Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 25827 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 129(@200wpm)___ 103(@250wpm)___ 86(@300wpm)
Estimated words: 25827 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 129(@200wpm)___ 103(@250wpm)___ 86(@300wpm)
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Scorpio (The Zodiac Queen #8)
Author/Writer of Book/Novel:
Twelve men. A virgin queen. One arranged marriage.
This is the eighth installment in Novalee's journey with the Zodiac Brotherhood.
Full blurb to come! Release date is subject to change.
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The decision should be simple, like deciding between oatmeal and eggs for breakfast. No more complicated than choosing a color palette for a new dress design. As easy as selecting a pair of shoes for a special event. But this isn’t just any event, and the wrong choice could bring on a whole new level of emotional destruction.
As if there’s anything left to destroy after these past few weeks. The memories torment me, especially the moments I spent with the chancellor in the dungeon, trapped in the snare of Pax Monroe’s vengeance. I’ll never forget the ownership in Liam’s grip as he thrust his way to climax, or his shame afterward, thickening in the air with the scent of deviance.
And then there’s the memory of Sebastian and his wounded ocean eyes. Will he ever forgive me for what he interrupted on that island? There’s only one way to find out, and that involves cornering him at the ball.
Which brings me back to this decision.
With a sigh, I trace the complex stitching of the silver mask before hovering over soft, black lace. The unknown makes my fingers tremble. Too many what-ifs. Too many variables. Too many men to think about.
Men like Heath Bordeaux, Miles Sinclair, and the beast of all beasts…
The monster in the dungeon.
Will they wear silver or black? Or maybe the Brotherhood villains will cover their bases by choosing both.
One in silver, two in black. Or vice versa.
Rubbing the goose flesh from my arms, I sink onto the ottoman at the end of the bed. A light breeze drifts through the French doors, chillier now since the change of seasons painted the trees with splashes of blazing color. It’s too cold to leave the doors open for more than a few minutes, but I crave the sun, the break of waves against the cliffside, the gentle wind that carries a hint of freedom with it.
As the sun dips below the horizon, I close my eyes and breathe in the essence of the sea, a scent that’s reminiscent yet so unlike the tropical setting the Brotherhood dragged me away from just days ago. Somehow, even after everything I’ve been through, I find comfort in this moment—in these formulaic living quarters and the tradition of a new month.
My personal space in the House of Scorpio offers no surprises, easing my anxiety with the same balcony and seating area, the same luxurious quality of furnishings and linens, and the same layout I’ve become accustomed to in this tower. It’s the only constant in my life, and I cling to it in the face of this choice.
Because this decision is about more than just the villains.
Is it too much to hope that Sebastian and Liam will wear the same color, even if it’s the opposite of mine? That’s the only scenario that will put the three of us on even ground at Ford’s ball.
“Having trouble deciding?”
I lift my head and find Ford lingering in the doorway. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to see that you’re torn.” His hair is careless and overgrown like Sebastian’s, though it’s a lighter shade of blond. He’s a golden boy extraordinaire, decked out in a light gray tux with his hair slicked back.
A glance at the ornate clock on my nightstand shoots a ping of apprehension through my chest. The ball starts in a little over an hour, and I haven’t begun to get ready for it.
I’m still stuck on this choice.
“How can I decide?” I gnaw on my lower lip as he steps into the room.
“I can choose for you.”
For a tempting second, I consider it. Handing over the decision would certainly take the pressure off. But I’m already shaking my head as he settles next to me, leaving the box of masks between us on the ottoman.
“Thank you, but I need to make this decision on my own.”
Somehow, I need to make Sebastian see that he’s still got the biggest piece of my confused, fragile heart.
“How was your nap?” Ford asks, and his change of subject doesn’t go unnoticed.
I offer him a tremulous smile. “Restless.”
“Pax is a madman. I’d be shit shocked if you didn’t have trouble sleeping.”
“You don’t agree with the way Pax runs his house?”
“Few of us do.”
“Do you agree with the rest of it?”
“The rest of what?” Confusion laces his tone, but the knowing squint of those striking hazel eyes makes me question if he’s feigning ignorance.
“The Brotherhood, the auction, the queen’s duty…all of it.”
“Yes, to the first—with some notable changes—and no to the second. As for the queen’s duty, I have no problem sharing you, though I’d prefer your willing participation.”
“So basically, you’re saying ‘no’ to all three.”
He raises a brow. “Am I?”
“Your answer to the second question was clear as day. The other two are open for interpretation.” I study him, taking note of his square jaw and the boyish slant of his full lips. He wears that tailored tux as if it’s an extension of him, imparting the kind of confidence that borders on cocky. “Do you not want to bid at the auction?”
“You’re very direct.”
“You sound surprised.”
“I shouldn’t be. While Liam watched you drool over Sebastian, I watched you from the advantage of obscurity.” With a tilt of his head, he tucks a flaxen braid behind my ear.
I suck in a breath. “What did you see?”
“A spirited girl who refused to break.”
“They tried. All of them.”
“I know.” Withdrawing his hand, he inches away. “But they failed every time, didn’t they?”
“Is that why you don’t want to marry me? I’m too resilient for your taste?”
“If I wanted to get married, you’d be at the top of my list.”
So Ford Stryker isn’t the marrying kind. He looks no younger than my eighteen years, but I somehow feel light years ahead of him, because he’s still coming into his own—on his own terms—and I came of age by force and fire.
My attention returns to the masks, causing my heart to stutter. This month, this night, and this boyish man is a turning point. I don’t know how or why the certainty grips me now, but it does.
“If I asked you to decide for me, which color would you choose?”
“Silver,” he says without hesitation.
“That was quick.”
“It’s just one night. I’m not asking you to decide the fate of your future.”
Then why does it feel like everything hinges on this supposedly simple decision? “No offense,” I say, grabbing the box, “but I’ll go with black.”
He chuckles. “I’m not trying to trick you, I promise.”
“Then why the choice?”
“To keep things fun.”
“Fun for whom?”
His tongue sweeps his lower lip, and in that instant, it pulls at me.
Just as unwanted now as when Liam held me hostage on his island.
“Everyone, my queen. Fun has no bounds.”
I clear my throat. “Then I guess I should get ready.”
“I’ll meet you down there.” He makes it to the doorway before coming to a halt. “Two things before I go.” A glance over his shoulder accompanies his preamble. “I left a gown for you in the closet, and I’d really love to see you in it.”
“Okay,” I say, wondering where he’s going with this. “And the other?”
“This ball isn’t like any you’ve been to before, but I’m hoping you’ll keep an open mind.”
“It’s just a simple request, Novalee.”
“A request?” My dubious tone draws out the question. “What do you want from me, Mr. Stryker?”
“You can start by calling me Ford.” His gaze intensifies, challenging me from across the room. “And tonight, I want you to come for me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to touch yourself in front of everyone.”
“W-what?” I sputter.
Before I can argue with him, he disappears from sight, footsteps retreating down the hall in a rhythm of finality. That’s when I realize Ford Stryker is a liar. He promised freedom and fun, but his request is little more than a veiled demand to get what he wants.
And when it comes to the men in this tower, they all want something from the queen.
Ford’s “gown” is the raciest thing to grace my body in public. The dress hugs me like a second skin, leaving nothing to the imagination. Glittery lace the hue of a moon-lit night puts my breasts on display, exposing my erect nipples under the see-through bust. Double slits run up my legs, ankle to hip, allowing for easy access, but the most scandalizing part is how I’m not wearing any panties.
I could have picked another dress for the occasion, as he’d had the closet stocked with my wardrobe—as if daring me to go against his wishes—but my gut told me it’s the type of game he’d play.
A game he clearly expected me to lose.
And that’s why I did the opposite by shimmying into his obscene, form-fitting gown. Besides, I’m forbidden fruit in this sinful lace, a taunt and tease for the testosterone-infested population in the tower, empowered by the black mask around my head and the severe line of my blood-red lips.
As I stall on the threshold of the ball, I aim to stun, my offensive strategy one of false bravado. I hadn’t planned on making a grand entrance, but I took extra time on my hair, leaving it falling in a sleek sheet around my bare shoulders. As I sweep my gaze across the bustling space in search of a familiar blond head, techno music throbs under the red soles of my heels.
The ballroom has gone under a complete transformation—the left side of the room sectioned off from the dance floor with gauzy black curtains strung with gold lights. The French doors remain closed against the frigid autumn temperature.
Masked guests mingle and dance, the men in various shades of tuxes while women show off couture gowns that glitter under the ambient lighting. The fashion statements range from formal to kinky lingerie, and my own dress falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Ford appears from the thick of it, the guests parting for him as if he’s a king in their midst—a king heading straight for the queen.
He halts within arm’s reach, his hazel irises glinting behind a silver and black mask. “You wore the gown,” he says, sounding surprised.
“You asked me to.”
“You look…” His perusal lingers on my chest. “Wow. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift.”
“Today’s your birthday?”
“Nineteen years and counting.”
I glance over his shoulder, searching the crowd once more, and spot Mr. Bordeaux with his jet black hair, face hidden behind a silver mask. I spy Vance and Miles wearing black, but Sebastian is nowhere in sight. Neither is Liam.
“They haven’t arrived yet.” Ford’s lips purse in amusement.
I return my attention to him. “Who?”
He laughs. “You’re cute when you act coy.” Taking a step closer, he sticks out a hand. “I want to show you something.” It’s yet another demand obscured by a tone of gentle persuasion, but I slide my palm into his and allow him to lead me through the throng. The guests part again, keeping to either side like pillars, and it isn’t until we cross through the gauzy drapes that I let out a shocked gasp.
Under the glow of neon lighting, a separate realm exists—a deviant clash of perversion and decadence. Scantily dressed people gyrate to the pulsing music on a makeshift stage, their skin damp with sweat.
In the middle of it all is Pax, bare from the waist up except for his leather mask the same color as mine. He crosses the stage with an undeniable swagger, his abs glistening under the lights as he leads his slave to a giant X on the wall. Nude acrobatic dancers perform in neon cages on either side as he secures Frieda to the planks. Curious guests make themselves comfortable on the surrounding loungers to watch the show.
“So what do you think?” Ford asks, lingering behind me. “Want to go up there and play with me?”
“I should…p-probably eat something,” I say, my vocal cords constricting as I envision the hors d’oeuvres near the ballroom’s entrance. If there’s one thing about this night for which to be thankful, it’s the cancellation of the monthly dinner in favor of Ford’s ball, not to mention a much-needed escape from his expectations.
I push past him and disappear into the crowd, but his chuckle seems to trail after me above the techno beat. I sense a mischievous streak in Ford Stryker, and that makes him as unpredictable as the rest of the men in the Brotherhood.
Sending a quick glance over my shoulder, I make a small plate before blending into the shadows at the edge of the ballroom, grateful for the illusion of solitude. With my attention on the front entrance, I nibble, tasting none of it. I’m wound tight from too much nervous energy, and so focused on the masked guests coming and going that I don’t notice the tall figure appearing from the opposite direction until he’s right in front of me.
A pair of seductive brown eyes stare back from behind a black mask, making my heart skip a series of beats.
For several moments, Liam says nothing, though his expression betrays what’s on his mind.
Fear of rejection.
“Jesus…” he trails off with a thick swallow. “You wouldn’t have made it out of my bedroom dressed like that.” His gaze drifts down my body, that heated perusal caressing me like a phantom touch.
“The gown was Ford’s idea.”
“I could murder him right now.” A tick goes off in his jaw.
“Aren’t you in enough trouble already?”
“Apparently not.” Tilting his head toward the dance floor, one brow raised in silent question, he holds out a hand.
I glance at the entrance again before depositing my plate with the other abandoned culinary fanfare.
As his warm grip encloses my hand, hesitation stiffens my limbs. Against my better judgement, I allow him to usher me onto the dance floor.
He pulls me close, and the music slows to a hypnotic beat. A full minute passes in soundless tension, despite our bodies moving as one. Burrowing his face against my neck, he holds me tight against him, as if he’s scared I’ll disappear from the cage of his arms.
“I’m so sorry, Novalee.” Further words aren’t needed to convey what he’s apologizing for. What happened in the dungeon plays in my mind like a horror film, and in this moment, I know it haunts him as much as it haunts me.
“You stopped Pax from hurting me.”
“By hurting you myself.”
“You did what I asked—what you had to do.” Pulling back, I meet his eyes. “We both did.”
“There’s no justification for how I got off on it.”
“We didn’t have a choice, Liam.”
He brushes my hair back, thumb grazing my cheek. “I had options from the beginning. You didn’t.” He lets a slow beat pass. “I hope you can forgive me someday.”
“I’ve already forgiven you.” Maybe I shouldn’t, but my heart can only house so much hatred, and every ounce of rage is reserved for the men who hurt me without remorse.
Monsters like Pax Monroe.
Liam swallows hard. “As much as I want your forgiveness, I know I don’t deserve it.”
“It’s all I have left to give you.”
If forgiving him is self-destructive and foolish, then so be it. At least the decision is mine.
He cups my cheek. “What about your heart?”
“You’ll always have a piece.”
Liam blinks, dark lashes lowering in saddened defeat. “Sebastian’s a lucky man.”
“I’m afraid he won’t see it that way.”
The corner of his mouth tilts up, incongruent with the melancholy in his eyes. “Impossible.”
“You didn’t see his face on the island.” Liam was busy getting dressed as Pax paraded me in front of the entire Brotherhood, naked as the day I was born.
“He has your heart, Novalee. He’d be a goddamn fool not to hold on to it with his life.”
