FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE LOVING ON THE EDGE NOVELS, THE FIRST IN A SENSUAL NEW SERIES
Overtime has never felt so good…
Marin Rush loves studying sex. Doing it? That’s another story. In the research lab, Marin’s lack of practical knowledge didn’t matter, but now that she’s landed a job at The Grove, a high-end, experimental sex therapy institute, she can’t ignore the fact that the person most in need of sexual healing may be her.
Dr. Donovan West, her new hotshot colleague, couldn’t agree more. Donovan knows that Marin’s clients are going to eat her alive unless she gets some hands-on experience. And if she fails at the job, he can say goodbye to a promotion, so he assigns her a list of R-rated tasks to prepare her for the wild clientele of The Grove’s X-wing.
But some of those tasks are built for two, and when he finds Marin searching for a candidate to help her check off her list, Donovan decides there’s only one man for the job—him. As long as they keep their erotic, off-the-clock activities strictly confidential and without strings, no one will get fired—or worse, get attached…
Exclusive to this edition only—a bonus short story
About the Author
Roni Loren is the New York Times bestselling author of the Loving on the Edge novels, including Nothing Between Us, Not Until You, Need You Tonight, Caught Up in You, Fall into You, Melt into You, and Crash into You. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.
Read an Excerpt
“I’m going to wrap my fingers in your hair and slide my other hand up your thigh. You have to be quiet for me. We can’t let anyone know.”
Marin Rush paused in the dark hallway of Harker Hall, her tennis shoes going silent on the shiny linoleum and the green Exit signs humming softly in the background. She didn’t dare move. She’d been on the way to grab a soda and a snack out of the vending machine. Her caffeine supply had run low and watching participants snore in the sleep lab wasn’t exactly stimulating stuff. But that silk-smooth male voice had hit her like a thunderclap, waking up every sense that had gone dull with exhaustion.
She’d assumed she was the only one left in the psychology building at this hour besides the two study subjects in the sleep lab. It was spring break and the classrooms and labs were supposed to be locked up—all except the one she was working in. That’s what the girl she was filling in for this week had told her. But there was no mistaking the male voice as it drifted into the hallway.
“I bet you’d like being fucked up against the wall. My cock pumping in you hard and fast.”
Holy. Shit. Marin pressed her lips together. Obviously two other people thought they were alone, too. Had students snuck into the building to get it on? Or maybe it was one of the professors. Oh, God, please don’t let it be a professor. She should turn around right now and go back to Professor Roberts’s office. Last thing she needed was to see one of her teachers in some compromising position. She would die of mortification.
But instead of backing up, she found herself tilting her head to isolate where the voice was coming from, and her feet moved forward a few steps.
“Yeah, you like that. I know. I bet you’re wet for me right now just thinking about how it would feel. Maybe I should check. Keep your hands against the wall.”
A hot shiver zipped through Marin, making every part of her hyperaware.
“I’m so hard for you. Can you feel how much I want you?” That voice was like velvet against Marin’s skin. She closed her eyes, imagining the picture the stranger was painting—some hot guy behind her, pinning her to the wall, his erection rubbing against her. She’d never been in that situation, but her body sure knew how to react to the idea. Her hand drifted up to her neck and pressed against her throat, her pulse beating like hummingbird wings beneath her fingertips.
She waited with held breath to hear the woman’s response, but no voice answered the man’s question. Can you feel how much I want you? he’d asked. And hell if Marin wasn’t dying to know. She strained to hear.
“I tug your panties off and trail my hand up your thighs until I can feel your hot, slick . . .”
Marin braced her other hand against the wall and leaned so far forward that one more inch would’ve sent her toppling over. Your hot . . .
The curse snapped Marin out of the spell she’d fallen into, and she straightened instantly, her face hot and her heartbeat pounding in places it shouldn’t be. There was a groaning squeak of an office chair and another slew of colorful swearing.
Whoever had been saying the dirty things had changed his tone of voice and now sounded ten kinds of annoyed. A wadded-up ball of paper came flying out of an open doorway a few yards down. She followed the arc and watched the paper land on the floor. Only then did she notice there were three others like it already littering the hallway.
Lamplight shifted on the pale linoleum as if the person inside the office was moving around, and Marin flattened herself against the wall, trying to make herself one with it. Please don’t come out. Please don’t come out. The silent prayer whispered through her as she counted the doors between her and the mystery voice, mentally labeling each one. When she realized it was one of the offices they let the Ph.D. students use and not a professor’s, she let out a breath.
Either way, she had no intention of alerting her hall mate that he wasn’t alone. But at least she could stop worrying she’d gotten all fevered over one of her professors. Now she just had to figure out how to get past the damn door without letting him see her. She’d gotten used to skipping meals to save money since starting college a few months ago. But she wasn’t going to make it through the next two hours of data entry and sleep monitoring if she didn’t get some caffeine. No wonder none of the upperclassmen had wanted to fill in during break.
Marin’s gaze slid over to the stairwell. If she stayed on the other side of the hall in the shadows, she could probably sneak by unnoticed. She moved to the right side wall and crept forward on quiet feet. But as soon as she got within a few steps of the shaft of light coming from the occupied room, a large shadow blotted it into darkness.
She’d been so focused on that beam of light that it took her a moment to register what had happened. She froze and her gaze hopped upward, landing on the guy who filled the doorway. No, not just any guy, a very familiar guy. Tall and lean and effortlessly disheveled. Everything inside her went on alert. Oh, God, not him.
