Perfectly Unmatched (a Youngblood Book) - Liz Reinhardt

May 30, 2016 | Author: Charlotte | Category: Topics, Books - Fiction
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Benelli Youngblood is dedicated to her family. Unlike her unpredictable, selfish siblings, Benelli plans to do what'...


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 passiveaggressive 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 the vacant, bewildered look in his hollow eyes, which watched me with lost confusion. When the ten minutes was up, I fixed my make-up, took twenty cleansing breaths,

cleared my throat, and called to make sure my father picked up his heart medication. Which he didn’t, not that I was surprised, so I got back to business, called my younger brother, Colt, and got him to agree to swing by the pharmacy after football practice and pick Pop’s prescription up. 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. “I can’t tell you what a comfort you are to your father and me, Benelli.” Her fingernails bite into my palm. “These last few months, I feel sometimes like life has been crumbling around our ears. Winchester and that girl running off, your sister and that boy trying to elope, Colt not listening to Papa about soccer and college

when your father knows what’s best. 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. Hard work and family. So simple, even his mother knows the answer, but he wants to pay a dozen different doctors thousands of dollars to figure it out for him. Why?” She sighs, her head shaking from side to side slowly, and I listen to her vent

with total sympathy. My siblings have all gone wild lately, and I feel like the foundations of our family have been shaken right to their core. Which I hate, because family is the most important thing in the world and my brothers and sisters should know that. They should know better. We were all raised better. “I just don’t understand,” she continues, her voice weighed down with

held-back sighs and unshed tears. “You raise your children, give them every advantage, and there’s no appreciation. None.” She picks up her teaspoon and swirls it in her coffee. I get up from the table and find the bottle of amaretto stashed behind my great-great-grandmother’s bone china pitcher and pour a generous amount into my mother’s coffee, then knead her shoulders.

“You need a massage, Mama. I’ll book us at JW’s tomorrow. Laurence will squeeze us in. I wanted to do a Keratin treatment, 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, leaving a dark smudge of her lipstick on my skin. “Benelli, my heart, I say a rosary

thanking God I have you every single day. Every day. You are such a comfort to us.” I kiss her cheek and excuse myself to my room, the sweet of her words soured by the knowledge that I’m not quite the good little girl my parents think I am. I’m trying hard to not add any stress to their lives right now. My father’s eyes have sunk back in his head, and he’s lost so much weight his skin sags around his face. 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. Mama spends any waking hours she’s not at home at church, clicking through her rosary in the shadowy pews of Sacred Heart, praying for her bruised and battered family to heal itself somehow. A few months ago she thought she’d be spending all her time there planning Remington’s wedding to Delphine, the

mother of his young daughter, but, since his breakdown and stint in rehab, our family has only limited visitation with Alayah, and Delphine isn’t speaking to Remy. Then Mama figured Winchester and Lala would finally settle down, but, out of nowhere, my crazy brother met some girl in court and decided he was fated to become a stone mason. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

I look at the honeyed wood of my bedroom door for a few seconds before I open it and let myself into my sanctuary, the place I’ve always gravitated back to, even when I had the chance to step out on my own. I even commuted back and forth to college and took extra classes so I could graduate early. I wasn’t ever one of those kids eager to run away from my parents’ house. I like my place here.

But, recently, a part of me had been itching to spread my wings, have my own space, live under my own rules. Which brings me to my huge, secret problem: my boyfriend Damian. Not that he’s the problem, himself. 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 close my bedroom door quietly and light a few candles, enjoying the

golden flicker. I brush my teeth, touch up my makeup, and wait for the familiar soft knock on the French doors outside my room. And then he’s right there. My secret. My love. My infuriating puzzle of a boyfriend. The one person who understands exactly what I want and could be my perfect match in life and love. If he would just take the next step

with me. “Hello,” I whisper, breathing in the clean, 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. His breath is laced with the shot of Jack he always starts his night with, and his dark eyes half-close when he looks me over. “How the hell do you get more damn beautiful every time I see you?” he

asks, his mouth closing over mine. I fall deep into that perfect, delicious kiss, letting all the worries I’ve carried like a yoke on my shoulders ease away. “Damian?” “Mmm?” His mouth drags from mine and forges an urgent path down my neck and back up, meeting my lips again before I have a chance to say what I need to say. When he finally pulls back and I’m completely out of breath, he starts to undo

the laces that hold the top of my shirt together. “What were you saying, princess?” “It’s just…” I put a hand on his wrist and still his fingers. “It’s my father.” His spine goes stiff, and he jerks away from me and sighs, running an irritated hand over his face. “This again?” He blows a long, aggravated breath out and holds his hands up at his sides. “Okay, shoot. I know you’re not going to let me

rest until you get to say your piece. So say what you need to say.” “You and I talked about announcing…about letting them know…if he knows our intentions, he’ll give us his blessing, and we can go ahead and start planning for a wedding. I mean, once we’re officially engaged and all.” All the words I want to say are perfect, ripe pieces of fruit dangling just out of my reach. I press on, desperate to get my

point across no matter how clumsily I present it. “He needs help. And if you and I were married, 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, Benelli,” he interrupts, his words ricocheting out a little too loud. He corner-eyes the door and drops his voice. “See? This is what I mean. All this sneaking around is ridiculous. Why is it that we always need

permission to do anything? You’re a grown woman, not a little kid. I’m a grown man. I’ve proven myself in the game, and that should be enough for your old man. I feel like once we go begging for his permission, he’s gonna have a leash around my neck that he’ll yank whenever he wants.” “It’s not like that,” I protest, rubbing my fingers over the sensitive spot on the back of his neck that always

soothes him. “What my dad will offer us after we’re married will eventually become our own piece of the business. Sure, we’ll have to help him for the first few years to pay back for the startup, but that’s not him having a leash around your neck. It’s just a business arrangement.” He rolls his neck on his shoulders and presses his body closer to mine, possessively. “So I’m not his slave, but I’m his

indentured servant for life?” Damian’s hands reach up and grip my shoulders. “Benelli, run away with me. Tonight. Elope with me. I promise you, we’ll have to start small, but I’ll be able to give you twice what your mother has in three years, if not sooner. You’ll live like a duchess, like you deserve. And I’ll be able to hold my head up around your father.” My heart thunders in my chest, bolts of lightning spark through my brain,

and the cold, clear downfall of this potential reality soaks through the skin of my conscience. I break from his touch and put my hands on my cheeks, burning up with the exciting possibility of doing this, breaking out and flying in my own direction for once. But I can’t. A decision this big is one I need to make with my family at my side. No question. I take a few controlled

breaths and focus. “Damian, I could never do that to my parents. My mother has been looking forward to my wedding for my entire life. It would be a huge slap in the face to just not include her. And my father is a very powerful man. He’s going to want someone as talented as you on his side, not competing with him. Don’t you see how if we do this together, with my family, it will be that much better?”

But, instead of my calm words arranging everything in neat little piles like I wanted, it’s like they’re a tornado ripping through the plans for our life. Damian is not happy, I’m not happy, and I know my father and mother will be completely unhappy if I even consider eloping. They might even be furious knowing I’m dating Damian. Because that’s not what we

agreed to. Because I was supposed to wait for them to begin arranging dates for me with eligible men, men who would understand all that I’m trying to explain to Damian, without my having to deal with the issue of this frustrating angst. But things got so crazy with my other siblings, and I was so lonely, and Damian seemed…like he would fit in. Like he was the right person. So I took a

chance and started to see him behind my parents’ backs, and the more I knew about him, the more I knew they’d appreciate what a good, level-headed choice I’d made. It’s just hard to get him to play by the rules. He always has a hard time seeing the bigger picture. “I’m not going to be a soldier for the Youngblood family, Benelli.” He takes his hands off my arms and backs up,

edging out the door, his mouth hard and pulled to one side. “You need to know when it’s time to cut ties with your family and start your own life on your own terms.” One of his hands is fisted around the doorknob, waiting for me to call him back, tell him I want what he wants. “Damian, please stay.” I walk over to him, and he lets my body curve close to his, watches my fingers brush lightly over his chest and down to his belt-

buckle. I keep my voice low and throaty, trying to seduce him back to a better place.“We can talk about this more. If you listen to what I’m saying, I know you’ll see—” “There’s nothing else to say.” He cuts me off, his words sharp, his body twisting away from mine. “You need to make a choice. Me or them.” He holds his arms up and out at his sides. I cross my arms tight over my

body and pop one hip to the side as I watch him stalk backward out the door. “You’re being ridiculous. You call me when you’re ready to talk like a reasonable man. I don’t do ultimatums, Damian. Do you hear me?” I watch his dark silhouette head back to his car, parked far enough up the street that the rumble of his engine won’t alert my parents to his presence, and I feel a mix of dread and despair that puts all my

thoughts into a cyclone of jumbled confusion. He’ll be back, I tell myself. He just technically proposed to me. He’ll definitely be back. I lie down on my bed and fold my hands over my stomach, 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. 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, I startle awake over and over. Every time I jolt awake from another mini-nightmare, I’m shocked that Damian isn’t in my room, flowers in hand, a small smile of apology on his face. Somewhere between midnight and early sunrise, I fall into a dark sleep that’s mercifully dreamless and wake way too

early. I welcome this new day with such an enormous leaden lump gathering weight in the pit of my stomach, no amount of concentrated Reclining Goddess pose can get rid of it. “Good morning, princess,” my father says when I walk into our huge, sunny kitchen. He’s sipping strong coffee and looking over the paper, his regular, dependable morning routine. “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, adding only a tiny bit of sugar and no cream. I like my coffee dark and a little sweet in the morning, like my father. At night I want drowned in sugar and extra creamy with a shot of liquor, the way my mother takes it. I guess I’m a little confused. Or just an open-minded coffee drinker.

“Good morning, Pop. We’re heading out for a little pampering. You know Mama needs it. How’s the world looking? Falling apart as usual?” I pull my chair close to his and lean on his strong arm, glancing over the page he’s reading. It’s the classifieds. “Looking for something in particular? Can I help?” His smile is worn. “Just hunting around for a few good men, sweetie.” He shakes his head and rubs his temples. I can

smell the stale bite of old cigarette on him. My father used to only smoke in the evenings, after dinner, but he’s been smoking during the day, earlier and earlier. “I hate to admit it, but I don’t think Winch is ever coming back, and Remy isn’t gonna be any good without Winch around. What does that leave me with?” I think about Damian, about how very similar the two men I love most in the world are, and take a long, 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. “I’m sorry, Pop. I still can’t believe Winch just left like that.” I really can’t believe it. I’m not saying life was completely perfect here, but Winch didn’t even try to make things right. And, though I have to admit, he was completely loyal to the family for years on end, once he decided he was done, he just

up and left with hardly any warning, never considering the destruction his completely selfish behavior would be leaving in its wake. It didn’t make any sense. It isn’t the way our family operates, and his desertion felt like an unexpected amputation. None of us can shake the ghost of Winch, because we still need him in order to function wholly. Because, besides the emotional chaos his leaving produced, he’d left a

gaping hole in our family’s business. Winch had been groomed to run so many different aspects of so many businesses since he was just a kid, plus he’d been my father’s right-hand man and kept an eye on Remy. Now that he’s gone, it’s all on our father’s shoulders. Everything. Though my father never complains, 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. I lean my head on his shoulder. “I guess he had to find his way, be a man, all that nonsense.” My father kisses the top of my head, and some of my hair catches in the scratchy bristles of his five o’clock shadow. “What I wouldn’t give to have had a son with your backbone, Benelli. You’re my angel, you know that? I honestly don’t know what your mother and I would have done

without you all these years.” He crushes me in a swaddling hug, and I choke back a sob. I hate that my parents are suffering through all of this, and I hate that there isn’t anything I can do to transfer some of the burden onto my shoulders. Not in a significant way, anyway. Not without Damian’s help. “I forgot to tell you, I fired Sylvia.” I savor the last, sugary sip of coffee and arch one eyebrow at my

father’s face, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. “She needed to go, Pop. I already interviewed for her replacement, and the new girl has a good head on her shoulders. I think she’ll do a decent job running things.” “She was Solomon’s niece, Benelli,” he sputters. “How am I going to explain this?” I give him my best level glare. “Look, 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, and I did. They were a huge mess, but I organized every single thing, colorcoded it all, got everything in coordinated file folders, all in order. You told me you’d bring someone in to maintain it all while I finished the paperwork for the rental properties. I went back to check, and it was like all my work had been

undone, Pop! We can’t afford to run a business like that. I gave her two warnings, walked her through the entire process all at least four times. I think it was nice of me to let her get to three strikes. And I only went that soft for your benefit. And Solomon’s.” “How’d she take it?” His brows are knit in a bushy, dark line over his blue eyes. I walk my coffee mug and his to

the sink and rinse them out. “Well, she cried, of course. Don’t think I fell for those crocodile tears for a single damn second, either. Lazy girls are always convincing criers. They have to be, because it’s their ace in the hole when their crappy work ethic catches up to them and they get sacked. Keep that in mind next time you’re trying to fire some girl who’s on a crying jag. You need to toughen up, Pop.”

My dad stands up and gives me a fierce look, then walks over and grabs me into a bear hug. “Why the hell were you born a girl, Benelli? If you were a son, we’d have already take over the entire East Coast together.” I kiss his cheek, 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, no matter how capable I am and how much I want to. “Well, I am definitely glad I wasn’t born a boy. And since I’m a girl, I’m off to get ready for a nice, relaxing spa day.” “You girls treat yourselves.” He opens his wallet and I try to press the money back, but my father insists, and I reluctantly take it, enjoying the glimmer of happiness that flits too

quickly across his face, replaced with that frown of perpetual worry when he thinks I’m not looking. Mom and I pretend to enjoy our pampering, but I know her mind is on my out-of-control siblings and my mind is wrapped around Damian. She’ll notice if I look too anxious when I check my phone, so I try to do it with a blank face. A woman with strong forearms rubs her hands in a slow, luxurious rhythm

down along my spine and up again. I breathe the smell of lavender and a mix of other essential oils deep into my lungs, hoping I can be chemically tricked into not worrying by all the supposed relaxers in the aromas. “Benelli, 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. A couple of the families will be going to the lake, and

your father and I were thinking we’d join up later. 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. Aunt Abony is my father’s sister, a crazy artist who lives in Hungary on the outskirts of the Youngblood family property. I love her cozy, bright house and the long days spent lounging near the lake,

walking through the woods, and reading curled in a big chair in a sunny corner. But I have things to patch up here, with Damian. “I’d rather leave with the family, Mama.” I take a minute to breathe against the long, slow rub of the masseuse’s hands on my skin. “There’s plenty of time for all that this fall, when you’ve had some time to relax.” What I’m saying isn’t exactly a

lie, but it burns my tongue to tell it. “Such a good girl. So sensible,” Mama murmurs sleepily. I cut a look in her direction and see that her eyelids are fluttering shut. When a long snore rattles from her nose, I tell the woman giving her a rubdown to extend her massage by twenty minutes and excuse myself to the private bathrooms. Wrapped in a thick terrycloth bathrobe, I press Damian’s contact on my

phone and wait through the rings. I leave a short, simple, direct message that might be a little bitchy, but oh well. I’m feeling pissed. If he wasn’t hell-bent on dragging his feet and being a stubborn ass, we’d have announced our engagement and he might be headed to the lake with my family in a few weeks. I don’t think there’s enough time for that now. By the time we get back home, I need to get busy helping Ithaca through a

tricky new set of theorems, then there’s dinner and coffee with mom, so the night clicks by quickly. I decide it will be easy enough to wait Damian out. And it is. Fairly easy. For another day or two. But when one or two days slide into the first full week, then a second, I start to get unnerved. We’re both passionate, aggressive people. It’s part of

why we were always so attracted to each other. But, no matter how brutal our verbal sparring could get, nothing ever kept us from talking for more than a week. Usually a single text or call from me had Damian crawling back, begging for us to figure it all out and make it work again. My pride stings more and more as the days go by, like an infected bug bite spreading a little pool of venom wider and wider into my system. Finally the burn

is too much to bear, 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. Instead, I head straight to Damian’s work. I know something serious is wrong the minute my heels click on the lobby tiles. Damian’s cousin, Freddy, gets up from behind the glossy front desk, wipes his hands on his dark suit pants

nervously, and heads in my direction. “Hey, Benelli, hey, uh, whatcha doin’ here? Uh, you didn’t call first?” He licks his lips nervously and tries to clear his throat, but it sounds like he’s got a dog’s squeaky toy stuck in his esophagus. “When do I ever call first, Freddy? I just stopped by to say hello.” I breeze right past Freddy’s skinny frame, 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. Before I put my hand on the doorknob, I have a pitching feeling low in my gut, like my stomach is a rowboat on the ocean in a hurricane. But it’s never been my nature to hold back, and that’s even more true when it comes to confronting the bad. Better to just come face to face

with whatever scares you, plant your feet, square your shoulders, and deal with it. Except I’m not exactly expecting to come face to face with a pair of perfect, gorgeous, bobbing breasts. I fossilize right there in the doorway. My lungs, my heart, my brain, my entire body just turn to stone, and I can’t force my feet to take a single step in any direction. Damian is so intent on the moaning girl and the quivering boobs and

the frantic thrusting, it takes him a few seconds to look up. Funny how very, very long a few seconds can be. Long and brain-searing. And heart-stampeding. And air-choking. All my stoniness avalanches away suddenly, freeing me to whirl around and run past Freddy, who’s wringing his hands and biting his lips, a

look of sheer horror making his rodentlike face even more unattractive. I hear Damian barrel past him, and when I glance back, my now exboyfriend or ex-fiancé or ex-whateverthe-hell-he-is is making a desperate attempt to yank his pants up. “Benelli! Wait! I can explain! Wait a minute, please.” I propel myself forward, forward, always forward and keep my

eyes wide and dry and my heart tucked and shielded from all of this sudden, forceful calamity. I’ll let it out later and allow it to ache and bleed. I’ll let myself cry my eyes red and puffy, and let my body go weak and slack-muscled over this hideous, unbelievable, out-of-nowhere betrayal. But not now. I can’t now. “There’s nothing to say, Damien!” I call, fumbling for my keys and

popping the locks. Once he manages to get his pants fastened around his hips, he overtakes me quickly, his face crumpled with…what? Regret? Self-loathing? Upset? “Benelli,” he pants, winded from his sprint and the manic exercise of his earlier recreation. “Look at me for a minute. What you saw…I’m sorry. I wanted to call you. You have no idea how many times I wanted to pick up the phone

and just…straighten things out with us. That girl? She’s just a hookup, 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, and I twist around to face him, my arm behind my back, ready to swing the door open and shut and race away at a moment’s warning.

“Princess—” “Do not call me that,” I hiss through gritted teeth. His face is so handsome and sorry and upset all at once. “Listen, I’m a man. I have needs. And I needed you, but you weren’t there for me.” “So this is because I wouldn’t sleep with you?” My head spins and my knees go so weak, I have to lean hard against the side of my car to keep from

sliding down onto the gravel under my feet. He runs a hand through his hair and paces back and forth before he stops and points at me. “You wouldn’t sleep with me, you wouldn’t accept my proposal, you wouldn’t agree to start a life with me. What exactly were you expecting me to hold out for?” “That’s not how it works.” My

voice cracks in a whisper. “It’s not like that, Damian. It’s not ultimatums, it’s compromises—” “Oh, yeah?” he interrupts with a sneer. “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, and he clasps his hands behind his neck and hangs his head. “Maybe this is all for the best.” He starts out looking at the gravel, but his eyes flick

up to meet mine, and his look is all sorrow. “For the best?” I repeat in a daze. “Yeah. Maybe you and me… maybe it was never meant to be, you know?” He steps forward, but I slam my body tight to the car, as far from him as I can possibly get, 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.

“Maybe we just don’t make a hell of a lot of sense together. I always admired how strong you are, Benelli. How smart and determined you can be. I felt like we had the same goals, the same personality. Now I think maybe we’re too alike. And I don’t want to spend my time butting heads with the person I’m supposed to love.” His features are twisted like he’s in some degree of emotional torture. Like he’s maybe truly sorry. And his words are

the kindest version of heart-shatteringly painful. It could almost be an amicable break-up. Except that I walked in on him fucking the brains out of some random girl. “Have a nice life, Damian.” I yank the car door open, and this tiny sliver, razorblade-thin in the core of my heart, is still sure he’s going to rush

the door and pull me into his arms. I would then, of course, 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, the end of all of these months of planning and dreaming and being so happy together, actually hurts him and he’s willing to fight to keep that end from crashing on top of him. But I must have put a powerful

set of blinders on a long time ago, because Damian is already walking back into the offices before I can pull more than a hundred feet away. I assume to resume his afternoon delight. Chills worm up and down my spine and cover my arms. I hold it all in and drive, just drive, until I make it home and rush past Mama, who wants to know what I thought of the rental properties and

what’s wrong with me. I make it to the bathroom just in time to lose my lunch in the toilet. My mother is right there, rubbing my back and murmuring soothing words. “Oh, lelkem, what’s wrong? You’ve worn yourself out, and you’re sick now. There, there, let’s rinse your mouth and come to bed.” My mother lays out pajamas and straightens my room while I change. She

helps tuck me in like I’m a little girl, and, though I’ve been lamenting my lack of freedom lately, having her cluck over me feels so good. “I bet you caught that awful flu that’s going around. I’ll make you some ginger tea and leave you alone to sleep it off.” I nod, my face pressed to the cool fabric of my pillow. I drink the tea she brings me and watch as she leaves the room. I count the seconds it will take her

to get back to the kitchen, where she’ll be busy getting an elaborate home-cooked meal ready for my family and, probably, where she’ll make a fresh batch of karfiolleves, her special cauliflower soup that can cure anything, for me. When I know she’s far off, I bury my head in the pillows and unloose long, keening, choking wails and sobs. I cry for my own stupidity, for not being able to see Damian for the snake he

is. I cry for the loss of my love, gone forever once I witnessed a single, unforgivable act. I cry for my family, who, I realize, I’ve let down, and myself, because I’m lonely and worried and worn out from caring for so many people and never getting a break. I cry because Damian’s shoulders were never going to be the ones I could

share the weight of my problems with. I cry for all the wasted, stupid, idiotic feelings I poured into a love that wound up crushing me. When I don’t have a single tear left, I sleep. I wake up to my mother’s knock and eat her soup in the dim light of my bedroom. I let my misery play on repeat for one more day before I stop sobbing and moping and get a shower. I put on a cute outfit and hid my puffy eyes

with expertly applied eye makeup. Then I take my sentimental box full of Damian keepsakes, ticket stubs, pictures, jewelry I could only wear around him, some pressed flowers he’d picked for me or bought to say he was sorry, and I chuck the entire thing in the trash. My parents are sitting in the living room, watching a soccer game. “Mama, Pop.” They both looked up, relief on their faces. “I feel much

better. And I’ve been thinking. I think I should go to Aunt Abony’s a little ahead of schedule this year. I’ve already booked my ticket.”

Cormac 1 The sun puddles all of its light in the middle of the wide, still lake. No matter how hard I throw my little mountain of smooth stones from the beach, I can’t get them to break the reflected brightness and explode it into ripples. After being bogged down for weeks with reams of notes on archaic Hungarian translations of The Odyssey and facing,

night after endless night, the particularly cruel stab of never seeing an email in my inbox from the one person I’m desperate to hear from, I decide to treasure the simple things in life. Like an afternoon sitting on a grassy bank with nothing more to do than cast stones, as many as I want, with as much force as I can muster. The only interruption to my dismal melancholy is the quick patter of footfalls,

too speedy for a hiker, too delicate for a worker, too frantic to ignore. And then, suddenly, the afternoon calm is completely interrupted and a girl trips over a ridge of knotted tree roots and catapults into my arms, her elbow bashing into my ribs, her knees arrowing dangerously close to my balls, 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, which only results in her getting even more locked and puzzled with my limbs. “Fuck!” Based on her perfectly accented apology, I would have said she was a local girl. Based on her violent obscenity, I’m definitely betting she’s American. “Nem probléma.” I put an arm around her waist and lift her gently off my lap, manage to get to my feet, and offer her

my hand. “It looks like we both made it through without any permanent damage.” I smile at her and she takes my hand, her return smile half-hearted and her eyes darting back towards the path she just sped off of. “Were you being chased?” “No.” She laughs, and this time she really looks at me with eyes the same deep, sweet blue as the sky reflected in the lake. “I just saw someone I know and…he’s really sweet. He is. We just…

um, we had a few dates, and the chemistry just wasn’t…It’s not that I have to run away—” “Say no more.” I point to the boathouse hidden off to the side behind some dense bushes. “Safe, dry, no vermin that I noticed, and concealed. If your suitor comes by, I’ll play dumb, on my honor.” I hold one hand over my heart for theatrics, but am mildly surprised to find it beating in a quick, irregular rhythm.

The mingled thankfulness and amusement makes her lips quirk up for a single instant before the sound of crackling branches sends her flying, dark hair streaming like a banner behind her. An eager-looking guy bursts out of the forest and almost trips on the exact roots the girl just fell over. Thankfully, my lap isn’t available for him to stumble onto. “Elnézést, láttad a lányt?” The guy

looks eagerly all around for the girl, though he doesn’t seem to notice the boathouse. “Honestly, my Hungarian is pretty crap, mate. Sorry.” I shrug and he switches languages. “No worries. My English is okay.” He flips his hand back and forth. “Have you seen a girl? Beautiful, long hair that’s very dark, big blue eyes, 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. “I only wish. She sounds gorgeous.” “Oh, she is.” The guy’s smile is smug, and, for no reason at all, it irritates the shit out of me. “Well, this path twists in on itself.” I point to the boggy swamp area that ruined

my best leather shoes a week ago when I got mixed up, trudged on it, and walked too close to the lake. “She could have cut onto the lower path. It’s very private down there, you know, if she was headed somewhere quiet to do some thinking.” 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. But he nods and thanks me before he heads into the

bog. I sprint back to the boathouse and open the door slowly. She’s made a pathetic attempt to hide behind an upright canoe. “Coast is clear, but Romeo is on the prowl. I’d suggest hightailing it out of here if you want to continue to avoid him.” She shimmies from behind the canoe and pulls one hand over all that long, shiny hair, straightening the pieces that

flew around and stuck to her face in her fall and subsequent dash to the boathouse. “Thank you. I owe you one.” She sticks out a hand, and I shake. She’s got an impressively firm grip. “Benelli Youngblood.” “Cormac Halstrom.” I like the way her smile works straight up to her eyes. And, though she’s made it crystal clear that she’s not looking for company, I find my mouth running independent of my

brain. “Benelli Youngblood, there’s this little shop up the path that has the most amazing Kadarka I’ve ever had. Ever. In my entire three weeks in Hungary. Would you care to have a glass with me? We can toast the fact that we survived that terrifying collision.” I sound like a desperate ass, and I’m positive she’ll find some way to bow out politely, but she exhales a relieved sigh and says, “I’d love a glass. It’s been a

really long afternoon.” She falls in step next to me, and I can smell that soft honey scent her hair gives off as we start up the trail, side by side. We walk in near total silence for a few minutes, until it seems we’re safely out of Loverboy’s hearing range. “Thank you, again.” Benelli tilts her head to the side and gives me a quick, nearly-shy smile. “I’m not usually such a klutz. Also, I usually have a backbone and

just tell a guy if I’m not interested. But this guy…” Her words melt into a frustrated groan. “The biggest problem is that there is no problem, you know? He meets every single requirement my family and I have. But there’s no spark. None. So, I guess I’m running because otherwise I feel like he might talk me into saying ‘yes.’” That one syllable trembles with a terror too severe for a summer romance gone sour.

“Yes?” I repeat and narrow my eyes at her. “‘Yes’ to yet another boring date?” She shakes her head from side to side, her dark hair falling over her shoulders. “’Yes’ to a marriage proposal.” The words shock me. Marriage? She looks so young. Too young to be married. Not, like, too young to be legally

married. Just too life-young to be thinking about tethering herself to such a huge commitment. She’s younger than I am, for sure, and marriage has only ever flitted across my mind one idiotic time. And, considering the outcome of that situation, no matrimonial thoughts will be coming anywhere near my brain anytime soon. “I’m sorry.” She swings her hands at

her sides. “We’ve known each other for ten minutes, and here I am dumping all kinds of personal crap in your lap. Please ignore me.” “No apologies necessary. I think when your first meeting is as violent as ours, you just hop over social conventions.” I stick my hands in my pockets because, for some reason, I feel like I need to contain them. Like they may reach out and touch

something they aren’t supposed to. Without my permission. Ridiculous. “Okay.” She hooks her thumbs in the belt-loops that circle her very short shorts. Exquisitely short shorts. “Since you now know all about me and my crazy dating life, can I ask you a question?” It gives me an immediate and strange thrill that she’s curious about me. “I’m an open book, available for your perusal,

m’lady.” Her laugh is clear and gurgling, like a surge of rain water rushing along the curb in London. “You speak so proper. And I can’t place your accent. Where are you from?” Her feet are outfitted in a flimsy pair of flip flops. The polish on her nails is a deep purple. I’ve always liked collecting information-based details so I could slide people and things into their allotted

places, but this girl is intoxicatingly difficult to characterize off the bat. “Nowhere and everywhere.” I nudge her with one shoulder, and I like the slide of my body against hers. “Are you intrigued yet?” “Completely.” She bumps me back, and the connectivity of our bodies is cellularly pleasing in a way I try not to think about too much. “So you’re a spy? A diplomat? Raised by wolves? The son of

a ship captain?” “Impressive!” I wag a finger at her. “I am the son of a captain in the United States Navy.” “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, because I have a head-spinning surge of adrenaline so severe, I have to fight the

urge to yank her close, and try to content myself with ogling her instead. I’m so busy sneaking glances at her impossibly long legs, I misstep, and she grabs my arm to steady me. “I guess I never quite lost my sealegs.” Her laugh is worth the prickle of my humiliation. “But, yes and no, to your question. I grew up traveling a good deal. When my parents were together, we traveled where my father traveled. When I

got old enough, I went to the boarding school in England where my mother’s brother is the headmaster. I graduated and went to college in the states, and did a year abroad in Ireland and a summer in Italy. 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. So I’ve been everywhere and attempted to

speak everything, and if my accent was a dog, it would definitely be a mutt.” “If your accent was a food, it would be goulash.” Her metaphor unhinges a laughter in me that I know is embarrassingly nerdy, but she laughs along, so I let it fly. We’re finally at the uneven cobblestoned road that marks the entrance to the miniscule town, and I lead Benelli to a wrought iron table at a quiet little

cafe, then I order the wine and some pastries because I definitely want to do all I can to ensure this drink lasts a while. “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. “I am here to find a husband before the summer is over.” She looks pleased

with herself as I choke on the first spicy sip of wine. “Excuse me,” I gasp, pounding my sternum with my fist. She rolls her pretty blue eyes and leans over to repeatedly slam between my shoulder blades with the flat of her hand. “Put your arms over your head,” she instructs. “Old…wive’s…tale…” I wheeze, but I do it anyway.

And my choking subsides. She pulls her hand back and takes a slow, delicate sip of her wine. “Better?” she asks, and I nod. “It’s just, you mentioned it before…er, marriage, that is. On the way here, you mentioned it, and I thought…it seemed like it was your boyfriend who was—” “He’s not my boyfriend,” she interrupts firmly, and I pause to enjoy her

declaration. “Right. Sorry. It just seemed that your, um, admirer was the one more eager to…get married,” I gulp, mixing the word with a swig of alcohol to make it go down easier. “I didn’t realize you were… looking with such, uh, purpose. For a husband, that is.” “There’s no reason to panic, Cormac. I’m here to find a Hungarian husband. Off a list my parents made. It’s

an extremely specific list, and I’m not remotely interested in anyone not on it, okay? My goal is to find the perfect guy, and he’s somewhere on this list.” It doesn’t seem like her tiny shorts have enough fabric in them to contain even a small pocket, but, apparently, I’m a poor judge of pocket size, because she pulls out a slim leather notebook out of one of the tiny pockets. It’s slightly startling to see this

notebook, which is nearly identical to the one I keep in my back pocket at all times. I use it when I sketch, or to jot down notes for my thesis, or, once in a rare while, in an attempt to get a pretty girl’s phone number. She pushes the book my way, and I raise my eyebrows and point with my chin. She nods eagerly, and I open it. 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. Benelli’s book is all hard-lined facts and severe tables and charts. About men. There are names and initials everywhere, and all kinds of complicated pie charts and pictograms and secret codes so fantastically complex, they make my head ache and my throat thirsty for

something way stronger than this wine. “This is genius. Borderline evil genius.” 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. To think I once fancied my thesis research as complicated. I’ve got nothing on this girl, nothing at all. “Tell me the truth. I swear not to alert the

authorities if you do, 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 the bottle of wine and refill her already drained glass. She draws a fingertip around the rim, her eyes unfocused, her mouth pulled to the side like she’s frustrated, but she manages a laugh even though she clearly didn’t find my joke all that amusing.

I rush to fix what I’ve already bungled. “No need to save my feelings. I know I can be a serious wanker. It truly was only a joke. Unless, of course you really do have a few guys locked away, in which case, I’m not judging. At all. And, can I say, for the record, 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.” I slide my hand across the table, but stop before I touch her. I have no business touching her. I take some kind of dessert made with apricots I’m not remotely hungry for. “Kifli,” Benelli says, pointing to the little treat. “My grandmother makes the most delicious kifli.” I take a bite and hold it out to her. She turns it around so she’s not biting

where my mouth touched and nibbles. “Mmm. This is delicious. Not nearly as good as Nagymama makes, but it’s okay for tourists.” She’s ragging on me. Which makes all the tension I collected during my clearly unfunny attempt at joking with her melt away. “Some day I’ll have to sample some of the amazing Nagymama’s kifli, because I honestly can’t imagine anything tasting

better than this,” I lie. Because I’m imagining what her lips would taste like, and I know they would be unbelievably sweet. Not that we’re going to kiss. We’re not. “I’ll bring you by her place sometime. She loves feeding skinny guys.” She pops another bite in her mouth and grins so big at her own joke, it’s difficult for her to chew. After she swallows, she

adds, “That is, unless you’re afraid of ending up in a cage in my basement?” I press the rest of the kifli her way, and she eats the last bite, not seeming to mind the fact that I bit directly from it. And that cements my undeniable crush on this safely off-limits girl. “I will accept that invitation, since I’m clearly in no danger of being entrapped for engagement purposes. I’ve perused your notebook, and, sadly, I don’t

have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it into the running. I’m too lazy, hardly employed, don’t go to church, and have an arrest record. There are half a dozen straight-arrow, hard-working, pious strapping Hungarian men, probably with chiseled jawlines and swelling muscles, who beat me on all of your charts. Luckily, I’m well aware of my shortcomings, and will be ecstatic if we can just do this once in a while.”

