sounds like we could
be the answer to each other's prayers.
As if on cue, my phone started up with India's ringtone,
reminding me the cell company hadn't cut my service off yet. I
pulled over and answered, my heart beating just a little too fast.
"Jack's in, Libby. I got the call and he's in, all the way."
I sucked in a lungful. "This is happening?" I squeaked out. "Like,
now?" Suddenly my ordinary day felt very surreal. "He hasn't
even met me yet"
"Right now, Lib. Jack wants us at his place in an hour."
3

JACK

T HE LAKE WAS calm as glass. My guts were churning like a


maelstrom, in spite of the long run I'd had that morning. I stood
on the deck with a beer in my hand that did little to soothe me.
India was due any minute, bringing with her the woman who just
might become the mother of my firstborn child.
I was confident every move I'd made had been the right one.
Elaine and I had tried for a family and failed. Then she'd decided
motherhood and marriage weren't for her after all. A long,
lonely year had passed for me in deep and profound
contemplation of what mattered most to me in life. And as
always, the answer was a family of my own. I was all done
putting something that important in the hands of fate. Even
though I felt strongly that the very best way to have a family was
the old-fashioned way a loving mom and dad raising a big,
healthy, happy brood together, I couldn't take the chance that it
might never happen for me that way. It's hard enough to find a
great relationship, harder still to find someone who wants the
same things God knows, I'd tried.
India had been the one to mention surrogacy again. Always
thinking outside the box, she'd insisted that just because Elaine
and I were divorced, didn't mean surrogacy wasn't still an
option. And she'd met a woman who wanted to experience
bearing a child, but had no real desire to raise one. Plus, she truly
needed the money
The facts were simple. I wanted children and I couldn't wait
forever. This was the perfect time in my life to become a father,
and I knew I'd be a great one. I'd grown up with all the joys,
frustrations, chaos and love of being surrounded by four siblings
that meant the world to me. My daddy clock was fucking ticking
away, and I was all done with wasting time.
I'd always dreamed of having kids the usual way, you know
Making the mutual decision to try for a baby, the romantic
dinners, the candlelight. Taking my wife in my arms, then
carrying her to bed. Taking her body and giving her mine,
exploring her ripeness for the first time with nothing but skin
between us. I'd wanted the experience of exploding inside her,
filling her with my seed and knowing that we'd begun the
journey of pregnancy and the ultimate miracle of giving birth
together Truth was, I'd always found the whole idea incredibly
erotic.
But not every dream can come to fruition. And it was far more
important that my children be born, the sooner the better. I'd be
the most committed dad in the world, and I could give my kids
grandparents and uncles and a wonderful aunt. Children of mine
would want for nothing. And as for a birth mother well, it
would be business, pure straightforward business. There would
be interviews and medical exams, procedures when the time
came. And the contract. The very legal and binding contract.
I heard the car before I saw it, rounding the long drive in from
around the lake. India parked next to my Jag and I headed down
to greet them. I was eager as hell for my first glance at Libby, but
she was still inside as India bounded out.
"Shit, Jack. Did you sleep last night? If I didn't know better, I'd
think you were nervous as fuck."
"I love you too," I answered back dryly, trying to see past the
glare of the windshield. "And stop swearing. It doesn't suit you."
India laughed and opened the passenger side door. A fringed
leather boot appeared on the ground. Then the other. My heart
skipped more than a single beat as the rest of her appeared.
Libby stood, with the car door still between us and smiled a smile
that left me stunned.
She was small, I saw, as she stepped around to extend her hand
to me, but had a presence that occupied all the space around her.
I took her hand and felt all the nerve endings in my palm fire in
unison.
She was exquisite, with a short cap of dark, glossy curls framing
her face and a body with generous curves that made my mouth
go dry. Her clothes hugged her body in a careless, sexy kind of
way that made me think she had no idea of their effect. The
colors were bold, the style almost vintage. There was something
utterly original about her
But it was those eyes that held me rooted and staring. Green,
brilliant, afraid of nothing. I took a step closer without intending
it and felt something warm and electric pass through the air
between us. Somehow, all at once, she was both everything and
nothing of what I'd expected
As I held her hand in mine and all the appropriate greetings and
pleasantries passed from my lips, something was sweeping
through me like a fire through a dry forest. I put my hand out,
ushering them both ahead of me and into the house as I followed
behind. Every carefully made plan, every best intention, every
sensible decision in my head had fled. Deep inside, there was a
flashing red light, warning me to keep this business as usual. But
my body was taking over, and making one single,
uncompromising demand that defied caution and contracts and
good, plain common sense
To put my child into its mother the old-fashioned way.
Just like nature intended.
4

LIBBY

I NDIA HAD TOLD me plenty about her rich, successful brother. But
she'd completely failed to mention the fact that he was also
drop-the-fuck-dead gorgeous. He was tall and tanned, with
deep brown eyes and sandy hair that looked like it was probably
in constant disarray. My hand twitched with a sudden urge to
smooth it
I followed India into the what? Cabin? Rustic lake house?
Waterside fucking palace? Really, why hadn't she warned me?
The exterior was traditional split log, as unpretentious as a house
on Fontana Lake could be. The inside was exquisitely casual, a
study in spacious, yet intimate comfort. Every overstuffed chair,
every carpet, every carved fireplace mantle oozed wealth and
class. I could feel Jack's gaze behind me and for just a moment,
wondered if I was in over my head. Way out of my league
"Can I get you something? Libby India?" Jack had stepped
behind a small, built-in bar in the corner of the room and was
opening the fridge, but his eyes had never left me. I could feel
them warming my skin, like sunlight on a hot day.
"Beer um, no Water, please?" The words stumbled out
awkwardly. It wasn't like me to be off balance. But then, I'd
never agreed to let a stranger knock me up for money
"Well, it's beer for me," India said, pushing her brother out of
her way and rummaging behind the bar. She stood smiling, a
frosty bottle in her hand. "I love these imported ones." She took
a long pull. "You always have a better selection than I do." She
dropped a kiss on his cheek and I watched as he smiled at her. It
gave me a strange feeling I couldn't quite place, whenever I
watched how real families interacted with each other. What
would that feel like, I wondered, to have known someone from
the very moment you were born? And to have them know you in
the very same way from your very beginning?
"And I think I'm taking mine for a walk," India added, giving my
hand a squeeze before heading for the front door. "You two
hardly need me in the way right now." She leaned down and
whispered in my ear, "He likes you, I can tell." A moment later,
she was gone and Jack and I were alone. He walked over to the
sofa opposite mine slowly and sat down.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked, settling in. "Is there anything
else I can get for you?"
"No. Thanks. This is great," I said. I took a sip from the sweaty
glass he handed me and put it down on the coffee table. "India's
told me a lot about you, of course," I began. "And about the kind
of person you're looking for" He was the kind of guy women
would line up for a crack at, but I knew he wasn't looking for a
relationship. What he wanted was a professional
"She's told me a great deal about you, as well," he answered
softly. "It takes a lot to impress my sister. She says she can't
imagine anyone more perfect for me." His velvety brown eyes
blinked. "For this position," he added quickly. "For the
surrogacy, that is."
"She and I hit it right off," I said, shifting slightly. "When she
brought up the idea that this might be the right solution to both
of our problems" My sentence trailed off as his eyes blazed
into mine. They were dark as sin and so warm they made me
damp in some very sinful places. What the hell was I thinking? I
was here for a job interview. There wasn't any room for the kind
of feelings I was having.
"I have questions," he said, in a deep voice that made me think
of whispers in the dark. "You must as well." I nodded, unable for
a moment to think of a single one. "We could go out on the deck,
if you like. Get to know each other go over the contract." The
word contract snapped my ovaries back to reality and I nodded,
following him outside.
The sun was starting to set and long, wavy stripes of color moved
slowly from the water just beyond us all the way to the horizon.
"It's beautiful," I said, without thinking. "This is where you
actually live, like, all the time?"
"This is home," he said easily. "Would you like to go down?"
The blush had just started to heat my cheeks when I realized
he'd gestured to the stairs leading to his own private beach. I
nodded and followed him, aware of how tall and lean he was. He
had the body of an athlete, even though I knew he was the CEO
of Mason Steel Corporation. He was the man in charge, although
his entire family was heavily involved as well. India too.
He ran a hand through his hair and his broad chest expanded
with his deep breath. I felt that warm, unsettling sensation low
in my belly again and looked away. The next thing I knew, his
hand was at the small of my back, just above the curve of my
overly generous ass and I inhaled sharply. Yeah, I'm sort of in
hormonal overdrive these days. Hesitancy to get too close to
people also has the unfortunate consequence of very little sex. I
couldn't remember the last time I'd seen, let alone been so close
to such an attractive man.
"We can sit in the gazebo, if you'd like," he gestured. "Or on the
sand, if you prefer."
I walked to the edge of the water and kicked off my boots.
"Here," I answered with a sigh, the cold water lapping my toes.
"This is perfect."
He walked up behind me and I could feel the warmth coming off
him. "You go first," I said. "You can ask me anything you want.
Nothing's off limits. I get it, that this won't work if I'm not an
open book." I turned to look up way up, into his eyes. "I know
this is business for you. And India's told me how important it is
for you to have a child. I can see for myself the kind of life you
can offer." I didn't blink, or look away as those sexy eyes burned
into mine. "So ask away, Jack. I'll answer you as honestly as I
know how." He looked into my face for a long, long time without
speaking. Instinct told me that somehow he'd already made his
decision. I'd already made mine, even before I'd met him.
My choice was easy. It was this, or face an uncertain future,
going from one acquaintance's house to another, my artistic
career permanently on hold. Or have the baby my body was
screaming to have anyway, and give it to a good man who
desperately wanted to be a dad. And who came from a fine family
and had money in truckloads. Just because I never wanted to be
anyone's mom didn't mean I didn't want to experience the
creation of another human being. I did. I just wasn't convinced I
could ever be the kind of mother a baby deserved
Jack put his hand under my chin, lifting it, tilting my face. The
warmth of his hand, and the clean, woodsy male scent of him
had my whole body tingling. He was quiet, thoughtful.
Examining me in a way that made me both uncomfortable and
aroused all at once. He exuded a sense of power, and yet he had a
quiet gentleness about him at the same time He was like no
man I'd ever met before
"Can you share the most intimate experience a man and a
woman can share, Libby?"
The words made my breath catch.
"Can you let me put my seed inside you, let my child grow in
your belly?" He let his hand fall from my chin and it nearly, very
nearly grazed my stomach. "Can you live here with me, for the
next year with your belly swelling? Will you let me watch you
bring my child into the world and hear him cry for the very first
time? Let me put my child to your breast for the first time?"
I felt my mouth soften, my lips fall open. His words painted the
picture in my head as he spoke. A tiny baby, wrinkled and red.
His huge hands bringing her closer to my bare, aching breast.
For just a moment, I felt a flicker a question deep inside me I
couldn't answer.
"Can you do all that for me, Libby?
And then walk away?"
5

JACK
THREE WEEKS LATER

I' D PUT the final touches on the studio myself. I stepped back,
pleased with the results. I'd had the guest house gutted and
remodeled into an artist's studio, with enormous windows to
capture the light, work tables and shelving for supplies. But I'd
done the stocking myself. It had taken some work to be sure I'd
bought everything Libby could need. And to be sure all the
products were safe and non-toxic. I took one last look around
and carefully locked the door behind me. I pocketed the key,
anticipating the look on her lovely face when I surprised her.
We'd both signed the contract a week after our first meeting
here at the lake. Since then, life had been a hectic schedule of
business meetings and doctor appointments. Being constantly
busy with all the practical details of our arrangement had
thankfully gone a long way toward clearing my head about Libby.
She was just the right woman for the job, and that was all. The
physical reaction I'd had to her when we'd first met had just
been the result of the long stretch of celibacy I'd endured over
the last year. That, and general excitement that I was finally on
my way to becoming a dad. I was back in control, back in
business, so to speak. And thank god for my brothers stepping
up. Even Mom and Dad had worked overtime at Mason to keep
the company on track. And India, as always, had been amazing.
The Mason family has been an institution in this part of the
South for generations. We're known for being traditional,
conservative. Old fashioned. Our people do things the way
they've always been done, without question, for the last two
hundred years. We're close knit, loving supportive and loyal.
And no Mason, aside from my sister, would ever accept that I'd
hired a woman to bear the next generation.
So India had created the cover story we would tell my family
tomorrow night at dinner. That she'd introduced us at a party
and we'd instantly hit it off. Introductions would be made all
around and my parents and brothers would meet my new
girlfriend for the first time. That I'd moved her in with me so
quickly would come as a hell of a shock to everyone, but India
assured me she'd smooth the ruffled feathers. For now, that
would just have to be enough. Libby would be living here where I
could watch over her, before the insemination appointment on
Friday. And once we knew for sure that she was pregnant
well I was pretty sure how I'd tell my family about that. I just
hadn't run the plan by Libby yet
I headed back toward the cabin just in time to hear India's tires
crunching gravel. I'd been excited, living on adrenaline for days
anticipating this. The last few weeks of spending every spare
minute getting to know Libby better had solidified the feeling I'd
had from the first moment I'd laid eyes on her. That she was the
one. The future mother of my baby.
"Libby, I can't tell you how happy I am you're here." I took her
hands and kissed her cheek. As always, my cock leapt with
enthusiasm I had to work hard to quell. It hadn't quite gotten
the message yet, that the only thing it was going to be filling to
the brim was a paper cup in the doctor's office
"I can't believe it's all really happening," Libby said, putting her
hands on her hips and stretching her spine. The result pushed
her generous breasts up and apart, the swell of her round little
ass creating a curve in her back that made my cock painful in the
confinement of my jeans. It's okay to be attracted to the mother
of your baby, right? Hadn't I read somewhere that it increased
the odds of conception?
Only if you're doing it the old-fashioned way, I corrected myself
grimly, lifting Libby's suitcase out of the trunk.
"I'm heading straight back into the city, Jack," India said over
the noise of the engine. She'd brought Libby out to the house
because the beetle had finally given out, but she had a dinner
meeting with Spencer. He's my right hand at the corporation,
ingenious and invaluable regarding the takeover of an aluminum
company that Mason Steel had been working on. He was a good
man to have on your side. I sure as hell wouldn't want him on
the other.
With a smile and a wave, India was gone and Libby and I were
alone. In all these weeks, I always had the same sense when we
were alone together. It was something halfway between total
comfort and complete awkwardness. Ever since meeting her, it
was something I couldn't seem to shake. There was certainly no
question, this situation was utterly unique for both of us.
"Sooo here we are" She twisted her hands together.
"Yes here we are." I smiled down at her, a riot of emotions
going off inside me despite our calm exteriors. "Should we get
you settled in your room before dinner?"
I led her up the stairs and into the room next to mine. It was the
brightest room in the cabin, with one long wall of windows and a
huge sugar maple leaning close. The leaves were just starting to
turn their brilliant colors.
I put her case on the huge bed and watched her react to the view
of the lake. "I've never seen such beauty," she breathed. "Thank
you, for this. All of this, Jack. The second chance you're giving
me with this job and letting me stay here"
"Little enough, compared to what you've agreed to do for me," I
answered. The fact was, I'd asked her to move in for my sake, as
much as for hers. I wanted her close, where I could be sure she
was safe and healthy. Close, so that I wouldn't miss a single day
of my child's life from the very minute of conception.
"You're giving me the future I've always wanted," I added
honestly. "I'm going to make sure you and the baby have
everything you need."
She turned from the window to face me. "I can't believe Friday's
nearly here," she said softly. "All these weeks of blood tests and
vitamins, poking and prodding. And now it's actually going to
happen"
I took her hands in mine, ignoring how the feeling of her skin
affected me. "No doubts, Libby? You're sure this is what you
want?" The next words came out painfully. "If you're not fully
committed, this is the time to tell me. You can still back out,
even with the contract in place." I took a steadying breath. "But
once we're pregnant, there's no changing your mind. You will
give birth and the child will be mine."
"We're on the same page, Jack." she answered after a thoughtful
pause. Her brilliant eyes were clear and sincere. "I don't have
any doubts about the kind of father you'll be, and I'm completely
sure that what we're doing is the right thing for both of us." She
smiled and I felt a lump form in my throat. "I want to experience
pregnancy and birth. It's a huge and important part of life." She
shrugged. "I'm just not the mothering type." She smiled wider.
"You, on the other hand, are more than equipped to be both
mom and dad." She looked around the beautiful room. "This
baby will be so lucky to have you as her father."
"Not even pregnant yet, and you're already sure it's going to be
a girl?"
Libby smiled inscrutably and headed for hallway. "Were you just
teasing me, or did you mean it?"
"I'm sorry?"
She'd already disappeared around the corner.
"Dinner, Jack," she tossed back carelessly. "Momma's hungry."
6

LIBBY

J ACK WAS WATCHING me intently as I spooned another helping of


chicken onto my plate. I blinked at him and he leaned back in his
chair, smiling.
"Don't be self-conscious," he said. "I like that you have a
healthy appetite. I'm just not used to that in a woman."
"And I'm not used to a man who can cook like this." I licked the
back of my spoon, aware of his impeccable table manners and
my somewhat more casual approach. "Did you take classes, or
does this kind of skill come naturally in your kind of world?" I
took a sip of water and wiped my lips with my napkin.
"As a matter of fact, I did take a class. And I burned my final
project." He sipped his white wine while I tried not to be jealous.
"And my kind of world is probably not quite so different as you
think, really. Not so different in a lot of ways." He paused. "I've
worked fucking hard to find my way here today. You have too."
He put his hand over mine. I knew it was just a friendly gesture,
but the wave that that moved up my arm and made my breasts
tingle didn't have a clue.
"I'm glad you have security and a big, supportive family," I
replied, trying to shift my focus. I knew that my hormones were
in full sail, what with the insemination planned for the day after
tomorrow. Maybe that was why my body wanted to move in a
little closer. He was so warm, so kind to me. And he was looking
into my eyes in a way that made me want to reach out and touch
him back. We were about to embark on one of life's most
intimate adventures together. It was probably natural to like
each other. And normal to respond to one another
"I have to work tomorrow," he said, "but I'll be home by three at
the latest. Mom and Dad are expecting us at five-thirty. Dinner
won't be until seven. Plenty of time for the whole crowd to
arrive." He stroked my palm absent-mindedly with his thumb
and my lips parted. "Are you nervous?"
"I'm uh I'm," I stammered. "No, I'm fine. I'll be fine."
Except my heart was beating too fast. "I'll be on best behavior
and let you do most of the talking, just like we planned. That we
met through India and things are moving quickly."
"And that you're my girlfriend," he added. "We'll present the
picture-perfect couple. Two people wrapped up in the
excitement and attraction of a new relationship." His hand
moved up my arm until his fingers reached the tender skin at the
back of my neck. "Lovers," he said quietly. "Who know each
other's habits and preferences who touch each other easily,
comfortably"
"So that it's not too big a shock when you tell them I'm
pregnant," I said, a little breathlessly. "And the fact that you
paid me to carry your baby stays our secret" His hand cupped
the side of my face and I had to bite my lip to silence the moan
waiting under the surface. God, I'd never responded to a man the
way I did with him. And from only a touch of his hand
"Can you keep the secret, Libby? For me, for the baby? To let my
parents keep believing that their first grandchild came
from love?"
At that moment I couldn't think of one single thing I was
capable of denying this man. As long as those long, strong
fingers kept moving against my cheek. I imagined what
tomorrow evening might bring. His arm around my waist his
hand on the curve of my hip And what if he kissed me too? All
for the sake of appearances
I nodded my head, not trusting the words that might come out.
He smiled, and his thumb brushed against my mouth.
Maybe it was just my hormones. Maybe it was that in a few days
time, I'd have this gorgeous man's seed me. Or maybe I was just
fucking horny. But I swear to god, in that moment, I thought I
saw pure, carnal desire flame in those brown velvet eyes.
7

JACK

W HAT THE HELL did I think I was playing at?


I knew that circumstances demanded we both play the roles of a
loving couple. And that we needed to be comfortable touching
each other, showing physical affection. With the family
introductions only one night away, it had hardly seemed too
early to start practicing. Libby seemed to take to it naturally, to
understand the necessity. But I wasn't sure how the fuck I was
going to manage any of this. One touch and I was rock hard in my
jeans and already wet with precum. It struck me as overselling
our story, to spend the evening with my parents, my new
girlfriend, and a hugely obvious erection.
I broke the moment abruptly, awkwardly, by taking her hand and
pulling her onto her tiny feet.
"Come on," I said too loudly. "I've got something to show you
a surprise."
I kept her hand tight in mine, pulling her along with me, out to
the deck and down the stairs to the where the guest house sat. It
was behind the main house, but unshadowed by the larger trees.
I'd planned to wait until morning to show her, when the light
inside would be clean, perfect. I wasn't an artist myself, but I
understood the importance of light to someone who was.
"Close your eyes," I said, feeling excitement like I hadn't felt in
years. It was almost like Christmas morning and I got to be
Santa. "Don't open them until I tell you. You'll have to imagine
it in daylight I just couldn't wait any longer."
I unlocked the door and then placed the key in her hand.
Standing behind her with my hands on her waist, I guided her
inside and turned her toward the windows. My heart was beating
fast. I could tell hers was too.
"It's my gift to you, Libby. A place just for you." I lifted her fist
that held the key and gave it a kiss. "Open."
I couldn't see her face, but I felt her chest fill with her breath.
The next thing I knew, my arms had folded around her, and she
was leaning back into my chest. She was warm and round and
luscious. The answer to my dreams. This was the least I could do
to thank her.
"A studio," she breathed. Her head turned and her curls caressed
the nape of her neck. "You're giving me a studio to work in"
"Nine months is a long time, Libby. I want you to be happy here.
To do the work you were meant to do." I'd seen a number of her
sculptures and the woman had the kind of natural born talent
other artists would kill for. "Tell me if there are any changes you
need and I'll make them. If there's anything at all I can
give you"
She turned in my arms, her full, round breasts pushed up against
my chest, her arms around my hips. Her face was partially
hidden in the twilight of the evening, but I could tell her cheeks
were wet. Something inside me shifted the throbbing ache in my
loins to the center of my chest. "What, Libby? What's wrong?
Tell me"
And then her lips were on mine. I didn't know if she was pleased
or upset about my gift. I only knew that our bodies had a far
deeper understanding. What might have only been a kiss of
thanks had deepened in a heartbeat, into a savage hunger. Her
curves were the luscious release my aching hardness demanded.
I molded her to me, my body unforgiving, hers yielding. I
threaded my hands through her thick curls, taking her mouth
the way my body wanted to take her body
"Jack god, Jack," her words came after each gasp of air. I
pulled back, looking into her eyes.
But I never found out what might have happened next. My phone
rang, vibrating my pants and ending the moment. Libby broke
away, her eyes bright, her cheeks flushed.
"What?" I answered sharply. My blood was racing, my mind
anything but clear. Interruption was the last thing I'd wanted.
"Jack?" It was India. "What the hell, Jack. You always this
cranky?"
"What is it, India? This isn't the best timing."
"Sorry," she faltered for only a second. "I just thought you'd
want to know. Spence and I had our meeting tonight."
"And?"
"And besides finding out the man is a bit of an ass, I found out
something else. That the takeover"
"You mean the merger"
"Whatever. The deal he's been working on with Warner may
have taken a turn."
"He told you this?" I asked, angered at the thought he was
telling anyone in the company anything, before he told me.
"It was a phone call I overheard," she said. "Enough to make me
call you, interrupt your evening with Libby."
"I'll be in the office tomorrow. And thanks for the heads up. I'll
make Spencer my first meeting of the day."
"So, how is it, having Libby living with you now? Didn't I tell you
she was terrific? How are the two of you getting along?" Her
questions shot out rapid fire.
Always the nosey one in the family, India had always been way
too interested in my personal life. But thank god for it this time,
I thought, watching Libby explore her new studio. I felt my
frustrated cock throb, still angry at the interruption.
"Good, India. Really good." I swallowed hard. "See you
tomorrow."
Libby closed a cabinet door and turned back to me. The air
between us was still crackling with the energy of our kiss.
"Is this what you want?" I asked. I meant the studio, but the
question came out with a weight I hadn't intended. "I'm sorry if
I overstepped just now" She was still looking around the room,
not meeting my eyes. "It's good for us to have an attraction." It
seemed best to address it head on. "It'll make things go
smoother with my family tomorrow." I felt like I was grasping at
straws.
"It will," she answered slowly. "And considering the
circumstances, it's probably pretty common"
"For any two people having a child to feel a bond
between them"
"That's right," she said. "But we're both adults here. And it's
really just a business agreement, in the end. Attraction is just
proof that my eggs are ripe and ready It makes it more likely
the insemination will work on the first try."
"And we're both very focused on being successful here," I added.
"So, we're good?" If this was all purely business, why did my
heart speed up when she turned those green eyes up to mine?
"We're fine," she said, smiling unevenly. "And I can't tell you
how much I appreciate all this," she waved a hand around the
room. "It's perfect. Everything is perfect. I can't even tell you"
She broke off. "But it's been a long day and a birth mother-to-
be needs her rest.
Can we go back up to the house? I think what I need most right
now is a shower and a good night's sleep."
8

LIBBY

S LEEP ? Did I really say sleep?


Good luck with that, honey. I was about as likely to get a good
night's sleep as I was to wake up five inches taller and a blonde.
Jack followed me into the house and up the stairs. I swear I could
feel his eyes on my back the entire time. Maybe it was hormones.
Maybe it was just a serious case of lust. But regardless, it was
clear neither one of us had any intention of screwing up the
business deal that stood to give us both what we really wanted.
He wanted a baby and I needed the best chance I'd ever get at
launching my art career. I had to create some kind of security for
myself and my future. And there was no way in hell I was going
to destroy it all by fucking my boss. No matter how delicious he
smelled no matter how huge and sexy and
We faced each other at the top of the stairs, our respective
bedrooms so close
"I'm so glad you're here," he said easily. The timbre of his voice
set off vibrations low and deep inside me again. "The
bathroom's here," he indicated a door directly across from his
room. "I hope you don't mind sharing it the other is
downstairs."
"I'm good It's fine," I stumbled. "Thank you for tonight and
everything." I saw a light flare in his eyes again. "The studio, I
mean. Goodnight see you in the morning."
I ducked into the bathroom fast and closed the door behind me,
leaning my full weight back against it, breathing heavily. I
hadn't felt so awkward with a man since I'd been in my teens.
But I was so not going to screw up my future, now it looked like I
might actually have one
I left my clothes in a heap on the floor and stepped into the
shower, turning the water on full blast. I tipped my face back and
let the water run in streams down my breasts and belly. At first,
it was a soothing distraction. But by the time I'd shampooed my
hair and was beginning to lather my body, I'd reached a point of
no return.
Imagining Jack's naked body standing in this same shower
where I was now, along with the fire he'd lit inside me with his
kiss, was just too much. I couldn't stop thinking, that in a few
days time he'd be impregnating me. Although it would happen
through a clinical procedure in the doctor's office, I still couldn't
stop fantasizing what it would be like with him the real way.
That fucking hot kiss had been the final straw. My hand found its
way between my legs and I shuddered hard. My body was so
ready, so willing besides, all the books I'd read said orgasms
are very healthy for the expecting-to-be-expecting woman
I hadn't let my fantasies about Jack run wild. Not until now. But
there was no way in hell I'd be able to maintain any level of
comfort around him with this wall of sexual tension
building up
I ran my hand between the swollen lips of my pussy and found
them already slick, wanting badly to be fucked. I leaned back
against the shower wall and relaxed into the privacy of the steam
and the sound of the water falling around me. I plunged two
fingers inside and felt pure instinct take over. All I could feel was
my own desperation and the shock waves left over from Jack's
kiss. I wanted him, pure and simple, here with me now in the
flooding water. With his cock working me deep the way that I
knew it wanted to.
I'd felt just how hard and thick he'd been. No man can hide his
arousal from a woman when his hot cock is pressed into her
belly. My hand moved faster, fingers moving in and out. My
pulse was racing and I could feel my own tiny nub thickening,
hardening against my palm.
I'd felt how long that cock had been too, and I imagined it now,
pushed up inside me to the hilt. I'd ride him, I thought, biting
my lip to stay quiet. He'd hold my ass as I wrapped my legs
around him and ride him till he couldn't hold it back any longer.
I reached up and cupped one big breast with my hand and lifted
it high, squeezing and pushing the nipple up and out. The one
best benefit of being generously sized, the thought flashed. Then
I reached down with my tongue and drew my own nipple in
between my teeth. I sucked hard, pulling it deep into my mouth
and flew apart in a shattering climax. No longer was it my hand
or my mouth on my body. The fantasy of Jack Mason had fully
taken hold
No longer me, it was Jack who was filling me, Jack who was
sucking my breast. My needs had become his and we were lost
together in a crashing wave that left me weak and trembling. My
hands stroked and soothed my kindled flesh, and the orgasm
slowly, slowly subsided. But as my heartbeat failed to slow, failed
to fall back into its calm, steady rhythm, I realized this might
have been a huge mistake. I collapsed against the wet wall,
panting.
I'd thought the fantasy of him would be enough. That I could
satisfy the need he'd created in me all on my own. But as I
leaned back, letting the water flood over me, I realized just how
wrong I'd been. Instead of releasing my desire, I'd only
heightened it a hundred fold.
But I'd signed a contract. And I wanted the future it promised
me. Bought and paid for, sex was a complication I simply
couldn't afford
9

JACK

T HANK god I can get by on damned little sleep, because I knew I


wasn't getting any that night.
The water had run in the shower for a long time, while I'd
stripped down and climbed into bed, wide awake. No one, not
even Elaine had ever lived with me at the lake house. It had
always been a private place for me. Where I could run or swim. A
place where I could relax and be myself. It would have been
distracting to have anyone staying in the next room. But
knowing Libby was here stripped bare in my shower,
eventually climbing into bed Did she sleep in the nude?
It was so fucking wrong to think of her in those terms, I chided
myself. I pulled the blankets up over my goddamn hard on. My
balls were high and tight, damn near blue. I'd been told by Dr.
Tiller to hold off on orgasms for a few days before the procedure.
To maximize my fertility. But I wasn't sure I had much of a
choice in the matter anymore, considering the size of the raging
erection I'd been sporting since I'd held Libby in my arms and
kissed her
So many years, with my ex-wife's thin and unresponsive body in
my arms, I had almost forgotten how it felt to hold a woman who
was round and soft, warm and luscious I rolled over onto my
side, aching from the torture I was putting myself through. But I
couldn't forget the feel of her mouth on mine, the way her body
shaped itself to mine like they were made to fit together.
Goddamn it, they were made to fit together. My rock-hard cock
would slide into her tight little pussy like a hand into a glove.
I was oozing now, making a wet spot on the sheets. I rolled onto
my back and tried to force her image out of my head. I thought
about the baby I'd planned for. The son or daughter I wanted
more than anything in the world. For a few short moments, it
was a good distraction. Until the image of Libby's swollen belly
surfaced. Her already large breasts made larger and softer, as
only a pregnant woman's breasts can be. Her belly growing
rounder and riper with every passing day until one day I'd put
my hand on her and feel my son's first tiny kick My cock
throbbed hard, standing off my flat belly with single-minded
intent.
I was a man driven with need to impregnate my woman. And
that woman was only a few feet away, her body ready and willing
to be filled with my seed. In a goddamn perfect world, I'd be in
there now, buried inside her, making her mine. Creating the
future the way humans have for millennia. It was a primal need,
and so help me, in spite of my conservative, highbrow
upbringing, I was still a very primal male.
But I wasn't going to put the future at risk. And there was no way
in hell I'd risk losing Libby's trust by overstepping again. We'd
settled things tonight, and were on the same page. Things were
too good for me to fuck them up now, regardless of my body's
demands. I truly liked Libby, and I respected her commitment to
her art career. I'd already been renewing some old connections
our family had in the art world. I wanted to see her succeed, not
just because of what she was doing for me, but because her
talent needed to be seen, to be recognized.
I rolled over, throwing a restless arm over my forehead. Yeah, I
had to be the good guy here. I didn't honestly have any other
choice. My future and Libby's both depended on it. So did my
future child's.
But as the hours crept by and the night seemed to last forever, I
can't say my resolve never wavered.
And I'd have given damn near anything for the satisfaction of
jerking the hell off.

