Beautiful Bastard (Chapter 18 VeRITe)

The door closed quietly, the soft click reverberating down the long hallway. I stood, the sound of my own breathing echoing in my ears; a stunned, pulsing silence all around me.

My hand lingered, my grasp tightening around the cool metal as if it was my last link to her.

I couldn't bring myself to let go.

With a pained sigh, I finally loosened my hand, watching my fingers fall away and my arm drop heavily to my side. I couldn't seem to move. I wished more than anything that I could take it all back and still be standing beside her. I ached for her with an intensity I'd never felt before, as if I'd left a piece of myself on the other side of the door.

Reluctantly pushing away, I turned toward the elevator, surprised my feet could even move from the spot. In all the time that we had been together, she'd never turned me away. Even at the worst of times, when we did nothing but try to tear each other apart, she'd never said no.

And I'd never felt this empty.

I managed to make it to my car, ignoring faces and voices as I passed. My hand fumbled with the handle of the shiny black Porsche. The action usually gave me an adrenaline rush; now I longed only for the impending comfort as it sheltered me behind its dark, tinted glass.

Leaning my head back against the leather seat, my fists clenched painfully at my side, I stared unseeingly at the sunroof above me. The darkening sky and emerging stars did not register in my mind; my focus still lingered on the woman sixteen floors above me, her red eyes and broken expression burned forever in my vision.

A break in the numbness appeared and my fist collided with the steering wheel. The pain shooting up my arm was a welcome reprieve from the almost suffocating weight that had settled inside my chest.

I flexed my fingers and inspected the damage, wincing at my stupidity.

Closing my eyes, I attempted to fill my lungs. I breathed in deeply, but the smell of Chloe surrounded me and my chest expanded painfully. Suddenly the acute feeling of her all around me and inside my head overwhelmed me, the pain in my hand fading to a dull, throbbing ache.

It will be okay. It has to be okay.

I repeated the words in a rhythmic loop in my mind, clinging to them as if wanting it enough could bring it to fruition.

My phone vibrated in my pocket, the sound of the low buzz both startling and irritating me. I exhaled deeply, clenching my jaw and trying to halt any hope I had that it could be her. I peered at it through tired eyes, the disappointment instant although expected as an unrecognized number I'd seen several times today appeared on the caller ID.

Kneading my temples, I clenched my jaw and exhaled forcefully, attempting to quell the rapid agitation I felt at the insistent unknown caller, the situation, myself…fuck, even Chloe. I couldn't deal with work right now. Hell, I couldn't deal with anyone right now. Without another thought, I silenced the call and tossed the annoyance onto the seat beside me.

Starting the car, I revved the engine, the soothing hum a momentary and welcome distraction from the empty, hollow feeling that had settled in my stomach. I pressed the clutch and shifted smoothly, forcing myself to focus on the rhythm of changing gears and gentle purring of the machine surrounding me. Driving toward the parking lot exit, I kept my eyes forward, my gaze never wavering to the familiar silver car parked on my right as I passed.

My tires squealed as I turned onto the busy street and I watched in my rear view mirror as the apartment building and the woman it held faded into the distance. I began the familiar drive to my parents' home, knowing that what awaited me there would not be pleasant. I was torn between wanting to get this over with and just wanting to go home and drink myself into a stupor, forgetting this day had ever happened.

Pulling up in front of the large house, I shut off the engine and waited.

The minutes ticked by; the sky grew darker and yet, courage still eluded me. My father had been furious today – restrained, but furious.

My brother on the other hand… I rubbed my jaw absentmindedly again and winced, remembering his expression of complete disbelief and betrayal when he'd realized that I'd lied to him. Restraint had never been his strong point. It had most certainly eluded him today.

The one person I had yet to deal with was my mother. I looked up at the house, glowing brightly in the fading light, my eyes focusing on the window of the room where I was sure she sat waiting for me. Knowing I was being a coward, I put my phone in my pocket and climbed out, moving slowly up the illuminated walkway. If I could handle my father, my brother, and Chloe angry in one day, I could certainly handle this…I hoped.

Just as I reached the door, it opened. My father stood waiting for me, an uncharacteristically worn expression on his face. I found myself pondering all the battles he'd had to fight on my behalf today.

"Hey Dad," I said quietly.

"Son," he replied in greeting, opening the door wider and allowing me to pass. "Your mother is upstairs waiting for you."

I nodded in acknowledgment and made my way to the staircase. My hand ran along the smooth mahogany banister, the wood familiar and comforting under my palm. I reached the third floor and continued down the hall, pausing as I passed the infrequently used door. Unable to turn away, I turned the antique knob, compelled to see it again.

I stepped into the bathroom and closed the door softly behind me, flipping the switch and squinting as the room became bathed in artificial light.

Everything looked as it did that day, minus the sunlight streaming in through the open window, the breeze gently lifting the gauzy curtain, and the woman I loved meeting my gaze in the dressing table mirror.

I remembered how possessive I'd felt that afternoon, how I'd wanted to claim her and mark her as my own. Had I loved her even then? Had she already captured my heart with the same unbreakable hold she'd had on my body?

My fingers traced the phone in my pocket, my desire to give her what she'd asked for-time- battling with my need to stay connected to her.

I slipped the phone out and typed the words haunting my mind.

I still remember the first moment I realized I loved you.

I pressed send without hesitation. I didn't expect her to answer, and I shook my head realizing her phone would most likely be off. Regardless, the simple act of telling her everything, even in small pieces over my phone, afforded me a small bit of comfort.

I turned, placing my hand on the door, and closed my eyes as I remembered roughly pressing her eager body against it.

"You see, he wants something that's mine, and he can't have it."

I recalled how it felt to say those words out loud, how the truth buried in my growl had pulled something primal from inside of me.

"I can do anything I want, Mr. Ryan," she'd replied, although I could hear the uncertainty in her voice even then . "And I am not yours."

I smiled in spite of my mood. Was that true? Or had she already belonged to me in the same way that I'd belonged to her? I walked to the table, my fingers running over the small glass bottles placed there, remembering the sound they'd made as I'd taken her against it. I'd been unrelenting, almost cruel as I'd spoken to her.

