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STAY

by Tia Louise

Stephen Hastings is a control freak.
He’s arrogant. He’s smart as a whip and sexy AF.
He has too much money. He’s bossy, and he’s usually right.
All I saw were his clear blue eyes, tight ass, and ripped torso. I gladly handed him my V-card that night, ten years ago.
I was so stupid. I swore I’d never be that stupid again…

Emmy Barton works for a dry cleaner?
Yes, that Emmy Barton—long, blonde hair, bright blue eyes, pretty smile…
Sexy little ass. Smart mouth.
She was the only girl who interested me, but I was leaving to be an officer in the Navy.

Now I’m home, running my business. My life is perfectly ordered until I bump into her, divorced and struggling to make ends meet.
I hate seeing her like this. I hate that she married Burt “The Dick” Dickerson. What an asshole.

She says she hates me, but when we fight, it’s all heat and lust.
I won’t leave her this way.
She will let me help her and her son. She will stay
It’s a thin line between love and hate, and this line is on fire.

(STAY is a STAND-ALONE enemies-to-lovers, second-chance, marriage of convenience romance. No cheating. No cliffhangers.)

* * *

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EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK

STAY
by Tia Louise
(c) TLM Productions LLC, 2019

PROLOGUE

Stephen 

Ten years ago…

Stop crying, kid. Life isn’t fair.

Humans invented fair as a pacifier, because they needed justice. Animals don’t know fair. In nature only the strong survive. You’re kind, loving, honest? Nice try.

If you’re weak, you die.

Or poor.

“What are you thinking, Esteban?” Ximena lowers herself carefully into a dingy-brown, worn-out armchair, and I blink these thoughts away. “You were always the smartest boy in the room.”

The gray strands outnumber the black in my old housekeeper’s hair. It’s thinner than it was when I was a boy, and she keeps it twisted in a low bun.

“Now I’m a man.” I kiss the top of her head. “And I’d wager the whole city.”

Her muscles tremble from exertion, but her eyes are bright. She still greets me with a smile, just like always when I visit. “Smartest man in the city. What is that like?”

“It sucks.” I look around her crumbling one-bedroom apartment.

It’s a second-floor walkup, outdated but clean. She works hard to keep it clean, even with the cancer eating her insides. Even with the years passing, drawing her closer to death.

The thought of her dying fans the darkness inside me. “Where’s Ramon?”

“He moved downtown. He got a good job, working at the shipyards.” Her accent is thick despite all the years she’s lived in Manhattan, her English sprinkled with Spanish.

“That’s a long way from here.”

He won’t visit. He might want to, but he won’t have the time or the energy to check on his dying mother.

Her neighborhood is shady as fuck, and she’s too weak to climb stairs. And I’m leaving for a long time. I’ll have to count on her neighbors to do what I can’t.

Slipping a fat business envelope from the breast pocket of my coat, I place it under a mug on her coffee table. “This should last a while. I’ll send more, but I won’t be able to check on you. I’ll be gone eighteen months, probably longer.”

“I’m so proud of you. So proud.” Her cheeks rise, and she slowly shakes her head. “A Navy officer.”

Every line in her face wrinkles with her grin. Her faded purple housedress is as thin and old as she is. I remember her fat and jolly, shining cheeks and hair, every word out of my mouth would make her laugh, even if it wasn’t funny. I didn’t understand her, how she gave love so generously to a boy who wasn’t hers. To the son of a man who didn’t even consider her worth his time, who thought he was doing her a favor hiring her to keep his oversized brownstone.

She takes my hand from where she sits, and I take a knee beside her. Every time I visit she’s smaller, slipping away. Her grip tightens, and the scent of her drugstore perfume drifts faintly around us, dried flowers and talcum powder. It draws a memory of me as a little boy sitting on her lap, crying against her neck after the death of my mother. She would hug me against her soft body, rocking and humming a sad song I didn’t recognize.

“Your father will cut you off if he finds out you’re giving me money, Esteban.”

I exhale a disgusted laugh. “Thomas is too proud to cut me off. It would make him look bad at the club. Unruly boys are to be tolerated, bragged about even.”

Her eyes close, and her head leans back as she exhales a weak chuckle. “Men are the same everywhere. Machismo.”

Pissing wars. I rise to standing in one fluid movement. “I’ll never forgive him for doing this to you.”

I blame him for her illness. I blame him for her deteriorating health. I blame him for her inability to find work after he ruined her reputation. No one would hire her after he branded her a thief in his home. All the Upper East Siders shut their doors in her face, and she was left to scrounge a living wherever she could.

