Their virgin secretary, p.25
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       Their Virgin Secretary, p.25

         Part #6 of Masters of Ménage series by Shayla Black
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  season for the Bears, but everything they’d worked for was there.

  She slid off his lap, looking incredulous. Tate wished he hadn’t brought the subject up.

  Belle took a long sip of her coffee, her stiff body suggesting she grappled for patience as she turned back to them. “I know you need to get back. I’m glad you stayed here with me for a while. I really enjoyed your visit and appreciated your help with the house.”

  Tate frowned, his whole body going on alert because he’d heard that flat cadence coming from a woman’s mouth before. Just before she broke up with him. Just before she explained all the reasons it wouldn’t work between them. “What is that supposed to mean?”

  Eric stood, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, buddy. We can hang out here for as long as necessary.”

  “As long as necessary for what?” Belle’s lips firmed.

  “Nothing, baby. Just as long as you want us here.” Eric seemed determined to keep everyone calm.

  Tate couldn’t let it go. Dread churned an ache in his gut, and it wasn’t going to go away until he knew the truth. He’d thought everything had been settled the night before, but maybe history was just repeating itself. “I want you to explain yourself, Belle. I deserve the truth. I’ve never lied to you. Not once. I’ve always been straight with you. What are your plans?”

  “I’ve said for days that I’m going to work on this house and set up a design business.” She squared her shoulders. “Don’t look so shocked. I told Eric in Dallas this is what I wanted. I quit, Tate. Just because you didn’t accept it doesn’t make it less true. I don’t want to be a secretary for the rest of my life.”

  He tried to force down the panic invading his system. Keep cool. Don’t blow it. She deserved the career she wanted. Her desire and his didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  “I understand. You’ve got a dream,” Tate acknowledged. “We’ll help you find a space in Chicago. Baby, you have to understand that everything we’ve built is there. We can’t drop our livelihoods to move here.”

  “I didn’t ask you to.” She pressed her lips together in a grim line. “But I’m not going back to Chicago.”

  “We don’t have to decide any of this right now,” Eric interjected.

  Tate ignored him. “Seriously? What about last night?”

  Making love to Belle had meant everything to him. His whole life had built up to the one moment he’d joined his body to hers and found what he truly wanted in life. All the hours sweating in the gym and enduring the users who’d wanted him just for sex had shaped him. Until last night, he thought he’d put up with it because that was the cost of getting some. Now he knew he’d unconsciously done those things to become the man for her. He’d found his calling. Practicing law was great, but he wanted to make Annabelle Wright happy. He wanted to be her husband and build an extraordinary life with her and his best friends.

  How could she not want that, too?

  She shrugged, her gaze sliding away from his. “I enjoyed it, Tate. But you can’t expect that I would give up all my hopes and dreams because I liked what you did in bed. Can’t you see that I have a chance to create my dream here?”

  “And if I offered to move? If I gave up the practice?” He hated how pathetic he sounded, like that five-year-old he’d once been, praying that his mom would hug him, just once. Like the kid yearning for his dad to play catch with him.

  Belle sighed, hesitated. “I don’t think it would work.”

  Of course it wouldn’t work. She would need to socialize with clients. She would want a wide circle of friends, and he struggled in those situations. He was a liability. He was a nerd without a filter. No amount of muscle he packed on was going to change what he was. He couldn’t magically transform into Eric.

  He was good for sex. That had been a shocker. He’d been a sexual savant, easily learning how to please a woman because he was willing to do just about anything. He loved to eat pussy, loved the little sounds a woman made, the way she squirmed on his tongue. He had a big cock and he’d learned how to use it. When he was in bed with a woman, there was no doubt he excelled.

  They just didn’t want him out of bed.

  Apparently, he’d been naïve to think Belle would be different.

  Tate pushed his chair back and stood, his gut heavy and knotted and dragging somewhere near his feet. How the hell had he gone from believing he was getting married to breaking up in less than ten minutes?

  She stepped forward, the sympathy on her face almost too much to take. “Tate, I don’t mean to hurt you. I just don’t think it would work in the long term.”

  He suddenly realized he would do it. He would give up his practice and start over again here. He would sell his house and follow her if that’s what she needed. He could beg, but it wouldn’t change the outcome.

  Belle just didn’t want him.

  “Hey, it probably wouldn’t.” He wasn’t going to make a bigger fool of himself.

  She reached out to touch him, but sighed again when he moved away. “Tate, if I asked you to move here, you would eventually resent me. I know it worked for Kinley, but I doubt Eric wants to give up his practice for a woman he spent one night with. I don’t see how it works, especially since Kellan isn’t interested at all.”

  Ah, so it was Kellan she truly wanted. He’d known it must be one of his two friends. They were smooth. They wouldn’t embarrass her by doing anything painfully awkward. Now that he really thought about it, she would never have gone for their type of relationship. Almost no woman actually wanted to deal with more than one man. They were demanding, obnoxious at times. He might be the most demanding of all, following her around like a sad puppy or the horny mutt trying to hump her leg. Most women preferred men like Kellan.

