No, she didn't do that anymore, it was further off, it was a trick, just her body tricking her again, making her think she would sleep, making her think she wouldn't dream, making her think she could come with just a minute of tongue and stainless steel, no, she wouldn't, she… was… coming.

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She screamed and groaned at the same time, shoving herself closer to his mouth, his dark sweet mouth, and he stabbed her, he stabbed her, he was… coming up between her legs, his broad chest settling against hers, his hands on her thighs, spreading them apart, and he slipped into her like she was made of oil and she screamed again, into his mouth, screamed and thoughtoh I am dying .

He shuddered against her and she wrapped her legs around him and held on, and felt her long-gone friend, that black flower, blossom inside her once more.

"Oh, Christ!" he cried, and she knew his friend had come for him, too.

Chapter 22

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"Christ," he said again.

"Sing it."

"That was—"

"Testify."

"I can't believe—"

"Youcan't believe?"

"I mean, you wereso wet. And I was totally ready. I was going to blow up all over you if you weren't ready, I swear to God."

"What a charming thought." She laughed. Then she shocked herself (and him) by bursting into tears.

"Oh, Alex—"

"Unhook me," she sobbed.

"Sure, sweetie, right now." He had the keys in his hand in half an instant, and in two clicks she was free and he was holding her. "Did you, uh, forget—"

"No, I didn't forget the stupid fucking safety word,Dendrochirus zebra , there, are you fucking happy?"

"Sure, honey. It's all right."

"I don't even know why I'm crying!"

"Okay."

"Because I just had a great time, everything's great! And I'm not upset aboutanything ."

"Okay, hon. Okay."

"It's just that I'm tired," she wept.

"Of course you are. And hungry. We skipped supper and I didn't bring any Ritz, remember?"

"Some kind of lousy date you are," she said, snuggling into him as he kissed her tears away.

Much later, after she'd gotten hold of herself, she said, "Now, don't be smug."

"Never."

"I mean it! You're radiating 'I cured her I'm so smart' vibes and it's going to really tick me off."

"That was a great time," he sighed, staring at the ceiling. He had laced his hands together behind his head, and she was resting the heel of one of her feet on his left knee. "Really, really great."

"Really, really?" she teased. "That's some vocabulary you've got, Dr. Rivers."

"And I'm spending the night, so just freak out about it now and get it over with."

"Uh…"

"Alex."

"It's just… if someone gets a picture of you on the way out tomorrow…"

"So?"

"Well, they'll print stories about you. And chances are, none of them will be true."

"So?"

So indeed. Did she care? The press would jump to inane, incorrect assumptions, but that was their job, and she didn't mind, did she?

No, it was the spending the night thing.That she minded.

"Look, Alex, I don't give a crap if theMinot Daily News puts my picture on the front page, or even the back page. Or if they sell the pic toPeople or whoever. I really don't care. I just want to be with you, okay? I don't want to fuck and run."

"Well," she lied, "I don't want you to."

"Oh." He'd clearly been expecting more resistance, but she couldn't think of a way to make him leave without hurting his feelings. And after the gift he'd just given her, it would seem… churlish, lb send him away. To sleep alone. Not that she would sleep, of course. At least, not for long.

"I'm just saying," he said, picking up one of her hands and kissing the palm, "I'm looking for more than a good time with you, that's all."

He was heartless, the way he terrified her! What a cool bastard. Unless he wasn't trying to scare her. Which was even more terrifying. "Well, thanks," she said, aware of how lame it sounded, but completely unable to think of a more appropriate response.

Chapter 23

"Nicky!Nicky, get down !"

Hands on her, shaking her. Not hurting her. Where was the gun?

My father is the true king.

You've fucked up, it's done.

You shot my daddy.

Don't worry, Nicky.

"Nicky!"

I'm going to fix him. I'm going to fix everything.

"Alex, will you wake. The fuck. Up."

She opened her eyes and said to the dark, "He's not dead. Not really."

"He sure is, sweetie. The way I heard the story, you bashed his brains in."

