I threw the keys at her, barely able to look at her after what I’d done to her the night before.
Oh, hell, what I’d done to her from the moment I got caught in my own hubris.
I’d convicted rapists that had shown more class and style in their crimes than I had last night.
I stood at my window, my forearm across the window frame, and looked down on the parking lot. I watched her approach the car warily, hoping that she’d understand what I wanted her to do. She would never leave on her own; I’d thoroughly succeeded in terrifying her. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought she’d know I was bluffing, that she would understand that nobody with a shred of sanity could act the way I did and mean it.
Of course, nobody—least of all me—could say with any certainty that I was sane.
She sat in the little Toyota for a long time, inspecting it, I was sure, for signs of a bomb or something. Then she started it, put it in gear, backed out, and drove away.
She’d understand the minute her asshole father let her know how I’d ensured his silence.
And then she would leave.
I put my head down on my arm and watched water drops plop onto the sill, my vision blurring.
I would never see her again.
This makes you no better than Lucifer … The Lord might forgive you Parley, but this— No.
Sebastian couldn’t have found a better invective.
It occurred to me to eat my gun and be done with it, because I just didn’t deserve to live and quite frankly, I had nothing left to live for.
Giselle had married my best friend, who made her happy in ways far beyond my comprehension.
Sebastian wouldn’t miss me, especially after I’d thoroughly humiliated him over … a lot less than what I was guilty of.
Vanessa would get my half of Whittaker House on my death and could do just fine on her own.
So could Eric and he was at the end of his patience with me, anyway.
My aunts Lilly and Dianne might cry, of course—maybe even Aunt Harrie and Belinda—but I couldn’t be sure they weren’t expecting it anyway.
Morgan, Étienne, Felix, my other cousins who had quietly supported me … they’d shake their heads, unable to understand but probably not surprised.
Fen wouldn’t like it, but he’d be able to relax, his future in OKH as secure as it could be with me out of the way, but Sebastian still on the warpath.
My mother would rejoice.
The rest of the Dunham tribe would ignore me the same way they’d ignored me for the past fifteen years.
And Rachel Wincott would have the last laugh.
I don’t know how long I stood there, staring down at her empty parking spot as if it would magically bring Justice back to me, make her love me, but it was dark by the time I went and sat at my desk.
I pulled out my Glock and studied it. Not that I could see it in the dark.
Turned it over.
Squeezed the trigger—
—just until it caught.
The doorknob turned and Eric walked in, files in his hand.
Flipped on the light.
Stopped short when he saw me.
Stared at my gun.
“Put it down.”
I pursed my lips. “Why?”
“She’s not worth that.”
I grunted. “No, but what I did to her is.” I took a deep breath. “You can probably expect that annulment back some time tomorrow or Thursday. She won’t waste any time getting out from under a marriage to me.”
Eric looked at the floor, shaking his head, thoroughly exasperated with me. “You know, I don’t know what it is about you that you have to do everything so fucking stupidly, but did it ever occur to you to just ask her out like, you know, a normal guy? Or do you not have enough drama in your life that you had to add a little more?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. Where do you get off?”
“Uh, let’s see. Stable situation. Stable girlfriend. No drama. That’s where I get off.”
“And that explains Simone and LaVon Whittaker and Junior how?”
“Not my doing, that’s how. And notice, I don’t deal with them for the most part. Repeat: No drama.” He took two long steps toward my desk, snatched my gun out of my hand, stuffed it in the back of his waistband. “You’re not getting it back.”
“Fuck you. I’m your boss, remember?”
“Theoretically. So since she’s gone, you can take over her case load.”
“I think not. Figure out something else.”
“Go to the Ozarks.”
No, not that, either. Vanessa would want to know why and I sure as hell didn’t want to explain, not when I had hoped that the next time I went, I’d be bringing my new wife, showing her off, making love with her in a bedroom that didn’t look like I’d furnished it out of the Salvation Army mark-down section.
Ah, hell, I was used to celibacy and I wouldn’t live long enough for it to make a difference anyway.
I sighed and glanced out the window again, across the street to the dojo that was now brightly lit. “Aren’t you late for class?”
“Dirk’s night to teach. I’m not going anywhere.”