He had his hand braced on the doorjamb, and his expression was as surprised as hers probably was. “What the hell?”
“I—” She could already feel her face heating and her throat closing—some bizarre, instant response she seemed to have to this man. She’d spent way too many hours in the back of her Intro to Human Sexuality class memorizing each little detail of Donovan West. Well, his profile, really. And his walk. And the way his shoulders filled out his T-shirts. As a teaching assistant, he usually only stopped in at the beginning of class to bring Professor Paxton papers or something. But each time he walked in now, it was like some bat signal for her body to go haywire.
It’d started with the day he’d had to take over the lecture when Professor Paxton was sick. He’d talked about arousal and the physical mechanics of that process. It was technical. He’d been wearing a T-shirt that read Sometimes I Feel Like a Total Freud. It shouldn’t have been sexy. But Lord, it’d been one of the hottest experiences of her life. He’d talked with his hands a lot and had obviously been a little nervous to be in front of the class. But at the same time, he’d been so confident in the information, had answered questions with all this enthusiasm. Marin hadn’t heard a word in the rest of her classes that day for all the fantasizing she’d been doing.
But now she was staring. And blushing. And generally looking like an idiot. Yay.
She turned fully toward him and cleared her throat, trying to form some kind of non-weird response. But when her gaze quickly traveled over him again, all semblance of language left her. Oh, shit. She tried to drag her focus back to his face and cement it there. His very handsome face—a shadow of stubble, bright blue eyes, hair that fell a little too long around the ears. Lips that she’d thought way too much about. All good. All great.
But despite the nice view, she couldn’t ignore the thing in the bottom edge of her vision, the thing that had caught her attention on that quick once-over. The hard outline in his jeans screamed at her to stare—to analyze, to burn the picture into her brain. The need to look warred with embarrassment. The latter finally won and her cheeks flared even hotter. She adjusted her glasses. “Uh, yeah, hi. Sorry. I thought I was alone in the building. Didn’t mean to interrupt . . . whatever.”
He stared at her for a second, his brows knitting. “Interrupt?”
Goddammit, her gaze flicked there again. The view was like a siren song she couldn’t ignore. Massive erection, dead ahead! She glanced away. But not quick enough for him not to notice.
“Ah, shit.” He stepped behind the doorway and hid his bottom half. “Sorry. It’s uh . . . not what it looks like.”
She snorted, an involuntary, nervous, half-choking noise that seemed to echo in the cavernous hallway. Really smooth. She tried to force some kind of wit past the awkwardness that was overtaking her. “Ohh-kay. If you say so.”
He laughed, this deep chuckle that seemed to come straight out of his chest and fill the space between them with warmth. Lord, even his laugh was sexy. So not fair.
“Well, okay, it is that. But why it’s there is just an occupational hazard.”
His laugh and easy tone settled her some. Or maybe it was the fact that he was obviously feeling awkward, too. “Occupational hazard? Must be more interesting than the sleep lab.”
He jabbed a thumb toward the office. “It is. Sexuality department. I’m working on my dissertation under Professor Paxton.”
She could tell he didn’t recognize her from class. Not surprising since she sat in the back of the large stadium-style room and tried to be as invisible as possible. Plus, she was wearing her glasses tonight. “I’m with Professor Roberts. I’m monitoring the sleep study tonight.”
“Oh, right on. I didn’t realize he’d taken on another grad student. I’m Donovan, by the way.”
“Mari.” The nickname rolled off her lips. No one called her that anymore. But she knew he probably graded her papers, and the name Marin wasn’t all that common. She forced a small smile, not correcting him that she was about as far from a grad student as she could get. She wanted to be one. Would be one day if she could figure out how to afford it. She’d managed to test out of two semesters of classes, but high IQ or not, that dream was still a long way off—a point of light at the end of a very long, twisting tunnel.
Marin shifted on her feet. “I was heading to get a Coke so that I don’t fall asleep from doing data entry and watching people snore. You need anything?”
“A Coke?” He glanced down the hall. “Don’t waste a buck fifty on the vending machine. I’ve got a mini-fridge in here. You can come in and grab whatever you want.”
Are you an option? I’d like to grab you. The errant thought made her bite her lips together so none of those words would accidentally slip out. She had no idea where this side of herself was coming from. Not that she’d really know what to do after she grabbed Donovan anyway. This was a twentysomething-year-old man, not one of the few boys she’d awkwardly made out with in high school. This was a guy who’d know how to do all those things she’d only read about in books.
“No, that’s okay, I mean . . .” She shifted her gaze away, willing her face not to go red again.
He caught her meaning and laughed. “Oh, right. Sorry. Yes, you should probably avoid strange men with erections who invite you inside for a drink. Good safety plan, Mari.” He lifted his hands and stepped back fully into the doorway, the pronounced outline in his pants gone. “But I promise, you’re all good now. You just caught me at an . . . unfortunate moment. And now I’m going to bribe you with free soda so that you don’t tell the other grads in the department about what you saw. I keep these late hours and work through holidays to avoid that kind of torture.”
He gave her a tilted smile that made something flutter in her chest. She should probably head straight back to the office she was supposed to be working in. He was older. Kind of her teacher. If he found out she was one of Pax’s students, he’d probably freak out that she’d seen him like this. But the chance to spend a few minutes with him was too tempting to pass up.