I MUST HAVE SLEPT , AT LEAST FOR AN HOUR OR SO . B ECAUSE I WOKE WITH


the sky just beginning to lighten and my cock still as demanding
as ever. I showered as quickly as I could in ice cold water, and left
for the office without waking Libby. Maybe by the time I picked
her up to go to dinner, I'd have my baser needs better
controlled
Ninety minutes later, I had coffee in my hand and Spencer
Pierson-Ellis waiting in my office. All thanks to Veronica, the
best assistant I'd ever had. Although she and my ex-wife were
good friends from way back, Ronni had been willing to stay on at
Mason after the divorce.
"Start talking, Spence. I haven't gotten a comprehensive report
in the last two fucking days. If I trusted you less, I'd think you
were holding out on me."
Spencer laughed, and a wisp of comb-over fell into his eyes. Only
three years older than I was, he was already starting to thin
on top.
"Shit, Jack. It's not like you've been all that easy to track down
lately. And India and I had a nice evening last night, thanks for
asking"
I motioned for him to sit and drained my cup as he spread out
the contents of his briefcase.
"Even though a proxy fight can take longer than an outright
takeover, I still think the numbers are showing it was the right
path" He shuffled through and tapped a stack of papers before
handing them to me. "We knew it'd take a little more patience,
Jack. And you agreed along with the other board members, that
acquiring Warner Aluminum would transition more smoothly if
we could win over the majority of their shareholders. Once that's
done, and we've kissed all their wealthy asses, it will have been a
fucking hell of a lot easier in the end."
I scanned the sheets. The names were starting to add up. In a few
more weeks, Mason could indeed have the majority of Warner's
people in our pockets. It was the approach my whole family had
agreed on. Effective, albeit slow. But more amiable than a forced
acquisition. Every one of us had endured meeting after meeting
with members of Warner's board.
I nodded, unsure what had alerted India last night. I'd ask her at
dinner tonight, but everything I saw on paper looked as it
should. "I don't see Wyler or Jackson," I said, scanning for
their names. They were leaders on Warner's board, and we
needed them for the rest to follow. "I want them, Spence. I did
six goddamn months ago and I'm not waiting any longer." I
wanted this merger done and over long before my duties as a
father began.
"We're close to schedule, Jack. If I can have just a few more
months"
"You've got two weeks," I said determinedly, cutting him off.
"I don't give a fuck what you have to do, Spencer. Or what you
have to offer them. Just get those fucking signatures, and get
them now. I want this deal done, and I'm not waiting any
longer."
10
LIBBY

W HILE I COULDN ' T SAY I'd woken up bright and refreshed, at least
I'd gotten a few good hours of sleep. But I was both eager and
nervous about seeing Jack again. I wasn't at all sure last night's
orgasm wouldn't be showing all over my face.
But when I reached the kitchen, it was obvious he'd left for his
office early, maybe even before sunrise. There were crumbs on
the stone countertop and the coffee pot was still half full, but
completely cold. Next to his cup was a note, my name at the top
in tall, scrolling letters

L IBBY ,
I hope you slept well last night. I was too excited to sleep, so I'm
heading in to work early.
I'll be home before three and we can go over the details for
dinner tonight at my folks'.
Make yourself completely at home.
I can't tell you how grateful I am.

HE'D SIGNED IT WITH A LARGE , ELEGANT J AND I RAN MY FINGERTIPS OVER


the initial. No more grateful than I am, Jack Mason, I thought,
looking around the steel and stone kitchen. To think I went from
being literally homeless, to living here for at least as long as it
took me to produce his baby
I set to work, making scrambled eggs and even made fresh juice
from the bowl of oranges on the counter. I rested my eyes on the
smooth surface of the lake as I ate, settling into the easy silence
of the empty house. I had the next seven hours all to myself and
I knew exactly how I was going to spend them. The key Jack had
given me the night before was safe in my pocket. And just the
thought of it there made my hands tingle.
I finished my breakfast and straightened up the kitchen. Then,
on impulse, I picked up the note Jack had left me and pushed it
into my pocket along with the key and headed downstairs. The
next few days were going to be the most complicated and life-
altering of my life. I wasn't even sure I could sort out all the
complex, intense feelings I'd been having since I'd signed Jack's
contract. And after that kiss we'd shared
All I knew for sure was that I'd made the right choice. And that I
wasn't waiting one more minute to release the whirlwind of
emotions inside me. There had only ever been one solution in my
life for how I was feeling now. And that solution was in the palm
of my hands.

B Y TWO O ' CLOCK , THE CLAY HAD STARTED TO COME ALIVE . I WET MY
fingertips again and let them slide over the slick, velvety surface.
I hadn't begun with a specific idea in mind. I rarely did. I just
started to knead the clay, sensitive to whether it felt warm or
cold, stiff or soft. I reached somewhere deep inside No...no,
that's not right. Rather, I let something deep inside venture out.
Giving it permission to show itself, to find expression without
judgement That's what my creative experience was like. And it
was soothing, exciting and exhilarating all at once.
Kind of the way Jack makes me feel, I thought, pushing and
pulling the clay with my thumbs. Like how it feels to be just on
the verge of something you can't even fully envision
I looked at the clock that hung over my work table and stretched
my neck. I'd been so focused for so long, I hadn't realized just
how stiff I'd gotten. And the lake looked so blue, so inviting. The
day had been unusually warm. Warm enough that the water
should be comfortable. I had enough time before Jack got home
to find out for myself. I covered my work with a damp cloth,
tucking a thick layer of plastic over the top.
No, I didn't know just yet what was going to emerge. But I'd
gotten a fine start today. The piece was still unformed, but it
already had a sense about it. Rounded, yet delicate. Smooth with
curving, elegant lines. I washed up in the huge sink that stood in
the corner and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and
excitement I always felt with the gestation of a new piece.
I locked the door behind me and headed for the water. Though
there were other houses on the lake, Jack's seemed to inhabit a
world all its own. It sat in the deepest part of a curving sweep of
sandy beach. The view was amazing, yet it felt completely
private at the same time. I dug my toes into the sand and untied
the thin shoulder straps that held my dress. I was naked
underneath, so the sensation of cool air on all that skin had me
exhaling with pleasure. I stretched my arms above my head and
basked in the afternoon sunlight. I waded out to test the water. It
was deliciously warm, lapping up at my knees. I moved out
farther, letting the water rise between my legs to lick
underneath my breasts
I rolled onto my back and spread out, floating on the surface,
letting the water carry my weight. It lapped at my ears, making
the sounds around me seem both louder and softer all at once.
This was probably the most perfect day in my entire life.
I thought about Jack, and how it would feel to be carrying his
child. The water washed over the mounds of my breasts and I
imagined how it would feel over my round, fertile belly. By this
time tomorrow I could actually be pregnant
"Libby, for fuck's sake Libby!" The words were distorted and
far off, but the urgency of them rang like a bell.
Flailing, I came upright in the water. It was Jack's voice, still
calling and with an edge of anger
"Just what the hell are you thinking?"
I heard the words behind me right before I felt his huge arms
wrap around and pull me to his chest. I sputtered and coughed,
grabbing at his soaking wet suit jacket.
"You nearly fucking scared me to death, Jack! What the hell are
you doing?" I was pushing at his chest. "I went for a swim, is
all." I coughed again. "You damn near drowned me, scaring me
like that."
His hair was plastered around his face, and he should have
looked ridiculous, having jumped into the lake fully clothed to
rescue me. But the fact was, he looked sexier than ever. His
white shirt clung transparently to his chest and the muscles
underneath were hard and beautifully formed. His arms were
thick and sculpted under my hands. Water ran from his hair and
dripped from the hard set of his jaw. He was pissed, but god, was
he hot.
"You went too far, Libby," he said with a bite that made me stop
struggling. He pulled me against him, heading back for the
beach with my wet, naked body in tow alongside his. "It's alright
to swim here, but not out so far. And never. Ever. Alone."
His words were punctuated with the effort of his strokes as he
swam. The eroticism of being naked in the water with him was
fast giving way to the knowledge that in another minute he was
going to be pulling me out of the lake like wet fish. He was angry
and he was right. I knew better than to swim alone. But he didn't
have to treat me like a child. And I sure as hell hadn't needed
rescuing. I figured righteous indignation could be a decent parry
to complete humiliation
"If you'd just let go," I argued, "I can swim back perfectly well on
my own." I pushed at his chest, but his arms stayed tight around
me. "You didn't have to do this"
He kept me beside him, and when his feet hit bottom, he swept
me into his arms and carried me out of the water. His suit was
ruined, running streams into the sand at our feet. And my bare
breasts were crushed against it. His eyes blazed into mine.
"No, Libby," he said. "I did." His chest was heaving. "As long as
you live under my roof, you're my fucking responsibility and so
help me, if you take another chance like that"
"I floated out too far, Jack. But I'm a strong swimmer. I wasn't in
danger."
"It's not just about you anymore, Libby. What if my baby was
already inside you? And something happened and you both
needed help?" His voice was still sharp, but for the first time he
seemed to realize I was completely naked in his arms. My breasts
were crushed against his chest, separated from his skin only by
soaked fabric. And my cold, traitorous nipples were hard and
round as marbles. His right arm was under my knees, his big
hand cupping my bare ass. His eyes moved down for a fleeting
instant before he looked me in the eyes again. "I won't have you
taking risks, sweetheart," he said and I felt that hot, fluttering
sensation inside. "I won't lose you when it's taken all this time
just to find you"
His gaze moved down again and I had to struggle for breath. He
was looking at my body, really looking at me now. And there was
no place to hide. In spite of all my bare, wet skin, I felt suddenly
hot. I like how he looks at me, his eyes on my flesh
"I won't again swim without you," I promised. We locked eyes
and an electric current passed between us.
"No," he said, with the barest hint of a smile. "No you won't."
11
JACK

"O H , J ACKSON ," Mom cooed, her voice thick with southern
honey, "Come over here and give your mama a kiss. And bring
that lovely woman of yours over for a proper introduction." Then
she called back over her shoulder. "India," she chided, "you
didn't tell me what a pretty little thing she is!"
I bent to kiss her pink cheek as she wrapped her arms around
me. Libby's hand was damp in mine. "Mom, I'd like you to meet
Libby Jones. Libby, this is my mother, Vivian." Dad came out of
the house and I saw his eyes light up. "And my father, Fletcher."
"Oh, honey, I can't tell you how happy we were when India told
me Jackson was bringing his girlfriend home for dinner," Mom
gushed. "Now you just call me Viv," she took Libby's hand and
pulled her in for a kiss, leaving a pink lipstick stain on her cheek.
"And come right on over here and meet the rest of the family."
I watched from the outside of the circle as Libby smiled and
shook hands all around. She nodded and laughed. My three
brothers had each given her a friendly hug and India stood next
to Mom, exchanging satisfied smiles. Dad brought her a glass of
sweet tea and ushered us all toward the backyard. I could smell
his famous smoked brisket before we'd even gotten out of
the car.
"Now this is real barbecue," he said, opening the grill and letting
the mouthwatering aroma fully escape. "None of that bottled
sauce" He touched the meat with a fork and it began to fall
away in shreds. "Spices, a good, long smoke, a little love and a
touch of magic," he drawled. He cupped his hand under a forkful
of tender meat and held it up for Libby to taste. He laughed out
loud when she chewed and pretended to swoon. "Everybody get
your plates, now. Miss Libby, will you have some potato salad?"
The barbecue, my sister's suggestion, had been the perfect call.
As usual. We gathered under the trellis that covered the
flagstone patio, warmed by the outdoor fireplace. Ben and India
sat, legs crossed, with their plates in their laps. Mom and Dad
shared a loveseat as did Libby and I. Reid and Blake sat on either
side of Janet, Blake's longtime girlfriend. I'd told the story of
meeting Libby, and how we'd been together every moment
since. No one had blinked an eye when I said I'd moved her into
the lake house with me. So far, everything had gone smoother
than I'd dared hope.
It was the kind of evening we'd had countless times through my
childhood. Even a dozen or so times during my marriage to
Elaine. But as I settled back next to Libby and watched as she
chatted and laughed, my brothers trying to ply her with second
helpings, I realized that in all those years I'd never been as
relaxed and happy as I was now. My dad and brothers had taken
to Libby instantly. How could they not? She was bright and
vivacious and charming, seemingly at perfect ease in spite of the
secrets we were keeping. And Mom had already warmed to her in
a way she never had with my ex-wife. When Mom leaned toward
Libby and wiped the lipstick smear away with her thumb, Libby
just glowed. I put my arm around her possessively, pulling her
closer and dropping a kiss on the soft curve of her neck. We had
appearances to maintain, after all
"You're perfect," I said into her ear, nuzzling as I spoke. "I think
everyone here has fallen for you tonight." I flashed to how she'd
felt in my arms only hours ago. Naked and soft. I hadn't been
able to shake the image. Or the feeling. Or the desire
"I you," she started under her breath. "Well, you're lucky,
Jack." Her breath tickled my jaw. "You have a terrific family. It
must have been incredible, growing up like this" We watched
the others as they ate, leaning toward each other laughing
easily. My brothers took turns keeping Libby's plate full. From
the looks on Reid's face and Ben's, it was a good thing I'd found
Libby first
The evening was wrapping up, just as the first raindrops started
to fall. It was only a light mist in the beginning, giving us enough
time to gather the plates and glasses and head for the house. But
by the time we came back for the brisket and the salads, it had
become a downpour. Dad and I saved the last of the food, but
stood streaming onto the kitchen floor along with the rest of the
crowd. Mom tossed us all towels, but only after draping one
carefully around Libby's wet shoulders.
"Well, that's it then, isn't it?" Mom said, wiping her own face
with a kitchen towel. "I'm not letting any of you drive back out
in this tonight. You can all have a hot shower and just sleep in
your old rooms. Head home in the morning, when the storm's
blown over?"

"B UT WE HAVE THE INSEMINATION SCHEDULED IN THE MORNING ," L IBBY


said as I closed my bedroom door behind us. "We can't just sleep
here together"
"The procedure isn't until eleven," I answered. "There'd be
plenty of time to get there," I pulled the curtains aside and was
blinded by a flash of lightening, followed a second later by a
deafening crash of thunder. "We can't make it back to the cabin
in this this, Libby. We don't have a choice." We stood on
opposite sides of the twin bed. My hair was still dripping and
Libby's dress was thinly plastered to her body. Our eyes met
"You should shower," I said, inclining my head toward the
adjoining bathroom door. "Get warm and I'll find you a pair of
my old pajamas" I broke our gaze to rummage in the chest of
drawers and found a single pair. I held out the blue flannel,
trying to force the smile from my face.
"Tops for you, bottoms for me?"
12
LIBBY

I LET the water flow over me, praying it could wash away all the
emotions warring inside me. The water was hot and it felt good.
Too good. And the feeling of Jack's hands on my body had been
wreaking havoc with me all evening. He was so close, even now.
Just in the other room his bedroom, that we were going to be
sharing tonight
There was no way in hell I could give myself another damned
climax, I thought irritably. Not when I had to go out there and
climb into bed next to him. He would fucking sense it.
So I lathered and rinsed quickly, drying off briskly with a
luxuriously thick towel. Everything around me was lovely.
Homey, yet elegant. The fixtures were gold, the marble polished,
the ceilings in the grand old house tall and ornately carved.
Every inch of it was like a dream come true. And at any other
time, I'd have been soaking in every amazing detail. But as the
Turkish towel rubbed my sensitive nipples hard, I'd have given
damn near anything to be back in my old apartment with its
dripping faucets and leaking ceiling. How the fuck was I going to
get through the night, half naked with Jack, in a bed only large
enough for one?
I dried my hair, scrubbing at it hard with the towel. I caught a
glance of my reflection in the cloudy mirror. My hair was a riot of
curls around my face and both my cheeks and lips were flushed. I
was, well, let's be nice and say Rubenesque. Other than the color
of my eyes, I'd always considered myself pretty nondescript. But
tonight of all freaking nights why tonight?... the girl looking
back at me looked downright hot. She looked exactly the way I
felt. Like a girl who wanted it. Bad.
I splashed cold water on my face and took a few deep breaths. I
was here to do a job, and that was all. The family dinner, Jack's
affection toward me all of it had just been part of the job. One I
was being very well paid to do.
I opened the door and swept a hand toward the bathroom. "All
yours," I said.
It wasn't until I noticed the glint in Jack's eyes, that I regretted
the words.

T HE WATER RAN STEADILY AS I CLIMBED INTO BED AND WAITED . S O THERE


wasn't enough room. I'd had to share beds with my foster
siblings when I'd been little. You just turned your backs on each
other went to sleep. Quick. Simple. Easy.
The door opened and Jack appeared, towel over his head, pajama
bottoms hanging like a tease from his hips. He peaked at me
from under the towel and smiled evenly. "Decent?" he asked.
I pulled the covers up a little higher. "Perfectly," I answered. He
tossed the towel on the floor and sat down next to me, on the
edge of the bed.
"I know it's awkward, Libby, and I'm sorry." He ran his fingers
through his wet hair, leaving lines behind. "But I can't tell you
how much I appreciate what you've done for me tonight for my
whole family, really."
"For your family?"
"To let them see what a lovely person you are. So they'll always
remember that the mother of the first official Mason grandchild
was kind and warm and loving"
"Only after the baby's born, you tell them the relationship
between you and me just didn't work out?"
He smiled. "May I?" he asked, lifting the edge of the covers. "It's
getting cold out here."
"I'm sorry I wasn't thinking," I stumbled, holding back the
covers and holding my breath as he climbed in beside me. He
stretched out on his side, facing me, propping his head up with
his hand. My flannel top kept sliding up, and I kept pulling it
down. My eyes were level with the sprinkling of dark hairs across
his expanse of muscled chest. I knew nothing was going to
happen between us, no matter how wet my pussy was getting.
He smelled like soap and man. Christ, this was going to be a long
night.
"Tomorrow, you're going to give me the greatest gift a woman
can give a man," he said softly and my toes curled in response.
He shifted his legs and his knees bumped mine. I flashed to a
picture of us throwing tomorrow's procedure out the window,
and giving in to the very natural needs of a man and a woman
finding themselves in the sack
"I want you to feel safe with me, Libby," he went on. "We can
both feel there's a mutual attraction between us It's natural
after all, what with the circumstances. But I want you to know
I'd never take advantage. I respect you and I'm grateful to you.
I'd never do anything to ruin the trust between us."
All the moisture in my mouth seemed to have pooled between
my legs. Cotton-mouthed, I worked to swallow while my
hormone-soaked brain worked to come up with a reply. Fuck
respecting me, damn you, and just give it to me hard. Do
something, say something to let me know it's what you want
"I respect you too," I muttered, feeling ridiculous. "Our contract
clearly defines the boundaries of your expectations and mine,"
I added. "We should get some sleep, shouldn't we? Tomorrow's a
pretty big day for both of us."
"I'm becoming a dad," he said, his eyes shining in the darkness.
"I'm becoming a... ," I broke off.
"Pregnant," I finished, the word sounding oddly flat. "With any
luck, I'll become pregnant on the first try."
"I'm counting on it, and that's why I want to make a change to
our original agreement," he said. He leaned back, working to see
my face in the darkness. The moon was shining through the
window on his, and his look was intense, determined.
"I was going to wait until we were sure that the insemination
had been successful and we were starting into the second
trimester." He looked serious, his voice had an edge. "But seeing
you with my family tonight the way they responded, thinking
you and I were"
"Real," I supplied.
"A couple," he said gently. "They're accepting that we're living
together because they believe that we love each other," he
continued. "But they're old fashioned at heart. So are most of
the stuffy old businessmen who help keep our company afloat."
He reached out and touched my cheek. "I'd been planning to
wait, but I know how much it would mean to Mom and Dad. Plus,
there are appearances to maintain in their social circles.
The ceremony can be here at the house," he went, on as my
heartbeat began to race. "We can even spend most of your first
trimester on our honeymoon, if you'd like. As long as it's
technically legal and everyone believes the marriage is the real
thing," he searched my face in the dark, putting his hand on
my hair. "The baby will have been born properly. And later, the
marriage can end quietly. Even a second divorce in the family
would be less of a shock than an illegitimate grandchild"
The only sound was my own blood racing in my ears. He took my
hands in his and I felt that familiar electric current pass
between us.
"I would never expect more between us than the contract
outlines," he went on. "I'd never try to take advantage, when
you're already offering me more than I ever hoped for. A family
of my own
I'm willing to double the fee, Libby. You'll be free to make every
dream of your own come true. To never worry again about having
a place to live and to sculpt. Please, Libby?" he asked, and it
struck me that I'd never heard him use that word
"Will you marry me?"
13
JACK
FRIDAY

T HE ONLY THING that had kept me from stripping Libby bare and
burying myself inside her last night had been fear, that if I'd
seduced her and taken her the way my raging body had
demanded, I'd have lost her for good. Lost her, and my chance at
fatherhood with a woman perfectly suited to have my baby. She
was talented, kind, beautiful and smart. Any child would be lucky
to inherit genes like hers
The only other thing that had stopped me was the simple fact
that I'd lost control in the shower. It had been too goddamned
long and the ache had been far too much. After holding her
naked at the edge of the lake seeing what I'd only imagined up
until then
And then knowing we'd be spending the night in the same
fucking bed Well. A man can only take so much.
I looked over at her, working her hands together in her lap as I
drove. We were only minutes away from the clinic. And shit, I
was as nervous as she was.
I reached over and took her hands in mine. I held them as I
drove, keeping them next to my thigh. In spite of the fucking
great orgasm I'd had in the shower, I'd still been hard most of
the night. Just like I was now. Neither of us had gotten much
sleep. We'd been awake until nearly dawn, discussing my
proposal
"Are you still up for this today?" I asked. God knew I was "We
could always postpone."
"I'm good, Jack, really." Her eyes were bright, although they had
faint shadows underneath them. "I want this. And I'm ready."
She smiled and I felt my chest and groin tighten at the same
time. "More than that, my body is ready. I know it doesn't make
much sense but it just feels like the timing is perfect."
I smiled and held her eyes a moment too long. The back tire went
over the curb hard, and we laughed together. Although she
hadn't said yes outright to marrying me once my baby was
growing inside her, I was sure that she would. I parked in the
clinic lot and went around to open her door.
"Last chance to bail," I offered. I put my arms around her
without thinking. It had started to feel so natural, to hold her
like this.
"Not a chance, Jack," she shot back. "Now get your ass inside
and let's get me knocked up."

I T DIDN ' T TAKE NEARLY AS LONG AS I' D EXPECTED . N OTHING LIKE IT WOULD
have been, done the way nature intended, I thought. I'd have had
Libby in bed with me for days, exploring her responses,
discovering her needs I'd have exhausted us both, satisfied
us both
As it was, I'd pushed the soft porn mags aside in the room they'd
put me in, while they prepped Libby for the procedure. I had all
the images I needed already in my head, of her lush round body. I
unzipped and took cock in hand. Then I imagined her wrapped
around me, the way I'd wanted her when I'd pulled her from the
lake. Half submerged in the water and almost weightless, I could
have fucked her right there, her breasts bobbing on the surface
as I pumped inside her and her legs gripped me as tight as her
sweet little pussy
To her credit, the nurse merely raised her eyebrows as I emerged,
specimen cup in hand, only a few minutes later. I was in the
waiting room for less than half an hour when they told me to
come in, that Libby was asking for me.
"I didn't want you to miss this," she said, reaching out for me
from under the drape. She was on her back, knees in the
stirrups. I took her hand and held it tightly.
"Okay, Mom and Dad," Dr. Tiller said, not glancing up from
under the drape. "This is it." She glanced up at me. "You can do
this with me, if you like."
I looked at Libby, who nodded and smiled. Her eyes were so
bright, so brilliantly green. For a moment, I forgot everything
but her. Then the doctor cleared her throat.
With one hand, I held Libby's warm little hand, threading my
fingers through hers in an unbreakable bond. With the other, I
reached down and helped the doctor press the little plunger.
Though it was nothing like how I'd always imagined it, I was
filling my chosen woman with my seed. This was the beginning
of a whole new world a whole new life Gratitude flooded
through me along with something else something even
deeper
I kissed Libby's forehead and found myself unable to pull away.
The doctor left the room discreetly as I remained, holding onto
this beautiful woman, who with every passing day, was
becoming more and more important to me, in every
imaginable way.
"S O HELP ME , J ACK , IF YOU HELP ME WITH ONE MORE GODDAMN THING "
She was exasperated after I'd offered to carry her up the stairs.
"I'm not really pregnant, at least not yet and my legs sure as
hell aren't broken."
I let her walk up to her bedroom on her own, but I kept one hand
on her elbow as she went. I didn't relax until she was settled on
the bed, a pillow under her head and one under her knees.
"Dr. Tiller said it couldn't hurt, didn't she?" I asked, sitting
down beside her. "How do you feel? Can I get you anything?" I
couldn't seem to keep my hands to myself. I stroked her arm,
her hair. I was used to feeling powerful and in control, and here I
was fussing like an old woman. "When you're settled, I can make
us lunch and bring it up here. Unless you'd like to sleep for a
while." I held her cheek in my hand, cupping her face. "This
morning I didn't think you could be any more beautiful, and yet
here you are"
I leaned in. Maybe it was gratitude. Maybe it was exhaustion.
Maybe it was relief that the day I'd dreamed of was finally here.
Or maybe it was just that even a strong man can only hold out in
the presence of a woman like Libby for so long. But I leaned in
and I kissed her. Hard, the way I needed to, the way I was meant
to. A second later, her hands were tangled in my hair, my chest
on her chest, my hips working their way between her legs. I was
lost in the taste of her, the way her legs felt, wrapped around my
waist. My cock was enormous and I could feel how hot she was at
her core. I knew she was wet, just like I was. That's what
snapped me back into consciousness.
"Libby," I pulled my weight off of her. "I'm so fucking sorry. Did
I hurt you?" My heart was pounding. "I didn't mean to do
that" Who the fuck was I kidding. I'd meant every single
second.
She laughed and pushed herself up higher in the bed. "It's okay,
Jack." Her eyes were brilliantly green. "Couples have actual sex
all through their pregnancies, you know." She licked her lips and
I yearned to do the same. "It's not like you're going to
break me."
"It's just that this is so I've never felt this way before, Libby.
I'm excited and grateful and happy and terrified."
"I know," she said. "Me too." She reached out and smoothed my
hair. "It's really too early to know anything. I just have such a
good feeling about this, you know? Like it's actually going to
happen. That, in a couple of weeks, the doctor will be giving us
good news."
"I know she will," I answered, smoothing her curls behind her
delicate ear. "I can feel it deep inside, that this is right. That
everything that's happening is somehow meant to be."
I kissed her softly this time. "It's why I want to start making
plans. Today, if you'll agree." I watched the color of her eyes
deepen. "I'm certain my baby is starting to grow inside you.
Right now, right this very minute.
And I don't want to wait any longer. I want you to marry me, the
sooner the better. If you'll just say yes, I know India and Mom
could work miracles They could have the ceremony planned in
no time. You wouldn't have to lift a finger." I put my forehead to
hers and felt the little pulse beating there.
"Say yes, Libby. Right here, right now. Don't think about
anything else but me and my child in your belly
And tell me yes."
14
LIBBY

"T HINK OF IT , Libby. The baby could be legitimate even before we


find out he's on the way."
I sat, just breathing, unable to sort the conflict in my mind. I had
enough on my plate with the procedure this morning, thinking,
knowing I was right on the edge of a life altering, body altering
experience. But this pretend marriage deal had come out of the
blue. Everything was happening too fast
"Damn it, Jack. Pretend words on a piece of paper won't make
her legitimate." Tension and lack of sleep had left me with a few
ragged edges. "Sooner or later, someone would find out that the
whole thing had been just one more lie, and I don't want to bring
an innocent baby into the middle" He cut me off.
"I never suggested the marriage would be a lie, Libby." He held
my hands tightly. "It would be as legal and binding as the
surrogacy contract you've already signed."
"But you said we'd have to make them believe it was real"
"No differently than we already have," he answered, his voice
confident. "My family accepts you as my girlfriend now. So will
everyone else, in our business and social circles. And now,
they'll accept you as my wife. It's the next step, Libby. A man in
my position has a certain appearance to uphold. I know it's old
fashioned, but it's how things are done."
"So the marriage would be for real?"
"Legally, yes. For my family's sake. For the baby's, too. But I
wouldn't expect anything more. The marriage would be for their
benefit. That's why our arrangement is so perfect, sweetheart.
It's clear, simple and meets everyone's needs. Neither one of us
was ever looking for the complications of a relationship I
finally become a father, and you have financial freedom for life."
"Everyone's happy" My words trailed off. "And the baby is
born to a properly married couple."
"And there would never be any need to tell anyone that he was
born from anything other than love. He could grow up feeling no
different from any other child"
"Not feeling different," I muttered softly, letting the words sink
in. "With a dad who loves her more than anything and would
do anything to give her the perfect start in life."
Jack chuckled softly. "Still so sure, that's it'll be a girl?"
I smiled, seeing the kindness in his eyes, the excitement he was
feeling. I'd never met anyone who'd given so much time and
thought and effort into parenthood, and the baby wasn't even
here yet. So many men just became fathers by accident. But Jack
was charging in, eyes wide open, with nothing but the best of
intentions. He was the kind of man who would make the very
best father and I knew in my heart, I could trust his judgement.
Being a fake wife couldn't be much harder than being a fake
girlfriend. And what he'd said about neither of us wanting more
had gone a long way in sobering up my hormones "Yes, Jack," I
said slowly.
"Yes, she's going to be a girl?"
"Yes.
That, and I'll also marry you."
H E CALLED HIS PARENTS WITHIN THE HOUR . B UT NOT UNTIL AFTER HE ' D FED
me the best lunch I'd ever had. Freshly grilled salmon on a bed
of salad greens. Cranberries and pecans sprinkled over the top.
He had served me in bed. I patted my not-yet-round belly and
sighed, replete. A girl could get used to this
"I know it's happened fast," he said into the phone. "But when a
man knows, he knows" His eyes met mine and he smiled in a
way that warmed my whole body. "I've never met a woman in
my life that I felt this way about. Like she's the beginning of a
whole new world for me And I can be that for Libby, too. I only
know I don't ever want to let go"
My heart was pounding away in my chest, even though I knew
the words were all for show. But they were believable enough to
make even me wonder, just for a moment, if maybe there was a
chance he could feel something more than appreciation
toward me
I dismissed the idea almost as quickly as it formed. This wedding
really didn't change a thing. We'd go on acting like the happy
couple until the baby was born. And shortly after that, there
would be a break-up' too painful for him to talk about. I would
disappear, and we would both move on with our lives.
I smiled back at him, unable not to. His eyes were so bright he
looked so fucking happy. But it was the baby he was happy
about. She was the one who really made him smile, not me. I'd
be wise not to forget that
"Two weeks, no longer. I'll call India right after we hang up and
we'll leave the details up to the two of you." He paused,
listening. "Libby wants to choose her own dress, that's all." He
nodded at me and I absently nodded back. "I'm going to keep her
entirely too busy for the next week helping me plan our
honeymoon for her to be able to help with the wedding details,"
he said. "We're both putting our trust in you and it's going to be
beautiful." He listened again. "Thanks, Mom. Dad. I love you
guys too."
He hung up and ran his hands through his hair. It stuck out in a
dozen directions at once. I smiled. "Do you think they suspect
this is a shotgun wedding?"
"Maybe. Probably" he said, coming to sit next to me. "But I
can tell when they're happy and they are. They took to you,
Libby. They really did."
"You're lucky, to have a family like that, Jack. All the love, all
that support. I feel uncomfortable about deceiving them, when
they've been so kind to me."
"They're going to be your family too, two weeks from Sunday.
And it's not so deceptive, not really. They desperately want
grandchildren. And we're going to give them that." He put his
warm, roughened palm to my cheek and I couldn't help but lean
into it. "We're two good people, who want very much to have a
child. It may be for different reasons," he said, looking past my
eyes for a second. "But it's what we both want. And it's not as if
we don't have feelings for each other"
Something flared when our eyes met again. "We're good
friends, Libby. Even after the baby's born I'll always be there
for you if you need anything, sweetheart. I can't imagine
experiencing all this together and then not knowing you were
okay." He kissed me softly, sweetly. "You have no idea how
important you've become"
I kissed him back and let him hold me in his arms. He rocked me
gently, like a parent holding a child. As much as his presence
stirred my body, he calmed me too. And I relaxed, soothed,
feeling like as long as he held me everything would be alright.
But somewhere deep down, there was something else too. The
knowledge that despite the wedding, his family would never
really be mine. I could only borrow them, until the baby was
born. And he would never truly be my husband, in spite of the
vows we would soon exchange. There was his world, and there
was mine. He had a family and I had none. Their family would
move on and I would go away on my own
Once I gave birth and I left them all behind, the way I had already
agreed to do, I knew that Jack and I would never see each other
again.
15
JACK

I' D INSISTED Libby stay in bed the rest of the day, and I'd slept in
the chair next to her bed that night. I wanted to be close, if she
needed anything. And truth was, I simply wanted to be near her.
I felt content only if I could see her, touch her. I had to know that
she was safe and well. And I hated the fact that I had to put in at
least a few hours at work on a Saturday. But I'd been leaving far
too many responsibilities to my brothers. Plus, they'd be bearing
the entire load while Libby and I honeymooned on Necker Island.
I'd already booked it for a full month. We'd have the entire
Caribbean island to ourselves. A small, discreet staff would be on
hand, and I'd arranged for a doctor to be ready to helicopter in, if
necessary. Everything was ready. And it would hardly come as a
surprise when, in a couple of months, we announced that we'd
conceived in tropical paradise.
"I'll be back no later than two," I said, pouring us each a cup of
herbal tea. She'd already finished the omelet I'd brought her.
"Are you sure there's nothing else you need?"
"God, Jack. I might be pregnant. I'm not an invalid," she said
sharply. "Pregnant women work and exercise and live their
lives What I need, I can get for myself."
"Okay but keep a phone nearby. And no swimming by
yourself." I reached out to touch her hair.
"Okay Dad," she smiled, softening toward me but still not
meeting my eyes. "Now go, get out of here. You've got a
company to run. And I've got a lump of clay that's calling
my name."
"You're good? I searched her face.
"We're good," she smiled back unevenly, nodding.
I caught the back of her head and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
Then I headed out, anticipating what the day would bring.