He slapped his files on my desk and picked up my phone. Called his girlfriend, told her he was on suicide watch, and bring food and entertainment.
“You’re a ballsy little bastard,” I grumbled. “Remind me why I hired you?”
“’Cause I’m a ballsy little bastard,” he shot back and dropped onto the leather sofa, stretched out like he hadn’t a care in the world.
Annie walked in not an hour later with Chinese, chopsticks, books, and video games.
“There’s a procedure for people like you, Knox,” she said as she dumped the bags of food on my desk. I tried to stare her down, but she dealt with what she called M.Deities all day long and she’d told me more than once a lowly prosecutor didn’t faze her. “It’s called a frontal lobotomy.”
Eric laughed, drug a chair over to my desk.
The three of us settled in to eat.
“By the way,” Annie said, “my mother’s still available.”
I snarled at her. “I am not going to be your mother’s boy toy and I’ve been telling you that for ten years. At least.”
“What? You don’t want to be my stepfather?”
“You need to get rid of that bitch,” I muttered, hoping to shut her up, but she continued to prod and poke me about that hag she couldn’t or wouldn’t shake.
“It’s not as easy for a daughter to divorce her mother as it is for a son,” she informed me sagely as she dug her chopsticks into her noodles. “Oh, and look, if you do marry her, I promise I won’t try to glom onto your exactly four dollars and fifty-two cents, which is about what OKH will be worth when King Midas gets through with it.”
Annie annoyed me to no end sometimes. Her pragmatic wit and savvy business sense was occasionally the bane of my existence, but that’s what little sisters—even adopted ones—are for. Eric’s inability to stop laughing didn’t help.
“That’d be a funny joke on my mom, though.”
“I’m already married,” I snapped before I thought.
Annie looked at me sharply, surprised, but not enough to delay that quick mind or tongue. “Then why are we here with you instead of in bed?”
I waved a hand toward the door. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. And give me my gun back.”
“Nope,” Eric said around a mouthful of food.
“And why aren’t you in bed with Mrs. OKH trying for Baby OKH?”
I said nothing, unwilling to account for myself to a girl who made her living flashing her legs and tits at doctors. Gorgeous rodeo blonde with something approaching Sebastian’s brain. What was it with all the beautiful young women around me? Vanessa, Annie, half a dozen defense attorneys I had to work to beat anymore. Youth, beauty, brilliance, and nothing short of a maniacal drive to succeed, every last one.
And Iustitia, young, beautiful, brilliant, with a maniacal drive to succeed—but who hadn’t cut through enough of her naïveté to see through my bluster.
I was only now noticing what any of them looked like. It was downright unnerving after all these years teaching brand new law students. Had I simply missed how attractively energetic young women were? Or was I just hitting the first stages of a mid-life crisis and had cornered one to give me my own youth back?
She looked at Eric who pursed his lips and bent back to his food.
“Oh, I see,” she drawled, then glanced back at me, sighed, did the worst thing she could’ve possibly done.
She patted my hand. What the fuck?!
“Nothin’ doin’, sport.”
Dawn came with me working, Eric asleep on the couch, Annie curled up with him, but dozing.
Keeping me alive.
If it weren’t for all the women in my life looking out for me, save my mother, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I had.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked softly, glancing out the window at the lightening sky. Eric awoke with a start, looked at Annie, then looked at me.
“I think so.” I paused. “Thank you.”
She smiled and arose, then pulled Eric to his feet. I sighed when they left and figured I could expect them back tonight, still on suicide watch.
I wasn’t fine. I knew I couldn’t bear to look at Iustitia’s desk without breaking, but I had a job to do and I was only too glad to have court.
Took a shower.
Charmed a jury.
Yelled at my staff.
More than usual.
Worked all night, Eric and Annie sitting guard.
Repeat the day after that.
Except after lunch …
You know, I didn’t care if the kid had stayed with me two nights in a row to make sure I didn’t blow a hole in my head. He needed to show some respect.
“Cipriani! Pay attention! What the fuck is your problem?”
He looked up at me, then at her desk and jerked his head. “Look.”
I looked over my shoulder. What the—?