It was Sheldon. In the dark. With her. Had she—

"Oh, God," she groaned. She tried to cover her face, but he gripped her wrists and held them, gently but firmly. "I'm so embarrassed! Did I wake you? Was Iscreaming ?" She could not have been more humiliated if he'd hit her. "I never do that, never! I—"

"Hey, it's all right." Lie. She could see, now that her eyes had adjusted to the dark, the beads of sweat on his forehead. She'd scared him, and badly. "I'm just glad you're awake. Which is an awful thing to say to an insomniac, I know."

"I can't believe I—let go." He did, and she sat up and observed her hands were shaking. "I can't—believe I did that. I'm so sorry. I didn't—"

"Alex, it's no big! Will you just relax? I've seen the look on your face when you come, tied you up, had my tongue in your mouth and everywhere else,and used your toothbrush, but you're embarrassed about this?"

"Extremely," she said hollowly.

"God, what a moment!" He scrubbed his face with his hands. "Look, it's no big deal, it was just sort of terrifying to be sound asleep and then hear you practically screaming. I mean, I was looking for a bunch of Marines or zombies or something."

"Don't remind me."

"That's why you can't sleep? You keep having the same dream over and—"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, too bad." He said it reasonably enough, and she glared at him. "Look, it's not like we can roll over and go back to sleep, right? I mean, you're probably done for the night…" He squinted at his watch. "You got all of an hour and a half. And frankly, my pulse is about one-eighty right now from the adrenaline rush. So let's talk about this."

"I have a shrink, Shel. Your duties are entirely different."

His brow wrinkled. "Duties?"

Yes! Offend him and hell leave! "You heard me."

"Okay, whatever. Listen, getting back to this recurring nightmare—"

Dammit! "Sheldon, aren't you insulted? I just implied you're about as important to me as my father's footmen."

"You can't pick a fight and get rid of me that easily," he said with irritating smugness.

"Well, we're not talking about me unless you tell me deep dark secrets about you." He was, in his own way, as closed off as she was, and surely this would—

"Done. I hate royalty, inherited wealth, brunettes, and cheese."

She was utterly distracted. "What? Youhate them? Brunettes and cheese? Why?"

"Your turn. Why do you think you keep having that dream?"

She paused a moment, but a deal was a deal. And she just had to hear about the cheese. "Well, according to my shrink, it was the first time in my life, my very scheduled and controlled life, that something happened that was completely beyond my control. I fixed it, but it might not have worked. It might have ended even worse than it did. That's what haunts me. Not what I did. What could have happened. My little brother—my king! And Chris and—and—she might have been pregnant at the time, so Dara would have—it could have been so much worse. And might be. Someday. Because maybe next time I can't fix it. You know?"

"What about—I don't mean this in a mean way, but what about when your mom died? Car accident, right? You couldn't control that, either."

"Yes, but it didn't happen right in front of my face. I wasn't even there. And everything that happened after—the mass, the funeral, the burial, the visitations—was scheduled. Controlled. And I—I didn't see much of her. When she was alive, I didn't…" She paused. "Now, about cheese."

"Have you ever seen a slice of artisanal cheese under a microscope?" He shuddered. Actually shivered like a kid hiding from a storm. "It's alive! That's why you're not supposed to wrap the good stuff in plastic wrap. It suffocates. It's alive!"

"Okay, okay," she soothed, because he looked ready to leap off the bed and out the window. A bad choice from six stories up. "Well, we won't serve any of it. Not even the cheap stuff."

"It moves," he said darkly. "Itwiggles ."

"That's terrible," she said, totally straight-faced. Her years of poker playing were serving her well. Cheese! Ha! "And what have you got against brunettes?"

"Oh, the gal who turned me down for prom had brown hair, and I had a huge crush on her, and I'd been screwing up my courage for, like, two years, waiting to be old enough, and she turned me down flat. So ever since then I've tried to stick to blondes and redheads. But in your case, I made an exception."

"Thank you so much. And what about—"

"My turn, thanks. Did you, uh, have to go to jail or even get arrested or…" The amused look on her face was answer enough. "Okay, dumb question. I guess when you kill a guy defending your country and the monarch, they overlook manslaughter."

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