Nolan's mouth tastes like the soda he'd taken a swig of just before she unceremoniously twisted herself onto his lap and pressed her lips against his. The expression on his face is, to coin a phrase, priceless, and she traces his jaw and cheeks and nose with the tips of her fingers, thinks that it's maybe something she would have liked to have photographed if her circumstances were different. She can see it, almost - a framed picture on a nightstand, a dazed and adorably confused expression greeting her every morning upon waking.
Would her father have introduced her to Nolan? Is this something her father planned in advance, their meeting, the possibility of them falling for each other? Poor, brilliant, misunderstood Nolan Ross, his diamond in the rough, swooping in to give her a fresh start and something to live for - it's practically a modern fairy tale in the making, and she doesn't believe in fairy tales.
"Kiss me," she says.
Nolan swallows hard, hands falling to her hips. "Why? I thought you and your little prison friend were -"
"Because I want to know."
She moves in close again and swipes her tongue across his bottom lip. "I need to make sense of it. I want to know," she says, inhaling the sick-sweet chemical scent from his mouth, "what it was that blinded him to what was going on around us."
"I think you're better off asking Victoria Grayson that one," he says.
She closes her eyes. The next kiss is dirtier, full of intent and demand. Nolan pushes up into it, his hands on her hips gripping and releasing in no discernable pattern. When she pulls back, the dazed look on his face has melted into something duller, more malleable, and she knows she has his attention for now.
"Maybe later," she tells him, though the thought of confronting Victoria lights something low in her belly. She shelves the idea for now and looks at Nolan. "Let's do this first."
She visits the house once, just after landing back in the states for the first time in well over a year, in the middle of winter when she's certain none of her father's former colleagues and friends will be around to see her. The outside of it has barely changed from the image she holds in sacred memory, though a late season storm seems to have knocked a patch of shingles off the roof. She stares up at the building from the beach from behind dark sunglasses, bare toes curling down into the cold, soft sand. The Atlantic behind her crashes and mixes and swirls in perfect, harmonious chaos.
Fitting, she thinks. She wraps her arms around herself as the wind picks up. On the nose, even.
"Can I help you?"
She whirls around, heart leaping into her throat at having been caught. There's a young man standing a few feet away, staring at her. He's dressed in jeans and thick work boots and a heavy, drab coat that looks infinitely warmer than any of the expensive wool blends she'd bought during her travels in Europe and Asia, and there's a metal toolbox in one of his hands. The wind pushes his hair out of his face, and her fingers twitch with the urge to run themselves over the days-old beard on his jaw. She realizes she hasn't said anything when he looks behind him and then back at her, expectantly.
"Ah, sorry," she says. "No, I'm just - admiring. It's a lovely house. Looks very cozy."
"It is," he agrees, "or as cozy as these houses can get. I'm starting to think money makes people forget what comfort actually feels like."
His honesty startles a laugh out of her. It's rusty and harsh, even to her ears, but the corners of his lips immediately quirk up at the sound, as if making a stranger laugh is a grand accomplishment. It's a good smile, she notes, a real one, and it reminds her a little of Nolan when he's won something. A pang shoots through her heart unexpectedly.
She jerks her chin in the direction of his toolbox. "Are you the handyman?"
"Seasonally, yeah. That last hurricane we had did a number on some of the houses in the area. This one got off light in comparison."
She nods. "I should let you get down to it," she says. "Take care."
He waves, and she starts making her way up to where she'd parked the car earlier. She hears him whistle from the street as she collects her shoes and socks. The melody stays with her all the way back to Nolan's Manhattan penthouse.
Most of the time, she's torn between wanting to kiss Nolan and wanting to strangle him.
"You slept with him?" Her hand curls up into a fist at her side. "I thought he wasn't your type."
"Jack is hard to resist when he's all handsy and soft," Nolan says with a smirk. "And if you aren't going to make a move on him, then I honestly don't see why I can't be tapping that."
Her nails cut into her palm. This isn't jealousy, not really, but her stomach still twists and turns like she's going to throw up. "Are you going to keep sleeping with him?" she asks. Her molars grind together in the back of her mouth. "And what about - what about Amanda?"
Nolan stands up and rests his hands on her shoulders. He leans in close and kisses her forehead, and she shuts her eyes tight. It's suddenly too warm, the air too thick and heavy around her, and she feels her control slip ever so slightly away from her.
"If you want to know, you just have to ask," he says. "I think he dreamed about you last night. He said your name while he was sleeping." Nolan takes a step back and lets his hands fall. "You could have all of this. You know that, right? Both of us, all three of us even, if you wanted. There's nothing keeping you on this track but you. Not really, anyway."
She inhales deeply and steels herself. "No. Not - not yet."
Daniel breaks things off with her, which falls perfectly in line with the rest of her plans. It's expected at this point in their relationship: the rich tend to chomp at the bit when others' lives are working out too perfectly. Their bloodlust rises, and they start to think and dig a little deeper, and she can't afford any more distractions. The rest of it (and it is still something she doesn't quite have a handle on yet) is decidedly not easy, despite Nolan's constant reassurances that it could be.
She wants it to be easy, though. She drives out to the Stowaway at night and stands just outside the door as patrons stumble out after last call. Nolan is sitting at the bar nursing a tumbler of whiskey, and Jack is collecting plates and martini glasses from the tables behind him. Somewhere further inside, she can hear Amanda singing some old pop song horrifically off-key, and she feels her mouth turn up into a ghost of a smile. She waves when Nolan looks up and sees her, and he motions for her to come inside. When Jack finally sees her, there's something like recognition in his eyes, and she wonders if he knows what she hasn't been able to tell him.
"Does it make sense to you yet?" Nolan asks when she stops next to him.
She shakes her head and leans in to kiss him. She reaches out and tugs at Jack's sleeve until she can feel the heat of his body mixing with hers and Nolan's. It's a struggle not to push them both away and run back to the beach house. Instead, she winds her fingers together with Jack's and squeezes them tightly. His breath stutters in her ear. Amanda appears on the other side of the bar, quietly watching with a hand resting on her pregnant belly.
She feels something inside her relax.
"Almost," she says.