TO celebrate the launch of Harlequin's DARE series of romance novels, we are proud to present a day-by-day serialised release of Off Limits by Clare Connelly. To navigate between the chapters head to the bottom of today's segment.
IMPORTANT: Before you begin reading, remember - this is Mills & Boon as you've never seen it before, with plot lines featuring empowered women and extremely steamy sex scenes - for adult subscribers aged 18 and over only. Find more titles like this one here.
I'M IN LIMBO.
Not asleep ... not awake. I lie in his bed, my body throbbing with pleasures untold, my mind exhausted.
It is late. Somewhere between midnight and dawn. And I am his.
I lift up on one elbow, my eyes hazy as I look down at him. He is beautiful and he is sexy. He is groggy. Almost asleep. But his eyes flick to mine and I see blank speculation in them.
'How are you?'
I smile - I hope it's as reassuring as I intend and not maniacal as I suspect. 'Good.'
He nods tersely, pushing up out of bed, dragging a hand through his hair as he stalks across to his wardrobe. He emerges after a moment, boxer shorts on. At least he's not showering me away immediately.
But he will soon enough. I know Jack too well to misunderstand his mood now, and it pisses me off as much as it worries me. I don't want a relationship, but I don't know how we can go from white-hot sex to awkward silence in the space of minutes.
'Do you need anything?' His voice is husky. 'Drink? Coffee? Shower?'
A flicker of annoyance draws my lips into a frown. 'No, thanks.'
I stand up, feeling as though I've run ten marathons. My body is sore and stiff, but still throbbing with pleasures previously unknown. My dress is - where? Out in the living area?
I walk towards him slowly, and pause just in front of him. What he wants is crystal-clear; my own needs are far more difficult to interpret but I do want to interpret them.
Self-preservation draws me inwards, away from Jack before he can push me away. 'I'm going to go.'
I see the emotions that flicker on his face and I recognise only one - relief.
'Are you sure?'
I laugh - a soft sound that covers whatever that heavy pain is in my chest. 'Come on, Jack. We both know how this works.'
I press a kiss against his cheek and move into the lounge. Our sushi feast is still on the table - a relic of our attempt at a date. Like normal people date. But we're not normal. Not on our own and definitely not together. We're misfits, both of us, operating outside the normal realms of this kind of relationship thing.
I scoop up my dress and bra and pull the dress on over my naked body, stuffing the bra into my handbag as I step into my shoes.
My hair I pull over one shoulder, brushing my fingers through its tangled length to neaten it somewhat.
'Martins will be on roster now,' he says, looking at the clock over the oven and referring to one of the junior staff drivers.
I shake my head. The last thing I want is for a company driver to see me like this, post-Jack-Grant-ravaging. 'I'll get a cab.' I walk towards him again and press a single kiss to his cheek.
'I'll see you Monday.'
'Monday ...' He nods and there are more emotions in his face, these harder to comprehend. 'Right. It's the weekend.'
I swallow past a lump in my throat. 'And then Australia,' I remind him - probably unnecessarily.
His eyes probe mine. I feel like I'm escaping prison and one of those enormous floodlights has landed on me, full beam.
'I'm fine,' I reassure him.
We've just had pretty much the best sex in the world - I doubt it has ever been better for anyone than it is for us. But I know I need to go. It's important. My self-preservation instincts are blaring loudly, demanding I put some space between us.
He nods, and it's only then that I realise he's got a glass of Scotch in his hand.
It hurts. There's something about seeing him with a drink that reminds me of what he does - how often he does it and how he reacts afterwards. And I don't want that to be the case with us.
Those self-preservation instincts join forces with my brain and they pull the strings to make me smile brightly.
'Thanks for tonight. I had fun. See you soon.'
And I turn and walk slowly towards the door, my heart thudding, my mind foggy.
I watch her leave with a certainty that I'm messing up my life in a monumental way. What the hell am I doing? Sleeping with Gemma once was a disastrous cock-up. But again and again? Showing her all my dark spaces and hauntings?
No one needs to know the demons that lash me.
I am in control. That's me. It's the persona I've built and I don't like the idea of someone knowing that it's not completely true. Lucy knew, of course. And I guess Amber does; she's seen me in a pretty fucked-up state, right after Lucy died. But Gemma? Now?