The song ends, punctuating his fierce statement, and that’s when I sense the change in the air—as if everyone’s attention shifts to the ballroom entrance at once.
Landon and Elise stand on the threshold, decked out in emerald formal wear and black satin masks. Sebastian and Lilith linger beside them, both in silver masks, and my heart thuds to the bottom of my stomach. It doesn’t matter that my brother and Elise separate them; they arrived together, a glamorous unit that makes sense.
As I take in his onyx tux and Lilith’s matching off-the-shoulder gown that does little to hide her baby bump, I swallow down nausea. They fit together better than he and I ever will, and everyone can sense it—even from across the crowded ballroom.
The distance between us has never felt so wide.
“She doesn’t hold a candle to you.”
I stiffen in Liam’s arms. “She’s the mother of his child.”
If the news of Lilith’s pregnancy wasn’t out before, it is now, the evidence in plain sight for the guests to gossip about.
He cradles my face, demanding my attention. “She’s not you.” Pain slashes his features, playing in the shadows of our memories as his lips touch mine. His kiss is soft and brief, and it’s laced with the bittersweet taste of goodbye. “She can never be you.”
“Liam.” Sadness squeezes my vocal cords.
Clearing his throat, he nods toward Sebastian. “He’s the one you want.”
I meet a pair of turbulent blue eyes from across the room, and my chest constricts. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”
“He knows that. So do I.” Liam lets me go. “It’s okay, my sweet girl. Go to him.”
With a hard swallow, I head toward Sebastian, my limbs as shaky as the courage that threatens to crumble with each step.
It’s impossible to gauge Sebastian’s mood. A storm brews in the depths of his ocean eyes, but they remain as guarded as the day I met him six years ago. Fear rises in my chest, threatening to steal my courage, but I can’t back down now. With my attention solely on him, I block out the surrounding commotion, the music, the people.
“Can we talk?” I ask, struggling to keep my voice steady.
He sends a cursory glance down my body, lust igniting his gaze, but an instant later, it’s gone.
I imagined it. He arrived with Lilith, for heaven’s sake, and if that doesn’t say “stay away,” I’m not sure what does. Earlobes burning, acid roiling in my belly, I steel myself for inevitable rejection.
But instead of wrecking me with a public display of humiliation, he grabs my hand, and we go from loitering on the threshold of the ball to staking our claim on the middle of the dance floor.
“Say what you need to say.” With his clipped demand, he pulls me against his solid chest, trapping me in an eternity of breathless, heart-pounding shock.
Why isn’t he yelling, snarling, or running in the other direction?
“Is this….us dancing…is this allowed?” I gesture at our mismatched masks.
“It’s just a dance, princess. It’s not like I have you naked on a secluded island.”
His derision is so much worse than anger. Shame heats my cheeks, and though my first urge is to avert my eyes to hide the guilt in them, I hold his stare. I couldn’t look away if I tried.
“You’re sorry?” He raises a brow. “What are you apologizing for?”
“That’s a cop-out answer. Everything could mean anything.”
“It doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
“You have no idea what I’m thinking.” He clenches his teeth, but despite his hard-headed stubbornness, he pulls me closer, his possessive hold betraying the desire kept just below the surface.
I grip his shoulders, afraid he’ll back out of this moment and leave me bereft. “I’ve missed you so much,” I say, my tone a plea for absolution.
“That’s hard to believe, considering you had your lips on Castle not even five minutes ago.”
He’s jealous…and that gives me hope. Jealousy means feeling. It means he still cares.
“The kiss was goodbye.”
“I can’t be your second choice, Novalee.”
“Is that what I was to you when you screwed Lilith goodbye?”
His jaw clenches. “That was different. You and I weren’t in a committed relationship yet. After that night, I chose you over her, and I haven’t gone back on that decision once.”
“You’re here with her tonight.”
“Jesus, Novalee. She’s Landon’s sister. She’s here with them.” His furious gaze settles over my shoulder. “Despite everything we’ve been through, I’ve given you no reason to doubt me.”
“You’re right.” Averting my gaze, I swallow hard. “I’m sorry.”
“Sharing your body with the Brotherhood is hard enough—on both of us. I can’t share your heart too.”
With a shaky inhale, I slide my hand along his rough cheek. “You could never be my second choice.”
The tempo shifts, and he whirls me around before embracing me from behind. “What about on that island?” His front is flush with my body, his hands on my hips, the pads of his fingers hot on my lace-covered skin. “Was I front and center in your mind?”
“So he forced you to take your clothes off?” Sarcasm drips from his veiled accusation.
“The situation was…complicated.” It’s not what he wants to hear, or even how I want to explain, but uttering that simple fact is all I’m capable of right now.
Because his proximity has crossed the wires in my brain, bringing about an endless string of misfires that leave me incoherent.
“There’s nothing complicated about the way you make me feel.” He arches into a titillating gyrate against my ass, hips in perfect unison with mine, and I shiver as his mouth grazes my ear. “You’re an indecent little tease in this scrap of lace. I’m tempted to take my hand to your ass, to hell with the consequences.”
“Oh, I would, and you’d deserve every second.”
As my heart palpitates in time to the beat, the dancers around us blur into slow-moving shadows.
His possessive hold tightens on my hips, bordering on painful. “I’d have you begging for my cock in your tight little ass. God, princess,” he groans. “What I’d give to fuck it right now in front of all of these uptight assholes. What I’d give to make you cry.”
“You have every right to be upset with me.” Unrealized tears burn my eyes, but deep down, I know he wouldn’t hurt me like that.
Like Pax forced Liam to.
“Novalee,” he rasps, “I’m not upset. I’m fucking wrecked.”
“You’re the last person I ever wanted to hurt.”
“Did Castle take your ass?” he asks, tone dripping in scorn as he barrels right past my attempted apology. “I bet he did, and I bet you loved every second of it.”
Pushing out of his arms, I turn to face him, my pulse jackknifing, eyes stinging. “Every second of it hurt.” Blinking in rapid succession, I try to staunch the memory of my time in the dungeon with Liam and Pax, but the pain of what we did hangs on my lashes, no matter how hard I try to tamp it down.
Sebastian goes stock-still, assessing all I left unsaid through the fracture in my expression. “He hurt you?”
“N-no.” The denial shakes off my lips, disguising the horrific truth in it. “That’s…that isn’t what I meant.”
“I don’t believe you.” The storm is back, transforming his features, and his attention lands on Liam, who’s standing with Landon, Vance, and Tatum near the buffet. The four of them must be deep in conversation, because the chancellor doesn’t glance my way at all, when he usually can’t take his eyes off of me.
“I’ll fucking kill him,” Sebastian growls, on the move before I can stop him.
But he’s already barreling through the crowd toward the target of his rage, and by the time I catch up, he’s sent Liam crashing into the buffet table.
“You sick bastard.” Sebastian yanks him up by the lapels before slamming him into a wall. “You forced her, didn’t you?” Eyes alight with murder, he grips Liam by the throat.
“Sebastian,” I shriek, tugging on his arm. “Stop!”
My shouted plea falls on deaf ears. Sebastian refuses to budge, and it takes Vance and Landon’s help before he backs down.
Liam gulps in air, wheezing through every breath. “You’re out of your mind,” he chokes, one hand massaging his neck.
“I’ve never been more clear-headed.” Sebastian sneers at the chancellor. “You might have fooled her and everyone else, but you don’t fool me. You made sure she was defenseless on that island.”
I brush my fingers over Sebastian’s arm to get his attention. “Please…let me explain.”
Training his pain-filled eyes on me, he shakes off Landon’s hold. “I know all of your expressions, princess, and I know he fucking hurt you. What I don’t understand is why you’re protecting him.”
The music cuts out, leaving dead silence in its wake as masquerade guests crowd around us. Mortification spreads over my skin, from my chest to my cheeks.
Landon clears his throat. “You two should finish this conversation in the hall.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.” Sebastian drags me out of the ballroom, and my heels click across the marble floor behind him in a desperate, linear tap dance as I try to keep up with his furious strides. To slow him down, I clutch the back of his jacket.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You heard Landon. We need privacy for this conversation.” Whirling around, he stops in the deserted hallway, his icy blue gaze pinning me from behind a silver mask. “Tell me what happened with Castle.” The cross of his muscular arms contradicts his even tone.
Now that I have his undivided attention, I falter.
“Your silence has never been so honest, Novalee.”
I need to tell him everything that happened—on the island and in the dungeon—but the thought of spilling the details shoots bile into my throat. I’m trying to verbalize the trauma of the past few weeks when two masquerade guests pass us by.
Our gazes lower to the floor, and we shuffle away from each other until the couple disappears around the corner.
“Spill it,” he demands.
“I-I don’t know where to start.”
Sebastian shakes his head, his dress shoes threatening to go into retreat-mode, and I fear he’s going to bolt until he pulls me into a conference room. The door closes, warding us off from prying eyes, and the space is dark, intimate…private. As the shadow of his anger looms, he backs me into the door, caging me in, his chest heaving against the tips of my needy breasts.
Other than that slight contact, he doesn’t touch me. His quick and shallow breaths do, the heat of his body, the woodsy scent coming off his skin. God, he smells like the only place on earth where I belong.
“I want the truth, princess.” He dips his head, blue gaze shrouded in the darkened room, but I feel that heated stare teasing my lace-covered nipples. “No matter how much it hurts to hear it.”
“On the island…Liam…it took him weeks, but he wore me down, and…I am so sorry you saw what you did that morning.”
Sebastian jerks away as if my confession gave him a physical blow. “I know you care about him.”
Three rapid blinks send the tears down my cheeks. “I was weak, and I despise myself for it, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Taking in a shaky breath, he pulls a hand through his hair. “So he didn’t force you?” His strangled tone jump-starts my heart, and I hold on to his tense shoulders, hanging on for dear life.
“No. He stopped after I couldn’t give him what he wanted. Even though we were alone on that island, my feelings for you stood between us, Sebastian. They always have.”
He backs me into the door again, a dangerous exhale hitting my lips as our chests mash together. “But you let him touch you.” It’s not a question but a confirmation—as if he needs to hear it again before he’ll believe I betrayed him.
“You wanted him to touch you.”
I nod, unable to voice the affirmation, and an immeasurable beat passes before he prods me further.
“If he didn’t force you, then why did you look so destroyed when I brought up anal?”
I flinch, and the truth almost seals my airway.
He caresses my cheek. “I don’t need to see your expression to know you’ve got that same destroyed look on your face right now.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“You can talk to me.”
“It was Pax.” The monster’s name catches in my throat. “He forced us into it after the summons.”
Sebastian goes stock still, and that’s my breaking point. A sob breaks free, unchecked emotion dripping down my cheeks.
“And it was…awful. So bad that I wished Liam had taken what he wanted on the island.” Just as my knees weaken, Sebastian grabs me around the waist, keeping me steady on my feet. It’s not forgiveness, but that single gesture from him is all I need right now.
Because his touch, the warmth of his body, the weight of his silent support—it’s a culmination of reassurance that grounds me. Once the words pour out, I can’t stop them, and in between gut-wrenching sobs, I tell him about Pax’s evil cock device and what he threatened to do with it.
“Liam didn’t want to go through with it—not like that—but the alternative was...” I shudder. “There was no alternative. Pax would have scarred me for life.”
In more ways than one.
“Baby—” Sebastian chokes out the endearment in a strangled whisper as his chest trembles against mine. “I’m such an ass.”
“I thought I lost you.”
“He had you on that island all to himself…leaving you there would have been the best thing for you.”
“I wanted to come back to you.”
And I did. It was hell at first, but it was worth it because I never want to let him go, especially now that I’m back in his arms. Without thinking, I press up on my toes and seek his mouth. Pure instinct drives me, uncontrollable need, and despite history’s lesson on foolish actions and the consequences that go with them, there isn’t an atom in my body capable of keeping my lips from his.
Only Sebastian has that power, and he wields it by gripping the back of my neck, denying me access to his mouth. I let out a gasp of hurt, his rejection serving as a bitter reminder that forgiveness isn’t so easily given.
He presses a thumb against my mouth. “We aren’t doing this again.”
“Because you can’t forgive me?”
Letting go of my neck, he tangles a hand in my hair and brushes a soft kiss on my forehead. “Because I just got my exile reversed, and I can’t lose you again.”
“I’m sick of the rules and superstitions. I just want to be with you.”
“We’ve got five more months and a lot of shit to work through first.”
“Do you…?” I falter, wishing I could see his expression. “Do you still want to marry me?”
“Yes,” he says without hesitation, even as he lets me go. “But we have to get there first, which means you need to go back to the ball before someone finds us in here.” He pulls the door open a crack, allowing a sliver of light to shine in from the hallway.
“Are you coming back to the dance?”
“I’ll be there in a few.”
In the light, I catch him adjusting himself, and my blood simmers in my veins. No matter the betrayals and heartbreaks, we’ll always hunger for each other like an out-of-control fire consuming everything in its path.
And all we can do is feed it.
I slip into the hall, hot between the thighs, and wonder how I’ll find the nerve to submit to Ford’s request with Sebastian watching every moment, a spectator in the crowd.
I arm myself with liquid courage, swiping glass after glass from the waitstaff passing around fruit-infused bubbly. Champagne is supposed to be tart, not this sweet stuff that tastes like soda water. I doubt it’s meant to go down in a gulp or two, but I’m on my fifth glass when Sebastian enters the ballroom.
He looks no less put-together than he did thirty minutes ago—black tux impeccable, hair combed back, cuff links fastened, silver mask in place—only now there’s a glow to his skin; a negligible sheen few would notice. I only recognize it because I’ve witnessed him in the aftermath of climax before.