I’m bluffing. Her eyebrows raise slowly, flirtatiously. She calls my bluff. “What is this exactly, Cormac?” There is a dusting of sugar crystals and a sticky smattering of apricot preserves on Benelli’s fingertips and thumb. She delicately licks all that sweetness away, 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. “This is two incredibly witty, funloving, rational adults having a nice time in one another’s company over some wine and food. Very progressive stuff.” I lean back and she does this little thing where she shakes her hair off her shoulders. It makes all those silky, dark strands catch the sun’s rays and shimmer around her face. For the first time, I get a

glimpse of what all those Romantic poets I used to suffer through may have been mooning on about. “Maybe I need a progressive friend. I mean, I am the girl with the arranged marriage in the works. You can’t get more old-fashioned than that.” She slides her feet out of her flip-flops and balances her toes on the crossbar under the table. “Well, arranged marriages aren’t necessarily regressive just because they

have an ancient precedent.” I’m dangerously close to slipping into fullblown, blow-hard armchair philosopher mode, but her singularly cocked eyebrow ropes that impulse back. I clear my throat. “I just mean, you know, I’m not looking down on the way you’re going about this. To tell you the truth, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the way most modern couples jump into marriage.” When she tries not to smile, a deep,

gorgeous dimple creases the left side of her cheek. 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’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.” She slides her fingers under the bowl of the glass and every droplet of moisture

evaporates from my throat. I dump emergency rations of wine down it to get back some function and try to stay on top of this conversation, but every soft, sweet movement from her dominoes a thousand imagined seductions. It’s been way too long since I got laid. “I do. Find it shockingly unromantic. And I’m not. Technically, I’m not an official student of poetry. I mean, I am. In

part. I got my undergraduate degree in the Classics. I’m working on my graduate thesis, on The Odyssey. So, yes, some poetry, but also lots of good old fashioned tragedy and history and everyday human stuff that’s anything but romantic. Not everyone can be Odysseus and Penelope, after all.” The hot afternoon sun is most likely blistering the skin off back of my neck, and I think about how I’m probably

developing a god-awful farmer’s tan. Which I don’t care about, except I’ll look like red and white and gangly with my shirt off, like a giant human candy cane. Which is a worry that makes zero sense. 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. Benelli’s skin is the exact color of a caramel square, the ones I loved to hold

on my tongue and suck the velvety richness off of when I was young. “But Penelope found Odysseus again when she was looking through all her potential suitors.” She swirls the dark wine in her glass and drinks, her lips lightly stained at the edges. “Maybe my Odysseus is somewhere here.” I’m well aware I’m nothing like the barrel-chested, hard-drinking, hardplaying men she’s lining up to choose

from, and that fact doesn’t bother me. But her last words feel like a challenge and an invitation too perfect for me to ignore. “If your Odysseus is here, somewhere, he’s probably not on that list.” I tap two fingers on the buttery leather of her notebook. “Remember, he came to find Penelope, not the other way around. He traveled the world over to get back to her.” Her blue eyes shadow, and the color

morphs to something duller, a silver-gray like the tarnished metal of a suit of armor. “There’s no one who’d come across the world for me.” Her words bite and snap out of her plush, wine-stained lips. “And that’s fine. I don’t want epic. I want everyday.” She pulls a few bills out of those incredibly short shorts and drops them on the table. I gather them up, press them back to her, and open my wallet. She

backs away, shaking her head. “No. Don’t. Just, let me pay. Please. With every other’s a thing. It’s a point. Please, just let this be easy, Cormac. 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. Because she’s embarrassed. For me. “Paying for the tab is just mannerly,

Benelli,” I assure her, but, even though I grit my teeth while I do it, I lay some of her bills back down. “If we’re going to be proper friends, we have to, of course, go Dutch. I’m not looking for romance, but I’m also not sniffing around for a handout.” She takes the bills back from my outstretched hand and shuffles her feet, her hair curtaining her face. When she looks up, there’s the deep pink of a blush on her

cheeks. “I feel…really stupid.” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before looking at me with off-putting intensity. “It’s been a long couple of months. And this summer, I hoped it would be fun, but it’s not fun at all. This is the most important decision of my life, and I feel like the pressure to get this right is crushing down on me. There have been so many perfectly nice guys, and I guess I’m

just feeling super guilty, because I know I’m dragging my feet, but I don’t know why. And you were just fun and easy to talk to right off the bat. And I actually got scared for a second when I thought that maybe I misread and that you wanted more, because the last thing I need is another worry about my love life, you know?” She’s babbling. The words are just spilling out from her gorgeous mouth, and

she alternates looking directly at me, glancing at the ground and knitting her eyebrows, 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. I close one hand over her shoulder, 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. I have a sudden, idiotic vision of the

middle of my fingers seething with jealous rage that they don’t get to touch her directly too. “It’s okay.” I press her shoulder back and forth, friendly-like, even though I want to grab her with both hands and pull her closer in a way that would be decidedly more-than-friendly. Damn my pent-up reserves of testosterone. “Stop apologizing. I’m the last person who’d get upset with you. I think you and I will do

very well as friends, and, I’m telling you, that’s absolutely fine by me.” “Yeah?” When I nod, it’s like all her bones were uncooked pasta suddenly dropped into boiling water. The tension is gone, and that wet-noodle ease reaches all the way to her mouth. Her smile borders on dopey. “Do you have plans for the rest of the afternoon?” If I did, I’d cancel them, no questions. Even if I know damn well our

decision to keep this new relationship a strict friendship is a solid one, I’m fast becoming addicted to having her around. “Not a plan in the world, except to kick back with my gorgeous new friend.” 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. “I wanted to hike on that ridge over town since the day I landed.” She points

with a finger, manicured, polished, and dainty. “But, so far, 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 just want…to get away for a few hours. Do you like to hike?” She pops out her bottom lip, as if there would be the remotest chance she’d actually need to plead to get me to agree. I’m thankful, at least, that she seems oblivious to the

power she wields over me. “I love hiking.” I do. 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...or any other unimaginable horror if it meant spending more time in her company. We leave the wrought iron tables and the canopied shops and shuttered apartments around the square. The sun is

still pretty high and the day, bordering on unbearably hot an hour before, has mellowed into summer perfection. The silence that ping-pongs between us is strangely comfortable, the kind of quiet that usually takes years of friendship or complete compatibility to produce. “Mmm. Doesn’t the air smell amazing here?” She drags in a breath so deep it flattens her nostrils and makes her eyelids flutter. The cobblestones peter off

into dirt under our feet. “Yes.” I guess I should take some yogi-inspired breath, too, but it’s damn hard enough to breathe normally around her, let alone piling on all kinds of theatrical techniques. “Very refreshing.” “It never smells this way where I come from.” She walks surely onto the path littered with pine needles and acorn caps. “I live near the ocean. Which is amazing when the air is windy and salty.

But when it’s hot, which it usually is, the marsh makes everything smell a little rotten.” I laugh and nod. “London smells that way in certain parts of the city. Like laundry left in the washing machine too long. So, will you and your future husband move back to the States, or will you be staying here?” It’s a question that’s a thousand papercuts on the sore edge of my nerves,

and I ask it because it’s ridiculous to feel this way about this girl, amazing as she may be. I’ve only just met her, we’re solidly friends, and we’ve agreed to keep it that way. I need to stop subjecting her to my pent-up nerd-boy crushes. “Um, that’s kind of a sore spot.” She pulls her bottom lip between her teeth and gnaws a little. “I see.” I put a hand out when she stumbles a little over some loose rocks.

Flip flops are not the best shoes for hiking, but I’m glad she wore them. Anything sturdier and she’d be perfectly able to maneuver without any help from me. “Say no more.” “No, it’s okay.” She takes my hand and squeezes. 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. “If you don’t mind, it’s nice to be able to talk this

stuff out with someone neutral.” “I don’t mind at all,” I lie. 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. What’s the issue? “What’s the problem? Maybe we could figure it out?” We. I glance over and come to grips with the fact that, even if this beautiful girl didn’t have a specific list designed to attract the perfect alpha male who could

never be me, she’s completely out of my league in every way possible. Strangely, letting that nugget of information digest makes being around her more bearable. If I thought I had a chance, I might try to take one. And that would be a road to total and complete ruin. “Thank you.” She finds a long, flat rock that looks out over a dense copse of pines and a stream and sits. It’s picturesque enough for romance, but we

are firmly friends. Friends who help one another with dating problems. “I would actually appreciate your honest feedback, as a guy.” “I have to admit, I’m not completely sure that I’m going to know what the deal is with the guys you’re looking to date. I’m not...uh, not really from that...I’m not like them. I guess.” 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. “Thank God,” she says on a long sigh, leaning her palms back on the warm rock and letting her hair fall back as she tilts her skin skyward. “I swear, Cormac, it’s so nice to just be able to talk. Just two people with all kinds of interesting things going on, just getting to know each other. You wouldn’t believe how rare that it.” “Really? Well, maybe that’s number

one, then? You need to weed out anyone you aren’t fairly immediately comfortable with.” I comb my eyes over the curve of her neck, the shiny fall of her hair, the smooth line of her arms, then flip my gaze to the pines and mountains when she turns to look at me. Funny how something that was so gorgeous just a few minutes before can lose its luster when compared with Benelli’s beauty.

“Don’t you think you sometimes need to kind of settle in with a person? Like, maybe it doesn’t all fall into place right away. Maybe you need to make adjustments for each other?” She pulls one leg, then the other, up and rests her chin on her knees like a little girl. “No.” I shake my head, adamant. Adamant because I am theoretically adamant about this issue, but also because

I feel invested in maintaining roadblocks for her on this quest. “Just my opinion, of course, but I strongly feel that you can get a pretty immediate vibe off a person, and that vibe should be heeded. Definitely heeded. In my opinion, of course.” Benelli arches forward, her breasts strained against the fabric of her tank top in a way that allows me to see the outline of her nipples. And it’s torture.

As soon as this hike is done, I’m heading back to the university library and seeing if the sour-faced grad student who guards the books like a menacing she-troll might look a tad sweeter after a few tankards of strong beer. 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. For the second time today, she

looks incredibly relieved. Her face glows and her eyes and mouth soften. “That was perfect, Cormac. Perfect. You’re right. And now my list has been shortened by two. Tell me something else. What else can I use to narrow this down?” Much as I want her to cross every single damn name off the list, I can’t do anything without knowing more about what kind of craziness she’s walking into with these chumps.

“You’ll need to tell me a little about them, of course. I mean, there must be things you like and don’t.” She leans forward, eyes wide, mouth slightly open, and I panic and draw back. “Or maybe not. Maybe this is too personal. We hardly know each other, and this is your big decision. Yours. You’re the one who’ll be married by the end of this summer. I don’t want...I can’t be the one who keeps you from your one true love. Or whatever.”

She rests on her arms again and squints at the sun, sliding slowly behind the mountains. “Okay. It’s weird right? To talk about this with you when we just met. I know, I do know how weird it is. It’s just, I’m not looking for love, you know?” She’s saying things that she thinks make her sound strong, but I can hear that she’s verbalizing a sacrifice. “Maybe you should be? Not as a matter of premium importance, of course.

You can have all kinds of other...factors. You should, in fact. Of course. But maybe also love?” The wind is picking up her hair and throwing pieces back, and her eyes are downcast. “Do you think it really matters?” Her voice is barely louder than the wind coursing around us. I give a small snort. “Despite the fact that my heart was recently thoroughly crushed, I do believe love matters. And I

think,” I try to phrase it as gently as I can, “if you’re asking, you know the answer.” She walks her fingers across the scratch of stone and presses her hand to the top of mine. “You’re a romantic.” “To the core.” You’d think a romantic would do a better job of snaring a girl. But I have to be this damn noble romantic. The press of her hand was a promise. She extinguishes that possibility

with a friendly pat, like you’d deliver to the head of a favorite pet dog. “Well, I’m a realist. So, let’s just forget love, okay? What’s next? What else do you think we should worry about?” Both of her hands are safely settled in her lap, clenched together so hard, I’m afraid she’ll pop her finger out of joint. I know she’s lying. I want to know why. But that’s walking the fine, messy

line between friendly inquiry and mindyour-own-fucking-business. So I mind mine. “Well I think location is a premium question. Get that notebook out and you can scribble in another lovely chart.” I’m a wanker. A champion wanker. But I can’t resist a crush, and Benelli is a strong one. Dangerously strong.

Benelli 2 The date with Akos is going...fine. As did the date with Elias. And Istvan. And Jani. They’ve all been fine. My notebook overfloweth. And that’s a good thing. So why do I feel so completely crappy?

“Benelli?” Akos is leaned forward, his dark eyes focused on my face, and I flush and sit up, tacking my smile carefully back in place. “You’ve seemed a little off. Is something wrong?” I run a fingertip over the shiny silver fork next to my plate. We’re waiting on braised lamb chops. Akos is the fifth guy to take me to this restaurant, which is easily the most expensive in at least a fifty mile radius from the little town we’re

staying in. “Nothing’s wrong. Not at all. So, um, can I ask what you think about living in America? Like, permanently?” I know there should be a gentler segue, anything that might make this sound less like a job interview and more like a date. But, since I’m insisting this is all business and no emotion, I guess it doesn’t matter. His smile is gentle, but very

slightly condescending. It makes an irritated prickle of goosebumps break out over my neck. “I love the idea of starting my business in America. And, since I’m committed to learning from your father, I realize that I have to go where he is.” 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.

I pick up my fork and knife and try to keep the shake out of my fingers. At first I held back with my dates and kept up the polite facade of the well-mannered, nicely brought up Hungarian-American girl. But, after spending the afternoon and evening with Cormac a few days ago, I decided to change my tactics. He told me that if love didn’t matter, if I truly thought that was just a mess of reacting chemicals that led to

stupid decisions, then I should take the kid gloves off and put the boxing gloves on. Thinking about Cormac makes me smile, really smile, for the first time all night. I’m incredibly glad I face-planted into his lap that day. The day I spent hiking with and talking to Cormac was the polar opposite of these frigid, scripted dates. My time with him left me feeling free, like I took off binds I didn’t even know I was wearing. I felt the way I used

to feel, all the summers before I had to think about getting married, when I just ran, hair down, barefoot, through the meadows and forests. But I’m not a little kid anymore. 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, even if it makes no sense. Because this isn’t about romance. I lace up my boxing gloves and get

ready to deliver one hell of a right hook. “Akos, I need to ask you a question.” I take a bite of lamb, perfectly succulent, and let him be the one to wait tensely while I chew and swallow. “I saw you just look at the waitress.” His eyebrows shoot up and he opens his mouth to argue, but I wave my knife in the air carelessly. “Forget it. I’m not judging you. I’m just asking you, honestly, what you would expect if we were married. 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, and I channel all my disgust and anger into my fist so I can keep my face open and relaxed. Akos flounders, rubs his large, perfect jaw, blows a long, rough breath out and blinks slowly. I’m not sure he’s ever going to collect his words, but, finally, he does.

“I am a very, uh...carnal man, Benelli.” He leans forward and his hand slithers across the tablecloth. I snap to attention, eating more lamb mechanically and refusing to let him hold my hand during this particular confession. “I’m going to be honest with you. I will love and respect my wife with all my heart.” He lays a hand on the place in his chest where a heart should be. “I will always be protected. I will always be discreet. But a

wife is the center of a home. She is the mother of the children, the keeper of the house, the foundation. And I have nothing but respect for that. I would never expect my wife to have to deal with my appetites.” I saw my teeth back and forth, cringing at the grating sound reverberating in my head. “What if your wife had the same appetites as you?” He tenses his jaw so hard, a quick

tick pulses near his ear. “Women don’t have the same appetites, Benelli.” He goes back to his meal, but he wields the knife with a little more ferocity than is strictly necessary. “But what if your wife did. What if she was that?” I press. He spears a bite of lamb with a vicious thrust of his fork and leans forward, his eyes darting from side to side. “This is extremely uncomfortable

conversation for dinner.” I lower my voice, but don’t compromise on my resolve, no matter how uncomfortable he finds this. “We are not doing this for fun. I need to know things about you, about our future together, and we don’t have the luxury to figure it all out slowly. If you can’t answer my questions, I can’t make a decision.” I raise an eyebrow his way, and he sighs heavily and snipes back at me.

“My wife could do whatever she pleased before the marriage, as far as I’m concerned. And, once we were married, I would keep her satisfied. I don’t expect her to be with anyone but me after our marriage.” He rubs a hand over his freshly shaved chin. “Now you probably think I’m some ogre.” “I don’t.” I do. “You do. Please, understand, it’s respect, Benelli. And if any man on any

date tells you that he has no plans to keep a mistress, he’s lying or deluding himself. It has nothing to do with love.” He captures my hand before I have time to pull it away. “Hey. Hey. Look at me.” The last thing I want to do is look at him. But I do. I raise my eyes and see his, crinkled at the sides because he’s smiling. “Men are beasts. We are. That’s life, that’s biology. If you and I married, I promise to shield you from every ugly, awful thing there is

out there. You’d be cherished, protected. Even from me, by me.” I tug my hand out of his grasp, inch by inch, and try to let the icy/acidic feeling in the pit of my stomach ease. Several silent minutes tick by before Akos clears his throat. “I’m not saying I’d run out and get a mistress the first day we were married or--” “Please,” I beg, “stop. Just stop. I

understand what you’re saying. And I shouldn’t even be feeling this...” I stand so fast the table wobbles and look around for the bathroom. I know where the bathroom is. I’ve been to the restaurant dozens of times, but right now my brain feels like a record with a big gash in it, and the needle just keeps tripping over the same horrifying thought, over and over. Men are beasts. We are. That’s life, that’s biology.

I resist the urge to clap my hands over my ears, as if I can stop the bark of his words in my head. I rush to the bathroom, Akos right on my heels, and manage to slam the door in his face and press my back to the heavy wood while I take a few shuddering breaths. When my heart and lungs have stopped their frantic riot, I head to the sink and turn on the cold water. I soak a paper

towel, ring it out, and press the damp chill to my overheated skin. My hair has been straightened until it shines, my makeup is heavy and perfect, my dress so tight, I wouldn’t have been able to finish dinner if I wanted to. I do want to. Just not with Akos. And not in this dress or with this makeup on. I’m sick of feeling so damn

trapped. I want to just be me. Myself. Not some precious woman-doll who needs to be protected. I wad the paper towel up and toss it, then push through the door and smash into Akos’s wide chest. I almost totter off balance on my new leopard print stilettos, but he holds me firmly by the shoulders and steadies me. “Are you okay? Let’s go back and finish dinner. I’m sorry we talked

about...all that. It was uncalled for. I should have gone with my instincts and not let the conversation go that way but you were so--” “Shut up,” I interrupt, my voice even but punctured with the fierce anger I can barely contain. “I needed to know. That’s it. Now I know, and I can use the information to make a better decision. Thank you for a lovely evening. I have to get home.”

His hand slides down from my shoulder to my upper arm, and his squeeze becomes a hard pinch. “You’re not leaving without me. We’ll finish dinner, then I’ll take you home. I’m responsible for you, Benelli. I don’t take that lightly.” His calm voice is at odds with the bite of his fingers on my skin. I twist, he increases the pressure. My eyes well with tears, and I’m furious.

At him, at myself, at all of this. “Let me go. This instant. Let me go.” My voice scratches out of my dry throat. He loosens his grip very slightly and rubs a thumb over the skin he most likely bruised. “I’m sorry. I know you think I’m being a jerk, Benelli, but I want to protect you. If you storm out of here without me, I have no way of knowing if you got home safely or not. It’s my job to

make sure you’re safe, and I take it seriously, okay? Even if it means that I have to protect you from yourself. Does that make sense?” He lifts a hand and cups the side of my face, then brushes a few strands of hair off my shoulder. My teeth chatter from pure, undeniable rage. “I’m ready to go. Now. And I don’t need your permission to leave.” My

purse is back at the table. I need it for cab fare, my cell, my pepper spray. I stalk towards the table, and he rushes behind, dropping some bills between our barelytouched plates and trying to put an arm around my shoulders as we brush past confused, fawning managers and hosts. I squirm away from his touch and head into the balmy summer night. I hail the first cab I see, but, before I can close the door fully, Akos slides in next to me. I

lean forward and give my aunt’s address and my sweetest smile, just to ensure that the cabbie will be on my side in case Akos decides to contradict me again. He doesn’t. I tilt my head and watch the lights and pedestrians in the city as they whiz by, working very hard to ignore the guy I’m on a date with as he squirms next to me in the seat. “We shouldn’t have discussed all

that crass stuff,” he begins, not that I’m looking at him or paying him any attention. “How did your other dates answer? Did they lie? Because if they said anything other than what I said, it was a lie.” I initially planned to not say a single word to him, but I decide to jump on this as a unique learning experience I can use to find the man I should actually marry. “I didn’t ask anyone before you.”

He sighs and rubs his temples. “So this was a shock because you didn’t talk to anyone else about it?” “Um, this was a shock because you told me that you’d cheat on me for my own good on our first date, Akos.” I roll my eyes when he presses his hands palm-topalm, ready to plead with me for...what? “Benelli, beautiful girl, listen to me,” he begs. His voice is giving me a headache. “You and I both understand that

our getting married wouldn’t be about puppy love. It would be about a making a relationship that would last. For years. And that requires honesty and understanding. The reason you want to marry me is because I’ll be a great partner for your father.” At the mention of my dad, I tense up and listen despite my resolve to ignore his stupid ass. He seizes on my momentary

interest and runs with it. “And that’s the honest truth, Benelli. The honest truth. We need each other. We can respect each other, and even, eventually, love each other. But there will have to be compromises in our relationship. I’ll leave Hungary and my family and only come back to visit. Okay. I’ll take a second-in-command position under your father. Okay. I’ll put in unbelievable hours and work harder than I’ve ever worked

for anything before. Okay. All okay. Because we’ll have a family and we’ll build something together.” “And by family, you mean me, you, our kids, and any mistresses you might keep?” I ask, my eyebrows high. “If I ever keep a mistress, and that’s a huge ‘if,’ all of that would be conducted away from you. And it wouldn’t be for love, Benelli. It would be so I didn’t burden you with keeping

me...content. In that way.” He presses his palms down on his knees and spreads his fingers wide. “I know people don’t talk about it. This is why, Benelli. It’s a part of life that no one’s proud of or excited about. But it is a reality, and I think we’d be a stronger couple if we laid it all out upfront, no illusions.” “No romance,” I snap. “Yes, romance.” He turns toward me, his hands flexing to grab at me again. I

shrink away, plastering myself to the door of the cab. He draws his hands back to his sides. “Romance will be a part of our marriage, Benelli. Flowers, candy, jewelry, date nights, vacations. You can have it all. I’ll provide for you exactly the way your father provides for your mother.” Everything my father ever gave my mother. Except my father didn’t keep a

mistress. And I’m about to drive this point home to Akos when something stops me. Because it occurs to me that Akos was pretty comfortable saying that most men have mistresses. It was almost like he expected me to agree. Like he assumed that it was a fact of life I was familiar with. I don’t think my father ever cheated on my mother.

But I’ve never really thought about it. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to think about any of this or anything else for that matter. I want out of this car, away from this asshole, and back to the innocence of my youth, when I really believed that, even if a prince didn’t ride up to rescue me, he and I would bump into each other somewhere along the way and...fall in love.

Why does it make me so embarrassed? It shouldn’t. The cab lurches to a halt, and I attempt to pay the driver, but Akos has already handled it and is asking him to wait, so I vault out and rush to my aunt’s cozy little house. “Benelli! Benelli!” he yells, but I don’t want to listen to him. I slam the door harder than I mean and breath in the

familiar aromas of vinegar, cinnamon, and oil paints that distinguish my aunt’s home. “Nénike!” I call, but the comforting silence that bounces back lets me know my aunt is out, 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, overgrown, back porch. I luxuriate in all the quiet. In a few

more days, my family will descend on this quiet little place. My parents will ask me about all the dates I’ve been on, my siblings will run wild with our cousins and the locals, and I’ll be expected to play the part I’ve been assigned since I was a little girl: caretaker to the Youngbloods. I walk up the steps to the small, 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.’ Maybe I was back then, when I ran wild and didn’t worry about a single thing other than how many hours I could stay outside, how many books I could finish curled up by the window, 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. She and I connected, twined, surged with a bond that was deep and

unspoken. It lasted right up until the summer I was sixteen. That was the summer I met Lala and she pointed out that I would look so much better with two eyebrows rather than one. And clucked her tongue at my ratty, long hair and knobby, unshaved legs. 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 can’t forget the look of total and complete disappointment that fogged Abony’s eyes when I stepped off the plane, and it irritated me. The new look was still raw and uncomfortable, and I wanted to be petted and praised for it by the women I trusted, because it didn’t feel quite right, and I needed their reassurance. I made this new version of me the

skin I could slide into. And, eventually, 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. No matter how many times my aunt slashed her eyes in my direction and muttered about the death of feminism, I held tight to my new persona. Held tight and sailed right into Akos’s arms. That wasn’t exactly the plan.

I get to my room and strip out of my binding dress. I scrub the makeup off my face and watch as it swirls down the drain. My cutoff shorts and cotton tank do exactly what I want my clothes to do right now; they fit perfectly and allow me to instantly forget them. 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. By the time he walked me back home late that night, I was kind of a little smitten. Which is nice because he’s safe to fall for. Even if I fell head over heels in love with him, which I won’t because he’s not my type, 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.

My family needs to be rebuilt, and my husband is going to lend a direct hand in the reconstruction. That said, looking for a husband is hard, emotionally-draining work, and I need a break. At least that’s what I tell myself when I grab my light zip-up hoodie from the hook by the back door. I’ve been on dates with so many guys in this tiny town, I can’t go out without getting recognized. I pop the hood over my head,

push my hands deep in the pockets, and walk the streets, knowing that without my heels and hair and tight dress, I blend in with all the young teenage girls hanging on the cobblestoned side streets. I love the sweet whistle of the wind picking up now and then and dragging strands of hair out of my hood. I love the long, loose feel of my legs as I stretch them and the wiggle of my toes in my open shoes. I feel free, for the first

time in I don’t know how long. Free and reckless. But I don’t go directly to the lake, like I intended. My feet take me down a vaguely familiar path that’s tugging at me like an eager puppy on a long leash. When I get to the young professor’s hovel of an apartment, I pick up a few pieces of loose gravel and toss them at his window. I guess I could just as easily walk up to his door and knock, but

something about tossing the rocks feels a little crazier, and I’m so in the mood for anything not quite sensible right now. The light shines from his window, and I can make out the shape of him moving in the shadowy interior, so I pick up another handful of pebbles and throw with a little more effort. This time one of the window panes sounds like it may have cracked, and the window swings open. Cormac sticks his head out, a pair of dark,

square glasses on his face. He looks nerdy. But kind of adorable. His dark hair sticks up at weird angles and he’s a few shades short of sleepy, like I woke him up before he dozed over his latest batch of translations. “Benelli?” He pulls his glasses off fast, like he’s embarrassed that I caught him in them. “I...I thought you said you had a date tonight? Construction foreman,

associates in business, nice calves?” He says the last words in that dry, completely unimpressed way that makes a laugh start low in my throat and bubble out of my mouth. “It winds up his calves weren’t all that impressive. Do you want to go walking? Maybe grab a 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, but, as it was, I wound up eating next to nothing, and my stomach is lurching and growling. “Of course. That would be...yes, that would be brilliant. Could you wait just a minute? My research clothing isn’t fit for the civilized public.” He pulls his head back into the room, then pops back out. “I was thinking of wearing shorts tonight. I warn you; I have fantastic calves. Truly awesome, amazing calves.”

“Really?” I do my best not to smile at him, but it’s easier attempted than done. “So are you a jogger?” “Cyclist,” he corrects. “Unicyclist. And sometimes snowboarder. Maybe, actually, only once on the snowboarder thing. 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. Right. Um, I’ll be down in a second.” I bounce on the balls of my feet,

ready to see him, ready to walk around with him and tell him about Akos and the other guys and get his take on all of this craziness. Or, better yet, maybe we won’t talk about any guys or any dates. Maybe we’ll just talk about Greek myths and desserts and the moon and stories from when we were kids. Hopefully. He bursts out the door, throwing his hood up over his head as he walks to

me. And I’m shocked to feel this tiny little flutter low down in my gut, where only the best and sweetest flutters ever wave their wings. He’s not drop-dead gorgeous like Akos, who’s all chiseled lines and dark, brooding strength. Cormac is more cute. In that scruffy, mad-professor way. He does have wildly gorgeous eyes, though. To die for

eyes. They’re a kind of light green with darker green right around the pupil, and they crinkle on the sides from all the smiling he does. And he has a good mouth, with firm, kissably-shaped lips. I have a hard time picturing his mouth being still, because he’s always talking or laughing or grinning at me. Never kissing me though. Sadly. Also, he laughs all the time, rattly and deep from inside his chest. That may

be my absolute favorite thing about him. “So, I’m sorry about the calf letdown.” His voice is brisk, which is so nice after a long series of dates with slow-talking attempted-seducers. He loops an arm around my shoulders gently and leads me down the street. “But, I have to say, I’m a little glad. I found this Hungarian-Thai fusion place...don’t laugh now. All my sources say it’s absolutely amazing, and I was dying of hunger, but

didn’t want to be the sad professor eating all alone at the bar, and I was too lazy to look up and see if they delivered. And then, there you were like an angel of dinner under my window.” He smells like the pages of books, ink, and tea leaves. And, under all those comforting smells, he also smells like guy. It’s a salty, clean smell mixed with the tingling pang of aftershave that makes my girly hormones spin in excited pirouettes,

and I turn my head in my hood so I can discreetly press my nose closer to his shoulder and inhale that perfect aroma. “I’m glad you were around,” I admit. “I know we just talked the other night, but I missed you.” “Stop,” he demands, frowning. “You’re going to lead me on and make me fall completely in love with you, even if I know for a fact that it’s absolutely hopeless.”

I punch his arm softly, surprised by the tough bulge of muscle under the thin sleeve of his jacket. “Flattery will get you nowhere. But hand me your phone,” I order, and I totally ignore my slightly sweaty palm and jittery fingers when I type my number in. “Now call me.” He fumbles for a second, but makes the call, and I program his name in as he peers over my shoulder.

“Sir Sexy Calves? I like it.” That deep laugh jangles around me and sends a shiver of pleasure up and down my spine. “I’m relieved to have your number now. This town can be a dangerous place for a dreamy grad student who knows very little Hungarian. I wish you’d been there to help me post a letter this morning. I’m afraid my grandmother will not be getting a card with several oily naked men on it. She so would have loved ogling it, so it’s a

particular shame it will never reach her greedy hands.” “Did you really send your grandma a card like that?” My eyes bulge from shock, and I picture my own grandmother with her severe, permanent frown, who would not think a card like that would be appropriate or funny. I always send her something sappy with lots of embossed flowers on the front for her birthday. “My grandmother would box my

ears if I tried to send her a card with a cat or a bouquet on it. And I only think I sent it, after all. The postmaster was pretty irritated by the time we were through, so those handsome men with all their oily muscles may have been deposited into the incinerator when I left.” He stops in front of a small, questionable-looking facade that leads into a dark restaurant. An eager-looking man with a huge smile and dark, shiny hair

leaps up and asks us to have a seat in broken Hungarian. He brings us menus, takes our drink order, and smiles like his face will crack in half. Cormac tries to study his menu seriously, but the man’s smile is completely contagious. Cormac is smiling at the glossy menu pages, and I’m smiling at him over the top of my menu, and I feel perfectly content in this dark, cozy restaurant with him.

When the waiter returns, Cormac busts out some truly awful Hungarian and haltingly orders us an appetizer of fritters and a Hungarian schnitzel plate for himself, and I order the vegetable pad thai. “You speak Hungarian beautifully. I assume. I mean, it sounds lovely. I have no real clue what you’re saying. Or maybe I do. Did you order ox hearts with lemons?” He opens my straw for me and

dunks it in my cup. “Thank you. My grandmother lived with us when we were young, and we were only allowed to speak Hungarian at home. It freaked my parents out, because they were positive we’d wind up idiots at English. But it worked out. We’re only half-idiots at both.” I take a long sip of my soda and sigh. “Wine would be so nice right now.” “Oh, we can do wine later. I have

a plan.” He winks, one green eye scrunched shut and opened again after a few seconds. I feel a weird, warm blush burst up from my chest. “So, your parents are native to Hungary?” “Mmmhmm. My father was given a share of his father’s business to take overseas when he was a teenager. He met my mother in Hungary, and they married really young.” “Arranged, I presume?” He leans

back, and I notice just how wide his shoulders are. I know he was joking about how great his calves are, but those shoulders give me a tickle low down in my throat. It takes a minute to clear my head and answer him. “Arranged? No. They definitely did not have an arranged marriage. It’s kind of a funny story, actually. My father was supposed to marry a local man’s daughter, basically because

she was the heiress to her dad’s logging business. But a fair came through, and my mother’s family owned the carnival rides, and he met her when she sold him tickets. It was, like, this instant romance.” “Really?” He opens his mouth to ask something more, but the fritters arrive, and he thanks the waiter, and prepares a little plate carefully, which he passes to me. “Thank you.” I take a bite of the

crispy breaded cauliflower and love the tastes in my mouth. Almost as much as I love the quiet, sweet way Cormac takes care of me on this non-date. “So, if that had been my parents’ story, I would have been mooning around every fair that came through, gazing into ticket booth windows and hanging around at the Waltzer--” “The Waltzer?” I ask, and he pops a crunchy piece of broccoli in his mouth

and presses some kind of peanut-based dipping sauce my way. I dip and eat, imaging a fair where couples waltz in slow circles, like in movies based on Jane Austen books. “Uh, you know it, the ride with the cars you sit in and the platform comes up and you kinda spin.” He uses his hands and some of the broccoli to illustrate. “Oh. You mean The Tilt-AWhirl.” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Did

you take all the girls on the, er, Waltzer when the fair came through, Sir Sexy Calves?” Cormac chuckles. “If I could have gotten any girl to go anywhere with me when I was a lad, I would probably have fainted from sheer shock and excitement before I got anywhere near a Waltzer. By the way, the American name for it is much sexier. But, that’s usually the case with American names for things.”

“So, you weren’t a ladies’ man?” I ask, but before he can answer, our plates arrive and the delicious smells make me start to salivate. “Did Mr. Average Calves skimp on dinner?” Cormac asks as I heap a huge forkful of delicious pad thai, still steaming, into my mouth. His words are perfectly civil, but his tone has the nasty bite of jealousy. Which should make me nervous.

Instead I’m glad I detect it. “The date went a little haywire.” I take another bite and add, “I asked some questions he didn’t like, he got a little pissy, and when I tried to leave, he got a little rough so I had to--” “He what?” Cormac’s voice is smooth and soft. He’s put his fork down on the table, and there isn’t the remotest trace of a smile anywhere on his face. He’s all pure

fury, and I’m so shocked, I can only stutter out my answer. “He got upset I guess and--” “‘Rough’ is what you said, Benelli. You said, ‘when I tried to leave, he got a little rough.’ Did I mishear you?” I swallow hard and my stomach drops a little. Cormac would make the most amazing teacher. He’s got that whole quiet authority thing on lockdown. “I did say that.” I rub my arm

where Akos grabbed it, and Cormac hones in on my absent-minded gesture. “May I see?” His voice is so unlike it usually is, so cold and severe, I don’t really think before I let my hoodie slide slowly off my shoulder and down my arm. 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. “He did this to you? The construction foreman? The big bad Akos Miklós did this to you on a date?” “Cormac, he didn’t mean to. He grabbed me, and I yanked my arm away. That’s all.” I’m nervous now and wish I’d just kept my mouth shut. I’ve ruined dinner, and I have a terrible feeling that Cormac might try to confront Akos, which would be a disaster. Akos could crush Cormac in

a second if he wanted to and wouldn’t think twice about doing just that. “I apologize. I do, truly, but I’ve lost my appetite. Do you mind if we box this?” Cormac asks. I do mind. I just left the single worst date of my life, and I couldn’t imagine the night improving at all. Then I threw a few rocks at Cormac’s window, and everything changed. I was having an amazing time

with him, and I don’t want it to end. But I realize his question was just a courtesy, because he’s already got the waiter hurrying over, and he’s attempting to assure the man that there’s nothing wrong, but he’s definitely talking about the weather. I’m willing to bet Cormac’s grandmother will not be getting that birthday card. He pays for the meal before I can

offer to pitch in and walks me home, his steps long and quick, his mood edgy and punctuated by occasional kicks at the cobblestones. When we get to my door, he hands me my to-go box and gives me a tight smile, but I put a hand on his wrist before he can leave. “I’m really sorry. I was just venting about the night. Akos didn’t really hurt me, and I really, really want you to

stay out of it, okay? He’s...he’s a rough guy, and he’s not going to back down if he’s confronted. I promise you, it’s taken care of.” “Of course,” he soothes, and I don’t believe his voice for a second, because I can read the rage still jabbing in his eyes. “I would never do anything stupid, Benelli. And please know how much I enjoyed dinner. I really hope to do this again with you. Soon.”

He swallows so hard, I can see every tendon in his neck stand out, then he takes two solid steps backward, his hands still stuffed in his pockets. I inch into the doorway of my aunt’s house when he whirls back. “Wait.” He stares down at the ground and breathes deep, his shoulders rising and falling. “In answer to your question from before, no, I was never a ladies’ man. Never. I was a bullied,

smart-mouthed runt. I never had the arrogance or cruelty that’s the birthright of guys like Akos Miklós. And I know guys like Akos are appealing to girls, even though I have no clue why.” He holds a hand up when I try to interrupt, tell him he’s wrong, tell him I can’t stand Akos and guys like him, but he shakes his head and I keep my lips buttoned, mostly because I want to know what he’s going to say next.

“We barely know each other, 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’m begging you, please value yourself in this decision. Please...please choose wisely.” He leans forward, so close, our lips could skim, our breath hitches and mingles in the space between us. I can smell him, books and ferocious man, two

smells I never imagined co-mingling, but now realize have combined to create my new favorite smell in the world. He puts one hand up, close to my face, his body leaned inches from mine, then whips back, fast, turns on his heel, and walks away. A few blocks from my house he turns and gives me half a smile. I wish so hard that I could see the other half of that smile back in place, the

wish morphs into an ache.

Cormac 2 I’m scared shitless of that bastard Akos Miklós. He’s got a good four inches and eighty pounds of hulking muscle on me. I’m not a fighter. Never have been, never will be. The best I can do if I have a serious opponent to defeat is talk him into the ground. But this isn’t some schoolyard showdown. And Akos’s tiny brain probably can’t handle a complex

argument, 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. Emphasis on probably. Double emphasis on maybe. My father was a quiet, stern man, and he let me be who I was without reservations. His father was a sadistic, overbearing drunk who did things like throw me into the lake to ‘teach me’ to swim when I was a toddler. I hold out my

hands and look at the scar the exact shape of a half moon on my lower palm. That was another of my grandfather’s little survival-of-the-fittest tests. I was two. I reached out to touch the side of a woodstove, so hot it was glowing orange. I remember howling with pain. My parents were furious with my grandfather. He said, “That’s how they learn in the animal kingdom.”

