Wine in hand, I sit in the quiet glass-lined sunroom lost in my own thoughts. I watch Maxwell, the Colloway’s goldendoodle, tootle around out back, sniffing the dead grass for God knows what.
It’s an unusually warm day for November in Detroit, the temperature hovering in the mid-fifties. Asher, Conn, and Luke have moseyed outside to shoot some hoops and Gray is upstairs lying down with Livia, who needed a post-meal nap.
I hear Barb Colloway busying herself in the kitchen, no doubt setting out more food. I’ve never seen a woman with more energy than she. I don’t think she’s sat down once since I arrived this morning, except for our meal.
While I’ve enjoyed being at the Colloway’s today, and it’s certainly better than spending Thanksgiving alone, I can’t help the melancholy mood I find myself in. I need some alone time and this quiet, serene room is the perfect reflective spot.
When I’m in this home, I feel like an outsider looking in. A welcomed interloper, if that makes any sense. This family is so tight, so full of love and happiness that it makes me ache for all that I don’t have, for all I never had, and for all that’s been taken from me. I try to stay away from these dark cracks in my head. If I let myself wallow there too long I know I’ll accidentally slip into one, unable to get back out of the thin crevice.
As I listened to Barb say grace before our meal, I almost burst into tears. Growing up, I don’t remember very many family meals and we certainly never prayed, unless it was that the electricity would be turned back on or that we wouldn’t lose the house that was days away from foreclosure.
As a gambling addict, my father was an absent parent for the most part, and my mother walked out on us when I was just four and a half years old. I don’t even think I remember what she looks like anymore, my childhood memories long faded.
But I do remember her voice. I remember the way she used to sing softly to me at night when I couldn’t get to sleep. I remember the way she’d stroke my hair as she held me on the couch when we’d watch Disney movies. I remember how safe she made me feel when she’d scour under my bed and in my closet for monsters. I remember feeling that she loved me, so I never understood why she left me. When she abandoned us, Livia took over those duties, even though she was only eight. Livia was more of a mother to me than my own.
Then Livia left me too. She left everyone without any reason, without any forewarning, and without any explanation. Just like our mother did. It was a heart-crushing, devastating blow. To this day I still don’t know why, even though I talked to her several times during her absence. All I know is her story about needing some time away was pure bullshit.
Livia was always a caretaker. What she did was completely out of character for her. It’s a secret between us that has caused a huge rift, one that I’m trying to let go, because after her three-year absence, I’m simply glad to have her back in my life, but some days it’s difficult.
I see how happy she and Gray are and obviously he has fully forgiven her, so why can’t I? I see acceptance in the actions and words of the Colloway family, so what’s wrong with me?
In one way or another, everyone I have ever loved has deserted or betrayed me.
So is it any wonder that with every relationship I have, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Is it any wonder I don’t let myself fully love another person?
I’ve never let anyone see one hundred percent of Alyse Kingsley. Not one. I’ve had secrets from every single person in my life. Even Livia. I show people what I want, keeping the rest hidden, protected. Never putting myself completely out there. Never really exposing my thin skin, my inner brokenness. I excel at appearing open, while keeping people firmly at arm’s length. It’s just easier that way. It hurts less. I was with Finn for almost a year and it was a fight that we had constantly. He wanted in, I pushed him out. I was never in love with him. I was just lonely.
If I let Asher into my life, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be next in a long line of people who have been unreliable. Will he dump me on the side of the road like a pile of trash and drive away without a second thought, without a look back?
Why wouldn’t he? Everyone else has.
I’m honestly not even sure I have the ability to let him into my heart.
My body? Yes. I have a feeling that’s inevitable, but my heart? I simply don’t know. Though if I could see anybody there, I think maybe it would be him. I often think back to that day at the boathouse so long ago. I almost gave myself to Asher that day without a second thought and I wonder if our lives would have been different if Conn hadn’t interrupted just in the nick of time.
Taking a sip of my Chardonnay, I think back to last night when I foolishly asked Asher to come in. It’s almost as if I become someone entirely different when he’s staring into my eyes, stealing my thoughts. His intense gaze burns my barriers to ash like they’re made of nothing but tissue paper. It’s like he sees me. The real me. The one I’ve kept hidden away from any other human being. And that’s highly unnerving, because I’ve never felt more vulnerable around another person as I do Asher. Which means he has all the power to hurt me, to destroy me. Irrevocably.
In hindsight, I’m glad he declined my foolish proposal. For so many reasons I never should have asked in the first place, but I can’t find it within myself to truly regret it either. I think I would do it again, given the chance. My feelings are on a goddamn seesaw, bouncing erratically from one side to the other. One minute I want him. The next, I want to forget I ever met him.
