her world.

She tried to catch her breath, but there was a tightness in her chest that made it hard to breathe. The closer she got, the more her heart seemed to squeeze until, as she reached the point of no return, the pain gave way.

She shattered, both inside and out. Her orgasm claimed her in a rush that erased every thought in her head but one: she loved Jack.

Through the waves of pleasure, that single truth grew until she wondered how she’d ever convinced herself otherwise. Of course she loved him. She’d loved him from the first moment she’d met him and for all the eleven years they’d been apart. She’d never loved anyone else.

Her body slowed and relaxed, but not her mind. Not even when he put on the condom, then eased between her legs and filled her until she knew she was going to come again.

He made love to her with a steady rhythm designed to spin her into madness, and she went willingly, wanting to get lost in the sensation.

But the feel of his body on hers wasn’t enough to clear her mind. Nor were the waves of release, the heat, the sound of his gasps for air or the pounding of his heart.

Meri clung to him for as long as he would let her, holding him close, wanting time to stand still. If only she could believe that was possible. But it wasn’t. She knew enough about the universe to know all things were in motion-at their most basic level. That nothing was static.

Which meant, in time, with luck, her pain would fade. Because the other thing she knew down to the cellular level was that Jack would never love her back.

Jack breathed in the scent of Meri’s body as he stroked her face. She was so beautiful. She’d always been beautiful.

He slid off her so he wouldn’t snap a rib, then propped his head up on his hand and wondered what the hell he was supposed to say. What happened now?

She sat up and reached for her clothes.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “An appointment?”

He smiled as he spoke, but when she looked at him, his smile faded. There was something wrong-he could see it in her blue eyes.

“What?” he asked.

“I have to go.”


“Away. We both know this is not what you want or need. You’ve never been the guy to settle down. I don’t know if you can’t or you won’t. Some of it is your guilt over Hunter and some of it is…honestly I don’t have a clue what it is.”

She blinked several times, then swallowed. “I can’t stay with you, Jack.”

He hadn’t thought about her leaving until she said she had to, and now he didn’t want her to go.

She scrambled out of the bed and pulled on her clothes. “This is crazy. All of it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had this great plan. Betina warned me, but did I listen? And I’m supposed to be the smart one.”

“What are you talking about?”

She slid on her T-shirt, then looked at him. “You have to stop it, Jack. You’re not allowed to spy on me anymore. I know you’d call it looking after me. Whatever it is, you have to stop. I’m a grown woman and I can take care of myself. If there are mistakes to be made, then I’ll make them. Stop protecting me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“This isn’t about you.”

He didn’t understand. They’d just made love. It had been great. So why was she leaving? And when the hell had it gotten so cold in this room?

“Just like that?” he asked, getting angry because it was easy and something he could understand.

She slipped her feet into her sandals. “Just like that. Goodbye, Jack.”

Then she was gone.

He stared at the door. What was going on? What had just happened? She couldn’t leave. Not like this.

He swore, then scooped up his clothes and put them on. He had no idea what she wanted that she hadn’t gotten. Was she still pissed about Andrew? About the fact that he, Jack, had watched out for her?

She should be grateful, he told himself as he stalked up the stairs to his office. He’d taken care of her. He’d kept her safe. That had to be worth something. She was just too stubborn to admit it.

Still angry, he opened his computer and did his damnedest to get lost in work. It was the only safe place he could think to go.

Meri burst into Betina’s room without knocking. It was only after she heard scrambling that she realized she might have interrupted something.

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning away. She hadn’t seen anything-the tears had blinded her.

“Wait,” Betina said. “You don’t have to go.”

“I’m in the way.”

“You’re not.”

Her friend grabbed her and pulled her close. Meri went willingly, needing the support. She had a vague impression of her friend in a robe and a guy hovering in the background, then the tears began again.

“What happened?” Betina asked as she stroked Meri’s hair. “What did Jack say?”

“Nothing. He didn’t have to. I get it. I’ve been so stupid. You were right about everything. I didn’t want revenge or closure. I’m in love with him. I have been for years. He’s the reason I can’t seem to commit to anyone else. I love him. I was afraid to admit that, so I came here with my crazy idea of showing him. I think I secretly thought he’d take one look at the new and improved me and be struck by lightning or something.”

Meri sank onto the floor and let the tears flow. She hurt so much. It felt as if someone had cracked open her chest and ripped out her heart.

“How can I be so smart and so stupid at the same time?” she asked.

“Because you’re human and no one is smart when it comes to matters of the heart.”

Made sense, she thought, wishing it were a year from now and the pain had lessened. Not that she expected it ever to go away. She had a bad feeling she would love Jack forever.

“He doesn’t want me,” she whispered. “He never did. I thought it was about the age difference or how I looked, but now I’m not so sure. I think maybe it was just me.”

Which made it hurt. She couldn’t change who she was any more than she already had. He didn’t want the very essence of her being. What else was left?

“He’s an idiot,” Betina murmured.

“No. He’s just a man who can’t pretend to be in love with me.” Meri sucked in a breath. “I have to go. I can’t stay here. We’ll need to regroup somewhere else. Maybe down south. Pasadena or something.”

“Don’t worry about it. Do you want me to go with you?”

Meri managed a smile as she looked at her friend. “No. I want you to stay with Colin and be in love for the both of us.”

Jack worked until dark. When he finally realized he couldn’t see anything other than his computer screen anymore, he stood and stretched. It was only then he noticed the silence of the house.

Uneasiness slipped through him as he went downstairs and pushed open the door to Meri’s room.

The furniture was exactly as he remembered-with the exception of the bed. Someone had stripped off the sheets and left the blankets neatly folded. The closet was empty, as were the drawers. She was gone.

He raced down to the main floor, where he found Betina packing up the notes from the dining room.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Leaving.” She didn’t bother to look at him.

“All of you?”

She nodded. “We’ll finish the work elsewhere.”

Work? He didn’t care about the work. He cared about Meri. “Where is she? She can’t leave. She has to stay the month.”

He’d known that from the beginning. That she was stuck here, too. Just like him. They couldn’t escape each other. Hadn’t that been the point?

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