My parents avoided him as much as they could, but my father’s sense of filial duty was deep-rooted. When my mother made the mistake of bragging that I took the lead in my posh school’s production of Oliver, Grandpa snuck me to the lot in the back of the woodshed, strapped old boxing gloves on my hands, and proceeded to beat the piss out of me. I remember his lined, sweatsoaked face, his green eyes gleaming with

a psychopathic delight, spittle collecting at either side of his mouth as he nodded, bobbing and weaving before he delivered the occasional rough punch to the side of my head. “That’s a boy! Take it like a man! That’s it. No pantywastes come from my genes.” He threw punches that I ducked and a few that I couldn’t, but I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. What did the Allies learn from

World War II? Never back down when you’re faced with an aggressor. Never. Grandpa was a bully, but he taught me to use my hands to fight, and, though I’d never dusted his mostly abusive lessons off and given them a go in the real world, now is the time to use my brawn over my brains. 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. I know, deep in the marrow of who I am, that I have a twisted, shithead pinch of bloodlusting bully that can, hopefully, help me give Akos a lesson he won’t soon forget. I just wish my rousing internal battle cry would tame the knocking of my knees. Whenever I feel particularly

nervous about standing him down, I bring to mind the slow slide of Benelli’s jacket. There was a second where I sucked my breath in as, inch by gorgeous inch, she exposed more of that perfect caramel skin. And then there was the ring of bruises made by Akos’s fingers grabbing too violently against her skin. I would have stood up for any woman who’d told me she’d been mistreated. Any person, really. I don’t just

read about heroes in the pages of books and then cower on the streets of life. 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. And I’ve done it. Verbally. Many times. But verbally won’t cut it tonight. It’s not hard to guess where Akos might be. 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. The bar is already screamingly loud and slightly out of control. There’s an abundance of pushing and yelling disguised as dancing and conversation, all layered over the ear-drum thrashing music. The jostling dance floor is a frenetic anarchy and the bar is a cloying thrust of arms and flirtations. Navigating

this bar is like looking into the Strait of Messina and attempting to successfully pass between Scylla and Charybdis. As a student of Odysseus, 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. So I head to the bar and order the searing local vodka that will probably melt my stomach lining and down it, then immediately order a

second. I grip shotglass number two tight in my hand and watch, waiting. Five minutes go by, then ten, then fifteen. Finally Akos stumbles off the dance floor, his arms around two young women, one blonde, one dark-haired, both scantily clad and full of giggles. I wonder if the have any idea what a hot-headed, abusive monster they’re clinging to. I down the shot and do not

whimper, although I’m half sure I’ve lost three-quarters of my esophagus. Despite the loss of pieces of my vital organ, there are positives to chugging such a strong brew. I’m already unsteady on my feet and full of piss and vinegar. I stumble the length of the bar and swipe a hand on Akos’s shoulder. I wish this could be big and heroic and impressive, but it’s too loud and I’m only slightly drunk enough to go through

with this. Once my buzz abates, I’m going to lose some of my backbone. I focus on the memory of Benelli, on her skin, purpled with bruises from his hand, and adrenaline whips my backbone into shape. “Akos!” I yell above the hubbub of the bar. “I have something to say to you. I think we best take it outside.” He looks at me with bleary eyes and snorts. “Say it here, schoolboy.” He

pulls the two girls closer, nuzzling one alabaster neck, then another, before he adds, “Tonight wasn’t a great night for me. I’m just trying to unwind.” “It didn’t look like it was such a great night for Benelli either, mate. I would think a man would know better how to treat a woman he takes on a date.” I know exactly how a gazelle feels when he’s attracted the attention of a hungry tiger. My instinct is to run.

Run like hell. Run like the devil’s chasing me, because that’s practically the case. But a man proves his courage by defying even the strongest instincts. Even the ones that make his calves twitch. Akos’s eyes glow with an evil, furious light, but he takes a few long, angry breaths, his nostrils flaring like a bull’s that’s been hooked one time too

many. And I fear I’m much more likely to end up gored or trampled than brandishing my sword before the final, dramatic, bullannihilating estocada. “You spoke to Benelli about our date?” he asks, his voice quiet but very clear, even in the raucous bar. “No. Yes. She didn’t say your name, but I knew that she had been planning a date with you. And she didn’t

say anything about you. I just saw the bruises you left on her.” My rage is making me feel more in-control, and the possibility of stabbing my sword into his heart suddenly feels well within reach. “I didn’t mean to do that.” Those words could have played out so many ways. He could have been forlorn, dejected at physical harm he caused without meaning to. Or embarrassed at his own lack of control.

Or truly repentant for hurting a creature as lovely and refreshing as Benelli Youngblood. Instead he seems flippant, defensive, and dismissive, and I don’t much like the tone of his remark. “You owe her an apology, and I’d demand one in person, but I don’t want her to have a single thing to do with you.” The space between us accordions, first expanding to include his whispers to the

guy behind him and his winks to the two girls, then contracting until his face is only an inch or two from mine. “I won’t apologize for a misunderstanding her stubborn bullshit brought on. Benelli is a big girl. She can handle her own dates. You should back off, Professor, because, trust me, you don’t what to bite off more than you can chew where I’m concerned.” It’s like I can watch his muscles

bulge and grow, like his veins are peppered with some kind of intensely potent rage-based natural steroid. “If you want to talk a big game, that’s fine. But if you think you can stand behind your words, we should take this outside,” I suggest, searching for the lowdown burn of the alcohol in my veins to fortify my bravado. One of the girls has her hands intimately spread over his thighs and

they’re creeping up every second. Akos curls his lip, clearly reluctant to leave this romantic entanglement, but we’ve attracted the attention of a few other guys in the bar, guys he works with and socializes with on a regular basis. There’s no way he can let them see him get trounced by a scrawny foreign professor. He pounds the flat of his hand on the bar and gets a fresh shot, which he tosses back without a hint of a wince, then

he booms something in Hungarian about ambulance, professor, and blood. There was a good deal more, but, luckily my Hungarian really is atrocious. Or else I’d probably lose my resolve. We stumble out of the bar into the warm, peaceful summer night. A ring of interested patrons forms around us, and any of them who are offering vocal support are offering it to the town’s golden son. I am, of course, nothing more

than an interfering outsider. Part of me wants to make a stirring oration that will let them know I’m not, in fact, just looking to screw things up and herald a riot. But I don’t. First of all, I don’t speak enough Hungarian to do more than order a sandwich or ask for directions...directions I wouldn’t even have the capacity to understand once they’d been given. Secondly, this is not the time for

fighting with my words. It’s the time for fighting with my fists. And feet and knees and forehead and anything else I might scrounge up or find lying around. Expecting a guy like Akos to fight fair is like expecting a cornered snake to coil up calmly. Akos makes a huge show of shrugging out of his jacket, rolling up the cuffs of his sleeves, raising his arms over his head like some kind of ancient

gladiator, and eliciting the startlingly blood-thirsty cheers of the surrounding crowd. I’m in way over my head. Way, way over my head. Just when the first tendrils of doubt and dread work their way through my alcohol haze, someone bursts through the crowd. “Stop this!” Benelli screams, whipping both arms out at her sides, her

breath gasping in and out of her mouth. “Stop! Are you crazy?” The question is clearly directed my way, although, by general societal rules, Akos is the one with a less firm handle on what’s sane and right. “It’s fine, Benelli.” I walk over to her and put both hands on her shoulders. “I know you asked me not to, but a guy like Akos doesn’t understand anything but violence.”

“Even if you’re right,” she whispers between clenched teeth, “he’s not the one who’s going to have to deal with your violence. Look at him.” I do. I look, and I look back at her looking at him, her light blue eyes jumping from side to side with anxious worry. I lift my fists. The crowd cheers, not for me, of course, but because the fight is unofficially going to start now. “Akos, stop it,” Benelli pleads,

keeping her distance. “Don’t hurt him over this.” He spits, cracks his neck to one side, then the other, and says, “Maybe you shouldn’t have run your mouth. Get back before you cause more trouble than you already have.” And he pushes her. It’s barely a push. In any other circumstance, it wouldn’t warrant more than an annoyed

look. In this particular case, I pull my fist back and slam it into his jaw as hard as I can. Akos’s head flips back when I connect, my fist missiling nicely into the square line of his jaw. I’d been hoping to hit more his cheek area, but my rage was a little blinding, and it’s incredibly hard to take aim on a moving target. His howl of rage matches the

scream that I bite back. I’m fairly sure I broke my hand. It’s throbbing badly, and turning red on the knuckles. Before I have a chance to check it for breaks, Akos runs at me, slamming his head into my stomach and throwing me on my back. Wind knocked out of 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 godknows-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. “ kind of, uh...holy gods...what kind of herbs did your aunt use for this?” I’m gritting my teeth into nubs and firmly telling myself not to scream, because that would be a catastrophically wussy thing to do in front of a beautiful girl toiling over my war wounds.

“I’m not sure, actually.” Benelli interrupts her malicious dabbing and examines the bottle, while I flex and unflex my hand, shaking it out as if I can unloose the tornado of atomic pain radiating over my skin. A small, tiny groan of pure agony loosens from my throat before I can collect myself. Benelli gasps, squints at the bottle, 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. “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. “I’m so sorry,” Benelli cries, blowing desperately on my hand through the torrent of icy water as if her action can mitigate the agony. It’s completely ineffectual and may be driving me towards

an unrelenting hardon, which adds a new dimension of discomfort to this situation. “It’s fine,” I manage to gasp. “It’s completely fine. What was it, exactly, that you put on my raw, bloody knuckles?” She stops mid-blow, and her blue eyes are wide with horror. She stands up straight as an arrow, shoulders squared, like she’s facing a very accusatory jury. “Um, it was a very old label, and pretty worn away. I assumed it was iodine.

Apparently it was...uh, it was...wart remover. Seriously, I’m so sorry!” She squeezes her temples and shakes her head. I man up as fast as I can. “No worries.” I reach out with my unmutilated hand and touch her shoulder. “I appreciate the gesture, and, honestly, it made me forget the pain of my probably broken bones.” She turns off the tap and examines my abused flesh. “So I replaced the pain

of a break with the pain of a chemical burn?” Her laugh is embarrassed and adorable. “Let’s just be glad I never signed up for nursing school.” “I think you’d make a terrific nurse,” I say, and I mean it absolutely. Of course, I might mean it more in relation to her giving sponge baths than to cleaning wounds, but I do mean it. “You’re a desperate man in a desperate situation,” she answers, leading

me back to the table. “Can you trust me to attempt this a second time? I promise, I’ll sniff the bottle before I go dumping it all over your skin.” I let my eyes meet hers for a long few seconds. “I trust my life in your hands, no question.” She breaks eye contact, stares intently at my hands, and raises her brows high. “For a professor, you’re kind of a half-wit.”

There’s no possible way she can see my grin, but she smiles like she’s returning the expression. “Your insults are as accurate as they are painful.” “Someone needs to tell you before you go David and Goliath yourself into a coma.” She smears some kind of cooling, nontoxic ointment on my knuckles, wraps the gauze around my hand, and ties if off. “Will you be able to do your work with your hands like this?”

“I’ll manage.” The soft tips of her fingers are still brushing along the swollen edges of my hand. “I’m honest when I say that I never meant to make trouble for you. You can’t imagine how angry it made me to think of you being mistreated in any way. I guess I went out of my head just a little, and I apologize.” She drops my hand and shakes her head back and forth, her ponytail swishing. “It’s fine.” She chews on the

bottom edge of her lip, like she’s considering her next move. And then she pulls the chair she’s sitting on closer to me, leans in and presses her lips against mine with a soft urgency. My aching hands finally forget their pain when they grasp her hips and run up along her back, reeling her closer until she’s mostly off her chair and on my lap. Her mouth opens and her tongue makes a slow, hot slide over my lips. My

fingers trace the skin at her shoulders and press her jacket down and back, so it falls away and exposes so much soft skin I don’t know where to touch first. I open my mouth to her and answer the press of her tongue with mine. I kiss her lips, drag across to the delicate line of her jaw, down the column of her neck and suck gently on her shoulder. “Cormac.” Her voice sounds breathy and, possibly, shocked.

“Mmm?” I slide my thumbs under the straps of her tank and pull them down, ringing her shoulders. “Cormac!” She leaps up, yanks her straps back into place, and paces a few feet out of my reach. “I’m sorry,” I apologize even if ‘sorry’ is the last thing I am for what just happened. “You kissed me. I thought--” “I kissed you as a thank you,” she interrupts, her words jagged. “I...I kissed

you because...I kissed you because...” She takes a few shuddery breaths, her eyes bright with unshed tears or mania or, and this may be nothing but wishful thinking on my part, lust. And just when I expect her to storm out or slap me across the face or order me to march, she’s hurled herself back on my lap, her hands on either side of my face, her thighs on either side of my hips, her mouth hungry and sweet on mine.

I smooth my raw hands over the silk of her hair and kiss her back, 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. She pulls away a second time, her eyes round, her lips red from my bristle and damp from my mouth, her hair tangled in my hands and on my hoodie. She scoots back so fast, I have to brace a hand under her ass to keep her from toppling to the

floor. And, though my main objective is keeping her upright, I don’t neglect to appreciate the shape and feel of her particularly gorgeous bottom. “This is a stupid, huge mistake.” 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.

Which is probably not right next to my dick, on second thought. “I’ll go,” I offer. It takes every ounce of willpower in my body to get up out of that chair, and I have her in my arms, her legs still locked around my waist, the weight of her an excellent resistance in my arms, when the back door swings open and a dark-haired woman wearing a slash of bright red lipstick and stinking of marijuana stumbles in.

She takes a long look at the two of us between giggles she can barely contain, and I carefully lower Benelli onto the table top. “The professor?” She has this sexy, low voice mixed with a thick accent and a little bit of a slur that is, I imagine, the result of the partying she just came back from. I look over at Benelli, who lowers her lashes and clears her throat.

“Aunt Abony, this is Cormac Halstrom. He’s the graduate student I--” “Yes, you mentioned.” Aunt Abony’s voice is somewhere between a purr and a growl. She speaks to Benelli, but she never for a single second takes her eyes off me. “So, tell me, édesem, why are you wasting your time with brutes like Akos Miklós when you have this perfectly delicious alternative?” Benelli hops down from the table,

takes me by the arm, and marches me to the door. “I’m sorry, Nénike, but Cormac was just on his way out.” “Don’t rush because of me.” Abony waves, the sparkling ruby polish on her nails making me think of bloody talons and powerful empresses. I like her. But I don’t get to spend any more time in the cozy little kitchen with the gorgeous Benelli Youngblood and her

wild, admiring aunt. “I should have left before she came home. This night filling up with apologies,” I apologize again. She takes a deep, cleansing breath. “It’s fine. It’s been a confusing night, and I’m sorry too. Let’s just let our sorries cancel each other out and forget this whole...mess ever even happened.” She waves a hand, 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, like she’s dismissing me. Us. It’s for the best. I know that to the deepest crevice of my overly-creased, rational brain. So I say, “Tonight wasn’t all a mess, and I don’t plan on forgetting anything.” Logic escapes me yet again.

“Cormac--” I have no clue what she would have said, because I rope her close with my arm and kiss her, forcing my hands to keep still and my lips and mouth and tongue to communicate all the unspoken wants I harbor for her. Despite her protests, she nips and licks and kisses back with the kind of unbridled passion I know can’t be faked. And I’m willing to bet can’t be

forgotten. I pull back before the kiss is done, and it takes a monumental amount of determination to do that. But the look of shock and pure, urgent want on her face is worth it. “I won’t forget a single damn thing,” I vow and leave before I can’t control it and yank her back into my arms. Back where she belongs.

Benelli 3 I rush back into my aunt’s cozy kitchen, my lips still stung from Cormac’s kisses, my head spinning from his last words. She barks at me in Hungarian before I make it to the stairs down the hall. “Come back here!” I swivel on my heel and stomp

back, trying to keep everything in check. Respect for my elders, check. Temper, check. Open mind, check. check there. My woozy brain attempts to process her chattering, and I know she’s speaking quickly and with edgy excitement to trap me, seduce me, force me to listen to her while I juggle translations in my head. “ brother wants for you is all

the bread and none of the roses, Benelli. He didn’t listen to his father, but that rebellion is tampered in you. I can see that. You want to do better, you want to make it right, but it isn’t your place or your responsibility to find your parents’ happiness. You deserve your own way, your own love--” “Please!” I cry, palms over my ears to protect my ringing brain. “Please just stop. I can’t do this. I can’t listen to

this.” Abony jumps up, all swishing skirts, sparkling jewelry, and handflinging indignation. “No. You must listen. Playing the martyr is a recipe for disaster, my love. Disaster. You don’t know yourself yet, and you’re willing to trade your life, your freedom to be shackled to one of these arrogant idiots--” “Stop,” I beg. “Please stop. You have no idea how hard Papa has been

working. You have no idea how much Winch leaving and Remy falling apart broke him. I swear to you, I’m not being a martyr. I’m not. I’m trying, so hard, I’m trying like crazy to save this family.” Abony’s scarlet lips flatten into a thin line. “I’m sorry for your father’s stresses. I truly am. But maybe it’s time this family lost a little of its power.” I’m so damn sick of hearing this refrain. I hear it from my siblings enough,

and I have no patience hearing it from my aunt, too. “My father keeps this family running,” I snap. “His power puts a roof over all our heads and food in our stomachs, 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, usually so happy and carefree, plunks down on a chair and pulls a long, elegant cigarette out of its pack. The look she throws my way isn’t aggravated or angry. It’s pitying. And I bristle at it. I want to march upstairs and fall asleep, forget every single tangled snare this day tripped me with. I want to refocus, detail a new game plan, and

eradicate distractions like Cormac Too Hot For His Own Damn Good Halstrom. But something about Akos’s comment about my father jarred me, and that ripple of unease has tremored through me all day. Abony blows rings of purple-grey smoke at the colored glass chandelier hanging over the table, one sandaled foot bouncing with an anxious rhythm. “Your parents have always kept

you protected, Benelli. That’s a wonderful thing for a girl. Childhood is all about that...” She waves her crimson-nailed hand in the air carelessly. “...that time in your life when you know, unfailingly, that you’ll be unconditionally cared for and kept safe. But your childhood is long over.” She puts the cigarette down and leans forward, her blue eyes intent on my face. “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. “About?” She sighs and flicks a long column of ash into a glass tray. “Life. Love. Choices. Famil--” “Stop it,” I bite out, the cut of my voice shocking us both. “Stop it,” I repeat, calmer. “And, please, tell me what you need to say.” She trains her eyes on me for a

few endless, rapid beats of my heart. “Maybe it’s the wine and the pot and the moonlight.” She takes another long drag and coughs it out gently. “That’s it. Just too much of everything I love and shouldn’t do. Forget my dramatics.” She stubs the remainder of her cigarette out and gets up, but I block her from exiting the kitchen. “You were furious at me the summer I grew up. Remember that? But

now, you clearly have something to say, but you won’t. Do you want to keep me a little girl in the dark, or do you want to talk to me, woman to woman? Which is it?” I’m so close my nostrils are full of the distinct aroma that defines my aunt; a pinch of cigarette smoke mixed with a heavy blend of French perfume and the sweet tang of marijuana. She leans one narrow shoulder on the wall, her face lined with sudden

exhaustion. “I was furious that they let you think you were a woman without treating you with the respect a woman deserves. They gave you all the shallow trappings, but didn’t fortify you with the foundation you needed.” “No more women’s studies lectures.” I cross my arms and stand tall, though I’m still not nearly as tall as she is. “Tell me.” “You love this family.” The cracks

in her voice let pain and truth and upset seep all around us. “And I don’t want to take that from you. But, if you’re going to give them your complete devotion, you should know that they aren’t entirely what they seem.” “Tell me.” My voice is barely audible because, maybe, I recognize that I may be prying at the hinges of a Pandora’s box I’m not remotely ready to have opened.

“Some of it isn’t my story to tell, so I can’t.” Her eyes, narcotic-glazed and weary, focus on a point just over my left shoulder. “But I’ll tell you my bit. My little contribution to the Youngblood family.” Her words fight their way out of her lips. “When I was young, I was in love with...everyone! Everything. I wanted to make love. I wanted to study. I wanted to travel. And I got to. But I needed to deposit my token first.” She kicks a heel

against the doorframe. “Unlike you, I didn’t care too much about the family. My father was a domineering man. My brother selfishly ran off to America and left me behind. I was ready to start everything, but my father said college for a girl was a waste of time and money.” “I thought my father paid for you to go to college.” Her eyes have gone from glazed to a flat, glass-like sheen that sees images

I’ll be forever blind to. She flicks a look in my direction, but she isn’t seeing me. “Your father bartered for my college, though I’m sure his version of the story is different.” She shakes her head and grimaces. “I was no virgin, and I wasn’t ashamed of that, despite that fact that all of them, the whole damn family, acted like my little escapades were going to bring down the mighty Youngbloods. Your father threw over a girl with a very

powerful father, and marrying for love wound up costing him dearly. But he was able to have his cake and eat it too. Because he had me.” I put one hand on the wall, my sweaty palm sticking flat against the plaster. “Explain.” She shrugs, a delicate bob of her shoulders that masks the fury I can see smashing through the glassy veil over her eyes. “I was the town slut anyway,

according to my family. Why not one more roll in the sheets with one more man?” Her lips twist. “Your father had already refused marriage to the daughter of a very powerful man to marry your mother, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about that; the girl was lost to the family as a connection and there weren’t any available Youngblood sons at that time. But there was her father. And the man was...a man. A man who liked pretty

young girls. A man who liked having the daughter of the family that shamed his daughter in bed with him for all the town to know.” A tinge of bile creeps up the back of my throat and threatens to choke me. “They made you sleep with him?” Her eyes go tight and hard. “They gave me a choice, and I took it. One year as the mistress of a vile buffoon earned me a university degree. I had a choice,

Benelli. It was just an ugly choice.” She reaches out, her ruby-tinted fingers clasping under my chin. “It was a choice I never expected my own family would force on me. But they did. And that’s one of the dozens of skeletons in the Youngblood closet.” She closes her eyes and a little of her shine, her light, her essence seems to ooze out and puddle darkly around her. “I’m so sorry.” My body trembles,

up my spine, down my arms, along my legs, making them weak and so unsupportive, I slide to the floor. Abony’s hand reaches down and takes mine. Though she looks unbearably exhausted, she yanks me to my feet without straining. “Don’t apologize for mistakes you had nothing to do with,” she says when our faces are close in the dark. “But don’t be stupid enough to make the same

mistakes in a whole new way, either.” She pulls my neck down and kisses me on the side of the mouth before she wanders to bed, the door closed tight behind her. The tiny band of glowing light that spills over the threshold is the only evidence that lets me know she isn’t sleeping. 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. My skin is tired. My muscles and bones are tired. But my brain is whirring with a slideshow of negative images, specters of my family’s past and my life’s possible future that I can’t escape and don’t want to watch. The sheets tangle tight as ropes around my legs while I thrash on the mattress, silently begging for a sleep that finally, 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. But I’m more confused now than I was before. I pull on a pair of shorts, a clean tank, and sneakers, throw my hair in a ponytail, brush my teeth, and nab my hoodie on the way out the door too early the next morning. The air is still cool and slightly

damp from the night’s dew, 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. Because I don’t know what to think. I believe my aunt. That isn’t the kind of story anyone would lie about. And I know the way Akos threw his words

around, with such arrogance and general disregard, that he wasn’t saying them to elicit a reaction in me; he was just speaking a truth he assumed I embraced. I tilt my head back and watch the sky wash from a deep, still purple to a brightening blue and know I should just ask my father. But Abony’s words trip through my brain with an unignorable clatter; ...they let you think you were a woman

without treating you with the respect a woman deserves. They gave you all the shallow trappings, but didn’t fortify you with the foundation you needed. I don’t know if they’ll tell me the truth. I don’t know if I want to know it. I don’t know what I want. Maybe I don’t want anything. And then I find myself outside his apartment. The morning sun is shining off his

windows, blinding me when I try to squint up and see if he’s around. I stoop down and scoop up a handful of pebbles, but it’s hard to take aim when the sun is intent on singing my retinas. I throw and hear the wild patter of rock on glass, then pick up another bunch and am about to throw when I hear his voice. “I definitely deserve to have rocks thrown at me after how I acted yesterday.

But then I’d need your nursing again. Which may be more fair punishment. Also, good morning.” He’s leaned out the window, his hair mussed, his mouth, that perfect mouth, twisted in an unsure smile, one eye squinted shut, a purple ring around the outside of it. And he’s not wearing a shirt. I hate to be that kind of girl, 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. But... There they are. And there he is. Half-naked, framed by the window, the morning sun warm on all that exposed skin, I realize Cormac only gives the impression of being skinny with his clothes on. Stipped down, he’s more a lean, lethal stretch of man, his muscles nicely curved and flattened in all the

perfect places, and this realization registers a telltale heat between my legs. “Good morning,” I say, my voice surprisingly calm considering my rioting, sexually crazed thoughts. But that’s the extent of my calm, reasonable conversation. After that greeting, I’m all out of comments. “If I ignore the fact that you could, at any moment, 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 across his face, dopey and pleading and...irresistible. Smiling. It’s the antithesis of what I thought I’d be doing this morning, but here I am, smiling up at him as he gazes down at me like the world didn’t just spiral out of control last night. “No even remotely pissed,” I assure him, and, to prove it, I hold out my

fist and open it, letting all the rocks plummet to the ground below. “How are your hands?” “They are swollen, painful reminders of my near-constant stupidity. How are yours?” The smiling turns to laughter, and the sound of our laughs mingling makes the a warm heat radiate low in me. “Fine. Then again, I didn’t slam them into some meathead’s jaw then have

a friend douse them in wart remover, so, there’s that. Um, by the way...” I trail off and he raises one dark eyebrow expectantly. “In the middle of all that insanity yesterday, I don’t think I had a chance to say...well, to say thank you. I’m not saying you should have done what you did,” I rush to add when his smile morphs into a smirk. “You shouldn’t have. It was idiotic. But not unappreciated.” “It was my absolute pleasure,

Benelli.” I startle at how perfect my name sounds coming from his mouth. “Please let me take you somewhere today. Let’s get something to eat and actually finish our meal this time. Or hike all over hell and creation. Or you can help me translate thousands of pages of Greek epic poetry. Or I could assess graphs in your little notebook with you.” I stick my hands deep in my hood pockets and curl my toes in my sneakers

because I’ve suddenly decided to forget, at least for a little while, all that’s pressing so hard on me and just enjoy being here, now, with him. “No work. No...” I shake my head and topple over the next words quickly, “No marriage stuff. But food sounds great. Can you get away? Do you have a ton to get done?” “Nothing I can’t do some other, more boring time, when there isn’t a

beautiful woman beckoning at my window.” He pulls his head in, then sticks it back out. “Um, please come in? Would you like to come in? I’ll warn you; it’s tiny and unimpressive up here, but I can’t make peace with the idea of you waiting on the curb for me.” Alone in his tiny room with him, half-naked. It feels like the nagging beginning of a bad idea. A wonderfully bad idea.

And right now, I decide I just don’t care. “I’d love to.” He points to the wide wooden door next to the street and instructs me to wait and, while I do, I feel this swell of anticipation that I haven’t felt in a long time. I can remember a time when excitement had to do with me and my girlfriend, Lala, getting ready for a night out, slipping into our highest heels,

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. Excitement was dancing until our feet blistered, giggling over never having to pay our own tab at a bar, and comparing notes on the guys we met: how fat their bank accounts were, how impressive their degrees were, their golden employment opportunities and

gym-bound physiques. It was on one of those nights when I caught Damian watching me with dark, eager eyes that had a possessive, slightly arrogant quality. He caught my attention from across the entire dance floor. “He’s no good for you,” Lala singsonged, swinging her long blond hair as she shook her hips in time to the music. She narrowed her eyes and puckered those shiny, pink lips, then threw an arm around

my waist. “Or maybe he’s exactly what you need. I haven’t seen that look in your eyes...ever.” And back then, with Damian, I felt wild and free, unsprung, unhinged, undone. But then everything slowly tightened up and screwed down into some miserable, serious, boring routine that grated on both of us until all the romance fizzled and we were left with the flat,

syrupy backwash of our initial love affair. Cormac opens the door, and I yank the leash of my disappointment over the fact that he put a shirt on before he came down. “You look like you’re a million miles away.” I watch his hand grip the door until his fingernails bleach white and bloodless. “I was,” I say, sliding past him and into the cool, damp-smelling hallway.

“But I’m here now. And I’m glad.” I head up the stairs, Cormac close at my back and my nerves flick and pass series of fragmented, electric messages to my brain: “Yes, now, him, this, you.” I ignore them because they’re nothing but gibberish. Even if gibberish happens to be the language I’m currently most fluent in.

Cormac 3 I might need a dramamine after

following the sway of her hips as she mounts the stairs in front of me. I’m so busy appreciating the careening beauty, I let her lead me down the right side of the hallway and straight to the door of the old man who hoards cats, rather than to my door on the left. I move one hand to her hip to redirect her, and my index finger and thumb skim over an inch of exposed skin. She and I draw identically sharp

breaths in and our eyes nail down twin looks of blatant want. The logical sentinel of my brain, the guard that knows all too well that this girl is a beautiful, energetic waft of fresh air I will never be able to truly draw into my lungs, smacks a sword against my gut and tells me to back away. Slowly. 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. My ears burn and hone on the whispery rush of her breathing, my nostrils suck in the intoxicating swirl of her scent, and my skin feels the transmission of the electrical pulse rising off her. She pushes past me and grabs my doorknob without asking or waiting for an

introduction, 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 know, it’s, um, it’s pretty Spartan. The university covers room and board, so I sweat and starve. Not that I’m complaining.” Shut up, shut up, I order myself. She sits on my desk chair and looks around, her sharp blue eyes flitting

from my books to my calligraphy pens to my neat stacks of folded clothes and my cracked desk lamp. “You, um...” 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. “You weren’t kidding about the Spartan thing.” Spartan, of course, as in clean and sparse. Not as in warrior and heroic. I’m

wishing there was a piece of sporting equipment or...I’m not sure. Maybe some kind of cool weapon? Perhaps a small collection of action movies? Or a nudey magazine? That might be pushing it. Maybe I’m over-worrying about my lack of traditionally male accoutrements. I did just start fight in a convoluted attempt to defend her honor. And she was sorely disappointed by that.

Though she kissed me in the garden like she was on fire. And thanked me...verbally. My head is spinning, top-like and so quickly it makes all the mental terror of ancient Greek III seem like child’s play. “I’m a simple man.” I say it and feel an instant rage at my own stupidity. She examines some nibs and her smile is the prelude to her laughter. At me. “So, you do calligraphy?” Her

words are innocent enough, but they’re laced through with this smug, condescending smile I wish I didn’t see on her face. “Of course.” I try to shield the last shreds of my manhood from her disintegrating mocking. “Maybe you can use my services for your upcoming fairytale nuptials.” My words are as innocent as hers were, but there’s a trickle of venom

leaked over them, and it doesn’t go undetected. Her hands still over the nibs and her shoulders stiffen. 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...pen. Awful pun. Ugh. I’m disgusting myself on multiple levels. This girl is making my head feel like a cruelly beaten piñata. Rather than stand another second

in this purgatory, I flee to the bathroom. “I’ll be just a minute.” I say as I close the door between us. I’m nervous leaving her alone. I’m nervous she’ll realize there are an overabundance of guys who aren’t abusive meatheads or snarky, over-educated asshats and go find one. She should. But I don’t want that. I shave quickly and put on

deodorant and cologne, then whip the door open and buckle with relief. She’s still in the room. “Would you care to grab a bite?” I ask. She has a rubber band stretched over the first knuckles of all her fingers, and she expands and retracts it, her brows low over her eyes. “Am I an idiot?” She opens her fingers wide against the tension of the

band. The question is direct and catches me off guard. I sit on the bed, a foot or two at most away from her. “Never. The polar opposite. Though you may be an idiot magnet.” She plucks the band off her fingers and wraps it around her thumb too many times, staring as her skin darkens to an unhealthy shade of purple. “Maybe I’ve been around idiots for so long, I can’t tell.

I have no ability to read people, do I?” I reach a careful hand out and grab the edge of the rubber band, untwisting it and letting it rest in my palm. Her finger regains its normal pinkish hue. “You like me?” I ask. She tilts her head and nods, once, twice. “Then, yes. You are crap at reading people, because I know for a fact I’m a huge idiot.”

She smiles and shakes her head. “No more jokes, Cormac.” Her hand reaches out, two, maybe three inches from my arm, but she stops short of touching me and draws back. “You’re amazing. And I’m definitely an idiot because I don’t want you.” She bites her bottom lip hard and shakes her head. “I mean, I do want you. I should. But I don’t...I can’t. I can’t consider you. because of these rules.” She slips that goddamn notebook out of her

pocket and flicks her thumb over the pages, sending little draughts of air toward her face. “They’re idiot rules, aren’t they?” “They’re rules worthy of an anthropological thesis. Or maybe gender studies.” I put my finger on the edge of the notebook, another short span of inches of distance between us. “You’re making fun of me.” Her voice frowns. “You made that joke about

my fairytale wedding, but you weren’t completely joking, were you?” “Of course not. My calligraphy is in high demand for wedding invites.” The joke falls flat, and I stop hiding behind my pathetic attempts at humor. “In all seriousness, I said what I did because I’m a huge ass, Benelli. And, if you’d like to bare souls and go deep on this whole issue, then the raw truth is that I said it because...because I’m pretty damn

overcome with jealousy.” Her laugh whips out of her throat. “Jealousy? Of what?” “Of them.” I gesture unspecifically out the window. “Them who?” She leans forward. I mirror her lean. “All of them. All of the idiots who gained an entry in your book when I never can.” I slide my finger down the leather cover and graze the edge of her nail.

She swallows so hard I can see her throat work around the motion. “My father would hate you.” “Most fathers do,” I acknowledge. My ex-fiancée’s father could barely hold back the bile when he was forced to spend five minutes alone with me. “I think...I think my father might not be who I think he is. I might be the biggest idiot of all for believing everything was all right in front

of my face.” Her voice rasps to a scratchy halt before she can say all the additional words I know she wants to say. She’s not crying, and I’m relieved. I have no idea what I’d do in the face of her tears, but it would be based on panic, and that’s never a good jumping off point for stable actions on my part. But she’s shaky, her shoulders pressed, her arms folded over her stomach, and her eyes shiny with emotion that could manifest as

tears at any second. Unless I stop it. “Come on.” I stand up and hold my hand out to her. “It’s been a long few days, and you need a break. “A break?” She straightens up and looks at me from the barely-opened slits of her narrowed eyes. “A break. A real break. Let’s grab food and go into the woods. We’ll play runaways, like you do when you’re a kid

and things get too overwhelming.” She twists her hands and pulls her mouth to one side, like she’s sheepish, and it clicks for me quickly. “Or, do you mean to tell me, Benelli Youngblood, that you never played runaway as a kid?” I pepper extra shock into my voice for effect, but it’s mostly gut-based real reaction. Who never wanted to run away from home as a child? She trains her sight on me and shakes her head, a slow swing back and

forth like she’s savoring my question. “No. Of course not. I loved my parents. Why would I run away?” I’m pulling some clean handkerchiefs from a pile by my desk. I hand her a red one, poppy bright and bursting with symbolic potential for freedom, passion, unleashed fury. I think she’ll need to tap into all those things today. “You don’t run away because you

don’t love your family.” 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. “You run away for freedom. You run away because you can’t be trapped by the people who love you but don’t understand you. You run away because you want to be missed, 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, safe and sound. Running away is a way to play a dirty trick on the perfect fate that will suffocate you if you’re not careful.” I’ve locked the door and we’re back on the landing, a few feet from the stairs and the door, which we’ll exit so we can fully embrace our freedom to do whatever we want with this long, empty day. Maybe there’s something about the pressure or the ions in this space, but it’s

like the awkward, stilted drama of my room is extinguished, and we’re just two bodies, hearts pounding, all cells reaching and straining for one another. I want her. I want her long, shiny hair tangled in my fingers, I want the curve of her hips fitted against the narrow line of mine. I want to drag my lips along her skin and run my tongue over every inch of her. I want my ears full of her moans and my nostrils full of the heady smell of her. I

want her clothes peeled back and her legs wrapped tight around my waist, like last night, but closer, hotter, with no interruptions and no regrets. What I get is another hypnotizing backside view of her as she trots overquickly down the stairs, always only one misstep from tumbling down headfirst and giving me a heart attack. I follow her for a few hundred feet, and then pass by her and lead her to a

neighborhood convenience store, where we fill a sack with every fruit, cookie, cheese, bottle of wine, and cured meat that strikes our fancy. We don’t discuss and quibble, and I pay for it all, a heftier sum than my slim professor’s budget can really afford, but I’d gladly starve for the next two weeks in exchange for the feast I’ll share with Benelli this afternoon. We exit and head to the end of the cobblestoned street, all the way to the

place where their disjointed unevenness stops and the road stutters into a smooth, dusty trail, then even farther, to where the tree branches hang low and cool over the darkened path. It’s been rapid silence as we drove to this destinations like arrows shot from a bow, and Benelli leads me down to a pebbly shore where a small river tumbles near. She kicks her shoes off and wades up to the smooth arch of her calves

and onto a rock, not waiting for me to roll my pant legs and balance our bag of goodies. She climbs the jagged edge of a large, smooth rock, and I follow, doing my best to grab on with my feet since I only have one arm at my disposal. Benelli is already sitting when I get up. She’s drawn her knees in a tight crunch against her chest, and small bits of hair fly out of order and around her face.