He makes me feel. And that’s not an easy feat.
God, and his wicked words…I haven’t stopped replaying them ever since. I think I remember them verbatim. I’ve not had any other man ever speak to me like that. I liked it. More than liked it. After I watched him drive away, I barely made it inside before my hand was down my tights, bringing myself to orgasm after orgasm against the closed front door until my legs were like jelly. It was empty and unsatisfying, and even today I still ache for his touch, though he’s had his hands all over me all day in one way, shape, or form. Just not in the way I want or need.
His attention has not gone unnoticed by the entire Colloway family, either. Livia cornered me in the bathroom earlier asking me what was going on between us. I had to tell her the truth.
I don’t know. But something is, and as much as I need to I’m not sure how to stop it. I don’t think I can. He is a mystery that I want to solve. Or maybe it’s simply just the girlish instinct to corner the untamed boy and make him fall in love with her. Everyone wants to attain the unattainable.
“Need some time away from my handsy brother?” a low voice penetrates my rampant thoughts. I look up to see Conn walk in, taking a seat in the cream-colored chair across from me.
“Something like that,” I reply with a forced smile. If he senses my Debbie Downer mood, he’s gentleman enough not to mention it.
“You having a good time?”
“Yes.” I smile, because despite my glumness at the moment, it’s honestly been a great day. Watching the Colloway brothers banter is like reality TV, only ten times better.
“So, did Asher tell you about the Colloway Thanksgiving tradition?”
Tucking my right foot under my left leg, I set down my wine and shift my complete attention to Asher’s twin brother. Conn is devastatingly handsome, like all of the Colloways. He is definitely the most laid back of the four brothers, but I can also see he’s an instigator. And I have a hunch he can easily manipulate any situation to his advantage.
“No. He failed to mention it.”
“Probably didn’t want to scare you.” He winks, a broad smile lighting up his gorgeous face, which I return. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Conn, it’s that he’s an incorrigible flirt. More than one innuendo has been thrown down today, and at one point I thought Asher and Conn were going to come to blows. “In case you couldn’t figure it out, we’re all pretty competitive.”
“Really?” I laugh. “I hadn’t caught onto that at dinner when you challenged everyone to a timed pie-eating contest. Or when you put two hundred bucks on the line for whoever won at HORSE. So what’s your tradition?” And why do I even care? I had planned on asking Asher to take me home shortly anyway. All of a sudden I don’t feel like I’m very good company.
“Bowling, followed by a wicked game of laser tag.”
“Laser tag? Aren’t you boys a little old for that?” The look on Conn’s face is so serious, I can’t help but laugh.
“Who are you calling old, babe? I’m the reigning champ, five years running.”
“Yeah, because you cheat,” a velvety deep rumble calls from the other side of the room. It’s a voice that goes straight to my sex every time I hear it. “And she’s not your babe,” Asher growls, taking a seat next to me on the couch.
He puts a possessive arm around my waist, pulling me close to his side. I turn my head, glaring daggers at his clear statement of ownership, but all he does is wag his eyebrows and wink.
“Has Asher told you about his performing arts days yet, Alyse?”
“Conn,” Asher growls in warning.
“No really, it was practically Tony worthy,” Conn quips on a bark. Yep, definitely an instigator.
“Shut the fuck up, Connolly.”
He doesn’t. “Yeah, he played Putzie, one of the lesser known members of the T-Birds in the ninth grade musical Grease. You should ask him to sing ‘Summer Nights’ for you sometime. Epic.” Conn can barely get the last part out because he’s laughing so hard, as am I.
The only one not laughing is Asher.
“Wow, I didn’t know you had so many hidden talents. I’d like a performance.”
Asher looks at me and I expect anger, but all I see is heat. And hunger. “I’d be happy to give you a performance. A private one.”
I make an embarrassing noise that’s somewhere between a huff and a laugh. He continually throws me off my game.
“Well, you boys have fun. I think it’s probably time for me to go home. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.” I wiggle my way out of Asher’s ironclad grip. He frowns, which makes the inner girl that’s been crushing on this guy for years giddy as hell.
Pulling me back to him, he cups one cheek with his free hand. It’s intimate. It’s intoxicating, and the temperature in this cool windowed room has suddenly risen a dozen scorching degrees. Once again, I’m lost.
Out of my peripheral I see Conn stand and exit the room, quietly chuckling.
“You’re going with us.”