Her eyes, big and intelligent, are assessing, always understanding. And the way her face scrunches when she's about to come ... The way her body trembles beneath mine ... Jesus. I want her now - again - more.
I turn to the door. If I chased her what would she say? God, would she think it means I want more than sex? Ironic, given that I just want sex. With Gemma.
An obsession is building inside me. Bit by bit it is closing me in. But Gemma Picton is hardly going to let me turn her into my own personal sex slave. Although I think she's about as caught up in all of this as I am ...
All the more reason for me to fight harder, to control it.
I grip the crystal tumbler in my hands, feeling my anger and determination surge, and I pitch the glass hard against the wall. It breaks with satisfying immediacy, shattering into thousands of tiny pieces that mix with the slosh of amber liquid running fast down the wall before landing with a thud against the tiles. I drag my hand through my hair and stare at the destruction with a sense of satisfaction.
I'm good at ruining things. At breaking them.
That's what I need to stick to.
* * * * * * * * *
I don't think I'll ever eat again. Grandma has no such qualms. She reaches for another oyster - it must be her tenth - and swirls it inside lips she's painted bright red for the occasion.
'What's in Australia?'
I stare out at the little street, watching a small black car reverse - badly - into a narrow parking space. 'Work.'
'Always work ...' She sighs.
I nod absently.
Jack will be there, too. After not going to Tokyo, I don't suppose there's the smallest hope I can get out of it.
'I promise I'll do something fun. Just for you.'
My insides quiver as I imagine what that could be. Jack. Doing Jack would be fun.
But even as my pulse is stirring and my heart is beginning to race my brain is demonstratively reminding me of Jack's particular brand of cold fishery. His ability to walk away from me right after we've shared mind-blowing, simultaneous orgasms is as offensive as it is unique.
Am I crazy to be letting this happen?
Yes, hisses my brain. He's told you he's using you. He still loves his dead wife. Jesus. You're a fool.
'Grandma ...' I pause, my lips tight as I dismiss whatever the heck I'd been about to say.
She swallows the oyster - Grandma is the only person I know who actually chews the slimy little devils first ... shudder ... like phlegmatic explosions ... ugh. Her gaze is cool and direct.
At eighty, Grandma is every bit as beautiful as she was in her youth. Lined, ephemeral and pale now, but with a glimmer in her eyes, a wave to her silver shoulder-length hair and a smile that is punctuated by straight white teeth - all her own. Her nose is straight, her eyes wide-set, her figure as svelte as ever. And she dresses in a fashion which somehow straddles the latest in trends without coming across as an attempt to be youthful.
'Something's on your mind.'
I shake my head and reach for my bread roll. Only I've already fingered it anxiously, reducing it to a pile of wheaten crumbs and ash.
'When Grandpa died, did you think about finding someone else?'
She snorts. 'There is no one else.'
The words make me smile, yet they are also sounding the death knell for the hope I hadn't realised I've been carrying.
'No one?' I tease.
'No one.' She expels a sigh. 'Your grandfather was ... What we shared is impossible to explain.' She sips her champagne, her eyes growing even more intensely watchful, if that's possible. 'Have I ever told you about how we met?'
I shake my head, even though I know the story backwards.
'Liar!' She chuckles.
We're interrupted by a waiter, but Grandma dispenses with him quickly, placing an order for another bottle of champagne and then fixing me with that steady grey gaze of hers.
'He was sitting on the lawns at Huntington, his knees bent, his chin resting on them. His face was resolutely turned away from me, but as I approached his eyes shifted, locking to my face. It was as if he was telling me all his secrets and begging me to help him in that one single second. He looked at me as if he knew that I was the only person on earth who would be able to dig through his shit and find the kernel of the boy he'd once been.'
Grandma is looking over my shoulder now. The story is one she's told so many times that it comes out word for word as I remember it. Still, I lean forward, the invisible threads of magic and history curling around me.
'That enormous oak tree was just to his side - far enough away to prevent shade from darkening him, but close enough to dwarf him. He was a big man, your grandfather. Tall and strong - built for battle.' Her lips twist with undisguised disgust. 'But not strong in spirit. His spirit had been broken and the tree made that obvious to me.'