There’s more distance between us than I’d like when I settle the package, but this is the kind of distance edging closer won’t erase. This is distance fortified by the wall of simmering anger, upset, and confusion she’s erected. “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, elbows dug into her knees. “Everyone misses things right in front of their faces. Myopia is a common ailment in humans. And it’s especially logical in your situation, where you have parents who clearly dote on you and love you. They show love through protection, and, often, protection is based on lies. It’s a gray area of morality, but a good gray. A handsome gray.” I don’t move closer to

her, but I do move the bag so it’s not between us. She swivels her legs, her toes pointed at me instead of into the neverending distance. “A handsome gray? What the hell does that mean?” I bite the inside of my cheek. “Nothing, necessarily. Sometimes I like the ring of a metaphor more than the mundane clang of logic. I’m only saying, in a very circular way, that your parents

may have done something a little bad for a lot good. It’s important to consider their intentions.” “What if their intentions were good...really good, even? But...but, what if what wound up happening was unquestionably bad? Like, no shadows? Just pitch black?” When she’s angry, her eyes lose their shimmer and go flat and dark, like unpolished stone.

“I don’t know if I believe any situation is just pitch black.” I find a small bit of rock and fling it into the rushing water without making so much as a quarter ripple. “If you’d like to share more details, I’d be happy to keep you from some form of parricide.” “I would never kill my family.” She touches her tongue to the roof of her mouth in an irritated tsk. “Could I share? Even if it’s maybe crazy?”

“I study the classics, love. A crazy family situation is pretty much what I’ve been trained to dissect. Remember, I cut my teeth on Oedipus Rex, so unless you tell me something really, really insane, I doubt I’ll be shocked. Or, at least, all that shocked.” I pause for a moment, and decide to go ahead and encourage her, even if it means means messy confessions and tears that will induce my panic. “Even if I wind up shocked out of my skull, I like

a good challenge now and then. Spill.” She scoots her feet closer and drags her bottom along the flat rock until our bodies are mirrored outlines of each other’s. I lean close and let the smell of her hair drift over me. “My family is big. I’m one of five siblings,” she begins, then stops. “Five,” I say for filler and because it seems like a shockingly large number to me, since I’m one of one. “Are you the

eldest? You fit every type A, overachiever, fiercely loyal case study of eldest siblings I’ve ever stumbled on.” “Oldest daughter,” she clarifies. “Remington is the oldest of the five of us. Then Winch, then me, and Ithaca and Colt are the babies. Twins.” I’m imagining them. I wonder if they all have dark hair and piercing blue eyes like she does. I wonder if they’re all so incredibly loyal. I have a sudden urge

to have a big Sunday night dinner at the Youngblood house, despite my poor track record with parents. Maybe this time I could figure it out. Maybe this time, for this girl, my brain would ease back and let my social skills have their much needed moment in the sun. “You get along with them?” I ask, wanting her to weave this story and make it intimate for me. I don’t want to be Pan at the window, looking in on what I

desire. I want to accept the thimble from my Wendy, and fly away with her on foreign adventures, then stay by her side when I bring her back home. “Yes. I really do. Or, at least, I really did.” She pulls her legs tight and sighs. “Remy is in rehab. He was always the loudest, the most obnoxious, but I thought that was just who he was. Kind of the family clown, you know? And he had this girlfriend he really loved. They have

a baby, a daughter...she’s so perfect, so gorgeous.” Her voice goes breathy and wistful. “I haven’t seen my niece in five months. It’s crazy, you know, how much a baby grows every month. Every week, really. But Remy used around her. He used a ton, and it put her in danger, so he wound up landing in rehab and losing custody, of course.” She plucks at a loose thread on her shorts and shrugs. “It’s good for him there.”

“Of course. Rehab is a good place for...users.” I’m a colossal idiot. And my avowed adherence to atheism is cemented when no giant chasm opens for me to tumble into. A loving god would have saved me from my own stupidity. “He’s improving. And, hopefully, he’ll be able to petition for joint custody again at some point. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be who my dad needs to run his businesses. My next brother,

Winchester...” She fans a hand in front of her face, swatting at the few bugs that are buzzing merrily around her. “We thought he’d take over. Our father kind of groomed Winch from when he was just a kid. Made sure he could do everything, take care of everything. And he and Remy were so close, I never thought...” She wipes the corner of each eye with the bend of her wrist. “Ugh. This is stupid. I never cry in front of anyone. Ever. And

here I am...crying like some drama queen.” I tourniquet my panic. “You can cry in front of me. I’m excellent at keeping secrets.” I close the tiny hair of a gap between us and yoke one arm over her shoulders. When she relaxes into my body, my entire system roars with approval. “Crying releases toxins. Think of it as showering, but for your eyes.” Her chuckle shakes her body once,

twice, then so hard her shoulders are bouncing up and off my chest and slamming back with the force of her gasping laughter. “It’s not even that funny,” she insists, and this time the tears are toxinless and laugh-based. “You make me laugh, Cormac.” She turns her eyes, bright blue and shiny with a whole variety of tears, my way. “No one’s made me laugh in forever.”

It’s an opening, an opportunity. And I have a million reasons to put my foot down and tell myself ‘no,’ but not a single one is as compelling as the curve of her lips, the way her eyelashes lower like a lacy veil over those cobalt eyes, the smooth rub of her skin against mine in tiny, clandestine amounts that are pure torture. I punched a man for her. Multiple times. That took guts.

So why is this singular moment so much more risky? Because she’ll bolt if it’s off, if it’s too much, if it somehow isn’t enough, and I’ll be left here, probably without another chance. I’m methodical by nature. A thinker. A muller. A researcher. Not a guy who rushes things that need to percolate. But Benelli jumpstarts crazy impulses in me.

I close the space between us before she’s finished laughing, so the first kiss is majority teeth, and she starts backwards for a single second, eyes popped wide. “Cormac.” The way she says it makes it sound half like a question and half like a plea. So I answer. I kiss her again, and this time her lips mold softly and press on mine. I run

my hands down from the round of her knees to the tops of her thighs and squeeze her hips, pulling her tight against me. She knocks over the bag of groceries, and a few apples roll out and bob into the water. My arms circle her waist, my tongue licks at her lips and persuades them to open, teases her tongue to lick back. She does, a sweet moan rising from the back of her throat and echoing in my mouth. She knots her fingers behind my

neck and rises up on her knees, making clumsy movements in my direction until she knocks me back onto the stone. The back of my head hits hard enough that pain shocks though my brain, and she pulls back, her mouth open, I assume to apologize. Before she can say a word, I pull her on top of me with a grunt and cover her mouth with mine, kissing her lips, along her neck, down her shoulders, and back up behind her ears until she

pants fast and fierce. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” I growl low, sucking her lobe into my mouth and biting down on it gently. “I know I should stop. I know you and I make no sense.” I say those words, but I can’t quite convince myself. My hands race over her body, rumpling her clothes and wanting to skip the part where I have to be patient and slow, because it’s killing me to not be

able to touch her bare skin, hot and flushed and pressing up into my hands. “I wish...I wish we did make sense,” she says, her voice a hiss from between her teeth. Her small fingers link around my wrist and tug my hand up under the hem of her shirt, letting the rough skin of my palm glide over the long, flat stretch of her stomach and pressing my fingers up to the swells of her breasts. My thumbs trace under the curves

of her breasts and the callouses on my fingers catch on the thin lace of her bra. My head spins when I feel her nipples tighten under my fingers. “We might make sense. Maybe not to get married. Maybe not forever. But right now...” I still my hands, 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.

But, honestly, I expect her to recoil at my words. They’re not reflective of all I want from her. Not that I want marriage. But I definitely don’t want this to just be some kind of groping in the woods. I want...her. As much as she’s willing to share with me. However she’s available. And I guess that means I’ll have to be content with less than what I may have ever imagined. “I want marriage.” She closes

those eyes, sky blue, water blue, immensely and overwhelmingly blue. “But I want something of my own before I get married.” She pushes closer to me, and the soft swell of her tits fill my hands and almost override the stretch of my fingers. It’s perfect, it’s all I want. And nothing I want. “Before you get married?” I ask. She nods, dark hair falling over

her breasts and tickling my forearms. “I need to go ahead and do that. But...” She screws her eyelids tight. “But, before I do, I need to have something that’s mine. Something that I’ll be able to look back on over the years. Something that’s my secret. Only mine.” When she opens them again, her eyes ping-pong everywhere but on my face and, when she bears down against me this time, it’s with less passion and more desperation.

I savor one final second of contact with her perfect breasts before I draw back, so there’s more distance than I ever would have thought I’d willingly put between our two bodies again. “Is something wrong?” Benelli asks, blushing a hot, quick red and placing her hands protectively where mine were possessively just moments before. “Not with...” I gesture at her chest and summon my lagging courage. “Your

breasts are perfection, Benelli. There’s this rumor that Helen of Troy’s breasts inspired the champagne glass. Which is ridiculous, since champaign was developed in France in the 17th century, and, besides, a flute is a much more reasonable vessel for champaign enjoyment.” Her expression is mostly unreadable, but the emotions I can decipher aren’t remotely happy ones, so I rush to the point. “The point is, if any one

woman’s breasts were going to be used as the template for a champagne glass, yours would be the best choice, hands down. Because they’re completely, absolutely perfect.” She nods, but her brow is furrowed and her hands are squeezing her own tits in a way that goes past alluring and makes me wince. “But, you don’t want to touch them?” Her voice parades right around accusatory.

“I don’t want to be your dirty little secret,” I explain, and I expect her to ask me to explain. I have an entire explanation at the ready, all drawn up and hammered out with details I continue to finetune as each second ticks by. She sits cross-legged and nods again. “Okay.” 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 half-assed 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 awkward because I do nothing but watch. “We should go,” she says when the roll is gone and she’s wiping bread crumbs off her lap. I lie back on the rock and reach a hand to take hers. “Come here to me first.”

She stands over me, sun at her back, hair falling in front of her face, and turns around like she’s about to jump off the rock and wade back to shore without me. “I’m not too proud to beg you to come here to me,” I call. She stands, icestatue still. “You are gorgeous. 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 I want you. I want you stripped naked right now. Any man with two eyes in his skull would want you. But you’re drunk and even sober you weren’t sure you what you wanted with me, so please don’t ask me to do what you might regret. Please, just come here to me.” She hugs her arms to her waist. “Why? What do you want?” “To hold you. To smell your hair

and hope you don’t notice and think I’m some sort of psychotic. To watch the way the light moves over your skin. I want you to get chilly and sleepy and need to press your body tight to mine, and I want to wrap my arms around you. 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 sways on her feet, and I jump

up to steady her. “That’s, um, that’s incredibly romantic.” She bites her lip and holds tight to the sides of my shirt as she careens back and forth on unsteady legs. “Romantic words are part of the deal, love. I’m a classics professor. You have no idea how many lines of Sappho I’ve memorized.” Her smile is a bloom, and I babble as it dazzles me stupid. “I had a very romantic Women in Ancient

Greece professor as an undergrad.” She sits down in a tangle of long, smooth legs, and I fall by her side when she pats the stone next to her. She presses both hands to my chest and I lie back. She lays her head gingerly in the crook of my shoulder, and my dramatic monologue is realized. And better than I rhapsodized it to be. “Do you remember any of it?” Her voice drifts up to my ears as she snuggles

tighter. “Remember?” Remember what? There’s little brain space for all my haggard past memories when this perfect present needs to be immortalized. “The poems? The ones your teacher made you read?” Her fingertips skim along my shirt, bumping over the folds in the fabric. “Some. Let me see... ‘Again love, the limb-loosener, rattles me/ bittersweet,/

irresistible,/ a crawling beast.’ Sappho was a bit of a sparse romantic. And wildly pragmatic, as it were.” “Do you agree? With Sappho?” Her voice is syrupy with the sweet rush of sleep coming fast. “Yes.” I kiss her hair, softly, realizing she won’t feel the press of my lips. “But any love worth writing like that about isn’t going to be easy.” “Mmm.”

I don’t know if it’s a sound of agreement or contentment or just a sleep reaction, but there are no words from Benelli for a long time. 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 hold her and clear my mind of everything but this moment. The past is too knotted and the future too uncertain for my liking.

Benelli 4 The pounding in my head is jackhammer hard, and it feels like my brain is attempting to pop my eyeballs out of their sockets to relieve some of the pressure. The moon is a sliver away from full and shining with a muted yellow light. I sit up on one elbow and study Cormac, head bent back, snoring loudly. His dark lashes curl in the dull gold light, and his mouth, finally relaxed and silent,

is kissably perfect. So perfect I lean down and brush my lips lightly over it. His hand flops up to swipe at his nose, and I realize that my hair must have tickled him. I try to ease back into his arms, but now that I woke up, I can’t get comfortable enough to fall back to sleep. I think back about what happened before he and I ended up marooned on a rock in the middle of a stream, drunk and

lying in each other’s arms. There was the fight last night. When I take hold of his thumb and drag his hand to his chest, I can see it’s still puffy and red, the knuckles bluish with bruising. I trace my fingers over those knuckles, the ones he bashed against Akos’s face in my defense. One eye is still shadowed with bruising from the last punch Akos managed before the fight ended. After the fight was our run, and after our run, there was the endless

few minutes I spent wrapped around him, kissing him like he was the cliff ledge and letting go would mean an infinite freefall into nothing. Then there was the talk with Abony. Remembering that makes the incessant pounding in my head drum faster and harder, so I skip past it and recall the little apartment, the surprising details of Cormac’s quiet, beautiful life, up in his

neat, clean room with all his pens and books. It was beautiful. Calm and gorgeous and grounded, just like him. Just like the way he makes me feel. I cringe at the memory of my ruthless jokes, the ones I made because I felt like I didn’t belong. I mocked him because seeing his place, seeing him centered and sure of who he is and what he wants made me crazily jealous and

stupidly sad. I tuck my hands away from his body, because I’m way too messed up for him. He deserves someone as smart as he is. Someone as confident. Someone who doesn’t give a single solitary damn what anyone else thinks or says about them. He deserves my complete polar opposite.

I say a quick prayer, 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. I’m thankful that I only shared a few partial secrets about my family with him and that most of the most revealing confessions were made when I was drunk. I’m embarrassed about trying to convince him to be my secret side romance. If a man had made the same offer

to me, I would have stormed out on him. Cormac would have offered to fight for my honor. Just because I’m a woman and he’s a man, there’s no reason I should have sunk to new lows and offered my body in exchange for his no-stringsattached involvement. “You look so serious.” His voice is groggy, and the just-woken-up sound of it tugs at a need that’s low in my gut. I want to wake up with him.

I have to strike that thought from my mind immediately. I tighten my fingers into a fist, even though I want to loosen them and run them through his hair. “I’m really sorry.” I keep busy organizing and reorganizing the bag we packed for this picnic, this picnic that turned into an emotional, embarrassing, drunk proposition. “About before. About everything. I had a great time, but I really

don’t think we should see each other again.” “You’re too tense to be tipsy.” His voice is like fine-grit sandpaper on my nerves. “I’m incredibly sober. And, I guess, hung over.” My temples are swollen and tender feeling. Cormac sits up, disheveled and gorgeous in the intimate way a guy is gorgeous when you’re seeing him just

awake and alone, like you own rights to his secret, pre-dressed, pre-world self. It’s an intimacy I don’t deserve, but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the moment. “Come here.” He crooks his finger, and I should hop down to the stream and wade far away from him before I cause more problems than we can weather. But I go to him instead.

He pats his thigh. “Lie down here.” “On your lap?” It’s so far from a sexual invitation, my horny thoughts make my heart jump. “I can see how badly your head hurts from the look on your face. I had a very foxy professor, a cougar I guess, who taught me some pressure points.” There is no reason for me to scowl, but it’s like my lips aren’t mine to

control anymore. “Do you hate pressure points?” Cormac jokes, smoothing his hands over my forehead and rubbing my temples with sure, steady pressure. “Mmmm.” I don’t mean to moan, but it’s like his hands are unhinging me, and the pain that filled my cranium seconds before is melting away and leaving me fuzzy. “I don’t hate pressure points. I hate her.”

“Her?” His fingers creep to the center of my forehead, and I could break down and sob over the relief. “Who is she again?” “The cougar,” I mumble, not caring what I say or how stupid I sound. 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. “Well, it was over a year ago. And it never amounted to more than a few

massages and some very raunchy innuendos on her part.” He chuckles and moves back to my temples. “You don’t like...mmm...older women?” I arch my back, though it’s completely vulgar and strange, because my body was wire-tight, but it’s like Cormac’s magic has relaxed it into coil of soft rope. Rope he could tie me up with anytime he likes.

Ugh! No! I need to keep focused on-“I don’t know. I didn’t take her up on her invitation because I had a fiancée at the time.” My bleary thoughts dart and swim like a confused school of fish. “What?” I ask, grasping through the murkiness, through those fingers rubbing my head until I have to bite my bottom lip to hold back another moan. “You were engaged?”

“Yes.” The answer is short, and his hands seem to speed up their tempo and break the spell a little more. “Engaged to be married?” I ask, netting all the facts so slowly it’s painful. “Yes.” It’s not like Cormac to be so short and direct. Usually when he talks to me, it’s some kind of long-winded story or factual explanation dump. What reason would he have for being so cautious and secretive?

Unless, of course, he still harbored feelings for her. 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. “I’m sorry.” 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.’

“What for?” Cormac’s voice has lost the lilt that makes it so easy to drown in. I shiver as the knife’s edge of it slides up and down my spine. “Just...what I wanted...before. It was so, so stupid. Even then. And now that I know--” “Know what?” And there’s the professor again, the calculating teacher who has me pinned and knows I don’t have the right answer

but is going to make an example out of me for the class. It’s infuriating and tonguetying...which is even more infuriating, and I scramble for the words to untie this and make it...less infuriatingly embarrassing! “I didn’t know you had been with someone and that it was so serious. I never would have asked for what I did if I’d known. And I understand why you were...why you didn’t want Now I

feel stupid.” The night around us is loud as I wait for his response. I focus on the sounds of the wind rustling the leaves, the crickets screeching as they jump out of the way of the hungry, croaking frogs. I’ve wandered these forests all night for nights on end nearly every summer of my life, so the noise is a comfort, but also a distraction from what I really want to hear. Which is Cormac’s reaction to my

confession. He takes my hand with a blasé attitude, like it belongs to him. I fight back the part of me that wars with my general good sense and argues that, you do belong to him. Before I can wrap my mouth around the words to tell him to back off, he does something to the skin between my thumb and index finger that makes it feel like my legs are rushing, puddling water. And all the time he unravels my

handle on sanity, he’s talking, his voice keeping this crisp, efficient running dialogue like he’s going over safety procedures before a skydive. “I want you.” The words and his hands and the look in his clear, green eyes strips me. “I want you, but I said no because you were drunk, and I would never take advantage of you like that. Also, you want a fuckbuddy, and I don’t particularly enjoy heartbreak, so I’m

trying to convince myself to sidestep your very appealing offer. And, trust me, it’s very appealing. As for my engagement, it was a crash course in the many detriments of getting married too young. I dodged a hollow point bullet on that one, and I don’t regret the way it ended. Or that it ended at all.” The headache that was the epicenter of my every thought fifteen minutes ago is a hazy memory.

“Does it hurt to talk about it? Her?” I ask, and curl my toes as he kneads with more specific pressure. “No.” He takes my other hand, and I roll my head back on my neck and groan. “Please stop doing that.” His voice snaps like a metal trap. I rip my hand from his grasp. “No problem at all. Stop rubbing me, then.” He rakes his fingers through his hair and paces, back and forth, scarily

close to the edge of the rock more than a few times. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he mutters, then points at me. “You’re making me crazy.” I lean down and swipe up the grocery bag. “Fine. Let’s go. We need to get home sometime before dawn anyway, and I’d hate to be responsible for making you any crazier than you already are.” I’m sitting on the edge of the rock, about to

jump into the freezing water and wade back when he grabs my hand. “No. Let me finish.” His voice is begging, and I’m curious to hear, so I wait, tapping one foot. “Fine. Finish.” Exhaustion and confusion beat away at all my smarter instincts. I know better than to be out here with him right now, but it’s like I’m the waves and he’s the moon. The pull he has on me is tidal, and I want to surge and

recede with it. I want to savor the escape that being with him brings me, finally, after so many years of being the good girl and doing the right thing. “I need your foot. Shoeless, please.” He kneels in front of me and starts to take my shoe off, but I swing my foot back, so I’m standing like an awkward flamingo in front of him. “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, but I want answers. Each word travels out of his mouth with slow, deliberate precision. “I meant I’d finish helping you relieve your headache.” “Fuck my headache!” I yell, 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. “I’m going. This is--” Before I can lower myself into the water, his voice slices in, weighted with the lodestone of regret and sadness. I know that particular poundage well. “Her name was Nina.” I swivel back toward him. “She jumped horses for fun. She was fluent in French and liked to show off

about it, and she particularly loved when French waiters treated her like a native. Her father wanted her to marry an investment banker. She was set to be engaged to him, but I got the drift he was all crazy over some girl he met at a coffee shop. 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. And lure him I did. She dumped me promptly, and the details of our engagement were swept up with the rubbish and tossed out. She and her banker were married as if our engagement had never happened, and the wedding was in all the major papers. I landed this internship and got to leave before I accidentally bumped into the happy couple. Come sit here and give me your foot.”

I do what he asks, because I can hear the hurt in his voice, and I know it sweeps wide and gathers currents of fury and sadness and confusion with it. His fingers are strong, and, though my headache is gone, his manipulation of this one last pressure point makes my breath escape in a gasp of pure, deep contentment I’m afraid he’ll hear. “I’m sorry about Nina.” I bite my lips to keep any pleasure noises at bay. As

amazing as the things he’s doing to my body by focusing on a square inch of skin on my foot are, I don’t want to keep wading into those waters with him. Especially now that I know his heart was so recently pulverized. “I never cared about Nina,” he growls. I understand what it’s like to need to protect yourself. “I thought Damian was the one. It

hurts to know you can be so blindsided by someone.” I’m trying for empathy, but his stony face doesn’t give me a single inch. “I didn’t think Nina was the one.” He’s as stubborn as a toddler. I roll my eyes, partially because he’s being ridiculous, and partially because I am about to have a body-shaking orgasm if he continues to rub my feet the way he’s been. “You bought her a ring,” I point

out. “Yes.” He applies torture/ecstasty-inducing pressure. “But I didn’t love her.” “It’s normal to deny it once it’s over, especially in your case. You were kind of left, and that sucks. But there’s no point in pretending you didn’t feel what you felt.” He lets go of my foot and I stretch it at the arch and wiggle my tingling toes, marvelling at how this foot

I’ve abused with sexily high heels for too many years can reward me with such intensely good feelings. “You’re a magician.” He picks up my other foot and the ecstasy cycle starts all over. “Maybe. As long as you’re impressed, I’m happy.” “I’m glad we talked about all this,” I venture. It’s getting easier to say all the things that are embarrassing to me, because the dark obscures everything and

veils the reality a little. “My foot rub abilities? Not the most scintillating conversation, but it can’t all be dissections of Sappho’s poems, I guess.” I hate the wry bend of his words, because it means he’s brushing me off. “You don’t have to hide what you feel with me, Cormac. I’ve cried on your shoulder about ridiculous amounts of stuff and I get it if you--” “I didn’t love her, Benelli,” he

interrupts with a firm, final swing of his eyes on mine. “Listen to me. I loved this girl, this wild, lovely girl with gorgeous eyes and a warm laugh. And that wasn’t Nina. Not the real Nina. She researched me like a freaky science experiment, got me to fall head over stupid-ass heels in love with her, then used me like the sap I was.” “I’m sorry,” I whisper, but he’s somewhere else, his hands rubbing at an

incredibly fast speed, his eyes bright and unblinking in the low light. “She actually stocked her shelves with used editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey and ancient mythology, because she wanted it to look like she was interested, and she thought the old books would be more believable.” His words are laced with disgust so thick, it sounds like it’s coating his mouth and tongue. “She photoshopped pictures of herself in

front of the Parthenon, because she knew I’d gone the summer before. She told this whole made-up story about how she swore she’d seen a guy with dark hair and green eyes, right around my build, and I swallowed it. Hook, line, idiotic sinker. I thought that sociopath was actually maybe, like, some serendipitous soul mate of mine or something.” “Oh, Cormac, I’m so sorry.” Again with that lame word, that useless, stupid

word. “Don’t be,” he sneers, and, though I know the barb in his voice is probably just a byproduct of his angry memories, it stings. “I fell for a make believe version of a very messed up girl. My mistake.” “So...what now?” I tug my foot back and rub it a little myself. “What what?” His slow, sleepy blink and smile complete his look better than a tie and cufflinks would for most

guys. “What do you do after something like that?” I don’t shrink away when he comes too close, almost predatorily close. “You move on. You dig your heels in for a highly competitive position with one of the finest professors in your field. You travel to a beautiful place. You meet an even more beautiful girl and make some awkward attempts to sweep her off her feet.”

Heat sizzles through my entire body. It know he’s going to kiss me, and my eyes are low-lidded and my lips puckered, ready for him. But he only takes the bag out of my hands and splashes down into the water below, then turns with an arm up so he can help me down I slide close to him, closer than I would have before he told me about Nina, but something’s off. It’s as if he didn’t just just admit to wanting to sweep me off my

feet. We trek back through the greying dawn and, by the time our feet hit the cobblestones, the confusing, gorgeous, sexy, revealing sparkle of the night before has lost its luster. We’re at my aunt’s front door before I want to be, and I feel him unwinding all the tiny ties that bound us the evening before. “You’re probably the only girl alive who makes those dark under-eye

circles sexy, but I still think you should get some sleep. In a bed, not on a rock,” he adds, his mouth twisted up in a slight grin that doesn’t even graze his eyes. “I didn’t sleep on a rock. I slept on you.” The words wind out with the tight coil of desperation instead of the sexy wrap of intimacy. “I apologize for being a drooling, snoring pillow.” He tucks my hair behind my ears, which I hate, but I also love the

reconnection, so I nuzzle into his touch. “You were perfect. Did you want to come--” “Benelli! Benelli! Where the hell have you been, hon?” I whirl around and the intersection of my two worlds, my two lives, is dizzying. “Lala!” I let her grab me in a tight hug. Her hazel eyes comb me up and down, and her smile pulls to one side,

wary and confused. “You were out on a run?” She eyeballs my clothes, then flicks a lingering glance toward Cormac, and I feel a sudden jostle of...jealousy? “My uncle got me off the red-eye, and I asked him to bring me here. Abony was blitzed, as usual, so I was just about to hunt you down. I need someone to keep me awake so I can beat this damn jetlag.” Her smile widens, slow and hot. “Who’s your friend,

hon?” “Oh, this is, um, this is Cormac. Cormac, this is Lala, my best friend.” He reaches one hand out, and she takes just the edges of his fingers and radiates arousal. “Lala, it’s lovely to meet you. And, much as I am overwhelmed by this much gorgeous female beauty this early in the morning, I’m a shade away from narcolepsy, sadly.” I know the smile he

directs at Lala is only appropriately friendly, but it makes something uncomfortable simmer low in my gut. When his eyes turn back to me, there are a thousand questions I need to ask, and a million refusals in his hard stare. His voice is low, for my ears exclusively. “Benelli. If I was stranded on a desert island with a single book, I’d want it to be yours.” He rubs his thumb in a light caress over the dip between my

collar bones, a touch that’s simultaneously too intimate and not nearly intimate enough. “It was all perfect.” His words are dismissing me, and the kiss he deposits on the side of my mouth seals his intent and throws the key away. “Don’t leave,” Lala begs, her voice rising an octave, then slipping into a purr that makes me bristle. “I really should be--” he begins. “Stop.” Lala shakes her head. “I’m

already half in love with you over that accent. I’m hungry, I hate going out without a hot guy, and you seem like you’ll be a riot. Come with us, and that’s not a question. You’re coming.” She nods at me. “Babe, go change into something decent. Does that little cafe in the middle of town still open at sunup? I want one of those coffees with the peppermint syrup. Do you think that’s only a Christmas thing?”

“Um...” I glance at Cormac, 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. But he’s already laughing at some story Lala’s telling, and I’m left with no alternative but to head up the stairs, skipping the ones that creak under my feet by habit, and strip off all my absurdly comfortable clothes for a barely there sundress and cork-soled

wedges. I twist my hair into a high bun, put on several necklaces and chunky bracelets, and apply a full face of makeup. When I come back out the door, Lala has one hand on Cormac’s forearm, and he’s tilting his head close to hers. Magma, lava, volcanoes, boiling hot geysers erupt through me, and I hate it. Lala and I have always been fiercely competitive and fiercely loyal. Maybe that’s what’s upsetting me; if she knew

Cormac and I were kind of together, why all this vamping? “Cormac, doesn’t she look amazing?” Lala sighs, and the heat of my temper morphs into the burn of my shame. “I swear to the holy mother, I could skin that douchebag Damian alive and leave his corpse for the crows to eat.” It’s an old curse, one I’ve heard Lala’s grandmother use repeatedly and with language that’s ten times fouler, but it

jars a shocked cough from Cormac. “He’d deserve it and so much more,” Lala insists, arms crossed. “You heard what he did? To that beautiful girl?” Cormac nods and Lala pulls me against her for a sweet, perfume-heavy hug. “I did, uh, hear. The cheating asshole, am I right?” His face is unreadable when he studies me, and I can’t suppress a nagging let down. I thought seeing me all dolled up

would make him feel some of what we felt back on that rock, just before all the wine and regrets he’s obviously struggling with now. “Yes, you are.” Lala tosses her long blond hair. “He was hot as hell, no doubt, but I warned her he was no good. No good.” She smooshes my cheeks between her fingers. “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. “He’d have to be a total lunatic to not realize how amazing Benelli is.” There’s the same crackle in the air between us as I’ve felt after every heat lightning storm that thundered through my youth. Lala grew up in the hot lowlands of Georgia with me, and the bite of her grip

on my hand alerts me to the fact that she knows exactly what she’s seeing. “Coffee, now, before I fall over,” my childhood friend demands, and Cormac and I follow the determined clack of her leopard-print stilettos with cowed obedience. Lala doesn’t wobble over a single uneven paver or crack in the sidewalk, and I feel the same way I always feel around her; like a poser shrinking in her

much cooler shadow. Cormac links his arm through mine, and I know it’s because he’s afraid I’m going to tumble flat on my face. After a few days of running around in flip flops, sneakers, and my bare feet, the height of these wedges leaves me wobbly. His arm, strong and solid, offers a nice crutch, but the intensity of his frown makes it clear he isn’t enjoying this physical closeness the way I am. Before I

can stew over all of it, Lala slumps into a chair outside the cafe, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and a black package of gum and throws Cormac a sexy smile. “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 Cormac waves it away, right on cue. “It would be criminal for me to accept money from you ladies. I’m already

in your debt just for the pleasure of your company. I’ll be back in a flash.” Cormac strolls into the cafe, and I make sure I don’t even glance in his general direction. Lala slips a cigarette out of her pack, lights it with her lucky gold lighter, takes a long drag in and blows it away from me. She knows I hate the smell of smoke clinging to my hair. “So. You wanna tell me what the

hell’s going on with Mr. Hotass Professor?” Her tone isn’t jokey or amused. She knows the game I’m supposed to be playing, and Cormac isn’t even in the bylaws. “How did you know he was a professor?” I stall. Her frown borders on disgusted. “It took you ten minutes to change. I know everything, and I know that this is a nogood situation for the two of you. Okay?

Don’t take it the wrong way, but Damian was your fling. Your dad didn’t know, and that was lucky. But here? In this town? Everyone has eyes everywhere, and if you want to get that husband you keep whining about, you need to stop making sheep eyes at Cormac.” “He’s just a friend, Lala. That’s it.” I tug down on the hem of my skirt and roll my feet back on my heels, suddenly uncomfortable in my clothes, in my skin,

with my best friend. I should be ecstatic that she came earlier than I expected, but all I can think is that I wish I’d had a few more days with him to figure everything out. “Beni, he’s adorable. And I’m sure he’s super smart and all that. Maybe this is a reaction to the whole thing with Damian? Maybe you want someone opposite, but he’s not the one. Not the one who’s going to help your family out and

make all your crazy dreams come true. And your dad is going to freak the fuck out.” She takes another drag and pulls her sunglasses down so she can look over them. “They’re coming earlier than they planned, too, you know.” The blood seeps out of my face in a long, slow drag, and I pray Lala doesn’t notice. “I thought I’d have another week at least.” She flicks the ash from her

cigarette into the brass ashtray in front of her. “Well, you don’t. How’s the actual man hunt going?” I nod, my thoughts cycloning in my brain. “Good. I mean, there were a few good dates. A few good guys.” “Focus on them. Because that boy, sexy as he may be, isn’t going to work, and your dad is pissed enough about Winchester.” My brother’s name rolls off Lala’s tongue with a particular lash.

I slide a hand across the table and take hers, my heart ripping at the seams as she blinks back tears. “I’m sorry, Lala. I know the whole engagement thing is--” “Forget it.” She waves a hand in front of her face and squeezes my fingers tight before slouching back in the seat. “Obviously she could give Winch something I couldn’t. I don’t even think about it, honestly,” she lies, her eyes blinking so fast her lashes resemble

hummingbird wings. “I should be on the manhunt, too, I guess.” She shrugs one reluctant shoulder. “Is your mom planning anything? Have they talked to any of the local families?” I press, trying to redirect the conversation. Lala and my brother Winchester dated off and on since middle school. 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, fell in love, apparently, and got engaged. I heard a rumor that he and Evan may be coming out here, but I keep that to myself. He’s in the middle of a stonemason apprenticeship and she has an internship at a law office. I doubt either of them will actually show up. At least I hope they won’t. Lala will be crushed. My best friend comes off

as callous and shallow, but that’s all a defense mechanism. Her heart is extremely tender, and I hate seeing her combatting all this pain, especially at the hands of my idiot brother. “My dad arranged for a date with some tool whose father owns that big paper plant in Charleston.” Her lip curls in a sneer. “He took me out for lobster and, get this? He wore one of those asshole plastic bibs and licked the butter

off his fingers after every bite.” She closes her eyes and shudders through another drag, which she exhales with a hacking cough. “I wish you’d quit.” I pluck the cigarette from her fingers and crush it. Her frown is fleeting, and when I turn my head to see what made her smile so bright, Cormac is back at the table, a white pastry box and three coffees balanced precariously in his hands.

“You could have told the waiter to bring it out, handsome,” Lala says, not making a single move to help him as he juggles our order. “That, my dear, would have been quitting. Or sensible. Neither of which I’m known for. Also, my Hungarian is fairly limited, so we got all this by the grace of some complicated sign language and something resembling a rain dance on my part. Not very pretty.”

When Lala laughs, it strips her face of every stuck-up, hard-to-get, catlike contrivance and shows her pure, true beauty. Cormac notices, the way he notices everything. “I’ll have to attempt more lame jokes if I get that response,” he says with a smile and hands her a cup of steaming coffee. She stirs in sugar and cream, and keeps her eyes locked on him as she downs a long sip.

