ELEVEN

Kat sat in the fading evening light, her legs tucked up underneath her, the mug of cocoa now cold in her hand. On the side table was the book she’d been reading, one she’d originally bought to enjoy on the beach, but mindless beach reading it didn’t turn out to be. So now that she was back in the privacy of her own little city apartment, she’d spent most of the day with her nose buried in the print, reading about the psychology of suppressed memorieswhy they pop up when they do, how to handle them, and why people push them down in the first place.

She was hoping the book might help her remember everything that had happened in her dad’s studio the evening she left Persuasion. It seemed impossible that the memory had ever existed in one piece in her brain, because she didn’t even remember when she’d begun to forget. A week after she came to Baltimore? A month? Two years? She’d never mentioned anything about that night to Phyllis or Nola, because until recently she didn’t realize there was anything to tell.

Kat rubbed hard at the back of her neck, pressing her fingers into the knotted muscles. The first snippets of memory about that evening had come when she and Nola sat in the ER of Davis Memorial, staring at Kat’s father’s limp hands. But the event didn’t really come alive until the other day on the beach, talking to Jeff. When she’d said it out loudtelling him a story like it had happened to someone elsethe memory had suddenly become real, taken root, and she’d been drowning in the emotional fallout ever since.

She needed a break. Kat got up out of the old chair and stretched, reaching toward the ceiling and then down to her toes. She shuffled to the bathroom and threw cold water on her eyelids, noticing the tanned but frowning face staring back at her from the mirror. She was thirty-seven now. She wasn’t a girl running away anymore. She was nobody’s victim and she wasn’t hiding a damn thing from anyone. On top of all that, thanks to Phyllis, Kat would never have to rely on anyone for anything again for as long as she lived.

Whatever she had to deal with, she’d deal with it, whether it be something outside herselflike Aidan’s furyor something inside herself.

Like her own buried memories.

Leaning closer to her reflection, Kat studied every fine line that fanned out from her eyes, every freckle that had survived the Fifth Avenue glycolic acid facial. She was still pretty enough. If she decided she wanted a man’s company for casual dating, she could probably find a good one if she really put her mind to it.

Stranger things had happened.

Kat patted her face dry with a towel and headed into the kitchen to get a snack. On her way she flipped on the remote to her new Bose CD changer, and her apartment came alive with Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar and sweet lament. Kat sang along, slapping together a turkey and Swiss on rye as she wailed about good lovin’ gone bad, and had just taken a large bite when she heard the banging sound. /Great/. Kat tossed her sandwich to the paper plate. She’d been sitting down here quiet as a dead mouse the whole day, and the second she turns on some good music, Mrs. Brownstein starts pounding on her floor with her broom handle. Kat really looked forward to moving into the row house when it was remodeled. At least at Phyllis’, there were no upstairs neighbors, and the shared walls were thick enough to give a person some privacy.

Kat turned the volume down until Bonnie’s roar became a mewl, and took a seat at the dinette table. Just as she got another big bite into her mouth, the banging started up again. This time, it was her front door.

Kat was pissed. She’d lived under Mrs. Brownstein now for twelve years, and the older that woman got, the crankier she became. The broom had been plenty to get the message across. There was no need to come down here and make a fuss in person.

Kat flung open the door, already aligning her gaze to where she expected to find a pair of crinkly, angry eyes behind thick glasses. Instead, she encountered a man’s chest. Not just any man’s, either. She didn’t need to adjust her gaze upward to know it was Riley.

You’ve got something on your chin, he said, and because he said it in that unmistakable West Virginia baritone, Kat thought it was just about the sexiest sentence she’d ever heard in her life. She reached up to wipe away the mayonnaise, but Riley got there first, running his finger just below and to the left of her bottom lip.

She refused to look up at his face. She couldn’t handle this. Why did he come here? He was about to get married! This was just torture! Oh, but she had to lookshe knew he would be taking that dollop of mayonnaise and putting it in his own mouth, and she just had to watch! When it came to Riley Bohland, she’d always been so damn /weak/!

Kat raised her chin and dared to look at him. Riley was grinning, and his rich blue eyes were laughing, and he took that bit of mayonnaise and opened his gorgeous, soon-to-be-married mouth and flicked out his tongue to gobble it right up.

Kat thought she’d wet herself.

This is so unfair, she whispered, not even realizing she’d said it out loud.

