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October, Richmond, VA
The words jumped off the page and grabbed her by the throat. Her mother had gotten married without bothering to tell her. Not an invitation. No announcement sent afterwards in the mail. Not even a phone call.
Susan Wright clutched her aunt's letter in shaking hands, the noise in the World Cup Coffee Shop fading to an irritating buzz.
I was surprised when I learned your mother remarried last weekend. Tell her congratulations from me!
She reread the lines again, just to make sure she hadn't hallucinated the whole thing in some sort of terrible dream. It shouldn't surprise her, but it did. Crying wasn't an option, no matter that she felt like her heart had been ripped out and stomped on.
"There's no use deluding yourself anymore," she said aloud, ignoring the raised eyebrows from the overly pierced rocker wannabe at the next table over.
At twenty-five, she needed to face facts. She would never win her mother's forgiveness for what had happened that day when Susan was fifteen. It was time to push aside the pain and move on.
Stuffing the letter into her pocket, Susan grabbed her purse and hurried to her car. As if in a trance, she climbed inside and just drove. "I don't care. Really I don't. She hasn't been a real mother to me for the last ten years." The words sounded hollow to her ears. Well, she'd better start believing them. Enough was enough. She needed to let go. God knows, her mother certainly had.
With curious detachment, she realized she wasn't heading back to her apartment on Cary Street, but instead along the Boulevard, barely seeing the antebellum houses that marked this area as one of the mostbeautiful in Richmond.
She crossed Broad Street and pulled into the drugstore on autopilot. All her life she'd been paying for that mistake, always carefully guarding what she said, what she did, so that the error would never be repeated. Not with her mother and not with anyone else, certainly never with a man she'd begun to care about. Relationships, any kind of relationship, were out, except with her friends in the Survivor's Club. They would never ask too many questions or push her past her comfort level.
But she was so tired of living under the shadow of a mistake she'd made ten years ago. She had to start living for herself from now on. She needed to do something crazy and wonderful. Something the old, careful Susan would never do. Today. Right now, before she lost her nerve. It would, she realized, set her free from her past and allow her to begin a new life.
"I'm tired of sacrificing the things normal women enjoy every day," she said out loud, feeling the conviction triple with the sound of her declaration. "For once, I'm going to be heartlessly self-centered and take what I want."
And the one thing she'd wanted for eleven months and two days was Jake Matherly. "I'm going to have him."
Fifteen minutes later, she sat outside Jake's apartment with a three-pack of condoms, trying to catch her breath and steel her nerves. She'd stopped on the way to purchase protection, but now that she was here, she couldn't believe she'd come. The nice floating, trauma-induced trance had worn off and she was now convinced she'd lost her mind.
It wasn't that she didn't want Jake Matherly; she did, badly. Jake did something to her insides that left her stomach tap dancing and her mind in a whirl. She was pretty sure he wanted her, too, but could she make love with him and still keep her guard up?
Get out of the car and go. This is the twenty-first century and women do things like this all the time. The clock showed her personal pep talk had now lasted five minutes. If it went on much longer, she knew she'd never, ever be able to leave the safety of her car--which meant she'd be forever trapped in the pathetic world she'd built for herself, forever hiding from life. This is ridiculous ... either do it or go home.
Susan jammed the condoms into her jacket pocket, jumped from the car, and hurried up the walk, knocking before she could chicken out. Part of her hoped he wouldn't be home.
Jake opened his door and stared down at her without speaking. Long enough for her to have a flash of worry that maybe he wasn't alone. Susan groaned silently. She hadn't even considered that he might have company.
Closing her eyes, she mentally rebuilt her shields, which had begun to slip under the stress. Of course, she would only need the reinforcement if she were lucky enough to get his enthusiastic participation, which didn't look like a given.
After a moment passed, he said, "Susan," and braced his forearm against the doorframe, his big body humming with energy even in the relaxed pose.
He had spoken, at least, but he hadn't invited her in. Good sign? Bad sign?
"May I come in?" Her brain scrambled for an alternative reason for her presence, but came up blank.
He stared at her for another heartbeat, then stepped back, moving his arm in an overstated welcoming bow.
She brushed past him, walking down the hall into his kitchen on rubber legs. "You're amazing," she heard herself babble. "This is as clean as it was the last time I was here." Green and white tile covered the counters, every surface crumb-free. A bowl and spoon sat tucked on the draining board and she knew he had washed up after breakfast. I bet he makes his bed every morning, too.
"Glad to know it hasn't changed in the eleven months since you graced me with your presence." His voice was cool, maybe even a little cold.
"Was it eleven months ago?" Eleven months and two days to be exact. "It feels longer." She wandered over to lean against the cabinets behind the center island, positioning herself away from the door, away from the easy way out.
"What do you want, Susan?" His tone was mild for the harshness of the words, his body relaxed against the wall beside the kitchen doorway.
She hadn't realized turning him down for a date would irritate him this much. To be fair, she had turned him down three times in the last few months. That had to have worn on him a bit. But the last time was his fault, since he'd scared her into a near heart attack in the produce aisle of the grocery store.
Her mind locked in on the way he held himself, the flow of muscles in his arms, his broad chest, his flat stomach under his T-shirt. She wanted to run her tongue along his skin in one long, delicious swipe. A shocking thought, but each time she'd seen him, she'd had similar desires. She knew chemically they were suited for each other, just as she knew the sun would come up tomorrow morning no matter what course of action she took tonight. She could be sad little Susan, still waiting for a mother's love that would never come, or she could be powerful. The choice was hers.
She skirted the island, stopping close enough to smell his rich scent. Male spice curled around her like a warm blanket, dragging her closer still. "I thought I'd come here to see if I could do something about this." She deliberately placed her hands on his bare arms. Electricity arced between them, just as it had the other three times they'd touched. Jake jumped, but she lightly ran her hands down to circle his wrists.
"Damn," he breathed, the word wrenched from his throat. He swallowed.
She was glad he didn't deny their physical attraction. Then again, it would have been impossible to deny the hum of need that purred in the air.
His lips descended to hers so slowly, she knew he fought the action. His kiss ate at her mouth, his arms hanging by his sides, still imprisoned by her hands. Her stomach somersaulted when his tongue touched hers. Heat shot through her body, pooling low, urging her to give up her reservations and just feel.