The Stone Was Rolled Away

MAY 1999

Leah winced when the door slammed and turned away so Knox wouldn’t see her tears, her heartbreak. She bowed her head and put her face in her palm to sob quietly.

“You’re free to go.”

His voice came somewhere out of the darkness. Low. Lifeless.

She whirled. “Is this what you wanted?” she screamed at him. “To humiliate me?”

“No.”

“What did you want then?”

“You.”

She stared at his silhouette, dark against the vague light of the sconce behind him. His hands were propped on his naked hips and his head was bowed.

“I told you that already,” he muttered after a moment, reluctant, as if it were an admission of guilt. “I couldn’t have you any other way.”

That thoroughly shocked her, but for which reason of several, she couldn’t say.

“You’re welcome to stay the rest of the night if you want, but … you don’t have to. Our … bargain— I— It’s done.”

Leah felt herself drawn into this conversation the way she’d get drawn in by a gory traffic accident as she drove by the scene. “What do you want me to do?”

His head snapped up. Though she couldn’t see him staring at her in the darkness, she could feel it. “Do you really want to know?”

For no reason Leah could fathom, she blurted, “Yes.”

He hesitated. “I … would like you to stay.” That wasn’t all he’d meant to say. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did.

A normal woman would go find her clothes and flee. She would flee straight to the FBI or … whoever … could put this man away for what he’d done.

A normal woman would have let her daughter pay for her own sins.

“For how long?”

“As long as you want.”

Leah turned without a word and walked into the bedroom. She dropped the robe she wore—his—and climbed back into the beautiful bed where she’d found sexual enlightenment. She couldn’t say why that was important to her at this moment: Perhaps it was the darkness. Perhaps it was her confusion. Perhaps it was a lifetime of stasis thrown into dramatic and orgasmic chaos by a beautiful young man.

“Leah?” he said warily from the doorway.

She turned over in bed, presenting her back to him.

Yes, she was furious with him.

No, she didn’t want to leave right now.

She didn’t understand it, but it was late and Rachel had cut the last piece of her heart out of her body.

I hate you. I never want to see you again.

It wasn’t the first time she’d ever said it, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Funny, of all the things that angered her about this entire week, Knox’s striking Rachel was not among them.

She felt the tickle of a tear running down her cheek even as the bedclothes whooshed back and the mattress depressed.

He didn’t touch her in an effort to seduce her yet again, which was okay, but …

“Go to sleep, Leah,” he murmured, gently running his fingers through her hair, stroking her, petting her.

Yes … sleep, something she hadn’t had much of for the last two weeks, and now she didn’t have to worry about getting back to her motel room as a show for Rachel.

• • • 

The sun awoke her.

Her eyes opened slowly, not sure what she’d see, as she had always departed before dawn. Knox was an early riser and his definition of a full night didn’t extend to sunrise.

What she actually saw shocked her so badly she began to cry again, silently, the way she had always cried, her tears wasted into cloth as she lay beside McLean in the darkness. Lying upon Knox’s pillow …

A white rose.

A long blue velvet box.

A key.

A note.

Leah wiped her face with the tail of the pillowcase, then haltingly reached out for the note, dreading what it might say that would humiliate her further:

She choked and the tears blurred her vision and stung her eyes.

I’m sorry, he said. Didn’t he think about that before he’d blackmailed her into bed?

I want you … I couldn’t have you any other way.

Remorse?

Not true remorse, no. Leah didn’t believe it for a moment. It was the remorse of having gotten caught out. He’d had no punishment, but true remorse would have prompted him to let her go far earlier than this, after their bargain was done.

Perhaps she should be grateful he’d honored the bargain at all.

She reached out and lightly ran her fingertips over the soft jewelry box. She sat up, leaving her torso bare. It vaguely occurred to her as she picked it up that only a week before, she would have covered her breasts, even though she lived alone.

Now … she had no reason to.

Her breath caught in her throat at the diamonds and pearls that winked back at her once she’d opened the lid. A bracelet, with matching earrings.

Did he consider this payment for services rendered or was this a gift of appreciation, of want, of remorse?

She looked at the rose and the key. She didn’t know what “white” meant in rose language, nor did she think a man would know, so perhaps it had no symbolism beyond what a rose given usually meant. The key, on the other hand …

It was a house key. She could tell by the three triangular holes in the head.

