What's the answer to a slow burn?

A super hot fling!

High-flying US lawyer Teague Hamilton has always been way out of free-spirited Frankie’s league, but she’s never hidden her desire to break down all of blue-blooded Teague’s barriers and corrupt him entirely! When he accepts her proposal of a naughty-but-nice fling she’s as surprised as he is. But will their hot two weeks be enough to quench a desire that’s been burning for ten long years?

Excerpt...

 

Chapter One

TEAGUE STRETCHED HIS arms over his head and sucked in a lungful of summer air as he peered at Frankie’s doll-sized cottage, which was situated at the end of a long driveway that ran alongside a squat redbrick apartment building.

It was so small he’d probably have to duck to fit under the lintel.

If she invited him in.

 

If she even heard him knock, given it was barely eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.

 

His memory of Frankie’s Saturday nights was that they were big and wild, so unless she’d changed drastically in the ten years since he’d last seen her, chances were that at this precise moment she’d be either comatose or contemplating the walk of shame from wherever she’d ended up after work last night.

 

And it was too bad he chose now to remember that instead of thirty minutes ago, when he’d gotten into the taxi at Sydney Airport. At that point, he could have done as his best friend Matt had suggested during those chaotic last moments at Heathrow: gone to his hotel, gotten some sleep, and called Frankie at a civilized hour to arrange a time to meet for the handover.

 

Handover! Like he was doing some illicit drug deal.

 

Not that dealers dragged their supplies around with them in wheeled suitcases. Or maybe they did. What did he know? He was a corporate lawyer, not a criminal one.

Whatever. It was too late to change his mind because he’d let the taxi go and stranded himself.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, get it over with,” he ordered himself, and trudged up the path, stopping at a ratty-looking welcome mat that announced, You Have Arrived at Your Destination.

“I don’t think so, Frankie Lee,” he scoffed, stepping up to the door.

He tugged at the collar of his shirt to make sure it was sitting straight, ran a hand over his hair, dragged in another lungful of air and knocked.

Unsurprisingly, there was no answer.

He knocked again, just so he could say he’d really tried.

Waited for proof of life.

Nothing.

Okay, three strikes and you’re out a-a-and knock.

Silence.

He looked back down the driveway, picturing Frankie in one of her vintage dresses, black hair disheveled, makeup smeared, humming a satisfied tune and swinging her shoes from one hand as she meandered up the path as though she owned the world and all its contents.

Ha! Walk of shame? Not likely. Swagger of pride was more her style.

But, of course, there’d be no sign of her yet. At eight o’clock she’d still be in bed with...well, whomever she’d gone to bed with.

Teague tried to picture a likely “whomever” but that wasn’t so easy to visualize. For all Frankie’s brazen sex appeal, Teague could only recall one identifiable boyfriend from that year she’d spent in Washington, DC. Kyle. Big, burly, covered in tattoos. Kyle hadn’t been around long enough for Teague to get more of a handle on him than that; Frankie had dumped him within a month of their arrival together in DC, after he’d pitched a fit over her taking a second job.

That second job was as a dancer in a gentlemen’s club, so Teague had some sympathy for the guy. Or he would have had, if Kyle hadn’t already worked himself into a lather over Frankie working as a server at Flick’s, which marked the guy as more proprietary asshole than concerned boyfriend. Because come on, Flick’s? Seriously?

Flick’s was a grungy, student-hangout bar/restaurant. None of its patrons had ever stood a chance with Frankie. Hell, most of them were underage, and Frankie might have only been nineteen, but the rolling confidence of her walk flashed a warning that she’d already seen—and enjoyed—everything life had to offer, so they shouldn’t bother approaching her unless they were packing something more interesting than a fake ID. Teague had been under no illusions that he was in the running, despite being two years older than her and probably the only legal drinker in the place. She could fluster him by doing nothing more than breathing in his general direction. The only guy she hadn’t flustered had been Matt—but then, those two were like spirit animals.

So, okay, maybe it wasn’t so hard to envisage the guy whose bed Frankie was in. Someone like Matt.

