He leaned toward me and took my face in his hands. Pulling me up to stand with him and then moving closer still, he closed his lips over mine in a desperate, passionate kiss.

I tasted the brandy on his tongue, felt the rough scratch of the stubble on his jaw, the press of his fingertips at my lower back, and waited . . . waited to feel that spark. The electricity. The hunger.

But I felt nothing.

My blood didn’t race. My head didn’t swim. My heart didn’t pound. And my sex certainly didn’t ache.

It was only a kiss, and when it was over, I felt nothing but the lingering guilt of speaking up too late.

He must have seen it in my eyes, because when he backed away, I could already see the hurt. The understanding. The sadness.

“I’m so sorry, Cooper,” I whispered. In my heart, I prayed we could still be friends, but that was probably a long shot.

“I’m sorry too. Now, get out of here, princess. I’ve got a date with the rest of this bottle of brandy,” he murmured with a sad half smile.

Gathering my courage, I stepped out of the room, shaking from head to toe.

It was done. I’d made my choice.

Now all I had to do was live with the consequences.

Chapter Eight

Gavin

I took a deep breath, glancing one more time at the city streets below before stepping back inside the warm expanse of my brother’s apartment. Emma and Cooper were nowhere to be seen. Quinn was sitting on the couch, probably waiting for me, a steaming mug of coffee in his hands.

“Want some?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Don’t think so.”

“How do you think it’s going to go?” he asked, and though there was no judgment in his voice, I could tell my answer meant a lot to him.

Scrubbing my hand over my face, I shook my head. “Not well for one of us.”

“And you don’t know which one of you it will be?”

I glanced away, then met his searching gaze. My fists tensed at my sides, my knuckles turning white. Have faith, Gavin.

“Cooper will handle it better than I would have,” I finally admitted, voicing my hopes out loud for the first time to anyone but Emma.

“I think so too,” Quinn said, and I knew better than to be offended. He was merely speaking the truth. “The two of you will be discreet while he heals?”

I nodded. “Of course. If it turns out to go my way.”

“Good. Then this should all work out fine.”

“Just do me a favor and get him rip-roaring drunk when we go,” I said, my heart still a little heavy in spite of what I hoped would be my victory.

I hadn’t wanted things to happen this way. I’d never wanted to see my brother hurt. After all, when it came to Emma, how could I blame him for loving her? The more I got to know her, the more amazed I was that every man who’d ever met her had managed not to fall head over heels.

“You got it.” Quinn took another sip of his coffee as a click sounded down the hall.

Light footsteps announced Emma’s arrival. She looked at me, her eyes shining with unshed tears, and I squared my jaw.

“Well?” I asked, not sure what else to say. I could be wrong. She could have chosen Cooper after all.

But the way she looked at me, even with tears in her eyes, wiped every trace of doubt away.

I crossed the room and pulled her to my chest. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, a tear slipping down her cheek. “I just feel so awful. I never wanted to hurt him.”

Brushing the tear away with my thumb, I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers just once. “It’ll be all right.”

I should have felt triumphant, but instead my heart was heavy for my brother’s loss.

Emma straightened, taking a step back from me, and turned her attention to Quinn. “I think I better head home. Quinn, thank you so much for having me. Dinner was delicious, and your home is lovely.”

“My pleasure.” Quinn nodded. “I think I’m going to head to the library for some brandy,” he added with a grim smile. He rose from the couch and gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder before heading past us and down the hall.

I squeezed her shoulders and brought my mouth to hers again. Emma’s lush, full lips trembled at my approach.

“Let me get you home,” I said.

After I called Ben, we headed back to the elevators and onto the windy city street. All the while, she was silent, her hands clenched into little fists, and I knew better than to press her. Instead, I helped her into the car and held her hand, sitting quietly as the tears slid down her face. Silently, I offered her a tissue and she took it gratefully, dabbing at her eyes before taking a long, shaky breath.

“I hated that,” she said.

I nodded. “I know.”

“Cooper is a good man, a sweet man. I didn’t want to hurt him. I never wanted to—”

“I know you didn’t.” I slid a little closer and placed my arm around her shoulders. “Cooper is strong, though. He’ll work through this and find someone.”

“Yeah.” She sniffled. “I know that. I just wish . . .”

“What? That you didn’t have to choose?”

She shook her head. “I know I made the right choice. I would pick you a thousand times. I just wish I didn’t have to hurt anyone to do it.”

Her words buzzed through my body and I held her a little tighter, staring into her eyes as she pressed on.

“But we need to set up ground rules,” she told me. “You need to be emotionally honest with me. No more secrets.”

My lips tightened into a line, but I gave her a stiff nod. “No more secrets.”

“We need to have open, honest communication. At all times.”

“Maybe not at all times,” I joked, but Emma didn’t find it funny.

“Always.”

I nodded. “I’ll try. For you.”

I hesitated as she snuggled closer to me, wondering if now was the moment to bring up the one thing that had been on my mind since I’d first met her. The one thing I needed from her in return. I didn’t know if tonight was the time to press her, but the weight of this thing inside me demanded to be let out.

“Good. It’s settled then.” She smiled sadly up at me. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

I cupped her chin, holding her gaze to mine. “While we’re making agreements, there’s something else we need to discuss.”

She pulled her chin from my grasp. “What?”

“I want to be completely open with you. I want to be myself with you. Which means . . .”

“Tell me, Gavin.”

“First is that I told you the absolute truth about Ashley.”

She nodded. “I know that. I know you had nothing to do with her death.”

Her faith was everything.

“Is there . . . something else?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.

The need to work through her abuse with her, to make sure she felt secure in our relationship, had been nagging at me—a deep, stirring feeling in my gut the past several weeks. I couldn’t put it off any longer, even though I hated to bring up anything that would hurt her.

“Take a deep breath for me,” I said.

Emma’s brows knitted even further, but she obeyed.

“I need you to know that your past—what he did to you—none of that was your fault.”

Surprised at our change in topic, Emma dropped her gaze to her lap. “I know that, Gavin.”

“Good, because I need to know that you feel safe with me. It’s not just your past I think about. I need to know that as a woman, you feel safe and comfortable with me and our relationship, and the ways I might push you outside your comfort zone.”

She looked up, her pretty gaze now dancing on mine. “What do you mean, push me?”

Total honesty, no more secrets.

I couldn’t repress my desires any longer. “I need more, pet.”

Her gaze stayed locked on mine as the car began to slow. As Ben pulled to a stop in front of her house, we both stilled. It was bad fucking timing. Why couldn’t he have circled the block or something?

I could tell that asking for more when she’d barely forgiven me for the Ashley situation was a ballsy move. But, fuck it, life was too short not to go after what you wanted. I’d told her everything there was to know about my past, and now it was up to her to decide whether she’d accept me, all of me. But she’d chosen me tonight, so that had to mean something.



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