Just the Way You Are
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But she would. She already did.
Ten Years Ago
She’d go anywhere but home.
The humidity was thick and the August sun beat down on her back as Stacey had wandered around Decadence Creek. When she found herself on the Duval estate, she’d relaxed a little.
The Duvals were like a sitcom family—big and boisterous, healthy, full of life and talent. Four boys and a girl, and their parents were proud of every one of them.
Stacey wondered what that was like, having brothers to tease you about your first date, having parents who showed up to choir performances and parent-teacher conferences. Her mom used to do all that. Before.
She swallowed hard and focused on the hot sun blistering her bare shoulders, as if the discomfort of the summer day could make her forget the painful reality that waited for her at home.
The Duval estate was lined with all these gorgeous walkways that led from the horse stables to the garages to the farmhands’ cottages. She liked to sneak over here and pretend this was her land, that she was a Duval and her biggest worry was which boy to let escort her to the prom.
Of course, that was a flawed fantasy because usually it was a Duval brother she liked to imagine taking her.
Her mind turned to make the fantasy work. Maybe she wasn’t biologically one of them, but they took her in because they wanted her to be able to finish high school in Decadence Creek.
At the sound of footsteps, she froze and her thoughts dropped off. They were coming closer. It wasn’t like this family would mind her walking on their grounds, but she was too embarrassed to be caught.
Before she could think, she darted across the grass and into a cornfield.
The crop was healthy this year and stood a good foot over her head.
“Hey!” a male voice called. “Hey! What are you doing?”
She heard steps behind her and she churned her legs faster, the husks scratching her arms and face as she hurdled through them.
“Stop!” the man called behind her. “Where are you going?”
She ran, focusing on churning her legs instead of the stinging scrapes on her bare flesh.
And then he reached her. Arms wound around her waist and she fell to the ground, hot male bearing down on her.
“Stacey?” He shifted his weight to his side, but he didn’t release her.
Her brain finally synched with her body and she froze. This wasn’t just any man whose body was pressed to hers. This was Harrison Duval.
She turned under him so she could see his face. “Hi.”
He grinned, his eyes crinkling in the corners, and all that shaggy hair hung around his face.
God save her from crushes on good-looking rich boys.
“Why were you running?”
She licked her lips and his gaze shifted to watch her tongue. “How do you know my name?”
“We go to school together.” He said it like it explained everything. Their school was small, but he was a couple years older than her. He’d be starting some fancy college in the fall and she’d be a nobody junior at a new school.
Everything hit her right then. The injustice of her life, the gash in her heart she’d been hiding since her mother’s diagnosis, the knowledge that after tomorrow, she’d never see this man, this crush of hers, ever again.
It was a combustible combination of grief, anger, and lust that made her act. Her fingers tangled into his hair, and she tugged his mouth down to hers.
He hesitated for a moment, but he must have sensed how much she needed this. Or maybe he needed it too. Because he kissed her back. He sipped at her lips and stroked her face, and kissed her back like she was the most precious thing he’d ever touched. Like he wanted to take care of her.
Her throat grew thick. No one needed to take care of her.
She tugged at his shirt, yanking it off over his head, then she did away with her own.
He let her touch him in the middle of that field, and he touched her.
She needed this. She needed to know she was alive. That her life wasn’t ending with her mom’s. Because for so many months it had felt like it had. And in that moment, her virginity felt like the only thing standing between her and a second chance at life.
By the time Harrison returned to their suite, the sun had long since slipped beneath the horizon. He expected to find her asleep, but the bed lay vacant and unused, the couch unoccupied. The sound of running water came from the bathroom.
She peeked around the bathroom door at the sound of her name. “Hey.” She held a thick white terry cloth robe closed at the base of her neck. She stepped into the room, softly closing the bathroom door behind her. “Listen, I’m sorry.”
He shook his head and held up his hands. “No, you have nothing to be sorry for.” He crossed to her and took her hands in his. Christ. She was so damn soft. “Honesty?”
“Please,” she said softly.
“I entered this marriage intent on seducing you. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t thought about it. A lot.” His lips quirked. “And I get the impression you’ve thought about it too.”
She wrung her hands and worried her lower lip between her teeth.
He felt like a world-class ass.
“I like you,” she blurted.
He stilled. “I like you too.”
“I like the way you look at me.”
Hell. If a conversation ever required him to proceed with caution, this was it. “How’s that?”
“Like I’m beautiful.”
He collapsed onto the bed before her and blew out a hard breath. “You’re gorgeous, Stace. You always have been.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I used to watch you in high school, wonder about you. You were this dark beauty. A quiet mystery no one could get close to.”
“What if things change between us?”
He lifted a shoulder. “They could, but I don’t see it being a bad change. I mean, I’ve learned a few things since I had my way with you in that cornfield.”
Her shoulders relaxed as she laughed, but soon silence stood between them again.
“What are you worried about, Stace?”
“What if one of us wants more?” Her cheeks blazed and she ducked her head. “Or if you fall in love with me?”
He took the belt of her robe in his hands and rubbed the soft cloth between his fingers. “Worse things could happen.”
“I meant it when I said I never wanted to get married—that this had to be temporary. That won’t change.”
He peered up at her. “Can we agree to take it a day at a time?”
It was a single word, but everything shifted between them, and Harrison found himself smiling. “Did I hear you running a bath when I came in?”
Her cheeks flushed. “I thought it sounded nice.”