As long as you want.

It was Saturday and he was gone. He had to be; the house was too still.

Why?

No, she didn’t have to ask that. He’d gone to his office, immersed as he was in the prosecution of Rachel’s boyfriend, Joe, who could die and rot in hell for all Leah was concerned.

Leah trembled in anger as she looked down at the exquisite jewelry and the beautiful rose Knox had given her. Her hips were bare under the covers and her torso nude to the morning breeze that whispered through the pretty mullioned window. Before this week …

She’d never slept naked.

She’d never had an orgasm.

She’d never been given jewelry other than her simple gold wedding band.

“Oh, McLean,” she whispered, angry. So angry now for so many reasons she couldn’t begin to sort them out.

With which man, she didn’t know.

McLean, for barely keeping a roof over her head and leaving her nearly penniless, with no provision for his death because it was one of those Things Polite People Don’t Talk About …

Or Knox.

For showing her in one week what she’d missed in twenty years of marriage.

She wasn’t sure, but perhaps she was more angry about that than about the way Knox went about getting her in bed.

Gritting her teeth, refusing to think about what to do with the things Knox had given her, she swept out of bed and walked naked across the room, across the hall to the restroom. She stopped short when she saw herself … nude … and forced herself to really look at herself without shame.

Breasts still pert— Was that normal for a woman her age? She didn’t know; she had no basis for comparison. Flat stomach. Wide hips, though. She worked to keep her body looking acceptable, but it was unreasonable to compare herself to what she saw in magazines. Besides, her motive was to keep osteoporosis and heart disease away; a reasonably fit body was a side effect.

The face that stared back at her didn’t seem any different than it had for years, so she didn’t figure she was a good judge of how old she really looked. Her only vanity, her hair, was a light auburn naturally, and her only splurge was that she kept it that way. Her dark auburn pubic hair hadn’t yet faded to gray.

Her knees nearly buckled with the weight of the desire that overcame her, staring the V between her legs, remembering what Knox had done to her this week.

He liked putting his mouth there, between her legs, licking her there, putting his tongue up inside her, making her hips buck up off the bed and screech with the power of the sensations rolling through her.

She’d never known people did that.

As she watched herself in the mirror, she put her hand flat against her stomach and slowly stroked downward.

Touch yourself, Leah.

Knox, no, I …

Do it.

She’d done it.

Cautiously. Frightened.

Of what, she didn’t know, but …

He’d opened her legs for her, taken her hand, put it there, taken her middle finger and put it on that little pea-sized protrusion she had never felt until his tongue found it.

That’s right. That’s your clit. Stroke it.

She knew what it was. She hadn’t become a registered dietitian without anatomy classes, but she had never known how it looked or felt. She’d never explored by sight or by touch, and McLean had certainly never done so.

McLean had never seen her naked, sex being another one of those Things Polite People Do But Don’t Enjoy.

No, no. I’m not going to help you. I want to watch you learn how to do this yourself.

Knox had propped her up with a stack of pillows, bent her knees, spread her wide, placed her hands, then sat at the foot of the bed facing her, his knees pressing hers open. But he’d guided her hands anyway, watched her, directed her some more, talked to her low and soothingly.

Encouraging her.

Teaching her.

Don’t be shy, Leah. I’m not going to make fun of you. Relax. Think about how my tongue feels there.

A thirty-one-year-old man teaching a forty-six-year-old woman how to masturbate.

Unbelievable.

She’d found her clitoris, stroked it the way he’d instructed, found herself catching her breath.

Other hand, now. Put your fingers up inside you, the way I do.

She’d done as instructed, half afraid of … something … she didn’t understand.

Then she came.

Arched her back.

Closed her eyes and groaned as her body clenched around her own fingers and she felt Knox’s big, warm hands around her inner thighs, keeping her open. She’d felt his long, hard legs under hers, supporting them.

That’s right, Leah. Let yourself go. Feel it …

Leah moaned, gasped as she came right then, sitting on the bathroom floor and watching herself in the mirror, remembering Knox teaching her how to please herself.

Of all the things Knox had given her …

She sagged back against the wall, tired, confused, sated (for the moment), and smelling of sex. She sniffed her fingers and wondered that the acrid scent didn’t really disgust her; it wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t unpleasant, either, and she couldn’t reconcile it.