Teague sighed. He loved Matt like a brother, but sometimes it sucked playing running back to Matt’s star quarterback. And after a twenty-three-hour flight Teague decided he was too tired to receive yet another handoff. So enough! The end! There’d be no call to arrange a time with Frankie. Teague would slip the damn thing under her door, then delete the number Matt had punched into his phone and go have his vacation.

He bent low, assessing the size of the gap...heard a faint rustle. What the—? Uh-oh.

Shit!

The door opened before he could move. He heard his name—“Teague?”—and closed his eyes. Fuck. Just fucking brilliant, to be caught with his head level with Frankie’s crotch.

“Are you coming up anytime soon?” she asked in her sleepily amused Australian drawl, as though a guy bowing down for her on her doorstep was par for the course. Which it probably was.

Slowly he unbent, eyes traveling up the length of a silky cream-colored robe covered in bold red flowers. An outfit deserving of a smokily sinful bordello.

And then his eyes reached her face, and she smiled at him in that how-about-it? way she had, and it killed him that despite the fact he was now thirty-two years old, with a megasuccessful career, property in three countries and billions in the bank, she still had the power to make him feel like a schoolboy with a crush on his teacher. And he didn’t even have a crush on her. He’d never let himself have one, because she was too—too much for him, too dangerous. Hadn’t that been the whole damn point of keeping his distance all those years ago?

“Hello, Frankie,” he said, blinking a little at her hair, which was hacked off halfway between her ears and her shoulders, the depthless black of it livened up with an inch-wide band of electric blue across the blunt ends. Everything else about her was as he remembered. The gold-tinged skin, the swollen-looking lips that seemed permanently stained a shade of almost red, the pale gray eyes—the left one turned in very slightly, an imperfection that was mystifyingly, profoundly, vulnerably alluring. The haughty black eyebrows that started low over the inner corners of her eyes and ended in a late arch, and heavy black lashes so thick they framed her eyes like eyeliner. She wasn’t beautiful but she was so vibrantly alive it had always been an effort not to stare and stare and stare at her.

“Come on in,” she said and stepped back.

“My suitcase...”

“A suitcase?” She laughed—a suggestively throaty chuckle. “Does that mean you want to stay with me?”

“No!” Jesus! “No, no. No.”

“So that’s a no, then, is it?” She smiled again as she hitched up her slipping robe at one shoulder. “Pity.” One beat, two, as she pursed her lips, assessing him like he was a side of meat hanging at the butcher. As she turned away, she added, “Ah, well, bring it in anyway.”

By the time Teague stepped over the threshold, she was disappearing through an archway at the end of the room.

He closed the door, then just stood there as a riot of color dueled with his eyes. Red couch, big enough for two people to sit on—or it would have been, if not for a basket taking up one half. The basket was overflowing with wool in too many shades to count and had at least six sets of knitting needles sticking out of it, and it boggled his mind because...Frankie? Knitting? There was an exotic rug in reds, browns and indigos taking up most of the wall behind the couch, and the floorboards were covered by a similarly styled rug in variegated creams, ochres and olives. A low coffee table in dark green sat on the rug in front of the couch, and a table at one end of the couch served as a display plinth for a small sculpture—an abstract twist of glass.

There was a doorway at the end of the room, to the right of the arch through which Frankie had disappeared. The door was ajar, so he could see into the room beyond. Rose-pink walls, a section of bed—rumpled white sheets, no coverlet. He pictured Frankie on those sheets—gold, crimson, gray, black, electric blue—and his heart started to thump uncomfortably.

“Teague?” she called. “You like whiskey when you’re straight off a flight, don’t you? So this is me, offering whiskey if you’ll come on through!”

He took a jolting step toward the archway, toward her voice, and then she added, “Or whatever else you want...” and he stopped, waiting, because he knew it was a pause, not an end. “Because all you need to do is name it and it’s yours!”

Name it. Name it?

And it was there—the answer. You, I want you.

His pulse zoomed up so fast, he thought the top of his head was going to fly off. He didn’t want her. And even if he did—okay, okay he did, he always had, but so what, every guy did—it made no difference. She didn’t mean he could have her, that was just—just the way she talked. She’d never meant any of those things she used to say, those things he hadn’t had the knack for laughing off because he didn’t flirt. Ever.

