TO celebrate the launch of Harlequin's DARE series of romance novels, we are proud to present a day-by-day serialised release of Off Limits by Clare Connelly. To navigate between the chapters head to the bottom of today's segment.
IMPORTANT: Before you begin reading, remember - this is Mills & Boon as you've never seen it before, with plot lines featuring empowered women and extremely steamy sex scenes - for adult subscribers aged 18 and over only. Find more titles like this one here.
My plane lands at seven. How soon can you be at my place?
I SMILE AT the text but my heart sinks. A week after I returned from Australia and Jack is almost home. A problem with the winery in New Zealand required his urgent personal attention, and as a result I have been in sexual purgatory for seven days and nights.
I am aching for him physically and, yes, I miss him. I miss him so much I can no longer doubt just what form my feelings take.
I love him.
I am in love with him.
And, just like Grandma described, it has hit me out of nowhere. It is a realisation and it is also an incontrovertible law of nature now, as unquestionable and rock-solid as gravity, helium, oxygen and rain.
I run a hand down my pale green sheath dress, feeling its silkiness and wishing like hell it was his hands, not mine, on my body.
Tomorrow morning ...?
I wait for a moment, but he doesn't reply. Jack has Wi-Fi enabled on his jet, and he's always in contact, so I don't doubt he's got the message. I imagine his lips drawing down at the corners as he contemplates the fact that I'm not simply fitting in with what he's suggested.
By 'tomorrow morning' do you mean 7.05 p.m.?
I laugh and shake my head, reaching for my bronzer and giving my face one last flush of colour. My makeup is exquisite - I didn't do it, so I can say that. My hair has been styled into a rather vintage crimp, and a diamond clip is tethered just above one ear, adding to the Great Gatsby look.
I grab a stole and slip into my shoes, then scoop up my phone.
I wish. It's my parents' anniversary party, remember?
I thrust the phone into my bag and press it beneath my arm.
My driver is waiting. Not Hughes. My driver. The one I use when I have family stuff on and Mum and Dad like to know I'm observing the little rituals that matter to them. Like being chauffeured.
'Hey ...' I smile distractedly, sliding into the back seat. I look at my phone.
Shit. I forgot. Skip it?
What are you wearing?
I grin, lift the phone up and take a shot of myself. I examine it quickly - one chin, eyes open, passably attractive - and then send it to him.
His response is almost immediate.
Smoking hot, Lady Gemma.
My heart turns over in my chest and for a mini-second I contemplate blowing the party off - to hell with the consequences - and going to Jack instead. My parents would be furious, but I suspect it would be worth it ...
I text him back.
What are YOU wearing?
A few seconds later I am rewarded with a photo of him. I stare at the screen and my heart thumps hard in my chest. He is gorgeous. So beautiful. So dangerously, darkly, distractingly beautiful.
I stare at his eyes and feel as though I really am looking at him.
You're flying in a SUIT? What happened to comfort?
He doesn't respond immediately and I put my phone into my bag, letting my eyes catch up with the passing scenery. The anniversary celebration is to be at The Ritz - where else? - and the car eats up the distance from Hampstead into the West End, skirting Kensington Gardens on one side.
I check my phone again as we pull to a stop - nothing.
Disappointment fills me, but I will see him soon. Tomorrow. And we'll make up for lost time.
Just looking at that photo is enough to get me off. But I need more than that. I need to be held by him. To feel his arms wrapping around me, to look up at him and know that his heart is beating for mine ...
'Madam.' The driver opens the door and I smile at him, stepping out into the cool night air.
Flashes go off in my face. I'm unprepared. Foolishly, really, given the high-profile nature of the party and the venue that's designed to draw attention. I just haven't been focussing on it at all. I plaster a smile on my face as I dip my head forward and clip towards the large glass doors.
The party is in The Music Room. I've been there once before, for my grandfather's birthday, I remember as I step over the threshold. The room is the very definition of elegance, with gold and pink highlights, enormous floral arrangements and curtains that look like they weigh a tonne.
I'm late. Only ten minutes or so, but the room is full. The music is a perfectly refined string quartet, and my parents are at the end of a receiving line, like a scene from a Jane Austen book.
I pause, wondering if I can sneak away before they see me, go and find Grandma. I'd put money on her being near the bar ...
But my mother's eyes meet mine and her hand lifts, waving me over.
I swear under my breath, plastering a smile on my face. 'Mum.' I kiss her cheek. 'You look lovely.'