It’s about as fair as it gets. Now that I’ve dropped by unannounced the way you did, I’d say we’re even.

Kat shook her head, overwhelmed at all the reasons that this was such a bad development, the most important being that Riley was engaged. Coming in a close second was that little complication that she hated him, followed by the fact that she was probably still in love with him.

Really, all she wanted was to jump him right now, in her doorway, and give Mrs. Brownstein something to bang her broom about for once. But she wouldn’t.

Aren’t you going to invite me in?

Kat snorted. I think not.

Why’s that?

I’m eating.

I’ll keep you company while you eat.

No thanks.

Then come out somewhere with me.

I’m not dressed.

Then put on those slutty fur-trapper boots I liked so much and let’s go for a walk.

Kat’s mouth fell open. My /what/?

What you’re wearing is fine, but if you’re not comfortable for some reason, just put something else on.

Kat looked down at herself and laughed, knowing full well that her ratty cotton sweatpants and T-shirt weren’t even fit for the Early Bird Tavern at the corner, an establishment famous for its complete lack of standards of any kind.

I don’t want to put anything on.

That’ll work, too, Riley said, grinning.

This isn’t a good idea, she said.

C’mon now, Scout. Riley winked. You know you’re going to let me in.

At the sound of that ancient nickname, Kat gasped. She stared at Riley in wonderyet another detail from her past she’d managed to shove down.

Or maybe, if she believed the stuff she’d been reading in that book, she’d blocked the nickname from her memory because the idea that someone ever loved her like thatthen dumped herhurt too much to handle.

Riley continued to smile down on her, and she knew he was thinking of that day long ago, just like she was. They were ten years old, on the playground near the monkey bars. She was wearing her Girl Scout uniformproudlybecause her troop had a meeting after school, when Riley and a bunch of boys laughed and told her she looked stupid. I’m a Scout, Kat had replied emphatically. You guys are the stupid ones. The name stuck. But as time went on, Riley decided he was the only one allowed to use it. Travis Butrick called her that once, by the water fountain, and Riley had decked him. They both got detention. /Travis Butrick? They used to call him Butt Head, didn’t they?/ Kat blinked, dragging herself back to the present. You need to leave, she said.

Riley slid one of his sneakers over the threshold. I need to stay. We’ve got some serious catching up to do.

Kat tried to close the door, but his foot acted as a stopper. Please, Riley. Don’t do this.

I just spent the whole day with our son, Kat.

All the strength drained from her arms. At that instant, Kat knew she would be letting Riley in, no matter how huge a mistake it was.

Fine. She backed away and gestured him inside, then stooped to pick up last week’s Sunday Baltimore /Sun/, which she’d left scattered on the rug before she went to the Caymans. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting company.

Riley stepped inside and she closed the door behind him. Have a seat.

She pointed to the armchair. Would you like some hot cocoa? Tea?

No, thanks. I’m good.

She watched Riley enter her home and stroll around the room, taking in the combination of secondhand and self-assembled furniture that made up the main room of her apartment. His first stop was the set of bookcases that took up the whole far wall. He ran his fingers along the spines of the books.

Eastern philosophy, archaeology, astronomy, Greek tragedies. He laughed softly. I see you’re still a bookworm.

Next, Riley stopped at the fireplace mantel to examine a series of photos of Aidan, from babyhood on up. Riley picked up a framed snapshot of their son at the zoo as a three-year-old. He’s so incredible, Riley whispered, placing the photo back where he found it and moving on to the next, and then the next.

We can get copies made of all the photos, Kat offered from the kitchen doorway.

That would be great. Riley moved toward the old chair where she’d been reading, the books scattered under the lamp on a side table. He selected the title on top, which Kat had left open, and flipped it over. A small piece of cardboard fluttered to the carpet.

Repressed memory? Riley frowned at her, then bent down to retrieve what had fallen. He read the print and his scowl deepened. Is Jeff someone you’re dating?

No. He’s just a friend. Kat decided to skip the teaand the small talkand just get this over with. She left the kitchen and plopped down on the couch. Riley, you shouldn’t be here and you know it.

Riley returned Jeff’s business card to between the pages and put down the book, but not before picking up the one underneath and reading the title aloud. /The Blunt Truth: How to Bust Your Life Wide Open with Honesty/. Hmm.

Riley set the paperback on the table and made himself comfortable in the armchair. Getting your degree in psychology?

