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Signed, Sealed, Delivered (SYTYCW winner)

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

It took a moment for the words to sink in. And when they did, Adam wondered if he'd misheard. "You killed him?"

Lane stood, and started plucking on the ribbons of the dangling balloons, dragging them off the ceiling one at a time. "I was a bit wild when I was a kid - I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. One day - that day - I took myself off to the park without asking, without telling anyone where I was going."

"So your obsessive independence isn't anything new?" he asked, trying to coax a smile, but she seemed not to hear him.

"My father came looking for me. I guess he saw me as he drove past the park, but I was busily swinging and didn't see him. I heard the screech, though, and the thud. Seems he parked, jumped out of the car - and-" She stopped, took a deep breath and started again. "I guess he was so relieved to see me, he didn't look, and he ran straight into the path of a truck."

Adam wanted to reach for her, take her in his arms, but he knew she wouldn't want that - not until she was back to cool, calm and collected. So he forced himself to stay where he was, and confined himself to an inadequate: "It wasn't your fault."

"I know," she agreed in a deadened voice. "At least, logically, I know that. But sometimes-" She broke off, shrugged. "Sometimes it's hard to be logical. And my mother ... Well, logic was never her strong suit. She's never come out and blamed me - that's something. But I know that every time she looks at me, she can't help thinking ..."

She didn't bother finishing. She plucked another balloon off the ceiling. Another. One more. Again. Until she held them all. "It knocked the wildness out of me, anyway," she said. "Silver lining."

The picture of her then made Adam remember how Sarah had described her, back at the beginning. Valiant. Here she was, her arms full of gaudily coloured balloons, lips trembling, but refusing to cry. For him, with his ancient divorce stories, she had cried. But she wouldn't cry for herself.

She looked down at her wrist and flexed it, making the charms tinkle. She smiled, and Adam felt the tightness in his chest ease slightly. "Thank you so much for the present, Adam. And for coming tonight. It was a lovely surprise. Lesson Four."

"Let go of the balloons, Lane, and come here," Adam said. "I'm going to make you forget every lesson we've ever had. And your brother. And your mother. And the rest of the world."

Lane let the balloons go, and came to him.

And in that instant, with his heart aching for her pain, and his whole body shaking with the need to have her, Adam knew that he'd fallen in love with her.

*****

Lane smiled as she walked into the living room the next morning and saw the balloons, some of them already at half-mast.

She loved them. Loved the bracelet.

Loved what he'd done to her in bed, lying her face down, and propping up her hips with pillows, and ... well, who would have thought he could find that exact spot in that position, and make her actually scream?

She loved the way he'd said absolutely nothing except her name, as he'd taken her ... because it made it feel like this time was special, different. Loved how he'd held her so close afterwards. The way he'd kissed her, as though he'd never stop. Loved the note he'd left on his pillow before he'd snuck out this morning - 10/10. Well done, Lane! You will ace your exam. Mr Quinn.

There was only one thing she didn't love: the feeling that she had given away a piece of herself. Let it slip so smoothly from her control and straight to Adam, almost without being aware of it. She'd felt no distance between them: she'd wantonly gone and obliterated any hint of distance.

She'd given part of herself away ... to a man she would never see again five weeks from now.

She made herself a cup of coffee and sat at the dining table, pondering the problem, wondering what he'd say if she told him she couldn't give him up once the contract ended.

The best answer he could give? 'To hell with it - I still want you.'

Lane's lips twisted. The real answer was more likely to be: 'Sorry Lane, but you always knew I wasn't into commitment.'

How had things got so out of hand? And more to the point, how - at this late stage - could she reclaim some control over herself, over her feelings?

She could terminate the contract early, before she got in any deeper, she supposed. But her throat seized up at the thought. No. Not yet.

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