Perfectly Unmatched

by Liz Reinhardt © 2012 by Liz Reinhardt All rights reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission. Cover Design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations.

Benelli 1 I once had a boyfriend tell me that I live like a princess; he meant it in the least flattering way. And I do live in a gorgeous house. I drive a fantastic car. My parents take care of most of my expenses. But that doesn’t make me a spoiled brat. I think about my family every single minute of every single day. Sometimes I think I’m the only one of my siblings who cares about our parents at all, and it weighs on me to have no one to share my worry with, no one to help me lift the cement bag of our family’s complicated problems. And I work. I know it isn’t a job like waitressing or teaching or being a hairstylist…all of which I considered and decided against at different times after high school and during college. It’s not easy to make my life revolve around the people I love. Sometimes I crave the freedom of my own apartment, my own rules, my own start and stop times. Because I don’t get any of that in the life I live with them right now. This morning I was up at quarter to six so I could do my daily yoga and cardio before the day crashed in on me. It was a day that started with shopping trip led by my notoriously picky mother, who needed new heels to match the dress she purchased for a big end of summer party. After we grabbed lunch, I came back home to tutor my sister, Ithaca, in geometry so she can pass her final and graduate on time. I tried to be patient as I explained the easiest set of theorems to her while she sighed and kicked at the table leg, frustrated about her boyfriend joining the army and pissed at me that I didn’t jump into their drama storm and…what? I have no idea what she expected of me. I guess she wanted more sympathy from me, but I have enough on my plate. I can’t add worrying about Ithaca and her hot-headed soldier boyfriend to my already frazzled brain. When I finally got through the review packet and ignored the worst of my little sister’s glares and passive-aggressive comments, I made the depressing trip to see our oldest brother in rehab. Remington still looked like an animated skeleton with a dark, bushy beard, and it hurt to see him so drained. He shuffled to me, back bowed, head hanging, like a husk of the brother I used to look up to and adore. In order to keep from breaking down in front of him, I kept my visit brief and forcefully cheerful, gave him a huge, extra-tight hug, and dropped off some Playboys tucked in with the National Geographics my mother always sends before I gave him some lame excuse about being so busy helping our parents, and left. I allowed myself ten minutes to break-down and sob in the parking lot while I tried to forget

Colt. give them every advantage.the vacant. and got him to agree to swing by the pharmacy after football practice and pick Pop’s prescription up. Winchester and that girl running off. bewildered look in his hollow eyes. So simple. “I can’t tell you what a comfort you are to your father and me. and I listen to her vent with total sympathy. And Remington! When will he get through wasting time at that ridiculous hospital and get back to work? A normal routine is exactly what will set him to rights. I get up from the table and find the bottle of amaretto stashed behind my great-greatgrandmother’s bone china pitcher and pour a generous amount into my mother’s coffee. When the ten minutes was up. I fixed my make-up. I’ll book us at JW’s tomorrow. her head shaking from side to side slowly. and Lala told me the Dead Sea salt glow actually made her skin feel like velvet.” My mother grabs one of my hands again and presses my knuckles to her lips.” she continues. then knead her shoulders. not that I was surprised. When my hectic day finally comes to a close and my mother and I are sitting at the dining room table sipping coffee with extra cream. she reaches across the shiny wood and grabs onto my hand with a desperate clasp of her fingers. even his mother knows the answer. took twenty cleansing breaths. I feel sometimes like life has been crumbling around our ears. called my younger brother. We were all raised better. so I got back to business. Laurence will squeeze us in. “These last few months. Which he didn’t. Benelli. and called to make sure my father picked up his heart medication.” Her fingernails bite into my palm. and there’s no appreciation. I wanted to do a Keratin treatment. “You need a massage. her voice weighed down with held-back sighs and unshed tears. and I feel like the foundations of our family have been shaken right to their core. Colt not listening to Papa about soccer and college when your father knows what’s best. Why?” She sighs. “I just don’t understand. Which I hate. None. My siblings have all gone wild lately. Mama. They should know better. your sister and that boy trying to elope. because family is the most important thing in the world and my brothers and sisters should know that. leaving a dark . which watched me with lost confusion. “You raise your children.” She picks up her teaspoon and swirls it in her coffee. Hard work and family. but he wants to pay a dozen different doctors thousands of dollars to figure it out for him. cleared my throat.

my crazy brother met some girl in court and decided he was fated to become a stone mason. I even commuted back and forth to college and took extra classes so I could graduate early. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so depressing. a part of me had been itching to spread my wings. since his breakdown and stint in rehab. enjoying the golden flicker. secret problem: my boyfriend Damian. I look at the honeyed wood of my bedroom door for a few seconds before I open it and let myself into my sanctuary. I say a rosary thanking God I have you every single day.smudge of her lipstick on my skin. My father’s eyes have sunk back in his head. It’s more the fact that he isn’t completely ready to take our relationship in the direction I need it to go in. I’m trying hard to not add any stress to their lives right now. Every day. our family has only limited visitation with Alayah. My infuriating puzzle of a boyfriend. even when I had the chance to step out on my own. but. You are such a comfort to us. and wait for the familiar soft knock on the French doors outside my room. I brush my teeth. but. I close my bedroom door quietly and light a few candles. recently. Which brings me to my huge. out of nowhere. Not that he’s the problem. “Benelli. the mother of his young daughter. Then Mama figured Winchester and Lala would finally settle down. clicking through her rosary in the shadowy pews of Sacred Heart. and he’s lost so much weight his skin sags around his face. have my own space. He’s aged fast and hard because the brunt of the entire business rests on his shoulders now that Winch and Remy are down for the count. the sweet of her words soured by the knowledge that I’m not quite the good little girl my parents think I am. . My secret. the place I’ve always gravitated back to. live under my own rules. Mama spends any waking hours she’s not at home at church. I like my place here. I wasn’t ever one of those kids eager to run away from my parents’ house. himself. And then he’s right there. But. A few months ago she thought she’d be spending all her time there planning Remington’s wedding to Delphine.” I kiss her cheek and excuse myself to my room. and Delphine isn’t speaking to Remy. The one person who understands exactly what I want and could be my perfect match in life and love. touch up my makeup. praying for her bruised and battered family to heal itself somehow. My love. my heart.

and that should be enough for your old man.” I whisper. he’d trust you to—” “I’m not really sure why exactly we gotta wait on your dad’s blessing to start living our life.” His spine goes stiff. All this sneaking around is ridiculous. “Hello. I fall deep into that perfect. he’ll give us his blessing. shoot. Sure. meeting my lips again before I have a chance to say what I need to say. aggravated breath out and holds his hands up at his sides. “Okay. So say what you need to say. delicious kiss. He corner-eyes the door and drops his voice.” “You and I talked about announcing…about letting them know…if he knows our intentions. and he jerks away from me and sighs.” he interrupts. rubbing my fingers over the sensitive spot on the back of his neck that always soothes him. I’m a grown man. “He needs help. “See? This is what I mean. I know you’re not going to let me rest until you get to say your piece.If he would just take the next step with me. I’ve proven myself in the game. And if you and I were married. When he finally pulls back and I’m completely out of breath. desperate to get my point across no matter how clumsily I present it.” I protest. his mouth closing over mine. I feel like once we go begging for his permission. ripe pieces of fruit dangling just out of my reach. I mean. “It’s my father. and we can go ahead and start planning for a wedding. and his dark eyes half-close when he looks me over. His breath is laced with the shot of Jack he always starts his night with. I press on.” All the words I want to say are perfect. “How the hell do you get more damn beautiful every time I see you?” he asks. running an irritated hand over his face. he’s gonna have a leash around my neck that he’ll yank whenever he wants. his words ricocheting out a little too loud. not a little kid.” “It’s not like that. Why is it that we always need permission to do anything? You’re a grown woman. he starts to undo the laces that hold the top of my shirt together. breathing in the clean. letting all the worries I’ve carried like a yoke on my shoulders ease away. once we’re officially engaged and all. princess?” “It’s just…” I put a hand on his wrist and still his fingers. “What were you saying. cologne-laced smell of his skin mixed with the leather of his jacket and the faint aroma of the Marlboro he smoked before he came here. “This again?” He blows a long. we’ll have to help him for the first few years to pay back for the . “What my dad will offer us after we’re married will eventually become our own piece of the business. “Damian?” “Mmm?” His mouth drags from mine and forges an urgent path down my neck and back up. Benelli.

possessively. it’s like they’re a tornado ripping through the plans for our life. Because I was supposed to wait for them to begin arranging dates for me with eligible men. I break from his touch and put my hands on my cheeks. No question. He’s going to want someone as talented as you on his side.” My heart thunders in my chest. But I can’t.” He rolls his neck on his shoulders and presses his body closer to mine.startup. But things got so crazy with my other siblings. And I’ll be able to hold my head up around your father. My mother has been looking forward to my wedding for my entire life. but I’ll be able to give you twice what your mother has in three years. it will be that much better?” But. Don’t you see how if we do this together. It’s just hard to get him to play by the rules. we’ll have to start small. I could never do that to my parents. not competing with him. I’m not happy. run away with me. and I know my father and mother will be completely unhappy if I even consider eloping. So I took a chance and started to see him behind my parents’ backs. “Damian. Benelli. edging out the door. I take a few controlled breaths and focus. bolts of lightning spark through my brain. And my father is a very powerful man. men who would understand all that I’m trying to explain to Damian. and the more I knew about him. but that’s not him having a leash around your neck. and I was so lonely. It would be a huge slap in the face to just not include her. Elope with me. like you deserve. “You need to know . without my having to deal with the issue of this frustrating angst. Tonight. They might even be furious knowing I’m dating Damian. He always has a hard time seeing the bigger picture. Like he was the right person. his mouth hard and pulled to one side.” He takes his hands off my arms and backs up. and Damian seemed …like he would fit in. if not sooner. breaking out and flying in my own direction for once. instead of my calm words arranging everything in neat little piles like I wanted. the more I knew they’d appreciate what a good. and the cold. burning up with the exciting possibility of doing this. Because that’s not what we agreed to. “So I’m not his slave. It’s just a business arrangement. clear downfall of this potential reality soaks through the skin of my conscience. I promise you. “Benelli. A decision this big is one I need to make with my family at my side. You’ll live like a duchess. “I’m not going to be a soldier for the Youngblood family. with my family. but I’m his indentured servant for life?” Damian’s hands reach up and grip my shoulders. level-headed choice I’d made. Damian is not happy.

no amount of concentrated Reclining Goddess pose can get rid of it.when it’s time to cut ties with your family and start your own life on your own terms. I keep my voice low and throaty. At night I want drowned in sugar and extra creamy with a shot of liquor. He’ll be back. “Your mother tells me you girls are headed out for a spa day today?” I pour myself a mug of the fragrant stuff from the French press. He’s sipping strong coffee and looking over the paper. Somewhere between midnight and early sunrise.” my father says when I walk into our huge. I cross my arms tight over my body and pop one hip to the side as I watch him stalk backward out the door.“We can talk about this more. He’ll definitely be back.” One of his hands is fisted around the doorknob. please stay. and I feel a mix of dread and despair that puts all my thoughts into a cyclone of jumbled confusion.” He cuts me off. Me or them. I welcome this new day with such an enormous leaden lump gathering weight in the pit of my stomach. Damian. flowers in hand. tell him I want what he wants. sunny kitchen. I know you’ll see—” “There’s nothing else to say.” I walk over to him. his body twisting away from mine. “You need to make a choice. “You’re being ridiculous. “Good morning. his regular. watching the ghostly flicker of the candlelight on the walls until the first flame drowns in the melted wax and sputters to its smoky death. parked far enough up the street that the rumble of his engine won’t alert my parents to his presence. I’m shocked that Damian isn’t in my room. I fall into a dark sleep that’s mercifully dreamless and wake way too early. the way my mother takes it. He just technically proposed to me. a small smile of apology on his face. Shadows chase across my ceiling and more candles extinguish as I doze in and out of a choppy pseudo-sleep that’s interrupted by dreams that feel so real and ominous. like my father. I lie down on my bed and fold my hands over my stomach. Every time I jolt awake from another mini-nightmare. You call me when you’re ready to talk like a reasonable man. I tell myself. I guess I’m a . If you listen to what I’m saying. watches my fingers brush lightly over his chest and down to his belt-buckle. “Damian. his words sharp. Do you hear me?” I watch his dark silhouette head back to his car. adding only a tiny bit of sugar and no cream. I don’t do ultimatums. I startle awake over and over. trying to seduce him back to a better place. waiting for me to call him back. princess. I like my coffee dark and a little sweet in the morning. and he lets my body curve close to his. dependable morning routine.” He holds his arms up and out at his sides.

You’re my angel. Now that he’s gone. I’m not saying life was completely perfect here. and Remy isn’t gonna be any good without Winch around.” . never considering the destruction his completely selfish behavior would be leaving in its wake. And. hot sip of my coffee before cradling the warm mug in my hands and making a silent wish that things will work out the perfect way they need to. besides the emotional chaos his leaving produced. and his desertion felt like an unexpected amputation. you know that? I honestly don’t know what your mother and I would have done without you all these years. but Winch didn’t even try to make things right. earlier and earlier. “I’m sorry. it’s all on our father’s shoulders. Winch had been groomed to run so many different aspects of so many businesses since he was just a kid. and take a long. but I don’t think Winch is ever coming back. I lean my head on his shoulder. How’s the world looking? Falling apart as usual?” I pull my chair close to his and lean on his strong arm. he’d left a gaping hole in our family’s business.” He shakes his head and rubs his temples. “I guess he had to find his way. because we still need him in order to function wholly. about how very similar the two men I love most in the world are. “Good morning. “Just hunting around for a few good men. “What I wouldn’t give to have had a son with your backbone. We’re heading out for a little pampering. be a man. “I hate to admit it. he just up and left with hardly any warning.” I really can’t believe it. I still can’t believe Winch just left like that. once he decided he was done. Benelli. Pop. Because. sweetie. he was completely loyal to the family for years on end. all that nonsense. Or just an open-minded coffee drinker. and some of my hair catches in the scratchy bristles of his five o’clock shadow. My father used to only smoke in the evenings. What does that leave me with?” I think about Damian. but he’s been smoking during the day. glancing over the page he’s reading. Pop. It’s the classifieds. “Looking for something in particular? Can I help?” His smile is worn.little confused.” My father kisses the top of my head. It isn’t the way our family operates. I can smell the stale bite of old cigarette on him. You know Mama needs it. though I have to admit. after dinner. I can see the weight of it in the bow of his shoulders and the grimace that never leaves his face unless he’s pasting on a phony smile for our benefit. Though my father never complains. Everything. plus he’d been my father’s right-hand man and kept an eye on Remy. It didn’t make any sense. None of us can shake the ghost of Winch.

” he sputters. I went back to check. Lazy girls are always convincing criers. all in order.” I kiss his cheek. And since I’m a girl. my heart sad over all the things his sons have done to let him down and the trick of fate that made it impossible for me to help him the way he needs me to. “How am I going to explain this?” I give him my best level glare. “Well. “Well. we’d have already take over the entire East Coast together. and I did. walked her through the entire process all at least four times. because it’s their ace in the hole when their crappy work ethic catches up to them and they get sacked. “Look. Not in a significant way. I think it was nice of me to let her get to three strikes. dark line over his blue eyes. I hate that my parents are suffering through all of this. sugary sip of coffee and arch one eyebrow at my father’s face. You need to toughen up. Benelli? If you were a son. And Solomon’s. I gave her two warnings.” “She was Solomon’s niece. and it was like all my work had been undone.” . I am definitely glad I wasn’t born a boy. Keep that in mind next time you’re trying to fire some girl who’s on a crying jag. And I only went that soft for your benefit. I already interviewed for her replacement. They were a huge mess. I fired Sylvia.” “How’d she take it?” His brows are knit in a bushy. I walk my coffee mug and his to the sink and rinse them out. Pop! We can’t afford to run a business like that. she cried. “I forgot to tell you. no matter how capable I am and how much I want to. color-coded it all.” I savor the last. are you in the business of keeping your poker buddies happy or running successful companies? You asked me to take care of the files for the tire shop. but I organized every single thing. and the new girl has a good head on her shoulders. They have to be. Benelli. “Why the hell were you born a girl. I think she’ll do a decent job running things. mouth hanging open. of course. I’m off to get ready for a nice. then walks over and grabs me into a bear hug. Don’t think I fell for those crocodile tears for a single damn second. “She needed to go. anyway. Not without Damian’s help. eyes wide. Pop. You told me you’d bring someone in to maintain it all while I finished the paperwork for the rental properties.” My dad stands up and gives me a fierce look. relaxing spa day. Pop. and I hate that there isn’t anything I can do to transfer some of the burden onto my shoulders. either. got everything in coordinated file folders.He crushes me in a swaddling hug. and I choke back a sob.

replaced with that frown of perpetual worry when he thinks I’m not looking. so I try to do it with a blank face. But I have things to patch up here. when you’ve had some time to relax. but I know her mind is on my out-of-control siblings and my mind is wrapped around Damian.” He opens his wallet and I try to press the money back. and I reluctantly take it. “There’s plenty of time for all that this fall. “Such a good girl. enjoying the glimmer of happiness that flits too quickly across his face. Wrapped in a thick terrycloth bathrobe. Aunt Abony is my father’s sister. She’ll notice if I look too anxious when I check my phone. I leave a short. A woman with strong forearms rubs her hands in a slow. and your father and I were thinking we’d join up later. I love her cozy. direct message that might be a little bitchy. Mama. hoping I can be chemically tricked into not worrying by all the supposed relaxers in the aromas. “Benelli.” What I’m saying isn’t exactly a lie. I’m feeling pissed. I tell the woman giving her a rubdown to extend her massage by twenty minutes and excuse myself to the private bathrooms. we’d have announced our engagement and he might be headed to the lake with my family in a few weeks. I breathe the smell of lavender and a mix of other essential oils deep into my lungs. your father and I have been meaning to ask you if you wanted to visit Aunt Abony a few weeks earlier than we’d planned this summer.“You girls treat yourselves. I . “I’d rather leave with the family. slow rub of the masseuse’s hands on my skin. luxurious rhythm down along my spine and up again.” Mama murmurs sleepily. with Damian. If he wasn’t hell-bent on dragging his feet and being a stubborn ass. When a long snore rattles from her nose. I know I’ve been so neglectful about getting any meetings and dates lined up for you.” Her voice is lazy and a little slurred from the way her cheek is pressed hard into the fluffy towel under her face. simple. So sensible. but my father insists.” I take a minute to breathe against the long. and reading curled in a big chair in a sunny corner. Mom and I pretend to enjoy our pampering. I press Damian’s contact on my phone and wait through the rings. walking through the woods. but oh well. but it burns my tongue to tell it. A couple of the families will be going to the lake. I cut a look in her direction and see that her eyelids are fluttering shut. a crazy artist who lives in Hungary on the outskirts of the Youngblood family property. bright house and the long days spent lounging near the lake.

hey. I know something serious is wrong the minute my heels click on the lobby tiles. “When do I ever call first. and I push my resistance aside and tell my parents I’m going to check on some rental properties my father had been eyeing for a few weeks. I decide it will be easy enough to wait Damian out. you didn’t call first?” He licks his lips nervously and tries to clear his throat. But. ignoring his attempts to call me back to the lobby while I march in a determined line right up to Damian’s door to get some answers about why he hasn’t been returning any of my calls. square your shoulders. uh. For another day or two. Instead. begging for us to figure it all out and make it work again. Benelli. so the night clicks by quickly. But when one or two days slide into the first full week. plant your feet. Fairly easy. My pride stings more and more as the days go by. I need to get busy helping Ithaca through a tricky new set of theorems. . It’s part of why we were always so attracted to each other. but it sounds like he’s got a dog’s squeaky toy stuck in his esophagus. Usually a single text or call from me had Damian crawling back. We’re both passionate. like an infected bug bite spreading a little pool of venom wider and wider into my system. I start to get unnerved. aggressive people. Freddy. I have a pitching feeling low in my gut. Before I put my hand on the doorknob. Freddy? I just stopped by to say hello. then a second. then there’s dinner and coffee with mom. Finally the burn is too much to bear. like my stomach is a rowboat on the ocean in a hurricane. But it’s never been my nature to hold back. Damian’s cousin. By the time we get back home. gorgeous. whatcha doin’ here? Uh. And it is. wipes his hands on his dark suit pants nervously. and that’s even more true when it comes to confronting the bad.don’t think there’s enough time for that now. nothing ever kept us from talking for more than a week. Except I’m not exactly expecting to come face to face with a pair of perfect. and heads in my direction. no matter how brutal our verbal sparring could get.” I breeze right past Freddy’s skinny frame. gets up from behind the glossy front desk. I head straight to Damian’s work. Better to just come face to face with whatever scares you. and deal with it. “Hey.

I fossilize right there in the doorway. okay? I didn’t think you were interested anymore so—” “So you decided to screw around with some random ‘hookup’ instead of just calling me?” My fingers are curled around my car door handle. I can’t now. But not now.bobbing breasts. my heart. My lungs. and when I glance back. I have needs. You have no idea how many times I wanted to pick up the phone and just…straighten things out with us. it takes him a few seconds to look up. And heart-stampeding. my now ex-boyfriend or ex-fiancé or ex-whatever-the-hell-he-is is making a desperate attempt to yank his pants up. my entire body just turn to stone. “There’s nothing to say. Long and brain-searing. I’ll let it out later and allow it to ache and bleed. unbelievable. very long a few seconds can be.” he pants. Funny how very. who’s wringing his hands and biting his lips. I’ll let myself cry my eyes red and puffy. Once he manages to get his pants fastened around his hips. and let my body go weak and slack-muscled over this hideous. freeing me to whirl around and run past Freddy. “Benelli! Wait! I can explain! Wait a minute. “Look at me for a minute. his face crumpled with…what? Regret? Self-loathing? Upset? “Benelli. That girl? She’s just a hookup. I wanted to call you. forceful calamity. my arm behind my back.” I hiss through gritted teeth. Damian is so intent on the moaning girl and the quivering boobs and the frantic thrusting. fumbling for my keys and popping the locks. All my stoniness avalanches away suddenly. please.” I propel myself forward. and I can’t force my feet to take a single step in any direction. out-of-nowhere betrayal. winded from his sprint and the manic exercise of his earlier recreation. he overtakes me quickly. What you saw…I’m sorry. my brain. and I twist around to face him. ready to swing the door open and shut and race away at a moment’s warning. I’m a man. “Listen. And air-choking. Damien!” I call. always forward and keep my eyes wide and dry and my heart tucked and shielded from all of this sudden. . forward. I hear Damian barrel past him. “Princess—” “Do not call me that. a look of sheer horror making his rodent-like face even more unattractive. His face is so handsome and sorry and upset all at once.

Now I think maybe we’re too alike. How smart and determined you can be. you wouldn’t agree to start a life with me. “You wouldn’t sleep with me. Like he’s maybe truly sorry. “Maybe this is all for the best. I always admired how strong you are. it’s compromises—” “Oh. It’s not ultimatums. He runs a hand through his hair and paces back and forth before he stops and points at me. because Damian is . It could almost be an amicable break-up.” I yank the car door open. And I don’t want to spend my time butting heads with the person I’m supposed to love. And his words are the kindest version of heart-shatteringly painful. is still sure he’s going to rush the door and pull me into his arms. “Compromises? Or you badgering the hell out of me until I agreed to do exactly what you want me to do?” My gasp murders his sneer.” He starts out looking at the gravel. yeah?” he interrupts with a sneer. the same personality. Maybe you and me…maybe it was never meant to be. because the thought of his hands on me after they were all over that other girl actually makes me feel like hordes of bugs are nesting under my skin. Damian. “It’s not like that. and he clasps his hands behind his neck and hangs his head. “For the best?” I repeat in a daze. and this tiny sliver. I would then. I felt like we had the same goals. “Have a nice life. as far from him as I can possibly get. you know?” He steps forward. and his look is all sorrow.” My voice cracks in a whisper. actually hurts him and he’s willing to fight to keep that end from crashing on top of him. but you weren’t there for me. but I slam my body tight to the car.” “So this is because I wouldn’t sleep with you?” My head spins and my knees go so weak.And I needed you. But I must have put a powerful set of blinders on a long time ago. razorblade-thin in the core of my heart. I have to lean hard against the side of my car to keep from sliding down onto the gravel under my feet. “Yeah.” His features are twisted like he’s in some degree of emotional torture. the end of all of these months of planning and dreaming and being so happy together. Benelli. you wouldn’t accept my proposal. What exactly were you expecting me to hold out for?” “That’s not how it works. Except that I walked in on him fucking the brains out of some random girl. “Maybe we just don’t make a hell of a lot of sense together. Damian. have to slap him across the face or spit at him or something. but I’d feel so much better knowing that the end of this relationship. but his eyes flick up to meet mine. of course.

. because Damian is already walking back into the offices before I can pull more than a hundred feet away. I cry for all the wasted.But I must have put a powerful set of blinders on a long time ago. her special cauliflower soup that can cure anything.” My mother lays out pajamas and straightens my room while I change. stupid. where she’ll make a fresh batch of karfiolleves. I drink the tea she brings me and watch as she leaves the room. what’s wrong? You’ve worn yourself out. and you’re sick now. I’ve let down. jewelry I could only wear around him. When I don’t have a single tear left. My mother is right there. lelkem . I wake up to my mother’s knock and eat her soup in the dim light of my bedroom. unforgivable act. I hold it all in and drive. rubbing my back and murmuring soothing words. pictures. I cry because Damian’s shoulders were never going to be the ones I could share the weight of my problems with. I bury my head in the pillows and unloose long. because I’m lonely and worried and worn out from caring for so many people and never getting a break. Then I take my sentimental box full of Damian keepsakes. until I make it home and rush past Mama. When I know she’s far off. I count the seconds it will take her to get back to the kitchen. having her cluck over me feels so good. let’s rinse your mouth and come to bed. choking wails and sobs. and myself. who. I cry for my own stupidity.” I nod. keening. there. I put on a cute outfit and hid my puffy eyes with expertly applied eye makeup. though I’ve been lamenting my lack of freedom lately. “I bet you caught that awful flu that’s going around. “Oh. where she’ll be busy getting an elaborate home-cooked meal ready for my family and. who wants to know what I thought of the rental properties and what’s wrong with me. She helps tuck me in like I’m a little girl. for not being able to see Damian for the snake he is. and. I realize. I cry for my family. I make it to the bathroom just in time to lose my lunch in the toilet. There. my face pressed to the cool fabric of my pillow. and I chuck the entire thing in the trash. ticket stubs. I assume to resume his afternoon delight. I let my misery play on repeat for one more day before I stop sobbing and moping and get a shower. idiotic feelings I poured into a love that wound up crushing me. I’ll make you some ginger tea and leave you alone to sleep it off. probably. I cry for the loss of my love. just drive. Chills worm up and down my spine and cover my arms. I sleep. for me. gone forever once I witnessed a single. some pressed flowers he’d picked for me or bought to say he was sorry.

I think I should go to Aunt Abony’s a little ahead of schedule this year.My parents are sitting in the living room. And I’ve been thinking. relief on their faces. watching a soccer game. “I feel much better. Pop. “Mama. I’ve already booked my ticket.” .” They both looked up.

And then. We just…um. “I just saw someone I know and…he’s really sweet. and offer her my hand. After being bogged down for weeks with reams of notes on archaic Hungarian translations of The Odyssey and facing. with as much force as I can muster. no vermin that I noticed. irregular rhythm.” I put an arm around her waist and lift her gently off my lap. on my honor. and concealed. her elbow bashing into my ribs. and the chemistry just wasn’t…It’s not that I have to run away—” “Say no more.” She laughs. I’m definitely betting she’s American.” I smile at her and she takes my hand. still lake. the afternoon calm is completely interrupted and a girl trips over a ridge of knotted tree roots and catapults into my arms. night after endless night. suddenly. No matter how hard I throw my little mountain of smooth stones from the beach. manage to get to my feet. The mingled thankfulness and amusement makes her lips quirk up for a single instant before . the particularly cruel stab of never seeing an email in my inbox from the one person I’m desperate to hear from. dry. too delicate for a worker. her hair tangled in my hands and filling my nostrils with the smell of warm honey. “Bocsánat!” she cries before she tries to untangle herself from my lap. “Fuck!” Based on her perfectly accented apology. “Were you being chased?” “No. her return smile half-hearted and her eyes darting back towards the path she just sped off of. “Nem probléma.” I hold one hand over my heart for theatrics. we had a few dates.” I point to the boathouse hidden off to the side behind some dense bushes. too frantic to ignore. as many as I want. which only results in her getting even more locked and puzzled with my limbs. I decide to treasure the simple things in life. and this time she really looks at me with eyes the same deep. If your suitor comes by. “It looks like we both made it through without any permanent damage. I can’t get them to break the reflected brightness and explode it into ripples. “Safe. I would have said she was a local girl. Like an afternoon sitting on a grassy bank with nothing more to do than cast stones. too speedy for a hiker. The only interruption to my dismal melancholy is the quick patter of footfalls. her knees arrowing dangerously close to my balls. I’ll play dumb.Cormac 1 The sun puddles all of its light in the middle of the wide. Based on her violent obscenity. sweet blue as the sky reflected in the lake. He is. but am mildly surprised to find it beating in a quick.

she is.” She sticks out a hand. though he doesn’t seem to notice the boathouse.” I point to the boggy swamp area that ruined my best leather shoes a week ago when I got mixed up. láttad a lányt?” The guy looks eagerly all around for the girl. if she was headed somewhere quiet to do some thinking. “Well. and walked too close to the lake. “I only wish.” “Oh. you know. and.” “Cormac Halstrom. “Elnézést. very shapely?” I shake my head and internally grimace over the fact that his basic description is both completely accurate and not even remotely good enough to describe the girl who just pounced on me and pounced back off too soon. this path twists in on itself. though she’s made it crystal clear that she’s not looking for company. Thankfully. my Hungarian is pretty crap. I’d suggest hightailing it out of here if you want to continue to avoid him. my lap isn’t available for him to stumble onto. But he nods and thanks me before he heads into the bog. trudged on it.” The guy’s smile is smug. She sounds gorgeous. “Have you seen a girl? Beautiful. dark hair streaming like a banner behind her.” The look of total confusion on his face lets me know that ‘thinking’ doesn’t occur to him as synonymous with something one actively does. It’s very private down there. “Coast is clear. “Honestly. “Benelli Youngblood. but Romeo is on the prowl. straightening the pieces that flew around and stuck to her face in her fall and subsequent dash to the boathouse. it irritates the shit out of me. She’s got an impressively firm grip. long hair that’s very dark.” I shrug and he switches languages.the sound of crackling branches sends her flying. And. shiny hair.” I like the way her smile works straight up to her eyes.” She shimmies from behind the canoe and pulls one hand over all that long.” He flips his hand back and forth. “She could have cut onto the lower path. My English is okay. and I shake. An eager-looking guy bursts out of the forest and almost trips on the exact roots the girl just fell over. big blue eyes. for no reason at all. mate. “Thank you. I sprint back to the boathouse and open the door slowly. Sorry. I owe you one. She’s made a pathetic attempt to hide behind an upright canoe. “No worries. I find my mouth running independent of my .

But there’s no spark. considering the outcome of that situation. “I’m sorry. “I’d love a glass.” She swings her hands at her sides. and I’m positive she’ll find some way to bow out politely. her dark hair falling over her shoulders. nearly-shy smile. It’s been a really long afternoon. you know? He meets every single requirement my family and I have. “Benelli Youngblood. too young to be legally married. no matrimonial thoughts will be coming anywhere near my brain anytime soon. Please ignore me. Marriage? She looks so young. Would you care to have a glass with me? We can toast the fact that we survived that terrifying collision. I think when your first meeting is as violent as ours. So. “’Yes’ to a marriage proposal. Too young to be married. “Yes?” I repeat and narrow my eyes at her.” Benelli tilts her head to the side and gives me a quick. there’s this little shop up the path that has the most amazing Kadarka I’ve ever had.” I stick my hands in my pockets because. until it seems we’re safely out of Loverboy’s hearing range. and marriage has only ever flitted across my mind one idiotic time. But this guy…” Her words melt into a frustrated groan. And. Just too life-young to be thinking about tethering herself to such a huge commitment. but she exhales a relieved sigh and says.” I sound like a desperate ass.brain. I feel like I need to contain them. “We’ve known each other for ten minutes. Ever.” “No apologies necessary. like. I guess I’m running because otherwise I feel like he might talk me into saying ‘yes. “I’m not usually such a klutz. In my entire three weeks in Hungary. for sure. Not. “‘Yes’ to yet another boring date?” She shakes her head from side to side. for some reason. Like they may reach out and touch something they aren’t supposed to. Also. Without my permission.’” That one syllable trembles with a terror too severe for a summer romance gone sour. side by side. and here I am dumping all kinds of personal crap in your lap. We walk in near total silence for a few minutes. None.” The words shock me. you just hop over social conventions. I usually have a backbone and just tell a guy if I’m not interested. “Thank you. She’s younger than I am. . again. and I can smell that soft honey scent her hair gives off as we start up the trail.” She falls in step next to me. “The biggest problem is that there is no problem.

The polish on her nails is a deep purple. and did a year abroad in Ireland and a summer in Italy. “So you’re a spy? A diplomat? Raised by wolves? The son of a ship captain?” “Impressive!” I wag a finger at her. because I have a head-spinning surge of adrenaline so severe. “Since you now know all about me and my crazy dating life.” Her laugh is worth the prickle of my humiliation.” I nudge her with one shoulder. available for your perusal.” She bumps me back. I’m so busy sneaking glances at her impossibly long legs. to your question. When I got old enough. can I ask you a question?” It gives me an immediate and strange thrill that she’s curious about me. “Nowhere and everywhere.” “Ah-ha! So you were never in the same port for all that long and all that?” She blinks and her deep black eyelashes seem to be sending some kind of morse code message to my adrenal medulla. but this girl is intoxicatingly difficult to characterize off the bat. I’ve always liked collecting information-based details so I could slide people and things into their allotted places. “Okay. I graduated and went to college in the states. it would be goulash. Exquisitely short shorts. I misstep. And now I’m here completing a requirement for my graduate work by interning for a local professor who’s one of the foremost experts on archaic Hungarian translations of The Odyssey . “I’m an open book. “But. “I am the son of a captain in the United States Navy.” Her metaphor unhinges a laughter in me that I know is embarrassingly nerdy. like a surge of rain water rushing along the curb in London. “Are you intrigued yet?” “Completely.” “If your accent was a food.” She hooks her thumbs in the belt-loops that circle her very short shorts. but she laughs . “You speak so proper. we traveled where my father traveled. and she grabs my arm to steady me. When my parents were together. “I guess I never quite lost my sea-legs. and I like the slide of my body against hers. and if my accent was a dog. m’lady. I grew up traveling a good deal. and try to content myself with ogling her instead. yes and no. I have to fight the urge to yank her close. it would definitely be a mutt. So I’ve been everywhere and attempted to speak everything.Ridiculous. and the connectivity of our bodies is cellularly pleasing in a way I try not to think about too much. I went to the boarding school in England where my mother’s brother is the headmaster. And I can’t place your accent. Where are you from?” Her feet are outfitted in a flimsy pair of flip flops.” Her laugh is clear and gurgling.

She pushes the book my way. and he’s somewhere on this list. “Better?” she asks. which is nearly identical to the one I keep in my back pocket at all times.” She looks pleased with herself as I choke on the first spicy sip of wine. She nods eagerly. purpose. . “Right. “I am here to find a husband before the summer is over. or to jot down notes for my thesis. that is. and I raise my eyebrows and point with my chin. once in a rare while.” I gasp. apparently. “It’s just. uh.” she instructs. then I order the wine and some pastries because I definitely want to do all I can to ensure this drink lasts a while. in an attempt to get a pretty girl’s phone number. and I pause to enjoy her declaration. “Put your arms over your head. On the way here. because she pulls out a slim leather notebook out of one of the tiny pockets. you mentioned it before…er. and I open it. and I thought…it seemed like it was your boyfriend who was—” “He’s not my boyfriend. marriage. admirer was the one more eager to…get married.” It doesn’t seem like her tiny shorts have enough fabric in them to contain even a small pocket. or. “I didn’t realize you were …looking with such. It’s slightly startling to see this notebook. pounding my sternum with my fist. For a husband.” she interrupts firmly.along.” “There’s no reason to panic. Sorry. “Excuse me. It’s an extremely specific list. And my choking subsides. you mentioned it. “What is a gorgeous young American girl doing in the hills of Hungary?” I ask as an unsmiling waiter puts our glasses down on the table with a gentleness that’s at odds with his shitty attitude. It just seemed that your. She rolls her pretty blue eyes and leans over to repeatedly slam between my shoulder blades with the flat of her hand.” I gulp. Off a list my parents made. um. mixing the word with a swig of alcohol to make it go down easier. so I let it fly. She pulls her hand back and takes a slow. delicate sip of her wine. and I lead Benelli to a wrought iron table at a quiet little cafe. but. Cormac. I’m here to find a Hungarian husband. and I’m not remotely interested in anyone not on it. and I nod. that is. “Old…wive’s…tale…” I wheeze. but I do it anyway. okay? My goal is to find the perfect guy. I’m a poor judge of pocket size. I use it when I sketch. We’re finally at the uneven cobblestoned road that marks the entrance to the miniscule town.

but she manages a laugh even though she clearly didn’t find my joke all that amusing. Which makes all the tension I collected during my clearly unfunny attempt at joking with her melt away. they make my head ache and my throat thirsty for something way stronger than this wine. her eyes unfocused. can I say. I know I can be a serious wanker. I take some kind of dessert made with apricots I’m not remotely hungry for. but do you have potential husbands in cages in some secret laboratory? Because I wouldn’t be remotely shocked if that was the truth.” I take a bite and hold it out to her. Benelli’s book is all hard-lined facts and severe tables and charts. in which case. of course you really do have a few guys locked away. “Tell me the truth. pointing to the little treat. I’ve got nothing on this girl. There are names and initials everywhere. I swear not to alert the authorities if you do.” She’s ragging on me. I’m not judging. She turns it around so she’s not biting where my mouth touched and nibbles. for the record. To think I once fancied my thesis research as complicated. I rush to fix what I’ve already bungled. She draws a fingertip around the rim.” I take the bottle of wine and refill her already drained glass. I have no business touching her.” Benelli says. but stop before I touch her. her mouth pulled to the side like she’s frustrated. Borderline evil genius. because I honestly can’t imagine anything tasting better than this. At all. nothing at all. Unless. It truly was only a joke. but it’s okay for tourists.” I thumb through the pages and shake my head at the microscopic footnotes about education levels and work experience and counter-reference points documenting church attendance and criminal records. “No need to save my feelings. “Kifli. “Some day I’ll have to sample some of the amazing Nagymama’s kifli. “This is genius. and I know they would be unbelievably sweet. Not nearly as good as Nagymama makes. About men. This is delicious.There are no pencil etchings of trees or disjointed musings on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and its relation to the current state of civil liberty atrocities in America. that I’m jealous of the lucky bastards if there are any locked in your basement? It would be a pleasure to be trapped by a woman as intelligent and lovely as yourself. “My grandmother makes the most delicious kifli. Because I’m imagining what her lips would taste like. And.” I lie. “Mmm. . and all kinds of complicated pie charts and pictograms and secret codes so fantastically complex.” I slide my hand across the table.

” I’m dangerously close to slipping into full-blown. you know. I’m too lazy. I mean. pious strapping Hungarian men. who beat me on all of your charts. And that cements my undeniable crush on this safely off-limits girl. I’ve perused your notebook. You can’t get more old-fashioned than that. She loves feeding skinny guys. It makes all those silky. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it into the running. don’t go to church. and I make a heroic effort to breathe and swallow and blink as if I’m a normal man and not some kind of feral animal about to pounce over the table.” She pops another bite in her mouth and grins so big at her own joke. Cormac?” There is a dusting of sugar crystals and a sticky smattering of apricot preserves on Benelli’s fingertips and thumb. probably with chiseled jawlines and swelling muscles. unless you’re afraid of ending up in a cage in my basement?” I press the rest of the kifli her way. I clear my throat. hardly employed.Not that we’re going to kiss. sadly. “I just mean. She delicately licks all that sweetness away. “Maybe I need a progressive friend. For the first time. There are half a dozen straight-arrow. fun-loving. She calls my bluff. “This is two incredibly witty. “I will accept that invitation. hard-working.” I’m bluffing. “That is. “I’ll bring you by her place sometime. Her eyebrows raise slowly. Very progressive stuff.” I lean back and she does this little thing where she shakes her hair off her shoulders. and she eats the last bite. and will be ecstatic if we can just do this once in a while. since I’m clearly in no danger of being entrapped for engagement purposes. and. We’re not. but her singularly cocked eyebrow ropes that impulse back. After she swallows. I’m well aware of my shortcomings. Luckily. “What is this exactly. “Well. I am the girl with the arranged marriage in the works. dark strands catch the sun’s rays and shimmer around her face. rational adults having a nice time in one another’s company over some wine and food. not seeming to mind the fact that I bit directly from it. it’s difficult for her to chew. flirtatiously. and have an arrest record.” She slides her feet out of her flip-flops and balances her toes on the crossbar under the table. blow-hard armchair philosopher mode. arranged marriages aren’t necessarily regressive just because they have an ancient precedent. I get a glimpse of what all those Romantic poets I used to suffer through may have been mooning on about. she adds. .

and that fact doesn’t bother me. “But Penelope found Odysseus again when she was looking through all her potential suitors. Not everyone can be Odysseus and Penelope.” She slides her fingers under the bowl of the glass and every droplet of moisture evaporates from my throat. the ones I loved to hold on my tongue and suck the velvety richness off of when I was young. And I’m not. I’m working on my graduate thesis. In part. it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the way most modern couples jump into marriage. She drops her feet to the stones under the table and wiggles her toes like children do when their feet hit sand at the beach. I mean. Benelli’s skin is the exact color of a caramel square. “I’m kind of surprised you don’t think it’s unromantic of me to have all these guys divided and dissected like this. You being a poetry student and all.” I tap two fingers on the buttery leather of her notebook. “Remember. he’s probably not on that list. But her last words feel like a challenge and an invitation too perfect for me to ignore. Technically. except I’ll look like red and white and gangly with my shirt off. “Maybe my Odysseus is somewhere here. some poetry. her lips lightly stained at the edges. To tell you the truth.” She swirls the dark wine in her glass and drinks. “If your Odysseus is here. I got my undergraduate degree in the Classics.” I’m well aware I’m nothing like the barrel-chested. hard-playing men she’s lining up to choose from. on The Odyssey. Find it shockingly unromantic.I’m not looking down on the way you’re going about this. somewhere. Which I don’t care about.” The hot afternoon sun is most likely blistering the skin off back of my neck. hard-drinking.” When she tries not to smile. So. One does not have to take one’s shirt off while researching minute facts about Greek to Hungarian to English translations for goat-stew and sirens. but also lots of good old fashioned tragedy and history and everyday human stuff that’s anything but romantic. he came to find Penelope. and I think about how I’m probably developing a god-awful farmer’s tan. like a giant human candy cane. after all. Which is a worry that makes zero sense. not the other way around. I dump emergency rations of wine down it to get back some function and try to stay on top of this conversation. It’s been way too long since I got laid. I am. a deep. “I do. I’m not an official student of poetry. but every soft. . sweet movement from her dominoes a thousand imagined seductions. yes. gorgeous dimple creases the left side of her cheek.