He let his eyes skim over her. The image of her reclining na**d in that glass tub flashed through his mind. When he returned his gaze to her face, the pink tinge in her cheeks had turned scarlet and her teeth were pressing into her bottom lip.
“It’s a big tub,” she said.
“I saw that.”
She dropped her eyes and studied the floor. “I wouldn’t mind some company.”
Oh, hell, she was trying to torture him. “Get settled.” Somehow he managed not to squeak like a pubescent teen. “I’ll meet you in there.”
Stacey slid into the hot water and took a deep breath to calm her frazzled nerves.
She squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t fall for him, couldn’t let this spiral into something she couldn’t control. Something she didn’t deserve.
Even as she tried to cling to her worry, the hot water loosened her muscles and soothed her frayed nerves.
You just say the word, and I swear you won’t regret it.
Instead of watching the door and counting down the moments until he joined her, she let herself imagine it. His eyes raking down her bare body, his hot skin pressing against hers. His rough fingertips grazing along her jaw as he lowered his mouth to hers. His lips, hot and tender as they coaxed hers open.
She traced her fingers between her br**sts and over her stomach, and in that single moment of lust and solitude, she knew she had to break her own rules.
Harrison had married her. She could berate herself for letting him, but it was done, and any consequences of associating with her were going to find him whether they slept together or not, and any fool could see it was only a matter of time.
She could tell herself she was going to do it for him. That he should get something out of their arrangement. But the lie would lower them both.
She wanted him.
She pressed the heel of her hand into the flat of her stomach, moaning softly as her fingers slipped between her legs. She was already slick from their mental foreplay, already swollen as she cupped her sex.
The taste of him lingered on her tongue, the image of his hot eyes scorched into her brain. She slid a finger inside herself, rubbing steady pressure against her clit. She imagined it was Harrison’s hand against her sex, Harrison’s fingers probing her, imagined this was just the beginning and soon he’d drive into her with a c**k as hard and thick as the rest of him.
She didn’t realize she was moaning until she heard him call her name.
It took her a moment to realize the voice was coming from outside the bathroom and not from the confines of her fantasy.
“Are you okay?”
She bit down on her lip at the sound of his voice. When she opened her mouth to respond, her throat was dry. She didn’t want to push him away anymore. She wanted him closer, touching her.
She forced her eyes open as he walked into the room. Instead of hiding what she’d been doing, she kept her hand between her legs and brushed her other hand over the taut peaks of her nipples.
This was what he wanted. He’d said so hours earlier, and a little exhibitionism couldn’t hurt, could it?
He froze in the doorway, gaze growing hot as he watched her—his green irises disappearing as his eyes grew dark.
Hot eyes raked over her, all of her—her br**sts exposed above the water, the rest of her exposed through the glass surround of the tub.
She shifted and let her legs part.
His chest rose and fell with his breath. His hands fisted at his sides as he drew his gaze back to her face, his eyes locking with hers.
She inhaled sharply at the heat there, the carefully controlled lust. “Still like the tub?”
He chuckled at that, but the lightness was belied by the intensity in his eyes as they traveled over her again. “I don’t know what you want from me, Stace.”
She did remove her hand now, exposed her whole self to him. Her fingers traced over her belly. “You’ve always looked at me like I was worth something. Touched me like I was. I want more of that.”
“You can have all you want.” His voice was husky, rough. He crossed the room and stripped off his shirt, exposing the solid breadth of his chest and making her mouth go dry. When his fingers dropped to the button on his pants, his eyes met hers and he stilled. “I’m not going to break your rules. Do you trust me?”
“I—” Before she could find her voice, he was nude and climbing in the tub behind her.
The water rose, and she shifted as he slid behind her and settled her between his legs.
He was already hard and she moaned and wriggled against his erection.
“Easy.” His breath was hot against her ear as his hands slid around her.
He stroked her stomach with the rough pads of his thumbs. This man may have had a fancy desk job, but these weren’t a lawyer’s hands. These were hands of a man raised working on the family farm. These were the hands of a man who found himself while breaking horses and rebuilding engines.
He fanned his fingers and brushed her hipbones, and she arched, pressing her head into his shoulder.
His mouth opened against her neck, wet heat and suction making her writhe as delicious want whipped through her. She lifted her hips, willing his hand lower, but instead of taking pity on her, he moaned against her neck and—reached for the soap?
She twisted around to look at him. “Seriously?” She sounded a little breathless. A brush of his hand and a kiss on her neck and she was desperate. Willpower of steel.
He grinned. “Isn’t this is what you do in the tub?”
She frowned as she watched him lather the soap in his hands.
“Do you remember the day I found you in the cornfield?”
“Chased me into it is more like it.” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Yes, I remember,” she whispered, not trusting herself to say more.
“I was so lost that day,” he said, and the words echoed her own thoughts. “I was supposed to be packing my things for Dartmouth. I had spent years dying to get out of Decadence Creek, and suddenly it was time.”
She turned to look up at him. “It was your home. Of course you didn’t want to leave.”
“I did, though. I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be judged on my own merits, not given a pass because of my name. But when it came, I was terrified I’d fail. I was lost, then there you were like an answered prayer.”
She grabbed his soapy hands and pressed them against her chest. “I needed you too.”
“The chemistry between us…” He drew his hands up her belly and over her breasts, massaging soap into the sensitive flesh. “I’ve never done anything like that.”
She didn’t respond. Couldn’t with his hands at her breasts, his fingers toying with her nipples.