Ash

The sidewalk slapped against the soles of my shoes with a rhythmic familiarity.

It was predawn. Way too early to be up and way too early to be running, much less thinking, but I was doing all of those things. And why not? It wasn’t like I could sleep.

I hadn’t heard from the kidnapper again since that one phone call and the ransom letter. No contact about a drop off point or how the money should be delivered.

No proof of life.

I was starting to lose hope.

And I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.

The rare times when my mind wasn’t occupied with my sister and what might have happened to her, what could be happening to her, I was mentally kicking my ass over the way things had gone with Toni.

It was a never-ending fucking loop.

That was what had driven me out of the house and onto the streets rather than down into my personal gym for my morning run. Being down there made me think about how it had been sparring with her. Then it made me think of how badly I’d screwed things up. I’d been an idiot virtually every step of the way, and then, when I’d almost gotten things on an even keel, I’d let my dick take control and made things even worse. I hadn’t even realized that was possible until I’d done it.

Dodging a busty blonde in running tights and micro-sized bra, I pounded the pavement harder. My head pounded in time with my feet striking the ground, and I ground my teeth together. Of course, that just made my headache worse, but I kept doing it. I was miserable and part of me wanted to stay that way. I deserved it.

For the first time in my life, I’d had somebody who was trying to actually help me, or at least be there with me when everything was going to shit. And what had I done? I hadn’t even been satisfied to just push her away. I’d had to annihilate any chance of her ever forgiving me.

I had to stop before I drove away everyone.

If I didn’t find a way, Toni was going to quit. I could already see it in her eyes. The only reason she hadn’t told me to go fuck myself was because of her connection to Isadora. It didn’t surprise me that Toni felt so strongly about Isadora. Everyone who met my little sister loved her. She was just that kind of person.

The complete opposite of me.

I’d never connected to anybody but Isadora like that in my life. She was all I had.

It wasn’t a mystery why. I went out of my way to hold people at arm’s length. I’d learned too young that if I let people get close, they could hurt me. They would hurt me. The only reason I’d kept my sister close was because I’d known she needed it. And yet, even with her, there were parts of myself I didn’t share.

As I rounded the corner, I caught sight of a couple lingering on the curb. I slowed to a walk, unable to look away.

They looked like they were maybe in their early fifties. My parents’ age before they died. He was standing in front of a car, a briefcase in hand, and she was looking at him. Only at him. It was like the two of them were all that mattered in the world.

Something hit me then. I stumbled and had to catch myself on the nearby light post. Bending over, I pretended to struggle to catch my breath. I was three miles into my run, an easy one over all, but I was feeling as if I couldn’t get enough air. It just wasn’t related to the run.

It was because of them.

My parents had enjoyed that kind of connection. They’d had each other, and they had me. Then, after years of thinking I was it, they had their miracle baby. And no matter how much they loved Isadora, they never made me feel like I wasn’t enough. We’d been a family and I was old enough when they passed to understand what that really meant.

Envy had a bitter aftertaste.

I straightened, unable to stop myself from watching the couple again.

The woman pressed one last kiss to the man’s cheek, and then turned, going toward the apartment building behind her. She never even noticed me. The man did, though. His gaze lingered for a moment, not a trace of embarrassment or chagrin to be seen. After a few seconds, he gave me a polite nod.

It was the smile on his face that made my heart twist though.

It was one that said he knew exactly how lucky he was to have what he had.

And that he pitied the rest of us who didn’t.

***

 

I lingered at the house for the rest of the morning until well after the time Toni usually arrived.

Except this time, she didn’t.

Although I planned to go into the office, I called and let my administrative assistant know I’d be late, if I came in at all. She was one of the few people outside of the small circle who knew what was going on. She immediately told me she had everything under control, and I knew she did. I needed to give her a raise. And a promotion. And some serious vacation time when this was all over.

By early afternoon, Toni still wasn’t there, but instead of continuing to wait, I had my car brought around. Not the Porsche though. That was what I drove when I was trying to show off at a club with something other than a chauffeured limo.