I’ve brought her money from my allowance for five years, and I’d love him to come at me for it. Pompous bastard. So worried about his appearance. So offended by a missing watch.

“He did what he had to do.” Ximena still defends my father’s actions. “My son stole from him. Your father could not keep me in the house after he stole.”

“Ramon stole to buy you medicine. He didn’t steal to party or do drugs.”

He might’ve gotten away with it, too. If only he hadn’t stolen my father’s favorite Rolex—not one of the other seven he never wears.

“He did not put my son in jail.” She nods her head, as if my father, Thomas Hastings has the ability to throw anyone in jail.

He’s just a grown-up trust-fund brat who knows how to invest the massive wealth he inherited from our bootlegger ancestors. At least he’s good for something.

Pride beams in her eyes when she looks up at me. “Now you will go and be a hero. So handsome, serving your country.”

I smooth my hand down the front of my jacket, contemplating hypocrisy. “It’s what my mother always wanted. Her father was in the military.”

“Yes, and she can see you from above. She is so proud of you. Just like I am proud.”

I study the woman who filled my mother’s role for a little while. I can’t heal her. I can’t change her situation, and I want to leave her with happiness, not bitterness.

“Thank you, mamá. I love you.”

“I love you, Esteban.” She takes a slow inhale and forces a chuckle. “Now why are you here with an old woman? Why are you not out celebrating with friends? You have too much spirit. You should be with a girl tonight, release some energy.”

Energy. She’s encouraging me to go out and get laid. “I’m not looking for a girl.”

“A boy then!” My eyes snap to hers, and I see a joking sparkle.

After all the medicine, the chemotherapy, the drugs, she refuses to be beaten. She still manages to tease me. She’s the only person who can get away with it.

“I’m not gay. I’m leaving in the morning.”

“Which means you have all night.” She carefully rises out of her chair and takes my arm, pulling me to the door. “No more hanging around here. Go out and live your life.”

I wrap my arms around her in a long hug. The feel of her bones beneath thin cotton is physically painful to me. “I’ll find someone to check on you while I’m gone.”

“I have my friends. I have my neighbors. Stop worrying about me.” She shoos me away. “When it’s my time, I’ll be ready.” Touching my cheek, she says her final words to me. “Be brave, Esteban. Laugh often. Take care of yourself.”

“Take care of you.” I kiss the top of her head and hesitate one last time before I go.

It’s the last time I’ll ever see her…

* * *

Emmy

“Harley Quinn is way sexier than Black Widow any day of the week.” Burt Dickerson’s voice is too loud.

He’s on one of his DC versus Marvel fan-boy rants, and I’m staring into the bottom of my empty red solo cup. I need refill number four.

“Fuck that. Black Widow. Hands down.” My older brother Ethan yells at him, but he’s only yanking Burt’s chain. Ethan doesn’t give a shit about comic universes. “Give me a redhead any day. Fire crotch.”

My nose wrinkles, and I want to punch my brother in the junk. “She was a blonde in the last movie. You just like Scarlett Johansson.” Why am I’m still standing here listening to them?

“What’s wrong with that?” He pokes me in the ribs, and I’m ready to call it a night.

It’s almost midnight, and I’ve been watching the door so hard, my eyeballs hurt. Ethan threw this big college-graduation-slash-summer kick-off party for all his old school friends, and I made sure Stephen Hastings got an invitation.

Stephen Hastings… the love of my life.

Ethan said he wouldn’t come. He laughed at me and said Stephen hates most of these guys. It looks like he was right.

God, I’m such a fucking moron. How long can I save myself for a guy who doesn’t even know I exist? I’m a college woman now. Time to ditch the crush and start living my life.

I just…

I hoped.

With a sad exhale, my mind flies through all my cherished spank-bank memories of Stephen growing up… Tall, lean, dark, wavy hair that looks like he never touches it, but it’s always just perfect. He was on the rowing team with Ethan, and when he’d take off his shirt… holy shit, my core clenches at the memory of his broad shoulders, his perfectly sculpted arms… So muscular and tanned. The lines in his stomach would flex, and my mouth would water like Pavlov’s dog.

I’m ready to trade this beer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, curl up in my bed, and cry.

He’s not coming.

Walking down the steps, away from the landing at the door, I’ve reached the edge of the crowd when my brother’s voice freezes my insides.

