Raising the Stakes

Three of a Kind, Book 2

Jess Dee

Chapter 1

Desmond Reed dumped his cards face down on the table in front of him. He wished he were anywhere but here, with anyone but them. The five people seated around the table didn’t worry him. It was the empty chair opposite that scraped at his soul, ripping out parts of his already frayed heart.

At the front door Alex Truman pulled Megan Loxley in close and kissed her until her eyelids fluttered shut and a tiny groan escaped her. Alex’s muscled bulk eclipsed Meg’s slim frame, but his size couldn’t hide the heated response of her kiss or the way she leaned into him, molding her body to his, clutching his arms and kissing him right back. The flashes of her pink tongue sliding into Alex’s mouth nearly undid Des.

Damn it, he should turn and stare out the window at the Sydney skyline, but he couldn’t look away.

He swallowed hard against the desire and jealousy that fueled his blood. He refused, point-blank, to give in to his hunger. His dick could turn blue and fall off for all he cared. He wasn’t going to utter one word to Meg on the matter. He wouldn’t comment to Alex either. It had been his choice to stand on the sidelines and feed the unforeseen fire that had flared between the two of them. Too late now to cry like a baby and yank back his approval.

Still, the sight of the two of them together tied him up in knots. It made him wish he was the one in Meg’s arms, but he couldn’t—wouldn’t—do a damn thing about it. His envy didn’t give him the right to act like a complete prick.

Even so, ill-placed resentment stirred in Des’s chest, and common sense didn’t stop his fingers from tightening into fists beneath the table.

It should have been him. His lips should have been touching hers. Not Alex’s. She should be in his arms now, moaning softly into his mouth. Why had he woken up so late? What was his bloody problem? Why’d it have to take Meg’s falling for his poker buddy to make Des see the light?

Megan should have been his. He should have gotten down on one knee and proposed years ago.

Couldn’t ever do things the simple way, could he? Nope. He’d had to let his twenties pass him by and hit the ripe old age of thirty before realizing the future he wanted—Meg, and all the beautiful babies they could make together—was no longer an option. Meg was in the process of creating an alternative future. One that excluded him.

Why couldn’t he realize he was in love with the woman before introducing her to a buddy?

Not that the introduction had been intentional. He’d brought Meg along to a party Hunter Miles, another member of the poker school, had thrown. Des had seen the stars in Meg’s eyes the second he’d introduced her to his architect friend, Alex. He’d seen the smile that grew in size with every word Alex spoke. He’d stood back and watched as his best friend, the beautiful primary school teacher, gazed deeper and deeper into the other man’s eyes, falling harder with each passing minute. By the time the party was done, Meg was a woman in love.

He watched now as she pulled away from Alex and gifted him with one of her special smiles. Her Meg-a-watt smile, as Des thought of it. The kind that melted a man’s heart while igniting his lust. Des’s arousal lit up just observing. No doubt Alex was ready to haul her over his shoulder and carry her, caveman-style, to his bedroom and fuck her senseless.

A silent growl prickled Des’s throat.

The woman was more in love with Alex now than she had been the night they’d met, and from the dazed look on Alex’s face, he no doubt reciprocated the feeling.

Des had to give the man credit for stretching an arm around her waist and steering her towards the dining room-cum-poker table instead of the bedroom. He wouldn’t have had the strength of mind.

Group hellos were thrown in Meg’s direction: cheery, slightly drunken greetings that had her laughing out loud.

Until her gaze met his. Her expression changed then, from a happy, carefree grin, to a look of sheer delight. A look a woman would flash her long-lost brother or a best friend she hadn’t seen in weeks.

“Des!” She was at his side in seconds, leaning in to hug him.

“Meggy.” He accepted her hug and kissed her cheek, trying hard not to imbibe her sweet scent. Impossible. She smelled like flowers in springtime, and he breathed deeply, inhaling as much of Meg as he could get into his lungs. Problem was, he smelled Alex on her too, got a whiff of his expensive cologne and immediately wanted to smack the guy.

Des had never been prone to violence. Freaky what an unhealthy dollop of jealousy did to him.

“Where have you been, stranger?” she asked.

He stumbled before answering. There was so much he wanted to tell her, say to her. So much had happened over the weeks they needed to catch up on. Nothing important. Everyday stuff he usually shared with her on the phone or over home delivery at her place.

Since he hadn’t had the heart to call her in over two weeks, let alone knock on her door, it wasn’t any wonder Meg called him a stranger.

“I’ve been busy. You know, working.” Yeah, the response was vague, but what options did he have? Meg was too easy to talk to, to confide in. If he opened his mouth now, he’d probably blurt out the fact that he loved her madly and was losing his mind to jealousy. Or maybe he’d admit that she’d become the lead lady in every sexual fantasy he’d ever had.

Ah, now, that would be a classic blooper to make in front of the entire fucking poker school.

Meg stiffened and pulled away. “Pardon?” She frowned at him, her green eyes clouding over with hurt and confusion. “Too busy to phone me?”

Yeah, right. As if a lame-o excuse like that one would ever have worked on her. He’d never been too busy to phone. Not even at work, at his mobile phone shop, over the busiest shopping periods. He’d never not had time to see her. If Meg called, Des dropped everything to answer—with profuse apologies to customers or employees he might be dealing with at the time. If circumstances made it impossible to talk, he’d always return her call within the hour. Work had never interfered with their friendship, and they both knew it.

He was a shit for trying to pull one over on her. An asshole for rebuffing her. Still, he couldn’t back down now. “We’re getting the books in order for the accounta…”

His voice trailed off as she raised an eyebrow. What the fuck was he trying to do? Dig himself in deeper?

“Yeah, Des. Whatever.” She shook her hair, letting her long brown curls cover the left side of her face, the side closest to Des. A wall went up around her, closing Des out, a barrier the likes of which she’d never used against him.

The snub shocked him. Left him whirling. Instinctively, he reached out to grab her hand and pull her back to him, but she moved her arm out of the way, and his hand rebounded off her defenses.

Served him bloody well right.

A muscle twitched in her cheek. “Sorry, folks,” Meg said cheerfully. “Didn’t mean to disturb your game. You carry on playing. I’ll get you a round of drinks.”

Was he the only one who saw straight through her forced smile? Or was it the flash of humiliation he caught in her eyes when she fleetingly met his gaze before dropping her eyelids and shutting him out that gave her away?

He was an imbecilic jerk. He’d hurt his best friend.

“Hey, Meg,” Jay called out, “you don’t wanna play a hand or two?”

She laughed, the pitch too high to be sincere. “I’d lose all my money in a minute, but thanks for the offer. Scotch for you and Hunter, beer for everyone else?”

“Coke Zero for me, please.” Julia, the only woman player in the poker school, spoke up. She pointed at her chest. “Designated driver tonight.” Julia sat between Jay and Hunter, a sinfully sexual expression on her face. Both Jay’s and Hunter’s expressions mirrored hers. The three of them were officially together. A threesome. The terrible triplets, as the poker school had taken to calling them.

“You got it.” Meg headed to the kitchen, obviously at home in Alex’s house. Her comfort in a place that wasn’t hers only increased Des’s irritation.

Alex caught her arm. “Need a hand, babe?”

“I’m good, but thanks.” She planted a lingering kiss on his mouth and vanished through the door, leaving Des seething with jealousy and cursing himself for his sloppy treatment of her.

Was everyone in the poker school falling in love? Hunter, Jules and Jay. Alex and Meg. Max and Trev never discussed their personal lives, so Des had no idea about their circumstances, but one by one, everyone else seemed to have caught the bug. He’d caught the bug too. He’d just missed out on the woman.

Meg’s appearance left him hot and bothered. He wanted her with a fierceness that ate him alive. It stripped his defenses and parched his throat. He wanted her so bad he, the world’s staunchest pacifist, was willing to kill for her. Too bad Alex would be the one he’d have to choke to death in the process. Alex was a decent guy. Not to mention a good head taller than him.

“Yo, Reedy, you gonna call or you gonna lay down your cards like everyone else?” Alex’s voice drew Des’s attention back to the game. He bit back an instinctive “fuck you”. It wasn’t Alex’s fault Meg had fallen for him. It was Des’s. He’d all but pushed her into Alex’s arms.

He tried not to glare at the stack of chips on the table. Max, Trev and the triplets had folded. The chips were all Alex’s. So, not only did his nemesis get the girl, seemed this hand he got the cards as well.

Des looked at his pocket nines. Average cards. Not a guaranteed win, but good enough to bet on. He shoved a pile of chips into the middle of the table and flashed a challenging smile at Alex. He hoped he didn’t look as evil as he felt. “I’ll see your bet.”

Frankly, he didn’t care if he won or lost. The only thing he cared about was in the kitchen, pretending she hadn’t been hurt and insulted by her best friend.

Alex grinned at him, the humor glinting in his dark eyes. “Game on.”

Why did the guy have to be so fucking nice? Why couldn’t he act like a dickhead and give Des the excuse he needed to bash the shit out of him?

Des lost the hand, and along with it a shitload of money. Poetic justice? Served him right for his ominous thoughts.

“Good play,” he conceded as a piercing crash sounded from the kitchen.

Alex was out of his chair before the noise died down, but Des was faster.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said to Alex. “I’ll go.” He owed Meg an apology. What better way than to clean up her mess while apologizing for his own?

