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I flop onto my back, heedless for a moment of the fact that the blanket doesn’t come with me, and my breasts poke out—I follow his gaze, and tug the blanket up. “James, I get it.”

“You do?”

I nod. “As much as I can, yes.”

“I want to explain, but after what we just shared together, I don’t want to talk about—” He stops abruptly, shrugging.

I press the blanket against my sternum and shimmy to a sitting position, and I wipe my eyes with my free hand. “Say her name, James.”

“Nova, I—”

If I know anything at all about James, it’s that the raw, brutal truth is always better than a pleasant fiction. “You said her name instead of mine as I made you come, James. You came on me, and you said your dead wife’s name.”

He flinches. “I know, Nova. And I’m sorry.”

I ignore his words. “So, if you want to explain, then explain. And don’t shy away from saying her name, James. It can’t hurt me any more than it already has.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he says.

I offer a sort-of smile. Not quite forgiveness, or acceptance, but…understanding, perhaps. “I know. The problem is, we don’t have to mean or intend something for it hurt. It still hurts. You said her name instead of mine—it was an accident, and I understand. But it still hurts.”

He sighs, long and slow. “Nova, I…” He wipes his face with a palm. His jeans are still undone, pulled up but unzipped; the gray cotton of his underwear is dotted with a spot where he leaked cum after pulling them up—or perhaps that was pre-cum from being aroused before I took him out. “There was only her. Ever.”

I’ve heard bits and pieces and repeated parts of stories, but that’s not the same as hearing it from him. I stay quiet and keep my eyes on his. I wait.

“I met her in elementary school, same year as I met Jesse, her brother. I liked her from the moment I saw her—she was wearing a denim overall skirt, red tights, little black shoes, and her hair was in two blond braids.”

I laugh. “You remember what she was wearing the first time you met her, what, thirty-five years ago?”

He shrugs. “Like I said, there was only ever her. We were friends until middle school. We antagonized each other in middle school and acted like we suddenly hated each other.”

“As one does in middle school,” I say.

He nods. “And then, the summer before ninth grade, we hung out together a lot, and then we kissed for the first time…” He stares at the ceiling, swallowing hard. “And that was it. After that first kiss, it was just the two of us, James and Renée. We were so inseparable we didn’t just get…what’s the term for combining a couples’ names?”

“Shipping? Like Brangelina?”

“Right, that. We didn’t just get shipped or whatever, our group of friends called us JR, as in James and Renée, like we were a single entity. If they wanted to know where one of us was, they’d ask, ‘Where’s JR?’”

I laugh at that. “Wow. That’s relationship goals right there.”

He shrugs, nods. “Yeah, I guess so.” A long pause. “So, when I say it was only ever her, I mean that in every way. She was my first kiss, my first everything—and not just my first…my only.” His eyes meet mine. “It has only ever been her.”

“I get it, James.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know if you do.” He swallows hard again. “That time we kissed in my kitchen—that was the first time I’d ever, ever kissed a woman who wasn’t Renée.”

“Oh,” I breathe. “Ohhh.”

“Yeah.”

“So…” I blink hard, trying to wrap my head around what he’s saying. “So us, just now?”

“You are the only woman who has ever touched me, aside from her. And that was the first I’ve been touched by anyone since she…since Renée died.” His eyes mist, and he blinks hard, turns his head to one side, away from me.

Somehow, his pain in this moment eclipses my own. I touch his cheek, turn his face to mine. “Don’t hide it, James.”

He grumps, gruff, blinks, shakes his head. “I’m just being stupid.”

I rub a thumb across his cheek, under his eye. “Quit acting macho. You’re allowed to feel the way you feel, James, and you’re no less a big, tough, strong, alpha male for shedding a few tears.”

He stares at me. “After what we just did, and after what just happened, I expected you to kick me out, not let me whine about my stupid sob story.”

I shake my head. “Now you’re being stupid, James.” I scoff, my own throat thick. “My story isn’t quite like yours, but I do understand, to a degree.”

He tilts his head to one side. “What do you mean?”

I’d told my story to Laurel and then to Imogen, and thus somehow just assumed James heard about it.


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