"I' VE GOT B ILL J ACKSON , BUT W YLER ' S STILL A HOLD OUT ," S PENCE SAID ,
spreading his hands wide. "I've got dinner set up with him
tonight. You know, with the wife along, keeping it social, low
key." He tapped his fingers on his thigh. "I promised you I'd get
him on board, Jack, and I will. I just need a little more time."
I looked out the tall glass windows considering. I'd been
absent too long. Distracted. "No, Spencer. I appreciate that you
got Bill to sign, but I'm going to take on Wyler. I'll take the
dinner meeting myself. Meanwhile, I want you to take another
look at Warner stock. The price has been creeping up lately and I
want details."
"Right, no problem And congratulations, boss. Word is you're
tying the knot again." I turned back to him, his fingers tapping
away. "I got the heads up that you won't be back until the end of
next month." His eyes were sharp. "Didn't know you were
seeing anyone."
"And yet I was," I answered coolly. "Her name's Libby. Dad, Ben
and Blake will be here full time in my absence. Reid and India
will be on call. I expect the merger should be fucking close by the
time I get back."
"And you've got plenty on your plate, right now Jack. Forget the
deal for now. And let me take the Wyler meeting tonight. I've got
this, boss. Go on and spend this time planning for your
wedding."

I WAS HALFWAY HOME , WITH MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT HAVING LEFT S PENCER
in charge. And I'd realized that I'd forgotten to ask why India
had found their dinner meeting unsatisfactory. But my foot was
heavy on the gas anyway. The closer I got to home, where Libby
and the baby were waiting, the lighter I felt. Spence was right.
There wasn't much time till the wedding. I needed a tux. And
Libby had a dress to buy
I'd only just summoned an image in my head, of Libby in a
curve-hugging white silk gown when my phone began to buzz. I
answered without looking at the screen.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Elaine's voice was
piercing. "The ink isn't dry on our divorce papers and you're
fucking getting married again?"
"Thoughtful of you to call, Elaine. But what I do isn't any of your
business anymore." I was working hard to keep my voice calm.
"You had me served, if you'll remember. And everything
between us was over a long time before then."
"And you don't give a shit how this makes me look?" I held the
phone farther away and took a long, slow breath. "What will
everyone think, when you turn around and marry some stray off
the streets right after we settled the divorce. Goddamn it, Jack.
I've got my pride." Her words were long and drawn out. I'd
forgotten how her southern drawl often came out along with her
claws.
"You're only right about one thing," I said. "We settled our
divorce. And I gave you everything you asked for"
"Nowhere near what I deserved," she shot back.
"We're over, once and for all, Elaine. And the woman I'm about
to marry is no fucking stray." The word came out through my
teeth, like an expletive. "She's the most honest and kind person
I've ever known. She's everything I've ever wanted"
"You don't fucking understand, Jack"
I cut her off, gently, patiently the way you would an upset child.
"No, Elaine. I do understand.
For the first time in my life, I really do."
16
LIBBY

I STRETCHED and flexed my shoulders when I heard Jack's car


heading up the drive. He was earlier than he'd said, and I was
excited by the sound of his steps on the gravel. I'd been working
on my sculpture since he'd left. It was far from finished, but I
wanted him to see it anyway. There had been something special
about this piece from the very start. I wanted to see if he could
feel it too.
"Libby." He stood in the doorway, his hair a mess, but his eyes
warm and soft on me. "I can't tell you how good it is to come
home to you."
"Come over here," I said, reaching out a hand toward him.
"Close your eyes give me your hands."
I guided him to my chair and put my hands on his broad
shoulders, sitting him down. I stood behind him and covered his
hands with mine. "Forget everything," I whispered in his ear.
"Keep your eyes closed and forget the whole world. The only
thing that exists right now is your hands your fingertips"
I guided them to the piece on the table and helped him take the
plastic cover off. Then I put his hands on the clay. I let my hands
rest lightly on top of his. He had beautiful hands, with long,
sensitive fingers. They were large and strong, but touched the
clay with a lightness, a delicacy that made the surface of my skin
tingle.
He explored the curves, the angles, what was smooth and what
was still rough. He found the places where I'd just begun to
create a few tiny details. The folds and the gentle valleys. The
only sound in the room was our breathing. And he took his time.
All the while my hands on his.
"It's only just beginning," he said softly, into the silence. "But
it's gentle and beautiful. It's familiar to me somehow, but I
don't know"
"I don't either," I said, smiling. "Not just yet. But it's going to be
beautiful, I know that. All I have to do is help it find its way"
The next thing I knew, Jack was standing beside me, towering
over me, his hands touching my skin the way he'd touched the
clay. His mouth found mine and I was lost in him. His touch, the
taste of his lips. He was salty and sweet, making me want more.
His cock would taste like this, I thought wildly. It was huge and
pressing hard into my belly. I rocked my hips against him and
the moan that escaped him made me bolder frantic. It wasn't
right, I thought, to have a man's child in your belly before you
got to have the man himself
I slid my hands up under his shirt and hit rock hard pecs. But the
skin was like velvet under my fingers. He groaned and peeled my
blouse off in a single move. I was naked under it, and my nipples
were aching with need. All the air left my lungs when he took my
breasts in his hands and he dipped his head. I was spilling over,
swollen and tender. He caught one thickening nipple in his
mouth, sucking and licking all at once. I wrapped a leg around
his hips and my skirt climbed higher High enough my soaking
wet panties were pressed tight up against his slacks.
"God, Libby I want you so fucking much" His face was buried
in my cleavage, his hands cupping my ass as he rocked his length
along my barely covered pussy. "I've wanted this since I saw
you all fucking curves and sweetness"
"Please... oh, please god," I panted back. "I want this too. I
fucking need this, Jack" Even to my own ears it sounded like
begging. But I was beyond caring. My body, my heart wanted
this man. It couldn't be wrong, not when it felt like this not
with everything between us already
He pulled back, looking at me like he wanted to devour me
whole. I might have been frightened if I hadn't been feeling
it too.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said, kissing me, tasting me,
shaping me to him. "I was supposed to keep this just
business"
"You won't hurt me," I moaned, his tongue finding the
throbbing curve of my throat. "And there's nothing wrong with
wanting"
"Christ...," he cursed, sweeping me off my feet. "You have a
body that would tempt a fucking saint," he swore, his breath hot
in my ear. "I can't risk the baby, Libby. I won't
But so fucking help me, I'm going to have you tonight. I can't
wait any longer."

F OR A MAN WHO COULDN ' T WAIT , HE WAS TAKING HIS SWEET ,


fucking time.
I was stripped bare and there wasn't an inch of my flesh he
hadn't discovered that he hadn't tasted. All except for the
single few inches left inside me that were screaming out for him.
His pants were still on, his cock all but ready to break free on
its own.
He'd carried me upstairs, laying me down on his bed like I was
something precious, breakable. "Not yet," he'd said through his
teeth, when I'd reached for his belt. "I want you satisfied before
you touch me, sweetheart. I'm not going to risk fucking you. Not
now not so soon after I can't risk hurting you or the baby.
And I can't trust myself when you're looking at me like you are
right now"
How?" I demanded boldly. "Tell me how"
"Like you could swallow my cock so deep inside I'd be lost," he
answered. "You're so sweet, so soft so luscious I don't think
I could have you just once without wanting you forever," he
kissed me deeply and touched his fingertips to the place where I
craved him most. "But I want you totally satisfied, baby" He
pushed two long, hot fingers into me, achingly slowly as I felt
myself clenching for more. "I'm not going to stop until you come
on my tongue." He dipped his face down to my core and my hips
bucked all on their own. "I want you spent and exhausted by the
time we get to me"
I ached and cried out as his mouth took me in. He didn't just lick
me. He took me inside his mouth, working with his fingers and
his tongue. He eased off when my cries hit the high notes, and
worked me harder when I moaned deep and low. It could have
been minutes, it lingered like hours And when I came, it
seemed to last forever.
I ached and he gave.
I needed and he was there.
I hungered and he was everything I craved.
When I collapsed in his arms, he held me, stroking my face.
"Beautiful," he said easily. "Just like I knew you would be."
17
JACK

I' D INTENDED to let her sleep. Fuck the goddamn hard on that was
damn near to exploding on its own. She was the mother of my
child and I'd be damned if I was letting it have its way.
But her eyelids fluttered back open only minutes after she'd
come. She tasted sweet and juicy, just like I'd known she would.
What I hadn't expected was for her to climb up on top of me,
sitting on my thighs as her hands worked to free me. I sprang
out, thick and throbbing with the pace of my heart. She shifted
and slipped my pants down, leaving me raw, naked and
pounding. "Put your hands on me," I groaned, grasping them
and guiding them onto my enormous shaft. "I can't fuck you, I
can't risk hurting you But god, Libby, I need the feeling of your
skin on me."
I arched back as she grasped me. What was already huge got even
bigger. I was like putty in her hands. Thick, hard, demanding
putty with a fucking mind of its own. She started to stroke me,
using both hands on my length. "Oh my god, Jack," she
breathed. "Oh, my god."
Before I knew it, she had me in her mouth. She'd slipped her ass
back along my thighs and in one move had fallen forward,
engulfing me in a world of hot, wet, silk. "Oh, Christ" I barely
got the words out.
She took me in as far as she could, resting her heavy breasts on
my thighs, working her hands and her mouth together. I could
feel the sides of her cheeks on my shaft, the muscles moving as
she sucked. "Oh fucking shit," I gasped out. My balls were
huge and tight, ready to explode. I clenched my teeth, holding
out as long as I could bear it. But everything about Libby was
overwhelming Fucking everything
I reached down, grasping her curls in my hands. As much as I
wanted to come in her mouth, I wanted something else even
more. I took her perfect ass in my hands and slipped her hips up
and over mine. Her soft, sweet, hot pussy lips wrapped my cock.
She was so slick, so ready for me but I didn't dare thrust up
inside her
"Just work yourself on me, baby." I moved her back and forth on
my shaft, feeling her hard little clit sliding on my length. "Rub
that fucking sweet pussy on me and make come all over your
little belly."
She was breathing fast and hard as she fell into her rhythm. She
knew what I wanted just what I needed and she used her
pussy the way she'd used her mouth. Sliding up and down along
my cock, faster and faster.
"God, Jack I want you inside me so much," she gasped out, her
shoulders falling forward with her movements. Her breasts were
in my face, her nipples against my cheeks as her hips worked. I
held her tight, using my hands to help her move, setting a pace
that had us both racing for release.
"Fuck, baby." I was so close, my cock was already seeping. It
would have been so goddamned easy to slip right in "I want
you, sweetheart," I gasped out as she rode me faster. "So fucking
much so fucking deep"
Her thighs clenched me as her climax shook her and I could feel
the spasms as her pussy tightened along my shaft. A second
later, she took me with her over the edge and our bodies drove
frantically against each other. Hot pulses of come covered my
belly and hers as we held onto each other
And even long, long into the night, even once we finally slept, we
never let go.

I WOKE BEFORE SHE DID , AND EASED MYSELF FROM UNDER THE SHEETS
without waking her. Her long lashes fanned out over creamy
skin, her lips were still swollen from my kisses
I wanted her all over again, even more powerfully after having
had a taste of her. But I knew I'd been right to hold back last
night. We were, at most, only a few weeks away from confirming
that Libby was pregnant. And fuck, if I was being too cautious.
There was nothing I wouldn't give up to protect that child.
I closed the bedroom door behind me and headed for the shower,
turning the water on full blast. The cold hit my skin with a
shock, but warmed fast. All I could think about was Libby. Her
taste her touch her sweetness
As the sun rose outside the window and I remembered every
moment, each exquisite inch of her skin, there were other
feelings too, more complicated ones that kept creeping in. What
had happened between us had been perfectly natural. An
attraction based on the unusual circumstances we were in. Two
unattached people, living together for the next nine months.
About to experience one of life's greatest miracles together
Soon we'd be presenting ourselves as a happily married couple.
It was natural that we'd both gotten carried away,
understandable that we'd wanted to give in
I stood under the water, letting it run through my hair, down my
chest. It was good to have gotten it out of our systems and
good it hadn't gone any farther than it had. But still
My cock stirred, stiffening again. Hell, I still wanted to fuck her. I
wanted to fuck her now, and when we found out she was
pregnant. And again when her belly started to grow round and
her breasts grew even heavier Ripe and delicious like my
own fucking fertility goddess
All I wanted was her, all I needed was her. And yet we'd both
signed that fucking contract. And the deal between us was still
just business.
There was no place for a relationship in my life. And I knew
Libby felt the same. She signed the papers, stating once the baby
was born, she'd be out of our lives forever. No matter what else
might happen between us, nine months from now, we'd be
signing divorce papers and she'd be packing up her bags. The
thought made something in my chest constrict painfully.
What I'd experienced with Libby in these last few weeks had
made me feel things I'd never felt for any woman before. Even
without having taken her completely last night, without having
truly made her mine, I felt a deeper connection to her than I'd
ever experienced before in any other relationship.
But the agreement between us had nothing to do with
connection or relationship. It was about creating a child. My
child. She'd made it perfectly clear she had no desire to be a
mother herself. And I'd already been through that painful
experience before
While my heart and my body wanted more, so much more, I
knew I had no right to complicate Libby's life with desires she
didn't share. I didn't want to confuse her. And I couldn't
imagine doing anything to hurt her I owed her too much.
No, last night hadn't been a mistake. At least not for me. I
prayed Libby wouldn't regret it either.
But I also knew it wouldn't be fair, to ever let it happen again.
When the time came, I knew that for her own sake, I would have
to let Libby go.
18
LIBBY

I PUSHED the hair back out of my eyes and pulled the cover over
the clay. I'd promised Jack I wouldn't swim again without him,
and I'd kept my promise. But I wandered out to the edge of the
water anyway, squinting from the sun. There was no one around
to see and I bent down splashing water over my hair and tee
shirt. It was really getting too cool to swim anyway, but the sun
was warm on my skin and I stretched out on the white sand.
The night Jack and I had well let's say been together was
almost a week ago now. I could still feel him on my skin. Every
time I looked at him, I felt the same hot, flood of desire roll over
me. But something had changed between us. And we hadn't
talked about it. Not yet.
It was almost as if he'd had his fill of me. Oh, he was still kind
and attentive. Almost too attentive. It seemed like he knew what
I needed before I did. And he was always there, with a warm
smile and those velvety brown eyes But he'd never reached for
me again. And I wasn't sure he ever would.
Sometimes, I'd catch him watching me. In the evening, when we
were curled up in our matching chairs. Watching a movie or
just watching the fire in the fireplace. We talked about his work
and mine. How I was feeling. What the baby might look like. If I
could feel her inside me yet
His eyes would shine and we would laugh together. We'd spent
hours on the phone with his mom and India, vetoing or
approving wedding ideas. I couldn't think of a time I'd ever felt
so completely content. So truly happy. And when our eyes would
meet, I could swear he was feeling the same deep pull inside that
I was. That instinct under all the rest that draws us toward that
one right person
But he'd never reached out for me again. And despite my crazy
baby hormones, I think I knew it was for the best. After all, it
had never been me he truly wanted. Even though he was kind
and thoughtful and caring The only reason I was here was all
about the baby. I had no right to want anything more from him.
And the contract made that perfectly clear.
When I was alone like this, I knew it was really all for the best.
What sense was there, in developing the sexual attraction
between us any further? After the baby was born, I had a life of
my own and a career to pursue. It had been enough for me before
Jack, and it would be enough for me again. For the next nine
months, it had to be the baby that came first. That was a
commitment I took very seriously. But after that, Jack and I
would go our separate ways. It didn't matter that I'd allowed
myself to fantasize about having more. No matter what we were
pretending at, we weren't a real couple. And nothing about the
marriage would be real either.
It was just that sometimes, if I let my mind wander, it felt good
pretending it could be real. That he was taking care of me, too
and not just the baby. I liked to imagine having a real family of
my own even though I knew it just wasn't in the cards. I didn't
even know what it felt like, to be part of a real family. How can a
woman be a mother when she never had one herself?
I heard the tires roll up the drive and turned toward the sound.
Jack was heading toward me, India smiling at his side. I'd
forgotten our plans until just then.
Today she was taking us both out to lunch. And later, while Jack
was being fitted for his tux, his sister and I would be picking out
my wedding gown.

"I F YOU DON ' T CHOOSE THIS ONE , YOU ' RE OUT OF YOUR MIND , THAT ' S ALL I
have to say." India sat with a glass of champagne in her hand
while I looked at my backside in the mirror.
"But it's so so" I twisted around to look from the other
direction, as if that would somehow make it appear smaller.
"Big," I added.
"Like the rest of us would kill for, you mean." She stood up and
waved her glass. "You've got all the right curves in all the best
places, Libby. Now stop being critical, and just look"
The gown was creamy white and clung from my shoulders to my
knees. From there it flared out in a sweeping froth of
embroidered lace. It was daringly low and exposed more cleavage
than I was strictly comfortable with. And it nipped my waist in
tight before hugging my hips.
"Now, take a deep breath and tell me it's not perfect." She raised
a brow, daring me.
"I can't take a deep breath in this, India. And it's so so
formal. I always imagined getting married on the beach
somewhere." I tugged at the neckline. "Wearing a light, flowy
sundress or something."
Her brow wrinkled as she looked at me hard. "So you have
imagined it?" she asked slyly. "I thought that tough,
independent Miss Jones never dreamed about her wedding day
the way the rest of us girls do."
I cringed. "Everyone imagines all kinds of things," I said,
turning my attention back to the mirror, "that they don't
necessarily intend to follow through on." I tucked my hair
behind my ears. "I used to dream about growing up to be a forest
ranger Doesn't mean it's what I want today."
"No, it doesn't. But we are still planning a wedding here," she
said, putting down her glass. She stood behind me, watching my
reflection in the mirror. "And even a casual ceremony in the
Mason family means tuxedos and formal gowns, and shoes that
hurt your feet." She kept watching me, her eyes narrow and
shrewd.
"Do you know what you really want?" she asked softly. I
swallowed hard, unable to answer.
She smiled a gentle, secretive smile.
"The dress, Libby? Is this one a yes, or a no?"
19
JACK

L UNCH with my sister had been quick and interesting. I'd finally
asked her about her dinner with Spencer. All she'd admitted to
was that at the end of the evening, he'd asked if she could put
the check on her expense account. That he'd forgotten his card.
It had struck her as odd, boorish. Nothing more.
Then she's asked all about the procedure, and whether or not we
knew yet if we were pregnant. We'd told her it was still too soon
and filled her in on all the details. It felt great to have someone
we could share it all with. She'd smiled and nodded supportively.
All through lunch I'd felt her eyes, moving back and forth
between Libby and me

"S AUL , AS ALWAYS A PLEASURE ," I SHOOK THE OLD MAN ' S HAND AND
left the shop. He could fit a tux in a matter of minutes and the
family had used him for decades. "Congratulations to you,
Mister Mason," he'd called out after me as the little bell on the
door chimed. "And all the best to your bride"
My bride, I thought as I climbed into the leather seat. I liked the
way it sounded even if it did have a shelf life. I smiled as the
engine started, and I headed to the office for the afternoon.
The wedding was only four days away. And we were meeting up
at Mom and Dad's place tonight to tie up the loose ends. I was
grateful they'd been able to pull it all together so quickly. And
while it was too formal to suit my idea of the perfect wedding, it
would be traditional enough to please my family and their social
circle. The whole thing after all, was about satisfying
convention.
I spent the rest of the day returning calls and emails. Everything
Spencer had provided me about the merger looked good, even
though some of our stockholders had still needed my
reassurance. I gave it, trusting Spence to come through like he
always had. The final papers were set to be signed on Friday,
before the wedding. While I didn't like pushing it to the edge, I
knew Spence took his work very seriously. He'd eaten, breathed
and slept this deal from the start. It couldn't be in better hands.
Typically, I'd have been handling virtually everything on my
own. But what with the complicated divorce settlement and the
surrogacy plan Now there was a wedding and a honeymoon to
look forward to Well, I'd been distracted from business. And
once the baby came, I'd be spending even less time at Mason. I
threw a few files in a drawer and logged off the computer. It was
time, after all those years of endless days and sleepless night,
giving everything I had to the company. I was more than ready to
take a step back. Hell, more than that. It was finally time for me,
my dreams, a family of my own.
Almost everyone was gone for the day, but as I passed Spencer's
office, his light was still on, the door cracked open. I stuck my
head in.
"No, I don't think so," he was on the phone, his chair turned
toward the window. "I got the last five thousand today Right
baby see you at eight-thirty."
"Sorry, Spence, didn't mean to interrupt," I said, knocking
unnecessarily on the doorframe. "I'm just heading out." He
turned, startled and slipped his phone into his jacket pocket.
"Have you got dinner plans as well?"
"Oh, right. Sure." He looked embarrassed. "Just someone I
met we're having drinks later." He didn't meet my eyes, his
hands busy shuffling papers. "Casual, you know."
"Right. Well I'll be in on Friday, seven-thirty sharp. The Big
Day." He looked up. "I appreciate everything you've done,
Spence. Thank you."
He blinked for a moment. "Jack?"
"What?"
"I
Nothing. You're welcome, boss. Have a good night."

A LTHOUGH DINNER HAD BEEN IN THE FORMAL DINING ROOM , THE FOOD HAD
been Mom's family-style specialty. Southern fried chicken,
bacony green beans, and the lightest biscuits ever eaten by
mankind.
"Butter?" Mom asked, turning to Libby with the dish. "She
prefers honey," I answered without thinking, surprising myself
that I'd remembered I passed her the little pot and Libby
smiled, nodding in pleasure as she took it. "Since she was little."
One hour turned into two, as we sat replete around the table.
Mom and Libby had explored their mutual interest in gardening.
She and Ben discovered a shared passion for Italian art. Blake
and Janet had asked Libby gentle questions about her past, which
she'd answered briefly and honestly. I'd seen the exchanged
looks and the approval in their eyes. I wasn't the only one who
found her utterly charming
After dinner, we took our cobbler into the family room where the
fireplace was glowing dimly. I handed Libby into a loveseat and
sat down, putting my arm around her. I'd been cautious about
touching her since our night together. But it was fucking heaven
to have a good excuse for touching her now
"So, that's it," India said around a mouthful of peaches and
cream. "Reverend Harper says the whole ceremony lasts about
twenty minutes and bingo, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Mason."
I turned to Ben, who had finished his second helping, and
discreetly handed him the tiny silver box I'd picked up at the
jeweler's on the way over. "You've got this?" I asked softly.
"With my life," he answered back. We exchanged a look between
us, and he nodded slowly. Even though he was the youngest,
we'd always had a special bond. It was why I'd asked him to
stand up for me.
Dad emptied his bowl and put it on the coffee table. "I want you
to know, son, how proud you've made your mother and me," he
said, smoothing his dignified grey whiskers. "And how pleased
we are to welcome you into our family, Libby." He reached out
and patted her hand affectionately. "Now, we know that the two
of you didn't want us fussing over the details, but"
"Now, Dad," I began.
"No, I want you to listen for once, Jackson," he went on. "We
know you don't have parents of your own, Libby. And Vivian and
I just want you to know that we'd be proud to have you call us
Mom and Dad, if you would be comfortable doing so." He leaned
forward a little more and I could see moisture starting to pool in
the corners of his eyes. Libby sat, still and quiet, her hand in his
and he went on.
"I know too, that's it's not right for a bride to walk down the
aisle alone on her wedding day. And if you'll allow me, it would
be my honor to stand in your father's place and escort you on my
arm. After all, you're the woman who's made my son happier
than he's ever been."
20
LIBBY

"B UT IT ' S all going too far!"


I'd caught Jack's arm in the hallway. After agreeing to let
Fletcher no, Dad Mason, escort me down the aisle, I was
currently on my way up to Mom's bedroom to try on my stupidly
expensive wedding gown. It had been hand delivered that
afternoon.
"We don't even know if there is a baby yet. And now there's a
wedding and I'm supposed to call them Mom And Dad." I was
starting to hyperventilate. "They're welcoming me as their
daughter, Jack. And the whole thing is one big lie."
"It's no lie, Libby," he whispered back, his hands on my
shoulders. "The baby is real. I know he is. And the marriage will
be perfectly legal"
"I don't like feeling as though we're deceiving them, Jack. When
they're being so kind to me." I brushed the tears away as they
dripped from my chin. "It just feels wrong"
He wrapped his arms around me, pulling me tight to his chest. "I
know, Libby. But it's better in the end. It's better for them for
the baby." He reached down and put his big, warm hand low on
my belly. "Look, he's here already, making his mother all
emotional"
I held my breath, looking up into the depths of his dark eyes. All
evening he'd been so attentive, so affectionate toward me. The
others had noticed, exchanging knowing glances. And now we
were alone, here in the dark
His mouth came down on mine, everything else started to slip
away. His tongue found mine and I reached up, pulling him
closer. After so long without his touch, his taste, I felt desperate
for more. The fire he'd lit inside me more than a week ago had
only grown. All it took was his kiss for it to consume us both
"If you can bear to part with her, just a little while longer"
Mom's voice interrupted softly. "I promise I'll give her back." I
turned to face her, my lips still embarrassingly parted.
"Of course. I'm sorry, Viv Mom," I said unsteadily. "The
dress"
"That's right, honey. And if the shop's going to have time to
make any last-minute adjustments, we need to see if it fits, right
this minute. Jackson, Ben and your father are in the study. Libby,
let's get you into that dress. India's already got hers on."
Jack gave me a steady smile. Lending me his courage, as I
followed his mother down the hall.
He was right, after all. This was all for the baby's sake. And even
though it was still too soon to be sure, I knew she'd be worth it.
Besides, in a few more days, the wedding would be behind us,
and Jack and I would be alone on an island, where there would no
longer be any need for pretense. But his kiss still burned on
my lips.
"Is this perfect or what?" India whirled around as we entered the
room. She was wearing silk, the color of silver and was a knock
out. What I wouldn't have given for her height and natural
slenderness?
"Now, come on," she said, easing my own dress from a white
velvet hanger. "Mom can help you into this while I go change. Be
back in a flash."
India gave me a smile and turned her bright eyes to Vivian. For a
split second, I thought I saw something there. And then she was
gone, and Vivian was undoing the tiny buttons along the back of
the gown.
"You have the loveliest kind of figure for a dress like this," she
said. She glanced up as I was slipping out of my blouse and then
back down to the buttons. "Pretty feminine The kind of
woman a man just can't resist."
I laughed nervously for a moment and then sobered. "I know it's
all happened so quickly," I began. "For Jack and me to be living
together and now getting married"
"No quicker than Fletcher and me," she said. I thought I caught a
flicker in her eye. "The Mason men have always known what
they want. Even when they don't even realize it yet. Five
generations of them. All strong Southern men who know exactly
what they want and waste no time in taking it." Her voice was
soft, but sure.
"You and Dad were married quickly?" I stepped into the
dress she held for me. "I thought that long engagements were
the tradition in the south"
"Has Jack been fillin' your head with how conventional Fletcher
and I are?" She slid the dress over my shoulders and I saw her
shake her head gently. "I swear, that boy."
She stepped behind me and began to button. "Of all our family,
he's the most conventional one of us all. And yet he goes on and
on about what traditional folk the rest of us are." She smoothed
the fabric at my waist. "It's a little snug here." I blinked, but said
nothing. She went on.
"Fletcher and I were married not one month after we met, and
that was thirty-four wonderful years ago. Now we never lived
together first, but"
"That's why I told India I wasn't sure about the white dress. I'd
thought the silver might be"
Vivian turned me by the shoulders to face the cheval mirror in
the corner. Her eyes were finely lined, but they were sharp and
brilliantly blue as she looked over my shoulder, into my
reflection.
"I never saw a bride more suited to white," she said firmly,
kindly. "And I can't imagine any woman better suited to my
Jackson." She turned me gently around to face her and I saw her
eyes sparkle as she kissed me on the cheek.
"Besides, if a lady had to earn the right to wear white on her
wedding day, I'd have had to wear scarlet." She winked
conspiratorially and I smiled back, blushing furiously.
"And just between you and me, honey, it simply isn't my color."
21
JACK

L IBBY CAME downstairs with a glow about her. When we headed


out to the car, she hugged Mom and Dad and they kissed her
cheeks. It was wonderful to see, but I had to admit. I was feeling
some of the same discomfort Libby had brought up on the stairs.
"Your mom wants me to stay with them the night before the
wedding," Libby said as we drove back to the lake house. "She
said it's good luck for us not to see each other until I'm walking
down the aisle."
I reached over and squeezed her hand, letting it rest on my
thigh. It just felt so fucking good. So real to reach out for her.
More and more, I was realizing just how much I enjoyed
behaving as if we were a real couple.
"I'll stay at the lake and drive in early," I answered. The wedding
was set for Saturday at eleven o'clock. "Are you sure you don't
mind spending the evening on a plane? Our pilot's wife is
expecting and due any day. He didn't want to wait until Sunday
The jet has beds that fold out, if you need to rest."
"I don't mind," she said. "It's not like we'll have anything better
to do"
I pulled into the drive and shut off the engine. "Libby"
"It's okay, Jack." her voice was soft, firm. "I know why you've
been keeping your distance since that night we were together"
She stopped and looked off toward the dark water. "It was
wonderful, Jack. And I don't regret it. But I understand why it
can't happen again and I agree with you that it's the best
thing"
"It was beautiful, sweetheart. Just like you." I swallowed,
keeping her hand under mine. "And I'd like nothing more than
to pick up where we left off that night"
But we're two different people With two separate lives," she
added, reading my mind. "And it could only make things harder
for both of us in the end." She turned her palm upwards and
our fingers meshed together perfectly.
"Yes it would make everything harder," I said. "If I'd met you
at a different time in my life If we wanted the same things"
"It's all right, Jack. Really.
I'm sorry I got upset at your parents' place. I'm fine with this,
truly. I came to terms years ago with the fact that I'm not the
mothering kind. And I can't imagine anyone who'd make a
better father than you will." She squeezed my hand and let it go.
"We met at just the right time, Jack. And I don't believe in
regrets." She opened her car door and inhaled the crisp night air.
"I'm good with everything, just as it is. I'm glad we're friends.
We're fine, really." She took my hand and placed it on the gentle
curve of her belly.
We sat, looking out over the water, only the buzz of an insect
breaking the silence. Never in my life had I felt such
contentment. She was right. Things between us were just as they
should be.
So why did I still want so badly to possess her? To take her
upstairs and rediscover every inch of her?
I was so fucking close to everything I wanted. So why was there a
feeling deep down inside, that the most precious thing of all
could be slipping away?