Benelli. and open my wallet.” Her blue eyes shadow. but I don’t know why . “It’s been a long couple of months. With every other guy. you know?” She’s babbling. but it’s not fun at all. press them back to her.” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before looking at me with off-putting intensity. And I actually got scared for a second when I thought that maybe I misread and that you wanted more. “And that’s fine. my palm and the tops of my fingers in direct contact with the heat of the skin exposed on either side of her tank top strap. because I know I’m dragging my feet. wine-stained lips. “Paying for the tab is just mannerly. Cormac. even though I grit my teeth while I do it. even though I want to grab her with . shaking her head.He traveled the world over to get back to her . I’m not looking for romance. The words are just spilling out from her gorgeous mouth. I close one hand over her shoulder. Just. Don’t. I don’t want epic.” Her words bite and snap out of her plush.. When she looks up. and I guess I’m just feeling super guilty. glancing at the ground and knitting her eyebrows. I gather them up. and staring off into the distance as if she has laser eyes and there’s a target she’s going to explode once her concentration peaks. but. There have been so many perfectly nice guys. go Dutch. but I’m also not sniffing around for a hand-out. “There’s no one who’d come across the world for me. and she alternates looking directly at me. we have to. let me pay.” I press her shoulder back and forth.. I have a sudden. She backs’s a thing. idiotic vision of the middle of my fingers seething with jealous rage that they don’t get to touch her directly too. because the last thing I need is another worry about my love life. “If we’re going to be proper friends. Please. “I feel…really stupid. just let this be easy. I lay some of her bills back down. And this summer. and the color morphs to something duller. It’s a point. her hair curtaining her face. a silver-gray like the tarnished metal of a suit of armor. I want everyday. Because she’s embarrassed. friendly-like. For me. This is the most important decision of my life. Please.” She takes the bills back from my outstretched hand and shuffles her feet. And you were just fun and easy to talk to right off the bat. and I feel like the pressure to get this right is crushing down on me.” I assure her. there’s the deep pink of a blush on her cheeks. Please just let me know upfront that this isn’t going to be all awkward and …romantic between us?” Her eyelashes cover her irises because she can’t make direct eye contact. “It’s okay. I hoped it would be fun.” She pulls a few bills out of those incredibly short shorts and drops them on the table. “No. of course.

” I hold out an elbow and feel a rush of hot possession that has nothing to do with lukewarm friendship when she slides her arm through mine. “Very refreshing. “I wanted to hike on that ridge over town since the day I landed.” “It never smells this way where I come from. has mellowed into summer perfection. except to kick back with my gorgeous new friend. so far. I’m telling you. We leave the wrought iron tables and the canopied shops and shuttered apartments around the square. But I’d go shoe shopping or to see a Broadway musical or riding on a subway full of kindergartners just back from a field trip to a sugar factory. Which is amazing when the air is windy and salty. the marsh makes everything smell a little rotten. which it usually is. every single guy has taken me on a date to some super-fancy restaurant or to a party surrounded by dozens of his great aunts and cousins. “I live near the ocean. But when it’s hot. let alone piling on all kinds of theatrical techniques. The cobblestones peter off into dirt under our feet. that she seems oblivious to the power she wields over me. too. at least. Doesn’t the air smell amazing here?” She drags in a breath so deep it flattens her nostrils and makes her eyelids flutter.” She walks surely onto the path littered with pine needles and acorn caps. The silence that ping-pongs between us is strangely comfortable. polished.” I do. as if there would be the remotest chance she’d actually need to plead to get me to agree. “Yes. Her smile borders on dopey. and that wet-noodle ease reaches all the way to her mouth.” I guess I should take some yogi-inspired breath. “London smells that way in certain parts of the city. the kind of quiet that usually takes years of friendship or complete compatibility to produce. The tension is gone. Even if I know damn well our decision to keep this new relationship a strict friendship is a solid one. no questions. and.both hands and pull her closer in a way that would be decidedly more-than-friendly. “Do you have plans for the rest of the afternoon?” If I did.” “Yeah?” When I nod.or any other unimaginable horror if it meant spending more time in her company. Do you like to hike?” She pops out her bottom lip. “I love hiking. “Not a plan in the world.” I laugh and nod. that’s absolutely fine by me.” She points with a finger. and dainty. I’m the last person who’d get upset with you. I’m thankful.. “Mmm. I think you and I will do very well as friends. Like laundry left in the . Damn my pent-up reserves of testosterone. bordering on unbearably hot an hour before. The sun is still pretty high and the day. it’s like all her bones were uncooked pasta suddenly dropped into boiling water. I’m fast becoming addicted to having her around. “But. I just want …to get away for a few hours.. but it’s damn hard enough to breathe normally around her. manicured. “Stop apologizing. I’d cancel them.

I’m not completely sure that I’m going to know what the deal is with the guys you’re looking to date. I might try to take one. I need to stop subjecting her to my pent-up nerd-boy crushes. flat rock that looks out over a dense copse of pines and a stream and sits. not really from that. You wouldn’t believe how rare that it.. I like the soft rasp of her palm under my fingertips and the transfer of her weight to my arm as I help her keep balance over the rough terrain. “I see. I guess.. I’m not.” She pulls her bottom lip between her teeth and gnaws a little.. “Say no more.” I lie. Cormac.uh. but we are firmly friends. that’s kind of a sore spot.” “I don’t mind at all.” she says on a long sigh.” She takes my hand and squeezes. it’s so nice to just be able to talk.” I put a hand out when she stumbles a little over some loose rocks. Just two people with all kinds of interesting things going on.” “I have to admit. I’ve only just met her. “I swear. just getting to know each other. and we’ve agreed to keep it that way.washing machine too long. but I’m glad she wore them. Friends who help one another with dating problems.” She finds a long. “Um. So. It’s picturesque enough for romance. “If you don’t mind. will you and your future husband move back to the States. leaning her palms back on the warm rock and letting her hair fall back as she tilts her skin skyward. letting that nugget of information digest makes being around her more bearable. even if this beautiful girl didn’t have a specific list designed to attract the perfect alpha male who could never be me. it’s okay.” “No. “Thank you. amazing as she may be. Flip flops are not the best shoes for hiking. I glance over and come to grips with the fact that. “I would actually appreciate your honest feedback.” I dig my heels into the loamy ground and stand a little away from this rock and her body and the closeness that’s embarrassing on account of its impossibility and my assumptions.I’m not like them. If I thought I had a chance. as a guy. “Thank God. What’s the issue? “What’s the problem? Maybe we could figure it out?” We. Anything sturdier and she’d be perfectly able to maneuver without any help from me. and I ask it because it’s ridiculous to feel this way about this girl.. Strangely. or will you be staying here?” It’s a question that’s a thousand papercuts on the sore edge of my nerves. And that would be a road to total and complete ruin.” . it’s nice to be able to talk this stuff out with someone neutral. we’re solidly friends. she’s completely out of my league in every way possible. Because what the hell is wrong with these assholes? Any sane man would follow this girl to Hell and back if she crooked a finger.

“Just my opinion. eyes wide. For the second time today.. As soon as this hike is done. and this is your big decision. the shiny fall of her hair. In my opinion. And now my list has been shortened by two. then flip my gaze to the pines and mountains when she turns to look at me. Maybe this is too personal. I mean. of course. “Okay. We hardly know each other. Tell me something else. adamant. then the other. and I panic and draw back. maybe it doesn’t all fall into place right away. Or whatever. “Or maybe not. . Maybe you need to make adjustments for each other?” She pulls one leg. Definitely heeded. and that vibe should be heeded. but I strongly feel that you can get a pretty immediate vibe off a person. sliding slowly behind the mountains. mouth slightly open. She pulls the notebook out of her pocket and slides a pencil out of the spine before flipping through the pages and drawing thick lines through two names in the back. maybe that’s number one. Yours. “Don’t you think you sometimes need to kind of settle in with a person? Like. of course. she looks incredibly relieved. Cormac. but also because I feel invested in maintaining roadblocks for her on this quest. And it’s torture. of course. “You’ll need to tell me a little about them. Perfect. up and rests her chin on her knees like a little girl. there must be things you like and don’t. I don’t want.“Really? Well. then? You need to weed out anyone you aren’t fairly immediately comfortable with.” I shake my head.. Her face glows and her eyes and mouth soften. I can’t do anything without knowing more about what kind of craziness she’s walking into with these chumps. I’m heading back to the university library and seeing if the sourfaced grad student who guards the books like a menacing she-troll might look a tad sweeter after a few tankards of strong beer. Adamant because I am theoretically adamant about this issue.” I comb my eyes over the curve of her neck.I can’t be the one who keeps you from your one true love.” Benelli arches forward. You’re right. Funny how something that was so gorgeous just a few minutes before can lose its luster when compared with Benelli’s beauty. “That was perfect. the smooth line of her arms. What else can I use to narrow this down?” Much as I want her to cross every single damn name off the list. You’re the one who’ll be married by the end of this summer.” She leans forward.” She rests on her arms again and squints at the sun. her breasts strained against the fabric of her tank top in a way that allows me to see the outline of her nipples. “No.

But I have to be this damn noble romantic.” I try to phrase it as gently as I can.She rests on her arms again and squints at the sun. I give a small snort.” She walks her fingers across the scratch of stone and presses her hand to the top of mine. And I think. But I can’t resist a crush. “Do you think it really matters?” Her voice is barely louder than the wind coursing around us. It’s weird right? To talk about this with you when we just met. “Maybe you should be? Not as a matter of premium importance. I’m afraid she’ll pop her finger out of joint. “Despite the fact that my heart was recently thoroughly crushed. You can have all kinds of other. So. “if you’re asking. I know. So I mind mine.” “To the core. you know?” She’s saying things that she thinks make her sound strong.factors.” I’m a wanker. in fact. A champion wanker. I want to know why. I’m a realist. Of course. and Benelli is a strong one. you know the answer.” You’d think a romantic would do a better job of snaring a girl. messy line between friendly inquiry and mind-your-own-fuckingbusiness. okay? What’s next? What else do you think we should worry about?” Both of her hands are safely settled in her lap. “Well. like you’d deliver to the head of a favorite pet dog. I know she’s lying. “You’re a romantic. I do know how weird it is. . I do believe love matters. She extinguishes that possibility with a friendly pat. The press of her hand was a promise. But that’s walking the fine. let’s just forget love. Dangerously strong. clenched together so hard. It’s just. but I can hear that she’s verbalizing a sacrifice. I’m not looking for love. You should. and her eyes are downcast. Get that notebook out and you can scribble in another lovely chart. of course. sliding slowly behind the mountains... “Well I think location is a premium question. But maybe also love?” The wind is picking up her hair and throwing pieces back. “Okay.

As did the date with Elias. At first I held back with my dates and kept up the polite facade of the well-mannered. then I should take the kid gloves off and put the boxing gloves on.Benelli 2 The date with Akos is going. Thinking about Cormac makes me smile.. Not at all. And Istvan. permanently?” I know there should be a gentler segue. and I flush and sit up. Akos is the fifth guy to take me to this restaurant. I pick up my fork and knife and try to keep the shake out of my fingers. I realize that I have to go where he is. And. anything that might make this sound less like a job interview and more like a date. which is easily the most expensive in at least a fifty mile radius from the little town we’re staying in. since I’m committed to learning from your father. Is something wrong?” I run a fingertip over the shiny silver fork next to my plate. after spending the afternoon and evening with Cormac a few days ago. “You’ve seemed a little off. can I ask what you think about living in America? Like. The day I spent hiking with and talking to Cormac was the . nicely brought up Hungarian-American girl. tacking my smile carefully back in place. “I love the idea of starting my business in America. really smile. “Nothing’s wrong. He told me that if love didn’t matter. um. for the first time all night. I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m incredibly glad I face-planted into his lap that day. So why do I feel so completely crappy? “Benelli?” Akos is leaned forward. But.” The waitress brings our plates over and Akos takes a lingering look at her backside as she walks off before he turns his attention back to me..fine. his dark eyes focused on my face. But. And Jani. It makes an irritated prickle of goosebumps break out over my neck. We’re waiting on braised lamb chops. His smile is gentle. I decided to change my tactics. And that’s a good thing. but very slightly condescending. They’ve all been fine. since I’m insisting this is all business and no emotion. My notebook overfloweth. So. if I truly thought that was just a mess of reacting chemicals that led to stupid decisions.

but. My time with him left me feeling free. but don’t compromise on my resolve. But a wife is the center of a home.” He lays a hand on the place in his chest where a heart should be. I will always be discreet. But I’m not a little kid anymore.. “I will always be protected. I will love and respect my wife with all my heart. barefoot. what you would expect if we were married. And I have nothing but respect for that. “But what if your wife did. rubs his large. the foundation. all the summers before I had to think about getting married. through the meadows and forests. a quick tick pulses near his ear.” His eyebrows shoot up and he opens his mouth to argue. he does.” He leans forward and his hand slithers across the tablecloth. hair down. like I took off binds I didn’t even know I was wearing. and I channel all my disgust and anger into my fist so I can keep my face open and relaxed. “This is extremely uncomfortable conversation for dinner. I’m not sure he’s ever going to collect his words... Would you want to keep a mistress?” I can feel the scroll pattern on the hilt of the knife making an impression on my palm.polar opposite of these frigid. even if it makes no sense. “Women don’t have the same appetites. “Akos. the keeper of the house.” He goes back to his meal. no matter how uncomfortable he finds .” I take a bite of lamb. scripted dates. Benelli. perfectly succulent. but I wave my knife in the air carelessly. uh. his eyes darting from side to side. perfect jaw. I snap to attention. I would never expect my wife to have to deal with my appetites. He spears a bite of lamb with a vicious thrust of his fork and leans that?” I press. and let him be the one to wait tensely while I chew and swallow.carnal man. I felt the way I used to feel.” I saw my teeth back and forth.. “What if your wife had the same appetites as you?” He tenses his jaw so hard. honestly. I need to ask you a question. “I am a very. Because this isn’t about romance. I have to fix my hair and face and put on tight clothes and high heels and smile when I want to punch a guy in the chops. I’m not judging you. rough breath out and blinks slowly. She is the mother of the children. “I’m going to be honest with you. Benelli. “I saw you just look at the waitress. but he wields the knife with a little more ferocity than is strictly necessary. finally. I lace up my boxing gloves and get ready to deliver one hell of a right hook. when I just ran. I’m just asking you. What if she was just.” I lower my voice. cringing at the grating sound reverberating in my head. “Forget it. blows a long. Akos flounders. eating more lamb mechanically and refusing to let him hold my hand during this particular confession.

and press the damp chill to my overheated skin. “You do. That’s life. We are. I raise my eyes and see his. Akos right on my heels. over and over. and try to let the icy/acidic feeling in the pit of my stomach ease. I know where the bathroom is. Hey.” I do. understand. I’ve been to the restaurant dozens of times. Men are beasts. “I’m not saying I’d run out and get a mistress the first day we were married or--” “Please. inch by inch.” I stand so fast the table wobbles and look around for the bathroom. “Now you probably think I’m some ogre. I resist the urge to clap my hands over my ears. but right now my brain feels like a record with a big gash in it. That’s life.” “I don’t. When my heart and lungs have stopped their frantic riot. But I do. my makeup is heavy and perfect. about our future together. that’s biology. crinkled at the sides because he’s smiling. as if I can stop the bark of his words in my head. Even from me. protected. Just not with Akos.” The last thing I want to do is look at him.. I understand what you’re saying. If you can’t answer my questions. I promise to shield you from every ugly. “We are not doing this for fun. Several silent minutes tick by before Akos clears his throat. I wouldn’t have been able to finish dinner if I wanted to. We are. and he sighs heavily and snipes back at me.” I beg. and manage to slam the door in his face and press my back to the heavy wood while I take a few shuddering breaths.” I raise an eyebrow his way. I do want to. It has nothing to do with love. I head to the sink and turn on the cold water. My hair has been straightened until it shines. and the needle just keeps tripping over the same horrifying thought. by me. I need to know things about you. Please. ring it out. he’s lying or deluding himself.” He captures my hand before I have time to pull it away. I rush to the bathroom. I don’t expect her to be with anyone but me after our marriage. Benelli. I soak a paper towel. and we don’t have the luxury to figure it all out slowly. I can’t make a decision. And if any man on any date tells you that he has no plans to keep a mistress. You’d be cherished. “Hey. it’s respect.” I tug my hand out of his grasp. I would keep her satisfied. “My wife could do whatever she pleased before the marriage. Just stop. If you and I married. my dress so tight. “Men are beasts. awful thing there is out there.. as far as I’m concerned. . Look at me. And.this. that’s biology. once we were married.” He rubs a hand over his freshly shaved chin. “stop. And I shouldn’t even be feeling this.

If you storm out of here without me. Myself. “Let me go. I need it for cab fare. My eyes well with tears. We’ll finish dinner. I want to just be me. then I’ll take you home. and he rushes behind. I’m sick of feeling so damn trapped.” His calm voice is at odds with the bite of his fingers on my skin.. my cell. That’s it.And not in this dress or with this makeup on. I have no way of knowing if you got home safely or not. and his squeeze becomes a hard pinch. Benelli. Benelli. Now. I know you think I’m being a jerk. undeniable rage. Now I know. he increases the pressure.” I interrupt. I stalk towards the table. I hail the first cab I see. then push through the door and smash into Akos’s wide chest. I squirm away from his touch and head into the balmy summer night. Does that make sense?” He lifts a hand and cups the side of my face. I’m sorry we talked about. okay? Even if it means that I have to protect you from yourself.” My purse is back at the table. It was uncalled for. and I take it seriously. then brushes a few strands of hair off my shoulder. but he holds me firmly by the shoulders and steadies me. At him. Not some precious womandoll who needs to be protected. “Are you okay? Let’s go back and finish dinner. fawning managers and hosts. but I want to protect you. my voice even but punctured with the fierce anger I can barely contain. and I’m furious. I wad the paper towel up and toss it. . Let me go. “I’m sorry. I have to get home. Thank you for a lovely evening. at all of this. My teeth chatter from pure. I twist. I almost totter off balance on my new leopard print stilettos.” My voice scratches out of my dry throat.all that. He loosens his grip very slightly and rubs a thumb over the skin he most likely bruised. my pepper spray. dropping some bills between our barely-touched plates and trying to put an arm around my shoulders as we brush past confused.. This instant. “I needed to know. I don’t take that lightly. and I can use the information to make a better decision. “I’m ready to go. at myself. I’m responsible for you. And I don’t need your permission to leave.” His hand slides down from my shoulder to my upper arm. It’s my job to make sure you’re safe. “You’re not leaving without me. I should have gone with my instincts and not let the conversation go that way but you were so--” “Shut up.

It would be so I didn’t burden you with keeping me. and any mistresses you might keep?” I ask. His voice is giving me a headache.. It would be about a making a relationship that would last.. “You and I both understand that our getting married wouldn’t be about puppy love. our kids. “We shouldn’t have discussed all that crass stuff. ready to plead with me for.” He sighs and rubs his temples. Because we’ll have a family and we’ll build something together.content. I’ll leave Hungary and my family and only come back to visit. “So this was a shock because you didn’t talk to anyone else about it?” “Um.what? “Benelli. He doesn’t. it was a lie. I tilt my head and watch the lights and pedestrians in the city as they whiz by. “I didn’t ask anyone before you. I tense up and listen despite my resolve to ignore his stupid ass. before I can close the door fully. beautiful girl. not that I’m looking at him or paying him any attention. this was a shock because you told me that you’d cheat on me for my own good on our first date. Okay. Okay.” I initially planned to not say a single word to him.” he begs.” At the mention of my dad. Akos. you. just to ensure that the cabbie will be on my side in case Akos decides to contradict me again. The reason you want to marry me is because I’ll be a great partner for your father. All okay. love each other. “How did your other dates answer? Did they lie? Because if they said anything other than what I said. And that requires honesty and understanding. “If I ever keep a mistress. But there will have to be compromises in our relationship. I lean forward and give my aunt’s address and my sweetest smile. Okay.’ all of that would be conducted away from you. Akos slides in next to me. For years.” I roll my eyes when he presses his hands palm-to-palm. but I decide to jump on this as a unique learning experience I can use to find the man I should actually marry. and that’s a huge ‘if. working very hard to ignore the guy I’m on a date with as he squirms next to me in the seat. and even. my eyebrows high. listen to me. Benelli.” he begins. eventually. The honest truth. In . I’ll take a second-in-command position under your father. He seizes on my momentary interest and runs with it. Benelli. We need each other.” “And by family. you mean me. And it wouldn’t be for love. We can respect each other... “And that’s the honest truth. I’ll put in unbelievable hours and work harder than I’ve ever worked for anything before.but.

” He turns toward me. Benelli. overgrown. his hands flexing to grab at me again. so I vault out and rush to my aunt’s cozy little house. vacations. “Nénike!” I call.” He presses his palms down on his knees and spreads his fingers wide. and oil paints that distinguish my aunt’s home. But it is a reality. This is why. but I don’t want to listen to him. my siblings will run wild with our cousins and . It’s a part of life that no one’s proud of or excited about. Why does it make me so embarrassed? It shouldn’t. and back to the innocence of my youth. I don’t want to think about any of this or anything else for that matter. but the comforting silence that bounces back lets me know my aunt is out. I don’t think my father ever cheated on my mother. You can have it all.that way. he and I would bump into each other somewhere along the way and. And I’m about to drive this point home to Akos when something stops me. I luxuriate in all the quiet.. no illusions.” Everything my father ever gave my mother. romance. I shrink away. And I don’t want to. In a few more days. He draws his hands back to his sides. “Romance will be a part of our marriage. The cab lurches to a halt. my family will descend on this quiet little place. But I’ve never really thought about it. plastering myself to the door of the cab. “Benelli! Benelli!” he yells.” I snap. It was almost like he expected me to agree. Flowers. cinnamon. Like he assumed that it was a fact of life I was familiar with.” “No romance. candy. away from this asshole. even if a prince didn’t ride up to rescue me. jewelry. Except my father didn’t keep a mistress. but Akos has already handled it and is asking him to wait. Because it occurs to me that Akos was pretty comfortable saying that most men have mistresses. “Yes. “I know people don’t talk about it. probably riding her bike half-drunk to some crazy artist friend’s house where they’ll smoke pot and talk politics and art and life on someone’s candlelit. I want out of this car. My parents will ask me about all the dates I’ve been on. date nights. when I really believed that. back porch. and I attempt to pay the driver.fall in love.. and I think we’d be a stronger couple if we laid it all out upfront. Benelli. I slam the door harder than I mean and breath in the familiar aromas of vinegar. I’ll provide for you exactly the way your father provides for your mother.

Even if I fell head over heels in love with him. My cutoff shorts and cotton tank do exactly what I want my clothes to do right now. I walk up the steps to the small. That was the summer I met Lala and she pointed out that I would look so much better with two eyebrows rather than one. twined. it was the bruised knees and the tangled hair that was the old me and the highlights and full face of makeup was the new and improved Benelli. and I’ll be expected to play the part I’ve been assigned since I was a little girl: caretaker to the Youngbloods. how many books I could finish curled up by the window. I held tight to my new persona. which . and I wanted to be petted and praised for it by the women I trusted.’ Maybe I was back then. That wasn’t exactly the plan. Mama was relieved because I went from being a tomboy to a nice girl in the matter of a few makeover weekends. I was proud of the fact that I could put on false eyelashes like a pro and walk in heels equally as well as I could roller-skate. I scrub the makeup off my face and watch as it swirls down the drain. I get to my room and strip out of my binding dress. surged with a bond that was deep and unspoken. And clucked her tongue at my ratty. By the time he walked me back home late that night. and it irritated me. And. unshaved legs. The new look was still raw and uncomfortable. when I ran wild and didn’t worry about a single thing other than how many hours I could stay outside. It lasted right up until the summer I was sixteen. She and I connected. eventually. No matter how many times my aunt slashed her eyes in my direction and muttered about the death of feminism. Which is nice because he’s safe to fall for. I made this new version of me the skin I could slide into. they fit perfectly and allow me to instantly forget them. long hair and knobby.the locals. because it didn’t feel quite right. Held tight and sailed right into Akos’s arms. high-windowed room that I’ve stayed in every summer since I turned thirteen and Aunt Abony declared me ‘a woman after her own heart. I was kind of a little smitten. and how much I could enjoy my summer with her before the first tinges of yellow on the edges of the leaves announced that it was time to travel back to the States. I can’t forget the look of total and complete disappointment that fogged Abony’s eyes when I stepped off the plane. and I needed their reassurance. I thrown on my flip flops and decide to head back to the lake. Where I met Cormac. Where we spent an amazingly comfortable afternoon and evening together.

for the first time in I don’t know how long.. Cormac sticks his head out. I feel free. When I get to the young professor’s hovel of an apartment. like he’s embarrassed that I caught him in them. I guess I could just as easily walk up to his door and knock. This time one of the window panes sounds like it may have cracked. “Benelli?” He pulls his glasses off fast. That said. and I can make out the shape of him moving in the shadowy interior. His dark hair sticks up at weird angles and he’s a few shades short of sleepy. My feet take me down a vaguely familiar path that’s tugging at me like an eager puppy on a long leash. I can’t go out without getting recognized. Do you want to go walking? Maybe grab a . But kind of adorable. there’s no way I can bring a PhD student with a classics studies background and a penchant for romance and poetry home to my father. but something about tossing the rocks feels a little crazier. so I pick up another handful of pebbles and throw with a little more effort. and walk the streets. and I’m so in the mood for anything not quite sensible right now. At least that’s what I tell myself when I grab my light zip-up hoodie from the hook by the back door. looking for a husband is hard.I won’t because he’s not my type. I pop the hood over my head. I blend in with all the young teenage girls hanging on the cobblestoned side streets. like I woke him up before he dozed over his latest batch of translations. push my hands deep in the pockets. completely unimpressed way that makes a laugh start low in my throat and bubble out of my mouth. I love the sweet whistle of the wind picking up now and then and dragging strands of hair out of my hood. associates in business. Free and reckless.I thought you said you had a date tonight? Construction foreman. and my husband is going to lend a direct hand in the reconstruction. “I. a pair of dark. loose feel of my legs as I stretch them and the wiggle of my toes in my open shoes. But I don’t go directly to the lake. and I need a break.. My family needs to be rebuilt. square glasses on his face. like I intended. I’ve been on dates with so many guys in this tiny town. He looks nerdy. knowing that without my heels and hair and tight dress. I pick up a few pieces of loose gravel and toss them at his window. nice calves?” He says the last words in that dry. emotionally-draining work. The light shines from his window. “It winds up his calves weren’t all that impressive. and the window swings open. I love the long.

Um. amazing calves. He’s not drop-dead gorgeous like Akos. who’s all chiseled lines and dark.” “Really?” I do my best not to smile at him. “Of course. Also. That would be. But I can’t stand for you to picture me on a unicycle without a cooler image of me to compete for space in your brain.” His voice is brisk. And he has a good mouth. ready to see him. where only the best and sweetest flutters ever wave their wings. And sometimes snowboarder.bite?” I probably wouldn’t have been able to eat all that much in the dress I wore tonight even if Akos didn’t piss me off. kissablyshaped lips. brooding strength. but it’s easier attempted than done. I found this Hungarian-Thai fusion . as it was. rattly and deep from inside his chest. In that scruffy. throwing his hood up over his head as he walks to me. I’m a little glad. Could you wait just a minute? My research clothing isn’t fit for the civilized public. I warn you. actually. and they crinkle on the sides from all the smiling he does. I have fantastic calves. Sadly. Maybe we’ll just talk about Greek myths and desserts and the moon and stories from when we were kids. that would be brilliant. Right. Or. They’re a kind of light green with darker green right around the pupil.. which is so nice after a long series of dates with slow-talking attempted-seducers.” He pulls his head back into the room. “I was thinking of wearing shorts tonight. only once on the snowboarder thing. He bursts out the door. Truly awesome. Hopefully. because he’s always talking or laughing or grinning at me. I have to say. Never kissing me though. Cormac is more cute. I’ll be down in a second. Maybe. “But. I wound up eating next to nothing.” he corrects. better yet. he laughs all the time. maybe we won’t talk about any guys or any dates. and my stomach is lurching and growling. And I’m shocked to feel this tiny little flutter low down in my gut. then pops back out. “Unicyclist. To die for eyes. He does have wildly gorgeous eyes. I’m sorry about the calf let-down. mad-professor way. “So. That may be my absolute favorite thing about him. with firm.” I bounce on the balls of my feet. “So are you a jogger?” “Cyclist.. He loops an arm around my shoulders gently and leads me down the street. though. I have a hard time picturing his mouth being still. ready to walk around with him and tell him about Akos and the other guys and get his take on all of this craziness.yes. but.

clean smell mixed with the tingling pang of aftershave that makes my girly hormones spin in excited pirouettes. and I picture my own grandmother with her severe. he also smells like guy.” “Stop. And I only think I sent it.” He smells like the pages of books. I always send her something sappy with lots of embossed flowers on the front for her birthday. It’s a salty. And then.. under all those comforting smells. “I’m relieved to have your number now. questionable-looking facade that leads into a dark restaurant. so those handsome men with all their oily muscles may have been deposited into the incinerator when I left. “Sir Sexy Calves? I like it. “Flattery will get you nowhere.” That deep laugh jangles around me and sends a shiver of pleasure up and down my spine. permanent frown. but makes the call.” I punch his arm softly.. shiny hair leaps up and asks us to have a seat in . surprised by the tough bulge of muscle under the thin sleeve of his jacket. She so would have loved ogling it. All my sources say it’s absolutely amazing. ink. and I was too lazy to look up and see if they delivered. An eager-looking man with a huge smile and dark. “Now call me. But hand me your phone. even if I know for a fact that it’s absolutely hopeless. frowning. And.” I order. so it’s a particular shame it will never reach her greedy hands. but I missed you. “I’m glad you were around. I wish you’d been there to help me post a letter this morning. after all. who would not think a card like that would be appropriate or” “Did you really send your grandma a card like that?” My eyes bulge from shock. I’m afraid my grandmother will not be getting a card with several oily naked men on it. “I know we just talked the other night. The postmaster was pretty irritated by the time we were through. there you were like an angel of dinner under my window. “You’re going to lead me on and make me fall completely in love with you.” I admit. and tea leaves. and I was dying of hunger. and I totally ignore my slightly sweaty palm and jittery fingers when I type my number in. and I turn my head in my hood so I can discreetly press my nose closer to his shoulder and inhale that perfect aroma. and I program his name in as he peers over my shoulder.” He stops in front of a small. but didn’t want to be the sad professor eating all alone at the bar.” He fumbles for a second. “My grandmother would box my ears if I tried to send her a card with a cat or a bouquet on it. This town can be a dangerous place for a dreamy grad student who knows very little Hungarian.don’t laugh now.” he demands.

cozy restaurant with him. but those shoulders give me a tickle low down in my throat. We’re only half-idiots at both. “So. I feel a weird. sweet way Cormac takes care of me on this non-date. actually. and they married really young. But a fair came through. if that had been my parents’ story.” I take a bite of the crispy breaded cauliflower and love the tastes in my mouth. When the waiter returns.” “Oh. and I feel perfectly content in this dark. He met my mother in Hungary. But it worked out. “So. Did you order ox hearts with lemons?” He opens my straw for me and dunks it in my cup. and he thanks the waiter. I mean. I know he was joking about how great his calves are. and I order the vegetable pad thai.” I take a long sip of my soda and sigh. Almost as much as I love the quiet. because they were positive we’d wind up idiots at English. takes our drink order. warm blush burst up from my chest. but the man’s smile is completely contagious. I assume. “You speak Hungarian beautifully. and prepares a little plate carefully. It was. and he met her when she sold him tickets. I would have been mooning around every fair that . it sounds lovely. It’s kind of a funny story. “Arranged? No. your parents are native to Hungary?” “Mmmhmm.” “Arranged. Or maybe I do. It freaked my parents out.” “Really?” He opens his mouth to ask something more. which he passes to me. My father was supposed to marry a local man’s daughter. this instant romance. I presume?” He leans back. “Wine would be so nice right now. “Thank you. and we were only allowed to speak Hungarian at home. and I’m smiling at him over the top of my menu. Cormac busts out some truly awful Hungarian and haltingly orders us an appetizer of fritters and a Hungarian schnitzel plate for himself. I have no real clue what you’re saying. My father was given a share of his father’s business to take overseas when he was a teenager. Cormac is smiling at the glossy menu pages. we can do wine later. It takes a minute to clear my head and answer him. and my mother’s family owned the carnival rides. but the fritters arrive. Cormac tries to study his menu seriously. My grandmother lived with us when we were young.” He winks. like. basically because she was the heiress to her dad’s logging business. and smiles like his face will crack in half. They definitely did not have an arranged marriage. and I notice just how wide his shoulders are.broken Hungarian. “Thank you. He brings us menus. one green eye scrunched shut and opened again after a few seconds. I have a plan.

’ Did I mishear you?” I swallow hard and my stomach drops a little. “If I could have gotten any girl to go anywhere with me when I was a lad. ‘when I tried to leave. “I did say that. “Did Mr. like in movies based on Jane Austen books. gazing into ticket booth windows and hanging around at the Waltzer--” “The Waltzer?” I ask. I dip and eat. “He got upset I guess and--” “‘Rough’ is what you said. imaging a fair where couples waltz in slow circles. the American name for it is much sexier.” He uses his hands and some of the broccoli to illustrate.” I take another bite and add.” I raise an eyebrow at him. I would probably have fainted from sheer shock and excitement before I got anywhere near a Waltzer. our plates arrive and the delicious smells make me start to salivate. still steaming. “Did you take all the girls on the. . and I’m so shocked. Which should make me nervous. You mean The Tilt-A-Whirl. and there isn’t the remotest trace of a smile anywhere on his face. that’s usually the case with American names for things. Benelli. “I asked some questions he didn’t like. Waltzer when the fair came through.” I rub my arm where Akos grabbed it. His words are perfectly civil. Average Calves skimp on dinner?” Cormac asks as I heap a huge forkful of delicious pad thai. He’s put his fork down on the table. Sir Sexy Calves?” Cormac chuckles. and he pops a crunchy piece of broccoli in his mouth and presses some kind of peanut-based dipping sauce my way. the ride with the cars you sit in and the platform comes up and you kinda spin. By the way. you weren’t a ladies’ man?” I ask. he got a little pissy. but before he can answer. into my mouth.” “So. Instead I’m glad I detect it. er. he got a little rough. you know it. He’s got that whole quiet authority thing on lockdown. Cormac would make the most amazing teacher. and when I tried to leave. and Cormac hones in on my absentminded gesture. he got a little rough so I had to--” “He what?” Cormac’s voice is smooth and soft. but his tone has the nasty bite of jealousy. “Oh. You said. But. I can only stutter out my answer. “The date went a little haywire.came through. He’s all pure fury. “Uh.

he hands me my to-go box and gives me a tight smile. He pays for the meal before I can offer to pitch in and walks me home.” I’m nervous now and wish I’d just kept my mouth shut. and I couldn’t imagine the night improving at all. I do. Benelli. I’ve ruined dinner. Akos could crush Cormac in a second if he wanted to and wouldn’t think twice about doing just that. He grabbed me. I follow the line of his sight to the blotchy purplish marks that dot my arm where Akos’s hand ringed it. His eyes blaze and he grits his teeth hard. “May I see?” His voice is so unlike it usually is. I was having an amazing time with him. it’s taken care of. Soon. truly. so cold and severe. his mood edgy and punctuated by occasional kicks at the cobblestones. his steps long and quick. Do you mind if we box this?” Cormac asks.. okay? He’s. but I put a hand on his wrist before he can leave. because he’s already got the waiter hurrying over. “I’m really sorry. and I yanked my arm away. I really hope to do this again with you. and I don’t want it to end.” “Of course. Then I threw a few rocks at Cormac’s window.minded gesture. then he takes two solid steps backward. and he’s not going to back down if he’s confronted. and I have a terrible feeling that Cormac might try to confront Akos. Akos didn’t really hurt me. . his hands still stuffed in his pockets. When we get to my door. I don’t really think before I let my hoodie slide slowly off my shoulder and down my arm. and he’s attempting to assure the man that there’s nothing wrong. And please know how much I enjoyed dinner. because I can read the rage still jabbing in his eyes.he’s a rough guy. But I realize his question was just a courtesy. I’m willing to bet Cormac’s grandmother will not be getting that birthday card. “I apologize. I just left the single worst date of my life. I was just venting about the night. That’s all. “He did this to you? The construction foreman? The big bad Akos Miklós did this to you on a date?” “Cormac. but he’s definitely talking about the weather. I can see every tendon in his neck stand out. which would be a disaster. I do mind.” He swallows so hard. really want you to stay out of it.” he soothes. and everything changed. but I’ve lost my appetite. and I really. he didn’t mean to.. “I would never do anything stupid. and I don’t believe his voice for a second. I promise you.

I can smell him. tell him I can’t stand Akos and guys like him. and walks away. I’m begging you.” He stares down at the ground and breathes deep. I wish so hard that I could see the other half of that smile back in place. books and ferocious man..” He holds a hand up when I try to interrupt. and we probably only have a few weeks together this summer before you make the single biggest decision of your life. As a friend. I was a bullied. the wish morphs into an ache. please value yourself in this decision. Never. A few blocks from my house he turns and gives me half a smile. “We barely know each other.I inch into the doorway of my aunt’s house when he whirls back. his body leaned inches from mine. Please. close to my face. but he shakes his head and I keep my lips buttoned. his shoulders rising and falling. “Wait.. . two smells I never imagined co-mingling. tell him he’s wrong. He puts one hand up. smartmouthed runt. “In answer to your question from before. then whips back. fast. but now realize have combined to create my new favorite smell in the world. And I know guys like Akos are appealing to girls. no. our lips could skim. I never had the arrogance or cruelty that’s the birthright of guys like Akos Miklós. so close.” He leans forward. even though I have no clue why. turns on his heel.please choose wisely. I was never a ladies’ man. our breath hitches and mingles in the space between us. mostly because I want to know what he’s going to say next.

stern man. I remember howling with pain. but I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. and. What did the Allies learn from World War II? Never back down when you’re faced with an aggressor. so hot it was glowing orange. which means that I have to pull back from what I know I can do and hedge my bets on what I can probably maybe do. . “That’s how they learn in the animal kingdom. Never have been. My father was a quiet. though I’d never dusted his mostly abusive lessons off and given them a go in the real world. I reached out to touch the side of a woodstove. No pantywastes come from my genes. sweat-soaked face. Double emphasis on maybe. Never. My parents were furious with my grandfather. When my mother made the mistake of bragging that I took the lead in my posh school’s production of Oliver . strapped old boxing gloves on my hands.” He threw punches that I ducked and a few that I couldn’t. but my father’s sense of filial duty was deeprooted. I’m not a fighter.Cormac 2 I’m scared shitless of that bastard Akos Miklós. That was another of my grandfather’s little survival-of-the-fittest tests. and proceeded to beat the piss out of me. spittle collecting at either side of his mouth as he nodded. never will be. “That’s a boy! Take it like a man! That’s it. Emphasis on probably. He’s got a good four inches and eighty pounds of hulking muscle on me. Grandpa was a bully. but he taught me to use my hands to fight. But this isn’t some schoolyard showdown. I was two. I hold out my hands and look at the scar the exact shape of a half moon on my lower palm. I remember his lined. The best I can do if I have a serious opponent to defeat is talk him into the ground.” My parents avoided him as much as they could. He said. and he let me be who I was without reservations. his green eyes gleaming with a psychopathic delight. bobbing and weaving before he delivered the occasional rough punch to the side of my head. Grandpa snuck me to the lot in the back of the woodshed. now is the time to use my brawn over my brains. overbearing drunk who did things like throw me into the lake to ‘teach me’ to swim when I was a toddler. His father was a sadistic. And Akos’s tiny brain probably can’t handle a complex argument.