She does. Mum is always stunning. And now, after her jaunting about - rather, her international philanthropy - she's acquired a caramel tan. Her outfit is almost bridal - a cream lace prom dress that falls to just below her knees. Dad is in a tux.
'Welcome home,' I say.
'Oh, yes. That's right. We haven't seen you since we got back.' Her lips pucker in disapproval.
'I've been in Australia,' I explain awkwardly, then wish I hadn't. Why the heck am I apologising? It's not like they've been tripping over themselves to organise a reunion. 'Was it a good trip?'
My father grumbles something I don't quite catch.
'Quite.' Mother nods. 'We're thinking of going again next year - aren't we, darling?'
His look is one of long-suffering tolerance. 'We'll see.'
'Is Grandma here?'
My mother nods, her eyes flitting across the room. 'In that direction.'
'I'll go and check on her,' I say, as though it's a service I can offer when in fact I am serving only myself.
'Is your speech ready, darling?' Mother calls to me as I leave.
I wince. Shit. Why didn't I remember I'd have to do a speech?
I cut through the crowd until my eyes land on Grandma. Her wiry figure is perfectly framed by a jet-black dress and a bolero that has a fine silver thread to it. She's wearing dark silk flowers at the collar and she manages to look rather funereal.
I laugh as I approach. 'Hey!'
'Oh, thank fuck. Someone I actually like.'
Several people hear her curse and move away disapprovingly. I grin, kissing her papery cheek.
'Tell me about it ... I think this is an even duller crowd than usual.' I tap the bar, my eyes catching the bartender's. 'Champagne.'
He pours a glass of Bollinger and hands it to me. Grandma signals for a top-up and I wonder, with a disguised smile, how many glasses she's already knocked back. She can hold her liquor like a sailor, and age isn't slowing that down.
'Where's my koala?'
'Your ... huh?'
'You went to Australia, didn't you?' she asks impatiently.
'Oh. Yeah, right. Guess what? Turns out you do have to go bush to see one.'
'And let me guess? You were working too hard for that?'
It wasn't all work. My body flushes with remembered pleasure. Jack's touch was worth travelling to the other side of the world for.
'I did see dolphins from Jack's balcony, though. They were amazing. A whole pod of them, just gliding and ... frolicking.'
'They were on the balcony?'
'No, Grandma, they were in the harbour.' I laugh.
'Obviously, dear.' She takes another sip of champagne. 'Remember your grandfather's birthday?'
I nod. 'I was thinking of it when I came in.'
'He was so happy that night. To be surrounded by his loved ones.' She sighs, her eyes a little watery as she looks around the room. 'The mayor's here.'
I follow her gaze. 'Yes. Dad and he have been doing some work together, I think.'
Grandma's brows lift skyward, as if imbuing even that with a response of disapproval. I sip my champagne. 'You had a good time, then?'
'Yeah. Australia's beautiful. I like Sydney.'
'So why did you come back?'
I laugh. 'You're turning into a one-track record.'
'Darling, life's too short for pleasantries, and I love you too much to lie.'
'I live here. I'd miss you, apart from anything.'
'I'd come and visit.'
We're interrupted by an old friend of my father's, and for the next twenty minutes Grandma and I make polite conversation, all the while subtly - and, I fear, not so subtly - nudging one another's ankles and trying not to roll our eyes.
There is someone else after that, and then my grandma's goddaughter Laurena - another story altogether ... ugh! And then, before I know it, it's half past seven.
Jack will have landed by now. In his suit. So handsome; such a waste.
I sigh and refocus my attention on the conversation I'm half involved in, nodding as required, and then I'm actually grateful when my father asks me to dance with him. There's only a small makeshift dance floor - a concession to the fact that there are so many guests and most of them are not interested in dancing.
But Dad and I have always danced. He wraps his arms around me and it reminds me of when I was a little girl, standing on his feet, moving in time to the music. And it's a hell of a lot better than shooting the breeze with my parents' friends.
I feel a wave of sympathy for Grandma, whom I have deserted and left to the well-heeled wolves. I look over my shoulder to see her holding court and wonder, with a distracted smile, what she's talking about.
'How's work, pumpkin?'
I blink back to my father. 'Great.'
'Really? That's a shame.'
'Sidney was just saying he could use a consultant with your skill set.'
'Mayor Black?' I prompt, my smile wry.
'He's admired your career for a long time. Asked if I'd set up a meeting.'
'I've got a job, Daddy. A job I love.'
And then, as if I have somehow conjured him from my longing and imagination, Jack is beside us, his eyes intense as they lock solely to mine, his expression inscrutable. It is him and me - us. Just us.