Her eyes flick back to mine and I feel it, too. Just like she did. The weight of silent communication and understanding.
'I loved him instantly.'
My heart does a weird little palpitation in my chest. 'I can't imagine that.'
'It's just unfathomable to me.'
'That's because you haven't met someone worth loving yet,' she says with a shrug of her elegant shoulders. 'One day you'll know just what I mean.'
I quirk my lips, hoping my smile seems dismissive. My pulse has speeded up. I try to quell it.
'I don't think it always works like that.'
'Perhaps not. Your grandfather was special.'
'What you shared was special,' I murmur, reaching across and squeezing her hand.
Grandma's eyes flicker, her lips tighten and she nods, as if to dismiss the conversation. The waiter appears, brandishing a bottle of champagne, and begins to unfurl the foil top. Grandma stares resolutely at the view as the waiter performs his ministrations, and doesn't smile when he pours two fresh glasses.
She is very much the Duchess in instances like this: a woman who has become so used to service and being served that it isn't even an act she needs to be grateful for.
I smile my thanks as he leaves.
Grandma waits until we are alone again. 'You will never meet anyone - no lover, no special friend, no one - if you are behind your desk all day.'
Out of nowhere I picture Jack. I picture the way he drapes himself against the doorframe, the way his body is so languid and sensual, and my stomach flops.
'Have I told you the foundation is almost ready to launch?'
Grandma tilts her head to one side. 'I admire your commitment to that ...' she says, clearly trying to frame whatever she's thinking carefully. 'But you have money. If philanthropy is your aim, why not set up your own charity?'
'Perhaps I will - one day. But my job is more than just one thing ... You know that.' I expel a sigh, frustration gnawing at me. 'You've always championed my work.'
'You're very clever. And I know you're brilliant at what you do. But you're sacrificing too much now. I championed your work because I hoped you would find a way to pursue your career and still live your life. You, more than anyone I've ever known, have the ability to keep multiple balls in the air at once. So why aren't you doing it?'
I drop my head, my eyes not meeting hers. There is so much truth in what she's saying, but the criticism hurts.
'I ... I am.' It's a lie. We both know that. But reality is not something I want to face.
'All of you is focussed on that job. On that man. I'm worried you're going to wake up one day and realise what you've sacrificed. And all for him.'
My heart bumps against my ribs, banging them with its frantic racing. 'He's brilliant.'
'And a bastard, by all reports.'
Yes. A beautiful, arrogant, brilliant, sex-obsessed bastard.
Was it only yesterday he was inside me? It feels like forever ago. I am at a fever pitch of want - want only he can answer. My insides clench instantly, remembering him, needing him, craving his touch, smell and taste ...
'He's not that bad.' The words are hoarse, punctured by breath and memory.
'With him and that job in your life you're never going to be truly happy.'
Her pronouncement is spoken in a way that is almost prophetic. A shiver dances down my spine, spira1ling coldness across my flesh like a breath from the North Pole.
'Travelling and living off the family trust would be better?' I arch a brow. 'You know me better than that. I live for what I do. I love it. Maybe that's the love of my life.'
Silence prickles between us. Silence that is suffocating and unwelcome.
'Very well,' she clips, dismissing this conversation, as well. 'I don't like the way they've trimmed those hedges. It's so severe.'
I breathe again, but my heart is still twisting and thumping. The truth sits heavily in my mind but I step away from it.
There is no ulterior motive to my working so hard for Jack. There's no mystery as to why I don't feel like I've sacrificed a damn thing for him. It doesn't mean anything that I am fulfilled and alive, energised every time I speak to him, see him, do his bidding. But my stomach drops. Because actually I think there probably is a meaning - just one I don't want to appreciate.
His jet is the last word in space-age luxury. Cream leather armchairs on either side of the aisle, thick carpet a pale beige and lamps that would look at home in a five-star hotel make the perfect night-flight reading environment. USB docks are in every armrest to charge phones and iPads, and there are several bedrooms, a boardroom and a small cinema.
There is also a brooding billionaire sitting at the back of the plane, his head bent over a stack of files, apparently engrossed.