 

A hot flash of memory—the first time he’d seen her in Flick’s. She’d smiled at Matt, whom she obviously already knew, from across the room, then zeroed in on him—probably having felt his awestruck eyes on her. She’d headed toward them, carrying an overstacked tray of empty beer glasses and conducting an effortless flirtation with at least three separate groups of guys en route. She’d asked him if he liked what he saw. He’d said no, causing her to look at him like he was an alien life-form, and he’d stumbled out something about her being too young—like what the fuck? He’d meant she was too young to be working at Flick’s, because of course she wasn’t. He was simply trying to impress her with his intelligence and legalese seemed the quickest way—a launching pad to talk to her, since her accent told him she was Australian and he knew licensing laws were different in Australia. And she’d chosen a different interpretation of “too young” and told him she was three years over the age of consent, and if he was interested, to ask Matt for her number.

And the pattern had been set. Frankie giving him the come-on every time she saw him, him fucking up the responses.

 

How good does a girl have to be to score a date with you, Mr. Perfect? Um, er, huh?

I’d ask you to get the eyelash out of my eye for me, Mr. Perfect, if putting your hands on me wouldn’t give you a heart attack—not that I wouldn’t enjoy giving you mouth-to-mouth. I, um, huh?

 

If you decide to get naughty and come watch me dance at Club DeeCee, Mr. Perfect, I’ll give you a free lap dance. Er, um, no, no! Followed by an actual recoil, during which he’d spilled his beer. He’d rushed on to say it wasn’t that he disapproved, at which point Matt had stepped in, calmly suggesting Teague leave things there because Frankie didn’t need anyone’s approval, she needed money or she’d have to fly home. So Teague, smooth operator, had reached for his wallet—like, fuck!—and she’d kind of frozen as she’d looked at the wallet in his hand and he’d found himself holding his breath. And then she’d said if she’d wanted to turn tricks, she would have stayed in Sydney, and the next second she was gone.

The invitation to Club DeeCee had not been repeated.

 

“Hey!” she called out from beyond the arch, bringing him back to the present. “Come on in, Mr. Perfect! I promise not to bite—unless you ask me nicely.”

 

And he felt something snap. Mr. Perfect. He was fucking tired of being Mr. Fucking Perfect.

Mr. Perfect Boyfriend to Romy—sure, Romy, we’ll go as slow as you like. Mr. Perfect Friend to Matt—sure, Matt, take the girl I love. Mr. Perfect Son for his parents—sure, Mom and Dad, I’ll be careful, I won’t do that, won’t go there, won’t take any more risks.

He wanted to not go slow. Wanted to win the girl. Wanted to take a risk again.

Wanted to tell Frankie, Sure, bring it! A pity he wasn’t staying with her? Then okay, he’d stay, as long as it was in her bed. Wanted to throw her down on those white sheets and lick every inch of her until she screamed for him. Tell her to go ahead and bite him, bite him anywhere she wanted, put her mouth all over him, do whatever she wanted to him. He’d take the damn dare, and not think about the consequences for once, and—and know, dammit. Know what it was like to be the man she wanted and not some fucking cautious, stuck-up, Victorian-era prig doing things the right way and giving everyone what they wanted except himself.

He took a step—he was so ready for this!—and then “I was joking!” floated out to him. “It’s just whiskey waiting in here, I’m not going to molest you!”

And he stopped again.

Just joking. Just whiskey.

He wasn’t here for Frankie Lee. He was here for Matt—to hand over whatever the fuck was in the velvet pouch Matt had shoved at him like a guilty secret. And then he’d do what he did every December on his annual three-week vacation: patch up his facade in advance of facing another year of being everyone’s Mr. Perfect.

He took a slow breath and forced himself to move through the arch into what seemed to be a kitchen/dining-room combo at the front, with what looked to be a laundry at the back, stretching around to the right, out of sight. The kitchen was the most basic he’d ever seen. A bench against the wall inset with an oven and cooktop, a row of cupboards hanging high above the countertop and a short return from the wall that housed a mini fridge and a set of pantry shelves. There was no island separating the kitchen from a small table that had one low stool shoved underneath it. No other seating area—unless you counted the wrought-iron table with two mismatched chairs outside. The door leading out there was open, so he didn’t know if Frankie expected him to go outside, stay indoors, sit or stand—all he could do was hover.

