Authors: Staci Hart
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Romantic Erotica, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
I tried to sit up. “I’m all wet.”
“I don’t care,” he answered and unfolded the towel as I made it upright. He dried my hair, my shoulders, my face, then all the way down to my feet, the fluffy towel warm and soft against my pink skin. He pulled down the covers. “Come get in.”
“God, that’s so much work.”
Van laughed, and I snapped out of it a little as I crawled into his bed and lay on my side, watching him dry off. My eyes followed his hands as he ran the towel through his hair, leaving it standing up. He ran his fingers through it as he tossed the towel before climbing in to bed with me.
We faced each other, smelling of soap, still damp.
I looked into his eyes. “What are we doing, Van? What is this?”
He moved my wet hair back over my shoulder. “I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t want you to leave.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said, my throat burning.
“Then stay.” He stroked my arm.
“I’ve never … I don’t know, Van. I’ve never done this before.”
“It doesn’t have to be hard. Have you ever had a relationship that’s just easy? One that doesn’t feel like work, even when it is?”
I thought of Erin and nodded.
“It’s like that. I don’t have to try with you. It just happens. I don’t have to think about it. It just is.” He smiled lightly. “We really don’t need any answers right now. Or at least I don’t. Okay?”
Van pulled me into his chest, and I scooted closer to him. My head fit perfectly under his chin, and with his arms around me I felt safe. I didn’t realize until that moment that I hadn’t felt safe in my whole life. Van was right. It was easy, simple. He genuinely wanted me to be happy, and if I had to guess, I would bet he treated everyone he cared about the same. I didn’t doubt for a single minute that he was loyal and honest. I believed every word that left his lips.
But I wasn’t honest, and I wasn’t good. What would he do when he found out the truth? Because I couldn’t keep it from him.
We didn’t speak, he just held me in the dark, his fingers tracing circles and patterns on my arm until he slowed, then stilled, and his chest rose and fell slow and steady with his breath. And as tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep, only stared out the window from the warmth of his arms, looking for answers.
I STRETCHED IN BED and opened my eyes, looking at the world sideways for a moment, blinking away sleep. It was quiet, that soft serenity that comes only in the early hours of morning, that feeling of promise, of hope. I didn’t know how I was going to solve everything, make everything right, but I’d find a way. Starting with Jade.
Sleep had brought resolve. As afraid as I was to tell Van the truth about me, I knew it was the only choice. I felt good about the rightness of it, even if it brought destruction. I wanted to believe he would understand. There was a chance he would, and I hung on to that with everything. I could handle Jade. I was strong enough to move past all of this. But everything would change, starting today.
Van wasn’t in bed, but I smelled bacon and smiled. It was like a dream, like I’d stolen someone else’s life. Like I’d pulled back a curtain and realized that there was a world past the one I knew, if I could only break out of the one I was living.
I slipped out of bed and walked to the window, looking out over Midtown. The view was brilliant, and I watched the sunrise as it climbed over the horizon like I was seeing it for the first time.
My jeans and shirt were folded and stacked on the armchair, and I pulled them on in a daze, twisting my hair into a bun as I made my way into the kitchen.
Van stood at the stove with no shirt on and jersey sleep pants low on his hips. I smiled and took a seat and propped my chin on my hand.
“Frying bacon with no shirt on? Hardcore.” I said.
He glanced over his shoulder with a smile. “Skills. I was just about to wake you up. Coffee?”
“Yes, please. Just sugar.”
He poured me a cup and passed it across the bar with a sugar bowl and spoon. “What are you up to today?”
I stiffened in my seat with my eyes on my coffee while I stirred, watching the bubbles spin around like my thoughts. “Not much. I’m off today, not a lot of deliveries on the weekends. You?”
“Meeting my lawyer for lunch. Every once in a while, I get busted for shooting on private property. Most property owners don’t care, but there’s always that one dick who thinks he runs the world and wants a piece of you.”
Jade’s face flashed in my mind. I picked up my mug and nodded, taking a sip even though it was still way too hot to drink.
“Speaking of work, I have a gallery show next week that I desperately need a date for.” He smiled crooked as he plated eggs.
“I’d love to.”
If you don’t hate me by then.
“Good. I’ll text you details.” It could have almost been a grin, though he was trying to suppress it as he divvied out bacon, eggs, and toast. He sat next to me at the bar and slid a plate in front of me.
I laughed. “What’s fucked up is that you don’t even have my number.”
Van leaned over to me, his lips almost on mine. “Let’s rectify that.” He kissed me, sucking gently on my bottom lip before pulling away, picking up my phone as I picked up my fork.
“Smells so good. Thanks,
” I stressed his name, stretching out the syllable.
He smiled at the sound while he put his number into my phone. “I shouldn’t have told you about saying my name.”
I smiled back. “Well, I have a confession.” I stuffed a bite of eggs into my mouth.
I nodded and swallowed. “It’s the same for me when you say mine.”
He smiled, mischievous and curious. “Really?”
“Really. I think you’re right about it being because of how we met, the not knowing who you were. It was intense. For the record, I’ve never done anything quite like that, either.”
“Guess I just caught you on a good day.”
I laughed. “Or a bad one.”
“Well, it was a good one for me. Crazy, but good.”
“Van, I don’t mean—”
“It’s okay.” He smiled.
I shook my head with a hint of a smile on my face, surprised at how the potential insult hadn’t fazed him when most people would have been hurt. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
“Don’t you ever get pissed?”
Van shrugged. “Yeah, everybody does. Most stuff doesn’t get to me, though. Just the big stuff. Lying, cheating. I just feel like it’s not that hard to be a good person, do the right thing.”
