It wasn’t a long drive back to Asheville. Maybe an hour. But it seemed to take the entire day. He’d spent that interminably long drive practicing what he’d say.
He’d been an ass. He was sorry.
They weren’t exclusive but he’d no right to treat her that way and he was sorry.
His gut knotted up just thinking about it.
But he needed to do something.
Besides, sometimes, when he’d see Lacey at the club, when she was talking to some of the guys she knew, even though it was just casual, he had these moments where his brain just wanted to explode. Where he wanted to grab anybody who was even near her and just pummel them bloody.
Was it a bad thing, really, to have a real relationship with her?
It would make her happy. It would maybe fix the awful, ugly rift he’d put between them. And he wouldn’t have to worry about that cold, nasty dread that was spreading through him…that feeling that he was losing her.
The lights of Asheville gleamed ahead and it wasn’t too long before he was able to turn onto the street of Lush and Lace, the little shop her friend Rocki owned. Lacey modeled some of the corsets, handled the one-of-a-kind photo shoots for the store’s popular website and maintained the tech aspects as well, plus worked at the store three days a week.
Brogan hadn’t been here more than two or three times, but he knew all about it. Maybe he could pick a few things out for her. He loved the lingerie they sold, loved seeing it on her, loved taking it off her.
Checking the time, he saw it was close to five. The store closed early on Sundays. That was good. He could ask her on a date. They could go out and he would make it up to her—hurting her the way he had.
They would talk and…he would fumble his way through the apology. He sucked at apologies because he so rarely offered them. Unless the person mattered, he didn’t bother with them.
And Lacey was the first person to really matter in a long time.
Not everybody is out to screw you over…
He just hoped Lacey had missed him half as much as he’d missed her. It would make it easier to smooth things over.
He was nervous. It pissed him off, but there wasn’t much to be done for it. It wasn’t an unusual thing with Lacey, though. He’d never been on entirely level footing with Lacey. He’d always felt a little less in control, a little less sure.
It was the main reason he’d kept her at a distance. Seeing her, though, the thought of it had always left him excited, hot…more. She did things to him, made him wish for things.
But it wasn’t ever like this. He hadn’t ever really worried that he might lose her.
Losing Lacey… That was just unthinkable.
“Like hell.” He wasn’t going to lose her. With that in mind, he stormed into the store. They’d have it out, and they’d do it now.
Shoving open the door, he had his mouth open to say…something. But it wasn’t Lacey behind the counter. It was Rocki and she didn’t look at all sick. For a second, he just stared at her, his mind spinning. And although he already knew, he found himself asking, “What are you doing here? I thought you were sick.”
“Sick?” Rocki lifted a brow at him. Her mouth curled in an amused little smirk. “Well, I was feeling fine, right up until I saw your face, asshole.”
Sighing, he skimmed a hand back over his naked scalp. “Okay, I deserve that.” Taking a deep breath, he said, “Lacey told me she was covering for you because you were sick. I’d asked her to come to the cabin with me. I guess it was too much to ask for her to just be honest and say she didn’t want to come.”
“You think you deserve that? You treat her like shit but you deserve honesty from her? Respect?” Rocki sauntered out from behind the counter. She wore boots, the heels tall enough to put her eye to eye with him. Her dark-brown eyes glinted with heat and disgust as she stared at him. “You know, I really don’t get what she sees in you, you stupid ass.”
She shook her head. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear it. She’s into you—I know that. But I don’t know why. All you do is hurt her. You’ve done it for the past two years and if she’d stayed around, you’d keep on doing it.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “I don’t hurt her. And what we do is none of your damn business—”
“I said shut up,” she snarled, leaning in until she was no more than an inch from his face. “You think I give a damn what the two of you do behind closed doors? She likes her sex rough. Fine. Yippee. As long as she’s into it and you don’t do anything she doesn’t want? Have fun.”
She spun away and stalked toward the counter. There, she turned around and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest, eyeing him as though he were something she would scrape off the bottom of her boot.
“You hurt her,” she said again, her voice low, all but vibrating. “All the damn time. Every time I think the two of you might actually be making a go of it, you do something stupid and I want to shake her because she just puts up with it. You were at the club with her the other night—she looked as happy as I’d ever seen her, and then she goes to the bathroom and within thirty seconds, that bitch Grace is hanging all over you.”
“Now, wait a minute—”
Rocki shoved off the counter.
“Didin’t I already tell you to shut the fuck up?” she snapped. “Do it or I will smash that ugly face of yours in. You come into my store after breaking my friend’s heart, you will hear what I have to say.”
Brogan blinked, caught off guard. Rocki had claws—he’d always known that. It was part of why she and Lacey got along so well. Both of them had a streak of mean a mile wide. But he hadn’t had too many women threaten to…how did she put it? Yeah, threaten to smash his face in. Running his tongue across his teeth, he rocked back on his heels and waited.
