THE EFFECTS OF THE WINE had started to wear off in the cab. Now, standing on the doorstep, Sharon shivered and pulled the trench coat tighter as she rang the doorbell once more, waiting for Richard to answer. The light in the upstairs room told her he was home. She couldn’t, wouldn’t back out now. Richard would love and accept her or he wouldn’t. At least she would know.

Finally, he opened the door, startled when he realized she was waiting on the other side. “Sharon!”

“Hi.” One hand gripped the top of her coat collar. With her free hand, she waved.

“What are you doing here at this hour?” he asked, concerned.

“Can I come in?”

“You don’t need to ask. It’s your house, too.” He pushed open the door and let her inside. “Which begs the question, why didn’t you use your key?”

“I didn’t want to scare you half to death. You weren’t expecting me.”

He nodded. “Can I take your coat?”

“Not yet.” She clutched it closer.

He had on an old pair of gray sweats and nothing else. His chest and his feet were bare.

“I got you out of bed, didn’t I?”

He narrowed his gaze. “Honey, you’re acting really odd. Is everything okay?”

She nodded. “You’ve been acting odd, too,” she said, taking his opening. “With Mary out of the race, you’re running unopposed. You should be freer than ever and yet you’re not available.” She swallowed hard. “At least not to me, and I want to know why.”

He strode across the room, placing distance between them. “For the same reasons you’ve been uptight around me, I guess.”

“The picture? It turned you off? Showed you things you didn’t want to ever imagine?”

He shook his head. “It showed me things I couldn’t bear to face. I hate what that bastard did to you. It just reinforced what I’ve felt all along. That you’re special and precious and you need to be treated gently and with care.”

“That’s not what I want. Not what I need. It’s not even who I am,” Sharon said, pulling at the ties that held her coat together. Her hands were trembling as she worked to free the buttons next. “You seemed to want a politician’s wife, a perfect china doll. I was so grateful you wanted me after everything that had happened, I would have become whatever you expected.”

Tears fell from her eyes as she admitted the most painful thing of all. “But that’s not me. This is me.” She finally shrugged off the coat and displayed the sexy lingerie she’d bought just for a reveal like this one.

He sucked in a startled breath.

Silence greeted her.

“This is me, Richard. I don’t want to be treated as if I’m made of fine bone china. I want to know what it’s like for you to want me. I need you to be so turned on that you can barely think.”

He exhaled. A low groan escaped from the back of his throat. She took it as a good sign and stepped forward, trying to ignore the fact that her legs shook and her body trembled.

“I thought you were avoiding me. Then I worried that you wouldn’t want me if you knew I wanted, needed more than you’ve given me so far.”

His eyes darkened. She hoped it was desire she saw in those depths. “Not want you?” he asked in a gruff voice she barely recognized. “I go to sleep wanting you. I wake up missing you. And when I’m with you, I’m so afraid you’ll shatter, I can’t do anything right.” His body was tense.

But she wasn’t ready to touch him yet. “And now that you know I let you believe I was some fragile flower? Now that you know I’m not…I’m over the past, over what Tony did to me. I’m just a woman who wants you. What happens to us now?” she asked him.

He slid his finger beneath the strap on her silk teddy, then suddenly yanked hard, tearing the soft fabric. The garment slipped, exposing one breast.

Her nipple puckered beneath the cool air, but she didn’t rush to cover up.

“You don’t realize it, but before those pictures resurfaced, I saw glimpses of the real you. I knew you were still getting over your past and I was happy to give you the time you needed. Then, suddenly, you reverted.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t know you were being blackmailed, but I knew something had changed. So I backed off even more. I was giving you time.”

She swallowed hard. “I don’t want time. I just want you.”

“Thank God. I want to know the real you and I want you to know the real me,” he said in a husky tone. Then, slowly, tantalizingly, he lowered his head until just his breath hovered over one tight nipple.

“And then?” she asked on barely a whisper.

“Then we get married as planned,” he said, enclosing his mouth around her.

And that was just the beginning…


DEREK NEEDED A CHANGE of scenery, so he drove to New York to pick up Holly instead of meeting Marlene and John halfway. The newlyweds had bought a house a half hour outside of the city, in a place called Larchmont. Holly wanted Derek to see where she’d be living in a few weeks, so he agreed to pick her up there. His daughter was actually looking forward to living in a house instead of an apartment and starting a new school. Derek was sure her nerves would kick in closer to the first day, but for now when he spoke to her on the phone, Holly seemed like her easygoing self.

He rang the doorbell of the colonial-style house and was greeted by Holly, who’d come to a skidding halt in her socks as she opened the front door.

“Hey, kiddo!” He greeted her with a wave.

She hugged him tight. “Dad! Come check out my new room. It’s so much bigger than my room in the city. And Mom even said I can use the sheets and comforter you got for me.”

“She did?” he asked, unable to contain his surprise.

“I did.” Marlene came up behind Holly. “Honey, why don’t you go get your bags packed to go to your dad’s?”

“I’m packed.”

“Then double-check you didn’t forget anything,” Marlene said pointedly.

Holly rolled her eyes. “The grown-ups want to talk,” she said, stomping back toward the stairs with added force on each step.

Marlene shook her head and laughed. “I swear, sometimes I think I’m already living with a hormonal teenager.”

“Soon enough,” he said, shuddering at the thought.

“Come on in,” she said, holding the door open. “I thought we could talk.”

He followed her into the house, which was still empty of furniture. “We’re having the place painted next week,” she said.

“It’s a beautiful house. Great place for Holly to grow up.”

Marlene nodded. “John wanted to be here to say hello, but I explained to him that we needed to talk alone.”

“Okay,” Derek said warily.

She led him into the kitchen where a bridge table and chairs had been set up. “Have a seat. It’s the best I can offer,” she said, waving at the folding chairs.

Since she wanted to talk, he remained silent until she broached whatever she needed to say. He wasn’t about to give her an opening, or heaven forbid, more ammunition to use against him. Although he had to admit that ever since he’d called to confirm this weekend, she’d been more than accommodating with him. But that was Marlene, at least where he was concerned. He never knew what to expect.

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