“Come on. We’re here. We may as well check it out.” Amanda was already fishing the apartment keys from her pocket. She might not live there yet, but she planned on making full use of the premises.
A hand stilled hers. “Mandi, I’m not sure this is such a good idea. Your father—”
God, she hated that nickname, but Mason seemed set on it. Ignoring his protests, she freed her hand and pushed the key in the lock. “My father gave the apartment to me. To us. We could be moving in tomorrow, together, if you…” If he weren’t such a Prudey-McPruderson.
Mason looked at her as if he was waiting to hear the rest of that sentence, so Amanda did her best to take his mind off it. She twisted her fingers into his shirt and pulled him all the way down to her for a deep kiss. So what if she was turning the key behind her and pushing the door open with her heel?
The lights in the corridor went off automatically, which suited her fine. If she took a few steps backward and managed to pull Mason with her, this would be the first time since their engagement the two of them had complete privacy. A closed door would be separating them from the rest of the world. Then maybe he’d listen to reason.
Two steps. Only two steps.
She slid one foot across the threshold and tried to place her weight on it, so Mason would have to come forward. Yeah, not happening. She tried it again, but failed to shift him even the littlest bit.
Still kissing her, he wrapped his arms around her, keeping her anchored to him. She could possibly tackle him but, really, using martial arts to get her fiancé to make out with her had to be a major no-no.
With a sigh and a pout he couldn’t see, she pulled back from the kiss. “We’ll just take a look around. Make some plans, discuss decorations…” And hopefully throw their jackets on the floor and hump like bunnies.
God, she needed that. A year of first dating Mason and then being engaged to him had provided no outlet for her sexual frustration other than what Amanda achieved by herself. Still, she loved that he cherished her enough to want to wait.
“I thought you’d do that while you stayed here,” he said. “You know you’re better at these things than I am. I trust you completely.”
If the evening went as she’d planned, she might not have to live there alone until the wedding. He might finally concede and move in with her the following week. “I want to pick your brain,” she replied. “Please?”
“We’ve seen the blueprints. And you know the place already. Thought you had some things in mind.”
She did, but not about decoration. “I haven’t seen it since it was renovated, half a decade ago. And the blueprints don’t mean a thing if you’re not an architect. We have to see it up close, check out the walls, the floor.” She indeed meant to examine the floor very closely. She hoped it wasn’t very dirty, but she was willing to incur the cost of dry cleaning her favorite skirt, if it meant she managed to finally get groiny with Mason.
“Okay.” Mason tangled his fingers with hers. “But I don’t know how useful I’ll be. I’m not a woman.”
She should protest the stereotype, but he meant well. “Women aren’t the only ones with taste.” She ought to be thankful she had such a wonderful guy fawning over her and not pressuring her into anything—including color schemes—but could he maybe put out once in a while?
Said wonderful guy nodded reluctantly and allowed her to lead him inside. Not that she could do much leading; she could see nothing in the pitch black room. At least in the corridor they’d had the moonlight. Inside the apartment, there wasn’t even a hint of illumination. She blindly steered him toward the living room through what she remembered to be an open kitchen area.
“Do you know where the light switch is?”
In her mind’s eye, Amanda could see him patting the wall blindly. Only, if the lights came on, they’d actually have to look around the place, and she didn’t want to do much looking. She preferred touching. Lots of it. And other actions of a naughtier variety.
“It won’t be of much use,” she said. “Previous tenant took the light-bulbs with him.” It wasn’t as if she’d lied for sure. He might have. She knew nothing about the guy—except he was hot and perma-grumpy, according to Alice—but he might have been the sort to take everything with him. He might have cataloged his underwear alphabetically by color and spray-painted his hair green, for all she knew.
And about now was a good time for her to stop thinking about Mr. Unknown and start thinking about Mr. Right, who was currently cupping her breast.
It didn’t last long. He withdrew his hand, moved it to her shoulder, and apologized. Profusely.
“This isn’t why we’re here. I wasn’t sure you wanted me to…” She blinked against the darkness, but could only make out the vague outline of his body. She didn’t have to see his face to know he was flustered.
Did she have to hand him a signed contract? “Mason, you can touch my boob whenever you feel like it. In fact, that boob is yours until I decide to take it back. Unless you decide to grab it while we’re having an argument. Or when I’m on the phone to my mom, ’cause—Yuck.”