'Jack?' I stop dancing altogether and take a small step away from my dad. I can hardly catch my breath. 'What are you doing here?'
'You invited me. Remember?'
I did no such thing, and we both know it, but I'm not going to point that out in front of my father.
'Right, of course.' I nod. Blood is roaring through my veins. 'I forgot. Dad, this is Jack Grant. My ... er ... boss.'
Jack extends his hand and shakes my father's with his natural confidence. 'My Lord.'
My father is in awe - like most people who first meet Jack. It pleases me. For all he hates the hours I work, and the commitment I have to my job, he obviously understands the unique thrill that comes from working with someone like Jack.
'Mind if I cut in?'
'Oh, I ... Of course not.'
My father steps back, but I don't see him move away because Jack wraps his arms around me and consumes all my senses.
He overpowers me with his nearness and his uniqueness. He moves in time to the music but I feel his body, tight and hard, and my gut clenches.
'What are you really doing here?'
There is something I don't understand in his features. A haunted expression. Anger?
'You seem kind of uptight about this. I've never seen you like that about anything.'
I nod slowly. Does he think that explains anything?
'I was at a loose end.'
'Oh.' My heart thumps painfully. 'Right.'
What was I expecting? Flowery declarations of love?
'You were my plan,' he says gently, his fingers running over my back.
'I wanted to see you. And you were here.'
'So you came here?' I murmur, crossing over into unnecessary repetition and not caring.
Because my heart is floating away from my body, thumping high in the sky over us.
His smile makes my stomach flip and flop and twist and turn.
'Well, I'm not so sure I want to be here now.'
His laugh undoes the last stitch of my sanity. I want to strip my clothes off and cry out, Take me now!
'My evil plan.' He grins. 'How's your week been?'
Is this really happening? Is Jack Grant at my parents' wedding anniversary party, dancing with me, stroking my back, asking me about my week, telling me he's missed me? Or am I somehow dreaming this up? It doesn't make sense.
Wow. I sound normal. Good job, me!
'Perfect.' He winks - so sexy. 'New Zealand is stunning; the winery is incredible.'
My sigh is wistful. 'I'll bet.'
He chuckles. 'You'll see it for yourself next time you're over.'
I try not to get too swept up in fantasies that involve Jack and me skipping down the rows of grapes, holding hands, laughing into the sunset. Fantasies are nice, but they're not real life.
I feel his sigh but he hides it well, turning to look at the man who's come to address us. I recognise him, but can't think of his name in that moment.
'Adam.' Jack nods, not relinquishing his grip around my waist. 'How's it going?'
'Jesus, I haven't seen you in years. I've kept up with you, of course. Amazing career. Got a moment? I'd love to talk to you about a project I'm in the middle of.'
'Actually ...' Jack says, and my heart leaps.
But we're attracting attention, and I'm not sure either of us is ready to deal with that yet.
I clear my throat and step backwards. 'It's fine.' I wince inwardly when I hear the ice-cold tone that bleats from my lips. I soften it with effort, stretching my lips into a smile. 'I want to go check on my grandma, anyway.'
'Ah, she's here?' Jack's eyes glint with shared knowledge. My gut somersaults. 'I look forward to meeting her.'
His gaze holds mine for a moment too long and the universe vibrates differently - just for us.
I smile as I walk away, swinging my butt, knowing that not only is he here with me tonight because he cares for me, but that soon we're going to be making love and I cannot wait.
'Things are making a little more sense now,' Grandma murmurs, her eyes trained on Jack's profile.
He's locked in conversation with the man - Adam - his expression instantly businesslike. My heart thumps.
'What do you mean?' I reach down and sip her champagne, taking the seat beside her.
Grandma taps my knee. 'It isn't just a job.'
I contemplate denial, but it's Grandma. She'll see through it.
'Meaning?' I say instead, cautious. Waiting.
'You're seeing him?'
Trust Grandma. I bite down on my lip. 'Not really. Kind of.'
'You love him?'
My heart throbs. I look at her and shake my head, but my smile tells a different story.
'I see.' She tilts her head, her eyes pinned to Jack as though she's pulling him apart, piece by piece. 'Interesting ...'
'Not really.' I shake my head. 'And it's very ... early. New.'
'Secret?' she supplies, her eyes flitting to mine and sparkling with the hint of mystery I've evoked. I sigh. There'll be no stopping her now.
'Yes, secret,' I say after a beat.
'Fine. I can do secret.' She winks at me and taps my knee once more.