She was facing away from him, doing something at the counter, but the moment she turned the two of them would be close enough to share breaths. And goddammit, that robe had decided to slip off her shoulder after all—far enough this time that he could see her shoulder was bare, and he did not need to see that!

“Don’t tell me you had a problem finding your way!” she teased, without turning around.

“No,” he said.

He wished he could add something witty, but he couldn’t think past her naked shoulder.

Then again, he’d never been garrulous in Frankie’s company. It was just more noticeable today because for the first time ever it was only the two of them. No Matt, Romy, Veronica, Rafael or Artie—none of the old DC gang—to act as buffer and make his taciturnity unremarkable.

She turned at last, passing an unopened bottle of whiskey to him. He instantly studied the label intently, praying she’d get that damn robe back into place while his eyes were safely averted.

Barron. He’d never heard of it. Not that he cared. All he cared about was stopping himself from wondering what her skin would feel like, if the blue ends of her hair would burn him if they slid across his chest, his belly, his thighs, how she’d taste the first time he licked between her legs...

First time? No. No, no, no. No times.

Just joking. Just whiskey.

“Matt said you’re going to watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race then fly down to Hobart for the finish, so I thought you might like to try a Tasmanian whiskey,” she explained, no doubt wondering what the fuck was going on with him to make him stare so long at a bottle. “The Barron distillery is close to where the boats finish. I hear everyone goes to the Customs House Hotel after the race but if—if it bothers you to be there and you feel like getting away from the crowd, you could sneak off for a wee dram.”

Teague brought his eyes up from the bottle. “Why would it bother me?”

 

“Doesn’t it?”

 

“No.”

 

“I’ve got it wrong, then. I just... I’d heard... I mean, didn’t you crew in the Sydney to Hobart in your last year of law school?”

“Yes. So?”

“So didn’t you nearly—?”

“Drown? Yes. So?”

“So-o-o...didn’t you give up ocean racing after that?”

“That wasn’t the reason,” he said.

Several moments passed during which she kept her eyes steady on him, as though she’d extract every last secret from his soul.

“Not going to tell me, huh?” she said at last, and something about the way she was looking at him made him want to tell her, just so she’d know he could be as wild as she was, as wild as any of them, that he once had been, so she could stop looking at him like that—like she understood he’d lost something and it was killing him. How could she understand? There was nothing stopping her from doing anything the hell she wanted.

“Well, that’s okay,” she added softly, and he realized she was more dangerous than ever. Like those sirens from Greek mythology perched on their rocks in the sea, only she didn’t have to sing to men to lure them to destruction—she could make them sing to her as they wrecked their boats on her shore. Otherwise how could it be that he wanted to tell her things he’d never told anyone?

“As it happens, I like strong, silent types,” she went on, and the moment was gone. She waved a hand in the direction of the laundry. “The bathroom’s around the back there on the right if you want to grab a shower. Just maybe move the underwear I have hanging over the shower rail.”

“I showered on board,” he said, way too quickly, because Jesus! He didn’t need to see her underwear and he sure as shit didn’t need to touch it.

“The joys of first-class travel!” she said blithely.

“Yes.” A monosyllable was all he could manage? Seriously?

“And shaved, too, I see.”

“Yes.” Mon-o-syllable. Fuck.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you unshaven.”

Not even a monosyllable. He didn’t know how to interpret that. He suddenly felt as if being clean-shaven was tantamount to being a eunuch.

“I’ve often wondered what you’d look like,” she continued. “Late at night. Or first thing in the morning...”

Nope. He could not speak.

“Which leads me to my next offer. You probably slept on the flight—I hear those first-class suites are something else—but if you didn’t, you’re welcome to use my bed and take a nap, since I know people can’t usually check in to their hotels until the afternoon. You can get to the bedroom via the bathroom or through the living room. I can show you the way if you like...?”

