Authors: Lauren Jameson
When he had finished, and I delighted in yet another impossible climax, we stayed in place, cocooned together until the water in the bath began to cool. As I pressed my damp cheek into his shoulder and felt the pulse of the bond between us, I wondered whether this could be enough for us.
Could I live this way, knowing he hadn’t been able to break through that final barrier for me? My mind told me that the idea was an invitation to heartache and disaster.
My heart, however . . . my heart told me I just might be happier with the pieces of Zach that I could have than with no Zach at all.
I came out of the bath, damp and seeking the warmth of Zach’s arms, only to find the bedroom empty. Cocking my head, I padded out of the room, my feet leaving damp imprints on the plush carpet.
The smell of spices tickled the insides of my nose as I followed the scent. I found Zach in the kitchen, a room I hadn’t yet been in.
It was warm, and bright, the overhead lights illuminating cream walls and a charcoal slate backsplash. Bright copper pots dangled overhead, and a massive flat screen television was mounted on the wall above the table.
I might have wondered further about the need for such a thing in a kitchen, but my attention was drawn to Zach.
His back to me, he stood at the stove, browning what appeared to be ground beef. As I watched silently from the doorway, I found that though he seemed less sure of himself here than he did in the boardroom—or the bedroom—he still commanded the space, filled it, as he added handfuls of chopped red peppers to the pan.
I tugged at the hem of his T-shirt, which I had pulled on after the bath. I didn’t keep nightclothes here, and I wasn’t secure enough in my body to go running around naked. I knew it was silly, since he had seen every bit of me, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling.
Standing there, wearing his shirt, watching him cook something that was obviously for me, brought all my feelings bubbling to the surface. This man, this beautiful, complex man, made me weak in the knees.
Unless he could give me everything, though, it wasn’t going to work.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Squeezing my eyes shut tightly, then opening them wide, I went on instinct. Before I could overthink it, I moved behind him quietly, then wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed.
“Hey.” Leaning around his torso, I sniffed at the pan. The scent made my mouth water. I hadn’t realized that I was hungry, but that was Zach. Always anticipating my needs. “Whatcha making?”
He always seemed to know what I needed before I did.
He stiffened in my embrace, then slowly relaxed. I didn’t comment, instead stepping back and hitching myself up to sit on the counter.
“Taco skillet.” There was something in the depths of his eyes when he turned that I couldn’t quite read, but his expression was warm as he ran a hand easily up my thigh and pressed a quick kiss to my lips. “Want some wine?”
I murmured my assent as he moved to the fridge to remove a bottle of wine, then to the cupboard. The first one that he opened held plates. The second had coffee mugs. Growling with frustration, he flung open the door to the third, removing the two wineglasses that he had been searching for.
I couldn’t quite stifle a giggle as he poured a glass of the straw-colored wine and handed it to me.
“Something amuse you, minx?” His smirk was self-deprecating as he pulled a package of tortillas from the freezer and tore the bag open. I watched, mesmerized, as he cut the tortillas into strips.
He clearly didn’t cook very often. That he was doing so for me made my heart beat a little too fast in my chest.
“Don’t spend much time in here, huh?” The wine was both tart and sweet as it slid over my tongue. When Zach turned, insinuated himself between my legs, I wasn’t prepared for the firm, playful pinch on my bottom and I squealed, only half in protest.
“I don’t have much cause to.” Dipping a finger into my wine, he painted it over my lips, then leaned in for a taste. Bare chested, his black lounge pants slung low on his hips, I expected his hands to move to the usual places, to tease the heat from me.
Instead, the kiss held warmth, and familiarity, and comfort.
When he turned back to the stove, I found my whole world had shifted off balance.
“I can make this easy enough. Ground beef, peppers and tomatoes, tortillas, cheese.” Pulling a plate from the counter to the pan, he portioned out several large spoonfuls. “I can also make scrambled eggs and toast, and spaghetti. And I’m the king of anything from a box.”
Setting the plate beside me on the counter, he opened one drawer, then another, until he found a fork. I could feel the heat emanating from the dish, warming my skin, and even as my stomach growled I eyed it dubiously.