It's more than an hour before I get near Jack again, and by then I am desperate to touch him. To kiss him. To be alone with him. I'm almost there - just a few people to navigate - when my parents take to the stage and the music goes silent. The guests follow suit.
My mother is a natural-born performer. She speaks easily to the crowd, playing the part of happy wife perfectly. My father toasts her and then they introduce me. Their heir.
I paste a smile on my face, sashaying close enough to Jack on my way to the stage that his hands brush my hip and my body charges with electricity.
I'll do the damned tribute speech and then we'll go. Him and me. Alone time with him is the talisman on the periphery of my mind.
There are a heap of people looking back at me, but I see only Jack. His eyes seem to caress me, even from this distance. A pulse throbs between my legs. Desire is a tangible force, wrapping me in its determined grip.
'I've been thinking about love and marriage a lot lately. About the leap of faith required to take that step. We can enter into a relationship with the best of intentions and find that it doesn't work out. That our love alone isn't enough - that it doesn't go the distance. Or perhaps we lose the person we love most on earth, and feel robbed of our soul mate. Our love.'
My eyes hold Jack's and I blink, my heart twisting.
'Or perhaps we fall in love and marry and everything is perfect. A true happily-ever-after.'
I turn and smile at my parents, hoping that these vague descriptions of love will somehow mean something to them. It's hard to tell. Botox has rendered my mother's range of visible reactions down to single digits. There's disapproval, impatience, wry amusement and boredom. I don't know which of these she's feeling, so I turn back to the assembled guests.
'My grandma talks about meeting my grandpa almost as if the moment was divined by fate. There was an inevitability to their life and love - one she couldn't have fought even if she'd wanted to.'
I smile at Grandma and the tears in her eyes make me proud, because she understands that I know. I know what she felt.
'I think marriage is a remarkable thing, and I congratulate my parents on thirty years of it. To Mum and Dad.'
I lift the glass in my hand and smile at them.
My mother nods her thanks. Dad blows me a kiss. The crowd repeats my toast and I walk off stage.
I set my champagne flute down on the edge of a table and don't look at another soul. Instead I walk towards the doors, my stride meaningful, my attention unwavering.
I don't say goodbye to Grandma, and nor do I acknowledge any of the guests looking to congratulate me on my toast. I stare straight ahead until I am out. Free.
I continue to walk - down the stairs to the foyer and then, my heels clipping noisily, across it. I am conscious only of my own breath, my own footsteps, until I reach the glass doors and wait. And wait.
Not for long. Not even a full minute in reality.
He doesn't speak. His hand on the small of my back is warm and intimate and my stomach dips. My knees almost buckle.
He guides me out of The Ritz and I smile at Hughes. I am prepared to step apart from Jack, to put some distance between us. But he doesn't let me. His hand stays glued to the base of my spine, and the moment I step into the limousine he catches my shoulder and spins me.
His eyes are charged with emotion, but I cannot fathom what he's feeling. I know only that he wants me with the same burning desperation that rips through me.
'We're going?' I prompt, my eyebrows raised.
'You'd better fucking believe it.'
And then, as if he has no choice, no free will, no say in the matter, he drops his head and presses a bone-meltingly lovely kiss against the tip of my nose.
As if I didn't love him enough already.
My voice is croaky and my eyes sting as I answer my phone. I'm tired. What bloody time is it?
I peer into the darkness of Jack's room and panic sets in.
I've slept in his bed. With him. All night.
Or have I? He's not in the space beside me and his pillow is cool to the touch.
I look beyond it to the clock on his bedside. It's not as early as I feared - just gone eight. But it is Sunday, and I probably only got an hour's sleep the night before.
My cheeks flush pink as I remember the way our bodies rediscovered one another. Desperate at first, we came together as soon as we walked in the door of his apartment. Then slower, more sensually. An exploration. A reacquaintance. And finally dominatingly, Jack using my needs to control me and me letting him, loving it.
Still, I realise I haven't spoken to my friend in weeks, since our rescheduled catch-up. 'Is everything okay?' I ask.
'Um, shouldn't I be asking you that?'
I frown, running a finger over the crisp white duvet. Where's Jack?
'I take it you haven't seen the papers yet?'
I shake my head, scrambling to remember which of Jack's business deals was at a crucial stage. What could have gone wrong?
Cursing under my breath, I find my feet are halfway to the ground when Carrie reads aloud:'"Beauty and the Billionaire ..."'
'What is it?'
'Want me to read it?'
'Give me the gist,' I murmur urgently, dipping my head forward.