The effect Asher has on all of my senses is confusing. Every single time he touches me my pulse races. I have a hard time remembering to breathe. I have no idea what we’re doing here and I have to start working for this man in just a few short days, yet he’s almost acting like we’re a couple. I need to get myself together or I’m going to be completely lost to him.
“Why?” I breathe.
“Alyse,” he moans, his eyes searching mine. They penetrate my soul, pilfering a little bit of it into him. “Because I’m not ready to let you go yet.”
I watch him lower his lips to mine, the whole scene playing in slow motion. Jesus, I shouldn’t let him do this, but I’m going to anyway.
When his mouth touches mine, sparklers ignite behind my eyelids. Low-current voltage flows slowly through my body, lighting me up from the inside. I think it’s spilling out of my pores, like sunbeams.
This is exactly the way it felt last night. This is a million times more intense than it felt eight years ago. My blood literally flares to life with his simple touch, his passionate kiss. It’s dizzying. It’s exhilarating. What the hell will having sex with him make me feel like?
Completely consumed, Alyse. Utterly lost.
Groaning, Asher deepens the kiss, his tongue demanding entry, which I give. Lips never leaving mine, he pulls me astride his lap. I helplessly comply. Both hands now cup my face and I hand over complete control to him. Or he takes it. I’m not sure which and I’m not sure I care as I feel his thick, pulsing want for me in exactly the right spot.
My denim-covered pelvis involuntarily rocks against his hard length. His grip tightens and a low, guttural growl comes from deep within him as his kiss becomes more feverish. My God, the man knows how to use his mouth. I can only imagine how much experience he has with his cock.
Suddenly he’s pulling away, holding me far enough back that I can’t reach his lips. It takes a few seconds to force my eyelids open, but when I do and meet his dark blues, they’re hazy and dilated with lust. His jaw ticks with restraint. Our chests heave with want and exertion. We stare at each other for long moments. I feel the heat in my face and know I’m flushed from head to toe.
I’m fully aware anyone could walk into the room at any second, catching us in this compromising position, but I can’t make myself move or look away. He’s a sorcerer; I’m completely enthralled in his magical spell.
When Asher finally speaks, it’s barely above a whisper and the sincere words he utters make me foolishly want to give myself to him. Every broken, ragged edge of me. “I’m not sure I will ever be ready to let you go, Alyse.”
“Asher…” I close my eyes, trying to get my violent hormones and riotous emotions under control. When I open them, his hunger hasn’t abated a single bit. “What are we doing here?”
A small smile tips his lips. “I don’t honestly know, but I can’t seem to stop. Hell, I don’t want to stop.” He pauses, his eyes sweeping to my swollen lips before lifting to capture mine again. “There’s something different about you, Alyse. There always has been. Even when I shouldn’t have been attracted to you all those years ago, I was. And now that I’ve found you again, I need to know what it is. See if we have something else here besides the intense need to fuck each other.”
I suck in a sharp breath, his unfiltered words catching me off guard once again. But for the first time since I met Asher Colloway so very many years ago, his cocky attitude is shed and I see vulnerability in its place. It’s probably the most endearing side of him he’s shown me yet. It makes me want to agree to anything he’ll ask of me, which I’m one breath away from doing. He pulls me to his waiting mouth once again.
“Thoughts of you have utterly consumed me for weeks,” he whispers against my lips before kissing me softly. His kiss is reverent, worshipping. Sweet.
So damn perfect.
Every word he’s spoken is what any woman wants to hear from a man who’s interested in her, but still I hesitate, trying to make one last lame, admittedly very lame, effort. “But I’m going to work for you,” I manage to say when he lets me pull back.
“No, you’re going to work on a project for my company.”
“But you own the company.”
“Technically, my brothers and I own the company. I can keep my professional and personal lives separate, Alyse.”
“I don’t sleep with my clients, Asher.”
He sighs, leaning his head back against the couch, eyes going to the ceiling. “Fine, I’ll hire a different audit firm.”
“What?” Shit, now I’ve done talked myself out of a job. “No…I didn’t mean that.”
“If it means you’ll consider dating me, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“Asher…” I hesitate, not sure I should confess so much, especially to someone who will be almost single-handedly keeping my company afloat. It will make me look desperate.
Shit, not only do I need the money, having CFC as a reference would be a huge coup for me. Maybe I’d be able to actually execute some of the long-term business plans I put together so long ago now. “I want the job.” I need the damn job.
He lifts his head and pins me with his beguiling eyes. “And I want you, Alyse. I want you so fucking much I can hardly think straight. I’ve thought of nothing else but you for the last two goddamn months.” God. His words steal the very breath from my lungs. Lungs that have been oxygen starved since he walked into my office yesterday.
