Page 13 of The End of Faking It

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Misery.

Absolute misery.

And she was trying too hard, her smile about to crack. He shot a glance at Matt to see if he’d registered Penny’s sudden brittleness.

Yes, he had. He had the same dark eyes as his sister only now they were even blacker and fiercely focused on her.

She clung on—just—all smile and another polite question. But the façade was as fragile as fine-spun glass. He felt the pressing edge of the knife, waiting for it to slice and shatter.

‘You okay?’ Her brother ignored her irrelevant question and asked her straight out.

Her lashes lowered and the pretence fell with them. She didn’t look at either of them. Carter slung his arm across the back of her chair. She needed a moment of support and that was why he was here. And he wasn’t inhuman; his innards twisted at the sight of her.

‘Of course,’ Penny answered, so brightly it was like staring straight into a garish neon light. ‘I’m having dessert. Are you?’

She waved the nearest waiter over and ordered the triple chocolate mousse.

‘Excuse me for a moment.’ Under cover of the stranger’s presence, Matt escaped the underlying tension, shooting a look at Carter as he did.

Penny sat back in her seat after he’d gone and Carter twisted in his to look at her properly. She was even paler now and in her lap her fingers visibly shook. Her mouth parted as if she was working harder to get air into her lungs. Full lips that he knew were soft and that clung to his in a way that made his gut crunch with desire.

She looked terrified. Carter knew there was a big part of this picture that he was missing. But he’d get to that. All that mattered now was bringing her back—bringing back the sparkle, the fight and fire, the gleaming promise that usually filled her.

‘Penny?’ He slid his arm from the back of her chair to around her shoulder. Barely any pressure but she turned in to him. Her chin lifted and he saw the stark expression in her eyes.

‘You okay?’ he muttered as he moved closer. It was pure instinct, the need to protect. To reassure. To make it better.

He couldn’t not kiss her.

For a moment she did nothing, as if she was stunned by the touch. But then she kissed him back. Her mouth was so hungry. But then her hunger changed, the tenor of her trembling changed. It wasn’t distress any more but need. Her hands clutched his shoulders, pressing him nearer. He wanted to haul her closer still, wanted to curse the fact they were in such a public place.

Her hands tightened round the back of his neck, her fingers curling into his hair. Her breasts pressed against his chest. He wanted to peel her top from her, he wanted to see her as well as feel her. He wanted to touch her all over. He was wearing only a tee shirt and that was too much. He wanted her hands to slide beneath it; he wanted them to slide down his body.

Instead he had to pull back and he had to pull back now.

She didn’t move. But her gaze had sharpened, focused. Colour had returned to her cheeks and her lips were redder than they’d been seconds before. She breathed out; he felt the flexing of her shoulders—as if she was shrugging off whatever the burden had been.

Just like that she was back to her perfect image. As if that moment of terror had never happened. As if that shattering kiss hadn’t happened.

Carter hadn’t felt so rattled in all his life.

There was only one way to deal with it. There was no going back now. In truth there’d been no going back from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. He’d be her lover for real. He’d see her flushed and on fire and alive. And for someone who’d said kissing in public was rude, exclusive behaviour, she’d been doing pretty well.

Matt noisily returned to his seat and lifted the carafe of water, not meeting Carter’s eyes but refilling everyone’s glasses as if they all needed cooling down. Carter sure as hell did.

A couple of minutes later Carter was surprised to witness Penny enthusiastically tucking into the chocolate mousse. He’d thought she didn’t like chocolate. He thought she worked hard to maintain her figure.

He looked up and saw Matt watching her with wide eyes too. And then Matt looked across at Carter and grinned, the vestige of a wink thrown in. As if he was completely pleased to see his sister putting it away like that.

But because she was so busy dealing with the rich goo, it was down to Carter and Matt to pick up the conversation. Carter darted a suspicious look at Penny. Yeah, she was spinning out the way she was swallowing that stuff—and actually taking the tiniest of forkfuls. In fact he figured she was totally faking her enjoyment of the stuff. Good actress, and calculating minx. But he played along, keeping the conversation safe and saving his questions for later when they were alone.

Only she foiled him.

‘Matt can give me a ride home,’ she said brightly after Carter had dealt with the bill. ‘He wanted to see my flat, remember? And you had to work on those files—you don’t want to be too behind tomorrow.’

Carter tried not to bare his teeth as he grinned his way through acquiescing. He’d been neatly set to the side. But he’d extract a little price of his own.

As Matt went forward to request a taxi Carter pulled her into his arms, so close her body was squashed right up against his. Not as close as he wanted, but it was better than nothing. And as he was staring down the barrel of a night of nothing, he needed a little sweetener. He kissed her, softly, until she opened up for him. Then he slipped his hand up discreetly, quickly rubbing a thumb across her breast. He knew exactly how sensitive she was there. Sure enough he felt her instant spasm, her mouth instinctively parting more on a gasp. But he couldn’t take advantage and go deeper. Reluctantly he relinquished his hold on her.

All the wicked thoughts that were tumbling in his head multiplied as he saw her flush and angry sparkle. Yes, it was going to be mind-blowing. But not soon enough.

‘Great to meet you, Carter.’ Matt walked back from the taxi rank, extending a hand and a bright smile.

So protective little bro wasn’t going to throw any punches despite seeing Carter paw his sister? Carter felt smug. He must have the approval, then—on that score at least the night was a success. And he’d claim his reward—tomorrow.

Penny loved her brother but there was only so much she could handle. She yawned and pleaded tiredness. He seemed to understand, getting the taxi to wait while he did a lightning inspection of her flat so he could report back to the parents when he got home.

She stood in her doorway to see him off, thinking she’d got away with the last ten minutes with her nerves intact. Only he turned back, one leg in the taxi already. ‘I’m sorry if mentioning Isabelle upset you.’

‘Oh, no.’ Penny shook her head, swallowing quickly to stop her throat tightening up too much. ‘It was so great to see you, Matt. It was a really nice night.’

Aside from that one moment.

‘You should come home and visit,’ he said, suddenly awkward and emotional. ‘You should bring Carter.’

Her throat thickened and tears stung her eyes. Blinking hard, she nodded and stepped back indoors.

Isabelle was Dan’s twin and Penny’s best friend from age one to seventeen. They’d been closer than sisters. They’d joked about becoming sisters for real when Penny and Dan had gotten together. But then that relationship changed everything—and every other for Penny.

For her, the impact was always there—a weight she carried and could never be relieved of. That was okay, because, as much as she didn’t like to think of it, she also never wanted to forget. And her burden was nothing on Isabelle’s, or Dan’s mother’s or his father’s.

For so many reasons, Dan’s death was the defining moment of her life. The experience and subsequent aftermath were the bases from which she made all her decisions. She wasn’t being hurt like that again. More importantly she wasn’t hurting anyone else either.

Now she knew life was for living—she would travel, experience and see the world. And always keep her distance.

And

that meant distance from Carter too. Especially him.

CHAPTER SIX

‘SLEEP well?’ Carter stopped by her desk.

‘Sure,’ Penny lied.

‘I didn’t either,’ he said, eyes twinkling. ‘And I blame you for that.’

She didn’t rise to his teasing banter. It wasn’t entirely because of the memories that had been stirred last night—her instincts had been warning her off Carter from the moment she’d first seen him. She needed to listen to them. He meant danger—not the physical kind, like when she’d thought he was some psycho attacker, but a danger to her head, hormones and heart.

In short, he messed up all her insides.


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