What the hell did she expect him to say to that? “I... No.”

“No as in...?”

“As in I booked my hotel room from last night so I...I’m good.”

“You’re ‘good’? Still? After all these years? That’s a shame.”


“I mean—”

“Because if you weren’t good, if you were suddenly bad, I’d suggest you use my bed for some other purpose.”

Ah, Jesus, he was not up to the challenge of this conversation. It sounded so much like she wanted... But she couldn’t mean... Could she possibly...? No. Nope. Joking. All she was offering was a glass of whiskey.

“Not today, huh?” she said, and this time her laugh was more like a sigh as she turned back to the counter. “Okay, how about I get you a glass and you can take that whiskey outside and soak up some vitamin D. They say it helps with jet lag. Something about melatonin.”

“I don’t have jet lag.” God, why could he not stop sounding like a robot?

“Then screw that theory and just do it because it’s peaceful out there at this time of the morning and there are two chairs, so I won’t have to sit on your lap,” she said, opening one of the cupboards on the wall and stretching up—which required her to lift up onto her toes and hang onto the counter with her free hand.

She let out a tiny snuffle of exertion, and Teague’s chivalrous instincts kicked in, jolting him forward to reach over her to get the glass himself.

Fumbling, his fingers on hers... Frankie going completely still.

A heart crack of a moment, as it hit him somewhere in the region of his balls that this was the first time he’d touched her. The scent of gardenias was in his nostrils. Warmth—her warmth—insinuated itself into his bones. The fine tremble in her fingers vibrated through him. He was aware of the pounding of his heart, the insistent ache in his hardening cock—oh, God, please don’t let her feel that!

Madness, that she could wreak such physical havoc just by leaving her hand under his. If she knew what was happening to his body, the burn and want and awful need, she’d laugh herself sick. And yet the urge to put his mouth on her naked shoulder and taste her skin was so hard to resist. If only she meant all those things she said, he’d—

Scream. Kettle. Whistling on the hot plate.

He snatched back his hand.

Thank God.

Sanity. Reality.

He stepped back from her, leaving her with the glass.

She switched off the hot plate and turned to him, holding out the tumbler. It was expensive-looking cut crystal, but it had a chip in the rim, and that one tiny flaw twisted something in his chest.

He took the glass and their fingers touched again, and her smile faded.

There were dark smudges under her eyes—he wanted to run his fingertips gently over them. A blush—he wanted to lick the heat of it from her cheekbones. And there was something shimmering in the stillness of the moment that told him she’d let him do both those things. But how did a guy go from an accidental finger graze to such intimacy?

He didn’t. He couldn’t.

One of her hands came up to press against her cheek, as though to control the flush of blood beneath her skin, and she let out a laugh that was different from usual—disbelieving, a little embarrassed—and he felt that twist in his chest again.

“Go on out to the courtyard,” she said, and returned her attention to the counter, picking up a cloth as though preparing to wipe it down, only to knock a spoon onto the floor.

He bent to pick it up for her but she stiffened and said, “Leave it. Please just...leave it. I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee so go on out. Two minutes. Give me two minutes.”

He nodded even though he knew she couldn’t see it and carried his glass and the bottle of whiskey outside. Looking around, he decided “courtyard” was an optimistic description. It was a small paved rectangle enclosed by a border of potted plants, with a barbecue in one corner, the rickety table with those mismatched chairs in the center and a gaudily painted garden gnome that was missing a hand plonked seemingly at random.

He chose one of the chairs for himself and positioned it to face the apartments, away from where he could see Frankie in the kitchen, and poured a generous finger of whiskey.

A minuscule sip had him sighing in appreciation. It was piney, creamy—wonderful. He wondered how Frankie remembered he liked a whiskey straight off a flight; he couldn’t remember ever mentioning it. Hell, he wondered how she knew he liked whiskey, period, given he hadn’t been a regular at Flick’s. Veronica would have said it was because she was a “booze whisperer.” Ha. She’d reminded him of that at Matt and Romy’s wedding, where he’d been best man and could have been excused for feeling like crap. Veronica had said something about him being—hello—perfectly behaved.