She mulled it over for a moment while Mason’s hand tentatively made its way down again. “Actually, you can… initiate contact when you feel like it, and I’ll—I’ll respond according to my mood.” When his fingers stopped at her clavicle, she added, “Which is great at the mo. I’m in a great mood, so boob’s yours.”
Could she sound more pathetic? Probably not. Still, she accomplished her goal; she was getting some action.
Not that some was enough. She had to go all the way with him tonight. She needed to. She’d be more patient if he hadn’t been with a woman before, but he’d apparently had several in his life and bed.
He’d admitted that during the same date on which he’d told her he saw her as more than girlfriend material. It was their third date, and Amanda had been hoping for a bit more than a kiss, but Mason had explained he wanted to wait. She hadn’t realized how long that wait would be until another four dates later, when he’d said he could see himself having kids with her.
He was always sweet and nice and affectionate—and fully functional, from the reactions she’d gotten to touches and caresses—so she’d decided to go along. They’d done things, some involving lots of nakedness, but after a while, Amanda started feeling like she was in high-school again. Which she most definitely wasn’t.
Enough was enough.
She rose on her tiptoes, plastered her body to his, and kissed his neck, sneaking one of her hands between them to find his zipper. She was careful to tug it down slowly, so he didn’t feel threatened. Although why he, with all his size, was intimidated by itsy-bitsy her, was beyond her comprehension.
Sure, she could be demanding at times, but she needed things. Mason was her man. He should understand her. Plus, they had now more or less agreed on sharing a forever. It shouldn’t matter to him how soon that forever started. Right?
“I thought we were going to check out the place.”
Now see, when he got that whiny tone, Amanda could throttle him. She usually attributed it to the raging status of her hormones. Biting down on her irritation, she caressed his torso. “But there’s no light,” she said. He bulged with muscle everywhere, big and taut, with those square shoulders and thick arms that could close around her and make her feel safe.
Or suffocated, as was the case now, when he was hugging her so he could stop her roaming hands.
“Mandi, we’ve been through this before. I respect you too much to make this into something casual. I want our first time together to be special. I want to be your husband and want you to be my wife.” He kissed the crown of her head as if she was a five-year-old and he was about to tuck her in. She wasn’t a child, damn it.
“We love each other,” she said. “We’re getting married. What difference does waiting for a couple more months make?” Uh-oh. Wrong argument.
“Precisely.” Did he sound smug? Yeah, he sounded smug.
She could turn this into a fight or focus on her target. “I love you, baby.” She kissed his throat, caressed his back, and leaned her forehead against his broad sternum. “I want you, and it’s driving me crazy.”
He sighed with what sounded like defeat. It was a sound that shouldn’t make her happy, coming from her fiancé, but Amanda was seconds away from cheering when he grabbed her butt and lifted her. Her legs came up to wrap around his hips, and he lowered her gently to the floor.
The way they were going about it, her head was supposed to be the last thing to make impact. Turned out, it was the first. It didn’t hit the floor; it hit something more fragile. Something that toppled over with a deafening crash.
The shock made Mason let go of her, and she landed on her ass.
“Baby? Are you okay?” He tried to caress her face in the dark and almost poked her left eye out with his thumb. “Are you hurt?”
She rubbed at the sore bump forming on the back of her head. “I’m fine. It seems a lamp or vase was sacrificed to the gods of making out, though.” If she maintained the right amount of levity, the situation could be salvaged. “But I’m all lonely down here.” That was her seductive voice. It had to make him bend to her will.
When the lights suddenly went on overhead, she saw her plan was working. Mason was indeed about to lie down next to her, and God only knew what would have happened next.
Only she stopped paying attention to Mason, because there was a man standing in the doorway between the fully furnished living room they were in, and the rest of the apartment.
He was holding a baseball bat.
And wearing nothing but a scowl.
A hot shower—scalding, even. That was what Derek needed. He needed to shed his clothes, get under the water jet, and have the entire day washed off his skin.
He pulled at the hem of his t-shirt, peeled the thing off his body, and grimaced at the sensation of the cotton clinging to his back. He hadn’t realized he’d sweated so much.
He needed to feel clean again, get the bitter taste off his tongue, get the memories thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed and drained away.
His boots were hard to toe off, but instead of loosening the laces more, he perched on the sink and started banging one heel against the porcelain of the toilet bowl, until the heavy Doc Marten gave, and he could kick it across the room. The second boot he didn’t even bother with, until his jeans were halfway down his hips. Then it had to go, and go it did, same way as the first one had.