'"Renowned billionaire philanthropist and widower Jack Grant may be ready to get back into the swing of things. Spotted out and about with Lady Gemma Picton at The Ritz last night, blah-blah-blah ..."' Carrie says under her breath, and then resumes reading. '"The pair have worked together for some years, but it appears their relationship has moved to the next level. Is it possible Britain's favourite billionaire is about to be taken off the market?"' She pauses, letting the words sink in. 'There's some photos, too.'
'I'll bet there is.'
I stand, reaching for Jack's robe, which hangs on the back of his door. It's dark blue towelling and falls all the way to the floor on me. It smells like him; my senses respond predictably.
'Which paper?' I cinch the robe tightly around my waist, my hand on the doorknob.
'The Daily Gazette.'
'Oh, well,' I say with relief. 'That's okay. What the hell are you doing reading that?'
'My cousin emailed it to me. She knows we're friends.'
'Great. But no one else I know will read it.'
'Sorry, mate. It's in the Telegraph, too.'
My eyes sweep shut. 'Shit.'
'Is it true?'
There's earnest concern in Carrie's voice.
My denial is as swift as it is untrue. 'No.'
'You guys look pretty cosy in the picture ...' she says softly.
'Pictures lie. Look, I'll ... Let me get back to you, okay?'
I disconnect the call before she answers, wrenching the door open.
Jack is fully dressed, a cup of coffee cradled in his hands, his attention focussed on the view of London revealed by the windows of his apartment.
Several newspapers sit on the table. I move towards them, instead of him, and cringe when I see that one of them has given us a whole page spread. Photos of us separately and photos of us working together make it look as though this has been going on for a long time.
And, yes, there's the obligatory photo of Jack and Lucy, taken on their wedding day. I'm drawn to her eyes, her smile, her kindness that shines through the picture.
There we all are - the three of us, together in print media for posterity, for anyone who cares to look us up in the future.
'I'm sorry,' I say softly, though I don't know what I'm apologising for, exactly.
'Why?' He turns around, a muscle throbbing in his jaw.
He looks both incredibly handsome and utterly awful at the same time. His skin is ashen beneath his tan.
'This - ' he jerks his head towards the papers ' - isn't your fault.'
'I know ...' I shake my head slowly from side to side. 'But still ... it's not ideal.'
His nod is curt agreement. 'I've left a message for Amber,' he murmurs, dragging the palm of his hand over his stubble. 'To explain.'
I nod. It makes sense that he'd want to give Lucy's sister the courtesy of a heads-up.
'Fucking paparazzi scum!' he says loudly, and he makes me jump when he slams his hand against the chair nearest to him. 'I wish they'd fuck off!'
'You're kind of famous,' I point out gently, and despite the palpable stress in the room my lips twist into an awkward smile.
But he's not in a joking mood. I sober.
'I guess my parents' thing ...'
'I shouldn't have bloody come.'
The intensity of his reaction surprises me. I understand that he's upset; I am, too. This is invasive and unwelcome. And the timing couldn't be worse - just as we're finally morphing into something else, something perfect, we've been put in a position of needing to define what we are. But still ...
'Jack.' I command his attention with a clear voice. 'This isn't the end of the world, is it?'
He stares at me, and I don't know if he's trying to work out why I don't get it or trying to calm himself down. But he doesn't speak.
I cannot make sense of this without caffeine - that much is certain. I move to the kitchen and fish a pod out of the canister, slip it in place. The whir of the coffee machine is the only noise in the cavernous apartment. I let it run through and then sip it, strangely pleased when it scalds my tongue.
'Jack?' I say again.
He's looking at me like he doesn't recognise me. A month ago this would have cowered me, but not now. Not after what we've shared.
'Damn it, Jack. You're freaking out for no reason. This is just a stupid gossip story. We can ignore it.'
'No reason?' he repeats, the words quiet but infused with angry disbelief. 'No reason?'
'Yes - no reason. So what? So what if you and I are seeing one another? Who cares? What's the big deal?'
'Jesus ...' He spins away, his back to me, rigid as hell.
'I mean it.'
I take another sip of coffee, but when he continues to stare out of the window I slam the cup onto the marble benchtop, cross to him and grab his arm. I yank on it, drawing him around to face me. He's holding on - being CEO, cold, professional, unfeeling. But he's feeling everything. I know that now.
'We've been sleeping together for over a month. We had sex in Clint-bloody-Sheridan's home office. Did it never occur to you that some time, somehow, it would come out?'
'I never thought about it,' he dismisses. 'Or I sure as hell would have been more careful.'