Plus, the way he was looking at her settled something inside her. Usually she shut down around guys. Being jerked around from school to school on her mom’s whims hadn’t left her with much time to develop savvy when it came to these things. But something about Donovan made her want to step forward instead of run away. “Yeah, okay. Free is good.”
“Cool.” His face brightened. Maybe he’d been as lonely and bored tonight as she had been. He bent over and picked up the papers he’d thrown into the hallway and then swept a hand in front of him. “Welcome to my personal hell. The fridge is in the back corner.”
Marin stepped in first, finding his office a sharp contrast to the sterile sleep lab. His desk was stacked with photocopied articles and books, a Red Bull sat atop one of the piles, and a microphone was set up in the middle with a line going to the laptop. Along the back wall was a worn couch with a pillow and a blanket. More books were on the floor next to the makeshift napping quarters. Controlled chaos. She carefully made her way to the fridge and grabbed a Dr Pepper.
“Did you want me to get you something?” She peered back over her shoulder.
Donovan was busy gathering a pile of papers off the one other chair in the small office. “No, I’m good. Just opened my third Red Bull. I think my blood has officially been converted to rocket fuel. Don’t light any matches.”
She smiled and stepped back toward the door. “I hear ya. Well, thanks for the drink. I’ll let you get back to—uh, whatever it was you were doing.”
He pointed to the spot he’d cleared. “Or you could stay for a sec and take a break. God knows I need one.”
She hesitated for a moment, knowing she was taking the I’m-a-fellow-grad-student charade too far, but then she thought about the endless boredom awaiting her in the sleep lab. She moved her way around the desk and sat. What could a few more minutes hurt? “Yeah, you sounded kind of pissed off when I walked by.”
He stilled, and she cringed when she realized what she’d revealed.
He lowered himself to the chair behind his desk. “You can hear me in the hallway?”
“I—sound travels. The hall echoes.” She made some ridiculous swirling motion with her finger—as if he needed a visual interpretation of the word echo. She dropped her hand to her side and tucked it under her thigh to keep it from going rogue again.
“Good to know. So you heard . . .”
He laughed, all easy breezy, like they were discussing what they’d had for lunch today instead of X-rated talk and random erections in an institute of higher learning. “Well, then. Guess I should probably explain what I’m doing so I don’t look like a total perv.”
“It’s fine. I mean, whatever.” She wasn’t sure if she sounded nonchalant or like she’d taken a few sucks off a helium tank. She guessed the latter.
He lifted a crumpled paper off his desk. “This is what you heard.”
She leaned forward, trying to read the crinkled handwriting.
“Scripts,” he explained. “I’m doing my dissertation on female sexual arousal in response to auditory stimuli. I’m recording scripts of fantasies that we may use in the study.”
“Your study is about dirty talk?” she asked, surprised that the university was down with that. And if he was the one doing the dirty talking, where did she sign up to volunteer?
He smirked and there was a hint of mischief in that otherwise affable expression. “Yes, I guess that’s one way to put it. If you want to be crass about it, Ms. Sleep Disorders.”
“I’m no expert, but I know what I heard.”
“Fair enough. But yeah, I’m focusing on the effect of scripted erotic talk on women who have arousal disorder. A lot of times, therapists suggest that these clients watch erotic movies to try to increase their libido. But in general, porn is produced for men. So even though that method can be somewhat effective, the films don’t really tap into women’s fantasies. They tap into men’s. Erotic books have worked pretty well. But I want to test out another method to add to the arsenal—audio. It’d be cost effective to make, wouldn’t send more money to the porn industry, and could be customized to a client’s needs. Plus, it’s easy to test in a lab.”
Marin liked that he was talking to her like a peer, and his frankness about the topic saved her some of the weirdness that would normally surface when talking about sex. Academic talk soothed her. Plus, his passion was catching. That’s what she loved about this environment. In high school, everyone acted like they were being forced to learn. She’d always been the odd one for actually enjoying school. Books and all that information had been her escape. Schools changed. The people around her changed. Books were one of the few things that stayed constant. But here at the university there were people like Donovan, people who seemed to be mainlining their education and getting high off what they learned. “So what were you so frustrated about?”
He grabbed his can of Red Bull and took a sip, keeping his eyes on her the whole time. “I’m discovering that women are complicated and that I’m having trouble thinking like one.”
“Ah. And this is shocking news?”
“Well, no. I knew it was going to be tough, but the fantasies are turning out to be harder than I thought. We did a round of romantic ones in a small trial run, and they were a major fail. Women reported enjoying listening to them but the arousal was . . .” He gave an arcing thumbs-down. “My friend, Alexis, one of the other grads working under Pax, told me that I needed to go more primal, tap into the forbidden type of fantasies, that sweet romance makes a girl warm and fuzzy but not necessarily hot and bothered.”
Marin’s neck prickled with awareness, but she tried to keep her expression smooth. “Makes sense.”
“I—uh, I mean . . .”
“Never mind. I retract the question.” He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his dark hair, making it even messier. “I met you like five minutes ago, and I’m already asking you if taboo fantasies do it for you. Sorry. Hang out in this department too long, and you lose your filter for what is acceptable in normal conversation. I spent lunch yesterday discussing nocturnal penile tumescence with a sixty-five-year-old female professor, and it wasn’t weird. This is my life.”
Marin smiled and played with the tab on the top of her soda. “I’m clearly hanging out in the wrong department. My professor just talks about sleep apnea. Though I’ve been monitoring the sleep lab and can confirm that nocturnal penile tumescence is alive and well.”
“Ha. I bet.”