Barefoot and topless, undone jeans barely hanging on, he took in his reflection. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair wild, his cheeks sunken and covered in stubble. Beauty personified, he was. No wonder Cat couldn’t get away fast enough.
That was a lie; she’d certainly taken her sweet time.
He wondered how his image would look if it were crumbled in a thousand shards. Like, for example, if he threw the liquid soap dispenser through the mirror.
Odds were the image would still be more intact than the man would.
A hot shower, chased down by a bottle of Scotch, greasy food, and a smoke. Exactly what the doctor prescribed. He panicked. Would he find cigarettes that late in the evening? There was nothing in the neighborhood. He’d have to take the car, which meant he couldn’t start drinking as soon as he was out of the shower.
But no, he had a packet stashed in his bottom drawer, rolled in a pair of silly baby-blue socks that Catherine had bought him.
Back when she actually gave him things, instead of taking them from him.
He disposed of his jeans and got in the shower. There used to be a curtain there, a novelty one, themed after the movie Psycho. He’d liked the fake blood splatters on the white background. The thing had been useful and funny, and now it was gone. She’d packed it in that extravagant, faux-crocodile suitcase he’d bought her for her last birthday.
He’d had two months to buy a new one, but he wanted his shower curtain—and his bathroom mat with the bloody footprints, since he was on that subject, and his woman and his restaurant and his whole fucking life, that had been taken from him.
No use crying over spilled milk. Which didn’t apply to him, anyway, ’cause he wasn’t a little girl, to be bawling his eyes out just because the love of his life ripped out his heart and stomped on it before doing the same to his career and his balls.
He turned on the water and stepped under it. The moment the spray hit his skin and his body registered the difference in temperature, he sucked in a breath. It was scalding, all right.
His hands flew to cup his cock. It was a protective gesture, not like he could jerk off after having spent most of the day with his ex’s lawyer squeezing him for everything he had.
His skin slowly became accustomed to the water, so he chanced ducking his head under it too. For a few moments, it felt like his brain was boiling. That might have been a blessing, because a boiled brain couldn’t be plagued by images of his wild rose fucking some random guy.
Random Guy got a face, his shoulders widened, and his body lengthened. His arms and legs thickened, and his forehead grew until the resulting figure in Derek’s imagination was hulking Caleb McGregor, the lawyer who’d insisted Catherine refused to meet with Derek.
Something in the way McGregor had rolled her name on his tongue, a hint of a secret smile curving his lips upward, had sunk its claws into Derek’s subconscious, which decided now was a good time to play a movie behind Derek’s closed eyelids.
The movie showed Cat, her back against the wall, her bare legs—long and smooth and pale—wrapped around McGregor’ pistoning hips, one perfect tit squeezed by a big palm.
The movie was playing in a loop.
Derek gasped for air but got a mouthful of water instead. He sputtered and lost his footing on the slippery surface. If the curtain was still there, it might have helped him regain his balance. Instead, he clawed at the air with one hand, the other aiming for the showerhead.
In the heartbeat before regaining his balance, he had time to wonder who would find him if he fell and cracked his skull. Would it be a neighbor? Maybe Alice from down the hall, who was always nice to him. Or a cleaning crew. Shit. He was supposed to call a moving-company. When was it he had to move out? It was sometime that month; he was almost certain of that.
An irrational wave of anger washed over him at the thought of leaving the place he’d called home for three years. It was the last thing he had left. He was alone and had to part with his restaurant because he’d been foolish enough to give Catherine the deeds when he’d decided he wanted her to one day be his wife. He’d never even gotten to ask her to marry him. This apartment held all his memories, good and bad, and he didn’t want to leave it.
He turned his face upward. The sound of the water thundered in his ears, and the steam rising off the tiles made him feel suffocated. He turned the faucet off, stepped out, and grabbed a towel.
He hadn’t washed. He had merely stood there, pelted by water. The realization brought about a bubble of hysterical laughter, but he swallowed it back before it had time to burst. That laughter wouldn’t be good. It wouldn’t be sane, and his sanity was all he had left.
Then again, it was possible he didn’t even have that, because right when he was furiously drying his hair with the towel, he thought he heard a noise.
Inside his apartment.
