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By´╝ÜJackie Steele

Running away, as usual.

Inclining my head, I stared at my reflection in the mirror, not quite liking what I saw. My skin had a hue of pale gray to it, the bags under my eyes too pronounced in the harsh neon light. Thank God for foundation and bronzing powder, because I looked like shit and felt even worse. Maybe I’d be able to hide the way I looked, but how could I possibly make a secret out of the fact that, on a mental level, I knew I was biting off more than I could chew? Chase was a sexual guy, no doubt about that. If the way he so easily had swayed my mind and tempted me to sleep with him was any indication of our future interchange, I was doomed from the start to give in to his wants.

Judging from his confidence, he was used to getting what he wanted, and he had admitted that he wanted me. There was no doubt that he’d try to get me into his bed again. Only, now I wasn’t stupid enough to believe I could resist him, nor was I stupid enough to believe that my heart wouldn’t get involved along the way.

But Jude was right: I needed the letters to finally find closure.

So many years had passed; so many phases of depression had made me beg for such an opportunity as this. But falling in love with Chase wasn’t an option. I knew that if he pushed hard enough, I’d be all sugar and butter again. And then, in the heat of the moment, I’d open my heart, my soul, my body for him, and he’d crush it along the way. I couldn’t afford that. I couldn’t let our relationship progress.

I stopped in my thoughts and my breath hitched in my throat.

What relationship?

We had none, at least not in the traditional sense, I reminded myself. The few dates and a bit of flirting meant nothing.

Nothing at all.

“I’ll just have to keep my legs crossed and closed. How hard can it be?” I muttered. I had only practiced abstinence for the last twenty-two years, never trusting a guy enough to get physically and emotionally involved.

“Depends on who he is.”

I turned and shot the woman behind me a shy smile, realizing I must have spoken out loud and she must have heard it.

She was dressed in a blue dress that built a strong contrast to her red hair pinned high over her head and the thick layer of pink lipstick. Her whole attitude screamed confidence and something else I couldn’t quite pinpoint. “There’s good sex and there’s bad sex,” she continued as she inspected herself in the mirror, smacking her lips in the process. “If he looks clean, listens to you, and takes good care of you, he might be well worth it.”

As she peered at me from under long, fake lashes, I realized what she was oozing.

Life experience.

“Probably,” I whispered. With a last glance at her, I headed out into a narrow hall, eager to return to Jude and finally get back home.

Only, as I scanned the crowded bar, she was nowhere to be seen. My glance swept over the busy tables and clientele, but Jude wasn’t among them. She must have met someone. There was only one person who’d know. With a sigh, I strolled to the bar and motioned the bartender to get his attention.

“G’day, Laurie.” He smiled, revealing his perfect white teeth. “What can I do for you?”

“James.” I shot the familiar face a bright grin. James was a good friend—a sexy, tanned Australian, who Jude would have dated, were it not for him playing for the other team.

Not that she hadn’t tried anyway.

“Have you seen Jude?”

His eyes brushed over the room and the tiniest hint of a frown appeared on his otherwise smooth forehead. “I saw her a few minutes ago heading outside, probably for a smoke.”

“Thanks.” I was about to turn and go looking for her, when James called after me.

“Hey, Laurie. How’s your job search coming along?”

“Still nothing. They don’t want to hire graduates unless they work for free.” I smirked. “So I might as well do a few unpaid internships. If only I’d get one without having to move, because in NYC they’re basically all snapped up for the next five years.”

He nodded, his eyes lit up with sympathy. “Well, if you need a job, feel free to ask us. We have an open position coming up. It’s yours if you want it.”

I looked at him, smiling. “Thanks. I appreciate the offer, but—” I hesitated. Could I really afford to decline?

For months I had spent hours and days looking for a job related to my degree—without any success. If I didn’t find anything soon, I’d end up in serious financial trouble, and I couldn’t afford falling into an even deeper financial hole, seeing that I had already maxed out all my credit cards. “Maybe. I will give it some thought and I’ll get back to you, okay?”