F RIDAY
"What the fuck do you mean, the contract isn't ready?" I stood
over Spencer, not giving a shit that my voice was too loud. "I'm
leaving tomorrow for the next four weeks, and you're telling me
it's not ready?"
He looked up, spreading his hands. "Monday, at the latest, Jack.
Honest to god, I did my best. But I can fax the shit to you on the
island and you can sign from there"
"I needed this merger finished and done before I leave the
country," I said, tearing through my hair with both hands. "It's
not so fucking simple as a few signatures"
Spencer got up and poured two cups of coffee. He handed me one
and stood with me looking out over the city. "I'm sorry, boss. I
fucked up and I know it. But you know me, Jack. You know I'll
make it right. I just needed a few more days to tie up the loose
ends. Wyler needed a little extra romancing, is all."
I knew he was right. I'd been on the phone with the man myself
a dozen times in the last week alone. I had his promise, just like I
had Spencer's. I just didn't like the idea of not being present
when the deal was finalized. Still, my brothers and Dad were
more than able to handle things, along with Spence.
"I'd postpone until Monday, if I could," I said. "There's just no
fucking way"
"There isn't anyone here at Mason that would allow you to," he
answered. "We're all glad to see you happy again, boss." He
smiled and put his hand on my shoulder reassuringly.
"Go on. It's time for you to have a life, for Christ's sake. Get
married and enjoy your honeymoon, Jack. I'll have everything
faxed to you on Monday, and the rest of the month will be
nothing but happily wedded bliss."

I STAYED LONG AFTER EVERYONE ELSE WAS GONE . I T REMINDED ME ALL TOO
well, of how obsessively I'd worked, for years to get the company
back on track.
The halls were dark and silent. The only light left came from my
computer screen. I'd checked and double checked all Spencer's
work. He was right. Everything was right on track. There was
nothing to worry about. I shut down the computer and turned my
chair so I could look out over the lights of the city. It was
beautiful at night. And I was way too distracted to focus on work
anymore.
Libby was already at my folk's place. By now, I expected she was
probably asleep. I'd called three hours ago, to wish her sweet
dreams. Tomorrow was our wedding day. I could still feel her in
my arms as I'd kissed her goodbye
"The dress was snug in the waist," she'd whispered. "I know it's
still just a little too soon to test, but it seems like a good sign
anyway."
We'd agreed to wait until we were on the island to take our first
pregnancy test. I'd already gone out and bought more than a
dozen. It seemed perfect, to confirm our baby's new life on a
lovely tropical island. Plus, the longer we waited, the more
accurate the result. And we'd be back from the honeymoon
before her first OB visit.
"It's a great sign, Libby," I'd said smiling. Ever since we'd talked
in the car, things had been easier between us. "Happy Wedding
Day, tomorrow."
"Yes Happy Wedding Day," she'd chuckled. "I'll be the one
looking ironic in white."
The sky was dark and clear as I thought about everything Libby
had brought into my life. She had a lightness, a spontaneity
about her that felt like a refreshing breeze. She was warm and
kind and beautiful. And even though we'd agreed not to
complicate things with sex, my body still responded to her with a
ferocity that left me aching with need. Shit, nobody ever said it
was going to be easy, living with a woman I couldn't have
I loved how she looked in the morning with her hair rumpled
from her pillow. I loved how passionate she was about her art.
She didn't know it yet, but I'd had the contents of her studio
shipped to the island for our stay. I was aching now,
remembering our hands, together on the clay. And everything
else that night had led to
I loved how her eyes glittered like jewels when she laughed. And
how my parents had already fallen in love with her She'd won
them over, just by being herself. Lovely, pure, honest.
I locked my office and headed down the long corridor. I was long
past time I should have been home, but without Libby waiting
there, I hadn't been in any hurry.
My steps fell softly on the carpet as I passed office after office.
Every one was closed and dark inside. I passed Spencer's door
and reached for the elevator button. There was something
familiar something I knew, but couldn't place
It wasn't until the elevator reached the parking garage that I
made the connection. That scent I'd caught the barest hint in
the hallway
It was imported from Paris. Unusual and expensive. Sans Coeur.
I should know
It was Elaine's favorite.
22
LIBBY

IT WAS S ATURDAY . My wedding day


I rubbed my eyes and turned over onto my stomach. I hadn't
expected to sleep as well as I had. Down pillows and eighteen-
hundred thread count sheets. Who knew?
A second after the knock, India opened the door and poked her
head in. "Rise and shine, mother-to be." She had a breakfast
tray in her hands.
"Shut up, and get that food over here. No spilling the beans
prematurely."
She sat the tray down in front of me and for just a split second, I
felt my stomach roll over. I took a sip of herbal tea and
swallowed nervously.
"What?" India leaned in for a closer look. "Is that a hint of
green I'm seeing like all around the gills?" She smiled a
satisfied smile. "Screw the too early routine You are,
aren't you?"
I took a bite of toast, mostly to buy time.
"It worked, didn't it? And you and Jack are making me an
aunty" She took my hand with the toast in it. "I won't tell, I
promise."
I swallowed hard. "It is still a few days too soon But, I think
so yes"
She whooped out loud and I clamped a hand over her mouth.
"You can't say anything, India. You fucking promised me And
nothing's certain until I've taken the test." She watched me
closely as I picked at my eggs and finally gave up.
"Test, my ass," she said, shrewdly. "That glow comes from only
one of two things. Love, or a baby belly And there's no hard
rule it can't be both"
I got out of bed, shoving the sheets back and leaving her to
rescue the silver tray. "A minute ago, you said I looked green," I
said irritably, "Make up your mind."
"Okay, okay if you're going to be touchy" She bit into a strip
of my bacon. "But aren't you excited about it? You could have a
perfect little baby growing inside you right now. And in a few
more months, you'll even be showing." She drank my juice and
wiped her lips. "And I want the blow-by-blow, Libby. The whole
nine months. I want to know what it's like"
She had a dreamy kind of expression. India was the kind of girl
who always knew she'd have a big family of her own one day.
I smiled, gathering my robe before I headed into the bathroom.
"If there's anything to tell, I will," I said indulgently. "And
thanks. It's hard enough that Jack and I have to keep everything
a secret from the rest of the family. I don't know what I'd do
without you"
She got up and came over to give my hand a squeeze. "You've got
me, sweetie," she said. "And don't forget it." She gave me an
odd look. "No doubts?"
"No no doubts," I said with more confidence than I felt. "Jack
Is a good man. He deserves to be happy"
India opened her mouth, then closed it again.
"You're right," she said finally. "Everyone does"

T HE NEXT TEN MINUTES I HAD IN THE SHOWER WERE THE LAST ONES I HAD
to myself. My stomach continued to churn, but it could so easily
just be nerves. I was about to be married to a man I would be
divorcing before the year was out. Not that it's all that unusual
these days It's just strange to be planning it before the actual
I do's.
I soaped and rinsed quickly, but my hands lingered over my
belly. It was funny, really but with every day that passed I felt
more and more attached to the tiny little life inside me. I could
imagine her, with Jack's warm brown eyes and my dark curls
And I'd been having dreams at night. Of putting her into his
arms for the first time the look on his face. And Jack putting
her to my breast to suckle
And then I'll walk away, I reminded myself sternly. It was so
easy to let my imaginings run away with me. More and more
often, I found I had to remind myself that our agreement would
only be completely fulfilled when I packed my bags and returned
to my own life Images of Jack flashed through my mind
Jack in the water, holding me in his arms
Jack's face as he read to me by the fire
Jack hands exploring my sculpture then exploring me
I shut off the water and toweled off harder than I needed to. It
was that damn kiss on the stairs that had fanned the flames
again. I wiped the steam off the mirror and saw my flushed
cheeks and wild curls reflected back. I looked exactly the way I
felt. Aroused and needy. Excited, and yet terrified. Confused, but
rushing forward anyway
But there was no more time to think. And no point in
looking back.
There was a hairdresser waiting for me downstairs. And a
wedding dress to squeeze into. The wedding wasn't going to wait
any more than the baby I was carrying would. There was no time
for the riot of emotions inside me to fall into place.
I tied the belt of my robe and stared at my own reflection.
"Mrs. Liberty Mason," I whispered.

E VERYONE WAS DRESSED AND READY . I NDIA WAS SPARKLING IN HER SILVER
gown. Jack's mother and father were fussing with boutonnieres
for all his brothers. We'd gathered in the solarium. Everyone
except for Ben. And Jack.
A string quartet was playing outside as the last few guests were
being seated. Long liquid notes blew in on the cool breeze.
Fletcher had opened the French doors and everyone was
beginning to line up
"You look perfect," India's voice was soft in my ear. "I never saw
a more beautiful bride." She gave me a wink. "Courage," she
whispered, as Fletcher came to offer his arm.
She handed me my bouquet. I took it, the tremor in my fingers
setting the tender freesia blooms quivering. They were in white
and gold, mixed with pink hydrangeas and tied with white satin
ribbon. The scent rose up and I felt my stomach tighten.
"The only bride I ever saw who rivalled my Vivian," Fletcher
said, taking my hand and placing it with comforting firmness on
his arm. He kissed my cheek and I felt myself flushing. The rest
of the wedding party was slowly working their way down the
aisle. It was only the two of us left, and all of a sudden
everything was happening too quickly.
"Fletcher Dad I this isn't" I stammered hopelessly, my
nails grasping at his arm. For a moment I felt dizzy. It's the
baby, I thought.
Fletcher laughed softly, patiently and patted my back kindly
while I leaned on him. I could see so much of Jack in his face.
"Everything's going to be just fine," he said soothingly. "Deep,
slow breaths, sweetheart. Take your time."
I looked out to where Jack's family and friends were waiting. It
wasn't too big, still private but I knew each and every person
there was important. To Jack to his family I looked to the
enormous rose covered arch where he stood with Ben at his side.
As if he could feel my eyes, he turned to me. The man who was
about to marry me. The man who'd fathered the baby I was
carrying He was looking at me like I was the only woman in the
world. And for a moment, just one little moment, I told myself
I would let myself believe What harm could it do?
"It's time now." I heard Fletcher's voice in my ear. I turned from
Jack's gaze to look up into his handsome, lined face. "Are you
ready to make my son the happiest man in the world?"
23
JACK

I T HAD BEEN LESS than a day since I'd seen her last. And as I caught
my first glance of her on Dad's arm, I knew it had been entirely
too long.
The music played, the guests turned to watch her, Ben shifted at
my side. But the whole world seemed to narrow until there was
nothing left but her, and her brilliant green eyes. I couldn't look
away. I held her gaze as she came closer and closer. When Dad
put her hand in mine, I turned to look down at her to take her
all in.
Her hair was longer than the first day we'd met. It curled in dark,
soft swirls that licked at her shoulders. Woven in were tiny white
flowers as small as pearls. Mom's diamond earrings sparkled
from her ears. I took both her hands in mine and held them
tight. She smiled up at me, but I could see her nervousness her
concerns
Without waiting for the reverend's cue, I leaned down and kissed
her. Laughter and murmurs of approval filled the air around us,
breaking the tension and making her beautiful face glow with
pleasure.
I would kiss her again, minutes later, long and hard until we both
broke apart, flushed and excited. But that was only after we'd
promised to love, honor and cherish one another And after I'd
slipped the ring onto her finger.
I had had it custom made, just for her. Surrounded by tiny pearls,
all set into gold, it was a huge oval emerald that perfectly
matched the color of her lovely eyes.

"M ORE SPARKLING CIDER ?" I ASKED , AS SHE SETTLED INTO A BIG CREAM
leather seat. She rolled her eyes and I laughed.
"Nobody told me the hardest part of being pregnant was not
being able to drink."
India had been terrific, always at Libby's side with a glass of
cider instead of champagne during the reception dinner. It was
still going on now, and likely wouldn't end until close to
morning. My folks throw a hell of a party.
But I'd stolen away my bride early with the excuse that our plane
was waiting. The truth was, I was more than ready to have Libby
all to myself. The flight had been perfectly smooth and we'd
made excellent time. The yacht had been waiting on the only
nearby island with a landing strip and the crew had transferred
us and our luggage in record time. We'd be on the island before
nightfall.
"You shouldn't have done this, you know" She used her thumb
to roll her ring from side to side. The facets caught the soft
evening light and flashed. But the color within the stone seemed
to glow with a life of its own. "A plain band would have done,
like we agreed."
I took her hand, admiring it. "That's what I went into the store
for, Libby." I smiled at her. "But I knew this one was yours when
I saw it. It wasn't terribly expensive." There was no point in
telling her the truth. I was afraid, if I did, she'd refuse to keep it
after we went our separate ways I looked out the window.
"Look, that's it there."
We watched, sitting close together as the outline of the island
grew nearer. Some colors were starting to fade with the light.
The blue water was darkening and pinpoints of light were
starting to show near the main house. But the colors in the sky
had just begun. Pinks and oranges. A flame of brilliant crimson
We watched the sunset bloom, then fade from the boat deck, as
the crew unloaded. Staff from the house took care of the rest.
They were efficient, discreet. Exactly what I was paying them for.
By the time Libby and I disembarked and the yacht disappeared,
we might as well have been the only two people left on earth.
I'd arranged for dinner to be ready on the beach when we
arrived. And it was. After all the formality of the wedding and
the reception after, I'd known exactly what Libby would want.
We'd changed out of our wedding clothes on the plane, into
comfortable cotton beachwear. And our wedding supper on the
sand was a picnic basket waiting on a big plaid blanket. I lit a few
candles and watched my wife relax for the first time all day.
"How did you know?" she asked, digging into chicken
sandwiches and a tropical fruit salad. I shrugged, pleased. "This
is just so perfect, Jack. All of it. The island, this dinner being
alone with no one to keep pretending for"
"I want you to be happy, sweetheart. As happy and relaxed as
you can possibly be. It's good for you good for the baby." I put
my hand on her little belly and she looked up at me.
I'd been doing my damnedest all day to stay focused on the
business at hand. A wedding for appearances, the welfare of the
surrogate I'd hired to carry my baby. But seeing Libby in her
white gown, coming down the aisle had been real. Very fucking
real. And she was right here beside me in the sand, warm and
soft and beautiful. My ring was on her finger and my son was in
her belly. I'd already had more than a taste of her enough to
know I wanted so much more. And this was our wedding night,
after all
I used my fingers to wipe the breadcrumbs from her mouth. At
first, it was nothing more than a reflex. It was so natural to do
But when I saw her tongue peek out just to moisten her full
bottom lip
My body was already so fucking ready. And the hell of it was, it
wasn't the only part of me that wanted her. I'd been working so
hard to ignore it, but the fucking truth was that she'd gotten
under my skin. I wanted to respect her feelings, that this was
just business, albeit between partners with an obvious sexual
attraction. As much as I wanted her, I couldn't risk everything
blowing up in my face by taking advantage...
"Jack," she started hesitantly. "I'm not a child I know the
baby is the only reason we're here right now" She caught her
bottom lip in her teeth, like she was unsure about going on.
"I signed the contract. And nothing's changed. I'm going
through with our agreement no matter what just as we
planned. I never go back on my promises, Jack. I want you to
know that"
She stood up, her bare feet on the white sand. I looked up the
length of her body. The soft curve of her hips the fullness of
her breasts. I ached to reach out and touch her
"It's just the baby, I'm sure. The hormones and all But we
started something we never finished, Jack. And what could it
hurt, after all?" she said softly, reaching up to the buttons of her
shirt.
"This is our wedding night"
24
LIBBY

I T WAS RECKLESS , crazy and I just didn't care anymore. "I want you,
Jack. And I think you"
It was all I got out before he was on his feet, hard muscled arms
around me. He kissed me until I was weak and breathless. Then
he caught my face between his hands. "I want you so fucking
much, sweetheart. But I don't want to hurt you." His breathing
was as ragged as mine. Suddenly the thin cotton fabric between
us was almost more than I could bear.
"You won't," I panted, my hands against his hard, sculpted
chest. "Not me, not her I'm either pregnant or I'm not. We'll
know in a few days. But tonight won't change that either way"
"Holding you again was all I've been able to think about," he
rasped out. There were times I didn't even care"
His mouth was on mine, his hands on my flesh. In a second, he'd
stripped off his clothes and mine. Then I was in his arms, the
water lapping up his legs, splashing my bare ass. He carried me
into the warm, dark water until we were half submerged. The
water licked at my breasts and barely covered the head of his
rock-hard cock. The stars were the only light, and reflected off
the surface of the water. I could feel him more than I could see
him. He reached down and lifted me, curving my thighs around
his waist.
I want you to have control," he said, the words coming hard
through clenched teeth. "So I'm not too deep. Not too much
for you"
I wrapped my arms around his neck, leaning my heavy breasts
on his chest. I reached below the water and took him in my
hands. "You are too much," I panted. "And I want you so
fucking deep."
"God, sweetheart"
He thrust and my body swallowed him. I wrapped my legs tight,
pushing my pussy down his shaft, taking as much of him as I
could have. He was long and thick, but I was greedy. "God, yes," I
was so slick inside and the seawater made me nearly weightless.
He held my ass, letting me move on him letting me take my
fill. Giving me everything he had
"Fuck, baby you're so fucking tight, so fucking perfect." He
had one hand under my ass and the other was around my breast.
He licked and finally sucked my nipple. In seconds, I was so
close the orgasm threatening to spill over. "So fucking
delicious inside I knew it"
Blind, driving need hit us both and I rode him in a frenzy. Like I
couldn't get enough, even with him inside me, even with his
hands all over my body. He held me as I bucked and writhed. His
body fed me, giving and giving until I knew we were both ready
to explode. His balls were huge and tight against me. I felt the
first rhythmic spasm hit him and by the time his come was
filling me up, I was lost in a pounding climax of my own. He was
the single solid point in my universe, holding me as shuddering
waves released me and I was helpless in his arms. It seemed he
was all that kept me real and whole. Like without him, I might
have floated off in the warm waves of the sea drifted up to the
stars
"Libby, darling" I opened my eyes to his face. He was a dark
outline against the sky. He kissed me, softly, deeply. And he held
me as the water bathed us both, pushing and pulling us. Swaying
us gently. Then he gathered me into his arms and carried me. All
the way into the house.
He dried me and wrapped me in a plush, velvety towel. Then he
tucked me into bed and climbed in beside me. My head on his
chest, his arms wrapped around me, the last thing I heard was
his voice. Deep and gentle, he whispered.
"Goodnight little one. Sweet dreams."

I WOKE EARLY , WITH J ACK ON HIS STOMACH , STILL SLEEPING BESIDE ME . H IS


hair was rumpled, his arm over my belly protectively. I could
hear the dull and constant sound of the ocean just outside. It felt
like a dream, waking up here. In bed with my husband the
distant cries of the seagulls
I rolled onto my side and Jack rolled with me. I snuggled my back
into his chest and felt his erection warm against the inside of my
thighs. I didn't regret a thing. And I knew it had been inevitable
anyway. There was no way in hell we could have spent a month
here alone together without giving in
Sex with Jack had been like nothing I'd ever experienced in my
life. Was it being pregnant that made it so fucking hot, so deeply
satisfying? Or was it whatever was happening between the two
of us?
The attraction had been instant and powerful, right from the
start. And the fact that Jack was the hottest man I'd ever laid
eyes on hadn't hurt. The contract was just a business deal, but it
also meant living with him And now sleeping with him
He was the kind of guy any woman would fall for. And yesterday
he'd put a ring on my finger and made his wedding vows. We
were on our honeymoon and, fake marriage be damned, we'd
consummated those vows. And it wasn't like we had to worry
about possible consequences
There were worse things in life than nine months with an
incredible guy pampering me, treating me like a queen, letting
me be a part of his family, even if it was only temporary. I'd
signed on for all this and I was still sure I was doing the right
thing. And if we got to have mind-blowingly incredible sex too
well, what was the problem? People fucked each other all the
time with far worse intentions every day. Jack and I liked and
respected each other. There wasn't anything wrong, for two
consenting adults to be together. And yet something inside me
was going off like a warning in the distance. Close enough to
hear far away enough to ignore
His hand roamed my belly, cupping it easily. The other found my
breast and he moaned, his erection growing steadily, pushing its
way between my thighs. There was nothing but to rock back
against him. He was kissing my neck, the curve between my
shoulder blades. "Libby, darling girl" The blunt head of his
thick cock found my sweet spot. It was slick and waiting. He
pushed in, slowly at first. Then steadily inch by long, delicious
inch until he was buried and I was gasping. "Fucking sweet
darling girl," his breath was hot in my ear as he stroked me
in long, luxurious strokes.
"Relax and give in to it," he said in a voice that melted any
doubts I might have had left. "And let me take care of you" His
slow, smooth movements were as hypnotic as his voice.
"This is going to last a long, long time."
25
JACK

I KEEP MY PROMISES .

Hours later, when we were spent, sated we headed back out to


the beach with lobster rolls and a bottle of limeade. The chef had
it ready and waiting even before we were showered and dressed.
The basket swung in one hand while I held Libby's in the other.
She was wearing a bikini that begged me to untie its strings. Her
curves had always been lush, but I swore they were becoming
even more so. I couldn't seem to get enough
"Here you'll burn if you're not careful." I said, after we'd
finished our lunch and she stretched out in the sand. "Lotion?"
"Mmm, please" She rolled over onto her front and the curves
of her round ass beckoned. She reached up behind her back and
untied the strings that held her top. She wasn't making
this easy
I spread the tanning lotion over her back and legs, letting my
fingertips slip under the elastic of her bottoms. She was so
warm, so smooth. The hours making love to her had done
nothing to satiate me. Her skin was like a drug, her body an
addiction that got stronger with every touch. Then she rolled
over onto her back and pushed the tiny triangles of her top away.
She smiled at me expectantly.
I dripped lotion onto her beautiful breasts and watched it run in
thick, slow rivulets, all the while keeping her gaze locked onto
mine. When she took my hands and put them on her body,
sliding them over her slippery skin, her eyes were sparkling
teasing. I rubbed the cream into her breasts until her nipples
were tight and she was moaning.
I was more than up to the challenge

W E SPENT THE AFTERNOON WALKING THE PERIMETER OF THE ISLAND , HAND


in hand. Pristine white sand along with exotic birds and plants
white clouds over sapphire water
"I didn't really believe you, when you described all this," Libby
said, looking out over the water as the sky started to dip toward
the horizon. "I can't imagine there's a more beautiful place
anywhere in the world."
"Oh, there are," I replied. "Paris, St Lucia, Greece I'd love to
show them to you one day"
She was quiet for a while as we walked. "Is this a mistake?" she
asked quietly, still looking out over the water. "The contract says
I walk away, once the baby's born This," she waved a hand out
across the ocean, "and this," she rested a hand on my chest,
"isn't going to make that any easier when the time comes."
We continued to walk in silence until we reached the house. It
was casual elegance, with rooms that provided shelter and
privacy without any sense of containment. Many of the windows
had only sheer gauze curtains. We'd shared the master suite last
night. And our pretend honeymoon had gotten very fucking real.
The idea that things could change now made my chest tight. The
fucking contract was supposed to be keeping this from getting
complicated.
"You want a family, Jack," she continued. "And you already have
a great one. But I don't want or need that for myself." Her hand
was still in mine and it tightened.
"Don't want," I asked gently. "Or never allowed yourself to
imagine?"
She let go and turned her face toward the water. "We're different
people, Jack. And we want different things in our lives. It's why
you chose me in the first place, and why I signed the
agreement
It's why we're here and how you're going to get what you want."
She turned back to me, her voice a little calmer. "And I will too.
As for all the rest Well, we're healthy, consenting adults. Here
in paradise" She smiled a little. "And I've got baby hormones
to blame. What's your excuse?"
I laughed out loud and took her hand again. She was right, as
usual. "Maybe not so different from yours," I shook my head. "I
wanted to put my baby inside you the right way from the first
time we met." I pulled her along beside me, letting the waves lap
up against our bare feet. "A man's drive to father a child is no
less powerful than a woman's need to carry one. It's just easier
to forget that"
She laughed too, and suddenly things seemed easier between us.
"The agreement will keep us on track," she said softly.
Confidently. "And now we've gotten our primal urges out of our
systems," she glanced at me from under her lashes, "maybe
for the rest of the trip we should just stay focused on
the baby?"
"And stick to the contract," I said. I lifted her hand and kissed
the back of it. I rolled her emerald back and forth with my
thumb, keeping her hand and holding her gaze. I knew she was
right. That we could both have what we wanted, if we stayed on
track
"I think you're the strongest woman I've ever met, Libby. And
certainly the wisest."
Also the most beautiful, inside and out, I thought to myself.
We looked out over the water in silence, watching darkening
clouds building in the distance. It seemed like we would be fine
We were both very much on the same page. She was strong. She
was wise. And I admired her more than any woman I'd ever
know. She had focus and integrity. I couldn't have made a better
choice than her.
We headed back to the house as the storm rolled in. And we went
to our separate rooms. Fuck no, it wasn't easy. But when the
time inevitably came to say goodbye to the woman I was falling
in love with, well maybe it would make things easier then.
26
LIBBY

I SHOWERED QUICKLY and climbed into bed. For the first time since
we'd arrived, I was aware of how alone we were on the island.
Soft rumbles of thunder in the distance made my room seem
even lonelier.
Jack was a good man. A finer man than I'd ever met in my life. It
would have been so easy for him to exploit my all too obvious
feelings for him. Not to mention the situation. This place was
made for romance. For real couples with real feelings
There wasn't any point in denying it any longer. More and more,
I'd been allowing myself to imagine what it would be like A
real marriage. A real family But I didn't have the genetics for
any of that. And Jack had made it clear he wanted only a baby. He
was right. The last thing either of us needed were complications.
I let my hands explore my belly. "You're going to be the luckiest
little girl," I whispered. "You have a daddy who loves you more
than anything He'll keep you so safe, and he'll make sure
you're never sad or lonely" I rolled onto my side and a tear ran
down, soaking the pillow case. I imagined her sweet, innocent
face. "And one day, he'll fall in love with a beautiful lady and
she'll become your mother. She'll be kind and loving the best
mom in the whole world, Little Speck, because your daddy
picked her.
And she'll never, never leave you"

"W HAT OH GOD !" I SAT BOLT UPRIGHT IN DARKNESS AS THE DEAFENING
crash hit. Then the room flashed blindingly white with the next
one. I climbed out of bed, struggling to close the enormous glass
windows. Rain poured in sheets onto the wooden floors. I was
drenched in seconds.
"Libby!" The lightning flashed again and I saw him in the
doorway. Then I felt him wrap me in something dry and soft, and
he pushed me behind him. "Get back from the windows."
I watched from the bed as he closed the shutters and, one by one,
fastened the windows. The wind continued to blow, rattling
them in their frames. By the time he was done, he was as wet as
I was.
"You're all right?" he asked, coming over to me. "I heard you cry
out I thought maybe it was the baby"
"I'm fine," I said, taking my damp towel and stroking his
streaming hair. "We're fine. The thunder woke me, is all. I
couldn't get the windows closed."
He headed for the bathroom and came back with dry towels and a
pair of thick cotton robes. Another crash of thunder hit, the
same instant as the flash. I jumped, clutching at the robe.
He stroked my hair and face, drying me off as well as he could.
Then he toweled my legs one at a time. I could feel his thick
fingertips grazing my sensitive flesh. He smiled as I jumped
again.
"Thunderstorms have frightened me since I was little," I said,
shrugging into the robe he held open for me. "It's the noise, I
think. The way it sounds when it's so close like the whole
world is being torn to pieces. Like when it's all over, nothing's
ever going to be the same."
His outline nodded, but I couldn't see his face. "What was it like,
when you were a little girl, Libby? I know you grew up in foster
homes"
Something in me tightened at the question. I was quiet as he
dried my feet, and then he took one in his hand, working the tiny
muscles and bones gently with his fingers. "Do you know
anything about your real parents or if there was ever any other
family out there?" His voice was so gentle and his hands kept
moving
"I never knew who my father was. And only that my mother gave
me up when I was only a few months old." I sighed. "She cared
enough to name me and to give me this," I held up the gold
locket and a tiny flash of light sparked off its surface. "There
must not have been anyone else. No one who wanted to
keep me"
"Did you ever try to find out?" he asked gently, taking my other
foot and kneading it slowly. "Did you ever want to know more?"
I was quiet again, thinking about what he'd asked me. I'd never
liked talking about it, and I wasn't sure why I was now. It
surprised me how natural it felt. "I never tried," I admitted. "It
was enough to know she didn't want to raise me. Or that she felt
that she couldn't I had some foster parents who were good
people. It just never lasted for very long."
"And you grew up stronger than most more independent.
More driven."
I smiled at the tone in his voice. "More talented too," I added
lightly. "I like my life, Jack. I'm not complaining. And I like who
I turned out to be."
"I do, too."
There was a bright flash of lightening and I braced for the
thunder. I'd seen something on his face in that second a look
a feeling Something I couldn't place. But it was gone with the
light and I felt him let go of my foot.
He dried himself in the darkness. I could see the outline of his
body as he let his wet pajama bottoms drop. The thick chest and
arms tapering to the delicious ropes of muscle that led
downward from his hips The artist in me itched to touch him,
to run my fingers over him, to learn him by touch alone. He was
like a sculpture only flesh. Perfect. Beautiful. Real.
He slipped into his robe and tied it at the waist. Then he settled
onto the bed, leaning back against the heavily carved headboard.
"Here," he said, reaching out for me. He took my hands and
drew me up next to him. "Right here," he patted his chest and I
slid in close. He wrapped one hand around me and pulled my
head to his chest with the other. He left it there, stroking my
hair until I relaxed against him. The storm outside was still
raging, but my body calmed against his, and I listened to the
slow and steady beat of his heart. He had no more questions, and
I, no more answers. He just held me close until it was over and
the storm had passed on by.
The last thought I had before I fell into a sound and dreamless
sleep beside him, was that I'd never in my life felt so safe.
27
JACK

"I' VE GOT a surprise for you today." I smiled down at her as she
rubbed her eyes. "It's something I thought you'd enjoy, since
we're going to be here for a while"
She uncurled from my chest and I shifted, allowing the blankets
to conceal my rock-hard desire. So fucking help me, I'd been
awake the better part of the night. Still, it felt so damned good
just to hold her. I was determined not to make things harder for
us both. But there was no arguing with the demands of my body.
All I could do was keep that to myself.
"Come with me, I want to show you something," I said, taking
her hand and pulling her along with me down the hall. At first
she grumbled, still sleepy. But by the time we'd reached the top
of the staircase, she was fully awake and curious. "Where are
we going? Is this an attic?"
I opened the door to a tiny room, windows on every side. It was
an observation tower that looked out over the water in every
direction. Light flooded in. Shelves contained all her supplies.
The sculpture she'd begun at the lake house sat on a table in the
very center.
"Oh, my god, Jack You brought everything here?" She ran her
hands over everything, as if to make sure it was real. "I can't
believe you did this for me"
"I know your art is what makes you happy, sweetheart." I came
up beside her, my shoulder against hers. "I didn't want to keep
you from what you love."
As badly as I wanted to take her in my arms and kiss her, I held
back. I could feel the pull in her too, like magnetism. It was just
as well for her to have something to pour her passion into. I just
wished to hell it could be me
"There's something else," I said, taking her hand and leading
her back toward the stairs. "The clay can wait, but I'm afraid the
other surprise won't."
"Well, I'm hoping it's pancakes," she said, following me down to
the kitchen. "I'm starving, and I can hardly wait to get my hands
on that sculpture again and"
She was cut off by excited barks, a furiously wagging tail and the
clatter of toenails on tile. Seven pounds of curly brown fur and
soulful eyes flew toward us and Libby bent down to greet her.
"Oh, sweetheart! Oh my god, Jack where did he Is this the
surprise?" She already had the puppy in her arms and was being
covered in kisses. "Where did you come from? You sweet
little baby"
"Not a he," I said, smiling as the puppy squirmed. "A little girl
for you. One of the house staff had one left in the litter. She's a
mutt" I reached out to caress a silky ear. "You don't have to
keep her, but I thought you might like to meet"
Libby looked at me and smiled a smile that melted straight
through my heart. Her eyes were bright with moisture,
sparkling
"Look at her, Jack," she crooned. The puppy's ears perked at her
voice. "How could I not want her? Can I keep her can we take
her back with us when we leave and keep her?"
I put my arms around her. "Of course, sweetheart. She's all
yours, if you want her."
But Libby wasn't listening to me anymore. She was already down
on the floor with the puppy, stroking her wiggly little belly.
"Who's a beautiful baby girl?" She looked up at me. "Does she
have a name?"
I smiled. It felt so fucking good, to see her so happy. "She's
yours," I said. I think you should name her yourself."
She picked up the puppy and held her in her arms like a baby.
Maybe she had worn herself out with excitement. Maybe it was
the soothing effect of Libby's warmth. But she settled down
quickly as Libby rocked her. In minutes, her big brown eyes had
closed and a tip of pink tongue lolled to the side.
"Mokita," Libby said quietly and she smiled up at me. "I think
her name is Mokita."