"Do you want him?" I'd asked roughly as rage began to boil inside me. "Answer me." Her eyes had borne into mine, her chest heaving, but she didn't speak ."Do you see him?" I'd asked as my hands slid over her breasts. "Look at him." My fingers moved down her abdomen, along her skirt and to her thighs. "Does he make you feel like this?"

I'd taken her with such force, wanting to punish her for tormenting me, for filling my head with images of what I couldn't have.

Now when I thought of the things I'd done… My stomach dropped and a wave of nausea coursed through me as I remembered. Why hadn't I just told her? Why hadn't I been honest… about everything? My fear of what I'd felt had brought out something cowardly and frightened in me, propelling me to protect any feeling I had. It was so unlike me and yet it defined our entire beginning.

Her words from tonight replayed in my mind.

"I don't want to be the next Rachel. I don't want to be the one you tell the next woman about with no other explanation than 'it just ended'."

I leaned on the table, sitting on the small stool, my eyes closed tightly against the image of her tear stained face. I'd done that… and she was right. She expected me to hide how I felt, because I had. She expected dissemblance and vague answers. How many times had she attempted to ask me? How many times had I shut her down or evaded an answer? I wouldn't make that same mistake again.

I sent another message, praying when she saw it that she'd believe me.

I know I've kept things from you. I'll tell you everything. Please give me the chance.

Taking a deep breath, I stood, steadying myself before I walked to the door. With my hand on the knob I turned, letting my eyes travel around the room again, silently promising myself that if given the chance, I'd make it right.

Stepping into the hall, I continued toward the music room, the soft notes of a piano drifting through the closed door. I knocked softly and she called for me to enter. I stepped into the room that held so many memories for me throughout my childhood.

My mother sat with her back to me, her fingers moving gracefully over the keys, and even now I was unable to stop the small smile that pulled at the corners of my mouth.

She'd always loved to play, even forcing Emmett and me to take lessons as children. We were terrible.

We would whine and complain until she eventually relented, playing as we built forts and raced Hot Wheels beneath the piano. I still remembered the way we would watch her feet depress the pedals, the way each chord vibrated above our heads.

She paused and turned, silently motioning for me to sit beside her. I walked across the room as she resumed playing, taking a seat on the bench next to her. We sat in silence for several minutes, the notes of the perfectly tuned instrument and her melody the only sound between us. Her playing slowed, drifting into something calm and soft, and I felt her sigh beside me.

"I'm sorry," I breathed as I watched her fingers run along the keys.

"This isn't how I raised you, Bennett," she murmured, her voice calm yet ringing with disappointment.

"I know."

"And this has been going on for how long?"

I placed my palms on my thighs, attempting to still the nervous fidgeting. "Months, weeks…I'm not even sure."

"When Chloe was here for dinner?" she asked in a knowing tone.

I grimaced and swallowed. "Yes."

"Hmm."

Her seemingly indifferent reaction took me by surprise, and I tilted my head to see her; my face contorted in frustration as I attempted to decipher her expression.

Her voice remained quiet and controlled. "That explains a few things, I suppose. But not everything. "

"I know," I began, running my fingers through my hair roughly. "I was such an ass to her."

"To be honest, the very first time I met Chloe, I fell in love with her. She reminded me so much of you…" she said, her voice wistful and far away for a moment. "But I gave up on that thought the moment I saw the two of you together. It was obvious almost immediately that you two were toxic for each other. Despite my attempts to smooth things over, it seemed as if it only got worse. I never dreamed…" She trailed off again briefly and then sighed. "Like I said, I guess it makes sense now." She shook her head slightly, running her fingers between the black keys.

"I only know what your father has told me." She paused, her fingers stilling mid-movement. "But I want to hear it from you, Bennett. Help me understand. How do you feel about her?"

"I love her, Mom. More than anything," I answered immediately. She nodded slowly as she digested my answer.

"And Chloe?"

I paused, my eyes downcast, closing as a moment of doubt entered my mind for the first time.

"Yes," I answered softly.

"Yes?" She bent forward to catch my gaze.

"I mean… she did. We've both said it, but…" I trailed off, unable to articulate the fear that had been growing steadily since leaving Chloe's apartment.

The room fell into silence as she turned, taking my hand in hers.

"Tell me."

I swallowed and exhaled deeply, focusing on the comfort and warmth of my mother's hand. "I…I haven't been honest about everything, about the way I treated her in the past, about Rachel…" I trailed off, seeing how each mistake trumped the one before it. "About a lot of things."

She waited for me to continue, but what more could I possibly say? I had done so many things wrong, and I had absolutely no idea how I could make it right again. After a long moment, she drew in a slow, deep breath and gave my hand a gentle squeeze.

"You know, your father and I have only ever wanted happiness for you and your brother, regardless of who you might find it with. If you struggled with your feelings so much and felt so torn, Bennett, I wish you had come talk to me. I wish you had come talk to any of us who know you." Her eyes fell, a pained look returning to her features.

I was reminded again of the pain that I had caused the two most important women in my life by being selfish, and my chest constricted. I began to talk, explaining every detail I could to her: the attraction I'd felt to Chloe for so long, the inescapable draw she held for me, the realization in Seattle that I truly loved her, and everything between us that had only deepened since. As good as it felt to finally tell some one about this, voicing everything that I had ever censored with Chloe, it still left so many things unfinished; the one person who needed to hear these things was the woman who had been hurt by them the most.

I had no idea how long we sat there talking, or how long we sat in silence afterward before she linked her arm through mine and leaned her head against my shoulder.

"She loves you, Bennett. There's not a doubt in my mind about that. But you need to make this right, and I have every faith that you will." Her voice remained quiet, but was now infused with the familiar soft comfort that had always calmed me.

"I don't even know where to start, Mom. I've hurt her so many times; what if this was her breaking point?"

She shook her head, placing her palm on my cheek to meet her gaze. "Bennett, she couldn't stay away from you even when she thought she despised you. Give her some time, and then be the man your father and I raised you to be. Be honest with her and tell her everything that she deserves to know.

Let her make that decision instead of assuming how she will handle it and making it for her. And above all, respect her feelings. She loves you, and you hurt her. Own that."

I nodded slowly as she leaned over and kissed my cheek, taking my hand as we stood to go see my father.

