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"Thank you for dinner," Maya Blackstone said as she fitted her key into the lock of her downtown Sioux Falls town house. She twisted the key and then the knob, opening the door a crack before turning back to Brad McKenzie.
It was dark outside, but the yellow glow of the porch light reflected his tall frame, chestnut hair and handsome face.
"You're welcome," he said, offering a small smile as his hand stroked down her arm, left bare by the sleeveless knit top she was wearing. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
Gooseflesh broke out along her skin, making her shiver. She shouldn't have been surprised by his suggestion. They'd been dating for almost a year now, and Brad was one of the nicest guys she'd ever met. It was only natural that their relationship would begin to move in a more physical, intimate direction. Lord knew he'd been pushing for it for months now.
Not aggressively, and not in any way that would make her feel pressured, but she wasn't stupid. She knew what all the little touches and caresses meant. She also knew that most couples who'd been seeing each other as long as she and Brad had would already be sleeping together.
And there was no reason she shouldn't go to bed with him. He was kind, good–looking, successful and treated her like a princess. She was even attracted to him.
So what was her problem? What was she waiting for? Taking a deep breath, she steeled her nerves and made her decision.
"Of course." Pushing open the front door, she stepped inside and flipped on the light that illuminated the small entryway. She set her purse on the decorative bench she kept against the wall and headed for the kitchen, leaving Brad to close the door and follow along. he'd been inside her house often enough to know his way around and make himself at home.
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked, going to the refrigerator to see what she had to offer.
"Iced tea or a glass of wine. I could make some coffee."
He came up behind her, standing so close she could feel the heat of his body at her back. "Wine would be good," he murmured in a low voice, taking the opportunity to rub her shoulders.
Fighting the urge to shrug away from his hold, she grabbed the open bottle of chardonnay from the top shelf of the refrigerator, then opened a nearby cupboard to retrieve two glasses. She walked around the corner into the living room, breaking Brad's hold on her but knowing he was close on her heels.
They lowered themselves onto the overstuffed, floralpatterned sofa. Maya sat forward, setting the glasses on the coffee table while she popped the cork and poured a generous amount of the fragrant liquid for each of them.
She turned to hand one of the glasses to Brad, taking a deep breath to keep from shifting farther away. He was sitting close, his thigh pressing along hers, his shoulder brushing her own as he took the wine.
This was ridiculous, she chastised herself. What was she afraid of? What was she waiting for?
Brad sipped his wine while she drank hers a bit more forcefully, then set her empty glass on the table in front of them. Turning, she smiled and settled against his side, both of them leaning into the soft back of the sofa.
His brows lifted, and it took a second for his arm to tighten around her.
She didn't blame him for being surprised, since she wasn't usually the one to make the first move.
Usually? Try never. She had never made the first move with Brad. A part of her couldn't believe she was doing it now.
But a year was long enough. She wanted to be with Brad. She wanted to be normal, have a normal relationship. And if things were ever going to move forward with them, become more serious, she needed to get over these intimacy issues she seemed to have.
Tipping her head back, she silently invited him to kiss her. An invitation he wasted no time accepting.
Despite her reservations, she had to admit he was a good kisser. Even she had no trouble recognizing that aspect of his personality.
His mouth moved over hers smoothly, his lips warm and firm. He caressed her shoulders, then her arms, his hands sliding around to her back.
It felt good, enjoyable, and she thought they really might make it this time.
With a moan he pulled her closer, deepening the kiss and pressing their bodies together so that she could feel the clear sign of his arousal.
Her stomach clenched, but not with desire. Nerves flared to life in her bloodstream, her muscles growing tense, her breathing growing labored as panic set in.
Dammit. She stiffened, whimpering partly in fear and partly in aggravation as she put out her arms and shoved away.
Brad blinked, his chest heaving, stunned by her sudden retreat.
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head and shifting back as far as she could against the arm of the couch.
Why, why did she keep doing this? Why couldn't she act like a regular twenty–five–year–old woman and sleep with her boyfriend without being plagued by so many doubts? Without seeing his face when she closed her eyes, and hearing his voice thundering in her ears.
Damn, damn, damn.
Brad blew out a breath and ran his fingers through his hair, frustration rolling off of him in waves. "I know. You're sorry, but you can't."
The words held no accusation or anger whatsoever, which only made her feel worse.
When he got to his feet, she jumped up and followed him across the room toward the front door.
"I really am sorry," she told him, feeling guilty and miserable, but not knowing what else to say.
What else could she say? She was sorry, even though she couldn't offer him any more of an explanation than that.
At the door he paused with his hand on the knob and turned to meet her gaze. She thought he must surely be entertaining thoughts of chewing her out at this point, but his hazel eyes remained soft and gentle.
"I know you are. So am I." He lifted a hand to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "I told you I wouldn't push you, Maya, and I meant it. I'm becoming a pro at cold showers," he added with a tiny lift to his lips, "but no pressure."
Stepping onto the front stoop, he turned back to kiss her cheek before walking slowly back to his car.
She watched him drive away, then closed the door and banged her head lightly on the cool wood a few times. Even she was getting tired of this, so she could just imagine how poor Brad was feeling. She only wished there was something she could do about the anxieties that were turning memories from the past into a full–blown phobia.