Had Cat come back? His heart jumped in his chest, but the possibility of her returning was certainly less than that of his losing his mind. She hadn’t even agreed to see him.
Hushed voices. There were people whispering inside his home, and—
It might have been fury at whoever dared vandalize his home that drove his feet from bathroom to bedroom, naked as the day he was born. It could have been hope he’d finally get out some of his frustration that curled his fingers around the baseball bat lying beneath his bed and led him the rest of the distance to his living room in the pitch black.
Weighing the bat in one hand, he pressed the fingers of the other to the light switch he knew to be at his left, and took in the lit room.
A couple was making out on his floor. By his overturned table and his smashed lamp.
He scowled so hard his forehead hurt, but it was all he could do not to charge them and bash their heads in.
“What the fuck are you doing in my place?” he asked the kneeling hulk. He’d heard about people macking in parks, playgrounds, even cemeteries, but breaking into someone’s home to get some was unbelievable.
The small blonde lying on the floor sat upright, eyes blazing. “Your place? My father gave me this apartment.”
Her boyfriend simply blinked at him.
Was it Derek’s imagination, or was the blonde having a hard time looking him in the eye? He was tempted to mention his face was an entire torso—and then some—higher than what she was staring at, but his ego needed some stroking, so he let her take all of him in, while his mind caught up to what she said.
“You’re Kenneth’s daughter?” he finally asked, the bat only slightly lowered. Alice’s sister. This one was shorter, and Alice dyed her hair dark brown these days, but Derek could see the resemblance.
She finally lifted her gaze to meet his, and her eyes were the same bright green as her sister’s. “You’re the guy who’s supposed to be gone?”
He could apologize and say he’d forgotten because of the rain of utter shit falling on him lately.
He could ask for a bit more time until he’d found a new place.
Or he could be an ass. Nobody else seemed to think twice about being an ass to him. “Hardly,” he said with a snort. “I’m supposed to be right where I am. You, on the other hand, are trespassing. Or is it breaking and entering?”
The young woman scrunched her nose, which was adorable in a snooty, bratty way. “No breaking. I’ve got a key.” She narrowed her eyes. “When Mason and I were first engaged, Dad said he asked you to move. That was three months ago.”
Mason. That was the silent brute’s name. “I remember no such thing, and” —he looked pointedly at the remains of his favorite lamp— “there has definitely been some breaking.”
Blondie bounced up and glared. Funny, but she was intimidating despite her small stature. Maybe that was why Mason stood back and let her handle things. “Dad bought the place for me, to begin with,” she said. “You knew when you first moved in that I was eventually going to be needing it.”
That was true. Derek had heard all about how this was one day going to be a wedding present for Kenneth’s oldest daughter—and what was her name, again?—though said daughter hadn’t even been dating back then. Kenneth had said his daughter was picky and needed a man with serious backbone before she settled down.
Things had apparently changed.
Derek considered waving the bat to see if the big guy would flinch, but decided to be the bigger man—and wasn’t that ironic, when Mason had at least four inches on him? “Kenneth mentioned something, but he didn’t give me the sixty days notice he was supposed to.” Blondie opened her mouth, probably to repeat her father let him know three months ago. Now was time for the coup de grace, and Derek somehow knew he’d love watching her squirm. “As you know, the notice is supposed to be in writing or it doesn’t count,” he said.
Mason grabbed Blondie’s shoulder, flexing his arm in the process. The look on his face indicated that Derek’s nudity might have offended him more than Derek’s intention to not vacate the premises for at least two more months. “Let’s go, Mandi.” Ah, that was her name. “We’ll talk to your father. He’ll know what to do.”
Her gaze said she knew what to do too, and it involved the painful insertion of the baseball bat in Derek’s most private orifice.
Derek’s smirk widened into a grin. “And now get out of here, before I have to call the police and report you for harassment on top of everything else.”
Mandi stared him down for a split second, but when Derek swung his bat in the air, her overly inflated toy boy all but dragged her out the door.
Derek propped his weapon on his shoulder, grabbed a bottle of scotch, and went to bed. He sensed his swagger had returned. Maybe that was because he’d actually felt he had balls, for the first time in days.
Odd way for his day to improve, but it had. He would give anything for another opportunity to bait Mandi Murphy. If he couldn’t torture the woman who’d hurt him, he’d torture the one who wanted to evict him. He had to be subtle about it, though. He didn’t want to make Kenneth mad at him.