She wet her lips and, feeling brave, leaned forward to grab the script he’d left on his desk. He didn’t make a move to stop her, and she squinted at the page, trying to decipher his handwriting. The fantasy looked to be one between a boss and subordinate. She saw the parts she’d heard him read aloud. I’m hard for you. I tug down your panties.
She crossed her legs. The part he’d gotten hung up on had various crude names for the female anatomy listed and scratched out—like he couldn’t decide which one would be most effective. She didn’t have input to give him on that, but just seeing the fantasy on the page had her skin tingling with warmth, her blood stirring. She shifted in her chair. Kept reading.
“Okay, well that’s a good sign,” he said, his voice breaking through the quiet room.
Marin looked up. “What?”
He leaned his forearms against the desk, his blue eyes meeting hers. “You just made a sound.”
“I did not.”
“Yeah, you did. Like this breathy sound. And your neck is all flushed. That one’s working for you.”
She tossed the paper on his desk. “Oh my God, you really don’t have a filter.”
He smiled, something different flaring in his eyes, something that made her feel more flustered than those words on the page. “Sorry. It’s all right, though. Seriously. You already saw me with a hard-on. Now we’re even. But this is good information. I thought this one may be too geared toward the male side—a fantasy that’d appeal to me but not necessarily to a woman. You’re telling me I’m wrong.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. You’re like . . .”
She could feel her nipples pushing against her bra, their presence obvious against her T-shirt, and fought the urge to clamp her hands over them, to hid her traitor body. She stood. “Okay, so I’m leaving now.”
“No, no, come on, wait,” he said, standing. He grabbed her hand before she could escape, and the touch radiated up her arm, trapping her breath in the back of her throat. “You can help. I’ve got a stack of these. I need to know which ones to test next week and which ones to trash. Or maybe you can offer suggestions? I promise to keep my eyes to myself. And I swear, if you help me, I’m yours for whatever you want. I can take a shift in the sleep lab for you or something.”
She stared at him. He was kidding, right? He had to be kidding.
“You want me to read through fantasies and tell you which ones turn me on?” His hand was so warm against her cold one. And she’d said the words turn me on to him. Out loud. She might just die. “Can’t you ask your friend who’s in this department to do that?”
“She’s a lesbian, so her fantasies don’t quite line up with these. I need a straight girl’s opinion. Wait—are you straight?”
She blinked. Were they actually having this conversation? “I—yes. But this is beyond embarrassing.”
“Why? Because you get turned on by fantasy stuff? It’s not embarrassing. It’s human. You’d be shocked by how many people struggle to tap into that part of themselves. That kind of responsiveness is a good thing.”
Responsiveness. Donovan West was taking about her sexual responsiveness. Hello, alternate universe. “Donovan, I don’t know . . .”
He let go of her hand and opened a drawer. “Here. I have an idea. I’ll give you some headphones and a thumb drive with the ones I’ve already recorded. You can take them back to your lab and listen to them while you do data entry. Then you can just tell me which ones you recommend when you’re done. You won’t have to feel self-conscious sitting with me. Plus, I need to record some more tonight, and I can’t do that if someone’s in here with me.”
He held out the earbuds and a blue thumb drive. She eyed them like they would bite her, but on those files would be Donovan’s voice in her ear, saying those explicit things, things she’d never had a guy whisper to her. Things she’d only imagined in the private quiet of her room when she gave her mind leave to go to those secret places. The temptation was a hot, pulsing thing low in her belly.
She needed to say no. Make some excuse. Stop this lie she’d started.
She took the items. “Okay.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Yeah?”
“I’m not making any promises, but I’ll let you know if I’ve listened to any before I leave tonight.”
His grin was like a physical touch to her skin. “That would be amazing. I’ll owe you big-time, Mari.”
She got caught up in that smile like a fly in a web and wanted to linger, wanted to stay there all night and listen to him talk about his research, what made him passionate, what else made him smile like that. But if she stayed, she’d only risk embarrassing herself further, or worse—get herself in trouble. Because the thing blooming inside her with him looking at her like that, like her opinion mattered, was intoxicating and potent. She wanted to cling to it, to wrap herself up in that feeling and jump into the unknown without thinking about the consequences. Something she could never do.
She lived her life carefully, always making sure to stay between the lines on the road. No alcohol. No drugs. And definitely no risky behavior with boys. She’d learned from her mother that one foot off the path, one chased whim, could lead to chaos. She knew enough about her mom’s disorder to know that those genes probably lingered in her, too, and this pulsing desire to flirt with Donovan, to push this charade further, could be a dangerous one.
She probably shouldn’t listen to the tapes at all, shouldn’t open that door. Things were safe right now, calm. She needed them to stay that way.
But Marin couldn’t bring herself to hand the flash drive back. Not yet. She didn’t want to do anything to erase that smile off of Donovan’s face.
So she mumbled a quick good-bye and headed down the hall with the thumb drive tucked in her pocket and the soda in her hand. She’d only told Donovan she’d try. She had an out. She needed to take it and focus on her job. Get those little numbers entered into the computer, get lost in the monotony, and forget about the sexy TA down the hall.
But it wasn’t more than twenty minutes after she stepped back into Professor Roberts’s lab that the temptation proved to great. Maybe she’d just listen to one, show Donovan a good faith effort, and be done. She cued up the recordings, and Donovan’s voice filtered into her head.
