His words didn’t give much hope. “Goodbye, Beth.” That didn’t sound much like a, “Call me and we’ll talk about this.” But what did she have to lose? And, okay, she knew he wouldn’t want to talk to her, but she owed him an explanation. And thanks. God, she owed him so much.
Surely she could manage one phone call without crying and embarrassing them both.
Pulling her cell phone out of her pocket, she started to punch in his number and stopped, staring at the clock on the tiny screen. Four o’clock in the morning? He was already angry. Waking him up at this hour would be insane. She tried to laugh and failed, then dialed again, a different number on the West Coast. Her night-owl mom would still be up at one a.m.
“Bethy. Oh, honey, I’m so glad you called.” Her mother’s voice, usually so warm and cheerful, sounded strained. “I tried to reach you earlier.”
“Now don’t get upset. It might be nothing, and I might be just a paranoid old woman, but… Well, I went to the Gilmore’s house for their Fourth of July party, the usual big bash. One of the Thompson girls was there. You remember the Thompsons; they live across the street from me?”
“Uh-huh.” She didn’t, but she knew now. “Go on.”
“Emily came home in June for a bit before summer school started. She’s at UCLA, studying to be a lawyer. Can you imagine?”
Beth rolled her eyes. Driving or talking, Mom had never met a detour she wouldn’t take. “So what did Emily have to say?”
“Oh, right. She said she saw a man going through our mailbox. Last month.”
Beth’s hand tightened on the cell phone. “Going through how?”
“Well, she didn’t see him all that clearly, but it sounded like he was flipping through the envelopes. He didn’t take anything, so she didn’t worry too much about it.”
Beth forced her words out through a constricted throat. “What did he look like?”
“Blond. Thirties. A suit. Lean. It could have been Kyler.” Her mom drew in a shaky breath. “I’ve been worrying ever since she told me, but you didn’t answer your phone. I left you a voice mail.”
Beth saw the little envelope on the cell phone screen indicating a message. “I didn’t even check.” She tried to speak, but couldn’t find the air. She heard Nolan’s voice. Breathe with me. One breath. Two. Her voice worked again. “So if Kyler found one of my letters to you, he might know I’m in Tampa, but he won’t know where.” Thank God she’d rented a post office box here.
“What are you going to do?”
She didn’t have much choice, and the sudden upwelling of grief choked her. Leave her business, her apartment, her new friends? Leave Nolan? Oh, God, why now?
But if Kyler knew she was in Tampa, sooner or later, he’d find her. “I’ll leave. I have to leave.” Beth bit her lip, trying to keep her voice steady. Mom was upset enough. “I’ve always wanted to see what New England looks like. I’ll try there.”
“Oh, Beth, I—I could… Oh, I hate that man!” Her mother stopped, steadied her voice in just the same way Beth had. Weren’t they a pair? “Be careful, honey. Be careful.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Beth flipped the phone shut and laid her head on her knees. The first sob welled up, and her throat was so tight it strangled inside. The second escaped as a ragged sigh, and then she cried. Ugly, painful sobs she couldn’t hold back. It wasn’t fair. Not fair! She had a life, friends… Nothing. She had nothing now.
Her eyes had swollen almost shut by the time she stopped. Her nose was clogged, her head aching. Of everything she was going to lose now, the one that made her heart twist the most was losing Nolan.
Only she’d already lost him anyway.
Knowing the futility, she punched in his number anyway. She just wanted to hear his voice one last time, that was all. But the phone rang and rang, then clicked over to voice mail. “This is Nolan. Leave your message now.” Her lips turned up even as tears spilled over again at the sound of his deep gravelly voice. And his message, so terse and commanding. So Master Nolan.
Before she could stop herself, she opened her mouth and told him how sorry she was. Tried to explain…everything. Not that anything she said now would matter. By the time he listened to his messages, she’d be gone.
* * * * *
Nolan finished off his second beer and dropped the bottle into the bottom of the canoe. With a sigh, he watched the moonlight break into fragments on the small waves across the lake. The water lapped quietly against the boat as frogs chirped on the banks. Peaceful sounds; peaceful place. A pity his mind was at war. Over the course of the long night, he hadn’t been able to negotiate a truce with the two arguments battling it out inside him.