“Stephen! Hell, I don’t believe it.” Ethan laughs, and a few of the guys join in greeting him. “Didn’t think you’d come.”

“I didn’t either.” Stephen’s low baritone tickles my lady bits, and I turn slowly to look up at him.

He’s wearing a brown tweed jacket over a white button-down shirt and dark jeans. He hardly ever wears jeans, but shit, his ass is so fine in them. He always seems just a bit impatient, and when he scans the crowd, his blue eyes seem to glow from under his dark brow.

He’s so fucking hot.

My heart beats faster as I contemplate my next move. He will see me tonight, dammit. I’m giving myself one last chance.

He turns again to Ethan, and the muscle in his square jaw moves. “I’m pulling out in the morning.”

“Last day as a free man. Sucks to be you.” Ethan shoves a whiskey in his hand.

He inspects the glass. “I thought it demonstrated my good character.”

“Good character.” Burt’s loud voice interrupts them, and Stephen visibly cringes. “Still think you’re better than us, Hastings?”

“Only you, Dick.” Stephen takes a long drink. “Only you.”

Girls actually swoon over Burt all the time, but he’s nothing compared to Stephen.

“Let’s join the party.” Ethan puts his hand on Stephen’s shoulder, and they start down the stairs in my direction. “Find a chick and get your dick wet.”

“Right. That sounds like me.” Stephen shrugs off my brother, and Ethan staggers away.

He pauses at the bottom, scanning the crowd with a frown. I follow his gaze over the mob of former classmates. Most are buzzed. Most are familiar. We passed each other daily at Pike Academy four years ago—until he left for Yale. Tonight we’re reunited.

Girls sway in colorful silk dresses with thin, spaghetti straps, practically lingerie. Their hair hangs in waves over their shoulders and their eyes sparkle as they listen to guys tell exaggerated stories of their prowess, either in the stock market or on the playing field. The guys evaluate their breasts, their hips, their lips. I’m sure they’ll be fucking like good little rabbits before the night ends. Our classmates can be so predictable.

All I know is Stephen is wide open. It’s now or never.

“That’s a fierce scowl.” I’m amazed at how confident my voice sounds, loud and commanding. Thanks, beer. “Don’t like what you see?”

I hop up on the bottom step beside him. It puts my head at the top of his shoulder, and I lift my chin, looking over the crowd with a scowl, imitating him. “You’re right.” My nose wrinkles, and I meet his gaze. “They’re a bunch of horny assholes.”

I manage to come off casual, teasing, and his frown morphs into a narrow-eyed grin. “Emmy Barton. Ethan didn’t say kids would be here.”

His voice is like warm butter, and I’m thrilled he remembers me. “I’m not a kid anymore, Stephen Hastings. I started at Sarah Lawrence last year.”

“Bully for you.” He takes a drink of whiskey, but I’m stronger than his sarcasm.

“I wanted to stay close to home.”

“Why the hell would you want that?”

Blinking up at him, I smile, going for honesty. “I miss my dad. I miss Ethan. I guess family feels more important when you lose someone.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.” He looks down at his tumbler, and his expression darkens.

My mom lost her long battle against lung cancer a few years ago. It was devastating watching her suffer, and her death was a mixture of heartbreak and relief she was out of pain. It still hurts if I think about it too much…

Stephen’s mother died of cancer when we were kids, but I remember how it changed him. How he smiled less, played less.

“We have that in common, don’t we?” My voice is gentle.

“It’s not so fresh for me.” His softens, and I’m encouraged. I’m not inside the wall, but I’m closer.

“Here you are.” Burt appears at my side, putting his hand on my lower back. What the hell?

Stephen’s eyes go to where he’s touching me, and all I can think is Fuck no.

“You’re drunk.” I shove Burt’s hands off my short denim skirt.

He immediately puts both hands on my waist and turns me to him, leaning closer. “You’re not blowing me off for this asshole are you?” His breath smells like vodka, and his flat brown eyes are intoxicated.

He makes a move like he’s going to kiss me, but I duck and twirl away, moving to stand beside Stephen, holding his arm. “Stephen and I are having a nice chat. You need to call it a night.”

Burt’s attention turns to Stephen, and his brow lowers. Stephen is ready when Burt lunges at him. His strong arm shoots out, gripping Burt by the shoulder and holding him back.

“Walk it off, Dickerson.” It’s a low growl, and I know Stephen could wipe the floor with Burt’s drunk ass.