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
That perfectly carved haughty Faery Queen face dotted with that mass of freckles, the tousled red curls that looked like I’d just run my fingers through them, that gorgeous body all wrapped up in designer clothes I wanted to tear off of her, feel her naked against me again, be inside her, make her come instead of cry.
Had she really said that or had I imagined it?
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said and went through her file-stacking routine like it was any other day of the week. “It won’t happen again.”
I turned, still not able to credit that perhaps, just perhaps, another woman had come back to me and—worse!—the one I’d mistreated more than Leah. I didn’t know whether to laugh and kiss her or crawl in a hole and die of shame.
“That’s what you say every time you’re late, McKinley.” Oh, shit, if Fen found out … “I oughtta fire your ass.”
She glanced up at me with those languid golden cat eyes that made me think she could read my mind and further, see all the way down into the darkest corners of my soul, knowing exactly who I was. “You can’t. You haven’t laid any paper on me and I’ll sue you for wrongful termination.”
No, it couldn’t be. She was back—with a spine! I hadn’t been wrong about that after all.
Or was she just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?
I had to get away from her to figure this out.
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember that.”
I slammed the door behind me and fell back against it, bent over, nauseated at the implications of her being here. Would she stay with me as my AP and my wife, as just my AP, or was she taunting me?
It took some effort to breathe and my heart pounded in my chest like I was having a heart attack.
Then I felt a strange calm go through my body.
I knew what that was even though I hadn’t felt it in years—and missed it. I fell to my knees, thunked my forehead on the floor, braced my body on my elbows and clenched my hands behind my head.
“Thank you,” I whispered over and over again, desperate and choking on my own spit. “Thank you so much.”
• • •
All I wanted to do was wrap myself around her and hold her close, smell her.
Make love to her.
The way she deserved.
I couldn’t imagine why she’d come back to me after the night I’d raped her. I didn’t deserve it, didn’t deserve her.
But there she was, getting out of her car in front of my house and preparing to unload her stuff.
I walked out to her and did exactly what I wanted—
—wrapped myself around her.
Held her close.
She kissed me back, wrapped her arm around me and pulled me tight to her. Did that mean—?
I needed her to know, to understand what her being with me would mean because obviously she didn’t get it.
Well … maybe she did. At least, she said she did.
I didn’t buy her first bullshit excuse. Want to be like Giselle, my ass. I didn’t marry Giselle for a reason.
It took a while, but we finally got to the heart of it.
“I’m upset you bought me, but I’m grateful, too.”
I thought I’d puke. Gratitude? Gratitude?!
I don’t think I’d ever been so mad at her as I was right then. What was I supposed to say to that? You’re welcome, could you sleep with me now?
“I don’t want you here if you’re just grateful. I was kind to you once so you got a crush on me and I accidentally saved you from your father. What a great basis for a relationship that shouldn’t have started at all.”
“Give me a little bit more credit than that,” she snapped, and I knew then she’d thought it through, though I still didn’t understand her motivation.
“Okay. Then why are you here? The real reason?”
She wouldn’t look at me, but her words took my breath away. “I— I want to see where this, with you and me, together— Uh, out in the grass, before— I mean, um, I want to know … If we— If you and I can—”
“I don’t have a crush on you anymore. You crushed it. Congratulations, mission accomplished.”
“But I … also don’t want to live with what if. I want to try. Like adults. In a relationship. The one you should have asked me for to begin with, and don’t try to tell me you don’t want that anymore.” More than you will ever know. “You’re welcome.”
She wanted me. She wanted us.
In spite of what I’d done to her.
I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or fucking giddy.
I said the only thing I could think of. “I’m sorry I hurt you out in the grass.”
What a fucking stupid thing to say.
She seemed to find that amusing. “So you said about a gazillion times.”
No, what I mean is, I’m sorry I raped you.
I wanted her so badly I hurt, with an intensity and desperation I’d never felt in my life. There she was. Right next to my—our—bed.
My wife. Wanted me, wanted us.
I had to get out of there before I fucked it all up and made her leave again. I knew I would eventually anyway, because I always did.
“I won’t pressure you. You come to me when you’re ready.”
And if I didn’t fuck it up before I had to tell her about the man I’d murdered, that would certainly send her away for good.
I really would eat my gun if she left again because after that heartfelt little speech, I knew I would never be able to live without her.