I T HAD BEEN A RISK , BUT I WAS GLAD AS HELL THAT I' D TAKEN IT . L IBBY
and the puppy had turned out to be inseparable. Moki had even
followed her all the way up the stairs to the attic where Libby had
settled in to work for the afternoon. I had some calls to make,
and we'd arranged to have a swim and dinner on the beach in a
few hours.
I'd wanted Libby to have something of her own. Something for
her to care for. To love. The puppy had seemed perfect. And
when the contract was fulfilled well, she would have Moki to
take with her. I couldn't bear the thought of Libby going away
alone once the baby was born
I took a beer from the fridge and headed out onto the covered
veranda. Tomorrow was Monday and I knew Spencer would be
faxing over the paperwork for the Warner deal. I punched in his
numbers and got voicemail. I left a quick message and called
Blake.
"Hey, how's married life?" His voice was bright, teasing. "You're
one lucky fuck, you know that, Jack? When you married Elaine, I
thought you just had shitty taste in women. You'll be happy to
know Libby's redeemed my opinion of you."
"I'll be sure to tell her," I said dryly. "So is Janet ever going to
make an honest man out of you?" The word honest snagged at
my conscience. I was being dishonest with almost everyone I
cared about. I had my reasons but it made my stomach tighten
anyway.
Blake laughed. "Whenever she'll let me," he admitted. "She's so
focused on her career right now. I didn't get lucky the way you
did finding a woman who was ready to settle down
right away."
I took another long swallow of beer. "Well, you're right there,
brother." I ran a hand through unruly hair. "I got more fucking
lucky than any man has a right to be"
"But you still made it out of bed long enough to call me. Don't
say it You want to know if the merger is on track. India told me
you would. She can read you like a book, you know."
I could hear her in the background, asking Blake for the phone.
"Let me talk to him." She laughed and there were dull thumping
sounds.
"Jack, it's me. How's Libby and the honeymoon?" India's voice
was purposefully casual. I heard Blake's goodbye from a distance
and the sound of a door closing. India's tone changed instantly.
"So tell me. Did Libby take the test? Is she pregnant yet?
How's the honeymoon going?"
"It's great, India. And we don't know yet, for sure. We'll do the
test in a few more days. She didn't want to rush it and risk a false
negative"
"How's she feeling. I know she was pretty emotional before the
wedding and her stomach was a little upset."
I thought back over the last couple of days. "She's fine. She
certainly has a healthy appetite."
I asked a few questions on the merger. India said Spencer had
been out of the office more than usual lately, but he'd had a lot
of last minute meetings. She assured me that he had everything
under control.
"Just relax and enjoy the island, Jack. We've got it covered here."
She paused. "How are things between you and Libby are the
two of you getting along okay? It's got to be a little strange,
being alone together on an island, without really being well
you know."
I struggled for a moment, unsure how much to admit. "It's fine,"
I said plainly. "Libby's happy with her art. And the puppy I gave
her this morning," I paused.
"Did my lawyer finish gathering that other information I'd asked
for? The other history?" India knew what I meant. She'd
known for a long time.
"It's in your desk. Unopened. I locked the drawer myself." She
paused for a long moment, both of us in our own thoughts. "It
could change a lot of things, Jack. Or maybe nothing But you
need to be sure about what you want. What it is you're
hoping for"
"We're fine, India. Both of us, just how things are. Libby and I
had a good, long talk and we're on the same page about
everything. It's all going to turn out the way it's supposed to."
"I'm happy for you," she said softly. "It's all any of us ever
wanted for you, you know. For you to be happy. To have what you
really want most in life" Her voice trailed off.
"I love you, Jack."
"Love you too, honey. Give Mom and Dad our best."
We hung up and I sat looking out over the water. My sister knew
me like the back of her own hand. And I knew her just as well. A
lifetime together made any conversation between us so much
more than the words that were spoken. I knew what she was
hoping would happen on this trip. And I knew it was what she'd
wanted all along.
The only thing I wasn't sure of, was whether there was any point
in telling her she'd been right from the start. That Libby was the
woman for me. The one perfect woman I'd waited a lifetime for.
And that it made no difference at all. She would bear my child.
And then she'd leave.
As much as I wanted things to be different, there was nothing
real between us. Nothing that would last. No matter what the
lawyer might have discovered Maybe there was nothing I could
ever do to make her stay.
28
LIBBY

I NEVER THOUGHT I'd ever have a honeymoon. So I'd never wasted a


lot of time daydreaming about what it would be like. But if I
had it would be this one.
My hands had worked in the clay like they had minds of their
own. I'd never felt so inspired and the form seemed to be taking
shape as if it were guiding me, and not the other way around.
When I finally washed my hands, I felt a deep and profound
sense of satisfaction. And it was all because of Jack.
He'd changed my life in an instant, bringing me here,
encouraging me in my work. Giving me this opportunity to fulfill
my dreams. I covered the clay and the sound of the plastic
sheeting woke Moki from where she was sleeping in the sun. My
stomach was churning with excitement. While I'd worked, I'd
made the decision. It was time. Jack had done so much for me.
Now I wanted to do this for him
"Come on, girl," I reached out and picked her up. She squirmed,
licking my face. "Let's give Daddy a present, too."
I carried her downstairs and into my bedroom. She curled up
contentedly on my bed and, from the look on her face, I had the
distinct feeling that I might never get her to sleep in her own
again. I pulled a little box out of the bottom of my handbag. It
was a pregnancy test I'd bought on my own. I knew Jack had
brought several, but I'd wanted one I could take on my own.
Privately just in case I wanted to know a little sooner.
"Here we go, Little Speck," I said softly. Moki lifted her head and
cocked an ear. I sat down next to her, reading the directions on
the test while she explored the box with her nose.
I was right on the edge of the recommended timeframe for
testing. I should probably wait, like Jack and I had planned all
along. But I so wanted to give him the good news he deserved
I left Moki on the bed and, with test in hand, closed the
bathroom door behind me.

"H OW ARE MY TWO BEAUTIFUL GIRLS ?" J ACK CALLED OUT . I HELD THE
puppy's leash while she gamboled unevenly on the sand. Jack
was pouring sparkling water, the bamboo table was set for two.
The sun was low in the sky, the light pink.
"I had the chef prepare one of his specialties," he said, taking
Moki's leash and handing me into my chair. The whole thing was
so lovely
"It's a salad made with conch and papaya. And there's a lemon
souffl for dessert." He handed me my glass. "Did you have
everything you needed up in the studio?" He tossed the salad
lightly and filled my plate, then his own. I glanced under the
table to see the puppy already nose deep in a bowl of her own
dinner. Jack had thought of everything.
"The studio is perfect," I said, taking a sip of my water. "Just like
everything has been. This island, how good you've been to me
little Mokita I can't ever thank you enough for all this, Jack.
It's gone way beyond the scope of the agreement.
Everything has"
He took my hand, his eyes warm, kind. "Yes," he agreed,
nodding. "And I don't regret that it has." His words were careful,
deliberate but I knew he was telling me the truth. "When this
is all over, I'll be the one who can't offer thanks enough You'll
have given almost a year of your life, Libby. How can a man
thank a woman for that?"
I opened my mouth, wanting to speak, but the words stuck in my
throat as he went on. "I know we agreed to keep the rest of the
trip simpler. But I want you to know how much I care for you,
Libby How much I will always consider you my friend even
once the contract is finished. You're strong and ambitious
beautiful passionate
All qualities I hope you pass along to the baby. One day, I want to
tell her how loving her mother was what a gifted and lovely
woman brought her into the world. It's something a child needs
to know"
We ate our meal in companionable silence. Moki fell asleep at
our feet, her tummy round as she snored lightly. The hypnotic
shush of the waves and the falling darkness lulled us both into
the privacy of our own thoughts. Jack would smile occasionally,
taking a long deep breath. He looked so happy. So content.
"Come with me," he said, taking my hand. I rose from my chair
quietly, not wanting to wake the puppy. Then Jack led me to the
water's edge. "If you could find out more about your own
mother...would you want to know? Do you think, after all these
years, that you'd want to know that it would make any kind of
difference now?"
I gazed out over the water. Jack was behind me, not touching me,
but my whole body was keenly aware of his. I knew he was
thinking about the baby. What he should and shouldn't share
with her, about how she came into the world. I took my time,
thinking before I answered.
"I am who I am, Jack. Partly because of my mother. Partly
because of the choices she made
But I don't think there's anything that can change a lifetime of
experiences. I don't believe I could learn anything about her that
would change my past. Or my future The truth is she didn't
want me and I'm okay with that." I let a long breath go. "Tell the
baby I loved her enough to give her the best father in the world.
That I loved her enough to give her the best life possible. And
that I never would have given birth to her, if I hadn't been sure
she would be safe. And loved forever."
I felt Jack's arms wrap around me and I leaned back into his
hard, steady warmth. I felt everything wash through me all at
once. Attraction and passion. Friendship and lust. Gratitude and
yearning. Need and sorrow
His hands moved down to caress my belly. There was nothing
but tenderness in the gesture. I put my hands over his and held
them as we watched the sun go down together. I realized that
Jack had called the baby she, for the very first time and I smiled
wryly as a tear ran down my cheek. He was thinking about
fatherhood, and a baby girl as we watched evening fall. I wanted
to tell him, but the words just wouldn't come. It would have been
the perfect moment to surprise him, but not this way not like
this. I prayed silently that in a few more days, I'd be able to tell
him what he wanted to hear
But not now not this perfect night. Maybe it had just been too
soon. I knew there was still a chance and yet deep inside I felt a
fear I'd never known. All along, I'd been so sure. The wedding
this honeymoon all because I had been so sure.
But I'd taken the test. Not just once, but twice. And both had
given the same result.
The baby I had been so sure of, who we'd both been so sure of,
simply wasn't there.
29
JACK

I COULDN ' T PUT my finger on her mood. She was quieter than
usual. But I knew pregnancy could cause so many changes I
just wanted to do everything I could to support her. To
reassure her.
The moon was high and bright, reflecting off the water. Moki
was awake now and straining at her leash. Hand in hand, we
headed back to her, to be greeted with a whirlwind of yips and
kisses. She was content only when Libby picked her up and
cuddled her.
"I talked to India earlier," I offered, hoping to draw her out. We
were taking the long way back to the house. "Blake, too. The
merger's on track. And they both hoped we were having a great
time" I stopped as Libby put the puppy down on the sand, then
I took her gently by the chin.
"I just want you to know I've never enjoyed anyone's company
as much as I do yours." Her eyes flickered and she looked back
down. "It's not just about our agreement or the baby. Or even
how fucking good it is when we've crossed that line
You're an amazing person, sweetheart. I want you to be
happy" I put my arms around her and felt her lean into me,
her forehead on my chest. The puppy was busy nosing around in
the bushes. "I know so much has happened so fast Are you
happy, Libby? No doubts, now that it's all really happening?"
I felt her shake her head, but she didn't answer. When she
finally lifted her face to mine, her cheeks were wet.
"No doubts," she said very softly. "I want to do this for you
With you I just don't want anything to happen to
disappoint you"
I caught her face between my hands. Her skin was cool, soft.
Everything inside me demanded I kiss her, but I held back. I
fucking held it all back
"You won't disappoint me, sweetheart. Not ever. It's the
pregnancy that's making you emotional, that's all. Something
we'll both have to get used to" I smiled teasingly into her eyes.
"It's made you even lovelier too
And, god help me, that may end up being the biggest problem
of all"

W E HONORED OUR COMMITMENT THAT NIGHT . F UCKING HARD AS IT WAS


and as I was I saw Libby to her own room that night, leaving
her with a chaste kiss on the forehead and Moki sprawled on the
pillows. Libby had pleaded exhaustion, even though it was still
fairly early in the evening. I headed back out to the beach for a
moonlight swim. I was too keyed up to sleep and needed to work
off all the energy running through me. Something told me that
nine months from now, I was going to be in the best shape of
my life.
The moon was full, and the light good enough there was no
danger. I could make laps almost the length of the island without
ever losing sight of the house. I stripped down completely,
leaving my clothes on the sand.
The water churned and rolled as I swam. For more than an hour,
I poured every ounce of energy into the ocean, legs pounding,
arms reaching, stretching, pulling. I wanted to be completely
spent by the time I climbed into bed alone. Otherwise, the lure of
her might be too much. For no matter how hard I pushed myself,
her image never left me. As hard as I swam, I seemed only to be
getting closer to her No matter how hard I tried to empty my
mind, to let go of my need for her, all I could see was her bright,
beautiful eyes and her soft, round body filled with me, filled with
our child
I headed for shallower water, a narrow cove with walls of rock. It
was darker there, sheltered from the moonlight. For a while, I
stood still, letting the waves push and pull at my body. It lapped
at my chest and I remembered how Libby looked with the water
licking at her full, heavy breasts. The water was so fucking warm,
even at night. It swirled around my balls as they tightened. My
cock throbbed as the water lapped against it. Wet and warm, the
way Libby had been. It felt so good to be surrounded, engulfed. I
took my cock in one hand and cupped my balls in the other. "I so
fucking want this with you, sweetheart"
I worked myself hard, punishingly hard. All the while, thinking
of Libby.
I wanted her, but didn't have her.
I needed her, but she didn't feel the same.
She was going to have my baby, but I would have to raise that
child without her
It was how it had to be, and yet I didn't know how I could live
The faster the thoughts came to me, the harder I stroked. Like I
could push the truth away if I pushed myself hard and over the
edge. I spread my legs wide, letting the water pound against my
groin. I jerked, harder, faster, pushing myself toward oblivion
and the image of my wife I closed my eyes to the water and the
stars. For just a moment, there was nothing else but her and I
exploded, giving everything I had inside me.
"I fucking love you, Libby. Oh, fuck sweetheart
I love you"

A LONG TIME LATER , I GATHERED MY CLOTHES FROM THE BEACH AND


dressed. I wanted a quick shower before bed, even though it was
damned late. My body was exhausted, ready for sleep, but
nothing I'd done had eased the need inside me. I stopped in the
hall, by Libby's door, putting my hand on the knob. I wouldn't
wake her. I just needed to see her to know she was alright.
I opened the door, expecting to see her sound asleep with Moki
in her arms. But she was crouched on the floor, her eyes wide
and full of fear. There was a mess on the carpet and the puppy
was limp and whining in her arms. In a second, I had them both
in my arms.
"Oh, thank god, Jack! It's Moki. I woke up she was sick Oh,
god, I think she's so sick"
The relief I felt that it wasn't Libby who was in trouble was short
lived. I took the puppy from her arms and saw her tongue loll.
But she was breathing. And I could feel her heartbeat. "What
happened? She seemed fine when we were on the beach"
"She was," Libby said, leaning over my arm, stroking the
puppy's head. "We got into bed and she fell right asleep. We
both did. The next thing I knew, she was on the floor and Oh,
my god. She was sniffing around in the plants and flowers when
we were talking. What if she ate something, Jack? Something
that's poisonous" Libby's face was white with fear, her voice
small.
I wrapped Moki carefully in a blanket and handed her back to
Libby. One call and I had a helicopter on the way. There was a
landing pad behind the house and I'd had the pilot on standby all
along, for Libby's sake. And for the baby's
"St. Thomas," I ordered. "I want us there in fucking less than an
hour." I shoved the phone in my pocket. "Let me take her,
Libby," I said reaching out. "You should stay here and try to get
some sleep. There's a vet clinic on St. Thomas, and I promise I'll
let you know as soon as do."
"No, Jack," the words came out clipped. "I'm going too. There's
no way I'm leaving her" She held the puppy closer. "She needs
me I can't let her go without me"
Her eyes pleaded as she held Moki tighter. "I need to be
with her."
"Then get dressed. And I want you to eat something before the
chopper gets here. We have a few minutes left" I stroked the
side of her face. "It'll be alright, sweetheart. I promise you. I'm
not going to let anything happen to either one of you."

"I T ' S A GOOD THING YOU GOT HER HERE WHEN YOU DID ." T HE VET RAN A
hand through his grey hair. "I'd say she got into some kind of
plant. It can cause some pretty serious gastritis in such a young
dog. But she's not in any danger now and she's resting
comfortably. We'll get her rehydrated, and if all goes well
overnight, I think she can go home in the morning."
I felt Libby's body sag in relief against mine and I wrapped my
arms around her. She'd spent the last two hours pacing, resting
only when I made her sit beside me. I shook the man's hand and
led Libby over to a loveseat in the corner.
"We should find a hotel and get some rest, sweetheart." I
stroked her back with my hand, long, soothing strokes. "Moki
needs her sleep, and so do you There isn't anything else we can
do here."
"I was so afraid She's just so little and so helpless" The tears
Libby was holding back started to flow. "I couldn't bear it, if
anything happened to her. I'm sorry, Jack. I'm so sorry, but I
can't leave. Even if she's sleeping even if she's going to be fine
now." A huge sob shook her shoulders as all the stress she'd
been holding in started to let go. "You can go if you need to, but I
won't leave Moki here all alone."
I held her as she let it all go and I wiped her tears, patting her
back as if she were a child. My heart swelled with love for her,
this kind and precious woman. There was so much I was aching
inside to say to her, but I was quiet and just held her until her
body finally relaxed and she was spent.
Once Libby was calm and had sipped the water I'd given her, I
left her for a moment to speak with the receptionist. Maybe it
was the generous donation check I dropped into the collection
box, but five minutes later I had what I wanted, and headed back
to collect my sweetheart.
I gathered her into my arms and kissed her forehead. Then I
slipped down to take a quick, sweet taste of her salty, swollen
lips. "So I'll see you in the morning?" Her voice was unsure. I
smiled, sinking into her eyes.
"No, sweetheart. They have an empty office here we can use for
the night." I kissed her again, unable to stop myself.
"I know you can't leave her alone tonight. So if you're staying
then so am I."
30
LIBBY

I SLEPT FITFULLY alongside Jack on the narrow sofa. Every few


hours I would venture out to ask how Moki was. And Jack would
follow me. Once, they let us go in to see for ourselves that she
was just fine. She was sleeping soundly in her crate, nestled into
a thick blanket and snoring contentedly.
Jack and I headed back to our little office and sat side by side, my
head on his shoulder, his head resting easily on mine. "It'll be
morning in a few more hours," he said. "Do you think you can
sleep? You should try"
I yawned and snuggled closer to his warmth. "Thank you," I said.
"For taking care of Moki for taking care of me too For staying
here with both of us."
"It's what you do for the It's what you do," he answered back.
His hand was working its magic along my spine and I could feel
my body finally giving in to its need for sleep. His voice was deep
and soothing, so close to my ear. I felt myself falling to sleep as
he spoke to me...
"We'll get a room nearby in the morning, sweetheart. Where we
can shower and I can feed you properly. You can get the sleep you
and the baby need, and I can come back for Moki when they're
ready to release her." His hand kept moving. So, so slowly "We
can be back on the island by dinnertime, back home and
everything will be just fine. I promise you, sweetheart I'll
always be here to keep you and the baby safe"

I WOKE FROM A DEEP SLEEP , MY HEAD WAS HEAVY AND MY THOUGHTS WERE
so jumbled Then I felt Moki's cold nose bumping against my
face and it all started coming back.
I sat up in the silky white sheets and listened to the shower
running. Jack's clothes from the night before were casually
draped over the back of a chair. Leave it to him, to find a five-
star hotel room on the fly and convince them to allow a puppy to
share the room. But then why not, when he had a helicopter at
his beck and call
I turned and looked at the clock. He'd let me sleep until three in
the afternoon? I ran my hand over the pillow beside mine. It still
held the warm shape of his head. I fell back, letting Moki curl
against my side. I was so incredibly grateful she was okay, but
there was a gnawing feeling in my belly. So much had happened
and the moment had never come for me to tell Jack about the
test I'd taken. It felt wrong to keep it to myself any longer.
Wrong not to have told him right away. But deep down, I was still
holding on to the chance I could still be pregnant. That I'd just
taken the test a little too early.
I stroked the puppy's silky ear. One had the tendency to flop
down lower than the other, giving her a curious look. She rested
her chin on my belly and it rumbled.
I knew we'd head back to our island by tonight. And I knew that
Jack was waiting on some important papers about the Warner
deal to be faxed over. My stomach rumbled uneasily again.
Maybe, in a few more days, I could take another test Even if I
still wasn't pregnant, it didn't mean it couldn't work on the
next try
The sound of the water stopped and I heard Jack moving around
in the bathroom. Moki lifted her head and turned expectantly.
All the while my heart was beating faster and faster as I tried to
push away the new and nagging fear in the back of my mind

"M Y TWO BEST GIRLS !" J ACK BURST THROUGH THE DOOR , A TOWEL SLUNG
carelessly around his hips, rubbing at his hair with another. He
came over to caress my hair. "Did you finally sleep? I hope you're
hungry I ordered room service before I got in the shower. The
pancakes you asked for, a long time ago." He smiled and I felt
my heart turn over.
"I'll keep an eye on her, if you want the shower before the food
arrives." He sat down on the edge of the bed. "You're beautiful
this morning," he said softly, holding my gaze.
"I I'm hungry," I stammered. His eyes moved slowly down
my body. The white shirt I was wearing didn't leave much to the
imagination. I hadn't taken the time to put on a bra "Pancakes
are good. Pancakes are great," I shifted and slipped out of bed. "I
won't be long."
I didn't trust myself to watch him slip out of that towel. As it
was, it was dangerously close to coming loose. He had droplets of
water on his chest that I ached to lick up. All his kindness, his
supportiveness had intensified every feeling I already had for
him. I was hungry. But it was a hunger that food would never
satisfy. I felt not only like my body was empty, needful, but that
some greater, deeper place inside me was too. I felt like I'd been
hungry all my life and was only just beginning to understand
what that feeling meant
I headed for the bathroom and closed the door tight. I could hear
his gentle voice as he talked to Moki, I could imagine his hands
on her little head. For just a second, I felt a flash of envy. That he
loved Moki only for her for herself. That he loved the child who
hadn't even been born yet, more than anything. I knew he cared
for me too. But it was because I was going to give him a child.
And he'd do anything to achieve that end.
I stepped into the flood of water and all the thoughts and
feelings I'd been holding back let loose. That I had fallen for a
man who only wanted me for one thing. A man I could never
have any kind of future with. For god's sake, the end of us was
already carved in stone
I leaned against the cold shower wall and the fear washed over
me. The thing I'd known deep down from the start, but hadn't
mattered until now
That if I failed to conceive, he was free to end our agreement at
any time. It was a baby he wanted, after all. Not me.
And if I couldn't give him what he needed, there was nothing to
stop him, from letting me go. And replacing me with a different
surrogate.
Another woman. One who could make his dreams come true.
31
JACK

B Y T UESDAY we were back on the island. The good news was that
Mokita was back to her old self, full of energy and curiosity.
Libby and I shared duties, feeding her, taking her outside to
play and keeping vigilant watch on her at all times. We would
rest when she did, all of us collapsing into Libby's bed in the
afternoons. Although I hadn't expected it, having the puppy's
constant needs to focus on, made it somewhat easier for Libby
and I to ignore the powerful attraction between us. We lavished
all our affection on Moki instead, and while the puppy basked in
the attention, Libby and I kept a friendly distance between us.
The bad news was that the papers Spencer had promised me on
Monday, still hadn't arrived. He and Blake reassured me they'd
be faxed over before the end of the business day. And while my
brother was plenty distracted by his brand-new engagement to
Janet, I had complete confidence in them both. Still, I wanted it
fucking done. In the old days, I'd have flown back and closed the
deal myself. But I was enjoying living like a family man. Even if it
wasn't the real thing. Even if it was just a different kind of
business deal
With the merger set to wrap up tonight, I'd made the decision.
That the timing would be perfect, to confirm the other deal as
well. We'd waited long enough and I was more than ready to
know for sure. I wanted Libby to take the test in the morning,
and I'd planned for us to take a long hike around the island to
bring up the suggestion. The man who had given us Moki in the
first place had agreed to watch over her, and I was damned
excited at the idea of having Libby, finally, all to myself. She was
waiting for me in the foyer, dressed in a pink tank and chocolate
brown shorts. My hands itched to peel the thin straps off her
shoulders Instead, I handed her one of the water bottles.
"Here," I said, tucking a wide brimmed hat over her curls. She
looked up at me from under the edge. Faint dark smudges
showed under her eyes, but they were wide and beautiful.
"There are flamingos in the shallow water near the cove," I told
her, shrugging into the backpack that carried our lunch.
"Tortoises too and lemurs further inland." I took her hand. It
felt so small in mine. "The island is small enough we can cover a
lot in one day of easy walking." We headed out into a gentle
breeze and a brilliantly blue sky. "I brought suits and
towels...We can swim if you like."
We walked hand in hand, following the thin trail that lead to the
cove. It wasn't far from the spot where I'd gone to swim alone
that night. The night I'd admitted the truth of how I felt about
Libby. It was the first time I'd said the words aloud. And it had
been the last time
"Oh look!" She let go of my hand and pointed just beyond
the flowering shrubs. "There are so many" The water was a
swirl of bright pink as hundreds of flamingoes fed and preened
in the shallows. "I've never seen anything so incredible, Jack."
"Come on." I took her hand, pleased with how excited she was.
"They're fairly used to people. And we can swim right over
there," I pointed. "And have lunch in the shade."
We headed down slowly. The path down was steep and I kept her
safely behind me until we reached the sand. Her cheeks were
pink with effort, her lips moist and parted. I put my hands
around her waist and lifted her down over the last few rocks. The
feeling of her hands against my chest made me hungry for
her skin
"God, it's so beautiful here," she breathed. Together we looked
out over the water. "I never thought these places were real, you
know? Just photographs in magazines"
"We can stay, until it's time for your first checkup. And even
come back afterwards, if you'd like." I spread a huge blanket in
the tiny clearing, sheltered all around by tall trees. Then I took
our suits out of the pack and held hers out. She shook her head,
not looking into my eyes. "Mine's on underneath," she said, as
she unzipped her shorts. They dropped to her ankles and she
kicked them aside. Then she peeled off the tank top. Just the way
I had wanted to
The suit she wore was all one piece, almost the same creamy
color of her skin. Only a pale string of printed lilac flowers kept
her from looking totally naked. They travelled from her shoulder
across her breasts and down to her hip Standing there, near
the tropical blooms and with the blue water behind her, she
could have been Eve... in the garden
I tossed my trunks away with a smile and peeled off my shirt and
shorts. The slim black briefs I wore were more than enough. I
took her hand and we ran for the water together. Everything
seemed perfect. And I suddenly felt happier than I could ever
remember.

"L ET ME GO !" S HE LAUGHED AS I CAUGHT AT HER HIPS , PULLING HER


against me. "I'm hungry and I want to see what's in that
backpack"
She was halfway back to the beach, but I held her tight. We'd
played in the water like a couple of kids and I wasn't ready to let
her go. "It's just cold chicken and lemonade," I coughed as she
splashed water in my face. "It can wait but so help me I don't
think I can"
She was breathless and laughing too as she struggled in my
arms. For one more second, it was just innocent fun. But the feel
of her breasts against my chest as she fought against me
suddenly changed everything. I held her and she held me back.
Our chests rose and fell together as we caught our breath. Her
nipples were hard against me and there was no denying the
hardness of my cock pressing into her belly.
"We were keeping it simple," I breathed out. Her lips were so
fucking close. "But we seem to keep finding ourselves here,
wanting more"
"Jack" She started but didn't finish. I could see the same look
in her eyes that had been there since Moki had gotten sick.
Hesitant, troubled somehow. Even with the pleasure of the day,
it was still there.
"You can tell me, you know. Anything that you need anything I
can do. I know you're still worried about the puppy, sweetheart.
She's fine now, she really is. But maybe it's been too stressful,
along with the pregnancy."
I watched her mouth open as she took in a breath. Then she
pressed her lips together and frowned. "I love her, Jack. She'd
never be too much, no matter what. I love that you gave her
to me."
"But there's still something wrong I can see it Are you
feeling okay? What can I can do to help?" I tipped her face to
mine. "There's nothing I wouldn't do"
I watched her struggle a moment longer. I held her close and her
hands were gripping my arms. "I just want to give you
everything you deserve, Jack. You've already given me so much."
She dipped her head. "I want you to have the family you've
dreamed of. I want to give you that so much" She looked up,
her eyes moist. "You've become so important to me as my
friend. And that I want to give you everything you need, too
Will you be with me, Jack? Just one more time Not about the
baby, and not about some contract between us
But just because you want me and because I want you too?"
32
LIBBY

I DON ' T KNOW what I'd have done if he'd pulled away. It had taken
everything inside me to ask for what I needed. Thank god, I
never had to find out. He was kissing me before I'd gotten all the
words out.
"Fuck, sweetheart," he growled the words against my throat as
he caught me up in his arms. The water roiled around us as he
carried me back up the beach, to the clearing where we'd left our
things. He put me on my feet in the middle of the blanket and
stepped back, just enough to singe my whole body with the fire
in his eyes. "You have no fucking idea how much I want you right
now how fucking bad I need to"
He was streaming water. It ran from his hair, down his chest.
The muscles at his waist turned it inward so that it drew my eyes
to the huge bulge barely contained by his briefs. I started to
reach for him, brazen with need with hunger
"No." He stopped me with one word. I met his eyes and they
were burning with the same desperation I felt. He smiled darkly,
teasing me...daring me
"Strip for me," he ordered. His voice was soft, but the tone left
no room for argument. "You're fucking wet and I can see how
much you want this. So strip off that soaking swimsuit and let
me look at you."
I hesitated only at the change in him. That, and how this new
side of him made me feel. I didn't think I could want this
anymore than I already did. I was wrong.
"Slow, sweetheart. Turn your ass to me and take it off slowly
Just like that Fuck, Libby, you're so fucking beautiful."
I bent forward, farther than I needed to and eased the fabric over
the curve of my ass. Then I spread my feet apart and bent a little
lower I felt his huge warm hands warm on me, and for the first
time in my life, I was grateful for my generous curves. He
stroked my ass gently, reaching around to cup my breasts.
"I could touch you like this forever and never get enough," he
growled. "I need your skin the way you taste... "He turned me
to face him. "Like this, under the sky, free and perfect. The way
it should be. The way I always imagined it could be"
I reached up to tangle my hands in his hair. His mouth was salty
and delicious. I knew the rest of him would taste the same. And
if this was the last time, I wanted to be able to remember I
reached to him, sliding my fingers under the elastic. He groaned
as I bared him and took him in my hands.
"Lick me," he gasped out. I was already on my knees. "Oh, fuck,
sweetheart"
I ached to swallow him whole, but held back, licking the length
of him with the very tip of my tongue. He was salty, slippery, the
head of his cock dark and angry from having to wait. I slid my
hands up the inside of his thighs and felt him swell in my
mouth.
He shifted his body, moving me with his hands so I could keep
his cock trapped where it was. But in seconds I was on my back,
his mouth on my pussy and his huge cock still in my mouth. He
rocked his hips gently, careful not to go too far but his mouth
punished my clit with everything he was holding back. His lips
worked me hard, his tongue reached up inside me. He held my
ass in his hands, pressing me to him relentlessly as he built me
up to the edge. Just as I came, he slipped his cock from my
mouth, letting me cry out as it hit me. But even before it had
finished, I felt something deep in my belly an emptiness that
only he had the power to fill
"Fuck me," I begged, grasping at him. "Oh, Jack...I need you to
fill me up and fuck me now"
He had me on my knees in a fast second and buried himself in
me with one hard thrust. I bent forward, arching my back, my
body begging him for more. "God, yes just fuck me"
He rocked me with his thrusts, pounding his full length into me.
There was no thought, only pure need and the undeniable force
of desire. My breasts shook with every jolt. He leaned into me
and took them in his hands, feeling their weight and their
movement as he took me. He was swelling with every thrust and
I could feel his huge head buried high and deep in me. Neither of
us had much time left
Then, after one last deep thrust, he pulled out. My whole body
cried out with the loss of him. But he turned me onto my back
and let his cock pound against my hip, slowing himself so he
could kiss me I could taste us both on his lips.
Sliding his body along mine, he let the heat of his cock find its
way, slowly now more gently. What had been the hard driving
fuck I'd begged him for, was changing now. Into something else.
Something I wasn't even brave enough to name. I spread my
legs, lifting them high, opening myself to him I'd never felt so
free or so totally vulnerable.
"I want you like nothing I've ever wanted. Need you like
nothing I've ever needed" His words were sweet in my ear.
Everything in me wanted to believe it was true. That I could be
enough, just as I was. He made me feel like just maybe it
could be true.
"My beautiful, beautiful wife." He buried his face in my breasts
and I wrapped myself around him. He slid into me gently this
time, filling me until the tears ran from the corners of my eyes.
But there was no patience left in either of us. We moved
together, building fast with a need that drove us both. There was
no more waiting, no more holding back. I clutched at his back as
my orgasm hit, feeling him empty himself inside me. With every
stroke, he pulsed his seed.
We held on, as everything in the world shattered but us.

