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“What are you thinking about?” I whispered.

“Honestly?” His voice was low and raspy and beyond sexy. “I was thinking I’d be scared to make love to you.”

My heart thudded in my chest. “Why?”

“Well, for obvious reasons. Being my first time and all,” he said. “But also because I’d be feeling all of these things, and you’d be . . .”

His breaths were coming fast and shallow.

“I’d be what?” I rasped out. “Tell me.”

“You told me at the clambake that you didn’t feel anything with those other guys.” His breath tickled my ear, and I shivered against it. “What if you don’t feel anything when you’re with me, either?” “Not possible,” I said, arching my head to look him in the eye. “I’m incredibly turned on when I’m with you. I feel every kiss. Every touch. Everything.”

His eyes squeezed closed as his fingers brushed the back of my neck.

“I have my own fears, too, you know,” I said, feeling brave.

“Like what?” He opened his eyes, and I saw a flicker of yearning inside them.

“I’m afraid you’d think—after waiting all that time—that sex with me was nothing special, after all.”

“Not a chance,” he whispered against my ear.

“Or that I’d get so lost in feeling all of those things . . . that I’d let my guard down.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“It leaves me wide open . . . to be taken advantage of again.”

“But everyone has those fears, Avery,” he said, kissing my forehead. “I understand why you have them and why you hold on to your independence so tightly. But I can’t imagine ever wanting to stop caring for or protecting you.”

“That’s the part I don’t get,” I said. “I mean, you’re finally free from the burden of looking after your family. Why do you like the idea of caring for someone else?”

“You make it sound like it’s a chore,” he said, squeezing me tight. “It would feel amazing to be needed and wanted by someone that you care deeply about.”

“I don’t know, Bennett. I’d say we’re at a standstill.”

“Or at a crossroads,” he said. “Depending on how you look at it.”

“Sex means different things to us,” I said, playing with his bangs. “You’re wound too tight and I’m wound too loose.”

He kissed my shoulder. “We’re more alike than you think.”

“How do you mean?”

“We both have trust issues,” he said. “I’d be putting faith in the person I’m having sex with, too.” “See, that’s a lot of pressure,” I said. “Sex for me is just about feeling good. In and out and done.”

Bennett threw back his head and laughed.

He turned over and pulled me flush against him. “You know we’re not just talking about sex here.

We’re talking about feelings, Avery. How we make each other feel when we’re together.”

It was true. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to just having quickie sex after being with him.

Someone who took his time, who made every single touch count. It left me overwhelmed and breathless at the same time.

I decided to go for honesty. “I love how you make me feel. How you kiss and touch me. It makes me feel . . . special. And like I want to maul you, all at once. And that terrifies the hell out of me.”

“The feeling is mutual. Especially the mauling part,” he said, and I smacked him.

“Maybe we need time to build up our faith . . . in each other,” he said. “Can we at least agree to try?”

“I can try, Bennett.” Whoa, was I saying here? Last night changed me more than I was willing to admit. I wanted this boy. And I was willing to compromise to get him. I was willing to put myself out there, overwhelming as it may be. “But I can’t guarantee that I won’t get stuck or run away sometimes.”

“Just agree to always be honest with me, okay?” he said, and I nodded.

We stared into each other’s eyes, and I saw my own emotions reflected back in his. Trust, hope, longing.

His lips hovered a breath away from mine and I flicked my tongue against his mouth.

He hummed in response.

He closed his mouth over mine and our tongues lingered in a slow and deliberate dance. It felt honest and pure and brand-new to kiss him again. He knotted his fingers in my hair and we stayed that way—kissing, licking, and teasing each other’s lips and necks and ears.

“I’m not sure I can ever get enough of you,” he murmured as he captured the skin at the hollow of my throat. “I know the feeling,” I whispered. He was lying on top of me with his bulge rubbing against my hip. I wanted badly to adjust myself so that I could feel the length of him against my underwear, which was becoming increasingly wet.

But the last time we were in this same position in my bed it had been too much for him. I didn’t want him to pull away from me again.

Bennett kissed my forehead, and then my nose. He looked deeply into my eyes, and my entire body tingled in response. He thumbed the end of my T-shirt, and my breathing became shallow. “Take this off?”

I sat up and lifted the shirt over my head. I wasn’t wearing a bra, and I could feel my ni**les harden at his gaze. “Jesus, Avery. I’m not sure I’ve seen more perfect br**sts.” His hand brushed against my collarbone and along the top of my br**sts. “Is this okay?” he asked. I whimpered in response.

My stomach coiled with eagerness as he stroked his thumbs over my hard buds and then cupped my br**sts. He drew one into his mouth and swirled his tongue around my nipple. I arched my back toward him, urging him on. He sucked and licked before giving my other breast the same attention.

He nudged me onto my back and then hovered above me. “I’ve been dreaming about how you’d taste.” My breath lodged in the back of my throat.

He traced his fingers between my br**sts and down to my belly.

“But if you need me to stop, just say the word.” He met my eyes. “I will always stop, Avery.

Always. Do you believe me?”

I nodded. My breaths became ragged with need.

“Do you want me to stop right now?”

“No.” I exhaled a shaky breath. “Please, don’t stop.”

He kissed along my collarbone and then trailed his tongue down the center of my chest, stopping to flick it against my navel. “God, you smell good.”

He feathered kisses against my belly and along the edges of my underwear. I squirmed and panted, almost bursting from anticipation.

I’d never had a man revere my body like this. It was overwhelming.

Bennett planted one scorching kiss over my mound and I felt his hot breath through the thin cotton material. I gripped the bedsheets and moaned.

“Damn it, Bennett,” I panted. “How in the hell do you know exactly how to drive me insane?”