McLean had been an elder at the Lynwood, Texas Church of the Firstborn. He’d been twelve years older than Leah and had certain opinions about what a husband and wife should and should not do together—

—and Leah only just now realized it.

She couldn’t help her anger that he had left her to find this with a man fifteen years her junior and who had gone about his seduction in a truly evil manner.

Sex with McLean was a duty, and one not that often done, either. She’d never known it could be enjoyed; no one had ever told her.

Perhaps it was best she’d never known, because surely she would have grown to resent him the way she was growing to resent him now.

Leah arose slowly, slightly sore in muscles that she hadn’t known could get sore.

She showered and dressed.

Packed up what little she had kept at Knox’s; Rachel would have probably stolen everything from the motel room they’d shared, but no matter. She wouldn’t miss a few clothes and toiletries.

She glanced at the rose and the note, the jewels and the key that still lay on the fine linens where she’d left them, then decided to take them.

It was the only thing she’d have left of Knox, though why she wanted to remember him, she didn’t know.

• • • 

When she pulled into her driveway the next evening, it was to see the secretary of Lynwood, Texas Church of the Firstborn lurking about her dirty picture window and peering in one of the three small diamonds in the front door.

With new perspective, Leah studied her home, a small dingy tan brick ranch with mortar weeping “decoratively” from between each course of masonry. It needed a good sandblasting to clean it. Her yard was a mess, but she’d been gone two weeks. Not that that had made much difference; it wasn’t a mess of good grass that had grown and gone to seed. It was a mess of weeds, and sparse at that, interspersed with patches of dirt. She had the worst house in an aging, rundown neighborhood.

She swallowed with shame: hers or McLean’s, she didn’t know.

It was all she could do to pay the mortgage, much less keep up her home or improve upon it. And now, after having finally called in to her answering machine this morning and listened to her messages, she wasn’t even sure she had her job waiting for her in the morning.

“Leah!” called Noreen as Leah emerged from her rattletrap car. Her brow wrinkled when she noticed how decrepit it was. How had it made the round trip from Houston to Kansas City? “Where you been, honey?”

Leah looked up at Noreen as if meeting her for the first time, and perhaps she was. Noreen had always been a very good friend to her and McLean, always around for special occasions, celebrations, and generally made herself available to them.

At Leah’s age, Noreen was single, having never married, and Leah had always wondered why. She was an extremely attractive woman. She’d been the church secretary for as long as she could remember, and it seemed she’d taken McLean’s death harder than Leah had.

Leah opened her mouth, and said with a calm that astounded her, “How long were you in love with McLean?”

Noreen’s eyes bulged and her mouth worked up and down, soundless. Leah would never have seen it and, further, never would have had the courage to ask the question, had not Knox shown her what she was missing.

“Were you sleeping with him?”

“No!” she breathed, horrified. “McLean wasn’t like that, Leah, you know that.”

Not even with his wife.

Leah wondered why she hated McLean at this moment far more than she hated Knox, who had demanded her virtue yet given her more in return than it was worth.

“Did McLean know?”

Noreen gulped. Well, that could mean anything, Leah supposed, but she felt that same strange serenity she’d felt all the way from Kansas City to Houston. “I don’t— I don’t know.”

The diamonds in Leah’s bracelet flashed and she looked down at it.

So did Noreen, and an unfamiliar confidence flowed through Leah.

“That’s pretty,” Noreen said, but Leah couldn’t tell if she wanted to weasel out of the awkward conversation or if she wanted to know how Leah could have come by something that fine. It hadn’t come from Claire’s, for sure, but Noreen was too polite to be that gauche. “You have— Uh, you have matching earrings.”

Leah laughed, though it was more sad than funny.

“These diamonds are probably worth more than my house,” Leah murmured to herself, not caring that Noreen didn’t realize she was eavesdropping.

Yet another way Knox had taken care of her that McLean hadn’t.

“Go home, Noreen,” Leah finally said.

“You never said … about Rachel, I mean.”

Leah took a deep breath. “Rachel is … ” And Knox just kept on giving, doing what McLean never had. “Not my problem anymore.”

“Wha—?”