  He held a hand up. “Whatever. It’s cool. I’m going to take a shower. I’ll look into flights out of here this afternoon.”

  She looked startled. “I thought you were going to stay for a few days.”

  “That was when I thought you gave you a shit, Belle. Now, I think I’ll let you get on with your life.”

  Eric tried to step between them. “Tate—”

  “So we can’t be friends if you don’t get your way?” Belle cut in.

  “My way? You want to make me sound like a kid who throws a temper tantrum because I had a toy taken from me? I wanted to marry you, build a life with you. I wanted to take care of you and make you the center of our world. But I guess you just wanted a man to pop your cherry and we were handy.”

  Belle gaped at him. “That’s not true! I never said that.”

  “You don’t have to. I know the drill, baby. So I’ll make it easy on you. I won’t tell you I love you again. Clearly, you don’t want to hear it.” Trying to hold himself together, he whirled away to leave.

  She grabbed his arm. “Tate, stop. Will you sit down so we can talk? I care about you. I’m not trying to hurt you, just be realistic about this. I can’t let you give everything up for me when it can’t work. You would hate me.”

  He could never hate her, but he damn straight could hate himself. At the end of the day, this mess was his fault. He was the real reason it wouldn’t work.

  “I’d rather not rehash this shit.” He yanked away from her grip. “I need to take a shower and get back to work. I’ll be out of your hair as soon as I can.”

  He walked out without another word, letting the door shut behind him.

  “Tate!” he heard Eric’s oh-so-reasonable voice but kept walking. He needed to be away from her, away from all of them. In his suitcase, he found a tank top, then he thrust his shoes on, his whole body numb. In moments, he headed for the door.

  Kellan walked in, a white bag in his hands. “Hey. I got us beignets. I thought we could sit down and figure out what we’re going to do about the house situation. I have some thoughts on vetting the people who’ve been in here in the last twenty-four hours. The cops are going to be useless. They have a high-profile murder to solve. They aren’t going to
waste many man hours on what amounts to vandalism.”

  Of course, Kellan would take charge. He usually did. Often, Tate found a deep and grateful comfort in it. Not today. Instead, it was just another way he didn’t measure up.

  “Do whatever you want.” He shouldered his way past Kellan and slammed out the door. Then Tate did what he always did when the world pressed in on him.

  He ran.

  * * * *

  “Do you have any idea what you just did to him?” After the door slammed behind Tate, Eric snapped around and drilled his stare into Belle. He had a point to make to her.

  Yeah, he’d have to go after his best friend very soon. Tate wouldn’t talk about this argument now. He’d need hours, maybe days, to process it. He might say he planned to take a shower, but he would find his sneakers and run through the streets until he couldn’t see straight. Only when he’d pounded out every ounce of his frustration would he come back.

  Of course, he also might just run to the airport and leave for good.

  Belle shook her head, looking perplexed. “What? I shouldn’t be honest? I wasn’t trying to hurt him. Damn it, Eric. Did you really expect me to wake up this morning and give up this house? Is one night supposed to make me believe this can work long term?”

  “You could have mentioned how you felt last night.” Eric forced himself to take a deep breath because he was brutally angry, too.

  Of course, he and Tate had already written the fairy-tale ending in their heads without telling her, either. Still, hadn’t she felt the magic between them when they’d made love to her? Hadn’t it made her rethink staying in New Orleans at least a little?

  Kellan pushed the door open and walked in, looking deeply concerned. “What the hell happened to Tate? He took off running. The last time he was that upset, he’d just watched the last Star Wars film.”

  “No jokes. It’s not helping right now.” Eric ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He knew Kellan wasn’t intentionally being insensitive, but now sure as hell wasn’t the time for a ribbing.

  Kellan stared, then cut his gaze to their aloof lover. His face lost all amusement. “What happened?” His eyes narrowed. “What did you do, Annabelle?”

  She loosed an exasperated huff. “Why do you think I did something?”

  “Because there’s only one person in the world with the power to crush Tate like that, and I’m looking at her.” Kellan set his bag down and prowled toward Belle. “Tell me how you hurt him this morning. I have a suspicion, but I hope you prove me wrong.”

  Belle opened her mouth. “I-I—”

  Eric saved them all the time and her the effort. “She explained that she didn’t want anything but sex from us.”

  Belle would probably choose different words, but he cut to the chase.

  The distance she’d forced between them had completely shocked him. While he hadn’t thought Belle would immediately begin packing to head back home, he sure as hell hadn’t thought she would pronounce that a relationship between them couldn’t work.

  It had worked pretty fucking well last night.

  “Oh my god, I didn’t say that—at all,” she shot back, tears shining in her eyes. “Tate started talking about me going back to Chicago or him moving in here. I just… He blindsided me. I tried to explain why that wouldn’t work, and Tate took off.”