Alex hesitated. His gaze darted to the kitchen.

Possessive much?

“You sure ’bout that?” Alex asked.

“Absolutely.” Meg may be Alex’s girlfriend, but she was Des’s best friend. Of that he was damn sure. “Don’t wait for me. Go ahead and play the next few hands.” Des walked into the kitchen.

Meg was crouched on the floor of the modern, white kitchen, holding her left hand in her right and sucking her index finger. Hundreds of tiny pieces of glass littered the ground.

Des dropped down beside her. “You okay, Meggy?”

She eyed him irritably before pulling the finger out of her mouth. “Fine. I dropped a glass is all. Cut my finger in the process.”

A drop of red dotted the tip of her finger. Des grabbed a piece of paper towel, tore a strip off, wet it and wrapped it around the cut. He cradled her hand in his, refusing to let go when she tried to pull her arm away. The silk of her flesh burned through his skin, and he gritted his teeth against the exquisite agony.

“You’re an asshole.” Meg didn’t pull any punches. She never had.

“I know.”

“How dare you brush me off like that?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t know how. Instead he removed the tissue and inspected her finger. Still bleeding. “Is it sore?”

She glared at him. “Yes.”

He wrapped the wound again, holding the tissue around her finger. “I’m sorry.”

Her mouth tightened. “It’s not your fault the glass broke.”

His heart squeezed in his chest. When had he ever felt this awkward around her? “I’m not sorry about the glass.” Given the blood staining the tissue paper pink, his words sounded ridiculous. “I mean I am sorry you cut yourself, but I’m more sorry for what I said out there.”

Her angry gaze met his. None of the warmth she usually held for him lurked in her eyes. “I’ve left you four messages. Four. Were you ever planning on returning my calls?”

The answer stuck in his chest. How could he explain he’d been waiting for a time when he wasn’t so jealous, or so raw, to get back to her? A time when he wouldn’t ache at hearing her voice? He’d figured after a few weeks it wouldn’t hurt so bad. He’d figured wrong. The pain got worse with every day that passed. “Of course I was.”

Meg recognized his answer for the lie it was. This time when she yanked her arm away, he let her go and instantly missed the heat from her skin.

She stood, leaving him crouched on the floor like an idiot. “Desmond Reed, if you have a problem with me, say so. Don’t you dare shut me out or ignore me.”

He stood reluctantly and took a step towards her. Glass crunched beneath his shoe. “I’m not ignoring you.” As if he could. The woman was on his mind twenty-four hours a day.

“Oh, really?” She lifted a disbelieving eyebrow. “Working too hard to make one lousy phone call?” Meg turned her back on him, opened a long, thin cupboard, and withdrew a broom. “Your accountant? Please, give me a break.”

He held out his hand to take the broom from her, but she shook her head. “Don’t bother. I’ll do it.”

Shit. Stubborn woman. He pulled out a chrome and white leather kitchen stool from the breakfast nook, took hold of Meg’s shoulders and bodily forced her to sit. Then he helped himself to the broom and went to work on the shattered glass. Shards lay everywhere, and the task took all his attention.

Her gaze burned a hole through his back as he swept.

“You going to explain yourself anytime soon?” Meg asked when he’d swept the glass into a neat mound.

He gripped the edge of the broom handle and rested his chin on his hands, eyeing her uneasily. Did he open up and tell her he’d fallen crazy in love with her and was consumed by a jealousy that ate away at him?

Yeah, that would go down about as well as a mouthful of the splintered glass.

He took a minute to consider his options, not once dropping her gaze. He might need time to think, but he wouldn’t let her believe he was still ignoring her.

“Remember when you discovered your mother had cancer?” he asked at last.

She frowned. “As if I could ever forget.”

“Remember how long it took you to talk about it?” Every day he’d asked if she was okay, and every day she’d pulled further away from him, refusing to tell him what was going on or why she looked like hell and hadn’t eaten in a week.

“Uh-huh.” Her cheek twitched.

“Instead of telling me she was sick, you asked me to give you a little space.”

Her cheek twitched again, a telltale sign she was distressed. “Is your mother sick?”

He shook his head. “No, she’s fine.”

She narrowed her eyes. “W-what about you?”

Crap, she’d gotten the wrong idea. “I’m fine too. We all are. It’s not about anyone being sick.”

Her shoulders relaxed. “Then why are we discussing my mother?”

“We’re not.” How the fuck to explain? “We’re talking about me. I, uh, I’m going through something. I need a little space is all.”

Meg stared at him. She blinked once, then again, her long, thick lashes sweeping over her expressive green eyes. A million questions crowded them, framing her distress, but she said nothing.

Silence spread through the kitchen, the quiet made even more obvious by the echo of laughter on the other side of the door.

He couldn’t stand looking at her a second longer. The need to throw down the broom and sweep her into his arms was so powerful his hands shook. With measured movements, he headed for the same cupboard she’d opened and found a dustpan and brush.

Thank fuck. Something to do. He crouched down and swept the shards into the pan.

“I don’t know what to say.” Her words broke the silence.

He shrugged. “Nothing to say. Give me the space I need and we’ll be cool.”

“I’m not allowed to ask what you’re going through?” Her voice held more than a hint of worry.

He shook his head without looking at her. What else could he do?

“You’re asking the impossible, Des. If you’re having trouble, I want to help. I need to help.”

“I know you do. But you can’t, not this time.” Not unless she was willing to dump Alex and spend the rest of her life in his arms. Preferably naked.

“What about my shoulder? Can I at least offer that to you?”

Only if it came unclothed and attached to the rest of her nude body. “You can offer…”

“But you won’t be taking me up on it anytime soon,” she finished for him.

The floor was clean. No more shards anywhere to use as a distraction. He opened the bin and tossed the broken remnants of the glass inside. Finally, when there was no other option left, he turned to face her. “I’m sorry if I acted like an asshole. You know I’d never intentionally hurt you.”

“I’m sorry you’re dealing with shit.” The warmth was back in her eyes. The warmth she reserved only for him. It heated him all the way through to his bones.

Then she smiled at him. It caught him in the gut and yanked hard at his dick, forcing him to remember all over again why the fuck he needed time away from her.

Jumping his best friend in her boyfriend’s sleek, designer kitchen wasn’t something either Meg or Alex would take kindly to.

“I’ll get over it,” he told her. He probably would. When he was dead.

He studied her face, studied the Meg-a-watt smile and the radiant glow in her cheeks. Her skin shone and her eyes reflected a contentment he’d never noticed before.

The comprehension hit him like a shock to the heart. “You look different, Meggy,” he said slowly. “You look…happy.” Usually he wanted her to be happy. When she was happy, he was happy. Not this time. This time the joy in her eyes ripped through his gut like a poisoned knife.

Her expression softened, her eyes crinkling. For a long moment she stared out the kitchen door while her lips danced to a secret pleasure. “I am happy,” she said at last. “Happier than I’ve ever been.” She looked back at him. “It’s Alex.”

The knife twisted in his gut, slashing his insides. The simple task of swallowing became impossible.

“He’s good for me.” Her expression turned dreamy. “He loves me.”

“Yeah, I kinda noticed that.”

Her eyes lit up. “You did?”

If he could keep his face blank and his voice normal, Meg would never pick up on the poison spreading through his body, slowly killing him. “Sure. The guy’s spirits are as high as yours. When you rang the doorbell earlier, he almost knocked over his chair leaping out of it to get to you.” The sensible, goal-oriented, focused bloke acted like a little kid around her.

Laughter pealed out of her. “You’re kidding, right?”

When had he ever made her laugh like that? “Would I do that to you?”

She shook her head, a fat grin plastered over her face.

“How about you? You love him too?” What the fuck was he trying to do? Pour poison down his throat, in case the knife didn’t carry enough?

Her eyes closed and her smile grew bigger. “I do.”

Hell. Good thing she couldn’t see him. He knew his face had twisted, the agony her words caused more effective than any poison he could ever have swallowed.

“Then I’m happy for you too.” He whispered because he couldn’t find the strength to say the words out loud.

His tone must have given away some of his misery, for she opened her eyes and looked at him. “You’ll be happy again too, you know?”

Yeah, when? “I know.”

“Whatever you’re going through, you’ll get through it.”

He nodded. “I know.” Maybe if he moved to Antarctica the cold would freeze out his pain.

“I’m here for you, anytime.”

“You always have been.”

She frowned then, her face shadowing with doubt. “Des?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t cut me out. Please. I might be with Alex now, but you’re still my best friend. I haven’t forgotten that.”

“I could never cut you out.” The reply sprang from his mouth before he could double-check it. “You think I could survive without you?” The woman was as vital as oxygen. Without her he couldn’t breathe.

She huffed. “You’ve done a pretty good job of it these last few weeks.”

Showed what she knew. He’d stopped living the day he realized he loved her. The same day she met Alex. He merely existed now. “I’m a mess, Meggy-mine. I’m all screwed up. Believe me, I need you to keep me in line.”

She jumped off the stool and walked over to him. “Yeah, well, remember that when you’re going through whatever it is you’re going through.” She laid her uninjured hand on his cheek. “I’m here whenever you need me.”

Holy fuck and fucking hell. He couldn’t answer. Couldn’t think. She stood so close he need only lower his head a couple of inches and their lips would touch. He could finally do what he’d been aching to do since the night of Hunter’s party: kiss her. Cover her mouth with his and sip from her lips. Discover the unique taste of his very best friend.