I would have stood up for any woman who’d told me she’d been mistreated. The bar is already screamingly loud and slightly out of control. It’s not hard to guess where Akos might be. that I have a twisted. deep in the marrow of who I am. I grip shotglass number two tight in my hand and watch. There was a second where I sucked my breath in as. Many times. And then there was the ring of bruises made by Akos’s fingers grabbing too violently against her skin. Navigating this bar is like looking into the Strait of Messina and attempting to successfully pass between Scylla and Charybdis. There’s an abundance of pushing and yelling disguised as dancing and conversation. then fifteen. there are positives to chugging such a . The jostling dance floor is a frenetic anarchy and the bar is a cloying thrust of arms and flirtations.No matter that my brawn is significantly less spectacular than my brains. I have no choice except to use what will work best in the situation. all layered over the ear-drum thrashing music. Finally Akos stumbles off the dance floor. waiting. I know. As a student of Odysseus. Whenever I feel particularly nervous about standing him down. I bring to mind the slow slide of Benelli’s jacket. both scantily clad and full of giggles. Despite the loss of pieces of my vital organ. really. But verbally won’t cut it tonight. I don’t just read about heroes in the pages of books and then cower on the streets of life. one blonde. abusive monster they’re clinging to. And I’ve done it. then ten. Five minutes go by. I know the value of running into the six-headed monster and having some chance of defeat rather than being sucked into a whirlpool that spells out certain death. then immediately order a second. his arms around two young women. although I’m half sure I’ve lost three-quarters of my esophagus. one dark-haired. I read about them and then get the incredibly stupid idea that I can slide those heroics into modern life and brandish all that bravado in the real world. I wonder if the have any idea what a hot-headed. So I head to the bar and order the searing local vodka that will probably melt my stomach lining and down it. I just wish my rousing internal battle cry would tame the knocking of my knees. Any person. inch by gorgeous inch. she exposed more of that perfect caramel skin. shithead pinch of bloodlusting bully that can. I down the shot and do not whimper. Verbally. hopefully. help me give Akos a lesson he won’t soon forget. There’s only one place in town that serves some kind of underground bootleg vodka that’s locally distilled and has a ridiculous proof percentage.

his nostrils flaring like a bull’s that’s been hooked one time too many. “Say it here. before he adds. My instinct is to run. “No. I think we best take it outside. mate. Akos’s eyes glow with an evil. but I knew that she had been planning a date with you. Run like hell. Even the ones that make his calves twitch. Yes. but it’s too loud and I’m only slightly drunk enough to go through with this.strong brew. and adrenaline whips my backbone into shape. I wish this could be big and heroic and impressive. Once my buzz abates. “You spoke to Benelli about our date?” he asks. furious light. Or embarrassed at his own lack of control. “I didn’t mean to do that.” He looks at me with bleary eyes and snorts. I’m just trying to unwind. purpled with bruises from his hand. And I fear I’m much more likely to end up gored or trampled than brandishing my sword before the final. She didn’t say your name. I’m already unsteady on my feet and full of piss and vinegar. then another. his voice quiet but very clear.” My rage is making me feel more in-control. Or truly . He could have been forlorn. and the possibility of stabbing my sword into his heart suddenly feels well within reach. But a man proves his courage by defying even the strongest instincts. I focus on the memory of Benelli. on her skin. even in the raucous bar. And she didn’t say anything about you. nuzzling one alabaster neck. but he takes a few long. because that’s practically the case. bull-annihilating estocada. dramatic. “Tonight wasn’t a great night for me.” He pulls the two girls closer. schoolboy. I would think a man would know better how to treat a woman he takes on a date.” “It didn’t look like it was such a great night for Benelli either.” Those words could have played out so many ways. I’m going to lose some of my backbone. Run like the devil’s chasing me.” I know exactly how a gazelle feels when he’s attracted the attention of a hungry tiger. I stumble the length of the bar and swipe a hand on Akos’s shoulder. I just saw the bruises you left on her. dejected at physical harm he caused without meaning to. “Akos!” I yell above the hubbub of the bar. angry breaths. “I have something to say to you.

you don’t what to bite off more than you can chew where I’m concerned. because.. and any of them who are offering vocal support are offering it to the town’s golden son. “You owe her an apology. It’s the time for fighting with my fists. Instead he seems flippant. first expanding to include his whispers to the guy behind him and his winks to the two girls.” The space between us accordions. There was a good deal more. in fact. we should take this outside. defensive. but. and dismissive. First of all. But I don’t. She can handle her own dates. He pounds the flat of his hand on the bar and gets a fresh shot. then contracting until his face is only an inch or two from mine. this is not the time for fighting with my words. One of the girls has her hands intimately spread over his thighs and they’re creeping up every second. that’s fine. There’s no way he can let them see him get trounced by a scrawny foreign professor. Secondly. and I don’t much like the tone of his remark. But if you think you can stand behind your words. but we’ve attracted the attention of a few other guys in the bar. but I don’t want her to have a single thing to do with you. then he booms something in Hungarian about ambulance. luckily my Hungarian really is atrocious. And feet and knees and forehead and anything else I might scrounge up or find lying around. “If you want to talk a big game.” I suggest. which he tosses back without a hint of a wince. Benelli is a big girl. just looking to screw things up and herald a riot. and blood.. You should back off. Professor.directions I wouldn’t even have the capacity to understand once they’d been given. like his veins are peppered with some kind of intensely potent rage-based natural steroid. . “I won’t apologize for a misunderstanding her stubborn bullshit brought on. Akos curls his lip. A ring of interested patrons forms around us. of course. peaceful summer night. Part of me wants to make a stirring oration that will let them know I’m not. and I’d demand one in person. searching for the lowdown burn of the alcohol in my veins to fortify my bravado.” It’s like I can watch his muscles bulge and grow. I am. guys he works with and socializes with on a regular basis. I don’t speak enough Hungarian to do more than order a sandwich or ask for directions. nothing more than an interfering outsider. We stumble out of the bar into the warm. professor. clearly reluctant to leave this romantic entanglement.repentant for hurting a creature as lovely and refreshing as Benelli Youngblood. Or else I’d probably lose my resolve. trust me.

“Don’t hurt him over this. I lift my fists. I look. It’s barely a push. The crowd cheers. “Stop this!” Benelli screams. her breath gasping in and out of her mouth.” I walk over to her and put both hands on her shoulders. but because the fight is unofficially going to start now. rolling up the cuffs of his sleeves. my fist missiling nicely into the square line of his jaw. way over my head. “Maybe you shouldn’t have run your mouth. In any other circumstance. although. of course. Akos makes a huge show of shrugging out of his jacket. slamming his head into my stomach and throwing me on my back. Get back before you cause more trouble than you already have. then the other. Akos is the one with a less firm handle on what’s sane and right. whipping both arms out at her sides.” He spits. “Akos. Before I have a chance to check it for breaks. It’s throbbing badly. Akos’s head flips back when I connect. “he’s not the one who’s going to have to deal with your violence. I’m fairly sure I broke my hand. raising his arms over his head like some kind of ancient gladiator. Wind knocked out of . In this particular case.” Benelli pleads. “I know you asked me not to. and it’s incredibly hard to take aim on a moving target. not for me. keeping her distance. and eliciting the startlingly bloodthirsty cheers of the surrounding crowd. someone bursts through the crowd. cracks his neck to one side. her light blue eyes jumping from side to side with anxious worry. His howl of rage matches the scream that I bite back. by general societal rules. I’d been hoping to hit more his cheek area.” And he pushes her. Akos runs at me. “It’s fine.” she whispers between clenched teeth. and I look back at her looking at him. but a guy like Akos doesn’t understand anything but violence. I’m in way over my head. and says. it wouldn’t warrant more than an annoyed look. stop it.” “Even if you’re right. Benelli. “Stop! Are you crazy?” The question is clearly directed my way.” I do. Way. Just when the first tendrils of doubt and dread work their way through my alcohol haze. Look at him . I pull my fist back and slam it into his jaw as hard as I can. but my rage was a little blinding. and turning red on the knuckles.Expecting a guy like Akos to fight fair is like expecting a cornered snake to coil up calmly.

me, I blink up to see his fist raised high, over his shoulder, and the back of my head registers the cobblestone under it. It less than a second I realize that if his punch connects, my skull will split open and, if I’m lucky, I’ll be dead instantly. I roll out from under him just as his fist plummets down and crashes into the stone. He lets out a fresh and ferocious roar and shakes his hand out, jumping back and yelling a stream of curses in Hungarian that make some of the ladies in the crowd gasp. I give a sigh of relief, feeling lucky that the playing field has been somewhat evened. I’m lucky that we’re both equally maimed now. I may have a fighting chance after all. I jump back up and pull my left hand back like I’m drawing a bow, and I pray my shaky understanding of physics is right and the momentum of my hand will do some damage to his face. I let my fist fly and punch him under the jaw as hard as I can; I know I can’t do as much damage as I could have with my right, but it’s a hit. And that counts, right? How does one tally points in a street fight, exactly? Now the pain in both my hands is explosive, and the sounds from the outside world are slowly breaking through the bubble of my adrenaline. I hear the jeers and screams from the crowd, notice the rush of several older men from restaurants and shops in the neighborhood yelling, “Rendőrség!” The police. Benelli grabs me behind my elbow to drag me away, but, just as I’m about to dash off with her, Akos draws back and delivers a punch that feels like it shatters my eye socket. There’s been nothing similar to movie fights in the entirety of our scuffle, but I do definitely see the smattering of revolving cartoon stars in front of my eyes, the same kinds that always accompany some animated villain’s crack to the skull. With an anvil or a piano. Which is what I feel like I’ve been smacked upside the head with. Akos sticks his face close to mine and prepares for another direct hit when Benelli runs fast in the opposite direction, dragging me along with her as the police car bumps down the cobblestones and the crowd parts. I try to keep pace with Benelli, but she has the grace and speed of a deer in the forest. I’m half-blind, stunted with pain, and keep knocking face-first into things since my perception is wonky. “Are you okay?” she calls over her shoulder as I smash my shoulder into a lampost.

“Of course. Run!” I insist through gritted teeth. We run. We run like the devil is chasing us, and it occurs to me that I should have tried to smash his ankle before we took off. She ducks into a hedge, and I follow her along a back garden and in through a rusty gate. I realize we’re at the backside of her aunt’s home, and I stand on the pavers as she swings the door open and walks into a small, warmly lit kitchen. It takes a beat and a half before she comes back out, squinting at me, standing still in the dark. “Come in,” she says, her voice dipping low and tired into the well of her disappointment. With me. “I’m going to head back to my apartment. I think I’ve given you enough trouble tonight and made a decent ass of myself in the process. I assure you, neither outcome was my intention.” She lifts one foot free of her little shoe, runs it up and down along the long, smooth curve of her leg, and knots her arms tight over her chest. “You could have been hurt, Cormac. You could have been killed.” “That’s hyperbole, love,” I scold and pray I’m half right. I take a few cautious steps towards that rusty gate that will lead me back to a lonely evening of miserable pain and regret in my tiny apartment, but the sharp double intake of breath that gasps from her mouth has me at her side before she can clap a hand over her lips and hide her sob. “Oh no, no, no, please, Benelli, no,” I plead, my arms around her, my swollen, aching hands running over the dark rivers of her hair. “I never wanted to hurt you.” She cuddles against me, her head on my shoulder, her body nestled close to mine for a scant second before she puts her hands up to my chest and shoves me backward. “Hurt me? You’re lucky your brains aren’t plastered all over the street right now. I told you to stay away from him, not hunt him down to have a pissing contest in the middle of the town. You’re supposed to’re a professor for god’s sake! You’re supposed to be the one person with some sense in this town full of freaking asshole barbarians!” It’s like sparks are flying out of her eyes and her hair is lifting in some unseen wind. It’s like she’s transformed into some harpy or siren or malevolent goddess right in front of my eyes. And I’ve never been more fantastically turned on than I am in this moment. “I apologize.” I hold my hands up to her, surrender-style and duck my head down, bowing to her awesome fury. “I was an ass. A total ass. And...I apologize.” A cry comes half unstuck from her throat, and she shakes her head back and forth

vehemently. “Look at them. Look at your hands.” She closes all the limited space between us and cradles my hands in hers, running her fingertips over my bruised, torn flesh. “They’ll mend.” They will. But I never want her to stop touching them. Her eyes, once she lifts them, are brimming with emotions too gorgeously, femininely complicated for me to comprehend, so I don’t try. One perk of the massive amount of schooling I’ve had is that it puts into perspective just what a tiny speck of a moron I am in the sea of genius that is this world. I don’t attempt to tackle the secrets of a universe that’s too overwhelmingly complex for me to fully understand; sometimes it’s best to approach life’s craziest mysteries as an appreciative observer. “Come inside,” she commands. I follow without argument because I am a man who knows better than to ignore my fate, especially when it’s being beautifully orchestrated by Benelli Youngblood. She presses down on my shoulders, and I sit in one of six charmingly mismatched kitchen chairs. She pulls her hair into a neat ponytail and edges her sleeves up to her elbows, then digs through the cabinets, juggling rolls of gauze and a few unmarked bottles of god-knows-what in her arms. “Sorry. My aunt keeps a lot of herbal remedies in here, so it’s a little bit of a guess about what’s what.” She turns to me, so beautiful, so tired, so ready to knock my ass back if I try any shenanigans, I’m not even tempted. Not very tempted, anyway. “So I should pray that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?” I ask, holding my hands, palms down, flat on the crazy tiled table. Benelli bends one leg under her body and sits perched on the edge of her chair, an intent look on her face as she spills something that smells peculiarly noxious onto a piece of gauze and dabs it on my torn knuckles. “I think you should thank whatever gods you believe in that you’re still a coherent, functioning human, because you could have been obliterated tonight,” she chastises, her brows furrowed with intense aggravation. I’m attempting not to faint. The scalding home-brewed vodka, the gut-wrenching fight with a titan of assholish brutality seem like child’s play next to the chemical singe of my skin as Benelli nurses me.

” “I think you’d make a terrific nurse. while I flex and unflex my hand.” she answers.holy gods.. that you put on my raw. it was a very old label. “You’re a desperate man in a desperate situation. exactly..what kind of. no question. Apparently it was. “Bloody fucking holy shit mother of a son of a goddamn bitch!” I scream as water sizzles over my skin like a stream of potent acid. it was.“What. like she’s facing a very accusatory jury. leading me back to the table. and I mean it absolutely. She stands up straight as an arrow.. and her blue eyes are wide with horror.. I man up as fast as I can. A small. because that would be a catastrophically wussy thing to do in front of a beautiful girl toiling over my war wounds. which adds a new dimension of discomfort to this situation. What was it.” She turns off the tap and examines my abused flesh. it made me forget the pain of my probably broken bones.wart remover.” . “Um. I assumed it was iodine. and yanks me to the sink by my wrist with a sudden panicked force that lets me know a scream might be an appropriate reaction to whatever we’re dealing with here. “I appreciate the gesture.” I manage to gasp. tiny groan of pure agony loosens from my throat before I can collect myself. Of course.. “It’s fine. Benelli gasps.. I might mean it more in relation to her giving sponge baths than to cleaning wounds. I’ll sniff the bottle before I go dumping it all over your skin.” Benelli interrupts her malicious dabbing and examines the bottle. “No worries. and. actually. but I do mean I’m so sorry!” She squeezes her temples and shakes her head. “Can you trust me to attempt this a second time? I promise... shoulders squared. “Let’s just be glad I never signed up for nursing school. uh. It’s completely ineffectual and may be driving me towards an unrelenting hardon. blowing desperately on my hand through the torrent of icy water as if her action can mitigate the agony.” I say. Seriously... shaking it out as if I can unloose the tornado of atomic pain radiating over my skin. and pretty worn away.” I let my eyes meet hers for a long few seconds.. “So I replaced the pain of a break with the pain of a chemical burn?” Her laugh is embarrassed and adorable. honestly.” I reach out with my unmutilated hand and touch her shoulder. “I trust my life in your hands. bloody knuckles?” She stops mid-blow. “I’m so sorry.” Benelli cries.what kind of herbs did your aunt use for this?” I’m gritting my teeth into nubs and firmly telling myself not to scream.. squints at the bottle. “It’s completely fine. “I’m not sure.

so it falls away and exposes so much soft skin I don’t know where to touch first. “You kissed me. stares intently at my hands.” Her voice sounds breathy and. “I.” “Someone needs to tell you before you go David and Goliath yourself into a coma. wraps the gauze around my hand.. I guess I went out of my head just a little. possibly. shocked. “For a professor. her eyes bright with unshed tears or mania or.. “I’m honest when I say that I never meant to make trouble for you.. And just when I expect her to storm out or slap me across the face or order me to march.She breaks eye contact. her words jagged. Her mouth opens and her tongue makes a slow. yanks her straps back into place.” The soft tips of her fingers are still brushing along the swollen edges of my hand. hot slide over my lips.” She drops my hand and shakes her head back and forth. “Cormac!” She leaps up. “It’s fine.” She smears some kind of cooling. she’s hurled herself back on my lap. You can’t imagine how angry it made me to think of you being mistreated in any way. her thighs on either side of . My aching hands finally forget their pain when they grasp her hips and run up along her back. drag across to the delicate line of her jaw. her hands on either side of my face. but she smiles like she’s returning the expression.” She chews on the bottom edge of her lip. ringing her shoulders. I open my mouth to her and answer the press of her tongue with mine. “Will you be able to do your work with your hands like this?” “I’ll manage. and raises her brows high. I thought--” “I kissed you as a thank you. “Mmm?” I slide my thumbs under the straps of her tank and pull them down. down the column of her neck and suck gently on her shoulder.I kissed you because.. I kiss her lips.I kissed you because. and I apologize. and paces a few feet out of my reach. My fingers trace the skin at her shoulders and press her jacket down and back.. “I’m sorry. and this may be nothing but wishful thinking on my part. leans in and presses her lips against mine with a soft urgency.” She takes a few shuddery breaths.” There’s no possible way she can see my grin.” she interrupts. And then she pulls the chair she’s sitting on closer to me. her ponytail swishing. and ties if off. nontoxic ointment on my knuckles.. like she’s considering her next move. “Cormac. “Your insults are as accurate as they are painful. reeling her closer until she’s mostly off her chair and on my lap.” I apologize even if ‘sorry’ is the last thing I am for what just happened. you’re kind of a half-wit. lust.

but she never for a single second takes her eyes off me.” I offer. her mouth hungry and sweet on mine. It takes every ounce of willpower in my body to get up out of that chair. Nénike. low voice mixed with a thick accent and a little bit of a slur that is. And. “I’ll go.” Abony waves. “I’m sorry. I imagine. huge mistake. She scoots back so hips. who lowers her lashes and clears her throat. Which is probably not right next to my dick. She speaks to Benelli. and I have her in my arms. I smooth my raw hands over the silk of her hair and kiss her back.” “Don’t rush because of me. édesem. when the back door swings open and a dark-haired woman wearing a slash of bright red lipstick and stinking of marijuana stumbles in. the weight of her an excellent resistance in my arms. and marches me to the door. and I carefully lower Benelli onto the table top.” She screws her eyes shut and bangs the heel of her hand on her forehead over and over until I ring her wrist with my fingers and tug her self-destructive appendage to a more neutral location. kiss her the way I’ve been thinking about kissing her since the day she stumbled onto me at the lake and every minute since then. her eyes round. I like her. She takes a long look at the two of us between giggles she can barely contain. tell me. why are you wasting your time with brutes like Akos Miklós when you have this perfectly delicious alternative?” Benelli hops down from the table.” Aunt Abony’s voice is somewhere between a purr and a growl. “This is a stupid. I look over at Benelli. but Cormac was just on his way out. you mentioned. her legs still locked around my waist. takes me by the arm. though my main objective is keeping her upright. her hair tangled in my hands and on my hoodie. She pulls away a second time. the result of the partying she just came back from. “Aunt Abony. I have to brace a hand under her ass to keep her from toppling to the floor. “The professor?” She has this sexy. He’s the graduate student I--” “Yes. this is Cormac Halstrom. But I don’t get to spend any more time in the cozy little kitchen with the gorgeous Benelli . her lips red from my bristle and damp from my mouth. on second thought. “So. I don’t neglect to appreciate the shape and feel of her particularly gorgeous bottom. the sparkling ruby polish on her nails making me think of bloody talons and powerful empresses.

So I say. “I should have left before she came home. forcing my hands to keep still and my lips and mouth and tongue to communicate all the unspoken wants I harbor for her. cleansing breath. Us. .. “Cormac--” I have no clue what she would have said. Despite her protests.” She waves a hand. But the look of shock and pure.” I vow and leave before I can’t control it and yank her back into my arms. she nips and licks and kisses back with the kind of unbridled passion I know can’t be faked. admiring aunt. Let’s just let our sorries cancel each other out and forget this whole.Youngblood and her wild. rational brain. and I don’t plan on forgetting anything. This night filling up with apologies. like she’s dismissing me. She takes a deep.. “It’s fine. “I won’t forget a single damn thing.” I apologize again. and I’m sorry too. I know that to the deepest crevice of my overly-creased. I pull back before the kiss is done. because I rope her close with my arm and kiss her.” Logic escapes me yet again. Back where she belongs. And I’m willing to bet can’t be forgotten. and it takes a monumental amount of determination to do that.mess ever even happened. urgent want on her face is worth it. It’s for the best. “Tonight wasn’t all a mess. the same one that tended to my wounds and grabbed onto my arms and pulled on my neck so my lips would meet with hers. It’s been a confusing night.

seduce me. elegant cigarette out of its pack. but it isn’t your place or your responsibility to find your parents’ happiness. He didn’t listen to his father. Respect for my elders. “I’m sorry for your father’s stresses. “My father keeps this family check there. But maybe it’s time this family lost a little of its power. Open mind. The look she throws my .. I swear to you. “Come back here!” I swivel on my heel and stomp back. I’m trying like crazy to save this family.. “Please just stop. I can see that. usually so happy and carefree. Lust. and I know she’s speaking quickly and with edgy excitement to trap me. I truly am. I’m trying. I can’t listen to this. She barks at me in Hungarian before I make it to the stairs down the hall. I’m not. Playing the martyr is a recipe for disaster. I hear it from my siblings enough.” Abony’s scarlet lips flatten into a thin line. My woozy brain attempts to process her chattering. and that’s why I’m happy to sacrifice a little bit to help him when he needs it. so please stop trying to talk me out of what’s right and into something completely wrong and selfish!” My words ring out and bounce off the low ceiling and my aunt.. Benelli.” I’m so damn sick of hearing this brother wants for you is all the bread and none of the roses.” I snap. too. “No.” Abony jumps up. my head spinning from his last words. I’m not being a martyr. my love. check. You want to do better. trying to keep everything in check. palms over my ears to protect my ringing brain.. my lips still stung from Cormac’s kisses. so hard. and I have no patience hearing it from my aunt. “. You must listen. and you’re willing to trade your life. You deserve your own way. You have no idea how much Winch leaving and Remy falling apart broke him. check. you want to make it right. all swishing skirts.” I beg.Benelli 3 I rush back into my aunt’s cozy kitchen. plunks down on a chair and pulls a long. “Please stop. You have no idea how hard Papa has been working. Disaster. You don’t know yourself yet. your freedom to be shackled to one of these arrogant idiots--” “Stop. Temper. but that rebellion is tampered in you. and hand-flinging indignation. your own love--” “Please!” I cry. sparkling jewelry. check. force me to listen to her while I juggle translations in my head. “His power puts a roof over all our heads and food in our stomachs. I can’t do this.

“Isn’t it?” “What’s this about?” My voice wobbles and a prickle of icy goosebumps dots along the back of my arms and fans over my neck. and that ripple of unease has tremored through me all day.” She trains her eyes on me for a few endless. But something about Akos’s comment about my father jarred me. Just too much of everything I love and shouldn’t do. Famil--” “Stop it. rapid beats of my heart. unfailingly. Do you want to keep me a little girl in the dark. “You were furious at me the summer I grew up. woman to woman? Which is it?” I’m so close my nostrils are full of the distinct aroma that defines my aunt. Love. forget every single tangled snare this day tripped me with. And I bristle at it. “That’s it.” She waves her crimson-nailed hand in the air carelessly. calmer. please. “About?” She sighs and flicks a long column of ash into a glass tray. It’s pitying. “Life.. Benelli.. “. “Stop it.” She takes another long drag and coughs it out gently. Abony blows rings of purple-grey smoke at the colored glass chandelier hanging over the table. a pinch of cigarette smoke mixed with a heavy blend of French perfume and the sweet tang of marijuana. But your childhood is long over. and eradicate distractions like Cormac Too Hot For His Own Damn Good Halstrom.way isn’t aggravated or angry. detail a new game plan. her blue eyes intent on my face. you clearly have something to say.that time in your life when you know.” She stubs the remainder of her cigarette out and gets up.. Remember that? But now. “I was furious that they let you think you were a woman without treating you with the respect a woman .” I repeat.. or do you want to talk to me. Forget my dramatics. Choices. She leans one narrow shoulder on the wall. Childhood is all about that.” I bite out. the cut of my voice shocking us both. I want to refocus.” She puts the cigarette down and leans forward. but you won’t. one sandaled foot bouncing with an anxious rhythm. tell me what you need to say. her face lined with sudden exhaustion. That’s a wonderful thing for a girl. “And. “Your parents have always kept you protected. but I block her from exiting the kitchen. that you’ll be unconditionally cared for and kept safe. I want to march upstairs and fall asleep. “Maybe it’s the wine and the pot and the moonlight.

“Unlike you. Why not one more roll in the sheets with one more man?” Her lips twist. But.” Her eyes. but she isn’t seeing me.” My voice is barely audible because. though I’m still not nearly as tall as she is. But he was able to have his cake and eat it too.” She kicks a heel against the doorframe. maybe.” “No more women’s studies lectures. My brother selfishly ran off to America and left me behind. I wanted to travel. “And I don’t want to take that from you. A man who liked pretty young girls. “Tell me.” Her words fight their way out of her lips. She flicks a look in my direction. “Your father bartered for my college.. glass-like sheen that sees images I’ll be forever blind to. you should know that they aren’t entirely what they seem. I was in love with.” “Tell me.” She shrugs. and I wasn’t ashamed of that. “I was the town slut anyway.” Her eyes have gone from glazed to a flat.” “I thought my father paid for you to go to college. though I’m sure his version of the story is different. “When I was young.a man. They gave you all the shallow trappings. if you’re going to give them your complete devotion. I was ready to start everything. narcotic-glazed and weary. a delicate bob of her shoulders that masks the fury I can see smashing through the glassy veil over her eyes. “But I’ll tell you my bit. My father was a domineering man. focus on a point just over my left shoulder. But I needed to deposit my token first.everyone! Everything. Because he had me. but my father said college for a girl was a waste of time and money. And I got to. and marrying for love wound up costing him dearly. and there wasn’t much anyone could do about that. I wanted to study.” “You love this family... “Explain. the whole damn family. My little contribution to the Youngblood family. “I was no virgin. I recognize that I may be prying at the hinges of a Pandora’s box I’m not remotely ready to have opened. “Your father had already refused marriage to the daughter of a very powerful man to marry your mother. but didn’t fortify you with the foundation you needed.” I cross my arms and stand tall. acted like my little escapades were going to bring down the mighty Youngbloods. I wanted to make love. according to my family.” The cracks in her voice let pain and truth and upset seep all around us. the girl was lost to the family as a connection and there weren’t any available Youngblood sons at that time.. so I can’t. A man who liked having the daughter of the family that shamed his daughter in bed with him for all the . “Some of it isn’t my story to tell. despite that fact that all of them. my sweaty palm sticking flat against the plaster. And the man was. But there was her father.” She shakes her head and grimaces. I didn’t care too much about the family.” I put one hand on the wall. Your father threw over a girl with a very powerful father.deserves.

brush my teeth. “Don’t apologize for mistakes you had nothing to do with. throw my hair in a ponytail. and at first I’m walking with no destination in mind. walking just to force my blood to pump strong and hard through my body and flush out some of the clogged confusion in my head. But they to know.” She closes her eyes and a little of her shine. and sneakers. “It was a choice I never expected my own family would force on me. But my brain is whirring with a slideshow of negative images.” My body trembles. “But don’t be stupid enough to make the same mistakes in a whole new way. along my legs. down my arms. making them weak and so unsupportive. a clean tank. “They gave me a choice.” A tinge of bile creeps up the back of my throat and threatens to choke me. The tiny band of glowing light that spills over the threshold is the only evidence that lets me know she isn’t sleeping. finally arrives. I hoped that waking up would lead me to some resolution. that I’d have sifted through my problems in my dreams like a kid at the beach sifting through sand for some lost trinket.” She reaches out. her light.” she says when our faces are close in the dark. It was just an ugly choice. I pull on a pair of shorts. I slide to the floor. Benelli. either. and I took it. “They made you sleep with him?” Her eyes go tight and hard. And that’s one of the dozens of skeletons in the Youngblood closet. the door closed tight behind her. up my spine. silently begging for a sleep that finally. Though she looks unbearably exhausted. and nab my hoodie on the way out the door too early the next morning. The sheets tangle tight as ropes around my legs while I thrash on the mattress. One year as the mistress of a vile buffoon earned me a university degree. But I’m more confused now than I was before.” She pulls my neck down and kisses me on the side of the mouth before she wanders to bed. her essence seems to ooze out and puddle darkly around her. I had a choice. she yanks me to my feet without straining. Abony’s hand reaches down and takes mine. My muscles and bones are tired. her ruby-tinted fingers clasping under my chin. Because I don’t know what to think. “I’m so sorry. specters of my family’s past and my life’s possible future that I can’t escape and don’t want to watch. My skin is tired. . The images my aunt transferred to my head spear at my brain and gnaw on my conscience as I strip down and wiggle under the covers. The air is still cool and slightly damp from the night’s dew.

I throw and hear the wild patter of rock on glass. And there he is. There they are. but didn’t fortify you with the foundation you needed. who’s thinking of pecs and triceps and biceps and deltoids when what I’ve always known and trusted about my family might just be shattering in front of me. lethal stretch of man. I don’t know if I want to know it. Maybe I don’t want anything. blinding me when I try to squint up and see if he’s around. a purple ring around the outside of it. Which may be more fair punishment. Stipped down. with such arrogance and general disregard. I’m all out of comments...” I say. I don’t know what I want. I stoop down and scoop up a handful of pebbles. Also. “Good morning. . pummel me with that entire handful of rocks. I might assume that you’re actually not completely pissed to see me?” His smile spreads wide . I realize Cormac only gives the impression of being skinny with his clothes on. After that greeting.I believe my aunt. sexually crazed thoughts.they let you think you were a woman without treating you with the respect a woman deserves. good morning. I don’t know if they’ll tell me the truth.” He’s leaned out the window. Half-naked. But then I’d need your nursing again. And he’s not wearing a shirt. But. reasonable conversation. That isn’t the kind of story anyone would lie about. They gave you all the shallow trappings. But that’s the extent of my calm. But Abony’s words trip through my brain with an unignorable clatter. I hate to be that kind of girl. at any moment. the morning sun warm on all that exposed skin. that perfect mouth. twisted in an unsure smile. And then I find myself outside his apartment. his muscles nicely curved and flattened in all the perfect places. my voice surprisingly calm considering my rioting. still purple to a brightening blue and know I should just ask my father. one eye squinted shut. that he wasn’t saying them to elicit a reaction in me. he’s more a lean. his hair mussed. “If I ignore the fact that you could. The morning sun is shining off his windows. framed by the window. And I know the way Akos threw his words around.. but it’s hard to take aim when the sun is intent on singing my retinas. and this realization registers a telltale heat between my legs. then pick up another bunch and am about to throw when I hear his voice. his mouth. he was just speaking a truth he assumed I embraced.. “I definitely deserve to have rocks thrown at me after how I acted yesterday. I tilt my head back and watch the sky wash from a deep.

to prove it.. dopey and pleading and. when there isn’t a beautiful woman beckoning at my window. Then again.. and the sound of our laughs mingling makes the a warm heat radiate low in me.” He pulls his head in. And right now. but I can’t make peace with the idea of you waiting on the curb for me. Can you get away? Do you have a ton to get done?” “Nothing I can’t do some other. there’s that.” I trail off and he raises one dark eyebrow expectantly.” Alone in his tiny room with him. “Please let me take you somewhere today.well. now.” I startle at how perfect my name sounds coming from his mouth.across his face. No. “No even remotely pissed. I hold out my fist and open it. “No work. while I do. but here I am. Or hike all over hell and creation.irresistible..” “It was my absolute pleasure. to say thank you. all that’s pressing so hard on me and just enjoy being here. Smiling. so.” I shake my head and topple over the next words quickly. “In the middle of all that insanity yesterday. with him. It feels like the nagging beginning of a bad idea.. more boring time.. I feel this swell of anticipation that I haven’t felt in a long time. “How are your hands?” “They are swollen. But not unappreciated. “Fine. “Um.” I assure him. “I’d love to. A wonderfully bad idea. by the way. please come in? Would you like to come in? I’ll warn you. at least for a little while. painful reminders of my near-constant stupidity. Um. It’s the antithesis of what I thought I’d be doing this morning. Benelli.. Let’s get something to eat and actually finish our meal this time. It was idiotic. . “No marriage stuff. half-naked. letting all the rocks plummet to the ground below. I decide I just don’t care. But food sounds great.” I stick my hands deep in my hood pockets and curl my toes in my sneakers because I’ve suddenly decided to forget. I don’t think I had a chance to say.. then sticks it back out.” I rush to add when his smile morphs into a smirk. How are yours?” The smiling turns to laughter. I didn’t slam them into some meathead’s jaw then have a friend douse them in wart remover.” He points to the wide wooden door next to the street and instructs me to wait and. and. Or I could assess graphs in your little notebook with you. “You shouldn’t have. I’m not saying you should have done what you did. smiling up at him as he gazes down at me like the world didn’t just spiral out of control last night. it’s tiny and unimpressive up here. Or you can help me translate thousands of pages of Greek epic poetry..

their golden employment opportunities and gym-bound physiques.” I head up the stairs.. pink lips. slightly arrogant quality.” I watch his hand grip the door until his fingernails bleach white and bloodless. I let her lead me down the right side of the hallway and straight to the door of the old man who hoards cats. . Lala. He caught my attention from across the entire dance floor. And I’m glad. and comparing notes on the guys we met: how fat their bank accounts were.ever. serious. how impressive their degrees were. giggling over never having to pay our own tab at a bar. But then everything slowly tightened up and screwed down into some miserable. undone.I can remember a time when excitement had to do with me and my girlfriend. Excitement was dancing until our feet blistered. damp-smelling hallway. now .” Lala sing-songed. Even if gibberish happens to be the language I’m currently most fluent in. “I was. swinging her long blond hair as she shook her hips in time to the music. I’m so busy appreciating the careening beauty. It was on one of those nights when I caught Damian watching me with dark. you. slipping into our highest heels. this. I move one hand to her hip to redirect her. then threw an arm around my waist. rather than to my door on the left. Cormac close at my back and my nerves flick and pass series of fragmented. him.. pouring ourselves into our sexiest dresses. and smudging on our smokiest makeup so we could entice and charm any and every guy we set our sights on. boring routine that grated on both of us until all the romance fizzled and we were left with the flat.” I ignore them because they’re nothing but gibberish. Cormac opens the door. and my index finger and thumb skim over an inch of exposed skin. Cormac 3 I might need a dramamine after following the sway of her hips as she mounts the stairs in front of me. and I yank the leash of my disappointment over the fact that he put a shirt on before he came down. electric messages to my brain: “Yes. “He’s no good for you. unhinged. with Damian. She narrowed her eyes and puckered those shiny. unsprung.” I say. getting ready for a night out. “Or maybe he’s exactly what you need. eager eyes that had a possessive. syrupy backwash of our initial love affair. sliding past him and into the cool. “But I’m here now. “You look like you’re a million miles away. I haven’t seen that look in your eyes. I felt wild and free.” And back then.

it’s. My head is spinning. At me. and my skin feels the transmission of the electrical pulse rising off her. the guard that knows all too well that this girl is a beautiful. um. my nostrils suck in the intoxicating swirl of her scent. The university covers room and board. My ears burn and hone on the whispery rush of her breathing. smacks a sword against my gut and tells me to back away.” Spartan. um. . I’m wishing there was a piece of sporting equipment or.. And she was sorely disappointed by that. shut up. condescending smile I wish I didn’t see on her face.She and I draw identically sharp breaths in and our eyes nail down twin looks of blatant want. her sharp blue eyes flitting from my books to my calligraphy pens to my neat stacks of folded clothes and my cracked desk lamp. Not as in warrior and heroic. The logical sentinel of my brain. Not that I’m complaining. “I know. “You weren’t kidding about the Spartan thing. you do calligraphy?” Her words are innocent enough. “You..” She clears her throat delicately because her voice disrupts some kind of unspoken peace we agreed to practice after transferring those heady currents in the hall.I’m not sure. She sits on my desk chair and looks around. so I sweat and starve. And thanked me. Slowly. I order myself.verbally. She pushes past me and grabs my doorknob without asking or waiting for an introduction.. Though she kissed me in the garden like she was on fire.” I say it and feel an instant rage at my own stupidity.” Shut up. She examines some nibs and her smile is the prelude to her laughter.. Maybe I’m over-worrying about my lack of traditionally male accoutrements. “I’m a simple man. But the part of my brain that’s nothing more than a dense bog of pheromones and concentrated testosterone explodes its heady hormones all around those pesky logical forces and drowns out any rational thoughts. but they’re laced through with this smug. energetic waft of fresh air I will never be able to truly draw into my lungs. as in clean and sparse. “So. it’s pretty Spartan. top-like and so quickly it makes all the mental terror of ancient Greek III seem like child’s play. I did just start fight in a convoluted attempt to defend her honor. Maybe some kind of cool weapon? Perhaps a small collection of action movies? Or a nudey magazine? That might be pushing it. of course.. because the spill of crazy feelings is more than we know how to deal with and definitely much more than either one of us considers safe to navigate..

I’m choked with equal amounts of shame and reckless desire to throw her onto my crisply made bed and erase any doubts she may have about my ability with my. “You’re amazing..“Of course. Though you may be an idiot magnet. Ugh. her brows low over her eyes. twice.” She plucks the band off her fingers and wraps it around her thumb too many times. I shave quickly and put on deodorant and cologne. “Maybe I’ve been around idiots for so long. do I?” I reach a careful hand out and grab the edge of the rubber band. She has a rubber band stretched over the first knuckles of all her fingers. once. I have no ability to read people.” Her hand reaches out. I’m disgusting myself on multiple levels. “Then. maybe three inches from my arm. then whip the door open and buckle with relief. But I don’t want that. “No more jokes. but she stops short of touching me and draws back. “I’ll be just a minute. and it doesn’t go undetected.” She smiles and shakes her head. a foot or two at most away from her. And I’m definitely an idiot because I don’t want you. The question is direct and catches me off guard. “Never. I flee to the bathroom. yes. Awful pun. “Maybe you can use my services for your upcoming fairytale nuptials. You are crap at reading people.. This girl is making my head feel like a cruelly beaten piñata.pen. Her hands still over the nibs and her shoulders stiffen. I’m nervous leaving her alone.” I try to shield the last shreds of my manhood from her disintegrating mocking. because I know for a fact I’m a huge idiot. and she expands and retracts it. I sit on the bed.” My words are as innocent as hers were. “You like me?” I ask. Cormac. She tilts her head and nods. staring as her skin darkens to an unhealthy shade of purple. “Would you care to grab a bite?” I ask. I’m nervous she’ll realize there are an overabundance of guys who aren’t abusive meatheads or snarky. Rather than stand another second in this purgatory.” I say as I close the door between us. Her finger regains its normal pinkish hue. She’s still in the room. but there’s a trickle of venom leaked over them. untwisting it and letting it rest in my palm. The polar opposite.” She bites her bottom lip hard and . She should. two. I can’t tell. over-educated asshats and go find one. “Am I an idiot?” She opens her fingers wide against the tension of the band.