What seemed like hours later, I stepped out into the cool night air and chelled my phone, unsurprised that there were no messages. I shook it off and walked to my car. She had asked for time, and I would give it to her, but I wouldn't give up. I pressed the screen and used the illumination it provided to type out yet another message, words I had whispered to her over and over.

Je suis a toi

I am yours.

I pressed send, watching as the message disappeared and the screen darkened again. I swallowed and rubbed my hand against my chest, attempting to dispel the hollow feeling that was slowly returning. I stood in the darkness, my hand on the handle of my car door and looked out into the night. What was she doing right now? Had she received my messages or were all my pleas and words of love still sitting untouched inside her phone? I hoped it was the latter.

The drive home was long and solitary, the radio off, my phone silent on the seat next to me. I thought back to earlier on the couch, the way she'd felt in my arms, the way I'd needed to have that moment of normalcy with her before we even spoke of anything else. I'd worked myself into a frenzy by the time she'd gotten home, pacing in front of her apartment like some kind of a stalker. I'd realized that even with all that had happened between us we meant to each other, none of her neighbors would even know who I was. I didn't have a key to her apartment, she didn't have a key to mine. Everything seemed so temporary – something I was certainly going to change if given the chance.

I'd noticed immediately that she'd changed out of her ruined dress and into something more comfortable. Her eyes were red, her expression pained and worried. The moment I saw her I couldn't stop myself. The weight I'd been feeling inside my chest disappeared, and I almost ran to her, needing to feel her in my arms. I sighed in relief, pulling her to me and lifting her nearly off the ground as I just breathed, letting her familiar scent and nearness wash over me.

"I love you," she'd whispered and I closed my eyes, a tremor moving through me as her lips pressed against my neck. With those three words, she brought me home and everything else fell away.

"Thank you," I'd murmured, my eyes falling to her lips. I pulled her to me and felt her shiver in my arms, so thankful she was still as affected by this as I was.

I waited, wanting to savor the moment, my eyes falling closed as I tasted her breath and felt the perceptible warmth of her lips so close to my own. What if this was the last time I felt this? Would she run when she learned of all that was discussed today? That more people actually knew, that our little secret was in reality not so secret after all. I could see that she sensed my worry as she pulled away. I needed to calm her fears in return. The others had kept quiet; surely it wouldn't be as big an issue as she anticipated. I knew my father and brother didn't agree, but it wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things. We were in love. People would see that.

I'd kissed her softly and followed her through the door, moving immediately to the large couch before pulling her down to me.

For a long while, I simply held her, my fingers running along her smooth skin and tangling in her hair.

Her warm hands brushed along my chest and I found myself trying to memorize each and every moment, to burn into my brain how it felt to be with her like this. I'd placed kisses against her hair and tried to quell the worry I couldn't seem to shake.

"Why do you love me?" I'd asked, not really thinking about the words before they'd fallen from my lips. Her answer had been surprising, not merely because of how she viewed me, but more the way she saw herself. Didn't she know that she was the world to me? She held my heart in her hands, and I would never be able to give it to another.

A horn honked behind me, shaking me from my thoughts. I glanced up at the green light and accelerated, traveling the small distance that remained until I was home. As I pulled into my space and shut off the engine, I reached for my phone again and without a second thought, typed out another message.

Je vais t'aimer toujours

I am going to love you forever.

My mind was still with her as I made my way from the elevator. Closing the door behind me, I scanned the apartment. Even in the dark, I could tell the housekeeper had been here; the smell of wood polish and disinfectants now hung in the air instead of Chloe's lingering scent.

With a frown, I tossed my keys and wallet to the counter and walked into the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water and ignoring the flashing message indicator on my answering machine. I knew it wasn't her, and everything else could wait. Crossing the room, I stopped in front of the large windows and looked out into the Chicago night. The view was no less beautiful than it was any other night, but I didn't want to look out at the familiar skyline. I didn't want to appreciate its glow and symmetry alone.

I wanted to watch Chloe as she took in the lights and the angles of the city, her eyes moving over the landscape and her lips curving into a smile. I wanted to wonder if she was remembering the first time we were together. I needed to reshape that memory, to give her the context she so desperately needed. She needed to know how she had owned me from our very first touch.

I wanted to wash every memory we had with levity, with a new perspective. I wanted to laugh together at our antics, understanding better how we had tried too hard to hide the inevitable. I wanted to celebrate where we'd ended up.

Had it only been twenty-four hours since we'd laughed and teased, making pizza together in the middle of the night? Since I'd made love to her in her bed?

I pressed my palms against my eyes as I tried to shut out the image of her underneath me, the way she'd whispered my name, and the feel of her nails digging into my dampened skin. Raking my hands through my hair, I saw my reflection in the glass.

I looked pathetic.

I finished my water in one long draw and turned, tossing the empty bottle to the couch as I passed. I crossed to my room, unbuttoning my shirt as I went, slipping it off my shoulders and dropping it to the floor. In the dim light, I could see that my bed was perfectly made; the sheets would be crisp and new. All traces of Chloe would be gone. I stood in the doorway and swayed slightly.

It was as if she'd never been here.

The pain in my chest gripped me and my lungs continued to feel empty even as I took deep, gasping breaths. I fell to my bed and clutched the pillow, my eyes shut tightly against the images that flashed behind my closed lids. So many memories, just scattered pictures that moved through my mind, some so real I could almost smell her orange shampoo. Feel her pressed against me. Lose myself in the heat from her body.

I remembered a night just like this, here in my apartment with dinner finished and forgotten on the table. We'd kissed like teenagers on the couch. The voices of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart on the TV faded into the background as my every thought and breath focused on the woman in myarms. Her lips were soft as they teased and pulled mine. Her hands were so enthusiastic as they'd rid me of my shirt and traveled across my skin, tracing my arms, my chest and my stomach. Her eyes, wide with urgency and darkened with lust, raked hungrily over my body, making me feel like I was everything she'd ever need.

Our kisses had slowed as the night progressed, the movie flickering in the darkness. A new feeling, that just being together could be enough, began to settle over us. As she'd made her way down my body, she'd rested her head on my bare stomach, her hair fanning out and tickling my skin. Her fingers brushed absentmindedly along the waistband of my jeans, triggering my muscles to clench with each pass. My hands moved to her hair and my fingers ran through the soft strands as I watched the way the blue glow from the TV reflected off each one.