Just getting my shit together. Kat told herself she would be all business with Riley, and in order to do that, she’d have to avoid looking at him, because every time she looked at him, her blood went hot and all she could think about was the hours they had spent tangled in the bed-and-breakfast sheets, his hard cock claiming its territorywhich was her. She took just a quick peekGod, that man looked good in a pair of jeans and a simple button-down shirt. Kat cleared her throat. So how’s Aidan? He’s still not talking to me.

Riley smiled thoughtfully, continuing to check out her small apartment from his seat. He’s a wonderful young man, Kat. You should never have kept him from me, but you clearly were a good mom to him, and I thank you.

The sincerity in his voice made Kat soften. He was correctshe’d done many things right, and it was satisfying to hear him acknowledge it.

Thanks, Riley.

Now, let’s just get to the point. Exactly why is it that I shouldn’t be here? Riley rested his elbows on his knees and leaned in Kat’s direction. Because you started this, Scout. You rolled into Persuasion last week, fucked my brains out, made me remember what it feels like to be alive, then just disappeared without a word.

Any softness inside her just hardened up again. What kind of lowlife would be acting like he wasn’t engaged? What had happened to Riley’s decency? Waitmaybe it was the same old storydespite appearances, Riley Bohland didn’t have any decency.

And then you come back here to Baltimore and get so snooty that you won’t even return my calls. You can’t do that to people, Kat. You can’t do that to /me/. And I don’t know how far along you’ve gotten in this book right here, but we both know there isn’t a speck of honesty in that bullshit, and I don’t deserve it.

She stared blankly, not believing his audacity. Oh, reeeally?

Really.

Kat produced a sweet little smile. And what about your fiancйe? I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch her name.

Riley’s face froze for an instant, and all Kat could think was, /Gotcha/.

He breathed hard through his nose a few times. My /who/? he whispered.

The woman you’re supposed to marry on Christmas Eve. That who.

Riley sat perfectly still, nothing moving but his Adam’s apple.

C’mon now, Riley. You’re a very smart manhaving gone through medical school and alland I bet if you try hard enough, you can remember your betrothed’s name.

Kat watched Riley’s spine stiffen. After a moment, he collapsed back into the chair and crossed his legs. An expression of disgust washed over his face. Where’d you get that information?

Does it matter? Kat was becoming more annoyed by the second. Was he really going to sit there and deny it? He had become the kind of person she didn’t even want to know, let alone be involved with, and she was beginning to regret bringing him into Aidan’s life.

Oh, it matters so much you wouldn’t believe. It surprised Kat that Riley chose that moment to laugh, then shake his head. So you met Carrie?

I don’t know anyone named Carrie, Kat spat out. Madeline Bowman told me about your wedding when I came in from a walk the morning after… after, well, after I fucked your brains out.

Riley looked stunned. Madeline?

Yes. She dropped the bomb on me in the dining room, and… look, this is ridiculous. Kat got up from the couch and moved to the door. What did I expect? I haven’t spoken to you in twenty years, and it’s not like all that stuff we used to tell each other as kids was /real/ or anything.

You’re allowed to have a life. Now you’re engaged. That’s perfectly normal. I’m sure she’s lovely. You don’t owe me anything. It’s no big deal. End of story.

Kat unlocked the door and cracked it open, then turned to him, suddenly energized. But I’ll tell you what is not OK, and that’s how it didn’t even matter to you that you were engaged! You didn’t care about your fiancйe /or/ me that night in that ridiculously huge bed. The only thing you cared about was getting your freak on, as Nola would say, and when I look back, my God… I was so stupid! That’s what it’s always been about for you, isn’t it? Maybe that’s how it is with all men. I’m sick of men!

Kat stopped, suddenly aware that Riley had left the chair and was standing near her at the door, glaring down at her. Without a word, he slapped his hand against the door and slammed it shut.

Where’s your bedroom? he asked.

Kat couldn’t breathe. Her head was spinning. She was so turned on that her legs were shaking. Why did this man turn her into human pudding like this? It wasn’t fair.

But Riley grabbed a handful of her hair at the back of her head and calmly planted his lips right over hers, putting an end to whatever it was that she’d wanted to say. Which she couldn’t remember now. Because he kissed her like he was entitled to her mouth. He held her in place by her hair like he had every right to do it. With his lips and tongue and teeth he put his brand on her, and through the fog of lust, all Kat could think of was the lyrics to one of those songs she heard at least ten times a week on the Oldies station in the back room radio at the flower shop: If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Riley removed his lips and smiled down at her.