I think my father might not be who I think he is. Or maybe gender studies. But she’s shaky. then the raw truth is that I said it because. “They’re idiot rules.. “A break?” She straightens up and looks at me from the barely-opened slits of her narrowed . Benelli. and I stop hiding behind my pathetic attempts at humor. “You made that joke about my fairytale wedding.” She slips that goddamn notebook out of her pocket and flicks her thumb over the pages.shakes her head. But I don’t.. My ex-fiancée’s father could barely hold back the bile when he was forced to spend five minutes alone with me.” I stand up and hold my hand out to her. I have no idea what I’d do in the face of her tears. And. “You’re making fun of me. I might be the biggest idiot of all for believing everything when. her shoulders pressed. sending little draughts of air toward her face. I do want you. and you need a break.. “It’s been a long few days. aren’t they?” “They’re rules worthy of an anthropological thesis.” Her voice frowns.” I slide my finger down the leather cover and graze the edge of her nail. “I mean. She’s not crying. “Them who?” She leans forward. She swallows so hard I can see her throat work around the motion.I can’t. “Jealousy? Of what?” “Of them. “I think. if you’d like to bare souls and go deep on this whole issue.” I put my finger on the edge of the notebook. I can’t consider you.” I acknowledge. and her eyes shiny with emotion that could manifest as tears at any second. “All of them.. “My father would hate you. another short span of inches of distance between was all right in front of my face. her arms folded over her stomach. Unless I stop it. I mirror her lean. and I’m relieved..” Her laugh whips out of her throat.. My calligraphy is in high demand for wedding invites. but you weren’t completely joking. All of the idiots who gained an entry in your book when I never can. and that’s never a good jumping off point for stable actions on my part.” I gesture unspecifically out the window.” The joke falls flat. but it would be based on panic. because of these rules. “Come on.because I’m pretty damn overcome with jealousy. I should.” Her voice rasps to a scratchy halt before she can say all the additional words I know she wants to say.. I said what I did because I’m a huge ass. “In all seriousness. ” “Most fathers do. were you?” “Of course not..

which we’ll exit so we can fully embrace our freedom to do whatever we want with this long. and it clicks for me quickly. I want the curve of her hips fitted against the narrow line of mine. stilted drama of my room is extinguished. and cured . unleashed fury. do you mean to tell me. all cells reaching and straining for one another. I think she’ll need to tap into all those things today.” I pull her up by her hand and breathe through my mouth a few times to avoid inhaling the honeyed smell of her and falling immediately under her spell. Who never wanted to run away from home as a child? She trains her sight on me and shakes her head. passion. “Or. Let’s grab food and go into the woods. shiny hair tangled in my fingers. that you never played runaway as a kid?” I pepper extra shock into my voice for effect. poppy bright and bursting with symbolic potential for freedom. I want my ears full of her moans and my nostrils full of the heady smell of her. “A break. you want them to start a worried search party combing far and wide for any scrap of evidence that you’re going to be back. Running away is a way to play a dirty trick on the perfect fate that will suffocate you if you’re not careful. empty day.” I’ve locked the door and we’re back on the landing. I want her. bottle of wine. always only one misstep from tumbling down headfirst and giving me a heart attack. and then pass by her and lead her to a neighborhood convenience store. You run away because you want to be missed. like last night. “You don’t run away because you don’t love your family. I follow her for a few hundred feet. cheese. “No. We’ll play runaways. I want her clothes peeled back and her legs wrapped tight around my waist. Why would I run away?” I’m pulling some clean handkerchiefs from a pile by my desk.eyes. I hand her a red one. Of course not. Benelli Youngblood. where we fill a sack with every fruit. like you do when you’re a kid and things get too overwhelming. I loved my parents. a slow swing back and forth like she’s savoring my question. I want her long. hotter. What I get is another hypnotizing backside view of her as she trots over-quickly down the stairs. You run away because you can’t be trapped by the people who love you but don’t understand you. but it’s mostly gut-based real reaction. A real break. safe and sound. but it’s like the awkward. Maybe there’s something about the pressure or the ions in this space. but closer. I want to drag my lips along her skin and run my tongue over every inch of her. with no interruptions and no regrets. cookie.” She twists her hands and pulls her mouth to one side. a few feet from the stairs and the door. like she’s sheepish. and we’re just two bodies. “You run away for freedom. hearts pounding.

but I’d gladly starve for the next two weeks in exchange for the feast I’ll share with Benelli this afternoon.really good. smooth rock. to where the tree branches hang low and cool over the darkened path. and I follow. in a very circular way. “Nothing. Myopia is a common ailment in humans. and small bits of hair fly out of order and around her face. her eyes lose their shimmer and go flat and dark. “A handsome gray? What the hell does that mean?” I bite the inside of my cheek. She’s drawn her knees in a tight crunch against her chest. then even farther. We don’t discuss and quibble. a heftier sum than my slim professor’s budget can really afford. but a good gray. A handsome gray. “Everyone misses things right in front of their faces. It’s been rapid silence as we drove to this destinations like arrows shot from a bow. “Were you ever the very last person to realize something? Something right in front of your face? And you feel like an idiot because it’s your own parents you were so clueless about?” She cradles her head in her hands. This is distance fortified by the wall of simmering anger. like unpolished stone. dusty trail. but this is the kind of distance edging closer won’t erase. not waiting for me to roll my pant legs and balance our bag of goodies. but I do move the bag so it’s not between us. It’s important to consider their intentions. and Benelli leads me down to a pebbly shore where a small river tumbles near. .” “What if their intentions were good. that your parents may have done something a little bad for a lot good. They show love through protection. where you have parents who clearly dote on you and love you. protection is based on lies. I’m only saying. We exit and head to the end of the cobblestoned street.. Sometimes I like the ring of a metaphor more than the mundane clang of logic. what if what wound up happening was unquestionably bad? Like.meat that strikes our fancy. doing my best to grab on with my feet since I only have one arm at my disposal. There’s more distance between us than I’d like when I settle the package. Benelli is already sitting when I get up. She swivels her legs. all the way to the place where their disjointed unevenness stops and the road stutters into a smooth. often. her toes pointed at me instead of into the neverending distance.” I don’t move closer to her. elbows dug into her knees.. even? But. no shadows? Just pitch black?” When she’s angry. She climbs the jagged edge of a large. and. And it’s especially logical in your situation... necessarily. She kicks her shoes off and wades up to the smooth arch of her calves and onto a rock. and I pay for it all. and confusion she’s erected.but. It’s a gray area of morality. upset.

all that shocked..When she’s angry. “If you’d like to share more details. He was always the loudest. “I haven’t seen my .” I pause for a moment. I’d be happy to keep you from some form of parricide. “Remy is in rehab. I wonder if they’re all so incredibly loyal. I don’t want to be Pan at the window. I doubt I’ll be shocked. They have a baby. fiercely loyal case study of eldest siblings I’ve ever stumbled on. her eyes lose their shimmer and go flat and dark. “Even if I wind up shocked out of my skull. even if it means means messy confessions and tears that will induce my panic. my brain would ease back and let my social skills have their much needed moment in the sun.” I find a small bit of rock and fling it into the rushing water without making so much as a quarter ripple.” She pulls her legs tight and sighs. so gorgeous. “I don’t know if I believe any situation is just pitch black.” She touches her tongue to the roof of her mouth in an irritated tsk . since I’m one of one. I wonder if they all have dark hair and piercing blue eyes like she does. the most obnoxious. Kind of the family clown. and Ithaca and Colt are the babies.” She scoots her feet closer and drags her bottom along the flat rock until our bodies are mirrored outlines of each other’s. at least. Maybe this time. overachiever.” “Oldest daughter. but I thought that was just who he was.. Or. Twins. and fly away with her on foreign adventures. Then Winch.” she begins. I cut my teeth on Oedipus Rex. “My family is big. I want to accept the thimble from my Wendy. at least.” I’m imagining them.” she clarifies. wanting her to weave this story and make it intimate for me. love. “You get along with them?” I ask. Maybe this time I could figure it out. I like a good challenge now and then. “Are you the eldest? You fit every type A. “Yes.” I say for filler and because it seems like a shockingly large number to me. then stay by her side when I bring her back home. I really do. really insane. “Five. then me. and decide to go ahead and encourage her. you know? And he had this girlfriend he really loved. A crazy family situation is pretty much what I’ve been trained to dissect. despite my poor track record with parents. Or. “Remington is the oldest of the five of us. “Could I share? Even if it’s maybe crazy?” “I study the classics. like unpolished stone.” “I would never kill my family.” Her voice goes breathy and wistful. Spill. then stops. so unless you tell me something really. I really did. I have a sudden urge to have a big Sunday night dinner at the Youngblood house. looking in on what I desire. a daughter. Remember. I lean close and let the smell of her hair drift over me. for this girl. I’m one of five siblings.she’s so perfect.

“It’s good for him there. And here I am.. And. A thinker. “He’s improving. really. swatting at the few bugs that are buzzing merrily around her. I’m excellent at keeping secrets. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be who my dad needs to run his businesses.niece in five months.” She plucks at a loose thread on her shorts and shrugs. I’m methodical by nature. Made sure he could do everything. “No one’s made me laugh in forever.’ but not a single one is as compelling as the curve of her lips.” It’s an opening. Every week. if it somehow isn’t enough.” I’m a colossal idiot. bright blue and shiny with a whole variety of tears. and I’ll be left here. My next brother.. And he and Remy were so close. take care of everything... my entire system roars with approval. This is stupid. It’s crazy. I punched a man for her. I never thought. clandestine amounts that are pure torture. He used a ton. I never cry in front of anyone. he’ll be able to petition for joint custody again at some point. “Ugh. Our father kind of groomed Winch from when he was just a kid. my way. And my avowed adherence to atheism is cemented when no giant chasm opens for me to tumble into. but for your eyes. twice. A researcher. how much a baby grows every month. “You can cry in front of me.” I tourniquet my panic. and this time the tears are toxin-less and laugh-based. “You make me laugh.” She fans a hand in front of her face. Think of it as showering.. And I have a million reasons to put my foot down and tell myself ‘no. Ever.” She wipes the corner of each eye with the bend of her wrist.” “Of course. So why is this singular moment so much more risky? Because she’ll bolt if it’s off.crying like some drama queen. Multiple times. A loving god would have saved me from my own stupidity.” she insists. Cormac. if it’s too much. Not a guy who rushes things that . When she relaxes into my body. and it put her in danger. the smooth rub of her skin against mine in tiny. “We thought he’d take over.” I close the tiny hair of a gap between us and yoke one arm over her shoulders.. an opportunity. of course..users. “Crying releases toxins. Winchester. “It’s not even that funny..” Her chuckle shakes her body once. so he wound up landing in rehab and losing custody. the way her eyelashes lower like a lacy veil over those cobalt eyes. you know. A muller. then so hard her shoulders are bouncing up and off my chest and slamming back with the force of her gasping laughter. That took guts. hopefully. Rehab is a good place for. But Remy used around her. probably without another chance.” She turns her eyes.

making clumsy movements in my direction until she knocks me back onto the stone. Maybe not to get married.. and a few apples roll out and bob into the water. My arms circle her waist. sucking her lobe into my mouth and biting down on it gently.. They’re not reflective of all I want from her. and she starts backwards for a single second. pulling her tight against me. I assume to apologize. a sweet moan rising from the back of her throat and echoing in my mouth. “I wish. So I answer. She does.” she says. She knots her fingers behind my neck and rises up on her knees.I wish we did make sense. My hands race over her body.. . My head spins when I feel her nipples tighten under my fingers. hot and flushed and pressing up into my hands. But Benelli jumpstarts crazy impulses in me. my tongue licks at her lips and persuades them to open. and back up behind her ears until she pants fast and fierce. I kiss her again. kissing her lips.. because it’s killing me to not be able to touch her bare skin. Maybe not forever.” I still my hands. My thumbs trace under the curves of her breasts and the callouses on my fingers catch on the thin lace of her bra. teases her tongue to lick back.” I say those words. I run my hands down from the round of her knees to the tops of her thighs and squeeze her hips. and she pulls back. letting the rough skin of my palm glide over the long. She knocks over the bag of groceries. “We might make sense. eyes popped wide. honestly.need to percolate. I close the space between us before she’s finished laughing. her voice a hiss from between her teeth. even though I want to squeeze and press and make the moans come out of her mouth without interruption until her entire body shakes under my touch. I expect her to recoil at my words. and this time her lips mold softly and press on mine. Her small fingers link around my wrist and tug my hand up under the hem of her shirt. “I can’t stop thinking about you. down her shoulders.” I growl low. But. flat stretch of her stomach and pressing my fingers up to the swells of her breasts. I know you and I make no sense. “I know I should stop. The back of my head hits hard enough that pain shocks though my brain. “Cormac.” The way she says it makes it sound half like a question and half like a plea. I pull her on top of me with a grunt and cover her mouth with mine. But right now. her mouth open. but I can’t quite convince myself. along her neck. rumpling her clothes and wanting to skip the part where I have to be patient and slow. so the first kiss is majority teeth. Before she can say a word.

“Is something wrong?” Benelli asks.” . I have an entire explanation at the ready. And nothing I want. Because they’re completely. and the soft swell of her tits fill my hands and almost override the stretch of my fingers. But. “Okay. so I rush to the point.” She closes those eyes. She sits cross-legged and nods again. and. And I guess that means I’ll have to be content with less than what I may have ever imagined. and I expect her to ask me to explain.. I savor one final second of contact with her perfect breasts before I draw back. it’s with less passion and more desperation.” She screws her eyelids tight.. immensely and overwhelmingly blue. There’s this rumor that Helen of Troy’s breasts inspired the champagne glass. I want. As much as she’s willing to share with me. but her brow is furrowed and her hands are squeezing her own tits in a way that goes past alluring and makes me wince. “Before you get married?” I ask. “But. before I do. dark hair falling over her breasts and tickling my forearms. “I don’t want to be your dirty little secret. besides. “The point is. you don’t want to touch them?” Her voice parades right around accusatory. sky blue. “But.. yours would be the best choice. Which is ridiculous. blushing a hot. absolutely perfect. She nods. “Not with. “But I want something of my own before I get married. It’s perfect.” I explain. Benelli. water blue.” I gesture at her chest and summon my lagging courage.Not that I want marriage. when she bears down against me this time. Only mine.” Her expression is mostly unreadable. but the emotions I can decipher aren’t remotely happy ones.” When she opens them again.” She pushes closer to me.. “I want marriage.. I need to have something that’s mine. it’s all I want.her. However she’s available. so there’s more distance than I ever would have thought I’d willingly put between our two bodies again. Something that I’ll be able to look back on over the years. hands down. quick red and placing her hands protectively where mine were possessively just moments before. all drawn up and hammered out with details I continue to finetune as each second ticks by. “Your breasts are perfection. “I need to go ahead and do that. her eyes ping-pong everywhere but on my face and. since champaign was developed in France in the 17th century. But I definitely don’t want this to just be some kind of groping in the woods.” She nods. a flute is a much more reasonable vessel for champaign enjoyment.. Something that’s my secret. if any one woman’s breasts were going to be used as the template for a champagne glass.

That’s it. That’s all she says. Her hand reaches into the bag and pulls out the wine, turning the bottle around and around before she releases a hollow laugh and announces, “We have no corkscrew, do we?” I’m recovering as best I can from the whiplash of this situation by getting to work solving this very non-emotional, physics-based puzzle. I slide the bottle out of her hands, noticing how carefully she avoids letting our fingers touch, and look it over with focused consideration. I rummage in my pockets and find a few paper clips, a highlighter, a pen, some sticky notes, and a piece of peppermint candy. I hand her the candy, trying not to watch as she unwraps it and slips it between her lips so it disappears into her mouth, where she sucks on it with gentle slurps that make my male mind riot painfully. Why didn’t she ask me to explain my ‘dirty little secret remark’? Why can’t I be the type of guy who’s okay with being someone’s dirty little secret? I straighten two of the larger paper clips and feed them down on either side of the cork, then turn them so the hooks catch on the bottom. I twist the straightened wires on top together and wrap them around the pen until I can leverage the cork and wiggle it out, bit by bit. It pops open, and I pass the bottle Benelli’s way. “You opened it.” She looks at the green glass for a long few seconds before she sets the bottle to her lips and tilts it back, guzzling a series of long sips. When she pulls it away, the insides of her lips are stained a deep purple and her eyes look unusually shiny. “Thank you.” She holds the bottle out to me with one hand and wipes her lips with the opposite wrist. I need a drink. Wine is quickly becoming too tame a beverage for me to consume around her, but our stomachs are empty, and this is a particularly strong vintage, so a few rapid passes back and forth, and the strangled air has loosened and fills with her giggles. What we’ve done and said is softened around the edges, with no more sharp-studded pieces to pierce at us. “What are we laughing about?” she asks suddenly, the bottle suspended between our bodies, our hands carelessly close to touching. “The apple that got stuck between those rocks.” I point at the piece of our lunch that got knocked into the water when she straddled me. Saying it out loud is suddenly, soberingly unfunny, and the irony of this crazy non-joke hits us at the same time and jostles out more laughs. She takes a swig. “This bottle will be empty soon,” she laments. “Good thing,” I mutter. “Much more and you and I may drown in that creek or fall and crack our

skulls before we reach civilization again.” “I’m a virgin,” she slurs out of the deep blue nowhere of heavily drunk conversation. “Pardon?” It’s a defense mechanism response, and she knows that and ignores me. “I’ve done...things. My ex-boyfriend was very...into sex. Very into sex. With...” She waves her hand around, the last of the wine sloshing darkly in the bottom of the bottle. “With whores. Whores who were not me.” “He was an ass.” I don’t need a single shred of evidence beyond what she just told me to know that for certain. She wipes her fingers under her eyes with quick, broad swipes. “Or I was. What would it have mattered? To lose it to him? I may have stayed with him. I might have been able to marry him, and this summer would have damn uncomplicated.” She flops back, and I try not to bristle over the fact that I’m her complication and that she’s wishing me away by wishing to go back into the past and fuck her two-timing ex. We listen to the roar of the water, the crow and coo and trill of a medley of birds, and the strong gusts of wind that shake the leaves out of the trees. “If he was was a cheater, he would have cheated on you whether you were having sex with him or not,” I argue, sliding the bottle out of her hand before she lets it smash on the rock. “But he would have proposed to me.” She lays the back of her forearm over her eyes. “But he would have cheated.” Perhaps she isn’t understanding. “Everyone cheats.” Her voice is stomped on, deflated, and makes my blood magma hot and poisoned. “What did you say?” I ask, swilling the last of the wine and tossing the bottle into the water with a hard throw. She sits up quickly at the sound of the glass smashing, and when she sees my face, she points an accusing finger. “Why are you always so mad when I tell you things?” Her words are fuzzy around the consonants and lazy on the vowels. Her drawl is a turn-on under usual situations, but let loose like this, it’s become my own personal aphrodisiac. “Why do you always tell me such idiotic things?” I grunt and pull the sack of groceries over, rustling through without any real interest. “What’s idiotic? I’m just...I’m regretful, that’s all.” I take the last surviving apple out and toss it in the air, letting it smack against my palm with

bruising fury over and over again as I catch it in my still-sore hand. After a few repetitions, I’m calm enough to talk. “You’re regretful? Of what, exactly? The fact that you narrowly escaped being engaged to a cheating bastard? The fact that you wound up here, now, on this rock with me? Some stupid professor with a fucking pen collection and his nose stuck in some stupid ancient story? Some halfassed clown who’s fun enough to hang around with on the sly, but not worth consideration in your holy book of books?” Benelli leans over and swipes the apple in midair, then hurls it at a rock a good ways downstream. We listen to the smash and she turns back to me, nostrils flared, eyes glistening with that fire I’ve missed. “You would be worthy of my book if I could choose.” She leans close to me, and I can feel her rough breathing on my skin. “You can choose,” I counter, putting one had almost on her hip. “You can choose any damn time you want. Just say the word.” “It isn’t that easy,” she whimpers, and, at the sound, my hand moves up and closes on her arm. “Yes it is, love,” I say, my voice low, my thumb caressing her in the same place Akos bruised her just the other day. “You can choose. And you can do better than giving your virginity to cheating boyfriends or your hand to abusive assholes. You can choose anything you want for your life.” She hangs her head and grabs fistfuls of my shirt, dragging me close. Her eyes are wide and unfocused and her breath smells overly sweet with too much heavy wine. “I can’t choose for my whole life. You don’t understand why, but I can’t. But I can choose this one minute. This one minute that’s all mine, and I choose you, Cormac. I don’t want to be a virgin. I don’t want to talk about my family. I don’t want to talk about getting married. And I choose you right now. You go in the book in my heart, and you’re the only name there.” She scoots maddeningly closer and tugs my hand up, laying it between the gorgeous silky tits I want to run my hands over again, but don’t. Instead, I pull my hand away and thread it with hers. Her eyes lash at me, bright with shame, but I hold. “We can talk about this later. Okay? Right now, you need to eat.” I fumble through the bag with my free hand and pull out a roll, perfect for alcohol absorption. She snatches it out of my hand and shakes her fingers free of mine. She eats, the process

hair falling in front of her face. rattles me/ bittersweet. as it were./ a crawling beast. And I want you. She presses both hands to my chest and I lie back. Please. and I babble as it dazzles me stupid./ irresistible.” She bites her lip and holds tight to the sides of my shirt as she careens back and forth on unsteady legs.” She hugs her arms to her waist. ‘Again love. “The poems? The ones your teacher made you read?” Her fingertips skim along my shirt.. “We should go. sun at her back. bumping over the folds in the fabric. I want whatever you write in that secret book of yours about me to be worth all the other rotten shit you’re going to wind up accepting down the line.” She stands over me. and I jump up to steady her. To smell your hair and hope you don’t notice and think I’m some sort of psychotic. She lays her head gingerly in the crook of my shoulder. the limb-loosener. “Why? What do you want?” “To hold you. You have no idea how many lines of Sappho I’ve memorized. “Romantic words are part of the deal. I’m a classics professor. um. “That’s.. “Come here to me first. You’ve turned me on completely and made me laugh and made me think about things that I haven’t wanted to think about. and turns around like she’s about to jump off the rock and wade back to shore without me. “Do you remember any of it?” Her voice drifts up to my ears as she snuggles tighter. smooth legs.” she says when the roll is gone and she’s wiping bread crumbs off her lap. I want you to get chilly and sleepy and need to press your body tight to mine. But you’re drunk and even sober you weren’t sure you what you wanted with me. and I fall by her side when she pats the stone next to her. so please don’t ask me to do what you might regret. “Remember?” Remember what? There’s little brain space for all my haggard past memories when this perfect present needs to be immortalized. And better than I rhapsodized it to be. “I’m not too proud to beg you to come here to me. I want you stripped naked right now. love. and I want to wrap my arms around you. Let me see. To watch the way the light moves over your skin.” I call. Any man with two eyes in his skull would want you. And wildly pragmatic. and my dramatic monologue is realized.” She sways on her feet. I lie back on the rock and reach a hand to take hers. just come here to me.” .” Her smile is a bloom.’ Sappho was a bit of a sparse romantic. She stands. “You are gorgeous. “Some. ice-statue still. “I had a very romantic Women in Ancient Greece professor as an undergrad. that’s incredibly romantic.awkward because I do nothing but watch.” She sits down in a tangle of long.

realizing she won’t feel the press of my lips.” I don’t know if it’s a sound of agreement or contentment or just a sleep reaction. The past is too knotted and the future too uncertain for my liking. “Yes. I hold her and clear my mind of everything but this moment.“Do you agree? With Sappho?” Her voice is syrupy with the sweet rush of sleep coming fast. softly.” “Mmm. but there are no words from Benelli for a long time. . “But any love worth writing like that about isn’t going to be easy. Just the soft rush of her breath and the curl of her limbs closer to my body as dusk begins to darken the sky.” I kiss her hair.

I’m thankful that I only shared a few partial . When I take hold of his thumb and drag his hand to his chest. and his mouth. drunk and lying in each other’s arms. I trace my fingers over those knuckles. I can see it’s still puffy and red. Then there was the talk with Abony. Calm and gorgeous and grounded. It was beautiful. so I skip past it and recall the little apartment. I say a quick prayer. I can’t get comfortable enough to fall back to sleep. One eye is still shadowed with bruising from the last punch Akos managed before the fight ended. There was the fight last night. up in his neat. and it feels like my brain is attempting to pop my eyeballs out of their sockets to relieve some of the pressure. Someone who doesn’t give a single solitary damn what anyone else thinks or says about them. the ones he bashed against Akos’s face in my defense. finally relaxed and silent. and I realize that my hair must have tickled him. So perfect I lean down and brush my lips lightly over it. Someone as confident. head bent back. the knuckles bluish with bruising. beautiful life. just like him. and after our run. I sit up on one elbow and study Cormac. the ones I made because I felt like I didn’t belong. but now that I woke up. thankful that he was too much of a gentleman to take advantage of me when I dangled my desire to lose my virginity in his face. is kissably perfect. The moon is a sliver away from full and shining with a muted yellow light. I tuck my hands away from his body. there was the endless few minutes I spent wrapped around him. because I’m way too messed up for him. I mocked him because seeing his place. snoring loudly. seeing him centered and sure of who he is and what he wants made me crazily jealous and stupidly sad. His dark lashes curl in the dull gold light. He deserves someone as smart as he is. His hand flops up to swipe at his nose. After the fight was our run. Remembering that makes the incessant pounding in my head drum faster and harder. I think back about what happened before he and I ended up marooned on a rock in the middle of a stream. the surprising details of Cormac’s quiet. kissing him like he was the cliff ledge and letting go would mean an infinite freefall into nothing. Just like the way he makes me feel. clean room with all his pens and books. I cringe at the memory of my ruthless jokes. I try to ease back into his arms. He deserves my complete polar opposite.Benelli 4 The pounding in my head is jackhammer hard.

“You look so serious. “I’m really sorry. I guess. I had a great time. like you own rights to his secret. I’m embarrassed about trying to convince him to be my secret side romance. but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the moment. but I really don’t think we should see each other again. steady pressure. I would have stormed out on him. “I don’t hate pressure points. It’s an intimacy I don’t deserve. I tighten my fingers into a fist. If a man had made the same offer to me. there’s no reason I should have sunk to new lows and offered my body in exchange for his no-strings-attached involvement.” His voice is groggy. I have to strike that thought from my mind immediately.” His voice is like fine-grit sandpaper on my nerves. smoothing his hands over my forehead and rubbing my temples with sure. But I go to him instead. “Do you hate pressure points?” Cormac jokes. I want to wake up with him. “About before. hung over. who taught me some pressure points. my horny thoughts make my heart jump.” “You’re too tense to be tipsy. Cormac would have offered to fight for my honor. “I’m incredibly sober. “Come here. pre-dressed. I had a very foxy professor. this picnic that turned into an emotional.” I don’t mean to moan. even though I want to loosen them and run them through his hair.” He crooks his finger. “I can see how badly your head hurts from the look on your face.” There is no reason for me to scowl. and the pain that filled my cranium seconds before is melting away and leaving me fuzzy. but it’s like my lips aren’t mine to control anymore. drunk proposition. About everything. but it’s like his hands are unhinging me. Just because I’m a woman and he’s a man. “Lie down here. And. pre-world self.” My temples are swollen and tender feeling. disheveled and gorgeous in the intimate way a guy is gorgeous when you’re seeing him just awake and alone. He pats his thigh.” I keep busy organizing and reorganizing the bag we packed for this picnic.secrets about my family with him and that most of the most revealing confessions were made when I was drunk. “Mmmm. and I should hop down to the stream and wade far away from him before I cause more problems than we can weather.” “On your lap?” It’s so far from a sexual invitation. embarrassing. a cougar I guess. . and the just-woken-up sound of it tugs at a need that’s low in my gut. Cormac sits up.

because my body was wire-tight.” He chuckles and moves back to my temples. I sit up in an abrupt rush. giving my brain a stern scolding for missing the feel of Cormac’s hands when they fall away..” My bleary thoughts dart and swim like a confused school of fish.” The answer is short. and I could break down and sob over the relief.older women?” I arch my back. “What?” I ask. What reason would he have for being so cautious and secretive? Unless. “You were engaged?” “Yes. not caring what I say or how stupid I sound. “Well.. but it’s like Cormac’s magic has relaxed it into coil of soft rope. Even then. “Yes. through those fingers rubbing my head until I have to bite my bottom lip to hold back another moan. it was over a year ago... “Just. the calculating teacher who has me pinned and knows I don’t . I didn’t take her up on her invitation because I had a fiancée at the time. and his hands seem to speed up their tempo and break the spell a little more.” It’s not like Cormac to be so short and direct. so stupid. It was so. Usually when he talks to me. “You don’t like. And it never amounted to more than a few massages and some very raunchy innuendos on her part.. And now that I know--” “Know what?” And there’s the professor again. grasping through the murkiness. “Who is she again?” “The cougar.” “Her ?” His fingers creep to the center of my forehead.before.” I mumble.I hate her .’ “What for?” Cormac’s voice has lost the lilt that makes it so easy to drown in. Ugh! No! I need to keep focused on-“I don’t know. “Engaged to be married?” I ask. Rope he could tie me up with anytime he likes. he still harbored feelings for her.mmm. it’s some kind of long-winded story or factual explanation dump.what I wanted.. netting all the facts so slowly it’s painful. though it’s completely vulgar and strange. All I can focus on is the feel of his hands on my head and my one repeated wish: that Cormac never stop touching me.” How many times will I say this today? I need to follow my mother’s good advice and stop doing the things I have to apologize for instead of throwing around empty ‘sorrys. of course. I shiver as the knife’s edge of it slides up and down my spine.. “I’m sorry..

Before I can wrap my mouth around the words to tell him to back off. croaking frogs.” His voice snaps like a metal trap. “No..” The night around us is loud as I wait for his response. I focus on the sounds of the wind rustling the leaves.” He takes my other hand. he does something to the skin between my thumb and index finger that makes it feel like my legs are rushing.. it was a crash course in the many detriments of getting married too young. And I understand why you were. I’ve wandered these forests all night for nights on end nearly every summer of my life. Also. It’s infuriating and tongue-tying.why you didn’t want it. and I don’t particularly enjoy heartbreak.which is even more infuriating. green eyes strips me. you do belong to him . back and forth. the crickets screeching as they jump out of the way of the hungry.. And.” The words and his hands and the look in his clear.. I fight back the part of me that wars with my general good sense and argues that. puddling water..” He rakes his fingers through his hair and paces. then. “Please stop doing that. and I scramble for the words to untie this and make it. it’s very appealing.. Or that it ended at all. He takes my hand with a blasé attitude. efficient running dialogue like he’s going over safety procedures before a skydive. his voice keeping this crisp. As for my engagement. I rip my hand from his grasp. but I said no because you were drunk. and I would never take advantage of you like that. and I don’t regret the way it ended.. Stop rubbing me. he’s talking. and I roll my head back on my neck and groan. you want a fuckbuddy. but also a distraction from what I really want to hear. so I’m trying to convince myself to sidestep your very appealing offer. Now I feel stupid. trust me.less infuriatingly embarrassing! “I didn’t know you had been with someone and that it was so serious. “Does it hurt to talk about it? Her?” I ask. I dodged a hollow point bullet on that one. like it belongs to him. And all the time he unravels my handle on sanity. “No problem at I never would have asked for what I did if I’d known. scarily close to the edge of the rock more than a few times. so the noise is a comfort. Which is Cormac’s reaction to my confession. .” The headache that was the epicenter of my every thought fifteen minutes ago is a hazy memory. and curl my toes as he kneads with more specific pressure.have the right answer but is going to make an example out of me for the class. “I want you. “I want you..

“Her name was Nina. “I’m going. about to jump into the freezing water and wade back when he grabs my hand. “I need your foot.” I swivel back toward him. “Fine.” I lean down and swipe up the grocery bag. I know that particular poundage well. but I swing my foot back. but it’s like I’m the waves and he’s the moon. and I’m curious to hear. The pull he has on me is tidal. I landed this . and the wedding was in all the major papers. I know better than to be out here with him right now. She dumped me promptly. deliberate precision. Let me finish. but I want answers. tapping one foot. I’m sorry. and I’d hate to be responsible for making you any crazier than you already are. please. and she particularly loved when French waiters treated her like a native. “Fine. This is--” Before I can lower myself into the water. Let’s go. “No. so I’m standing like an awkward flamingo in front of him. She and her banker were married as if our engagement had never happened. “You’re making me crazy. I’m sorry.” I’m sitting on the edge of the rock. We need to get home sometime before dawn anyway.” He kneels in front of me and starts to take my shoe off. I realized after I’d used a considerable chunk of my savings to buy her a ring she didn’t bother to pretend to appreciate that I was actually just the lure she needed to bring the investment banker running back. finally. Her father wanted her to marry an investment banker. after so many years of being the good girl and doing the right thing. and I want to surge and recede with it. and the details of our engagement were swept up with the rubbish and tossed out. then points at me. And lure him I did. She was fluent in French and liked to show off about it. Finish. weighted with the lodestone of regret and sadness.” “Fuck my headache!” I yell. Each word travels out of his mouth with slow. but I got the drift he was all crazy over some girl he met at a coffee shop.” Exhaustion and confusion beat away at all my smarter instincts. “She jumped horses for fun. “What does me wearing my shoe or not have to do with you finishing explaining how your engagement went south?” I need to put my foot down before I lose my balance and break something serious. Shoeless. so I wait. “I meant I’d finish helping you relieve your headache. his voice slices in.” he mutters. I want to savor the escape that being with him brings me. She was set to be engaged to him. instantly embarrassed when the echo of my words resounds through the forest and causes a small flurry of bats to flap frantically into the darkening sky.” His voice is begging.“I’m sorry.

” I venture. his manipulation of this one last pressure point makes my breath escape in a gasp of pure. As long as you’re impressed.” He lets go of my foot and I stretch it at the arch and wiggle my tingling toes. and I know it sweeps wide and gathers currents of fury and sadness and confusion with it.” he interrupts with a firm. Come sit here and give me your foot. final swing of his eyes on mine. “I’m sorry about Nina. Cormac.” he growls.” I do what he asks. I understand what it’s like to need to protect yourself. Especially now that I know his heart was so recently pulverized. “I never cared about Nina. “You bought her a ring. because it means he’s brushing me off. I roll my eyes.” “I’m glad we talked about all this. “Yes.” “It’s normal to deny it once it’s over. “I thought Damian was the one. I guess. You were kind of left. and that sucks. though my headache is gone. marvelling at how this foot I’ve abused with sexily high heels for too many years can reward me with such intensely good feelings. It hurts to know you can be so blindsided by someone. “I didn’t think Nina was the one. and. “My foot rub abilities? Not the most scintillating conversation. “Listen to . I’ve cried on your shoulder about ridiculous amounts of stuff and I get it if you--” “I didn’t love her. because I can hear the hurt in his voice. I don’t want to keep wading into those waters with him. His fingers are strong.” I point out. and partially because I am about to have a body-shaking orgasm if he continues to rub my feet the way he’s been. especially in your case. “You’re a magician. “You don’t have to hide what you feel with me.” I’m trying for empathy. deep contentment I’m afraid he’ll hear.” He’s as stubborn as a toddler. “Maybe. Benelli.internship and got to leave before I accidentally bumped into the happy couple. It’s getting easier to say all the things that are embarrassing to me. “But I didn’t love her. but it can’t all be dissections of Sappho’s poems. partially because he’s being ridiculous. but his stony face doesn’t give me a single inch.” He picks up my other foot and the ecstasy cycle starts all over. As amazing as the things he’s doing to my body by focusing on a square inch of skin on my foot are. I’m happy.” He applies torture/ecstasty-inducing pressure. because the dark obscures everything and veils the reality a little.” I hate the wry bend of his words. But there’s no point in pretending you didn’t feel what you felt.” I bite my lips to keep any pleasure noises at bay.

and she thought the old books would be more believable. but something’s off. Not the real Nina. It know he’s going to kiss me. stupid word. line. Cormac. idiotic sinker. sexy. We’re at my aunt’s front door before I want to be. closer than I would have before he told me about Nina. because she knew I’d gone the summer before. and I feel him unwinding all the tiny ties that bound us the evening . She told this whole made-up story about how she swore she’d seen a guy with dark hair and green eyes. then used me like the sap I was. it sounds like it’s coating his mouth and tongue. it stings. “She actually stocked her shelves with used editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey and ancient mythology. but he’s somewhere else. “What do you do after something like that?” I don’t shrink away when he comes too close. by the time our feet hit the cobblestones. though I know the barb in his voice is probably just a byproduct of his angry memories. lovely girl with gorgeous eyes and a warm laugh. It’s as if he didn’t just just admit to wanting to sweep me off my feet. “I fell for a make believe version of a very messed up girl. “You move on. You travel to a beautiful place. then turns with an arm up so he can help me down I slide close to him.what now?” I tug my foot back and rub it a little myself. I’m so sorry. She researched me like a freaky science experiment. some serendipitous soul mate of mine or something. “What what?” His this wild. that useless. like.” His words are laced with disgust so thick. almost predatorily close.. My mistake. But he only takes the bag out of my hands and splashes down into the water below. gorgeous. You meet an even more beautiful girl and make some awkward attempts to sweep her off her feet. And that wasn’t Nina. got me to fall head over stupid-ass heels in love with her. We trek back through the greying dawn and. the confusing.” he sneers. and my eyes are lowlidded and my lips puckered. You dig your heels in for a highly competitive position with one of the finest professors in your field. revealing sparkle of the night before has lost its luster. I loved this girl. “She photoshopped pictures of herself in front of the Parthenon. ready for him..” Heat sizzles through my entire body.” “Oh.” Again with that lame word. and. “Don’t be. because she wanted it to look like she was interested.” “I’m sorry. his eyes bright and unblinking in the low light. and I swallowed it. I thought that sociopath was actually maybe.” “So. Hook. sleepy blink and smile complete his look better than a tie and cufflinks would for most guys. right around my build. his hands rubbing at an incredibly fast speed.” I whisper.

as usual. and the kiss he deposits on the side of my mouth seals his intent and throws the key away. slow and hot.jealousy? “My uncle got me off the red-eye.” He rubs his thumb in a light caress over the dip between my collar bones. hon?” “Oh. then slipping into a purr that makes me bristle. but I also love the reconnection. is dizzying. And. Cormac. this is. snoring pillow. “You were perfect. I need someone to keep me awake so I can beat this damn jetlag. wary and confused. hon?” I whirl around and the intersection of my two worlds. “I didn’t sleep on a rock. “Benelli. there are a thousand questions I need to ask. “Lala!” I let her grab me in a tight hug. for my ears exclusively. but I still think you should get some sleep. “I apologize for being a drooling.” I know the smile he directs at Lala is only appropriately friendly.” His words are dismissing me. “It was all perfect. much as I am overwhelmed by this much gorgeous female beauty this early in the morning. His voice is low. and I asked him to bring me here.. this is Lala. I slept on you. Abony was blitzed. my two lives. his mouth twisted up in a slight grin that doesn’t even graze his eyes. and I feel a sudden jostle of. um. “Lala. which I hate.” Lala begs. sadly. If I was stranded on a desert island with a single book.” He tucks my hair behind my ears. When his eyes turn back to me. . but it makes something uncomfortable simmer low in my gut. “Don’t leave. “You’re probably the only girl alive who makes those dark under-eye circles sexy. not on a rock. In a bed. my best friend. this is Cormac. so I nuzzle into his touch.” He reaches one hand out. Her hazel eyes comb me up and down. and a million refusals in his hard stare. so I was just about to hunt you down. I’m a shade away from narcolepsy. and her smile pulls to one side.” he adds. “You were out on a run?” She eyeballs my clothes.” The words wind out with the tight coil of desperation instead of the sexy wrap of intimacy.. “Who’s your friend. and she takes just the edges of his fingers and radiates arousal. then flicks a lingering glance toward Cormac.before. it’s lovely to meet you. I’d want it to be yours.” Her smile widens. a touch that’s simultaneously too intimate and not nearly intimate enough. her voice rising an octave. Did you want to come--” “Benelli! Benelli! Where the hell have you been.

“He’d have to be a total lunatic to not realize how amazing Benelli is. if she knew Cormac and I were kind of together.” I glance at Cormac.” Lala tosses her long blond hair.” She smooshes my cheeks between her fingers. No good. and strip off all my absurdly comfortable clothes for a barely there sundress and cork-soled wedges. Magma. Do you think that’s only a Christmas thing?” “Um. and you seem like you’ll be a riot. skipping the ones that creak under my feet by habit. “I’m already half in love with you over that accent. “Babe. I’m hungry. I hate going out without a hot guy. You’re coming. perfume-heavy hug. but I warned her he was no good.” .“I really should be--” he begins. and apply a full face of makeup. The cheating asshole. “I did. “Yes. “I swear to the holy mother. volcanoes. I thought seeing me all dolled up would make him feel some of what we felt back on that rock. waiting for any indication from him that this is strange or not something he’s ready to do or that he only wants to hang out with me and not with Lala in tow. I twist my hair into a high bun.” She nods at me. I could skin that douchebag Damian alive and leave his corpse for the crows to eat.” It’s an old curse.” Lala shakes her head. “Look at this gorgeous doll-face Who in their right mind would go after some other girl if he had this one?” The bright green of Cormac’s eyes is all gray and stony and his mouth hammers flat. lava. and I’m left with no alternative but to head up the stairs. put on several necklaces and chunky bracelets. “Stop. hear.” Lala insists. Lala has one hand on Cormac’s forearm.. go change into something decent. “He was hot as hell. But he’s already laughing at some story Lala’s telling. Lala and I have always been fiercely competitive and fiercely loyal. and I hate it.. why all this vamping? “Cormac. Maybe that’s what’s upsetting me. you are. no doubt. When I come back out the door. doesn’t she look amazing?” Lala sighs. arms crossed. one I’ve heard Lala’s grandmother use repeatedly and with language that’s ten times fouler. Does that little cafe in the middle of town still open at sunup? I want one of those coffees with the peppermint syrup. but it jars a shocked cough from Cormac. “You heard what he did? To that beautiful girl?” Cormac nods and Lala pulls me against her for a sweet. and he’s tilting his head close to hers. Come with us. boiling hot geysers erupt through me. just before all the wine and regrets he’s obviously struggling with now. and that’s not a question. and I can’t suppress a nagging let down. am I right?” His face is unreadable when he studies me. uh. “He’d deserve it and so much more. and the heat of my temper morphs into the burn of my shame.

“Would you be the sweetest and get us a pastry plate and some coffees?” She takes out a bill she has no intention of spending. and I make sure I don’t even glance in his general direction. a lighter. I’ll be back in a flash. lights it with her lucky gold lighter. the height of these wedges leaves me wobbly. Hotass Professor?” Her tone isn’t jokey or amused. but Damian was your fling.” my childhood friend demands. Cormac links his arm through mine. and if you want to get that husband you keep whining about. Before I can stew over all of it. in my skin. “Coffee. But here? In this town? Everyone has eyes everywhere. Your dad didn’t know. and a black package of gum and throws Cormac a sexy smile. “It took you ten minutes to change. After a few days of running around in flip flops.There’s the same crackle in the air between us as I’ve felt after every heat lightning storm that thundered through my youth. but the intensity of his frown makes it clear he isn’t enjoying this physical closeness the way I am. “So. takes a long drag in and blows it away from me. strong and solid. and Cormac and I follow the determined clack of her leopard-print stilettos with cowed obedience. you need to stop making sheep eyes at Cormac. His arm. Lala slips a cigarette out of her pack. before I fall over. She knows the game I’m supposed to be playing. offers a nice crutch. Lala slumps into a chair outside the cafe. Her frown borders on disgusted. and that was lucky. and I know it’s because he’s afraid I’m going to tumble flat on my face. She knows I hate the smell of smoke clinging to my hair. Lala. Lala grew up in the hot lowlands of Georgia with me. with my best friend. and Cormac waves it away. pulls out a pack of cigarettes.” Cormac strolls into the cafe. and Cormac isn’t even in the bylaws. “It would be criminal for me to accept money from you ladies. right on cue. and the bite of her grip on my hand alerts me to the fact that she knows exactly what she’s seeing.” I tug down on the hem of my skirt and roll my feet back on my heels. I’m already in your debt just for the pleasure of your company. and I feel the same way I always feel around her. You wanna tell me what the hell’s going on with Mr. and my bare feet. I should be ecstatic . That’s it. like a poser shrinking in her much cooler shadow. “How did you know he was a professor?” I stall. sneakers. I know everything. and I know that this is a no-good situation for the two of you. Lala doesn’t wobble over a single uneven paver or crack in the sidewalk. now. suddenly uncomfortable in my clothes.” “He’s just a friend. Okay? Don’t take it the wrong way.

” My brother’s name rolls off Lala’s tongue with a particular lash. And your dad is going to freak the fuck out. Lala and my brother Winchester dated off and on since middle school. “Good. I mean. Lala. He’s in the middle of a stonemason apprenticeship and she has an internship at a law office. . my thoughts cycloning in my brain.” She shrugs one reluctant shoulder. Her heart is extremely tender. especially at the hands of my idiot brother. isn’t going to work. We were all patiently waiting for them to evict their heads from their asses and get engaged when he suddenly met Evan at community service. A few good guys. but that’s all a defense mechanism. “Is your mom planning anything? Have they talked to any of the local families?” I press. I doubt either of them will actually show up. “They’re coming earlier than they planned. honestly. her eyes blinking so fast her lashes resemble hummingbird wings. How’s the actual man hunt going?” I nod. slow drag. I don’t even think about it.” She waves a hand in front of her face and squeezes my fingers tight before slouching back in the seat. you don’t.that she came earlier than I expected. and I pray Lala doesn’t notice. sexy as he may be. I slide a hand across the table and take hers. “I should be on the manhunt.” she lies. At least I hope they won’t. Maybe this is a reaction to the whole thing with Damian? Maybe you want someone opposite. “Beni. And I’m sure he’s super smart and all that. you know.” She flicks the ash from her cigarette into the brass ashtray in front of her. and your dad is pissed enough about Winchester. fell in love. I heard a rumor that he and Evan may be coming out here. my heart ripping at the seams as she blinks back tears. Not the one who’s going to help your family out and make all your crazy dreams come true. trying to redirect the conversation. Because that boy. there were a few good dates. Lala will be crushed. My best friend comes off as callous and shallow. “I thought I’d have another week at least. and got engaged. but I keep that to myself. but all I can think is that I wish I’d had a few more days with him to figure everything out. he’s adorable. I guess. too.” “Focus on them. “Well. but he’s not the one. I know the whole engagement thing is--” “Forget it.” The blood seeps out of my face in a long. “I’m sorry.” She takes another drag and pulls her sunglasses down so she can look over them. “Obviously she could give Winch something I couldn’t. and I hate seeing her combatting all this pain. apparently. too.

my dear.” I pluck the cigarette from her fingers and crush it. Her frown is fleeting. hard-to-get.” When Lala laughs. “You could have told the waiter to bring it out. “He took me out for lobster and. which she exhales with a hacking cough. and keeps her eyes locked on him as she downs a long sip. “That. I feel a well-deep. “I like you.” Lala says. get this? He wore one of those asshole plastic bibs and licked the butter off his fingers after every bite. free-falling need to scream . a white pastry box and three coffees balanced precariously in his hands.” Her lip curls in a sneer. Cormac is back at the table. it strips her face of every stuck-up. the way he notices everything. She stirs in sugar and cream. not making a single move to help him as he juggles our order.” she says bluntly. true beauty. and when I turn my head to see what made her smile so bright. Neither of which I’m known for. her smile pure affection. Or sensible. would have been quitting. so we got all this by the grace of some complicated sign language and something resembling a rain dance on my part. Cormac notices. He blushes and rubs the back of his neck. “I wish you’d quit.” She closes her eyes and shudders through another drag. my Hungarian is fairly limited. Also.” he says with a smile and hands her a cup of steaming coffee. handsome. “I’ll have to attempt more lame jokes if I get that response. Not very pretty. cat-like contrivance and shows her pure.“My dad arranged for a date with some tool whose father owns that big paper plant in Charleston.

