“I’m sorry but this isn’t going to work.”
Anna Smith leaned on her cream antique fainting couch, thankful for the curving arm and high back to rest her head. If she were another type of woman, she’d throw an arm over her forehead and have an attack of the vapors but instead she stared at her boyfriend, unblinking. Was he breaking up with her?
Unsure she’d heard him correctly, she asked, “Pardon?”
Mason Bennett scrubbed a hand over his perfectly stubbled jaw, those chocolate-brown eyes of his resigned. Final. “I’m sorry. Our relationship isn’t working.”
He was breaking up with her. But why? Tears pricked the corners of her eyes and she blinked them away, hoping he wouldn’t notice the sudden brightness.
He frowned, brow furrowing. “Please, Anna, don’t cry.”
Of course he noticed. He noticed everything. It was one of the things she loved best about him. Before him she hadn’t known men were capable of paying such exquisite attention.
She swiped two fingers under her lashes, hiding the offending wetness. “I’m fine. I’m…surprised.”
“I know, I wish…” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and shifted in the brocade wing-back chair.
He should have looked silly sitting amidst the frilliness of the green-and-yellow brocade flowers. But he didn’t. With his strong-boned features, full mouth and short brown hair, he managed to reek of masculinity even surrounded by old-fashioned femininity.
Although she’d never spoken the words, she loved him. At twenty-eight, she’d never been in love and needed to get used to the idea before she said those three little words. She’d believed she had all the time in the world, and until his arrival five minutes ago he’d never given her any indication to the contrary.
Apparently, she’d been wrong.
She was in shock. Numb. None of this made any sense. They never even fought.
In fact they’d had a near perfect date last night. Over a sublime dinner, they’d laughed and talked while eating the most decadent lobster. Gotten tipsy on too much good wine. They’d ended at his place, in his big king-size bed where he’d made love to her so thoroughly she’d been boneless.
What in heaven’s name happened between last night and today to alter the course of their relationship? She pushed the word past her tight throat. “Why?”
Elbows resting on his knees, he studied her with his single-minded focus. “It’s complicated.”
Anger finally weaved its fine threads through her shock and she grasped hold of it, clutching it to her chest like a long-lost security blanket. “I’m not an idiot.”
He scowled, expression turning as dark and dangerous as a summer storm cloud. “Of course not.”
“I’d like an explanation.” She tilted her chin. “I deserve an explanation.”
And she did, damn it. He’d made her believe. In herself. In them.
Maybe another, more sophisticated woman would play it cool as ice, dismissing him without a backward glance. But she wasn’t like that. She didn’t want to pretend she wasn’t hurt. Upset. Refused to pretend it didn’t matter, because it did. He wasn’t like any man she’d ever been with and she would not spend the rest of her life wondering where she’d gone wrong.
When she’d slammed her grocery cart into him six months ago, she’d never expected him to start flirting. Gorgeous with a dark five o’clock shadow and strong, compelling features—under his attention she’d stammered like an idiot. A demolition expert, he didn’t wear a suit to work and at six-four he’d worn his navy tee-shirt and form-fitting jeans to perfection. He was exactly the kind of man she secretly desired but never dreamed she could attract.
Not that she was ugly. Actually, she was quite pretty. But guys like Mason never approached her. She was too cute, too girl-next-door, with her blonde curly shoulder-length hair and clear blue eyes. Add in a low-key personality and a job as a first grade teacher, and she attracted nice men who desired a nice girl.
Not that anything was wrong with nice men. She just had the misfortune of being attracted to men like Mason. Men who oozed sex appeal. Hinted at danger. Recklessness. She couldn’t believe her good fortune when he’d asked her to coffee and teased her over lattes until she’d been as giddy as a sixteen-year-old on her first date.
Coffee had progressed to lunch then dinner, until seeing each other on Saturday night had been implied. To her surprise, he’d taken the sexual part of their relationship excruciatingly slow, until she’d finally broken down and invited him to bed.
Six months later, here they were—on the verge of disaster.
Mason still hadn’t spoken, and unable to stand the silence any longer she prompted, “Well?”
Those dark, intense eyes speared her to the very core. He cleared his throat. “We want different things.”
She shook her head. “What kind of answer is that?”
Something shifted in his expression and his fingers tightened until his tanned knuckles turned white. “I care about you a lot.”
The words cut like the blade of a knife. Thank god she’d never told him how much she loved him. At least she’d be spared that final humiliation. She crossed her arms protectively. “Let me get this straight, everything has been going along fine and all of the sudden it’s not enough?”
“It’s not all of the sudden,” he said, voice calm, collected. Controlled.
For some reason that infuriated her more than him ending things and she needed to break his damnable restraint. Break him. She hugged herself tighter. “I see. And did you feel this way last night when you made love to me three times?”
His face twisted and he raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how to explain this to you.”
Good. She was getting somewhere. Inching toward the truth. She pushed forward even though she wanted to curl into a ball and wail. “Try.”
“Fine.” He rose from the chair and moved to the window, staring out onto her tree-lined street. “Last night made me realize it’s not enough.”
It was like a quick uppercut to the ribs and the air left her lungs with a whoosh. God, she’d been such a fool. To think, this morning she’d mooned over how fantastic the sex was and all the while he’d been dissatisfied.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, not sure what else to say. The truth put the final nail in the coffin, breaking her heart.
He whipped around. “No, Anna. Don’t do that. You’re great. Wonderful. You are everything a man wants in a woman. I’m the screwup here, not you.”