She looked at Noreen then, fully, and thought she shouldn’t resent the woman because she had no real reason to. So she’d been in love with Leah’s husband; he hadn’t had any more interest in her than he did Leah. In effect, they were in the same boat, but that didn’t mean Leah wanted her around. “Please, just go home. I need to get a few things sorted out.”

Noreen looked about to cry. “I’m sorry, Leah.”

People had been saying that a lot to her lately, all except the one person who should’ve.

But, again, perhaps that was for the best.

“Can I help you with anything, at least?”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

Or she would be as soon as she got a new life, because she certainly could not live like this anymore.

Noreen left, and Leah walked across her knee-high-weed-ridden lawn to the front door, shaking out her keys. She chose the correct key by feel and shoved it into the lock.

Which didn’t turn.

What?!

She began to panic because … well, because. The last two weeks had been surreal enough, anything horrible was possible.

Lifting the keyring to make sure she had the right key, she saw that she didn’t. She had tried to slide Knox’s key into her lock.

She choked.

I want you.

One week, and she’d miss his body beside hers in bed tonight.

You’re beautiful.

McLean had refused to tell her that, even when she’d asked. That’s a vanity, Leah; we mustn’t be prideful.

She sighed and went into her house, opened it up, collected her mail from the floor, unpacked the few belongings Rachel had left in the motel room, and went to bed.

• • • 

“I’m sorry, Leah, but two weeks … A week was hard enough, but I understood. Another week on such short notice? No, I don’t think I can let that slide.”

Leah stared at her boss stonily, her jaw clenching.

One of those big tanned hands giveth, and the other taketh away: Her only way to make a living, and not likely to get a comparable job since she’d burned this bridge and her options were slim and her profession was a small community.

She looked at the bracelet around her wrist and wondered …

“All right,” she said without another moment’s hesitation, refusing to bow and scrape and beg the way her boss wanted her to. “I’m owed comp time. I have three weeks of sick time left and four of vacation. Since you don’t think you can let that slide, I’ll take every bit of that in cash, please.”

Her boss’s mouth went slack.

No, she hadn’t expected that. Leah had never stood up to her in her entire history here, which was how she’d ended up with so much comp time and sick time and vacation. She couldn’t say no. She wasn’t allowed to say no.

“You’re lucky I don’t sue you for not compensating me properly, and I will if you don’t cough it up.”

Leah now understood cynicism. Her boss had never realized Leah knew that what she’d done was illegal. Comp time in lieu of overtime. Well, now or later and if it were later …

As long as you want.

“I’m leaving Houston as soon as I sell my house,” Leah said calmly. “I’ll come back Wednesday for my check. I know exactly how much it should be. If it’s not that, I’ll call my lawyer.”

Whether he could practice law in Texas or not would be irrelevant to him; furthermore, she knew he’d come if she called.

“I promise you don’t want to mess with my lawyer.”

“Uh, Leah, you know, maybe we could reconsider … ”

“No. Wednesday by noon.”

It was possible the woman would lose her job over that, and Leah hoped she did.

Leah did what she could do herself on her house to make it presentable in the day and a half she had before she had real money to get real stuff done. She had a week-long garage sale and what she didn’t sell by the time her house went on the market the next week, she carted off to Goodwill.

The house sold in two days, praise the Lord, which she took as His will. She would find a new church when she got where she was going.

As soon as she had the cash, she traded in her car for one she knew would make the eight-hundred-mile trip back. Straight out of the lot, she headed north on I-35 once again, but this time to begin her new life, not to clean up her old one.

Her old life was as dead as her husband.

• • • 

A chubby little strawberry blonde with frizzy hair, glasses, and braces opened Knox’s door Friday evening, and Leah felt her world collapse.

“Hi,” said the girl, who looked to be somewhere in her early twenties, a little older than Rachel. “What can I do for you?”

“Yo, Giselle!” Knox’s voice from somewhere in the depths of the house, then his voice got nearer as he continued speaking. She saw past the girl, who had turned to watch him come out of the hallway that led to his bedroom, pulling a tee shirt down over his broad chest still spotted with water droplets. His hair was wet. “Would you make me some favorite potatoes? Please? A couple, three pans, throw ’em in the freez— Leah,” he breathed, his eyes wide.