Just. swaying steps down the street until she isn’t in view anymore.” Lala offers. I’m on her tail in a second.” Benelli has one hand on her neck. but Lala’s hand on my wrist stops me. let him know if I’d suggest different phrasing.. Especially when her friend is seemingly attempting every trick in the book to seduce me. so there’s no reason for the two most gorgeous women I’ve ever laid eyes on to both have an interest in me. “Maybe you can read me one of your translations.stop it. the professor I work under does the initial translation. and she’s tapping her feet. You can’t chuck a single stone in this hamlet without hitting some iron-jawed Hungarian Adonis. her voice rife with honey and promises as clear as the lack of clothes on her back. “Sit down. the first and last real date we’ll ever go on. I’ll take anything at all I can get. “Technically. but it isn’t easy to do.” “Lala!” Benelli cries.” She takes out what has to be her fifth cigarette. “I thought you were her friend.. I realize with a choked gloom. Now that my options are to be her booty-call or nothing. I turned my idiot nose up at the idea of being with her in a short-term. I have no pride. “So you read old books and translate them?” Lala asks.Cormac 4 The night I spent out with Benelli was. Just a few hours before. to have something of her own. I’m trying to make my peace with the fact. She coughs through the lighting while I follow Benelli’s clipped. Not that he ever listens to me. and I go through it to finetune the English and work out grammatical kinks. her cheeks lit with two red flags of fury. loverboy. her eyes are unfocused. because the alternative would .. “Just. The girl’s lungs must be shriveled bags of ash at this point.” My voice is dry with sarcasm. I hope your room has a comfy bed. “You know.. And now that we’ve popped out of our insulated bubble and into the reality where I can’t have her. and I could not care less. booty-call way. I want her.” She gets up and stomps away. I get the feeling there’s more to it than an honest attraction. attempting to embrace the reality of going back to my mundane existence without her. I want to know if she still wants to be with me. of course. I always used to fall asleep when the teachers read out loud to us. I want to pull her from this awkward threesome and get her alone. I want her more than ever. curls of bluish smoke circling her head like a halo. Apparently. but I thought I had more time then.

be whipped-hot with caustic anger, and that’s probably not the best path at this point. “Her best friend,” she emphasizes, pointing the red-hot cherry of her cigarette my way. “And I’m protecting her. When did you meet? A few days ago?” I’m not sure exactly where she’s going, but I loathe the general direction already. “Yes,” I answer, my voice clipped. She nods and picks at the wrapper on her gum. “Listen, all this flirting isn’t a total put-on, okay? You’re adorable. I think you and Beni have a great thing. I can see it. I can feel it. But, here’s the deal; she’s got kind of a crazy family. Love ‘em like my own, but they’re a little nuts. And she’s beyond loyal. So she needs to be with someone who’s going to fit in with them.” “So you’re a voting member on the Arranged Marriage for Benelli board?” I wrap my fingers around the steaming mug of coffee, appreciative of the burn. “I know a summer fling will break her heart more. And you’re going to finish your translations and pack up your little school bag and head back to Oxford or wherever you came from.” She twirls her hand around as she speaks, and I feel a conflicted tug of war. Much as what this girl says genuinely irritates me, I realize that she’s laying all her cards on the table for me, as it were. Her eyes go soft and her lips tremble around her cigarette, a childish pink in the spots where the filter blotted off the siren red. “I care for her.” I know it’s small comfort. “I know.” She finishes the last of her coffee and pulls Benelli’s untouched cup her way. “I would have just scratched your eyes to bloody shreds if I didn’t think so. I wish this was last summer, because I’d tell you two to go for it. But she’s had her heartbreak and her family’s been falling apart. She doesn’t need a fling. She needs a proposal. Let her go, Cormac.” “How long until her parents show up?” The defeat in my own voice is off-putting. “Probably three days. They were waiting on Mr. Youngblood to finish up some business. But that’s it. You need to not be around when they get here. And I promise you, I will ruin it between you two if I have to. She’ll forgive me. Eventually.” Her smile begs me to accept this twisted apology. “It’s better for everyone this way. And she and I will have husbands and houses and babies, and you can be free to translate as many books as you want and seduce coeds, or whatever professors do.” “You think that’s what I want?” Hot coffee sloshes over my still-banged-up knuckles, but I ignore the burn. “Do you want to marry Benelli? Like, soon? Like, this summer soon?” she demands, those hazel eyes piercing me like deftly wielded daggers.

“I’ve known her for a handful of days,” I object, and the objection puddles with a weak plop between us. “There’s my point. You’re a sweet guy. When she picks her husband, I hope it’s someone like you. I really do.” Her eyes soften, so they’re not daggers anymore. Maybe they’re more like nightsticks. “I know what she’s doing. Running around dressed like she’s fourteen, dragging you to the woods, having sex in the open’s all just Benelli’s cold feet. She is the world’s most responsible person, and she’s obviously having a tiny little mental breakdown. Damian messed her up, and she’s avoiding this whole marriage thing. But avoiding it won’t make it go away.” “We’re not having sex,” I grit out. “Benelli never has.” I don’t even think before I tell Lala this private information. Lala obviously loves Benelli, but there’s a part of me that bristles over her possessiveness, and maybe I said it because I knew she didn’t know. Maybe I said it because, if I couldn’t have the claim of being the first guy she’d been with, I could hold on with all my strength to the idea that she wanted me to be the first. And I’d thrown that away. “Wait.” Lala narrows her eyes and leans close, the smell of coffee and cigarettes and heady perfume cracking me upside the head. “Benelli told you that?” “Yes. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.” What kind of guy am I? Taking her most personal secrets and using them as leverage in some asinine attempt to...what? To win her? To hold onto her? She’s not mine and never will be. As ridiculous as it is to be so upset by that fact when I’ve only just gotten to know her, I am. I am furious and regretful and pissed at the fucking world. If I didn’t get a chance with her, I almost wish she’d never tumbled into my lap that day by the lake. Almost. Lala is holding another damn cigarette in her mouth, unlit, and she’s moving it up and down as she mulls over the information I just provided her with. “What exactly did she say?” She takes the unlit cig and throws it to the side, all her attention stampeding my way. Now I know saying anything was a colossally bad idea. “Forget it,” I attempt. I know she’s not going to let this one go so easily. “Back up, Professor. Benelli never, ever lies to me, but she just might have let me believe that she had sex with Damian. If she hasn’t, I want to know. Now.” Her voice is low and sexy with the delicious scratch of domination. “Then maybe you should ask her,” I fire back.

“I have sway with her, Cormac,” she says to my back as I get up to leave the table. “I can be an alibi for the two of you if that’s what she wants. I’m still making sure she gets her ass married, but I want to know about the sex.” It’s an offer I’m in no situation to refuse. I swallow hard against the self-loathing that’s jammed low in my throat. But she pitched, and, if I don’t take a swing, I may be out of the game entirely. “She’s a virgin. Last night she told me that she wanted something of her own. Something outside the whole arranged marriage scenario. She asked if I would...consummate...” “Ugh.” Lala groans, then laughs, all her magnificent white teeth glinting in the early morning light. “I swear you’re the one guy who could ruin a sexy English acccent. Consummate? Jesus Christ on a cracker, Cormac. She wanted to have sex. Just say it.” I shake my head and walk away with real intent this time. She calls my name twice, but I don’t answer, and I’m shocked when she suddenly grabs my elbow a few hundred yards away. “Please. I said too much already. Please leave this whole thing be and forget you talked to me about it at all,” I beg. “Good...lord...Cormac,” she wheezes, bent over at the waist, one manicured hand pressed to her chest. “I smoke two packs a day and I’m running in four inch heels on the damn cobblestones to catch you. You can listen, okay?” She pushes her hair out of her face and stands straight up and catches her breath. “Okay. Listen to me. You can’t say ‘have sex.’” “Of course I can say it,” I snap. She shakes her head so hard, all that pretty gold hair falls into her eyes. “No, no, hear me out. You can’t say ‘have sex’ with Benelli because it wouldn’t be that for you, would it?” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Lala, please. This is a whole complicated scenario. I never imagined it would be this twisted. I care for her, so the best thing I can do is walk away.” “You can’t.” She darts in front of me, swaying on her high shoes. “Listen to me. When I saw the way you two looked at each other before, I wanted to get in the way, because I don’t want Benelli to get hurt again. But she’s going to marry whoever makes sense for her family. That’s just who she is. That’s how she works. I thought she had her fun with Damian. And I hated him for breaking her heart, but I thought she had that one thing for herself.” “Sex?” I ask, my voice snide, because Damian and his disgusting cheating deserve vulgarity and crudeness. “Not just sex.” Lala bites her lower lip. “Benelli gives up on herself all the time. So I understand

I don’t care at all. You make the whole thing feel more tawdry that it is. but it makes me upset to think that I’ll just be some fling for her.. We start and stop.and I could conveniently lose sight of her for a while if needed. There’s still an endgame to all this. I can’t think of finishing. Romeo.” She raises her light eyebrows at me over and over.” I say aloud what’s sticking hard in my brain. but I don’t like it. Cormac. That’s our pattern so far. “I don’t like it. She puts her arm around my waist and leans her head on my shoulder. Benelli isn’t just some girl to toy with. “You’ll be something completely hers.. I think she deserves one wild.” For the first time since I met her.” she singsongs as she strides into the little house with the kitchen where Benelli almost took the skin off my knuckles. crazy fling with the guy she can’t have. young. “She’ll have to go out. You can’t be together forever. What would it be like to start and never stop. But her parents aren’t going to expect her to stay holed up in the house.” Lala puts her hand on my arm and squeezes. She’ll be allowed to go out with me. of course. You know how many people would kill for that?” “What about her little leather book? Her dates?” I demand.” We do walk back. but you can have this one perfect summer. Lala gets my number before she goes. but there’s none to be had. Lala drops the primping and bossing and threatening and just speaks. you know? I mean. I truly do. . But if it doesn’t. never not want to touch her or be touched back. “I’ll text you.” I believe her. and the memory of what you had? That will be with her forever. “Stop doing that. and that’s quite a feat. “I see how you guys look at each other. “You don’t have many options. and I hope to catch a glimpse of Benelli. “You won’t be. right? That freedom?” “I know this will probably seem like a huge joke to you. that’s part of being young. Start and stop. Maybe she and her husband will wind up falling madly in love and it will all work out. The house with the yard where I started to kiss her and had to stop. “Do you always talk like that? You sound like you’re in one of those boring BBC shows Benelli makes me watch. and I believe her.” I mutter. Walk me back to Abony’s. Lala shrugs. It feels cheap.” Maybe I sound like an enormous wanker. because something tells me I’d never get my fill of her.what she wants.

I make my way up and balance on a jutting stone and the wide. “Cormac! What the hell are you doing hanging off the wall?” She reaches for me and we manage to pull and tug until I topple over the sill and into her small. but to tell her all the things I’ve been pondering.. Except then I’m in the garden. I bite my nails. “Come to the house at 1. and I’ll be okay with it. old ledge. I didn’t come here to.. All the things she needs to know from me. I pace the room. But I don’t feel right. and the dreaded notebook on a small desk. “Work station?” I point and she shrugs. Where mine is Spartan.I didn’t come to judge you or ridicule your choices. At quarter to one. That’s all it will be. And almost get beamed in the head when she throws it open and looks down on the ground for me.. and I realize that means I should be handing over my man card or whatever. but I don’t care. I acknowledge that I am an über dork who should be thanking Aphrodite that a girl like Benelli ever even glanced my way. “Of course not. and I feel an immediate sense of chastisement. I decide that I’m going to go to her. When my phone buzzes.more. not to share her bed. phone. She’s worth. Benellis window is the third on the right. and I see the window with the light on. I manage to loosen one hand and knock at her window. Abony will be out. I work on calligraphy for a one-of-a-kind illustrated graphic novel of The Odyssey I’m doing for fun. “Where the magic happens?” “Are we going to talk about that?” Her voice is soft and scolding. neat room. And not at all what I wanted. The walls of the house are made of leave a light on!!!!!” Beyond the lack of apostrophes and epilepsy-inducing blinking hearts. So much more. and she claps a hand over her mouth to stifle her scream.. It’s Benelli. hers is old floral wallpaper and a soft bed overrun with pillows. . so that’s it.” I whisper. along with a laptop. Not at all.The rest of the day is a long. “Benelli? I’m right here. I juggle it like an inept clown and read the massively emoticon-filled text. sturdy stone. and there’s a drainpipe I can climb. Pictures of her family are everywhere. Maybe this will be goodbye. the message is horrifying because this is real. I don’t even have the cool calm to wait.. This doesn’t feel right. painful sludge through pages of translations that blur in front of my eyes. but I’m not the kind of guy who can do the whole fling thing.

” I muse.. Honestly. that’s more than okay. It slays me because I know it’s going to disappear before I’m through with the next dozen words. Cormac. all of us so much. I guess what I mean is--” “Stop. and she sits on the bed.” “It sounds like what I’d imagine fairly normal sibling drama is. like her heart is running a marathon. “Okay.we have something.” Benelli laughs. I’m the only one.what’s happening with me. And every one of my siblings has let them down.” I counter.. Colt is butting heads over wanting to play football when our father could net him so many opportunities through soccer.” Her blue eyes go wide and the tiniest smile crooks on her lips and slays me. “I never did think about running away. For a fling. you know?” She takes a shuddery breath and I nod to encourage her to go on. and she blames my parents. And. though I can tell she’s irritated with herself.. And if we could. Cormac. “I mean. legs crossed.” I pull out her desk chair and gesture to it.” “My apologies.” she whispers. I can’t because you’re worth too much. “I have to tell you. Okay?” My chest feels like a troop of gorillas just hammered on it. To me.” I lean forward and wait for her. Remy is in rehab instead of running the family so our father can step down a little.being together.” I make the ridiculous zip and lock lips motion and nod for her to go on. But it sounds like the character layout for a bad sitcom. She shakes her head. I want you to know me. maybe as soon as this summer.isn’t going to happen. why did you come here?” I can see the pulse point in her neck jumping in rapid blips. Winch abandoned us all and ran off with a girl he’d just met at community service. Better. “But I can’t do this. She tugs the red bandana I gave her last night from her very small shorts. I can’t just leave this all broken and unresolved. “So. So I’m going to keep thinking about you.. I don’t mean to be an ass. She nods. um... “Maybe because I was scared?” “Because you were good. and it’s like a mercy-killing for all my disjointed thoughts. And if you still want out. I sit. “My dad and mom..if there was a choice or another direction. And Itaca’s boyfriend joined the army. they’re not always perfect. “I came here to tell you that I care for you. “You have diarrhea of the mouth. I have so much respect for you. I’m going to think of you. even if the whole.. “But they love us.. so she’s been rude and just obnoxious for months now.. so I don’t really know for certain. Did anyone ever tell you that? You need to learn when to shut the hell up. You and me. . But.Benelli.” She twists the fabric over her hand. I don’t. There will be one more man for me.

and you can tell me to screw off at any second. I’ve heard. one I’m not sure about. I know.. her eyes are teary. I know. I wonder how she expects me to keep quiet when she laughs so gorgeously at every asinine thing I say. love?” When she looks up at me. Brandon wound up being right. he’ll have a partner to help him. I scoot the chair across the knotty wood floor.. “What did you find out. “You’ve read Sense and Sensibility ?” Her mouth hangs open slightly. Like. “I know.” Her breath comes out on a shuddery sigh.” She presses a hand to her forehead. And I think it’s amazing that you want to help your family. maybe you need to sit down with your parents and tell them some of this if it’s bothering you. I just pick up the handkerchief and wipe her face dry. “So my father is just getting run into the ground. “And I enjoy calligraphy and don’t want to have meaningless sex with you..” I keep my voice gentle. If they ever bothered to issue me a man card. and I thought I worked in all the imperfections. You aren’t in a good place right now to be thinking of forever. But you have no idea how intimidating they can be. “Not that you like .I didn’t realize how. And. you know.” She’s wringing her hands and the tears are rolling down her face in fat. A girl’s tears usually make me panic. “Maybe you don’t need to rush the marriage thing. then. In every way. I had this image in my head. Then I found out. and he can take more time off. but. I want to be in control so badly. “Which sounds so dumb and naive. wet blobs. “Yes. I had this boyfriend?” I wipe her nose gently. I guess.. didn’t he?” I take her hands in freaking selfish they could be. but it just ripped everything apart for me.” She smiles. her entire face suddenly still and serious. “Yes. One is a definite. “I found out. How crazy this all is. He’ll have someone he can trust. I would surrender it to you right now.” she says.” Her words stall and she picks at a bit of lint on her comforter.” I sigh. And if I can find the right husband.” “Listen well. “Benelli. And it all sounded so damn noble. She has an amazingly plump bottom lip.. But they did what they did to help us. but I want to help her through this. you know? Like a really good thing. you know? But I didn’t.As a sidenote. like. “You sound just like Colonel Brandon talking about Willoughby. one or two family secrets.. Because my siblings were making stupid mistakes. I just.” “I love all that about you.

I feel like my entire existence is one big game of pretend. I take a deep breath and ask the question I’m scared out of my skull to bring up to her. Just that you like what you like. I dated him for my family. I tried so hard to be the girlfriend he’d want to marry.” She licks her lips and presses them together hard.” One side of her mouth slides up. She opens her mouth and leans closer to me.” she giggles. eh?” I chuckle. along with the springs and winters and autumns. Five and a half if I was being generous. Benelli?” There’s an answer I want and don’t want.six inches deep in his secretary. One simple word that my brain will tell me to ignore. One word that will make it impossible for me to just walk away.” I rub my thumbs over her knuckles.. and you are a gorgeous woman who understands that being a grownup means you sometimes have to put what you want aside.” “Not at all. “You.those things in particular. There’s no pretending with you. but my body. will be unable to resist. “So. because I thought he’d be a good fit for them.. “I am a socially awkward fool. “Six inches. And I found him. One word that will forever change this summer and all the summers after it. “What if I’m tired of always putting what I want aside? I did it for Damian. When she stops laughing. and my heart. You are who you are. what is it you want. “More like five.” .

“I love that they spontaneously saw each other and felt something and defied everything and everyone for it.” he says. even though I don’t like his message. I run my fingers close to his lashes. “But Benelli. which warms to a bright red. and he groans. one cautious step at a time. which are soft and uncertain. I’ll always have this. what you and I have alone together. “You found this out the other day?” he asks. “No one knows what goes on inside a marriage except the people in it. but I want a piece of that.” He whispers the words close to my ear. “The part of their story that I loved was that amazing love-at-first-sight romance.” I run my fingers over his bruised skin. “Yes.” “That’s a fly in amber. “My father may be cheating on my mother. sweet summer fling? That I want something rosy and soft to sink into when everything else in my planned life marches on the way it has to despite any objections I might have? I’m fine with giving almost everything up.. “It’s our own reality.” I tug on his hand and he walks to the bed. His fingertips are stained black. That isn’t reality. his eyes are half shut. and. “You’re in a very vulnerable place. Benelli.. Benelli.” Cormac uses the scratchy pad of his thumb to wipe back a tear I didn’t even realize was falling. I nod... “Please?” How can I tell him that I want this gentle. I’d be careful who you trust. And perfect. bruised for me. sitting on the mattress next to me. and I marry someone else. So I’d never gotten that fulfilment every romance novel .” I say to fill the silence where he left off. the tickle of his breath sends shivers up and down my neck. “If you’re with will stay pure. He rubs his palms down his thighs and to his knees.” “Is a sham. This.Benelli 5 “Me?” He rubs one hand on the back of his neck. They followed that first crush through.. they got married.. Maybe.” The words fall out of the clear blue. “I can’t say no to you. When I pull back. I can smell the sharp cologne and ink scent of him. I’d been with Damian before.we’d just never had sex. I just want one tiny sliver for myself.” I whisper back. “Their romance. and there are callouses along his fingers that catch on my skin as I slide my hand under his.” “And maybe they cheated.” He lets out a guttural grunt and we fall back onto the mattress. I know it’s romantic and stupid.” I kiss him again. and Cormac keeps his face completely calm when he hears them.” I lean in and kiss his lips. and they feather under my touch. You. We’ll never have that whole screwed-up ending.

I’m so curious about it. I drag it up. but I’ve never had my body seize and buck under the single stroke of a tongue against my throat. I run my hands up and down his back.more than I can. and the twist of his lips bottoms my stomach out..more than I. brushing his nose against mine.. quickly nipping and gently tracing the curves of my lips with his teeth and tongue. “But I can’t promise anything. And I realize that he’s probably on the right speed. I mimic him.” “I’ll try. “Are you could?” His voice severs through the sinuous stream of me and him and us together in this bed.” My breath is hitched in my throat and his mouth finds mine. When I catch the hem of his shirt. and yank it . and my arms.” I admit while he tugs the shirt completely off and leaves me exposed.always promised. He licks and pulls... There isn’t a chance in hell you’d need me. I’ve had guys kiss my neck before. and I wouldn’t come to you.” he says. “You could call anytime and I’d come running. sandpaper-rough with five o’clock shadow. I wasn’t sure you’d come. and I’m jarred into answering suddenly. and it makes me sad before it even happens. I’m.” Once I answered ‘no’ the first time. like I’ll evaporate under his hands if he doesn’t keep pace.Cormac. “No bra?” he grits out. his tongue went back to doing the lazy acrobatics over my skin that make my pulse thrum. This will all be shared and over in a blip.. “No. and every single brush of his lips and slide of his tongue is like some kind of concentrated act of self-restraint. Benelli. feeling the tight. my fingers coasting over his knobby spin. but there’s something frenzied and wild about his kisses tonight.. Cormac tugs up on the light fabric of my layered tanks and sucks a breath in. sinewy muscle under my fingernails. kisses and breathes over the damp patches of skin. This is. Curious about it and starving for it.. His eyes rake over my breasts and up to my face. He’s kissing like he doesn’t have a minute to waste. I put both my hands on either side of his face.. “I was getting ready for bed. um. break into goosebumps. No. shoulder to wrist. I can feel from the tense brace of his shoulders that he’s making a Herculean attempt to slow down.” He never finishes. And it’s driving me crazy. He kisses me instead. “Slower.

“I was on the rowing team. is it? We can pretend I do kickboxing. every day. It helps me think. “Not very sexy. Suddenly the only sound from his mouth is his breathing. over his long. down past the waistband of his boxers.” His voice is a little shaky as my hand moves down his pecs. I’m not completely sure what I’m doing. rock hard and defined. not like the bulked-up guys I’m used to dating. Damian was always aggressive. He’s long and lean and wiry. kissing and licking at my skin. same steps. So why does it suddenly feel like this is the first time? It’s like the difference between watching my local dance studio perform Swan Lake and then going to see the Russian ballet dance it. I expect his hand to come down and guide me. venturing lower. but I can tell from the way nothing is relaxed on his body that he’s embarrassed. “I don’t want you kickboxing or doing mixed martial arts. There’s a strange tingling rush that intensifies when he traces a smooth path of kisses down the curve and to my nipple. was spellbinding in a way that put it on an altogether different . I squeeze at the resistant bulge of his bicep. and to his waistband. same costuming.but the effortless art. Or mixed martial arts?” He’s joking. palm to palm. none of the drawbacks of a group of competitive pricks screaming in your ear to row faster. huh?” I drag my hands over the bulges and dips of his his head.” My fingers flick the button to his jeans open and his eyelids hood over his eyes. “Is it the oars that make your hands so calloused?” “Yes.” I take one of his hands and link it with mine.. appreciating the length and strength of him. isn’t it?” His attempt at humor gets interrupted by my hand. “I don’t want anyone smashing your face. the sense of perfection and focus that drove the people who’d given up their lives to just dance. which he pulls in and sucks at. So I use the rowing machine at my school’s gym. I don’t know what to do now on my own. This has all happened before. heavy and quick. but his mouth goes back to its determined work. brushing along my clavicle and down to the tops of my breasts. I’ve done this before. “I think rowing is sexy as hell. and I got used to the exercise.. “Do you workout?” His smile answers my hokey pickup line.pretty. pushy..” “It is quite. lean abs. Same music.. all the time. which pull tight under his touch. All the benefits of lean muscle. so I stop. again. pressing down hard until I was basically just a puppet he used to fulfill his sexual needs. telling me what to do and moving my hands around. breaking the connection of his mouth and mine for a single second that has me instantly agitated and wanting to kiss him again immediately.” “Rowing.

And we are. and I’ve been right here so many times before. and never being able to enjoy the pleasure of knocking it back down. I want it all to explode. burying his scratchy face between my breasts. kiss more than his mouth can cover. There’s too much going on for my mind to focus on any one piece of this.level than the amateurs. He sucks hard on one breast and his hand palms the other. My skin jumps under his hands. He unsucks his mouth and drags his cheek across the soft skin. instinctively wanting deeper into his mouth. and I’m hungry for more even while I’m still in the middle of it. more romantic than sexual. His lips dip over my other nipple. But he never gets rushed or upset or frustrated. his fingers squeezing and kneading until my breath switches beats and trips out in rapid skips. body-aching way. a breathless. satisfying lover. but there was never a smashing point. he finds a new rhythm and leads us to an entirely different form of crazy hot passion. If I’d had to choose based on the exterior alone and maybe also with some general hype peppered in. you have the most amazing breasts. And he’s romantic in every unexpected way I never anticipated. Cormac drags his ink-stained. I would have imagined Damian to be the more experienced. crazy piece of it. “Holy god. and like he’d fumble and joke a lot. His arms are stretched over his head as his forehead leans on my belly and his mouth presses. makes me feel like every force in the universe is concentrated on this bed and our bodies tonight. And going slow and speeding up. even though it makes him less able to concentrate on the rhythm of sucking and licking that was bringing my body to the brink. Joking. I brace both hands on his back and pull up towards him. hot and needy. Cormac seemed goofy. his tongue sliding against the sensitive peak. moaning. the half-starved.” He keeps both hands on them. But the focus Cormac pays to my reactions when he kisses me. and I press into him. I want to feel it all. inviting him to hold more than his hands can manage. the scratch of the skin on his hands and fingers against the softest skin on my body. Every messy. Benelli. slick need. It was like building a wall of blocks that went sky high. my nipples abraded by the rough scratch of his palms as his mouth dips lower. rough fingers down the dips and curves of my body and . half-reverent look in his eyes whenever he pulls away and glances down. I’ve never had an experience like this. forging a trail down between my ribs. If I move and throw us off. and he sucks it in. Every shred of it. Between my legs there’s a hot. against the thin cotton of my shorts. his tongue making lazy circles around my bellybutton.

Right now. it’s not quite fury and it’s not quite regret. Please.” I plead. and the intimate curl of his tongue over my skin tears a whimper out of my throat. But the thoughts. and pushes them apart. Now! “No. His hands drift up and down my thighs. “I said I’m afraid what will happen once we do this. ever look at those white whorls and be calmed into sleepiness again. Please. All I want. There’s no way in hell I could back away from this now. My eyes” I buck my hips and he pulls the waistband down an inch. Yes. One of his hands slides off of my thigh. Benelli?” His voice is thick with need. “Will your aunt hear us?” he asks. His mouth moves . Benelli. “Are you sure this is what you want. piercing green. I close my eyes and thrash my head from side to side.. Now. what did you say?” My mind and body are racing like Olympic sprinters in a dash. half wanting to pull my hips back from his lips and half needing to drive closer. Because I know damn well I won’t be able to walk away with no regrets.snares them around the waistband of my shorts. inescapable need and want that are drowning everything but him and me and the way we feel together. the light scratch of his skin at odds with the velvet press of his tongue. staring at the same boring white ceiling I’ve stared at on hundreds of sleepless nights. his pragmatic question breaking the crazy amazing bubble of pure heaven I’m floating in.” I sit up on my elbows and his eyes are clear. realizing that I will never. not even if the perfect white knight in shining armor came riding up on horseback with a Tiffany diamond engagement ring in hand. all I need in this entire world. It’s unfair timing. I slam back on the bed and stare at the swirling designs in the plaster on my ceiling as his tongue licks and kisses me. and the chant keeps going as he tears my shorts off. It’s something in between that shreds at my heart. Emotion clouds his face. making all of my nerves ratchet into tight coils. the false starts. No one will hear.. cups the insides of my thighs with his battered hands. the impossible future that kept us from starting this the few times we tried before all dissolve when his mouth dips low. Take my pants off. and I’m having a hard time focusing my thoughts. “What did. He kisses me where no one ever has before. muttering low under his breath. They’re now the dizzying reflections of the thousands of whirlpools of sucking. is Cormac. “Yes.

right to the perfect. There’s something nice about knowing it isn’t me. and I’ll admit openly that I’m doing it just to see his pupils go dark and his nostrils flare a little. “I’ve never been with anyone who. “More. the necessary ignitor to the explosion that was poised to tremble through me.. Cormac. and my body relaxes after his explanation. I already came.way you did. responded the. kissing all along my shoulders. And then I’m cracked. I sit up and grab him by the shoulders.” I bite my lip.” I whine.. “Because it would be over in two and a half seconds. my body flexing and pulsing around his mouth and fingers. even in the middle of the hands down most erotic experience of my life. hips off the bed. too. thank you. and I can feel the press of his dick through the stiff denim of his jeans.” he says. “You’re completely welcome. “Girls don’t usually come when you go down on them?” He blushes and presses his face into my neck to stifle a chuckle before facing me again. pulling back from my touch and lying on his side. not even embarrassed over being such a baby. “And you need it. I have one thought: more.” He kisses me softly. uh. “I’m okay with being a virgin. Once the last tremors quake through me. though.” All my sexual bargaining bravado falls away when I remember the perfect unravelling explosion that riddled my body a few minutes ago. Um.higher. “You .” “I got everything I needed. but you don’t need to school me completely in the sex zone. looking down at me. satisfied look.” I knit my eyebrows. “It would be much nicer for me if this could be sort of awkward for both of us. “I want you now.” He kisses the space between my eyebrows. Jarred. by the way. But it doesn’t stop me from my single-minded mission. More. chafing against my highly sensitized skin.” He falls on top of me. “We should wait. compliments of Cormac and his highly skilled mouth and hands.” he says. crying out his name. Now. Fisting the sheets. I reach a hand down and cup the outline of his hardon. Panting. crashing center of every jumbled desire that’s wrecking through me and his finger slides into me. “Why don’t you want to have sex with me?” The question hangs heavy between us. Also. and. When he looks up at me his hair is a tousled mess and his eyes have a sleepy.

Cormac. “Now we have to have sex! You just threw the gauntlet down. but maybe it was just a case of never being with the right person. I try to focus on the fact that I get to race at all. I thought a blushing virgin would be more held back.” he warns.” We both go silent. . “Well. Of thirty-six. and I’m very competitive.” I wiggle under him and he groans. “you’re making a very compelling case for sex.” “We’re ready for a marathon. I just never found the perfect person. then. I regret that I can’t tell him that I sometimes think he’d be perfect for so much more than a few rolls in teh hay over the course of these few weeks. I always thought I didn’t have a particular talent in. This is a sprint.” I say between giggles.have a direct way with words. I’m very glad you had the response you did.” I reach onto my bedside table and pull out a fresh box. “I’ve never questioned that fact. and a short one. I’ve spent a long time sitting in my high heels and tight dress on the sidelines. I try not to think about it. “Compliments of Lala.” he says. loving that I can feel the quickening thump of his heart against my chest.” I roll my eyes in perfect middle-school-esque circles. but that was. that department. laughing. “I may be putting the cart before the horse.” I brag. but he doesn’t break my gaze. er.. and I pull at him hard. “You’d be competing against yourself.” I want him to shift his eyes away to make it easier to hear those words.” he points out. “Three dozen?” Cormac chokes out.for tonight. We both know the reality. “Benelli. And I don’t regret telling him that he’s the perfect person for me to lose my virginity with.” he whispers. But I don’t have a condom. I guess that will have to be enough.” My hands tighten on his shoulders.. Huh. hands down.” I tilt my head back and roll from side to side. “Well. “Just because I’ve never had sex doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in it. the sexiest time I’ve ever had in my life.” He kisses me. “She’s always got plenty. and his smile melts the last of my worry. since I’m the best. “I can’t promise that this will be my best performance. taking a condom out with fingers that shake a little. stroking up and down his back. “You have nothing to prove to me. “That makes sense. this won’t be a marathon. No matter how much we slow this all down.” I hold his body tighter to mine. his voice suddenly serious.

“Rather like one of those cans magicians use.. amazing stretch that’s both foreign and completely addictive. I nod and pump my hips. recoiling heat. since his hands are busy leveraging all that rock-hard body . along the tight bumps of his abs.” I put my hands on his firm backside. “Are you sure?” he grits out through his teeth. and. Because of the way his penis is positioned. I tilt my hips up and pull on his ass. I finally get the button loose and manage to drag the zipper down. Cormac. At first he presses against me. then pushes in. drawing him into me. a strange. So right. He presses his lips over mine and pulls back. sure strokes that fill me with silky. liquid. It’s just a stretch. I open my eyes and look at the long. Despite Cormac’s insistence that he would only last two seconds. the excruciatingly slow slide making me pant and jerk. “I want you in me.. then down to the narrow v of his hips. The ones with the snakes that fly out when you open them. I put my hand down and fit him at the apex of my thighs. sweet seconds. and lower. still sensitized from his earlier attention. eyes locked. it’s difficult to get his pants undone. Please. easy slide that’s so perfect. that our hands trip over each other’s getting the condom rolled on. By the time he’s halfway in. and it’s on the back of all that easy laughter that I help slide his boxers off. to where he and I meet and join. The result is. But I know we have to hang on to every second. He presses in return. stopping at every inch or two to kiss me and allow me to reposition. I want all of you. he draws it all out into a long. “Faster?” he asks. so I trust his pace. and I tug hard at the button of his jeans. and he presses with excruciating slowness. Instead of answering.” Those words could not have been a more massive understatement. and I glide my hands down his chest. nudging my slick skin. and then we kiss and move our hands everywhere with a slow. Cormac kisses me for a few long. lean stretch of him over me. sweet unravelling for me. He shakes his head and laughs.enthusiastic. and pumping with swift. I want him badly enough that I’d be happy to grab and and let this experience tear through to the finish. foreheads pressed together. Losing my virginity winds up being slow and gradual. we’re both breathing deep. bracing his hands on either side of me.“I’m just glad it’s you. enjoying the surprising athleticism of his body. It’s not pain. My breasts tighten at the sight of us.” We’re laughing again.

I touch myself. aren’t you?” He comes to lay down next to me. His arm. you’ve never had a girl be a lady in bed?” I tease. cheaters. “I think the no exes rule is a good one. Lala is a very intimidating person. yes. “But. mixed with the drive of him against my skin spirals every feeling in me. but no ladies.” he says with a sour note of warning in his voice. “You do crazy things to me!” I accuse.” His attempt at a smile is lukewarm..” “Come. Vipers. My own words. and I love hearing it. I’m thinking we can safely categorize you as a screamer?” he says.” I begin cautiously. “So. distinctly uncomfortable. his breathing coming out in a gasps. and throw it into the trash methodically. “I can’t.” “Ah. Cormac seems perfectly comfortable in his completely gorgeous nude skin. Lala told me you two talked. the .” “So.much more. it’s because he had no clue what he was doing. actually.” He presses harder. “Benelli. “So. My bed has been devoid of ladies. my own hands. You can hang around for awhile. When he looks up at me.” This time it’s a full. For a few long seconds we just try to breathe in some kind of regular pattern or get a new clean hold on reality.I can’t. pressing hard to his body.” He furrows his brows in pity. watching him sit up and take the condom off with a discreet roll.over me. sociopaths by the truckload. “You’re just full of jokes.. and the face he makes looks confused and pained.” I tell him. If you were a lady before. it’s with a boyish grin that’s all mischief. his chest. then wrap it in a tissue he finds on my nightstand.. cowboy. I cover my face with my hands. “Cormac! Fuck! Cormac!” He moans and pumps a last two times into my body before shuddering on top of me.. real laugh. then go ahead and touch him. His eyes fly down to my hands. “You’re no lady in bed. pulling at my own nipples. while I start to put my tank and shorts back on. “And it’s not like you have to collect your money off the nightstand and go. fakers. rubbing his nose on mine. He clears his throat and looks suddenly.” I reach a hand out half-way. his pace frenzied.” I pat the bed. “I was always a perfect lady in bed before you came crawling around. and. And it feels so good.” “It’s okay.. and that’s beyond amazing. “About that? I’m so sorry. “It’s probably not a good idea to talk exes.. and the centrifugal force shatters me into a million soaked pieces.

. the line of my neck.” “You’re welcome. “I know it’s not super ideal. You’re going to be sore if we take it too fast. “No.’” He traces the curl of my ear.” “Pretend we could have it any way we wanted. I feel overwhelmed and. “I love your enthusiasm. ‘I’m so glad I made love to Benelli for a few weeks before she arranged a marriage to some quasi-barbarian Hungarian prince.” I roll onto him. Not on some arranged schedule. We would have eaten and talked and kissed. “I think I’d be too busy being fascinated by you to get driven too crazy. “I don’t know about that. I can’t imagine I’m going to look back on this summer and say. along the inside of my elbow. the jut of his hip. I ignore my reluctance. “And I’ll never regret being your first. all the way to my shoulder. because I have no idea how many opportunities I’ll have like this. “This entire situation.” . but my voice wobbles.” “Do you regret it?” I ask.” I pull his hand up and kiss his knuckles. He runs his fingers through my hair. I would have taken you on a few proper dates. And thank you.” He shrugs his sinewy shoulders.” He kisses my fingers and nibbles his way up my wrist.” “So I’m that fascinating?” I try to kid. kissing the nail of each one.” “I guess I wanted your friend to approve of me. don’t you think?” I’m grasping at any possible straws. But we’d probably drive each other crazy eventually. and it all would have happened in its own time.. “Well. but it was all a jest. fanning it out in dark pieces on the pillow under my head. first off.. Not just five minutes at a restaurant before I let my testosterone take over or getting you drunk in a creek and mauling you. “You’re the most fascinating woman I’ve ever met. love. “You’re already dressed? We have three dozen condoms to work through. “Can I be on top this time?” His smile crinkles the corners of his eyes.” He shakes his head and smoothes a series of kisses along my hairline. “But I think there’s room for regret in my future.” Cormac holds my hand up and examines my fingers. I don’t like the probable answer. so he’s pinned under me. even though I know whatever he’s going to say is going to break me in some way.. Thank you.I guess proud that you wanted to share that with’s not what I want. you know.line of his lip. “She’s hard to say no to. What would you want?” I ask. and I wonder if my future husband will pay nearly as much attention to me when we’re in bed.

I’ll always take care of you.“I’ll be fine. But first there’s just now and the heat of Cormac’s kisses. but it’s going to wreck us later. Neither one of us argues with his statement. “You’ll take care of me. “Always. even if we both know always isn’t in our cards. I know his kryptonite.” I whisper. wriggling out of my shorts and tank top. .” I’m a jerk. I fall into them instead of worrying about the inevitabilities of our uncertain future. and I use it shamelessly.” he promises through a fresh round of kisses. Our inability to face just how temporary our arrangement is is comforting now.

waiting for the . There isn’t a single thing I can do in this situation but sit back and grit my teeth. it’s all just a baseless waste of physicality and an emotional black hole. Unless. other than being boring.Cormac 5 There was a reason I was reluctant to sleep with Benelli. sexy dress and shoes that are a podiatrist’s nightmare. Usually don’t. I love her bravery and the force of her confident personality. She’s looking for a groom to fill an entire complicated place in her family. The man she winds up wedding will have to be enmeshed in her family’s clannish social life and will have to be willing to give himself over to what are. Even if the thought of marriage didn’t coat my guts with a ten-inch casing of ice. from the information I’ve gathered. And unless this problem is now dating guys who. And unless this problem happens to be wearing an unbelievably tiny. sparkless lugs. rather shady business arrangements on her father’s part. aren’t the types of creeps who warrant fistfights and throwdowns from her secret lover/sometimes defender. I love her willingness to embrace what she can and assume responsibility for what she must. Because I’ve gone way beyond caring for Benelli. when they put a chokehold on our relationship. I’m not that guy. of course. she’s not looking to just get married. Sex is never easy. I’m not even the shadow of the ghost of the polar opposite of that guy. of course. There’s not a negative number low enough to represent how slim my chance of success in that role would be. Irony applicable. a certain pragmatic problem happens to be eating ice cream and giggling with some hulk of an idiot in the very square where I’m trying to get some work done on the passages chronicling Odysseus’s return to Penelope. I love the way she twists problems around in her head a million ways. I love all these traits except. It’s not as easy as just asking her to marry me. since philosophical problems skewer me with a depth that pragmatic problems usually don’t. of course. But there’s a worse alternative. You could fall in love with your no-strings-attached partner. but make her legs look at least twenty sexy. I love her. silky feet long. This would all be bad enough on its own. I love her frighteningly fierce loyalty. When you have no feelings for the person you’re fucking. and no-strings-attached sex is hard enough when you feel woefully little for the person.

