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“Is this real?” She groped in the darkness to touch his brow.
Instead of answering, he kissed her with tender adoration, imbuing her with sweet comfort. But soon he became fevered, insistent, drawing deep cries from both of them.
“Ben. Is this real?” she asked again, pulling away. “Are you really here?”
“I am.” He pressed a scalding kiss to her neck, making her whimper.
“Ben.” She yelped when his teeth scraped her shoulder cap. “What are you doing? How did you get in here?”
“I have a key, remember?”
With his fingernails, he ignited a path of flames down the groove of her spine, and she couldn’t stop another soft cry. “Yes…but…hey, stop. S-stop for a minute.” Like pulling a shingle from tar, she peeled herself away from him, finally awake, but still not believing her eyes. “What are you doing? Didn’t we just talk about how you can’t do this right now?”
He skimmed his rough palm down her side. “I tried, Lanie.” His breath was like cinnamon steam on her face, making her dizzy. “I tried so hard to forget. But your body calls to me. I have to answer.” Hitching her leg over his, he cupped the back of her knee, and her head, and kissed her again. “I can’t stand it anymore. I surrender. Come here.”
The penetrating pressure of his tongue pushed her lips open as he rocked against her. She throbbed with a sharp, stinging pain that she longed for him to soothe. Everything was a spinning tangle of desire and arousal and sensation and trepidation.
Yes, she told herself, trying to lose herself in him, let her body take over the familiar dance. Finally. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
He put his mouth right at the base of her throat. Leaning over her, he licked a continuous path down to her belly button, then nipped at her hip. She writhed and twisted under the attention.
“Wait.” But she wasn’t loud enough. She could barely even hear herself over the roaring in her ears.
He nuzzled her waist, grazing with his tongue.
“Why? I want this. You want this. Simple, like you said.”
“I don’t think…” she gasped, and her hands flew to his head when he nudged the crook of her hip, his beard tickling her upper thigh. “I don’t think you’re thinking clearly.”
“It’s impossible to think clearly around you. I can hardly stand to be near you and not have you. You were right.” He flipped her over like she was a ragdoll, and pressed his lips to the base of her spine. “Today was like having one taste of a delicious, warm, gooey brownie when you’re on a diet, and being expected to leave the rest.”
Her fingers curled into the bed, and her body flexed to meet him. “Ah…Ben, please!”
“I’m so in love with you,” he moaned, his frantic desperation vibrating her spine. “I know how dangerous that is for both of us. I tried not to be. I didn’t want you caught in the crosshairs of my obsession, but I couldn’t help it.” His grip became almost painful, but then he soothed his hands over her, the friction the opposite of comforting. “I’m too far gone. You’re my wife. There’s no going back.”
She should just let him have her. For a moment, she tried to push aside anything other than the physical sensations that he created in her. She was losing her grip as she held them both above a deep abyss, one that had a wide, deep river at the bottom. It looked soothing and thrilling, but she was pretty sure it concealed sharp rocks. She was pretty sure that if they fell into it, they’d be crushed.
But when he kissed a frenzied trail up to her nape, she couldn’t…
And when he made noises like that, she just…
Smoothly, she jerked herself out from under him and flew to the window. Leaning on the sill, light-headed and dizzy, she gasped for breath. “Put your clothes back on,” she managed.
She heard rustling behind her. It sounded like he was no longer sitting on the bed. “Please, Lanie. Just one night. I just want one night with you. Let’s talk about the rest tomorrow. Or not talk about it at all. We can forget all about it. Come back to bed.”
The soft supplications were enticing, but she crossed her arms over herself and strode to the bathroom. “Put on your clothes,” she ordered again, and shut the door.
The harsh light popped the sensual mystery of the dark. She was swollen, and aching, and slick all over. She sat in the bottom of the tub, emotions rising that she couldn’t understand. She turned on a cold stream to wash them away. Cold showers were the worst, but the shock against her skin extinguished the torment in her body. Her hair uncoiled, pooling at the bottom of the tub as she leaned her head back and her face to the spray.
You’re playing with fire.
It had been a warning, but she’d heard it as a challenge. What was she doing? Ben was a good man. He wanted to do something meaningful that required discipline and integrity, and she had tried to dismantle it. She’d tried to take the good thing that he was doing, and destroy it, so that she could…what? Win? Conquer? By treating him exactly the way she had always hated being treated, she was affirming that she really was nothing but a sex object. Just like her grandfather and father believed.
She’d marked him out, just like her grandfather had taught her. She’d kept constant pressure, like he’d taught her to do with difficult, high-stakes marks.