I ignore him. Or pretend to.
We've hardly spoken since I left his apartment on Friday night.
That was easy enough over the weekend. After sharing two bottles of champagne and being drilled in life's lessons, Grandma and I shopped in the high street, selecting a new clutch purse for Grandma to take to the anniversary dinner and pretending we weren't both dreading the damned thing.
I didn't hear from Jack, and it wasn't until I got back to my own place on Sunday evening that I realised I'd been expecting to. That I'd thought he'd text or call or email or something.
Those two days away from him, without seeing him, stretched interminably.
The knowledge prickled down my spine so that on Monday morning I steeled myself to be as standoffish and unaffected as possible. To fight coldness with cool unconcern, with no care.
But I didn't see him then either. He arrived late, left early and didn't speak to me.
And I didn't speak to him, despite the fact I needed his signature on some papers.
I chickened out and actually hid from him when he walked past my office, ducking beneath my desk.
Not so much.
We've moved into dangerous territory. I don't know if he realises it, but there are warnings blaring in my head. I don't want to need Jack Grant like I do. I don't mean sexually. I mean in every way.
Only I can't imagine my life without him.
We've been flying for the better part of a day now, and hardly spoken beyond a perfunctory, polite 'Hiya' as he boarded the flight, ten minutes late and looking like sex and seduction in a ten-thousand-pound suit.
I have been telling myself I don't care with varying measures of success. Did I expect he'd storm up to me and kiss me? Take me passionately in his arms and hold me close? Tell me he never wants to go three days without seeing me again?
He's made it abundantly clear what he wants.
It should be what I want, too.
I shut my eyes for a moment, crossing my legs in the armchair, and am surprised when I'm woken a moment later.
'We're landing.' Jack's hands are at my hips and I bat them away instinctively.
He grabs the seatbelt and clips it across me - tight - his eyes flicking to mine. The hint of a smile on his face makes my heart flip-flop.
'Have I ever told you that you snore?'
Warmth invades my face. 'I know. I have mild asthma.'
He grins and takes the seat beside mine. My body is instantly aware of him and my brain is pretty pissed off at the rapid response.
I shift a little, looking down at my watch. I must have slept for over an hour. I blink, opening the world clock function on my phone. It's six o'clock in Sydney, which means I want to be tired - not refreshed after a quick nap on the flight.
Silence stretches between us. Debbie, one of his flight attendants, clips out efficiently, 'We'll be touching down on schedule. Can I get you anything before we land?'
'Water, thanks.' I smile at her, turning my attention back to the papers I'd been reading.
Well, half my attention. A quarter of it. A sliver. The tiny part that's not completely drawn to Jack and his nearness and his hypermasculine fragrance. The part of me that isn't all wrapped up in the way he's sitting, legs spread, arms relaxed, body warm and large and so close I could push out of my seat and sit on his lap. Unzip his pants and take him.
God. I want that.
His response to Debbie's question shakes the desire from my mind, but he looks at me and my toes curl. Does he guess what I'm thinking?
I tap my pen against the side of the page I'm reading in an attempt to focus my thoughts in a more appropriate direction.
But Jack reaches across, his hand curling over mine. My pulse goes into overdrive.
'Did you have a good weekend?' he asks.
I laugh. I can't help it. A short, sharp sound of weary frustration. 'Yeah.'
He nods, and a frown pulls at his lips. 'I don't know how to speak to you now.'
And I feel sorry for him. Sorry for me. Because we're both in the middle of a patch of uncertainty too wide to navigate.
'I'm still me.'
'But it's different.'
'Yeah ... I don't know if you ever asked me about my weekend before we had sex together.'
I lower my voice as Debbie walks back into the cabin. She places a glass of water on my side table and a can of soda on Jack's.
As Debbie disappears once more he winks at me. 'It's cherry flavour.'
Damn him. He knows what he's doing to me.
My pulse fires and I give him a tight half-smile before returning my attention to the document I'm partway through reading.
'You've got a breakfast meeting at seven o'clock with the mayor. While you're with him I'm going to be going over the premises. Then I'll meet with your Australian CEO, Clint Sheridan, to touch base on recruitment matters. The broker for the New Zealand deal is meeting us for lunch at Aria, and Clint's asked you to his place for dinner, with a few of the other executives.'
