Page 46 of Coercion

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Ben’s canvas looks like a very abstract flame, with red and orange and yellow.Mia’s is half-filled with circles in teal-blue shades that start out small in one corner and get larger toward the center.

“These are great, guys.Really.When you’re done, we should hang them up for sure.”I put as much enthusiasm into my voice as I can.

Daphne puts down her paintbrush, and I feel her notice me.A softuh-ohconfirms that I’m not looking great.“Want to paint with us, Bristol?Or if you need a break, I recommend the chair on the right.”

I meet her eyes and wish I could be as collected as she is.Daphne tilts her head toward two identical overstuffed chaise lounges in one corner of the studio, near the window.They have big, round arms, and each one has a navy throw blanket folded over the back.

“I’ll watch you guys.”

“Watchme, Bristol.”Mia picks up her brush from the tray at the front of her easel.

I head for the chairs, drop into the one on the right, and pull the throw blanket into my lap.It’s not like I can leave.Where would I go?To the house next door, or back to Will’s?Or…somewhere else?And…it wasn’t a fight, was it?

“I think the circles should get smaller again.”Mia peers at her canvas.

“Go for it.”Daphne shoots another kind, concerned look at me, and I give her a weak, unconvincing smile.“If you don’t like how it turns out, you can paint over it and start again.”

The twins are having too much fun with the paintings to pay much attention to me, which is a good thing.I smile in the direction of the easels in a vague, everything-is-fine sort of way.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been doing it when there’s movement at the studio door.

My heart does a funny leap—Will?—but it’s Emerson, carrying a travel mug in one hand and a regular mug in the other.He stops by the canvases, where Daphne peers at her canvas, head tilted, hand at her ponytail.She lets go of her hair, and Emerson slides the travel mug into her hand.

“I’ll need more gallery space if the three of you keep this up.”

“We’re going to,” Daphne teases.“Brace yourself.”

He bends down, kisses her cheek, and continues toward my corner of the room as if this hasn’t turned into the worst, most awkward evening in the entire world.

Will’s brother steps between the two chaise lounges and sits facing away from the canvases.My embarrassment comes back in a wave.I want to hide under the throw blanket.

Emerson holds out the mug.“Decaf Earl Grey with milk and sugar?”

“Sure.Thanks.”The mug is nice.It has a decent weight to it, and the tea gives me something to look at.“Did Will leave?”

“No, he’s downstairs at my kitchen island doing a shitty job of acting like nothing happened.”

I sip the tea.It’s the perfect temperature and the perfect sweetness.“Does he wantmeto leave?”

“I know for a fact he wants you to move into the house next door with him.”

With the mug in my hands, I find the nerve to look him in the eyes.I can’t blame Mia for thinking Emerson and Will might be twins.But there’s no hint of a scowl on Emerson’s face.No nervousness.He’s calm.Too calm, maybe.

“He didn’t seem to like me very much just now.He acted like I…I don’t know.Like I stabbed him.”A belated flash of anger straightens my spine.“All I did was give him a hug.I wasn’t trying to embarrass him in front of the guys.I don’t know how a hug from someone you—” I snap my mouth shut to keep the word from coming out.“I don’t know why it’s so wrong.”

“Do you want to know?”

“That’s…not what I expected you to say.”I take a sip of my tea to buy a few seconds.“But yes.I do.”

Emerson takes a breath, and for the first time in the conversation, something happens in his eyes.A moment of distance, like he’s stepped behind some curtain in his mind.Gone, then back again.

“I’m assuming, since you’re the first woman he’s ever brought to meet us, that he’s told you some things about our childhood.”Emerson pauses, listening to Mia ask Daphne another question about her circles, and lowers his voice.“About closets, in particular.”

My heart sinks.“Yeah.He has.If that’s something you’d rather not talk about, it—”

“It’s just what happened.Talking about it for five minutes seems preferable to letting the evening become a bad memory.Also, Daphne’s almost done painting, so we have a limited amount of time to avert disaster.”

Daphne’s at her canvas, looking totally absorbed.“How can you tell?”

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