“Don’t tell me what to do, Hastings.” Burt grips his wrist.

Stephen’s fist rises, and I hold my breath. I’ve never seen Stephen fight, and my heart is flying. I’m sure it’s about to go down when Ethan and a big guy appear. They corral Burt, dragging him to the right, and I take my chance, catching Stephen’s arm and pulling him into the crowd.

He stops and straightens his jacket, jaw clenched. “That asshole. I’m taking off.”

“Wait!” I gently pull his arm again. “I know where we can get a refill… away from all this.”

He hesitates a beat, then our eyes meet and his shoulders relax. I quickly lead him past everybody, waving at old friends as we weave through the crowd.

Ethan put a keg out on the terrace near the wet bar, and Stephen goes to refresh his whiskey while I step over to the corner balcony overlooking Central Park. It’s a beautiful night, and I can see the moon and a few stars. I make a quick wish.

Warmth at my side causes me to turn. He’s standing beside me in the moonlight, dark hair, blue eyes, that dimple in the side of his cheek. “So, what’s your major?”

The way he says it makes me laugh. I push a strand of long, wavy blond hair behind my ear. “Art history.”

The scene flips. He actually groans, rolling his eyes and turning his back to the railing. “Not planning to work after college?”

His disgust offends me. “I most certainly am. I want to get a job at Sotheby’s or at one of the museums downtown. Maybe something in SoHo. Or maybe I’ll move to London!”

A moment’s pause, and he slants an eye at me. “Is that so?”

“It is.” My feathers are still ruffled, and I straighten my button-up cropped top. “What will you do now that you’re out? Take a job with your dad? Have a wife in New Haven and a mistress in the city?”

Two can play the stereotypes game.

He drifts a little closer, and my pulse ticks faster. “Is that what we do?” His voice is low, and his eyes drop to my lips.

My voice is softer, higher compared to his. “Isn’t it?”

A slight grin from him, and that humming is back in my veins. “You’re smarter than I gave you credit for.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“It’s actually an apology. I underestimated you.”

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. Still, it’s not like I didn’t know Stephen was arrogant. It’s one of the things I love about him.

“Apology accepted.” Reaching out, I trace my finger down the front of his blazer. “Now. Wasn’t that easy? You don’t have to fight with everybody.”

Taking a chance, I put my hand on his chest. It’s firm and warm, and he covers my hand with his. It’s a gentle touch, but it radiates heat to my chest, fanning out into my belly, warming the space between my thighs. I want this so much… I’ve dreamed of it. I know if he’ll let me in, everything will change. He’ll change.

My voice is just above a whisper. “When you look at me like that, I wonder what you’re thinking.”

Our eyes hold, and I know he feels it, this pull between us. My breath stills, and I’m humming with desire.

But he throws on the brakes. “I’m thinking I’ve had enough whiskey.” His tone is level, and he releases my hand, moving away.

I have to stop him.

I can’t lose this moment.

“What do you want?” I’m sassy, flirting. “Do you even know?”

He stops, giving me the full force of his scowl. “Not a wife in Connecticut, and I definitely don’t need a mistress in the city.”

Closing the distance, I put my hand on his waist this time, sliding it back and forth, working my way lower. “Maybe you need me.”

He stops my downward progress with a strong grip. “You’re playing with fire, Emmy Barton.”

“I’d rather be hot than cold.”

His grip on me tightens, and he pulls me against his chest. I can barely breathe, but I blink up to his lips, slipping my tongue out to touch mine. His erection is against my stomach, and I’m so wet.

“Are you drunk?” His voice is a rough whisper.

“No. Are you?” Stretching higher, I touch my lips to the scratchy stubble of his jaw.

Leaning down, he kisses me fast. His lips shove mine apart, and his tongue invades, finding mine. My knees start to give out, but his arm is around my waist, scooping me up against his chest.

It’s a rough kiss, not kind or gentle, and my fingernails scratch up to his shoulders. A little noise escapes my throat, and he rumbles in response. Heat floods my panties.

Our mouths break apart with a gasp, and his blue eyes are blazing. “Do you want this?”

Nodding, I step back, holding out my hand. “Come with me.”

He hesitates as I go to the glass doors leading to Ethan’s dark bedroom. When I pause and look back, he’s watching me like a predator. His hair is messy from my fingers, and his lips are parted with his breath. He looks like pure sex.

“This way.” I’m holding still, hoping, until…

He follows me inside.

