the absolutely true story of us

CONTENTS

Title Page

Chapter One - M

Chapter Two - Based on a True Story

Chapter Three - Master

Chapter Four - The Wager

Chapter Five - A Decent Proposal

Chapter Six - The Gang's All Here

Chapter Seven - Leather and Laces

Chapter Eight - For You

Chapter Nine - The Storm

Chapter Ten - What Happened

Chapter Eleven - Darts

Chapter Twelve - A Hill of Beans

Chapter Thirteen - Third Time's the Charm

Chapter Fourteen - The Park

Chapter Fifteen - Meeting M

Chapter Sixteen - Wanted

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY OF US

Melanie Marchande

© 2014 Melanie Marchande

The cover art for this book makes use of licensed stock photography. All photography is for illustrative purposes only and all persons depicted are models.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This book is intended for adult audiences only. All characters are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
 

***

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CHAPTER ONE
M

There are only two people in the world that I truly hate. One of them is unpacking his toothbrush in my bathroom, and the other one is texting me to find out what color my panties are.

How do I get myself into these situations?

Oh, right. Because I'm a liar.

Don't judge me too fast - you know you do it too. Most lies are harmless. I thought mine was, too. But I'm starting to wonder.

My phone buzzes.

Come on babe. Don't keep me waiting, you know how I feel about that.

With a sigh, I tap out a quick response. I don't even remember what underwear I've got on, and I'm certainly not going to check. My ex-boyfriend is ten feet away, arranging his toiletries. In
my
bathroom.

Black lace

I send the message quickly and shove my phone back into my pocket. "Don't get too comfortable in there," I call out to my ex, hurrying over to make sure he's not messing with my stuff.

"Not much risk of that," he says. "With you breathing down my neck as usual."

So, why is my ex moving back in with me? Has he fallen on hard times? Am I that much of a bleeding heart?

No. Well. Not anymore.

He's actually helping
me
out, but you wouldn't know it.

My phone buzzes again, and I resolutely ignore it. But for a "silent" setting, it's pretty damn far from silent. Dean, my ex, glances at me.

"You're blowing up tonight," he comments. The unspoken part is
who on earth would be texting
you
?

"Yeah, it turns out there are some guys who actually answer their messages." I cross my arms, leaning against the doorway. "I hope you brought your own toothpaste. I don't want you rubbing whatever skank-germs you've got in your mouth all over my Crest."

"Oh, so there's a
guy
involved."
 
He shoots me that lopsided grin in the mirror, and I draw my lips a little tighter together. "Just one?"

The jig is up, more or less. I pull my phone out of my pocket and glance over the message, keeping a straight face as best I can, even as a hot blush starts to creep up the back of my neck.

"I didn't say that," I point out. "But yeah, I'm not one to juggle. I know that's hard for you to wrap your head around, but..."

"Right." He chuckles. "I'm the man-whore. Remind me what other sins I've supposedly committed? Sometimes it's hard to keep track."

I stalk into the next room without another word. That's the most infuriating thing about him - after all this time, after all the damning evidence, he still refuses to admit it.
 

Fumbling my phone back out of my pocket, I glare at the message. Oh, how I wish it didn't make my throat tighten.
 

You don't even know what this guy looks like.

Yeah, well I know what parts of him look like.

Don't be alarmed. I'm an author; we talk to ourselves all the time. It's totally normal.
 

Probably.

I just keep staring at the screen, until the words stop making any kind of sense, until it actually seems like starting this virtual affair was a good idea.

Lace. Perfect. I love the ripping sound it makes between my teeth.

My mystery man has a bit of an oral fixation. At first, I just played along, because I never really understood the appeal. Back in the day, Dean gave it the good ol' college try, but whatever near-spiritual experience most women seem to have under a guy's tongue - it's just not there for me. I don't know, maybe I'm defective. But damned if the way Mystery Man describes it doesn't get my heart racing.

He talks about the way he wants to devour me, slow and then fast and then slow again, how I'll coat his chin with my juices, and all that good stuff. There's something about the words he uses. It's like I can almost
feel
it.
 

