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Chapter Eighteen

Emma violently speared a clam on her fork and ate it, chewing viciously.

"What is it?" Russ asked. "Emma, you've been quiet all evening. What's bothering you?" There had been a quiet tension to their nights together since the contest event two weeks ago, but nothing like this. Emma had been subdued since his arrival. He'd tried to give her time to say what was bothering her, but plainly this was one of those times that she needed to be asked.

Emma speared another clam, then dropped her fork onto her plate and her face into her hands.

"Emma?"

"I'm okay," she mumbled, and heaved a heavy sigh. She dropped her hands, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. "I was offered a job today."

Russ's gut sank to the floor. So soon? He'd thought they'd have a month more, at least. "Which firm?" he asked hoarsely.

"Mary Beeton and Associates. It's smallish, but I like her and I think I'll learn a lot from her and her staff. I won't be an anonymous intern doing grunt work. I'll be a known intern doing grunt work."

"Congratulations."

Emma's mouth turned down at the corners. "I should be happy. I am happy. Happy happy happy. Wee hee, look at me."

"I wish you'd told me sooner. We could have gone out to celebrate."

Emma plunked her elbows on the table and covered her eyes with her hands. "I don't want to celebrate. I want"

His heart thumped. "You want"

"More time." She dropped her hands and looked at him hopefully. "We could have a little more time, couldn't we? I don't start for a week."

A reprieve. Did she find it as hard to contemplate goodbye as he did?

Might she possibly want more from him than this? Tonight was his last chance to find out. "Emma-"

The door intercom buzzed, interrupting him.

"Were you expecting someone?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Maybe they buzzed the wrong apartment."

It buzzed again.

Scowling, Emma rose and headed to the door.

Should he even ask his question or was it unfair?

"Hello?" Emma said into the intercom.

Russ couldn't make out the response, distorted by the electronics, but after a quick, helpless glance at him, Emma buzzed the caller in downstairs.

"I'm so sorry," she said, her hands clasped and distress on her brow. "It's Daphne. Her boyfriend kicked her out. I told her I'd always be here if she needed me"

"You don't have to apologize," he said, silently consigning Daphne to the lower reaches of hell. "I understand."

"What were you going to say to me, before she interrupted?"

He shook his head. "I should go," he said, standing. "Daphne will need you to herself."

"Russ," Emma said, grasping his arm. "Don't go. Not yet. This can't be good-bye, not like this. I'll settle her in and then maybe we can go for a walk or something."

The door buzzed.

"Stay?" Emma pleaded. "Please?"

He couldn't refuse the look in her eyes. He nodded.

Emma dashed to the door.

There was a fluster of female drama in the foyer and he waited it out, his discomfort rising with each weepy, high-pitched sound from the unseen Daphne.

The hysterical voice was suddenly silent. Russ turned around and saw Daphne in the living room.

"Daphne, you remember Russ," Emma said.

"Of course."

Russ held out his hand. "Nice to see you again."

As if automated, Daphne shook it. She turned to Emma. "Am I interrupting? I'm interrupting, aren't I?" She looked around the apartment and noticed the table with its half-eaten meal. "Oh God, you were having dinner." Her expression became panicked and she backed toward the door, her hands waving in apology. "Emma, I'm sorry, I'm ruining your date with all my private garbage!"

"Don't be silly," Emma said. "Sit down, will you? Are you hungry? Would you like some wine?"

Daphne looked again at Russ.

"Please, stay," he said, knowing he could say nothing else.

"Are you sure?"

He nodded.

Daphne's lower lip trembled.

"Wine?" Russ asked quickly, hoping to forestall the incipient emotional outpouring.

Daphne nodded, looking miserable, and plopped down onto the futon.

Glad to have something to do, Russ headed to the kitchen for a fresh glass.

Then someone knocked on the apartment door.

Russ halted, not sure he'd heard it.

The knocking came again, more firm. "Emma?" a man asked.

Russ turned around and met Emma's eyes. She shrugged and shook her head. "Maybe it's Derek? Daphne, did you tell Derek where you were going?"

"No!" Daphne squeaked. "I hope he thinks I got run over by a truck and am lying on a highway somewhere, and that he'll feel guilty about it for the rest of his life."

The knocking came again.

Russ, could you get it?" Emma asked, wrapping her arms around Daphne, who promptly fell blubbering onto Emma's chest.

Maybe he could make an escape while he was at it. He went to the door and pulled it open.

Kevin stood staring at him.

"Kevin! What the- What are you doing here?" Russ asked in surprise.

"I'm confirming my suspicions-that's what I'm doing here!"

Oh, shit. "Which suspicions were those?" he asked coolly.

"Fuck off, Russ." Kevin pushed past him into the apartment, and was brought up short at sight of Emma and Daphne on the futon.

"Kevin? What are you doing here? How did you know I lived here?" Emma asked in surprise.

Daphne's face appeared over Emma's shoulder, eyes and nose red, hair mussed. "Christ! Who's here now?"

"I-" Kevin started.

Daphne huffed out an angry breath and got up, dashing for the bathroom, casting an evil glare at Kevin.

"I didn't mean" he said to Emma.