Blood roared in his ears, thrashed around his veins and finally pooled in his dick.

While Meg stared sweetly into his eyes, proudly pledging her support and friendship, his erection burgeoned between them. One step closer on Meg’s part, and she’d be pressed against the hardest, neediest penis in the history of mankind.

He wanted her to take that step.

No, he didn’t. If she came any closer, he’d be forced to reveal the secret he’d harbored from her this last month. The disclosure would be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because he could finally admit his true feelings to his best friend and a curse, because once she knew, the truth would surely destroy their relationship. No way could Meg deal with him loving her when she loved another man. Her guilt over his unrequited emotions would eat away at her. She’d begin to pity him and she’d hate herself for it.

He would never allow her to shoulder that kind of responsibility. Nor would he muscle in on her relationship with Alex. He refused to be that big a dick.

Des had to escape the torture of her touch. Her hand seared his cheek.

One of two things would happen if he didn’t get his ass the hell away from her. He’d either give in to the urge to kiss her, or he’d slap her arm away.

In the end, he removed her hand from his cheek and held it in his. He took a small step back, giving his erection some much-needed space. “I’m lucky to have you in my life.”

Gently as could be, he raised her hand to his face and pressed his lips against the satiny softness of her palm. It took every ounce of his self-control not to open his mouth and run his tongue along her skin, taste her sweetness.

Her cheeks turned pink. “Des…”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” Time to change the subject. “How’s your finger?”

She frowned, as though startled by the question. “Uh, it’s better now.” She shook off the paper towel and inspected it. “The bleeding’s stopped.”

“You should probably put a Band-Aid on it, just in case.” Maybe a Band-Aid could help him too? He’d place it over the cut the knife had inflicted and hope a massive infection didn’t set in.

She nodded. “You’re right. I think I saw some in the bathroom.”

He looked at the door. “Go get one. I’ll take care of the drinks.” With that, he picked up the tray she must have prepared before breaking the glass and walked back to the lounge room. Another minute alone with her in the tight confines of the small kitchen, and every resolve he had not to haul her into his arms would have been tossed into the garbage along with the shattered glass.

Chapter 2

Megan found it impossible to remain dressed when she and Alex were alone. Before he’d latched the door shut behind the terrible triplets, the last guests to leave, she was ripping at the buttons of her shirt. By the time he’d locked up and turned around, her panties were on the floor and her bra had landed haphazardly on the back of the couch. In her twenty-seven years she’d never met a sexier man or a more skilled lover.

The scorching look he gave her burned straight through to her bones. Alex’s clothes vanished as quickly as hers had, and then she was in his arms, raising her face to his.

“Baby, I’ve waited the whole damn night to do this.” He took her lips in a blistering kiss and molded his hands to the shape of her bare breasts.

Just twenty-nine and he’d mastered moves a man ten or twenty years older would envy.

Billions of goose bumps erupted over her flesh. Her desire had steadily increased the whole evening. Between Alex’s kiss hello, the emotional shock of arguing with Des and the feel of her friend’s soft lips on her palm once they’d made up, she was primed and ready for a night of carnal loving. Her nipples, already tight from wanting Alex, now pebbled and ached beneath his touch.

Megan’s knees buckled, forcing her to lean against the table for support. Her heart raced at an uncontrollable speed and anticipation zipped up her spine. Alex looked at her with eyes as dark as night. Passion blazed in their depths and love lit his face. Love that he’d admitted to days ago, in the middle of an exquisitely romantic dinner date. A love she returned with an open heart.

Her hands were all over him, tunneling through his thick, black hair, smoothing over the massive expanse of his shoulders, grasping the muscled flesh of his butt cheeks. She couldn’t get enough. Wanted more, needed more.

Alex released her long enough to shove the debris of cards and chips aside, clearing a space for them. He lifted Megan onto the table and moved back in for another kiss, pushing her knees apart so he could stand between her legs.

Hunger assaulted her. Lust spread through her body, awakening dormant nerve endings. Alex’s touch was a live wire. Sparks flared at every point of contact between the two of them.

Her breasts, heavy and swollen from arousal, were squashed against his chest. Her nipples throbbed, pain and desire combining to work as a potent stimulant. She wrapped her legs around his hips, pulling him closer, holding him tight. His cock was full and stiff and rubbed against the slick lips of her pussy. Leaning back on her arms, she thrust her hips towards him, sliding up his length and down again, tormenting herself on the velvety smoothness of his erection.

She need only twist to the left and she’d envelop him, take him deep, deep, deep inside. She wanted him deep. She wanted him hard and fast. She wanted him plunging into her, over and over, hard as he could, until every one of those awakened nerve endings roared with excitement and danced with fulfillment.

Maybe later they’d make long, slow, languid love. Now she needed him to fuck her.

He stilled her movements. “Can’t,” he gasped. “Not yet. Need…” His words ended with a long moan as she fastened her lips on his neck and sucked.

“Need you,” she muttered, “inside me.”

Whether it was the intensity of her feelings for him, or the aftereffect of her argument with Des, Megan was aroused, agitated and in desperate need of relief. Warm liquid gathered between her legs, readying her for the extraordinary ride she knew would follow. All she had to do was twist her hips this way…then that…

Alex clamped down on her hips, trapping her. “No!” His voice was unsteady.

“Damn it, Alex.” She sounded wanton and greedy. “Let me go!” Try as she might, she couldn’t move an inch. To make matters worse, Alex took a step back, pulling his cock away from her.

“Need a condom.” The tendons in his neck bulged. Perspiration dotted his forehead.

Her groan of frustration echoed through the room. “Hurry.” Damn it, she should have slipped one in her pocket when she’d gone to the bathroom earlier to get a Band-Aid. The boxes had been side by side.

He swiped a long finger over her slick folds, then dipped it in. Her inner walls grabbed at the digit, holding him there. Even his finger brought her untold pleasure.

“Don’t move an inch.” He withdrew his hand and licked his finger. His groan vibrated through her ears.

Cold air washed over her as he staggered off, his finger still in his mouth.

Time stretched out endlessly. Hours passed. Days. Her body thrummed, taut with insatiable lust.

And then he was there, with her, his mouth devouring hers, his chest plastered against her breasts, his hands on her hips, encouraging the twist he’d earlier denied. This time, when she slid her eager pussy along the length of his condom-covered cock, he didn’t attempt to stop her. Nor did he impede her actions when she arched her back and wrapped a leg around his waist, encircling the tip of his penis with her wet, hungry lips, sucking him slowly inside.

With a low growl, he drove into her, burying himself in her depths.

Megan cried out, assailed by the exquisite satisfaction of his presence.

“Damn, baby,” Alex panted in her ear. “You feel good.”

He pulled out and thrust back in, sending her reeling through space.

In her wildest fantasies she’d only ever imagined one man could raise her to this level of ecstasy. Discovering Alex also had the capacity to propel her to this plane was both shocking and amazing.

In her fantasies it had always been Des.

“Kiss me, Alex.” Fantasy had no place here. This was real. Alex was real. In a way Des never would be. Alex was solid, naked male flesh, wrapped around her, burrowed inside her. He was here. Des wasn’t. Alex was loving, dedicated and committed. Des was nothing but a dream she’d long stopped dreaming. A friend and no more.

Alex captured her mouth with his and kissed her voraciously.

She fed his hunger. Her lips clung to his as she opened up to his searching tongue. It swept inside, tasting, teasing, thrilling her. With each caress of his tongue in her mouth and every stroke of his cock in her pussy, she fell deeper under the spell that was Alex, lost herself further to the magic he wove around her.

How was such exquisite rapture possible with a man who wasn’t Des?

Without releasing his mouth, she lay back against the table, pulling him down with her. Cards fluttered to the floor as he shimmied them into a more comfortable position. After that, Megan registered nothing besides the storm building below her belly.

Alex plunged into her relentlessly, each stroke a delicious caress of torture.

This, now, was everything she needed. Alex was everything she needed.

She gripped his shoulders, digging her nails into the thick muscle layered beneath his skin, and held tight as he took her on the ride of her life.

It didn’t take long. Within minutes the storm became a tornado, a windstorm that ripped through her, blowing her control to pieces. She climaxed around his cock, clutching him rhythmically as he pounded into her. Thunder clapped in her ears, a roar of noise. It was her, screaming her release, screaming out her love for Alex.

“Megan—” Alex’s cry was cut short by his own orgasm. The impetus of his explosion and the beating of his cock as he emptied himself inside her agitated her sensitized channel, and she came again, her pussy a concentrated bundle of nerves and sensation.

Alex buried his head in her neck, gasping for air. He waited until the last flutters of her orgasm died away altogether before withdrawing from her. While she struggled to find her breath and her bearings, he lifted her off the table and carried her to his bed. Instead of tucking her tenderly beneath the covers as she’d expected, he ducked down, slipped his head between her legs and licked her pussy.

It took all of ten seconds under his clever tongue and Megan convulsed again.

How had he known to do that?

She must have asked the question out loud because Alex answered her.

He chuckled as he disposed of the condom. “The last time I tried it, you had four orgasms in a row.”

“Ahh.” She nodded, breathless, quite unable to say any more.

Alex slipped into bed with her and pulled the doona over them both. With the last ounce of energy she possessed, she rolled over and snuggled into his chest.

He wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “I love you, baby,” he whispered into her hair.

Megan’s heart filled to bursting. She smiled a tired, satisfied, happy smile and before she gave in to the tempting tug of sleep, she whispered back, “I love you too, Desmond.”

* * * *

The light woke her. She yawned and stretched and instinctively reached for Alex. Her body was already primed for the long, sensual lovemaking she’d forfeited on the table. Her breasts were heavy with desire and her pussy wet with wanting.

She adored waking up beside him every morning. Loved the expectation of what she knew lay ahead. He’d roll her onto her back and slowly seduce her. Kiss every inch of her body until she writhed beneath him, begging for more.

Perhaps today she’d take on the role of aggressor. She’d explore his body, lick every sleek muscle in his chest and taste every beautiful inch of his male flesh.

Searching for him with her hand she found nothing but his pillow.

Lazily she opened an eye. His side of the bed was empty.

Megan frowned. She’d spent almost every night at Alex’s place since they’d met, and not once had she woken up alone. She didn’t like the solitude one bit.

“Alex?” Her voice rasped in her throat, not quite as awake as the rest of her body.

“Over here.”

She turned to look for him and blinked against the glare from the bedside lamp. So, not morning after all.

“Hey, you.” She smiled at the sight of him.

He sat naked in the blue armchair against the wall, the same chair he’d fucked her senseless on a couple of nights ago. One foot rested on his thigh. His elbows were propped on the arms of the seat, and his fingers were steepled together.

“What’s the time?”

Alex’s gaze flickered to the clock on his side of the bed. “A little after two a.m.”

She scrunched her eyes, trying to clear away the sleepiness. “Whatcha doing all the way over there?”

“Thinking.”

“’Bout what?” Did he have to think at all? Couldn’t he climb back into bed so they could start that slow, sexy dance of love?

“About my name.”

She yawned again, and this time when she stretched, she deliberately let the covers fall down to her waist. Perhaps an eyeful of her breasts, nipples hard from wanting him, would tempt him back under the doona with her. “What about your name?”

“It’s Alex.”

“Huh?”

“My name. It’s Alex.”

She laughed. “I know that, dummy. Now come here and kiss me and make me scream your name out loud.” She patted the empty space beside her.

“You called me Desmond.”

“What?”

“Last night. Just before you fell asleep.”

Megan sat up, the last wisps of sleep clearing from her head. “You’re kidding me.”

How the hell could she mistake the two of them? They were chalk and cheese. Alex all steady, focused determination and Des as informal and relaxed as they came. Different as two men could be, and she’d confused them?

He shook his head and Megan took a long look at his face. It was void of the smile he always reserved for her. In fact, it was void of any emotion whatsoever.

“What did I say?” She had no recollection of saying anything at all about Des. Alex had consumed every thought she’d had.

“You sure you want to know?”

Apprehension crept into her stomach. Could she really have done something so bloody stupid? “Yes.” No.

He pursed his lips together before answering. “Your exact words were, ‘I love you too, Desmond’.”

Megan’s jaw dropped. She gaped at him while her heart dived into her belly, sending mad surges of blood to her head. At least she figured that’s what was going on inside her, because nothing else would explain the consuming dismay or the nausea that rose in her stomach. “Please tell me I didn’t.”

“Wish I could.” He shrugged.

What had she done? “Alex.” She breathed out his name. His name. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yep. Me too.”

She threw off the covers and sat up, flinging her legs over the side of the bed. “You have to know I didn’t mean anything by it. It was a mistake.” A terrible, horrible, rotten mistake.

“Ah.” He nodded. “You make that mistake often? Call all the men you love Desmond?”

A muscle ticked in her cheek. “In the last four years I’ve only loved one other man besides you.” She’d had a string of lovers, but no one special. Until Alex.

Alex.

“So you do love me?” he asked.

“Yes.” The truth of her answer resounded through the room.

Alex’s lip twitched with a hint of a smile. “You sure about that?”

“Absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure.” Would he ever believe her? She hoped so, although she wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. How could she have said something so heartless? So bloody stupid?

It was a wonder Alex hadn’t tossed her out on her butt.

Alex’s mouth didn’t crease into the full-blown smile she’d hoped it might.

Her heart ached.

“I don’t get it.” He shook his head. “You say you love me, and I beli…I want to believe you…” His voice trailed off, leaving him deep in thought.

“But?” she prompted, afraid of his response. Why, oh why, did there have to be a but?

“But you called me Desmond.” There it was again, the hollowness in his voice.

Shit, she’d done this to him. She’d taken all the solid, unwavering light that was Alex, and stamped it out. She wanted to cry. Wanted to slap herself for being such a moron.

Maybe if she explained, he’d understand.

Somehow, she doubted it.

She had to try anyway. Had to make him see how much she loved him. “Des was on my mind last night. I must have been thinking about him subconsciously and slipped his name in when I should have said yours.” Lame, lame, lame.

“That’s nice.” Alex’s smile could have frozen the sun. “Do you always think about him when you’re fucking me?”

The blood drained from her face. She did, but how could she confess that without crushing everything she and Alex had built together? Without breaking his heart and her own?

“Last night wasn’t about sex,” she said in a voice not louder than a whisper. It was all she could manage.

Alex raised a derisive eyebrow.

She rushed in to correct herself. “With you and me it was.” Boy, was it ever. “Not with Des.”

“No, Des was obviously about love, not sex.”

Megan dragged a hand over her face, rubbing her eyes. Alex was so distant, so aloof. She didn’t blame him one bit. If their positions were reversed, she’d have marched straight out his front door and never looked back.

At least he’d hung around for an explanation.

“I fought with him last night. During your poker game.”

“Aw, what a shame. Lover’s quarrel, was it?”

“Alex!” Could she ever make this right? “Des is my closest friend. He’s one of the most important people in my life. But that’s where our relationship ends. He is not, nor has he ever been, my lover.”

Which wasn’t to say she hadn’t spent four years wishing he was.

Therein lay the essential problem. No matter how much she loved Alex—and she did, she loved him immeasurably—she loved Des too. She had for years.

When she’d met Alex, she’d given up on her dreams of Des. If Alex had never entered the scene, she’d probably still be pining for the carefree, beautiful blond man who’d owned her heart for so long. But Alex had interfered, and now everything was different. Everything. So beautifully, wonderfully different.

She needed to explain all of this to him. She had to help him understand why she’d made that god-awful blunder.

Alex’s gaze was hard, unrelenting.

“Des and I have never fought. Last night was a first. It threw me.”

Her world had tipped off-kilter. Nothing had felt right for those few moments she and Des were at odds. She bit her lip. Whatever he was going through must be huge, or he’d never have been so disrespectful of her. So disinterested.

“Even when we met, he didn’t lose his cool with me, and he should have, considering I drove into the back of his brand-new car.”

Finally Alex spoke. “He must have been charmed.”

Alex obviously wasn’t.

Her heart constricted.

“Not charmed, no. But charming.” It had been her shock that had garnered Des’s empathy. She’d been both stunned and distressed by the crash. Distraught at the idea she might have hurt him and contrite that she’d crumpled his bumper. “Instead of blasting me to hell for my negligence, he laughed it off. He wasn’t pleased with me. But he never lost his temper once. Not even when my insurance gave him a hard time about paying out.”

Instead of getting irritated and blaming her for the accident, he’d worked with her to sort out the whole mess. The day he’d gotten his car back from the panel beaters, all expenses paid compliments of insurance, he’d taken her for dinner to celebrate. They’d been friends ever since.

“Great story.” Alex rolled his eyes. “Any reason you chose to share it with me?”

“I need you to understand why I was so upset with him last night. Why he was on my mind. We fought. Des and I don’t fight. Ever. We made up in the end, but it left me…unsettled. I must have been thinking about him subconsciously. Going through what happened and sorting it out in my mind.” She was babbling. Trying too hard. Talking too much about Des.

Alex’s mouth tightened. He put his foot on the floor and stared steadily at her.

She babbled right on, her cheek ticking away. “Des doesn’t get mad. We don’t fight. We never have, until last night. It shook me to my bones, Al. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

“So you called me Desmond. Did it help you sort things out in your own mind?”

His sarcasm cut her. “No.”

When it came to Des, nothing helped her sort through her feelings.

The muscle in her cheek throbbed madly. Heat rushed her face. She had to tell Alex everything. “Calling you Des was a stupid, heartless, cruel mistake I wish I’d never made.”

This time, Alex was the one who prompted her. “But…”

Her heart lodged in her throat. She couldn’t tell him. Couldn’t hurt him like this. But how could she not? How could she keep such a big secret from the man she loved? “But…there’s something I haven’t told you.”

Alex went rigid. He didn’t breathe, he didn’t blink.

Megan launched herself off the bed and across the room, dropping to her knees at his feet. “I do love him.”

“Fucking hell!” His face turned scarlet.

“I’m sorry,” Megan cried. Her heart twisted in four different directions at once, the pain excruciating. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. She hated hurting Alex. What kind of a selfish bitch was she, subjecting the man she loved to such…such…anguish? “So, so sorry. I never dreamed my feelings for him would impact our relationship.”

Alex glowered at her. “If you’re trying to make me feel better, you’re failing miserably.”

