No strings attached
concerned, she was. But to Dad…” His focus sharpened. “She never had a chance of pleasing him. She was human. Just like you are.”
    Chloe started to pace, her bitterness welling to spill free in a flow of words. “When I argued with him about volleyball, he threw it in my face that my mother never questioned his decisions.
    “When I wanted to major in phys ed, he told me she would never have pursued anything unladylike even if she had considered working outside the home…which she hadn’t because her only interests were home and family. She never smoked or raised her voice, and she certainly didn’t drink. He let me know all of that when he caught me smoking and drinking and cussing up a storm.”
    Aidan reached out a hand and snagged her wrist when she next passed by. “When she swore, he took away her car keys. When he caught her in his whiskey, he cut up her credit cards. When she told him that she’d enrolled in business classes at the community college, he told her she’d never pass. Why humiliate herself and him?”
    Chloe had lost all feeling in the hand Aidan gripped, as well as in the rest of her limbs. Her heart, suddenly bruised and aching, had stolen all sensation. “You saw this?”
    “I saw. I heard. But I didn’t realize it qualified as verbal abuse until I was out of that dysfunctionalhouse.” Aidan shrugged and let her go. “It’s a lousy excuse, but the only one I’ve got.”
    Chloe sank back into the chair beside her brother. “Well, fuck me.”
    After a minute, Aidan chuckled. “Nice, little sister. Very nice.”
    The words were barely out of his mouth before Chloe whipped her head around. “Why the hell did she stay with him?”
    “I can think of five reasons, all under the age of ten.”
    Five children, and tied to a man who set impossible standards. No wonder her mother had adored Cary Grant. She had to have been miserably unhappy, forced to surrender her identity, her individuality. Having no control over a life that should have been her own first, shared with her partner second.
    Chloe sighed and closed her stinging eyes, struck by the irony that, in the end, she’d done exactly what her father had wanted her to do. She’d become her mother, giving up who she was to earn her father’s love.
    She’d broken free, yes, but to become what? A wisecracking ball-buster her father would despise.
    A woman Chloe wasn’t too crazy about herself.
    “I can’t deal with this right now. I don’t have time to deal with this right now.” She shook off her tears and sat up straight. She had to get through the open house before she could even begin to deal with all of what Aidan had said.
    “Are you staying at the Doubletree?” It was where she’d always known him to stay, he’d never stayed at their father’s home when he’d come to town from his place near San Antonio.
    Aidan got to his feet, gave her his room number. “Seven o’clock?”
    “Perfect. And have your bags packed. You’re coming to stay the night with me.”
     

    T IRED OF WAITING for Chloe in the gIRL-gEAR lobby and having already mingled for fifteen minutes with the rest of the open house attendees, Eric finally went in search of his nondate date.
    He found her in her office, her back to her desk, her arms wrapped around her middle, one finger pressed to the tip of her nose as she stood staring out her first floor window onto Kirby Drive.
    He leaned a shoulder against the door jamb, shoved his hands into the pockets of his khaki Dockers. The tails of his navy sport jacket flared around his wrists. He couldn’t help but take a deep, steadying breath.
    He’d never expected her to make him feel anything but the flirtatious affection so natural to their friendship. But he was feeling more now. More that he didn’t want to acknowledge, because it would make him a sap. A whipped sap. And no man with any self-respect allowed himself to be whipped by a single blow job.
    The thought of her mouth made him weak. But

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