That sort of thing wouldn’t help with Toni, I knew. If anything, it might make things worse.

I picked one of the sedans I usually drove to work or when I wanted to be inconspicuous. After stowing my briefcase in the trunk, I headed for Brooklyn. If she wasn’t at her apartment, I’d go into work and try again later, but I was going to find her, no matter how long it took.

This shit had to stop.

As it turned out, something finally went my way.

She opened the door less than a minute after I knocked and my gut knotted into hot little snarls at the sight of her.

“Yes?” She gave me a cool look from where she stood in the doorway, blocking it.

I had the feeling if I tried to push the issue and get inside, things wouldn’t end well for me. My nose throbbed with the memory of how hard she’d hit me and I had a feeling she’d even pulled the punch at the last second. I wasn’t dumb enough to risk that again. As for means other than force, well, she definitely wasn’t somebody I could intimidate, and I knew she wouldn’t back down. I didn’t think she knew how.

Something inside me gave a sharp tug. No. It was something inside her that was tugging me…toward her.

There wasn’t a question of swallowing my pride this time. Pride didn’t even get a say in this.

“May I come in?”

“Why?” The word was sharp, cold.

“Toni. Please. I want to talk to you.”

She blew out a sharp breath, her nostrils flaring. Then she jerked a shoulder in a shrug.

“Fine.”

She shifted to the side, allowing me enough room to come inside without any risk of us touching. Still, the scent of her hit me hard and my blood rushed south, making me half-hard in a matter of seconds.

I put the entire span of the living room between us, but it still wasn’t enough room. Maybe if the room had been the size of Grand Central Station, I would’ve stood a chance. Somehow, I doubted it though. I turned to look at her and saw she hadn’t moved from her spot by the door.

She glanced at her watch and then back up at me. “I have a lot of work to get done,” she said. “Temporary jobs to look for.”

I didn’t let myself show a reaction to her words, but inside, I was roiling. I’d be damned if I let her go anywhere, even if it was only temporary.

“I’ll be brief then.” I studied her face. She didn’t look like she’d been sleeping very well and I knew at least some of that was my fault. Guilt overcame desire. “I’m sorry.”

“This again?” She snorted. She flicked another look at her watch and then moved over to the couch. I watched as she drew her legs up underneath her before reaching for her laptop. “Didn’t we have this conversation already? And if this is about the whole ‘no condom’ thing, unless you plan on telling me that you gave me something, you don’t have to apologize for that either.”

I could tell she was trying to make light of it.

“Toni, please.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve been on the pill since I was seventeen and I’m clean, so you’re safe. It was as much my fault as yours…”

“Could you stop, please?” Dragging a hand down my face, I reached for the words to tell her what I needed, but they didn’t want to come. “I’m serious. It’s just…everything is so fucked up right now. Isadora is missing, and I can’t think straight, and you’re there…”

“I’m there.” The words had no inflection.

I sighed and gave in, blurting out exactly what I was thinking. “Shit. Yes. You’re there. If you haven’t figured out that you short-circuit my brain and make all the blood flow to my dick instead, then I have to question if you’re as smart as you’re supposed to be.”

She surprised me with a quick, easy laugh. “Oh, trust me. I’m well aware of the fact that you want to fuck me. You’ve made it pretty clear what I am to you.”

Guilt sliced through me as I moved across the room to her. “If it was just sex, then it would be easy. Sex is easy, and it doesn’t matter. Not to me.”

Her jaw went tight and I instantly realized how that sounded. Shit. I was fucking it all up again.

My voice softened and I willed her to believe my words, “But you matter.”

She didn’t look at me, her expression tired. “Look, Ash. I’m not up for your bullshit right now. You’re forgiven, okay? Just go.”

“I’m not feeding you bullshit.” I took a few hesitant steps toward her. When she didn’t immediately stiffen up, I took a few more until I was standing directly in front of her. “The morning after we…” I searched for words.

“Fucked. We fucked, Ash.” Her voice was sickly sweet. “More than once, so I’ll need to you to be specific as to which time.”