You look like you’re on the cusp of having a stroke. even though I want silence to brood in. She catches sight of me and her face goes still for a minute before she shakes her head and refocuses. undetected. “He seems nice. “Take one. face hidden by huge sunglasses that probably have less to do with the sunshine than with the fact that she can drink the most stalwart drunkard under the table and. I think you need it. I’m greedy for more of her than our meager arrangement allows for. Oliver Twist.” She shakes the pack. through her window and into her arms. professor. The perfection of the nights isn’t always enough to erase the aggravation of the days. “You’ve never read The Odyssey ?” I ask. She hates when our two worlds intersect.” I gesture to the seat across from me. “Not that more caffeine is what you need.” “If you like lumbering half-wits. He always just scowls at me when I raise a tentative hand in his direction. “Please sit. I glance up at Lala’s face. her head bent close to the lug’s. tiger. she does. gold hair pulled back in a high ponytail. his hand hovering intimately over the small of her back.’ Decisions. flipping through my notes as if she cares. what’s this story about?” Lala flicks the pages. “Thank you.’ ‘Hall’ or ‘great-room.” I grin and she tilts her . most nights.” Am I making sense? What am I even saying? My eyes are on Benelli. and. what are you doing this fine day? Other than stalking my best friend and trying to murder her date with your steely glare?” “Basic translation work. noticing my empty mug. I don’t have the face of an angel and lush tits barely covered by a few scraps of material. and I rip my eyes off of Benelli’s date.’ ‘Sack’ or ‘pouch. Lala loves shocking me. decisions. But I miss seeing her in the sun. nodding at what he’s saying. Then again. I like Lala and don’t want to be rude.” She lights up and takes a drag.” she chides.setting sun and my chance to crawl.” I growl. I get her at night. Nitpicking over whether to use ‘staff’ or ‘rod. “Not all of us went to Harvard. Can I get you something?” She waves the waiter over. We made a pact. A pack of cigarettes blocks my view of Benelli. “So. and I offer her my best version of a socially appropriate smile. all night. She orders two black coffees. She lives her own life during the day and early evening. but I don’t smoke. not bothering to disguise my disappointment. “We didn’t all go to snooty boarding schools in England. joining me in spying on Benellli and her date. “So.

All these rich assholes from Itaka come and try. “Wait. and he hasn’t seen her in two decades. Odysseus. “So. Calypso. actually. Very important detail. Calypso doesn’t get to keep him forever.huge sunglasses down and narrows her eyes at me. The coffee comes. dirty. A date she agreed to. in order to win Penelope’s hand. and gets this whole plan underway where. he was a hero of the Tojan war. an archery contest and there’s a prince.” “Ooh. the suitor has to pull back his old bow. which is pretty badass. “Yeah. On a date. Odysseus is no exception. Penelope.” She leans back and cradles her coffee in her hands. other than the cheating. “It’s not all terrible for Odysseus. He’s being kept on an island by this goddess. and talking about Odysseus will take my mind of the urge to make my fists hamburger meat because some daft asshole is touching Benelli. rich woman.” I pass her the sugar and she sweetens her coffee to the point where it basically converts to coffee-flavored syrup. He’s got this wife. “Why?” she asks. Refuse. is pretty damn pissed at him during this whole ship voyage. I think my thesis may wind up being ‘Poseidon is a Dick: A Look at The Role of Pissed Off Gods and Their Nonsensical Rage. sipping her coffee and leaving a deep red lip print on the rim. “Yes. and Zeus makes Calypso give him up. right?” “Yes. Right.” I glare at the lunk holding Benelli’s hand in his and have to make a firm decision not to run up to him and attempt to rip his arm from his shoulder and beat him over the head with it. excited. “I like this. Is this a movie? Isn’t there. “Oliver Twist is English. “A dick? Is that your official scholarly opinion?” “Actually. murky fog for this detail. because Poseidon. yes. Odysseus connects back up with his kid and his dad. but the real . you know.’” We share a smile and I continue. once it was over. Trojan heroes can get away with a lot of pretty heinous behavior. So Athene intercedes. “So. but she’s a witty twit. since her husband’s been gone all these years.” I take a long sip and refuse to look over at Benelli. and she’s using him for sex. and she’s a hot.” “Well.” “Wasn’t he on a ship?” It’s like she’s reaching through a blurry. does he get back to Penelope? Does she forgive him for the whole sex slavery thing?” Lala asks. “Because he’s a dick. Tell me more. who’s the god of the ocean. like. which is sort of forced. And he never came home.” She almost chokes on her first sip. and I sweep some of the papers up. who he’s super in love with. Well.” She’s a twit. Penelope’s got this mad mob of suitors. but they can’t do it.

keeping her hands steady so it stays in one long line. just for the joy of seeing me jump. Apparently all I needed to do was share the heroic Greek classics with her. “That is such a badass story.” “Pardon?” I’ve been waiting for two weeks for her to say something like this. “Odysseus was Penelope’s husband. What possible use could the Youngbloods have for the fact that I speak fluent ancient Greek and--” “It is just mind-blowing sex?” she interrupts.” A small part of me feels deep shame for my blatant bastardization of one of Western Civilization’s finest tales. Lala. but just watches the curling column of smoke instead.” She nibbles her bottom lip and swishes her coffee in her mug before looking up at me again with this kind of renewed manic determination. “Of course. “No and you know it. and takes her to bed. The end.” I remind her. Books. but she seems completely serious. Then I thought it might happen when Lala and I started spending more time together and she realized that I was actually a pretty decent guy in general. ” “Is that all it is?” She purses her lips at me.” She stops and goes to take a drag. But Lala has ripped her glasses off and her eyes are shining. “No.king is away. And he wins the girl?” I’m sure she must be kidding. Of course he gets her back. “I’ve never seen Benelli this happy. You really need to stop watching so many movies. I’d be jealous. It’s never been just that for me at . “You should totally pull an Odysseus with Benelli.” She taps a few inches of growing ash into the tray. “Why read them when I have such a smart friend to explain them to me. So does he not get Penelope back?” “It’s not a tragedy. “Listen. I have mind-blowing sex with Benelli and a career that’s less than useless to her family. love. “That’s not the deal. “That would be Robin Hood. If I was a bitch. He strings that bow like a madman. because she’s pretty much spending any time she’s supposed to be hanging with me counting down the minutes until she gets to be with you. slaughters all her suitors.” I don’t play with this question. Maybe she’s still drunk off bootleg Hungarian liquor. Books will open up new worlds for you.” She slips her foot out of her stiletto and rubs it over my calf. Lala. And he had a kickass bow. I thought it might happen when Benelli’s family came and the dates picked up.

But I still always thought we’d be together forever.this girl. I don’t know if I could have imagined it before I saw it. bright with emotion she does a fair job of blinking away.” “I think you should try.” “Sounds like romance. Made out in the backseat of his dad’s Mustang during every family get-together.. And it was fun. but sexier. So.. I guess he’d been around for so long. but leaves it close enough to her body that I can tell it’s a contested gift. Our mothers were maids of honor at each other’s weddings. stubborn line. I guess I just figured Winch and I were. an expression so alien to her usually cooland-collected face. They’re the kind of teenage dalliances I wish I had under my belt...” Her hazel eyes are suddenly more gray than any other color and she plucks the paper napkin under her coffeecup into furious shreds. I try not to think about the possibility of anything more.” She startles up at me.her. takes my hand. and she wipes a finger under her eyes. I don’t even know why I hang on to it.” When I don’t put my hand out to take the lighter. “It was. It was one of his grandpa’s.” I’m not even joking.. This isn’t some romantic story.. leaving a runny line of mascara trailed along her temple. “Why didn’t you throw this in his face when you broke up? Or toss it out on freeway when you drove away from him for good?” Her laugh is sad. then gets up with a flourish. yeah. Winch gave it to me years ago.peppered with archaic bloodshed.” She sets her lips in a stiff. Lala. And then he met. the way his family did. I stopped seeing him as his own person. We snuck around. “I think you should try quitting. you know. “You take this. dumps the tray. “You know what? I guess I do know. because there isn’t a chance. She saunters back and runs the gold lighter over and over in her hands. and tosses her pack. stalks to the garbage can. “But I took him for granted. Drank stolen sambuca under the stars. Love . Real love.” She rolls her hazel eyes. And we grew apart. fated? Destined? Like an arranged marriage. This is real life. But we had to agree to that. You’ll be doing me a huge favor. Lala takes a long look at the toxic ashes and butts. she reaches over. so he got it for me. “And he fell in love. her eyes wide with shock. Funner.” I hold it up and we both look at how the gold glints in the light. and presses the lighter into my palm.” “I think you do know.” She makes a move to hand it to me. “Take it. and shakes her head. “It looks expensive. I just felt like I owned him.” I flick a finger at the smoldering ashtray.least. and I liked it. “It’s a Youngblood thing anyway. “You must. My family has been tight with Benelli’s family since before I was born.” Her smile trembles with pure sadness.

and I feel more and more like a fucking idiot . only to realize in a single blink that the person you were in love with may have never existed at all. Benelli and her date are gone. It was martyrish of me to hang on to it for all this time. “Wouldn’t want to scratch those pretty green eyes out. Her date drops her off at sixthirty. I’m sure she’s not sleeping with any of them. perfect.” I listen to the retreating click of her heels and wonder how long it will be before she breaks down and finds a shop to buy a fresh pack in. “Take the damn lighter though. I ignore his fury and toss the bent spoon and a few extra bills on the table before I grab my papers and stalk to Benelli’s aunt’s house. and I’m about to go into heavy nicotine withdrawals already.” I know what it feels like to have your heart dug from your chest with a dull spoon. Go get her. I can see Abony pouring him the brew at the same table I sat at with Benelli when she bandaged my hand. and I attempt to keep my wild imagination in check. because I actually like you. Whether or not she has physical chemistry with the assholes she’s dating is a realistic part of the process. where I’ve bent my coffee spoon in half. just shoot me now before I slide into a miserably unsatisfying mid-life slump. In a fit of chivalrous daring. I’m not even sure it’s comprised of anything but swears. “Don’t be. I look down at my hand.” She cups her hand under my chin and kisses my strong and amazing or whatever. waiting while the hulk agrees to a cup of coffee in the kitchen. and if I’m acting like a martyr. “Oh. that means I’m becoming my mother. but is there anything else physical going on? Most likely. We never agreed on any firm boundaries for Benelli’s dates. sweeping the napkin bits off the table so they rain down on the stones like confetti at a parade. The guy stays a good half an hour. he didn’t even think twice about me.” “I’m sorry.” she snaps. So damn perfect. Now I need to get away from you. yelling in such quick and awful Hungarian. And if that’s happening.” She reaches for the cigarettes she threw out and begins a frantic search before I dare to mention. These dates are her way of determining who she’s going to spend the rest of her life with. How could we? I’m not her boyfriend. “You better make this happen. hotshot. I’m deep in thoughts that feature some random meathead getting touchy with my girl when the waiter storms over to my table.” Her laugh is defeated. I skulk in the bushes like a criminal.” She points an accusing finger at me. I know what it is to think you’re with a certain person. “Gone. When I glance up from my papers.

“How was work?” “Terrible.fine. As it is. Usually she’s changed by the time I’ve come by. “Damnit. I like her natural looking. her voice guarded. The light is for me. but. So did the manager at the restaurant I ate at.” she answers. “He’s. Benelli’s told me multiple times that Abony thinks she should run away with me. I’m not getting to the point where I think I can say goodbye. one hand on either side of her head. Two bright spots of red burn through the makeup on her face. “I know. I think we made it worse. But I don’t go in the back door because there’s a certain ridiculous kind of romance to scaling a wall and popping in through her window.” She puts her hands on my face and rubs her thumbs over my jaw.every minute I hide out. “Since we’re not actually dating.. “This has never been just sex.” “Me neither.” I cage my arms around her. Cormac. I wonder if she’d ever put the effort into dressing up for me. and lean .” I don’t mean to sound like such a short-tempered asshole. even if it isn’t remotely dark at just after seven. her styled hair brushed out. Cormac. Or stop toying with me and send me in her aunt’s direction.” I say between gritted teeth. She crosses her arms tight. I don’t think she could bend in it. “My date was nice. “The woman who did my nails asked me today. And it’s not getting easier. and her bedroom light goes on. I know I could just walk through the back door. Which definitely freaks me out slightly. I don’t really want to talk about him. do we have to go through the boring domestic routine?” Some of the shine dissolves from her eyes. I see the flash of Benelli’s bright blue dress. her tight clothes shed for comfortable ones. I can’t wait for night. and I miss the sweet weight of them immediately. The second he leaves. “Hi.” “We could leave.. no matter where I go or who I’m with. when I come through and see her this way. I can’t stop thinking about you. I think about you all day.” She smiles and wraps her arm around my neck. How was your date?” I ask with elevated faux interest. “I know this is just sex. her face makeup free.” I agree with adamant emphasis on the words. and I think she’d plop on her bed if that damn sexy dress would let her. “Everyone asks each other how their day went.” “Of course. Cormac. but I can’t seem to stop the words that fly out of my mouth like a runaway train on a path to sure destruction. her back against the wall. gaping at him. but don’t you think a little talking first is nice?” I stalk over to her so fast she retreats on her high shoes.” She drops her hands from my neck.

” “So what’s the answer.” She got bored with missionary style quickly. The first night we were together. since we have this right now. No. because I don’t know how many more dates I can watch you go on.” She kneels on the bed and reaches one hand behind her. It just doesn’t work that way. “Whatever you want. She turns around in my arms and presses the curve of her ass against me. “I am perfectly capable of getting a job. I don’t know how many nights I can spend hiding in the bushes. I’m glad. I need more.” I don’t. I know she has a BA.know that. drawing up her skirt. I can’t just leave them. The only thing she ever talks about where her future is concerned is her family and their damn business. “You. I am. My dick jumps to instant.” She lies back on her bed stiffly. can’t we just have this? Please?” Her voice is throaty.close to her. Her underwear is a nothing but a few ribbon-like pieces of diaphanous scrap fabric. because that’s the truth. “We could buy train tickets. That’s the last things I need.” She starts to lift her fingers up to her temples. “Wow. I’d be with you. “I. Benelli?” I ask. and I intercept them and rub where she was going to. I swear. and we’re heading towards nothing. pulling her back up so we’re facing each other again. hard life.” She enunciates every single word. You don’t get it. I need more. I’m honored that I get to be with her when she learns all this. “Tell me. over her ankles and toss them onto the floor. experiments with all of this sweet. “I like it this way. for herself. she demanded to be on top. “This way?” I make sure. I won’t be okay living away from them. then hook my fingers in the threads and pull them down her legs. “So you could get a job..” I say. sexy craziness. We’d be together.” “Why?” I demand. I just have to stop thinking about the fact that all I do with her will eventually be something she . I step forward and splay my hands over the silky skin of her backside. but she’s never told me what she’d like to do with her life. all her carefully curled hair spread on the white sheets. too. I can support us. Your parents will only be upset for a little while. We could.” She twists out of my arms. And have an apartment somewhere. Cormac. “You have no idea what you’re asking me to do.. “If there was a way.” “I don’t know. She says the one word that undoes me. The solid truth. I can get a job. But. She sighs and leans into my hands.

Cormac. and she’s already soaking wet. then press deep. and I feel a mix of pride and shame over my corruption of Benelli. “I was thinking about having your cock in me. sexy girl in front of me. “You’re crazy. “Now. She lets out a long moan and rears back against me. I love the full swell of them when they hang forward like that. My chest is tight to her back and we’re locked together so tight it makes her squirm and gasp. “I learn quickly. up to the hilt. I reach forward and . I kiss up and down along her neck. I lean over her.” “You’re gorgeous. I let my pants fall from my hips and roll the condom on.does with her husband. unzip my pants. Cormac. “I was thinking about you. waiting for the beginning pulses of heat and tightness that will let me know she’s ready to come. and smiles.” She looks over her shoulder at me. She giggles. then coast over the skin covered by dress and kiss each perfect cheek of her ass. I love running my hands over her skin. and am already ridiculously hard. so I just yank down on the thin straps until it finally releases her tits to my eager hands. my thighs flush with the firm curve of her ass. The three dozen condoms ran out two days before. kissing the back of her ears. for that closeness we’re always starved for. Are you sure you were a virgin two weeks ago?” I ask.” She wags her hips back and forth and I throw my shirt off. I grip onto her.” I grip her hips to keep myself upright. things that have nothing to do with sex and lust and now. I’m not even sure how to get her out of this stupid dress. pull out until I’m only barely in. Now!” she demands. “Wow.” I want to say a million other things. I shove that thought out of my brain and focus on the incredibly gorgeous. the stretch of her neck. So I take it. working over her soaking skin with my fingers and my tongue until she’s even slicker and pumping her hips frantically every time I so much as brush against her. When her frustrated moans let me know she’s not quite where she wants to be. Her back is arched and she’s clawing for me to be closer. My vision blurs for a second. all the way into her. deep and hard. her bare shoulders while I drive into her. so we’re officially on a second box. but this is my only alternative. I slide against her and press. but thrusting deeper into her. I dip low and lick at her. again and again and she reaches her hand around to grab frantically at mine. I slide one finger between her legs. ruining the rhythm slightly.

“Now. tight suck of her around my dick.” I hear her trying to get out of her dress. “Do they hurt?” I ask. bitter face she’s talking about.” she pleads and the way she begs for me.relax. because whenever I press her to talk about it. just for a second. I don’t have to think about a single thing in the world other than my body and hers and how perfect they feel together. because I know exactly the pouting.” She slides a pair of shorts up and pulls on a t-shirt. too.. “You know I have to go on dates. taking the condom off. You know that. My pants are down around my knees. Her dress is pushed up under her breasts. They just squeeze a little too tight. “Always the romantic. she avoids the conversation at all costs. and I’m free. makes everything blur into a hot. “So. just like I know when I repeat . Now. “Cormac.” “What face?” But I’ve already rolled over and am pulling my pants on. Benelli is gorgeously shaped. Now. where I know she’s had all the pleasure she can take. We turn to look at each other and the tension from before melts. and my hands clamp hard on her hips while. and just be with her..tease her clit with swift strokes of my finger until she starts to shake and jerk around me. sexy rush. My mom would freak if I didn’t always look my best. I love when I can see her face. Cormac. watch her lose control under me.” I close my eyes and feel the hot. and I don’t know if she realizes how rare it is. “Please don’t make that face. for this. I love this second. “I don’t think I have any dates lined up tomorrow. I know that.” I suggest. Now I make do with rolling her over and holding her close immediately after. “I dress like that all the time at home.” She sighs. “These? No. I love to watch her come. I’m coming. Just be myself. We’re laughing. She runs her hands over them as she makes her way to the dresser. I don’t know what she thinks about us. “Come here. To be able to go from irritated to passionate to laughing in the span of a half an hour.” She lets out a long breath as the fabric falls away. “Thank you. and I don’t want her to see it.” She scoots over and I undo the ties that got knotted during my brief attempt to get her dress off before. but the dress leaves deep red imprints criss-crossed on her skin. It’s so nice to be here and just. for one perfect second. to let go. The point where she’s about to let go.” She says the words without really reflecting on them.” Benelli traces her fingertip down my nose. Cormac. maybe next time we should take all our clothes off.

. “No. I love when she does this. love.I don’t know. I found him. I run my hands from her wrists to her elbows. I don’t have time for games with her. She crosses her arms and shakes her head.” I hope it’s all getting through to her. wringing her arms around my neck again. you need to stop this now. Please. Because you could be yourself. What else did you say?” I prod. “If you want this. She laughs. I feel like I’m ramming my head into a wall over and over again.. okay? It would be one thing if I knew you really wanted this arranged marriage thing. The problem is. When she stops squirming and getting me incredibly horny exactly ten minutes after our mind-blowing sex. I don’t want you to pick apart everything I say. I’d have to wear a suit everyday. ‘Cormac. I know I’m irritating her by bringing this up over and over again. . but I only have a few short weeks. Is that so bad? If I was a businessman. But if the you your family thinks is you is just pretending to want this. And she clearly feels this way too. I found the man of my dreams’ you’d be fine with it?” She raises one eyebrow.her words back to her. “I have no idea. Not this again. “Cormac. “I want to know you’re happy. Benelli. “I said.” I take her hand and wed our fingers together. “Because you don’t mind when I dress like a gym rat?” I glare at her for using my own lame tactic on me. “Not that. the way I did Akos. What did I say?” “You said it was nice being here. go for it. “Yes!” I lie. She sighs. I try again. she’s going to tense up and get upset. but I feel a bit like an ogre with a club crashing into a glade with a unicorn..” I backtrack. Why am I the only one who sees this?” I gesture with my hand up and down her body. So you’d get your ass handed to you again?” Her eyes dance a full-tilt whiskey-drunk Irish hornpipe. “Succubus! You know I won that fight fair and square!” I blow a raspberry on her neck and she squeals. because I love watching it swish back down around her face later on. “I keep having this conversation with you because it’s important to me. “You do realize what you said?” I ask. She leans her head on my chest.” She lets me pull her close and plops down on my lap.I love being with you. “So.” She pulls her hair back in a messy ponytail. “Cormac. What did you say?” I’m using the most gentle voice I can. I love the way I feel with you.” “What you say means something.” “Ah. I said I have to dress up at home. “I would probably fight him.. tell me I don’t understand. if I found a guy tomorrow and said. when I pull it out.

and bites her bottom lip.” I tighten my arms around her body. heart-wrenching accusations. that will stop me from having to leave. I can’t hear you tell me that you aren’t yourself except for the tiny fragments of time when we’re together. . her face lined with hurt and confusion. I feel lost. trying hard to resist the urge to throttle her. Do you hear me?” When I open my eyes. well-deep fear that ‘lost’ is going to be the only way I’ll feel for the rest of my life if I don’t have Benelli at my side. I can’t just satisfy your sexual curiosity and never talk about your future. but I still hear her sobs. they wouldn’t ask this of you. “I’m sure if your parents knew how you felt. No questions. lets her hair down the way she knows makes me crazy. Cormac?” she asks.” I can barely believe I’m doing this. “Can we stop? Please?” She moves to her computer chair. what you were giving up.” I swing my leg over the sill and scale back down the side of the house. then have you ignore me when I ask what you’re going to do about that. I walk fast. Yet. “Listen to me. There’s nothing to do. “Cormac?” She gets up from the chair. anything. and I feel a simultaneously sudden. “What do you have to say?” My voice quakes. I’m stuck. “Then there’s nothing else for me to say to you.But I don’t have a choice.” she whispers. okay. pounding against my ears like choking. like this might be easier to deal with if I can’t see her clearly. Benelli. I cannot just make love to you every night and not get to talk to you during the day. “Because I haven’t. she looks shell-shocked. my heart shredding like it’s been drawn-and-quartered. can barely believe I’m walking away from her. “Have you ever had sex on a chair. There’s nothing I can do. I shut my eyes. but I sweep my shirt off the floor and yank it over my head. No parent would ask this of their child. “Cormac. “I hear you. desperate for her to say anything. I can’t.” She presses her hand to her lips as she watches me get up and cross the room to her window. And my marriage is the last chance. Have you spoken with them?” She pulls her arms from my neck and holds her hands in her lap. My family’s business is going to tank. It has to work. our future.

and set out for I don’t know where. “Hey. the dazzling starshine. much as I’ll miss Cormac when he’s gone. Anywhere that’s not close to Cormac’s apartment would be perfect. Hi.I didn’t realize you guys were even here. As I make my way out of town. “Winch. I get all the way to the clearing before I realize I’m not alone.Benelli 6 I’ve curled in a ball. And I’ve made too much noise to back up unobtrusively.. But.” Winch is right behind her. and if I wake up with puffy. Not that they’d ever actually figure it out. the kind born of too many months without day-to-day contact. Myself. Benelli. right?” Evan interrupts. None at all. so Mama thought we’d just get together tomorrow for dinner. why don’t you two catch up for a minute. when I was running away from one of the dozens of guys I’ve dated. We have no time to waste. until the entire sky is thickly splattered with them. I didn’t.” My brother’s calm. One of the pair stands. his arm wrapped tight around her waist. Well. and we can share a dessert when you’re done. I drink in the chilly air. The local coffee place has wireless. Thank God. check some email. quiet voice is laced with a formality when he talks to me. “Oh. there’s someone I might miss even more at the end of this summer. um.” . stick my hands in my pockets. “Our plane landed while you were on your date. because my entire family is here. the mountain paths that are mine all mine for this tiny sliver of time. I know I should go patch things up with Cormac. breathing hard to control my tears. I press my hands down in the pockets of my hoodie until it’s strained around my head and keep walking along the path to the lakefront where I met Cormac that first day. they’ll start to pester me. Evan. the stars start to twinkle brighter and brighter. I was just walking by--” “I was going to. clean air..” “Great. I throw my hoodie on. I peel myself off the mattress and decide to wander around for a while in the cool. When I was running away from the future that needs to become my present sooner than later. and I would recognize the proud way she holds her shoulders anywhere. red eyes. asking questions and getting in little digs until they unearth the reason for my upset.

He nuzzles her neck and whispers something about Evan tasting better than any dessert. which makes everything raw and hurt again.” He cups a handful of gritty sand and spills it out in a slow. and pulls her back for one third.happy. “Is Remy coming?” My question erodes his smile.” I slip my feet out of my sneakers. The motion makes me think of fighting. but Winch lets out an exasperated sigh. He doesn’t snap and say that Evan might feel more comfortable around me if I hadn’t been a heinous bitch to her when she met. Or a counselor. He pulls her close. “I know that. I’m happy as hell.” I keep my voice low. but I do my best to ignore my brother’s shameless flirting. “He’s working really hard at rehab. and heads back to town. I also turn my head when he kisses her once. You too. “I didn’t mean to make you upset.Evan seems standoffish until she talks to my brother. You look. patient pile.” “Mama thinks he should come home. just the perfect way a thousand times a day. I guess that makes sense. shifting my sneakers in the sand. fitting her against his body with a comfort that comes from snuggling into just the perfect place. “Well. and she can’t keep a semi-permanent smile off her face.” I don’t want to make him feel badly about what he has with Evan or negate their happiness. my chin on my knees. “Yeah?” He shakes his head. waves goodbye.. I was never really able to move on from the fact that she was the girl who ripped my older brother away from our family for good.. but a little piece of me still burns over the whole thing.” The last grains of sand drop onto the pebbled shore. The smile that spreads on his face is shy.” he finally says. That’s for sure. which my brother excels at. twice.” he says simply.” I keep my voice as neutral as possible. possessively. hard kiss before she laughs. “Thanks.” I say. “I’m. and fighting makes me think of Akos and Cormac. Her eyes shine... Remy’s where he needs to be. and he needs to be there until he’s got his shit together and can stand on his own two feet. “I know that everyone carries what they carry. “No. Then it’s like her entire face opens up and glows. Winch is always calm. “You look good. Even if they don’t talk about it. my eyes on the moonlight rippling on the lake.going through some stuff right now. His smile is calm.” I look at him from . then sits and pats the space next to him. “She didn’t have to leave. Even when I gained some grudging respect for her.” Winch is so quiet I can hear the far-off bullfrogs plopping into the water. “Mama isn’t an addict. and Winch tightens his hand into a fist.

” “I agree.” He drops his pile of pebbles and looks right at me. But I think you’re done being the glue. because you bridge the old world she lives in with the new world Pop has to maneuver... a cyclone of furious sadness and rage charging through me. “I call Remy every Tuesday and Thursday. I thread it through my fingers over and over and I decide to say what I need to say to the only person who can truly understand the one thing I’m scared as hell to utter out loud. but I didn’t abandon them completely. It’s calming. maybe. But when they rip apart. the one I carry around all the time. Forever. shakes it three times. . throws. just to be contrary. “How does it make sense?” I demand. may be the wisest of all of us.” Winch doesn’t even bat an eyelash over the fact that tears are pouring out of my eyes faster than I can wipe them away.” “I don’t like when you talk in metaphors. So stop being the glue.sometimes I want to run away. who I secretly thought was a runaway coward. And you have to hold the entire universe together. but there’s nothing except the sound of my brother’s calm breathing and the plop of the bullfrogs. “It makes sense. “You are the glue. like the cry of something startled or wounded. And it can’t. maybe like I’m expecting the world to open up under my feet or a for a tsunami to jump from the lake and crash over our heads. Evan helps me think of shit to say in the letters. takes one in his right hand. the glue has to work harder to hold it all together. “What do you mean you agree?” My voice echoes in the quiet night. “I don’t think you should leave. I was a crutch. Benelli. “I mean. and repeats.” “Like you? Like how you ran off and left us?” I ask. I can’t just leave the family.” He runs a hand over his jaw.” I hold my breath once the words are out.” I grumble. his eyes mirror images of mine. “You can’t. I write Mama every Sunday.” I pull out the red handkerchief Cormac gave me. I know it isn’t much. “I can’t just give up everything. “How does it not?” He throws four more pebbles before he says another word.” He scoops up some pebbles in his left hand. Which is fine when all the pieces are in place. My staying was allowing Remy to get weaker and weaker. but still play at living. just because my head is spinning and I have a feeling my brother. More than Mama. “Winch?” “Yeah?” “Sometimes. that I’m shaking and on the verge of breaking down. oblivious to our problems. The only choice I had was to stop being the crutch. I left because leaving what what I had to do.the corner of my eye.

things that changed the way I looked at him forever. there’s a lot of dark in our family. Never. He pats my hair with one hand and clutches me close in this other arm. my breath coming fast. Benelli. And it’s so nice to feel a strong. muscular arm out and drags me close. Pop has shielded you from as much as he could. but my shoulders. “Winch. Winch ducks his head and looks me in the eye. and I feel knee-jerkingly shaky. and. smart Youngblood man who’s not falling apart. You know I did for years. I’ve seen him do heartless things. so I’m wrapped up in his clean. A little girl in a hoodie running away? A cool-hearted. But he loves Mama.” Who I am. someone who’ll trade happiness for a ring and a promise that may never get fulfilled? Obedient daughter on the outside. that I can trust my brother to tell me the truth. You know who you are. Abony told me that Pop bartered her for connections. he’s never cheated. my heart. “It got fucked up when we played by our parents’ rules.” I bite the inside of my cheek so hard I taste the metallic backwash of blood. He made her a mistress to some powerful guy he pissed off. and sent her to college when he was done. “Winch. and I know.” I have so many things to worry about. “I don’t doubt it. dolled-up lady during the day and a love-sick sex fiend at night? Someone who knows lies. He loves her with his whole heart. You’re gonna be the gamechanger this family needs. I realize what a huge deal my brother leaving . “Our father can be a real bastard.He reaches a long. this should be the last thing I would even contemplating inviting on my plate. my soul sags with relief at Winch’s pronouncement. Benelli. We walk back from the lake in relative quiet. explosive runner on the inside? “Do you think Pop cheated? Do you think there was anyone else?” I ask. He nods and blows a breath out. as far as I know.” Winch’s absolute confidence in me is the opposite of reassuring. someone who keeps secrets. my eyes prickled with a batch of new tears. Because a lot of people know shit and bury their heads in the sand. I cling to his shirt and bury my face in his neck. but I think it’s good for you to know. Benelli. how did it all get so fucked up?” I gasp out. you don’t even see yourself anymore. clover smell. You hear me? You’re so used to being stuck in the role they put you in. But you’re stronger than that. innately. there’s no one smarter than you.

” He leans close. they connection they have. and she makes me keep working hard to be a better person. Evan’s head pops up at the sound of the bell’s jingle. “You know how you asked about Pop cheating?” Winch says. Okay? Do that because that’s what you deserve. so I know he must be out. the gorgeous perfection of the two of them together makes me want the one person who wants nothing to do with me right now. Her eyes are wide and dark.” He kisses my cheek and swings open the door to the cafe. I love Evan every day. and her entire face and body screams. Hungarian mama’s boy. Choose love. I nod. a better man.” He rips his eyes away from Evan to look me in the eye. But the way he loves her? That’s probably what’s saved him from caving into to every other dark thing in this life. “I don’t know much about how to not fuck up. Don’t take the easy way out. right in the eye. his eyes flashing with something I don’t see all that often in my cool and calm brother’s face. He’s looking down at the cobblestones. I’ve fucked up so much. All I can tell you for sure. Somebody who’s not a spoiled. her hand curled around a mug of coffee. her eyes fixed on her phone. This town is small enough that I could find him. like he can barely say what he needs to say. I wonder what could be making him worry. even though I swore I wouldn’t wind up there. I’ve lost a lot of respect for him about a lot of things. entitled. Choose someone who will push you and challenge you. the blue light of the screen making her perfect face look. It’s passion. If you’re gonna be able to do what I think you will for this crazy. fucked-up family. even more gorgeous. I keep walking through the town. her lips are curled in a knowing smile. and.” “The business--” I start to object but Winch cuts me off. is that I love that girl. . his eyes never quite leaving Evan.was. and I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised to see sparks ignite between the two of them. “If you never listen to a word I say for the rest of our lives. Beni. somehow. you need somebody. We’re almost to the coffee shop. okay? Don’t rush this marriage thing. “About the marriage thing?” I wait while he attempts to collect his thoughts. “Well. and I see a look on her face that squeezes my heart. when I get to Cormac’s apartment. The way they touch. He looks through the window and we both see Evan. It’s too early for him to be asleep. and I feel like an idiot for blaming our family’s problems on him. listen now. After the particular set of confessions this evening. “Benelli?” Winch’s voice shakes me out of my reverie. “Fuck the business. big brother stare-down style. “I love you! Come over to me!” Winch beelines back to her. every second. the room is dark. with no regrets.

. If he doesn’t keep up with his workload.” he says woozily. “Hey. Good god. noticing the bartender sending a scowl in my direction. Please do something about him. they’ll cut him loose. “Thank God you’re here. It sucks that that person happens to be the very last person Lala would want to see. a shot glass about to roll off the side and crash to the floor at his feet... elbowing. but I went back to nail biting. and I approach Cormac. my phone beeps and I hope it’s Cormac. maddening mid-week crowd to find him. Exactly. He told me he’d nodded off during notes several days in a row. a grimace spread across her face. who’s studying his shoes with fixed intensity. and she darts in front of us and uses her breasts to their best. “I gave up cigs. a few weeks ago. humming softly. “Hello.. and I fight through the bulldozing. and I know it’s taking a toll on his work. .. and I have time to text the only person I can think of to help. Lala notices. “I’m a bish. I read Lala’s text twice: ‘Your pet is off his leash. I’m not. he’s probably working. his green eyes rolling in his head. most distracting advantage. She follows my sight-line.I could sleep. his skin a particular shade of green usually reserved for movie zombies.” His head goes heavy and I tip him back onto the bar. Lala. half hanging off the bar.” She turns back to the bar. Plus that. Not at all. I don’t get a chance to warn her. Cormac battered his fists defending me from Akos. His tears are a buzzkill and hes a cock blocker. rebellious youth dies in front of my eyes. were you jogging again? I need another fucking drink before my fun. Just when my guilty conscious is making me shake. “I think... throws a casual hand out to catch the glass before it plummets to its doom.I’m a little drunk. It’s not. He winds up staying with me until all hours of the night. In the chaos of Lala’s intense flirtation with the bartender and my attempts to keep Cormac from rolling off the barstool and cracking his head on the floor.” “Can you make it home?” I put one hand on his cheek and he closes his eyes and nuzzles my palm..’ I rush to the bar where.But I’m not that desperate. It works like a charm. and his automatic manners solder his spine and force a smile on his face.” I sit next to him.” She’s jostling one knee and her left index nail is missing.a too. Nope. Save me.

“I need to just go to this side for one quick thing. man! Can you hear me? We gotta go home! C’mon. and shakes his head. even though Lala’s eyes follow him with a mixture of hope and resignation. Winch nods to her once. people part on either side for him. then nods. My heart skips about nine beats. her eyes wide and her mouth tight. “If this is gonna be your guy. then comes directly to me and Cormac. she’s leaned over the bar. He groans. who told me. and Ithaca’s friends with Evan. You can’t really expect to keep something like this a secret for long.” Cormac stands. “‘Scuse me. louder each time. though he never says a single word. You’ve seen his picture in my room. Lala gets up to help. “Thank you. This is a tiny town. but I shake my head at her to let her know we’ve got him.” he slurs. but we need to keep it on the downlow. laughs. you need to teach him to handle his liquor. man. but he’s not passing any judgment on why Cormac would have been in my room looking through my pictures. My brother’s always had this effect on groups of people.” Winch tilts his head to the side and slaps Cormac’s shoulder. then squints up at my brother. I got it. I run to the other side and try my best to help. “This the professor?” he asks. little sister.Winch walks in and. When I look back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone this drunk before. and the bartender repeats his suggestive question about where she’s staying tonight twice. “How do you know?” I hiss. not quite straight. so I’m not doing much good. “Lala said something in front of Ithaca. “Right. “Ah!” Cormac nods. I know the instant Lala sees Winch. Cormac. The cool night air seems to revive Cormac. “Hey! Hey.” His voice is semi- .” He sits awkwardly on the curb and shakes his head a few times. because she’s ignoring him completely. then holds out a hand. “Do I know you from somewhere?” “He’s my brother. She flicks a look at Winch. Beni. “I’m the guy who’s madly in love with your sister. but I’m about five inches shorter. My brother shakes it. It’s a first priority secret.” Winch slides one arm around Cormac and hoists him to his feet. and the bartender has handed her a cigarette and is holding out a lighter. Her throaty laugh catches in her throat. but completely unaided.” I glance at Winch nervously.” He turns his attention to Cormac.” My brother is attempting not to double over and die of laughter. it’s what made him so amazing at keeping our older brother as inline as he managed to keep him for years on end in all kinds of crazy social situations. mate.

But he’s straight-up funny. Cormac turns to me. I raise an eyebrow and look down at Cormac. My heart jumps cliff dives into the whirpool that is my stomach when I realize the fact I’ve been . “Where the hell did that curb come from?” “Lead the way. And honest as hell. and I can’t even think. I like him. They shock me cold and quiet and stick right in the back of my throat so I can’t swallow or breathe. stupid. “He’s cool. “You.this is weird enough for me to say. considering I’m your big brother and all. You almost bashed your brains in!” My brother is having a riot fest. snoring lightly as he nearly rolls off the mattress. my beautiful girl. Cormac looks shaken. As he steps of the curb and nosedives. And when I saw it again.” The words shock me. think he’s cool?” “Okay. Benelli. That’s crazy. out-of-his-damn-mind love. not like cool like in the obvious way.” he murmurs. Cormac throws an arm out.” Winch laughs and shrugs. just like that.” Cormac announces. and his hand lands on my leg. We need to get this guy home quick.” We make the slow journey back to Cormac’s. If you ever need a favor. but when he looks at you? Beni. and Winch half-hauls him up the stairs and shoves him on his bed. and I appreciate you saving me before I poisoned my liver. Winch Too-Cool Youngblood. Do you hear me? Do you understand me? I love you. Benelli Youngblood. Beni. Winch manages to leap over me and barely catch him before he hits the street.” And.. I’m going home. at a loss for words. Winch is gone.sober and sincere as he addresses Winch. his green eyes gorgeously bleary and sad. “And now.” Winch hesitates in the doorway. “And you? I drank and drank in a desperate attempt to forget your face. I catch him by the shoulder and haul him back toward me. “You got this?” I nod. I realized that I don’t care how terribly this blows up on me. you know. half-rolled back in his head. I am in your debt. That’s all about you. And. looking at Cormac’s eyes. and it’s got nothing to do with whatever Hungarian moonshine he drank tonight.. that’s love. “Mmm. “This guy?” I point down. before I can answer him or ask him a single question or argue or agree. and I’m left with a seriously drunk guy I might be in love with and the wisdom of my very smart brother’s words in my ears. “Whoa. In his sleep. I never want to live a day without seeing your face. He rubs up and down my thigh and half smiles in his sleep. “I’m an idiot.

I know exactly what my brother felt and why he made the decisions he did. his hands searching me out. because my parents are coming by in the morning. I run my fingers over his short. I can stay awake and try to steel my will. and now I realize why. My family’s business would hatchet every romantic piece of him and feed the bloody bits to the wolves. I want it so badly. I should be home in bed. What I want is you. “You. perfect guy. Or I can .” I whisper. And poetic. Why he did what he had to do. a certain disposition. Now that being a Youngblood is forcing me to choose between the family I love and the man I love. I pull off his shoes and socks. I pull his shirt over his head and admire him in all his lean. but can’t anymore. I want that. He would never survive a Youngblood business deal. He’s loyal enough to stick with my family. unzip his pants and tug them down. but not know me? How can I love them so much but be petrified to tell them the one thing I want?” He rolls on his side. and Cormac doesn’t have it. it will be past the time when I can make it back to my bed undetected. I get up because I need to keep busy or my thoughts are going to drive me insane. The image of Winch kissing Evan by the lake flashes through my mind. “What kind of family does that?” I ask Cormac’s sleeping form out loud. He got it by turning his back on our family.. his arms pulling me tight even in the depths of his drunkenness. He’s hardworking and charming and. funny. Goofy. His mouth hangs open and he snores and moans a little. Not at all. sweet. and in a few hours.” It’s late at night. leg by leg. keep up my conviction to turn my back on the family I’ve always cherished for this one singular shot at a possible something with Cormac.. And dreamy. “I think I love you. The bright blue numbers on his alarm clock alert me to the fact that it’s late. muscled glory.attempting to ignore. even the ones that are completely clean. dark hair and wonder what it would be like if he was the one. “How can they love me so much. And crazily in love with books and reading and translations. He’s definitely smart enough for business. This business takes a certain knack. I love him. I lie down on the mattress next to Cormac and run the back of my hand over the scruff that’s starting to grow beyond five o’clock shadow. crazy. Cormac Halstrom. I straight up love this stupid. We’re supposed to have a breakfast together.

and he’s not kissing me awake for romance... “Is that what you want?” He widens his eyes and blinks..” His face goes pale. Just. So. I think the gods are telling me that I was very wrong yesterday. spine to ribs.the ones that most reminded me of you. Or earlier tonight. smiling at him. And I’m ready. “Re-learned.yes. “By the way. So I memorized some particularly beautiful verses. my back spooned to his chest. *** “Awed by her splendor/ stars near the lovely/ moon cover their own/ bright faces/ when she/ is roundest and lights/ earth with her silver..” he corrects. kissing me softly on the lips. “To get married?” I feel my cheeks burn. The sky will lighten. hair to mouth. and would probably have to be carried to bed on his broad shoulders. so I’m fitted against him. I don’t know who to turn to or who to trust or what to think. It’s still the midnight and silver of deep night. . The point is definitely that I’m sincerely sorry. I’m very sorry. the decision will have been made. get so drunk at a bar that I’d wind up stumbling around in front of your incredibly macho brother. “More Sappho you remembered?” I stall. “Me?” “Not you?” My head spins like I drank. and I’m scared out of my mind to make a decision either way.” He kisses me again. And I will shamelessly use them to win you back to my very. leave you horny in your room.” I sit up and pull the covers over my shoulders in the chilly night air. And.. “I had this weird feeling I might fuck up.. And then I realize there’s another option. And then I sleep. “I was an idiot. feet entwined.I’m slightly clairvoyant when it comes to my own miserable failings. but when I open my eyes. when day comes. sorry. The time will pass.” Cormac’s voice is in my what I have to and go back to the people who’ve done nothing but love and care for me since I was a little girl. netted and woven. long arm over my ribs and tugs me tight. Cormac. and he throws a strong. his lips lingering a tiny bit this time. I lie down. I feel a little like an entire tribe of obnoxious clown children on speed are kickboxing my skull and like I may have eaten a cartload of rotten fish.” “I was wrong. I don’t see the oranges and pinks of dawn. I can just fold myself into his arms and sleep. Or wherever we are in time. very marginal good side. And. I don’t know what to do. He doesn’t pull completely away when he says the rest. if it makes you feel better. I’ll start my life with Cormac.