Soon after, her breathing evened out, her body stilled, and soft snores drifted up to me. I'd smiled as I realized she'd fallen asleep. That she was so comfortable here, in my home, in my arms, meant more to me than I could have ever thought possible.

We stayed that way as the movie ended, her contented sighs and occasional murmurs making my heart swell with a still unspoken emotion.

I'd picked her up gently and carried her to my bed, undressing her in the muted city lights that fell across the room. She'd stirred as I slipped off my jeans and climbed in next to her, sighing my name into the darkness. I'd pulled her to me, my hushed words whispered into her hair.

"Shh, baby. I'm right here."

She'd calmed instantly against me, her limbs tangling with mine, her warm breath drifting over my skin.

And we'd slept.

For the first time, I'd simply held her in my arms and fallen asleep without needing to be physical first. Unbidden images briefly entered my mind of a lifetime of nights like this. I'd quickly pushed them aside as I'd fallen asleep, content for the moment just to hold the woman I had fallen in love with.

As the memory faded back into my empty room, my heart pounded in my chest as panic swept over me in an ice cold wave.

I couldn't lose her.

For the first time in my life I was unafraid, ready to give myself completely and belong to another person. Did she still want me? I looked at the time. It had been hours and she hadn't responded. Was she telling me something? I needed to know. My rational mind knew that she was just taking the space she needed, but my heart was breaking. With shaking hands, I took out my phone and sent her one final message.

Please say you still love me.

I pressed send just as exhaustion took me. The rest would have to be up to her.

Two sounds woke me from my brief escape into sleep: my phone vibrating on the pillow next to me and an insistent knock filtering in from the living room. My eyes fluttered as I tried to fight consciousness, not wanting to break the surface back into reality. I blinked as the room came into focus and looked at the time, wondering who would be at my door this late. My heart leapt as I realized it could be Chloe. As quickly as I could move, I flung myself off the bed, grabbing my shirt as I raced out of the room. My body vibrated with the anticipation of having her in my arms again.

I was unprepared for what greeted me on the other side of the door.

"Rachel?" I gasped, unable to hide the shock I felt at seeing her here.

"Bennett," she breathed, dropping her phone from her ear, relief visibly washing over her. "I was becoming so worried about you."

She stepped forward, wrapping her arms around my frozen body. I blinked several times as she embraced me, stunned by the familiar way she fit against me and the way she sounded. I slowly circled my arms around her waist.

"I can't believe you're here," I said into her hair as her familiar scent washed over me, the year since we'd seen each other last seeming to disappear. I closed my eyes tightly. The day had been so stressful and I was overwhelmed by the fact that she was at my door. "What…I don't understand." I pulled back and took her face in my hands, searching her features. She was even more beautiful than I remembered.

"I know," she answered, shaking her head slightly and wiping tears from her face.

"Are you okay?" I whispered, easily slipping into the French I'd spoken almost exclusively for six years.

She smiled brightly, her entire face lighting up. "Bennett, I just had to tell you. I'm getting married!"

"You're what?" I exclaimed, unable to contain my smile in return. I took her left hand, thrilled to see the beautiful ring she wore on her finger. Bringing it to my lips, I kissed it gently. "God, I'm so happy for you, Rachel."

She leaned in and whispered, "I'm okay now, Bennett. It's okay." Her simple statement eased something inside my chest, the guilt I'd been carrying around all this time lifting at her words. I wrapped my arms around her tightly.

"Thank you," I breathed, my arms tightening around her, relishing the quiet deliverance, the release I had so desperately needed.

She pulled back to meet my eyes and her smile faltered, her forehead creased with concern.

"Bennett?" She searched my face, surely taking in my red eyes and exhausted appearance. "Bennett, what's wrong?" she asked, her voice panicked and her expression suddenly alarmed.

Looking down briefly, I swallowed, ready to deny it as my mind began working on the hundreds of excuses for my current state. But when I looked up again, I knew there was no point in lying to her.

Rachel had been the first woman I'd loved, the only woman besides Chloe I'd ever been emotionally close. I needed to be honest, starting now.

"Why don't you come on in," I said, stepping back and motioning toward my door.

She nodded and preceded me inside. I watched as she sat down on the couch, her gaze flickering around my apartment, taking it all in and surely seeing pieces of me that she remembered. I sat next to her and ran my hands through my hair, trying to decide where to begin.

"Bennett, you don't have to tell me everything. I just want to make sure you're alright," she said softly, leaning forward and placing her hand on my knee.

I smiled, taking her hand in mine. Despite everything that had occurred between us, that she would offer me her friendship meant more to me than I could ever express.

"I'm fine," I began, laughing and shaking my head. "Okay, that's a fucking lie. I'm not fine." I ran my hands roughly across my face and leaned back into the couch. "I'm an idiot, and I've let the best thing in my life get away from me because I was too big of a coward to be honest with her." I stopped suddenly, realizing how that must sound. "Oh, God. Rachel I di-"

"No," she stated, holding her hand up in protest. "Don't be sorry you've found someone, Bennett. I won't lie…I spent a lot of time being angry with you, hurting and wondering why you couldn't love me enough to stay…but I've moved on. We've moved on." She smiled and reclaimed my hand. "I see now that you were right, that just loving someone isn't enough, that you must wait until you find your heart." She looked down at her ring, her joy so palpable it could hardly be contained. "I've found it.

And he's perfect."

She beamed at me and I couldn't help but smile back. I knew exactly what she was talking about. I listened happily as she told me about how they met, how their relationship grew and how she knew he was the one she was meant to be with.

With a soft, contented sigh, she paused. "Now that I've gone on and on," she said with a laugh. "Tell me about this woman who has so obviously stolen your heart."

I told her everything: the stupid way I'd handled things, how terrified I was that she would never let me fix us, and how I knew Chloe was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. And like the wonderful person she was, she listened… and she was happy for me.

We continued to catch up for a while after that. Being together like this was so natural, like long lost friends reuniting.

"Wait a minute," I started, suddenly realizing I had no idea how she had gotten here. "What are you doing in Chicago? I mean, I thought you were still in Paris."

