Authors: Carmen Falcone
Sebastian upped a brow. “Go on.”
“I was very unhappy with all the shuffling around. He suggested I move in with him. He was twenty-one and was working full time. I was seventeen could go to school and work in a fast food joint in the evenings. That was like a dream come true for me.” She laughed at herself, the sound bitter and sour. “I agreed, and my parents allowed me.”
Tears prickled the corner of her eyes, her voice close to breaking. She wiped them with the back of her index finger, and let out a sigh of determination. “We moved to this remote town in Ohio, and I couldn’t afford a cell phone. Back then, internet was still a luxury at least to me. Aidan said he would help me and teach how to live on my own. I was excited to be in one place for a long time, to be able to meet people and become my own person, not just someone who followed whatever my parents decided.”
He drew his brows together. “That’s not what happened.”
“No. A week in, Aidan started to get very possessive, and he wanted to control my life. He would drive me to job interviews, not let me call my parents saying I needed time to adjust. I started to make friends with this girl in the apartment complex. Later I discovered he’d approached her and told her to leave me alone. He would scream at me, and I was frightened. I decided to leave his place one day. When he was asleep. But then he woke up before I could manage to flee and chained me to the living room radiator.” Sebastian went to give her a hug, but she gestured with her hand for him to stay put. If he held her right now, she would fall apart. Hot tears fell from her eyes, and her head pounded. Her shoulders heaved, as if she just moved a huge piece of furniture. A long tremor went through her, as if by telling him that story she was parting with the dark, turbulent part of hers.
If only it were true.
“Eventually the girl I befriended started to think it was weird she hadn’t see me for days, and even though I was duct taped and tied up when he was around, I pushed my feet against the wall to make a sound.”
“Grace, tell me where the bastard is. I’ll kill him myself,” Sebastian said, his fingers curled into fists.
She placed her hand on his chest, and felt his heart racing under her palm. “No need. He was sent to a psychiatric institution. He won’t be bothering me again.”
He picked up her hand and kissed it with so much gentleness, her heart sang. Only thing was… her heart couldn’t sing. And the clearer she was about it, the better. “Thanks for listening.” She never shared that story with anyone besides her parents and grandmother, who had taken her in after she was found. Her Nana insisted she go to therapy, and many times drove her to the doctor’s office. “I’m a hot mess.” She glanced at the back of her hand, her black mascara had smeared all over. “You should go.”
“I’m not leaving,” he said, his voice soothing like a security blanket.
“I’m sorry we wasted the day as far as moving along with the business part of things, but I can’t think anymore. And we’ve had sex already. I’m hoping it met your quota.” She massaged her temples, her vein pulsating under her index fingers.
“I’m not expecting to have sex with you. I couldn’t be there for you then, let me be here for you now. We don’t even have to share the same bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“No,” she rushed to say.
He shrugged, then placed both hands on his hips. “I’m not arguing about it. You need me. I’m here.”
“Fine,” she muttered. She wished she could stop the wild race unsettling her heart. When he had wanted to be in charge in the past, she had experienced little relapses of PTSD. The cold sweats, the dizziness.
A sensation as light as a cloud swirled inside her. She cleared her throat, unable to understand the emotions stirring her mind. Could this be a new beginning for her? Certainly, not for them. Sebastian was pushing for the divorce and ensured she would sign it. He had his multi-million dollar business in mind – and a sexual appetite that he was addressing with her. But, was that all?
“Don’t read too much into it. Grace,” he said, and she wondered if the man had a crystal ball app on his iPhone. “In a couple of days, our deal will expire and I’ll be flying to L.A. We’ll both get what we want. Right now I’m trying to be a gentleman. Indulge me.”
She clamped her lips together, and tried to curve them into a smile. What did she want? At this point in her life, it’s not like it made a difference to Nana if she was married or not. What about her? She ran her hands over her hair, and pulled it to the side. Keeping a nonexistent marriage just so she wouldn’t face a new life as a divorcee was unfair to Sebastian. “Of course.” She licked her lips and dashed to her room. “I’ll get you some sheets.”
“Take your time,” he said behind her, and she almost laughed at the irony.
“Grace, where have you been?” Sebastian’s somber tone of voice cut through the eerie night silence. Grace flipped on the light and walked through the hallway, her high heels clinking on the polished flooring.
“I was out,” she said, and threw her hands in the air as surrender. Her entire life she had cursed the freedom her parents gave her, the early independence she was granted but never earned. Well, it didn’t seem bad now, did it?
He sat on the oversize chair holding a glass of red wine. Besides a pair of black pajama bottoms, he was bare. She curled her fingers, willing away the need to run them over his smooth, washboard abs. The stern expression on his face was all the warning she needed.
“Grace, it’s midnight,” he said, barely moving his lips. Then, he rubbed his temples and let out an endless sigh.
“Sorry.” She took off her shoes and placed them by the glass coffee table. “Nana wasn’t feeling well and I went over to check her blood pressure. She’s okay I think.” She removed her jacket and bit back a smile. “Funny, she didn’t remember where the darn monitor was and we had to look forever.”
He took a sip of red wine. “Why didn’t you call me? I could have helped.”
Calling anyone to give updates on her location was something that just never occurred to her. Her parents appreciated her calls and twice-yearly visits, but they never fussed on knowing her whereabouts. Even as a little girl, when she went playing with other kids at the campgrounds, checking in every so often had never been a thing. “Sebastian, I’m getting tired of this.”
He rose to his feet. “You had the miscarriage less than a week ago. I’m just trying to look out for you.”
“Why? To protect me? From what? A speeding ticket? The only thing I need protection from is you,” she said before she marched to their bedroom. Alone.