Leah didn’t know what to say. Her original assumption probably wasn’t correct, considering the girl’s youth and what he’d asked her to do, but … “Um … ”

The girl looked between Knox and Leah, then said, “Uh, yeah. I’m heading home. Thanks, Knox.”

“Yeah,” he said absently, waving her off, not breaking his stare with Leah.

The girl, Giselle, held the door for Leah, who stepped in warily. She brushed by and out the door, letting it slam closed behind her.

“Who’s that?” Leah asked calmly, surprising herself with the strength of her demand.

“My cousin,” he replied softly, as if it didn’t occur to him that she had no right to ask, and wanted to allay her fears. “I do her taxes.”

“Oh.”

The diamonds flashed in the meager sunshine coming through the screen door, and caught his attention. Then it returned to her face.

“I don’t know how long I want to stay,” she said, faking courage.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Are you sure you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You wanted me,” she said deliberately. There was only one conclusion he could draw from that, and he wasn’t slow.

He watched her carefully for a moment, then said, “You want to talk about it?”

“No.”

He nodded, then said, “Uh, I was on my way to the airport to pick up a friend. Would you care to join me?”

So, this was it.

She hadn’t really thought about what returning to him would mean beyond being his lover, but—

“I don’t want to lock you in my bedroom, Leah,” he murmured. “I asked you to stay because I hoped you would want to see my life so you could make a decision as to whether you wanted to be part of it or not.”

Leah chucked up her chin. “Maybe all I want is sex.”

His mouth tightened. “Well,” he said brusquely, “I guess I can’t blame you for thinking that’s all I’d offer you.”

“I didn’t think much past that, to tell you the truth.”

A wide smile slowly grew on his face and she caught her breath at the change that true humor made in him. “Glad to know I’m that good in bed, then.” He gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”

He opened the passenger door of his SUV for her, handed her in, and closed it, then strode around to the driver’s side. She watched him, feeling as out of sorts as she ever had because this was a brand new side of him she saw: A normal man, albeit more gentlemanly than most.

“Who are we picking up?” Leah asked, as much to get McLean and all the levels of meaning of their relationship out of her head as to start a conversation.

“Annie Franklin,” Knox grunted as he climbed in and began the process of starting the car, backing out of the driveway, and going somewhere. “She’s— Well, it’s kind of hard to explain my relationship with her. I think of a lot of people in my life in terms of family, but they’re not related to me in any way.”

“So, Annie is … ”

He took a deep breath. “My little sister, I guess, if I had to label her. She just graduated from Princeton.”

“And you have many people like her in your life?”

“Yes. I have a daughter. She’s not really. She’s not even legally my ward or foster daughter or anything, but that’s how I think of her. You probably won’t meet her for a while. She left for college last week and she’ll be going year-round so she can graduate early.”

“What’s her name?”

“Vanessa.”

“Where does she go?”

“Notre Dame. There are a couple of other kids I take care of in some way. Eric. Dirk.”

“And your cousin.”

Knox shrugged that off. “Naw, more like Giselle takes care of me. She’s— Ah, well, she’s my best friend.” That disturbed Leah a bit, but she couldn’t say why. “You don’t need to feel threatened by her.”

Threatened? Was that that feeling? How did he know? She said nothing for a moment or two.

“Are there a lot of people in this world who love you?”

He cast her a sharp glance. “It would surprise you if there were?”

“Yes,” she said flatly. “It would.”

“Leah, if this is going to be a problem for you, why’d you come back?”

“I came back because I had nowhere else to go and nothing to do there anyway,” she snapped.

“What were you doing before you ran up here to rescue Rachel from her stupidity?” he snapped back.

“I had a job. Which I didn’t have when I got back.”

He sucked in a deep breath, and rested his elbow on the ledge, rubbing his mouth while he drove. “Okay,” he mumbled. “I deserved that.”

She stared at him unbelievingly, and the thought that had been only a vague mist in her subconscious began to gel: Was this an otherwise decent man whose unspeakably bad behavior was an anomaly?

“You’re crazy,” she whispered.

He barked a surprised laugh. “Yeah, Leah. That I am. The sooner you come to terms with that, the easier it’ll be to live with me for however long you want to do that.”

“Do you generally like older women?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how old I am?”

“No.”

“Forty-six.”

He glanced at her, shock written all over his face. “Damn,” he breathed reverently.