Kat was dizzy. But not too dizzy to do the right thing, because unlike Riley, she had a conscience. She fumbled for the door handle once more and pulled it open. Good-bye, Riley. Have a happy life.

His smile didn’t budge. I’m not engaged. There is no fiancйe.

Kat suddenly felt unsteady on her feet, like she needed to lie down. On her bed. With him. No fiancйe? she whispered.

There was oneCarrie Mathislast year, right before I found out about you and Aidan. He began to brush his fingertips along the side of her face.

She became a little unbalanced when I canceled the wedding and broke up with her. I think she used Madeline to mess with you in a very big way.

Kat felt the hope begin to swell inside her. She could barely speak. Is that the truth?

The blunt truth, Scout. And I’m thinking we’re free to bust our lives wide open right about now, if you get my drift.

The bedroom is down the hall to your right, she said.

Carrie didn’t think he’d mind. After all, according to Madeline, Virgil Cavanaugh hadn’t left his house since his wife died, except for his recent visit to the cardiac unit at Davis Memorial, so it wasn’t like Carrie would be interrupting his busy schedule or anything.

She pulled her Volvo into the driveway and took a quick glance around.

The place looked untidy. Obviously, hiring a neighborhood kid to rake up the leaves was not a priority for Mr. Cavanaugh. Then again, the way Madeline described him, maybe he couldn’t pay a kid enough to do his yard work. She said the only person who could stand to be in the same room with him was his sister, who’d been doing his shopping and laundry since Mrs. Cavanaugh died.

Carrie smiled to herself as she climbed the front steps, thinking that she could handle one little old nasty hermit. She rang the doorbell.

Nothing.

She rang it again. No sound of movement inside.

Carrie dug her finger into the doorbell and didn’t let up. The hospital records indicated he’d been released five days earlier, but maybe he’d infarcted on his kitchen floor. She had just about decided to call 911 when she heard a faint rustling.

Mr. Cavanaugh? Carrie spoke in a voice loud enough to penetrate the door. May I talk with you for just a moment? I’m Dr. Caroline Mathis, a colleague of Dr. Bohland’s.

I don’t do house calls, said a scraggly voice from inside.

That made her laugh. This is more of a social call, Mr. Cavanaugh.

Please open up.

I don’t do those, either.

Carrie sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. This old geezer was a character. Unfortunately, he was beginning to irritate her.

I’d just like a few minutes of your time.

The dead bolt turned. The wooden door of the tacky rancher opened, and from behind the ragged screen she saw an equally ragged face.

Make it snappy, he said.

Good evening, Mr. Cavanaugh. It’s an honor to meet you.

The old man let out a wheeze of a laugh. Charmed, I’m sure. Now what the hell do you want?

Carrie blinked in surprise. No wonder Virgil Cavanaugh didn’t have any friends. May I come in?

You may not. Just state your business and then you can leave.

Well… Carrie looked around the unkempt front yard. It’s a rather delicate subject. Are you sure you want me to be standing out here in public?

Mr. Cavanaugh craned his neck to look over her shoulder. What public?

What the hell are you talking about?

It has to do with your daughter, Mr. Cavanaugh. I need just a few minutes of your time.

Carrie observed, fascinated, as the old man’s demeanor changed. His back straightened and his eyes cleared, like a heat inside him had just burned through the dullness of age, coronary artery disease, and what smelled like a fifth of Stolichnaya. She watched his cheek spasm.

Go around to the back of the house. He slammed the door in her face.

Can I just say how much I appreciate you not wearing a bra? Riley yanked off Kat’s T-shirt and buried his face in the heavenly succulence of her breasts.

I’m happy that you’re happy. While he kicked aside his shoes and socks, she pulled his pants off, then ripped off his shirt.

Do you always go braless at home? Riley inhaled the sugary aroma of her girl flesh.

Kat giggled, raking her fingertips through Riley’s hair and pulling him tighter to her body. I think I’m about to ruin some sort of man fantasy by telling you this, but no. I almost always wear a bra. I was just too depressed to put one on today.

Ah. More blunt truth.

Absolutely. That’s all you’ll get from me from here on out.