“I spot you first across the bar. You look beautiful and I know you’ve come here with someone else. I can see him getting you a drink. But I can feel your eyes on me, taste your desire, and I know that tonight, it’s going to be my hands on you, my body moving over yours, and my name on your lips . . .”
Marin didn’t get another lick of work done that night.
Marin rolled her shoulders before she climbed out of her car, trying to shake off the guilt. She’d picked up her little brother from art camp this afternoon, where he’d been all week, and Nate had begged her to stay home and have movie night with him and Mom. She’d missed seeing him, but this was the last night she’d get Donovan alone. On Monday, classes would start back up again. He’d find out she was a fraud. An eighteen-year-old one at that.
So Marin had promised Nate she’d have an epic Mario Brothers battle with him tomorrow and watch whatever movie he wanted afterward. He’d pouted but had made the deal when she’d added cookie-baking to sweeten the pot. Her mother had also given her the guilt routine, complaining that Marin hadn’t been home at night all week and that Marin should be more sympathetic about the breakup she’d just gone through with random-asshole-of-the-month. Her mom had tossed out the word sad, knowing that the word was one that would normally trigger Marin to do whatever it took to fix it. Her mom’s manic episodes were hard to deal with; the depressive ones were annihilating. It shredded Marin to see her mother suffer through them. And scared her.
But this time, Marin sensed her mom was saying it more to manipulate her than anything else and it had pissed her off. Normally, she could keep the frustration in check, be understanding and supportive. She knew her mom’s condition was an illness, that her mother couldn’t easily control her emotions or her actions. But in that moment, Marin had felt so damn exhausted by it all. Smothered. So she’d let the anger take over and had told her mom she had to go to work on a Saturday because the only grown-up in the house kept getting fired from jobs and they needed the money.
It’d been ugly and mean, but sometimes the pressure in the volcano was just too much. The crack had splintered and broken open. Her mother had called her selfish.
Maybe she was. Tonight she needed to be. Tomorrow she’d mend the fences, smooth things over. But this week was her break from it all, and she wasn’t going to let the last day be stolen from her.
Each night she spent in that empty psychology building with Donovan West was like this sweet, private vacation from her life. There were no heavy burdens, no household to run, no eggshells to walk on. Here she could be that girl she wanted to be—a carefree college student who spent her time researching fascinating things and crushing on a hot guy.
The escape was like a drug. Each night she would tell herself that tonight would be the last time, that she’d tell him the truth. But then she’d see him again, and all her good intentions would fall by the wayside. His research was on forbidden fantasies. But this was hers. Stolen nights alone with a man who was older, funny, brilliant. Beautiful.
Part of her felt like this was payback for spending her high school years on the sidelines, watching other girls get asked on dates, watching other people go to the dances or sneak kisses in the hallway, watching normal life go by without her. She’d always been the new girl. The quiet one. The smart one. And even when she’d been asked to parties on occasion, she’d rarely been able to go. Her mom and brother had needed her at home. If she didn’t show up, who would make sure dinner was on the table or that her brother had clean clothes for the next day? Who would make sure her mom took her meds?
This week had been a gift. She and Donovan had gotten into a routine. She’d drop off the notes she’d made about his tapes, and they’d hang out for a while. She’d learned that he expected to graduate with his doctorate next year, that he liked old movies, that he’d originally planned to study addictions but then switched after taking a class with Professor Paxton and falling in love with the field. And she’d found herself sharing stuff about herself that she never did with anyone else—that she’d lived in eight different states in ten years, that she still lived at home to help with the money because her mom was in between jobs, that she read at least three novels a week.
She liked that he didn’t pry, that he took the information she gave about herself but didn’t push for more. When she’d told him about living at home, instead of the normal nosy questions or empty sympathy, he’d simply nodded and said, “That’s cool of you to live at home and help out. Not many people would sacrifice their party years like that.”
Even without him knowing half of what she dealt with at home, the simple acknowledgement of that sacrifice had meant so much more than he’d probably realized. She was so used to people looking at her with pity—therapists, the teachers at Nate’s school, the doctors. Donovan had looked at her with respect. Maybe if he’d known about her mom’s disorder, some of that pity would’ve leaked out, but she had a feeling he wouldn’t be that way. That was the night she’d stopped seeing him as just a really hot guy and had found herself wanting him for altogether new reasons.
But their chats couldn’t last long since they both had work to do. So they’d go their separate ways. He’d give her more recordings—some based on her suggestions, some tweaked with her feedback—and she’d go to the lab.
The rest of the night would be spent wrapped up in his voice, her body growing hot and heavy, the place between her thighs left wet and wanting. She’d never felt so much sexual hunger in her life. She’d fantasized, sure. She’d had crushes on guys. She’d made out with a few when she’d had the chance—satisfying her curiosity more than her desire. But never had she been consumed by need for someone like this. On some level, she now understood why her mom so easily got herself in trouble with men. This rush was a powerful one.
Marin’s world had quickly narrowed to this one thing, this one person, during the stretch of spring break. The stress at home with her mother had faded to a hum in the background. In the mornings when she’d gotten home from the overnight shift, Marin had walked past the obsessively neat kitchen and living room, knowing it could be a sign her mother was bordering on one of her manic states. But she hadn’t let herself fall into anxiety over it like she normally did. She’d checked her mom’s pill supply to make sure she was still taking her meds, made sure food was in the fridge, called her little brother to check on how he was doing at camp, then she’d let everything fall away. She’d go to her room, slide beneath the covers, and replay the copies she’d made of Donovan’s recordings—her hands standing in for his as she brought herself relief in the tell-no-secrets dark of her room.