“Zach, I love that you cooked for me, but I can’t eat all of that.” He grinned as he settled himself between my legs again, standing far enough away that he could hold the plate between us. Scooping up a forkful, he held it to my lips.
“It’s not all for you. We’re sharing. Less dishes that way.” My mouth fell open, and he used the opportunity to place the bite in my mouth.
He had cooked for me. He was
If I didn’t know that something big still stood in our way, I could almost have believed that we were a couple, one like any other.
“Well?” Zach watched as I chewed and swallowed. It was good—not fancy, but the fact that he had cooked it for me made it the best meal I had ever had.
I couldn’t tell him that, not without him shutting down completely. So I made a show of shrugging nonchalantly, then picked up my wineglass for a sip.
“Well, it’s not scrambled eggs and toast, but I suppose it will do.” I yelped when he reached for my hair, winding the damp tail through his fingers. He tugged gently until my head fell my back, my neck exposed.
He pressed a kiss to the base of my neck, then looked down at me intently. I squirmed under the stare, but didn’t wriggle out of his grip.
“I don’t cook for just anyone, you know.” Though his words were light, his expression was not. I felt my heart stutter in my chest as we stared into one another’s eyes, the air between us thick.
“Have you ever cooked for anyone before?” I had time to stop before I spoke, but I wanted to know.
I flinched inwardly, waiting for him to shut down. Instead, after a long, long pause, he leaned forward and pressed the lightest whisper of a kiss over my lips.
I blinked as he scooped up another forkful of food and held it to my mouth.
“Now eat up. You’re going to need your strength. I’m not done with you yet.”
The last barriers that I had been able to keep in place, the ones protecting my heart, dissolved as the fork met my lips.
I was done for.
I was hovering on the edge of sleep when Zach’s hand sought mine in the darkness. He twined his fingers around mine, and I smiled sleepily, moving closer to the warmth of his body.
When he spoke, his voice was tight. Sensing what was about to happen, I propped myself up on my elbow, suddenly alert.
“You have no idea what I’ve come from.” In the dark, I saw that his face was turned toward the ceiling, the shadows from outside dancing over it. “My mother left my dad and me when I was just a kid. My dad never raised a hand to me, but after she left, every word that he said to me, every time he looked at me, I saw that he wished it had been me who’d gone, not her.”
The self-loathing in his voice shocked me to the core. I’d known he had issues, but this, the full extent of
had been hidden very, very well.
“It was pretty clear that there was no love for anyone in that house. A shrink that I had . . . later . . . showed me that I made sure there was none for me anywhere else, either. I was a violent kid, angry, always starting fights at school. I smoked a lot of pot, drank whenever I felt like it, and kept to myself, to make sure that no one got close enough to hurt me again.”
Apart from the drinking and the drugs, he could have been talking about himself now. I kept that thought to myself, not wanting to break the spell that had allowed him to say even this much.
“Marie . . . was someone who slipped past all of that. She was exactly the kind of girl that I resented. She was a cheerleader, an honors student, on student council. She came from a loving, unbroken family. She had everything that I didn’t.” He laughed, and the sound wasn’t bitter as I’d expected. I tamped down hard on the surge of jealousy that I felt for this girl who had been in Zach’s life long ago.
“We were partnered up in a biology class. I knew that she was flirting with me, but at first I thought she was just trying to piss off her parents, or was attracted to bad boys. Something, there had to be something, because I couldn’t understand why she would be interested in me.” The awe was clear in his voice. I felt myself shift uneasily, not comfortable with the story.
What did you expect, Devon? That whatever was haunting him would turn out to be made of sunshine, puppy dogs, and rainbows? Of course there was someone else before you.
“She wasn’t like that, didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She actually liked me. I liked her back. And that was it. Marie broke down my barriers with a smile and her sweet personality, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to love, and even more, to be loved in return.”
I hated her. I hated this long ago girl, whom I knew almost nothing about. I hated her because once Zach had loved her, and unlike with me, he had accepted her love in return.
My fingernails bit into my palms until the sharp pain forced me to relax them.
As though attuned to my distress, Zach rolled to his side, then placed my palm flat and open before him. He traced patterns on it with his finger, staring down at it in the dark, so that he didn’t have to look up.