“I like you,” she says bluntly, her smile pure affection. He blushes and rubs the back of his neck. I feel a well-deep, free-falling need to scream

Cormac 4 The night I spent out with Benelli was, I realize with a choked gloom, the first and last real date we’ll ever go on. I’m trying to make my peace with the fact, attempting to embrace the reality of going back to my mundane existence without her, but it isn’t easy to do. Especially when her friend is

seemingly attempting every trick in the book to seduce me. I get the feeling there’s more to it than an honest attraction. You can’t chuck a single stone in this hamlet without hitting some iron-jawed Hungarian Adonis, so there’s no reason for the two most gorgeous women I’ve ever laid eyes on to both have an interest in me. “So you read old books and translate them?” Lala asks, curls of bluish

smoke circling her head like a halo. “Technically, the professor I work under does the initial translation, and I go through it to finetune the English and work out grammatical kinks, let him know if I’d suggest different phrasing. Not that he ever listens to me, of course.” Benelli has one hand on her neck, her eyes are unfocused, and she’s tapping her feet. I want to pull her from this awkward threesome and get her alone. I

want to know if she still wants to be with me, to have something of her own. Just a few hours before, I turned my idiot nose up at the idea of being with her in a shortterm, booty-call way, but I thought I had more time then. Now that my options are to be her booty-call or nothing, I’ll take anything at all I can get. Apparently, I have no pride, and I could not care less. I want her. And now that we’ve popped out of our

insulated bubble and into the reality where I can’t have her, I want her more than ever. “Maybe you can read me one of your translations,” Lala offers, her voice rife with honey and promises as clear as the lack of clothes on her back. “You know, I always used to fall asleep when the teachers read out loud to us. I hope your room has a comfy bed.” “Lala!” Benelli cries, her cheeks

lit with two red flags of fury. “Just...stop it. Just...” She gets up and stomps away. I’m on her tail in a second, but Lala’s hand on my wrist stops me. “Sit down, loverboy.” She takes out what has to be her fifth cigarette. The girl’s lungs must be shriveled bags of ash at this point. She coughs through the lighting while I follow Benelli’s clipped, swaying steps down the street until she

isn’t in view anymore. “I thought you were her friend.” My voice is dry with sarcasm, because the alternative would 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-bangedup 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 selfloathing 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 what she wants. Maybe she and her husband will wind up falling madly in love and it will all work out. But if it doesn’t, I think she deserves one wild, young, crazy fling with the guy she can’t have, you know? I mean, that’s

part of being young, right? That freedom?” “I know this will probably seem like a huge joke to you, but it makes me upset to think that I’ll just be some fling for her. It feels cheap.” Maybe I sound like an enormous wanker. I don’t care at all. Benelli isn’t just some girl to toy with. “You won’t be.” For the first time since I met her, Lala drops the primping and bossing and threatening and just speaks, and I believe her. I truly do.

“You’ll be something completely hers, and the memory of what you had? That will be with her forever.” I believe her, but I don’t like it. “I don’t like it.” I say aloud what’s sticking hard in my brain. “You don’t have many options, Cormac.” Lala puts her hand on my arm and squeezes. “I see how you guys look at each other. You can’t be together forever, but you can have this one perfect summer.

You know how many people would kill for that?” “What about her little leather book? Her dates?” I demand. Lala shrugs. “She’ll have to go out, of course. There’s still an endgame to all this. But her parents aren’t going to expect her to stay holed up in the house. She’ll be allowed to go out with me...and I could conveniently lose sight of her for a while if needed.” She raises her light

eyebrows at me over and over. “Stop doing that. You make the whole thing feel more tawdry that it is, and that’s quite a feat,” I mutter. She puts her arm around my waist and leans her head on my shoulder. “Do you always talk like that? You sound like you’re in one of those boring BBC shows Benelli makes me watch. Walk me back to Abony’s.” We do walk back, and I hope to

catch a glimpse of Benelli, but there’s none to be had. Lala gets my number before she goes. “I’ll text you, Romeo,” she singsongs as she strides into the little house with the kitchen where Benelli almost took the skin off my knuckles. The house with the yard where I started to kiss her and had to stop. That’s our pattern so far. We start and stop. Start and stop. What would it be

like to start and never stop. I can’t think of finishing, because something tells me I’d never get my fill of her, never not want to touch her or be touched back. The rest of the day is a long, painful sludge through pages of translations that blur in front of my eyes. When my phone buzzes, I don’t even have the cool calm to wait. I juggle it like an inept clown and read the massively emoticon-filled text.

“Come to the house at 1. Abony will be out. Benellis window is the third on the leave a light on!!!!!” Beyond the lack of apostrophes and epilepsy-inducing blinking hearts, the message is horrifying because this is real. And not at all what I wanted. Not at all. I pace the room. I bite my nails. I work on calligraphy for a one-of-a-kind illustrated graphic novel of The Odyssey I’m doing for fun. I acknowledge that I am

an über dork who should be thanking Aphrodite that a girl like Benelli ever even glanced my way. But I don’t feel right. This doesn’t feel right, and I realize that means I should be handing over my man card or whatever, but I don’t care. It’s Benelli. She’s worth...more. So much more. At quarter to one, I decide that I’m going to go to her, not to share her bed, but

to tell her all the things I’ve been pondering. All the things she needs to know from me. Maybe this will be goodbye, but I’m not the kind of guy who can do the whole fling thing, so that’s it. That’s all it will be, and I’ll be okay with it. Except then I’m in the garden, and I see the window with the light on. The walls of the house are made of old, sturdy stone, and there’s a drainpipe I can climb.

I make my way up and balance on a jutting stone and the wide, old ledge. I manage to loosen one hand and knock at her window. And almost get beamed in the head when she throws it open and looks down on the ground for me. “Benelli? I’m right here,” I whisper, and she claps a hand over her mouth to stifle her scream. “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, neat room. Where mine is Spartan, hers is old floral wallpaper and a soft bed overrun with pillows. Pictures of her family are everywhere, along with a laptop, phone, and the dreaded notebook on a small desk. “Work station?” I point and she shrugs. “Where the magic happens?” “Are we going to talk about that?”

Her voice is soft and scolding, and I feel an immediate sense of chastisement. “Of course not. I didn’t come here to...I didn’t come to judge you or ridicule your choices, Benelli. I don’t mean to be an ass. Honestly, I don’t. I have so much respect for you.” I pull out her desk chair and gesture to it. She nods, I sit, and she sits on the bed, legs crossed. “So, why did you come here?” I can see the pulse point in her neck

jumping in rapid blips, like her heart is running a marathon. “I came here to tell you that I care for you.” Her blue eyes go wide and the tiniest smile crooks on her lips and slays me. It slays me because I know it’s going to disappear before I’m through with the next dozen words. “But I can’t do this. I can’t because you’re worth too much. For a fling. You and me...we have something. And if we could...if there was a choice or

another direction, um, I guess what I mean is--” “Stop,” she whispers, and it’s like a mercy-killing for all my disjointed thoughts. She tugs the red bandana I gave her last night from her very small shorts. “I never did think about running away.” She twists the fabric over her hand. “Maybe because I was scared?” “Because you were good,” I counter.

She shakes her head. “I have to tell you...what’s happening with me. To me. And if you still want out, that’s more than okay. But, I can’t just leave this all broken and unresolved. I’m going to think of you, Cormac. There will be one more man for me, maybe as soon as this summer. So I’m going to keep thinking about you. And, even if the whole...being together...isn’t going to happen, I want you to know me. Better. Okay?”

My chest feels like a troop of gorillas just hammered on it. “Okay.” I lean forward and wait for her. “My dad and mom, they’re not always perfect, you know?” She takes a shuddery breath and I nod to encourage her to go on. “But they love us, all of us so much. And every one of my siblings has let them down. Remy is in rehab instead of running the family so our father can step

down a little. Winch abandoned us all and ran off with a girl he’d just met at community service. Colt is butting heads over wanting to play football when our father could net him so many opportunities through soccer. And Itaca’s boyfriend joined the army, and she blames my parents, so she’s been rude and just obnoxious for months now.” “It sounds like what I’d imagine fairly normal sibling drama is,” I muse. “I

mean, I’m the only one, so I don’t really know for certain. But it sounds like the character layout for a bad sitcom.” Benelli laughs, though I can tell she’s irritated with herself. “You have diarrhea of the mouth. Did anyone ever tell you that? You need to learn when to shut the hell up, Cormac.” “My apologies.” I make the ridiculous zip and lock lips motion and nod for her to go on.

As a sidenote, I wonder how she expects me to keep quiet when she laughs so gorgeously at every asinine thing I say. “So my father is just getting run into the ground. And if I can find the right husband, he’ll have a partner to help him. He’ll have someone he can trust, and he can take more time off. And it all sounded so damn noble, you know? Like a really good thing. Then I found out...” Her words stall and she picks at a bit of lint on her

comforter. I scoot the chair across the knotty wood floor. “What did you find out, love?” When she looks up at me, her eyes are teary. “I found out, like, one or two family secrets. One is a definite, one I’m not sure about, but it just ripped everything apart for me. Like, I had this image in my head, and I thought I worked in all the imperfections, you know? But I

didn’t. I just...I didn’t realize freaking selfish they could be.” She presses a hand to her forehead. “Which sounds so dumb and naive, I guess. But they did what they did to help us. Because my siblings were making stupid mistakes.” Her breath comes out on a shuddery sigh. “Benelli.” I keep my voice gentle. “Maybe you don’t need to rush the marriage thing. You aren’t in a good place

right now to be thinking of forever. And I think it’s amazing that you want to help your family, but, and you can tell me to screw off at any second, maybe you need to sit down with your parents and tell them some of this if it’s bothering you.” She’s wringing her hands and the tears are rolling down her face in fat, wet blobs. A girl’s tears usually make me panic, but I want to help her through this. I want to be in control so badly, I just pick

up the handkerchief and wipe her face dry. “I know. I know, I know. But you have no idea how intimidating they can be. How crazy this all is. And, you know, I had this boyfriend?” I wipe her nose gently. “Yes. I’ve heard.” She smiles. “You sound just like Colonel Brandon talking about Willoughby.” “Listen well, then. Brandon wound

up being right. In every way, didn’t he?” I take her hands in mine. “You’ve read Sense and Sensibility?” Her mouth hangs open slightly. She has an amazingly plump bottom lip. “Yes.” I sigh. “And I enjoy calligraphy and don’t want to have meaningless sex with you. If they ever bothered to issue me a man card, I would surrender it to you right now.”

“I love all that about you,” she says, her entire face suddenly still and serious. “Not that you like those things in particular. Just that you like what you like. You are who you are. There’s no pretending with you. I feel like my entire existence is one big game of pretend.” “Not at all.” I rub my thumbs over her knuckles. “I am a socially awkward fool, and you are a gorgeous woman who understands that being a grownup means

you sometimes have to put what you want aside.” She licks her lips and presses them together hard. “What if I’m tired of always putting what I want aside? I did it for Damian. I tried so hard to be the girlfriend he’d want to marry. I dated him for my family, because I thought he’d be a good fit for them. And I found him...six inches deep in his secretary.” One side of her mouth slides up.

“Six inches, eh?” I chuckle. “More like five. Five and a half if I was being generous,” she giggles. When she stops laughing, I take a deep breath and ask the question I’m scared out of my skull to bring up to her. “So, what is it you want, Benelli?” There’s an answer I want and don’t want. One simple word that my brain will tell me to ignore, but my body, and

my heart, will be unable to resist. One word that will forever change this summer and all the summers after it, along with the springs and winters and autumns. One word that will make it impossible for me to just walk away. She opens her mouth and leans closer to me. “You.”

Benelli 5 “Me?” He rubs one hand on the back of his neck, which warms to a bright red. “Yes. You.” I tug on his hand and he walks to the bed, one cautious step at a time. “You’re in a very vulnerable place,” he says, sitting on the mattress next to me.

I can smell the sharp cologne and ink scent of him. His fingertips are stained black, and there are callouses along his fingers that catch on my skin as I slide my hand under his. “My father may be cheating on my mother.” The words fall out of the clear blue, and Cormac keeps his face completely calm when he hears them. “You found this out the other day?” he asks. I nod. “Their romance...”

“Is a sham. Maybe,” I say to fill the silence where he left off. “No one knows what goes on inside a marriage except the people in it, Benelli. I’d be careful who you trust.” Cormac uses the scratchy pad of his thumb to wipe back a tear I didn’t even realize was falling. “The part of their story that I loved was that amazing love-at-first-sight romance.” I run my fingers over his

bruised skin, bruised for me. “I love that they spontaneously saw each other and felt something and defied everything and everyone for it. I know it’s romantic and stupid, but I want a piece of that.” I lean in and kiss his lips, which are soft and uncertain. He rubs his palms down his thighs and to his knees. “But Benelli, they got married. They followed that first crush through.”

“And maybe they cheated.” I kiss him again, and he groans. When I pull back, his eyes are half shut. I run my fingers close to his lashes, and they feather under my touch. “If you’re with me, and I marry someone else, I’ll always have this. This, what you and I have alone will stay pure. And perfect. We’ll never have that whole screwed-up ending.” “That’s a fly in amber, Benelli.

That isn’t reality.” He whispers the words close to my ear, and, even though I don’t like his message, the tickle of his breath sends shivers up and down my neck. “It’s our own reality,” I whisper back. “Please?” How can I tell him that I want this gentle, 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. I just want one tiny sliver for myself. “I can’t say no to you.” He lets out a guttural grunt and we fall back onto the mattress. I’d been with Damian before...we’d just never had sex. So I’d never gotten that fulfilment every romance novel always promised. I’m so curious about it. Curious about it and starving for it.

Cormac tugs up on the light fabric of my layered tanks and sucks a breath in. “No bra?” he grits out. “I was getting ready for bed. I wasn’t sure you’d come,” I admit while he tugs the shirt completely off and leaves me exposed. His eyes rake over my breasts and up to my face, and the twist of his lips bottoms my stomach out. “You could call anytime and I’d come running. There isn’t

a chance in hell you’d need me, and I wouldn’t come to you.” My breath is hitched in my throat and his mouth finds mine, quickly nipping and gently tracing the curves of my lips with his teeth and tongue. I mimic him, but there’s something frenzied and wild about his kisses tonight. He’s kissing like he doesn’t have a minute to waste, like I’ll evaporate under his hands if he doesn’t keep pace.

And I realize that he’s probably on the right speed. This will all be shared and over in a blip, and it makes me sad before it even happens. I put both my hands on either side of his face, sandpaper-rough with five o’clock shadow. “Slower.” “I’ll try,” he says, brushing his nose against mine. “But I can’t promise anything, Benelli. This is...more than I

can...more than I...” He never finishes. He kisses me instead. I can feel from the tense brace of his shoulders that he’s making a Herculean attempt to slow down, and every single brush of his lips and slide of his tongue is like some kind of concentrated act of selfrestraint. And it’s driving me crazy. I’ve had guys kiss my neck before, but I’ve never had my body seize and buck

under the single stroke of a tongue against my throat. He licks and pulls, kisses and breathes over the damp patches of skin, and my arms, shoulder to wrist, break into goosebumps. “Are you could?” His voice severs through the sinuous stream of me and him and us together in this bed, and I’m jarred into answering suddenly. “No. No. I’m, um...Cormac.” Once I answered ‘no’ the first time, his tongue

went back to doing the lazy acrobatics over my skin that make my pulse thrum. I run my hands up and down his back, feeling the tight, sinewy muscle under my fingernails. When I catch the hem of his shirt, I drag it up, my fingers coasting over his knobby spin, and yank it off his head, breaking the connection of his mouth and mine for a single second that has me instantly agitated and wanting to kiss him again immediately.

He’s long and lean and wiry, not like the bulked-up guys I’m used to dating. I squeeze at the resistant bulge of his bicep. “Do you workout?” His smile answers my hokey pickup line. “I was on the rowing team, and I got used to the exercise. It helps me think. So I use the rowing machine at my school’s gym. All the benefits of lean muscle, none of the drawbacks of a group of competitive pricks screaming in your

ear to row faster.” “Rowing, huh?” I drag my hands over the bulges and dips of his muscles, appreciating the length and strength of him. “Not very sexy, is it? We can pretend I do kickboxing. Or mixed martial arts?” He’s joking, again, but I can tell from the way nothing is relaxed on his body that he’s embarrassed. “I think rowing is sexy as hell.” I

take one of his hands and link it with mine, palm to palm. “Is it the oars that make your hands so calloused?” “Yes.” His voice is a little shaky as my hand moves down his pecs, rock hard and defined, over his long, lean abs, and to his waistband. “I don’t want you kickboxing or doing mixed martial arts.” My fingers flick the button to his jeans open and his eyelids hood over his eyes. “I don’t want

anyone smashing your face.” “It is quite...pretty, isn’t it?” His attempt at humor gets interrupted by my hand, venturing lower, down past the waistband of his boxers. Suddenly the only sound from his mouth is his breathing, heavy and quick. I’m not completely sure what I’m doing. Damian was always aggressive, pushy, telling me what to do and moving my hands around, pressing down hard

until I was basically just a puppet he used to fulfill his sexual needs. I don’t know what to do now on my own, so I stop. I expect his hand to come down and guide me, but his mouth goes back to its determined work, kissing and licking at my skin, brushing along my clavicle and down to the tops of my breasts, which pull tight under his touch. There’s a strange tingling rush that intensifies when he traces a smooth path of kisses down the

curve and to my nipple, which he pulls in and sucks at. This has all happened before. I’ve done this before. 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. Same music, same steps, same costuming...but the effortless art, the sense of perfection and focus that drove the

people who’d given up their lives to just dance, every day, all the time, was spellbinding in a way that put it on an altogether different level than the amateurs. If I’d had to choose based on the exterior alone and maybe also with some general hype peppered in, I would have imagined Damian to be the more experienced, satisfying lover. Cormac seemed goofy, more romantic than sexual,

and like he’d fumble and joke a lot. And we are. Joking. And going slow and speeding up. And he’s romantic in every unexpected way I never anticipated, a breathless, body-aching way. But the focus Cormac pays to my reactions when he kisses me, the halfstarved, half-reverent look in his eyes whenever he pulls away and glances down, the scratch of the skin on his hands and fingers against the softest skin on my

body, makes me feel like every force in the universe is concentrated on this bed and our bodies tonight. I’ve never had an experience like this, and I’m hungry for more even while I’m still in the middle of it. His lips dip over my other nipple, and he sucks it in, his tongue sliding against the sensitive peak. I brace both hands on his back and pull up towards him, instinctively wanting deeper into his

mouth, even though it makes him less able to concentrate on the rhythm of sucking and licking that was bringing my body to the brink. But he never gets rushed or upset or frustrated. If I move and throw us off, he finds a new rhythm and leads us to an entirely different form of crazy hot passion. He sucks hard on one breast and his hand palms the other, his fingers squeezing and kneading until my breath

switches beats and trips out in rapid skips. He unsucks his mouth and drags his cheek across the soft skin, burying his scratchy face between my breasts. “Holy god, you have the most amazing breasts, Benelli.” He keeps both hands on them, my nipples abraded by the rough scratch of his palms as his mouth dips lower, forging a trail down between my ribs, his tongue making lazy circles around my bellybutton. His arms are

stretched over his head as his forehead leans on my belly and his mouth presses, hot and needy, against the thin cotton of my shorts. There’s too much going on for my mind to focus on any one piece of this. My skin jumps under his hands, and I press into him, inviting him to hold more than his hands can manage, kiss more than his mouth can cover. Between my legs there’s a hot, slick need, and I’ve been right here

so many times before, but there was never a smashing point. It was like building a wall of blocks that went sky high, and never being able to enjoy the pleasure of knocking it back down. I want it all to explode. I want to feel it all. Every shred of it. Every messy, moaning, crazy piece of it. Cormac drags his ink-stained, rough fingers down the dips and curves of my body and snares them around the

waistband of my shorts. “Will your aunt hear us?” he asks, his pragmatic question breaking the crazy amazing bubble of pure heaven I’m floating in. Take my pants off. Now! “No. No one will hear.” I buck my hips and he pulls the waistband down an inch. “Are you sure this is what you want, Benelli?” His voice is thick with

need. It’s unfair timing. There’s no way in hell I could back away from this now, 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 want, all I need in this entire world, is Cormac. Now. Right now. “Yes. Please. Yes. Please,” I plead, and the chant keeps going as he

tears my shorts off, cups the insides of my thighs with his battered hands, and pushes them apart, muttering low under his breath. “What, what did you say?” My mind and body are racing like Olympic sprinters in a dash, and I’m having a hard time focusing my thoughts. “I said I’m afraid what will happen once we do this, Benelli. Because I know damn well I won’t be able to walk

away with no regrets.” I sit up on my elbows and his eyes are clear, piercing green. Emotion clouds his face; it’s not quite fury and it’s not quite regret. It’s something in between that shreds at my heart. But the thoughts, the false starts, the impossible future that kept us from starting this the few times we tried before all dissolve when his mouth dips low. He kisses me where no one ever

has before, and the intimate curl of his tongue over my skin tears a whimper out of my throat. 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, making all of my nerves ratchet into tight coils. His hands drift up and down my thighs, the light scratch of his skin at odds with the velvet press of his tongue. My eyes widen, staring at the same boring

white ceiling I’ve stared at on hundreds of sleepless nights, realizing that I will never, ever look at those white whorls and be calmed into sleepiness again. They’re now the dizzying reflections of the thousands of whirlpools of sucking, inescapable need and want that are drowning everything but him and me and the way we feel together. I close my eyes and thrash my head from side to side, half wanting to pull my

hips back from his lips and half needing to drive closer. One of his hands slides off of my thigh. His mouth moves higher, right to the perfect, crashing center of every jumbled desire that’s wrecking through me and his finger slides into me, the necessary ignitor to the explosion that was poised to tremble through me. And then I’m cracked. Jarred. Panting. Fisting the sheets, hips off the bed, crying out his name, my body flexing

and pulsing around his mouth and fingers, and, even in the middle of the hands down most erotic experience of my life, I have one thought: more. Once the last tremors quake through me, I sit up and grab him by the shoulders. “More. More. Now.” He falls on top of me, and I can feel the press of his dick through the stiff denim of his jeans, chafing against my highly sensitized skin.

“We should wait,” he says, kissing all along my shoulders. When he looks up at me his hair is a tousled mess and his eyes have a sleepy, satisfied look. “I want you now, though,” I whine, not even embarrassed over being such a baby. I reach a hand down and cup the outline of his hardon. “And you need it, too.” “I got everything I needed,” he says, pulling back from my touch and lying

on his side, looking down at me. “Why don’t you want to have sex with me?” The question hangs heavy between us. “Because it would be over in two and a half seconds.” He kisses the space between my eyebrows, and my body relaxes after his explanation. There’s something nice about knowing it isn’t me. But it doesn’t stop me from my single-minded mission.

“It would be much nicer for me if this could be sort of awkward for both of us.” I bite my lip, and I’ll admit openly that I’m doing it just to see his pupils go dark and his nostrils flare a little. “I’m okay with being a virgin, but you don’t need to school me completely in the sex zone, Cormac. Also, I already came. Um, thank you, by the way.” All my sexual bargaining bravado falls away when I remember the perfect

unravelling explosion that riddled my body a few minutes ago, compliments of Cormac and his highly skilled mouth and hands. “You’re completely welcome.” He kisses me softly. “I’ve never been with anyone who, uh, responded the...way you did.” I knit my eyebrows. “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. “You have a direct way with words. Huh. I thought a blushing virgin would be more held back.” I roll my eyes in perfect middleschool-esque circles. “Just because I’ve never had sex doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in it. I just never found the perfect person.” We both go silent.

And I don’t regret telling him that he’s the perfect person for me to lose my virginity with. 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. “Well, I’m very glad you had the response you did. I always thought I didn’t have a particular talent in, er, that department, but maybe it was just a case of never being with the right person.” I

want him to shift his eyes away to make it easier to hear those words, but he doesn’t break my gaze. “I may be putting the cart before the horse, but that was, hands down, the sexiest time I’ve ever had in my life.” I wiggle under him and he groans. “Now we have to have sex! You just threw the gauntlet down, Cormac, and I’m very competitive.” I hold his body tighter to mine, loving that I can feel the

quickening thump of his heart against my chest. “You’d be competing against yourself,” he points out. “That makes sense, since I’m the best,” I brag, and his smile melts the last of my worry. “You have nothing to prove to me.” He kisses me. “I’ve never questioned that fact.” My hands tighten on his shoulders, and I pull at him hard, stroking

up and down his back. “Benelli,” he whispers, “you’re making a very compelling case for sex. But I don’t have a condom.” I reach onto my bedside table and pull out a fresh box. Of thirty-six. “Three dozen?” Cormac chokes out. “Well, I guess that will have to be enough...for tonight.” I tilt my head back and roll from side to side, laughing. “Compliments of

Lala,” I say between giggles. “She’s always got plenty.” “We’re ready for a marathon, then,” he says, his voice suddenly serious. We both know the reality. No matter how much we slow this all down, this won’t be a marathon. This is a sprint, and a short one. I try not to think about it. I try to focus on the fact that I get to race at all. I’ve spent a long time sitting in my high

heels and tight dress on the sidelines. “I can’t promise that this will be my best performance,” he warns, taking a condom out with fingers that shake a little. “I’m just glad it’s you.” Those words could not have been a more massive understatement. Cormac kisses me for a few long, sweet seconds, and I glide my hands down his chest, along the tight bumps of his abs, and I tug hard at the button of his jeans.

Because of the way his penis is positioned, it’s difficult to get his pants undone. I finally get the button loose and manage to drag the zipper down. The result is...enthusiastic. He shakes his head and laughs. “Rather like one of those cans magicians use. The ones with the snakes that fly out when you open them.” We’re laughing again, and it’s on the back of all that easy laughter that I help

slide his boxers off, that our hands trip over each other’s getting the condom rolled on, and then we kiss and move our hands everywhere with a slow, easy slide that’s so perfect. So right. Losing my virginity winds up being slow and gradual. Despite Cormac’s insistence that he would only last two seconds, he draws it all out into a long, sweet unravelling for me. At first he presses against me, nudging my slick skin,

still sensitized from his earlier attention. I put my hand down and fit him at the apex of my thighs, and he presses with excruciating slowness, stopping at every inch or two to kiss me and allow me to reposition. I want him badly enough that I’d be happy to grab and and let this experience tear through to the finish. But I know we have to hang on to every second, so I trust his pace.

By the time he’s halfway in, we’re both breathing deep, foreheads pressed together, eyes locked. “I want you in me. Please, Cormac. I want all of you.” I put my hands on his firm backside, enjoying the surprising athleticism of his body. “Are you sure?” he grits out through his teeth. Instead of answering, I tilt my hips up and pull on his ass, drawing him into

me. It’s not pain. It’s just a stretch, a strange, amazing stretch that’s both foreign and completely addictive. He presses his lips over mine and pulls back, then pushes in, the excruciatingly slow slide making me pant and jerk. “Faster?” he asks. I nod and pump my hips. He presses in return, bracing his hands on either side of me, and pumping

with swift, sure strokes that fill me with silky, liquid, recoiling heat. I open my eyes and look at the long, lean stretch of him over me, then down to the narrow v of his hips, and lower, to where he and I meet and join. My breasts tighten at the sight of us, and, since his hands are busy leveraging all that rock-hard body over me, I touch myself. And it feels so good. His eyes fly down to my hands, pulling at my own nipples, and the face he

makes looks confused and pained. “Benelli.” He presses harder, his pace frenzied, his breathing coming out in a gasps. “I can’t...much more...I can’t...” “Come,” I tell him, pressing hard to his body. My own words, my own hands, mixed with the drive of him against my skin spirals every feeling in me, and the centrifugal force shatters me into a million soaked pieces. “Cormac! Fuck! Cormac!”

He moans and pumps a last two times into my body before shuddering on top of me. For a few long seconds we just try to breathe in some kind of regular pattern or get a new clean hold on reality. When he looks up at me, it’s with a boyish grin that’s all mischief. “So, I’m thinking we can safely categorize you as a screamer?” he says, rubbing his nose on mine.

I cover my face with my hands. “You do crazy things to me!” I accuse. “I was always a perfect lady in bed before you came crawling around.” “Ah.” He furrows his brows in pity. “You’re no lady in bed, and that’s beyond amazing. If you were a lady before, it’s because he had no clue what he was doing.” “So, you’ve never had a girl be a lady in bed?” I tease, watching him sit up

and take the condom off with a discreet roll, then wrap it in a tissue he finds on my nightstand, and throw it into the trash methodically. “It’s probably not a good idea to talk exes,” he says with a sour note of warning in his voice. “But, actually, yes. My bed has been devoid of ladies. Vipers, fakers, cheaters, sociopaths by the truckload, but no ladies.” His attempt at a smile is lukewarm.

“I think the no exes rule is a good one.” I pat the bed. “And it’s not like you have to collect your money off the nightstand and go. You can hang around for awhile, cowboy.” This time it’s a full, real laugh, and I love hearing it. “You’re just full of jokes, aren’t you?” He comes to lay down next to me, and, while I start to put my tank and shorts back on, Cormac seems perfectly comfortable in his completely

gorgeous nude skin. “So, Lala told me you two talked,” I begin cautiously. He clears his throat and looks suddenly, distinctly uncomfortable. “About that? I’m so sorry. Lala is a very intimidating person.” “It’s okay.” I reach a hand out half-way, then go ahead and touch him. His arm, his chest, the line of his lip, the jut of his hip. I ignore my reluctance,

because I have no idea how many opportunities I’ll have like this. “She’s hard to say no to.” “I guess I wanted your friend to approve of me.” He shrugs his sinewy shoulders. “This entire’s not what I want, you know.” “Pretend we could have it any way we wanted. What would you want?” I ask, even though I know whatever he’s going to say is going to break me in some way.

He runs his fingers through my hair, fanning it out in dark pieces on the pillow under my head. “Well, first off, I would have taken you on a few proper dates. Not just five minutes at a restaurant before I let my testosterone take over or getting you drunk in a creek and mauling you. We would have eaten and talked and kissed, and it all would have happened in its own time. Not on some arranged schedule.”

“Do you regret it?” I ask. “No.” He shakes his head and smoothes a series of kisses along my hairline. “And I’ll never regret being your first. I feel overwhelmed and...I guess proud that you wanted to share that with me. Thank you.” “You’re welcome. And thank you.” I pull his hand up and kiss his knuckles. “But I think there’s room for regret

in my future. I can’t imagine I’m going to look back on this summer and say, ‘I’m so glad I made love to Benelli for a few weeks before she arranged a marriage to some quasi-barbarian Hungarian prince.’” He traces the curl of my ear, the line of my neck, and I wonder if my future husband will pay nearly as much attention to me when we’re in bed. I don’t like the probable answer. “I know it’s not super ideal. But

we’d probably drive each other crazy eventually, don’t you think?” I’m grasping at any possible straws. “I don’t know about that.” Cormac holds my hand up and examines my fingers, kissing the nail of each one. “I think I’d be too busy being fascinated by you to get driven too crazy.” “So I’m that fascinating?” I try to kid, but my voice wobbles. “You’re the most fascinating

woman I’ve ever met.” He kisses my fingers and nibbles his way up my wrist, along the inside of my elbow, all the way to my shoulder. “You’re already dressed? We have three dozen condoms to work through.” I roll onto him, so he’s pinned under me. “Can I be on top this time?” His smile crinkles the corners of his eyes. “I love your enthusiasm, but it was all a jest, love. You’re going to be

sore if we take it too fast.” “I’ll be fine,” I whisper, wriggling out of my shorts and tank top. “You’ll take care of me.” I’m a jerk. I know his kryptonite, and I use it shamelessly. “Always. I’ll always take care of you,” he promises through a fresh round of kisses. Neither one of us argues with his statement, even if we both know always

isn’t in our cards. Our inability to face just how temporary our arrangement is is comforting now, but it’s going to wreck us later. But first there’s just now and the heat of Cormac’s kisses. I fall into them instead of worrying about the inevitabilities of our uncertain future.

Cormac 5 There was a reason I was reluctant to sleep with Benelli. Sex is never easy, and no-stringsattached sex is hard enough when you feel woefully little for the person. When you have no feelings for the person you’re fucking, it’s all just a baseless waste of physicality and an emotional black hole. But there’s a worse alternative.

You could fall in love with your no-strings-attached partner. Because I’ve gone way beyond caring for Benelli. I love her. I love her bravery and the force of her confident personality. I love the way she twists problems around in her head a million ways. I love her frighteningly fierce loyalty. I love her willingness to embrace what she can and assume

responsibility for what she must. I love all these traits except, of course, when they put a chokehold on our relationship. It’s not as easy as just asking her to marry me. Even if the thought of marriage didn’t coat my guts with a teninch casing of ice, she’s not looking to just get married. 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, from the information I’ve gathered, rather shady business arrangements on her father’s part. I’m not that guy. I’m not even the shadow of the ghost of the polar opposite of that guy. There’s not a negative number low enough to represent how slim my chance of success in that role would be.

This would all be bad enough on its own, since philosophical problems skewer me with a depth that pragmatic problems usually don’t. Usually don’t. Unless, of course, 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. Irony applicable, of course. And unless this problem happens to be wearing an unbelievably tiny, sexy dress and shoes that are a podiatrist’s nightmare, but make her legs look at least twenty sexy, silky feet long. And unless this problem is now dating guys who, other than being boring, sparkless lugs, aren’t the types of creeps who warrant fistfights and throwdowns from her secret lover/sometimes defender.

There isn’t a single thing I can do in this situation but sit back and grit my teeth, waiting for the setting sun and my chance to crawl, undetected, through her window and into her arms. The perfection of the nights isn’t always enough to erase the aggravation of the days. A pack of cigarettes blocks my view of Benelli. I glance up at Lala’s face, gold hair pulled back in a high

ponytail, 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, most nights, she does. “Take one. I think you need it.” She shakes the pack, and I offer her my best version of a socially appropriate smile. “Thank you, but I don’t smoke.” I gesture to the seat across from me, and,

even though I want silence to brood in, I like Lala and don’t want to be rude. “Please sit. Can I get you something?” She waves the waiter over. He always just scowls at me when I raise a tentative hand in his direction. Then again, I don’t have the face of an angel and lush tits barely covered by a few scraps of material. She orders two black coffees, noticing my empty mug. “Not that more caffeine is what

you need, tiger. You look like you’re on the cusp of having a stroke.” She lights up and takes a drag, joining me in spying on Benellli and her date. “He seems nice.” “If you like lumbering half-wits,” I growl. “Not all of us went to Harvard, professor,” she chides, flipping through my notes as if she cares. “So, 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. Nitpicking over whether to use ‘staff’ or ‘rod.’ ‘Sack’ or ‘pouch.’ ‘Hall’ or ‘greatroom.’ Decisions, decisions.” Am I making sense? What am I even saying? My eyes are on Benelli, her head bent close to the lug’s, nodding at what he’s saying. She catches sight of me and her face goes still for a minute before she shakes her head and refocuses.

We made a pact. I get her at night, all night. She lives her own life during the day and early evening. She hates when our two worlds intersect. But I miss seeing her in the sun. I’m greedy for more of her than our meager arrangement allows for. “So, what’s this story about?” Lala flicks the pages, and I rip my eyes off of Benelli’s date, his hand hovering intimately over the small of her back. “You’ve never read The

Odyssey?” I ask, not bothering to disguise my disappointment. Lala loves shocking me. “We didn’t all go to snooty boarding schools in England, Oliver Twist.” I grin and she tilts her huge sunglasses down and narrows her eyes at me. “Oliver Twist is English, right?” “Yes.” She’s a twit, but she’s a witty twit, and talking about Odysseus will take my mind of the urge to make my

fists hamburger meat because some daft asshole is touching Benelli. On a date. A date she agreed to. The coffee comes, and I sweep some of the papers up. “So, Odysseus. Right. Well, he was a hero of the Tojan war. And he never came home, once it was over.” “Wasn’t he on a ship?” It’s like she’s reaching through a blurry, murky fog

for this detail. “Yes. Very important detail, actually, because Poseidon, who’s the god of the ocean, is pretty damn pissed at him during this whole ship voyage.” I pass her the sugar and she sweetens her coffee to the point where it basically converts to coffee-flavored syrup. “Why?” she asks, sipping her coffee and leaving a deep red lip print on the rim.

“Because he’s a dick.” She almost chokes on her first sip. “A dick? Is that your official scholarly opinion?” “Actually, yes. 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.’” We share a smile and I continue. “It’s not all terrible for Odysseus. He’s being kept on an island by this goddess, Calypso, and she’s

using him for sex.” “Ooh, dirty.” She leans back and cradles her coffee in her hands. “I like this. Tell me more.” “Well, Calypso doesn’t get to keep him forever. He’s got this wife, Penelope, who he’s super in love with, other than the cheating, which is sort of forced, and he hasn’t seen her in two decades. So Athene intercedes, and Zeus makes Calypso give him up.” I take a long sip and refuse to

look over at Benelli. Refuse. “So, does he get back to Penelope? Does she forgive him for the whole sex slavery thing?” Lala asks, excited. “Yeah. Trojan heroes can get away with a lot of pretty heinous behavior. Odysseus is no exception. Penelope’s got this mad mob of suitors, you know, since her husband’s been gone all these years, and she’s a hot, rich

woman. Odysseus connects back up with his kid and his dad, and gets this whole plan underway where, in order to win Penelope’s hand, the suitor has to pull back his old bow, which is pretty badass. All these rich assholes from Itaka come and try, but they can’t do it.” 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. “Wait. Is this a movie? Isn’t there, like, an archery contest and there’s a prince, but the real king is away. And he wins the girl?” I’m sure she must be kidding, but she seems completely serious. Maybe she’s still drunk off bootleg Hungarian liquor. “That would be Robin Hood, Lala. You really need to stop watching so many

movies. Books, love. Books will open up new worlds for you.” She slips her foot out of her stiletto and rubs it over my calf, just for the joy of seeing me jump. “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. Of course he gets her back. He strings that bow like a madman, slaughters all her suitors, and

takes her to bed. The end.” A small part of me feels deep shame for my blatant bastardization of one of Western Civilization’s finest tales. But Lala has ripped her glasses off and her eyes are shining. “That is such a badass story.” 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. “You should totally pull an Odysseus with

Benelli.” “Pardon?” I’ve been waiting for two weeks for her to say something like this. I thought it might happen when Benelli’s family came and the dates picked up. 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. Apparently all I needed to do was share the heroic Greek

classics with her. “Listen.” She stops and goes to take a drag, but just watches the curling column of smoke instead. “I’ve never seen Benelli this happy. If I was a bitch, I’d be jealous, 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.” She taps a few inches of growing ash into the tray, keeping her hands steady so it stays

in one long line. “That’s not the deal, Lala,” I remind her. “Odysseus was Penelope’s husband. And he had a kickass bow. I have mind-blowing sex with Benelli and a career that’s less than useless to her family.” “Is that all it is?” She purses her lips at me. “Of course. 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. “No.” I don’t play with this question. “No and you know it. It’s never been just that for me at least. But we had to agree to that. I try not to think about the possibility of anything more, because there isn’t a chance, Lala. This isn’t some romantic story...peppered with archaic bloodshed. This is real life.”