"I was. We, Ethan and I, are in Chicago overnight. He's actually in the bar downstairs making a few phone calls," she paused, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable for a moment. I leaned forward and squeezed her hand in reassurance. She smiled in acknowledgement before continuing. "Would you like to meet him?"

To be honest, I just wanted this night to be over. After everything that had occurred today, heading downstairs to socialize sounded like the last thing I wanted to do. But looking into her eyes and seeing the utter happiness reflected back at me, I knew I needed to meet and thank the man responsible.

"Of course," I said softly, chuckling at the squeal of delight that escaped her. "Give me a second to clean up and we'll head down."

She nodded, standing to look around as I headed into my room. Changing my shirt quickly and chelling in the mirror, I paused at the doorway, turning to glance at my phone still lying on the bed.

My eyes fell to the carpet as I waged an internal battle with myself over chelling it one more time for a message from Chloe. With a deep sigh, I cleared the small distance and picked it up, pressing the screen to view the status.

No messages.

My jaw clenched and my stomach tightened, whether with hurt or anger, I wasn't sure. I knew she needed time, but how could she just ignore me? Tossing the phone to the bed with a bit more force than necessary, I turned quickly, swearing under my breath as I returned to the living room.

I managed a smile as Rachel's gaze met mine, and if she noticed the sudden change in my mood, she didn't mention it. We spoke of mutual acquaintances I'd left behind as we made our way to the elevator, and I let her contented presence calm me slightly. As the doors opened, I motioned for her to lead the way and pressed the button to take us downstairs.

"Oh," she began, bending at the waist to retrieve something from the floor next to her. "It looks like someone dropped their glasses."

I moved toward her, my eyes locked on the familiar frames she held in her hands.

"Those look almost like…" I paused as I took them from her, my expression pensive as I considered the possibility. I turned them over in my hand, running my thumb along the engraved logo I knew I'd seen countless times. My pulse quickened and my mind raced as I continued to inspect them. There was no way these could be Chloe's… could they? Wouldn't I have seen them on the way up? I thought of everything that had happened today. Was there even a possibility that she had come to my building? Could she have decided to give me another chance?

"Bennett?"

"Oh, God," I breathed, not realizing I'd moved until the cool metal of the interior wall seeped through my shirt. I reached out a hand to steady myself, my stomach rolling and all air evacuating my lungs as I watched the scene beginning to form in my head.

Chloe coming to see me.

Chloe seeing Rachel and I together.

Chloe leaving in such a rush that she didn't realize she'd dropped her glasses.

No.

I looked up as the series of chimes echoed throughout the small space, the illuminated numbers counting down to signal we'd reached the lobby.

I had to find her.

I straightened and stepped away from the wall, every reason for my being here now forgotten. Rachel moved to stand behind me, placing her hand gently on my shoulder.

"I won't lose her," I began, speaking to no one in particular . The elevator doors opened and I moved forward, stopping as someone blocked my path. I glanced up, ready to issue a quick 'excuse me', and froze.

"Chloe?" I asked in disbelief, positive that the woman standing in front of me had to be a figment of my exhausted mind. She turned toward my voice, her breath audibly catching in her throat as her wide eyes met mine. Time seemed to stop as we faced each other, everything focused on the woman standing in front of me.

"Bennett," she breathed, her anxious fidgeting now forgotten. The voices around us seemed to quiet as I took in her tired face. She bit her lip and looked down briefly. My stomach clenched painfully as her red eyes met mine again.

"What are you…" I trailed off, trying to make sense of what was happening.

She came to me.

A throat cleared behind me, my mind barely registering that we weren't alone.

"Bennett?" Rachel questioned, moving to stand beside me. I knew she was waiting for a response but I couldn't take my eyes off Chloe…couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that she had come to find me.

She wasn't running.

"Bennett?" Rachel said again softly. "I think I'll excuse myself." I looked at her in a daze and she smiled. "Call me when you can."

I nodded and watched her approach Chloe, unsure of what she was doing. Chloe never wavered as Rachel took her hands, pausing to glance back at me over her shoulder.

"I think," Rachel began in French, turning toward Chloe again with a smile. "He's definitely found his heart."

Chloe only blinked in response, her forehead creased in frustration, having no idea what Rachel had said.

With one last genuine smile, Rachel left us both in front of the elevator. As she walked away, moving farther with each step, I realized that she took nothing with her. For the first time in over a year, I was truly free.

I looked down, my eyes falling to the glasses I still held in my hand.

"Are these yours?" I asked softly.

Chloe's eyes narrowed as they fell to the frames I offered her, then widened in recognition.

"I didn't realize I'd dropped them," she whispered, taking them from me.

I nodded in acknowledgement, her simple statement confirming my suspicions. I shifted slightly, shoving my hands in my pockets to refrain from reaching for her.

"You were here then….earlier?"

"Yes," she stated, her voice barely audible. My chest constricted as my arms ached to hold her. Here she stood, unsure of what had happened and yet somehow, she had enough faith in me to come back.

I would never deserve her.

I exhaled and moved forward, cautiously taking her hands in mine. She raised her chin to meet my eyes, and I smiled at the determination I saw there.

"Come with me?" I asked, my thumbs tracing soft circles across her palMs. She nodded and I gave her hands a gentle squeeze before turning toward the elevator, pressing the button to take us to my floor.

We stood together in silence, her arm pressed close enough to mine that I could feel the heat through my shirt. I refused to let go of her hand, and although she didn't protest, it rested passively in my palm. The doors opened and I stepped out, leading her down the hall toward my apartment. I motioned for her to step in before me and closed the door silently, pausing before turning to face her.

My mind raced with the hundreds of things I needed to say to her, knowing that none of them would make up for what she'd probably felt tonight.

Standing in front of the window, she waited, certainly contemplating what she was doing here.

"Chloe," I began, exhaling heavily, my sigh the only sound in the room.

"I went to the office," she said softly. "Tonight… after I left."

My eyes narrowed in confusion, wondering why she started there and wishing I could see her face. I moved to turn on the small lamp on the sofa table before she stopped me.

"No, don't," she protested. "I just…I like it like this. When the lights are on, I can't see the city."

My heart lurched at even that small similarity between us. I nodded, even though I knew she couldn't see me, and moved to sit on the arm of the couch nearest to where she stood. From where I sat, I could see her profile; the way she chewed on her lip, the way she anxiously played with a curl that lay over her shoulder.