Tears stung her eyes. She blinked them back. Alex was the one hurting. Not her. “I don’t want to lie to you, Al. I can’t. That wouldn’t be fair.” She’d never disrespect him like that. “The truth is I’ve loved Des for as long as I’ve known him.” The feeling was as instinctive as breathing. “But he’s never reciprocated my feelings. Ever. Never once given me any indication what he feels about me is anything more than friendship.” She swallowed. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to love someone who doesn’t love you back?” It had taken her forty-eight painfully long months to accept the truth.

Alex gave a sarcastic snort. “I’m getting a pretty good idea of it right now.”

“Then you’re getting the wrong idea,” she sobbed. “I do love you, Alex. More than I ever believed possible. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s not as simple as I’d like it to be.”

“Yeah. I can see how loving two men could be a complex matter from your perspective.” His bitterness stung. “You should look at it from my side. That’d really knock you over sideways.”

She absorbed his emotional punches as he struck out. She deserved every damn one of them. “Al.” She grabbed his knee. “I love you. You have to believe me. Regardless of how I feel about Des, I love you.”

“How about you keep your hands to yourself?” He pulled his leg away, letting her hand drop on the chair.

She stared at it, shocked at his rejection. No! No, no, no. She wouldn’t let him push her away. Not until he’d heard the full story. Not until she’d made it clear how deep her feelings ran for him.

And then…then…if he still rejected her…

Megan pulled her offending hand away and clasped it in her lap so Alex couldn’t see how shaken she was. “I’ve…I’ve…” Breathe. Get yourself together. “I’ve accepted the fact that Des doesn’t love me. It took a while, but I finally came to terms with it.” Her breath shuddered in her chest, and she forced her gaze up to his. “What I never expected was to fall in love with someone else, knowing how strongly I feel about him.”

She stared up at him, hoping he could see the honesty in her eyes. “I fell in love with you, Alex.”

His chest stilled, as if he were holding his breath.

“When I saw you at Hunter’s party, something changed, like a gear shifting inside of me. I knew then it was time to move on. Time to give up on my fantasies of Des and me. I hadn’t been ready to do that—until I met you.”

Alex had attracted her like a child to a lolly. She’d taken one look at him and known her world was about to change forever. “I couldn’t stop looking at you. Couldn’t stop my heart from pounding so loud I was sure Des could hear it too.”

The dark eyes staring down at her softened slightly. “I couldn’t stop looking at you either.” His voice was a tense whisper.

She remembered. Felt the heat of his gaze as it swept over her body before settling on her face.

“I made Des introduce me to you.” She’d taken his arm and dragged him over to Alex, the beginnings of a fire smoldering in her stomach. “When you shook my hand and told me your name I knew I was in big trouble.” She flexed her hand now, the same hand he’d held as Des had made the necessary introductions. “I can still feel the imprint of your palm on mine,” she whispered. “Your touch burned me. It set me alight. Made me feel something I hadn’t felt for anyone but Des in a very long time.”

She turned her hand over and stared at her palm. It tingled now with the same heat Alex’s simple handshake had inflicted the first time he touched her. With the same heat that flared when Des kissed it last night. “I fell for you, Al. Every minute I’ve spent with you since has reinforced what I instinctively knew the minute I laid eyes on you. I love you.”

“You love Des too.” The accusation wasn’t as acid as his previous comments had been.

“Yes, but it’s irrelevant now that I’m with you.”

“It’s not irrelevant when you call me by his name.”

Ouch!

“It was a mistake. Fighting with Des is an anomaly. Something out of the ordinary. As far as you and I go it means nothing. I love you, Alex. You have to believe that.”

His cock twitched. “Tell me again.”

“I love you, Al.”

“Again.” The word was a demand, not a request.

She loosened her grip on her hand. “I love you.”

He stared down at her, his eyes burning with emotion. Hurt? Disbelief? Desire?

Yes. All three of them.

“Please, believe me. What you and I have has nothing to do with anyone else. I love you.” She placed her hand on his thigh and breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t push it away. The muscle beneath his skin flexed and his cock, which had sat limp and disinterested, pulsed.

She felt an answering tug in her belly.

Alex.” This time his name was not so much a confirmation of his identity as a moan of hunger and need. Megan straightened her back and shifted closer to him.

His head hit the back of the chair and he groaned out loud. “Christ, woman, what am I going to do with you?”

Megan took a shuddery breath, sensing his capitulation. He believed her. She blinked back tears of relief and tried to speak, but her throat was all clogged up. She had to swallow and clear her throat to answer him.

“You’re going to carry on loving me?” She hadn’t meant for her answer to come out as a question, but she needed the reassurance. Needed to know he’d accepted her truths and assimilated them. Needed to know her feelings for Des didn’t affect how Alex felt about her. “You’re going to tell me you understand, and you believe me. That you know, no matter what I feel about Des, I love you.”

“I hate that you can even think about another man.”

“I love you, Alex. I love you.”

“And Des.”

“That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect us.”

“Unless you call me by his name.”

“A horrible, terrible mistake. That’s all. Please believe me, that’s all. I’m with you because I love you.” Knowing actions spoke louder than words could, she inched her hand forward and brushed her fingers over his cock.

It swelled at her touch.

Shit!” He clasped the arms of the chair as though he fought to suppress his rising erection.

“Don’t fight me, Al,” she whispered. “Let me prove I love you.” Her gaze was no longer on his face. It rested on his lap, on the movement of her hand as she stroked him more boldly, on the hardening of his shaft.

“I want you to love me,” he said on a groan.

“I do, Al. I swear, I do.” She bent her neck, kissed the inside of his thigh, slowly working her way upward until she grazed his shaft with her lips.

She whispered his name. “Alex.”

It was an acknowledgment, a sign of recognition. She had no doubt which man sat before her. Which man she’d apologized to.

“Megan.” Her name escaped on a sigh.

She opened her mouth and ran her tongue lightly over the tiny slit in his cock.

“Ah, fuck.” Alex arched his hips, pushing himself against her mouth. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Shhh,” she soothed, letting her breath breeze over his shaft. “Let me make it okay. Let me love you. Please.”

She risked a glance at his face and found him staring at her with a devastatingly intense expression.

“Okay?” she asked, terrified of the answer.

He looked at her for a very long time, the intensity of his gaze not receding one bit. Finally, finally he nodded his agreement. “Okay.”

A dry sob broke free of her throat. “Okay then.”

Before she could burst into tears and cry like a baby, she turned her full attention to the job at hand.

Sitting on the tip of his penis was a precious bead of precome he’d spilled. For her. She licked it away and swallowed it down over the lump in her throat.

The tension broke free of Alex. His muscles relaxed and he released his death grip on the chair. She suppressed her breath of relief.

Megan ran her tongue down the length of his cock, accepting the chance he’d given her to make things right between them. She lapped up the musky salt that remained from their loving last night. Their mixed tastes mingled on her tongue, a reminder of everything she and Alex had created together. Not just the sex and the loving, but the relationship they’d built. The intimacy of their conversations, sharing thoughts and stories and their lives. Telling each other secrets no one else knew. Well, no one else except Des as far as her secrets went. Smiling at each other over wineglasses and debating world affairs over dinner. Shedding their clothes in their mutual desire to touch, and lying side by side, gasping for breath in the aftermath of their passion.

The taste sensation exploded on her tongue and she lapped at him, ravenous for more.

“Megan?”

“Hmmm?”

“Close your eyes.”

She licked her lips. “Already shut.” She moved over his erection, guided by touch alone.

“Keep ’em that way.”

She nodded obediently and found his cock again.

“Now…tell—” His voice caught as she sucked him in. “Tell me…my name.”

“Alex.” Her answer was muffled, compliments of the erection interfering with intelligible speech, but it must have sufficed because Alex thrust his hips up, surging deeper into her mouth.

Silence followed, punctuated only by the greedy sounds of her lips as she took him in as far as she could, relishing the thick shaft that tickled the back of her throat. She slid her lips back up his length and circled her tongue around his cockhead before sucking him in once again.

Up and down, over and over she worked him. Her hair fell over her forehead, onto his stomach and thighs, shifting with her as she moved.

He was too big for her, too long, and she wrapped her hand around the base of his shaft, pumping in time with the movements of her mouth. Long moments passed as she loved him, fed on him. His desire increased her own, and her clit throbbed, craving his touch.

She thanked God for giving her this second chance. After what she’d said, Alex had every right to hate her. To reject her and send her away. That he allowed her access to his most private of body parts, in this most private of rituals, was a blessing of the highest level.

Her pussy pulsed. The knowledge that he wanted her regardless of her feelings for Des aroused her more than words or actions ever could.

“Megan?” His legs shifted beside her cheeks, the muscles stiffening, until she rested her chin on one rock-hard thigh. Her nipples brushed against the hair on his shins, abrading the sensitive surfaces.

“Hmmm?”

Her answer vibrated over his cock and he shuddered.

“Your eyes still closed, baby?”

“Mm-hm.” More precome trickled from his tip and she swallowed it, moaning with pleasure.

His balls tightened below her hands, telling her his orgasm was close. She was close to coming too, and he hadn’t even touched her.

“Who am I?”

“Hmm?”

“Who am I?” he demanded again.

Loath as she was to let go of him, this was too important an opportunity to ignore. She released him with a wet slurp and tilted her chin so she faced upwards. She couldn’t see him, but she felt his gaze on her face, knew he was watching her.

“You’re the man I love.”