I really hate how much the Mystery Man affects me, almost as much as I hate the man himself. It's just not right. If he's getting off on this, I'm sure it's only because of the power he has over me. It wasn't enough for him to just crush my books, he's got to crush me, too. I'm sure that's what this is leading up to. He wants to string me along and then watch me fall.

Okay, let's back up. Let me try to explain.

Mystery Man is, well, a mystery. Nobody knows his true identity, or if he's even really a he. I have strong reasons to suspect that he is, although I suppose those pictures could've been stolen off of Craigslist or something. But I did a reverse image search on everything he sent me; I'm not stupid. As far as I can tell, he's genuine.

He's also a book reviewer. He calls himself M. As much as I don't want to give him the credit, it's a lot easier to just say M rather than Mystery Man, so let's just make a graceful transition.

I have to admit, M's gimmick is a rather good one. He says he's providing the male point of view on romance novels, and often focuses his rant-reviews on the behavior of the male love interests and how realistic, or not, their behavior is.
 

The thing is, M is funny. M is
really
funny. I understand why people gobble up his reviews with a spoon, especially because he doesn't treat authors with kid gloves. Before I hit it big, I used to love snickering over his blog. It's always fun to throw stones, until one day you wake up and
you're
the target.

It's his internet-given right to hate my books, and I'd never dream of taking that away from him. But he seems to glory in it. I don't think it's just my natural bias; his review of my last book was absolutely vicious, and oddly personal. When I first saw it, I pretty much laughed it off. I mean, the guy doesn't know me. Imagine the nerve of him, painting me as some impossible harpy based solely on my book. Writing me off as a sexually frustrated, possibly frigid woman just waiting for Prince Charming to come along...I mean, he's not necessarily wrong about the sexually frustrated part, but the rest? Hell. I'm not waiting for Prince Charming. Not anymore. I'd settle for Prince Tolerable.

I make it a policy not to respond to reviews. They're for other readers, not for me. I read them, I learn from them, but I know it's weird and invasive to join a conversation that I'm not meant to be a part of. But M was begging me - literally - to explain myself. I understood it was probably rhetorical, but it was so tempting.

Still. I didn't take the bait.

At first.

He started needling me on Twitter. Poking and prodding, and I was determined to ignore him, until one night I had a few too many glasses of wine and made the second biggest mistake of my life.

We'll get to Mistake Number One in a minute.

I actually responded to M. Privately. I knew there was a chance it would end up on his blog anyway, so I was nice enough about it - just told him he could't expect me to engage with him. I wasn't that kind of author. If he wanted drama, he'd have to go elsewhere.

He responded privately, which surprised me.
 

I'm not into drama, I just have this morbid fascination with what makes you tick.

My heart, for some reason, skipped a few beats.

Okay, so maybe I had a little bit of a weird, twisted crush on this guy. Maybe I've had it for a while. I've always enjoyed a good dose of snark when it's well aimed, which is one reason why I feel like such a hypocrite for the way my stomach roils when he writes about me. But it's only natural. Anyone would feel the same way.

After a few minutes without a response, he messaged me again.

The character limit is killing me. Check your FB.

Against my better judgment, I did. It took a few minutes, but I wasn't disappointed.

M: Look doll, you know it's nothing personal, this is just my job. I can't give people special treatment. You seem like a nice person and a real professional which I appreciate. I don't make friends with authors because it's a conflict of interest, but if you want to do an interview for my blog I bet a lot of people would love to see it. Promise I won't twist your words.

An interview? With M? Yeah, right. It would be great exposure, but at what cost? I told him:

Thanks, but no thanks. Not interested in your Freudian analysis.
 

I don't know why that popped out. I guess the fact that he correctly pegged me as sexually frustrated was bothering me more than I realized. He replied:

M: Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll apologize.

He knew I couldn't. Gritting my teeth, I shot back:

You're just playing the odds. Most women are sexually frustrated because most men are terrible in bed. Keep gloating all you want, but the odds are not in your favor.