Emma shook her head and stood. "Bad timing. I really prefer to be phoned before someone drops by, if you don't mind. How'd you get in the building?"

"I followed behind someone. I wasn't sure you lived here; it was just a hunch. I had to see for myself."

"See what for yourself?"

Kevin looked from her to Russ. "Had to see that my friend had betrayed me in the worst possible way."

Anger and guilt stormed within Russ, with no answer he could give. The truth was so much worse than even Kevin could guess.

"Russ, you knew I felt something for Emma," he went on. "So why's she living in your apartment? You're the guy she said she was seeing, aren't you? You couldn't tell me that? If you were going to screw me, the least you could do was be honest about it. Did you think I couldn't handle it if she preferred you to me?"

"I didn't want him to tell you," Emma said, stepping forward. "I didn't want to come between you two, since I knew that this wasn't going to last."

Kevin pulled his chin in, looking at Emma. "Not going to last?"

"I wanted a fling, and he was convenient."

Her words, spoken so harshly to Kevin, confirmed what Russ had been trying to deny: that the foundation of their relationship was flawed. To build anything upon it was to invite ruin.

Kevin's face fell as he took in Emma's words. "But if that's what you wanted, why wasn't I good enough?"

Emma smiled sadly. "Because you wanted something more that I would never be able to give. Knowing how you thought of me, how could I let Russ tell you that he was having sex with me, with no intention of a more serious relationship? You would have hated him, when it was me you should have hated, for seducing your friend. I'm the one you should be mad at, not Russ."

Kevin scowled, looking back at him. "You didn't have to take her up on the offer!"

"I shouldn't have," Russ said. "I was weak."

"Goddamn it! I expected more from you, you with your careful morals. You're a fucking hypocrite, you know that?"

Russ's jaw tightened against Kevin's disappointment. "I have flaws like everyone else."

"You do a fricking good job of making people think you don't."

"Oh, shut up, will you?" Daphne said, emerging from the bathroom and glaring at Kevin, her red-rimmed eyes and flyaway hair adding Satanic fervor to her words. "You're just pissed because he got to screw her and you didn't."

"Who are you?"

"The only person here who's not trying to spare your candy-ass feelings. You knew you didn't stand a chance with Emma, so what did you do? Started stalking her. You're a sicko, you know that? You ought to be locked up."

"I didn't stalk her!" Kevin protested.

"Then what are you doing here?" Daphne shot back, plainly glad to have found a male target for her angst. "Christ, it's no wonder she didn't want to go out with you. She oughta get a restraining order!"

"Where do you get off-"

"Kevin!" Russ interrupted. "Maybe it's time to go."

Daphne narrowed her eyes at Kevin, then plopped onto the futon and crossed her arms over her chest. "I think it's time you left, stalker-boy."

Russ grabbed Kevin's arm and dragged him toward the door, explaining beneath his breath. "Her boyfriend just kicked her out. Leave her alone."

Kevin looked back for one last glimpse at Daphne before Russ forced him out into the hallway. "She was dumped?" Kevin asked after the door closed.

Russ nodded.

"But she's hot. Why would anyone dump her?"

Russ looked at Kevin in disbelief, seeing the softening in Kevin's eyes, the burgeoning empathy. "Kevin. No. Don't go there."

"She needs someone who'll treat her better. That's why she was acting like that. She needs to be loved."

Russ rolled his eyes. "I'll have Emma give her your number."

Kevin blinked. "Thanks."

"Oh for Christ's sake,' Russ said under his breath. "Go home, Kevin, will you?"

"You won't forget to tell Emma?"

"Go home."

Russ watched him disappear, then turned and found Emma had opened the door and was gazing at him. She stepped out into the hall, the door snicking shut behind her.

"This isn't how I imagined our last night together would go," she said. "We can't end it this way, can we? Shouldn't we go another week?"

He shook his head reluctantly, feeling an emptiness akin to when his brother had died. "We both know it's over. It would only ruin our memories, to drag it out. Good-byes should be short and sweet."

"But to end like this"

"Our moment together is past. You know it." He gestured at the apartment behind her, and the unseen Daphne.

Her mouth was unhappy. "I don't like good-byes," she whispered.

He cupped her face between his hands, not trusting himself to hold her closer than that. "We'll see each other again, Emma," he said softly. "A year or two from now, we'll have lunch, we'll catch up. I'll hear how your career is progressing. You'll hear how boring mine still is."

"I don't want to face a year without you."

He pressed his forehead against hers, feeling the sting of tears in his eyes, the tightness of them in his throat. "Me neither."

"Then why?"

He raised his head and saw tears spilling down her cheeks. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, closing his eyes for a long moment, breathing in the scent of her. "Because I'm in love with you," he whispered against her skin. "And it will hurt too much to see you."

He felt her stiffen in his arms. She pulled back, looking up at him. "You love me?"

"I tried not to."

She shook her head. "You idiot."

"I shouldn't have told you," he said, regretting it.

She laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck. "But Russ, couldn't you tell? I'm in love with you, too. Head over heels, hopelessly in love."

With her words, the bands of grief around his heart shattered. He held her close, and for the first time in years knew what it was to feel joy.


Chapter Seventeen | The Erotic Secrets Of A French Maid | TWO MONTHS LATER