“Knox, I have an eighteen-year-old daughter. It shouldn’t have surprised you.”

“I kind of figured you had her young, like, seventeen or eighteen. I thought you were only a little older than me.”

“Is that going to bother you?”

“Shit, no.”

Leah felt pride.

It was sinful, pride, especially in one’s appearance. A few times, at work, an attractive doctor had taken a second glance at her. She’d felt it then but quashed it, guilty about attracting a man’s attention, his lust.

Men were vulnerable; it was the woman’s place to protect them from their lusts.

A twinge of guilt got her, but she wanted to let it go, to wallow in the pride, to cast away her old life, which included her old thoughts and habits and fears. Then again, Leah had slept with a stranger to save her daughter’s miserable little life; after that, there wasn’t much to salvage of her old life.

Kansas City International Airport was a series of circles, the boarding gates accessible only a few feet from the curb. Knox parked right in front of the terminal and craned his neck to look for this “sister,” and then he honked the horn and got out, the engine still running. A tall, lissome blonde with glasses perched on her nose huffed up at her bangs. The rest of her hair was wound up haphazardly in a fan-like arrangement on top of her head. She dragged her suitcases toward Knox, but he jogged toward her to pick them up.

Then Leah understood the flip side of pride in one’s attractiveness: Jealousy. It bit Leah.

Hard.

That girl was gorgeous, no matter how haggard she looked, no matter that she scowled at Knox and said something with a curled lip. He only laughed, which made her scowl deepen.

The back door opened and she threw herself inside. “Oh, fuck you, Knox.”

“No thanks,” came the amused and obviously well-worn response before she yanked the door closed. The back of the truck opened and Knox threw the girl’s luggage in.

“Hi,” she said, firmly inserting herself between the bucket seats. “I’m Annie. You are?”

“Leah,” she responded because she couldn’t not.

“How’d you get stuck with him?”

Leah stared at her. Up close and personal, she was even more beautiful.

“Don’t answer that,” Knox muttered as he got in. “Annie’s obnoxiously nosy.”

“Call it what you want, but most people will tell you anything if you ask outright and act like they have a duty to tell you.”

“He blackmailed me,” Leah said, just to see what she’d do.

Knox shot her a look and Annie stared at her for a moment, then began to laugh. She rolled back to lie on the seat, giggle madly, kick her feet in the air.

“She’s laughing because she believes you,” Knox muttered as he pulled away from the curb and drove around the terminal circle to the exit.

“Knox, you are so fucked up.”

“I pay for her room and board and this is what I get.”

“It’s because you think I’m adorable.”

“Yeah, I do.”

As Leah listened to them go back and forth, she had no choice but to let go of her jealousy.

“Hey, where are we going?” Annie asked when Knox zipped past his exit. “I thought I was staying with you for the summer?”

“Change of plans,” Knox said heartily, flashing a grin at Leah. “Since you’re working at Decadence, maybe Giselle will let you live on her couch for the summer.”

“That woman’s a slave driver. I don’t know why I let her boss me around.”

Knox laughed out loud. “You’d pay her to work at Decadence.”

“Does she know I’m suddenly homeless?”

“She might have a decent clue right about now, yes.”

Giselle. Annie. Vanessa.

“Do you have any male friends?” Leah burst out. “Your own age?”

Knox laughed. “Yes, Leah,” he drawled, “I do.”

Leah watched this man, happy, trading good-natured insults with a beautiful college graduate he thought of as a sister. She compared and contrasted it to the way he’d finagled her into bed, with that hard expression and cruel sneer, and felt as if she’d dropped into an entirely different man’s life.

As if she were a natural part of it and always had been.

He had no reservations about her being here, in his car, in his house, in his bed, even though he knew next to nothing about her and despised—struck—her only child. In lieu of putting her in prison. He had no reservations about including her in his life immediately, introducing her to his loved ones and being, as far as she could tell, completely natural.

As if it were normal for strange women to show up on his doorstep unannounced, uninvited (not really), and expecting to be taken to bed immediately.

“Anaïs, when do you walk?” he asked, jolting Leah out of her musings.

“Not going to,” she sniffed. “I don’t care about the pomp and circumstance. Show me the money.”

Knox threw a hand up in the air. “Why did I even ask?”