I felt triumphant for all of forty-five seconds before he came back with:

M: Where'd you get those statistics from, sunshine? The Institute of Sour Grapes?

Damn it. He was just as quick in real time as he was on his blog.

See, the dirty secret of most writers is we need a lot of time to seem clever. I always figured he was one of those, but he seemed to be a true wit, which was infuriating. It took me a while to come up with a response.

Don't worry, I'm sure you're very good. Or at the very least, you THINK you are, which is all that really matters, right?

He started typing back almost immediately.

M: I know you expect me to make some kind of crude joke about proving it to you, but I'm not "that guy."
 

I rolled my eyes.

Sure. You don't need to be. I'm sure you get plenty of action from those desperate groupies.

To say that M has fans is an understatement. He presents himself as a moderately attractive, self-confident man in the romance world, so of course he draws attention. It's easy, like being the only guy in ballet or yoga class. He's got women hanging on to his every word, and it's only made his ego swell bigger.

He finally responded.

M: I don't screw around with fans.
 

My eyebrows went up.

I didn't expect you to be so principled.

His reply made me chuckle a little.

M: It's not principled. Have you ever fucked someone who worships you? It's not that fun. Hate sex is always better.

It took me a second to realize what he was implying. Unless - no. I was almost positive. M, king of snark, was
hitting on me
.

What the hell was I going to say?

Finally, I gave up on being clever.

I wouldn't know.

Again, his response came quickly.

M: Oh. That's tragic. There's nothing quite like the turn-on of somebody who hates you, but can't control how much they want you.

I downed the rest of my glass of wine before I answered.

I guess I've never had the opportunity to find out.

Your move, M.

M: Too bad. You have a dirty mind. I bet you're fun in bed if somebody can manage to pry your chastity belt off.

My face was burning. I should've closed the window, should've walked away, but I didn't.
 

I'm not wearing a chastity belt.

All I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears while I waited for him to answer.

M: So what ARE you wearing?

I swallowed, hard.

You're totally failing at not being "that guy," you know.

There was slight pause before his response.

M: At this moment, I find I don't really care.

And then, I made the decision that sealed my fate.

Black pencil skirt. No panties.

There was another pause before he responded, and I didn't want to think about why. Except I did. I really, really did.

M: I don't believe you. Keep going.

So that's how it started, with me and M.

I'll never know what would've happened between us if I hadn't brought up the topic of sex in our first real exchange. Maybe nothing. Or maybe it was an inevitability. The conversation could have died out there, but it didn't. Instead, we embarked on a torrid, virtual affair that consumes way too much of my time and energy.

Back to the present day. I still haven't answered his last text, the one about wanting to rip my panties off with his teeth. The last thing I want is to go all jelly-legged with lust while my ex-boyfriend is unpacking in the next room, and I know that's the effect M has on me.

My phone buzzes again.

M: Take them off.

My breath catches in my throat. It's insane,
obscene
, that this guy can have such an effect on me. We've never even met. He has no idea what I look like, beyond a small headshot on my website.

If I'm being honest, that last bit might be my favorite part.

I can't.

M: Yes you can.

I'm not alone.

M: So excuse yourself.

How can I explain this situation to M? There's no way I'm telling him the truth. He'd tell the whole world, and everything would come crashing down.

More importantly, why do I feel like I have to? I always have the option of just telling him to fuck off, and he wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it. But I won't.

Because with M, I'm not just Felicity Warden, frumpy failure with a big ass who only stumbled into success by telling a whopper of a lie. With M, I can be anybody.

There's a tapping at the door.
 

"What?" I demand, yanking it open.

"Uh." Dean clears his throat. "If your parents are coming over here, shouldn't my stuff be in your room?"

"They're not going to be snooping," I insist.

"You want to take that risk?" he asks. "Look, I'll sleep on the sofa, obviously - but we should at least make it
look
like we're living together."

He has a point. I hate it when he has a point.

My phone buzzes again, and I want to throw it against the wall.
 

"Sorry," says Dean. "I don't mean to interrupt your vigorous texting schedule, but I figured I should hang up my shirts in here."