“I don’t care if you two have an open relationship and I don’t care if you and Grace go way back,” Rocki said, her eyes glinting. “I go way back with Lacey. And you treated her like shit. I was the one watching her try not to cry after you humiliated her. So if I want to call you an ass and that woman a bitch, I damn well will. You don’t deserve Lacey.”
Brogan set his jaw and shifted his attention past her to stare at the wall. There was an unframed print mounted there, the woman in a shimmering bronze corset, vivid, red-gold curls spiraling down her back, her hands gracefully tying the laces. The viewer couldn’t see the model’s face, but he knew who it was. Lacey. He stared at the print for a long, long moment before he finally shifted his attention to Rocki and said gruffly, “I know.”
“You know.” Rocki arched a brow. She paced forward, that look of acute dislike still on her face. “So…you wanted to take her to the cabin. You broke her heart. You humiliated her, and then you called and offered to take her to the cabin. Let me guess, you thought taking her away for a romantic getaway, fucking her brains out for a few days would make it all better?”
There really wasn’t any way to respond to that, Brogan decided. So he stayed silent.
“Nothing to say now?” Rocki asked mockingly.
“You seem to be dead set on saying it all.” He rubbed his hands over his face and turned away. He had to fix this. “Look, I’ve screwed up, a hundred times, a thousand times. But I do care about her, and I’m going to fix this.”
“Yeah.” She snorted. “Good luck with that.”
He shot her a dirty look. “I’m not giving her up.”
“Too late. She’s given up on you.” A cat’s smile curled her lips.
He opened his mouth and then just snapped it shut, shaking his head as he headed for the door. He didn’t have time to play Rocki’s games. He had to find Lacey and start fixing this. As he hit the door, he paused and looked back.
Rocki stood there, still watching him with a smirk.
Something about the look in her eyes should have warned him. But he was so determined to get to Lacey, he just wasn’t thinking clearly. All he could think about was the fact that he had to fix this. Had to make Lacey understand that he hadn’t done anything to hurt her, not intentionally, at least—that he was just screwed up and he needed time to level out.
∞ ∞ ∞
Lacey lived in a redesigned loft across town. It acted as both studio and home. It was meticulously neat, rarely a thing out of place in his experience. But this was…unreal. After he’d used his key to let himself in, he found himself standing in the middle of the main room, staring at…nothing. Her things were gone. Logically, he knew what that meant. But he wasn’t letting himself admit it. Not yet. She couldn’t be gone.
He’d only left town on Friday. He’d been gone two damn nights. Two nights. He couldn’t have been so fucking stupid as to let her leave him like that.
Except the evidence was right in front of him.
Right in front of him…
She was gone.
Hurling his keys across the empty cavern of a room, he stormed into the kitchen and hit the lights. The glass-fronted cabinets revealed empty shelves. The refrigerator was empty. The pantry was empty. The bathroom had none of the numerous soaps and lotions she loved. Everything was gone. Her bedroom…the same.
Finally, in the extra bedroom that she rarely used, he lucked out and found some sign of life. As in boxes. A number of them. Packed up as if ready for storage. The sight of it was like a fist to his chest.
Stunned, he leaned against the door frame. She was gone…
Hearing the familiar sound of a door opening, he turned. Lacey—
Taking off down the hall, heart racing, he came to an abrupt stop. The man in front of him wasn’t who he wanted to see. Cole Stanton, Rocki’s fiancé, stood there, his hands in his pockets and an appraising look on his face.
“She’s not here.” Cole—the master of understatement.
“I see that,” Brogan snapped. “Where the hell is she?”
The other man shrugged. “That’s not for me to say. I just promised to make sure things got moved into storage. She’s subletting her loft for a while and I need to get this stuff put away before the new tenant moves in next week.”
New tenant… Brogan’s stomach dropped to his knees. This…shit. This wasn’t a temporary thing. She wouldn’t be giving up her place if she was coming back any time soon. “Damn it, where is she?”
“Why do you care?”
Brogan stalked across the floor and reached out, fisting his hand in the other man’s shirt. He hauled him close until just a few breaths separated them. “If you don’t tell me where she is, I’m going to pummel that pretty face of yours.”
A tight smile curled Cole’s face. “You can try.” Then Cole’s hands shot out and, with surprising ease, he broke Brogan’s hold. After he’d moved a few feet away, he smoothed his polo shirt down and pushed a hand through his hair. Just like that, the pretty boy looked like he was ready to step onto the cover of GQ. “Here’s the deal, Brogan… You want to go a round with me? I’m game. I’d love to hurt you some for what you did to Lacey. But I’m not telling you shit. Go put that fancy-ass security firm of yours to use or figure it out on your own. Lacey left you. You treated her like shit and she needed to be away from you. If you don’t like that, then I suggest you start figuring out what the problem is, fix it and then go after her. Because if you can’t fix it? You don’t deserve her.”