'Asked us, you mean,' he corrects, his eyes hooked to mine.
I frown. 'It's just social. You don't need me-'
'I want you there,' he says firmly, and I remember that he is actually my boss.
Plus, if it weren't for the fact that we've had sex I wouldn't have ever thought of not going. It's my own way of not blurring the lines, but he sees right through it.
'You've done most of this deal. You should be there.'
I pull my lips to the side thoughtfully. 'Sure.'
It's not worth arguing about. We've gone to hundreds of this kind of thing in our time. I'm sure this won't be any different.
He nods, but he's distracted. 'Do we need to talk?'
His suggestion sets off a kaleidoscope of possibilities. Talk? About what? About us? What would I say? And him?
I swallow to hide my confusion and return his question with one of my own. 'Do we?'
He reaches across and wipes his thumb over my lip. Butterflies bounce around my gut.
'I guess not. It doesn't matter.'
I stare straight ahead, moving out of his reach. Because maybe this doesn't matter. Maybe this is just one of those things and in a few weeks I'll wonder what the heck I got so worked up about. Why I let him get under my skin like this.
I hope it's true even as I know how unlikely that is.
I LOVE AUSTRALIA. We don't get here often - though with Jack opening this office that will probably change.
The heat and humidity hit me as soon as the doors open. Even in the air-conditioned airport there's a sultry oppressiveness that makes me ache to find the nearest swimming pool and dive straight in.
A limo is waiting for us, and a couple of reporters from the broadsheet newspapers. I forget sometimes that Jack is a 'Person of Interest', especially in the business world. Working with him for over two years has made him just 'Jack' to me, but to the world he's an enigmatic tycoon and philanthropist.
I remember feeling awestruck before I knew him. The prospect of working for him was one I pinned all my hopes to.
Now it's just my life.
Jack and I have been pretty much inseparable this whole time. I'm his right hand. Despite having been hired as his in-house counsel, my job has morphed and varied and now incorporates a wide variety of duties. I'm across his workload and can step in at any point, finishing negotiations, speaking on his behalf. When we travel together we either stay in adjoining rooms or in one of his apartments. It depends on how long we're in town and what's required of us.
This unfettered access has been helpful when we needed to proof things late at night or discuss early morning meetings. It's never been an issue. But the thought of sharing his penthouse at Woolloomooloo is filling me with a sense of apprehension. Not because I'm afraid of him. I'm afraid of what I want from him - what I need. Of what living in close confines, even temporarily, will force us to confront.
My sense of foreboding doesn't improve once we arrive and I remember how stunning the place is. How glamorous and romantic.
The thought is errant and I quash it immediately. Romance be damned. We're colleagues who happen to be sleeping together. That's all.
The penthouse is in a big converted wharf building. He bought the whole top floor from some Hollywood celebrity about five years ago, converting several luxurious flats into one enormous sky home. It has panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. From where I'm standing I can see the bridge and a beautiful little island. There's a balcony that wraps all the way around and a lap pool in a glass room to one side.
I look at the water, my temptation obvious.
'Plans for tonight?'
Jack's right behind me. I don't turn around but I can feel his nearness. My body quivers; I want to jump him.
'None. Getting into the time zone.'
'I'm in the time zone, baby.' He grins, and strolls towards the enormous glass windows that overlook the harbour. 'I'm also hungry enough to eat a horse.' He turns to face me, his eyes dragging from my head to my toes and then back up, slowing down over my cleavage. 'Shall we go out?'
My body is sticky from the humidity and I am weary. Wary, too. Instinctively I understand that we need to keep some boundaries in place. Going out, just the two of us, is an unacceptable boundary erosion.
I smile - hopefully politely. 'I'm going to have a swim before I do another thing. Don't feel you have to wait for me to eat.'
I walk back towards the door, to where our suitcases are, and wheel mine along beside me down the corridor.
I find the room I used last time I was here and step into it, shutting the door behind me with an emphatic click. I lean against it and suck in a deep breath, then open the case and pull out my swimsuit. A simple black one-piece. I slip it on, pausing to check my reflection before wrapping a towel around my middle and walking back into the apartment.