Swallowing a groan at the thought of him pleasuring himself, along with the rest of my champagne, I head straight for him, my steps uneven as the room spins. Along the way, I grab another glass from a passing tray, and that’s when Landon inserts himself in my path.
“You’ve had enough,” he says, commandeering my drink.
“Keep it.” I jut my chin toward the crystal flute he stole. “There’s no shortage of champagne around here.”
A frown tugs at his lips. “What are you doing, Novalee?”
“Enjoying the ball.” Annoyance with his big-brother tactics builds, and I flutter my lashes at him. “Shouldn’t you be doing the same with your wife?”
“I was until she pointed out you’re drinking your weight in champagne. Who do you think sent me over here?” He gestures toward Elise, and I spot my former lady sitting at a small table on the edge of the room. The low lighting shadows her features, but I imagine the worry pulling at her brows.
It’s been too long since I’ve talked to her. Upon the realization, another bout of shame floods me. I’ve turned into the type of person I despise. Self-absorbed, unable to look beyond my own issues, consumed to the point that I forgot the one person in this tower who’s been there for me since the beginning.
The floor seems to tilt again, and Landon steadies me with a hand on my shoulder. “Go sit with Elise for a while.”
“I’m not a dog.”
Landon narrows his eyes. “Of course you’re not a dog. You’re someone I care about, which is why I’m worried about you.” He leans forward, tightening his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been through a lot, and you’re drunk and vulnerable right now.”
“I’m only half drunk.”
“Novalee,” he says, voice lowering in warning. “You need a few minutes to pull yourself together.” His attention rests on Sebastian for a moment. “Before you do something you’ll regret.”
“Ford is waiting for me.” My haughty tone makes it clear how little I appreciate his high-handedness.
“You’re in no condition to play Ford’s games right now.”
“I’m fine.” I shrug off his hand and switch direction, taking comfort in the thickening crowd. Ford might not be expecting me right this second, but he is expecting something from me, and I might as well face it while I’m tipsy on my feet.
Passing through the gauzy curtains is like entering an alternate reality, and for a second, I forget how to breathe. If the scene surprised me before, it doesn’t compare to what’s in front of me now.
Naked bodies writhe, rock, and shudder. Implements smack sweat-soaked skin—the impacts brutal enough to echo in my ears. Sighs and pants filter through the space as brave performers reach erotic crescendos. For every participant, three people linger on the edge to watch, and Ford is in the middle of it all, sprawled on a lounger as a group of naked women crawl over him.
Ford Stryker is every inch a king on his throne, enshrined in careless confidence, his pants undone, jacket gone, and shirt unbuttoned to expose a well-defined chest. He spots me standing by the curtain and crooks a finger, beckoning me to join him.
Teeth sinking into my bottom lip, I stall for time, hoping to find the courage to get up there and expose myself to the hungry eyes in the room. Anxiety sends me back a few steps, right into another body. An electric zap hits my spine—a sensation that can only come from one hot-blooded inferno of a man.
“Go on, princess.” His quiet goading teases the wayward tendrils around my ear. “Show everyone how sweet your pussy is.”
My breath catches. “You know what he asked me to do?”
“All of us do.”
Of course they know what Ford’s planning. I was naïve to think his request was something he kept between him and me. Instead, it’s just another power-play move in the Brotherhood’s arsenal.
“Watching me up there…it’ll only upset you.” Despite the haze from the champagne, the reality of what I’m about to do chokes me, and the last thing I want is to make things worse between us.
“You don’t think I’ll get off watching you play with yourself?”
“I think you have a jealous personality.”
“I’m not jealous of Ford.” He leans closer, his breaths caressing my shoulder. “He doesn’t make you weak.”
My heart skips. “No, he doesn’t.”
His hand clamps onto my hip, fingers caressing my skin from under the edge of the lacy slit. “Not like I do.”
“No…” I breathe. “Not like you do.”
“Not even like Liam does.”
“Sebastian.” His name is little more than a whispered plea. “This is hard enough already.”
“You wanna talk about hard things?” He thrusts against my ass, showing me just how hard he is. “See what you do to me? It’s like I’m a goddamn teenager all over again.”
“You pleasured yourself after I left, didn’t you?” My words summon a vivid picture of him in my mind, one muscular arm braced against the wall as he strokes his erect cock in a desperate fist. At the visual, a whimper escapes me.
Sebastian lets out a dark laugh. “Not much pleasure involved without you, princess. More like a devastating explosion. So go up there and be weak for me. Let every man here know who you belong to.”
His gravelly voice is voodoo in my ears, causing my feet to carry me toward the depraved host of this ball. The guests seem to part for me, just like they did for Ford earlier. Armed with intoxication and faux bravery, I climb the makeshift stage, and his harem of women scatter. So does everyone else on-stage.
Apparently, I’m the main show of the night.
Ford reaches for me, hands hot and firm on my skin. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says, yanking me onto his lap. “You’re going to be here a while.”
“You think I’m gonna let you get away now?” He wraps his hands around my waist, crushing me against his body, and his scent surrounds me—a mix of pheromones, spice, and masculine male. He tilts his hips, nestling his enormous length between my ass cheeks. “I knew you’d feel good in my lap.”
For several moments, I’m speechless, my mind spinning from too much champagne and stimulation. From too many curious eyes, despite the gauzy partition between the stage and the rest of the ball.
To break the tension, I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m surprised you put up a curtain.”
“Not everyone is up for the challenge like you are.”
“You didn’t leave me with much choice.”
“Uh-uh. You can’t blame me for this. You’re up here because you want to be.” He drapes my legs on either side of his, spreading me wide open for the guests to gawk at.
I try to bring my knees together, but his are in the way, keeping my bare pussy exposed. A collective murmur trickles through the crowd, and I pick up words and phrases like “wet” and “begging to be fucked.”
“I don’t think I can do this.”
“Be a dirty girl for me.” Ignoring my protest, Ford cups my lace-covered breasts, thumbs whisking over hardened nipples, and an electric current zaps me to the core. My hips rock without instruction.
“Such a good, dirty girl.” His satisfied growl rumbles beneath me. “I bet I can guess who’s got you wet.”
My gaze connects with a pair of blazing blue eyes, and Ford chuckles.
“Should’ve gone with silver,” he says.
I’ve never regretted a decision more.
As Sebastian’s predatory stare heats every inch of my body, I wish I could rewind time and choose silver. If I had, Ford might allow him on this platform with me, touching and tasting and driving me wild. Instead, I settle for the weight of his gaze on my skin. It zeros between my thighs, stalling there as he licks his lips, and if that’s not an invitation to take what I crave, then I don’t know what is.
“Touch yourself,” Ford whispers, echoing Sebastian’s unspoken sentiment, his lips a warm tease on my neck. “Give our guests a show they won’t forget.”
“How should I…?” With an uncertain gulp, I trail off. “What do you want me to do?”
He pushes my hand between my legs. “Do whatever feels good. Rub your clit, tease yourself with a finger, or maybe you want to try a rougher technique?” His exhale shudders against my skin. “I’ve heard Sebastian likes it rough, out of control, desperate. So do I.”
I’m. On. Fire.
Plunging a finger into my drenched opening, I try to stifle a moan, but one breaks free anyway. The symphony of my arousal spurs me on, making my body slacken against Ford in sensory overload.
He’s hard and warm underneath me, his hands playing with my nipples, his knees keeping mine spread so lustful eyes can watch while I play with myself. Using the palm of my hand, I massage my clit, my pace increasing with each circular motion.
Pressure amps, blood pumps faster, making me squirm on Ford’s lap. My mouth forms Sebastian’s name, and our eyes lock. Everyone else fades away, ceasing to exist as the room narrows to only him and me.
To his kissable bottom lip, tugged between his teeth, and my newly confident fingers, pumping in and out of my pussy.
Faster. Harder. Giving in to the intensity of pleasure. Ignoring the pinch of virtue’s pain.
I bring my hand to my mouth long enough to suck a digit between my lips, and Sebastian’s nostrils flare, his eyes narrowing to azure slits.
He’s blazing for me, hotter than I’ve ever seen him burn.
My head thrashes from side to side as I return my hand to the center of my need for him, pushing deeper, imagining he’s the one touching me. Possessive authority transforms his scruffy face, tightening his mouth into a grim line, hardening his jaw with the need to conquer me from where he stands. His hands fist at his sides.
He’s holding himself in check by a thread.
And I’m reeling, my heartbeat palpitating in ecstasy’s dance, muscles tense as I hang suspended in the space between exquisite buildup and euphoric release.
“So close,” Ford breathes, hips rocking to the same beat as mine. “So ready to come.” He grips my inner thighs. “You want it, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” I whimper, squeezing my eyes shut. As I approach the pinnacle, I keep the image of Sebastian in my mind.
That’s when Ford yanks my hand away, locking my wrist in the circle of his strong grip.
“What are you doing?” I gasp.
“Stopping you. I’m not ready for you to come yet.”
Delirium. It’s the only word that aptly describes my feverish state of mind. By the time I open my eyes again, the room is somehow darker, overcome with the type of disquiet that would amplify the drop of a pin if it weren’t for the techno music coming through the speakers.
Not a single person moves, and that’s when it dawns on me the guests have multiplied twofold…and every member of the Brotherhood stands front and center, watching me touch myself.
Watching me come undone for Sebastian.
I feel my cheeks go hot. This isn’t me. I’m not the type of girl to lie on a man’s lap in public, legs spread wide as a whiny voice pleads for climax. Except this is me, I am begging Ford to let me come, and that’s my pussy on display for everyone to see.
My throbbing, wet pussy.
With a pathetic whimper, I fight Ford’s restraining grip to no avail. “Let me finish.”
His hold on me tightens. “You’re such a good girl,” he murmurs. “I know your cunt’s begging to come, but you can wait a little longer.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I’ve got a gift for you.”
“What?” Alarm takes hold of my vocal cords. “What are you talking about?”
“Telling you would spoil the fun, and I think you’ve figured out how much I enjoy a good time.”
“You enjoy tricking me, Mr. Stryker.”
“How have I tricked you?”
“With the masks, with my participation in your shenanigans, and now with this surprise gift.”
“No tricks, my queen. I’ve given you a choice all along. This time is no different. Do you want to find out what my gift is?”
“What if I say no?”
“Then you go back to pleasuring yourself while Sensation eye-fucks you from across the room.” Ford leans close, his mouth an inch from my ear, and I sense the upward curve of those lips. “Or you take a chance and discover what’s behind door number two.”
“How can I decide when you won’t even give me a hint?”
“Same way you chose your mask.”
My first instinct is to say no, but at the beginning of the evening, when he said he’d choose silver if it were up to him, my spiteful gut-reaction led me astray. This night could have gone much differently if I’d taken his advice. I settle my attention on Sebastian again, my heart pumping overtime in cautious hope.
Will Ford give him permission to touch me?
“Okay,” I say with a hard swallow. “I accept your gift.”
Ford turns my head to face him. “Choose one of my brothers to join us. It can be anyone as long as his mask matches yours.”
My eyes widen. “You said no tricks.”
“How did I trick you?”
“You implied you’d let Sebastian join us.”
“I did no such thing.”
“Yes, you did, and if I’d known, I wouldn’t have agreed to it.”
Ford grins. “It’s too late to change your mind. Decide, or I’ll decide for you.”
“How is this a gift?” I glare at him, tempted to smack that black and silver mask off his mischievous face.
“Choose and find out.”
My gaze clashes with Sebastian’s before swerving to Liam’s eager expression.
Silver and black.
Only one match.
And not the one I want.
No, no, no. This isn’t happening.
I take in the rest of the Brotherhood, tallying up the members donning black masks. In addition to the chancellor, Pax, Miles, Landon, and Vance are my options. Liam and Landon are out of the question for two very different reasons, which leaves…
The kinky doctor and two of the monsters I fear the most. Ford’s got me backed into a corner, and he knows it. So much for freedom and fun. He’s forcing me into another decision, another situation, another impossible choice. Is this how the whole month will progress—with him forcing me into one impossible decision after the next?
“Do you need help deciding?”
I shake my head. At best, his illusion of choice is a manipulation. At worst, it’s a carefully constructed master plan.
Because there’s only one option, and it’s Vance Morgan—the only man other than Sebastian and Liam I can stand the thought of touching me. He’s a doctor, and he’s examined me before, shown me kindness when I desperately needed it. During his month, he even put his mouth on me.
Besides, the man is an exhibitionist.
“Vance,” I say, my vocal cords constricting.
The doctor’s steel gray eyes connect with mine, seeming to soften in the dim light, telling me he understands why he’s my choice.
Why he’s the only choice.
As much as Sebastian urged me to play Ford’s game, I know choosing Liam to finish what I started is out of the question.
Ford gestures at the doctor, and as Vance climbs onto the platform, the continuous techno beat intensifies. Or maybe it’s my heartbeat pulsing too loudly in my ears, amping up with nerves and anticipation.
Vance removes his jacket, ties back his blond hair, and crawls onto the end of the lounger between Ford’s feet. His lustful gaze settles on the core of my sex.
“So beautiful.” A satisfied grin takes hold of his lips. “So wet. Do you want me to lick your pussy?”
I didn’t expect my core to clench so tightly at his words, but something about his question sparks me back to life—as if Ford never stopped me from reaching the peak. I fear one stroke of Vance’s tongue will be enough to send me over the edge.
“Novalee?” Vance gently prods. “Do you want me to make you come?”
Desire shudders down my legs, and all I can do is nod like the aroused fool I am, lips parting as my breaths hasten and shallow.