Didn’t have to look at me.
“We dated for nearly two years. She straightened me out, set me on a better path. I pulled up my grades enough to start at a community college after graduation. She went to a much bigger school, but we still saw each other whenever we could.” I swallowed thickly, encouraging him with my silence to continue speaking.
His tone had darkened, and I tensed. I knew that what came next would be the crux of his issues. I just wondered if he would be able to tell me.
His breath hitched, and after a long pause he resumed his story. I exhaled in a rush that made me dizzy, relieved that he hadn’t stopped.
“She was back home for a visit at Christmas, the first year we had both been away at school.” Zach’s voice went flat, tense. The finger tracing designs into my palm stabbed harder, and I winced but didn’t pull away.
“We went to a party. Neither of us drank. She just didn’t like it, and I had drunk enough in my early teens for a lifetime.” Oh, no. I saw where the story was going, and my heart started to break.
“We were on our way home from the party. My dad was away for the weekend, and we were excited to spend the night together.” I knew what was coming, and yet I couldn’t stop that frisson of jealousy.
I was a horrible person. Even knowing that, I couldn’t help it.
“You can guess the rest, I’m sure. It’s not a unique story. A drunk driver hit us head-on. I walked away with a few scratches. Marie was killed.” My heart felt as though it was being squeezed in a giant fist. Any feelings of jealousy and anger I had felt disappeared in an instant.
That poor, poor boy—that boy who had grown up to be Zach. Powerful, distant, billionaire business mogul Zachariah St. Brenton.
“You were driving.” It wasn’t a question. So many things made sense now, including his need for control.
“Yes.” His voice was terse as he bit out the word. I felt a jolt when, after avoiding my eyes for the entire conversation, he looked straight at me, his expression defiant even in the dim light.
“In Cambria, when you left. I was coming after you to tell you that I just needed some time to wrap my head around . . . around what you had said.” Propping himself up on one elbow, Zach ran a hand through his hair, something that I had come to learn meant that he was agitated. “When that car almost hit you . . . that fury, that wasn’t because you had said you loved me. It was because I was so scared that it had very nearly happened again.”
I held my breath. My heart began to beat triple time. He was so close, so close to saying what I so badly wanted to hear him say.
“It made me realize something.”
Yes. Yes. Please. Tell me that you love me, too.
The three little words that I was waiting for didn’t come. Instead Zach reached for the remote that sat on his bedside table and hit a button. The overhead lights came on, dim, but overwhelming to eyes that had adjusted to the dark.
He pulled my arm out from my side. I followed his gaze as he ran his hands over a series of small pink bruises. Made by his fingers as he had thrust inside of me, they were barely noticeable to the naked eye, and they certainly didn’t hurt.
Guilt was painted over his face as he studied each and every one.
“These were completely consensual, Zach.” I tried to keep the edge of panic from my voice. He had finally broken down and shared with me. I couldn’t let him withdraw now.
He stared into my face, and a hint of dominant Zach peered through the dark depths of his eyes.
“I saw a shrink for years after the accident.” He looked so ferocious that I was afraid to interrupt. “My need for control, the dominant side of my personality, was birthed during that car accident. The doc thought that it went a step further, though. He was certain that my . . . lifestyle . . . stemmed from guilt from Marie’s death. He thought that when I indulged in BDSM practices, I was doing my best to drive away a potential partner, since deep down, I didn’t feel that I deserved one.”
I froze, pinned beneath his stare. Poor Zach. No wonder he ran so hot and cold. He had been put through the ringer.
“I don’t agree.” His expression dared me to argue with him. “My dominance came from the accident. Yes, I think that’s true. But I know that I live the lifestyle that I do because I need something that the vanilla world doesn’t offer.”
I had no idea what to say, though his eyes raked over my face, searching for clues to my thoughts.
“No matter where it came from, that . . . need . . . it’s a part of me now. It’s how I live my life. And while there are lots of women who liked some kink while they’re getting fucked, when it spills into other areas of their lives, they’re gone.” I knew that he used coarse language deliberately to shock me, but still, the statement hit me like a slap in the face.
I was one of those women he was referring to, at least in his eyes. I was here for a good time, for some kink in the sex we shared together.