"You went to the office?" I asked, my stomach clenching uncomfortably, my breathing increasing slightly. There was only one reason she would have gone there after seeing Rachel and I together.

She nodded, continuing to stare at the beautiful city skyline on the other side of the glass.

"You were quitting," I stated, swallowing as a wave of nausea overtook me. I leaned forward, putting my hands on my knees as I tried to calm the overwhelming dread that filled every cell of my body. I knew it was now or never. If I wasn't honest with her now, I'd have no one to blame but myself.

"Chloe…please…please don't leave me." My voice cracked, my body trembling as the image of her leaving played over and over in my mind. "Let me tell you everything, please. Please, Chloe. I love you so much…I'll do anything."

She turned to me, the city lights reflecting in the tears that pooled in her eyes. "I'm not leaving," she began, a tremor visibly shaking her body. "I couldn't…even if I wanted to."

I exhaled in a rush as relief flooded me.

"What you saw…" I trailed off, shaking my head as I imagined it through her eyes. "Chloe, I'm sure you know that was Rachel. She came to tell me she's getting married, that she forgives me for what I put her through. Baby, I know how it must have looked, but you have to know that I love you…that I could never….you're everything to me. My life is yours, everything I have…everything I am, it's yours."

I watched as a tear slipped down her cheek, the trail glistening in the dim light.

"I know…" she said quietly, our gazes meeting in the dark. I ached to hold her, to wipe away her tears.

My arms shook as I clenched my fists, my nails digging into my palMs. "I started packing my things," she murmured and I shook my head, trying to dispel the image of going in and finding her desk empty.

"Your father was there. He surprised me while I was cleaning out my desk." She hesitated, her eyes moving briefly to the window again. "We talked."

"My dad was there?"

"Yeah," she breathed, wrapping her arms around herself.

"What did he say?" I asked, unable to keep the tremor from my voice.

"That he loved me like his own daughter," her voice cracked as more tears fell. I was so grateful in that moment to my father, knowing how much she cared for my parents, how hurt she was to have disappointed them both. She inhaled a shaky breath and continued. "And he basically told me what I already knew, that you're different now, that you've changed."

"I have, Chloe."

"He said that you've always acted as if the weight of the world was on your shoulders…but they've seen a change, and they know now that the change was me."

Our eyes met and for the first time since I'd touched her all those months ago, I saw no doubt there.

"It's true."

"I saw something and overreacted. I'm so sorry that I let my fear and insecurity override what I know about you…about the man you've proven to be. But I'm not scared anymore, Bennett. I think…for us to move on, I needed to realize it for myself. I know you love me," she stated firmly as her arms fell loosely to her sides, her voice unwavering.

"So much," I breathed, needing to hold her, to reassure myself that she was really here. As if sensing my struggle, she moved forward, stopping to stand in front of me. I reached out and took her hands, my thumb brushing over the bracelet that still lay there. She stepped between my legs and I pulled her to me, pressing my face against her stomach, closing my eyes as her hands wound through my hair.

"I love you, Bennett." She kissed the top of my head, sighing as I tightened my grasp.

"You came back," I whispered into her shirt, realizing the enormity of what she'd done.

"I'm done running from you."

I pulled back to look at her, my eyes searching her face. Despite everything, she'd let her belief in me override her fear. Running my hand up her body, the backs of my fingers swept across her damp cheek.

"Thank you," I whispered, smiling as she leaned into my touch. "Chloe, we have so much to talk about."

"We do," she answered quietly. I felt her cheek lift under my palm as she smiled. "And I'm not going anywhere."

I smiled in return and pulled her down to me, my lips brushing lightly across hers. "I love you," I murmured against her mouth.

She sighed heavily, a mixture of contentment and relief evident in the sound.

The clock in the hallway chimed, ringing through the darkness. Pulling back, I ran my thumb under her eye again, brushing away what I hoped would be the last of her tears tonight.

"It's late," I said, noting the way her body leaned into mine and thinking back on the all that had transpired in the last twenty-four hours.

She nodded, laughing quietly. "I'm so tired."

"Come on." I stood and picked her up, carrying her into my room.

We undressed each other quietly. I kissed her chin, her ear, her navel. She whispered 'I love you' against my shoulder and kissed my lips softly. There was no frenzy, only the need to be close. We climbed into bed together, my own exhaustion suddenly overwhelming me as I covered us with the thick comforter. Her body molded to mine, our legs intertwining as I wrapped my arms around her.

The last thing I heard before I drifted off to sleep was the contented sigh of the woman I knew I'd never let go of again.

I awoke some time later. The room was still dark, her soft, warm body slumbering beneath me.

Lifting my chin, I watched her. I was mesmerized by the way her breasts lifted with each breath, the way her hair fanned out across my pillow, and how her tongue darted out to moisten her lips. At the forefront of my mind was still the fact that she had returned to me. Despite everything that she had seen, she believed in me enough to come back. Second to this was the knowledge that we no longer needed to hide. I could take her out, kiss her in front of my family, and tell the world that she was mine.

I was suddenly ravenous with need to touch her.

I placed a kiss against her breast, her familiar and delicate scent washing over me. I circled my tongue around her nipple, taking it into my mouth, unable to keep from groaning at the feel of her under my lips. As I sucked gently, she moaned, her hands moving to my head and holding it to her.

"Bennett," she sighed, and the need in her voice went straight to my cock. Moving to her other nipple, I took it between my teeth and tugged gently. She gasped, arching her back, her hips moving against mine.

"I'm sorry to wake you," I murmured against her skin, kissing a trail up to her neck. "But I couldn't lay here with you for one more second and not touch you."

"Mmm, I'm glad," she sighed, her legs shifting as I settled between them. Her pulse beat rapidly beneath my lips, her heat causing me to moan as I brushed against her.

"I love you so much," I whispered into her ear. I can't wait to tell everyone that you're mine." Kissing along her jaw, I pushed my hands into her hair, bringing her lips to mine.

"No more hiding," she breathed into my mouth.

"Never."

Our lips moved together, her tongue tangling with mine as the kiss deepened. Trembling fingers traced my jaw, my stubble-covered chin audibly rough against her soft skin. I pulled at her bottom lip, taking it between mine and sucking. My hand moved along her naked body, down her side and to her hip. I rocked against her, groaning into her mouth as I felt her wetness coat me. My fingers continued down her leg and I reached behind her knee, hitching it onto my arm to bring her leg near her chest.