Then when she’d wake in the afternoon, she’d work on notes for Donovan. He liked her suggestions, and she found herself moving past editing his words and penning her own private fantasies instead, her versions of what she imagined doing with him. She now had a stack of pages with him in the starring role—pages for her eyes only that she’d keep long after this.
She knew it was ridiculous, that she was treading into obsessive territory, that it was dangerous to chase this rabbit down the hole. She’d watched her mother get fixated on projects, on jobs, on men. So many men. She knew that intensity could be an early sign of things going askew. But Marin couldn’t let herself think about it too hard. Her shoulders bowed under the pressure of always wondering if she’d have to face the same monsters her mother fought every day. It was too much to think about. Too big. This interest in Donovan didn’t have to mean that. Girls got crushes on boys. It was okay. She needed this.
Plus, she wasn’t sure when she’d get this kind of chance again. After break, life would go back to her duct-taped version of normal. So maybe it was okay to take this little risk. She was in college now. She craved the same things that other people her age did. Experience. Adventure. Fun. Sex. She knew for Donovan it was just a random meet-up with a random girl in a probably exciting day-to-day life filled with friends and dates and family. Everyone else was on break. She was there. And she was helping him. This was a one-sided fantasy. And she could deal with that.
But on this last Saturday before spring break wrapped up, the end loomed like cold, gray rain clouds, the brief vacation from her life slipping away from her. On Monday, everyone would return to campus. She’d have to go back to class. Donovan would find out who she was. She wouldn’t be some savvy fellow grad student to him. She’d just be one of the students whose paper he graded.
She’d thought about taking a chance tonight, attempting to flirt. A relationship with him wasn’t possible, but imagining things taking an R-rated turn was like staring at some ripe fruit hanging on the vine. She’d listened to the girls around her in school whisper about what they did with their boyfriends. She’d read enough romance novels to know how sexy those things could be. And now she’d spent a week listening to Donovan’s voice and the fantasies he’d penned. She’d never gotten a taste of that kind of physical connection with a guy and now she wanted a big bite.
But she’d be delusional to believe that he looked at her the same way. The guy was a man on a mission. His love was his work, and he was only interested in talking with her because she was helping with his research. She needed to keep that in her head.
She checked her phone for the time as she walked down the hall. Donovan’s door was shut. She was here early. She’d been so ready to get out of the house after the argument with her mother that she hadn’t even noticed. But seeing his door closed, it hit her that he might not even come in tonight. It was Saturday, after all, and they hadn’t made firm plans. Why had she assumed he’d be here? Just because it was a big, exciting event in her mind didn’t mean it’d even hit his radar. He was probably out on a date or at a party or having a beer with friends. Disappointment moved through her like a cold gust of wind. What if she’d gone through that whole drama at home just to sit here alone tonight?
She sighed. Par for the course. She could at least drop off her notes. And maybe he’d come in later.
She gave his door a little tap just in case and then turned the knob when there was no answer. The old heavy door creaked open, and the dark office greeted her. The scent of books and something faintly spicy filled her nose. She felt around for the light switch, but when she flipped it, nothing happened. She let out a frustrated breath and carefully made her way to the desk to find the lamp. When she grabbed hold of the chain and clicked it on, a startled noise sounded behind her.
Her hand flew to her chest and she yelped, banging into the desk and dropping her notebook and everything else she’d been carrying.
A groan. “Jesus, Mari. You scared the hell out of me.”
Marin whirled around to find Donovan stretched out on the worn couch—his dark hair a mess, his eyes puffy, and his chest . . . bare. Oh. My. She wet her lips, trying not to stare. But that was like expecting the clock on the wall not to tick. He looked like hell. And gorgeous. And very, very male—all sprawled out and sleep rumpled. There was no way she was going to be able to convince her eyes to focus on something else. A bomb could go off behind her and not turn her gaze. “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were here. I was just dropping off notes.”
He gripped the blanket that covered him from the waist down. “What time is it?”
“I’m early. It’s not quite ten.”
“Fuck.” He ran a hand over his face. “I didn’t think you were coming in tonight.”
Her gaze alighted on the folded clothes on the nearby chair, on the takeout container on top of the fridge, on the opened bottle of whiskey next to it. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up from your . . . catnap?”
She didn’t mean for it to come out as a question, but what she saw said something very different from a nap caught between too many hours of research. Now the fact that he was always here, always working late when no one else was made sense.
He sat up and reached out to grab his T-shirt without meeting her eyes. He pulled it over his head, covering all that lean, sinewy muscle. “I stay overnight here sometimes. Dr. Paxton knows.”
“I— Okay.” She clamped her lips shut. She wasn’t going to be one of those people who asked questions that weren’t her place to ask. She wasn’t going to ask why he slept here even though he seemed to have money—designer jeans, fancy laptop. And she wasn’t going to ask why it looked like he’d been crying. And drinking. Alone.
Donovan pushed the blanket away, revealing a pair of wrinkled track pants and bare feet. “I didn’t think you’d be die-hard enough to work on a Saturday night. You’ve got to have some place more interesting to be.”
She backed away to the other side of the desk to give him space—to give her space. Last thing she needed was for her blushing affliction to start up. “I, uh, still have a lot of stuff to wrap up before Professor Roberts gets back.”
He frowned and slipped socks on. “I’m sorry. I’m sure helping me has put you behind. You need me to pitch in? I’m fast at data entry.”
