Maria felt like a friggin’ princess. She was at her parents’ party. She was wearing a fancy dress. She was drinking champagne.
It wasn’t her first time for any of those things. It was her first time as a grown-up. She was twenty now.
The only stumble was the presence of Eric Thomlin. She was no longer a child who followed him (and her brothers) around while she mooned over him. She did her best to ignore him, while he flitted around the room with the beautiful, and newly divorced according to her mother, Claudia Monroe, stuck to his side and flirting hard.
Claudia was tall and thin and gorgeous and charming.
Maria was none of those things. She was the short, squat, little sister of Eric’s childhood friends. Her brothers, half-brothers from her mother’s first marriage, weren’t here. But Eric was a professional hockey player now, just finished his first season in the city.
She was staring at him. Stop it! She berated herself. She looked down at her glass then glanced back up. Crap! His eyes danced as they met hers. He caught her staring. Her scalp prickled and she gave him a weak smile.
A broad smile split his gorgeous face, making him look even better. He could still make her knees go weak. He said something to Claudia who smiled at him and took her claws out of his arm. She glared at Maria, who shrunk backward.
Maria’s eyes moved back to Eric. Oh god, he was walking toward her. He was coming over to her.
She used one hand to fix her hair and keep the flutter of her body on the inside. She fixed a smile on her face.
“Maria. Aren’t you a picture, all grown up?” He took her elbow and kissed her cheek. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in about five years.”
She melted as his lips touched her skin. The heat from him blossomed through her body. She looked up into his eyes and blinked. His scent made her world spin. She took a drink and focused on the champagne bubbles dancing over her tongue.
“Has it been that long?” she murmured. She’d seen him around the club in the summers when he wasn’t off playing hockey, first amateurs and now professional level. Clearly he hadn’t noticed her any of those times in the last five years. She should be used to that, but it still stung. She dipped her head to hide her wince.
“How is school?”
“Good,” she nodded into her glass, glad to have a neutral topic. “I’m majoring in architecture.”
“Putting your drawing skills into a practical application. Very Rowe of you.”
“I was never the type to rebel. That was David’s job.” She tossed her head, her confidence returning.
“He’s settled down now, isn’t it?”
“He’s a dentist. Hardly following in the Rowe tradition.”
Eric raised an eyebrow. “He was the only one of us who dared follow his dreams. Funny that becoming a dentist made him the black sheep.”
Wasn’t that sad of the family? He should be lauded for what he’d done. Dental school wasn’t an easy feat. But it was too hands on, too messy. Her family was lawyers, bankers, and money managers.
“Then again, I guess I’m a disappointment as well.”
“What have you done to disappoint anyone?” She put her hand on his arm. They both looked at it, but she wasn’t moving away now. She swallowed the lump in her throat.
He was perfect. She was so close she could count the long lashes that surrounded his dark eyes. She could lift her hand and touch the waves of his hair. Her breath caught as she realized he leaned closer to her, to speak in confidence.
“Besides being a late draft into hockey? Not finishing college?”
She looked into her drink watch the bubbles rise to the surface. How should she respond to that statement?
“Do you want to dance?”
Her eyes shot back up to him and she was an innocent girl under the gaze of nefarious seducer. Beautiful. Wanted. Sexy.
The need to breathe broke her rapture. She looked around the crowd. “Uh—” Her eyes landed on the dance floor, the four-piece band played a slow waltz, but no one danced at these events. Her fingers fluttered on her glass.
“You’re right no one dances at these things. I thought maybe.”
Her heart crashed and she reached out to him. “I’d love to. I was looking for a place to put my drink.”
He graced her with a warm, grateful smile. He took her glass and set it aside with his. Then he took her arm and pulled her toward the dance floor. He put his arms around her, text book dance class from their youth, and led her perfectly in time with the music. Her blood turned to champagne, ecstatic bubbles flowed in her veins.
She didn’t know if the other party attendees got quiet or if she tuned them out. The only thing in the world right now was Eric. His dark eyes peered down at her, so dark she couldn’t see inside him. “You look tense, am I doing this wrong?”
“I don’t think you could do anything wrong.” She sounded breathless. She was breathless. “I’m afraid I’ll step on your toes.” She couldn’t contain her excitement as she looked up at him.
His arms stiffened. “I do a lot wrong,” he said. “Ask my father, I don’t do anything right.”
“I remember my brothers saying he was tough on you growing up. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not on you, sweetheart.”
If he hadn’t been holding her up and leading her through the dance, the endearment might have made her melt into the floor.