H E REACHED OVER TO TUCK MY HAIR BEHIND MY EAR . I T WAS A SIMPLE


gesture, but I'd grown so used to it. I rested my head on his
chest, holding on for as long as I could, to the warm, safe feeling
I had in his arms.
We had spent the entire afternoon together on the beach, naked
under the trees. No matter how much we gave, it was never
enough. I couldn't get my fill of him. We'd given up the pretense
of going to our separate rooms, so when the light had faded,
we'd climbed the stairs to his room. Even now, I could feel his
cock stirring, ready for more.
He eased himself down along my side until his mouth reached
my nipple. He teased it lazily with his tongue. He wrapped his
hands around my whole breast, pushing the nipple up, sucking
nuzzling "God, sweetheart you were made for this"
He took his time, giving both my tight, aching nipples the
attention they needed. He ran his hands over me, just taking in
the feel of my skin. It felt like he wanted to know me, just by
touch the way I might explore a sculpture with my own hands.
I touched him too, letting our pleasure build more slowly now,
more deeply than before. We had the whole night ahead of us
"Libby, my beautiful girl," he pulled me on top of him and took
my face on his hands. He kissed my mouth my cheeks my
forehead. My breasts were huge soft mounds on the hardness of
his chest and I had his heavy cock trapped between my thighs. "I
wish we could stay here like this just like this" He kissed me
again. "I know I promised we could stay the whole
month, but"
"What is it, Jack?" I pushed back to see his face. "What's
happened?"
"Nothing, probably" He played with one of my curls. "But I
should fly back, just for a day or two. To get the Warner deal
done." He frowned. "I should have finished it before we left. But
I had other things on my mind" He rolled me
underneath him.
"You could come with me, if you like. Moki, too." He rubbed his
erection against me and I felt another wave of hunger roll
through me. "It's just about time for you to take your first test
too If you come with me, we can have it done in the clinic. And
be absolutely sure." He slipped inside me easily and I arched
against him. "That you've got my baby inside you, sweetheart"
My body responded to his shamelessly, all the while my mind
racing. I was terrified to take another test so soon, afraid that it
would still be negative. Only the clinical insemination had been
during the right time of the month for me to conceive. What
were the chances of getting pregnant after that? No matter how
amazing it was.... making love to this beautiful man
I held on, meeting every thrust of his body with the forceful need
of my own. He held me, kissing me, devouring me, pushing me
to beyond my limits. I don't know which drove me hardest fear
or desire. But I gave in to them both. And when he looked into
my eyes and thrust inside me with everything he had, he made
his demand.
"Come with me," he ordered. "Now." He thrust again
hard. "Now."
And I did.

T HE CONTRACT S PENCER HAD PROMISED J ACK WAS WAITING IN THE FAX


machine by morning. But he'd already set the trip back home in
motion. The pilot, Davis, would be here with the helicopter
within the hour.
"You're sure I can't convince you?" He poured me a glass of
orange juice and heaped my plate with scrambled eggs. "Moki's
in perfect health, aren't you girl?" He rubbed her ears and she
squirmed with delight. "They can take care of her here, or she
could come with us." He put his hand over mine, his eyes
serious. "I don't like the idea of leaving you here alone."
I finished my juice and felt my stomach turn uneasily. "I won't
be alone, Jack. There's staff on the island. And you'll only be
gone for a day or so." I swallowed as liquid pooled in the back of
my throat. "We'll be fine here. I'll rest and I can work up in my
studio." I smiled reassuringly. "You're going to be busy in the
office anyway. You do still have a company to run"
He finished his breakfast and cleared the dishes away. He smiled
at my uneaten eggs, his eyes bright, hopeful.
"You'll call me, if you need me if there's anything at all" He
held my chin. "And we'll take that test just as soon as I get
back." He kissed me easily, his eyes so warm, so trusting. "I
can't wait for you to tell me I'm going to be a father."
"I promise," I replied, nodding firmly. "I think I want that
almost as much as you do"
He took my hand, the one with the emerald, and kissed the back
of it. Then he turned it over, and kissed the center of my palm
His mouth was so warm, there was something so intimate in the
gesture. I fought back the tears that stung the backs of my eyes
and forced myself to give him the bright smile he deserved.
He smiled back and kissed my lips, quickly, lightly. Then he
reached for the overnight bag waiting by the door. We could hear
the helicopter in the distance he needed to be waiting by
the pad.
"Libby I want you to know, I"
He stopped, his eyes intense, half a breath paused, the waiting
words unspoken.
"I'll be back before you know I'm gone, sweetheart. And if you
need anything, I'm a phone call away." He kissed me and put his
hand gently on my belly. "Take care of yourselves," he smiled.
I followed him out, waiting at a distance he boarded and the
helicopter slowly took off. I watched until it was nothing but a
speck in the sky. Only a moment later, it was completely gone,
and the tears I'd held back were set free.
33
JACK

I' D DAMNED NEAR TOLD her how I felt. That I loved her. That I
wanted us to be a real family together. That I'd seen more than
enough, watching how she'd cared for Moki, to know what a
wonderful mother she'd be. If she could only believe in herself
And if it was what she really wanted
Thank god, I'd stopped in time. There was nothing to gain by
overwhelming her now. Her body was already going through so
many changes I thought of her uneaten breakfast how
emotional she was becoming. And how passionate and
demanding she was in bed
I felt a wave of hard desire run through me and had to force it
aside. It was good I hadn't told her. As much as I hoped that her
feelings might change as the pregnancy progressed, I had to
accept at least for now that she'd made herself perfectly
clear. She had no desire to raise a child. And when he was born,
she was still planning to leave us both behind. Nothing had
changed
I watched the clouds drift by as the chopper headed for the coast.
We'd land in Jacksonville, and from there I'd take the private
plane into Asheville. The finished contract Spence had faxed to
me was still unsigned. But he was waiting for me at the office,
along with Bill Jackson and Ed Wyler of Warner Aluminum. We
would wrap up the deal in person today. I had a hundred details
to take care of, but my laptop was still in my case. All I could
think about was Libby.
Had I gone too far, when I'd had my lawyer look further into
Libby's history? I felt a pang of guilt, but what was done, was
done. The report was waiting in my desk. I only had to decide
whether or not to read it. Then, whether or not to share it with
Libby
I knew what I was hoping for. And I knew the chances were slim
to none that the report would hold the power to change
anything but it was a chance I had to take. Whatever it said
about Libby's birth mother, I could only pray that it held the
power that I did not. The power to open Libby's heart to me.

"W HAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN , THEY COULDN ' T BE HERE ?

Goddamn it, Spencer." I raked my hands viciously through my


hair and turned to face him. "Bad enough you faxed me a fucking
contract without the goddamned signatures you promised. Now I
left my wife alone on our honeymoon, for a meeting you failed to
produce? Christ, Spencer," I threw the papers onto my desk.
"What the fuck am I paying you for?"
Spencer stood, his face ashen. "I did my best, Jack. Honest to
god. But Ed flew out of the country this morning, until the
fifteenth. And Bill's daughter is in labor" He looked up at me
and I saw beads of sweat lining his upper lip. "But I got this copy
signed," he pulled a folder out of his briefcase and held it out.
"Both of them this morning It only needs yours, and it's a
done deal."
I flipped it open, taking my time with every page. I put my feet
up on the desk and let Spencer stand The signatures were
there, all right. At least he'd managed that.
Forty-five minutes later, I looked up and nodded. Spencer's
chest heaved with relief. I didn't fucking like how this had
played out, but the contract was perfect. He hadn't missed a
single detail. I scratched my signature out, page by page, until it
was complete.
"It's good, Spence. Damn good." I reached out to shake his hand.
"I'm sorry for doubting you." I clapped a hand on his back and
felt him sag, just a little.
"I did what I had to, boss. I fucking promised you, and I did
everything I had to I'd never let you down, if there was any way
in hell not to."
I laughed and poured us each a drink. Though I'd have preferred
handshakes to seal it, we'd made the deal, and Mason Steel
would be moving forward into the future with the strength of
Warner Inc. alongside it. We were both powerful as hell before.
Now we'd be unstoppable. And stock sales for both companies
had been soaring for the last few months. The future of our
family, of my family, was safe for generations to come. It was
what I'd always wanted.
Spence and I headed for the boardroom together. I'd had
Veronica arrange for the catered spread. One by one the rest of
the family trickled in, as their schedules allowed. By three, we
were all there and the champagne was flowing.
"Shit, Jack," India refilled my glass and hers. "You know, I was
never really convinced it would happen. But we're here. The
whole family all those years of work finally paying off." She
lifted her glass. "To Jack. And to his new wife, Libby." Her eyes
sparkled and she turned her glass toward Blake and Janet. "And
to the newly engaged couple
To Reid, who held my hand while I learned the company, and
Bennett, who's been a rock for us all. And to Mom and Dad, the
foundation of our family, who loved each other for the last
thirty-four years and still had enough left for the rest of us"
She held her glass higher and we all did the same.
"To a bright and promising future. And to the new generations of
the Mason family, soon to come."

T HE PARTY CONTINUED THROUGH THE AFTERNOON . R ONNI HAD OUTDONE


herself. There was a superb lobster frittata and bowls of
Wellfleet oysters on ice. The whole family was together. It was
all perfect. Except that Libby wasn't beside me.
"Jackson, honey," Mom came over to kiss my cheek. "I can't
believe you came all the way back for this. And I can't tell you
how proud you've made me." She gave my arm a squeeze. "But
you didn't bring your brand-new bride along with you? People
are gonna say I didn't raise my son right" Her eyes were
bright, teasing. "How is Libby, honey? And how are the two of
you settling down into married life?"
"Libby is beautiful," I replied. "Every day she shows me a new
side of herself She's the loveliest woman I've ever known"
Mom reached up, her eyes wise, and smoothed my hair back. "Of
course she is," she said softly. "Isn't that exactly why you
married her?"
Maybe it was the relief of having finished the deal. Maybe it was
the champagne. Or maybe it was how much I was missing Libby.
But I was suddenly tired of having secrets. "Mom, I There's
something I should tell you. Something about Libby and me
something that you don't know"
She smiled the way mothers do, and touched my cheek. "I don't
believe there is
You're in love with her, aren't you Jackson?" she asked easily.
"But it's not that simple" I started.
"You love her." Hers was a statement this time, not a question.
"I do, more than anything."
"Then there really isn't anything else that matters now is
there?"
34
LIBBY

T AKE CARE OF YOURSELVES , he had said as he left. And the words had
haunted me during the long night without him.
He was so sure I was pregnant. And I was terrified that I wasn't. I
hadn't had the nerve to take the test again. It was true, my cycle
was a little late, but the whole last month had been such a
rollercoaster. That could very easily be the reason
I'd spent the whole day walking around the island with Moki in
my arms, feeling the sand under my feet, looking out over the
crystal blue water. I missed Jack so much My whole life I'd
been mostly alone, but I'd never really felt lonely until now. But
it was for the best that he was gone. And that I'd had time away
from him to think. What had started out as so simple between us
had gotten so complicated, so fast. We'd been so foolish,
thinking a simple contract could have prevented this.
The truth was, Jack and I were both in too deep. The chemistry
between us, sharing a bed, sharing our bodies I felt heat rising
from my core just at the memory. We loved each other's
company, but when we touched we turned into one body,
flowing like molten liquid, filling each other until we were both a
single whole. It was the kind of thing I'd never really believed in,
until I'd felt it for myself.
He had married me, but only for appearances' sake. Then we'd
pretended it was real until we had acted like it was real. We'd
both given in. And now it would be all too easy far too easy, not
to stop
But neither of us wanted a relationship. We'd let things get
personal, when it should have stayed all business. Now I wanted
more, but there wasn't any place for more. Not in his life. Not in
mine. I put Moki's squirming little body down, keeping her close
and safe on her little leash. She looked up at me, cocking an ear.
I had to tell him, and the sooner, the better. If I really wasn't
pregnant, it wasn't right to keep it to myself any longer. And if
he wanted to find a different surrogate, it would be easier to end
our agreement now. He'd get his baby all the sooner. And
neither of us would get any more attached than we
already were
It was painful to admit, even to myself, but I had already started
to love my Little Speck at least when I'd believed in her. I'd
even imagined being her real mother baking cookies kissing
her hurts. And maybe that's what scared me most. Because it
was then, that I always remembered the sort of childhood I'd
had. She deserved so much more
And to go on for even a few more months like this with Jack? It
already felt damned near impossible to imagine living without
him. He was all the things I'd never had He was loyal and
loving, kind and dependable. He was also the best friend I'd ever
had. The only person I'd ever allowed so close. I felt sick at the
thought of losing him
If I stayed, maybe I could eventually gave him the child he
wanted. But how would I ever be able to leave him? How would I
ever be able to leave them as I had promised to do?
And if I tried to keep him, without giving him a baby, I would
have taken from him the one thing he wanted most
The light was starting to fade, but I couldn't face going inside
alone. Not just yet. I sank down onto the white sand and put my
aching head in my hands. Moki curled up in my lap, whining
softly for me to stroke her.
No matter how I looked at it, the answer always was the same.
And there was no point in putting it off. No point in making it
any harder than it already was. The puppy fell asleep as I
caressed her little ear. Her breathing was soft and steady. One
sure thing in a world that suddenly felt so frightening.
I stayed until the sun was long gone and the stars had started to
sparkle in the darkness. Then I carried her slowly up to the
house, careful not to wake her. I would tuck her into her little
bed and make sure she was settled for the night. Then I had to do
find a way to do the hardest thing I'd ever done.
I just kept telling myself that it was right.
And that in the end, what mattered to me most was that Jack
would have his dream.
35
JACK

I DECIDED NOT to wait any longer. Fuck going back in the morning.
I was flying back tonight. I'd already talked to Davis and he said
he could get me there before dawn. My whole body anticipated
climbing into bed with Libby as she slept. Waking her with my
hands on her body, my mouth on her sweet pussy
I'd said my goodbyes to the others, then India had followed me
up to the rooftop garden, to wait with me for the helicopter. I
hadn't taken the time to read the report on Libby's birth mother.
I'd just shoved it into my bag unopened. It had been a hell of a
day. A hell of a month, really. So many of my priorities were
shifting. And my mind was clearer than it had ever been.
"So?" I asked.
India looked at me over her mineral water. Her eyes were so
much like our mother's. And they were full of questions
"So we've got Warner. Just like you wanted. It's a hell of a
coup" She shook her head. "I ran into your ex the other day
she was talking with Spencer. And even she seemed pleased
for us
But Christ, Jack. This's me remember?" She leaned in. "I want
to know what's happened between you and Libby. There's
something something that's different"
For a second, I considered trying to bluff my way through. And
then she laughed at me. "I know that look, Jackie," she said.
"You're either in love, or the sex is really, really great." She
looked a little closer. "Maybe both?"
I leaned back and released the breath I was holding. What the
hell was the point in denying it?
"I fucking love her more than I knew was even possible. She's all
I think about Even a day away from her is more than I can
bear When it was all supposed to be just another fucking deal."
It felt so good to let it pour out. "A way to get what I wanted....
Or at least what I'd always thought that I wanted The wedding
was just for convention's sake, and for the baby's It wasn't
meant to be real. And then, somehow it just was"
"The magic of the island?" she asked, watching me, then looking
up at the stars.
"I thought so, at first. There we were creating a new life
together. Living like a couple. It seemed natural enough
there'd been such an enormous attraction from the start." I ran
a hand through my hair and scratched the stubble on my jaw. "I
knew better than to cross the line. Hell, we both did.
I need her, India. And I'm not used to needing anything. I want
her I want it all"
"It's not so easy to keep things simple, is it Jack?" India's voice
was gentle. "I know it's not so easy to accept, but life is messy.
Love even more so." She sighed. "It's messy and complicated
and sometimes it hurts like hell. But what's any of it for, if there
isn't someone there to share it with." She leaned forward, still
looking off into night sky. "Every woman deserves to be loved
simply for herself
Libby's strong, Jack. Stronger than any woman I know. She's
more than good enough for you, for any man just the way she
is. But she can still be hurt."
She turned and eyed me hard, though her voice stayed gentle.
"The big question is Can you be the man who's truly good
enough for her?"

F OR MOST OF THE FLIGHT , I COULDN ' T GET I NDIA ' S WORDS OUT OF MY
head. I knew exactly what she meant. And knowing her, all this
might have been her intention from the very beginning when
she'd first brought Libby to me at the lake house My sister was
unconventional in her way, but also wise beyond her years
The report on Libby's mother was still in my bag. I'd intended to
read it during the flight, but not now. It felt wrong even to open
it. Whatever it said, it no longer mattered. Not to me.
"How much longer?" I asked over the noise of the blades.
"Fifteen, maybe twenty," Davis replied. "Sun'll be up in an hour.
We're making good time." He turned to me and grinned. "Top
right pocket, my phone" he said, beaming. "Check out the
pictures. My new baby girl. Eight pounds, two ounces, born right
after I left you and your wife on your honeymoon."
He leaned toward me so I could reach under the flap of his shirt
pocket. I pulled out his phone and flipped through the dozens of
shots. In every picture, he was next to his wife, his arm wrapped
protectively around her.
"This was our third little Emma And Anna was in labor for
twenty-six hours," Davis shook his head and let out a big breath.
"Every time, it's just as wonderful and scary as hell. And Anna
is just so strong and amazing." He pointed with his chin at a shot
of the two older boys holding their new sister. "She never even
wanted a big family. Neither did I." He laughed. "But when you
fall in love, really in love somehow you just find a way through.
And it all turns out better than you ever imagined" He tipped
the helicopter toward the landing pad as it came into view.
"Life just always seems to have plans of its own, you know?"

"L IBBY , SWEETHEART ?" I' D PLANNED TO SLIDE INTO BED ALONGSIDE HER ,
to tell her how I felt, what I wanted for us and then to show
her for hour after fucking delicious hour
But my bed was empty. I checked her room, then the bathroom.
"Libby? Are you here?" Libby Mokita?"
I headed out the front of the house to scan the beach. It was
early, way too early for her to be out here My heart started to
pound. What if she'd gone out for a swim in the dark all alone?
I'd been there at the lake that day, but I'd been too far away to
protect her this time Why the fuck hadn't I stayed, or at least
insisted she'd come with me?
"Libby! Libby" My mind was racing with possibilities I couldn't
even begin to accept. That's when I turned, to look back up at the
house. There, in the darkness, was a single bright light. The attic
studio.
I ran up, taking the stairs two and three at a time. "Libby,
sweetheart. I'm back, baby." I was breathless by the time I
reached the top. The door was open. "Oh, god, Sweetheart."
Moki flew to me, tail wagging, yipping excitedly until I picked
her up. She licked my face, wriggling in my arms. Libby sat at her
work table, clay drying to a grey powder on her hands and arms.
Her face was smudged, her eyes tired. She looked from the
sculpture to me.
"I finished it, Jack. I couldn't sleep, so we spent the night up
here." She dragged the back of her hand across her forehead. "It
was the right time and it needed to be finished before," She
broke off. "It's yours. I want you to have it."
"My god." I put the puppy down and walked to her slowly. "It's
fucking amazing, Libby." I circled the table. "I've never seen
anything like it It's lovely so beautiful"
I reached out, wanting to touch it, not daring to risk marring its
utter perfection. The surface was as smooth as marble, the lines,
cool and flowing. I could feel the image as much as I could take it
in with my eyes. It was passion, as much as it was shape. And
sight alone wasn't enough to experience it. Not half enough.
Before me was the love of a mother, holding her child in her
arms. It was shaped with emotion, creating the image with
feeling, even more than form. But it was there, nonetheless. As
clear and beautiful as my love for Libby. As perfect as the woman
herself
I reached down to pull her up into my arms. She felt so small, as
if all the strength had left her body. As if she'd poured it directly
from herself into her art. My heart swelled, everything in me
wanting to hold her forever, to do nothing but keep her safe. "I
had to come back, sweetheart. There's so much I need to say
things that have changed for me things you need to know"
I turned her in my arms, pulling her close, kissing her full, soft
mouth. For a few moments, she felt warm and liquid in my
hands. I growled low in my throat and pulled her in tighter.
"No, Jack," she pushed against my chest. "Just stop please
just stop"
I released her enough to pull back, but didn't let her go. An
alarm went off deep inside
"Things have changed, Jack. I'm so fucking sorry I should have
said something sooner before we before things got
complicated" She pushed harder and I dropped my arms.
"There are things you need to know too. I should have told you
and I'm sorry." She turned from me, and for the first time I saw
her suitcases were sitting by the door.
"You don't have anything to apologize for, sweetheart. Nothing
to be sorry for" I could feel my heart beginning to pound. "Tell
me You have to know, you can tell me anything"
She walked to the tall windows and looked out over the water.
The sky was a wash of peach and pink. After a long, long silence,
she turned to face me.
"I love you, Libby." The words broke out of their own accord. "I
love you as much as I love our baby. I want you both." I took a
step toward her, my eyes pleading with hers. "Forget the
contract, forget that your mother gave you up. Believe in
yourself believe in us, sweetheart. We can be a family, all three
of us. I know we can if you can trust me. If you can love
me back"
"I do love you." She met my eyes. Hers were glistening with
unshed tears. "It's why I have to tell you the truth
I took the test almost a week ago. I brought one of my own I
wanted to surprise you after you gave me Mokita." She smiled
weakly and shook her head. "It was negative, Jack. I should have
told you but you were so sure. We both were. I just couldn't tell
you there wasn't a baby after all." She spread her arms. "You
married me and brought me here It was all for the baby but I
failed you"
I took another step and she stopped me with a shake of her head.
"No. We tried and it didn't work. We got too close This just
isn't right anymore."
She reached down and slipped the ring off her finger and held it
out. "You should find someone else. Not a surrogate. Not with a
contract" The tears broke free.
"But a real woman who can give you everything you deserve
who can be a real mother, a real wife
Not me."
36
LIBBY

H E CAUGHT ME IN TIME , just before I hit the floor. I remembered


that And the look on his face as I went down
"You're okay, sweetheart. You're fine we're both going to be
just fine." I felt his hand against the side of my face. I squinted,
looking up from the bed. He was there, right there beside me.
Warm, safe I struggled to sit up. "You fainted, Libby." His
eyes were so kind. He smiled.
"And you don't strike me as the fainting kind How about
laying back down now, and hearing what I have to say?" He
stroked my cheek as I eased myself back. It was so good, just to
have him with me, even if it was only for a little while longer
"I heard what you said," he started gently. "I just wish you'd
come to me. I can't imagine how you must have been feeling,
keeping all that bottled up and with me gone." His fingers
kept moving, caressing. "But how I feel about you it's not
about the baby any baby. If it didn't happen this time, it
always can the next. Hell, sweetheart, it doesn't matter if it
never happens. It's you that I want." He leaned down and kissed
me. "A baby would be wonderful, but only if it's what we both
want. Together, as a family. You and me, Libby. That's the only
thing I can't live without."
I squeezed my eyes shut, biting down on my lip. "But I do want
it. I want it so much." I opened my eyes, the tears streaming
down my temples, into my hair. "I I talked to her I named
her, Jack. When I thought she was really there she was my
Little Speck"
He held me until I was finally quiet, all cried out. "My darling
girl," he crooned softly, stroking my hair, my face. "We have all
the time in the world now, as long as we're together. We'll try
again one day, if you're ready. But right now, I just want you all
to myself. If you'll have me."
"I don't know how to do this, Jack. Relationships let alone
being anyone's mother What if I just can't?
What if loving me means you never get to have a baby at all?"
He reached down to take my hand, uncurling my fist with his
fingers. He took the emerald ring from my palm I'd been
holding it tight ever since I'd tried to give it back to him. There
was a smile in his eyes as he gave it a kiss and slipped it back
onto my finger.
"I already have what I want, right here in my arms. Here, now.
This is what I need, Libby." He kissed me deeply, proving his
point. "But I think we should find out for sure
We could fly back home today. Have Dr. Tiller do the test herself.
If it's still negative well, at least we'll know And we could try
again someday, if you want to. Or never. It's you I want. This,
that's real. I love you, Libby."
I wrapped my arms around his neck, burying myself in the feel of
him, the comfort of his scent. I love you too, Jack. I've never felt
it never said it to anyone before. But I love you, with all my
heart"
He kissed me again, holding me to him, his hands warm on my
body. He pulled me in, holding me tight, kissing me like he
didn't dare let go Then he paused, still so close, searching my
face. He sat up beside me.
"There's something I have to tell you too something you have
a right to know." He took both my hands in his and the look on
his face made me struggle to sit up beside him. For a moment,
the room seemed to swim. "What? Tell me" I felt my
stomach tighten.
"It was early in the process when I asked my lawyers to look into
it they only finished it after we were married I never read it,
Libby. I wanted to but I didn't."
"What, Jack? You never read what?"
He got up, rummaging in his bag before he came back to me. He
held out a thin yellow envelope.
"This belongs to you," he said quietly. "I'm sorry if I had no
right" I took it and turned it over in my hands.
"I'd thought maybe knowing who she was might help," he
said. "You can read it, or just burn it if you want." He sat back
down beside me. "It's all the information that could be found
about your mother, sweetheart. Who she was. And maybe why
she left."
I read the name typed on the envelope. Dorothy Jones. I fingered
the locket at my throat. The only thing I had of her, the initials
D.J. engraved on its back. Her name had been Dorothy.
"Why, Jack why did you do this?" My heart was pounding,
my stomach in my throat.
"Because I wanted you to have the choice," he held the side of
my face tenderly. "Because I love you
And because sometimes the truth has more than a single face."
37
JACK

"S OMETHING ' S WRONG , Jack. I don't know what the fuck But I had
Wyler on the phone this morning and he said he never signed." I
could hear rustling and then a slam. Blake's voice was clipped,
tense. "He said he had every intention to, but that he never got
the chance before he left for London."
"But the contract I signed had his signature on it" My mind
was racing. Fuck. Fuck
"I know. It was the same one Spencer showed all of us," Blake
replied. "So you tell me, Jack.
What the fuck is going on?"

T HE REST OF THE FLIGHT BACK TO A SHEVILLE HAD BEEN NOTHING BUT PHONE
calls. Every member of the board had seen and approved the
contract Spence had prepared. Ed Wyler and Bill Jackson had
both given me verbal confirmation of their intention to sign. But
I'd known Ed for more than a decade. If he said he never actually
did sign it, then he didn't. So the question was just who the
hell had? So far, I had more questions than answers, and Spencer
wasn't taking his calls.
Even so, my first priority had been getting Libby back home to
the lake house She hadn't slept during the flight. She'd stayed
close to my side instead, and kept a watchful eye on Moki's little
carrier. The puppy was still snoring soundly as I carried it into
the house.
"I'm fine," Libby protested. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care
of myself. You should go, find out what's happened
"I'm not going anywhere until I know you're taken care of." I
nodded toward the stairs. "Up, young lady. And into bed
with you."
I followed her up and put the puppy's carrier down in the corner
of the bedroom. Then I pulled the covers back "You should
sleep," I said, undoing the tiny row of buttons between her
breasts. I pushed the fabric over the curve of her shoulders. "No
matter what's happening at Mason, I'm coming home to my wife
tonight And I promise neither one of us will be getting any
sleep at all" I unzipped her jeans and tugged them down,
leaving her in nothing but a pale pink bra and panties. I pulled
her against me, letting my hands run down the easy curves of
her hips. Her eyes were brilliant, shining.
"If I kiss you, I'll never leave"
"Then I guess you'd better not"
"You need to sleep"
"... But I don't feel tired anymore"
I lifted her face to mine, and bent down taking the fullness of
her bottom lip. I ran my lips over it my tongue. She was
warm sweet delicious I picked her up and laid her in bed. I
left her bra where it was, her hard pink nipples pressed flat by
the tight, sheer fabric. But I peeled her little panties down and
ran my fingers lightly up the insides of her thighs.
"I don't believe in taking chances," I said, making sure my
breath touched her before my mouth did.
"Because you're so conventional?" Her words came out a
whisper.
"Because it's my job to take good care of you, sweetheart," I
answered back, trailing the tip of my tongue upwards closer
closer still "Because you need to lay back and rest like I
told you
And let me take care of everything else."

A S FUCKING HARD AS IT WAS AS I WAS I LEFT HER SLEEPING SOUNDLY , A


contented smile lifting the corner of her mouth. God, she was
beautiful.
I made her promise to eat something when she woke up. And I
told her I loved her. Then I headed out for the car.
Spencer wasn't a man with strong leadership skills, but he
damned well knew how to follow my instructions. Which was
why I'd hired him. And in all the years he'd worked for me, he'd
never let me down, never failed to deliver. This had to be a
mistake somehow a miscommunication But he'd missed
more than one promised deadline on this deal. If only he'd pick
up his goddamned phone
I needed answers and I needed them now. I hit redial and got his
voicemail again. I tossed the phone on the seat beside me and hit
the gas harder. Blake would have the family and the entire board
waiting when I got there. India was headed over to Spence's
place right now
I pushed the doubt from my mind, determined that before the
day was over, we'd have all our answers. There was no fucking
way in hell I'd let this deal slip away now. I'd fucking hand-carry
the contract to Wyler if I had to. Mason had put so much on the
line with this deal that the company was in a weakened position,
at least until all the signatures were in place. Companies larger
and more powerful than ours had been victims of corporate
raiders in the past. And Mason was more vulnerable now than
ever before
I hit the gas a little harder, teeth clenched and jaw muscles
working hard. Fifteen fucking years And I'd been right there,
so goddamned close, right on the edge of having it all. But now
it looked bad.
Fucking bad.
38
LIBBY

I SLEPT until late in the afternoon, and woke only when Moki
licked my face, her furry little body wriggling against mine. I
rolled over to her sweet brown eyes and the unmistakable
stomach-turning smell of puppy pee.
"Oh baby girl It's outside for you" I pulled on a robe from
the closet and the clean male scent of my husband settled
comfortingly over me. I shoved my feet into his slippers. Come
on, girl Outside."
We headed downstairs and out into the wooded area by my
studio. I sat down where I could keep an eye on the puppy and
relax into the pleasure of just being here, in this beautiful place.
A place I could truly call my home now, my very first real home
While the island had been wonderful, this was where I wanted
to be
I'd dreamed last night about the baby. The baby I'd expected to
be carrying by now She'd had Jack's dark blond hair, but my
green eyes. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to keep the
feeling of the dream. How it felt to hold her the baby scent of
her little head. I wanted to keep my eyes shut forever, so the
feeling wouldn't slip awaythe weight of her little body in
my arms
For just a second, it felt like there was something else to the
dream, something well, just more and then the feeling
slipped away, the memory gone. I opened my eyes and smiled as
the puppy barked at a squirrel in the treetops. "Come here,
Mokita here, girl." She flew into my arms and I held her tight.
Only a few months ago, I'd wanted nothing except to hold up my
end of a baby contract. Now, there was nothing I wanted more
than to be a family with Jack. A real family. No matter what else
was happening, I had to be able to give him that. The love
between us felt so strong and also so very new.
Although Jack had tried hard to reassure me the problems with
the merger were temporary and easily resolved, his eyes had told
me otherwise. He was worried now, more so than I'd ever seen
him. I knew he loved me and I hated feeling like I'd let him
down. And right when the Warner deal had taken a
threatening turn
On impulse, I hugged Moki close and headed inside. I put her on
the sofa and rummaged in my bag for my phone, hurrying so I
wouldn't lose my courage. Ten minutes later, I had an
appointment with Dr. Tiller for Monday. I hung up, nervous but
excited. I had to feel like I was doing something I would find
out what to do, to increase my chances of conceiving. And find
out if there was a problem causing my cycle to be late. The
damned test had already told me it wasn't because I was
pregnant
I shoved my phone back into the bag. The yellow envelope Jack
had given me brushed against the back of my hand.
Dorothy Jones. The words stared up at me. Plain black letters.
Cold. Impersonal.
My mother
All I ever knew was that she'd given me up. I had been only a few
months old, nowhere near old enough to remember. My second
foster mother, Angela, had told me it was my birth mother
who'd given me the name Liberty. The perfect name for a child
she had clearly wanted to be free of And when I was six, Angela
had also given me the locket I wore to this day. It had a wisp of
pale hair inside that I'd always imagined was my mother's.
I'd gone through years where I'd held onto that locket every
single night when I went to bed, whispering to it, as if it had the
power to carry the words to my mother's ears. Those were the
years I had imagined Real Mom as someone who loved me and
the mom I needed desperately to love back. But there were other
times too, as I got older. It was as if the years had taken me
farther and farther away from her, until eventually I just stopped
believing. She felt like a stranger then, almost as if she'd only
ever lived in my imagination
I sat down, letting Moki jump up into my lap. She pushed her
nose under my hand, demanding attention. With one hand, I
stroked her soft, round little belly. With the other, I held the
envelope with my mother's name. It might tell me nothing more
than I already knew. But it made me tremble deep inside anyway.
For the first time in so long, the typed letters had made her real
again. A real woman, with a name and a life The envelope
might hold nothing more than the little I already knew
But there was also the chance that it could hold the
explanation of my whole life.
39
JACK

"W HAT THE FUCK do we know right now? Veronica, get me India on
the phone. Blake... Get Dad and Ben in here. I want Wyler on
speakerphone before you get back." I shot out orders as headed
for the boardroom. Everyone was scrambling. They knew as well
as I did what was at stake.
I hit the flashing button on the console. "Tell me you
found him."
"He was at home, Jack," India sounded pissed. "Hungover as hell
and probably still drunk. He smells like he's been this way for
days. No fucking wonder he wasn't answering his calls."
"Get him here," I shot out. "I don't care if he's coughing up his
liver, you just get his ass in here. I'll pay to have your car
cleaned"
"Damn right, you will." I heard a noise in the background and
the disgust in her voice. "And I'm one step ahead of you. We'll
be there in ten minutes."