I stalk past him and lock myself in the bathroom, pulling out my phone as soon as it's safe.

M: Well?

I'm serious. I can't. I'm wearing jeans anyway.

M: Don't care. Do it. When you feel the seam of the denim pressing into your bare pussy, you'll think about me.

Somehow, in that moment, the sensible corner of my brain kicks in. However brief, it's enough for me to quickly type:

Sorry. I have to go.

I lock my phone and shove it back into my pocket, breathing hard.
 

How did I end up like this?

CHAPTER TWO
Based on a True Story

Six Months Ago

It all starts with five little words.

Based on a true story.

I'm at the dollar theater with my friend Jack, splitting the bag of popcorn I smuggled in, thanks to my cavernous oversized purse. I feel kind of bad. I know these places barely make any money as it is, and I'm only making things worse by refusing to buy their shrink-wrapped cookies with the pink frosting. But I haven't sold an article in ages, and Jack is just as broke as I am. He's been job-hunting for three years now. At this point, filling out applications pretty much
is
his full-time job.

Me, I'm still holding onto the great American dream: self-employment. Owning a business. Being an entrepreneur. Working from home. Bathrobes. Fuzzy slippers. Mail order groceries. Tequila at nine A.M. I won so many writing awards in college I could wallpaper my living room with them, so why the hell can't I make my living as a writer?

That question stopped being rhetorical some time ago.

"Hey, stop being greedy." Jack tries to swat my hand out of the way, nearly overturning the bag in the process.

I squeal at him, saving it just in time. "For God's sake. You're like the dog in that fable who drops the bone in the water when he sees his reflection.
You
stop being greedy, or neither one of us gets any popcorn." He's rolling his eyes, but I decide to ignore that. "Besides, I brought it."

"
Besides, I brought it
," Jack echoes, in an obnoxious falsetto. "That's you. That's what you sound like right now."

By all rights, I should hate Jack. I met him in a dive bar shortly after Dean left, during one of my brave attempts to "put myself out there." The sexual chemistry was nil, but we fell hard for each other as friends and have been completely inseparable since. He's a gorgeous player with a killer smile, but my libido remains stubbornly disinterested. Thankfully, the feeling's mutual - which is slightly less surprising on his side.

Well, he might be a player, but he's no Dean. He doesn't get involved with women who have romantic commitments, and he never breaks hearts on purpose. So he's got that going for him. I wouldn't be able to stand his company if he was that kind of scumbag.

"Look.
Based on a true story
." Jack points at the screen. "I can't wait until this comes out on Redbox and we can do a drinking game."

"We could've done one now," I observe. "Want me to go hit the liquor store across the street? It's not like they're searching bags here."

"It's eleven-thirty in the morning," he observes, raising his eyebrow at me. "Have some morals, Warden."

"Neither of us have jobs,
Harrison
." I laugh at him. Thankfully, we're the only ones in the theater, so we get to enjoy ourselves. "There's nothing immoral about day-drinking when you have no responsibilities."

"Yeah, but there is something immoral about me carting your drunk ass home. Never again, I swear. Didn't even get a blowjob out of it." He winks at me.

"You want one?" I flick a piece of popcorn at his lap.

"Ask me again in ten years, if we're both still single." Suddenly, he sits up straighter. "Shit, I just thought of the best plot for a romantic-comedy-porno ever."

"Oh, great, I hear that's a super lucrative genre right now." I roll my eyes at him. "Okay, so...which part of this is based on a true story?"

"That part," he says, pointing at the lead actor taking a drink. "One of the family members probably drank soda at some point, right?"

Snickering, I lean back in my seat. "Okay, but seriously. It has to be something more than that."

"No, it doesn't." He turns to look at me. "Wait, are you serious? You actually think they have to back up their claims when they say that? Nobody asks."

I guess I've never thought about it before. "So, you can just make up any bullshit you want and claim it's true? And nobody can sue you?"

"I mean, as long as it's not about anyone in particular, sure." Jack shrugs. "Who cares? Who's gonna find out?"