I hear him before I see him and my stomach twists. His powerful arms are pulling him through the water, and if you told me he had trained as an Olympic swimmer I would believe you. His tan glistens like gold beneath the Australian sun.
Trying valiantly to ignore the heat between my legs, I drop my towel onto a lounger and dive in, long and low, holding my breath for as long as I can before kicking to the surface and swimming all the way to the end. I rest my arms on the sun-warmed coping and stare out at the harbour beneath us.
It looks like someone has shattered a thousand diamonds and thrown them over the water's top. The way it glistens is almost impossible to believe.
He swims up beside me. 'You're angry at me.'
He doesn't touch me, but the words feel like fingerprints on my chest.
I turn to him slowly, my hair wet, my eyes surrounded by clumps of black lashes. 'No.'
His expression is one of impatience. 'I'm no good at this. Tell me what I've done so I know.'
'What you've done?' It's so ludicrous that I almost laugh, but an equal urge to cry rises in my chest. 'You haven't "done" anything, Jack. I thought we'd agreed that this is our deal? Sex - fine. Work - fine. Nothing in between.'
But out of nowhere I remember the way my grandma talks about meeting Grandpa. I look at Jack and my heart hammers. Damn it.
He stares back at me. I can practically see the cogs turning. 'You're in your late twenties?'
'Twenty-six,' I clarify, and the distinction is a small but important one, for some absurd reason I can't comprehend. Am I vain about my age? Really?
'And you've never been in a relationship?'
'Why do you say that?' I ask, though he's right.
'I just don't see you as someone's girlfriend.'
'Gee, thanks,' I mutter, turning my attention back to the view.
His fingertip on my shoulder is so light that I almost wonder if I've imagined his touch. But then he runs it down my wet arm, all the way to my elbow, and cups me there, squeezing gently. I turn towards him once more and he pushes out from the wall of the pool, bringing me with him, deeper into the water.
I'm a good swimmer, and I tread water without his help. But he stays close, his handsome face mesmerising me with ocean-green eyes and darkly tanned skin.
'Am I wrong?'
I shake my head. 'Not necessarily.' A smile flicks across my lips without my permission. 'I've dated. And been with men when it's suited me. But I've always had demanding jobs, and not a lot of time to do the whole dinner-and-a-movie thing.'
He laughs. 'That sounds boring as shit.'
My thoughts exactly. 'How did you meet her?'
I don't need to say his wife's name. We both know who I mean. He expels a breath and looks away, his jaw clenched.
'It's fine if you don't want to talk about it,' I say, making to swim away, but he grabs my wrist and pulls me towards him. And I'm glad. I need him to need me, and it's a sign that he does. My heart smiles.
'You keep running away from me when you don't get your own way - did you know that?'
Do I? 'I'm not running away. I'm swimming away,' I say, in a very lame attempt at humour. 'And it's not because I don't get my own way - it's because talking to you is like talking to a brick wall. It's easy to ... to run away when you're being pushed.'
His eyes widen in non-verbal acknowledgement of the point I've made. 'She was working at a restaurant in Edinburgh.' His eyes flash with remembered pain. 'I'd just wrapped up a meeting and was heading to the hotel. Thought I'd stop for a late dinner.' He clears his throat, but his voice is still gravelly. 'And I saw her.'
Jealousy fires inside me at the look of total wonderment that briefly crosses his eyes.
'She was finishing up and I made her nervous as hell.'
Though, I remember belatedly my first meeting with Jack and the trepidation that lived in me. I hid it beneath a layer of finely honed bravado but, yes, I was nervous, too. He has a machismo and dynamism that is at once overpowering. I have truly never met anyone like him.
'She hadn't had a lot of good experience with men,' he says tightly, a muscle jerking in his square jaw.
'I'm sorry for that,' I say quietly.
'Yeah. I was, too.' His smile was haunted. 'The guy she'd left just before meeting me seemed to have thought of her as his own personal punch bag.'
I nod slowly, imagining what that must be like. I have nothing to reference it to. It's beyond my remit even to comprehend that kind of fear and pain.
'I'm sorry,' I say again.
'Yeah.' He nods, too. 'Anyway ...'