It was all his fault. She hadn't seen her step–brother in months, but still Creed Fortune somehow managed to be the plague of her existence.
Ever since she was a little girl, when she and her mother had moved into the Fortune Estate so Patricia could act as nanny to Nash Fortune's four young children, Creed had been nothing but cold to her. Even after Nash and her mother had fallen in love and married, making Nash's kids Maya's new stepsiblings, she had still gotten along with the others better than she had with Creed.
It was easy to be friends with Skylar, who was only a year older than Maya. They'd had a lot in common and had played together from the time they were little.
Eliza had been six years older and not much interested in playing role model to another girl other than her own half sister, though she'd always been nice to Maya. And Blake—Skylar's brother and Nash's son from his second marriage to Trina Watters—had thankfully been kind to her.
But Case and Creed Fortune—sons from Nash's first marriage to his now deceased college sweetheart, Elizabeth—were several years older than Maya and had always treated her like an outsider. They'd ignored her and made her feel unwelcome in what was supposed to be her own home.
She'd never really been comfortable living in that big house with so many people who were technically her family but felt more like strangers.
In addition, Maya had always been the ugly stepsister. She was plain and quiet, and not a true Fortune. She was simply the shy, unremarkable girl who'd shown up one day with the new, live–in nanny and ended up a sister when their parents fell in love. But that didn't mean any of the real Fortune children had to like her.
Pushing away from the door, she dragged herself back to the living room to collect the wineglasses and nearly empty bottle. When she reached the kitchen, she put Brad's glass upside down over one of the spokes of the dishwasher basket, then poured the end of the wine into her own glass, watching the last few drops drip, drip, drip as her head began to pound.
And after all of the insecurities and loneliness, she'd still been crazy enough to develop a childhood crush on Creed almost from the moment she met him. he'd been handsome, older…and so sophisticated.
He was still handsome, older and sophisticated…but she'd long ago given up on winning his heart.
Honestly, she'd have had better luck attracting the attention of a fence post. No matter how often she followed him around or how many cow–eyed glances she'd sent him, he'd never given her the time of day. If anything, he'd only grown colder and more distant the longer her crush had lingered on.
It was highly humiliating. And what made matters even worse was the fact that she apparently still wasn't over him.
Was she in love with him?
She didn't think so. She certainly didn't want to be. But she also couldn't seem to get him out of her brain. He swirled in there, making her neurotic and half–insane.
She was mature enough to realize that the case of puppy love she'd entertained as a kid had been nothing more than a sick case of hero worship. Unfortunately, that hero worship had since worked itself into a maddening and unhealthy obsession with Creed Fortune.
Which was hopeless and futile, considering he'd never shown the least bit of interest in her as a woman. he'd never shown the least bit of interest in her, period.
Yet he still managed to intrude on her self–confidence, her sexuality and her relationship with Brad.
With a growl Maya threw back the last of the wine, added her own glass to the dishwasher basket, then slammed the appliance door closed. She swore, if Creed were standing in front of her right this minute, she'd be sorely tempted to slap him.
Taking a deep breath, she turned on her heel and headed for the stairs. What she needed was a hot shower and a solid eight hours of sleep.
What she didn't need was this flood of doubts and frustrations. For God's sake, her life was already complicated enough without adding a lukewarm romance and painful memories to the mix.
Instead of worrying about her love life, she ought to be concerned about her mother.
Patricia had been missing for six weeks now. No one had a clue where she was or what had caused her to leave. All they knew was that one day she was there and the next she wasn't.
Poor Nash was beside himself, frantic and confused, not knowing what had driven Patricia away, but desperate to find her.
Maya was equally upset, and couldn't imagine why her mother would have taken off the way she did. True, Patricia had seemed somewhat distracted over the past few months, but Maya had never expected it to lead to anything like this.
Her mother's disappearance was the main reason she'd been out with Brad tonight. Nash had immediately hired private detectives to try to track down Patricia, so there was very little Maya could do except wait and worry. Thoughts of her mother had her completely preoccupied, even during work days, when she should be concentrating on educating the young minds of her grade–school students.
And because Brad was kind and considerate and thoughtful, he understood what she was going through and wanted to help however he could—mainly by keeping her busy with dinners out, long drives, even the occasional cultural events.
It was one more reason she cared for Brad and was so angry with herself for not being able to take their relationship to the next level.
She was halfway up the stairs and still steaming when the phone rang. With a grumble she turned around and moved to answer the kitchen extension rather than race the rest of the way up the steps to her bedroom.
"Hello?" she all but snapped.
"Maya?" a deep male voice replied, as though the caller wasn't sure she was the one who'd answered the phone. "It's Creed."
She knew who it was. If there was one voice she could identify over all others on the planet, it was Creed Fortune's.
"What do you want, Creed?" she asked none too politely.
Of course she already knew. he'd been calling on a regular basis to check on her ever since her mother went missing.
Why he bothered, Maya couldn't fathom. He certainly hadn't given a fig about her the past thirteen years he'd known her.
"I just wanted to see how you're holding up. The detectives Nash hired haven't turned up anything on your mom yet, but I'm sure they will soon."
"How am I holding up?" she repeated, her annoyance with both him and herself flaring to life again and coming out in the razor sharpness of her tone. "How am I holding up? Oh, I'm fine. Just peachy. Damn you, Creed."