“Tell him,” Ford growls. “I want to hear you say the words.”
“Make me come.” It’s a breathless capitulation, and my thighs tense, bracing for the impact of Vance’s mouth on me.
God help me, but in this moment, I crave an orgasm more than anything, and that gives me pause, because this feeling—this out-of-control need sizzling in my blood—is much too familiar. It’s the sort of intoxication that’s levels beyond what a little over-indulgence in bubbly can do.
“You drugged the champagne, didn’t you?” I command the doctor’s gaze, my accusation directed at him because he’s the only one with the means to cause hyper arousal like this.
His smug expression confirms what I already know. “It’s not as strong as the elixir you took during the month of Cancer. Just enough to allow the guests to lower their guards and enjoy the evening.”
“So you’re saying it won’t inhibit me this time?”
“Quite the opposite, love.” Vance traces a light circle around my wet opening, his fingertip spreading my arousal. “It makes you ready.”
“And willing,” I accuse.
A secret smile plays on his mouth as he inches that digit inside me. “There’s that hymen,” he says. “So sweet and innocent.”
“Innocence is more than a barrier of skin, Dr. Morgan.”
“You’re right. Innocent doesn’t describe this wet pussy.” He adds another finger, stretching, exploring, making me grit my teeth from the combination of blissful pressure and quiet discomfort. His fingers are bigger than mine, more experienced. More aggressive.
I huff out a breath. “I want your mouth on me.” The instant the demand falls from my lips, guilt tries to break through the sexual haze. My attention returns to Sebastian…except the spot where he stood is empty. Liam is gone, too.
My gut revolts. Tears of mortification sting the backs of my eyeballs. But my body is trapped in another reality as Vance’s technique curls my toes. He lowers his head between my thighs, and awareness of anything besides his tongue sliding up my slit flees as quickly as Liam and Sebastian did.
“How does it feel?” Ford spreads me even wider, his knees keeping mine open for Vance’s slow and deliberate tongue strokes.
“Feels…oh God…” Trailing off on a guttural moan, I arch my spine, body fighting Ford’s grip, but he’s rendered me helpless by pinning me against his hard muscles.
“Sweet Jesus,” he says, letting go of my wrists to yank down the stretchy lace of my bodice. He palms my breasts, weighing them in his hands as he rolls my nipples between thumb and forefinger. “Hold on to his head. Show him exactly how you want him to eat that sweet cunt.”
I don’t know what’s come over me, but I clutch Vance’s head as if I’ll never let go, my pelvis arching into his mouth, riding his tongue and the fingers buried inside me.
Ford pinches my nipples hard. “Tell me how it feels. Describe it, Novalee.”
“So good,” I moan, chest heaving into Ford’s hands. Between my splayed thighs, I watch as Vance shakes his head back and forth. “So wet…and hot…not t-too hard or…soft…it’s…God…”
“Enough teasing,” Ford rasps. “Tell him to fuck your cunt with his tongue.”
My head’s spinning, and a thunderous roar fills my ears. Or maybe that’s just me, letting out a series of moans, because every inch of skin tingles, shivers, ignites. I can hardly catch my breath.
“Tell him, my queen.”
“Fuck me with your tongue.”
The doctor obeys, and Ford and I groan in unison. “Such a dirty little mouth for a good girl like you.” He shoves his fingers between my lips. “Suck. Show me how this slut mouth would wreck my cock.”
I flick my tongue over Ford’s salty digits, eyes closed as I lose myself to the sex-induced high. The three of us move like the sea, working in tandem and rising like an unstoppable tsunami.
Crying out around the gag of his fingers, I beg to come, the plea but a muffled whine.
“Not yet, my naughty girl.” Ford hitches me up his abdomen until his erection springs free between my legs.
Hot disappointment courses through me, then shock when Vance shifts to take Ford’s straining cock into his mouth.
“Ah sweetest hell,” he groans at my ear. “You made the right choice, baby girl.”
Ford returns to fondling my breasts, but my attention attaches itself to Vance’s busy head. His lips close around Ford’s mushroom tip, his tongue tasting the flesh there, working it over for several minutes before he sucks down the entire veiny length.
“Oh fucking hell.” Ford’s breathless epithet shivers down the back of my neck as he arches up to meet the doctor’s wicked mouth with every downward slide of those talented lips.
I’ve never witnessed anything so raw and erotic, and I’m entranced, blindly fascinated, floating on another realm entirely.
As if I’m outside my body and looking down at the three of us.
“Touch yourself,” Ford breathes.
I bury two fingers between my slick folds, my rhythm frantic and sloppy and as desperate as the way Ford pushes into Vance’s hungry mouth.
“You’re right. His mouth is fucking heaven. I bet he eats pussy as well as he sucks cock. I’m going to come so hard.” Ford grips me by the nape, upturning my face, and his mouth slams onto mine as he groans through his release.
It’s all too much. Too surreal. Too intimate as his tongue chases mine into submission. Shaking, unable to move or even breathe, I crash into an orgasm of my own, an extended grand finale so powerful it shoots uncontrollable spasms down my limbs.
At the peak of intensity, Sebastian’s face strobes behind my eyelids, and I hold onto the image as if my life depends on it.
Ford and I break apart, and I sob Sebastian’s name, a guttural cry of loyalty and affirmation wrenched from deep inside me.
Because it’s him. It’s always been him. Always will be him—no matter whose body forces mine into orgasmic surrender.
But he didn’t stick around to hear my vow, to witness the strength of my need for him. The collision of lust and longing boiling in my veins.
A roomful of strangers did.
They watched me drop all of my walls, laying my soul bare as Sebastian owned my heart. They watched something that should have been intimate, private, an act between two people in love.
Two people…in a tower of twelve men.
It will never be just the two of us. Not now, in the month of Scorpio. Not even after we marry. The only taste of freedom we had was in that cottage on the beach. A day I treasure, even if it went by too quickly. Even though it ended with an argument on the side of the road.
Oh, how I wish that cottage was within arm’s reach right now.
“Let me go,” I mumble, extricating myself from Ford’s arms. As I sit up, putting my dress back into place, Vance gets to his feet.
“Thank you for choosing me,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
I could cut him down with a contemptuous retort, remind him how he was the lesser of too many evils. I could say how Ford’s choice was no choice at all.
But part of me doesn’t believe it—not when the evidence of my orgasm dampens my inner thighs. As tears threaten to fall, I bolt from the makeshift stage, mortification hot on my heels.
The women’s powder room is the closest place in which to purge my shame in privacy, but the door barely closes behind me before it blasts open again. Lilith stands with her arms crossed, the pose putting her ample bosom on display, and though she says nothing, the fury in her jade eyes is enough to raise my hackles.
“What do you want?” I ask, adrenaline and alcohol rushing through my blood. I’m not sure if I’m about to vomit or pass out.
“You can’t have them all.”
“Vance. Sebastian. Liam. Even Ford. Stop acting like they’re your harem. They don’t belong to you.”
Her accusatory tone flips a switch inside me—one that’s long overdue—and I advance until we’re an arm’s length apart.
“How ironic, since every man you mentioned thinks I belong to them.” I mimic the square set of her shoulders.
“You’re a toy they like to play with, is all.” She purses her burgundy-painted lips. “They’ll tire of you eventually.”
“I hope you’re right, because I’m tired of playing.” And I’m tired of this conversation already. In fact, I’m tired of this night. I move to step past her, my focus on the door, but she halts me with a harsh grip on my bicep.
“You’ve already hooked Sebastian. Leave the rest of them alone.” Gouging me with her manicured nails, she sneers at me.
I shoot her a warning glare and shrug off her grip. “Your jealousy is not my problem.”
Her eyes narrow. “Don’t be absurd. I have no reason to be jealous of anyone, least of all a naive girl who’s little more than chattel.”
“At least I’m not carrying the child of a man who wants nothing to do with me.” I should feel a trace of guilt for using her pregnancy against her, but I can’t muster another drop of the soul-crushing emotion right now—not for her.
I’ve filled my quota of guilt for a lifetime.
But instead of disarming her, my cattiness seems to amuse her. The corners of her mouth turn up in a cruel smile.
“It digs under your skin, doesn’t it? Knowing he loved me.” She inches closer, lowering her voice. “Do you see us together in your mind? Imagine his cock sliding into me? I won’t lie. We were great together. That boy came for me like nobody’s business.”
Fury boils in my veins, and to be fair, it’s not all directed at her. No, plenty of it is directed at myself for allowing her to tear me apart like this. Her words only hurt because I allow them to.
And I’m angry at Sebastian for putting me in this position. I’m angry with them all. But she’s the one in front of me right now, urging my claws to come out, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.
“Sebastian told me he made a mistake when he fucked you goodbye. You should thank me for stepping up to take on your responsibility.”
“What are you talking about?” she grinds out through clenched teeth.
“Your child. Sebastian asked me to help him raise the consequences of your poor choice.”
Denying her the chance to respond, I push past her and barrel out the door. I’ve barely made it three steps down the hallway, my limbs heavy and sluggish, when I realize I’m more inebriated than when I escaped the aftermath of Ford’s public display of indecency. Either that, or it’s adrenaline from the confrontation I just fled. Maybe it’s a bit of both, but as I approach the ballroom’s entrance, the wall all but invites my body to lean into it.
That’s where Ford finds me, using the wall for support as the hallway spins.
“Here, hold on to me,” he says, offering me an arm. “A little too much champagne?”
“A little too much everything.” After the show we put on in front of his guests, I can’t even look at him.
He tilts my chin up, his fingers gentle on my skin. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about, Novalee. There isn’t a person in that room that didn’t enjoy what they saw.”
“I think Sebastian and Liam might disagree.”
“They’re the exception. Those two love-sick fools are much too invested, exposing their bleeding hearts for everyone to see.”
In my alcohol-laden mind, I play back all the times my own heart bled, especially over Sebastian’s situation with Lilith. “They must be so upset with me.”
“Sharing the queen is tradition, and it’s expected. They’ve been preparing for you their whole lives. We all have.”
“Sebastian didn’t want any of this.”
“We’re in it whether we like it or not. If he cares about you at all, he’ll figure his shit out. None of this is your fault.”
“Why did you make me do it?”
“To break the ice.”
I shake my head. “You did it because it thrilled you.”
“Well,” he says, one brow raised. “That too.”
He begins ushering me into the ballroom, but the floor seems to tilt underneath me again. I cover my mouth as nausea rises.
“Okay,” he says, snaking an arm around my waist. “I think it’s time to tuck you in for the night.”
“I’m fine,” I protest, even though I know I’m not.
“You will be after some aspirin and a good night’s rest.” He changes course, escorting me in the opposite direction of the raucous dance, and Lilith emerges from where I left her.
She strides back toward the ball, the scowl on her face a notch above lethal, but she doesn’t say a thing. I glance heavenward, offering a silent thank-you for small favors.
“What was that about?” Ford asks.
“We had words in the women’s room.”
“About Sebastian and Vance. She didn’t like what happened back there.”
Ford scoffs. “She has no say in it. She’s just jealous because you have access, if not a right, to what she wants herself.”
“She wants Sebastian.”
As Ford presses the call button for the elevator, he laughs. “He’s not the ones she wants.”
“Then why was she so hateful toward me?”
“Because Vance would rather play with you than her.”
I think back to the night I watched the two of them together in his kinky chambers. They tore at each other like wild, starved animals desperate to feed. He wanted her the way Sebastian and Liam want me.
“I don’t believe it. There’s no way he’d rather have me over her.”
“It’s true. He’s cross with her over her knocked up status. Hasn’t set a finger on her since he found out.”
His admission stuns me into silence for the remainder of the ride up to the sixth floor. As he helps me to my quarters, I’m still trying to process our surprising exchange.
Because I was certain Lilith’s jealousy stemmed from my involvement with Sebastian—not a one-off public display of humiliation with the man who had to negotiate to get her in his bed.
Ford switches on a lamp at my bedside, and that’s when the silver mask—left abandoned in its fancy box on the ottoman—catches my attention. That mask reminds me of how far this night digressed from the outcome I’d hoped for. All I’d wanted was to spend the evening with Sebastian, wrapped safe in his arms.
Oh, how cruel hope can be.
Before I realize my composure is crumbling, emotions escaping down my cheeks in hot, bitter tracks, Ford brushes the tears from my skin.
“Why are you crying?”
“I had such high hopes for tonight. I thought Sebastian and I would talk, and he’d forgive me. At least, I hoped he would. Instead, I betrayed him all over again.”
Ford cradles my face. “Listen to me. You haven’t betrayed anyone. No matter what you’ve done with Liam, or Sebastian, or Vance, or me, we all have the right to touch you. An equal right. You need to put the guilt where it belongs, on us. It doesn’t belong on your shoulders.”
“I didn’t have to enjoy what we did.”
He grabs my dress and yanks it up my body, leaving me standing in the nude before his appreciative eyes. I let him ogle me, too drunk and weak to care about covering myself at this point.
“If I wanted to lay you out on the bed and eat your cunt, you couldn’t stop me. You’re powerless here, so stop blaming yourself.”
“You’d force me?” Instead of shaking off my guilt, the whimper that escapes my lips only heightens it. Cements it in my heart, because I can see everything he just said, the images looping in my mind. The visual is too strong, and it shoots renewed desire between my thighs.
“Not force,” he says, shaking his head as he backs me into the edge of the mattress. “Coax, Novalee. You might feel the need to protest, but I’d make you feel so incredibly good that you wouldn’t be able to fight me for long.” He gives an easy shove to my shoulders until I’m sitting on the bed. With a gentle tilt of my chin, he commands my gaze. “Do you want to sleep, or do you want to feel good?”