She moaned loudly as I moved my hips, the new position aligning me perfectly along her clit. Each movement brought a new and more wanton sound from her lips.

"That feels so good," she moaned as I rocked against her. "Don't…don't stop."

I shook my head as I tasted her skin, my mouth moving from her lips to her jaw. I trailed kisses down her neck and along her shoulders, a brief glimpse of being with her every night, in our bed, ghosting through my mind. Her hands roamed my back, her fingertips exploring each muscle as it flexed and contracted. Closing my eyes, I focused on the feeling of sliding against her this way, the smoothness and the heat of her consuming me as I continued to move. It was the sweetest torture to know that with the slightest change in angle, I could be inside her body.

Slipping her hand between us, she grasped my cock. I held my body off her as I watched her place the head against herself, slowly circling her entrance.

"Oh fuck, baby," I hissed. My chest heaved and my body strained with the effort of not moving, of letting her control this. Warmth engulfed me as she pulled me forward, and we watched as the tip of my cock slipped inside of her.

"Oh, Bennett," she gasped, her eyes fluttering closed as her muscles constricted slightly around me.

"Please, Chloe," I begged, the urge to thrust, to sheath myself inside of her body almost too strong to resist. Moving her hands to my hips, she gripped me tightly, urging me forward. Inch by inch, I moved deeper until my hips were flush with hers. Her head fell back against the pillow and with shaking hands, she pulled my face to hers.

"Wait," she murmured against my lips when I shifted slightly. "I just need to feel you."

"I know, baby." I kissed her slowly, slipping my arms beneath her and pulling her to me. "Tell me you love me," I whispered, trailing kisses along her chin and jaw.

"I love you." I felt her words vibrate beneath my lips and I smiled against her throat. "Move in me, Bennett."

Pulling back slightly, I groaned, my eyes rolling to the back of my head as I thrust back inside her. Her hips lifted, her breathy moans and sighs spurring me on. Her legs wrapped around my waist as I rocked against her. Her hands tangled in my hair roughly, her back arching as I took her nipple between my teeth.

Rolling us over, she hovered above me, her hair brushing along my chest and shoulders as we moved.

My hands explored her as we kissed, leaving a trail of goosebumps along her skin. I bent my legs and thrust up to meet her, my palms skimming along her thighs, cupping her, pulling her onto me. She pushed off my chest, sitting up, her legs on either side of my hips.

"You look so beautiful," I said, my eyes greedily roaming her body.

"So do you," she teased, breathlessly. Her palms came to rest on my chest, supporting her as she rocked on top of me. Cupping her gently, my thumb moved in circles around her hardened nipple. She moaned and covered my hand, her fingers entwining with mine, encouraging me to grip her more firmly. Her head fell back and I sat up, brushing kisses along her throat, feeling each whimper as it escaped her. I placed a hand behind her head, the other moving between her breasts to rest at her waist. She leaned back, arching, offering herself to me as her hair swept along my legs with each movement.

Leaning over, I kissed her breasts, my tongue flicking her nipple before taking it between my lips.

"You taste so good," I said hungrily. She cried out as I dragged my teeth along the tender flesh, teasing it before kissing it gently and moving to the other.

"Harder, Bennett," she groaned, her hips moving against mine. I lay her on her back and moved to hover over her again, kissing along her leg as I placed it over my shoulder. Her body rocked back up to meet mine as I began to thrust. She gripped the sheets near her head, the fabric straining, bunching under her fingers.

"Like that?" I asked, rocking more forcefully against her, noting the sheen of sweat along her chest and shoulders.

"God yes," she panted. "Right there, oh please….right there."

"I'm so close, baby," I swallowed roughly, my mouth dry as the muscles in my stomach began to clench. "I can feel you…I can feel you coming. Oh God."

She called my name loudly, her back arching into me, her hands reaching for the foot board. Her hips lifted off the mattress and I gripped them tightly, attempting to still her as I thrust one final time, coming inside of her.

As our bodies slowed, our chests heaving against each other, our eyes met. I leaned forward and kissed her gently, laughing softly at the feel of her racing heart pounding in time with my own.

With an exhausted sigh, I rolled us over again, my outstretched arms falling limply beside my head.

She pressed her face into my neck as I tried to catch my breath.

" Jesus Christ," I panted, running my hand through my hair and across my face. Propping her chin on my chest, she smiled widely at me, her hair a tangled mess and her skin almost glowing in the dawning light. She looked to the window before turning back to me.

"Well, good morning, handsome," she giggled softly as I brushed the hair off her damp forehead.

"Mmm…It was a very good morning," I teased, winking as I pulled her further up my body. I placed a kiss against her lips before tilting my head, my tone becoming more serious. "Can I tell you something?" I asked, tracing my thumb along her flushed cheeks.

Her eyes closed and she sighed contentedly as I ran my fingers through her wild hair.

"This is exactly how I want to wake up every morning." Her eyes opened to meet mine. "Chloe, you are the love of my life, there will never be anyone else for me. Ever." Taking her face in my hands, I continued. "I knew every day I was with Rachel that she wasn't meant for me, and I've known every day since we met that you were."

"You did?" she asked, her voice shaking slightly.

I sighed deeply, my eyes falling briefly before returning to hers. "I stayed with Rachel for all the wrong reasons. Our relationship was comfortable, safe and easy. I stayed with her because everyone expected me to, despite knowing that I would never return her depth of feeling. Rachel is a beautiful, giving woman and when she wanted more…when she wanted what most people want, what she had every right to expect…I left."

I swallowed, my eyes moving to the piece of her hair I twisted distractedly around my finger. "She wanted marriage and kids and I panicked. I panicked because I didn't want those things, not with her.

I told her I didn't love her anymore, that she deserved someone who would give her everything without question. I was gone by the end of the night."

"And now?" she asked quietly.

"And now," I sighed, tilting my head and meeting her gaze once again. "I see that I should have ended it long before then. I led her on because it was easy. We never argued, and I thought we wanted the same things. She lost herself in us. I hurt her so badly when I left, she stopped working, she closed herself off…she fell apart. And I-"

"Came here," she finished in a hushed whisper.