  “You told him that you weren’t interested in a relationship.” Tears or not, he refused to let her sugarcoat what had happened.

  “No, I told him I didn’t necessarily see a future for us.”

  Kellan shook his head, a tight fury all over his face. “Well, that’s perfect. Hey, at least she told him to fuck off before the wedding.”

  Hurt ripped across Belle’s face. “That’s not fair!”

  With a shrug, Kell turned to him. “Look, man, I should go. I’ll do nothing but make this worse. Sorry.”

  Crap. At the moment, Eric wanted to throw down with both of them. He’d been prepared for Kellan to shy away or bow out. He’d always known that bringing his friend into the relationship after his bitter divorce would be difficult. He’d never imagined Belle would wake up after the best night of his life and declare that they could leave whenever because it didn’t matter to her.

  Kellan paused, gripping her shoulders and staring into her eyes. “Think about what you’re doing, Annabelle. There’s a reason you’re driving away men who love you. Think hard and fix it. Don’t end up like me.”

  “What does that mean? You said yourself you didn’t think it could work,” Belle replied.

  “I still don’t, but then it’s occurred to me very recently that I might not be the most optimistic person about love.” He withdrew. “Besides, we’re not talking about me. Really think this through before you break anything off. Make sure there’s not even the smallest part of you doing this for revenge.”

  “Revenge?” Confusion widened her eyes.

  Eric had been thinking along the same lines. “Back in Dallas, you were very upset with us. You thought we were rejecting you. Maybe you think it’s a good idea to reject us right back. It won’t work, Belle. You’ll regret it.”

  “I am not doing this for revenge.”

  “Then you’re pulling away because you’re afraid,” he shot back. Those were the only two reasons for her to be so standoffish.

  “She is and she won’t admit it.” Shaking his head, Kellan headed for the door that led to the dining room.

  “Afraid of what?” she challenged.

  “C’mon, Belle. You’re too smart to play stupid.” Kell pushed the door open. “I’m going to start background checks on everyone who was here yesterday.”

  Belle opened her mouth to say something, but Kell left.

  And Eric shut her down. “Don’t. Do not be stubborn enough to stop us from watching out for you. Think very carefully before you say whatever is about to come out of your mouth. The last twelve hours aside, we’ve been friends for a long time, and I will be deeply offended if you choose your pride over your safety. Before you told Tate he could leave on the next plane for all you cared, did you think about the fact that someone broke into this house and tried to scare the hell out of you?”

  Tears spilled from her dark eyes, down her cheeks. “Damn it, Eric. You make me sound cruel and awful. I did not say that.”

  “Not in those exact words, but I assure you that’s what he heard. And you’re probably about to tell me to get out, too.”

  “No, I appreciate you looking into the suspects. If there’s any help I can give you, let me know.” Her big, hurt eyes were like a punch to the gut. He wished he could take back the whole morning. Or that they’d just stayed in bed. “I can’t keep you here, Eric. And I can’t lie to Tate and tell him I’m willing to do something I’m not. If that means he has to go, I’ll understand.”

  Pain wracked his system. “You’re not even willing to see what we could have?”

  “What do you think we could have? I can’t go back to Chicago. I really believe I need to be here. But I can’t let you guys give up your careers to move because I can’t promise a relationship will work out. Tate wanted commitment from me this morning. We’ve never even gone on an actual, romantic date. I have no idea where you stand, and Kell is out on the whole relationship thing, so why should I be thinking about cohabitation already? I don’t know that I’m ready. It would be unfair to ask you guys to give up everything back in Chicago when we might not have a future.”

  Eric sighed. That’s how she saw the situation? So maybe they hadn’t exactly communicated their wants and expectations to her. But she also hadn’t tried to meet them at least a little closer to halfway. Either she was getting her revenge or she was terrified. His money was on the latter.

  “We can’t leave until we know you’re safe. That’s not open for negotiation,” Eric stated unequivocally.

  Tate wouldn’t be able to leave her vulnerable and alone either. Sure, he could threaten to walk away, but he would stay here tonight and every night un
til he was sure Belle was safe.

  It wouldn’t matter that she refused to love them back.

  More tears spilled onto her cheeks, and it took everything Eric had not to brush them away. “What do we do, Eric? I don’t want you to leave, but I can’t tell you that I’m ready for anything more than a casual relationship. Maybe you think this is stupid, but I don’t think it’s going to work without Kellan. You three are a team. I’ve watched you for a year. You’re happiest together. You’d resent me if I came between you.”

  She looked so miserable, Eric couldn’t stop himself from cupping her cheeks and wiping her tears away. “But you hurt Tate. You have to understand that this isn’t the first time a woman has pushed him out of the relationship.”

  “What do you mean?” she frowned.

  “We’ve dated women who didn’t want to see Tate outside the bedroom. Once we explained that we wanted a more established
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