I change tack, folding his admission into a part of my brain that will later want to analyse all that is being said and done.
'Why is this a big deal?'
My eyes stare into his even as he looks away. I see every flicker of emotion on his face, and it's a little like watching a ship sink all the way from shore. I can't reach him. He's being devoured by an ocean that I cannot cross.
'Apart from the gross invasion of my privacy?'
I dismiss that immediately. 'You're a big boy and you're used to that. What else?'
'It's too much.' He shakes his head with weariness, running a hand over his stubbled jaw. 'Gemma, look ... I have a thing this morning. I'm already running late.'
His sentence sits between us like a little row of tiny bombs. I can't help the look of disgust that crosses my face. 'A thing?' I ask, scorn deep in my tone.
'Yes, a thing. A breakfast.'
'You're kidding me?'
I lift a hand to his chest. He stands there for a moment, a tight smile stretched on his face, and then he steps back, dislodging my touch, breaking our contact.
His voice is coldly authoritative. 'Don't feel you need to rush off. You can let yourself out when you're ready. Hughes will ...'
'Fuck Hughes!' I shout, moving behind him. 'You aren't getting rid of me like that. God, Jack! I have put up with this for long enough. You blowing hot and cold. You want me one second - then we fuck and you're nowhere to be seen.'
That same muscle twists in his face, and it might as well be a bullseye for how badly I want to slap it.
'So we were photographed leaving a party? So people think we're an item? Well, guess what? We are.'
He steps back as though I've given in to temptation and cracked my palm across his cheek.
'We're sleeping together. Working together. We know each other inside out. What's the big fucking deal?'
'I can't do this right now.'
The louder and more screechy I become, the calmer he seems. And that just makes me even angrier! It's like a horrible hamster wheel and I don't know how to get off.
'We have to talk,' I snap, my voice quivering like an arrow striking a tree.
'Yes, we do.'
It's a softly spoken confession that fills me with more fear than it does relief.
'But not now. I really do have a thing this morning, Gemma.'
But I know his diary, his movements, and I can't for the life of me remember a single entry for today.
'What? What thing?'
He looks away from me, guilty, and, God, I am fuming. Is he lying to me? To get rid of me? Is he so desperate to avoid having an adult conversation about what our relationship's become that he's inventing reasons to get rid of me?
Fine. I'd rather go than beg him to love me - which is what I feel like doing.
But just when I'm about to flounce off like a teenager in a strop, at the very last minute, he says, 'It's Lucy's birthday.'
Boom! The bombs explode and, predictably, I reel.
'I always have breakfast with Amber on Lucy's birthday. Given this - ' he gestures with outrage towards the papers ' - I think it would be in poor taste to be late.'
'It's Lucy's birthday ...' I say with a nod, but inside my stomach is turning and my heart is shrivelling.
Had I noticed the glass before? My eyes find it easily now. A single Scotch glass on the edge of the table.
My eyes sweep shut.
He sleeps with women to forget Lucy. And that's what last night was.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Panic is like bile in my mouth.
'That's why you needed to see me last night,' I say thickly. 'It wasn't about me at all, was it?'
And I was so sure we were moving to another level - that he sought me out because he needed me. Because he missed me.
But it hadn't been that at all, had it? It was about Lucy. Always Lucy.
His eyes are swirling with anguish and emotion. But I don't care. I grab the belt of the robe and loosen it, pushing it off as I walk back into his bedroom. My clothes are strewn all over the place, where we flung them the night before, and they've landed haphazardly - the roadkill of our passion; the pathway to his penance.
I pull my dress on without bothering with underpants; my fingers tremble. He's standing in the doorway. I hear him before I see him, but I don't pause. I slide my shoes on.
'God! I'm such an idiot! You needed to forget. You needed to obliterate all your grief and whatever and that's why it had to be last night. Right?'
He doesn't answer my question, but mutters, 'Can this wait until tomorrow?'
Obviously it's just about the worst thing he can say.
I clench my teeth together and nod - because while I'm fuming I know better than to make any rash decisions.
'You're an asshole,' I mutter, pushing past him, taking satisfaction from the way my shoulder jams against his chest as I pass.
I stalk towards the front door but then change my mind and spin around, moving back towards him. My hand pushes at his chest and tears sparkle in my eyes. I push him and then I lift up on my tiptoes and I kiss him. Hard.
My mouth punishes him and I sob into the kiss, hating him, hating Lucy, hating it all so much but needing him to understand.
I rip myself away, my breath dragging ferociously from my lungs, my eyes whispering warm droplets from their corners.
