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Authors: Denise Grover Swank

Tags: #Off the Subject #3

Business as Usual (Off The Subject)

BOOK: Business as Usual (Off The Subject)
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Business as Usual

 

Off the Subject #3

 

Denise Grover Swank

 

 

 

Business as Usual (Off the Subject #3)

 

 

Lexi Pendergraft has given up on finding love after a disastrous encounter with her last boyfriend. Instead, she focuses on two things: One, setting up a summer program for underprivileged middle-school aged students. And the second, getting to the bottom of her brother Reed’s recent strange behavior. His secret is destroying his relationship with his fiancée Caroline, and Lexi will do anything to help him save it. Especially after he gave up his dream to give Lexi a chance at a semi-normal college experience, something her parents threatened to steal from her after her rape a year ago.

 

Ben Masterson is determined to make it through his final semester of his senior year at Southern University. After recently losing his full ride scholarship, he’s suffering from sleep deprivation while trying to keep up with his mechanical engineering courses and working three part time jobs. He thinks he’s lucked out getting a job in the university math lab. The only problem is his boss—Reed Pendergraft.

 

As part of a role in a community theater play, Lexi wears a black wig and feels a confidence she hasn’t experienced in over a year. When she wears it to a bar close to the theater, she doesn’t think Ben, a bartender there, recognizes her. While Ben’s intrigued about what she’s up to, he’s smart enough to stay far away from his overprotective boss’s sister. Until fate forces him to help her, but why won’t she tell him her real identity?

 

This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

 

Cover Design: Eisley Jacobs

Developmental Edit: Angela Polidoro

 

Copyright 2014 by Denise Grover Swank

All rights reserved.

 

 

 

To my friend and assistant Heather, who insisted I tell Lexi’s story

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

His hand glides up my bare stomach and my back stiffens.

“Relax, Lexi.” His breath warms my neck as his lips skim along my jaw.

I take a breath and hold it for a moment, staring at my dress laying on the floor. A soft light glows from the bathroom.
Close your eyes, Lexi. Concentrate
.

His movements are slow, trying not to startle me, but the slowness only feeds my anxiety.

One of his hands slides behind my back while the other reaches around to unfasten my bra. His fingertips skim across my bare back as he lowers the straps over my shoulders and down my arms. He leans back and smiles at me, a soft, tender smile full of hope and worry. He lifts his hand to my cheek, his thumb rubbing my skin. “How are you doing? Okay?”

I nod, trying not to shake.

Brandon strips his shirt off in one fluid movement before he kisses me, keeping his hands on my arms. I think I can do this. We’ve made out countless times and I’ve enjoyed it. More than enjoyed it. I think about those times now, allowing myself to get lost in the moment, lost in his arms and his mouth and the sensation of our bare skin pressing together. I wrap my arms around his neck and cling to him, the familiar shot of electricity and need shooting through my abdomen to my core.

Sensing my new eagerness, he lowers me onto the bed and lies next to me on his side. His hand moves from my arm to my stomach again, his forearm resting on my hip. Lying on my back has me on edge, and the pressure he’s putting on my hip fuels my anxiety. My breath comes in shallow pants.

I can do this. I
have
to do this
.

His mouth is on mine again, his tongue running over my bottom lip then slipping into my mouth, exploring and coaxing my own tongue to join it. And then his hand is pushing under the lace of my panties, his fingers finding the spot that makes me ache for more. I try to focus on his mouth and his hand and ignore the panic. Surely both sensations—amazing on their own, incredible combined—can cancel out my fear. And for a few brief minutes, they do. I glory in the carnal need that races through my blood. Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can be normal.

His fingers withdraw from their pursuit, hooking on the edge of my waistband and tugging the scrap of lace over my hips and down my thighs.

I shimmy and help guide them down and he tosses the lingerie to the floor alongside my dress.

I’m completely naked and he’s only in his boxers, and I want to cry with happiness. I’m comfortable with our nakedness and I want to see more of him. Feeling more confident and in control, I offer him a soft smile and reach for the waistband of his underwear. He helps me pull them down his legs and as he kicks them off, I’m reaching for him, taking the length of his erection in my hand.

Brandon moans and rolls on his back as I stroke him. I feel empowered by my lack of panic. We’ve never gotten this far before. I usually freak out before my panties come off, and then turn the focus onto his pleasure. I’ve gotten him off multiple times—so often that wrapping my hand around him is a familiar act. But the fact that both of us are unclothed and I’m not freaking out is encouraging.

It’s apparently encouraging to him too. His hand covers mine. “Stop or I won’t last much longer. I want to be inside you when I come.” He wraps his fingers around my wrist and pulls my hand away, pushing it to the bed next to my shoulder. In the same movement, he rolls to his side, his mouth finding my breast as his other hand slides between my legs.

My elation washes away and I feel trapped.

No. No. No.

I refuse to give into my fear. Brandon is a better guy than I could ever hope for. He’s been infinitely patient with me, but I know this has been difficult for him. How emasculating is it when your girlfriend freaks every time you try to have sex with her?

He’s concentrating on his task and I can tell he’s taking my breathlessness as sign of my mounting passion.

Focus, Lexi.

His pressure eases on my chest and when I open my eyes, he’s moving to the end of the bed, positioning himself between my legs. His mouth replaces his hand and I gasp, suddenly feeling free again. I lean my head back against the pillow as his tongue does things to my intimate parts that I never dreamt possible. I’ve never had oral sex before and I’m caught off-guard—in a good way—at the intensity of the sensation.