She continued to pump with her hand, refusing to free him altogether. Something told her that so long as they maintained bodily contact she wouldn’t lose him.

His testicles flexed each time she touched them.

“Say my name,” he said with a growl.

“Alex.”

His cock grew in her hands.

“Say it again.”

“Alex.” She pumped faster, heard his breath come out in small gasps. “Alex.”

She opened her eyes to find his gaze on her mouth, his eyes black as night and glazed with desire. Desire whipped free inside her, like a coil unwinding. She plunged her free hand down to her pussy and touched herself.

A jolt shook through her. “Oh. Alex!”

His body convulsed and he cried out.

She bent her neck and captured his cock in her mouth an instant before he erupted. Jets of come streamed down the back of her throat. She swallowed every drop, every delectable morsel he spurted.

His release spurred hers. She pressed hard against her clit and juice spilled from her pussy as she lost control. His cock pulsed in her mouth and she shuddered around her finger.

When the tremors and the shivers finally subsided, and Alex’s spasms had long run dry, she released his softened cock with a shuddery sigh, collapsed on her knees and rested her forehead on his thigh.

She waited until he’d come down from his high before she looked up at his face and smiled. “I love you, Alex Truman.”

His answering smile was a bigger reward than any she could ever have asked for.

Chapter 3

Full house,” Meg announced with glee, showing her cards.

“Unbelievable.” Max shook his head and tossed his hand face down on the table. “You’ve been playing for all of a week and you’re already cleaning us out.”

Meg grinned. “What can I say? Alex is a great instructor.”

“More like you’re a quick study.” Alex winked at her.

Her grin stretched into the Meg-a-watt smile when she looked Alex’s way. “I should have learned the game years ago. I could have quit teaching and become a professional poker player.”

Des tried not to bristle. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t proposed to show her the game a hundred times. He’d been a willing coach, but she’d refused his every offer. A week under Alex’s tutelage and Meg was a skilled player. Or maybe she was a good bluffer. Either way, her chips were stacking up while everyone else’s were diminishing.

Trevor gathered the cards to straighten and shuffle the pack, readying them for the next hand.

Meg drew her chair closer to Des, scraping the legs against the wooden floorboards. “Hey, you.” She bumped her shoulder against his arm affectionately.

“Hey, yourself.” He bumped her back. He couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face. No matter what shit he had to sort through, and no matter how jealous he might still be after two months, being with Meg always raised his spirits.

Instead of moving away like he’d expected her to, she stayed right where she was, with her shoulder pressed up against his arm. “Wanna see a movie tomorrow night?”

Des almost laughed out loud. Sit beside her in a darkened theater for over two hours? Not likely. A couple of months ago that wouldn’t have been a prob. Now? Fucking torture. “I’d love to, but I’m busy.”

“Hot date?”

Oh, yeah. Just him and his telly remote, curled up on the couch together. “Work.”

Was it his imagination, or was Alex watching them?

She scrunched up her nose. “On a Saturday night?”

“There’s a new phone releasing on Monday. I have to be ready for it. Figured I’d slack off tonight at cards and use the rest of the weekend to work.” When had he become such an expert liar? Even if there was a new phone releasing, his store managers were more than able to handle the buzz without him.

“You work too hard,” she muttered, and leaned over to collect the cards Trevor dealt. They played the next two hands without speaking, but that didn’t mean Des wasn’t acutely aware of every move she made.

She neglected to pull her chair back to its original spot, instead remaining right where she was, her arm plastered against his. Usually it wouldn’t have bothered him. Meg was always affectionate. He should be accustomed to it.

A couple of months ago he’d have stretched his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. Kissed her head and teased her about the stars that seemed to have settled permanently in her eyes. Now? That same damn arm was cramping from stiffness, and he couldn’t think up one amusing thing to say.

Besides, Alex was watching them again.

Heat radiated off her, burning through his shirtsleeves at the exact places their bodies touched. The familiar floral scent of her shampoo wafted through his nose, and her curls tickled his neck whenever she turned her head.

She drove him slowly insane. His cock had perked up the instant she touched him. His pants—which had fit fine earlier today—drew tight over his groin, making his current position even more untenable. If he had to sit here for the next hour or so, smelling Meg, he’d do himself irreparable damage.

Frustrated, Des rubbed his eyes and imagined as much blood, guts and gore as possible. Of course it made no difference. The erection from hell still plagued him, and it wasn’t going down anytime soon. Not when the sweetest laughter he’d ever heard tinkled through his ear and vibrated through his chest.

He lost the next two hands and half his chips along with them. His concentration was shot, and the most simple of plays was beyond him.

Meg took great pleasure in drawing the winnings of the second hand over and stacking them in color-coordinated piles. Much as he enjoyed her taking delight in her spoils, the click-clack of one chip hitting another tortured Des like a slow-dripping tap.

Jay called for a five-minute bathroom break, and everyone got up to wander around and stretch their legs. Alex blew Meg a kiss and offered to get her a vodka cruiser. She accepted with a smile.

Des was a beer man through and through, but he kept a constant supply of cruisers at home for Meg. When Alex called to say she’d be joining them for poker, he’d set several bottles down beside the regular stash of poker-night beer and scotch.

“You want a beer, mate?” Alex offered. His tone was friendly enough but his gaze was cooler than usual.

“That’d be great, thanks.” Any other time he’d get up and help himself, ’specially seeing as this was his house. Two things kept him seated. The first was Meg. He wasn’t moving an inch away from her anytime soon. The second was his damned erection from hell. If he stood now, his hunger for Meg would be as obvious to the rest of the poker school as it was to Des.

She linked her arm through his. “It feels like we never spend time together anymore.” She squeezed his biceps. “I miss you, Des.”

He sighed. “I miss you too, Meggy-mine.” Way more than she’d ever fathom.

“So why don’t you pick up the phone? Talk to me sometime?”

Des snickered. “Because it’s too damn heavy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I have so many text messages from you, they’re weighing down my mobile.”

She grinned at him. “You could delete them.”

“And erase all those pep talks? Not on your life.”

Meg had taken to texting him at least twice a day. At first she’d sent simple, hang-in-there or I’m-here-if-you-need-me messages. Then they’d morphed into profound philosophical quotes about hope, which made Des want to throw up. He texted her back to tell her as much. Never one to be deterred, Meg’s messages became snarky one-liners or silly jokes she’d heard.

“You don’t like my texts?” Her eyes twinkled.

Des tucked in to his back pocket and withdrew his iPhone. He scrolled through his texts, found the one he sought and showed it to her.

If you fart too hard you go flying upward,” she read out loud.

“They’re inspiring, Meg. Really help me to get through a day.” His voice was deadpan.

Peals of laughter rang from her. “I knew you’d like that one. Had to share it ASAP.”

He couldn’t help it. He laughed right along with her. “You’re bloody nuts.”

“I am,” she agreed wholeheartedly. “And that, my friend, is why you love me.”

This time his laugh held no humor. “That and a whole host of other reasons.”

Megan blinked hard. The muscle in her cheek ticked. For a long moment neither one of them spoke. Des stared at her, knowing he shouldn’t have made such a dumb comment, but unable to regret it. Damn it. He did love her for a whole host of reasons. Hundreds of them. Thousands.

Megan bit her lip while her cheek ticked away. She broke the awkward silence with a cry. “Hey. You haven’t commented on my poker skills. What do you think?”

“Oh, I’m impressed. Bloody impressed.” He nodded to reinforce his words. “But confused too. You? Learning poker? Doesn’t compute. What’s the story?”

Her brow wrinkled. “You really wanna know?”

“’Course I wanna know.”

“I learnt it for you.”

That had him sitting up straighter. “Me? What have I got to do with your card skills?”

She jutted her chin out, looking defiant. “Well, you said it before. You’re dealing with something, and you need your space. You didn’t want me poking around in your business.”

He winced. “Shit, I really said that?”

“Yes, Des. You really said that.” She lowered her chin a little. “Uh, maybe not the part about not wanting me poking into your business, but definitely the bit about needing space. From me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. I figured since you rebuffed all of my attempts to talk to you, and haven’t been round to my place in over six weeks, if I wanted to see you, it would have to be on your terms.” She grinned triumphantly. “What better terms than poker?”

Fuck the awkwardness. He pulled his arm away from hers, dropped it over her shoulder and tucked her in close. Then he leaned down and kissed the top of her head, just as he had on any number of occasions. “You’re a good friend,” he whispered, his nose still burrowed in her hair. “The best.”

He’d missed her. Never mind the bit about needing to haul her into his arms, hold her there forever and kiss her senseless. He just missed his friend, Meggy.

“I know.” Her smugness made him laugh. “And in just a few short weeks, I’ll be a good poker player too. The best.” She tilted her head back and looked him in the eye.

Hers danced with humor, and something else. Something Des couldn’t fathom and didn’t try to. He just enjoyed this easy moment with her, relished the closeness they’d found again. The rest of the world faded to nothing as the two of them chuckled together.

Of course, Alex chose that moment to break in, setting two bottles on the table. “Here you go, baby. A cruiser for you and an ice-cold Tooheys for your friend.”

Des nodded his thanks at Alex and watched as the man sat on the other side of Meg, in Julia’s chair.

The moment between him and Meg was gone.

Des removed his arm with reluctance and Meg sat up. He kept his grin plastered on his face, hoping it didn’t look as empty as he felt.