I WAS STILL IN MY OFFICE WHEN THEY ARRIVED . S PENCER WAS PALE AND
disheveled, ugly stains ran the length of his shirt. He was
leaning heavily on India's arm.
"Wait for us in the boardroom, India? I asked her as gently as I
could manage. "We need a moment."
She raised her eyebrows, but closed the door behind her. And
louder than was necessary. I watched as Spencer winced.
"They're all waiting in the other room." I stood, tapping my
fingertips on the wood of my desk. "I'm giving you a chance to
tell me now. I haven't decided yet if you deserve it." I took a
deep breath and let it out. "What the hell's going on, Spencer?"
"I didn't get to Wyler before he left the country, Jack. I fucking
tried, but I was too late. He never signed it, boss. I'd already
fucked up so much," he hiccupped and wiped his mouth. "He
was going to sign. He'd told me and you. I know it was wrong,
but he was going to sign it anyway. I just didn't think"
"You fucking forged a signature on a legal contract?" My voice
was quiet, but my heart was pounding in my chest. "You put my
family's entire future on the line to cover for fucking up? I would
have taken the contract to him myself, Spencer. There was no
goddamned reason"
"I'll admit it, Jack. I'll tell all of them what I did. I'll resign
Fuck, you can fire me if you want to." He ran his hands through
his stringy hair. "It all got away from me somehow I lost
control But I'm ready to tell the truth. I need to get this off my
chest"
The phone on my desk buzzed. I picked it up and hit the button.
It was India's voice. "They're all here, Jack. Ed's on speaker
But there's one more thing"
"Tell me."
"Your ex-wife is here, Jack. She just came in and sat down." I
could hear the exasperation in her voice. "She says, as a
stockholder, she's got the right."
"G ODDAMN IT , E LAINE , THIS ISN ' T THE FUCKING TIME OR PLACE FOR
whatever demands you've got now."
I'd left India to babysit Spence as I pulled Elaine into the
empty hall.
"This merger affects my interests as much as yours, Jack," she
sniffed. "The divorce gave me forty percent of your holdings. It's
my right."
It gave you fifty percent of my bank account, too, I thought.
"Besides, I wanted to be here for Spencer as moral support."
She picked at a long, pointy nail. "We're friends, Jack. And
everyone needs someone You certainly didn't waste any time."
Blake stuck his head into the hall. "We're ready." He looked
from me to Elaine then back to me.
I followed him in with Elaine on my heels. She sat down at the
far end of the table. I didn't have the time to process what she'd
just said. And she'd planned it that way. Her smile was serene. It
was the way that she locked eyes with Spencer that struck me.
That, and the look on his face when he saw her.
"Ed, thank you for this," I spoke to the room, but my words were
sincere and directed only to him. "The board is here. Spencer
too. Bill Jackson's listening in." I wanted to make it easier the
whole fucking mess was awkward enough. "There's been a
mistake with the contract. The one we have here I know you
never had a chance to sign yourself." I turned to look at Spencer.
"Mr. Pierson-Ellis and I have discussed this. I believe he has
something he wants to say to everyone here."
Spencer stood unsteadily, grasping at the edge of the table for
support. I'd have had some pity for the man, if what he'd done
was in any way forgivable. But he'd betrayed everyone in the
room. And it could have even cost us the company. For hell's
sake, he'd put Warner in jeopardy as well.
"I I " He swallowed hard, his eyes darting around the room.
"I never wanted to hurt anyone. It got out of control, is all." His
eyes locked onto Elaine. "This wasn't how it was supposed to
happen." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I
signed it myself. I forged the signature.
It was just because we needed a little more time" He looked
down at his own hands, the words were coming out faster and
faster. "I'll face whatever consequences you choose. It was my
mistake. Only mine." He looked across the long table. "It was
never supposed to be like this"
40
LIBBY

"C OME ON , SWEETIE UP UP ." I patted the bed, but her little legs
were too short. I picked Moki up and put her in the middle of the
bed. She had her favorite chew toy with her a yellow rubber
ducky. I squeezed it for her and she attacked, settling in to gnaw
its orange beak. I smiled and leaned back against the headboard.
For the last two hours, I'd carried the envelope with me
everywhere. I tapped it against my thigh held it up to the
light The paper was thick, expensive. I couldn't see a thing.
I would have called India or even Vivian for advice. But more
than anything, I wished Jack was with me. A year ago, I might
have just thrown the envelope away, sure that I already knew the
truth. That Mom didn't want me, and that I'd grown up strong
enough not to need anyone. But now
Jack's company was in jeopardy, and his whole family was
pulling together. They'd welcomed me with warmth and
kindness. With every passing day, I was learning more and more,
how wonderful it felt to have Jack beside me. Safe, dependable
and loving. Moki crawled into my lap. For the first time, I was
learning, not just how much I needed to be loved, but how much
love I had to give. It was like a dance a give and take that only
found its balance somewhere in between us
If I read the letter, there was no going back. Whatever it said
would be part of me forever. Good or bad
Or I could burn it. Toss it into the lake and watch it sink. I could
pretend it hadn't ever even existed, and then nothing would
change
Moki barked, sharp and high, her tiny ears perked toward the
drive. Jack's car was pulling up the drive and she bounded off the
bed, heading down the stairs at a run to meet him. I sat up and
smoothed my hair, thinking back on his promise for tonight. My
husband had wanted to give me all the answers I'd never had
before. He'd given me choices I'd never had before. He'd done it
all because he loved me because he wanted a life with me.
I smiled and listened to him downstairs as he lavished his love
on our puppy. His voice was so warm, so kind. The voice of the
very best man I'd ever known. I headed down the stairs, my
heart full of love and my body tingled with anticipation The
decision had made itself.
And I went to greet my family.

"W HAT HAPPENED ?" I LOOKED UP INTO HIS VELVETY BROWN EYES AS HE
wrapped his arms around me. "Did the merger go through?"
Jack scooped Moki's dinner into her bowl and closed her safely
into the kitchen.
"Wyler faxed it back with his signature today. We're safe
Mason's safe." He touched his fingers to my lips. They were
warm rough He led me over to the sheepskin throw by the
fireplace and lit the fire. "I'm going to have to let Spencer go
He could have cost us everything there isn't any other choice."
He ran his hand behind my head, threading his fingers through
my curls. He tugged slightly, tipping my head back. "You look
more delicious than ever, sweetheart" He kissed me right
below my ear. "I think I need to find out for myself"
"I've been waiting all day and I think it's your turn," I teased,
tugging at his belt. He was already huge, aching to be set free. I
unzipped him. "I think there's someone here who didn't get any
attention this morning" His cock sprang free.
We had each other undressed in seconds. I ran my hands over
him, his chest his abs. He was all muscle, huge next to me.
Then I kneeled down in front of him and felt his heat, his rock-
hard length in my hands and I tasted him. His balls lifted and
swelled. I took his whole head into my mouth.
"Oh, fuck," he gasped the words and his body swayed. "God,
sweetheart your mouth so fucking good" He caught
my shoulders and rocked his hips. Each careful stroke made him
longer, even harder. His head was at the very back of my throat. I
swallowed hard, purposefully, and he gasped.
I ran my hands between his legs pulling him to me, unwilling to
let him back away. He'd made me come in his mouth, I was
determined to give him the same pure pleasure. I spread my
hands to cup his ass and worked him with my tongue, sucking
and swallowing. I could feel him getting close. I was dripping wet
and it ran down the insides of my thighs. "I need to be inside
you, sweetheart I want to come in your sweet fucking pussy.
Let me Libby let me"
I would have sucked him off anyway, if my own body hadn't been
screaming. But I let him go, shifting fast. I was on hands and
knees, poised with my ass high, my knees spread apart. I let my
nipples graze the furry rug beneath us and offered myself up to
him. "Fuck me, Jack," I begged over my shoulder. "Come in
me hard"
He was inside me with a single, powerful thrust. There was no
time to adjust to his size, he was stroking me fast and hard, just
like I needed. I was jolted with every move he made. He was
churning my body, driving me hard, driving himself deep,
pushing and pulling giving and demanding He leaned into
my back and cupped my swinging breasts tight. Then he shifted
his hips up higher over mine. The head of his cock was right in
my sweet spot. Every thrust was an explosion of its own, like one
long, unending orgasm that would never, ever end
He came as my pussy clenched down on him. I bucked as he rode
me. I could feel his seed hot down my thighs. And still he
pumped into me. Neither of us could get enough. We didn't let
go until we finally collapsed together. It was as if, by joining
together we created something even more. Something bigger
and more powerful than either of us alone. He wrapped me in his
arms, resting his head on the pillow of my breast. I stroked his
hair until we both dropped off to sleep.

"I LOVE YOU , L IBBY . I WONDER IF YOU ' LL EVER KNOW HOW MUCH "

"I do know" I turned in his arms to see the morning light on


his face. "For the very first time" I tried to smooth his hair. He
smiled and pulled me closer and kissed me long and slow. He
took my hand and put it on his chest. His dark eyes were serious.
"I haven't been able to stop thinking about the letter,
sweetheart. If you've read it or if I never should have searched
into your mother's past" He shifted and my nipples rested
against him. "Was it a mistake?"
I wrapped my leg around his, pulling his hips closer, and felt him
begin to stiffen again. "Nothing's been a mistake," I whispered.
I looked up at his beautiful face, full of love and the heat of
desire. "I put it away, in the top of the closet. I almost read it I
wanted to until I realized I already have everything I need.
Right here, with you" I kissed him, letting it deepen until I was
aching again inside. "The past is gone. And we have a future to
look forward to a family of our own, someday."
He rolled over, trapping me deliciously underneath him, his eyes
shining.
"I think I'm more than up to it, Mrs. Mason." He slipped his
fingers down to tease my very ready clit. "And I promise to
devote myself to the job no matter how long it might take"
41
JACK

A LL I WANTED WAS to spend the day with Libby in my arms. But


work didn't end with the merger's success. It was really all just
beginning, and there was still Spencer to deal with. Bennett and
Dad were working out the details of his severance package and I
knew it would be generous, in spite of what he'd done. He'd
given the company a hell of a lot of good years. I still had trouble
believing his judgement had failed so badly.
I revved the engine, just as the light changed. No, it was hard as
fuck to imagine what the hell Spence had been thinking I
turned the corner and headed into the parking garage. And all
morning, there has been something else preying on my mind
something I couldn't quite place. Something just...wrong.
It was more than the growing concern I'd had ever since Libby
had told me she wasn't pregnant. It's rare for a woman to
conceive on the first try. And she was young and healthy. I
wasn't worried about her But since she'd told me the test was
negative, a deep fear, an older fear had been growing inside me.
Elaine and I had tried for two years to have a child. She'd had
frequent check-ups with her own doctor, always assuring me
there was nothing wrong. No reason to think it had anything to
do with her. She'd even demanded more in the divorce
settlement as compensation because I hadn't given her the
children I'd promised
I'd just told myself it was because we weren't meant for each
other. Because I'd been so busy with work and she'd had so
many separate interests of her own. Neither of us had had much
time to devote to each other. And long periods of time had
passed without anything between us at all
It was all so different with Libby, from the very beginning. At
first, it had been the most powerful attraction I'd ever felt in my
life. But in no time, it had deepened into the kind of love I'd
never even dared hope for. It was as if the feelings we shared
were more than we could even contain within ourselves that
surely it was inevitable that it would blossom into a new life a
baby. The physical reality of our love
But it hadn't happened. And in all those years with Elaine, it
hadn't happened either. The cruel words she'd spit at me so long
ago came back to me now, and they shook me to the core.
Did you ever think for one fucking minute that it just might be
your fault?

S PENCER WAS DUE IN MY OFFICE BY NINE . I THREW BACK THE LAST OF MY


cold coffee and paced the room. It was grey outside, the sky
sullen. It matched my mood, at least. I hated this fucking kind of
thing.
I'd looked over the severance papers, added a few notes of my
own. I knew it was the only choice, to let him go, but something
still nagged dully at the back of my mind. None of it made any
sense. But Spencer had straightforwardly admitted to what he'd
done. Forging a signature to meet a deadline. A deadline he'd
already kept pushed back more than once
I could still see his face, white and damp. How his eyes had
darted around the room. We needed a little more time, he'd said.
It was my mistake. Only mine.
And yet his eyes had rested on Elaine
She'd looked cool, poised Not at all like a woman who was
concerned for her friend, or even her own selfish interests in my
company. Elaine had worn precisely the same expression as the
day she'd told me she wanted out of our marriage, and that she
wanted what she'd earned by staying She had looked cold,
calculating satisfied
We needed more time, Spencer had said.
We...

H E WAS SOBER , AT LEAST . A ND HIS SUIT WAS CLEAN . B UT S PENCER WAS


still pale, and his hand shook as I handed him a cup of coffee.
"I think you'll find it more than fair," I said, pushing the stack of
papers across my desk. "I think it goes without saying how
unfortunate it is, for things to end like this." I leaned back. "I
trusted you like family, Spence. All those years
In spite of everything, I can honestly say I'm sorry to see you go.
I can't in good conscience offer you a reference Hell," I
dragged a hand through my hair. "It's only because I considered
you family, that we're not pressing charges. That, and the fact
that the merger went through successfully and neither company
is in jeopardy now But for Christ's sake, Spencer. What the
fuck were you thinking? Where the hell did all those years of
good judgement go?
I trusted you. All of us did."
Spencer's hand shook until his coffee threatened to spill. He put
it down and pulled awkwardly at his tie. I could see I was getting
to him. So was his own fucking conscience
"We spent years building Mason back up from the ruins, Spence.
You and I. We saved it, made it strong enough to survive into the
next century. For Fletcher for Vivian. For all of us.
It made you a very rich man. With a secure future," I paused,
watching the nervous movements of his mouth. "You'd have
never wanted for anything I don't understand why, Spence.
There won't be any consequences worse than you're facing
now I'm willing to do what I can to protect you
But only if you tell me the truth"
42
LIBBY

"D R . T ILLER ' S OFFICE , confirming your appointment tomorrow at


ten," the receptionist sounded young and energetic. "She asked
me to request you bring with you a list of any concerns, any
unusual symptoms you've noticed in the last year. And any
issues with family health history," she continued. "Mother,
sisters, aunts any relative who had issues with reproductive
health or infertility." I caught my breath and there was a pause.
"Did you have any questions?" she asked.
"No no. Nothing, thanks. Of course I'll be there," I
answered. "Thank you"
Sisters or aunts I'd never even thought about the
possibility It was only my mother I'd focused on ever
wondered about. And I knew virtually nothing about her, except
that she'd been able to give birth to me
I wanted time. Time to consider all my options, time to weigh
the benefits against the risks. The report on Dorothy was right
upstairs, in a box at the top of the closet. What chance could
there be, that it held any information that might help me
become a mother. And Jack become a father. All I knew was that
time was the one thing I didn't have. And that I owed it to Jack,
to both of us, to do anything I could
I grabbed the phone and tapped the screen. "India?" My heart
was pounding. "I need you"
"Are you okay, Libby? You sound funny Is it something with
the baby?" Her voice was so sweet, so concerned. I felt a lump in
my throat. How had I never realized what an amazing and loyal
friend she'd always been?
"I'm fine. It's nothing like that," I swallowed hard. "All my life,
I've tried not to ask anyone for help I thought I could do it all
on my own.
There isn't a baby, at least not yet," The words were pouring out
now. "But there's nothing I want more, India. Jack and I it's
real. We're real. I want us to have a baby more than anything," I
stopped to press a cool hand against my forehead. "But there's
something I need to do and I don't know if I can do it alone"
"Are you sure you don't want Jack?"
"I'll tell him everything tonight, if there's anything to tell. But
right now, I just want you"
"Then sit tight, sweetie. I'm on my way."

I MET HER AS SHE PULLED INTO THE DRIVE . T HE RAIN HAD BEGUN TO SLOW
and the sun was peeking through the low clouds. She wrapped
her arms around me before she even spoke.
"Talk to me," she said, once we were inside and Moki had given
her a wet and thorough welcome. "No baby, yet? That's nothing
so unusual." She smiled knowingly. "I kinda doubt it's for lack
of trying"
I blushed from my hair to my toenails and she laughed. "I
couldn't be happier, you know." She took my hand and gave it a
long squeeze. "The day you and I first met, I thought about Jack."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Call it a gift. But I wasn't the only
one who saw" She smiled slyly. "The whole family knew you
were a perfect match long before you two finally figured
it out."
Tears blurred my eyes and I wiped at them, overwhelmed. "I love
him so much. I want to give him everything he needs We want
to be a family, India, although it still scares the shit out of me
the idea of being a real mother myself
What if I don't know how if I don't have enough inside me
to give?"
She smiled, so wise beyond her young years. "Then you lean on
the people who love you, Libby. You have a family now, no
matter what else happens from here on out. It's what we're here
for, sweetie. There's no more alone for you. Not ever."
"I love you, India," I whispered, hugging her close.
"And I love you back. "Now," she wiped her own eyes and shook
her hair back. "What am I out here for? I think you and Jack are
all on your own with the business of making babies"
"He had someone look into my mother's past"
"I know He told me. And I agreed it was the right thing to do."
I nodded hard. "I wasn't going to read it. But there could be
information in that report that I should know. Sisters, maybe.
Medical history" I bit into my lip. "If there's a chance
something in there could help I have to read it, India. No
matter what I find out, I have to know." I picked up the envelope
from the coffee table. "I just didn't want to do it alone."
She smiled wide, her eyes still bright with moisture. "And you
don't have to." She pulled out her phone. "You have no idea
the resources I've got available. We can take whatever
information the letter gives, and go from there."
I smiled back, my heart thumping hard in my chest. I slipped my
thumb under the yellow flap. "Okay Dorothy start talking"

H ALF AN HOUR LATER , I LEANED BACK HEAVILY ON THE SOFA . I LICKED DRY
lips, and handed the sheaf of papers over to India. She'd been
silent the whole time, waiting. Patient, like her brother.
She glanced through them, shifting them between her hands.
"So is there more here than you already knew?" She looked up.
"I see a lot of dates, a few addresses but does it tell you who
she was or where she is now?"
"Last page death certificate" I closed my eyes. "She died just
a few months after she gave me away."
India shuffled through them again. "I can't make out what's
listed as the cause," she said. "It looks like the ink was smudged.
There's nothing else?"
"Names of her parents but this page here" I showed her.
"They're dead too.
Even if she hadn't given me away, I'd have been orphaned
anyway. There's no husband listed There must not have been
anyone left at all." I looked at India's kind, clear eyes. "She was
just as alone as I was"
"Wait a minute" India shuffled again. "There's a doctor's
signature on this." She peered at the paper. "About as legible as
you'd expect But the name of the hospital is clear enough,
right here in Asheville." She grabbed up her phone. "Even if the
doctor's long gone, there are still records, Libby. And a chance
that someone's still there who might remember something."
"It was almost twenty-five years ago"
She tapped furiously on the screen. A few minutes later she
handed the phone to me. "And nobody's getting any younger."
43
JACK

"I T ' S ALL HERE , in black and white," Dad said. "We don't know
who, but how is fucking clear enough."
Dad had interrupted us just at the point I'd thought Spencer was
finally beginning to break. But instead, he retreated further into
his chair, his lips pressed silently into a thin white line.
"Huge chunks of Mason stock have been purchased over the last
fifteen months. We knew it prices had been heading up for
some time" He shook his head, looking suddenly very much
his age. Reid and Blake came through the open doorway, their
faces grim. "Different brokerage firms only small amounts of
stock at a time... "Dad put a hand on his chest. "It just seemed
like the business was gaining strength, what with the merger
coming God help me, I didn't see. The purchases were so
small, and spread over time but when I realized how much
they'd added up to
There's no way to know for sure how wide the shares are
spread." He looked at me with dread in his eyes. "Or even if they
are widespread."
Blake stepped forward and eased Dad toward a chair. He stood
behind him, a concerned hand on his sagging shoulder. "It's not
anyone's fault," Blake said gently. "Hell, we don't know there's
even a problem yet, not for sure.
We all saw the same thing our numbers were rising. It wasn't
unexpected. Things were looking damned good It was only
when we added it up. Put the whole picture together." He looked
at me pointedly. "If it was an individual even a small group
and if they already had a large number of shares in the first
place"
For a moment, it felt like the room had started to move around
me. I was standing, but put a hand on the desk to steady myself.
"You're telling me there's a chance we've lost controlling
interest in our own company? It's impossible. As a family, we
own more than fifty one percent. Even if it was an individual
who managed to buy up every other share, we'd still retain
control." My mind was racing. "It would be damned near
impossible for someone to get even forty percent and no one
could do it without inside help" This couldn't fucking be
happening...
Ben entered the room, with Mom at his side. She went straight
to Dad and put her arms around him. Her usually smooth brow
was heavily creased, her hands fluttered around him nervously. I
looked around the room at all the people I loved, who had all
depended on me to keep Mason Steel alive and strong. I had a
wife now and someday, god willing, a family of my own. There
was no way in hell
"Warner on line one," Veronica's voice cut through on the
intercom. "It's Mr. Wyler"
I swallowed hard against the cold, sick feeling in my gut. The
room, which had been quiet before, was utterly silent now. I sat
and picked up the receiver.
For ten long minutes, I listened. I nodded silently, jaw clenched
and aching. Every eye in the room was on me, and none of us
were breathing. Bill wasted no time. Neither did I.
"We did," I answered him. "Only just now and yes precisely
the same. I swear on my honor as a Mason, this isn't going to
happen. Not for either of us." I met the eyes of everyone in the
room. Everyone except for Spencer.
I hung up the phone and crossed the room to where he sat. I
looked down at him. He didn't have the fucking guts to stand, to
even face me. "It's not just Mason Steel," I said evenly.
"Warner's been bought up too same thing. Small amounts of
stock purchased over time. Spread out, so it wouldn't attract
attention too quickly." I had to work to draw a deep breath, to
calm myself.
"I said I'd try to protect you, if you told me the truth. I meant it,
Spencer." I kept my voice low, in spite of the anger raging inside.
"Maybe I still do"
He looked up, the corner of his eye twitching. "I tried to, boss. So
many times I wanted to" He licked at dry lips. "I just wanted
everybody to be happy. I didn't think it through I never
thought it all the way through"
He looked toward the window, his expression almost blank. He
was quiet, and for a moment it seemed as if he'd forgotten us all.
"It didn't seem so wrong. Just small amounts at first But then
more and more I was nearly bankrupt by the end but still, it
wasn't good enough Nothing was ever good enough. She just
kept asking for more time promising we could have more than
just a friendship I was such a goddamn fool.
And all the time all the time, she was just playing me"
I knelt down, forcing him to face me. He looked ill, broken. I put
my hand on Spencer's thin shoulder. "You told me that we'
needed more time
Who did you mean, Spencer
when you said we?"
44
LIBBY

"A LL I KNOW IS something must be pretty damned bad," India


said, dropping her phone back in her bag. "Ben is hard to rattle,
but I couldn't get him to tell me over the phone. He just said to
get into the city asap, and you too." She dug out her keys. "I
guess we'll find out when we get there." Five minutes later, with
Moki safely tucked into her puppy-proof playpen, we were
heading for the highway.
I held my phone in my hand, my stomach tilting and squeezing
with nerves. I'd already tried to call Jack, but it had only gone to
voicemail. I was afraid, truly afraid for him. I'd seen the look on
his face when he'd left. The haunted look in his eyes I'd
wondered if there was more to that look than only his concern
for the company.
"So what did the hospital say?" India looked at me sideways as
she drove. She'd taken Ben's call outside as I'd been taking to
the administrator.
"The doctor who signed the death certificate passed away last
year," I said, rubbing a hand over my stomach. "It's a charity
hospital, with a lot of turnover But there might still be a nurse
who was employed when Dorothy was there." Her name still
sounded foreign on my tongue.
"It's such a long shot," I sighed. "Even if she had been working
there when my mother died it doesn't mean they ever met. Or
even that the nurse would remember." I chewed my lip absently.
"So do you have her name? A number, at least? Any chance is
better than none."
"They couldn't give it out," I replied. "But they said they would
give her my number." I thumped the phone against my thigh.
"There's nothing I can do now but wait and hope to hell she
calls me back."

T HE TENSION IN THE ROOM MADE IT INSTANTLY CLEAR . S OMETHING WAS


wrong. Really and terribly wrong.
India went to her mother. I went straight to Jack's side. The
entire family was present, but no one spoke, no one even noticed
when we entered the room. All eyes were on one man. At the
wedding, he'd been charming enough impeccably dressed. I
almost didn't recognize him now.
"Spencer," Jack drew the word out, his voice smooth, almost
seductive. "You wouldn't have done this on your own. I know
you I've trusted you for years." He was kneeling at the man's
feet, speaking to him as if he were a child. "We all know it
wasn't you," Jack continued. "You've been loyal to Mason
everyone in this room knows that.
Tell us whose idea it was, buying up stock in both Mason and
Warner trying to take control of them both. You may have
helped them do it, Spence, but this wasn't you. I know it and
I'm trusting you to come clean with me now."
As he was speaking, India had discreetly shifted the rest of us
toward the back of the office. Jack and Spencer were alone by the
windows. I could tell Jack was holding his breath.
"She said she loved me," Spencer began in a whisper, tears
rolling down his face. "I knew it was wrong from the start I
wanted to tell you, but I couldn't I couldn't Not when I'd
betrayed you"
Jack put a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. "Love can
make us all see the world differently." He glanced at me with a
hint of a smile. "It can make us do things we never imagined
before" He looked back at Spence. "Just tell me. I promise I
can help you make this right"
"It started three years ago." The tears were rolling fast now, his
voice tight. "She said she loved me, that we could have the life
we both deserved as long as I did what she told me to do. As
long as I kept my mouth shut.
But she lied to me she lied to all of us." He was angry now, his
voice louder. "She didn't want me she didn't want anything
but money and control control over everything all of us. She
made a fucking fool out of me, Jack. But I went along with her
She was just using me the whole fucking time."
"Who, Spencer? Tell me who"
The door opened behind us with a soft click and every head
turned in unison. Standing there was a tall, slender blonde. We'd
never met. I'd never even seen a photograph. But I instantly
knew her. She was everything I'd imagined. I felt India take
my hand.
The woman was elegant, perfectly poised, serene. Everything I
was not. And she would have been the loveliest thing I'd ever
seen, if not for the look on her face.
"Elaine," Spencer spat out, as he stood and squared his
shoulders.
"It was that bitch, Elaine."
45
JACK

"C HARMED , AS ALWAYS , S PENCER DARLING ." She strode into the room
without looking at him, on black stiletto pumps that put her
almost eye to eye with me, and inclined her head. "Jackson
I see the news has arrived before me," she drawled easily. She
stared into my eyes, hers glittering triumphantly. "You may go
now," she spoke toward Spencer without taking her eyes off me.
"As a matter of fact, you can all go This is just between you and
me," she purred into my face.
"No one leaves," I heard my own voice boom out. My fists were
balled tight. The fucking nerve of her "There's no one here
who's unaffected. And there is nothing between the two of us."
"We welcomed you," Mom came forward, her hands shaking.
"We brought you into our family and welcomed you as our
daughter and this is what you do to us? To my son to our
family? You try to take everything generations of Masons have
fought to keep?"
Elaine threw her head back and laughed. "You never loved me.
None of you did. I just happened to fit the mold is all." She swept
her hair back and smiled. "You wanted a well-bred daughter in
law and that's exactly what you got. To maintain the family
image to breed pedigreed grandchildren." She turned back
to me.
"And you. You didn't want a wife," she spat out the word
hatefully. "You wanted a houseful of children and someone to
wipe their snotty noses for you. I was foolish enough to try. How
many years, Jack? And not a single child?
I wasted my best years on you and all your empty promises. And
the divorce settlement wasn't half enough to make up for that."
She moved to the other side of my desk and sat down in my
chair "I took what I had coming, Jack. And I did it any way I
could." She glanced from me to Libby and back again, slowly
purposefully. "After all, I learned from the best."
"You and Spencer bought up every share you could In Mason
in Warner." My voice was calm, but my hands were in fists, my
gut a tight ball of cold anger. "And along with half of my
shares"
"I now hold controlling interest in both companies," she
finished. "Now they're merged into one, you're looking at the
new CEO of one of the largest privately owned businesses in the
south."
"You had enough to live a hundred comfortable lives, Elaine.
And you ruined a good man." I looked over at Spencer, who
looked ill. "If you'd had to, would you have tried to pass off his
child as mine?"
"You fucking hypocrite," she shot back. "You faked a marriage!
You bought a woman to give you the fucking baby you want so
bad. And you passed her off to your entire family, your elite
social circle as your new wife." Her lips curled into an ugly sneer
as she stared straight at my parents' shocked faces. "He's the
liar," she growled. "And any child that comes from her," she
shot a glance at Libby's stricken face, "is nothing but a bastard
mongrel. That girl has nothing no one. She's nothing but a"
Never in my life have I laid hands on a woman, but I gripped her
arms till my fingers bit into her flesh and pulled her out of my
chair.
"Not one more fucking word." I could feel her feet dangling
above the floor. "You will never speak one fucking word about
my wife ever again, or so help me I won't be responsible." I let
her go abruptly, suddenly disgusted at the feel of her in my
hands. "Libby is my wife, from the day I met her until the day
that I die." I looked across the room to her brilliant green eyes.
"She's the love of my life We belong to each other."
Elaine was shaken, unsteady, but turned in desperation to my
family. "He lied to you. Every one of you. Can you imagine what
people will say? These things can't be kept a secret forever the
truth always comes out. And Jack will have made fools of you all.
The Huntingtons the Bellfields do you think they'll ever
welcome you in their social circles again? He could have cost you
everything Vivian," she reached her hands out in appeal.
"None of it was real. He lied to youit was all just lies. He chose
her," she curled her lip toward Libby, "because she could
produce a child and then just disappear. She has no past, no
history, no family."
I looked at their faces as Elaine finally spent herself. They looked
from her face to mine. And I watched felt the energy in the
room as it shifted. Without seeming to move at all, my parents,
my brothers, my beautiful, strong sister formed a protective wall
around my Libby. I stood at the center and together we watched
as Elaine's indignation slowly slipped away. From the corner of
my eye, I saw Spencer come slowly to stand alongside us.
"That's where you're wrong," I answered her back.
"And there's nothing you, or anyone can say, that changes how
we feel" Mom added. "Libby's our daughter and we love her. We
knew everything from the start," she said smoothly. "And we
gave our complete support," Dad finished for her.
"She's made Jack happier than I've ever seen him in his entire
life," Ben spoke softly as Blake and Reid stood taller and nodded
in agreement.
"She's my best friend," India said, her voice edged with warning.
"And my sister. And a better woman than you'll ever be"
I took Libby's hand in mine and pulled her in close. "Libby
belongs to us all of us. We are her family, and we are her
future And she's mine," I finished, looking down at her.
I glanced around, the question in my eyes. I didn't even have to
speak it. Everyone nodded in silent agreement. We knew each
other so fucking well. And when we were united, strong we
were like one mind I turned back to Elaine.
"You don't need to resort to blackmail," I said dismissively. "Tell
whoever will listen to you. We have nothing to hide And you
have far less power than you imagine.
Take the company too. Although you may not find your board as
easy to control as you think." I felt the family close in a little
tighter, as Elaine stood alone.
"You'll find it takes cooperation trust... to run an empire
And to keep it."
46
LIBBY