“What if this doesn’t work?” I respond quietly, nervously. Christ on a cracker. Why are you even considering this, Alyse? This could be emotional and professional suicide.
Grabbing my face again, he replies passionately, “What if it does? There’s something here. I know you feel it, too, Alyse. Give me a chance. Give us a chance.”
I can’t think when he’s touching me, so I stand and walk to the bay of windows, my back to him. I stare into the tree-lined estate, watching two squirrels pillage for food, taking advantage of the warm weather to tuck away more nuts before the snow falls.
I try to recall my pros and cons list that I created last night, but all I keep remembering is number three on my pros list. He makes you feel alive. Everything else seems to be quickly fading away, like it was written in disappearing ink. I’m at the edge of a cliff getting ready to jump. No parachute. No harness.
I’m tumbling headlong into a complete free fall.
I feel his heat at my back and watch his reflection in the glass as he moves my long hair off of the right side of my neck. The graze of his fingertips makes me shiver, my eyes falling involuntarily closed. I’ve worn a tank underneath a lavender cardigan sweater and the unfettered access he has to the sensitive flesh on my neck has my body on high alert.
“I’ve never had to work this hard to convince a woman to go out with me,” he says roughly against my ear. His lips on my skin make me moan. Lithe fingers trace the exposed flesh against the trim of my cardigan, edging downward toward the top of my low-cut tank. I wish like hell we were alone so he could push it off me and take me right against this damn window.
His presence alone spins me completely off balance. His touch, though…it totally obliterates every last trace of common sense I possess.
“Maybe it’s good for your ego to be denied once in a while,” I pant as his lips travel down the expanse of my throat. Teeth nip gently and my breath hitches. The air thickens impossibly with desire and I’m lost to everything he’s doing to my mind, my senses, my body. “Asher…you’re not playing fair,” I breathe, trying to protest. It sounds more like a plea to continue instead.
“No point playing unless you play to win. Say yes, Alyse,” he demands against my heated flesh.
His left hand has hooked around my waist, pulling me flush against his erection. By now my head is leaning back against his broad shoulders and the fingers of his right hand dip into the top of my cami, brushing against the lacy cup of my bra, while the thumb on his left has worked its way under the hem, circling the sensitive flesh underneath.
Oh God. I can’t form a coherent thought. This is so inappropriate. I’m in Asher’s mother’s house, for the love. I’ll never be asked back.
“Yes to what?” I have no idea what he’s talking about. I just need him to continue putting his hands and lips all over me.
He stills, then spins me so my back is pressed against the cold glass and my front is pressed against one hundred-ninety-plus pounds of taut, toned, virile man. My face is once again in his hands. I’ve quickly determined this is a position of dominance for him.
“Possibilities, Alyse. Say yes to possibilities.” His eyes plead with me to agree. Without even thinking, I find myself nodding before his lips are once again on mine, our tongues dueling wildly. I wrap my arms around his waist and pull him close. My resolve slips, and I finally give in to what I’ve wanted since I laid eyes on Asher Colloway over eight years ago.
Moments later a throat clearing in the background freezes us. I would have jumped a mile away from Asher given the chance, but he has me pinned in place. He doesn’t move a muscle, except to slowly pull his mouth from mine. Heated eyes bore into my panicked ones like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
There is so much he’s trying to convey to me in that moment, but the only thing I hear is you’re mine now. The thought makes my core practically weep with joy and my heart race in sheer terror.
“Everyone’s ready to go,” Conn jibes in almost a singsong voice. “You two lovebirds coming or you going to pussy out on me this year, Ash?”
Asher’s eyes never leave mine when he leans in for a final quick peck before turning toward his twin. “Game on, little brother.”
“By four minutes. Jesus H, are you ever going to let that go?”
“You know I’m not.” Asher laughs.
I’m so incredibly embarrassed to be caught making out that I can’t even look Conn in the eyes, my gaze falling anywhere but on him. I have no doubt in less than a minute Asher’s hand would have been down my pants, and, oh God, I would have let him. I only hope no one else has walked by this secluded part of the house, especially my sister. I roll my eyes in disgust, unable to believe I’m acting so wanton in someone else’s home.
“You goin’, babe?” Conn asks me, forcing me to look at him. The smirk on his face almost makes me laugh. He’s enjoying goading Asher. Immensely.
Asher pulls me to his side, growling at his brother. “Call her that again and I’m going to fuck up that pretty face of yours.” Conn laughs loudly at that, but Asher is not amused.