“I think you should try.” She sets her lips in a stiff, stubborn line. “I think you should try quitting.” I flick a finger at the smoldering ashtray. Lala takes a long look at the toxic ashes and butts, then gets up with a flourish, stalks to the garbage can, dumps the tray, and tosses her pack. She saunters back and runs the gold lighter over and over in her hands. “You take this.” She makes a move

to hand it to me, but leaves it close enough to her body that I can tell it’s a contested gift. “It looks expensive.” When I don’t put my hand out to take the lighter, she reaches over, takes my hand, and presses the lighter into my palm. “Take it. You’ll be doing me a huge favor.” She rolls her hazel eyes, bright with emotion she does a fair job of blinking away. “It’s a Youngblood thing

anyway. Winch gave it to me years ago. It was one of his grandpa’s, and I liked it, so he got it for me. I don’t even know why I hang on to it.” “I think you do know.” She startles up at me, her eyes wide with shock, and shakes her head. “You must.” I hold it up and we both look at how the gold glints in the light. “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, and she wipes a finger under her eyes, leaving a runny line of mascara trailed along her temple. “You know what? I guess I do know. My family has been tight with Benelli’s family since before I was born. Our mothers were maids of honor at each other’s weddings. So, yeah, I guess I just figured Winch and I were, you know, fated? Destined? Like an arranged marriage, but sexier. Funner.

And it was fun. We snuck around. Drank stolen sambuca under the stars. Made out in the backseat of his dad’s Mustang during every family get-together.” “Sounds like romance.” I’m not even joking. They’re the kind of teenage dalliances I wish I had under my belt. “It was.” Her smile trembles with pure sadness, an expression so alien to her usually cool-and-collected face, I don’t know if I could have imagined it before I

saw it. “But I took him for granted. I guess he’d been around for so long, I stopped seeing him as his own person. I just felt like I owned him, the way his family did. And we grew apart. But I still always thought we’d be together forever. And then he met...her...this girl.” Her hazel eyes are suddenly more gray than any other color and she plucks the paper napkin under her coffeecup into furious shreds. “And he fell in love. Real love.

Love so strong and amazing or whatever, he didn’t even think twice about me.” “I’m sorry.” I know what it feels like to have your heart dug from your chest with a dull spoon. I know what it is to think you’re with a certain person, only to realize in a single blink that the person you were in love with may have never existed at all. “Don’t be,” she snaps, sweeping the napkin bits off the table so they rain

down on the stones like confetti at a parade. “Take the damn lighter though. It was martyrish of me to hang on to it for all this time, and if I’m acting like a martyr, that means I’m becoming my mother. And if that’s happening, just shoot me now before I slide into a miserably unsatisfying mid-life slump.” She reaches for the cigarettes she threw out and begins a frantic search before I dare to mention, “Gone. In a fit of

chivalrous daring.” Her laugh is defeated. “Oh, perfect. So damn perfect.” She points an accusing finger at me. “You better make this happen. Now I need to get away from you, because I actually like you, and I’m about to go into heavy nicotine withdrawals already.” She cups her hand under my chin and kisses my forehead. “Wouldn’t want to scratch those pretty green eyes out. Her date drops her off at

six-thirty. Go get her, hotshot.” 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. When I glance up from my papers, Benelli and her date are gone, and I attempt to keep my wild imagination in check. We never agreed on any firm boundaries for Benelli’s dates. How could we? I’m not her boyfriend. I’m sure she’s not sleeping with any of them,

but is there anything else physical going on? Most likely. These dates are her way of determining who she’s going to spend the rest of her life with. Whether or not she has physical chemistry with the assholes she’s dating is a realistic part of the process. I’m deep in thoughts that feature some random meathead getting touchy

with my girl when the waiter storms over to my table, yelling in such quick and awful Hungarian, I’m not even sure it’s comprised of anything but swears. I look down at my hand, where I’ve bent my coffee spoon in half. 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. I skulk in the bushes like a criminal, waiting while the hulk agrees to

a cup of coffee in the kitchen. I can see Abony pouring him the brew at the same table I sat at with Benelli when she bandaged my hand. The guy stays a good half an hour, and I feel more and more like a fucking idiot every minute I hide out, gaping at him. The second he leaves, I see the flash of Benelli’s bright blue dress, and her bedroom light goes on, even if it isn’t remotely dark at just after seven. The light is for me.

I know I could just walk through the back door. Benelli’s told me multiple times that Abony thinks she should run away with me. Or stop toying with me and send me in her aunt’s direction. Which definitely freaks me out slightly. 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. Usually she’s changed by the time

I’ve come by, her tight clothes shed for comfortable ones, her styled hair brushed out, her face makeup free. I like her natural looking, but, when I come through and see her this way, I wonder if she’d ever put the effort into dressing up for me. “Hi.” She smiles and wraps her arm around my neck. “How was work?” “Terrible.” I don’t mean to sound like such a short-tempered asshole, 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. “Since we’re not actually dating, do we have to go through the boring domestic routine?” Some of the shine dissolves from her eyes. “Everyone asks each other how their day went, Cormac.” She drops her hands from my neck, and I miss the sweet weight of them immediately. “The woman who did my nails asked me today. So did the manager at the restaurant I ate at.”

“Of course. How was your date?” I ask with elevated faux interest. She crosses her arms tight, and I think she’d plop on her bed if that damn sexy dress would let her. As it is, I don’t think she could bend in it. “My date was nice,” she answers, her voice guarded. “He’s...fine. I don’t really want to talk about him.” “Me neither,” I agree with adamant emphasis on the words.

Two bright spots of red burn through the makeup on her face. “I know this is just sex, Cormac, but don’t you think a little talking first is nice?” I stalk over to her so fast she retreats on her high shoes, her back against the wall. “This has never been just sex,” I say between gritted teeth. “I know.” She puts her hands on my face and rubs her thumbs over my jaw. “Damnit, Cormac, I think we made it

worse. I can’t stop thinking about you, no matter where I go or who I’m with. I think about you all day, I can’t wait for night. And it’s not getting easier. I’m not getting to the point where I think I can say goodbye.” “We could leave.” I cage my arms around her, one hand on either side of her head, and lean close to her. “We could buy train tickets. I can get a job, I can support us.”

She twists out of my arms. “Wow. No. That’s the last things I need.” “Why?” I demand. “I am perfectly capable of getting a job.” She enunciates every single word. “I...know that.” I don’t. I know she has a BA, but she’s never told me what she’d like to do with her life, for herself. The only thing she ever talks about where her future is concerned is her family and their damn business. “So you could get a

job. We could. And have an apartment somewhere. Your parents will only be upset for a little while.” She lies back on her bed stiffly, all her carefully curled hair spread on the white sheets. “You have no idea what you’re asking me to do. You don’t get it. I won’t be okay living away from them. I can’t just leave them. It just doesn’t work that way.” “So what’s the answer, Benelli?” I

ask, pulling her back up so we’re facing each other again. “Tell me, because I don’t know how many more dates I can watch you go on. I don’t know how many nights I can spend hiding in the bushes. I need more. I need more, and we’re heading towards nothing.” “I don’t know.” She starts to lift her fingers up to her temples, and I intercept them and rub where she was going to. She sighs and leans into my

hands. “If there was a way, I swear, I’d be with you, Cormac. We’d be together. But, since we have this right now, can’t we just have this? Please?” Her voice is throaty. “Whatever you want,” I say, because that’s the truth. The solid truth. She turns around in my arms and presses the curve of her ass against me. My dick jumps to instant, hard life. She says the one word that undoes me. “You.”

She kneels on the bed and reaches one hand behind her, drawing up her skirt. Her underwear is a nothing but a few ribbon-like pieces of diaphanous scrap fabric. I step forward and splay my hands over the silky skin of her backside, then hook my fingers in the threads and pull them down her legs, over her ankles and toss them onto the floor. “This way?” I make sure. “I like it this way, too.” She got

bored with missionary style quickly. The first night we were together, she demanded to be on top. I’m glad. I am. I’m honored that I get to be with her when she learns all this, experiments with all of this sweet, sexy craziness. I just have to stop thinking about the fact that all I do with her will eventually be something she does with her husband. I shove that thought out of my brain

and focus on the incredibly gorgeous, sexy girl in front of me. I slide one finger between her legs, and she’s already soaking wet. “I was thinking about you.” She looks over her shoulder at me, and smiles. My vision blurs for a second. “I was thinking about having your cock in me.” I grip her hips to keep myself upright. “Wow. Are you sure you were a virgin two weeks ago?” I ask.

“I learn quickly, Cormac.” She wags her hips back and forth and I throw my shirt off, unzip my pants, and am already ridiculously hard. I’m not even sure how to get her out of this stupid dress, so I just yank down on the thin straps until it finally releases her tits to my eager hands. I love the full swell of them when they hang forward like that. I kiss up and down along her neck, then coast over the skin

covered by dress and kiss each perfect cheek of her ass. She giggles. “You’re crazy.” “You’re gorgeous.” I want to say a million other things, things that have nothing to do with sex and lust and now, but this is my only alternative. So I take it. I dip low and lick at her, 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. The three dozen condoms ran out two days before, so we’re officially on a second box, and I feel a mix of pride and shame over my corruption of Benelli. “Now, Cormac. Now!” she demands. I let my pants fall from my hips and roll the condom on. I slide against her and press, deep and hard, all the way into her, my thighs flush with the firm curve of

her ass. She lets out a long moan and rears back against me. I grip onto her, pull out until I’m only barely in, then press deep, up to the hilt, again and again and she reaches her hand around to grab frantically at mine. Her back is arched and she’s clawing for me to be closer, for that closeness we’re always starved for. I lean over her, ruining the rhythm slightly, but thrusting deeper into her. My chest is tight to her back and we’re locked

together so tight it makes her squirm and gasp. I love running my hands over her skin, kissing the back of her ears, the stretch of her neck, her bare shoulders while I drive into her, waiting for the beginning pulses of heat and tightness that will let me know she’s ready to come. When her frustrated moans let me know she’s not quite where she wants to be, I reach forward and tease her clit with swift strokes of my finger until she starts to

shake and jerk around me. “Now. Now. Now,” she pleads and the way she begs for me, for this, makes everything blur into a hot, sexy rush. “Cormac, I’m coming. Cormac.” I close my eyes and feel the hot, tight suck of her around my dick, and my hands clamp hard on her hips while, for one perfect 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. I love this second. The point where she’s about to let go, where I know she’s had all the pleasure she can take, and I’m free, just for a second, to let go, too, and just be with her. I love when I can see her face. I love to watch her come, watch her lose control under me. Now I make do with rolling her over and holding her close immediately after. My pants are down around my

knees. Her dress is pushed up under her breasts. We turn to look at each other and the tension from before melts. We’re laughing, and I don’t know if she realizes how rare it is. To be able to go from irritated to passionate to laughing in the span of a half an hour. I don’t know what she thinks about us, because whenever I press her to talk about it, she avoids the conversation at all costs.

“So, maybe next time we should take all our clothes off,” I suggest, taking the condom off. “Always the romantic.” Benelli traces her fingertip down my nose. “I don’t think I have any dates lined up tomorrow.” She sighs. “Please don’t make that face, Cormac.” “What face?” But I’ve already rolled over and am pulling my pants on, because I know exactly the pouting, bitter

face she’s talking about, and I don’t want her to see it. “You know I have to go on dates. You know that.” I hear her trying to get out of her dress. “Come here.” She scoots over and I undo the ties that got knotted during my brief attempt to get her dress off before. “Thank you.” She lets out a long breath as the fabric falls away. Benelli is gorgeously shaped, but

the dress leaves deep red imprints crisscrossed on her skin. “Do they hurt?” I ask. She runs her hands over them as she makes her way to the dresser. “These? No. They just squeeze a little too tight.” She slides a pair of shorts up and pulls on a t-shirt. “I dress like that all the time at home. My mom would freak if I didn’t always look my best. It’s so nice to be here and just...relax. Just be myself.” She says the words without really

reflecting on them. I know that, just like I know when I repeat her words back to her, she’s going to tense up and get upset, tell me I don’t understand. I know I’m irritating her by bringing this up over and over again, but I only have a few short weeks. I don’t have time for games with her. The problem is, I feel like I’m ramming my head into a wall over and over again. And she clearly feels this way too.

“You do realize what you said?” I ask. She sighs. “Cormac. Please. Not this again. I don’t want you to pick apart everything I say.” “What you say means something, Benelli. What did you say?” I’m using the most gentle voice I can, but I feel a bit like an ogre with a club crashing into a glade with a unicorn. “I said...I don’t know. I said I have

to dress up at home. Is that so bad? If I was a businessman, I’d have to wear a suit everyday.” She pulls her hair back in a messy ponytail. I love when she does this, because I love watching it swish back down around her face later on, when I pull it out. “Not that, love. What else did you say?” I prod. She crosses her arms and shakes her head. “I have no idea. What did I

say?” “You said it was nice being here. Because you could be yourself.” I take her hand and wed our fingers together. “I keep having this conversation with you because it’s important to me, okay? It would be one thing if I knew you really wanted this arranged marriage thing.” She lets me pull her close and plops down on my lap, wringing her arms around my neck again. I run my hands from

her wrists to her elbows. “So, if I found a guy tomorrow and said, ‘Cormac, I found him. I found the man of my dreams’ you’d be fine with it?” She raises one eyebrow. “Yes!” I lie. “No,” I backtrack. She laughs. “I would probably fight him, the way I did Akos.” “Ah. 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. When she stops squirming and getting me incredibly horny exactly ten minutes after our mindblowing sex, I try again. “I want to know you’re happy. Why am I the only one who sees this?” I gesture with my hand up and down her body. “Because you don’t mind when I dress like a gym rat?” I glare at her for using my own

lame tactic on me. “If you want this, go for it. But if the you your family thinks is you is just pretending to want this, you need to stop this now.” I hope it’s all getting through to her. She leans her head on my chest. “Cormac...I love being with you. I love the way I feel with you. But I don’t have a choice. My family’s business is going to tank. No questions. And my marriage is

the last chance. It has to work.” I tighten my arms around her body, trying hard to resist the urge to throttle her. “I’m sure if your parents knew how you felt, what you were giving up, they wouldn’t ask this of you. No parent would ask this of their child, Benelli. Have you spoken with them?” She pulls her arms from my neck and holds her hands in her lap. “Can we stop? Please?” She moves to her computer

chair, lets her hair down the way she knows makes me crazy, and bites her bottom lip. “Have you ever had sex on a chair, Cormac?” she asks. “Because I haven’t. Yet.” I can barely believe I’m doing this, can barely believe I’m walking away from her, but I sweep my shirt off the floor and yank it over my head. “Cormac?” She gets up from the chair, her face lined with hurt and

confusion. I shut my eyes, like this might be easier to deal with if I can’t see her clearly. “Listen to me. I can’t, okay. I cannot just make love to you every night and not get to talk to you during the day. I can’t hear you tell me that you aren’t yourself except for the tiny fragments of time when we’re together, then have you ignore me when I ask what you’re going to do about that. I can’t just satisfy your

sexual curiosity and never talk about your future, our future. Do you hear me?” When I open my eyes, she looks shell-shocked. “I hear you,” she whispers. “What do you have to say?” My voice quakes, desperate for her to say anything, anything, that will stop me from having to leave. “Cormac, I’m stuck. There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing I can do.” She presses her hand to her lips as she

watches me get up and cross the room to her window. “Then there’s nothing else for me to say to you.” I swing my leg over the sill and scale back down the side of the house, my heart shredding like it’s been drawnand-quartered. I walk fast, but I still hear her sobs, pounding against my ears like choking, heart-wrenching accusations. I feel lost, and I feel a simultaneously sudden, 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.

Benelli 6 I’ve curled in a ball, breathing hard to control my tears, because my entire family is here, and if I wake up with puffy, red eyes, they’ll start to pester me, asking questions and getting in little digs until they unearth the reason for my upset. Not that they’d ever actually figure it out. Thank God. I peel myself off the mattress and

decide to wander around for a while in the cool, clean air. I throw my hoodie on, stick my hands in my pockets, and set out for I don’t know where. Anywhere that’s not close to Cormac’s apartment would be perfect. As I make my way out of town, the stars start to twinkle brighter and brighter, until the entire sky is thickly splattered with them. I drink in the chilly air, the dazzling starshine, the mountain paths that

are mine all mine for this tiny sliver of time. I know I should go patch things up with Cormac. We have no time to waste. None at all. But, much as I’ll miss Cormac when he’s gone, there’s someone I might miss even more at the end of this summer. Myself. 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, when I was running away from one of the dozens of guys I’ve dated. When I was running away from the future that needs to become my present sooner than later. I get all the way to the clearing before I realize I’m not alone. And I’ve made too much noise to back up unobtrusively. One of the pair stands, and

I would recognize the proud way she holds her shoulders anywhere. “Oh. Hi, Evan. I didn’t...I didn’t realize you guys were even here.” Winch is right behind her, his arm wrapped tight around her waist. “Hey, Benelli.” My brother’s calm, quiet voice is laced with a formality when he talks to me, the kind born of too many months without day-to-day contact. “Our plane landed while you were on your date, so

Mama thought we’d just get together tomorrow for dinner.” “Great. Well, I was just walking by--” “I was going to, um, check some email. The local coffee place has wireless, right?” Evan interrupts. “Winch, why don’t you two catch up for a minute, and we can share a dessert when you’re done.” Evan seems standoffish until she

talks to my brother. Then it’s like her entire face opens up and glows. Her eyes shine, and she can’t keep a semipermanent smile off her face. He pulls her close, possessively, fitting her against his body with a comfort that comes from snuggling into just the perfect place, just the perfect way a thousand times a day. He nuzzles her neck and whispers something about Evan tasting better than any dessert, but I do my

best to ignore my brother’s shameless flirting. I also turn my head when he kisses her once, twice, and pulls her back for one third, hard kiss before she laughs, waves goodbye, and heads back to town. “She didn’t have to leave,” I say, shifting my sneakers in the sand. His smile is calm. Winch is always calm. 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. Even when I gained some grudging respect for her, 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. “You look good,” he says simply, then sits and pats the space next to him. “Thanks. You too. You look...happy.” I slip my feet out of my sneakers. The smile that spreads on his face

is shy. “Yeah?” He shakes his head. “Well, I guess that makes sense. I’m happy as hell. That’s for sure.” I don’t want to make him feel badly about what he has with Evan or negate their happiness, but a little piece of me still burns over the whole thing. “Is Remy coming?” My question erodes his smile. “No.” He cups a handful of gritty sand and spills it out in a slow, patient

pile. “He’s working really hard at rehab.” “Mama thinks he should come home.” I keep my voice as neutral as possible, but Winch lets out an exasperated sigh. “Mama isn’t an addict. Or a counselor. 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.” The last grains of sand drop onto the pebbled shore, and Winch tightens his

hand into a fist. The motion makes me think of fighting, which my brother excels at, and fighting makes me think of Akos and Cormac, which makes everything raw and hurt again. “I didn’t mean to make you upset.” I keep my voice low, my chin on my knees, my eyes on the moonlight rippling on the lake. “I’m...going through some stuff right now.”

Winch is so quiet I can hear the far-off bullfrogs plopping into the water. “I know that,” he finally says. “I know that everyone carries what they carry. Even if they don’t talk about it.” I look at him from the corner of my eye. “I call Remy every Tuesday and Thursday. I write Mama every Sunday. Evan helps me think of shit to say in the letters. I know it isn’t much, but I didn’t abandon them completely.” I pull out the red handkerchief

Cormac gave me, the one I carry around all the time. 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. “Winch?” “Yeah?” “Sometimes...sometimes I want to run away. Forever.” I hold my breath once the words are out, 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, but there’s nothing except the sound of my brother’s calm breathing and the plop of the bullfrogs, oblivious to our problems. “It makes sense.” He scoops up some pebbles in his left hand, takes one in his right hand, shakes it three times, throws, and repeats. It’s calming. “How does it make sense?” I

demand. “How does it not?” He throws four more pebbles before he says another word. “You are the glue, Benelli. More than Mama, maybe, because you bridge the old world she lives in with the new world Pop has to maneuver. And you have to hold the entire universe together. Which is fine when all the pieces are in place. But when they rip apart, the glue has to work harder to hold it all together. And it

can’t.” He drops his pile of pebbles and looks right at me, his eyes mirror images of mine. “You can’t. So stop being the glue.” “Like you? Like how you ran off and left us?” I ask, a cyclone of furious sadness and rage charging through me. “I can’t just give up everything. I can’t just leave the family.” “I agree.” 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, that I’m shaking and on the verge of breaking down. “What do you mean you agree?” My voice echoes in the quiet night, like the cry of something startled or wounded. “I mean, I left because leaving what what I had to do. I was a crutch. My staying was allowing Remy to get weaker and weaker, but still play at living. The only choice I had was to stop being the

crutch.” He runs a hand over his jaw. “I don’t think you should leave. But I think you’re done being the glue.” “I don’t like when you talk in metaphors,” I grumble, just to be contrary, just because my head is spinning and I have a feeling my brother, who I secretly thought was a runaway coward, may be the wisest of all of us. He reaches a long, muscular arm out and drags me close, so I’m wrapped

up in his clean, clover smell. And it’s so nice to feel a strong, smart Youngblood man who’s not falling apart, I cling to his shirt and bury my face in his neck. “Winch, how did it all get so fucked up?” I gasp out. He pats my hair with one hand and clutches me close in this other arm. “It got fucked up when we played by our parents’ rules. Benelli, there’s no one smarter than you. You’re gonna be the gamechanger

this family needs. You hear me? You’re so used to being stuck in the role they put you in, you don’t even see yourself anymore. You know who you are.” Who I am. A little girl in a hoodie running away? A cool-hearted, dolled-up lady during the day and a love-sick sex fiend at night? Someone who knows lies,

someone who keeps secrets, someone who’ll trade happiness for a ring and a promise that may never get fulfilled? Obedient daughter on the outside, explosive runner on the inside? “Do you think Pop cheated? Do you think there was anyone else?” I ask, my eyes prickled with a batch of new tears, my breath coming fast. Winch ducks his head and looks me in the eye, and I know, innately, that I

can trust my brother to tell me the truth. “Our father can be a real bastard. I’ve seen him do heartless things, Benelli, things that changed the way I looked at him forever. But he loves Mama. He loves her with his whole heart, and, as far as I know, he’s never cheated. Never.” I have so many things to worry about, this should be the last thing I would even contemplating inviting on my plate, but my shoulders, my heart, my soul sags

with relief at Winch’s pronouncement. “Winch, Abony told me that Pop bartered her for connections. He made her a mistress to some powerful guy he pissed off, and sent her to college when he was done.” I bite the inside of my cheek so hard I taste the metallic backwash of blood. He nods and blows a breath out. “I don’t doubt it. Benelli, there’s a lot of dark in our family. Pop has shielded you

from as much as he could, but I think it’s good for you to know. Because a lot of people know shit and bury their heads in the sand. You know I did for years. But you’re stronger than that.” Winch’s absolute confidence in me is the opposite of reassuring. We walk back from the lake in relative quiet, and I feel knee-jerkingly shaky. I realize what a huge deal my brother leaving was, and I feel like an idiot for blaming our family’s

problems on him. “Benelli?” Winch’s voice shakes me out of my reverie. We’re almost to the coffee shop. He’s looking down at the cobblestones, like he can barely say what he needs to say. After the particular set of confessions this evening, I wonder what could be making him worry. “About the marriage thing?” I wait while he attempts to collect his thoughts. He looks through the window

and we both see Evan, her hand curled around a mug of coffee, her eyes fixed on her phone, the blue light of the screen making her perfect face look, somehow, even more gorgeous. “You know how you asked about Pop cheating?” Winch says, his eyes never quite leaving Evan. I nod. “Well, I’ve lost a lot of respect for him about a lot of things. But the way he loves her? That’s probably what’s saved him from caving

into to every other dark thing in this life.” He rips his eyes away from Evan to look me in the eye, right in the eye, big brother stare-down style. “I don’t know much about how to not fuck up. I’ve fucked up so much. All I can tell you for sure, with no regrets, is that I love that girl. I love Evan every day, every second, and she makes me keep working hard to be a better person, a better man. If you’re gonna be able to do what I think you will

for this crazy, fucked-up family, you need somebody. Somebody who’s not a spoiled, entitled, Hungarian mama’s boy, okay? Don’t rush this marriage thing.” “The business--” I start to object but Winch cuts me off. “Fuck the business, Beni.” He leans close, his eyes flashing with something I don’t see all that often in my cool and calm brother’s face. It’s passion. “If you never listen to a word I say for the

rest of our lives, listen now. Choose love. Don’t take the easy way out. Choose someone who will push you and challenge you. Okay? Do that because that’s what you deserve.” He kisses my cheek and swings open the door to the cafe. Evan’s head pops up at the sound of the bell’s jingle, and I see a look on her face that squeezes my heart. Her eyes are wide and dark, her lips are curled in a knowing smile, and

her entire face and body screams, “I love you! Come over to me!” Winch beelines back to her, and I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised to see sparks ignite between the two of them. The way they touch, they connection they have, the gorgeous perfection of the two of them together makes me want the one person who wants nothing to do with me right now. I keep walking through the town,

and, when I get to Cormac’s apartment, even though I swore I wouldn’t wind up there, the room is dark. It’s too early for him to be asleep, so I know he must be out. This town is small enough that I could find him. But I’m not that desperate. I’m not. Nope. Not at all. Plus that, he’s probably working. He winds up staying with me until all hours of the night, and I know it’s taking a

toll on his work. He told me he’d nodded off during notes several days in a row. If he doesn’t keep up with his workload, they’ll cut him loose. Just when my guilty conscious is making me shake, my phone beeps and I hope it’s Cormac. It’s not. Exactly. I read Lala’s text twice: ‘Your pet is off his leash. His tears are a buzzkill and hes a cock blocker. Save me.’

I rush to the bar where, a few weeks ago, Cormac battered his fists defending me from Akos, and I fight through the bulldozing, elbowing, maddening mid-week crowd to find him, half hanging off the bar, a shot glass about to roll off the side and crash to the floor at his feet. Lala, a grimace spread across her face, throws a casual hand out to catch the glass before it plummets to its doom. “Thank God you’re here. Please

do something about him.” She’s jostling one knee and her left index nail is missing. She follows my sight-line. “I gave up cigs, but I went back to nail biting. Good god, were you jogging again? I need another fucking drink before my fun, rebellious youth dies in front of my eyes.” She turns back to the bar, and I approach Cormac, who’s studying his shoes with fixed intensity, his skin a particular shade of green usually reserved

for movie zombies. “Hey.” I sit next to him, and his automatic manners solder his spine and force a smile on his face. “Hello,” he says woozily, his green eyes rolling in his head. “I’m a bish...a bitch...I’m a little drunk.” “Can you make it home?” I put one hand on his cheek and he closes his eyes and nuzzles my palm, humming softly. “I think...I could” His

head goes heavy and I tip him back onto the bar, noticing the bartender sending a scowl in my direction. Lala notices, too, and she darts in front of us and uses her breasts to their best, most distracting advantage. It works like a charm, and I have time to text the only person I can think of to help. It sucks that that person happens to be the very last person Lala would want to see. 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, I don’t get a chance to warn her. Winch walks in and, though he never says a single word, people part on either side for him. My brother’s always had this effect on groups of people; 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. I know the instant Lala sees Winch. Her throaty laugh catches in her throat, and the bartender repeats his suggestive question about where she’s staying tonight twice, louder each time, because she’s ignoring him completely. Winch nods to her once, then comes directly to me and Cormac, even though Lala’s eyes follow him with a mixture of hope and resignation.

“This the professor?” he asks. My heart skips about nine beats. “How do you know?” I hiss. “Lala said something in front of Ithaca, and Ithaca’s friends with Evan, who told me. This is a tiny town, little sister. You can’t really expect to keep something like this a secret for long.” He turns his attention to Cormac, laughs, and shakes his head. “If this is gonna be your guy, you need to teach him to handle his

liquor, Beni. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone this drunk before.” Winch tilts his head to the side and slaps Cormac’s shoulder. “Hey! Hey, man! Can you hear me? We gotta go home! C’mon.” Winch slides one arm around Cormac and hoists him to his feet. I run to the other side and try my best to help, but I’m about five inches shorter, so I’m not doing much good. Lala gets up to help, but I shake my head at her

to let her know we’ve got him. She flicks a look at Winch, her eyes wide and her mouth tight, then nods. When I look back, she’s leaned over the bar, and the bartender has handed her a cigarette and is holding out a lighter. The cool night air seems to revive Cormac. He groans. “‘Scuse me, mate,” he slurs. “I need to just go to this side for one quick thing.” He sits awkwardly on the curb and

shakes his head a few times, then squints up at my brother. “Do I know you from somewhere?” “He’s my brother, Cormac. You’ve seen his picture in my room.” I glance at Winch nervously, but he’s not passing any judgment on why Cormac would have been in my room looking through my pictures. “Ah!” Cormac nods, then holds out a hand. My brother shakes it. “I’m the guy

who’s madly in love with your sister, but we need to keep it on the downlow. It’s a first priority secret.” My brother is attempting not to double over and die of laughter. “Right, man. I got it.” Cormac stands, not quite straight, but completely unaided. “Thank you.” His voice is semi-sober and sincere as he addresses Winch. “I’m an idiot, and I appreciate you saving me before I

poisoned my liver. If you ever need a favor, I am in your debt.” Winch laughs and shrugs, at a loss for words. Cormac turns to me, his green eyes gorgeously bleary and sad. “And you? I drank and drank in a desperate attempt to forget your face. And when I saw it again, I realized that I don’t care how terribly this blows up on me, Benelli Youngblood. I never want to live a day without seeing your face. Do you hear me? Do you understand

me? I love you.” The words shock me. They shock me cold and quiet and stick right in the back of my throat so I can’t swallow or breathe, and I can’t even think. “And now, my beautiful girl, I’m going home,” Cormac announces. As he steps of the curb and nosedives. Winch manages to leap over me and barely catch him before he hits the

street. “Whoa. You almost bashed your brains in!” My brother is having a riot fest. Cormac looks shaken. “Where the hell did that curb come from?” “Lead the way, Beni. We need to get this guy home quick.” We make the slow journey back to Cormac’s, and Winch half-hauls him up the stairs and shoves him on his bed.

“You got this?” I nod, looking at Cormac’s eyes, half-rolled back in his head. “He’s cool, you know. I like him.” Winch hesitates in the doorway. I raise an eyebrow and look down at Cormac, snoring lightly as he nearly rolls off the mattress. I catch him by the shoulder and haul him back toward me. “This guy?” I point down. “You, Winch Too-Cool Youngblood, think he’s

cool?” “Okay, not like cool like in the obvious way. But he’s straight-up funny. And honest as hell. And...this is weird enough for me to say, considering I’m your big brother and all, but when he looks at you? Beni, that’s love. That’s crazy, stupid, out-of-his-damn-mind love, and it’s got nothing to do with whatever Hungarian moonshine he drank tonight. That’s all about you.”

And, just like that, before I can answer him or ask him a single question or argue or agree, Winch is gone, 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. In his sleep, Cormac throws an arm out, and his hand lands on my leg. He rubs up and down my thigh and half smiles in his sleep. “Mmm. Benelli,” he murmurs.

My heart jumps cliff dives into the whirpool that is my stomach when I realize the fact I’ve been attempting to ignore, but can’t anymore. I love him. I straight up love this stupid, crazy, funny, sweet, perfect guy. I run my fingers over his short, dark hair and wonder what it would be like if he was the one. He’s definitely smart enough for business. He’s loyal enough to stick with my family. He’s

hardworking and charming and... Goofy. And crazily in love with books and reading and translations. And dreamy. And poetic. My family’s business would hatchet every romantic piece of him and feed the bloody bits to the wolves. He would never survive a Youngblood business deal, even the ones that are completely clean. This business takes a certain knack, a certain disposition, and

Cormac doesn’t have it. Not at all. I get up because I need to keep busy or my thoughts are going to drive me insane. I pull off his shoes and socks, unzip his pants and tug them down, leg by leg. I pull his shirt over his head and admire him in all his lean, muscled glory. The bright blue numbers on his alarm clock alert me to the fact that it’s late. I should be home in bed, because my parents are coming by in the morning.

We’re supposed to have a breakfast together. 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. “I think I love you,” I whisper. His mouth hangs open and he snores and moans a little. The image of Winch kissing Evan by the lake flashes through my mind. I

want that. I want it so badly. He got it by turning his back on our family, and now I realize why. Now that being a Youngblood is forcing me to choose between the family I love and the man I love, I know exactly what my brother felt and why he made the decisions he did. Why he did what he had to do. “What kind of family does that?” I ask Cormac’s sleeping form out loud.

“How can they love me so much, 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, his hands searching me out, his arms pulling me tight even in the depths of his drunkenness. “You. What I want is you, Cormac Halstrom.” It’s late at night, and in a few hours, it will be past the time when I can make it back to my bed undetected. I can

stay awake and try to steel my will, 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. Or I can do 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. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to turn to or who to trust or what to think, and I’m scared out of my mind to make a decision either way. And

then I realize there’s another option. I can just fold myself into his arms and sleep. The time will pass. The sky will lighten. And, when day comes, the decision will have been made. I’ll start my life with Cormac. I lie down, my back spooned to his chest, and he throws a strong, long arm over my ribs and tugs me tight, so I’m fitted against him, spine to ribs, hair to mouth, feet entwined, netted and woven.

And then I sleep. *** “Awed by her splendor/ stars near the lovely/ moon cover their own/ bright faces/ when she/ is roundest and lights/ earth with her silver.” Cormac’s voice is in my ears, but when I open my eyes, I don’t see the oranges and pinks of dawn. It’s still the midnight and silver of deep night, and he’s not kissing me awake for romance.

“More Sappho you remembered?” I stall, smiling at him. “Re-learned,” he corrects, kissing me softly on the lips. “I had this weird feeling I might fuck up, leave you horny in your room, get so drunk at a bar that I’d wind up stumbling around in front of your incredibly macho brother, and would probably have to be carried to bed on his broad shoulders...I’m slightly clairvoyant when it comes to my own miserable

failings. So I memorized some particularly beautiful verses...the ones that most reminded me of you. And I will shamelessly use them to win you back to my very, very marginal good side.” He kisses me again, his lips lingering a tiny bit this time. He doesn’t pull completely away when he says the rest. “By the way, I’m very sorry. And, if it makes you feel better, 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. So, I think the gods are telling me that I was very wrong yesterday. Or earlier tonight. Or wherever we are in time. Just...yes, sorry. The point is definitely that I’m sincerely sorry.” “I was wrong.” I sit up and pull the covers over my shoulders in the chilly night air. “I was an idiot, Cormac. And I’m ready.”

His face goes pale. “To get married?” I feel my cheeks burn. “Is that what you want?” He widens his eyes and blinks. “Me?” “Not you?” My head spins like I drank. “You want to marry me?” he asks slowly, and I can’t tell if he would rather hear a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’

“Did you not” 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. It’s just that last time we talked he seemed so...ready. “I want you!” He pulls me back to him, presses me under his body and kisses me, first softly, then with more aggression. “My god, I want you every second of the day, Benelli.” He runs his hands over my

hair, along my shoulders, down my body. “And not just in bed. I mean, I want you here, but only for me. As mine, only, not anyone else’s. When I see you out on your dates, I want to beat the shit out of every one of those guys.” I moan a little, loving the feral side of Cormac that he usually keeps buttoned up. “They’re just dates, Cormac. You’re the only one I want to touch me.” “Like this?” He shoves his hand up

the leg of my shorts and tears away at the fabric of my underwear, so his two fingers slide deep inside of me, deep in where I’m already wet and ready for him. “Yes,” I choke out, my head tilted back, waiting. He draws his fingers back out and presses them in. Out an in, slow and steady, until I’m panting under him. “You want me to touch you like this, Benelli?” His voice scratches in my ears.