“So are you dating Claudia Monroe then?”
“God no, what gave you that impression?”
“She is stuck to your side.”
“Don’t remind me. I couldn’t think of a polite way to extract her until I saw you standing in the corner all alone. Looking beautiful.”
She looked down. “Thank you. I don’t know if anyone could say that.”
He used one hand to tip her chin up a little, his callouses rasped her skin, leaving a tingle. “I just did. You were the prettiest of the little sister’s to follow us around.”
Her heart fell. She was still just a little sister who followed him around.
“And you’ve turned into a gorgeous woman. You must have to beat the boys off with a stick at school.”
She shook her head with a giggle. “Hardly.”
The song ended and she pulled away. He tightened his grip, dragging her back. “Are you done?”
“The song is over, I thought you’d want to get rid of me.”
“One more before we go back to the vultures.” He pulled her closer and led her into the steps of the new beat.
She’d dance with him forever if he wanted. But the second song ended and he led her off the floor. Her mother was waiting for her, with a smile. The smile was for him not for her, Maria was certain. “That was sweet of you to dance with our Maria, Eric,” her mother said.
“She was sweet to dance with me. We made a spectacle I imagine, no one dances at these events,” Eric said. His arm was still around her. She should move away, but no outside force could make her.
“She’s an old friend, people understand. They respect you for it. I see Claudia Monroe has her sights set on you.”
“Good thing for me I’m not easily caught.”
“You always were the ladies man. I know Maria had a crush on you when she was a kid.”
“She used to doodle your name and she drew you all the time.”
“Did she?” Eric said.
Maria’s face heated. “Mother, please, don’t,” she begged.
“She even drew a picture of you and her getting married.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. “Excuse me,” she said, pulling away.
“Maria, wait,” Eric said.
But under threat of tears she walked as fast as her heels would carry her from the room. She bypassed the bathroom, and went straight to her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. Even in rage she couldn’t resist her mother’s commands.
She kicked off her shoes and throw herself face down on her bed, letting her pillow soak her tears. She imagined Eric downstairs laughing with her mother about her silly childhood crush. It wasn’t a crush. It was love. She loved him. She always loved him.
There was a knock on her door. She ignored it. She pretended she wasn’t in here. “Maria, it’s Eric. Can I come in?”
She sat up on the edge of the bed. “So you can laugh at me?” Her voice was a pitiful warble. Or worse, he came with pity for her. She knew what came with pity. He’d tell her she was sweet but she was like his little sister.
The door opened and he stepped into the room. He filled the room. Her heart clenched in her chest as she looked up at him. Tears pricked her eyes. She loved him so much. She wanted to tell him, but the words stuck in her stomach.
“I wasn’t laughing at you, sweetheart. I knew you had a crush on me as a kid.”
“That’s all it was, a silly crush. We’ve all grown past that know.” She dropped her eyes away, shame filling her for the lie. She felt the tears escape down her cheeks.
“The way you looked at me. It felt like maybe you hadn’t. But I’m an old man. I should go.”
“You’re not an old man. You’re only seven years older than me, you aren’t even thirty.”
He pulled her chair from behind her desk and sat across from her. “How old are you, Maria?”
Her name from his lips felt like a caress down her back. She shivered, wishing he’d touch her again.
She tossed her head. “Twenty.”
“I recall seeing you as a teenager, knowing you would be beautiful. And here you are.” He cupped her cheek, his thumb brushing the tears she couldn’t contain. “You’re crying over me.”
“I don’t want you to see me as David and Charlie’s little sister. After that story, I couldn’t bear to see you laughing at me.”
His eyes darted over her face. Then he leaned in, his mouth brushed over hers. “I’m not laughing at you, sweetheart.” Another brush of his lips.
She forgot to breathe or think. Her heart thumped in her chest as she tipped her chin so her lips were against his. He caught her lower lip between his, then the upper, then his tongue. Her hands fluttered between them. Kissing! They were kissing.
He caught her hands and soothed them into quiet. He put his hand on her knee so he could get closer.
“I shouldn’t do this,” he whispered against her mouth.
“Don’t stop,” she begged. Her head spun, the world tilted on its side, her mother was downstairs angry at her for the scene. She didn’t care about any of it as long as he didn’t stop touching her.
His tongue pressed her lips open wider, invading her. She tried to match his smooth moves, but her lack of experience compared to his made her clumsy and inept. She held her breath, waiting for him to pull away. His hand cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer. She slid until she balanced on the edge of the bed. Her knees bumped into his and moved so one was between hers and one to the right. He used the inside leg against her bare thigh to urge her legs apart.