“I don’t want to sleep.” Sleeping brings on nightmares and loneliness and horrific memories I can’t escape, not even in slumber. “But I don’t want option two either.”
“Why are you so ashamed for wanting what you want?”
“Have you ever been in love?” I counter.
He shakes his head.
“Not even a little?”
“I never gave myself the chance.”
“I grew up with two parents who resented each other for things out of their control. The queen’s duty made things like loyalty an impossibility. So I eliminated it early on.”
“By not falling in love?”
He leans over me on the mattress. “Emotional attachments only bring misery.” Swallowing hard, he glances down my naked form. “Like you right now, trying so valiantly to fight Vance’s drug, all in the name of love and loyalty.”
“It’s who I am.”
“I figured as much.” With a sigh, he backs away. “Such a goddamn shame, my queen, because I was going to make you come until you couldn’t handle it anymore.”
As my nipples pebble in the chill of the room, I whimper. “The doctor’s drug is only effective on my body. It has no affect on my heart.”
“A product defect I’m sure he’ll work on.” His mouth twitches. “No one ever accused the Brotherhood of giving up when it comes to the conquering of queens.” He tucks me in bed before bringing me a glass of water and two aspirin.
“Thank you,” I say, warming up to Ford’s sweet and thoughtful side, despite the games he likes to play.
“Feel better. Maybe tomorrow will bring a little sunshine with it.” He kisses my forehead and turns off the lamp.
After he leaves, I think about what he said, allowing myself to hope that things will look better in the light of day. But it isn’t long before the first hint of rain splashes on my bedroom window, an omen for the aftermath of this disastrous night.
Naked bodies are sprawled everywhere. And when I mean everywhere…I mean everywhere. As I stand in the middle of Ford’s great room with my mouth agape, rain pelts the windows, obliterating any chance for a ray of sunshine. The tap-tap-tap does little to drown out the snores of too many sleeping bodies.
The place is trashed. Discarded articles of clothing clutter the floor, and half empty crystal tumblers, ice cubes long ago melted in various shades of amber liquid, take up every tabletop in the room. Sweat, smoke, and overly sweet perfume floats in the air. Guests are wrapped around each other on the couches, some in groups, their limbs tangling in intricate familiarity. Others are passed out cold on the floor.
I gawk at the lewd scene for a few moments before spotting Ford on the center couch with a redhead sprawled on top of his bare chest. A man covered in tattoos has his head in Ford’s lap, soft snores coming from his drooling mouth.
I can’t believe I slept through this last night…whatever this was. An orgy? An afterparty sex club? Is there even a term for what I’m witnessing? But maybe this scene is nothing new to Ford Stryker—just another night of fun he ticks off on the calendar.
As if sensing someone from the land of the living, the redhead stirs, stretching her muscles as if she slept in that position on top of him all night. She turns her face my way, skin puffy under the eyes, hair matted to her forehead.
A suggestive smile crosses her plump, well-used lips. “You want to join, sweetie?”
Her words stun me into a breathless stutter. “N-no.”
Keeping her jade eyes on me, she moves down Ford’s abs and pushes tattoo guy out of the way, uncaring when he slumps to the floor. The guy groans, shifting onto his side and falling back to sleep almost instantly.
The woman arches a brow. “Are you sure? I’ll take care of Ford’s cock so you can get off on his face. He enjoys eating pussy first thing.”
I gulp, croaking out an, “I’m sure” as she fits her lips around his morning erection. I should avert my eyes, find an excuse to leave—any excuse—but I’m frozen to the spot, watching in morbid fascination.
A throaty moan escapes him as he awakes, both hands drifting to her auburn locks. Taking hold of her head, he settles his sleepy gaze on me, and that’s when I stumble back, about to flee to the safety of my quarters.
“Please don’t go.” Leveling me with a smoldering stare, he pushes deeper into her mouth. “I’d love for you to watch.”
“Last night was mortifying enough.” I turn to take my leave, one hand gripping my pounding head, when a sound of commotion has me peeking over my shoulder.
Ford is on his feet, cock still standing at attention, and the redhead glares from her spot on the couch, her body in a heap as if he just dumped her there like an afterthought. He gives a loud, decisive clap that echoes through the space.
“Everyone! Party’s over.”
The man must be a magician, because his guests start to stir, one by one. As people search for their belongings, the redhead pouts.
“Ford,” she draws out in a long whine. “We were just getting to the fun stuff.”
“Another time, baby. The queen and I have a breakfast date.”
“We do?” I eye him warily, but he just grins, unabashed by his nudity, so I wander to the wall of windows to give him and his guests some privacy while they dress.
The sky is dreary, blotted with deepening clouds and slashed with sheets of rain. I wonder if Sebastian is viewing the hopeless sight from his place several floors above me. Are his thoughts plagued with memories of us, his head playing tricks on him as he imagines me strolling along the cliffside? Is he painting the recollection now, his talented, expert hands bringing a fresh masterpiece to life?
A door slams shut behind me, and I’m startled to find the room has been cleared, except for Ford.
“That was quick,” I say, nodding toward the quiet, empty space.
“No one wants to wear out their welcome here.” He zips up the same pair of slacks he wore last night. “They enjoy my parties too much.” As he picks up his shirt from the floor, he winks at me. “How about breakfast? I’ll have someone clean up while we eat.”
“What do you want, Novalee?” The tone of his voice gives me pause. So does the way he’s studying me—as if I’m a puzzle he can’t wait to figure out. He’s asking for my breakfast order, but I sense an undercurrent of assessment that has nothing to do with food.
“Nothing too heavy. I’m still a bit queasy from last night.” I don’t even try to keep the accusation out of my voice.
This is all his fault.
His responding smile tells me he knows it. “Make yourself comfortable in the dining room,” he says before disappearing into what I assume is the library to put in our order.
The kitchen staff work their magic fast, and twenty minutes later, we’re both seated at one end of his oblong wooden table, a spread of fruit salad, pumpkin French toast, and hot coffee in front of us. Ford wastes no time digging in, his appetite for breakfast as hearty as his appetite for sex, it seems.
I pick at the apple salad on my plate, spearing a piece with my fork despite the aroma of cinnamon making my gut roil. Silence stretches between us, and maybe it’s the companionable kind to him, but to me, it’s torture. This whole morning is unsettling—awaking with the worst headache I’ve ever had while my horrific behavior last night plagues my mind.
“So what is it you do?” I ask, needing to fill the space with more than the sound of my heartbeat pulsing too fast in my ears.
He arches a brow. “Do?”
“As in work, hobbies, or passions. Liam is chancellor, Mr. Bordeaux peddles jewelry, Landon’s in politics, Vance is a doctor, Sebastian’s an artist…” I trail off, refusing to continue with Miles and his kinky sex contraptions, or Pax and his obsession with punishment. “What makes you get up in the morning?”
“Nothing, my queen.” Ford smirks at me. “I’m just naturally erect.”
“Is everything a joke to you?”
“Only about ninety-nine percent of the time.”
“And the remaining one percent?”
“Well, there’s eating and sleeping.” As he takes a sip of his coffee, his lips twitch at the corners.
“So no profession? No hobbies? Just endless…fun?”
“For now, yeah. This is the first time my life has felt like my own. Eventually, my family will expect things of me, but until the auction is in my rearview, I’m free, and I’m taking advantage of every second. And I’m doing it on their dime, I might add.”
At least one of us is free. I shovel in a bite of French toast and try to keep my bitterness from showing.
“Get it off your chest,” he says, dumping more sugar into his black coffee. Three teaspoons too many, if you ask me.
“Get what off my chest?” Maybe what I should have asked was where do I start?
“Whatever made those gorgeous brown eyes of yours turn to lifeless mud just now.”
“It should have been Sebastian last night.”
More silence rings between us, loud and burdensome in its existence. Ford isn’t brushing off what I said, or thinking of ways to soothe the unsettling flutter of dread inside me. There’s something real about him as he steeples his hands on the table, a frown furrowing the space between his brows.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, as if he knows how crushing the weight of my actions are on my heart. “I never meant to upset you so much. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve lost my judgement when people take their clothes off. Let me make it up to you.”
“I don’t need anymore of your gifts.”
“This one you’ll like, I promise.”
He sounds so earnest. Looks it too, with the way he trains his hazel eyes on me, the seriousness of what he’s about to say drawn in subtle lines on his face.
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“You want Sebastian, so I’m going to give him to you.”
I fail to breathe for several seconds, daring to hope I’m not walking into another trap. “What do you mean?”
“The last weekend of this month is yours. If you want to spend it with him, I won’t stop you. You have my full blessing.”
I narrow my eyes. “What’s the condition?”
He laughs—the type of laugh that would make toes curl because it’s so deep and full. “I’m amazed at how well you know me already.”
“So there are strings.”
“More like a bargain.” He leans forward and rests his elbows on the table. “A friend invited me to a party in a couple of weeks. I want you to go with me.”
“And do what?”
“Be my date.”
“Why me? You’re not short on women—and men—who are willing to be at your beck and call.” I wave in the direction of his great room. “Take one of them, or five, but please leave me out of your games.”
“I need you.”
“This friend of mine, well he and I are pretty much friends for competition’s sake.” Ford sends a meaningful glance down my chest, his attention resting on the scoop of my neckline. “He has a thing for gorgeous blondes. Bonus points if they’re off-limits to him.”
I gasp. “You want to share me?”
“Of course not. I want you to pretend you like me for a night to make him jealous. It’s fun to one-up him, trust me.”
I shake my head. “What happened last night is not happening again.”
“That’s not what I mean. You’ll keep your clothes on, Novalee. I just want you to play a role.”
“What kind of role?”
“The kind you were born for. The role of an innocent virgin queen.”
“Do I have a choice? Or are you going to force me again?”
“No force, but I will coax and challenge you. Say yes, and I’ll make every minute of fun we have together worth it, in more ways than one.”
“You didn’t let me say no last night.”
He raises a brow. “Did you really try?”
I open my mouth to defend myself, but I can’t. Instead, I go on the offensive. “So if I’d said no, you would have let me go without consequence?”
He shrugs. “Yeah. I would have been disappointed, but I’m a big boy. I would’ve found someone else to play with.”
“I don’t know if I can believe you.” Not after facing objectification by a number of manipulative men. A mental flash of Vance’s head between my thighs sends a rebellious flush across my chest. The worst part is how I keep caving.
“I understand why you’re hesitant to trust me, or anyone else in the Brotherhood, for that matter.” Ford dips his head in a nod of concession. “I realize we all face a lifetime of earning your trust after the year is up. I’ll try to do better.”
“I appreciate the effort.” A beat passes as I consider everything he said, weighing his words for deceit, but my gut tells me he’s being truthful. “For the record, I do like you, Ford. I think we could be friends.”
“You’re friend-zoning me, huh?”
“Friends are hard to come by in this place.”
“That they are, which brings me back to my request. Will you go with me?”
“If I go, you’ll let me spend the last weekend of this month with Sebastian?” My tone is dubious at best, because despite wanting to believe him, a part of me just…can’t. Not yet.
“I’ll even set it up with him before the party.”
The thought of Ford bargaining with Sebastian on my behalf makes me sick to my stomach. “Would you mind if I approach him about it?”
“I have no interest in micromanaging your time. If you want to spend some of it with him or anyone else, that’s your prerogative. I only ask that you keep your clothes on. I think we’ve had enough summons for the year, don’t you?”
“What about during the weekend you’re giving me? Am I free to…?” A thick swallow dislodges the sudden lump in my throat. “Can I touch him?”
More than touch him.
Ford shoots me a rakish grin. “That weekend, clothing is optional, my queen. No restrictions, outside the boundaries of the contract.”
A flutter of excitement bubbles in my chest. “Then you’ve got a date, Mr. Stryker.”
Sebastian’s studio door stands open a crack, as if someone didn’t check to make sure it was closed all the way. I should keep walking toward my own workspace—I’m already running late and don’t want to keep my team waiting—but that ajar door taunts the punctuality right out of me. How can I not peek in on him?
Since the night of the ball—the last time I set eyes on Sebastian—four days have passed. Four excruciating long days of Ford’s endless stream of guests while I focused on getting things in order to return to my studio. The month of Libra threw off my schedule, and now my team and I need to work overtime to finish the line before the fashion show next month.
But instead of concentrating on work, I find myself stalling at Sebastian’s door, starved for a glimpse of him as I peer through the crack like a voyeur.
He’s standing with his back to me, signature ripped jeans hugging his ass to perfection. A dark gray shirt hangs on him in a way that makes me think he left it unbuttoned in the front. His body is distracting enough, though that isn’t what has me mesmerized.
The way he strokes a paintbrush across the canvas has me glued to the spot. His subject is a voluptuous woman with hair the color of caramel that falls over her creamy shoulders in sleek, elegant waves. Her long legs are crossed at the ankles, while the weight of her luscious hair covers her generous breasts. The pose is discreet, tasteful, and completely risqué despite all that she isn’t revealing.
Everything in me says I should be jealous at seeing him paint another woman, even knowing he does it on a daily basis in a professional capacity, but I’m not.
I’m in awe—of his talent, his passion, his drive. There’s something enthralling about watching him work, about witnessing the way he transfers the beautiful curves of the female form onto the canvas.
All over again, it hits me how much I love this man. Intensely, irrevocably…possessively. His nameless model has the attention of his artist’s eye, but I own every beat of his tragic heart. I’ve got the promise of a lifetime of his love, and it’s a heady realization that shatters the last of my crumbling insecurities.