My mind is a jumble of racing thoughts. It feels like it’s been stuck in a blender and someone has pushed the pulse button. I need to go home and take a cold shower…or a dozen of them. Or maybe an ice bath. I need time to breathe, think, pound my head against the wall so I knock some sense into my stupid self. I need time to work on my pros and cons. Correction, I need time to work on my cons. Why does it seem like I’ve made a deal with the devil? Surely I can still change my mind. I start to answer that no, I’m absolutely not coming, when Asher interrupts.
“Yes, she’s going.”
“Hey, shouldn’t I get to decide?”
He turns, pressing me against the glass once more, completely indifferent to the fact that his brother’s watching every move, listening to every word. “You said yes.”
“I—are you delusional? You don’t own me. I make my own decisions.” Jesus, this man infuriates me as much as he sexes me up.
His eyes glitter with mirth. “You remember what I said last time you said those words to me?”
“Fuck you. You don’t own me.”
“Not yet I don’t, sweet Alyse.”
I could only nod. Not only did I remember, I replayed those six words constantly, especially in the dark of night when I used my vibrator. We’re becoming besties lately. I may have even named him AJ when I found that Asher’s middle name is James. Pathetic? Maybe. But I’m not ashamed, though I wouldn’t go around renting a billboard advertising it either.
“Are you always so disagreeable, Alyse?”
“Are you always so dominating, Asher?”
Leaning toward my ear, he lowers his voice so only we can hear. Hot breath tickles my lobe and travels downward between my thighs. “Yes, I am. You love it, Alyse. Your eyes dilate and your breath hitches with every dirty, demanding word. And the thought of owning every inch of not only your gorgeous body, but your heart and soul has me so fucking hard, I’m having to fight myself not to make you mine right here.”
“Asher…” My voice is barely audible. My pussy now has its own heartbeat. I have no idea if Conn is still standing there, watching the show we’re putting on, but he could sell tickets and I don’t think I’d protest, because I don’t want this fluttery feeling in the pit of my stomach to stop. God, I have never felt like this before.
“Tell me you’re wet.”
“Asher, God.” My eyes drift shut. All I want is for cool glass to be pressing against my flushed naked skin while he moves inside of me.
“Tell me.” His tongue darts out to trace the shell of my ear. I have to bite my lip not to voice the moan hovering in the back of my throat. I think I actually draw blood I bite so hard. “Tell me, Alyse. Fuck, tell me how soaked you are right now for me.”
I can’t deny it. I can’t deny him. “I am.” Pulling me flush to him, he curses low in my ear and it jumps straight to my sex. I’ve never wanted to strip my clothes in front of an audience before, but damn if that thought isn’t just running wild through my fuzzy, sex-addled head. Damn, he is good.
Oh God, I could come. If I just rub my thighs together a little bit, I could be moaning his name so loud the whole house would hear it, but then I realize that’s not what he meant. I somehow find my voice. It’s squeaky when I force it out.
“Why, so you have someone to beat? I suck at bowling and I’ve never played laser tag.”
He takes a step back, finally letting the oxygen that was sucked out by our sexual vortex circulate back in. I gasp for the breath I don’t feel I’ve taken in long minutes.
“You can be on my team.”
I think about it for a moment, but I’m really trying to push every second of the last ten minutes into my memory bank so I can pull it out later when I’m alone. Ultimately, I give in, as I knew I would the second his lips met mine, begging. Deciding to play with him a bit, however, since he’s coerced me into embarrassing myself even further today, I finally respond.
“Okay, but I think I want to be on Conn’s team.”
“Like hell,” Asher practically yells.
“I’ll take her.”
Well, that question’s answered. Conn has apparently been intently watching our little carnal interlude. I wonder if he could hear me panting all the way across the room. God. Kill me now.
“Well Conn is the five-time reigning champ,” I tease. My breathing is finally starting to calm slightly, but I’m sure my face is as red as a beet. Asher is still blocking my view of Conn. For that, I’m grateful.
“Alyse.” His voice is rough and growly and while I’ve kept a straight face until now, I can’t any longer. I start laughing.
“Fine, you big baby. I’ll go. I’ll be on your team. I’ll do whatever you want.”
The fierce look of lust on Asher’s face at my last comment makes the laughter die in my throat. “I’ll remember you said that.”
“Can we get going now or are you guys going to eye-fuck each other some more.” Oh. My. God.
“Connelly James Colloway! Watch your language!” I hear Barb Colloway yell.
Unnngh. This is seriously worse than death.
Minutes later as we all funnel out the front door, I ask myself for the hundredth time in the last twenty-four hours: Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing, Alyse? And each time I come up with the same answer.
I don’t have a goddamn clue.