'So you guys started seeing each other?'
He winced. 'I proposed to her a week after we met. I'm not good at the whole dating thing. I don't have the patience for it.' His smile is shaded with self-deprecation. 'I steamrollered her rather than dated her.'
I can't help the soft laugh that escapes me. 'Why does that not surprise me?'
It's further proof that when Jack wants something he goes after it - immediately and unequivocally. But it's taken him two years to realise he wants my body, and there's no sign he wants more than that. He felt the same love for Lucy that my grandma describes having for Grandpa. So perhaps it is normal and common and I just don't realise that because I've never felt anything like it.
It's pretty obvious Jack doesn't feel it for me. Jealousy bubbles in my gut.
'I wanted to make her life better. I wanted to fix it all. To take away her pain and make her smile and laugh.'
'I'm sure you did,' I say, with truth.
I've only seen a few photos of Lucy around the mansion and, yes, on the internet, when I've allowed myself the morbid indulgence of looking her up. And in all of these pictures she is smiling.
'I killed her, Gemma.' His eyes meet mine for a second and then he looks away. 'If she'd never met me she'd probably still be alive.'
I freeze, ill-equipped to deal with this kind of confession. Nothing about it makes sense. And yet the way he drinks after he's slept with someone ... Is it possible there's a darker truth at play? No. I know Jack. I know him through and through. He's being dramatic, not literal.
'What are you talking about?'
He swallows, then closes his eyes. 'She was pregnant. We'd just found out and then the tests showed that she had cancer. I wanted her to start treatment immediately, but it would have meant her having an abortion.'
Sadness for Jack, for Lucy and for the baby they would have had fills me all the way to the top of my soul. I don't consider myself maternal, but I know instantly what decision she made and why.
'She didn't want to do that.'
'No.' His face is grim. 'Even with treatment she had pretty much no hope.' He clears his throat. 'But still ... There would have been a chance. If she hadn't fallen pregnant.' He shakes his head angrily.
'Then she wouldn't have found out about the cancer until it was too late,' I say softly.
Sympathy makes me crumble. How can I be strong in the face of his loss? I cup his face and draw him to me, kissing him gently, tenderly, hoping to reassure him and wipe away this baseless and yet unending guilt.
He is still. Not kissing me back. His guilt is still cloaked about us, but then something clicks into gear and he groans into my mouth, cupping my butt and lifting my legs to wrap them around his waist, holding me against his arousal and letting me obliterate his sadness. For one more moment. One more night.
I see now that this is how he's getting through.
A night here and there to stop feeling this weight of responsibility.
A different woman to bury himself in and forget that he got Lucy pregnant and that because of her pregnancy she refused treatment.
His words swirl through my head. 'I wanted to make her life better. I wanted to fix it all. To take away her pain and make her smile and laugh.'
It's exactly how I feel about Jack.
And I know one sure-fire way to bring him back from the haunted brink of the misery he's inhabiting. I kiss him hard, moving my mouth over his as I press against his cock. My hands tuck into the elastic of his swim shorts, curving around his arse, holding him tight against me.
He knows. He knows which way salvation lies and he powers through the water, walking easily to the edge and lifting me so that I'm sitting on the coping. He barely breaks our kiss as he climbs out, pressing his body over mine, his weight and wetness making me writhe against the tiles as need explodes in me.
It's the need to remove this burden from his mind, sure. But it's my own need, too. My need to feel him. This is what makes sense right now.
'You are like an angel,' he mutters, stripping my swimsuit from my body. The fabric is wet and stubborn, but his hands are strong and determined and dispose of it easily, rolling it down my flesh, my legs, until I can kick it off my feet. He brings his mouth back to mine and I kiss him once more, my hands grabbing his cock and guiding him towards me.
He pauses, though, his eyes seeking mine as though he's asking me something, needing something else.
I smile at him - a slow-spreading smile - and I whisper, 'Please ...'
He moves inside me and something is shifting around us - changing - as tangible as the pleasure that rolls through me.
We want this to be clear-cut, yet it no longer feels that way. It's not just sex this time ... It's a slow exploration that curls my toes and, I'm afraid, shakes my heart to life.
Text Copyright © 2018 by Clare Connelly
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.