I nodded down at my eggs, feeling like my chest was going to cave in from the pressure. “Right.”
“Anyway, most stuff rolls off my back.”
I watched him for a moment as he sipped his coffee. “You realize that we’re exact opposites?”
He shrugged and set his mug down, turning to me. “Except we’re not at all. It’s like we’re made from the same metal, we just have different finishes. We shine different.”
“You’re like a fortune cookie.”
Van laughed. “I know. I have a couple of binders full of bad poetry from high school, if you ever need a laugh.”
“Poetry, huh? My high school days were spent freerunning and avoiding school.”
“More girls than guys.”
He let out a laugh. “Oh, really?” He seemed to be part impressed, part not sure if I was fucking with him.
I took another bite and nodded. “True story.”
I swallowed hard. “Not really.” I watched his face, looking for his reaction, but he just smiled.
“It actually makes a lot of sense, from your reaction to me looking for you.”
me?” I teased.
“Stalk, orchestrate a grand gesture, whatever.”
“You would have been the catch of the century, if they could have caught you.”
“I don’t know,” I scoffed, “I’m a little intimidating. No one gets very far with me. I shut them down before they have a chance.”
“Well, lucky for you, I’m persistent. I know what I want, and I get what I want.”
I watched him take a bite of eggs, bewildered. “You’re something else, Sullivan Collins.”
He looked over at me, his eyes honest and open. “So are you, Cory James.”
“I don’t know how you got in,” I said, half to myself.
“I can scale any wall in my way, and I never give up on what I believe in. You never stood a chance,” he answered with a smile.
I slipped off my stool and into his arms, my lips finding his, hands on his cheeks. I tried hold back my fear and uncertainty, just wanting him to know that he meant something to me with the action.
Our mouths slowed and I leaned back, feeling tears prick the corners of my eyes, but I smiled. “I’ve got to go. I’ll hit you up later, okay?”
“All right, Cory.”
I wrapped my arms around his neck and closed my eyes, not knowing if we’d ever have a moment like that again, full of his hope and trust in me.
I whispered into his ear, “Thank you.”
By the time I reached the loft, I had a plan, a speech, and a shitload of resolve. The plan was thin: try to convince Jade that the painting was a fake. The speech was better and involved several dirty names and threats. The resolve would be my saving grace, if all else failed.
I closed the warehouse door to the quiet apartment, figuring everyone was either gone or sleeping. I threw my bag on a chair and sat at the table, wondering when Jade would be home. I didn’t wonder for long.
She walked in from her room, looking smug as she pulled out a chair and sat down across from me. “You look really fresh. You’re really pulling off that ‘just fucked’ look.” She folded her forearms on the table and leaned forward. “How was it getting actual dick? A little more exciting than Erin’s fist?”
I glared at her. “God, you’re the worst brand of asshole, you know that?”
She just smiled.
“It’s not a Rothko. It’s by some nobody who paints imitations.” I crossed my arms and stared her down.
Jade leaned forward a little closer, looking down her nose at me. “Nice try. He’s listed as the buyer in the registries.”
I paused, but I didn’t move a single muscle. “I’m not doing it, Jade.”
She shrugged and sighed. “Jill is going to be
disappointed in you.”
And just like that, I decided. I wasn’t going to let her push me. I had enough money saved. Nothing was worth dealing with Jade’s megalomania, not anymore. Van wasn’t the only person to learn the truth. “I’m going to tell Jill. Today.”
Jade laughed, the sound haughty and superior. “Sure you will.”
“What, want to come with me?”
“Get real, Cory.”
“I’m not fucking kidding, Jade. I’m done with this. You don’t own me, and you can’t force me to do this. I’m telling Jill.”
Jade stared at me, her smile slipping into a sneer as she realized I wasn’t bluffing. “You’re really going to tell her?”
She fumed. “Who the fuck is this guy? You would risk it for him? Cory, that painting is worth
And not just a couple. Like in the neighborhood of fifteen.”
I set my jaw.
She stood. “Fifteen
dollars.” She paused. “Your cut would pay for Jill’s school, college, a yacht, a house in Malibu, and you’d have money to live on for life. Fuck your ‘not doing it.’ You’re fucking doing it.”
I stood and met her eyes. “You gonna make me?”
Jade walked around the table, stopping close enough that we were almost touching, our noses just inches from each other. “This isn’t stealing laptops and thumb drives. This is something that could set us up for years.
Just because you got your cunt serviced doesn’t mean we all suffer. How stupid are you? You’ve known him for five minutes, and you’re going to throw everything away? For what?” She leaned closer, sending my nerves on end.
“Back the fuck up, Jade.”
She mocked me with a whiny tone, throwing my words back at me, “Oh, are you gonna make me?” But then she straightened up, something in her shifting, a shadow behind her eyes I hadn’t seen before. “Do
fuck with me. That’s your only warning.”
“Fuck your warning.” I slammed her in the shoulders with my palms and brought my fists up as she tried to catch her balance.
Her face twisted, her teeth bared when she charged me, but I threw out a fist and caught her in the jaw. She reeled back and hit the ground. I stepped toward her.
don’t fuck with
Jade coughed, looking beaten, and I took a step closer, ready with a threat. But when I opened my mouth to speak, she swept her leg. The world tilted as she knocked my feet out from under me, and I hit the ground, my lungs frozen from the impact. Before I could react, she was on me.
She backhanded me and sat on my chest, pinning my arms with her legs. My chest ached, my skin stinging from the slap, and she arched over me, pressing her palms to the concrete next to my ears. “You’ll do this, or I’ll find Jill. I’ll find her, and I’ll kill her. And once you get the painting, you’re out. You’ll disappear.” She grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the cold floor.