'That is about you and me. Nothing else. No one else. It's us, Jack. Got it?'
He is infuriatingly immovable. His hands on his hips, his breathing even.
'Tomorrow,' he says softly, like a plea, and I nod.
But I know what tomorrow will bring.
Tomorrow is the dawning of a new day; tomorrow will be our end.
She is everywhere I look, despite the fact no visible sign remains. She's in the rumpled sheets of my bed, the towel I dry myself with after the shower, the toothbrush next to mine in the bathroom vanity unit. She's in the half-drunk coffee on the bench and the pool of coffee beside it, from where she presumably slammed it down.
I didn't noticed at the time but she must have been angry to do that. Gemma doesn't waste coffee.
My expression ghosts with a smile but I blank it.
I find myself standing in front of the newspapers once more and I look at Lucy. It's like I've been stabbed through my heart, a pain familiar to me. She was so happy on our wedding day; we both were. How could we have known what darkness was in store?
I press a finger into the page, as though I can touch Lucy's hair in real life if I press hard enough. But she's just a collection of black dots on cheap grey paper.
My finger moves to Gemma's face and lingers there, just beneath her chin. It's a larger photograph - almost half the page. The way she's looking at me ... My gut twists and my throat aches.
The way I'm looking at her! How did I let it go this far? What madness has overtaken me?
I curl my fingers around the newspaper's edges and fold it back together, then collect them all into a stack that I carry to the wastepaper bin.
I get rid of them, and wish I could do the same to this mess.
I have to end it.
Gemma deserves better than this - to be jerked around by a man who can never give her what she wants. She wants my heart and it's no longer a part of me. I gave it to Lucy ... She took it away with her.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
He's at my desk when I arrive the next day, looking immaculate in that blue shirt that makes me throb with the desire I partly want to cave in to. But I'm too angry, too sad, too hurt.
Grandma called me earlier, to enquire about my 'friend'. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the first 'friend' I'd had in years was about to put an end to things. Or that I was. That things had run their course.
'Coffee?' He nods to the mug in front of him.
I shake my head. I'm pretty sure I'll be ill if I eat or drink a thing.
'How was breakfast yesterday?' I ask, not meaning it to sound bitchy but suspecting it does.
I'm pretty sure it wasn't fine, but Jack doesn't want to talk about it. And if Jack doesn't want to talk about it, then that's that.
I drop my handbag onto the floor with more force than is necessary and reach down, pulling out my MacBook case.
'I was blindsided by the press.'
'You and me both.' I move back to the door and click the lock in place.
'I've been careless. I shouldn't have let things go this far.'
'Bullshit,' I snap, a frown pulling at my whole face. 'Neither of us could stop this. It is what it is. We've worked together for two years - I know you. I'm not one of those women you bring home for a quick fuck.'
'You're not that,' he agrees, his eyes holding mine with an intensity that supercharges my blood. 'But there's no future for us.'
The words are spoken clinically, almost as though he's rehearsed them.
'Why not?' I'm not going to give in to my breaking heart and let him end this. Not just because he's afraid.
'This was never meant to be serious.' It's a short declaration.
'So? That doesn't change what we are.'
'Lucy - '
But I cut him off, shaking my head abruptly from side to side. 'Lucy and you ... I don't want to infringe on that. I'm not asking you to renounce your love for her. I think you can love me, too. I think you can stay true to what she means to you and still make room for me.'
He clenches his jaw. 'I married Lucy for life.'
I nod slowly, my heart whimpering somewhere near my toes now. 'Even though she passed away?'
He is so certain, so intractable.
I try a different approach. 'What would Lucy have wanted?'
He clears his throat and turns away from me. 'It doesn't matter.'
'I think it does,' I say with quiet determination. 'If you're going to invoke this woman as your reason for shutting this down, then I think you should at least pretend to consider what she would have wanted.'
'Lucy had only months to come to terms with her condition,' he says. 'She didn't grapple with how I'd live after she died.'
'Bullshit,' I dismiss angrily.
He's resigned. Frustrated. Tired. 'You didn't know her, Gemma.'
I move closer towards him, my voice a whisper. 'I know that anyone who has been in love would want their partner to be happy. Not to live out their life in a hollow, empty wasteland as some kind of sick tribute.'
He squares his shoulders as I speak, as though he can make my words bounce off. 'It doesn't matter.'
It's so arrogantly defeatist that I almost laugh. But I'm weary. So weary now. Deflation has set in and is sucking my energy.
'What are we doing, Jack?'