Alex stretched across the table and pulled his phone and wallet over, telling Des, without words, that he was staying right where he was. Des-and-Meg time was officially over. Her boyfriend was back.

What the fuck? Did Alex get territorial?

His spine prickled. He resisted the urge to tug Meg back against him and show the guy just who she’d belonged with first. Long before Alex stepped on the scene.

Fortunately, one by one, the rest of the school joined them at the table, preventing Des from making a complete moron of himself. Jules never said a word about her usurped seat. She flashed Alex a knowing smile, shifted Hunter up a place, and sat in his chair. Everyone else moved one chair to the right and it was game on.

Des’s good mood dissipated. Tension ran through his shoulders and up his neck. Much as he tried to ignore Alex’s hand, which had found its way to the small of Meg’s back and rubbed tiny circles over the top of her butt, it seemed to be all he could see in his peripheral vision.

The soft, sexy sighs Meg released every few minutes did nothing to improve his disposition. Gone were the few minutes of fun he and Meg had shared.

So help him, he was jealous. Jealous, frustrated and more than a little pissed off, both with himself, for not coming to his senses sooner, and with Alex, for touching the woman Des loved. Every bet Alex made, he challenged. So aggressively, more than one comment was passed around the table.

“Not in your character, Reedy.” Jay laughed.

“You pissed off or something?” Trev wanted to know.

Des didn’t give a shit. He played for all his worth. There might be social restraints dictating the way he had to treat the guy, preventing him from physically attacking Alex. There might also be that small issue of size holding him back. Alex was a head taller and a good few inches broader than Des. Still Des felt an absurd need to get to him, to show the man up any way he could.

He won three consecutive hands and felt no better.

The later the evening became, the blacker Des’s thoughts turned. Alex’s hand was no longer on Meg’s back. It was on her knee. His mouth was by her ear, and even on the other side of her, Des could hear the rasping of Alex’s voice as he whispered to her.

When Alex walked his fingers under the hem of Meg’s sundress, Des had enough. He threw his cards on the table and jumped up.

“I fold.” He stalked over to the sliding doors.

“Where are you going?” Meg asked.

“Outside.” He tried not to snap at her but couldn’t stop himself in time.

“Why?”

Because if I don’t, I’m going to break every finger on Alex’s hand. “I need a cigarette.”

With that, he stepped outside, managing to resist the urge to slam the doors shut behind him. He crossed the small garden in a few long strides, heading for the shadows of the big gum tree in the back. Under the cloak of darkness he let rip with several foul curses and kicked the thick tree trunk hard enough to break his toe.

It didn’t help one fucking bit.

*

Alex looked from Megan’s face to the sliding doors and back to Megan’s face. Her mouth hung open and her eyes had widened. They were filled with confusion and turmoil.

Her good mood slipped away as tangibly as if she’d wiped the smile off her face.

Tension coiled in Alex’s gut. All was not well in paradise. He’d been a fucking idiot in the car over here, asking if she still loved Des.

Her nod had been a poker through his chest.

He’d grimaced. They’d spent the preceding hour naked and sweaty together. On her initiation, not his. Not that he’d complained. She’d slid her dress over her hip, flashing him a glimpse of her pantiless butt, and he’d been a goner. Before she’d let the skirt fall back into place, he’d dropped to his knees, buried his mouth in her pussy and licked her like a lollipop. But it was his strategically placed finger in her ass that had set her off on her first round of convulsions.

The second round was brought on by his cock in her pussy and the third by an active session of backdoor sex. Alex’s own orgasm was about the biggest he’d ever had. He broke into a sweat remembering.

“I love you too,” she’d told him in the car. “More than I ever thought possible.”

It was difficult holding on to her words now, when her face mirrored Des’s turbulence.

“Think we should call it a night?” Jules asked in the stunned silence that followed Des’s exit.

Max nodded. “Might as well. It’s late. We’ll play again next week.”

Hunter gathered the cards together. “Count your chips. I’ll sort out the winnings.”

Megan ignored her booty. She stared out the door, into the dark night.

Knowing he’d regret his words the second he spoke them, Alex leaned close to Megan. “Go to him.”

She turned to him with big, worried eyes.

“Go,” Alex said again. “He needs you.”

“But…” She didn’t finish. Didn’t need to. They were both thinking about their conversation in the car. Megan wouldn’t express her thoughts in front of five other people. She’d never embarrass Alex like that.

“It’s cool, babe.” No it wasn’t. It was very far from cool, but Megan was already looking back at the door, and whether she physically went outside to talk to Des or not, her focus was totally on him. “Go see what’s up with him.”

Megan squeezed his hand and walked outside.

Alex’s heart settled heavily in his stomach. This wasn’t going to end well.

*

Damn it. She’d thought she’d made brilliant progress with Des.

They’d connected again for the first time since Hunter’s party. Megan even had a sense everything would be okay between them. She was planning on popping in to his place the next morning, regardless of his workload. She’d neglected him long enough, giving him the space he’d asked for. No more. He needed a friend, and she’d be there for him. End of story.

And now? Fun, easygoing Des had looked ready to kill someone right before he marched outside.

Who?

She expected to find him sitting on one of the deck chairs on the patio, but they were both empty. She scanned the garden, giving her eyes a minute to adjust to the dark. Where was he? No shadows lurked on the grass or against the neighbor’s wall.

“Des?”

Silence.

“Desmond? Where are you?”

“Go back inside, Megan.” His voice came from behind the blue gum.

Megan? Des never called her by her full name.

She walked over to him, making out the profile of his body below the canopy of branches. “Enjoying your cigarette?”

He didn’t answer.

“You don’t smoke.” What a bullshit excuse.

“I don’t want company either.”

Crikey, what crawled up his ass? “I don’t care.” She strode over and planted herself in front of him. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing you need to worry about.” He didn’t move, just leaned on the tree, one foot resting against the trunk.

“Listen up, mate.” She poked a finger at his chest. “I’m getting sick of you pushing me away. You got a problem, tell me about it.”

“I’m not in the mood for talking.”

She bristled at his tone. “Yeah? Well I’m not in the mood for leaving you out here to brood. It’s not your style, and it freaks me out. So why not cut the crap and spill your guts?”

He shook his head. “Go away, Meg. I need to be alone.”

“Or else what?” Yes, she goaded him, but she had no choice. If she walked away now, she’d never get through to him. He’d carry on shutting her out, and she’d have no chance to help him. Rather push him until he cracked. Get whatever troubled him out in the open. She couldn’t bear seeing him like this. So tense and so edgy she hardly recognized him.

“Or else someone is going to get hurt.”

She snorted. “Did you just threaten me?” The idea of Des getting violent was laughable.

He glared at her.

“Oooh, now I’m scared. The big, bad Desmond wants to hit me.”

“I’m not going to hit you. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Oh, really? Then why do you look as if you want to smash your fist into something?”

“Megan!” Her name was a warning.

“Will hitting me make you feel better? Will it help get your frustration and anger out?” He needed to get it out. Whatever else he had bottled up inside needed releasing too. He was wound so tight he could snap any minute.

She opened her arms wide, turning herself into a standing target. “Go ahead, take your best shot.” As if he’d ever lay a hand on her.

His arms remained at his sides. “Don’t be an idiot.”

“Me?” She laughed out loud. “The only one being an idiot is you. Now, I’m going to count slowly to three, and when I reach the magic number, you’re going to tell me exactly what’s going on in that head of yours.”

Emotion radiated off Des in waves. Anger, aggravation and a million other things she couldn’t identify.

“You ready?”

He didn’t say a thing.

“One…”

Nothing. No confession forthcoming.

“Two…”

Des shifted against the tree, the stilted action a clear sign of his agitation.

“Two and half…”

“Megan,” he growled.

“You wanna say something?”

Silence.

“Two and three-quarters.”

“Don’t say three.” His words rang clear through the dark night.

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll regret it,” was his gruff promise. “We both will.”

“Is there something you want to say before I finish counting?”

“No!” His breath sounded heavy. Labored.

“Okay. Fine.” She shrugged, glared at him then smiled. “Three.”

Des snapped. “Jesus fucking Christ. You don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“Get the fucking reason I can’t talk to you, can’t be with you.”

“How can I get it?” she snapped right back, matching his tone and aggression. “You won’t fucking tell me.”

“That’s because it’s you,” he snarled.

Oh, well that cleared up everything, didn’t it? “What’s me?”

“You’re my fucking problem!”

She froze. “Me?”

“Yes, you!” He punched the tree. “I can’t get bloody far enough away from you.”

His answer hit her like a giant breaker, throwing her off balance and tumbling her, ragdoll style, through the sea. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean back off. Don’t come any closer.”

She shook her head, instantly denying his response. He hadn’t said that. He couldn’t have. Not Des. “Why not?”

“Because you’re driving me fucking crazy.” Each word was clearly enunciated, as though he forced them out one at a time.

Spots danced in front of her face, blinding her. He had said it. All of it. To her. She stepped forward, waving an arm in front of her, seeking something to hold on to before she fell. A branch, anything. She found nothing.

“I said stay away,” he hissed.

Tears rushed her eyes as shock gave way to reality.

Desmond’s issue was her. She was the problem.

How could she have been so dense as to not realize it before? He hadn’t stayed away because of some abstract crisis that had nothing to do with her. He’d stayed away because he didn’t want to see her. It was that simple.