She grabbed his shoulders to anchor herself from falling. His hand that rested on her knee slid up her thigh, inside her skirt. He brushed over the lace waistband of her panties. Then his fingers went down the satin crotch that covered her most intimate parts.
She grabbed a fistful of her jacket and held on tight. She might fly off the bed or the planet.
He teased her through the thin fabric. She pulled away from his lips and buried her face in his shoulder. Her arms and legs trembled.
“Easy, sweetheart.” One hand rubbed her back in a comforting gesture, his other traced her slit in an arousing one.
He pushed the satin aside exposing her to his touch and her legs clamped around his knee. Her panties were soaking from arousal and if he touched her skin, she might break into a million pieces from the pleasure. He pulled back a little. “I shouldn’t… you’ve never?”
Oh god, he thought she was innocent. She eased her legs apart. “I’ve been touched there before Eric. But not by you.” She didn’t dare lift her head, see his amusement. Or pity.
He leaned back in the chair, his hand moved from her back to grab her chin. He forced her to look at him. “Do you want me to now, angel?”
“You’re all I’ve ever wanted.” Her heart raced and she dove for him, crashing her lips against his. She couldn’t bear it if he rejected her now. She kissed him, not caring if it was clumsy.
His hand moved between her thighs were they had stilled on her skin. His finger tickled through her pubic hair. He slid his finger between her soft lips and swirled in the moisture. She spread her legs further, her mouth falling open as she gasped, breaking the kiss. Her arms went limp and dropped to his lap, she rested her forehead on his shoulder.
His fingertip brushed over her clit and she whimpered. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She couldn’t catch her breath to answer, so he pulled back forcing her to lift her head and look at him. His long lashes flicked closed and open and she felt her heart fall.
She managed a nod to let him know she was okay, better than okay. He brushed his lips over hers, sweet in contrast to the erotic things his fingers did under her skirt.
His finger slid inside of her, then a second, his thumb circled her clit. He moved fast, driven by something she couldn’t see and she couldn’t protest. Lust swirled inside her, growing, spurred on by loving him.
Her thighs trembled again, but it wasn’t nerves. She grabbed him again, holding herself as she convulsed under his touches. He held her, his breath on her cheek while he she came undone under his hand.
She pulled herself closer, not able to look at him. She would cry. “I love you,” she whispered.
He fixed her panties back into place and withdrew. She licked her lips. What now? He kissed her forehead and lips once more, his thumb brushing her cheek.
He let go of her and she fell back on the bed, her head spinning, filled with him. More, she wanted more.
The door closing was soft, but it might as well been a thunder crack in her heart. She hadn’t even heard him get up or walk across the room. Maria came back to her senses with a jolt. She checked her face in the mirror. she grabbed a tissue and wiped the smeared lipstick and mascara away. Then she flew down the stairs in her stocking feet. She had to talk to him.
She stood in the room and spun in a circle. Her mother came to her. “You made a scene.”
“Where’s Eric?” Maria grabbed her mother’s shoulders.
“He said he had to leave. He left a minute ago.”
Maria let go of her mother and ran for the front door. Her heart fell with each step she took. She opened the door and saw him getting in a car.
“Eric,” she called, starting down the steps. Her heart skipped a beat. Would he ignore her?
He stopped and turned. Her mouth went dry. A deep frown and wrinkled forehead marred his face. He looked as devastated as she felt. She reached her arms out to him, needing his reassurance she was okay.
“I have to go Maria. I shouldn’t have—”
The cement was cool under her feet as she ran to him. She didn’t care who saw. “But… I don’t understand.”
“Maria.” His hand engulfed hers. He was warm and steady. His eyes searched her face, the darkness hiding his feelings. “I can’t ruin your life. You have so much to explore. I’m sorry, I have nothing to give you but pain. I love you too much.”
The damn tears were back, pushing the corners of her eyes for release. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either. Take care, Maria.” He brushed his lips over hers, swallowing her pain. He let her go and waved for an attendant. “Can you make sure she gets back inside?”
The attendant ushered her inside and Eric didn’t drive away until she was inside. How could he say he loved her and goodbye in the same sentence?
Maria thanked the attendant and went back to the party room. She told her mother she had a headache she was going to bed.
She floated back to her room. Her fingers brushed the chair Eric sat on before she pushed it back under the computer desk and put her pajamas on.
She laid on her bed and let her heart turn to rock. Fuck if she was ever letting herself feel for anyone again.
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