The seed of an idea is germinating in my mind. I can't even focus on the movie when shit starts to go crazy, because I'm still thinking about what Jack said.
 

Last year, I did try my hand at writing a romance novel. It's the most lucrative genre in fiction, and I guess I wanted to prove a point to myself. I managed to get some good reviews and make enough to cover the editing costs, but it became very clear that it wasn't going to be my new career. I just didn't get it. Clearly, I didn't understand what the market wanted. I swore I'd never do it again, but now I'm starting to reconsider.

Rom-com porno
sounds
ridiculous, but in this post Fifty Shades world, I know steamy romance is hugely popular. And "based on a true story" as a hook? I could do a lot worse.

It's been a while since I tried to write fiction. Before the last novel, it had been even longer. My parents always gently discouraged me from it, saying it was impossible to make a career out of it. Unless I was lucky enough to become the next Stephen King or James Patterson, there were a lot more practical ways to spend my time.

A plot is starting to unwind itself in my mind, and not even the jump scares can shake me out of it. I can already see the movie trailer set to Carolina Liar's "Show Me What I'm Looking For." It's beautiful, sexy, inspiring. I'll hit every bestseller list, win every award.

"Psst." Jack snaps his fingers in my face. "Where'd you wander off to?"

"I got an idea," I tell him, slowly, still staring at the screen but not really seeing it. "An idea for a book."

***

Back at home, I nibble on the edge of my fingernail. Am I really going to do this? It's so easy: just five little words. A lie, but a harmless one. I'm not even pretending to be an addict or a trauma survivor or anything like that, and besides, people lie like this all the time. Like the people who made that movie. They don't expect me to believe some family was really terrorized by a demon that was attached to a haunted doll, do they? It's artistic license. It's an acceptable falsehood.

Nobody will ever know.

I've already got a perfectly serviceable pen name, with one sad, languishing book I never bothered to un-publish. So why not? What's stopping me?

I crack my knuckles, and then I start to type.

The book begins to form before my eyes. I call it
Mergers & Acquisitions
, because I'm being terribly clever. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are competing for the same job, claws out, sex - and eventually love - ensues. It's pretty standard stuff, but the hook gives it more depth. More character.

Fake character. But character all the same.

As I write, I let pieces of my personality seep into the main character-slash-author. I am Lana DeVane, and Lana is me. The hero, Damien, is everything I know the reading public wants. Dominant, demanding, arrogant. Sexy and loyal as hell. Smart and sarcastic and successful. By the end, I'm practically in love with him. Too bad guys like that don't seem to exist. Particularly the "loyal" part.

Anyway, readers love it. Just as I thought, they love him even more than I do. Sometimes my predictions actually come true.

Of course, I didn't predict that within two months of publishing the book, I'd have the opportunity to be interviewed for an online news segment about successful romance author-entrepreneurs. One I couldn't pass up. I don't use my real name, but I have no choice but to use my real face.

And they want to meet the guy.

Well, it's only natural.
 

Jack is the first person I ask, of course. He laughs in my face and tells me he's not getting mixed up in my drama. Sometimes that guy is just too damn smart.

That only leaves one option, really.
 

Dean.

Ugh.

We're still on civil terms, more or less, in spite of everything. And he'll probably feel obligated enough to say yes. We've got a history. We can fake the chemistry easily enough.

Harmless, right?

Of course, I also don't predict that one of my sisters will stumble across the video and discover my secret identity. And that my whole family is going to read the damn book and completely lose their minds, wanting to get to know this amazing, romantic specimen of a man.
 

They've met Dean at a few holiday get-togethers, but they always seemed to have trouble remembering his name. As a middle child among six siblings, it's easy to overlook me. And I've never really minded it - at least, that's what I tell myself.

The interview was a cakewalk. I booked us a few author appearances and book signings for next year, making sure he could get the time off work. Pfft. No big deal. We'll just keep playing this game until people forget about my book, or I publish a new one, whichever comes sooner. Putting on a show for the reading public is easy.

Putting on a show for my family? Well. That's a horse of a different color.