“Beneath this urbane exterior is a seething mass of violent contradiction, ready to go on an imperfect rampage,” Teague had told her.

“It’s a shame you never got together with Frankie, in that case.”

“Frankie?”

“Frankie—sexy Aussie, Flick’s booze whisperer by day, exotic dancer by night.”

“Yeah, right!”

“Why not?” Veronica had queried.

“Because... Just because.”

A prophecy of sorts—gee, thanks, Veronica!—because here he was, five months later, drinking Frankie’s whiskey. He was pretty sure he wasn’t about do any rampaging, though.

He screwed his eyes shut, put his elbows on the table, clasped his head in his hands and dug his fingers into his skull. Tried to breathe out some agitation.

“Need some painkillers?” Frankie’s voice.

He opened his eyes, gave himself a moment to set his face, then looked over his shoulder to where she was standing, framed in the open doorway.

“You look like you have a headache,” she said.

“I don’t.”

“Do you want a cup of coffee instead of the whiskey?”

“No.”

“Tea?”

“Whiskey’s fine.”

With the shrug of one shoulder—which almost dislodged that damn robe again—she came over to sit opposite him, her back to the block of flats.

He topped up his barely touched whiskey to give himself something to do as Frankie raised her mug and inhaled the steam wafting up from it.

“I’m a philistine, I know,” she said, “but that year in the States got me hooked on crappy coffee. Do not tell any of my Australian friends—they’ll disown me if they discover I drink instant coffee instead of going to a café every morning for a cappuccino-piccolo latte-macchiato-whatever.”

“I don’t know any of your Australian friends.” Stating the fucking obvious as he tried to not anticipate another slinky fall of that robe.

She took a dainty sip of her coffee before answering. “We can rectify that, if you like. Sydney’s buzzing with summer parties, there are two and a half weeks until Christmas, and on Christmas day if you’re not doing anything there’s a thing on Bondi Beach for all the orphans, so—”

“I’m not an orphan.” Boorish.

“‘Orphans’ is more of a state of mind for this gig. What it really means is—is loners, I guess,” she said.

“I’m not a loner.” No, I’m a block of fucking wood.

“I mean people who are in Sydney with no one to spend Christmas with.”

Silence.

And then she cocked her head to one side, examining him. “Not a loner?”

“No.” Granite. Not wood, granite.

“’Cause you always seemed to like to be alone. Even when you were with the others you were...well, alone.”

How to explain that it wasn’t that he liked to be alone, he just was alone.

Impossible.

Because then he’d have to talk about the grief. He’d have to admit that he’d lost more than a sister when Cassandra died twelve years ago—he’d lost part of himself. And he didn’t want anyone else to know that, because they’d want him to find it again, and it was too late to look for it because that wasn’t him anymore.

Yep, impossible.

And so he raised his glass to take a sip of whiskey and said nothing.

“Or maybe it was that you just did your own thing,” she mused. “You never let yourself be pressured into any of Matt’s crazier schemes, at least not until n—” She stopped abruptly, but Teague finished the sentence in his head: not until now.

Slowly, deliberately, he put his glass on the table. “Am I—are we—in one of Matt’s schemes?” he asked. “Is that why I’m here?”

She put down her mug, licked her bottom lip. “You know why you’re here, Teague. At least, you know part of it.”

He reached into his shirt pocket for the small velvet bag he’d shoved in there before disembarking from the plane. The bag he’d scrupulously not looked into the whole damn flight. He held it out to her.

She watched him, not her hands, as she took the bag and unzipped it. It wasn’t until her eyes dropped that he let himself look down to see what was so important it had to come with him rather than be sent via a courier.

A ring.

His vision narrowed to the glitter of the platinum band in the sunlight, the cool glow of the emerald center stone, the intense sparkle of surrounding diamonds. But the telling thing was that she’d slipped it onto the third finger of her left hand.

“It’s prettier than I remembered,” she said.

White-hot rage coursed through him at those words. Prettier than she remembered? How the fuck could she not remember it exactly? God, what had Matt done to him? Why lay the burden of this history on him now, when it was too damn late? He didn’t want it. Didn’t want to know. But it was there. No going back.