A lump the size of China settled in her throat. She couldn’t swallow it down; couldn’t breathe over it. A sob gurgled in her chest and burst out her mouth.

Des hated her.

“Meggy!” Her name was a soft cry of pain. “Please don’t cry.”

What else did he expect her to do? For all intents and purposes she’d lost her best friend. “You hate me.” The fact burned her throat.

He emitted a sound like a wounded animal. “I could never hate you.”

Semantics. “You don’t want me anywhere near you.” In her mind it meant the same thing.

“You’re wrong.”

“You just told me to stay the fuck away.” The muscle in her cheek ticked furiously.

His shoulders sagged as though he’d lost the will to fight. “Only because I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” she told him helplessly. “You’re talking in circles.”

Des said nothing.

She had no idea what she’d done to deserve his ire, couldn’t fathom where their friendship had gone so wrong. All she knew was she couldn’t stand here any longer. Not when her best friend hated her and her heart was breaking in a million pieces.

She held up her hands in defeat and took a step backwards. Tears ran down her cheeks, spilling into her mouth. Her hurt was too deep to fathom, too endless to comprehend.

Alex. She needed Alex.

“Meg! Wait.”

She backed away with another step. Alex would make her feel better. “So you can find another way to tell me to get out of your life?” She shook her head, confounded. “I don’t think so. Have a happy future, Des. I, uh…” The cheek muscle ticked. “I enjoyed being your friend.”

He let out a fierce snarl. “Damn it, I told you you’d regret this.”

Des moved so fast she had no time to register his actions. One second she was edging towards the house, the next her back was flattened against the tree and his body was wedged against hers, pressing down so hard she could hardly breathe.

There was no time to think, no time to object. His mouth crashed down on hers, claiming her lips with savage intent. He kissed her like a man starved for a woman, ravenous for a taste of that which had been denied him forever. It was a feverish kiss that went on eternally, scalding her lips and blowing every one of her defenses out of the water.

She whimpered beneath the assault, stunned not just by Des’s action—so at odds with his words—but by his intensity and demand.

Her thoughts tumbled together in confusion. How could someone who hated her, someone who couldn’t get far enough away from her, kiss her like this?

Her whimper must have registered somewhere in his head because he broke the kiss with a strangled groan.

Megan gaped up at him.

“I don’t hate you.” The huskiness in his voice rasped over her skin, leaving a trail of goose bumps wherever it touched. “I love you. So much it’s killing me.”

She tried to answer, tried to put two words together, but couldn’t. Impossible to talk when she couldn’t comprehend what was being said.

His eyes slid shut as though he tried to block out the sight of her. “I love you, Meggy-mine, but you’re Alex’s, and the knowledge is slowly driving me crazy.”

She opened her mouth, shut it and opened it again. Des loved her?

“I’m dying. A little more every day. Wanting you this badly and knowing I can’t have you.”

He swore then and contradicting his words, sealed his mouth over hers. This time his lips were soft and tender. Loving. They robbed the air from her lungs and the thoughts from her head. They caressed hers until she grew dizzy and opened her mouth to inhale huge lungfuls of fresh air.

At which point he slipped his tongue inside and claimed her. Made her his.

Reality ceased to matter, ceased to exist. Des pledged his heart to her completely. He swept her off her feet and plunged her into a parallel universe where all that existed was him and her and the exquisite kiss that went on forever, promising a future of happiness, joy and eternal love.

Four years of loving him coalesced into this one perfect moment. Tears fell unobstructed from her eyes as every dream she’d ever dreamed about her best friend came true.

He kissed her with what had to be every iota of feeling he could muster—an identical match for the power of her emotion.

Des loved her.

Desmond Reed, her best friend, the man she’d loved forever and dreamed about for a lifetime, loved her.

She drew her arm back, curled her fingers inwards and, taking strength from every day of the four years she’d loved him and wished desperately he would love her back, punched him in the stomach.

Megan glared at Des as he doubled over, the breath leaving his body in a whoosh. He clutched his middle and staggered backwards.

“You love me?” Bastard.

He didn’t answer, probably because he couldn’t talk.

“And you choose tonight to tell me?” Mild hysteria was but a heartbeat away.

He looked up at her, still bent over at the waist.

“Four years,” she shouted. “I waited four years for you to say that to me.”

His jaw dropped.

“Do you have any idea how long that is?” She did. Only too freaking well. “Forty-eight months. Two hundred and eight weeks. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days, give or take a few for the leap year.” She’d stopped herself from working out the hours and minutes. Even she knew that was taking things too far. “That’s how long I waited for you to fall in love with me. To give me a sign, something, anything that would tell me I was more than your friend.”

“Meggy—”

“Four freaking years,” she hollered. “And what sign did you give me? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” She sniffed loudly and swiped at her eyes and cheeks. “Then I met Alex, and I stopped waiting.”

He straightened his back, took a step towards her, but she held out her hand, demanding he stop.

“I moved on, Des. I found a man who was open to loving me. Who didn’t view me as a friend and nothing more. And I’m happy. For the first time since I met you there’s someone I love who loves me back.” She shook her head, disbelief squelching any reticence she might have had. “And now, now you decide you love me? Now you figure it’s the perfect time to tell me? Are you out of your freaking mind?”

“Yes, Goddamn it,” he yelled back at her. “I’m out of my freaking mind with jealousy. Seeing you with Alex eats me alive.”

“What do you think loving you every day for four years did to me? You think it didn’t make me crazy?”

He grabbed her arm. A shudder shook through his body, reverberating over hers. “You loved me?”

Was that reverence in his tone?

“Of course I loved you. I still bloody do.”

He stumbled, righted himself and shook his head. “You love me?” His hands were on her shoulders, his face inches away from hers.

Years of unspent passion unwound in her chest. It fired through her body, heating her breasts, tugging between her legs. His taste lingered on her tongue, savory and sweet. Beer and man. She wanted more of it, wanted to sip from his lips and sear his flavor into her brain forever. She wanted to wrap her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, dip her hips down low and welcome him inside her. She wanted him to lay her down on the ground and claim her. Make her his. Make love to her. Make up for four years of lost time. “Yes.”

He hauled her against his body, trapping her there. His breath rasped through her ear. “Meg…”

“As much as I love Alex.”

He jerked back as though she’d slapped him.

“What?” she spat at him. “You think because now I know how you feel, I’m suddenly going to fall out of love with him?” Not a chance. Alex had inserted himself in her heart and found a permanent place there. She wasn’t letting go of him anytime soon. Maybe not ever.

He shook his head very slowly. “No, Meggy-mine. I’d hoped, but I never dared think as much.”

“Fuck, Des.” Her chest heaved, her heart racing a million miles a minute. “What am I supposed to do now? What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to say your heart belongs to me and me alone. But what I want and what I know are two very different things.” He pressed his hand over his eyes.

“Why?” Megan gasped. “Why did you even tell me?”

“I didn’t want to. So help me, I tried to stay the hell away.”

“But I wouldn’t let you.” She’d practically torn the truth out of him. “N-now what?” Where on earth did they go from here?

“Now…” His voice was too gruff to hear properly. He cleared his throat. “Now you go back inside. Back to Alex. I’ll stay away. I promise, I won’t interfere with your happiness.”

He spoke sense. She needed to walk away from him. Walk back to Alex. But the devastation in his tone broke her heart all over again.

“Go inside, Meggy. I’ll stay out here until the game’s finished.” A ghost of a smile played on his face. Maybe it was just a shadow. “Alex is good for you. He makes you glow. Anyone who can do that is okay in my book.” As he turned away from her he whispered, “Be happy with him.”

It wasn’t his stoic decision to let her go that got to her. It was the way he held his head high while the rest of his body shook.

He’d taken maybe four steps before she cried out his name and went after him. She threw herself at him like a boomerang spinning back to its point of origin. There was no premeditation to her actions. She moved on instinct.

He was Des, and she belonged with him.

He absorbed the impact, catching her to him with a husky moan. Cemented against his body, she placed her hands on his cheeks and pulled his face down to hers, sealing their lips together.

Just as he’d poured every iota of himself into the last kiss, so every ounce of love she felt for him spilled into this one. Because love him she did, and now she knew he felt the same, she couldn’t let him go.

He held her so close there was no space for air to float between them. The uneven rise and fall of his chest matched hers as they panted together. Her breasts were wedged against the hard, square planes of his chest, and her hips pressed tight against the stiff bulge in his pants.

That he wanted her this much astonished her. For so long it was all she’d yearned for, and now here he was, holding her, kissing her frantically, as though terrified she’d slip away.

As for his erection, it turned her to mush. The evidence of his desire, pressing against her pussy, her clit… She could climax just thinking about it.

His hands were on her butt, pulling her closer, massaging her cheeks, pressing her harder against his erection.

She was a boneless heap of hunger. A roaring blaze of fire, wanting nothing but Des. And Alex. Des’s kiss, Alex’s touch. Des’s erection, Alex’s body. She wanted them both. Wanted them pounding into her, showing her the love they’d both professed.

She wanted them both.

The need was a bottomless pit, making her ache and yearn. Making her writhe against Des’s groin, rub her clit on his cock. She groaned into his mouth as desire tore through her, and when he rocked his hips, she fell to pieces. Right there, caught in his arms in the darkened garden, she climaxed.

~

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