She clenched her hands and a lone tear trickled down her cheek. “Don’t even try that clichéd dating breakup crap on me.”
He walked over to her, looking far too gorgeous and tempting for her liking.
She wanted to beg him to give her another chance. How pathetic.
He kneeled down, his jeans stretching taut over his powerful thighs. He took her tightly clenched hands in his. “It’s not crap. You’re the good one here.”
She lowered her chin, her hair falling over her face. She refused to let him to see her cry. “Six months, and you won’t even tell me the truth.”
“Because I don’t know how to tell you the truth.” He stroked her hair, soft and gentle. “How to say the words.”
It hit her like being wacked with a two-by-four. What he couldn’t tell her. She started to cry in earnest. She stared down at the loose red-and-yellow flowered skirt she’d worn to school that day until her vision blurred. It was painfully obvious. “I understand. You’ve met someone else.”
“Jesus, no,” he said so vehemently her head shot up.
He looked anguished, sad, as defeated as she felt. If it hurt him this much, why was he doing this? Only another woman made sense.
He trailed a path over her jaw. She loved the way those callused fingers made her skin tingle. There was just something about the sensation of rough meeting soft that made her melt.
And now he’d never touch her again.
“Do you really believe I’d do that?”
She shrugged. If she’d learned anything, she’d learned he was a man of integrity. “No, but…”
“There’s no one else.” His gaze dropped to her mouth as though he wanted to kiss her. “I only want you.”
“Then why are you ending things?” She was so confused. That wasn’t relief shadowing his expression, it was loss.
He sighed and his hand dropped away. He sat on his haunches and studied her for a long, long time. “You really want to know, even though you won’t like the answer?”
“Yes.” Anything less than the truth would drive her insane.
A firm nod. “All right then. Here’s the truth. I love you.”
It was the last thing she expected to hear. She stammered, “You love me?”
“Yes, I do.”
She didn’t understand any of this but she said the words she’d hid. “I love you too, Mason.”
“I know you do,” he said simply. Matter-of-fact.
“If you love me and I love you, then why?” Somewhere in this convoluted conversation was the root of the problem and maybe if she understood, she could fix it.
“Because loving you comes with an unanticipated consequence, kind of a catch-22 so to speak.”
“I don’t understand.” Under the fear and sadness nestled a kernel of hope. She wanted to cup it in her palms and foster it until it bloomed.
His lips curved into a heartbreaking, soul-wrenching smile. “I really tried, I swear. But it’s much harder than I ever thought it would be, especially with you. Last night made me realize I couldn’t hold back any longer. It’s not fair to keep such a big part of myself a secret from you. And I can’t do it any longer. I’m sorry.”
A secret? If not another woman, then what? Cautious, she said, “What are you hiding?”
“Come here,” he said, making room for her on the floor. When she stayed in the chair, motionless, he shook his head as though clearing it. “Please come here.”
He sighed, a deep, mournful sound that clutched at her chest and made her ache. “I’d like to kiss you before you look at me totally different, can I do that?”
He wanted to kiss her? Now, when he was breaking up with her? She searched his expression, trying to catch a glimpse of his secrets. But all she saw was warmth. Mason. The man she loved and who miraculously loved her in return.
She moved to the floor and onto her knees, looking at him expectantly.
Relief softened the corners of his mouth and he reached for her. Hands slid up her back to curl around her neck. “I want something from you but you can say no. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said, wetting her suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue.
He smiled, his grip tightening on her neck. “Can I kiss you the way I’ve really wanted to?”
The question confused but something indefinable quickened inside her. A million questions sprang to mind but she didn’t voice them. Questions could wait, while this mysterious kiss couldn’t. “Yes.”
It was all the encouragement he needed.
He didn’t brush his mouth with hers as he’d done in the past. Didn’t tease with the tip of his tongue, waiting for her to open. Didn’t kiss her with that slow, methodical patience she’d grown used to.
The second their mouths met, she knew he was right.
This was nothing like any kiss they’d ever shared.
His lips claimed. Possessed. Slanted over hers and took everything and then some. Stunned, all she could do was clutch his shoulders as a tidal wave of desire swept her away.
She’d always desired him but this, this was something altogether different.
His grip tightened in her hair as he devoured her. And that’s exactly how she felt—devoured, taken, eaten alive. It shocked her. He’d always been so sweet, so gentle, almost asking for permission.
There was no asking now.
His tongue invaded. Captured. Taunted and teased.
She dug her nails into his shoulders and hung on for dear life as her nipples pulled tight, almost painful.
He growled low in his throat. A dark, feral sound that both terrified and excited her. He fisted her hair, a slight pleasure-filled pain prickled at her nape.
Wet, slippery heat dampened her thighs as tingles raced along her spine.
As suddenly as it started, he pulled away. Grasp tight in her hair, he yanked her head back forcing her look at him. This wasn’t gentle Mason. This was the dangerous Mason she’d sensed hints of when they’d met but never materialized. “Now do you see?”
Dizzy with lust, she fought to catch her breath. “No.”
“Damn it, Anna, I don’t want to make love to you,” he said, his voice harsh, unlike anything she’d heard before. “I want to fuck you. Claim you. Possess every inch of your body until it obeys only me.”
Fuck? Claim? Obey? He’d never spoken so crudely. Her belly dipped and her heart pounded.
Before she could speak, he delivered a hard, punishing kiss that was over before it began and made her crave so much more.
“I want to dominate you and I won’t be satisfied with anything less.”