I’m not sure how long I intrude on their session, lurking from the outskirts, but nothing is more important than watching Sebastian Alexander Stone in his element.
Sexy as sin, indeed.
By the time his model begins to dress, indicating the end of the session, I’m thoroughly flushed, my fingers aching to sink into his thick hair. My breasts tingle in anticipation of coming into contact with his solid, warm chest. My body hasn’t gotten the memo that touching him isn’t allowed.
Not technically, anyway. Ford said I need to keep my clothes on, but he gave no indication of what I can and can’t do in said clothing.
His model exits his studio, and I slip in, unnoticed until the door clicks shut behind me. He’s in clean-up mode when his eyes find mine. A paintbrush drops to the floor, but it does little to distract me from the brutal discoloring around his eyes.
Both are black and blue.
“What happened?” The question squeaks out in alarm.
He blinks before running a hand down his face as if he’s only now remembering the shocking display of his battle wounds. “I got into it with Pax.”
First Miles and now this, not to mention the way he attacked Liam at the ball. “You can’t beat up every man who hurts me.”
“I sure as hell can.” His hands flex at his sides, loosening in slow degrees as his shoulders relax. “What are you doing here, Novalee?”
“I needed to see you.” As my heart thuds against my rib cage, I flatten my palms against the door behind me—it’s the only thing keeping me steady.
He folds his arms, drawing my attention to the ripped cut of his abs. “Does Ford know you’re here?”
“He said I can spend my time how I want as long as I keep my clothes on.”
Sebastian’s nostrils flare. “I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad stipulation.” He takes a bold step in my direction. “No, it’s definitely the former, considering our track record.”
“I disagree. I think it would be very good to get naked with you.”
Biting his lip, he shoves his hands into his pockets. “Are you trying to fuck with my head? You know we can’t do that.”
“What if I told you we can?”
His ocean eyes lower to my breasts, deepening to the sea at dusk. “Don’t tease me with impossibilities, princess.”
“Being together isn’t impossible. Ford is giving us the last weekend of the month. It’s ours to spend how we want. No restrictions…” Trailing off, I pull my bottom lip between my teeth. “If you’ll have me, that is.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“After what I did at the ball…” I close my eyes and breathe. “I’m sorry for betraying you…again.”
The rustle of demin, along with his purposeful stride across the marble flooring brings him closer. His heat washes over me, and I lift my lashes to find him studying my face.
“I should’ve known you’d beat yourself up over that.” His expression softens as he leans into me, the bare expanse of smooth, hard stomach heating me through my dress.
“How could I not? I let them touch me, and…I enjoyed it.”
“You drank the champagne.” He pauses, letting the excuse gain traction against my conscience. “And even if you hadn’t taken Vance’s drug, you proved your loyalty by choosing him over Liam. That decision meant the world to me.”
“You’re not upset with me?”
“I’m upset that you had to make the decision at all.” He fingers a lock of my hair, his full mouth turning down in a frown. “No more guilt. Whatever you have to do from here on out to survive these next few months, I’m here, no matter what.”
“But you left last night.”
“I’m not a masochist. Castle wasn’t far behind me, either.” His palm fits along my cheek. “I thought I could handle it, but I was wrong.”
I trace a thumb over the bruising under his left eye. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as knowing what that sicko in the dungeon did to you.”
“It could have been much worse.”
“I know, and that’s what keeps me up at night. You’re too vulnerable here, Novalee. I can’t…” He blinks the brightness from his eyes. “I can’t fucking protect you. At least Castle had the balls to try.”
“You can love me, and never give up on me…you can touch me.” My voice cracks. “Please.”
With a trembling sigh, he grabs me by the nape, his rough cheek sliding along mine. “I’d give anything to feel you buck against my hand right now.” His fresh, clean essence fills my senses, and my core floods with urgent need.
“Kiss me. Please…I want you so much it’s killing me.”
“We can’t.” His choked reply is little more than throttled regret, hindered desire, willpower’s weakness.
“We can, Sebastian.”
He pulls away with a reluctant groan. “You said he’s giving us a weekend?”
“What do you have to do in exchange for this weekend?”
I lower my eyes. “Nothing too bad.”
“But you have to do something, right?”
“He wants me to go on a date with him.”
“A date?” His tone is as questionable as I feel about Ford’s bargain.
“He wants to show me off to a friend of his. They have what he called a competitive friendship.”
“Are you allowed to say no?”
“He said I can.”
“Then tell him no, princess. One weekend isn’t worth the trade-off. We have our entire lives ahead of us.” He grips my face between his warm hands. “I’m going to love the shit out of you for the rest of my life. Don’t let the Brotherhood take more than you’ve already given. Not for one weekend.”
“I need this weekend with you.” My eyes sting with desperation. “If I’ve given enough already, then let me have this. Please.”
He presses his lips against my forehead. “I hate this.”
“Me too,” I breathe, closing my eyes as his heat surrounds me. “But Ford isn’t so bad. Maybe it’ll be fun.”
“You barely know him.”
“I know him as well as I can. So far, he’s been one of the better ones.”
Sebastian rests his chin on the top of my head. “He’s a party monster.”
“I’ll take that over the sadistic variety.”
“Just think about it before you make a decision, okay?”
“I already told him yes.”
“Novalee.” Sebastian sighs. “Don’t do this for me.”
“I’m doing it for me.” Now it’s my turn to grab his scruffy cheeks. “What happened at the ball was for him and everyone else in that room. This so-called date is for us and no one else. He’s not forcing me, Sebastian.”
“I can’t stand the thought of you with anyone but me.”
“We don’t live in that reality,” I point out, refusing to back down. “Above all else, I’ve learned that fighting the inevitable gets me nowhere. I want you, but whether I like it or not, I have to accept all twelve of you.”
“No, baby. Don’t you dare give up. Change doesn’t happen without fighting like hell. And trust me when I say that change is coming.”
My hands fall from his cheeks. “What do mean?”
“Landon has a plan.”
“What kind of plan?”
He shakes his head. “I’ve already said too much.”
I narrow my eyes. “You’re keeping secrets from me?”
“Not by choice. Your brother is the puppet master in this.” He tucks a braid behind my ear. “You’ll find out soon enough, I promise.”
“At least tell me you’ll spend that weekend with me.”
“If the trade-off is worth it to you, then I’m in.”
“It’s worth it,” I whisper, my attention stalling on his mouth.
With pure need weighing down his eyelids, he trails his thumb across my bottom lip. “You’d better go.”
An eternity seems to pass, in which I’m caught in the allure of his stare, intoxicated from his salty thumb on my lips. Keeping my distance is going to be torture, but it’s paramount in ensuring we don’t get into trouble again. I slip out of his studio and hurry down the hall toward my own.
The end of this month can’t arrive quick enough.
The next week whizzes by in a flurry of finalizations, last minute prototypes, abundant frustration, and too many tears to count. It’s a grueling process, catching up for lost time in the studio, so when Elise drops by midweek, offering an afternoon outing of lunch and shopping, I can’t turn down such a tempting invitation.
Landon’s driver takes us to the village, where we enjoy a spread of Parisian cuisine at a boutique café Elise discovered last month. After sharing small talk and too many lulls in conversation over lunch, we stroll down the sidewalk in the shopping district, heeled boots crunching on a blanket of colorful leaves. The overcast sky threatens to shower on us, but the breeze is light, the temperature a tad above chilly, and for the first time since I returned to Zodiac Island from Liam’s safe haven off the coast of South America, I feel the burden of my circumstances lift from my shoulders by a small degree.
It’s these unobtrusive moments that mean the most—a meal shared with a friend, an afternoon away from the domineering testosterone in the tower, the simplicity of a leisurely walk while enjoying the autumn air.
If only Elise weren’t so quiet today. I eye her for the fifth time since we left the restaurant, and my concern grows with each shop she passes without so much as a glance at the display window. If there’s one thing Elise loves, it’s shopping.
“How’s married life?” I ask, keeping my voice nonchalant as I stop in front of a jewelry store. A ruby necklace sits on display, and the piece reminds me of the Heart of the Queen.
“Married life is wonderful.” She halts at my side and gestures at the necklace. “You should try it on.”
“Maybe another time.” Just the sight of the gaudy jewel takes me back to Mr. Bordeaux’s month. Willing my heart rate to slow, I move on toward the next shop, which happens to be a baby boutique. “Want to go in and look around? I haven’t gotten you a gift for the baby yet.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Of course I’m going to shower you with gifts, Elise. The birth of your first child is a momentous occasion that should be celebrated.”
To my horror, she bursts into tears. After my shock abates, I ignore the curious looks of passersby and usher her across the street to a deserted park. A pavilion gives us cover from the first rain of the day as we claim one of the benches.
“What’s wrong?” I grip her cold hand between my own.
“Nothing.” She wipes the moisture from her rosy cheeks. “It’s just hormones.”
“It’s more than hormones. You’ve been quiet all day.” I squeeze her hand. “I know I haven’t been there for you lately, and I’m so sorry about that, but I’m here now.”
“I don’t deserve your friendship.”
A heavy moment of disquiet sneaks by. “Of course you do. Why would you say such a thing?”
As she pulls her hand away, her gaze lowers to the ground. “I-I guess I’ve been going through a phase of feeling unworthy. It really is just hormones.”
“You’ve been through a lot. You’re allowed to have bad days.”
“There have been a lot of them lately. I don’t know how Landon puts up with me.”
“He adores the ground you walk on.”
“He shouldn’t.” She exhales on a sigh. “God, listen to me. I didn’t mean to turn this into a pity party, especially after everything you’ve been through.” The breeze blows her bangs into her face, and she pushes back the wayward blond strands. “How are things going in the House of Scorpio?”
“I don’t want to talk about me.” She’s changing the subject, and we both know it.
“I get that, but I need the distraction right now. The baby’s been kicking a lot, I’m peeing all the time, and I’m tired and emotional.” A hint of a smile pulls at her lips. “At least one of us got to drink at the ball. I think you had enough champagne for the both of us.”
“And then some. I’m not a fan of hangovers, or Ford’s afterparties.”
She arches a brow. “You mean there was more craziness after the ball?”
“Naked people everywhere the next morning.” I glance heavenward, because even talking about Ford Stryker requires a plea to the gods for patience. “He entertains guests almost every night. They drink, they have sex, they blast music. It’s amazing I’ve been able to sleep at all. Those walls must be soundproof.”
“That’s putting it nicely, but he mostly leaves me alone, so I guess I can’t complain, all things considered.”
Because prior houses have shown me how worse it can get.
“Sounds like he’s different from the others.”
“So far, a good time is his only agenda. He’s strong-armed me into being his date for a party this Saturday.”
“That could be…fun?”
“I only agreed because he promised me a weekend with Sebastian if I accompany him.”
“Landon told me you were allowed to spend time with Sebastian this month.”
My eyes widen. “Sebastian told him?”
She shrugs. “Landon’s been spending more time with him since he came back last month.”
“Do you know where he went during his exile?”
“I heard him mention a cottage on the beach.”
My chest constricts, and Elise must notice the sudden brightness in my eyes because she sets her hand on my shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
Blinking back tears, I nod with a smile I don’t feel. “I know of the cottage. It’s just…memories. Really good ones.”
Her face softens. “You haven’t had many good experiences on this island.”
“No, but we’ve come this far, right?”
“We certainly have.”
I stand and hold out a hand. “How about we make this day shine by spoiling that baby like she—or he—deserves?”
“The baby boutique?”
“Okay, but I’m putting a limit on your gift-giving spree.” With the first real grin I’ve spied on her face all day, she lets me pull her to her feet, and we head toward the shop, trying unsuccessfully to dodge the rain.
Apparently, formal attire isn’t required for the evening. Decked out in a pair of khakis and a maroon button-down shirt, Ford appears as relaxed and casual as ever.
“What are you drinking tonight?” he asks, already perusing the limo’s minibar, even though we’ve only been on the road for five minutes. “We’ve got scotch, vodka, whiskey, and champagne, sans the doctor’s magic, of course.” He winks at me.
“Seltzer water, please.”
Ford laughs, his deep rumble filling the neon-lit space. “You still don’t trust me, do you?”
“I’m reserving judgment until after the party.”
With a smug grin, he settles into the leather seat, knees spread shoulder-width apart as a fifth of top-shelf vodka takes up the space between his legs. He passes me a bottle of sparkling water before fixing himself a cocktail—though it’s a loose term considering he adds just a splash of juice to the highball glass.
“Having a little screw with your driver?”
“Are you offering? Because as much as I appreciate Henry,” he says, nodding to where the driver sits out of view on the other side of the partition, “he’s not really my type.”
“I was talking about the orange juice.”
Ford downs the drink in one long gulp, his hazel eyes laughing at me from above the rim. Licking his lips, he pours another. “Your sassy attitude gets me horny as fuck.”
“That sounds like a personal problem.”
He chuckles. “I bet you drove Heath crazy with that rebellious mouth.”
“He used fear to break me into submission. I knew not to push him.”
“I don’t scare you?”
His question rattles me. “You make me uncomfortable,” I admit with much reluctance. “But you don’t frighten me.”
“That’s good to know. Scaring women isn’t my style.” He raises a brow. “You don’t have to sit all the way over there, you know…unless you’re scared I’ll bite?”
Ignoring his obvious effort to provoke me, I stretch out my arms and take up the back seat, legs crossed, while he sits across from the bar. My flowing rose gold skirt falls to my ankles, and though the halter top shows off a good amount of cleavage, it’s a modest ensemble.
“Jesus, you tempt the hell out of me, baby girl.”
The standoff continues as I hold his gaze, infusing some of that attitude he gets off of in the jut of my chin.