He trailed his tongue along my inner thigh. “I said I was a virgin, Avery. Not a saint.”

“Or even a monk, apparently,” I mumbled.

I felt him smile against my skin.

He thumbed the top of my underwear and dragged the material below my hip. I felt the cool breeze glide over my skin, but it did nothing to squelch the heat between my legs. Bennett licked and sucked the skin around my hipbone. “A tattoo would look sexy right here. And I’d be the only one to see it— when I did this.”

He yanked my panties down my thighs, and I gasped.

He dropped my underwear on the floor, and then his gaze caressed the area between my legs. I suddenly felt modest at his inspection of me. But also special and extremely aroused.

“You’re so beautiful, Avery.”

My pulse skyrocketed when his palms slid up my calves to push apart my knees. Silky strands of his hair skimmed my thighs as he settled between my legs.

His eyes fastened on mine as his mouth lingered above me. He was watching me, wanting to see how I responded to him.

And it was the sexiest damn thing.

His hot breath prickled my skin right before I felt the broad stroke of his wet tongue.

“Oh f**k,” I panted as his fingers curled around my hips.

Eyes glued to mine, he licked me again, slow and gentle, as my legs trembled beneath him.

Then he closed his lips around me and sucked hard. My eyes rolled back in my head as I breathed out his name.

“Jesus, Avery, you taste good.” I felt his deep groan vibrate against my skin, and the familiar tension of an orgasm pulsed low in my belly.

He slipped a finger inside me as he expertly used his tongue and mouth to lick and suck the tiny bundle of nerves at my epicenter.

My fingers were fisted in his hair, and I was close to losing myself.

Still, something held me back. It was so difficult to completely relinquish control. Letting go for Bennett would mean something different now. Because after last night, we’d become something different. Something real.

“I want you to trust me.” Bennett’s finger slid from inside of me and his other hand released hold of my thigh.

With his mouth still on me, he reached for my hands, which were now tangled in the sheets. He laced his fingers with mine and held on tight.

“Come for me, baby.” Then his tongue and mouth became relentless—lapping between my slick folds and sucking with the right amount of pressure.

Pleasure and heat built to an overwhelming intensity in my body. “Oh God, Bennett, don’t stop.” I squeezed my eyes shut as color and light danced behind my eyelids and my whole world exploded into a million pieces.

He gripped my hands and his mouth held steady as I shivered and shook and called out his name.

Then he pulled me into his arms and stroked my hair. “Thank you.”

My skin felt slick and my voice was raspy. “For what?” “For being vulnerable in front of me.”

Chapter Nineteen

Bennett and I saw each other regularly the next couple of weeks. We hung out at the corner bar for drinks, met at the campus coffee shop between classes, and ordered takeout while we studied together.

We agreed not to get in the habit of sleeping in each other’s beds. Though I was willing to give this trust thing a try, I wasn’t ready to enfold myself in his life completely.

One thing was for certain—it was hard to leave Bennett after a marathon make-out session on my couch or at his door. I’d want to ask him to stay and fall asleep with me, but I held myself back. And I could tell he did as well.

When I had let him go down on me the other night, it was the most intense orgasm I’d ever experienced. And though I had come during sex with other men, it was just a means to an end for me. So letting go and trusting him on a whole different level—one where emotions were involved—had been intense and heady and satisfying.

But I was scared of losing myself completely in Bennett. And signs of it were already showing.

Beginning with the night of the almost-break-in at my window. Not that it was Bennett’s fault. The thought of allowing someone to infiltrate my life made me feel defenseless. It was terrifying and sweet and exasperating all at the same time.

Rob had text me twice that week, and I decided to be honest with him. I told him I’d met someone and was giving it a chance. Bennett and I never said we were exclusive, but there was an unspoken understanding there. Besides, seeing any hurt or jealousy in his eyes would have been painful. Rob: Is this because of that guy—your neighbor?

Me: Really none of your business. Why do you ask? Rob: Could tell something’s been different about you lately.

Me: Guess it’s just time to move on, Rob.

Rob: Sure, understood. One question, though? If I had wanted more, would it have made a difference?

Whoa, what? Rob had never given me that impression. I’d thought we had a clear and mutual understanding. Part of me felt awful. He was a decent guy. Maybe he was searching for something— someone—more meaningful, too. Not that I was actually ever searching.

But I didn’t want to lead him on. So I needed to be completely up front with him. Me: Geez Rob . . . I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. The honest truth is . . . probably not.

Rob: That’s cool. Take care, Avery. You know where to find me.

I could almost hear the disappointment resonating from his words, and as I sat staring at our exchanged dialogue, I was filled with a hollow regret.

Adam and his girlfriend were coming up for the weekend. I got Saturday off work and made some casual dinner plans for us. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to introduce Bennett to my family, but as the weekend drew nearer, I realized that I wanted him there.

Bennett: What time is your brother coming in?

Me: Noon. Want to grab dinner with us at that Mexican restaurant on First?

Bennett: Sounds good. See you later.

Adam and Andrea made a cute couple. The way my brother doted on her had me a bit worried until I saw that she was just as sweet on him. I drove them around the university campus, since both were considering applying there. I showed them the bookstore and the library, the admissions office, and the buildings in which most of my nursing classes were located.

We parked in the square near the campus and walked to all the little shops. The day was beautiful, the leaves were in full color, and Andrea admired how quaint the town was.

Ella met us for lunch at the campus coffee shop. They had a great selection of soups and sandwiches. She’d always loved Adam and wanted to catch up with him. She also wanted to meet his new girlfriend and give her approval.

She was almost as protective of Adam as I was. And I understood why. After what had happened to her brother, I didn’t question her motives. Her love for and loyalty to Adam. It was a primitive response to the hell she and her family had been put through.