“The whole I-love-you thing. Does that have something to do with you bringing a girl home you’re not fucking?”

Taylor’s shoulders sagged, and he knelt in front of me. “Jesus, Falyn, no.”

“So … you love me,” I said in disbelief.

“You’re goddamn right I do,” he said without hesitation. “I said, after this trip, we wouldn’t be friends anymore.” He noticed my expression. “What?”

“That’s all you have to say?” he said, wounded.

“You, Falyn, are fucking amazing. I’ve never been so proud to know someone in my life. And that’s saying something. I have a lot of decorated heroes for friends. You were right about how this happened. We were supposed to meet. Just like we did. It can’t all be a weird coincidence.” His eyes met mine. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not going to leave you, Falyn. And I’m not going to let you leave me.”

“You don’t have to say it back, but it’s too late for me.”

Holding back at that point—when Taylor was looking me in the eyes, confessing his feelings—was useless. But the very real fear of good-bye was just under the surface, waiting behind the hope of a happy ending. It had to be. Whether it was me who walked away or the ones I loved being ripped from my grasp, good-bye was nearly all I knew.

“I’m afraid I’ll lose you if I say it out loud,” I said, hoping my voice was too soft for fate to hear.

“So, you do,” he said, surprised. “You love me.”

He pulled me into his chest and hugged me tight, relieved. “I can’t fucking believe it. I have never trusted in this kind of thing before, but it’s hard to deny.”

“Before I applied at Alpine, before Shane and Liza decided to adopt—is it crazy to say that this goes way back? That we go way back? Someone knew I’d need to hold your hand before I ever had one.”

“Roses are red,” he began with a mischievous smile.

“Your eyes are green,” he said, tackling me to the bed.

I giggled, not trying very hard at all to push him off of me.

He stopped tickling me, and I relaxed, breathing hard beneath him.

His smile vanished. “I love you,” he said quietly.

“Yes, it does.” He leaned down, touching his lips to mine.

His fingers cupped my jawline, and my lips instantly parted, eager for the same rush that I’d felt when he kissed me on the plane. But this time was different. This time, we were alone.

I gripped the bottom hem of his T-shirt and pulled upward. Taylor reached behind his neck and pulled it the rest of the way. I ran my fingers down his back, and he groaned. It had been years since I touched a man like this, and now that I was, my hands wanted to explore more of him. I reached down to the button of his jeans and unfastened it, the hardness behind his zipper begging to escape.

His mouth left mine and trailed down my neck. His hands lifted my shirt to access the bare skin of my chest and stomach until he was at my waistline. He slipped one hand beneath me, his fingers finding their way to my bra. With his fingers, he unsnapped the clasp, and with the other hand, he released the button of my jeans.

His confident, experienced movements only made me more excited for what would come next. Even though he was exploring my body for the first time, he knew exactly what to do and how to touch me. I had only had one lover, and this was so much better. Not only was the man above me in love with me—not just the idea of me—but by the look in his eyes, I knew he was about to make love to me, which would be something new to him, too.

Taylor pinched my zipper and pulled it toward him, sliding his tongue beneath the fabric. I sighed, feeling my insides tightening, pleading for him. He kissed just behind the metal button as he lowered the zipper, and then he pulled my jeans over my hips. His lips baptized my skin in a line of tiny kisses until he reached my ankles, and then he threw the denim to the floor.

Taylor took his time as he made his way back up, licking my inner thigh with the tip of his tongue. He enjoyed every stretch of my hips every time I writhed beneath him.

The pace at which he undressed me was wonderfully agonizing. He pulled my shirt over my head, and then he slid my bra straps over my shoulders before tossing the white silky fabric to the floor.

The mattress squeaked beneath us as he pushed up and away from me. He stood at the end of the bed, planning what he was going to do to me next, as he pushed his jeans to the floor and stepped out of them. He crawled back onto the bed, hovering above me.

Taylor touched his forehead to mine and sighed.

“What?” I whispered, leaning up to kiss the corner of his mouth.

He lowered himself against me, the only fabric stopping him from entering me was his Calvin Klein briefs and my embarrassingly unsexy cotton panties.

“You were crying fifteen minutes ago. I feel like I’m taking advantage. I’m okay if we just stay like this.”

I slowly reached down between us, sliding my fingers down the ripples of his abdomen and beneath the elastic waistband to grip his girth. A low moan hummed in his throat as I tightened my hold and slowly pulled, letting his skin roll over his shaft.

His breath caught, and his mouth slammed into mine, a visceral end to his marginal willpower.

My hands slid around to his backside and then down, his boxer briefs lowering with the movement. As soon as he was exposed, he pulled my panties to the side, touching his skin to mine.

I braced myself, and then I gasped as he slowly rocked his hips forward, working himself inside me. My fingers dug into his back, the mattress creaking in a slow rhythm with each gentle thrust.

Taylor bent down to taste my lips again, groaning in my mouth as he buried himself deep. I crossed my ankles behind him, letting him get closer, sink deeper.

Somewhere on the lower level, his family’s intermittent laughter floated up, reminding us both to be quiet. Each time I needed to cry out, Taylor would cover my mouth with his. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, only conscious of the build within me and the push and pull as my body begged equally for more and for release. Taylor provided both, over and over, for hours into the night until I was completely consumed.

Every inch of me felt raw and relaxed as Taylor collapsed next to me, panting and smiling.

I reached down until I found Taylor’s fingers, letting them intertwine with mine. “As long as you love me after. Now, that would be something new.”

He turned onto his side, propping his head with his hand. “Those aren’t words I just throw around. I’ve never said that to anyone besides family.”

“I’ve only said it to one person until now.”

I looked at the window, the glow from the streetlight outside pouring in. “Olive.”

“No,” I said, looking back at him. I touched his cheek. “Just you.”