“Uh, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. You can get some rest. I won’t bother you.”
“You’re not—” He grimaced and shook his head. “You’re not bothering me. I just—I wasn’t expecting company tonight.”
“Are you okay?” The question slipped out before she could stop it.
“I’m fine.” The words were like a whip snapped.
She winced at the stinging impact.
He blew out a breath and looked up at her, weariness in those blue eyes. “Sorry. I’m—it’s just been a shit day.”
She shifted on her feet, not sure what to do with this version of the normally upbeat guy she’d gotten to know. He looked like he could use a hug, but she didn’t like random people giving her those, so she wouldn’t assume that he’d be cool with that either. Plus, she’d probably pant or drool on him or something, being that close. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Distraction’d be good. Wanna get drunk with me?”
She glanced at the whiskey bottle. “I don’t drink.”
His brows went up. “Ever?”
“Not my thing.” No way was she testing her genes with a big heaping dose of mood-altering substances. “Maybe another kind of distraction?”
The question zipped right up her spine, making her straighten and almost taking her feet out from under her. She hadn’t meant her question that way, but now she realized how what she’d said must’ve sounded. “Uh . . .”
Donovan turned away with a groan. “Shit. Just fucking ignore me. I might still be drunk. I didn’t mean to say that.”
Her mouth was dry, her heart knocking hard against her ribs. She ached to go to him, put her arms around him, make whatever had beat him down today go away. To say, Yes, let’s do that thing you said. Right now. But all she could do was stand like a damn statue in the half-lit room and say, “It’s all right.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s the opposite of all right.”
She should leave. Let him deal with whatever was bothering him in private. But she couldn’t make her feet move. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Donovan went about folding the blanket he’d tossed on the couch, his movements tense. One. Two. Three. He folded sharp lines into the soft quilt. She thought he was going to ignore her completely, but then finally, he spoke. “My parents were killed in a home invasion last year.”
Her heart plummeted into her stomach, making a gust of air pop out of her mouth.
“Today, the courts dropped the case against the guy who everyone thought did it.” He tossed the folded blanket onto the back of the couch with more force than necessary. “New evidence cleared him. Now there’s not a fucking lead to go on, and the case is cold. My parents are dead, my family is gone, and whoever did it is out there living his goddamned life like nothing ever happened.”
She closed her eyes, the pain in his voice seeping into her and making her hurt for him. “I’m so sorry.”
He turned around, his jaw set. “Yeah, well, life isn’t fair, right? The good guys don’t get to win just because they’re good.”
The bitterness in his voice made her want to cry for him. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
He stepped toward the desk and put his hand on the notes she’d dropped onto it when she came in. “We can not talk any more about it and work. I’ve learned it’s like running in freezing weather. You don’t feel the cold until you stop moving. As long as I keep focused on the project and keep working, I can block out the rest.” He swiped a hand over his face as if trying to erase all he’d revealed to her in the last few minutes. Mask back in place. “So I’ll go through your notes, and I have some new stuff for you. I really liked your insights on the last one. Have you ever considered switching to this department? I can tell the sleep stuff isn’t really doing it for you.”
The tone of his voice had switched to all business, the emotions packed up tight behind the safety door, padlock clicked. She knew that mode. It was that place she went when her mom had one of her episodes. Like when she’d come home one day a few years ago and all the plates had been smashed because her mom had been fired from another job. Her mom had been sitting among the mess, hands and knees cut from the jagged glass. Nate had been left at kindergarten because her mom hadn’t remembered to pick him up. Marin had been thirteen, but she’d learned that day to switch off the fear and to keep moving forward. She’d bandaged her mom up, called a neighbor to pick up Nate, and had spent the night cleaning the kitchen.
So she knew not to push Donovan for more and went along with the shift in conversation. She’d run along beside him in those subzero temperatures.
“I might consider it actually. I’ve really enjoyed digging into your research.” And that was the truth. She’d always planned to specialize since she wanted to be a researcher not a practicing clinician. But she’d had yet to find the topic that lit her up. This hadn’t just lit her up, it’d set her aflame. Sex was fascinating—this strange, foreign thing she wanted to unpack and analyze. And learning from Donovan this week about all the different avenues in the field had deepened her interest even more. When he didn’t respond, she shifted and cleared her throat. “So what have you got for me tonight?”
He sank into his chair, moving aside her notes. He wouldn’t look at her. “I’ve been working on a force scenario. Nothing violent, but it’s going pretty far in the taboo direction.”
He glanced up at her, his eyes clearer than they had been a moment before but still tired. “It’s a pretty popular fantasy according to research—capture fantasies, things getting a little rough—especially for women who are held back by having guilty feelings about sex. But it can be a trigger for others, so you need to tell me now if you’re uncomfortable with listening to that.”
Marin wet her lips, images of Donovan taking charge and taking over filling her head. She could still feel the anger rolling off of him and wondered if he’d come up with the fantasy because that’s what he needed right now—a little violence, someone he could exorcise those demons with, a release from all that ugly reality. “I can handle it.”
“Okay, cool.” He rocked forward in his chair and grabbed a thumb drive. “Remember, I’m looking for unedited feedback. If it sucks or is horrible, you need to tell me. Don’t coddle me just because I had a bad day.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
He nodded. “Thanks.”
“So did it work for you?” The question jumped out before she could stop it.