Amusement pulls at the corners of his mouth. “Remember that role I said I wanted you to play?”
“You’re supposed to be playing my date tonight, Novalee.”
“I thought I was your date.”
“I need you to actually play the part, which means you need to get comfortable sitting in my lap.” He sets aside his half-empty glass and the bottle of vodka before patting his thighs.
“The last time I sat in your lap, you made a fool of me.”
“You loved every minute of it.”
I fold my arms. “What kind of party is this?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, how about we do a practice run?” There’s a challenge in his tone, a quiet dare, and I let a full minute pass, refusing to budge.
But he’s patient, allowing enough time for my natural curiosity to take flight. With an exaggerated sigh, I move to where he’s sitting and lower myself onto his lap, my body facing the bar. As I wind an arm around his neck, his cock hardens.
I feel my skin flush. “What now?”
“Pretend you like me.” He runs his nose up the side of my neck before turning my head.
Our eyes lock, making my traitorous blood pump too hard in my veins. Why is my breathing suddenly shallow? Why is he having this effect on me? I can’t even blame intoxication this time. Much to my chagrin, there’s undeniable chemistry between us, and it sends me reeling.
“You’re supposed to distract him,” he says with a hard swallow. “Not me.”
“Oh.” I nibble on my lip, thoughts scattering. “Why is that again?”
“It’s a game he and I play.” His gaze lowers to my mouth. “But right now, I’d rather play with you.”
The limo slows, and as we pass through the gates of a sprawling estate, I let out a breath of relief. “Looks like we’re here.”
Ford sighs as I move off his lap. “Playing hard to get only makes me want you more.”
“I’m not playing hard to get.”
His lips curve into a mischievous grin. “Saying it’s not a game to you is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. How do you expect a man to resist?”
“I don’t expect anything from you, Mr. Stryker, except for you to hold up your end of the bargain.” My tone is harsh, but my anger is self-directed for feeling any amount of attraction to him. The men in the Brotherhood have twisted me into a sexually confused pretzel.
“Don’t worry, my queen. You’ll get your weekend with Sebastian.”
The limo comes to a stop in front of a lit up Renaissance style estate the size of most government capitol buildings. The chauffeur opens the door, and Ford and I dart through the rain to the front entrance, where a doorman allows us entry. The interior is no less stunning than Zodiac Estate, with immaculate marble flooring, two-story columns, and a grand double staircase situated under a domed chandelier. The symmetry is breathtaking.
A line of guests passes through an archway on the left. Ford extends his arm, revealing a chivalrous side of his character I wouldn’t have guessed existed, and we follow the stream of people into a room with a cathedral ceiling. A massive stone fireplace sets the place aglow, while oversized windows offer an alluring view of the moonlit sea.
Most intriguing are the kidney-shaped tables positioned strategically around the room, their tops covered in black felt and mahogany trim.
“What’s going on here?” I ask as guests begin claiming the vacant seats.
Ford settles his palm on the small of my back. “It’s a private gambling shindig.”
“Is this even legal?”
Ford’s eyes twinkle. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
I’m taking in the scene when a guy waves in our direction. He’s seated at a table on the far side of the humongous room, a brunette bombshell decorating his lap. As we approach, the dark-haired stranger rises from his seat and sets the woman on her feet. All evidence points to him being Ford’s so-called friend.
The man that my virginal presence is supposed to make jealous.
“Who’s your gorgeous date?” The man’s startling blue eyes linger on me like an obscene caress, a flirtatious grin creasing the edges.
“Novalee Van Buren,” Ford says. “I’d like to introduce you to Axel Ivermann.”
“So this is the queen everyone’s heard so much about.” The other man offers his hand, and when I slide my palm along his, he lifts it to his lips, brushing a lingering kiss there. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sweetheart.”
“You as well,” I say, my proper upbringing rearing its ugly head, though inwardly, I cringe, finding the endearment inappropriate and condescending.
The woman next to him clears her throat, and Axel drapes an arm around her shoulders. “My apologies. This is Dedra. She just landed a modeling gig for some hotshot clothing designer.”
“Alejandro Von Jean.” She stares down her nose at me. “You might have heard of him.”
“I have. I’m a fan of his work.”
“Novalee is a designer herself,” Ford speaks up. “She’s debuting next month at the Fashion Festival in Los Angeles.”
Growing uncomfortable with the one-upmanship, I gesture at the table Axel and his date were seated at. “I take it you guys are playing tonight?”
“Shall we sit?” I ask, hoping to get the evening moving along so we can end it that much faster.
Ford treats me to a smile full of debauchery that has no business coming to fruition among mixed company. Before I can protest, he grabs me around the waist.
“My lap is all yours.” He pulls me down with him as he throws a bundle of cash onto the table. “You’ll be my good luck charm.”
Axel smirks. “As if we need luck.”
Ford shoots him a warning look. “Don’t push it, Ax. I’m not up for the hassle tonight.”
Axel shrugs. “Just keeping it real.”
I have no idea what they’re talking about, but Dedra doesn’t seem bothered by their cryptic conversation. She lowers her lithe form onto Axel’s waiting thighs, and I file away my curiosity for later.
The table fills quickly, bets are placed, and the first round is dealt by a formally dressed dealer sporting a stoic expression.
I’m not familiar with gambling in general, but I know enough to know they’re playing blackjack. Ford explains the motions for hitting a hand or staying, and he has me tapping the table and waving off the dealer in no time.
And dang it. He wasn’t lying when he said it would be fun.
“How about a side bet?” Axel says after a solid hour of them bleeding the house dry.
“What do you have in mind?” Ford doubles down on a nine and a two. The dealer is showing a six—a card that favors the players. Sure enough, Ford is dealt a face card, giving him an unbeatable twenty-one.
Axel stays on nineteen, his date waving off the dealer. “We play until midnight. Whoever comes out with more money takes the win.”
The dealer reveals a nine hiding under his six, and I hold my breath as he places another card face-up on the table. It’s a seven, and the house goes bust.
“And the stakes?” Ford asks his friend as they both rake in more chips. They’ve been on a winning streak since the third hand.
“If you win, I’ll sell you the Bugatti.”
Ford is pulling a long drink from his beer when he almost chokes on it. “The yellow 110 GT?” He sets the micro brew down. “Are you serious?”
“I’m always serious when it comes to cars.”
“And if you win?”
Axel’s gaze lands on my chest. “I want her for the night.”
Disbelief roils in my gut, and I stiffen in Ford’s arms. He squeezes my side, as if telling me not to panic.
“You know she’s a virgin and has to stay that way.”
“I’m aware. There are other ways of fucking a woman, as I’m sure you boys in the Brotherhood have already discovered.”
“She’s not a goddamn bargaining chip.”
Axel raises a brow. “Isn’t she?”
“Dude, she’s off-limits to you.”
And that’s when I relax into Ford, realizing that this is the reason he wanted me to accompany him tonight. Despite the cards and chips on the table, the real game is an unspoken one, and Ford had the winning hand from the moment he walked in with me on his arm.
Axel gives a carefree shrug, but there’s a tightness to his mouth that wasn’t there before. The gambling commences with an undercurrent of disquiet, their talk of a failed side bet taking the fun out of the game. Another hour passes before Ford calls it quits.
“Afterparty at my place?” Axel asks as he and his date stand.
Pulling me against his side, Ford shakes his head. “Maybe some other time. I’m eager to get the queen out of this dress.”
“Excuse me?” I turn wide and angry eyes on Ford. “I don’t know what you think—”
He interrupts me with a finger to my lips. “No need to put up a fight, baby girl. Your virtue is safe with me. I wouldn’t dream of taking you out of your role.” He smirks. “Just your dress.”
And that’s when I remember this is all for show. He isn’t actually going to get me naked when we return to Zodiac Estate…is he?
The four of us make our way around the busy tables toward the grand foyer, where a man in a tux cashes out chips. When he sees Ford and Axel, he frowns. “How much did you bleed me for this time?”
“Not as much as I could have.” Ford sets his winnings on the table.
“You’re lucky I like you, Stryker.”
“You only like me because I bring you a shitload of business.”
“Which is why I turn a blind eye to your talents.” He begins organizing the chips into neat stacks. “Who’s the pretty girl?” he asks without lifting his head.
“Novalee Van Buren.”
The man falters a beat before exchanging the poker chips for the correct amount of cash. “I dated your lady a few months ago. Nice girl, but things didn’t work out. Heard she married Landon Astor.”
My heart drops to the bottom of my gut, and cold fury tingles down my limbs. I tighten my grip on Ford, my knees threatening to give out. “You must be Jerome.” His name is acid on my tongue, nails on a chalkboard to my ears, but I have to know.
His only answer if a knowing twitch of his lips. “Please send her my well wishes.”
By the time Ford ushers me into the chilly night, my blood is spiked with too much adrenaline. I barely notice the drizzle on my skin. Ford and Axel say their goodbyes, and minutes later, we’re in the limo again, heading back to the tower.
“Are you okay?” Ford asks after several miles pass in silence.
“I didn’t know Jerome was hosting.”
Ford tilts his head. “I didn’t realize you knew him.”
“I don’t. Elise...she…um, she…dated him for a while.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
My breath stalls. “Why do you say that?”
“Jerome’s an asshole to the ladies.”
He’s more than an asshole, but I can’t tell Ford what the monster did to Elise without putting everything she’s built with Landon in jeopardy.
“Thank you for coming with me tonight,” Ford says, steering my thoughts away from Jerome and how he’s free as a bird while Elise has to live with what he did for the rest of her life.
“Thank you for not using me as a bargaining chip.”
“Axel was bluffing with that bet.”
“He sounded serious to me.”
“How can you be sure?”
Ford shrugs. “He knew I’d out-gamble him, and there’s no way he’s giving up that car.”
“But it’s called gambling for a reason. Why would he assume you’d come out ahead?”
“Because I’ve always been better at counting cards, and I’m not as conservative on placing bets.”
I blink. “You were counting cards?”
“Yep, and your presence did what I knew it would. He was distracted, or he wouldn’t have thrown his prized Bugatti in my face.”
“The surprises never end with you, do they?”
“I try to keep people on their toes.” Slowly, he drags his heated gaze down my chest. “I meant to tell you earlier how much I love that dress on you.”
“You’re not really going to get me out of it, are you?”
“Do you want me to?”
“N-no.” What’s wrong with me? Why am I suddenly hot and shaky and stuttering weak denials?
He must pick up on the imposter taking over my body, because a second later, he’s on his knees in front of me, his steady hands working their way under my skirt and up my thighs. He wedges my legs apart but stops short of touching my pussy.
“Tell me to make you come, and I will, Novalee.”
“I shouldn’t want it.”
“But you do. Don’t deny yourself. There’s no room for shame or guilt here.”
“I’m in love with him.”
“He’s not here right now. I am, and there’s no shame in taking care of your needs, just like the rest of us.”
“He’s not touching other women.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know that, Ford. Letting this happen…” I shake my head. “It isn’t fair to him.”
“Maybe it’s not about fairness, right versus wrong, or loyalty. Maybe it’s about what every atom of your body is telling you right now. Stop giving and start taking. You’ve earned it.”
He pulls away, disappointment straining his features, but my traitorous whimper brings him back. “If you won’t let me do it, then get yourself off. You need this.” He squeezes my thighs. “You’re wound so tight you’re about to break.”
“I’m strong enough not to.” Pulling myself together, I inch away from the promise of his hands and the pleasure they can give me. The tempting escape they offer. “Everything I’m feeling right now is for him. I’m sorry.”
With a sheepish grin, he returns to his seat across from the minibar. “I understand. I hope you’ll forgive me for trying.” He pours himself another drink, and I wonder how his liver will survive if he keeps drinking it into early retirement.
He lifts his glass in a toast. “To you and Sebastian. May you have plenty of orgasms during your special weekend.”
A sad smile creeps across my face. Despite his friends, the endless women, the generous bank account, and the free-flowing booze, Ford Stryker seems like a lonely soul too busy outrunning life’s expectations to find his true potential in the world.
“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Ford stands in the doorway of my studio, his hands in his pockets as a wide grin animates his features. I glance at the clock and realize it’s almost five. I sent my team home hours ago because I couldn’t concentrate with the excitement over this weekend coursing through me, and I didn’t want to look like a lovesick fool in front of them. And yet, somehow, I got immersed in work.
“I can’t believe I lost track of time.” I jump up from my work table, the sketch I was working on instantly forgotten. “And what surprise? I need to pack for the weekend still.” In a frantic hurry, I put away fabric samples, clean up odds and ends that fell to the floor during the busy workday, and tidy workstations. Ford lingers in the doorway the whole time, watching with that easy-going smile of his.
“Leave it, Novalee. The mess isn’t going anywhere, but you are.”
He gestures toward the hall. “We’re going for a ride before you head up to Sebastian’s floor.”
“Like I said. It’s a surprise.”
I’m not sure I like his surprises, but the longer I stand here arguing with him, the longer it’ll take me to get to Sebastian. I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to the clock.
“You promise you’ll have me back in time?”
As I lock up my studio, I study the profile of his handsome face. “Let me guess…you won’t tell me where we’re going, will you?”
“Not a gambling shindig, I’m guessing.”
“Not enough time.” He wiggles his brows. “Unless you want to blow off lover boy to be my date?”
I laugh. “Not a chance.”
“Didn’t think so. A guy can hope though, right?”
Ford’s penchant for flirting is as commonplace to me now as the monthly exchange. It’s a constant part of my life, at least until I leave his house in a few days. I can’t deny that I’ve warmed up to his dirty-minded humor and harmless innuendos.