Matt had once proposed to Frankie.

Matt had once been in love with Frankie.

Matt had waited until he and Teague were alone and pressed for time before co-opting Teague into returning the ring to Frankie—which had to mean Romy knew nothing about it.

Teague picked up his glass again, raised it to his mouth and knocked back a gulp of whiskey as the enormity of what it meant almost overwhelmed him. The enormity of what he’d lost.

Romy, he’d lost Romy. No, worse than that—he’d given her away. He’d pleaded Matt’s case for him when Romy had been prepared to move on from Matt, because Matt had never loved anyone except her and Matt was torturing himself over her. A once-in-a-lifetime love shouldn’t be denied—that was how Teague had consoled himself. And now...

 

Oh, God! God! Now to discover Romy wasn’t Matt’s once-in-a-lifetime love? To learn Matt had loved another woman enough to propose to her?

He shot to his feet, knowing he was about to lose his shit.

“Where are you going?” Frankie asked, startled.

Hell—I’m going to hell. “Thanks for the whiskey.”

She stayed sitting, giving him a quizzical look. “Why are you brooding at me?”

“I’m not brooding.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I don’t brood. Rafael broods.”

“Rafael only ever brooded in Veronica’s direction. You brood all over the place, you always did. It’s just that you’re an iceberg, so it’s hidden beneath the surface. It’s irresistible, you know. Makes women wonder what lies beneath.”

That threw him, so much that it took him a moment to relocate his voice. “I don’t brood,” he said again—it seemed to be the best he could come up with.

She leaned back in her chair. “Okay, you don’t brood, and you’re not irresistible. Happy?”

“Yes. No. I don’t—” He stopped abruptly, telling his feet to move. Frustrating as hell when they wouldn’t.

She sighed gustily. “Taking a wild guess here, but did Matt not explain any of the background to the ring?”

“He doesn’t have to explain it to me, only to—” He cut himself off again, bit his lip to stop her name from coming out of his mouth.

Her eyes narrowed. “Not to you, but to...Romy?” She sighed. “Romy. Of course. I see.”

And because the thought of her “seeing” enraged him when he’d been hiding it for so long, the words “You see what?” snapped out of him like a whip. He was almost vibrating with the need to tell her she was wrong.

“Things you don’t see, Teague. Things you could never see, things you seem to be unready to see even now, things you might never see even if someone waves them in front of your face before beating you over the head with them.” She stood then, too, as though spoiling for a fight. “But you know what? Good for Romy. Lucky Romy, to have two men so devoted to her, so in love with her for so damn long their brains turn to mush!”

“I didn’t say I’m in love with her,” he said, way too loud.

She snorted. “Oh, please, don’t even. That year I spent in DC there were plenty of women who wanted a piece of you, but they all knew they were wasting their time. The only one who didn’t know how you felt about Romy was Romy—and that was willful ignorance, because if she’d let herself see it she’d have had to let you go.”

“She did let me go. She’s married. They’re married! They have Rose now.”

“And Romy made you Rose’s godfather—which means, bozo, she’s not letting you go.” She rubbed the heels of her hands over her forehead and made a sound redolent of both frustration and disgust. “And why should she when you won’t let yourself go?”

“There’s nothing left to let go of.”

“Sure there is. Your propensity to wallow in misery over what you can’t have! How many years have you chalked up pining for her? Eleven? And it was hardly the love story of the century—only two measly months, and nobody ever saw you hold hands, let alone kiss! So perfectly discreet, so completely passionless! Yet you hung in there and let no one take her place with you. And now to find you’re still hanging in there?” She laughed, but there was a jeer in it. “All I can say is you must enjoy being miserable.”

“I don’t enjoy it!”

“No? Then get over it, the way the rest of us do. ’Cause I can tell you, lots of us want people who don’t have the good sense to want us back.”

“If you’re talking about Matt—”

“I’m not talking about Matt. God! I’m not interested in Matt and I never have been—not like that. And he’s never been interested in me that way.”

“How can you say that when he bought you an engagement ring?”

“I can say it because he wasn’t my fiancé—you were.”

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