He peered up at that, surprise there at first but then something else flashed in those blue eyes—wariness. “Well, I have no interest in forcing myself on anyone, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not what I asked.” Marin didn’t know where her boldness was coming from. Maybe knowing this was her last night with him was making her daring. Or maybe she was still thinking about the alternative he’d suggested to drinking the night away. “You want me to listen to it and tell you what I think. Obviously, I don’t want some guy to rape me.”
He coughed and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “Sorry, you’re right. I’m asking for all this personal honesty from you and you’ve given it. I’d be an asshole if I’m not willing to do the same.” He straightened the papers on his desk. “The scenario worked for me. Rape isn’t a turn-on. Obviously. But a woman consenting to playing that game, to letting it get a kind of rough? That could be hot.”
Marin rolled her lips inward, need curling like vines, tangling with the images in her mind. “Yeah, I bet it would be. Cathartic, even.”
His jaw twitched, and he seemed to be thinking hard on her words. For a moment she thought maybe it would happen. Maybe he’d get up, grab her and kiss her, put his hands on her. Maybe he’d let her help him forget for a little while. Help her forget. But then he cleared his throat and rolled his desk chair forward under the desk. “Thanks, Mari.”
Any hope she had burned into a pile of ashes at her feet. Of course he wasn’t going to stroll across the room and ravage her like some old-school romance novel. He’d confided in her about his family, but that’s just because he was hurting and she was there. They were just working on a project together. Friends. Hell, not even that. She picked up her backpack and hitched it onto her shoulder. “Yeah, no problem.”
He rubbed fingers over his forehead. “And I’m sorry about what I said earlier. It was completely out of line.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” She grabbed the thumb drive. “I’ll check in with you when I’m done.”
Donovan looked up like he was going to say something else, but then seemed to think better of it. He clamped his lips shut and nodded, effectively dismissing her.
She headed down the hallway to the sleep lab on shaky legs. When she reached the lab, she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. The room was empty and quiet except for the hum of the computers. Tonight there’d be no study participants on the other side of the glass, so she’d have the place to herself. She’d never been more thankful for it. She needed time to put herself back together.
She couldn’t get it out of her head about what Donovan had gone through. That sadness in his eyes when she’d first walked in. Then the swift heat that had filled her when he’d said, Wanna fuck? Right then she’d had a feeling that despite the alcohol involved, she was seeing some real part of Donovan, the unrefined part that lurked in there, the part she’d only glimpsed in some of the fantasies he’d recorded. She felt guilty about even having those kinds of feelings when he was going through such a hard thing, but her body seemed to be programmed to respond to him that way.
Marin sank into her chair and rubbed a hand over her brow. After the fight with her mom and the conversation with Donovan, she needed this night in the lab. Predictable. Safe. She could block out all the ugly stuff and just focus on his voice, on escaping into the fantasy. She turned on her terminal, slipped in the thumb drive, and put in her earbuds.
She would listen to Donovan and block out the real world for a while. The tape started.
“You don’t see me behind you. I know you know who I am, but you don’t know I’ve been watching you. You don’t know how much I think about you, about all the dirty things I want to do to you. You have no idea how badly I need you and no idea that tonight’s the night you’re going to be mine. I want to hear you beg for your pleasure and for my mercy . . .”
The smooth, deep voice in her ear let everything else melt away. She closed her eyes and let the words take over, sinking into the fantasy and feeling her body go warm and liquid after only a few minutes. The words were explicit, the scene intense. The man captured the woman, tied her down in his hotel room, brought her to the edge of orgasm over and over and then took her roughly from behind. But there were hints in the narrative that showed the man was taking care of the woman, that she’d consented to this earlier, that this was a taboo fantasy shared by willing lovers.
And it was so working for Marin.
She found herself squeezing her thighs together, the throbbing ache between them almost unbearable. She’d gone through this night after night listening to these tapes, but this one seemed to be pushing her buttons even harder, the taboo topic and danger of it tapping into some reckless part of her. And all the emotion from earlier with Donovan channeled into the fantasy as she pictured him in the role of the man, her in the role of the captive.
Her body thrummed as the scene unfolded in her head, every part of her going sensitive, primed. Like one touch and she’d go off. She tried to stave off the desire, clamping her hands around the arms of the chair and breathing through the rush. But finally, as the man in the tape brought the woman to another orgasm using harsh fingers and filthy words, Marin couldn’t take it anymore and parted her knees. There was so much tension in her—from the crappy day, from her conversation with Donovan, and from this unmet desire she’d been fighting with all week. She couldn’t resist anymore. She needed the oblivion, some kind of release from it all. The air of the room felt cool on her inner thighs and she pressed a hand over the throbbing part of her through her shorts, giving just enough pressure to offer some relief.
She let out a soft gasp and slowly rocked her hand against herself, the simple move sending sharp, electric currents racing through her, making everything go heavy and tight. Her breasts felt fuller, her blood hotter, her pulse louder. Guilt weighed on her. Part of her knew she shouldn’t be doing this. She didn’t deserve this pleasure tonight. But the freight train was already chugging down the hill with no brakes. She dragged her fingers over the cotton of her shorts, trying to be discreet but not gentle.
Before long, she was so swept up in it and so close to falling over the edge that she didn’t hear the knock on her door when it came. She didn’t know she was no longer alone, that someone was watching. Then the earbuds were yanked out of her ears.
She nearly leapt out of her seat. Her hand flew away from her shorts and gripped the arm of the chair. The scent of clean soap and whiskey cascaded over her. Donovan.
Excerpted from "Off the Clock"
Copyright © 2016 Roni Loren.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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