Riley groaned, enjoying how the tingles from his scalp were now shooting all the way through his limbs. He buried his nose deeper, inhaled some more, rubbed into her, then dragged his lips down from her cleavage to her tummy, where he grabbed the waistband of her pants and underwear, and yanked those off, too. He stepped back to stare at the vision in front of himKat Cavanaugh, naked. All pink softness. Real. A real Kat Cavanaugh all pink and naked and sitting on the edge of her bed looking happy to see him.

Riley fell to his knees in front of her. Mind if I worship you?

Kat laughed.

I’m dead serious.

Her laugh died down. She played with his hair as a small smile crept over her face. I wouldn’t know what that feels like.

Her response shocked him. He and Kat hadn’t talked much that night at Cherry Hill, but from what Aidan said, Riley figured that Kat had had a healthy love life over the years.

How can that be? Riley asked.

She shrugged. Just never found the right man for the job, I guess. She ran a fingertip down the bridge of Riley’s nose. And you? How come no woman snapped you up in those moments you happened not to be engaged?

Riley gently pushed her thighs apart. Not wide, but enough that he could see the tight red curls that guarded the entrance to a pussy that was already swelling and wet for him. He looked up at her and was greeted by eyes as warm as honey but shadowed by doubt. It broke his heart.

He wished he could say something profound, something that would satisfy that doubt once and for all. He wanted to wrap up all the pain and loneliness and mistakes and longing of the last twenty years and put all of it behind them. He wanted to wash them both clean, give them both permission to risk everything for another shot at happiness.

But since he didn’t have a clue how to do that with words, he decided to rely on touch.

Riley leaned down and kissed the instep of her left foot, then her right. He slowly dragged his tongue along the inside of one of her ankles, then lifted her leg up and out so that he could nibble on the tender skin behind the knee. While he did this, Kat leaned back on her palms and let her head loll, moaning softly.

Riley noticed how she had instinctively begun to spread her thighs farther as his mouth worked its way toward the juncture of her legs. He could smell herthe same damp and rich abundance he’d nearly drowned in at Cherry Hill. Riley started to nip at her labia, press his nose into her clitoris.

Seriously, didn’t you date anyone after Carrie? Kat asked.

Mmmmm… I don’t remember any dates with anyone, he said, dragging his tongue around his target, teasing, testing, then suddenly licking up and down through the wet seam of her sex. But I can’t remember much of anything right now, he mumbled.

Kat giggled, and Riley wasn’t sure if she did that because she thought he was funny or from the vibration of his voice, but either way, her laughter indicated Riley wasn’t exactly driving her out of her head.

Why no women after Carrie? she asked.

Riley stopped. He sat back on his heels so he could answer her properly.

Her eyes were bright with interest.

All I could think of was you, he answered. You’d come back from the dead. I couldn’t even /see/ other womenit was like I had blinders on. I felt like my world was in limbo until I found you and my son.

Oh, Riley… Kat leaned down and kissed his forehead, then along the side of his face, and finally his lips. He closed his eyes with the decadence of it, all these gentle and loving kisses from the woman of his dreams, all for him.

His mind flashed with images from so long ago, how he and Kat had begun dabbling in sex when they were far too young to dabble. Riley remembered how she’d been so giving, right out of the gate, like she’d only been waiting for him to allow her to express her love. It was intense. Those nights on the blanket out on the quarry road were always heavy with emotion. It soon became apparent to Riley that he was Kat’s lifeline as well as her boyfriend.

It must have killed her when he told her to get lost.

Riley’s eyes flew open and he looked up at Kat. She smiled at him.

Suddenly, the idea that any other man had ever been on the receiving end of Kat Cavanaugh’s affections really bothered him. Suddenly, he hated himself for sending her out into the world thinking she wasn’t wanted.

Yes, they’d wounded each other, but Riley knew without a doubt that he’d drawn the first blood.

And you, sweet Scout? How come you never got married?

Kat put her arms around herself, and Riley realized she was probably cold sitting there naked like that. He pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms tight around her, gathering her close as he looked down into her eyes.

No reason, really, she said with a shake of her head.

Come on. Why aren’t you in a relationship right this second? I would imagine you spend most of your time sorting through offers from men.

Kat tried to avoid eye contact, but Riley used a finger to tilt up her chin. She had no choice but to look at him. Tell me, Kat.

She shrugged. It’s not a big mystery. I just had a hard time finding anyone I wanted to share my life with.

Why?

I guess because I kept looking for… well, /you/, Riley. I kept looking for someone like Riley Bohland, and I never found him.