“The second.” My face went red. “When I woke up holding you. It felt…”

She stepped around me. “Look, enough. You’re sorry. I get it. Fine.” She gave me a wide smile as she all but tore the door open. “We’re all good, okay?”

It hit me then and I knew it with a certainty I rarely felt outside of business.

Shit.

She was scared.

I forced myself to finish my sentence. “It felt right.”

Her gaze fell away.

Slowly, I closed the distance between us. Her gaze swung back to mine and she jutted her chin up, her gaze defiant. I didn’t let myself give in to what I wanted. Cup her face in my hands and taste that hot, silky mouth. Bite her lower lip. Pick her up, carry her to her bed and make love to her.

Make love.

Shit.

My heart squeezed as I fought back the desire as well as the edge of panic that welled up inside me. If I gave in, I knew I’d fall back into the same pattern as before and end up losing her for good.

Instead, I repeated what I said before. “It felt right, Toni.” I swallowed hard and then added, “And that scared the hell out of me.”

“Ash…” She sighed and some of the tension left her body, but the expression on her face was still guarded. She looked around for a moment and then crossed over to the small love seat on the other side of the apartment. She didn’t say another word as she sat down, head bowed, eyes focused on her hands.

I looked around the room. Her apartment was small, an efficiency, typical of New York, although it had more room than some of the ones in Manhattan. I knew more about apartments than people would think. Half of the Phenecie-Lang empire was based on real estate and we owned a fair amount of property in New York. Still, small as the space was, Toni had put her stamp on it and made it hers. The love seat was the largest piece of furniture in the room, but there was another chair, sitting at an angle. I took that one, despite the fact that I wanted to be closer to her.

Her gaze flicked toward me as I sat down, but she still didn’t say anything.

After a moment, I broke the silence. “Are you going to laugh at me if I ask if we can start over?”

Toni snorted. An inelegant, unladylike sound that should have made me want to dismiss her. Except it made me want to smile because it was so genuine, so unpretentious. And I liked it. From her, it wasn’t rude. It was honest.

I opened my mouth to try to explain exactly what I’d meant by my question when her eyes met mine and my jaw snapped shut.

“I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to keep doing this. I’m tired, Ash. I never know which version of you I’m going to get. If it’s going to be the man I trusted enough to…” Her voice trailed off for a moment and then she continued, “Or if you’re going to dismiss me like some…”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but whatever words she was going to use wouldn’t have been complimentary, I knew that much. I locked my jaw to keep from saying something. What, I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that no matter what it was, it wouldn’t make things better.

“Why?” she asked finally, her voice soft. “Why are you even here? Why do you care?”

“Because it’s you.” I had very little time, I suddenly realized. Very little time to make her understand that I was done. Done fighting what we had between us and done pushing her away. I was chewed up inside with worry over Isadora. Fighting with Toni wasn’t making it better. It was making things worse. She’d been a solid wall of support from the beginning and I’d done my best to tear her down.

No more.

I just didn’t know how to put any of that into words that she’d believe. “Part of me is glad you’re here for Isadora, that you care about her. But another part of me sees you and just…wants.”

“I’m not having sex with you again.” She delivered the words in a cool, flat tone that told me she wasn’t buying anything I was saying.

“I’m not asking you to.” I might want it, but I wasn’t asking. Although, want was a pretty mild word for how I felt. “I need to get my head on straight when it comes to you and I know it. I don’t…” I ran my hand through my hair. “Fuck, that’s bullshit. I can’t say I don’t want sex with you. I can’t look at you without wanting to take you, to make you mine.”

Fuck. My heart hammered in my chest. Had I really said that?

I swallowed hard and tried to pull things back. “I want to have sex with you, Toni. But there are other things I want more.”

“Yeah?” She lifted a dark red eyebrow, an amused smirk on her lips that didn’t reach those smoky blue eyes. “What things are those, Ash?”

“A chance to make things right. To prove to you that I’m done fighting.” I met her eyes and prayed she’d believe me. “To prove that I can be a better man.”

 

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