"B UT YOU CAN ' T ." I caught Moki up as she barked in excitement.
"You can't just let her take what's yours." We'd gone back and
forth the entire way home.
"I already have what's mine," he said, taking us both in his
arms. "And Elaine got what she wanted. I'd have to say, I got the
best end of that deal." Jack laughed as the puppy squirmed away
and he pulled me in closer.
"But it's my fault she had the power to threaten blackmail in the
first place," I muttered. "I can't tell you how wonderful it felt,
to have the support of your whole family, but"
"Our family"
"Okay, our family," I sighed, smiling back reluctantly. "But they
gave up, you all did, just to protect me To protect us," I added,
when he shot me that look again.
"Libby We gave her nothing." I fingered the paper Spencer had
handed me before he'd slipped from the room and smiled.
"She bought up enough stock to have control, it's as simple as
that. It's how business is done. We still hold enough to fight her
tooth and nail at every step. I know her, sweetheart. She likes an
easy life, and she just bought herself a whole fucking world of
complicated." He leaned down and kissed me until I was wet and
he was throbbing against me. "Besides, life often has a mind of
its own."
"You're distracting me on purpose," I said weakly.
"I certainly hope so," he answered back. "Or I'm doing it
wrong"
"But you wanted the merger so much you wanted Mason
you wanted it to be so strong" I barely got the words out.
"And then I found something I wanted even more right here."
He took my hand and led me out into the darkness. The sky was
finally clear, the lake as smooth as glass. He stood behind me,
his arms wrapped around my waist, his hands resting warmly on
my belly. He tucked his face into my shoulder, close to my ear. "I
want you, sweetheart. Just you and this beautiful, peaceful
place." He nuzzled closer and I could feel his delicious length
pressing up against me.
"I lived to work for too goddamned many years. I'm not
making that same mistake this time." He sighed, leaning his
head against mine. "Elaine and I never worked together, on any
level, but it didn't help that I was gone so much. I think, in so
many ways, things have turned out for the best." He turned me
to face him. "I spent so much of my life wanting what I didn't
have. Now I realize, it's all right here
I love you, Libby. And I want us to always be a family." He ran
one big thumb gently over my lips. "Even more than ever, now
that you want it as much as I do" He smiled sadly. "But I
wanted children for years and it never happened. There's
always the chance that it never will."
I stopped him with a kiss, tangling my hands in his hair. "I love
you, forever, Jack. Babies no babies. You've already given me
more family than I ever dreamed of." I pulled his long, hard body
against my softness, just listening to his heartbeat. I smiled to
myself as a surge of happiness rolled through me. These last
two months I blinked. Had it been that long?
"I know what you mean About it all turning out for the best." I
looked up. "I opened the envelope today about my mother." I
sighed. "There wasn't much just that she's gone. Only a few
months after she gave me up. I doubt I'll ever find out more.
Who she really was, or why she gave me up"
"Sweetheart," he put his warm lips against my forehead. "I'm so
sorry I'd hoped it would give you the answers."
I rested my head on his strong, broad chest. "In a funny way, I
think it has," I said. "My whole life I always thought she just
didn't want me. That a baby that I was just a problem, and
that she solved it by throwing me away" I took a deep breath of
the cool night air. "But it's almost like she never even had a life
of her own at all. She rented a little apartment for a few years,
but then there was no record at all after she left." Jack's hands
stroked my back in long, soothing motions as he listened. "She
died when she was still so young
All those years I blamed her, for not loving me for not wanting
me. But who was there for her? She wasn't married, and her
parents were dead. She had nothing no one" I turned my
face up to Jack's loving gaze. "Maybe I'll never fully understand.
But I have something I never had before, in my whole life"
"What, sweetheart?"
"Freedom," I said softly, as tears filled my eyes. "Because I feel
like I can finally forgive her even if I never do find out what
really happened. It all had so much power over me, since I was
just a little girl. Now, somehow it just doesn't anymore..."
I sniffed as he wiped my cheeks tenderly. "Her choices don't
have to be mine. And I'm not alone anymore"
He wrapped me in the strength of his arms and held me tight.
"And you never will be, Libby. As long as there's breath in my
body, I swear to you. I will love you my whole life. And you will
never, ever be alone again."

H E UNDRESSED ME WITH ACHING SLOWNESS , KISSING EVERY TENDER SPOT AS


he went. I was frantic with need by the time his mouth touched
the hollow of my throat. My shirt my bra he dropped them,
forgotten on the floor, in his search for my skin.
His lips trailed between my breasts and the stubble on his jaw
raked against my swollen nipples. He kissed a path along my
belly as he slipped jeans and panties down Only for a moment
did he take his warm hands away. I watched, holding my breath
as he stripped, the silver moonlight coming through the
windows, reflecting off his sculpted body I stood, spellbound
by his perfection Then I was in his arms, and he was flesh and
blood again. Hard and hot with a need I shared. He lifted me onto
our bed and covered me with his body.
"I want you," he rasped out the words in my ear, his heavy
cock drawing a line of moisture up the inside of my thigh.
"You have me," I gasped back. "I'm all yours"
Delicious sweet sweetheart" He ran his lips down my
body, taking the time to taste me with his tongue, explore the
curves of my breasts the hollow of my navel. By the time he
reached my mound, he had my legs spread wide and his eyes
were sparkling with lust and delight. "All mine," he growled.
"To take as I please to taste as I please"
He took me with his mouth, the first touch of his tongue arching
my body He lapped and teased, drinking me in. I was soaked in
wetness, and yet it only fed the flames. He eased two long
fingers into me and my need turned into a wildfire
"God Jack oh, please" I was begging now. "I need you to"
"What, sweetheart?" he asked, his breath hot against my
swollen lips. "Tell me what it is you need"
"You know," I gasped back. I could feel his mouth poised just
over me and tried to push myself closer
"Tell me," he teased. "I want to hear you tell me." He flicked the
tip of his tongue against me and the shock hit me like
lightening.
"I want you inside me," I begged. "I want your cock so deep
inside me"
I heard his breath catch in his chest and in the next second he
was on top of me, inside me, buried in one deep thrust. He
pushed my thighs apart, holding my knees as my heels gripped
his ass. He'd never been deeper and my body held him there. I
was tight around his thick, hard shaft. Our bodies tense, on the
verge of climax, he looked into my eyes. "You are mine," he said,
pushing the head of his cock further, stretching me to the limit.
"I'm yours," I gasped, my breath coming in quick, tiny puffs. He
pushed a little more and I clutched at his chest. "Take me oh
god, take me fuck me"
The single word unleashed us both. He drove inside me with
long, powerful strokes, building to a climax that hit us both at
once. We shattered into a thousand pieces, the waves of
combined orgasm pounding our bodies until we flew apart and
then came back together again into one greater whole. I was
Jack, and Jack was me. There was no more separation.
There was only us.
47
JACK

I STRETCHED in the cool sheets, reaching beside me for Libby's


delicious softness. The bed was empty beside me, her pillow still
warm. I heard her movements across the hall in the bathroom,
the toilet flush. I slipped my hands behind my head and sighed
deeply, waiting for my wife to come back to bed. In spite of the
uncertain future with Mason, I was content in a way I'd never
been before. All the empty places in my life that, for so many
years I had filled with work, suddenly weren't empty anymore. I
had a life now, with the woman I loved. No matter what the
future held, it would be bright and filled with promise.
"Penny for your thoughts," she said, seductively, curling one
naked thigh around the doorway. She peered around the wooden
molding, with a secret smile on her lips. "Me, I'm hoping"
"You, always," I answered back, enjoying her playfulness. She
shifted so that one heavy breast popped into view.
I pushed the blankets back to expose the effect she was having.
My cock was swaying, already at full attention. Her eyes shined,
the color more intense than ever. She put her hands up to push
her hair back, letting both breasts come into view, swaying as
she took her sweet time walking to the bed. It was a game, I
realized, smiling in anticipation. One, from the look on her face,
we were both going to win
"I have a surprise for you," she purred, as my heart pounded.
She stood at my feet, leaning forward to run her fingers up the
insides of my thighs. Her nipples dragged my skin as she crawled
up between my legs. She stopped just short of touching me. My
balls were tight, cock swaying waiting
"A present," she said easily. Then she leaned forward to lick my
huge, dark head. One single lick that held me prisoner. "Do you
want it?" she asked wickedly, smiling at my torture. "Or
should I make you wait?"
Already halfway there, it was a no-brainer. Fuck, this was a side
of her I'd never seen. And I more than wanted it
"Come here," I growled impatiently, reaching for her hips. She
smiled slyly, taking her time, letting her curves shift with her
movements. My sweet girl had become a fucking temptress
She spread her legs, straddling my hips. Then she took my ready
cock in her hands and slowly achingly slowly inched her body
down my shaft, taking me into her soft, slick heat. The smile
never left her face, but she bit into her bottom lip as her clit
reached the base of my cock. She rested her weight on me,
pushing me in to the hilt, riding me in slow, rhythmic circles.
Her eyes never left mine. She knew exactly what she was doing
"Tell me what you want," she demanded, her body undulating as
she worked her hips. Her breasts rose and fell, huge beautiful
globes. She licked her lips. What is it you need?"
"You," I gasped out harshly. "My god, Libby. I fucking
need you"
She leaned down and her breasts splayed deliciously over my
face. My rock-hard cock went even harder. "But that's not my
present," she whispered in my ear. She sat back up and shined
with utter satisfaction.
"This is," she said, taking my hands and placing them on her
luscious, round little belly I felt my jaw drop as I locked my
eyes with hers, searching her face. She nodded and a sweet tear
rolled down her lovely face. "I love you Jack
Both of us do."

I HELD MY WIFE , MY FAMILY , TIGHT IN MY ARMS . L IBBY HAD FALLEN ASLEEP ,


exhausted by the power of our climax. But I'd held her close, safe
until she started to stir. I never wanted to let her go.
She opened her eyes, stretching against me, her head on my
chest. "I think you liked your surprise," she said, laughing
lightly. "It certainly felt like you did."
"Are you sure, sweetheart? You took another test?"
"I took four," she laughed again and rested her chin on my
shoulder so she could look up at me. "This morning." She shook
her head. "I don't know how I missed all the signs. There was so
much happening I just never put all the pieces together." I
pushed her curls out of her eyes, love flooding through me. "We
should see the doctor," I began. "To be sure?"
"We already have an appointment on Monday," she said, tipping
her head to the side as she watched me. "I thought maybe there
was something they could do so I could get pregnant sooner."
Her face glowed with happiness. "But it's going to be our first
prenatal visit, just like it was supposed to be all along."
"A baby" It was strange how the word felt on my lips, after all
those years of waiting of wanting. "A baby of our own." I put
my hand on her belly, carefully, as if she could break. "He's in
there, right now tiny and growing. A tiny, perfect point of
love" My voice broke as emotion threatened to overwhelm me.
"She's here," Libby replied evenly, pressing my hand down
firmly. Her eyes twinkled as she teased me. "She's right here,
where Mommy and Daddy can keep her safe and warm."

I EXHALED IN LONG , SLOW SATISFACTION , GLANCING OUT THE WINDOW OVER


the water. The sun was already high in the sky. I smiled,
refolding Spencer's note, slipping it carefully back into my
pocket. No matter what else the man had done I owed him
"I can't, really," Libby pushed her plate back. "Eating for two is
just an expression, Jack. Seriously, I can't."
She'd had three pancakes and two slices of bacon. I gave in
reluctantly, but pushed her glass of juice a little closer.
"What would you like to do, sweetheart? We have all day. We can
do anything, go anywhere" I stopped myself short. "What do
people do when they find out they're going to be parents?" I
asked, blankly. "Is it too early to buy a crib?"
She laughed, taking my hand in hers. I gripped her fingers. My
beautiful girl She was so fucking strong So much stronger
than me.
"We live our lives," she said wisely. "We let nature take its
course." She kissed me, smoothing my hair. "I want to walk
around the lake maybe swim, if it's still warm enough. And I
want to begin a new sculpture in the studio," she said, eagerly. "I
feel like I'm bursting with inspiration there's so much
inside me."
"So much, indeed," I said purposefully, pulling her close, her
belly curving gently into mine. "But I almost forgot. You're not
the only one with surprises." I took her hand, leading her out to
the studio. I could feel her excitement starting to build, and a
sudden awareness struck me. Of all the years we had ahead of us,
the enjoyment of a thousand gifts yet to come. How I would
enjoy spending my life giving her everything I could
I led her in, my hands over her eyes, remembering her pleasure
the first time I'd shown her the studio. It was there, just as I'd
arranged, on a round table in the center of the room and covered
with a white cloth. I walked her close, placed her hands on the
table. I stood behind her, a hand around her waist. "What, Jack?
Tell me"
I took my hand away from her eyes. She turned back to look at
me, her eyes huge. "My sculpture?"
I nodded. "I took some liberties," I said. "I didn't think
you'd mind"
She pulled the cloth away and our breath caught in unison. "Oh
my god Jack" She reached out, running her hands delicately
over the surface love in her touch
"You had it cast in bronze," she breathed, circling the table,
exploring with her fingers. "The piece I finished on our
honeymoon It's beautiful. My god, Jack no one's ever done
anything like this for me"
I ran my fingers across her cheek. "It's only the beginning,
sweetheart.
Our family has connections in the art world." I smiled as her
eyes grew wider. "And yours is a talent that deserves to be seen. I
just made sure it was seen by the right people." Her mouth
opened, then closed. She ran a loving finger over the shape of
the baby's tiny head, curled against its mother's breast. She
turned brilliant, loving eyes up to me as I caressed her.
"I had all the other completed pieces cast as well," I told her,
feeling a swell of pride in her accomplishment. "You have two
galleries in New York that have already offered invitations to
exhibit one in London
It's all you, Libby. I sent photographs, but I didn't pull any
strings Hell, you didn't need me to.
Your work stands all on its own."

"S HE ' S GOING TO HAVE HER MOTHER ' S GREEN EYES ," I SAID SOFTLY . "A T
least I hope that she does She'll be beautiful, just like you"
We'd walked for hours in the sand, holding hands and imagining
our child. In our private little cove, I had lifted her skirts and
wrapped her legs up around my waist, filling her again, taking
our time I'd held her, rocking her precious body into mine
until we'd spent ourselves completely. We ended our day in her
studio, with me watching her hands work their magic. I could
watch her work forever
"My mother had green eyes too," she said softly. "Dark hair,
like mine." She wiped her hands clean and smiled across to me.
"It was on the certificate from the hospital when she died. It
would have been nice to know more so I could tell our children
about their grandmother one day." She reached her hands out
to me.
"It might not be over, sweetheart." I took her hands and held
them to my chest. "We can hire someone to look even deeper"
She shook her head. "I already know the things that matter. And
I've found some peace with it," she said. "I believe Dorothy did
the best she could I just wish I could have known her. Who she
really was what made her laugh." She put her hand up to brush
the hair off my forehead.
"I wish she could have met you and our baby. So she wouldn't
have been alone anymore. And I wish I could have told her that
she'd done the right thing, giving me up. That I could have
that I would have loved her anyway"
We headed back to the house in silence, greeted by Moki's happy
barks. She danced circles around our legs, reminding us it was
past her dinnertime. I filled her bowl and left her content in the
kitchen. Libby was on the sofa, her cell phone in her hand. For a
moment, I was afraid something was wrong
"It's the nurse from the hospital," she began. "I missed the
call, but she left a message" She was pale, but her eyes were
shining with excitement as she listened
"She has something to give me," she whispered. "She's kept it
for all these years" She dropped the phone from her ear and
looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open.
"The day my mother died she left me a letter"
48
LIBBY

"P LEASE COME IN ." I opened the door and blinked, startled for a
moment. "Mrs. Granger please" I stepped out of the way to
let them pass. She was older than she'd sounded on the phone,
with thin, papery skin. But her eyes were bright and clear.
I held out my hand to take hers. It was tiny, like the rest of her,
but she gripped mine with surprising strength. "I'm Libby, my
husband, Jack," He stepped up to take her hand. "There aren't
words to express how much it means to us, that you took the
time to come all this way."
"Call me Alice," she said directly. This is my grandson,
Matthew." He reached out to shake my hand. He was tall with
intelligent blue eyes. He smiled kindly. "Pleasure's mine,
Libby."
"I'm retiring the end of the month," Alice said, as we sat down
in the living room. "I was afraid you and I might never meet
again." Jack shook Matthew's hand and the two men stepped
over to the bar, giving us privacy. Jack popped the top off a bottle
and gave me an encouraging smile over the other man's
shoulder.
Alice smoothed a silvery curl over her ear and smiled with the
same kind, blue eyes. "All these years I've held onto this letter,
Libby. I was beginning to think you'd never come for it." She
reached into her bag and drew out a tattered envelope. She
handed it to me and I took it carefully. I turned it over.
For my darling baby girl. The letters were tall, graceful.
Unfamiliar
I took Alice's wrinkled hand. "Meet again?" I asked. "Weren't
you my mother's nurse, when when she died?"
"I was," she nodded, watching me closely. "But Dorothy and I
first met the day you were born. I was working in delivery and
she came in, ready to burst." She smiled and her eyes glazed
with memory. "She was a brave girl. All by herself and in so
much pain. She was in labor for seventeen hours, but she did it."
Alice looked back into my face. "You favor her, you know. Same
eyes, same mouth She was a lovely girl."
"I've spent my whole life with so many questions," I said,
holding her hand tightly. "I don't even know where to start
Did you find out anything about her at all? Or my father?" I
stumbled. "Why did she die, Alice? She wasn't much older than I
am" Words were catching in my throat.
Alice patted my cheek, her palm cool and dry. "She had her
hands full bringing you into the world." She smiled warmly. "We
both did.
I only know that she came in alone and that she left with you a
few days later. As for when she died well, I'm hoping she put
that in the letter for you herself"
"You mean, she knew?" I felt my jaw sag. "I always imagined it
must have been an accident"
Alice shook her head. "She was sick," she said slowly.
"Afterwards, I often wondered if she only held on as long as she
did for your sake. Never, in forty-two years as a nurse, did I see a
new mother who loved her baby the way Dorothy loved you."
I sat in stunned silence, almost unable to absorb so much, so
fast. Then I felt Jack standing beside me, his hand on my back,
warm and safe. I exhaled.
"She was very near the end when I saw her again. I wasn't on
duty at the hospital that day, but she asked for me and I went."
Alice bent to catch my gaze. "Should I go on? Do you want to
hear?" I nodded, still silent.
"She had kept you until she was just too sick to care for you. She
told me that she'd given you up for adoption. And that it was the
hardest thing she'd ever done. Harder than dying, she'd said.
Things were different then, different than they are now. Records
were sealed babies weren't always given the best homes"
She put her hand gently on my knee. "I always wondered about
you, Libby. For your sake and your mother's. I know her last
wishes were that you'd be safe, and that she'd done right by
you." Alice's eyes were moist.
"Did you find a good home, child? Have you been happy?"
Tears ran fast, hot down my cheeks and I held tight to Jack's
hand. I couldn't form the words, but I nodded hard, smiling
smiling

J ACK AND I WATCHED TOGETHER AS M ATT HELPED A LICE INTO THE CAR AND
they disappeared down the drive. I'd eventually recovered
enough to tell them both about the wedding and our baby. I left
out a few of the details, of course but she'd smiled deeply
when Jack told her how much he loved me. And Alice had hugged
me tight, making me promise to call her soon, before the baby
was born.
Jack sat down and pulled me onto his lap, putting his arms
around me and resting his chin on my shoulder. My mother's
letter sat unopened beside us.
"There are still unanswered questions," he said gently. "But you
learned a lot today."
I picked up the letter and touched the handwriting.
"Does it change anything for you Knowing?" He kissed the
curve of my shoulder. I leaned my head to rest against his.
"Everything in a wayOr maybe nothing at all. I don't know
yet, I guess." I took a long breath in out. "I'm the same person
I've always been"
"Except that you found a way to forgive her, and to love her," he
said. "And you know now, how much she loved you, from the
minute you were born." He turned my face so he could drop a
kiss on my lips. "How could she not?"
I held his face, kissing his lips, his eyes, the end of his nose. He
chuckled in delight, spreading his thighs and letting me fall
deeper into the curve of his body. "I'm here, right here for you,"
he said, his voice deep and resonant, full of love.
"Always."

D EAREST L IBERTY ,
You are the loveliest baby I've ever seen. Tiny and perfect from
the moment you were born, somehow you made up for
everything else in my whole life. When you look up into my face,
so trusting, so beautiful, I know nothing else matters. You are
the love of my life.
If you're reading these words now, I guess you already know I left
this letter with a nurse named Alice Granger. She was there
when you were born and fell in love with you too. Soon, I will
give this letter to her and ask her to keep it for you, in case you
ever try to find me one day. I'll also give a copy to the adoption
agency, although it might never find its way to you. The parents
who will take you home and love you as their own daughter will
have the final say in that. But I know in my heart you will have a
good and loving home, one that will keep you safe forever, the
way you deserve. I couldn't leave you without being certain, deep
inside, that you'll be safe and loved, in a big family with brothers
and sisters. You'll have all the things that I can't give you. And
one day, when you have a family of your own, you'll understand
the love I have for you.
I'm leaving a locket for you that once belonged to my mother.
She gave it to me when I was a little girl. It has a curl of your hair
that I saved from the day you were born. I hope you have it now,
to remind you that my heart will always be there with you. And
even though I won't be there to watch you grow, I want you to
know how proud I am of you. You are loving and kind, talented
and wise. I can see it in your eyes right now as you watch me. I'm
telling you the words as I write them, and you're sucking your
thumb and smiling. You're too tiny to understand what I'm
saying.
I'm writing this because the doctors say I'm sick. Too sick to be
able to stay here with you much longer. But it's okay, because
you were born healthy and safe. You're too little to remember
me and maybe it's better that way. I'll remember enough for
both of us.
Please know that every time you ever cried, in my heart I held
your hand. And every time you laughed I heard you, and it made
me happy too. I wish I could be right beside you, but please
believe me I will never be far away. If I have anything to teach
you, it's only this Let go of sadness. Be free of it, and brave
enough to open your heart to life. Love is out there waiting for
you. I found it when I saw your sweet face. You'll find it too, my
darling. I promise.
I love you forever, with all my heart and soul,
Your Mom
49
E P I L O G U E , P T . 1 - J A C K
A YEAR LATER

"H OLD STILL or I'm never going to get this thing tied."
Libby pulled on my silk tie until my face was even with hers.
"You know, their wedding is so casual you don't even have to
wear this." She kissed the tip of my nose and finished making
my knot. I took her hands, swinging them out so I could get a
better look at her dress.
"Mmmm good enough to eat," I growled, pulling her close and
tasting the delicate flesh under her ear. Her dress was light
green with delicate gray leaves and vines. It clung to her in
places that made me forget all about the family waiting
downstairs. But I was the best man, and Blake had been looking
pretty dicey. I didn't have long to get him to the gazebo
overlooking the lake. And I knew Libby had promised to help
Janet with her gown
Libby laughed and pushed me away gently. But I could tell by the
look in her eyes that my brother and his new bride weren't the
only ones who had a night to look forward to. I ran my fingers
through my wife's silky dark curls, falling loose and soft around
her shoulders. I took her hand with the emerald on it and kissed
it, my eyes promising delicious and dangerous intentions
"India's babysitting tonight," I said, running a fingertip under
the thin strap of her dress. I ran it down lower and traced the
curve of one luscious breast. "I'm going to have you all to
myself" I drank in the excitement that sparkled in her eyes.
"What am I going to do with you"
Her soft, moist lips parted and I heard her pull in her breath to
answer. Then a long, high wail crossed the hall, breaking the
moment and I caught her in my arms, laughing. "Whatever you
do, it's going to have to wait just a little while longer," she
laughed back, kissing me quickly and disappearing out the door.
She stopped for a moment and looked back at me, glowing with
joy and the happiness of new motherhood. She had been
beautiful before. Now, she was utterly exquisite.
"We'll meet you at the lake," she said, smiling. "Fifteen minutes
till the ceremony, hours before they've all gone home." Her eyes
sparkled mischievously. "You'll have plenty of time to decide
just what you're going to do." Her brow twitched playfully. "So
will I."
She disappeared, leaving me to take care of Thea's needs. Our
daughter had been born with her mother's green eyes and a cry
that Libby responded to instinctively. I'd never seen a more
loving and patient mother. Every time I watched her take little
Thea into her arms, I had the strange sense that there was more
love in the room than just our own. In some way, I was sure that
Dorothy was with us too, sharing her daughter's joy and
supporting her with her love.
I finished dressing and sat for a moment, contemplating the last
year of our lives together. Images of Libby's lovely body,
rounding with her growing pregnancy the look on her face
when she first held our child I had everything in life a man
could want in that single moment, and yet there had been so
much more
I looked out over the water and could see my family and friends
gathered on the sand. Blake and Janet had asked to have their
wedding here. They wanted something simple, far less formal
than any Mason wedding has ever been. But times are changing
and so are some of the old traditions. We were always a strong
family, but now we have become even more so. Priorities have
shifted, now that Libby and I are parents. Mom and Dad are
devoted as grandparents. I've never seen them so happy.
Spencer had come, but he stood nervously on his own. It was still
awkward for all of us, but we'd insisted that he come anyway. I
watched as Ben shook his hand and sat down beside him.
Spencer had resigned from Mason the day after he'd admitted
what he and Elaine had done. But it hadn't been until later that
I'd found his handwritten note on my desk. It had been shuffled
in amongst some others, as if he'd been too ashamed to
face me
It had detailed Elaine's plan, freely admitting to the wretched
part he had played in the scheme. It described how she had
seduced him into helping her and, not surprisingly, I had no
difficulty believing him. He said he had no excuse for what he'd
done, but was committed to repairing what damage he could.
He'd signed over every piece of Mason-Warner stock in his
possession, to me and to my family. Though there was nothing
he could do about the shares Elaine had purchased, his had been
enough to tip the balance back in our favor. That, and a little
research of my own
As soon as the doctor had confirmed Libby's pregnancy, I'd
begun to wonder It hadn't taken long after that to confirm my
suspicions. Elaine had kept receipts from her own doctor's visits
throughout our marriage, and they'd been left behind in old file
boxes after the divorce. In those files, I discovered the real
reason she'd never conceived a simple contraceptive injection,
given once every three months. For years, she'd lied to me
outright about wanting a child, and in the end had blamed me
And all the while, behind my back, she'd made damned sure
there was never a chance of conceiving
I'd confronted her simply, directly and she'd finally admitted the
truth. While I couldn't force her to sell her holdings, I knew
she'd no longer cause trouble for us. She wouldn't dare risk the
scandal, if the truth came out. My attorney had made significant
changes in our original divorce settlement and she'd signed
without argument. She was already losing interest in the
company., failing to show up for board meetings. The game was
finally over
and she knew she had lost.
I stood up and slipped on my jacket. Pausing for a moment at the
door, I watched Libby lift our baby daughter to her shoulder and
pat her tiny back gently. Our gaze met over her little shoulder
and locked in promise. Nothing in the world would ever matter
more than my family. I would spend the rest of my life making
Libby as happy as she had made me.
In my wife's face I saw, not only the present and the past, but all
the years yet to come. The sounds of happy children. Of skinned
knees and birthday parties, first dates and broken hearts. Thea
on her wedding day, as lovely as her mother. And the faraway
day when Libby and I would become grandparents ourselves. No
matter the shifts and changes of life, no matter the passage of
the time, Libby would always be as lovely to me as she was in this
very moment. The love of my life, my friend, my wife, the
mother of my children
Mirrors set on either sides of the room caught her beauty,
reflecting her back and forth into infinity. This one exquisite
woman who had changed my entire world
She had made every dream come true. Liberty was my family.
And in the safety of her love, I was truly and forever home.
50
EPILOGUE, PT. 2 - LIBERTY

J ACK and I followed the bride and groom down the green satin
path that led to the gazebo. It was simply done, wreathed in
flowers and white twinkling lights. Blake was handsome in a
dark slacks and jacket. Janet was radiant in her creamy silk
dress. They looked at each other with such tenderness, I felt my
eyes start to mist over. There was so much love in this amazing
place.
There were only a dozen guests, mostly family. Moki scampered
happily in the yard, excited by all the activity. We all stood
around the couple Janet's parents and Vivian and Fletch. It
felt as if the couple's commitment was ours, too. The promise to
love and cherish one another extending to everyone present, not
just to the bride and groom alone.
It was the simple kind of wedding I'd imagined for myself,
sometimes. As if it had happened not by plan, but almost by
happy accident. I clutched my little bouquet of wildflowers and
watched Fletcher give his handkerchief to his wife. She gave him
a grateful smile with years of love and devotion behind it.
Thea was asleep in my arms as I stood next to my husband and
Reverend Harper began the ceremony. I looked up into Jack's
shining eyes as he held his baby son proudly. Ryan was wide
awake, his eyes already dark like his father's. He watched Jack,
mesmerized, as if his dad's face was his whole world. I
remembered the moment Dr. Tiller had told us we were
expecting twins. Jack had held me, unable to speak until Dr.
Tiller had slipped out of the room and left us in privacy. Later
she'd told me, that she'd never seen a man so moved
I glanced at India, who was stunning, as always. I tried to catch
her gaze, but she only had eyes for Matt. He was looking at her
the same way Jack looked at me I glanced away, smiling to
myself
Alice stood next to him, nodding to me gently. She had noticed it
too, and approved. We smiled and she looked lovingly at Thea.
Alice was fast becoming a second grandma to both babies. She
and India would be staying with them next month when Jack and
I would be in New York for my second art show. They had also
conspired to give Jack and me tonight, our first night alone since
the twins had been born
Jack took the flowers from me, dropping them so that he could
hold my hand in his. I looked up into his face as we listened to
the minister speak about the meaning of love.
I have everything I could have ever dreamed of more than I'd
ever expected life could offer. I wished with all my heart that my
mother could have been there beside us. But her warm gold heart
rested lightly on my chest, reminding me that perhaps
somehow she is. Her love lives on in me, just as mine will live
on in my own children. And one day, when they're old enough to
understand, I'll tell them how much their grandmother loves
them. How much she loves all of us. And that it was she who
taught me how to open my heart
"Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife? To love her
and cherish her, to honor and protect her for the rest of this life
and beyond?"
"I do," Jack whispered into my ear, his eyes shining with love.
"Today and always"
"And do you," the minister turned to Janet, "take this man to be
you wedded husband? To honor and love him, to share all that
you are with him, for the rest of this life and beyond?"
"Forever, Jack," I whispered only to him. "I do."
"With this ring," Reverend Harper's voice drifted away as I felt
Jack slip a ring onto my finger. I looked down to see a tiny,
unending circlet of diamonds next to the emerald. "One for each
of the babies we'll have," he whispered, his eyes sparkling with
desire and delight.
"You may now kiss your bride," the minister said.
And taking me into his arms, babies and all, our love and
happiness overflowing to envelop the whole world around us,
Jack did.
THANK YOU

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ALSO BY RILEY ROLLINS

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won't fall for the inked bad boy a second time...

... If only my heart would get the message.

Because pretending shouldn't be this easy.


And saying goodbye shouldn't be this hard.