He let out a gentle laugh. But you knew exactly where to find the real thing.

Kat laughed, too. I mean I never found him in /Baltimore/, and there was no way in hell I was going back to Persuasion until I could show everyone I had made it without them.

Suddenly, the timing of Kat’s return made sense to Riley. He pulled back a few inches so he could study her. You mean you didn’t want to come back until you had a ton of money? Aidan told me all about Phyllis’ estate.

It wasn’t about money, Kat snapped, pulling away a bit more. I wanted to be strong when I went back to Persuasion. Strong and beautiful and totally together. I dreamed of the day I’d get to rub all your faces in my sheer /awesomeness/.

Ahh.

But then Phyllis died and left me millions, and I figured, hey, I’ll just get a makeover and fake the rest.

Riley laughed. You’re not faking a damn thing.

Ha! Kat gave him a shy smile, then stepped out of his arms. She reached behind her to grab the down comforter and wrapped it tight around herself before she sat cross-legged on the bed.

Riley joined her. Once he got comfortable, he fished around inside the comforter until he found her small hand, which he kissed, then cradled in his own. You really are all those things, you know.

I will admit that there are times when I’ve been strong, together, or beautiful, but just not all at the same time, and that’s what I wanted the day I went back to Persuasion.

Give me this. Riley grabbed the comforter and pulled it away from her body, then swung her around so she was situated with her back against his chest, skin on skin. He wrapped the down blanket around them both and her small, warm body felt solid against him.

Let me tell you a story about a girl I used to know, he said, talking softly in her ear. She was always strong and together. She survived a childhood where her father would beat her mother, yet she had the presence of mind to nurse her mother back to health every time. She volunteered to read a poem at my mother’s funeral, and she got up there in front of hundreds of people with steady hands and a calm voice.

She gasped. I’d forgotten all about that.

This girl was very smart, too. I always loved her take on things, whether it was music or school subjects or just normal everyday stuff.

Her observations about people were funny and insightful. And sweetmy God, was she ever sweet.

Do I know this person?

Riley kissed the top of her head. She was you. She /is/ you, Kat.

She said nothing.

After you disappeared, I used to imagine what it would be like if you were still at Underwood High. I’d picture you playing second base on the girls’ softball team and getting on the honor roll every semester.

Kat whipped her head around in disbelief. You remember what position I played?

Sure I do. I also used to imagine the dress you’d wear to homecoming with me, and how you’d be named?Girl Most Likely to Succeed’ in the /Overview/ our senior year.

Kat snorted and leaned back into his chest.?Girl Most Likely to Get Pregnant Before She Earns Her Learner’s Permit’ is more like it.

I don’t think that was an actual category.

Or how about?Girl Most Likely to Live with Parakeets’?

Also not an option, he said, burying his smile in her silky hair. ?Girl Most Likely to Fuck Up Her Son’s Life by Lying to Him from the Day He Was Born’?

Sssshhh, Riley said.

They sat quietly for many minutes. Their breath eventually fell into the same rhythm. Riley held her, rocked her, and kissed the side of her neck.

The phone rang.

Don’t get it, Riley said. Please. Stay here with me.

What if it’s Aidan?

Then you can call him back.

They listened as the answering machine clicked on and a woman immediately launched into a squeaky tirade.

Kat! Kat! You’re not going to freakin’ believe this!

It’s Nola, Kat reassured Riley.

The younger Bohunk brother is in town and he just asked me out! Should I go? Should I? Would you mind? I mean, I know Riley is an engaged asshole, but Matt seems decent.

Riley laughed to himself in surprise. /Did she just say Bohunk?/ Nola continued. What am I saying? Of course I’m going to goI already said yes. He’s picking me up in fifteen minutes. What should I wear? And where are you? I thought you were just going to stay home and sulk today. Well, gotta go. I’ll tell you everyth /Beep/.

Wow, Riley said.

Kat began to squirm in his arms and he loosened the comforter so she could turn around. Once she threw her legs over his and got comfortable, Riley wrapped her tight again and smiled down at her.

Yes, Kat answered before he could ask. That’s what Nola calls you.

I like it.

Kat slowly shook her head. She’s gonna eat Matt alive.

Oh, I think Matt can handle her.

One of Kat’s eyebrows shot up. You don’t understand. Matt’s just a small-town boy, and Nola’swell, Nola’s been around the block so many times she’s worn a groove in the sidewalk.