***

Six months after that fateful day in the theater, I'm suppressing the urge to kick myself. Hard.

Under the table, because otherwise my parents might notice.

My dad is one of those guys who always looks like a doctor. It doesn't matter what he's wearing, you can't help but picture him in a white coat and a stethoscope. My mom slightly less so, but that's mostly because of the celebratory nose stud she got after my baby sister was born. They're actually both doctors; my dad specializes in internal medicine, and my mom specializes in podiatry. They both specialize in a total inability to seem interested in my life.

"It's so nice to see you again," my mom says to Dean for the third time. "Now, I'm sorry, you'll have to remind me - what line of work did you say you're in?"

"Murders and executions, mostly," I mutter under my breath. But apparently my mother hasn't started losing her hearing yet.
 

"What's that, honey?" she asks mildly, poking at her plain steamed fillet of fish.
 

I shake my head, immediately regretting it. "Nothing, Mom. Just a joke."

"I want to know the joke!" She takes a sip of her wine.
 

"It's from a movie," says Dean helpfully. "
American Psycho
."

"Oh," my mom intones. "What's that about?"

"A successful businessman who's also a serial killer," I tell her.
 

"Oh no! That's terrible." She tsks, taking another suspicious look at her fish. "Why would anyone make a movie about that?"

My dad sighs. "It's not a true story, Bea. Just a horror movie. You don't have to act so shocked."

"It's a comedy, actually," Dean puts in.

I kick his shin under the table. Not hard, but enough to make a point.

"What's so funny about killing people?" My mom knits her eyebrows, shaking her head at me. "I swear, I never understood your sense of humor."

"Anyway, the joke is that Felicity has no idea
what
I do," Dean says, patting my hand. "Just that I'm in 'business.' And really, that's good enough. The details are boring. I don't even like talking about it."

"Oh, busy businessman!" My mom's already gone through most of the bottle of wine, and she hasn't even started on her entrée yet. Probably because it's slightly more exotic than unflavored oatmeal, and she hasn't quite decided what to make of it. "Good for you. Felicity was always so artsy, I figured she'd end up with somebody like her."

Artsy. It's her nice way of saying scatterbrained. Which is true, fair enough - I spent about twenty minutes looking for a matching pair of earrings this morning before I gave up and went without. But that doesn't make me any less of a functional human being, most of the time. I'm not sure why my mother thinks it would be more virtuous to fight my space-cadet nature and go into some field with lots of math, where I'd probably end up accidentally killing people - but it was a major point of contention in my childhood. She wasn't too happy about my brothers going into mechanical trades, but at least it was something practical.
 

Thankfully, my oldest sister took the pressure off all of us by showing the proper amount of interest in medicine from a young age. While I drew epic cartoon stories and my brothers tried to take apart the lawn mower, my sister played "hospital" with all her dolls lined up in makeshift toilet paper bandages. Predictably, she loved biology in high school, and before long she was accepted into a prestigious medical school and well on her way to the only career path my parents truly understand.

For me, "become a doctor" was only a slightly less realistic goal than "build a homestead on Mars." I was simply missing whatever gene Tabby has, the one that's gratified by studying diseases and muscle groups and the names of all the tiny bones in your ear.
 

I love my family. I do. But after a lifetime of being the inexplicable middle child, the one my parents always mentioned last when they caught up with friends and extended family -
"oh, Felicity, she's just...she's still showing a lot of interest in telling stories, so we're hoping she'll take up journalism or technical writing, you know? But the most important thing is that she's happy..."
 

I'm just over it.

They're proud of me, of course. But I still always feel like I'm on the other side of the glass at the zoo, and while they gawk and appreciate, they'll never understand.

"It's so romantic, the story of how you two got together," my mother says, a little dreamily. When my father gives her a sharp look, she rolls her eyes. "Don't worry, I won't bring up anything embarrassing. I skimmed over those parts anyway."

"It's not
all
based on fact," I point out, suddenly feeling a hot blush creeping up the back of my neck. I've managed to avoid thinking about my mother reading sex scenes I wrote, but the look on her face tells me that she might not be completely truthful about the "skimming" thing.