Benelli. and I press my hips up harder against his hand. You’re the only one I want to touch me. “You want me to suck here?” His lips close over my nipple.. “And not just in bed.” he whispers. waiting. “They’re just dates. He draws his fingers back out and presses them in.. so his two fingers slide deep inside of me. As mine. “You want me to touch you like this. down my body. I shake my head and he nuzzles the underside of my breast again. I want you here. His fingers flick the clasp of my bra open and press and pull at my suddenly exposed breasts.’ “Did you not want. humming vibrations echoing through my body don’t allow anything more articulate. to talk back. I want you every second of the day. and the thrumming.” I choke out.. under the . along my shoulders.” I want to answer. loving the feral side of Cormac that he usually keeps buttoned up. C’mon. “That’s it. I only nod. When I see you out on your dates. but the slide of his fingers seems to be directly connected to my vocal” Now I’m feeling like an ass and glad for the few hours his midnight wake-up call will give me to cry this out before I see my family. Cormac.” He runs his hands over my hair. so unbearably sweet and cruelly gorgeous. love? Should I suck on you too?” His voice is so calm. “Where else. Benelli?” His voice scratches in my ears. down my belly button. first softly. His tongue slides down. “Mmmhmm. Benelli.” “Like this?” He shoves his hand up the leg of my shorts and tears away at the fabric of my underwear. and I can’t tell if he would rather hear a ‘yes’ or a ‘no. my moan fractures and sputters. then catches the other in his mouth and tongues it until I’m jerking my hips harder against him. then with more aggression.“You want to marry me?” he asks slowly. but his free hand twists my tank top and yanks it over my head. presses me under his body and kisses me. slow and steady. Come for me. It’s just that last time we talked he seemed so. Out an in. pulling his mouth away with a pop of suction.” I moan a little.. He sucks hard. “Yes. my head tilted back. so hard my clit rubs against his wrist and he slides even deeper into me. not anyone else’s. deep in where I’m already wet and ready for him. I mean. so soft and low in my ears. I want to beat the shit out of every one of those guys. bisecting between my breasts. but only for me. until I’m panting under him. “My god. “I want you!” He pulls me back to him.ready. only. sending a new wave of heat through me.

His smile falters and he backs up. his mouth a flat. And I want everyone to know it. and I want it. and I’m sitting naked on the lap of a guy who doesn’t love me and decided I wasn’t worth it and went to drink my memory away this very night.” I laugh at his random literary metaphor. I’m positive. over and over.. “Pardon?” he asks. “I love you. over each dark-lashed eye. his breathing so heavy it’s making his chest rise and fall visibly. so I slide a few inches down his thighs. all of you. his green eyes almost black.. hungry line. because I’m not leaving you. ready center of me sliding right where he’s hard and eager. I push him back on the bed and yank his boxers off. “I love you. my voice fierce. looking up at me like I’m the only thing that matters to him in the world. I want him in the morning. I do. Not for sex. which smells like the ink and paper he loves. all night. the question so dazed and proper. not for a summer fling. There’s a moment of sizzling. not just for that one single second before I have to watch him repel down the side of the house. I will figure this out.” I lean forward and kiss his strong jaw. the entire morning. but it is. his . my hands firm on his shoulders. You’ve begged me and left me and come back to me. into his dark hair. crackling tension in the air between us. and I just want to tell you that I love you. I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life. When he pulls back. “Don’t say anything. Because I don’t want to keep Cormac a secret anymore. so damn me when I’m in his arms. only pulling back to kiss me solidly on the lips. He sits up and pulls them off my legs. Then he drags me in his arms and crushes me against his hard chest. I pull closer on his lap. You’ve challenged me. the perfectly kissable. But I don’ him. “You’ve fought for me. at the way I feel so perfect. love. we can figure this out. If Odysseus could make it back to Penelope. I want him for the complete day. The tight stretch of his cotton boxer briefs shows the hard length of his dick.waistband of my shorts. I want to have him meet the family I love. I’m never leaving you. witty mouth. it almost makes me burst out laughing. not a single idea. and before I know it. I. his eyes are bright with determination. And I want you. loving the way he lies back and smiles. We can do this. not just the one brother who can keep a secret. the wet. and the kissing gets more intense until it morphs into touching. All of you.” I say.” His mouth is hanging open. I want him in me. how this is going to work. and there’s this solitary flash of a second where I’m sure. I love you. And I have no idea.

spent and sweaty. how your skin would look naked and wet and slippery with soap. not close enough. He keeps whispering things that make my cheeks burn. muscled back. in a heap on the bed. making my entire body ache and quake around a deep down need to feel him against me. my breasts.. the rough scratch on his hands on my arms.. his hands are on my hips and his fingers are sliding against me. focusing on the smooth. classically-deprived children of Hungary ever get their corresponding English-language translation of The Odyssey if you’re going to parade around tempting me with your perfect body?” . doesn’t attempt to soften anything. I don’t have to say anything. gasping out his name as he strains against me. to keep moving against him.his arms. move faster and brush against him harder. solid length of him. “I do a thousand translations with a stiff cock. I slide onto him. Every single image flickers through my brain and snaps one more thread in the chord that’s tethering me to him. anchoring his hands on my hips and nuzzling his mouth near my ears so he can whisper things about how he thinks about my naked body and the things he wants to do to me and the things he wants me to do back to him.Benelli!” He groans.. Benelli. but it’s not enough. things that make me jerk and thrust against him. Cormac sits up and pulls me tighter. and before I know it. After those few seconds. lick every inch of you until you come in my mouth. deeper. I want to sit you on my desk and spread your legs.. longer. and I’m pressed on top of him.” His voice catches on my gasp. and I get hotter. “That was. “I think about you in the shower. and the stretch of his dick inside me takes a few seconds to get accustomed to. I love that he can be so wild and erotic and romantic and sweet all at once. his body completely tense for a few perfect seconds before we both topple. I rock back and forth against him. I reach over for my bag and fumble to take out a condom and roll it on. I want to run my hands over you and in you and I want to bend you over and slide my dick inside of you over and over. arms wrapped around his strong. in me. then drags me on top of him and kisses my neck and breasts and face. face buried in his shoulder. and it’s a turn on equal to his whispered poems.holy fucking Aprhodite’s fucking.” He doesn’t hold back. “How will the poor. up and down along my thighs. And then it’s completely broken. I close my eyes and bite my lip to keep a rhythm. like he can read my frustrations. and the kissing gets more intense until it morphs into touching. wetter. because I’m imagining what it would be like if you showed up and took it in your mouth and sucked it hard. all over me. wrapping my legs around his hips and thrusting into me.

I can’t do much about my bloodshot eyes and overall pallor.... “So. before I shuffle to the bathroom and try to scrub away the worst of last night’s encounter. and I’m nothing but a strange professor educated in one of. “Would I what?” “Would you. It will be like. I wake to the soft. but know we’re already running behind for a meeting with her parents. what price will I have to pay for our one night of absolute bliss?” I lie down close to him and melt as he snakes one muscled arm around my waist.” He cups my face in his hands.. dreaming.. I take a long moment to enjoy the view of Benelli..anything I needed to to try this. He yawns again and kisses my neck. Should we try this?” I nod and swallow.move in.I giggle. literally. “In all honesty.with me? To my stuffy one-room loft awesomely furnished with a hot plate and a single bed?” He bats his eyelashes at me.” He yawns.” He goes completely still for a few seconds before he relaxes and kisses me on the forehead. “You’ll have to move me in with you. Really.” I juggle a sudden chuckle and an icy splash of terror before I fall asleep for the second time in Cormac’s bed tonight.” He pulls my face down and kisses me. “Yes. “Mmm. I’m searching through my clothes for a . in my bed.. my heart seizing. “Yes.or like facing a firing ripping off a band-aid.. sweet length of Benelli in my arms. Nothing screams ‘hippie professor with no potential’ like sloppily tended facial hair. naked.. Ever. But I would do anything. and tossed into the local lake. It’s awful.. We’ll need our wits about us tomorrow.. “Did you just bat your lashes at me?” I smile and kiss his jaw.” His face goes serious. “Get some rest then. if I pull you down next to me and we fall asleep in perfect contentment.. one of the least useful fields. Cormac 6 The sunrise is a burst of gold rosied in pinks and dappled with gorgeous oranges.and it’s igniting a napalm burn in my liquor-battered brain. I know you’re a powerful woman from a powerful family. weighted with cement shoes.a meeting I’m half positive will end up with me bashed over the head by Hungarian goons. “Would you?” I thread my fingers through his. “You’ll have to meet my parents. “Let’s try. I’m laughably useless as a working adult human in every way except one very rare specific one. For breakfast.” I whisper. “We’ll just tell them..” I whisper. but I clean up as best I can and shave. I’m willing to stoop to new lows for you.

but I see her pick up my toothbrush and use it. “I hate to be crass. “It just seems.. “Is that another lame attempt at a dirty joke? Because it’s . “Are you ready to run away with me. She narrows her eyes at me. they were encouraging her to use me in an elaborate jealousy plot. “Plugging up personal. purchase fake passports. “The last time I met the parents.” She’s using her finger to smear toothpaste on her teeth. We were also together for five times longer than the time I’ve known Benelli. “You can use my toothbrush. it does strike me as exceedingly personal.” I answer. eyes wide with shock. “What are you thinking about?” Benelli asks.” I button my shirt and grin at her. “They’re not so bad. Real shoes. It was my own suggestion. What parents would be happy to have their daughter dating me?” I put on a pair of trousers and shoes. “Her parents were idiots. watching her take it. and she pops her head back out. fisted arm over her head. Nina seems like an acquaintance I barely knew.” I greet her. to the bathroom. Nina and I were planning to get married and I wouldn’t have considered lending her my toothbrush or borrowing hers. but. I stay still for a moment just watching her rub her feet together and stretch first one. “They’re going to love you!” she calls over her shoulder. Benelli is like a perfectly fitted piece of me I never knew I was missing to plug up a gaping hole in my heart I never knew existed. Cormac. “I appreciate you offering a lovely view of your rump to try to distract me and make me actually buy into that lie. You’re psyching yourself out. then the other. Sharing a toothbrush.” She throws a comb at me before I can finish. and herd reindeer in the northern reaches of Finland like we agreed to last night?” She rolls her eyes and smiles.. but now. “It that such a strange suggestion?” She draws her mouth to the side.responsible outfit when Benelli stirs awake. stark naked..” She pokes her head out of the bathroom.” She gets up and walks. “Good morning. Real shoes are important. slipping her clothes back on.” I suggest. when I look back.. Ridiculously adorable. but I know it’s horseshit. I have a pretty shit track record with this kind of stuff. but when you think about what of yours I’ve had in my mouth and what of mine you’ve had in yours. She blinks sleepily. gorgeous.

right where the shrine to the Virgin is. “You smell so good. “We won’t be lying.” I just shake my head. “I mean.I don’t want to lie anymore about this.” I assure her. Probably the front. “When you’ve talked with your parents and are ready. we will be lying about some things. I need to change. She wraps her arms around my neck and inhales a long. aren’t you?” I grab her by the hips and swing her onto my lap. I automatically go to the back. Your parents don’t need to know that little detail. What if she slips through my fingers? What if her parents hate me? There’s a very. very good chance they will. “Don’t worry. But no lies about anything important. When we get to Abony’s house. in the light of the morning. “You’re kind of look like you’re going to puke. You know the one?” She nods. “No. You’re going to pull the bow back. I’ll go down the road. and they’re clammy and shaky.” I slide a hand inside her shorts and love the way her breath gasps out. She puts a hand on my wrist and shakes her head. text me.” “You’re just trying to get into my pants again. “Or the back is okay I guess?” I pull her in my arms and kiss her. but she only pecks back. I need to get back to my aunt’s.” she says. Nothing big.. okay? I know you are. she feels even more real. because now. what if they love me? Embrace me? Clap me on the back and tell me I’m ready to join the ranks? Will I ever be able to do what they do? Be whatever it is she and her family expect me to be? “What are you thinking about now?” she asks.. Are you okay?” She sits down by me and lays a cool hand over my forehead. You look. . don’t worry.. and that makes this whole thing feel even more nerve-wracking. raising her eyebrows high. Listen to me. “No. “I can tell it’s not a dirty joke. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull this particular bow back. okay?” I take her hands in mind. chewing on her lip.” I confess. like the fact that I had crazy sex with you all night. all buttoned up and freshly shaved. taking her palm and kissing it. She tugs on my hand.seriously pathetic. No questions. “Are you talking about Odysseus again?” She rubs her nose on mine. deep breath. is all. pulling her hair in a neat ponytail. But I can’t have sex with you right now.” So I take her back through the new dawn of the first day we’re officially together. You look so cute.. and I’ll show up.” “But. Right?” Benelli presses her lips together and wrings her hands over and over. On the other hand.

she’s wearing a white and blue striped dress with this wide neck that makes me think of garden parties.” She nods and gives me one quick kiss. bored expression. fading bunches of silk flowers tied with tattered ribbons at her feet. and that’s not exactly the most comforting thought. and Benelli is staring at the table. Benelli’s father is the overlord of this family. urns of coffee. Her hair is piled on top of her head in all these little coils. Okay. then slips into the house.Not a good sign. But I’m not a praying man. someone who added further debauchery to said night in the form of sexual amazingness. the makeup covering the dark circles and the sweet. I just don’t know if it’s Zeus or Poseidon I’m about to stare down. and I’m desperate to make a good impression with Benelli’s frightening parents. All I have to rely on is myself. I wait on the bench. somber-looking girl with black hair and a grimly held mouth. I muster all my courage and step into the room. cheeses. and someone who seems to want to dabble in some illicit cougarish sexual craziness with me. staring at the chipping statue of the Virgin. pink blush of her true skin tone. It’s a relief to know some people at this table. deli meats. Am I about to get a curse or a reprieve? From the doorway. and I know his opinion of me will be the absolute ruling. pitchers of milk. I’d pray now. I feel like Odysseus facing a god. and her face is made up. Though I wish the three people I do know weren’t made up of someone who’d carried me home after a night of debauchery. bowls of cereals with serving spoons. armed with a handful of wildflowers that I hold . Abony puffs on her cigarette with a dreary. arms spread wide. pots of honeys and jellies. I’m a believer in chance and fate and whatever happens happening for reasons that have nothing to do with some all-powerful deity. I recognize Winch sitting next to a beautiful. “Okay. and one incredibly gorgeous. My phone buzzes with a single word: “You” I head to Abony’s feeling like there is a ton of stones in my gut. waiting. And she looks like a nice goddess to pray to. If I was a praying man. They don’t form any trinity of very positive possible first impressions. intimidating family seated around the banquet. I can see Abony’s formal dining area is set up with platters of fresh breads and rolls. Benelli looks transformed.

leaner version of Winchester speaks up. I recognize the willowy blonde as Benelli’s little sister. looking very much like she’d rather skip the spread on the table and take a colossal bite out of me. and generally fuss over me. “Welcome. but a nice bowl of cold cereal or an unmushy banana was feast-like for me on my average morning. and. Cormack. “So. because otherwise. feature-wise Ithaca could be Benelli’s sour younger double. what lovely flowers. Benelli tells me you’re real smart. I think I might pass out. My mother was a surgeon who took positions at various naval hospitals during my father’s deployments.” a guy who looks like a younger.out to Benelli. grits her teeth through a practiced smile as her eyes follow her daughter’s receding stomp. though their coloring is completely different. She’s.” “Cormac. His wife looks at him and then me with interest. clearly not all that sorry. silvering hair.” the patriarch barks from his throne in the center. then her father’s. an imposing overlord of a man. Please excuse Ithaca. “Thank you. “Someone should get a vase. one half of the twin set.” Mr..jet lagged. “Cormac. .” the young guy quips.” He rubs a hand over his thinning.” “You can just say she’s an asshole. it’s a nice change. I was adequately fed in my youth. They’re at that age. “Watch your mouth.” the headman says. how nice to meet you. and when she takes the flowers. She stands up and comes to me. woman coming in contact with any foreign family’s particularly domineering head. most likely brash. I have to admit. Youngblood says bluntly.” she whispers and her lips curl into an encouraging smile. I focus on her face. “Sorry. and am invited to sit between Benelli and her aunt and directly across from her father. This is pure decadence.” Abony purrs throatily. “Excuse my children. and Evan tries to hide the smile that’s probably the requirement of a young.. Benelli’s mother. pour me coffee. Abony and Benelli and her mother shovel ridiculous amounts of food onto my plate. gorgeous and poised. Ithaca?” Abony takes a drag of her cigarette and throws a curt nod to the dour-looking teenager perched at the end of the table. but she only growls as she swipes the bouquet out of Benelli’s hands with a rough yank. I give the girl a wave. I shake first Benelli’s mother’s hand. And I’d been serving myself meals since I was a young boy. “Breathe.

Not funny at all. “Well. Really not funny when you consider I’ve never waited a table or made a drink.” “Oh. No offense intended. you know. a friendly and easy-to-get-along-with guy. This is too far along in the process. Or a bartender. there’s always being a waiter. by and large. a nice introduction and judgment day and. at very best. yes. at worst. On paper.. To job recommendations. but I’d assume that the area you’re in isn’t exactly what any college would consider. And only in the realm of things that have to do with antiquities and the classics. His smile is wide. “I am currently working on completing my thesis work. but it stays twisted deep in the linen folds of her napkin. “Of course..” Mr. Youngblood nods and runs his fingers along his freshly shaved chin. of course.crucial?” I notice Evan roll her eyes and sigh.. and this is a family who seems to appreciate I’m on to the interview stage. yes. I’m mostly an idiot. Benelli is tapping her foot in a furious panic under the table.” The entire table stares at me.” I explain after I swallow the most glorious piece of raspberry bun known to man. and I feel the general prickle that comes just before I assimilate with new people. um. I’ll be very smart. so wide I spot what might be the glint of a gold tooth nestled somewhere .” A second bite of raspberry bun is mid-way to my mouth and Benelli is staring into her coffee cup and I’m a little confused about where this is going even though I’ve had so much warning. And manliness. the gold and emerald ring on his pinky finger glinting in the light. I would say I’m very open to jobs. Not that I don’t work.” Mr. but I realize full well that I have my own eccentricities. and then. after my thesis. I’m.But I’m very used to military life and the eradication of social lubricants in order to get to the root of any problem. “And what about after that?” Mr. if I didn’t land a position at a university. unblinking eyes.... “My daughter tells me you don’t necessarily have any plans as far as a job goes but might be. So. But side jobs filling in baptism certificates with looping calligraphy probably don’t rank very high in the Youngblood “Well. And pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethic. an uncomfortable brush off. I would most likely try to find employment in a college. Other than that. “I will most likely defend my thesis in the winter. I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Youngblood looks at Benelli with clear fondness. “I hear in the news that the colleges are cutting more and more courses every year. I expected this to be. uh. Do you have? Any? Recommendations?” I half expect Benelli’s hand to fly out and swat me in the back of the head. Youngblood looks at me with humorless. But this feels like.

” Benelli slides her hand into mine and squeezes. let’s lay the cards on the table here. And I’d be proud to just bumble along next to her while she does. Never. Marriage. though. Well.. but he’s sweet. She’s going to do amazing thing. “Yep. We can use that.among his back molars. “Right. and pointing to me with a smile on his face. her sister rolls her eyes.” Ithaca mutters. “She’s too good for me. Every sweat gland I have in my entire body is wide open and fully operational. She’s. Evan sighs and Ithaca says.. “Right.” I look at her. “You aren’t the husband I had in mind for my little girl.” “Ithaca.” I blink away the spots that are forming in front of my eyes and nod. and I say what’s the truth. If we’re laying our cards out.” her mother snaps. Benelli has a real knack for judging people. “Well. like she’s saying. You’re fucked. Overeducated. I know you know this. you know. . he talks super weird. I look at this girl. her brothers nod at me. slumping down in her chair. and Winch’s girlfriends gives me a tiny smile of understanding. He’s like some kind of poet. even if I had sound employment and hedge funds or whatever successful guys my age have. And. I like him. She’s brilliant and gorgeous and kind. and I’ve finally followed it through the maze and to the end. I am underemployed. And any guy my little princess picks is a guy who’s solid. Benelli’s father is laughing.. this perfect. but she only glares my way. Yougblood leans back in his chair and looks at me through slitted eyes. “Is there ever a single thought you think that maybe. “Benelli has been here looking for a husband. It’s like he’s been laying a little trail of cheese. I offer her a grateful smile.” Husband. we’ll make announcements soon if that’s that. I know that. and the urge to vomit or pass out flies through the window. Join the club. you might want to keep in your own head?” “No. just maybe. then I can say that I agree with your opinion. as it is. Good mouse that I am! I nibble the cheese and hope it isn’t poisoned. amazing girl..” Mr.” Benelli’s mother smiles. And. I would never be good enough for your daughter. “I like this guy. buddy.if I want this.” And I wonder what exactly we’re announcing and how her father could have made this decision this quickly and. I can see that. her aunt rubs a hand on my knee.

” She demonstrates.’” I quote. She’s kind of Comandante Youngblood’s little pet. the men head out back to smoke cigars. telling me we’ll set up a time to talk later. kind smile that lights her entire face up. It’s like a grenade got dropped into my lap. her eyes locked on Winch.” I switch the cigar to my left hand and extend my right. “Cormac Halstrom. Evan sweeps her black hair back from her face. “Don’t pull the smoke in too hard.” She puts a delicate hand on my arm and shakes her head.. maybe an inch long? Maybe a little more. A pleasure. Smoking a cigar isn’t like smoking a cigarette. holding it out to her. then shows off. “You want to let it get. “Benelli seems to have a very firm attachment. “Not yet. Her icy eyes cut down to the smoldering cigar in my hand.Do I want this? But Benelli’s face is shining with such total.” Evan says. “I never for one second regret meeting Winch. I don’t have any that leap to mind.. “It’s nice not being the only outsider. and the three guys examine it. so. And stop looking so worried. I can’t say a word. But. anyway. so I just smile like the fool that I am. with the exception of Evan. a real loaded gun. But sometimes I wish he was an orphan. puts it to her lips and winks. “Yeah. You’re supposed to be enjoying it. basically. then again. a real. absolute joy. Winchester’s father hands me one and claps me on the back. he never asked her to serve time for anyone else’s crimes or let her participate in illegal fighting rings. blowing thick. “This family would have taken over Freud’s life if he’d gotten the chance to study them. I back up very slowly and find myself next to Evan. He’s the best thing in my life. “I’m Evan Lennox. “Ever smoke one before?” “Can’t say so.I guess I’m not the best person to talk to on this .” “‘Sometime a cigar is just a cigar. seriously. It’s just a cigar. so you sort of draw the smoke in and hold it mostly in your mouth.” She tilts her head and grins. While breakfast gets cleared by the women. smoky rings. I don’t know. and she smiles. and now I’m just waiting for it to blow.” We sit and watch the three Youngblood men.” I admit. She holds it between her thumb and index finger. she does. talking excitedly about shooting cans and targets. It’s for the taste. Then Colt brings out a rifle. I take it clumsily and attempt to knock the ash off.” I squirm a little at this information. before she hands it back.” I’m treading carefully.

then?” I ask. “Don’t fall under their spell.” “That bad then?” I gasp out. Lots of it. because I get how you can’t just tell your family to pack salt.” she calls over her shoulder. since we’ve known eachother for one crazy breakfast and half a decent cigar.and by ‘so bad’ I mean that they actually expected Winch to do time for his brother and falsely confess to kidnaping -we got away. Colt hands her the rifle. “Any advice?” I’m having a hard time swallowing. Evan’s very pretty face blotches for a minute. And we love each other. Nothing’s what it seems in this family.. then points to the distance.” The frigidity of that single word is underlined by the way she wraps her arm around herself. my family. When things got so bad -. so I don’t know what it’s like to have differing opinions of parents and situations.” Evan warns before she gets up. with no people my own age to disassemble it with. . but getting involved with the Youngbloods isn’t something you should do without information. “I know this is kind of spilling the beans. and heads to Winch. “I can’t explain it.. fury manipulating her features. “Winch had a hard time of it. my present situation is mine all mine. He’s training to be a stone mason. Winch is doing really well. smoothes the skirt of her dress. “Worse. you know. She makes it all the way across the long yard. But his family? They have this pull. Youngblood’s enormous.” she mutters. says something so the guys that makes them laugh. I squint and follow the direction her finger is pointing in. “Good luck. I want to respect it. the men cheer and she beams. When the pinecone explodes. My family really likes him. It’s like a force of nature. Cormac. This really weird.” She shakes her head. Or breathing. There’s a small pinecone hanging from a high branch in a far off tree. and leaves shards of splintered wood over the entire yard. through the dim visions of my future living under Mr. The cigar smoke and the quick way my future is remapping itself are conspiring to choke me. I wish I’d had someone to tell me. No matter how much you should want to. Or seeing clearly. which she shoulders and fires. The harsh explosion of a stump makes me jump. I have no siblings. The Youngbloods are master manipulators. Evan pats my hand as the click and slide of the gun being loaded makes my head whip towards the three men in the yard. Benelli painted it as her brother running away from the family and his responsibilities. “I don’t always know what to do about it. like she’s warding off some kind of chill only she can feel. all-encompassing thumb.” Her words ride a fine line between acidically bitter and devastating.auspicious day. My childhood.

And I actually think your father didn’t hate me completely. helps me change my tune quickly.. is that the new Remington?” Benelli is next to me suddenly. If you think I flirted with Evan--” Her laugh is hard and a little bitter. as does her family. “The rifle. and I’d still love them because of how they love you. “They’re not perfect. Benelli. “They could be total monsters.” I put an arm around her and she smiles up at me. She obviously admires it. because of his profession.” “Does she have reason not to be?” I cross my arms and stare at the cluster of Youngbloods and Evan. “Did you have a nice chat with Evan?” Now all the happiness has siphoned out of her voice and even the civility is draining fast. She’s just. and I’m proud of it. It’s not really my. “Of course he didn’t. I guess. drawn and upset. “Do you want to shoot it?” she asks. The rifle is a Remington.. Benelli slides her hand against mine. It isn’t necessary. The one Evan just showed off with.” Benelli insists. I didn’t put the two together. “Flirted? Not at all. “Pardon?” She laughs.” Her voice loses some of its charmed happiness. I guess that’s why it never occurred to me that Benelli was named after one. but I have a little bit of a complicated relationship with guns.” The way her voice coasts out. He said he liked that you have brains. and honestly assumed that her parents just had an affinity for Italian-sounding names.I wonder about Evan’s warning as she glows under their enthusiastic shouts. “Don’t mince words with me. right. “Ooh. Benelli. My father knew how to shoot one. my kind of thing. “That’s okay.” I say the words slowly. And he told me that my mother thinks you’re cute. her face shiny and so filled with happiness.” She continues to look at me as her father strokes the rifle and holds it out for his sons and Evan to admire. um.not my family’s biggest fan.” . but they’re good. but he and my mother didn’t like keeping them in or around the house.” It’s a first for me. I can’t help but smile at her. “They’re good people. He told me that he was happy I picked someone who would support me. “Oh. “I have a feeling there’s more to your question that what you’re actually asking. That’s all. It’s got to be hard to resist the glamor of a family when they command such a natural charisma. and add a little steely edge to them. and he taught me.

“I’m more than okay. she accepts my answer without delving too deeply. I open my mouth to say the only word that’s true.” I both lie and answer honestly. so I can taste her lips when my mouth is on her. “And to think I was never remotely good enough for your little book. I’m okay with having her in my life however she needs me. the only word that’s true after all. But ‘no’ isn’t. glad that she didn’t reapply lipstick after breakfast was done. apparently I’m your perfect match?” I kiss her softly.“So. . and in the shroud of happiness that insulates everything we’re doing here together.” “Are you okay with everything?” She puts one hand on my cheek and strokes it with her thumb. Because I’m okay with anything that makes things between Benelli and I go more smoothly. on reflection.

I can’t do this. stomping her way to the door. and he’s made it clear that Cormac will only be allowed to share a room with me when we’re husband and wife. tanned shoulder. I can’t sit by and watch every single other person find their happiness while I get drunk and fuck people I don’t care about and get so fucking bitter. “Is this about Winch?” Lala slams the book of dress patterns she was looking at shut and hops down off the stool. When she speaks again.” Her fury melts away and her lip quivers. She’s so hungover. and my father has local jewelry guys he can get to help with the whole thing.” Lala gripes. breathing is giving her a massive headache.” . her voice is cracked. I know it’s an important detail. of course. “Don’t you dare throw your ridiculous wedding in my face for weeks. I want our life together to begin as soon as possible. “Lala!” I finally manage to grab one slim. I always have. but I know my mother has already showed him rings I might like.. “Lala! Lala!” I leave the shop owners looking at me with wide eyes and open mouths as I chase my best friend down the street.Benelli 7 There’s not enough time to get everything done that needs to be done if Cormac and I want to get married in the autumn. gentle breaths through her mouth. “What’s the problem?” “Don’t. I want to be able to go to him in private. then ask about Winch like. Beni. But there’s another pressing reason that has nothing to do with burnished leaves and crisp air that has me ready to say ‘I do’ before we carve pumpkins. and I miss being able to see Cormac unchaperoned. My father will look the other way when Winch and Evan sleep together in their own room at the family compound. without having to sneak time with each other. I miss our freedom.” she hisses. sipping a Diet Coke and taking easy. whenever I need him. but it’s one that’s gotten lost in this whole surge of action and movement that’s dragging me along faster than I can handle. but I am his little girl. Wanted to get married in the autumn. “Your dad is ridiculously old-fashioned. poking a finger into my chest. He has to propose. “Why are doing this to yourself?” I flip with cautious attention through another ream of satin dress samples. It’s only been a few weeks since my dad took Cormac under his wing and started watching his and my every move.. “Like my heart isn’t breaking every time I see him with her.

. when Cormac and I could just stroll the streets and hike in the woods. Cormac is clearly unhappy. shocked to hear Cormac’s voice so wired and angry when it’s directed at me. I’ve been a bitch. I’m so sorry. I’m trying hard to juggle everyone and everything. “Where? When?” .. It’s okay. Young. You could have told me. Too young. but Lala is inside. so I step outside. “It was giving me a lot of stress because I’ve had no time to work on it. when a phone call from Cormac rings through.” I whisper. I’ve been so self-centered. I’m coming to you now. excited to hear his voice. sharp quality to the way he says my name. Let’s go to the spa. La. wasn’t it?” I’m trying. rubbing a hand along her back. “I’m sorry. love. It’s important. Can you meet me this afternoon?” “Sure.” My hand is shaking.” he snaps. The time I see him is severely limited every day.” The words are flat. I’ve been doing my own work on my own for years now. possibly still sobbing. “Shhh. because I need to talk to you. I know I need to try to tighten the reigns on my father. I never came to you because this was a situation I was well-equipped to handle. I hold the phone a few inches from my ear. okay?” I pull my cell out and call our usual place in town.. “Listen to yourself. and this time his voice just sounds exhausted. It’s time to grow up. “Um. It’s fairly rare for him to call me. even though I have a million things to do to get ready for everything that’s been rolling out at lightning speed. and I would have mentioned something to my father about--” “Benelli.. “It’s okay. and I cherish every stolen moment I get. We’re already at the spa and Lala is calmed down and lying on the table. he’s a grown man. Immature me. because the reception is choppy and nearly constantly interrupted. Sometimes I want those quiet days back. about to get a massage.I pull her into my arms and feel her body jerk and shudder under the force of her mounting sobs and hiccups. “Cormac?” I walk into the street and try to find any tiny spot with better service. lie in each other’s arms. my stomach is crawling and icy and shredded all at the same time.” There’s a clipped. “Benelli. “Your father got me out of my internship. It was giving you a lot of stress. What would you have done? I’m a grown man. Shhh.” he cuts me off. and I could wear flip flops and hoodies and be.

The masseuse hurriedly attempts to put the cotton sheet over her breasts. But something in me uncorks. “It’s.. my best friend half-naked.Cormac. “Let me put my damn clothes on.” I clutch the phone in my hand and repeat those words and the way he said them over and over in my head as I go back into the salon. incomprehensible terms. It’s a point of pride with me. Benelli. not bothering to clutch the sheet to her. explaining our woes in garbled. . and Lala opens her arms wide. and we’re holding each other. unhinges.“My apartment at four?” “I thought you’d given up the apartment. “Nothing. I can hear his breathing on the other end of the line.” he says. and he was pretty angry. loosens.. so much to do-“Just because your mother had a room set up at the family’s house doesn’t mean I gave up my apartment. her eyes lazy until she sees my face. “This summer was supposed to be fun. “He didn’t say anything... look at me. and then nodding and crying that we understand each other.. “Pop got him out of the internship. She sits up fast... “I love you. but Lala pushes her hand away. “I’ll see you soon..” I lament. but there’s been so much to plan for.” she singsongs as she walks to the counter with me chasing right at her clicking.” Lala just raises her light eyebrows and puckers her lips. “What the fuck?” Lala finally says.what? Is this the prelude to Cormac dumping me? Is this the end. feeling embarrassed at the desperation in those words. An hour and a half until. What the hell’s the matter?” she asks..” She slides off the table and slips her feet into her impossibly high heels. like it was with Damian? Things have been tense. “What? What’s that look for?” I ask. So much.” I stutter.” I don’t cry much. “Are you on the rag?” I shake my head and let out a laugh. wiping her eyes on the sheet the frustrated masseuse finally managed to slip over her shoulders. His voice softens and flows over the lines. his voice strong but tired. and you can tell me exactly what that bastard said when he called.” I shrug.” My voice is hollow in my own ears. Those words that should never be desperate. “I. wet with tears. no doubt. her own problems pushed to the back burner so fast I know her brain and heart must be rollicking.” “Cormac!” I cry before he hangs up. both of us taking turns sobbing and comforting. Lala looks at me from the table.. and pays for our abbreviated massages. “Beni. stilettoed heels.I love you. too.I’m.

” I demand.. “Reality.’ It’s definitely something or you’d just say it like you always say everything. and. “Don’t. You can’t tell Winch to lie for Remy. and you can’t let your dad do this to Cormac!” She breathes hard.don’t you dare talk about my family like that. instead of dealing with it like the problem it is. two. and chucks it back into her purse with a stream of curses that would make a swaggering juvenile delinquent blush.. okay? I’ll say it! You can’t tell someone else how to live his it really is a problem. one. I open my mouth and close it. Like a kettle steaming on the burner. Beni. but not as much as I hate myself the moment I say them.” She points a gnarled fingernail at me. watching her dig deeper in the purse.” I sputter. “I’m not going to say what you know I want to say because.” Lala begins and tries to put a hand on my shoulder. “You know what? I’m not sorry! I’m not. Instead of dealing with it. everyone always took care of you and protected you. Fuck that. you know what? You’re as fucked up as your fucked up family. “Lala.“It’s not ‘nothing. sweetheart. you can’t tell Remy to be done with rehab when he has his whole future and Alayah to worry about. if I let you force me to say it. Beni! And you know what. I want to scream over how hot I am. and vicious. popping out of my mouth before I can get a handle on them. her eyes tearing up. my father like that. but I just feel hot. and it’s about time you guys joined reality! Before you push away anyone who ever wants to get close to any of you. “Say it.. swinging her purse over her head and letting it smash into the ground. Look at me! What the hell are you looking for?” “Cigs!” she screams.” I grab at her wrist. look at me. You’ve always been such a little princess. you know what I want to say already. but she shakes my hand off so she can nibble at her nail.” She digs through her purse. huh? What’s that like? Knowing your father is raising a whole other family he loves more in Hungary while you’re home with your miserable mother? Watching your boyfriend run into the arms of another girl because you’re too crazy and out of control for him to even deal with?” I hate the words. my rage unloosening quickly. nasty words bubble up along my throat. takes out a pack of gum. in and out. .. “I’m sorry. You couldn’t tell Damian to work under your dad’s rules. her chest rising and falling. Well. I’ll say it. I slap it away and her eyes narrow to evil hazel slits. okay? It is. finds it’s empty. you’ll get all righteous and angry and fly into some psychotic rage at me. “Fucking cigs. and pushes a few pieces of blond hair out of her face.

Lala blinks hard like I just smacked her across the face. And you’re letting it go. That’s what life is. half-starved student look. and her shoulders seem so frail and thin suddenly. because he was an asshole. You need to stand up for yourself and the guy you love. but what is there left to say? We’ve peeled back everything. even if that means standing up to your all-powerful father. so he doesn’t have that gaunt. He stands when he sees me. trade a little bit of himself to fit in with the bigger whole. I slide onto the sidewalk outside this fancy spa in my gorgeous. It’s not exactly wrong. That’s what love is. Fine. he’ll have to do what we’ve all done. messing my straightened hair. just leads me up to his room. tight dress. . bought for him by my father. you’ll regret this if you fuck it up. I’m only just surviving. I’m scared and tired and my head feels clogged and stupid. down. My mother’s cooking has filled him out a little. I feel like I’m trying to navigate an endless tightrope walk across a deep chasm. He’s wearing crisp. that’s your own problem. And there’s no way around this reality. tailored clothes. He’s waiting for me at the door outside his place. and I see her neck move when she swallows two or three times. Benelli. I can handle the truth. But it’s not completely kosher. And. Except that I’m planning on fighting it. That’s life. But. So much of what my family does rides that line. You drove Damian away. and that was probably more good luck for you. I should demand she turn around and hear me out. even if it does blow. trust me. If you can’t admit that. “Okay. exposed the hurtful truths and shoved them in each other’s faces. beating it back and forcing Cormac to become someone loud and whiny and not who he is at all. I should call her back. When I finally push up off the ground and head to Cormac’s. People have to change. if Cormac wants a life with me. He doesn’t say anything. down because staying upright is taking so much out of me. his quiet strength something I want to sink into. who never consulted Cormac about them because there’s an expectation in my family that we all look our best at all times. He’s so damn handsome. something better than you might even deserve. crying off my perfectly applied makeup. But you listen to me. and my heart jumps. She shrugs. But Cormac? You’ve got something real. Giving up something to be part of something bigger.” She whirls on her heel and stomps away. and my feet are bruised and my arms are tired and I might just fall down. They have to evolve.

His arms are locked around me. pulling me close. I don’t think it clings to him anymore. Why do the things Cormac has to give up have to be the best pieces of him? My mouth and face are wet with tears. “I love you. touching and pulling at his skin like I can’t possibly grab enough.. And I lose him. tearing at the dress that’s so tight. tangling in waistbands and shoving south. So soon. low and deep where he can keep the . like I’m making up for what I won’t be able to do in the future and didn’t do enough of in the past.. soft and incessant.want this. love. Which would hurt more? Instead of focusing on my future loss and pain. move them away gently. but I think the smell of paper and ink is the stale smell of it that hangs around his room. He’s completely naked and I sit up. away. my body twisted tight to his. My fingers work fast slipping buttons open.Right? “Don’t cry. He slides an arm under my legs and hauls me to the bed. his green eyes almost black because the pupils are fully dilated and seem to be sucking me in. it’s encasing my skin. anchoring my body close to his body. and I’m standing in front of him in my underwear and heels.” I breathe into his mouth. pressing zippers down. I want to be with him this instant. refusing to look away or let me go. I run my hands over his body. before he agrees to change or. in this moment when there are still remnants of the Cormac and Benelli who fell in love. my heart beating and my lungs bellowing in a pattern he sets. holding my elbows tight and lean against him. and I’m tugging him down. down his throat. He lets my hands run crazy. I fold my arms over myself... I start to sob.” He sits me on his bed and puts his arms around me. hearing the pop and tear of the seams at the sleeves. pulling him to me by his new. “I. “I need this off now!” Cormac’s hands slide over mine. Or before he decides to stay exactly.. pulling the covers back with an awkward hand and laying me down under them because I’m shivering in the fresh!” I gasp. though I didn’t realize I even was crying when he told me not to. and pull me up so I’m standing in front of him. chilled with the promise of an autumn that’s coming soon. hot and ready against mine. until it’s like I’m breathing him in and out. I bury my face in his shirt and sniff. his breathing slow and focused. perfectly who he is.. pressed collar and kissing him hungrily. off. And. He lies down next to me and kisses my mouth. He undoes the dress with sure hands. My dress slips to the floor.

he rips his head away. it’s bruising and pleasing and not enough.. the silky brush of his hair butting against my skin as he nuzzles my skin. The lean. more. “More. and then he thrusts deep into me. and we lock eyes. and he’s back to his never ending cycle of kisses.never enough. “I love you. It’s a distance of only a few short inches. the salty. He finally pulls back. pulls his hips up and leaves my mouth empty and ready for whatever different. wrangling. and we’re intimately positioned. What satisfied our bodies before we re-declared our feelings isn’t doing it anymore. the bumps of his wrist rubbing at my inner thighs. my greedy. lock hands..words inside him. Through everything. now it’s a muscled bond that crushes me too tight. The covers bunch and pull tight against the curve of my ass as he grabs them in his fists and yanks. something. keeps me from accessing what I need. digging fingers deeper into every curve of skin. and it’s miles too far. the muscles in his arms taut and shaking as I lift my head and draw him in. Do you understand?” I nod because I can’t force a verbal agreement past the lump in my throat. desperate knots of limbs pushing and pulling like there’s a finish line we’re racing towards and away from at the same time. firm pressure mixing perfectly with the velvet suction of my mouth. him. There’s a tremor. Just when the rhythm goes from frantic to chaotic. muscled length of him glides over me. how our love can evolve in just a few seconds. the crisp hair of his arm rasping against the creamy skin of my stomach. a switch flipped and we’ve gone from gentle to wild. sinking his mouth and tongue into me. licking tongue. his mouth coasting down to follow the buck of my hips. knocking. nipping lips. his fingers quick and determined. the length of him in my mouth and sliding. dragging fingernails. finally. but I’m always one . He bites gently along the insides of my thighs. crushing bodies so close and so frantically. reposition his hips. It’s strange how they can evolve. The kisses that satiated every physical and emotional need are now cruel teases. our noses barely graze. against my tongue. twist our legs tight. and slips inside me. jarring our bodies into twining. our eyes can’t quite focus. long and hard. my lips. I feel like I can count the strokes until I tremor and constrict around him. along my folds. set our mouths against each other’s. how we can evolve. I tug on the muscled column of his thigh. Always. The lock of his arms was a focused comfort a few heartbeats ago. Benelli. an explosion.” I beg. just enough so our lips rasp against each other’s. and he slides down.

my body released and reconstructed. his eyes staring into mine. I can feel the muscles of his perfect ass strain to pull back from my hold so he can press against me. and I scream. just outside the open window.” I gasp. There are other tenants in his apartment who would be home during the day. the weightless flight. and. quick smile. his hold. that moment of flight between the solid ground and the splash of the water. ignited.. and I’m doubly shocked that it sounds amused instead of distraught. I love you. tugging me on his lap. when my eyes fly open. my legs wrapping around his waist.. sweet arc over the water. and the cradle of the waves lapping in the sun. and I’m shaken from my core out. but doesn’t give in. plastering to him and shaking hard and long against his laugh. “Why do I have this terrible feeling that you’re about to break things off with me?” I’m so shocked the question I’ve been dreading asking him just popped out of his mouth. I pull against him. Benellli. his face nuzzles my neck. I just can’t. He sits up. his voice gritty and husky as it skids on his words. I want me at. His mouth tugs at mine. “Open them. .” I have no intention of opening my eyes.” he orders. But my body is sure we’re alone in a universe we created solely for the two of us. but his words tug at something uncontrollable in me. “Open your eyes. “Why do you like that?” “Like what?” I choke. like I can’t stand to pry open my fists and brain and heart and let go with him. and right now Cormac is the slatted wood of the dock. all I see is his face. He peels me back from him. “Open your damn eyes. pulling him closer. look at me. tangled hair with his hands. his unconditional love. hold tight for a single still second.I can’t. but his smile falls when he sees my face. and one more before everything rocks. I burrow my face into his chest and let everything in me shake and shudder around him. and my body quakes. the sweat glistening on our bodies. then another. My fingers dig into his shoulders. deeper. my dread slowly filling my throat. “Can’t.” he growls. He thrusts harder.. running like mad to the end of the dock for that single. I feel exactly the way I used to feel as a kid at the lake. I love you. Unconditional unless he tugs it out of my clenched fists when this is all over.. his mouth moving from a straight. frustrated line to a sudden. I am unraveled. smoothing my wild.” I shake my head. torture me to the perfect place he wants me at. There are people on the street. “Open your eyes.away.