“I do not know. And quit calling me that.”

“I’ll call you whatever I damn well please. Anaïs. Nin.” The girl growled, but Leah caught the sly glance Knox cast her way. “Do you know who Anaïs Nin is?” he murmured.

“No.”

“You’re gonna find out.”

Leah tingled at his purr, but she didn’t know why.

“Eeww. Cut it out while I’m in the car. Not in front of the children. Geez.”

“Oh ho! The Queen of the Frat Party objects.”

“You do not know that for sure.”

“Annie, you can’t go more than two days without a man. And you better be careful with that because you know Giselle won’t put up with it in her apartment.”

“See, this is why I need to stay with you. You let me bring home whoever I want.”

The two went on, nattering at each other and Leah suddenly felt as if she had lain on an unfamiliar mattress, stiff, tense, ready to find fault with it, then the mattress had surprised her into relaxation. She felt as if she were melting into its unexpected warmth and comfort.

This was not the same man who had blackmailed her into bed.

So who was he?

Soon they traversed a bridge over the Missouri River into downtown Kansas City, and only a few moments after that, Knox pulled into a parking slip in front of a charmingly renovated old building with a sign that said, “Decadence.” Leah waited for Knox to open her door and hand her out, and she was hit with mouthwatering scents.

“Hot damn!” Annie crowed. “Books and chocolate all summer long.” She darted into the building and out of sight.

“This is Giselle’s place,” Knox said softly. “In the middle, there’s a bookstore. That’s hers. On either side of her is a chocolatier and a patisserie. Those are her business partners’. She lives on the second floor.”

Leah said nothing, staring up at him, still dazed at events she could have never predicted.

Knox bent toward her and she closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and let him work his magic on her. That, at least, hadn’t changed.

“Oh, I missed you,” he breathed into her mouth, his arms wrapping around her and pulling her close to him.

And she missed him, that big, strong young body in bed next to hers, curled around her possessively, giving her pleasure and teaching her how to return it.

“Forgive me, Leah,” he whispered as he pulled away and stared into her eyes, those cold blue eyes now somewhere in the range of sapphire. “I didn’t know how else to do it.”

“I understand you want me,” she murmured. “I even understand you think I’m attractive. But … how can you know that you really want me to stay? How do you know—?” She waved a hand, unsure of her question.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I just do. It’s always been like that for me.”

“You’re so different now.”

“No, no different. Just in a different context. I really am that cruel, Leah, that evil. Just not … right … now.”

“Why are you?”

He pursed his lips. “When we know each other better, I might tell you, but once you get settled in and then start exploring the city, you’ll hear rumors. Believe. Them.”

She shivered in sudden fear.

“I won’t treat you badly ever again, Leah, but being my lover outside the house isn’t going to be easy for you. Whatever you do in Chouteau County, wherever you go, if people know you’re my lover, it may not go well for you. If you want to distance yourself from me at any time in any way, I’ll understand. If that means you don’t want to live with me, that’s fine.”

She swallowed. “I need to get a job. Will that hurt me?”

“Possibly. Depends on what you want to do.”

“I’m a dietitian.”

“I don’t know. It’s up to you if you want to tell people. You don’t have to work if you don’t want to, but I’d like you to have a life outside of me and my family. Spend your time however you want to.”

She blinked. “Are you serious?”

He stared at her, confusion written all over his face. “Uh … Not sure which part of that you’re asking about.”

“McLean, my husband, wouldn’t let—” She snapped her mouth shut with a click. McLean was no longer part of her equation.

Comprehension washed over his features and settled into a modicum of disdain. “Oh.”

“How are you going to explain me to your mother?” she asked dryly, attempting some humor to get out of the suddenly awkward conversation.

Instead, the cruel young man with the cold eyes returned in a flash. “My mother is not part of my life,” he snarled. “If you meet her—which I doubt—you’ll understand a few things a little more clearly.”

Leah stared at him calmly and, for no reason she could discern, she raised her hand and stroked his cheek, rough with blond stubble.

He blinked, bemused, his anger vanishing. “I don’t need a mother,” he said gruffly.

“I don’t want to be. I’m not trying to be.”

He gulped and turned his mouth into her palm. Kissed it. “I don’t deserve you.”

“You would do well to remember that.”

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