“Mmmhmm.” I want to answer, to talk back, but the slide of his fingers seems to be directly connected to my vocal chords, and the thrumming, humming vibrations echoing through my body don’t allow anything more articulate. “Where else, love? Should I suck on you too?” His voice is so calm, so soft and low in my ears. I only nod, but his free hand twists my tank top and yanks it over my head. His fingers flick the clasp

of my bra open and press and pull at my suddenly exposed breasts. “You want me to suck here?” His lips close over my nipple, and I press my hips up harder against his hand, so hard my clit rubs against his wrist and he slides even deeper into me. He sucks hard, pulling his mouth away with a pop of suction, then catches the other in his mouth and tongues it until I’m jerking my hips harder against him.

“That’s it. Come for me. C’mon, Benelli,” he whispers. I shake my head and he nuzzles the underside of my breast again, sending a new wave of heat through me, so unbearably sweet and cruelly gorgeous, my moan fractures and sputters. His tongue slides down, bisecting between my breasts, down my belly button, under the waistband of my shorts. He sits up and pulls them off my legs, his

green eyes almost black, his mouth a flat, hungry line, his breathing so heavy it’s making his chest rise and fall visibly. The tight stretch of his cotton boxer briefs shows the hard length of his dick, and I want it. I want him in me, over and over, all night. I want him in the morning, the entire morning, not just for that one single second before I have to watch him repel down the side of the house. I want him for the complete day. I

want to have him meet the family I love, not just the one brother who can keep a secret. Because I don’t want to keep Cormac a secret anymore. him. I do. And I want everyone to know it. I push him back on the bed and yank his boxers off, loving the way he lies back and smiles, looking up at me like I’m the only thing that matters to him in the

world. “I love you,” I say, my voice fierce, my hands firm on his shoulders. His smile falters and he backs up, so I slide a few inches down his thighs. There’s a moment of sizzling, crackling tension in the air between us. “Pardon?” he asks, the question so dazed and proper, it almost makes me burst out laughing. But I don’t. I pull closer on his

lap, the wet, ready center of me sliding right where he’s hard and eager. “Don’t say anything.” I lean forward and kiss his strong jaw, the perfectly kissable, witty mouth, over each dark-lashed eye, into his dark hair, which smells like the ink and paper he loves. “You’ve fought for me. You’ve challenged me. You’ve begged me and left me and come back to me, and I just want to tell you that I love you. Not for sex, not for a

summer fling. I love you, all of you. And I want you. All of you. And I have no idea, not a single idea, how this is going to work, but it is. I will figure this out, because I’m not leaving you. I’m never leaving you.” His mouth is hanging open, and there’s this solitary flash of a second where I’m sure, I’m positive, I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life, 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. Then he drags me in his arms and crushes me against his hard chest, only pulling back to kiss me solidly on the lips. When he pulls back, his eyes are bright with determination. “I love you. If Odysseus could make it back to Penelope, we can figure this out, love. We can do this.”

I laugh at his random literary metaphor, at the way I feel so perfect, so damn me when I’m in his arms, and the kissing gets more intense until it morphs into touching, and before I know it, his hands are on my hips and his fingers are sliding against me, making my entire body ache and quake around a deep down need to feel him against me, in me, all over me. I reach over for my bag and fumble to take out a condom and roll it on. I slide

onto him, and the stretch of his dick inside me takes a few seconds to get accustomed to. After those few seconds, I rock back and forth against him, focusing on the smooth, solid length of him, the rough scratch on his hands on my arms, my breasts, up and down along my thighs. I close my eyes and bite my lip to keep a rhythm, to keep moving against him, but it’s not enough, not close enough. I don’t have to say anything; like

he can read my frustrations, Cormac sits up and pulls me tighter, wrapping my legs around his hips and thrusting into me, deeper, longer, 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. “I think about you in the shower, Benelli, how your skin would look naked

and wet and slippery with soap. 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.” His voice catches on my gasp. “I do a thousand translations with a stiff cock, because I’m imagining what it would be like if you showed up and took it in your mouth and sucked it hard. I want to sit you on my desk and spread your legs, lick every inch of you until you come in my mouth.”

He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t attempt to soften anything, and it’s a turn on equal to his whispered poems. I love that he can be so wild and erotic and romantic and sweet all at once. He keeps whispering things that make my cheeks burn, things that make me jerk and thrust against him, and I get hotter, wetter, move faster and brush against him harder. Every single image flickers through my brain and snaps one more

thread in the chord that’s tethering me to him. And then it’s completely broken, and I’m pressed on top of him, face buried in his shoulder, arms wrapped around his strong, muscled back, gasping out his name as he strains against me, his body completely tense for a few perfect seconds before we both topple, spent and sweaty, in a heap on the bed. “That was...holy fucking

Aprhodite’s fucking...Benelli!” He groans, then drags me on top of him and kisses my neck and breasts and face. “How will the poor, 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?” I giggle. “You’ll have to move me in with you.” His face goes serious. “Would

you?” I thread my fingers through his. “Would I what?” “Would you...move in...with me? To my stuffy one-room loft awesomely furnished with a hot plate and a single bed?” He bats his eyelashes at me. “Did you just bat your lashes at me?” I smile and kiss his jaw. “Yes. I’m willing to stoop to new lows for you.” He cups my face in his

hands. “In all honesty, I know you’re a powerful woman from a powerful family, and I’m nothing but a strange professor educated in one of, literally, one of the least useful fields. Ever. Really. It’s awful. I’m laughably useless as a working adult human in every way except one very rare specific one. But I would do anything...anything I needed to to try this. Should we try this?” I nod and swallow. “Yes,” I

whisper. “Let’s try.” He pulls my face down and kisses me. “So, if I pull you down next to me and we fall asleep in perfect contentment, 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. “You’ll have to meet my parents. For breakfast.” He goes completely still for a few

seconds before he relaxes and kisses me on the forehead. “Get some rest then. We’ll need our wits about us tomorrow.” He yawns. “We’ll just tell them. It will be ripping off a band-aid,” I whisper, my heart seizing. He yawns again and kisses my neck. “Mmm...or like facing a firing squad.” I juggle a sudden chuckle and an

icy splash of terror before I fall asleep for the second time in Cormac’s bed tonight.

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 wake to the soft, sweet length of Benelli in my arms, but know we’re already running behind for a meeting with her parents...a meeting I’m half positive will end up with me

bashed over the head by Hungarian goons, weighted with cement shoes, and tossed into the local lake. I take a long moment to enjoy the view of Benelli, naked, dreaming, in my bed, before I shuffle to the bathroom and try to scrub away the worst of last night’s encounter. I can’t do much about my bloodshot eyes and overall pallor, but I clean up as best I can and shave. Nothing screams ‘hippie professor with no

potential’ like sloppily tended facial hair. I’m searching through my clothes for a responsible outfit when Benelli stirs awake. I stay still for a moment just watching her rub her feet together and stretch first one, then the other, fisted arm over her head. Ridiculously adorable. She blinks sleepily. “Good morning, gorgeous,” I greet

her. “Are you ready to run away with me, purchase fake passports, and herd reindeer in the northern reaches of Finland like we agreed to last night?” She rolls her eyes and smiles. “They’re not so bad. You’re psyching yourself out, Cormac.” She gets up and walks, stark naked, to the bathroom. “They’re going to love you!” she calls over her shoulder. “I appreciate you offering a lovely

view of your rump to try to distract me and make me actually buy into that lie, but I know it’s horseshit. What parents would be happy to have their daughter dating me?” I put on a pair of trousers and shoes. Real shoes. Real shoes are important. “The last time I met the parents, they were encouraging her to use me in an elaborate jealousy plot. I have a pretty shit track record with this kind of stuff.” She pokes her head out of the

bathroom. “Her parents were idiots.” She’s using her finger to smear toothpaste on her teeth. “You can use my toothbrush,” I suggest, and she pops her head back out, eyes wide with shock. “It that such a strange suggestion?” She draws her mouth to the side. “It just personal. Sharing a toothbrush.” I button my shirt and grin at her. “I

hate to be crass, but when you think about what of yours I’ve had in my mouth and what of mine you’ve had in yours...” She throws a comb at me before I can finish, but I see her pick up my toothbrush and use it. It was my own suggestion, but now, watching her take it, it does strike me as exceedingly personal. Nina and I were planning to get married and I wouldn’t have considered lending her my

toothbrush or borrowing hers. We were also together for five times longer than the time I’ve known Benelli, but, when I look back, Nina seems like an acquaintance I barely knew. 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. “What are you thinking about?” Benelli asks, slipping her clothes back on. “Plugging up holes,” I answer.

She narrows her eyes at me. “Is that another lame attempt at a dirty joke? Because it’s seriously pathetic.” I just shake my head, because now, in the light of the morning, she feels even more real, and that makes this whole thing feel even more nerve-wracking. What if she slips through my fingers? What if her parents hate me? There’s a very, very good chance they will. On the other hand, 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, pulling her hair in a neat ponytail. “I can tell it’s not a dirty joke. You kind of look like you’re going to puke. Are you okay?” She sits down by me and lays a

cool hand over my forehead. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull this particular bow back, is all,” I confess, taking her palm and kissing it. “Are you talking about Odysseus again?” She rubs her nose on mine. “You’re Odysseus, okay? I know you are. You’re going to pull the bow back. No questions.” “You’re just trying to get into my pants again, aren’t you?” I grab her by the

hips and swing her onto my lap. She wraps her arms around my neck and inhales a long, deep breath. “You smell so good. You look so cute, all buttoned up and freshly shaved. But I can’t have sex with you right now.” 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, raising her eyebrows high. “No. I need to get back to my aunt’s. I need to change.”

So I take her back through the new dawn of the first day we’re officially together. When we get to Abony’s house, I automatically go to the back. She tugs on my hand. “No. Probably the front. Right?” Benelli presses her lips together and wrings her hands over and over. “Or the back is okay I guess?” I pull her in my arms and kiss her, but she only pecks back. “Don’t worry.

Listen to me, don’t worry. I’ll go down the road, right where the shrine to the Virgin is. You know the one?” She nods. “When you’ve talked with your parents and are ready, text me, and I’ll show up.” “But...I don’t want to lie anymore about this,” she says, chewing on her lip. “We won’t be lying,” I assure her. “I mean, we will be lying about some things, like the fact that I had crazy sex with you all night. Your parents don’t

need to know that little detail. But no lies about anything important. Nothing big, okay?” I take her hands in mind, and they’re clammy and shaky. Not a good sign. “Okay. Okay.” She nods and gives me one quick kiss, then slips into the house. I wait on the bench, staring at the chipping statue of the Virgin, arms spread

wide, fading bunches of silk flowers tied with tattered ribbons at her feet. If I was a praying man, I’d pray now. And she looks like a nice goddess to pray to. But I’m not a praying man. I’m a believer in chance and fate and whatever happens happening for reasons that have nothing to do with some all-powerful deity. All I have to rely on is myself, and

that’s not exactly the most comforting thought. My phone buzzes with a single word: “You” I head to Abony’s feeling like there is a ton of stones in my gut. Benelli’s father is the overlord of this family, and I know his opinion of me will be the absolute ruling. I feel like Odysseus facing a god. I

just don’t know if it’s Zeus or Poseidon I’m about to stare down. Am I about to get a curse or a reprieve? From the doorway, I can see Abony’s formal dining area is set up with platters of fresh breads and rolls, cheeses, deli meats, bowls of cereals with serving spoons, pots of honeys and jellies, urns of coffee, pitchers of milk, and one incredibly gorgeous, intimidating family seated around the banquet.

Benelli looks transformed. Her hair is piled on top of her head in all these little coils, she’s wearing a white and blue striped dress with this wide neck that makes me think of garden parties, and her face is made up, the makeup covering the dark circles and the sweet, pink blush of her true skin tone. I recognize Winch sitting next to a beautiful, somber-looking girl with black hair and a grimly held mouth. Abony puffs

on her cigarette with a dreary, bored expression, and Benelli is staring at the table, waiting. It’s a relief to know some people at this table. 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, someone who added further debauchery to said night in the form of sexual amazingness, and someone who seems to want to dabble in some illicit

cougarish sexual craziness with me. They don’t form any trinity of very positive possible first impressions, and I’m desperate to make a good impression with Benelli’s frightening parents. I muster all my courage and step into the room, armed with a handful of wildflowers that I hold out to Benelli. She stands up and comes to me, and when she takes the flowers, I focus on her face, because otherwise, I think I

might pass out. “Thank you,” she whispers and her lips curl into an encouraging smile. “Breathe.” “Cormac, what lovely flowers,” Abony purrs throatily, looking very much like she’d rather skip the spread on the table and take a colossal bite out of me. “Someone should get a vase. 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. I recognize the willowy blonde as Benelli’s little sister, one half of the twin set, and, though their coloring is completely different, feature-wise Ithaca could be Benelli’s sour younger double. I give the girl a wave, but she only growls as she swipes the bouquet out of Benelli’s hands with a rough yank. Benelli’s mother, gorgeous and poised, grits her teeth through a practiced

smile as her eyes follow her daughter’s receding stomp. “Cormac, how nice to meet you. Please excuse Ithaca. She’s...jet lagged.” “You can just say she’s an asshole,” a guy who looks like a younger, leaner version of Winchester speaks up. “Watch your mouth,” the patriarch barks from his throne in the center. “Sorry,” the young guy quips, clearly not all that sorry.

“Welcome, Cormack,” the headman says. “Excuse my children. They’re at that age.” He rubs a hand over his thinning, silvering hair. I shake first Benelli’s mother’s hand, then her father’s, and am invited to sit between Benelli and her aunt and directly across from her father, an imposing overlord of a man. Abony and Benelli and her mother shovel ridiculous amounts of food onto my

plate, pour me coffee, and generally fuss over me. I have to admit, it’s a nice change. My mother was a surgeon who took positions at various naval hospitals during my father’s deployments. I was adequately fed in my youth, but a nice bowl of cold cereal or an unmushy banana was feast-like for me on my average morning. And I’d been serving myself meals since I was a young boy. This is pure decadence.

“So, Benelli tells me you’re real smart,” Mr. Youngblood says bluntly. His wife looks at him and then me with interest, and Evan tries to hide the smile that’s probably the requirement of a young, most likely brash, woman coming in contact with any foreign family’s particularly domineering head. But I’m very used to military life and the eradication of social lubricants in order to get to the root of any problem.

“I am currently working on completing my thesis work,” I explain after I swallow the most glorious piece of raspberry bun known to man. “I will most likely defend my thesis in the winter, and then, yes, I’ll be very smart. On paper. And only in the realm of things that have to do with antiquities and the classics. Other than that, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I’m mostly an idiot.” The entire table stares at me, and I

feel the general prickle that comes just before I assimilate with new people. I’m, by and large, a friendly and easy-to-getalong-with guy, but I realize full well that I have my own eccentricities, and this is a family who seems to appreciate brevity. And manliness. And pull-yourself-up-bythe-bootstraps work ethic. Not that I don’t work, of course. But side jobs filling in baptism certificates with looping calligraphy

probably don’t rank very high in the Youngblood stratosphere. “And what about after that?” Mr. Youngblood looks at Benelli with clear fondness. “My daughter tells me you don’t necessarily have any plans as far as a job goes but might” “Oh.” 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. I expected this to be, at very best, a nice introduction and judgment day and, at worst, an uncomfortable brush off. But this feels I’m on to the interview stage. This is too far along in the process. “Well, uh, after my thesis, I would most likely try to find employment in a college.” Mr. Youngblood nods and runs his fingers along his freshly shaved chin, the

gold and emerald ring on his pinky finger glinting in the light. “I hear in the news that the colleges are cutting more and more courses every year. No offense intended, but I’d assume that the area you’re in isn’t exactly what any college would consider, you know...crucial?” I notice Evan roll her eyes and sigh. Benelli is tapping her foot in a furious panic under the table. “Well, if I didn’t land a position at

a university, there’s always being a waiter. Or a bartender.” Mr. Youngblood looks at me with humorless, unblinking eyes. “Of course. Not funny at all. Really not funny when you consider I’ve never waited a table or made a drink. So, um, yes, I would say I’m very open to jobs. To job recommendations. Do you have? Any? Recommendations?” I half expect Benelli’s hand to fly out and swat me in the back of the head,

but it stays twisted deep in the linen folds of her napkin. His smile is wide, so wide I spot what might be the glint of a gold tooth nestled somewhere among his back molars. It’s like he’s been laying a little trail of cheese, and I’ve finally followed it through the maze and to the end. Good mouse that I am! I nibble the cheese and hope it isn’t poisoned.

“Benelli has been here looking for a husband. I know you know this. And, let’s lay the cards on the table here.” Mr. Yougblood leans back in his chair and looks at me through slitted eyes. “You aren’t the husband I had in mind for my little girl.” Husband. Marriage. Every sweat gland I have in my entire body is wide open and fully

operational. “Right.” I blink away the spots that are forming in front of my eyes and nod. “Right. I can see that. If we’re laying our cards out, as it is, then I can say that I agree with your opinion. I am underemployed. Overeducated. And, you know, even if I had sound employment and hedge funds or whatever successful guys my age have, I would never be good enough for your daughter. Never. She’s...”

I look at her, and the urge to vomit or pass out flies through the window. I look at this girl, this perfect, amazing girl, and I say what’s the truth. “She’s too good for me. She’s brilliant and gorgeous and kind. She’s going to do amazing thing, I know that. And I’d be proud to just bumble along next to her while she does.” Benelli slides her hand into mine and squeezes. Evan sighs and Ithaca says, “Well,

he talks super weird, but he’s sweet.” “Ithaca,” her mother snaps. “Is there ever a single thought you think that maybe, just maybe, you might want to keep in your own head?” “No,” Ithaca mutters, slumping down in her chair. I offer her a grateful smile, but she only glares my way. Benelli’s father is laughing, though, and pointing to me with a smile on his face. “I like this guy. I like him. He’s

like some kind of poet. We can use that. And any guy my little princess picks is a guy who’s solid. Benelli has a real knack for judging people. Well, we’ll make announcements soon if that’s that.” Benelli’s mother smiles, her aunt rubs a hand on my knee, her brothers nod at me, her sister rolls her eyes, and Winch’s girlfriends gives me a tiny smile of understanding, like she’s saying, “Yep. You’re fucked, buddy. Join the club.”

And I wonder what exactly we’re announcing and how her father could have made this decision this quickly and...if I want this. Do I want this? But Benelli’s face is shining with such total, absolute joy, I can’t say a word. I don’t have any that leap to mind, anyway, so I just smile like the fool that I am. While breakfast gets cleared by

the women, with the exception of Evan, the men head out back to smoke cigars. Winchester’s father hands me one and claps me on the back, telling me we’ll set up a time to talk later. Then Colt brings out a rifle, a real loaded gun, and the three guys examine it, talking excitedly about shooting cans and targets. I back up very slowly and find myself next to Evan. Her icy eyes cut down to the smoldering cigar in my hand,

and she smiles, a real, kind smile that lights her entire face up. “Ever smoke one before?” “Can’t say so,” I admit, holding it out to her. She holds it between her thumb and index finger, puts it to her lips and winks. “Don’t pull the smoke in too hard. Smoking a cigar isn’t like smoking a cigarette. It’s for the taste, basically, so you sort of draw the smoke in and hold it

mostly in your mouth.” She demonstrates, then shows off, blowing thick, smoky rings, before she hands it back. I take it clumsily and attempt to knock the ash off. “Not yet.” She puts a delicate hand on my arm and shakes her head. “You want to let it get, I don’t know, maybe an inch long? Maybe a little more. And stop looking so worried. You’re supposed to

be enjoying it. It’s just a cigar.” “‘Sometime a cigar is just a cigar,’” I quote. “This family would have taken over Freud’s life if he’d gotten the chance to study them.” She tilts her head and grins. “I’m Evan Lennox.” I switch the cigar to my left hand and extend my right. “Cormac Halstrom. A pleasure.” We sit and watch the three

Youngblood men. “It’s nice not being the only outsider,” Evan says, her eyes locked on Winch. “I never for one second regret meeting Winch. He’s the best thing in my life, seriously. But sometimes I wish he was an orphan.” I squirm a little at this information. It’s like a grenade got dropped into my lap, and now I’m just waiting for it to blow. “Benelli seems to have a very firm

attachment.” I’m treading carefully. Evan sweeps her black hair back from her face. “Yeah, she does. She’s kind of Comandante Youngblood’s little pet. But, then again, he never asked her to serve time for anyone else’s crimes or let her participate in illegal fighting rings, so...I guess I’m not the best person to talk to on this auspicious day.” Her words ride a fine line between acidically bitter and devastating.

“Winch had a hard time of it, then?” I ask. Benelli painted it as her brother running away from the family and his responsibilities. I have no siblings, so I don’t know what it’s like to have differing opinions of parents and situations. My childhood, my family, my present situation is mine all mine, with no people my own age to disassemble it with. Evan’s very pretty face blotches

for a minute, fury manipulating her features. “I know this is kind of spilling the beans, since we’ve known eachother for one crazy breakfast and half a decent cigar, but getting involved with the Youngbloods isn’t something you should do without information. Lots of it. I wish I’d had someone to tell me.” “That bad then?” I gasp out. The cigar smoke and the quick way my future is remapping itself are conspiring to choke

me. “Worse.” The frigidity of that single word is underlined by the way she wraps her arm around herself, like she’s warding off some kind of chill only she can feel. “I don’t always know what to do about it. The Youngbloods are master manipulators. When things got so bad -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. Winch is doing really well. He’s training to be a stone mason. And we love each other. My family really likes him. But his family? They have this pull. This really weird...” She shakes her head. “I can’t explain it. It’s like a force of nature. I want to respect it, you know, because I get how you can’t just tell your family to pack salt. No matter how much you should want to,” she mutters. “Any advice?” I’m having a hard

time swallowing. Or breathing. Or seeing clearly, through the dim visions of my future living under Mr. Youngblood’s enormous, all-encompassing thumb. 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. The harsh explosion of a stump makes me jump, and leaves shards of splintered wood over the entire yard. “Don’t fall under their spell.

Nothing’s what it seems in this family,” Evan warns before she gets up, smoothes the skirt of her dress, and heads to Winch. “Good luck, Cormac,” she calls over her shoulder. She makes it all the way across the long yard, says something so the guys that makes them laugh, then points to the distance. I squint and follow the direction her finger is pointing in. There’s a small pinecone hanging from a high branch in a

far off tree. Colt hands her the rifle, which she shoulders and fires. When the pinecone explodes, the men cheer and she beams. I wonder about Evan’s warning as she glows under their enthusiastic shouts. It’s got to be hard to resist the glamor of a family when they command such a natural charisma. “Ooh, is that the new Remington?” Benelli is next to me suddenly, her face

shiny and so filled with happiness, I can’t help but smile at her. “Pardon?” She laughs. “The rifle. The one Evan just showed off with.” Her voice loses some of its charmed happiness. “Oh, right. The rifle is a Remington.” I put an arm around her and she smiles up at me. “Do you want to shoot it?” she asks.

She obviously admires it, as does her family, but I have a little bit of a complicated relationship with guns. My father knew how to shoot one, because of his profession, and he taught me, but he and my mother didn’t like keeping them in or around the house. I guess that’s why it never occurred to me that Benelli was named after one. I didn’t put the two together, and honestly assumed that her parents just had an affinity for Italian-

sounding names. “That’s okay. It’s not really my, um, my kind of thing.” She continues to look at me as her father strokes the rifle and holds it out for his sons and Evan to admire. “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. “I have a feeling there’s more to

your question that what you’re actually asking.” I say the words slowly, and add a little steely edge to them. “Don’t mince words with me, Benelli. It isn’t necessary. If you think I flirted with Evan--” Her laugh is hard and a little bitter. “Flirted? Not at all. She’s just...not my family’s biggest fan, I guess. That’s all.” “Does she have reason not to be?” I cross my arms and stare at the cluster of

Youngbloods and Evan. “They’re good people,” Benelli insists. “They’re not perfect, but they’re good.” The way her voice coasts out, drawn and upset, helps me change my tune quickly. “They could be total monsters, and I’d still love them because of how they love you, Benelli. And I actually think your father didn’t hate me completely.” It’s a first for me, and I’m

proud of it. Benelli slides her hand against mine. “Of course he didn’t. He told me that he was happy I picked someone who would support me. He said he liked that you have brains. And he told me that my mother thinks you’re cute.” “So, apparently I’m your perfect match?” I kiss her softly, glad that she didn’t reapply lipstick after breakfast was done, 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.” “Are you okay with everything?” She puts one hand on my cheek and strokes it with her thumb. I open my mouth to say the only word that’s true. But ‘no’ isn’t, on reflection, the only word that’s true after all. Because I’m okay with anything

that makes things between Benelli and I go more smoothly. I’m okay with having her in my life however she needs me. “I’m more than okay,” I both lie and answer honestly, and in the shroud of happiness that insulates everything we’re doing here together, she accepts my answer without delving too deeply.

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. I always have. Wanted to get married in the autumn. 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. My father will look the other way when Winch and Evan sleep together in their own room at the family compound, but I am his little girl, and he’s made it clear that Cormac will only be allowed to share a room with me when we’re husband and wife. It’s only been a few weeks since my dad took Cormac under his wing and started watching his and my every move, and I miss being able to see

Cormac unchaperoned. I miss our freedom. I want to be able to go to him in private, whenever I need him, without having to sneak time with each other. I want our life together to begin as soon as possible. He has to propose, of course, but I know my mother has already showed him rings I might like, and my father has local jewelry guys he can get to help with the whole thing. I know it’s an important

detail, 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. “Your dad is ridiculously oldfashioned,” Lala gripes, sipping a Diet Coke and taking easy, gentle breaths through her mouth. She’s so hungover, breathing is giving her a massive headache. “Why are doing this to yourself?” I flip with cautious attention through another

ream of satin dress samples. “Is this about Winch?” Lala slams the book of dress patterns she was looking at shut and hops down off the stool, stomping her way to the door. “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. “Lala!” I finally manage to grab one slim, tanned shoulder. “What’s

the problem?” “Don’t,” she hisses, poking a finger into my chest. “Don’t you dare throw your ridiculous wedding in my face for weeks, then ask about Winch like...” Her fury melts away and her lip quivers. When she speaks again, her voice is cracked. “Like my heart isn’t breaking every time I see him with her. I can’t do this, Beni. 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.” I pull her into my arms and feel her body jerk and shudder under the force of her mounting sobs and hiccups. “Shhh,” I whisper, rubbing a hand along her back. “It’s okay, La. It’s okay. I’m so sorry. I’ve been a bitch, I’ve been so self-centered. Shhh. Let’s go to the spa, okay?” I pull my cell out and call our

usual place in town, even though I have a million things to do to get ready for everything that’s been rolling out at lightning speed. Sometimes I want those quiet days back, when Cormac and I could just stroll the streets and hike in the woods, lie in each other’s arms, and I could wear flip flops and hoodies and be... Young. Too young. Immature me. It’s time to grow up.

We’re already at the spa and Lala is calmed down and lying on the table, about to get a massage, when a phone call from Cormac rings through. It’s fairly rare for him to call me, so I step outside, excited to hear his voice. The time I see him is severely limited every day, and I cherish every stolen moment I get. “Benelli.” There’s a clipped, sharp quality to the way he says my name. “Cormac?” I walk into the street

and try to find any tiny spot with better service, because the reception is choppy and nearly constantly interrupted. “Your father got me out of my internship.” The words are flat. “Um. It was giving you a lot of stress, wasn’t it?” I’m trying. I’m trying hard to juggle everyone and everything, but Lala is inside, possibly still sobbing, Cormac is clearly unhappy, I know I need to try to tighten the reigns on my father...

“It was giving me a lot of stress because I’ve had no time to work on it,” he snaps. I hold the phone a few inches from my ear, shocked to hear Cormac’s voice so wired and angry when it’s directed at me. “I’m sorry. You could have told me, and I would have mentioned something to my father about--” “Benelli,” he cuts me off, and this time his voice just sounds exhausted.

“Listen to yourself, love. What would you have done? I’m a grown man, he’s a grown man. I never came to you because this was a situation I was well-equipped to handle. I’ve been doing my own work on my own for years now. I’m coming to you now, because I need to talk to you. It’s important. Can you meet me this afternoon?” “Sure.” My hand is shaking, my stomach is crawling and icy and shredded

all at the same time. “Where? When?” “My apartment at four?” “I thought you’d given up the apartment.” My voice is hollow in my own ears. An hour and a half until...what? Is this the prelude to Cormac dumping me? Is this the end, like it was with Damian? Things have been tense, no doubt, but there’s been so much to plan for, 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,” he says, his voice strong but tired. “I’ll see you soon.” “Cormac!” I cry before he hangs up. I can hear his breathing on the other end of the line. “I...I love you,” I stutter, feeling embarrassed at the desperation in those words. Those words that should never be desperate.

His voice softens and flows over the lines. “I love you, too, Benelli. So much.” 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. Lala looks at me from the table, her eyes lazy until she sees my face. She sits up fast, not bothering to clutch the sheet to her. The masseuse hurriedly attempts to put the cotton sheet

over her breasts, but Lala pushes her hand away. “Beni, look at me. What the hell’s the matter?” she asks, her own problems pushed to the back burner so fast I know her brain and heart must be rollicking. “It’s...I’m...Cormac...” I don’t cry much. It’s a point of pride with me. But something in me uncorks, unhinges, loosens, and Lala opens her arms wide, and we’re holding

each other, my best friend half-naked, both of us taking turns sobbing and comforting, explaining our woes in garbled, incomprehensible terms, and then nodding and crying that we understand each other. “What the fuck?” Lala finally says, wiping her eyes on the sheet the frustrated masseuse finally managed to slip over her shoulders. “Are you on the rag?” I shake my head and let out a laugh, wet with tears. “This summer was

supposed to be fun,” I lament. “Let me put my damn clothes on, and you can tell me exactly what that bastard said when he called.” She slides off the table and slips her feet into her impossibly high heels. “He didn’t say anything.” I shrug. “Pop got him out of the internship, and he was pretty angry.” Lala just raises her light eyebrows and puckers her lips.

“What? What’s that look for?” I ask. “Nothing,” she singsongs as she walks to the counter with me chasing right at her clicking, stilettoed heels, and pays for our abbreviated massages. “It’s not ‘nothing.’ It’s definitely something or you’d just say it like you always say everything.” I grab at her wrist, but she shakes my hand off so she can nibble at her nail.

“I’m not going to say what you know I want to say because, one, you know what I want to say already, and, two, if I let you force me to say it, instead of dealing with it like the problem it it really is a problem, Beni, okay? It is. Instead of dealing with it, you’ll get all righteous and angry and fly into some psychotic rage at me. Fuck that, sweetheart.” She digs through her purse, takes out a pack of gum, finds it’s empty,

and chucks it back into her purse with a stream of curses that would make a swaggering juvenile delinquent blush. “Say it,” I demand, watching her dig deeper in the purse, her eyes tearing up. “Lala, look at me. Look at me! What the hell are you looking for?” “Cigs!” she screams, swinging her purse over her head and letting it smash into the ground. “Fucking cigs, Beni! And you know what, I’ll say it, okay? I’ll say

it! You can’t tell someone else how to live his life. You can’t tell Winch to lie for Remy, you can’t tell Remy to be done with rehab when he has his whole future and Alayah to worry about. You couldn’t tell Damian to work under your dad’s rules, and you can’t let your dad do this to Cormac!” She breathes hard, in and out, her chest rising and falling, and pushes a few pieces of blond hair out of her face.

I open my mouth and close it, but I just feel hot. Like a kettle steaming on the burner, I want to scream over how hot I am. “Don’t...don’t you dare talk about my family like that, my father like that,” I sputter, my rage unloosening quickly. “I’m sorry,” Lala begins and tries to put a hand on my shoulder. I slap it away and her eyes narrow to evil hazel slits. “You know what? I’m not sorry! I’m

not. You’ve always been such a little princess, everyone always took care of you and protected you. Well, you know what? You’re as fucked up as your fucked up family, and it’s about time you guys joined reality! Before you push away anyone who ever wants to get close to any of you.” She points a gnarled fingernail at me, and vicious, nasty words bubble up along my throat, popping out of my mouth

before I can get a handle on them. “Reality, 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, but not as much as I hate myself the moment I say them.

Lala blinks hard like I just smacked her across the face, and I see her neck move when she swallows two or three times. She shrugs, and her shoulders seem so frail and thin suddenly. “Okay. Fine. I can handle the truth, even if it does blow. But you listen to me. You drove Damian away, and that was probably more good luck for you, because he was an asshole. But Cormac? You’ve got

something real, something better than you might even deserve. And you’re letting it go. If you can’t admit that, that’s your own problem. But, trust me, you’ll regret this if you fuck it up, Benelli. You need to stand up for yourself and the guy you love, even if that means standing up to your allpowerful father.” She whirls on her heel and stomps away. I should call her back. I should demand she turn around and hear me out,

but what is there left to say? We’ve peeled back everything, exposed the hurtful truths and shoved them in each other’s faces. I slide onto the sidewalk outside this fancy spa in my gorgeous, tight dress, messing my straightened hair, crying off my perfectly applied makeup. I feel like I’m trying to navigate an endless tightrope walk across a deep chasm, and my feet are bruised and my arms are tired and I might just fall down,

down, down because staying upright is taking so much out of me, I’m only just surviving. When I finally push up off the ground and head to Cormac’s, I’m scared and tired and my head feels clogged and stupid. He’s waiting for me at the door outside his place. He stands when he sees me, and my heart jumps. He’s so damn handsome. My mother’s cooking has filled

him out a little, so he doesn’t have that gaunt, half-starved student look. He’s wearing crisp, tailored clothes, bought for him by my father, who never consulted Cormac about them because there’s an expectation in my family that we all look our best at all times. It’s not exactly wrong. But it’s not completely kosher. So much of what my family does rides that line.