Which makes me laugh harder and faux punch him in the arm. and laugh again. not angry. Because it’s always right. Not everything is always so damn hilarious all the time.” I answer. “But you called. “Sometimes things are stressful. I pull up and look down at him. even though my voice tricks my ears into believing I might be.” he observes. “My toes. Damn it. Writing.” I gesture to his desk.” I turn my face into his neck and breath deep.” His eyebrows raise. Cormac. The first thought that runs through my mind is that if my mother sees them. “Absolutely never. didn’t I?” He puts his arms back on the bed and pulls me back. Soon. his eyes. That set of facts makes me laugh. his shelves.” I frown when his laughter descends from his eyes to his lips and he’s directing it at me.” His smile starts at his lips and works its way right up to his eyes. which are alight with laughter. “I think it’s funny if you think that’s a possibility. He tilts his head and looks at them. “You can’t stop. but it’s a little wilder than straight funny. “A lot. willing myself to catch a trace of ink and books. “And you? Do you often think about what other people think about your toes?” “My toes and everything else. “I just summed it all up. leaning back on his hands.. Cormac sits up straighter..” I kick a foot out and examine my toes. They’re petite. “Yes.” I smile sadly at him.. And that’s not okay.” he says. “Something funny?” he asks. “Never. You can never. “Are you saying we don’t anymore?” “Do we?” He’s using his teacher voice. but. . I don’t. “Studying. “What are you laughing at?” Now the hilarity dims slightly. I love stubby-toed girls.“Do you think that’s funny?” I ask. Do you remember that?” I nod. his hair.I believe it will be there. Reading. “Same stubby little toes as always.” “Are you ready to run away screaming?” My voice is tiny. The one I hate. all the things that define him. “We used to laugh. she’ll send me out to get a pedicure because they’re chipped.” “Stop what?” His lips tickle under my fingers. ever stop. drawing a finger over his lips.. Because I’m not going anywhere. Do you ever think about what anyone else thinks about your toes?” I ask. kissing my temple. “They’re not stubby.

anything.” I declare. I know it’s not as big and fancy as you deserve. and I know they want all that because they love you and want to share this. reaching out for the ring and pulling my hand back.. “Which is ironic. You are. I like him. his eyes fixed on my face. And a picnic basket. Benelli Youngblood. and I loved that woman. You weren’t going to tell me that you couldn’t .this is why you called me?” I ask. Sincerely.. These books. will you do me the great honor of agreeing to be my wife?” “This.” He opens the box and there’s a shining canary diamond in a simple white gold band.. and I’m. And he can tell me how to dress and how to work and all that. You can never stop any of this. Until I met you. “This isn’t how I wanted to do this.” He chuckles and shakes his head. But he’s not going to tell me how to love you. “Yes. I was going to get you to come back to the woods with me. And I’ll do what you need. you vixen! And the moment was too good to pass up.” He gets down on his knees. Well.. This is. so..” I bite my lip and feel the clamp of a headache that no amount of aspirin can combat. I just need this. But I feel like she loved me for exactly who I was. But you seduced me. I promise. She was the one who got me my first book of Greek mythology when I was a little guy. and his horrified face is answer enough. There’s an amazing merlot chilling on our rock. there will never be a man who will love you the way I love you... to make your family situation. I look at him. because the reason I called you here was because your father was trying to plan this. Because. your father especially. and I never really thought I’d find another woman as brave and confident. whatever you need. And a second merlot. She started it all. And I promise. So I want you to have this. He grabs my fingertips and runs a thumb over them. And.” he interrupts. “You weren’t going to ask me to argue with my dad. the sheet wrapped around his waist.” “You weren’t going to break up with me. “I love studying this crazy stuff. I swear to you. now. these papers. “This belonged to my grandmother..“All this. and I respect him.naked. You are my life... But I don’t love it more than you. he’s a good guy.our family situation work. My hair is a rat’s nest. But right here. I don’t love anything more than you. “Ithaca is getting older. just for the two of us alone. Maybe she’ll meet someone who can do this for my family--” “Benelli.” He grabs a box off his bedside table and holds it out to me. I will re-enact the whole damn thing in front of your family like they want with the dinner and flowers and party and toasts and even the little group of guys playing violins. listen. aren’t my life. “Your parents will kill me.

sweet gush.” I’m laughing now. about to push away the fear that I may not be strong enough to do it. Because I won’t let him.” His goofy smile falters. You. about to pick up the bow and draw it back. there’s the fact that you didn’t answer.. Yes. because I have no choice. “Yes. I love you. Except that he won’t. relief and glee and happiness coursing through me in a warm. I love you. promising him that I’ll take care of everything. So.. strongest self unfurl. Are you going to answer?” His hand shakes a little.” I’m whispering a thousand things in his ears. “Also. Yet here I am. and I kiss him so fiercely. I’m Odysseus. this man I love right down to my chipped toenails. “Well. this man I love with every shred of my being. I have no choice if I want to keep the man I love.way too overdone and public. But that was because I thought his suggestion was wildly unromantic. funny man who would give up everything for me. I throw my arms around this incredible man. I will. proposing in a bedsheet in my crappy apartment. I’ll marry you. powerful and protective of this man. that I’ll make this all work. bravest. there’s that. in his arms. That you couldn’t handle this. I was a little angry over your dad trying to tell me how to propose. So. He slides the ring on my finger and I feel bound to him. Yes. Finally. this gorgeous. I feel my truest. the sheet falls away. . honest. And. because I will. and we’re heading right back to the place we came from before his proposal.change. Yes.

” She doesn’t frown. and knock on Ithaca’s door lightly. and vodka-tinged.. “Yes. so I thought it may have been a mistake--” “Stop.” “Right.” I readjust Benelli’s best friend on my shoulder. Cormac. Sorry. Benelli is out with your mother. Is the guest room still open?” Ithaca looks me up and down slowly. She opens it. leans up. then nods and gestures for me to follow her down the hall and into a small room decorated in the ivories and golds and pastels all the girls’ rooms are done in. still decorated for the engagement party from the night before with masses of bright flowers and strands of twinkling lights. who’s crossed her arms and is frowning. you’re obviously freaked out. Okay?” I take a shaky breath and nod. I’m not sure where her house is. I swing Lala down into my arms and Ithaca yanks the covers and sheets back. and I assume Lala texted her first. “Stop. wetly. not exactly appropriate. I woulda gone to college if the professors were as sexy as you. I move back to the girls’ rooms. classical music still wafting from the home surround-sound system.. right on the mouth. and gives me a cross-eyed look before she kisses me.with the engagement and all. “She’s a bit drunk.” she repeats.” I jerk back and turn to Ithaca. “It’s just. and I didn’t know where she lived. . before moaning. “Please don’t ever commit a crime.. “Is that Lala?” She narrows her eyes at Lala’s very barely covered backside. because you have no clue how to keep your mouth shut. She’s drunk. “Don’t get all stupid panicked. smoothing the bedding so I can lay Lala down. light hair pulled back in a tight bun. and I’m having a hard time getting them undone. fully. and there’s no reason for us to mention this to Benelli. but the text she sent me was a little. dozens of glasses with varying amounts of wine left on every conceivable surface.Cormac 7 There should be a certain poetic justice in my getting to haul Lala’s drunk ass home from a bar. her face pale and her eyes red-rimmed. “Cormac. “Mmm. she grabs my face. I’m just. but the reality of holding her limp form over my shoulder is decidedly unsatisfying. this time with more adamence. um. She has her arms linked around my neck.” I don’t finish because I have no clue what to say.. so I bring her back to the Youngblood compound. which is an improvement over her usual reaction to seeing me. Just when I manage to pull them away.” She holds a hand up and out.

you won’t have to deal with me again. I’m sorry. . still red and raw..” “I. with my family. like she’s weighing what she’s about to do. I respect and support it. that I understand her. But living here. her face completely. Never.” I nod. I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. ugliest lie in the world. and I’ll never come back. drowning fury.” She trails a fingertip over his image. because I’m too old and unfamiliar and male for this intimate.. um. I respect the need to leave anything that hampers growth or impedes freedom. But. and I know that. but I’m coming up empty.” Ithaca’s eyes. There’s no escape for me for another year.. gorgeously distorted in happiness.” She taps one foot and grits her teeth before she turns her eyes. so dealing with temperamental young women isn’t really something I know how navigate. feminine space. clearer green than mine and full of swirling. “You’ve got nothing to do with why I feel so angry at all of them. please know. but her stony face tells me that’s the last thing she wants.” I attempt. “I’m sure you miss him.” I’m searching for words.’ Don’t. smiling..” She trails off as if she’s leaving an opening for further discussion. on me. since Ithaca seems the type who’d be very able to smell fear and rip anyone who exhibited it to shreds. but I haven’t really been included in many family discussions.’” I try to keep the nervous jitter out of my words. “I realize we may not have gotten off on the best foot. “If that’s all you need. though I have no reason to. “Look. “Please don’t say ‘friends. So. She pulls out a small photo book that she shows me with the peculiar eagerness and refreshing lack of embarrassment that’s the sole propriety of the newly unaware adult.” Ithaca spins on her heel and marches back to her bedroom. But don’t worry.. I flip through snapshots of Ithaca. though I’m not sure why. any kind of words to let her know that I hear her. and I’m afraid I don’t know why you need to leave. a lighter. I follow her down the hall. “Um. Day in and day out. But I hope we can be--” Her sharp laugh cuts me off. and she glares at me when she gets to her door. After next year.. Even your own family. “He joined the army. however unpopular that may make me in this family. Then she beckons me into her room. Ithaca?” I had no siblings and didn’t even have many cousins growing up.” “I was going to say ‘civil. “I’m sorry. soften and she squints her eyes at me. “This is Andre. Her cheek is close to and her arm wrapped possessively around a young man with a smile that reveals just how smitten he is. it’s like living in the middle of the biggest. I don’t understand this at all. It doesn’t sit well. if I act ugly. I’ll leave this family once and for all.“Whatever. No one will.

he promised.” Her voice. She . hugging me so tight. I think he owes you his side of the story. “No.” She pinches her lips together. I’d assume she’s cried over this many times before and recently..” I’ve walked into a trap of my own making. fingers splayed. and when he turned their money down. I’m shocked by the fact that she’s crushed in my arms with an unbelievable quickness.” “So you’re engaged then?” I ask... is shockingly.changed. “He gave it up to join the military.” Her eyes well up with tears. in fact. She nods. I mean. and I wouldn’t encourage you to be upset by the fact that he hasn’t been able to give that back right now. He changed..the army can change you. But.any man would be a fool to fall out of love with you. simply sweet. because I forget for a moment how young she is and how out of reach something as simple as engagement can be.he’s an amazing artist. because a military man can support a wife and an artist can’t. I am excellent at keeping secrets. From the raw state they’re in. but she doesn’t seem to notice...” I offer quietly. So he gave up an art scholarship. you know? I didn’t know if he’d make it.“I do. “I think. I search for a possible exit.. absent of its usual fury. That doesn’t mean they stop feeling or thinking or.. You’re obviously a very caring person.... culturally. They attempted to pay him off if he agreed not to see me again. I guess. Her blush is fierce. monetarily.. “You think he still loves me?” Her eyes shine and her voice rises with hope. “Ithaca?” She looks up. “I would say that’s a fair assumption. I’m monumentally crappy at this type of thing. the movement of her head so cautious. “Secretly. “I kept hoping he’d get kicked out.. on her chest. He was never really all that good with authority. and her reaction embarrasses me. and you should listen with an open mind when he’s ready to tell you.. “I can’t pretend to know what Andre is going through. I’m banking on rib fractures.loving.” she continues. emotionally. they told him he’d never be good enough to take care of me. But I guess he. but soldiers sometimes have to keep their minds controlled in war. They sometimes have to lock out what they love the most in order to survive. but I put a cautious hand out and pat her on the shoulder. “He’s in the army because my family found out we were her eyes faraway and sad. “I. I guess that’s how you survive combat. and decide on cowardice. He had to.” She nods. He did.” She puts one hand. and I hope my look communicates that. Secretly?” She looks at me to check that I can keep a secret. “Have you heard from Andre lately?” She shakes her head and tears plop onto the plastic covering over their picture.

” she coos. a shaky. Lala screams. Youngblood bursts into the space where Lala was enjoying her drunken slumber and screams. . I feel so good about this.. too. So I don’t and promise to come out and eat soon. She tries again. and I hightail it out of the hall before I destroy the tremulous friendship we’ve woven. “I don’t think Lala feels well. But I feel. because Mrs. but she loses it. “I could have had a heart-attack. Youngblood insists she’s fine. Get out of my house. Now!” “You’ve known him. “So drunk I barely remember making out with your fiancé. I feel all the blood drain from my face when Ithaca’s door opens across the hall. When Benelli comes home a few hours later.I don’t know. “Benelli’s lucky. I hope he realizes just how lucky. “Not one person in my family. And Andre’s lucky himself. Lala stretches lazily and throws Benelli a triumphant smile. and Benelli and I rush to the scene of the upset. “What are you all yelling about?” she demands..” We smile. not one of my friends has said anything that made me feel better about Andre. It would be stupid of me to argue with a gorgeous woman who’s offering to feed me. strange peace exchange. “I’m so sorry. then pinches my hip and declares I need a hot plate of something.” she begins and stops. Beni. Luckily and unluckily. That was. Benelli is looking at Lala. She should keep you around. Thank you.” “I’ll help you if there are more bags. but Mrs. Don’t look all worried.” She pats my arm awkwardly. No one. For that.that was weird of me.” I smile at my brash soon-to-be sister-in-law. “Drunk again.” I offer. I know he might not come back for me. what? A month and a half? You’ve known me since we were kids. I don’t have to report. pulling her mother by the shoulders.” Benelli interrupts. And you don’t even doubt him?” It’s meant to be some kind of aggressive strike... I know he might not really love me. “That’s the plan. Let me get things settled.” Benelli snaps when her mother’s out of earshot. her face gray. “Lala!” Mrs. “Get out. What are you doing in bed at this hour? How did you get here?” “Mama.rips herself away as quickly as she grabbed on and offers me a crooked smile. I feel so calm. I meet her at the car and drag in the boxes and bags full of mysterious wedding needs while I try to find a way to tell her that Lala is drunk and passed out in the spare room. Youngblood swats her on the behind like she’s a young child.

puts a steaming plate of food in front of me and settles down to sip her mug of coffee across the table. babe. “If not.” I begin. “It would appear that way. ‘All will be fine with the family now. right now.. “It’s strange. Because.” Saying the words makes me feel like an immense anvil has been lifted from my chest. She nods back. I back out of the room. I don’t think there’s any hope. I want you to know that.” She stares down into the creamy drink and smiles. but implications are jarring. and clouds have covered the sunshine. who are target shooting. I want.don’t know what to do. Why?” .. and she tries to stop me. Ever. “But it’s Benelli who’s going to make this family fine.. and wade out to our rock where I lie back.” Mrs. I have never cheated and never will cheat. where to go. I am holding the end of our troubles in my arms. hike through the forest. I’m more worried about Lala. When I wake up. not certain what. isn’t it?” “Is it?” I ask. her voice even and unsurprised. falling asleep in the muted sun. no offense. “I know that.. and I assumed she texted you first and me out of desperation. Benelli is next to me. but Benelli doesn’t share much when it comes to her family. after two rambunctious little boys. Mrs. Youngblood catches me wandering through the kitchen and sits me down. encouraging me to go out and meet with the Youngblood men and Evan. Eerily calm. needs healing in this clan.” Benelli’s smile is forced. “Let the girls figure it out. I head on a back path behind the town.” She cups the mug in her hands. Youngblood’s cooking is award-deserving. I held my sons in my arms and thought. “Is Lala causing trouble again?” she asks. and I. When my children were born. But I’m in no mood for overbearing inlaws and guns. but I hold a hand up to quiet her. Cormac. “About Lala. but I’m having a hard time managing to work up an appetite. I cannot express how happy I was when I finally had a beautiful little girl.’ And. cleaning my plate. “I realize you gathered the fact that she was drunk. but that kiss was about hurting me. you’re super hot and all. but she looks calm as a Buddha. I search her face for any signs of anger or upset. that she’d be willing to do that. I know all isn’t well. exactly. maybe. nodding at Ithaca to let her know that I’d appreciate if she could talk to Benelli about what happened.” She says the words with as much cautious cheer as she told her story about Benelli’s birth. She gets up and clucks around me.completely loses it over the last few syllables.quiet. “I do.

people who make no sense fall in love all the time. I can taste her worry melt like a sugarcube. It’s strange because.” She puts a hand up to my face and her voice goes low. and then it was gone.” Benelli wraps her arms around me like a snare. Tell me. that he’d be . Like world hunger or time travel. We are. “Maybe we might get thwarted by some of the bigger stuff.” She chuckles when I bump her shoulder with mine. And Lala wants that.. as intimately as I feel I know Benelli. There’s not a problem we’ll come up against we can’t solve together. no questions. I try again. Other than those two. her eyes dark and hungry. “It was Ithaca who told me. You make things better even when it seems like they’re impossibly bad. “I know. still burning over the fact that Benelli’s charming friend would put everything that means anything to me into precarious jeopardy with such careless disregard. So what? She could snap her fingers and fifty guys would come running. “Tell me. and you’re swimming in it. “Jealous?” Benelli leans her head back and looks at the clouds speckling the sky. We used to be inseparable. I’m just sorry she thinks the key to getting it is ripping what we have apart. you know that? You heal things. I didn’t just disapprove of him. I guess. And we’re pretty damn amazing. She pushes her hands through her thick hair and sighs. but she defended you. I think we’re solid. So Winchester didn’t want to be with her. To make sure.” “Was it Andre?” I ask. But it was more than that. I didn’t realize until she actually talked to me how much I’d been missing her.I didn’t say anything when my family packed together and got this whole plan in motion to alienate him. “Of what? She never neglects to tell me how batshit crazy she thinks my family is.. and they didn’t make any sense together. She hasn’t looked me in the eye and talked to me since everything that happened with Andre.” I kiss her lips.” I offer. of course. Benelli. “You’re amazing. leaving the sweet tinge of regret that no amount of kissing will wash away..” She shakes her head and I kiss her again. There’s no single thing that brings on more jealousy than pure happiness. “You’re happy.“Jealousy. “Nothing is impossibly bad. and my heart feels free and open. That’s what I’m here for..” Her smile is too tiny. you know? They were so young. She’s gorgeous. Maybe. I thought it was puppy love. “C’mon. she laughs. We used to have such an amazing relationship. That and your sexual satisfaction. something else is bugging you.” I belt my arms around her. “It was Ithaca. there are so many tiny details of her life that are still hidden from me. “Yeah.” When I kiss her. I know.” Finally.

” She hangs her head between her knees..out of her life permanently. “Come here. and I approve their every possession. Benelli is looking at me with eyes that want. don’t be afraid to give it.” The sky gets darker as the sun lowers on the horizon. and climbs on my lap. we make it hard. her soft skin filling my hands and mouth.” I rub circles on her back with my hand. “Are we monsters?” “No. Just because I can see how amazing you are doesn’t make me so awesome. her hands roving up and down my body like they’re possessing me. then?” Her laugh shakes her tits.. and she opens the clasp of her bra. you see me. I’m sure I’ll lose everything I attempted to hold still and tight for. when no one else sees me or understands who I really am or what I’m really like.. You know. her kisses hard and sweet. “We do a lot. Maybe it’s time for that. It makes me lucky. “You’re nothing but love.” I don’t know about her father for certain. She’s glued to me. branding every inch they touch as theirs. “I’ m lucky. When no one else does.” I unbutton my shirt and shake it off while she makes short work of my pants.” I pull her close. “It was an amazing pep talk. licking along my jaw. the smell of her and the feel of her everywhere around me. Her fingers circle my dick and run up and down. pumping against me hard and fast. untying her dress and letting the cloth fall open. sucking at my neck. because she’s setting a crazy rhythm. but I can answer the question in regards to her without an iota of doubt. “It was a good pep talk.” she whispers. her long limbs. And I love you for that. And if your family needs a lesson from you in that particular kind of love. Sometimes it’s like we turn our backs on each other just when things get tough. clawing her fingers over my shoulders and back. And when someone is brave enough to stand up to family does a lot that’s pretty damn shady in the name of protecting the people we love. and she stares into the rushing water below. It’s all a gorgeous blur of her dark hair and her smooth caram el skin.” “I’m sure you thought you were protecting her. And I want to thank you for believing in me. “I love you.for everything. She sheds the little thong that was barely covering anything anyway. like Winch was. firm . Don’t give me too much credit.” The dress slides back off her arms. that need and won’t be denied. Benelli. I swallow hard. over and over as her hips inch closer. I’m lucky to have found you. My perfect match. so exquisite in their lacy cups. My mouth goes dry. By the time the condom is snugly on and she’s lowered herself onto me.

my gorgeous warrior. and I can’t hold on a minute more. the press of her. sexually proud.around my chest and waist. I kiss her hard. “Did you say you hid some merlot here the other day?” she asks. not zombie feeding frenzies. a long. I can’t tear my eyes off of her. so hot and tight. not puppies being kicked off cliffs. in the moonlight with this girl. “The time for my parents’ rules is ending. nasty teachers going at it like mad can help me now. Benelli. She leans close to me. Cormac.” I have no idea why I’m turning down the opportunity to drink wine. but. Now. her sun-kissed skin completely naked and making my weak. looming over me. “Don’t we have to get back to your family? Your parents will worry. Can you help me with that?” I nod because any word I may have wanted to say is currently mangled in my throat and tied up in her remarkably attractive authority. as soon as possible. completed thrust as deep into her as I can go before I drag her close to me and groan with the satisfaction of my release. apparently. naked. sex-crazed mind and body more than ready to have her back in my arms again. and I pump. not reams of geometry theorems. and I’m left with the ravishing vision of her naked self prancing along the rocks. Nothing. My Benelli. I fill my hands with her. I attempt to think about any and every undesirable thing I can to keep this from ending. and then I want to have sex with you a few more times before we head back home. responsibility has overtaken my brain. . My little Naiad. She leaps down from the rock before I can offer to go instead. I fall back onto the rock. Things are going to change. my perfect match and always love. or any the thought of any number of my sneering. naked. where’s the wine? Because I want to celebrate. I’m about to pull that damn bow back like nobody’s business and things are changing. still glorious. her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright. I do manage to point to the place in the rocks where the merlot was forgotten when I picked up the rest of our engagement feast and accepted her parents’ lavish entertainment instead. sweet. Benelli’s pure sexiness trumps an entire legion of anti-sex thoughts.

It’s fighting to make sure the person you love gets to do the weird thing he loves. it’s that nothing will bring you to your knees and tear your heart out faster than letting down the people who love you. It’s not the Youngblood way to forgive. After the drunken kiss she laid on Cormac. even a saint would want to take you down a peg. But if the last few months has taught me anything. choked all the hate I was holding out of me. I was ready to kick her ass to the curb in a permanent and real way. loving person in the world. It’s admitting that you played a hand in ruining your sister’s relationship. And I planned to see life back in those eyes as soon as possible. Lala isn’t afraid to tell me the truth. and he always assumes the best when it comes to me. Love is hard. We’re about fists and destruction. It’s forgiving your best friend when you want to shove her away. not olive branches and rebuilding. And Lala’s no saint. though Lala makes it even more bitter sometimes. But he’s the most amazing. But something Ithaca said to me stopped all that drama from going down. but I never back down from what I know I have to do. time to really collect my feelings and figure out what it is I want to say and how and why. Hard as it is to be around you when you’re your usual perfect self. Reaching out and changing goes against my blood. bokking chicken. Bok bok bok. empty and bitter. she’s ready to stay by my side and cheer me to the last. “Don’t hate her too much. Cormac says it’s because I needed time to let things sink in. then accepting her cold shoulder even after you’ve poured your heart out over and over in tearful apologies. It’s being generous to your brother’s girlfriend because you’ve been forced to admit you laid blame at her feet and his when there was no reason to. Because I’m a huge.Benelli 8 I let a few days go by before I approach my father. even if you know he could have unbelievable power and success doing other things. He doesn’t think I’m a giant chicken.” My little sister’s cold green eyes. generous. As soon as I figured things out. disgusting mouthful. now that you’re perfect and have an awesome love life. Humble pie is mouth-twistingly bitter. Because I didn’t want my eyes to look like hers. and I’ve got a buffet of it to eat. . so barren and still. And.

and you don’t have to apologize. desperate to backpedal away from the nastiness I’ve been trying so hard to keep myself away from. My dad is--” “Please don’t drag me into your daddy/daughter drama. We’re out at the lake. knowing that she just told me that she didn’t mind my being honest. Okay? Don’t look so shocked.. undoing the bravado of her words. but the mention of Winch has to hurt. “You are lucky. I know that.her. I’ll never understand because my daddy ran out on us--” “That’s not what I said. “I don’t want you to apologize.” She whips her sunglasses off. But they’re also starkly clear and honest. It could be so much worse.” I object. I want to be honest. “Now. I get it. but the Winch I really want is the Winch who’s with. We’re lucky Colt and Ithaca are just slamming their doors and pouting. She squeezes the stress ball with more vicious intensity. We’re all changing. quick pumps in an attempt to give her nails a chance to grow back and to edge off her nicotine rages. and is squeezing a stress ball in short. “You didn’t have to. “You don’t get it. I know that.” she says. I can say his name without breaking down.” “You deserve someone amazing. The family is falling apart. and she has no makeup on. But I didn’t have it. is wearing a huge cover-up over her tiny bikini. and I ignored him more than I should have.I didn’t have it. the worse things get. Because I’m an out-of-control psycho asshole. You know. Even if you’re a self-centered bitch sometimes. “Damn straight. those hazel eyes bloodshot and small-looking without the pounds of mascara. And things would have been bad with him and me.” Her skin is pale.” I bite my lip and look at her sideways. what Winch said about you being the bridge is right. it fucking kills me to say that. He made a great point. And. taking her hand and grabbing it over the rapid stressball squeezing. I know I’m sad about it.. he made a lot of great points. “I know.. right?” Her small smile is nervous. He and I were never going to work. We’re lucky Winch came back. And she has something with him. It’s a Lala I almost don’t recognize. God. but that may not be such a bad thing.” I say.“Just talk to him. And that feels good. “Okay. I know I have to talk to him. It feels right. and the more rules he and Mama set up. that’s okay. and you put up with me. And I know that you love me. but she looks good. you know.” I sit for another long minute. what are you going to say to your father?” .. but her voice wobbles.

because. his eyes crinkling at the sides. “Papa?” I catch him out in the garage where he keeps his gun collection and the fridge full of beer. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I never would have picked that one for you. and the cigarettes and cigars he thinks Mama doesn’t know about. I’ve had it locked in my head for days on end. like a gun. “I said. your mother wanted to only name the boys after guns.” He puts the rifle in its safe and locks it up. because she’s an angel. Pop. When you were born. the next day.” He turns his blue eyes to me. She’s strong and beautiful.I shake my head and she and I stare at the lake. she looked into your face. right?” “I need to talk to you. I’ve known for a long time.” It’s half a lie. ‘That kid’s no angel. and he was pretty adamant that it was the perfect name for his little girl. but maybe my smart daughter knows better than her stupid old pop now and then. It was always safety first with all of us growing up in a house full of violent weapons. It’s almost like I have too much to say right now. when I go to find my father. I’m naming her Angelique. I know what I have to say to him. “You know. the pebbled sand. “It’s about Cormac. too much to think through and make him understand. sweetheart. the shelves of homemade vodka. ‘No more guns. and she said. “Did Cormac tell you about the meeting? With the guys from Spain? Did you know your boy speaks Spanish? They were eating out of the palm of his hand. And it took a long time. She’s a beauty. Anything you need.” “Cormac is completing his internship--” . My poor mother. My father has a love affair with guns. but he also respects them. all squished after that hellish birth.” He looks at me and smiles. laughing and crying in the waves. isn’t she?” I stand next to my father and rub my fingers over the smooth metal of the rifle’s barrel. It’s a testament to my mother’s total love for my father that she agreed to my name. I pull up a stool and sit on it. “I have no idea. I swear. the screaming kids splashing each other. and they well up with love that undoes my heart. “Beautiful.’” I’ve actually heard this story before.’” He grins at me. princess. there’s this whole long speech I run over. “And what did you say again?” I love the image of the two of them arguing over a baby me. His first choice was Bersa. smiling at my father. “Go ahead. “C’mere.

There’s a huge temptation to let this ride.. and it’s not going to be pretty. taking dead aim. “He’ll be accepting a temporary assignment at Stanford. Do you think he speaks Swedish by any chance?” My father’s face is free of lines. Benelli? Be an adult here for a minute.” “Papa. I pick up the bow and pull back. Pop. Is it all about money. to let Cormac do the work he’s not even complaining about. It’s. Papa? Really?” My words fly and shoot straight into the heart of this. And he needs a real job so you can have a home like you need. I’m glad he’ll finish that book thing. to let Ithaca and Colt bite their tongues for one more short year. you know. It will be time for the two of you to have kids before you know it. “It’s not money. And with her. We’re about to look eye to eye. I just saw the stress he was under. I’ll travel back and forth between California and Georgia while he’s there.” I have a very tenuous hold on this conversation. relaxed and sure for the first time in such a long time.” My father’s smile melts and hardens.“I’m sorry about that. Look at how things went with him. listen. and he’s not going to be my all-powerful. I’m not going to be his little princess. But I should have asked. I need to pull the damn bowstring back. it can be a hard thing to say no. but I’m determined to grab on. and I know how sometimes. “Not the money?” He barks out a short. especially for a guy who’s a little. But I can’t. all-knowing father. And it should be done in time for him to travel to Sweden with me this winter? I’m looking at taking over a factory there.. Abony took it. “What’s this all about? California? You can’t spend your first year of marriage jetting back and forth like that. His face purples with rage and he moves his jaw. “Winch walked away from the money.choice.” But just those two words open up a vat of indignant fury. That’s on me. “What’s not about the money. I set my arrow and draw back. and they need time to make arrangements--” “I can pay for anything that needs paying for. “Cormac and I are going to have a longer engagement. We want to wedding to accommodate his family. What’s not about the money?” I don’t like my father’s tone. slicing his teeth back and forth as he wrestles with his next words. I can’t do it. too. . Hear me out. going back to the cajoling peacemaker. a little less assertive. So think about it. and I realize that now is the time where we’re going to push past the positions we’re both comfortable in. hard laugh.” I say firmly.” my father insists. My father isn’t good at ‘listening’ to anyone. “Cormac won’t go to Sweden.

But it’s time to do things differently. you need to let me go. and I do. please. but I don’t always love what you’ve done. I walk to the apartment where the window swings open and Cormac pokes his dark head out. Maybe he’ll listen to what I said. You know that. “You don’t love what I’ve done? I’ve taken care of all of you! All of you!” He pounds the flat of one hand on the counter. My heart is thundering in my chest. I’m asking now. and it was working. “You did your best. I put a hand on his arm.” He shakes his head. I’m asking for you to respect me. for something. I don’t want to abandon this family. and that’s because we decided to protect you. “You think this is so easy? You think running a family. “But I don’t want to go. right up to the arms of the man who will love and . for this man I love in spite of his arrogance. And to make some changes. Hard ones. if I’m not the answer.” “Come up here to me.” I put my hand on his shoulder. his mouth curved up in a smile.” “I didn’t ask for that. worry.” I say.” He rubs a hand over his heart. Benelli. “Maybe? Maybe not.“What has Abony been telling you while you two are enjoying your time under the roof I pay for?” “The truth. I’ve shot every arrow in my quiver. because I feel choked with tears that I’m not about to shed in front of him. “And stop with the money.” he urges. You’ve been taken care of your entire life. and I may have failed anyway. Or why you’ve done it. I walk past my family house.” His blue eyes flash at me. “Your marriage was the change. There’s just me.” I turn from my father. my warrior? Did you conquer?” I look up at him and let my mouth smile despite my leaden heart. who may very well disown me for this. “How goes it. And if I’m not enough. “There is no marriage. and I feel a jab of concern. It feels like I may have. I just don’t know right now.” I keep my voice strong. “I love you. Papa. But I did what I had to do. I want to be here for all of us and see us through this change. I love you. though. his thick glasses on.” I clear my throat.” He shakes his head at me. Because you know that’s what’s going to happen. “I never asked for any of that. is so simple. He was the change. Big ones. To respect this family. And Cormac isn’t part of this. You’re a little girl. You’ve never faced the realities even your brothers have. and Cormac. Think about this. where the people I love and grew up with may judge me and ostracize me. And to make them before we self-destruct. a business.

support me no matter what, through every obstacle. And I realize how lucky we are to have found each other. How we fit together so well. How we’re perfectly unmatched. *** Six months later “That interpreter was rather lazy, wasn’t he?” Cormac asks, his face so handsome in the flicker of the fireplace, my heart swells and beats fast. How can just looking at him still do this to me, all these months later? “He was,” I agree and kiss him, so glad he’s here with me, in my bed, for days on end. “But that’s what you get when you hire some dreamy professor on his winter break. I should have used one of those placement agencies.” “He did help you negotiate a very decent deal, though,” he whispers, catching my earlobe between his teeth. “Mmm. That remains to be seen. We may own the rights to a fish pickling enterprise or something, based on his shoddy Swedish.” I laugh when he blows a raspberry on my neck. “Well, at least he was open to your wanton seductions.” He kisses down my neck, along my breast, and pulls one nipple into his mouth and sucks softly, making me moan. “That is one really nice part,” I agree as his head dips lower under the blankets. We haven’t been able to keep our hands off each other since he flew back to help me negotiate the deal in Sweden my father signed over to my care. I thought we might be together in California the day after I spoke with my father. He didn’t look at me again for a week, and, since Cormac had finished his internship, he convinced me to end the summer with his family in England instead of being ignored by the man who named me and cared for me in Hungary. We left, his family was lovely and welcoming and refreshingly drama-free, and I was set to move with him to California when my father called me into his office as I was packing so he could ask advice about a business account. One tiny, cautious question led to another. And another. And another, until we were in the midst of restructuring Youngblood enterprises. Cormac was the one who told me to stay, to see if I could enact some small changes, slowly, that would help legitimize our companies and save our failing businesses.

Each small change I pressed for netted my father success, and each success allowed him to give up a little more control. Cormac’s head pops back up from the covers. “You are slowly eroding my male pride, love. What are you thinking about other than the gorgeous, sexually adventurous man in your bed?” “I’m sorry,” I say, communicating my sincere apology with my hands and lips. He groans and pulls back. “Faker. I know you’re thinking about something other than me, unbelievable as that is. Spill, love. Just so I can do a good job listening and get rewarded with the full force of your passionate attention.” I laugh hard. “You are such a dork. I thought going to California would make you cooler, but I think it made you even dorkier.” He nibbles my neck. “I got a nice tan, though. And I stood on a surfboard twice. That kind of makes me a surfer, right?” “Definitely.” I giggle. “I was thinking that things are getting better with my dad. Slowly. And I’m glad.” “Then I will be happy with you and not at all freaked out to be talking about your father right at this moment.” He ducks back under the covers, and I poke at him while he kisses parts of me that don’t seem interesting to anyone but Cormac. I love the way he manages to make even my elbows feel sexy. “Ithaca wrote me. She’s loving her new school. And she said Colt has ten different scholarships to choose from. I was twice the student he is, and I had maybe three. That’s football for you, I guess.” I run my foot up and down along his leg, loving the naked slide of our bodies against each other. “So life is good with the Youngbloods?” Cormac asks, his voice muffled by the blankets and the fact that he’s trailing kisses down my ribs and onto my hips. “It’s okay. For now, it’s just fine.” I lift the covers. “I cannot talk to you while you’re down there.” He scoots back up and pulls me close. “Here I am. What are we talking about?” I kiss his bottom lip. “Life being good.” “So damn good,” he agrees. “What’s the plan now that your Stanford contract is up?” I ask. “I was thinking of finding work closer to you, because I missed you like crazy. And I could be home waiting for you, having cleaned up the little place we get together that maybe has a decent bay window and some mid-to-high-end IKEA furniture. I’ll have a nice hot meal on the table every night for

my hard-working, high-powered business tycoon woman.” He takes my hand and kisses my knuckles. “I was also thinking of making that ring on your finger more than just an ornament. You know how the thought of making you my legal wife gets me all kinds of giddy. Then I was thinking I’d take you on a long, excruciatingly boring tour of Greece on our honeymoon. Ancient relics and sunburn by day, wine and sex by night. Or, you know, I’m open to other suggestions.” In the flickering light of the fire, I look at his face, so full of love and wonder, and I know that any suggestion, every suggestion will be the right one as long as he’s with me. And our goals and desires won’t always match, but our love for each other will. And that’s why we’re going to be together until the end. We’ll always find our way back to each other. We’ll make Odysseus and Penelope look like slackers. And we’ll stay, forever, completely in love, totally committed, and perfectly unmatched.

And huge. I’m honored to be included in the ranks of such a passionate. act like I’m more famous and wealthy than I’ll ever be. enormous. expressive girl! To my sweet. talented unicorns. and other authors who support. who has to put up with me because I won’t go away. share. who keeps it real. And I’m a wordy. crazy women into our family this winter…there are never enough of us! I love them more than I can express. You. supportive group of people who share my love of stories that transport and beautify. But that’s the beautiful thing. and give me crazy help and advice anytime I need it. And feed me and nudge me towards the shower and help with the chores I always mean to do but forget because my characters are distracting me! They are my heart. because it’s where an author gets to give smooches to all the people who helped her along the way and let those people know how appreciated they are! I’m very smoochful. isn’t it? Especial love to my sister and sister-in-law. ROCK! . beauties. loving. and encourage the writing and reading of every kind of book. So much love.Acknowledgements: This is the coolest section in a book. and I don’t know what I’d do without them. colossal. and been my inspiration along every step of this amazing journey. I break that promise daily. who brought/are bringing two more awesome. Particular love to Steph. They have showered me in glitter to celebrate my successes. All. and know how lucky that makes me. So much love. and inspires a ton of the love I write about. ever-loving thank you to the group of authors who are my herd of wild. bloggers. inspire. and they love me anyway. all-consuming love to the community of readers. I always promise I’m going to write during school/work hours and be fully present at all other times. magical. A huge. Thank you to my amazing fam who always pitch in to cheer me on. loving friends who read and tell me what’s good and/or crazy in my book. given me virtual smooches when I’m down. Thank you to my husband and daughter. Or don’t.

I’d love to hear from you and am open to any questions/comments/hilarious Youtube video the better! In my “real life” I love my gorgeous daughter who makes me laugh and dries my insane. I am the author of the mature YA Brenna Blixen Series ( Double Clutch. plus travel.blogspot. and steaminess. the more verbal sparring. all the rest of my crazy family and friends. great books. the YA mature book Forgiving Trinity . Junk Miles. Write me if you want! I’m at lizreinhardtwrites@gmail.Biography: I’ve been interested in writing since I rewrote the ending of Romeo and Juliet and killed them all off…every last one! My teacher loved it. I also blog! Or try to blog! I’m at elizabethreinhardt. good food someone else cooked. the New Adult romance Fall Guy (A Youngblood Novel). melodrama. and my inner writer came out kicking and screaming. my awesome husband (who is the inspiration for many of my best bad boys…shh!). and the New Adult romances Lengths and A Toast to the Good Times. I’m pretty decent about checking my Facebook page at https://www. movies. where you can find me at @lizreinhardt. Hope to see you around! . and Slow Twitch). Laughing is my favorite. and laughing. My writing passion is YA/ and am less awesome about Twitter. co-written with Steph Campbell.facebook. the YA paranormal

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