The coffee machine chimed and startled Grace. She shook her head, willed those memories away and suppressed a yawn. He was still sprawled over her couch. Even sleeping, his features were strong, his face, manly handsome. Long lashes swept over his eyes.
One more day. Today they would visit some places large enough for an industrial kitchen, and that was the last step before she signed the divorce papers and let him out of her life for good.
Why not enjoy it? She took her apron off, stalked toward him and nudged his elbow. “Sebastian,” she said, her voice sweeter than maple syrup. Before she carried on, she cleared her throat and tried a firmer tone. “Sebastian, time to wake up.”
The lazy, carefree way he yawned made her want to snuggle up to him. Except she couldn’t— not during the day, when they had things to do. “What time is it?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“Ten past eight.” She smiled, and wrestled the desire to run her fingers along his chest.
“I never… sleep that long.”
“I know.” During their short marriage, he was usually up and showered by six a.m., checking the news channels and Internet for updates on stocks and foreign currency. Yeah. She supposed even when he wasn’t the uber-millionaire he had become; he watched over his assets. Too bad she had been just one of them. “I made breakfast, come eat.”
She surged to her feet and led him into the kitchen, and gestured for him to sit at the table. When she brought him the syrup dipped doughnut, his gorgeous eyes sparked. A ripple of satisfaction ran through her, and she enjoyed knowing she, too, could surprise him.
. How come…”
“No big deal. I searched online and decided I could give it a try.” She doubted it would be half as good as the one his mother used to make. He lifted it to his mouth and a low groan left his lips after he swallowed a bite.
She twisted her clammy hands together. “Approved?”
“It’s delicious.” He put another piece in his mouth. “Thank you.” The reverence in his voice, along with his boyish expression quickened her pulse.
“My pleasure. It wasn’t that hard. I’m a chef, you know,” she rambled. “I like to try new things.” With a shrug, she cut a piece for herself and sat across from him. For some time she avoided to look at him, trying to manage the heat spreading across her neck and cheeks. Despite all the sex they had experienced, this moment was undeniably domestic.
She had to admit the pastry rolled down smooth, the syrup taking her on a semi-orgasmic trip. She drank her coffee and finished the food in silence, staring down until she put on her invisible big girl panties and glanced his way. Oh lord…
He had propped his elbow on the table, and although he played with his fork and his plate was half-empty already, she couldn’t help the sensation that he had been watching her the entire time. Little currents surged through her, short-circuiting her nerve endings. They didn’t race to her sex like usual. No. They concentrated in her chest, gathering into a couple of staccato beats to symbolize what she wasn’t willing to admit out loud.
What the heck am I going to do now? How am I going to survive this?
She swallowed hard, managed to stand up and quickly took the plate to the countertop. “We should get going soon. You said the realtor is waiting for us at ten.”
“Think prime real estate.” The realtor grinned and gestured with his hand. “The location itself will put you on the map.”
Sebastian barely noticed the open floor plan of the space set in a coveted strip mall with shops and businesses. All his focus was on her. Ever since the previous night, he tried to understand what was going on between them. Her revelation of her atrocious half brother made him want to punch the guy to no end.
Could he blame that Aidan bastard for the way she hurt him? Did he want to? Finding a reason why she bolted out of their marriage was dangerous. It meant maybe there would be a way to patch things up. Was he ready to open up for her again? He cracked his knuckles.
“How much is rent? And deposit?” she asked, and Sebastian hated himself for letting his mind wander when hers was nicely grounded. She inspected the place with a trace of a smile on her lips. Although she didn’t giggle or sound super enthusiastic, Sebastian could tell this space – the third they visited – was a winner. And she was aware of it.
Bill, the realtor, crunched the numbers and she whistled.
“Wow. I don’t think I can afford that,” she said in a low voice.
“We’ll take it,” he told the realtor. “Email me the contract.”
Bill nodded. “Excellent choice.”
“Wait—“ Grace stepped toward him, with a frown on her face. “Shouldn’t I have a say?”
“Of course. I apologize, Grace,” he said. He stretched to his full height and wished he could fight her stubbornness. No wonder their relationship had failed. He couldn’t suggest anything without arguing. “Are you in?”
“Can we have a word in private?” she said to Bill.
“Sure thing.” Bill smiled and retrieved his cell phone from his pocket. “I’ll be checking my emails and waiting outside. Take your time.”
As soon as the realtor stepped from view, Sebastian took a deep breath. There were just the two of them, in the middle of an empty room, surrounded by lots of square footage and textured walls.
“Sebastian, I know you mentioned you’d help me find a place, but we never talked about the specifics.”
He shuffled his weight from one foot to the other, and jammed his hands in his pockets. “I will be buying this place and putting it in your name.”
Her eyes widened, and a tingle shot up his fingers. He wanted to stroke her cheeks, outline her jaw and kiss her senseless until she wasn’t afraid anymore. Until he wasn’t afraid anymore. “You don’t even know if it’s for sale. It might be just for rent.”
“You let me take care of that.”
She worried her bottom lip and lifted her chin. “That’s incredibly generous of you. Why didn’t you ask me first?”
Ask? Hadn’t they made any progress whatsoever? He shrugged, and glanced around him. “I could tell you were in love with the place. I wanted to speed things up. Grace, taking charge isn’t a bad thing – when you mean well.”
A half smile tipped her lip, and she tucked her hair behind her ear. “I get you.”
“Do you? I am sick and tired of having to explain every little thing I do to you. You complained when I pushed you into telling me everything, two years ago. And, now, you are taking that role.” His voice came out firmer than he intended.