"Stop it," my dad mutters. "You're embarrassing her."

It's tempting to face-plant into my lasagna, but somehow, I resist the urge.

CHAPTER THREE
Master

We're finally home, after the longest two hours of my life.
 

By which I mean, of course, that
I'm
home. I didn't even live here when I was with Dean, but it's all too easy to fall into old mindsets all the same.

"I don't think I can handle another dinner with your mom wondering if my penis is shaped like the guy in the book," he mutters, raking his hands through his hair.

"I'm
sure
she was not doing that," I insist. "Probably."

Dean groans, flopping back on the sofa. "I'm really starting to regret saying I would do this. Can't we invent some kind of emergency that sends me out of town?"

Glaring at him, I sprawl on the lounge chair across the room. "Are you really giving me a hard time? This is the least you can do."

"Fuck's sake, Lissy." He scrubs his hands across his face. "Don't start this again. I'm happy to be here. Really. I'm happy to help you out. I know what you think about me these days, but..."

He drifts off, gazing at the floor, seeming to think better of whatever he was about to say.

"But?" I prompt him, tone softening slightly.

"But I still care about you," he says, glancing at me. "You were the most important person in my life for five years, I can't just throw that away."

And now I'm not the most important person in anybody's life.
 

The thought comes, unwelcome, and I can't seem to push it aside.

Sighing, I curl up, drawing my knees into my chest. "Well, that's nice." I'm honestly not quite sure if I'm being sarcastic.
 

"And I know you care about me, too," he prompts. "Because otherwise you would've just hired a gigolo."

A burst of laughter escapes before I can stop it. "Shit. I could've written that off as research, probably."

"Sure. Tell the IRS you're hiring hookers. What could go wrong?" Dean shrugs, and it all comes back in a rush. The sadness, the regret. I remember now why I loved him so much. We had that rapport. We just got along so well - like two people who were meant to be together.

Too bad he turned out to be a liar and a cheater and a general, all-purpose scumbag.

I still can't reconcile what I
know
about Dean with the man sitting in front of me. It's never made sense to me. I've never quite accepted it, never been able to wrap my head all the way around his betrayal.
 

It's not like him.

I'm letting his unasked question -
do
I still care about him? - linger in the air. I don't know the answer, and I don't want to. Of course I still care about him as a human being, more or less. I'd drag him out of a burning building just as readily as I'd drag anyone else. Maybe because I'm too compassionate, or maybe, just maybe...

No. I can't let myself have doubts. Not now. The past is the past, and if he was innocent, then why did he leave? Innocent people don't walk away from relationships like that. He had "guilty conscience" written all over him.

Goddamn it. I want to forget. After all this time, there's still a part of me that wants to just crawl over to the sofa and curl up in his arms. Pretend that I've forgotten everything that's come between us. I just want to feel him breathing, hear his heartbeat.

I want to make love. Maybe it wasn't always the best sex in the world, but at least it felt like it meant something. Even if that was a lie, I didn't know back then. It seemed real. It seemed
right
.

Warden, don't do this now.

Get yourself together.

Any day now.

***

After Dean goes to bed, I finally feel brave enough to check my phone again. I know M's going to be mad, that's a given. The only question is why I care so much.

It's just a silly game. That's all. It's fun, it's an escape, and it's completely harmless. I can stop anytime I want to.

Right.

He only sent me two messages after I started ignoring him earlier.
 

M: Lana?

And then:

M: ?

Two messages in four hours, that means he's pissed for sure. I should just ignore it. I should delete this damn anonymous messaging app, block him on every social media profile I have, and move on with my life. Instead, I text him back.

I had to go to dinner.

It takes me a few tries to delete the "sorry" from the beginning of the message. He doesn't need an apology. I haven't done anything wrong. But I still feel like I ought to apologize, and I don't know why.

M: Really?

What?

M: You know how I feel about being ignored.

I told you. I was busy.

M: You're always busy. That shouldn't get in the way of our arrangement. How long have we been doing this, Lana?