She’d lied to him. No question. She was a married woman, cheating on her husband and willing to lie about it. Only a fool would trust her.
But he had. He tried to rub away the pain centered in his chest and wondered if he were having a heart attack. Hell, a heart attack would be easier. At least eventually that would come to an end. This pain wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.
Her betrayal hurt. No two ways about it, he felt betrayed. As her Dom, he’d known she still had secrets, and eventually they would have explored them. Together. And in the process, he would learn more about himself. It was a two-way street.
Every sub he’d known—every woman he’d known—had hidden areas she didn’t want to reveal… She hates dark places because her mama locked her in a closet once. Her first lover told her she tasted bad down there, and that’s why she hates oral sex. Her breasts aren’t sensitive at all, but she fakes it because she thinks all sexy women have sensitive breasts. Trying to unearth those mysteries was one of the pleasures—and frustrations—of being a Dom.
But this wasn’t a secret; it was deliberate deception. Leaning forward, he rested his forearms on his knees, staring across the water and scrub forest to the west. One by one, the stars winked out as clouds piled up on the horizon.
Beth had known how he felt about adultery. He’d made his opinion very clear. Why hadn’t she backed off or at least told him?
Because she knew he’d have been gone so fast her head would spin? Had their relationship mattered that much to her? He dropped his head in his hands and groaned. Of course it had.
He had mattered that much. He wouldn’t feel like this if she felt nothing in return. Yeah, they’d had something going between them. But she’d lied and wiped it all out. Damn her.
Fine. It was done. He could return to picking up a sub for an evening, and she would…find someone to top her? The thought punched through his chest like a bullet. He’d have to watch someone else take Beth. See his hands on her, put himself in her. And watch her respond? Nolan heard roaring in his ears, and his hands fisted.
He shoved the pictures from his mind, concentrated on the waves brushing against the canoe. Bad, Nolan, very bad. He’d never felt that kind of jealousy with his wife. Hadn’t felt it earlier today, but that was because Beth had belonged to him then; she’d been his to share for her enjoyment and his. But not anymore. Seeing her at the Shadowlands with someone else… He could feel his self-control shred at just the thought.
How could he never want to see her again and still want her so badly his muscles strained to go after her? He knew she’d destroyed what was between them, yet his mind kept flashing back to her face: white, eyes stricken, lips trembling, shoulders hunched. Every cell in his body wanted to protect her from the man who’d made her look like that.
He huffed a bitter laugh. That man would be him.
Nolan grunted at the slap of guilt. This was hopeless. His mind was going in circles like a rowboat with one oar. Picking up the paddle, he struck out for his dock. The wind gusted over the water as he paddled, and he looked up. The setting moon glowed an evil red through black clouds that now covered half the sky. In the east, the first glints of sunrise streamed through the palms, soon to be blotted out.
* * * * *
Beth’s overloaded suitcases sat in the trailer. She’d filled supermarket boxes and stacked them by the door. And she still wasn’t done packing. She’d accumulated more stuff than she’d realized. A pot here and a picture there, an African violet here, and a pillow there, all added up. She needed more boxes.
Her curtains glowed as the early morning sun hit them. Standing in the center of the apartment, Beth stretched and blinked her gritty eyes. No rest, a lot of crying, a lot of packing. She’d be lucky to not fall asleep on the road.
All right. She needed to get more boxes. Finish packing. See the apartment manager. She could notify the utility companies once she had gone; that at least could wait. Maybe it was silly to be so antsy, considering Kyler had discovered she lived in Tampa last month, but everything inside her kept screaming at her to run.
She’d almost just headed north straight from the beach, leaving everything behind.
But she couldn’t afford that. She would need the garden service tools in the trailer and all the household stuff she’d bought over the last year. It would take every penny she’d saved to start over. Again. Her chest felt like someone had coiled a band around it, and she shook her head. No more crying. Not until she was gone.
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