I nodded, trying to read her expression. "That first time I saw you, standing in my office laughing… Chloe, I felt in that one moment what I'd never felt the entire time Rachel and I were together."

Her breath seemed to catch in her throat as she waited for me to continue.

"I was terrified. I couldn't stop thinking about you, no matter what I did or how I acted…you were always there. I thought maybe if you hated me and I could force myself to hate you, that it would be fine." A single tear slipped down her cheek and I brushed it away. "But it was no use," I said softly, shaking my head. "You were the sexiest thing I'd ever seen: argumentative, strong willed, opinionated, smart. I was the biggest jackass to you, and you never let me get away with it."

I smiled as I brushed the backs of my fingers along her jaw.

"I was tormented with wanting you, Chloe. The office had turned into my personal hell on earth…but there was no way I could have left. Is this making any sense?"

"Yes," she said, leaning into my hand. "I could never understand what I did, why you disliked me so much."

"You didn't do anything," I answered, leaning up to brush a soft kiss against her lips. My fingers moved up and down her arm as I tried to explain. "I'd convinced myself that things were manageable, and then that first night happened. You were so close, and I could smell you and feel you in the air. All I had to do was reach out and… take. When you didn't push me away, when you let me touch you…feel you…be inside of you…" I trailed off, pulling her face to mine, my lips sweeping back and forth. "I was lost. It became so much more than wanting your body. I wanted you."

"I've always wanted you," she whispered, our mouths so close, I felt each word as she spoke it.

"You have me, you always have," I answered, my eyes open and searching her face. "And I'm never letting you go again."

Her fingers twisted roughly in my hair, and she pulled me to her, her mouth pressing eagerly against mine. "Show me," she breathed, her grip tightening against my scalp. "Show me what you didn't all that time." She ran her tongue along my jaw and lowered her voice. "Show me what you wanted."

I groaned as her words shot through me and rolled us onto our sides, the length of our bodies pressed against each other. "I wanted you to touch me and show me how well you knew my body," I told her, trembling as her hand wrapped around me, her thumb circling the tip. "I wanted to know that you noticed every detail, too."

"Like this?" she asked, her palm sliding up and down my length.

"God, yes," I hissed, my hips rocking against her as she continued to tease me. Her hand moved slowly, her touch so familiar, so devastatingly perfect.

"What else?" She placed a kiss at the corner of my mouth, before running her lips along my jaw.

"I wanted to touch you," I answered. "I wanted you to feel in my touch that I felt every reaction, that I saw everything you liked me to do."

I felt her take one of my hands and place it on her breast. "Like this?" Her voice was a low purr: teasing, knowing.

I knew exactly what she wanted: first, my palm on her, feeling the weight of her in my hand. Next, fingers sliding back to a soft pinch. Finally, a slight tug. She moaned, like I knew she would.

"Yes," I sighed against her, lost in the feeling of touching her body, knowing no one else would ever know her this way, no one else would ever make her feel this.

"What else?" Her words were strained and tight with need.

"I wanted you to say my name." I pinched her slightly as I leaned to kiss her.

I felt her smile against my lips. "I love how you make me feel, Bennett," she growled into my ear.

"I wanted to say your name." I nibbled her bottom lip. She panted against me as I murmured, "I wanted to call you Chloe." I lifted her leg and placed it on my hip, my hands moving to her ass, pulling her more firmly to me.

I pulled my head back and looked at her, wanting to acknowledge when everything changed for us.

"And after Seattle, I wanted to just be together without having to pretend we were so angry all the time, to not resent how weak I felt. I wanted you to be happy to see me so I could show you how my chest felt like it was cracked open when I saw your smile. I wanted you to love me." I rolled her over, and moved between her legs. "I wanted you to love me the way that I loved you."

"I do love you," she breathed against my neck, her lips running along my throat, her legs wrapping around my waist. "Bennett, please…"

Pushing forward, I shuddered as I slipped inside of her again. I turned my head, seeking her lips to find her waiting for me. Taking her hands in mine, I raised them above her head, pressing them against the mattress. I held her captive there, the way she'd always held me.

"I love you, Chloe," I breathed, my body continuing to rock into hers. "I want to make you mine," I said between kisses. "I want to wake up with you every morning, and I want to fall asleep with you in my arms every night." She panted softly underneath me and I pulled away slightly, pressing my lips against her flushed cheek and moving to whisper in her ear. "I want to watch my baby grow inside of you."

Her grip tightened on my hands in response, her legs pulling me closer as she softly cried out my name. I felt her body arch against mine as I began to thrust inside of her, completely lost in her arms.

"I want those things too," she murmured against my lips. A moment of clarity broke through my fractured thoughts. I saw us as the couple we were together, not the stubborn, lost people we had been separately. I knew without a doubt that I belonged to her and that she would always be mine as well. I understood her fears and knew that she had put it all aside to believe in us.

The sun had risen, the soft rays of morning light filtered in through the windows, falling across the bed to glisten in her hair. My hand still entwined with hers, I brought it to my mouth, placing the softest kiss against her ring finger. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would put a ring there.

That knowledge overwhelmed me.

As I looked down at her, her eyes opened. She bit her lip before taking my face into her hands and kissing me with the same frantic hunger I felt.

"I can't hold out much longer," she whispered against my lips, bringing me back as the familiar rush began to spread throughout my body. "Please come with me…" I kissed her slowly as she tensed around me, our interlocked hands pressed against our bodies, our hearts both thundering between us.

We came together in a wave of soft sighs and shaky breaths, our limbs trembling with exhaustion as we wrapped ourselves around each other. She brushed the hair off my forehead and placed a kiss there before I moved to rest my head against her chest.

"Do you know what I want to do?" I asked through heaving breaths, the thump of her heart just below my ear.

"What?" she answered, my eyes closing as her fingers ran through my hair.

"Take you to breakfast," I answered simply. She laughed softly and I smiled, hearing the sound that had become so precious to me.

"Now why would you want to do that?" she asked. "Everything I want is right here in this bed."

I looked up at her then and smiled. "Because I want to take you to the most crowded street in all of Chicago," I began, bringing her fingers to my mouth and brushing my lips against them once more.

"And I want to hold your hand."