He turns to face me slowly. 'I've been asking myself that same question.'
'What do I mean to you?'
I look at him as he sweeps his eyes shut, the truth apparently not something he's ready to communicate to me.
'You're my in-house,' he says, with so much gentle concern that I feel tears sting the back of my throat. The use of my actual job title makes everything worse, somehow. 'And my lover.'
I am very still while his words sink in. 'You can't compartmentalise me. I can't be your employee at work, your lover after hours and nothing in between. It doesn't work like that.'
'Why not?' he demands with husky urgency. 'This is good. Those things are good.'
'But I want more.'
'That's all I have,' he says honestly. 'It's all I can give you.'
A muscle jerks in his jaw and I lift my finger to touch it lightly. 'You've already given me so much more. Don't you see that?' I say gently.
'It's not possible.'
His eyes are dead ahead, his jaw locked. I know Jack Grant - I understand him. I know when he's made his mind up and when it's useless to argue. I see his determination and in it is the answer I have been waiting for.
It is the end.
And yet knowing that and truly accepting it are two different things.
'How can you think this is just sex?'
He shakes his head. 'I should have been more careful. I'll never be what you want.'
'And what's that?' I push, approaching the precipice of what we are.
He meets my eyes; there is bleak reality in them. It breaks my heart.
He reaches for my hand and squeezes it. 'I'm not your boyfriend. I don't want to be. And I don't want us to get more serious. I just want to fuck you.'
Oh, God. The pain is like ten thousand blades running over my spine. It's unbearable and yet I revel in it, because somehow I feel I deserve it. It makes it easier to accept the truth.
My head jerks upwards. My eyes are clouded by grief. 'So that's it?'
His expression shows that he too understands the inevitability before us. 'Yes.'
His voice is pleasingly roughened by emotion so I know he's not unaffected.
I don't trust myself to speak. Not for a moment. I wait, counting to twenty in English, French and Russian, and then I reach into the neoprene case for my laptop and pull out the crisp white piece of paper I printed that morning.
'This is Carrie Johnson's CV. She'll be in at lunchtime to meet with you.'
He frowns, as if the sudden change in conversation has surprised him. As though he expected me to argue for longer, to fight for what we were.
'What for?' He doesn't look at the CV.
'For my job.'
A second passes while we both absorb the reality of that.
'She's excellent. Highly qualified. You'll like her.'
His face drains of all colour. 'What the hell are you talking about?'
'Obviously I can't continue to work for you,' I say with quiet determination, zipping my laptop case. My fingers are shaking, making a mockery of my calm delivery.
'Stop. That's bullshit, Gemma. Utter nonsense.'
'That you think so underscores why I need to leave.'
Fuck it. Tears are rolling down my cheeks now but I don't bother to check them. What does it matter?
I stuff the laptop into my handbag with relief.
'You've worked for me for two years. You can't just ... because we ... you can't quit this job. You can't quit on me.'
Quit on him? The nerve! He's the one who's quitting. I bite my tongue. More tears are stinging my throat and I don't want to indulge them.
'I can't work for you, Jack. Not for another minute.'
He's truly aghast. 'Why the fuck not? We're a team, aren't we?'
'Yeah. In bed. In the boardroom. But not in real life. No, thanks.'
He waves the résumé in the air. 'I don't want this ... Carrie Whoever.'
'You'll need someone, and she's got what it takes to put up with you. She's got killer legs and a great rack. You'll probably get her into bed in a week or so.'
Jealousy rings in the statement. I don't care about that either.
'Christ, Gemma.' He drags a hand through his hair and it spikes in a way that makes my stomach roll. 'Don't do that. You're making it seem like that's all we were ...'
'No. That's what you did,' I say angrily. 'You just said it. We're lovers. We work together.'
He tilts his head back, a growl escaping his lips. 'At least stay for the week. Let's just let the dust settle on all this ...'
I'm emphatic; my life depends on his acceptance of this.
'Why not? It's just a week. Seven days.'
'It's so much more than that. It's all of me. It's my heart. Don't you get it? This might have been just convenient sex for you, but to me ... It's everything. I've fallen in love with you, Jack. I love you completely.'
I wait. And a part of me waits in hope. In the desperate, unfounded hope that he will say it back. That he feels it, too.
But he says nothing. He stares at me, and I stare at him, and finally - well beyond the time I should have given him - I lift my bag onto my shoulder and walk out of my office. I keep my head bent and I don't even acknowledge Hughes when I pass.
I'm so fucking done.
Text Copyright © 2018 by Clare Connelly
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.