 

My shirt is ripped open. Stephen doesn’t bother removing my bra. He shoves the cups down under my small breasts, and devours me, pulling a taut nipple into his mouth and giving it a bite, sending electricity straight to my core.

“Stephen…” I whimper as his large hands cup and kiss me.

I’m on fire, threading my fingers into his hair. His mouth feels so good against my skin, and he lifts me like I weigh nothing, perching my ass on the edge of the sink.

We’re locked in my brother’s small half bathroom, and he’s making my dreams come true.

“You still want this?” His voice is hot at my ear as he shoves my skirt up to my waist.

“Yes.” I gasp, gripping his neck. God, yes

His belt clinks, and I wait as he rolls on the condom. Our eyes meet once more, and his burn with desire. Everything’s going to change after this. He’s going to fall in love with me. I just know it.

Large palms go under my thighs, lifting them, and I feel the tip of his cock touching me, probing… It’s about to happen… Then all at once…

Oh, holy shit! My eyes squeeze shut, and I bite my lower lip hard, letting out a little moan of pain.

“Fuck, Emmy,” he groans in my ear. “You’re so fucking tight.”

I make a little noise of assent, gripping his shoulders. His massive cock rips through my virginity, and it hurts so much more than I expected. He has no idea, of course, and I have no intention of telling him. I know for certain Stephen Hastings would not deflower me so roughly.

Rotating my hips, I do my best to accommodate this distinct sense of fullness. My eyes are squeezed shut, and I focus on his scent, spicy sweat and fresh soap. It’s warm and good. He groans again, thrusting faster at my movements.

“Yes…” His lips find mine, kissing me quickly, a touch of his tongue leaves me wanting more. “Like that.”

His face is in my hair, and as he moves faster, somehow the pain begins to subside. It transforms into numbness, until gradually, gradually, the smallest flicker of warmth blooms in my lower belly.

“Come for me.” Hot breath is at my ear, and my forehead tightens. Can I?

Warm hands cup my ass, lifting me off the sink and turning us to the wall. The pain is gone, and my body slides up and down against his hard pelvis. His cock glides in and out, the ridge of its head working my insides. My clit is against his shaft, and something begins to happen. Prickling warmth starts to grow. It gets stronger, and I forget everything but chasing it down.

My thighs tighten around him, and I’m pumping my body up and down on him, riding him, wanting that tingling heat to keep getting hotter. I’m desperate, gripping his skin and moaning as the orgasm creeps higher up my thighs.

“Fuck, Emmy.” He groans, fucking me harder.

“Yes…” It’s almost there. “Yes!” It’s right there… the tightness in my lower stomach.

It bursts through me, and I moan so loud. It’s like a million fireworks shooting through my veins. My vision goes white. I’m flying, and I feel it when his orgasm breaks, pulsing deep inside me as he comes with a loud noise.

I’m shaking. My thighs shudder and grip him, and he holds me. He holds still as we both fly through space together, soaring past galaxies, touching the stars. It’s amazing.

Gradually, I blink open my eyes, and through the haze, I see us in the mirror, our bodies molded perfectly together. It’s just like I dreamed it would be. My arms are around his neck, our bodies flush. It only lasts a moment.

The noise of the party outside creeps into our little cocoon. He reaches between us, lowering me to my feet as he grips the condom and quickly disposes of it. I feel like a newborn colt, my legs are so shaky.

His back is to me, and his shoulders broaden as he takes a deep breath. Then he moves to the sink to wash his hands. “It’s been a while since I’ve done that.” He sounds apologetic.

Shoving my skirt down, I straighten my bra, struggling to get a grip. “What? Bathroom fucked at a party?” I’m shook.

He cuts off the water and dries his hands on the towel as I button my shirt. I’ve managed to get myself together when he steps to me, putting one hand above my head on the wall and leaning close. “Had sex, period.” Leaning down he kisses my cheek. “You were great.”

He steps back, and just like that, he’s ready to go.

“That’s it?” I’m confused. The devastation hasn’t hit me yet.

“I think I’ll head on home.” He reaches out and pats my upper arm. “Good luck at school.”

I recoil from his touch. Are you kidding me? Good luck at school?

Loud banging startles me. A female voice shouts through the door, “Hurry up in there!”

The banging grows louder, and I go toward it, looking over my shoulder but not meeting his eyes. “Seems I overestimated you.”

Pushing through the door, I run into the crowd. The party surrounds me like a wave, and I let it pull me under, drowning my tears in noise and sweeping us apart.

* * *

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