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Page 30

“You have no way of knowing that.”

“Honey, everybody knows it.” Joe cast a grim glance at the scenery on the other side of the elevator glass. “Ryan’s spent most of his life with his nose to the grindstone, and then when he finally decides to take a break and have some fun, he hooks up with Bethany Warner. A party girl. A professional socialite. You don’t get caught by a girl like that. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking.”

The doors opened, and we were on the main floor again. Joe took my free hand and began to tow me through the crowd.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

“I’m finding us a place to talk.”

I blanched, knowing exactly what he wanted to discuss. “Here? Now? There’s no privacy.”

Joe sounded sardonic. “We could have had plenty of privacy, if you’d picked up your phone when I called.”

We proceeded through one packed room after another, pausing occasionally for brief conversations. Even in this exalted gathering of insiders, it was clear that he was something special. The combination of his name, money, and looks was all a man needed to unlock the world. But he adroitly deflected people’s eager interest, turning it around to focus on them as if they were infinitely more worthy of attention.

Eventually, we entered a room lined with dark paneled wood and bookshelves, the ceiling low and coffered, the floor covered with a thick Persian rug. Joe closed the door, muffling the sounds of conversation, laughter, and music. His polite social mask disappeared as he turned to face me. In the silence, my heartbeat gathered momentum, rolling into a hard repeated wallop.

“Why did you say there was no chance of this going anywhere?” he asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Joe gave me a caustic glance. “I’m a guy, Avery. Nothing about relationships is obvious to me.”

No matter how I tried to explain, I knew I would end up sounding self-pitying or pathetic. I don’t want to end up being hurt the way you’re going to hurt me. I know how these things work. You want sex and fun, and when it’s over you’ll move on, but I won’t be able to, because you’ll have broken what’s left of my heart.

“Joe… one night with you was all I expected, and it was wonderful. But I… I need something different.” I paused, trying to think of how to explain.

His eyes widened, and he said my name on a quiet breath. Confused by the change in his demeanor, I backed up reflexively as he came to me. One of his arms slid around me, while his free hand lifted to cradle the side of my face. “Avery, sweetheart…” There was a slight rasp in his voice, something concerned… raw… sexual. “If I didn’t give you what you needed… if I didn’t satisfy you… all you had to do was tell me.”

Nine

Realizing that Joe had misunderstood, I stammered, “No, that – that’s not – I didn’t mean —”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He caressed my cheek with his thumb, and his mouth grazed mine with an erotic gentleness that left me gasping. “Let me have another night with you. You can ask me for anything. Anything. I’ll make it so good for you, honey… there are so many ways… All you have to do is come to bed with me, and I’ll take care of you.”

Dazed, I tried to explain that he’d gotten it all wrong, but as I opened my mouth, Joe kissed me again and again, murmuring promises about the pleasure he would give me, the things he would do for me. He was so remorseful, so determined… and to my shame, I found it sexy as hell to be caught in the grasp of a big, aroused male who wouldn’t stop apologizing and kissing me. Gradually, it seemed less important to break free. His mouth ravished mine, all silk and hunger, draining me of strength. The insane chemistry between us didn’t just feel good, it felt necessary, as if I needed him to breathe, as though my body would stop functioning if I couldn’t keep touching him.

He reached down to anchor my hips against his, aggressive hardness nudging into a lush, intimate ache. I quivered and began to breathe in long sighs. Remembering what it had been like – the way he had filled me – I was overcome with disorienting heat, and all I wanted to do was sink to the floor with him and have him take me right there. I welcomed the stroke of his tongue, opened for it, and a groan resonated in his throat. His hand slid to my breast.

Dimly realizing that the situation was about to blaze out of control, I struggled and pushed at him until his arms loosened. Panting, I wrenched free. Just as he reached for me again, I held up a staying hand, my fingers trembling.

“Wait… Wait…” I was breathing as if I’d sprinted a hundred yards. So was Joe. I made my way to a big upholstered chair and sat on the arm of it. My legs were weak. Every nerve shrilled in protest. “I don’t think we can talk without a buffer zone. Please, just… stay over there and let me say a couple of things, okay?”

Sliding his hands in his pockets, Joe gave me a nod of assent. He began to pace slowly.

“Just to be clear,” I said, my face throbbing hotly, “I was more than satisfied that night. You’re great in bed, as I’m sure a lot of women have told you. But I want an ordinary guy, someone I can be sure of, and you… you are not that guy.”

The pacing stopped. Joe gave me a confounded glance.

I licked at my dry lips and tried to think over the clamor of my pulse. “You see, it’s like… a long time ago, my mother wanted a Chanel bag for her birthday. She taped a magazine picture of it to the fridge and never stopped talking about it. My stepfather bought it for her. She kept it on the top shelf of her closet in the special protective cover it came with. But she never carried the bag. So a few years later I asked her why the Chanel bag had always stayed in the closet, and why she’d never taken it out. She said it was too nice for every day. Too fancy. She didn’t want to worry about it getting damaged or lost, and besides that, it didn’t go with any of her clothes. It didn’t fit who she was.” I paused. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

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