It was a few days before the Window Incident—as I was now referring to it—and I had a charity event to attend. Coming into the office I was stunned to see Miss Mills in an incredibly sexy blue dress I’d never seen before. The minute I saw her I’d wanted to throw her on the desk and f**k her senseless.

All that night with my beautiful blond trophy date by my side I’d been distracted. I knew I was coming to the end of my rope and eventually I was going to snap. If only I’d known how soon that would be.

I tried to prove to myself that Miss Mills wasn’t really getting inside my head by going home with the blonde. Stumbling into her apartment, we’d kissed and undressed quickly, but everything felt off. It’s not that she wasn’t hot and interesting enough, but as I lay her down, it was dark hair I envisioned spread across the pillow. When kissing her br**sts, it was soft, full ones—not silicone—I wanted to feel. And even as I rolled on the condom and moved into her, I knew she was just a faceless body I was using for my own selfish needs.

I tried to keep Chloe from my thoughts but was unable to stop the forbidden image of what it would be like to have her under me. Only then did I come hard, quickly rolling off my date and immediately hating myself. Now I was even more disgusted with the memory than when it happened, because I’d let her get into my head and stay there.

If I could make it through tonight, things would get easier. I parked the car and began mentally chanting, You can do this. You can do this.

“Mom?” I called out, looking into each room I passed.

“Out here, Bennett,” I heard her answer from the back patio.

I opened the French doors and was greeted with my mother’s smile as she put the finishing touches on the outdoor table.

I leaned over so she could kiss me. “So why are we eating out here tonight?”

“It’s such a lovely evening, and I thought it might make everyone more comfortable than sitting in that stuffy dining room. You don’t think anyone will mind, do you?”

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s beautiful out here. Don’t worry.”

And it was beautiful. The patio was topped with a massive white pergola, the beams draped in heavy greenery. The centerpiece was a large rectangular table that sat eight; it was covered in a soft ivory tablecloth and my mother’s favorite china. Candles and blue flowers overflowed small silver pitchers running the length of the table, and a wrought-iron candelabra flickered overhead.

“You do know that not even I can keep Sofia from tearing this stuff off the table, though, don’t you?” I popped a grape into my mouth.

“Oh, she’s with Mina’s parents tonight. And just as well,” she said. “If Sofia were here all the attention would be on her.”

Shit. With Sofia making faces across from me, I would have had something to distract me from Joel.

“Tonight is about Chloe. And I’m really hoping that she and Joel hit it off.” She continued flitting around the patio, lighting candles and making last-minute adjustments, completely unaware of my anguish.

I was screwed. As I was contemplating making a run for it, I heard Henry—on time for once. “Where is everybody?” he yelled, his deep voice echoing through the empty house. Opening the door for my mother, we stepped inside, finding my brother in the kitchen.

“Sooo, Ben,” he began, leaning his lanky frame against the counter. “Excited about tonight?”

I waited until Mom left the room again to eye him skeptically. “I guess,” I answered, going for casual. “I think Mom made lemon squares. My favorite.”

“You’re so full of shit. I’m looking forward to watching Cignoli make a play for Chloe in front of everyone. Could make for an entertaining evening, don’t you think?” Just as he was pulling a chunk of bread from one of the large loaves on the counter, Mina walked in and swatted his hands away.

“Do you want to send your mother into a fit by ruining the dinner she has planned? You be nice tonight, Henry. No teasing or joking with Chloe. You know she has to be nervous enough about all this. Lord knows she puts up with enough crap from this one,” she said, gesturing toward me.

“What are you talking about?” I was growing tired of the overeager Chloe Mills fan club around here. “I haven’t done anything to her.”

“Bennett.” My father stood in the doorway, motioning for me to come with him. I followed him out of the kitchen and into his study. “Please be on your best behavior tonight. I realize you and Chloe don’t get along, but this is our home, not your office, and I expect you to treat her with respect.”

Clenching my jaw tightly, I nodded in agreement, thinking of all the ways I’d disrespected her in the past few weeks.

While I went down to the washroom, Joel arrived, bringing a bottle of wine and a few variations on his eager greetings: a “You look fantastic!” for Mom, a “How’s the baby?” for Mina, and a solid handshake-and-man-hug combination for Henry and Dad.

I lingered down the hall, mentally preparing myself for the night ahead.

We’d been good friends with Joel growing up and throughout school, but I hadn’t seen him since coming home. He hadn’t changed much. He was a bit shorter than me, with a slim build, jet-black hair, and blue eyes. I suppose some women would consider him attractive.

“Bennett!” Handshake, man hug. “God, man. How long has it been?”

“A long time, Joel. I think since right after high school,” I answered, shaking his hand firmly. “How have you been?”