Keep it steady, until you’re all that they think about. When you’re in their head, even when you’re not around, you’ve almost got them. You never want to let them know that you’re the one who’s after something. You want them to think that they’re taking something from you.
Something about this kind, caring man’s determination to keep boundaries with her awakened frightening ideas. It had made her feel…like she might possibly be a normal person. Someone with value. Someone worth keeping promises for.
Someone she absolutely didn’t recognize. Someone she didn’t know how to be. Someone she knew she couldn’t be. And the fact that he’d made her believe, even for a second, that she could step into that role, made her realize the power he had over her. He could undo her with just a touch.
She’d needed to get that power back.
She’d needed to remind herself who she really was.
She knew what would happen if she got him to succumb to his desire. Vaguely, she knew what would happen to him if he undid all those months of work. It would shatter him. And the broken pieces of him would slice her open, producing a clarifying bloodlet in her empty soul.
I don’t like being manipulated.
She felt sick with self-loathing.
You’re hurting me, Lanie.
She’d been using him.
She’d never been a physical cutter, except for that one time when she’d tried to kill herself. No, this type of self-harm was rawer, deeper, and punished her in a more all-consuming way. It was worse than when she was playing along with her grandfather’s schemes to prove to her father that no amount of church could make her do what he wanted.
Wait until they are so obsessed with what you’re offering them that they come to you begging for it.
He’d broken into her house. Again. But this time, not to be her friend in a time of turmoil. But to dash himself against the rocks of his vices for a night of pleasure. To divorce his moral determination from his active will.
And then I take what I’m after?
No, no, my dear. You give them just a little taste, and then you leave. Or, if you absolutely can’t, make them leave. And then, when they come back again, you know you’ve got them right where you want them.
Skin crawling, she grabbed a loofa and started scouring her body. She’d been in the game too long. She would wonder when she would escape it, but according to both her father and grandfather, “You can take the player out of the game, but you can’t take the game out of the player.” Her father had been talking about literal baseball, and his refusal to give up on his dreams. Her grandfather had been talking about the fact that even though she may have believed she could walk away from his world of corporate espionage, black markets and white-collar crime, she’d never scrub herself clean. She’d always crave the challenge of mapping out the perfect job, the thrill of recalibrating when something didn’t go according to plan. The rush of victory when she seized her prize at the last second and made it out by the skin of her teeth. All without her quarry knowing she’d ever been anything more than a sweet, beautiful heiress with a doting grandfather.
He’d warned her. He’d told her that she could run to the ends of the earth, but she’d never outrun her heritage.
She didn’t deserve Ben. She wasn’t even sure she deserved someone like Jake, even if he did walk in her world. Jake was out. He used his talents to help people. Not for selfish reasons. Not for revenge. Not for punishment. Not for self-gratification.
No, they were both too good for her. But it didn’t make her want Ben any less. And if he insisted on this sex pact, that meant she couldn’t have him. If he was good, and moral, and kind, that meant he was out of her reach. She hated herself most for the fact that she’d been trying to sully him, and bring him down to her level, so that she wouldn’t have to think about all the ways that she fell short. The permanent stains on her hands, that even now were too ingrained to rub away.
Even knowing all of this, all those things, she hated herself most for knowing that she wouldn’t let him go. Not even now, when she’d almost ruined him. This was exactly what the problem had been with Sean. This was why she kept so strictly to her rules. To avoid landing herself back here. But Ben didn’t play by the rules she was used to. He didn’t fit any schematic that she’d learned to navigate. As soon as she thought she’d figured him out, he did something that came completely out of left field.
After his speech this evening, she hadn’t even thought to bet on whether he’d come crawling on his knees. She’d been so consumed with her own terror that she might have lost him for good that she hadn’t even considered that she might have finally pushed the right buttons to bring down his defenses.
The pressure of the water waned, pulsing erratic spurts. Stiffly, she rose and turned it off. Her joints creaked and her skin stung as she reached for a thin terrycloth rob in the bathroom closet. She roughly toweled off her hair, then spent ten minutes combing it into two long braids, before opening the door.
He was still there. Asleep on her bed, clutching her pillow. He’d done what she’d asked, and put his clothes back on, but he was sweating through his shirt. Had he also been sleeping naked in his apartment, like her, before he came here?
She pressed a chilly hand to the back of his neck, and he jerked. “No,” he mumbled.
“Ben, you’ve got to go home.”
He pressed his face harder into her pillow. “No. I’m tired. Go away.” She was pretty sure he was only half-awake.
Sighing, she resigned herself to the bedroom across the hall.
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