He doesn’t say anything, just leads me up to his room, his quiet strength something I want to sink into. Except that I’m planning on fighting it, beating it back and forcing Cormac to become someone loud and whiny and not who he is at all. And there’s no way around this reality. People have to change. They have to evolve. That’s life. And, if Cormac wants a life with me, he’ll have to do

what we’ve all done; trade a little bit of himself to fit in with the bigger whole. That’s what life is. That’s what love is. Giving up something to be part of something bigger. Right? “Don’t cry, love.” He sits me on his bed and puts his arms around me. I bury my face in his shirt and sniff, but I think the smell of paper and ink is the stale smell of it that hangs around his room. I

don’t think it clings to him anymore. And, though I didn’t realize I even was crying when he told me not to, I start to sob. 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, and I’m tugging him down, pulling him to me by his new, pressed collar and kissing him hungrily. I want to be with him this instant, in this moment when there are still remnants of the Cormac and Benelli

who fell in love, before he agrees to change or... Or before he decides to stay exactly, perfectly who he is. And I lose him. Which would hurt more? Instead of focusing on my future loss and pain, I run my hands over his body, hot and ready against mine. My fingers work fast slipping buttons open, pressing zippers down, tangling in

waistbands and shoving south, away, off. He’s completely naked and I sit up, tearing at the dress that’s so tight, it’s encasing my skin. “I...want!” I gasp, hearing the pop and tear of the seams at the sleeves. “I need this off now!” Cormac’s hands slide over mine, move them away gently, and pull me up so I’m standing in front of him. He undoes the dress with sure hands, his breathing slow

and focused, his green eyes almost black because the pupils are fully dilated and seem to be sucking me in, pulling me close, refusing to look away or let me go. My dress slips to the floor, and I’m standing in front of him in my underwear and heels. I fold my arms over myself, holding my elbows tight and lean against him. He slides an arm under my legs and hauls me to the bed, pulling the covers back with an awkward hand and

laying me down under them because I’m shivering in the fresh air, chilled with the promise of an autumn that’s coming soon. So soon. He lies down next to me and kisses my mouth, soft and incessant, until it’s like I’m breathing him in and out, my body twisted tight to his, my heart beating and my lungs bellowing in a pattern he sets. His arms are locked around me, anchoring my body close to his body. He

lets my hands run crazy, touching and pulling at his skin like I can’t possibly grab enough, 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. “I love you,” I breathe into his mouth, down his throat, low and deep where he can keep the words inside him. He finally pulls back, just enough so our lips rasp against each other’s, our noses barely graze, our eyes can’t quite

focus. “I love you, Benelli. Always. Through everything. Do you understand?” I nod because I can’t force a verbal agreement past the lump in my throat, and he’s back to his never ending cycle of kisses. It’s strange how they can evolve, how we can evolve, how our love can evolve in just a few seconds. What satisfied our bodies before we re-declared our feelings isn’t doing it anymore. The kisses that satiated every

physical and emotional need are now cruel teases. The lock of his arms was a focused comfort a few heartbeats ago; now it’s a muscled bond that crushes me too tight, keeps me from accessing what I need. There’s a tremor, an explosion, a switch flipped and we’ve gone from gentle to wild, nipping lips, dragging fingernails, digging fingers deeper into every curve of skin, crushing bodies so

close and so frantically, it’s bruising and pleasing and not enough...never enough. “More,” I beg, and he slides down, the crisp hair of his arm rasping against the creamy skin of my stomach, the bumps of his wrist rubbing at my inner thighs, and slips inside me, finally, his fingers quick and determined, his mouth coasting down to follow the buck of my hips. It’s a distance of only a few short inches, and it’s miles too far. I tug on the

muscled column of his thigh, reposition his hips, and we’re intimately positioned, the length of him in my mouth and sliding, long and hard, against my tongue. The covers bunch and pull tight against the curve of my ass as he grabs them in his fists and yanks, the muscles in his arms taut and shaking as I lift my head and draw him in, the salty, firm pressure mixing perfectly with the velvet suction of my mouth, my lips, my greedy, licking

tongue. He bites gently along the insides of my thighs, the silky brush of his hair butting against my skin as he nuzzles my skin, sinking his mouth and tongue into me, along my folds. Just when the rhythm goes from frantic to chaotic, he rips his head away, pulls his hips up and leaves my mouth empty and ready for whatever different, more, something, him. The lean, muscled length of him

glides over me, and we lock eyes, lock hands, twist our legs tight, set our mouths against each other’s, and then he thrusts deep into me, jarring our bodies into twining, knocking, wrangling, desperate knots of limbs pushing and pulling like there’s a finish line we’re racing towards and away from at the same time. I feel like I can count the strokes until I tremor and constrict around him, but I’m always one away, like I can’t stand to

pry open my fists and brain and heart and let go with him. His mouth tugs at mine, his face nuzzles my neck. “Open your eyes.” I shake my head. He thrusts harder, deeper, and my body quakes, but doesn’t give in. “Open your damn eyes,” he orders, his voice gritty and husky as it skids on his words. “Can’t,” I gasp, my legs wrapping

around his waist, pulling him closer. I can feel the muscles of his perfect ass strain to pull back from my hold so he can press against me, torture me to the perfect place he wants me at. I want me at. I just can’t...I can’t... “Open your eyes, Benellli,” he growls. “Open them. I love you, look at me, I love you.” I have no intention of opening my

eyes, but his words tug at something uncontrollable in me, and, when my eyes fly open, all I see is his face, his eyes staring into mine, his mouth moving from a straight, frustrated line to a sudden, quick smile. My fingers dig into his shoulders, I burrow my face into his chest and let everything in me shake and shudder around him. I am unraveled, ignited. I feel exactly the way I used to feel as a kid at

the lake, running like mad to the end of the dock for that single, sweet arc over the water, that moment of flight between the solid ground and the splash of the water, and right now Cormac is the slatted wood of the dock, the weightless flight, and the cradle of the waves lapping in the sun. I pull against him, hold tight for a single still second, then another, and one more before everything rocks, and I’m shaken from my core out, my body

released and reconstructed. There are other tenants in his apartment who would be home during the day. There are people on the street, just outside the open window. But my body is sure we’re alone in a universe we created solely for the two of us, and I scream, plastering to him and shaking hard and long against his laugh, his hold, his unconditional love. Unconditional unless he tugs it out

of my clenched fists when this is all over. He peels me back from him, the sweat glistening on our bodies, but his smile falls when he sees my face. “Why do you like that?” “Like what?” I choke, my dread slowly filling my throat. He sits up, tugging me on his lap, smoothing my wild, tangled hair with his hands. “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, and I’m doubly shocked that it sounds amused instead of distraught. “Do you think that’s funny?” I ask, not angry, even though my voice tricks my ears into believing I might be. “I think it’s funny if you think that’s a possibility. Because I’m not going anywhere.” His smile starts at his lips and

works its way right up to his eyes, which are alight with laughter. “But you called...” I frown when his laughter descends from his eyes to his lips and he’s directing it at me. “What are you laughing at?” Now the hilarity dims slightly. “We used to laugh.” His eyebrows raise. “A lot. Do you remember that?” I nod. “Are you saying we don’t anymore?”

“Do we?” He’s using his teacher voice. The one I hate. Because it’s always right. Damn it. “Sometimes things are stressful, Cormac. Not everything is always so damn hilarious all the time.” I kick a foot out and examine my toes. The first thought that runs through my mind is that if my mother sees them, she’ll send me out to get a pedicure because they’re chipped. And that’s not

okay. That set of facts makes me laugh. Cormac sits up straighter. “Something funny?” he asks. “My toes,” I answer, and laugh again, but it’s a little wilder than straight funny. He tilts his head and looks at them. “Same stubby little toes as always,” he observes. Which makes me laugh harder and

faux punch him in the arm. “They’re not stubby. They’re petite. Do you ever think about what anyone else thinks about your toes?” I ask. “Absolutely never,” he says, leaning back on his hands. “And you? Do you often think about what other people think about your toes?” “My toes and everything else.” I smile sadly at him. “I just summed it all up, didn’t I?”

He puts his arms back on the bed and pulls me back, kissing my temple. “Yes.” “Are you ready to run away screaming?” My voice is tiny. “Never. I love stubby-toed girls.” I turn my face into his neck and breath deep, willing myself to catch a trace of ink and books. I don’t, but...I believe it will be there. Soon. I pull up and look down at him,

drawing a finger over his lips, his eyes, his hair. “You can’t stop. You can never, ever stop.” “Stop what?” His lips tickle under my fingers. “Studying. Reading. Writing.” I gesture to his desk, his shelves, all the things that define him. “All this. You can never stop any of this.” I bite my lip and feel the clamp of a headache that no amount of aspirin can combat. “Ithaca is

getting older. Maybe she’ll meet someone who can do this for my family--” “Benelli,” he interrupts. I look at him, his eyes fixed on my face. “I love studying this crazy stuff. But I don’t love it more than you. I don’t love anything more than you. And I’ll do what you need, whatever you need, anything, to make your family situation...our family situation work. These books, these papers, aren’t my life. You are. You are my life.”

He gets down on his knees, the sheet wrapped around his waist, and I’m...naked. My hair is a rat’s nest. This is... “This isn’t how I wanted to do this.” He chuckles and shakes his head. “Which is ironic, because the reason I called you here was because your father was trying to plan this. And, listen, he’s a good guy, and I respect him. Sincerely, I like him. And he can tell me how to dress

and how to work and all that. But he’s not going to tell me how to love you. Because, I swear to you, there will never be a man who will love you the way I love you.” He grabs a box off his bedside table and holds it out to me. “This belonged to my grandmother, and I loved that woman. She was the one who got me my first book of Greek mythology when I was a little guy. She started it all. I know it’s not as big and fancy as you deserve.

But I feel like she loved me for exactly who I was, and I never really thought I’d find another woman as brave and confident. Until I met you. So I want you to have this.” He opens the box and there’s a shining canary diamond in a simple white gold band. “Your parents will kill me, your father especially. And I promise, I will reenact 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. I promise, and I know they want all that because they love you and want to share this. But right here, now, I just need this, just for the two of us alone. Benelli Youngblood, will you do me the great honor of agreeing to be my wife?” “This...this is why you called me?” I ask, reaching out for the ring and

pulling my hand back. He grabs my fingertips and runs a thumb over them. “Yes. Well, I was going to get you to come back to the woods with me. There’s an amazing merlot chilling on our rock. And a picnic basket. And a second merlot. But you seduced me, you vixen! And the moment was too good to pass up, so...” “You weren’t going to break up with me,” I declare, and his horrified face

is answer enough. “You weren’t going to ask me to argue with my dad. You weren’t going to tell me that you couldn’t change. That you couldn’t handle this.” I’m laughing now, relief and glee and happiness coursing through me in a warm, sweet gush. “Well, I was a little angry over your dad trying to tell me how to propose. But that was because I thought his suggestion was wildly unromantic...way

too overdone and public. Yet here I am, proposing in a bedsheet in my crappy apartment. So, there’s that.” His goofy smile falters. “Also, there’s the fact that you didn’t answer. So. Are you going to answer?” His hand shakes a little. I throw my arms around this incredible man, this man I love with every shred of my being, this man I love right down to my chipped toenails, and I kiss him so fiercely, the sheet falls away, and

we’re heading right back to the place we came from before his proposal. “Yes. Yes, I’ll marry you. Yes, I love you. Yes. You. I love you.” I’m whispering a thousand things in his ears, promising him that I’ll take care of everything, that I’ll make this all work, because I will. I will. He slides the ring on my finger and I feel bound to him, powerful and protective of this man, this gorgeous,

honest, funny man who would give up everything for me. Except that he won’t. Because I won’t let him. I’m Odysseus, about to pick up the bow and draw it back, about to push away the fear that I may not be strong enough to do it, because I have no choice. I have no choice if I want to keep the man I love. And, in his arms, I feel my truest, bravest, strongest self unfurl. Finally.

Cormac 7 There should be a certain poetic justice in my getting to haul Lala’s drunk ass home from a bar, but the reality of holding her limp form over my shoulder is decidedly unsatisfying. I’m not sure where her house is, so I bring her back to the Youngblood compound, still decorated for the engagement party from the night before

with masses of bright flowers and strands of twinkling lights, dozens of glasses with varying amounts of wine left on every conceivable surface, classical music still wafting from the home surround-sound system. I move back to the girls’ rooms, and knock on Ithaca’s door lightly. She opens it, her face pale and her eyes redrimmed, light hair pulled back in a tight bun. “Cormac.” She doesn’t frown,

which is an improvement over her usual reaction to seeing me. “Is that Lala?” She narrows her eyes at Lala’s very barely covered backside. “Yes.” I readjust Benelli’s best friend on my shoulder. “She’s a bit drunk, and I didn’t know where she lived. Is the guest room still open?” Ithaca looks me up and down slowly, 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. I swing Lala down into my arms and Ithaca yanks the covers and sheets back, smoothing the bedding so I can lay Lala down. She has her arms linked around my neck, and I’m having a hard time getting them undone. Just when I manage to pull them away, she grabs my face, leans up, and gives me a cross-eyed look before she

kisses me, fully, wetly, and vodka-tinged, right on the mouth, before moaning, “Mmm, I woulda gone to college if the professors were as sexy as you.” I jerk back and turn to Ithaca, who’s crossed her arms and is frowning. “Stop.” She holds a hand up and out. “Don’t get all stupid panicked. She’s drunk, you’re obviously freaked out, and there’s no reason for us to mention this to Benelli. Okay?”

I take a shaky breath and nod. “It’s just, Benelli is out with your mother, and I assume Lala texted her first, but the text she sent me was a little, um, not exactly appropriate, so I thought it may have been a mistake--” “Stop,” she repeats, this time with more adamence. “Please don’t ever commit a crime, Cormac, because you have no clue how to keep your mouth shut.”

“Right. Sorry. I’m just...with the engagement and all...” I don’t finish because I have no clue what to say. “Whatever.” Ithaca spins on her heel and marches back to her bedroom. I follow her down the hall, and she glares at me when she gets to her door. “If that’s all you need...” She trails off as if she’s leaving an opening for further discussion, but her stony face tells me that’s the last thing she wants.

“Um, Ithaca?” I had no siblings and didn’t even have many cousins growing up, so dealing with temperamental young women isn’t really something I know how navigate. “I realize we may not have gotten off on the best foot, though I’m not sure why. But I hope we can be--” Her sharp laugh cuts me off. “Please don’t say ‘friends.’ Don’t.” “I was going to say ‘civil.’” I try

to keep the nervous jitter out of my words, since Ithaca seems the type who’d be very able to smell fear and rip anyone who exhibited it to shreds. “Look...” She taps one foot and grits her teeth before she turns her eyes, a lighter, clearer green than mine and full of swirling, drowning fury, on me. “You’ve got nothing to do with why I feel so angry at all of them, and I know that. But living here, with my family, it’s like living in the

middle of the biggest, ugliest lie in the world. Day in and day out. There’s no escape for me for another year. So, if I act ugly, I’m sorry. But don’t worry. After next year, you won’t have to deal with me again. No one will. I’ll leave this family once and for all, and I’ll never come back. Never.” “I, um...” I’m searching for words, any kind of words to let her know that I hear her, that I understand her, but I’m

coming up empty. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what you’ve been through, but I haven’t really been included in many family discussions, and I’m afraid I don’t know why you need to leave. But, please know, I respect the need to leave anything that hampers growth or impedes freedom. Even your own family. I respect and support it, however unpopular that may make me in this family.” Ithaca’s eyes, still red and raw,

soften and she squints her eyes at me, like she’s weighing what she’s about to do. Then she beckons me into her room. It doesn’t sit well, because I’m too old and unfamiliar and male for this intimate, feminine space. 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. I flip through snapshots of Ithaca,

smiling, her face completely, gorgeously distorted in happiness. Her cheek is close to and her arm wrapped possessively around a young man with a smile that reveals just how smitten he is. “This is Andre.” She trails a fingertip over his image. “He joined the army.” I nod, though I have no reason to. I don’t understand this at all. “I’m sure you miss him,” I attempt.

“I do.” Her voice, absent of its usual fury, is shockingly, simply sweet. “He’s in the army because my family found out we were dating. They attempted to pay him off if he agreed not to see me again, and when he turned their money down, they told him he’d never be good enough to take care of me. So he gave up an art scholarship...he’s an amazing artist.” Her eyes well up with tears, but she doesn’t seem to notice. From the raw

state they’re in, I’d assume she’s cried over this many times before and recently. “He gave it up to join the military, because a military man can support a wife and an artist can’t.” “So you’re engaged then?” I ask, and her reaction embarrasses me, because I forget for a moment how young she is and how out of reach something as simple as engagement can be, emotionally, culturally, monetarily.

Her blush is fierce. “No. I mean, he promised. He did. But...the army can change you, you know? I didn’t know if he’d make it. Secretly?” She looks at me to check that I can keep a secret, and I hope my look communicates that, in fact, I am excellent at keeping secrets. “Secretly,” she continues, “I kept hoping he’d get kicked out. He was never really all that good with authority. But I guess he...changed. He changed. He had to, I

guess. I guess that’s how you survive combat.” She pinches her lips together. “I would say that’s a fair assumption,” I offer quietly. She nods. “Have you heard from Andre lately?” She shakes her head and tears plop onto the plastic covering over their picture. I’m monumentally crappy at this type of thing, but I put a cautious hand out and pat her on the shoulder. “Ithaca?” She

looks up, her eyes faraway and sad. “I can’t pretend to know what Andre is going through, 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. That doesn’t mean they stop feeling or thinking or...loving. You’re obviously a very caring person, and I wouldn’t encourage you to be upset by the fact that he hasn’t been able to give that back right now.”

She puts one hand, fingers splayed, on her chest. “You think he still loves me?” Her eyes shine and her voice rises with hope. “” I’ve walked into a trap of my own making. I search for a possible exit, and decide on cowardice. “I think...any man would be a fool to fall out of love with you. I think he owes you his side of the story, and you should listen with an open mind when he’s ready to tell

you.” She nods, the movement of her head so cautious, I’m shocked by the fact that she’s crushed in my arms with an unbelievable quickness, hugging me so tight, I’m banking on rib fractures. She rips herself away as quickly as she grabbed on and offers me a crooked smile. “I’m so sorry. That was...that was weird of me. No one,” she begins and stops. She tries again. “Not one person in

my family, not one of my friends has said anything that made me feel better about Andre. Don’t look all worried. I know he might not really love me. I know he might not come back for me. But I feel...I don’t know. I feel so calm. I feel so good about this. Thank you. For that.” She pats my arm awkwardly. “Benelli’s lucky. She should keep you around.” I smile at my brash soon-to-be sister-in-law. “That’s the plan. And

Andre’s lucky himself. I hope he realizes just how lucky.” We smile, a shaky, strange peace exchange, and I hightail it out of the hall before I destroy the tremulous friendship we’ve woven. When Benelli comes home a few hours later, 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. Luckily and unluckily, I don’t have to report, because Mrs. Youngblood bursts into the space where Lala was enjoying her drunken slumber and screams. Lala screams, too, and Benelli and I rush to the scene of the upset. “Lala!” Mrs. Youngblood swats her on the behind like she’s a young child. “I could have had a heart-attack. What are you doing in bed at this hour? How did

you get here?” “Mama,” Benelli interrupts, pulling her mother by the shoulders. “I don’t think Lala feels well. Let me get things settled.” “I’ll help you if there are more bags,” I offer, but Mrs. Youngblood insists she’s fine, then pinches my hip and declares I need a hot plate of something. It would be stupid of me to argue with a gorgeous woman who’s offering to

feed me. So I don’t and promise to come out and eat soon. “Drunk again,” Benelli snaps when her mother’s out of earshot. Lala stretches lazily and throws Benelli a triumphant smile. “So drunk I barely remember making out with your fiancé,” she coos. I feel all the blood drain from my face when Ithaca’s door opens across the hall. “What are you all yelling about?” she

demands. Benelli is looking at Lala, her face gray. “Get out. Get out of my house. Now!” “You’ve known him, what? A month and a half? You’ve known me since we were kids, Beni. And you don’t even doubt him?” It’s meant to be some kind of aggressive strike, but she loses it, completely loses it over the last few syllables.

I back out of the room, nodding at Ithaca to let her know that I’d appreciate if she could talk to Benelli about what happened. She nods back, and I...don’t know what to do, where to go. Mrs. Youngblood catches me wandering through the kitchen and sits me down, puts a steaming plate of food in front of me and settles down to sip her mug of coffee across the table. “Is Lala causing trouble again?”

she asks, her voice even and unsurprised. “It would appear that way.” Mrs. Youngblood’s cooking is awarddeserving, but I’m having a hard time managing to work up an appetite. “Let the girls figure it out, Cormac.” She cups the mug in her hands. “It’s strange. When my children were born, I held my sons in my arms and thought, ‘All will be fine with the family now. I am holding the end of our troubles

in my arms.’ And, after two rambunctious little boys, I cannot express how happy I was when I finally had a beautiful little girl.” She stares down into the creamy drink and smiles. “But it’s Benelli who’s going to make this family fine, isn’t it?” “Is it?” I ask, not certain what, exactly, needs healing in this clan. I know all isn’t well, but Benelli doesn’t share much when it comes to her family. “If not, I don’t think there’s any

hope.” She says the words with as much cautious cheer as she told her story about Benelli’s birth, but implications are jarring. She gets up and clucks around me, cleaning my plate, encouraging me to go out and meet with the Youngblood men and Evan, who are target shooting. But I’m in no mood for overbearing in-laws and guns. I want...quiet. I head on a back path behind the

town, hike through the forest, and wade out to our rock where I lie back, falling asleep in the muted sun. When I wake up, Benelli is next to me, and clouds have covered the sunshine. I search her face for any signs of anger or upset, but she looks calm as a Buddha. Eerily calm, maybe. “About Lala,” I begin, and she tries to stop me, but I hold a hand up to quiet her. “I realize you gathered the fact

that she was drunk, and I assumed she texted you first and me out of desperation. I have never cheated and never will cheat. Ever. I want you to know that, right now.” Saying the words makes me feel like an immense anvil has been lifted from my chest. “I know that.” Benelli’s smile is forced. “I do. I’m more worried about Lala, that she’d be willing to do that. Because, no offense, babe; you’re super

hot and all, but that kiss was about hurting me. Why?” “Jealousy,” I offer, 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. “Jealous?” Benelli leans her head back and looks at the clouds speckling the sky. “Of what? She never neglects to tell me how batshit crazy she thinks my family

is. She’s gorgeous. So Winchester didn’t want to be with her. So what? She could snap her fingers and fifty guys would come running.” I belt my arms around her. “You’re happy. There’s no single thing that brings on more jealousy than pure happiness, and you’re swimming in it. We are. And Lala wants that. I’m just sorry she thinks the key to getting it is ripping what we have apart.”

Benelli wraps her arms around me like a snare. “It was Ithaca who told me. She hasn’t looked me in the eye and talked to me since everything that happened with Andre, but she defended you.” She puts a hand up to my face and her voice goes low, her eyes dark and hungry. “You’re amazing, you know that? You heal things. You make things better even when it seems like they’re impossibly bad.” When I kiss her, I can taste her

worry melt like a sugarcube, leaving the sweet tinge of regret that no amount of kissing will wash away. “Nothing is impossibly bad, Benelli. And we’re pretty damn amazing. There’s not a problem we’ll come up against we can’t solve together.” Her smile is too tiny. I try again. “Maybe we might get thwarted by some of the bigger stuff. Like world hunger or time travel. Maybe. Other than

those two, I think we’re solid.” I kiss her lips. “C’mon, something else is bugging you. Tell me.” She shakes her head and I kiss her again. “Tell me. That’s what I’m here for. That and your sexual satisfaction, of course.” Finally, she laughs, and my heart feels free and open. “It was Ithaca. I didn’t realize until she actually talked to me how much I’d been missing her. We used to be inseparable. We used to have

such an amazing relationship, and then it was gone.” “Was it Andre?” I ask. It’s strange because, as intimately as I feel I know Benelli, there are so many tiny details of her life that are still hidden from me. She pushes her hands through her thick hair and sighs. “Yeah. I thought it was puppy love, you know? They were so young, and they didn’t make any sense together.” She chuckles when I bump her

shoulder with mine. “I know, I know...people who make no sense fall in love all the time. But it was more than that. I didn’t just disapprove of him. I guess...I didn’t say anything when my family packed together and got this whole plan in motion to alienate him. To make sure, no questions, that he’d be out of her life permanently.” “I’m sure you thought you were protecting her.” I rub circles on her back

with my hand, and she stares into the rushing water below. “We do a family does a lot that’s pretty damn shady in the name of protecting the people we love. And when someone is brave enough to stand up to them, like Winch was, we make it hard. Sometimes it’s like we turn our backs on each other just when things get tough.” She hangs her head between her knees. “Are we monsters?”

“No.” I don’t know about her father for certain, but I can answer the question in regards to her without an iota of doubt. “You’re nothing but love, Benelli. And if your family needs a lesson from you in that particular kind of love, don’t be afraid to give it. Maybe it’s time for that.” The sky gets darker as the sun lowers on the horizon. Benelli is looking at me with eyes that want, that need and

won’t be denied. “Come here,” she whispers, untying her dress and letting the cloth fall open. I swallow hard. “It was a good pep talk, then?” Her laugh shakes her tits, so exquisite in their lacy cups. “It was an amazing pep talk. And I want to thank you for believing in me. When no one else does, when no one else sees me or

understands who I really am or what I’m really like, you see me. You know. And I love you for that.” The dress slides back off her arms, and she opens the clasp of her bra. My mouth goes dry. “I love you...for everything. Don’t give me too much credit. Just because I can see how amazing you are doesn’t make me so awesome. It makes me lucky.” I pull her close, her soft skin filling my hands and

mouth, the smell of her and the feel of her everywhere around me. She sheds the little thong that was barely covering anything anyway, and climbs on my lap. “I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have found you. My perfect match.” I unbutton my shirt and shake it off while she makes short work of my pants. She’s glued to me, her kisses hard and sweet, her hands roving up and down my body like they’re possessing me, branding

every inch they touch as theirs, and I approve their every possession. Her fingers circle my dick and run up and down, over and over as her hips inch closer. By the time the condom is snugly on and she’s lowered herself onto me, I’m sure I’ll lose everything I attempted to hold still and tight for, because she’s setting a crazy rhythm, pumping against me hard and fast, clawing her fingers over my

shoulders and back, sucking at my neck, licking along my jaw. It’s all a gorgeous blur of her dark hair and her smooth caramel skin, her long limbs, firm around my chest and waist, the press of her, so hot and tight, I attempt to think about any and every undesirable thing I can to keep this from ending. Nothing, not zombie feeding frenzies, not puppies being kicked off cliffs, not reams of geometry theorems, or

any the thought of any number of my sneering, nasty teachers going at it like mad can help me now. Benelli’s pure sexiness trumps an entire legion of anti-sex thoughts, and I can’t hold on a minute more. I kiss her hard, I fill my hands with her, and I pump, a long, sweet, 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.

I fall back onto the rock, Benelli, still glorious, naked, sexually proud, looming over me. “Did you say you hid some merlot here the other day?” she asks, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright. “Don’t we have to get back to your family? Your parents will worry.” I have no idea why I’m turning down the opportunity to drink wine, naked, in the moonlight with this girl, but, apparently,

responsibility has overtaken my brain. She leans close to me. “The time for my parents’ rules is ending, Cormac. I’m about to pull that damn bow back like nobody’s business and things are changing. Things are going to change. Now, where’s the wine? Because I want to celebrate, and then I want to have sex with you a few more times before we head back home. 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. 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. She leaps down from the rock before I can offer to go instead, and I’m left with the ravishing vision of her naked self prancing along the rocks, her sun-

kissed skin completely naked and making my weak, sex-crazed mind and body more than ready to have her back in my arms again, as soon as possible. I can’t tear my eyes off of her. My little Naiad, my gorgeous warrior, my perfect match and always love. My Benelli.

Benelli 8 I let a few days go by before I approach my father. Because I’m a huge, bokking chicken. Bok bok bok. Cormac says it’s because I needed time to let things sink in, time to really collect my feelings and figure out what it is I want to say and how and why.

But he’s the most amazing, generous, loving person in the world, and he always assumes the best when it comes to me. He doesn’t think I’m a giant chicken. Lala isn’t afraid to tell me the truth. After the drunken kiss she laid on Cormac, I was ready to kick her ass to the curb in a permanent and real way. But something Ithaca said to me stopped all

that drama from going down. “Don’t hate her too much. Hard as it is to be around you when you’re your usual perfect self, now that you’re perfect and have an awesome love life, even a saint would want to take you down a peg. And Lala’s no saint.” My little sister’s cold green eyes, so barren and still, choked all the hate I was holding out of me. Because I didn’t want my eyes to look like hers; empty and

bitter. And I planned to see life back in those eyes as soon as possible. As soon as I figured things out. It’s not the Youngblood way to forgive. We’re about fists and destruction, not olive branches and rebuilding. Reaching out and changing goes against my blood. But if the last few months has taught me anything, it’s that nothing will bring you to your knees and tear your heart out faster than letting down the people

who love you. Love is hard. It’s forgiving your best friend when you want to shove her away. It’s admitting that you played a hand in ruining your sister’s relationship, then accepting her cold shoulder even after you’ve poured your heart out over and over in tearful apologies. It’s fighting to make sure the person you love gets to do the weird thing he loves, even if you know he could have unbelievable power and

success doing other things. 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. Humble pie is mouth-twistingly bitter, but I never back down from what I know I have to do, and I’ve got a buffet of it to eat. And, though Lala makes it even more bitter sometimes, she’s ready to stay

by my side and cheer me to the last, disgusting mouthful. “Just talk to him.” Her skin is pale, but she looks good. We’re out at the lake, and she has no makeup on, is wearing a huge cover-up over her tiny bikini, and is squeezing a stress ball in short, quick pumps in an attempt to give her nails a chance to grow back and to edge off her nicotine rages. It’s a Lala I almost don’t recognize, but that may not be such a bad

thing. We’re all changing. And that feels good. It feels right. “You don’t get it. My dad is--” “Please don’t drag me into your daddy/daughter drama. I get it, I’ll never understand because my daddy ran out on us--” “That’s not what I said,” I object, desperate to backpedal away from the nastiness I’ve been trying so hard to keep

myself away from. “You didn’t have to, and you don’t have to apologize.” She whips her sunglasses off, those hazel eyes bloodshot and small-looking without the pounds of mascara. But they’re also starkly clear and honest. “I don’t want you to apologize. I want to be honest. And I know that you love me. I know that. Even if you’re a self-centered bitch sometimes, that’s okay. Because I’m an out-of-control psycho

asshole, and you put up with me, right?” Her small smile is nervous, undoing the bravado of her words. “Okay.” I sit for another long minute. “I know. I know I have to talk to him. The family is falling apart, and the more rules he and Mama set up, the worse things get. We’re lucky Winch came back. We’re lucky Colt and Ithaca are just slamming their doors and pouting. It could be so much worse.”

I bite my lip and look at her sideways, knowing that she just told me that she didn’t mind my being honest, but the mention of Winch has to hurt. I know that. She squeezes the stress ball with more vicious intensity. “You are lucky. And, you know, what Winch said about you being the bridge is right. Okay? Don’t look so shocked. I can say his name without breaking down. He made a great

point. You know, he made a lot of great points, and I ignored him more than I should have. He and I were never going to work. I know I’m sad about it, but the Winch I really want is the Winch who’s with...her. And she has something with him...I didn’t have it. God, it fucking kills me to say that. But I didn’t have it. And things would have been bad with him and me.” “You deserve someone amazing,”

I say, taking her hand and grabbing it over the rapid stress-ball squeezing. “Damn straight,” she says, but her voice wobbles. “Now, what are you going to say to your father?” I shake my head and she and I stare at the lake, the pebbled sand, the screaming kids splashing each other, laughing and crying in the waves. “I have no idea.” It’s half a lie, because, the next

day, when I go to find my father, there’s this whole long speech I run over. I’ve had it locked in my head for days on end. I know what I have to say to him. I’ve known for a long time. It’s almost like I have too much to say right now, too much to think through and make him understand. “Papa?” I catch him out in the garage where he keeps his gun collection and the fridge full of beer, the shelves of homemade vodka, and the cigarettes and

cigars he thinks Mama doesn’t know about. “C’mere, princess. She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” I stand next to my father and rub my fingers over the smooth metal of the rifle’s barrel. “Beautiful.” He turns his blue eyes to me, and they well up with love that undoes my heart. “You know, your mother wanted to only name the boys after guns. When you

were born, she looked into your face, all squished after that hellish birth, and she said, ‘No more guns. I’m naming her Angelique, because she’s an angel.’” I’ve actually heard this story before. I pull up a stool and sit on it, smiling at my father. “And what did you say again?” I love the image of the two of them arguing over a baby me. It’s a testament to my mother’s total love for my father that she agreed to my name. And it

took a long time. His first choice was Bersa, and he was pretty adamant that it was the perfect name for his little girl. My poor mother. “I said, ‘That kid’s no angel. She’s strong and beautiful, like a gun.’” He grins at me. “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. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I

swear, I never would have picked that one for you, but maybe my smart daughter knows better than her stupid old pop now and then, right?” “I need to talk to you, Pop.” He puts the rifle in its safe and locks it up. My father has a love affair with guns, but he also respects them. It was always safety first with all of us growing up in a house full of violent weapons. “It’s about Cormac.”

He looks at me and smiles, his eyes crinkling at the sides. “Go ahead, sweetheart. Anything you need.” “Cormac is completing his internship--” “I’m sorry about that. Hear me out. I just saw the stress he was under, and I know how sometimes, especially for a guy who’s a little, you know, a little less assertive, it can be a hard thing to say no. But I should have asked. That’s on me. I’m

glad he’ll finish that book thing. 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. Do you think he speaks Swedish by any chance?” My father’s face is free of lines, relaxed and sure for the first time in such a long time. There’s a huge temptation to let this ride, to let Cormac do the work he’s not even complaining about, to let Ithaca and Colt bite their tongues for one more

short year. But I can’t. I can’t do it. I pick up the bow and pull back. “Cormac won’t go to Sweden,” I say firmly. “He’ll be accepting a temporary assignment at Stanford. I’ll travel back and forth between California and Georgia while he’s there.” My father’s smile melts and hardens. “What’s this all about?

California? You can’t spend your first year of marriage jetting back and forth like that. And he needs a real job so you can have a home like you need. It will be time for the two of you to have kids before you know it.” “Papa, listen.” But just those two words open up a vat of indignant fury. My father isn’t good at ‘listening’ to anyone. “Cormac and I are going to have a longer engagement. We want to wedding to

accommodate his family, too, and they need time to make arrangements--” “I can pay for anything that needs paying for,” my father insists, going back to the cajoling peacemaker. “It’s not money, Pop. It’s...choice.” I have a very tenuous hold on this conversation, but I’m determined to grab on. I need to pull the damn bowstring back. “Not the money?” He barks out a

short, hard laugh. “What’s not about the money, Benelli? Be an adult here for a minute. What’s not about the money?” I don’t like my father’s tone, and I realize that now is the time where we’re going to push past the positions we’re both comfortable in. I’m not going to be his little princess, and he’s not going to be my all-powerful, all-knowing father. We’re about to look eye to eye, and it’s not going to be pretty.

I set my arrow and draw back, taking dead aim. “Winch walked away from the money. Abony took it. Look at how things went with him. And with her. So think about it. Is it all about money, Papa? Really?” My words fly and shoot straight into the heart of this. His face purples with rage and he moves his jaw, slicing his teeth back and forth as he wrestles with

his next words. “What has Abony been telling you while you two are enjoying your time under the roof I pay for?” “The truth,” I say. “And stop with the money. I love you, but I don’t always love what you’ve done. Or why you’ve done it.” His blue eyes flash at me. “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. I put a hand on his arm. “You did your best. But it’s time to do things differently.” He shakes his head at me. “You think this is so easy? You think running a family, a business, is so simple. You’re a little girl. You’ve been taken care of your entire life. You’ve never faced the realities even your brothers have, and that’s because we decided to protect you.”

“I didn’t ask for that.” I keep my voice strong. “I never asked for any of that. I’m asking now, though, for something. I’m asking for you to respect me. To respect this family. And to make some changes. Big ones. Hard ones. And to make them before we self-destruct. Because you know that’s what’s going to happen, Papa. You know that.” He shakes his head. “Your marriage was the change, Benelli, and

Cormac. He was the change, and it was working.” He rubs a hand over his heart, and I feel a jab of concern, worry, for this man I love in spite of his arrogance. “There is no marriage. And Cormac isn’t part of this. There’s just me. And if I’m not enough, if I’m not the answer, you need to let me go.” I clear my throat, because I feel choked with tears that I’m not about to shed in front of him. “But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to

abandon this family. I want to be here for all of us and see us through this change.” I put my hand on his shoulder. My heart is thundering in my chest. I’ve shot every arrow in my quiver, and I may have failed anyway. It feels like I may have. But I did what I had to do. “I love you. Think about this, please.” I turn from my father, who may very well disown me for this. I walk past

my family house, where the people I love and grew up with may judge me and ostracize me. I walk to the apartment where the window swings open and Cormac pokes his dark head out, his thick glasses on, his mouth curved up in a smile. “How goes it, my warrior? Did you conquer?” I look up at him and let my mouth smile despite my leaden heart. “Maybe? Maybe not. Maybe he’ll listen to what I

said. I just don’t know right now.” “Come up here to me,” he urges, and I do, right up to the arms of the man who will love and 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.

Acknowledgements: This is the coolest section in a book, 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, and know how lucky that makes me. Thank you to my husband and daughter. I always promise I’m going to write during school/work hours and be fully present at all other times. I break that promise daily, and they love me anyway. 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, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. Thank you to my amazing fam who always pitch in to cheer me on, act like I’m more famous and wealthy than I’ll ever be, and give me crazy help and advice anytime I need it. Or don’t. But that’s the beautiful thing, isn’t it? Especial love to my sister and sister-in-law, who brought/are bringing two more awesome, crazy women into our family this winter… there are never enough of us! I love them more than I can express. And I’m a wordy, expressive girl! To my sweet, loving friends who read and tell me what’s good and/or crazy in my book. Particular love to Steph, who has to put up with me because I won’t go

away, who keeps it real, and inspires a ton of the love I write about. A huge, colossal, ever-loving thank you to the group of authors who are my herd of wild, magical, talented unicorns. They have showered me in glitter to celebrate my successes, given me virtual smooches when I’m down, and been my inspiration along every step of this amazing journey. So much love, beauties. So much love. And huge, enormous, allconsuming love to the community of readers, bloggers, and other authors who support, inspire, share, and encourage the writing and reading of every kind of book. I’m honored to be included in the ranks of such a passionate, loving, supportive

group of people who share my love of stories that transport and beautify. You. All. ROCK!

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, and my inner writer came out kicking and screaming. My writing passion is YA/NA, the more verbal sparring, melodrama, and steaminess, the better! In my “real life” I love my gorgeous daughter who makes me laugh and dries my insane, my awesome husband (who is the inspiration for many of my best bad boys…shh!), all the rest of my crazy family and friends, plus travel, great books, good food someone else cooked, movies, and laughing. Laughing is my favorite.

I am the author of the mature YA Brenna Blixen Series (Double Clutch, Junk Miles, and Slow Twitch), the YA mature book Forgiving Trinity, the YA paranormal Inherit, the New Adult romance Fall Guy (A Youngblood Novel), and the New Adult romances Lengths and A Toast to the Good Times, co-written with Steph Campbell. Write me if you want! I’m at [email protected] I’d love to hear from you and am open to any questions/comments/hilarious Youtube video links. I’m pretty decent about checking my Facebook page at and am less awesome about Twitter, where you can find me at @lizreinhardt. I

also blog! Or try to blog! I’m at Hope to see you around!

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