Like I said, he can handle it.

That remains to be seen.

A deep wave of comfort and ease flooded Riley. It was the combination of Kat’s husky voice, her warm skin against his, the way their minds clicked. He kissed her softly on the lips.

Have you noticed what we’re doing, Riley?

Uhm… He paused. Is this a trick question?

Kat laughed. I just thought I’d point out that we raced in here to the bedroom, ripped each other’s clothes off like wild animals in heat, and what did we end up doing?

Riley smiled. Talking.

She nodded. Talking and snuggling.

Kat was right. So what do you think that means?

She bit her lip and gave it some thought. I believe it means we’ve done things backward. It means we have a lot to hash out between us, a lot to understand about each other, and a lot to forgive before another night like Cherry Hill.

Riley studied her face, beautiful, strong, and together all at the same time. He laughed softly. I have to say, as much as I’d like to have a Cherry Hill moment right here, right now, you’re absolutely right.

Kat’s eyes sparkled with pleasure. I’m glad you agree, because I don’t ever want to be left alone in the morning like that again, not knowing where things stand with us or what you’re thinking or feeling, just sitting there holding one of your socks, not sure if I’m a complete moron or the luckiest girl on earth.

Riley let go with a raucous laugh and began to wrestle with her. So you stole my sock! he shouted. Admit it, woman! Admit it, I say!

They rolled around on the bed, laughing and kissing, until they rolled right off the edge and landed with a loud thud on the wood floor. They laughed even harder.

Riley suddenly cocked his head in alarm. He heard a loud banging sound that sounded like it was coming from the ceiling above them.

What the hell is that? he asked. Riley rolled Kat to the side to protect her. Do you hear it? The thumping started again.

That’s Mrs. Brownstein, Kat said, sputtering out a laugh. She’s just jealous.

Riley nodded. Looks like now would be a good time to get a place with a little more privacy.

Did I tell you I’m fixing up Phyllis’ old row house? Kat pushed herself up from the floor and offered her hand to Riley, the blanket draped over her shoulders like a queen’s floor-length cape. It will be a few more months until it’s ready, she said, pulling him to a stand.

Then come back to Persuasion.

The words had burst out of Riley’s mouth before he even knew they’d formed in his brain, and the idea filled him with excited energy. Come home, Kat. Aidan can visit whenever he likes. Come back and stay for a while; see how it feels to have me in your life, rub my face in your awesomeness, get to know me all over again. Would you do it?

Kat stared at him wide-eyed.

I promise to give you all the time and space you need. But I’d be right there in town. We could see each other every once in a while. Have dinner. Hang out. No more Cherry Hills until we’re both sure it’s right.

She shook her head and took a step back. I don’t know.

Why not? Is it Virgil?

Kat hissed. That old fart doesn’t scare me anymore. In fact, one day I have every intention of marching right up to him and telling him everything I remember about my childhood, what he did to my mom and me, how we didn’t deserve any of it. It might be therapeutic.

Riley dared to take this further. You could register for classes at Mountain Laurel if you felt like it.

Kat’s eyes flashed.

We could get to know each other like real adult people in a real adult relationship.

A smile slowly spread over Kat’s lips. I’d want my own little place.

There’s always houses to rent near campus.

Kat walked back toward Riley with a regal gait, swinging her cape along the side of her nude flesh, all glorious, round, and firm /femaleness/.

It was a vision he’d never forget.

She popped up on her tiptoes and locked her gaze on his.

I am willing to try if you are, she said. But you have to promise me a couple things.

You name it.

I want honesty.

You got it.

I want you to swear that if and when you want to break up with me, you’ll find a better way to do it than the last time.

The knife went right into Riley’s heart. I swear. And will you promise me something?

Sure.

Don’t run away again, like you did twenty years ago and then again two weeks ago, because I’m man enough to admit that it scares the hell out of me to love a woman who has a habit of disappearing on me.

Kat plopped down on the balls of her feet, suddenly serious. I thought you were engaged.

I realize that. But humor me.

Sure. I promise I won’t run away again.

And promise me you’ll tell me should you ever again be pregnant with my child.

A sly little smile played on Kat’s lips. She snaked her arm around the back of Riley’s head and slid her fingers through his hair, pulling him down until his mouth was on hers. Kat kissed him hard and long.

It was a seal. It was a start.

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