I don't know.

M: Four months, Lana. Every day, for four months now, I've spent at least a little bit of my time thinking about how to shock you. Surprise you. Pleasure you. And this is the thanks I get.

You know my situation.

M: You always made plenty of time for me before.

I want to say something else, to make up more excuses, but my stomach's already in knots over it. You see, M thinks my book is a true story. Like everyone else, he thinks me and "Damien" are actually a couple. He thinks I'm in love, committed, deeply attached to another man. And yet he's happy to do this with me.

Scumbag.

It's amazing how much I don't care, when he says just the right thing to turn me on. It's amazing how little it matters, when it's just about sex. But it's starting to feel like more than that.
 

Keep it together, Warden.

I'm so starved for a meaningful emotional attachment with another human being, I'm actually starting to...

I can't. It's
M
. For fuck's sake.

I finally respond.

I'm not making any more excuses. Take it or leave it.

M: Doesn't work like that.

What the hell does
that
mean?
 

I think it works however I want it to work.

M: Wrong. That's not why you're doing this.

Oh, really? Why don't you tell me more about my private thoughts and motivations. I'm fascinated.

M: You have to play the competent entrepreneur in your real life, and you do it well, but it scares you. It's all new. It's nothing you were ever prepared for. What if you fuck up? All the responsibility is on your head. You need a place to go and rid yourself of all that responsibility. A place where someone tells you to jump, and all you have to do is ask how high. You need a release. And you think I'm the man to give it to you.

I blink at the screen a few times.

You're nuts.

M: Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

I love it when you talk nerdy to me.

M: Take off your panties.

Why should I?

M: Because you want to. But you need someone to give you permission.
 

God, I hate him.

You don't know anything about what I want.

M: If only that were true. You think I enjoy dealing with you and your bratty attitude? It's basically charity work. I'm compelled to help you like the good Samaritan I am. That man of yours certainly isn't scratching that itch.

This is the first time he's directly referenced Damien. There's a sour taste in my mouth, but I'm still throbbing between my legs.

Because he's right. I want it. I want all of it. I don't even know
what
I want, and that's the point. He knows, so I don't have to. How does he have that power over me?

Obviously it's just my mind playing tricks on me. What I
really
want is to follow orders, and he's just exceptionally good at giving them. He's inside my head, convincing me of my own desires so seamlessly that my libido can't even tell the difference.

I feel a little bit lightheaded. As I unbutton my jeans, another message comes in.

M: Don't touch yourself.

Damn it.

Not only has he anticipated my next move, he's aware that I'm already following his orders without having to be told again. I hate being a foregone conclusion. I hate how well he knows me, better than I know myself.

How is that even possible?

More importantly: How am I going to function with another human being up in my space? Dean is sleeping just a few feet away, through a way-too-thin wall. I keep reminding myself that I just need to get through my parents' visit, but those two weeks are going to feel like an eternity. M's influence over my life has grown so gradually, weaving itself into every moment, every breath, that I didn't realize how insidious it was until now.
 

I step out of my panties and shove them into the hamper before shimmying back into my jeans. The fabric rasping against my sensitive flesh is uncomfortable, but in a really nice way. I glance at myself in the mirror - my face flushed, eyes so dilated they look black. My heart races, and I feel like I'm balanced on a razor's edge.

Almost like I could...

I tap out a message to M.

I need to know if I have your permission.

M: Are you that close?

I think so.

M: You have my permission to come, so long as you don't use your hands. Or anything else. Just squeeze those gorgeous thighs together and rock into the feeling.
 

I sit down on the edge of the bed. Now that I know I'm allowed to, a rush of arousal leaves me weak-kneed and quivering. I close my eyes and follow his instructions, slowly rocking back and forth so that the stiff seam of the fabric rubs where I need it most.

My phone buzzes and I force my eyes open again.
 

M: You'll never come again without thinking of me.

When the pleasure explodes, low in my belly, I curse softly. I'm cursing at him even though he can't hear me.
 

I'm determined to prove him wrong, though a part of me fears he's not.