Some days, I dare to call him a friend.
He takes my arm, and we navigate the halls before he ushers me into the frigid November air. The sky is dark and gray as night sets in, and Ford’s driver waits in the drizzle next to the same limo we took to the party.
“I’ve only got two hours.”
“I know.” He holds up a blindfold. “Surprise first. You’ll see Sebastian soon enough.”
As he fastens the soft fabric around my head, hindering my eyesight, excited curiosity flutters in my belly.
“Take my hand.” His voice is soft and deep, his grip firm as he leads me across the wet pavement to the waiting vehicle. Soon, we’re in the backseat, and he keeps my hand in his as the driver takes us to Ford’s secret destination.
“You won’t even give me a hint?”
“My lips are sealed, baby girl.”
I’m not sure how much time passes, but eventually we slow, my body leaning into his as the vehicle turns and heads into what feels like a downgrade. Ford exhales, and something about that sad sigh pulls at my heartstrings.
“Can you do something for me before I take off the blindfold?”
“Depends on what it is.”
He turns my head toward the sound of his voice, thumb a light caress across my lips. “Kiss me.”
My heart skips a beat, and instead of answering, I lift my chin. The next moments slip past in suspended uncertainty. A subtle yearning to taste him threatens to send me into the land of guilt and regret, but I fight it.
It’s just a kiss—as innocent and pure as the unlikely friendship budding between us.
In the next instant, his lips press against mine, soft and warm and insistent as he darts his tongue into my mouth. Swallowing a small whimper, I welcome his exploration, unable to do anything but surrender.
Because his head-spinning kiss…it feels so final.
He pulls away before I expect him to. “Thank you for giving me one of the best months of my life.” His voice is thick, breaths hitting my lips too fast. “If I believed in the institution of marriage, I’d want it to be with you.”
I open my mouth and search for the words to convey my confusion over this entire interlude, but he removes the blindfold before I can respond. Blinking his face into focus, I notice the affection in his hazel eyes first, and the meaning behind that stare claims the small piece of my heart I hadn’t realized was vacant until now. My attention shifts, our surroundings slowly penetrating my awareness.
The crash of waves on the nearby beach.
The narrow tree-lined drive.
The storybook house with the familiar gabled roof.
“Oh my God.”
The chauffeur opens the door, and Ford nods toward the cottage. “Sebastian’s waiting for you.”
I gape at him, struggling for words. Struggling not to cry. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. You deserve to be happy, and from what I hear, this place makes you happy. He makes you happy.”
Overcome, I embrace him. “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me,” he says, voice strangled. “I’ll be back Sunday morning to pick you up for the exchange.”
I don’t want to think about the next month, the next man, the next burden of blind discovery that comes with the introduction of a new house. For the next thirty-six hours or so, I refuse to think of the future at all.
“You’re a good guy, Ford Stryker,” I whisper, placing a kiss on his cheek. “This means more to me than you’ll ever know.” With that, I slide from the limo and make my way toward the cottage.
The door is unlocked, and after I let myself inside, the familiar dark interior greets me, lit only by the glow of candlelight and burning logs in the fireplace. I stall in the foyer, and I’m taken back to the month of Leo—as if I’m not shivering, hair damp from the autumn rain. It’s a vivid sense of déjà vu, and so real that I almost expect summer to exist on the other side of the door.
The heat of the sun on my skin.
The sweet scent of foliage in the air.
The discovery of love and laughter.
As I step into the living room, I sense him behind me before the weight of his touch glides down my arms. He tugs me against him by the hips. Desire flares, shuddering through me with the force of a summer storm.
“I need you,” I say in a breathless whisper.
With a low growl, he cups my breasts. “You’ve got me.” His lips land on the sensitive spot below my ear, tongue hot and wet and hungry on my skin.
He shuffles us toward the sofa—the closest place where two people can get horizontal. We fall onto the cushions in a tangle of limbs, and desperation drives him as he pushes my dress out of the way. He shoves a hand down the front of my panties, finding me slick and ready.
“So fucking wet.” As his fingers dip inside me, he watches me with hooded eyes, the glow from the candlelight dancing across his features. “Feels like forever since I’ve touched you like this.”
“Sebastian.” His name is a breathless cry as my chest heaves against his.
“I know, princess.” His forehead lowers to mine, and I spread wider to accept him as he thrusts those fingers deeper. He strokes me with the perfect rhythm, the perfect depth.
About to burst at the seams, I hold his cheeks, urging him back an inch until our eyes meet. For several minutes, we say nothing. Do nothing except feel. It overwhelms me, the bond between us, the connection. Unfettered emotion stings my eyes.
His brows furrow. “Don’t cry.” He starts to withdraw, but I arch into him, my body chasing his hand.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because it feels so good.”
“Then take what you need from me. It’s all yours.”
“Kiss me.” I reach for his mouth, my lips parting to invite the conquer of his tongue, the taste of delirium, the intimacy only he has the power to give me. His steady licks match the tempo of his fingers, and I moan with each slide of those digits.
He breaks the kiss, and his ocean eyes search my face. “I need to watch you come apart, but Jesus,” he groans. “You’re sweet on my lips.” The battle is lost, and he comes back for more, one hand tangled in my hair, his mouth devouring mine as he pumps his fingers between my thighs. Determination infuses his quickening strokes, white hot need searing the air. It throbs between us, constricting the oxygen in the air.
I contract around his fingers, and my horse cries fill the room.
“Goddamn, princess. That’s my girl. Come all over my hand.”
The release is indescribable, intensified by our time apart. But it’s still not enough. It’ll never be enough as long as he feels this good against me. Spurred on by the rush of endorphins and the frenzied-state of my mind, I shove him to his back and crawl over his sprawled body.
One long leg hangs off the sofa cushions as he stares at me with wide eyes. He’s wearing dark gray sweatpants, no shirt, and I tug down the elastic waistband, thankful for easy access. His huge cock calls to my mouth, the tip leaking his excitement all over his toned abs.
I lick my lips.
“Fuck, Novalee. That mouth will be the death of me.”
“But what a way to go.” Locking my gaze with his, I inch my lips down his shaft, my head going into a tailspin as his unique essence hits my tastebuds. He tucks that tempting bottom lip between his teeth, and urgent fingers thread through my hair as he watches my mouth suck the sanity right out of him.
“Deeper.” The frantic thrust of his hips brings him to the back of my throat. “God yes. Don’t stop,” he pleads, groaning. “Just like that.” His need takes over, and as he spews a string of curse words, he holds me immobile, his mushroom tip pumping between my tonsils.
Closing my eyes, I take it all, my core pulsing at the sound of his throaty moans, the shuddering strength in his hands, the way he takes the power from me while surrendering his own.
And surrender, he does. I peek up in time to watch him arch his neck, lips spread over clenched teeth as he spurts his release down my throat. I’ve barely finished swallowing when he yanks me up by the hair to devour my mouth, and our passion burns hot enough to melt every snow peak on earth.
We spend Saturday curled up in front of the fire, kissing and cuddling and talking. He even listens to my voice drone on as I read from the latest shifter romance I found packed among my things in the overnight bag Ford snuck to Sebastian.
Ford certainly knows how to surprise a girl. So does Sebastian, because coming to the cottage was his idea. But despite the downtime, I can’t help but sense something simmering between us. Something secretive and unspoken.
Something we touched on at the ball but haven’t really worked through yet. As usual, time isn’t on our side, so as day turns to evening, and we stand side by side washing the dishes after dinner, I think about how to broach the issue.
“You’ve got something on your mind, princess.” It’s not a question. He dries his hands on a dish towel before sitting me down in a chair and crouching in front of me. “What’s going on?”
“How do you do that?”
“Do what?” he asks.
“Know me so well.”
He arches a brow. “Not only do you wear your feelings on your face, but I’ve been inside of you.” He cups my cheek. “They don’t call it becoming one body for nothing. I’m attuned to you now.”
“I think you’ve always been attuned to me.”
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“You didn’t…want me like that last night.” After our frantic session on the sofa, he fed me dinner and held me all night in bed, but he didn’t initiate what I wanted more than anything.
To be one with him again.
He lowers his gaze to my knees. “I didn’t want to rush it.”
His admission digs under the ever-present insecurities that plague me, even when I think they’ve been vanquished.
“I’m sorry,” I choke out.
He raises his head, and there’s no mistaking the shock in his expression. “For what?”
“For being attracted to Liam…and to Ford.”
He lets out a breath. “Don’t apologize.”
“But I didn’t mean to betray you. It just h-happened.” A sob escapes, and I bury my face in the haven of my palms.
Sebastian grabs my hands, forcing me to look at him. “I’d rather you be a willing participant than the alternative. I’m sorry it took me so long to figure that out.” He glances around the kitchen. “For weeks, I sat in this damn place alone, remembering every moment we spent together. Every sigh, every touch, every spark of life you lit inside me.” With a deep breath, he caresses my cheek, his thumb wiping away the tears there. “Finding you and Castle like that fucking hurt. I was pissed and stubborn and clinging to anger to get me through it.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know that.” He places a finger against my lips. “When you told me what Pax forced you to do, I saw red. It tore me to fucking pieces. So don’t apologize for finding pleasure during these months, because nothing you do will make me love you any less.”
His declaration only heightens my regret. “I wish I could take it all back.” Every stolen moment with Liam. Even the ones with Ford.
“We can’t change the past, Novalee.”
“I know, but I hate to think of my mistakes standing between us…of being the reason you’re keeping your distance.”
“There’s zero distance.” He picks me up and carries me to the bedroom before dumping me onto the bed. “I didn’t want to trigger any trauma for you. That’s the reason I didn’t take you anally last night.”
“I’m not scared to be with you like that. I want to feel you inside me again. I need it.”
I need it more than his forgiveness. More than the easement of my guilt. I need it more than my next breath. When we come together, he makes me feel whole, stronger than I thought possible. Being with him rights all the wrongs in my world.
He peels off his shirt, kicks out of his pants, and then he’s positioning me on the mattress, two strong hands shackling my ankles as he drags my ass to the edge of the bed. He strips me bare, in more ways than one, before dropping to his knees.
I’m already wet, primed to fly apart when his tongue works at my throbbing clit. Holding onto his head, fingers sinking into his thick dirty blond hair, I wrap my legs around his shoulders and let him bring me closer to climax.
He clutches my breasts, rough and reckless, and I sense the blind urgency growing in him, feel it in the growling vibrations on my clit, the way his breath quickens with every flick of his tongue.
“Now!” I push his head away. “I need you inside me. Get the lube.”
He’s a man on the brink, his chest heaving, eyes blazing, cock straining to find home. With a flick of his tongue across his bottom lip, he grabs a small bottle from the nightstand.
“If you need to stop,” he says, applying a generous amount of lube to his erection, “say the words.”
“You might change your mind if I take you the way I want to.”
“I want it all, Sebastian. The pleasure, the pain. All of you.”
As he pushes into my ass, his muscular arms propping up my legs, I reach for my clit, and he grins. “That’s my girl.”
He thrusts to the hilt, stretching me into an uncomfortable grimace, but instead of bearing down, I will my body to open for his intrusion, my slick fingers circling the throbbing bundle of nerves between my legs.
“I’m okay.” I hold his tortured gaze, recognizing that he’s still holding back. “Take me how you need to. I can handle it.”
“Holy shit, princess.” He pumps in earnest, blond hair flopping over his forehead with each thrust of his hips. Our sweat-covered bodies become one in a messy, lust-induced symphony of moans and madness. The echoing slaps of flesh on flesh filter through the bedroom.
We’re in sync, complementing each other like lightning and thunder. Just as I feel the tight pull of completion spreading down my limbs and curling my toes, he jerks to a halt inside my ass. There’s nothing more exhilarating than sharing this moment—of experiencing the beauty of intimate unison with him.
Afterward, we crawl between the sheets and allow the fire to cool.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
I shake my head, snuggling deeper into his spooning embrace. “No. It was amazing.”
His lips trail a path of kisses across the slope of my shoulder. “You’re amazing.”
“We’re amazing together.”
“We sure are.”
Sleep pulls at us, though we awake in the middle of the night for round two. And maybe that’s why it takes several drowsy moments for the incessant pounding to penetrate our sanctuary.
“What’s going on?” As I sit up in bed, Sebastian’s already pulling on his pants.
“Someone’s here.” He tosses me my dress from yesterday before striding toward the source of what woke us. Scrambling into motion, I yank the dress over my head and catch up to him as he opens the front door.
The sun has barely risen, and I gape as my brother waltzes in, followed by Liam, Vance, Ford, Tatum, and a man whose name I can’t recall, but I believe he’s from the House of Aquarius.
“What’s going on?” I ask, my disbelieving gaze touching on each member of the Brotherhood—the half currently present, anyway. As Sebastian pulls me against his side, running a hand through his bedroom hair, Landon takes it upon himself to answer.
“No one can know about this meeting, Novalee.”
“I don’t understand. Is something wrong? Is Elise okay?” My voice gains an octave with each rapid-fire question.
“Elise is fine.” Landon folds his arms, the picture of authority and leadership, despite the chancellor owning that role, officially.
Sebastian’s words from a few weeks ago come back to me, as clear in my mind as when he first said them.
“Your brother is the puppet master in this.”
He all but admitted to keeping a secret.
Narrowing my eyes at Landon, I step away from Sebastian and cross my arms, matching my brother’s pose. “You need to tell me what’s going on.”
“We’re here to discuss strategy.”
“Strategy for what?”
Taking the lead, Liam clears his throat. “We’re here to discuss how we’re going to rig the auction, my sweet girl.”