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I know he’s coming from a place of concern for everyone, because if one of us gets hurt, it’ll hurt everyone we care about too. I get it, but it still pisses me off. When I don’t answer he shakes his head and adds, “Don’t break her heart, Tate.”

I step up to him, toe-to-toe. “Weren’t you the one encouraging this a few weeks ago? Are you saying I’m not good enough for her?” I grit my teeth so hard they hurt. His opinion of me matters. I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

He puts his hands on my shoulders as if to calm me. He looks me right in the eye. “That’s not it at all. You’re one hell of a man, Tate. Any woman would be lucky to be yours. I know you, and I know when you finally decide to give your heart, it’s going to be for keeps. Honestly, I’d love to see you two together. You both deserve the kind of happiness I think you’d find with each other. It’s just, are you ready for that? Is she? You both have trauma you’re working through. You’ve been ignoring yours for a long damn time—are you ready to work on it? Or better yet, put it behind you? And hers… her trauma is fresh. I don’t want to see two people I care about get hurt.”

He slugs me in the arm lightly trying to cut the tension. “I know what you’re saying. You’re right, there’s a lot of issues to work through.” I glance at my feet and back up.

“You can work through them if this is what you want. I just want you to be sure. Come to the house and have a quick beer before you head home.” He pulls me in for a man hug and we walk to his house. I’m trying to make sense of all these feelings rolling around in my head. I’m sure of my feelings for Lucy, but am I sure I won’t break her heart?

Iended up staying at Sterling’s for a little over an hour. I ate dinner with him and the guys and had a beer. I put on my best face while I tried to calm my thoughts. What am I doing? I can’t risk hurting Lucy because I’m starting to have feelings for her. I need to back off a little. At least until I’m sure of what I’m feeling and I’m sure I can let down my walls.

When I walk in, Lucy’s asleep on the couch. Rocky’s keeping watch from his bed at her feet. I look at her for a moment before I pick her up. She stirs a little as I carry her to my bed. I lay her down and cover her up.

I head to my bathroom to shower and once I’m cleaned up and ready for bed myself, I slide in behind her after turning out the lights. The only light is from the silvery moon shining through the blinds. I’ll back off tomorrow, but tonight I need to be close to her. I snuggle close and breathe in her now familiar feminine scent laced with strawberry.

She lets out a soft sigh and I feel myself growing hard against her. She arches into me. She’s wearing a champagne-colored nightgown. It’s simple yet sexy. I run my hand over her back and down to her ass. Wait…I didn’t feel a panty line at all. I can’t contain the low, possessive growl that erupts from me.

I kiss her neck causing her to arch more, rubbing against my hard length, effectively pushing me over the edge. “Firecracker, what are you doing to me?” I ask in a voice I’m not sure I recognize.

“Make love to me, Tate. One more time,” she says softly. She sits up for a moment and pulls something under her neck as the top of her gown falls down to her waist, like it was a halter top. I let out another low growl as I trail my fingers up her sides and palm her breasts in my hands, feeling her nipples harden under my touch. She lies back down in front of me.

She moans in my ear as her head falls back on my shoulder. I feel every inch and curve as I make my way down to her thighs. “Lift your leg, love.” She does and I find her center. She’s dripping wet. I tease her with my fingers and then she pleads with me, “Please, Tate, I need you.”

That’s all the encouragement I need, and I slide my length in, taking her from behind, still on our sides. I caress her breasts with one hand and between her legs at her center with the other. I lean close to her ear as she starts to climax, “One more time with you will never be enough.” That’s her undoing. I feel her tighten around me and I keep moving, letting her ride out her pleasure. I lean in one more time, “You said you’re on birth control, right?” she nods yes, and I keep pumping into her until I find my release, spilling myself inside.

I turn her face to mine and kiss her perfect lips before I break our most intimate connection. We both lie there catching our breath and staring into each other eyes before finally moving to clean ourselves up. Once we do, we collapse on the bed in each other’s arms and drift into a peaceful sleep.

Once I’m sure he’s in a deep sleep, I gently slide out from his arms and instantly feel cold. I take in his handsome face for the briefest of seconds before I tip-toe to the guest room and pull on the leggings and sweatshirt I laid out before he came back home tonight. I tie my tennis shoes and reach under the pillow for the letter I wrote him. I stuck it there after I got back from seeing Ivie.

I look at it in my hands as they tremble and feel my heart break. How can this one piece of paper feel like it weighs so much?

I can’t risk going back in his room. Besides waking him, if my eyes have to drink him in again, I might not be able to make myself leave. I move silently into the kitchen and leave the letter by his coffee pot where I know he’ll find it. Rocky lifts his head and tilts it as if he doesn’t understand why I’m leaving. As quietly as I can, I turn the doorknob and slip out, soundlessly closing it back behind me.

I parked my car a little further from the house and made sure my headlights wouldn’t turn on automatically. Once the car is facing away from his house, I turn on my headlights while heading slowly down the driveway and past Sterling’s house.

When I’m finally on the road I let out a choked sob. If I’m doing the right thing, why does it feel so wrong and hurt so much? I have a couple hours to analyze that on the drive to my dad’s place in Murfreesboro.

Will he be angry when he finds me missing and reads my letter? Will it hurt him as much as it’s hurting me right now? I hope he can forgive me. But this solves everything for everyone. Taylor won’t know where to find me and Tate can have his life back. The thought of him going back to his little “flings” makes my stomach hurt. I can’t stand the thought of someone else being with him. But I have no right to feel that way. He’s not mine. He never was and he won’t ever be.

By the time I arrive at my dad’s, the sun is beginning to lighten the sky from black to gray. I let myself in and punch in the code, disarming his system and then turn around quickly setting it back. I put my bags down, use the bathroom, and lie down on the bed in what was my room the handful of times I visited him over the years.

I send a quick text to him letting him know I made it safely in case he gets notifications on his phone from his alarm system like I do with mine. Then I send Ivie a quick one letting her know too. Once that’s done, I turn my phone to silent and crawl under the covers to try and sleep the aching in my chest away.

I wake up a few hours later to about a dozen messages and missed calls, even a few voicemails. Groaning, I start to read them. Dad said he was glad I made it safely and to let him know if I need anything. Mom called and texted me as well saying the same. I make a note to call her later. Dad had to have told her what I was doing. Next, I open my message from Ivie, assuring me she’s keeping my secret and telling me I better come back soon. I smile thinking about her and the baby. I’m so happy she’s happy.

Finally, I see the missed calls and texts from Tate. Cupping my mouth with my hand, I pick the first voicemail and bring the phone to my ear.

Lucy, it’s Tate. What are you doing? You don’t need to be alone. I don’t care if he doesn’t know where you are or not. I don’t like this. You need to come back. How could you decide this without talking to me? Just…call me back so we can talk.

He sounds upset, but then, I knew he would be. I close my eyes as I listen to the next one.

Lucy, it’s me again. Listen, I’m sorry about the first message. I’m worried about you. I don’t like the thought of you being alone. I understand you thinking he might move on if you’re not here for him to find, but Lucy, you’re hiding out. What happens when you come back and he sets his sights on you again? I don’t think this is going away because you ran. Please call me. I want to talk to you…please.

The second voicemail sounds sad, and it makes my heart hurt. I find myself rubbing my chest as if I can rub the pain away.

Looking back down at my phone, I see texts from him as well.

Tate:Lucy, please call me.