Brandon reaches a hand up to my breast and the trapped feeling is back. I bat his hand away instinctively. He takes the hint and grabs my hips, lifting them for better access, and I release a low groan, surprised at the growing need for something more from him.

Unexpectedly, his mouth is gone and I gasp in shock, opening my eyes to see why he’s stopped. He’s on his knees, rolling on a condom. Seconds later, his mouth returns and I’m panting with need.

And when I’m close, so incredibly close, writhing at the mercy of his tongue, he quickly slides his chest up my abdomen and over my body. I’m still flushed with desire when he buries himself inside me, groaning my name as his mouth skims my neck.

His body presses mine to the bed and all desire flees, replaced by unadulterated panic.

No, Lexi
. I plead with myself.
No. It’s Brandon. He would never hurt you
.

And for a brief moment, I calm down even though nausea is brewing in my stomach. I try to participate, but I’m too busy focusing on not throwing up. Brandon’s lost in the moment, his tempo increasing. I try to move with him as I bite my lip, tears stinging my eyes.

My chest feels tight and I struggle to take a breath. I have no idea how much longer I can keep it together. Based on all the times I’ve given him a hand-job, I know he should be done soon, within a minute.

He gives several more deep thrusts before a low groan erupts from his chest and he collapses on top of me. His mouth finds mine and it’s the final nail in my casket of hysteria.

I give his shoulder a hard shove, gasping for breath as I burst into sobs, my panic overriding all my protests that I’m safe. He rolls to his side as I scramble off the bed, standing in the middle of his bedroom, trying to figure out what to do.

I have to get out of here. Now
.


Lexi
?” Brandon has bolted upright, terror on his face. “Oh, my God.
Did I hurt you
?” His words are drenched in horror and self-loathing. It somehow makes things worse.

I shake my head as my sobs burst free and I pick up my dress, struggling to put it on.


Lexi
?”

He leaps from the bed and grabs my shoulders to get my attention, but his touch only intensifies my panic. I violently jerk away and collapse into a heap on the floor, close to hyperventilating.

Brandon falls to his knees next to me. “Did I hurt you?” He asks again, his voice insistent.

“No,” I force out between sobs.

We sit like this for a while, me on my butt, my legs twisted awkwardly to one side, and Brandon on his knees in front of me, studying me with equal parts sympathy and horror.

He shifts uncomfortably and I notice that he still hasn’t disposed of the condom.

I tilt my head toward the bathroom. “Go.”

He looks uncertain, as though this is a test.

I close my eyes. “Please. Just go, Brandon. Give me a moment to pull myself together.”

When I hear the bathroom door close, I slump to the floor.

Pull myself together. What a joke. Lexi Pendergraft, Southern University’s campus freak-show.

But I know Brandon will keep my private humiliation to himself. He’s too much of a gentleman, too much of a nice guy to hurt me or ruin my reputation, even if his complaints would be legitimate.

Frigid. Ice Queen. Freak.

But it’s his kindness that is my undoing now. Brandon is the type of guy I’ve dreamed of since high school. Smart. Good looking. Ambitious. Kind. Attentive. Brandon McKenzie is the kind of guy girls line up to date. I know in my heart that this was my last chance to salvage this relationship, and I blew it.

When he finally emerges, worry and exhaustion knotting his brow, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed fully clothed. He squats to pick up his clothes and puts them on in a silence that threatens to impale me with my own humiliation. As soon as he’s fully dressed, I stand and move to the door, picking up my purse from his dresser. We walk out to his car, and when he opens my car door for me—even after what I just put him through—fresh tears sting my eyes.

We drive in silence until he parks in the lot next to my apartment, the apartment I share with my brother Reed and his girlfriend Caroline.

I take a deep breath and blow it away. I must address this. I must try to right this in some way, even if the attempt is feeble. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I wish…”

Brandon picks up my hand and presses it between both of his palms, the touch gentle and reassuring. “I know.”

“I just… I…”

“Shhh.” He lifts my hand to his mouth, his lips brushing my knuckles before he sets my hand back in my lap with a surprising gentleness. His hand withdraws and rests in his own lap. The significance of this action is not lost on me.

“Do you go back to Nashville tomorrow?” I ask, my voice cracking slightly. This is a nonsense question and we both know it. I already know the answer, but I’m desperate to fill the uncomfortable silence.

He clears his throat and shifts his legs, the leather on his seat creaking. “Yeah, after my last final.”

The silence that follows hangs like a heavy veil, choking the air from my lungs. “Thank you,” I finally say.

Those two words uncork his emotions. “
Thank you?
Are you fucking
kidding me?”

I cringe even though his anger is directed toward himself, not me. And that upsets me more than anything else. “I’m sorry.” Fat tears spill out, falling down my cheeks. “It’s not your fault.”

“Then whose fault is it, Lexi?”

Mine? But even while buried under a mountain of guilt, I know the source of this monumental disaster doesn’t rest at my feet. It rests at
his
. That monster did this to me. I may not bear physical scars from his attack, but some days I wish I did. A physical sign would be tangible proof of the injuries I sustained last April. Instead, my trauma is locked inside my brain, where only I can sense it. He has forever ruined me. Tonight is proof enough of that.

But I can’t tell Brandon any of that. I’m here at Southern University to escape my past, with my new last name and my brother as my guard dog. Brandon has no idea what happened to me last spring and I have no intention of him ever finding out. Especially now. “Not yours.” I finally say, looking out the windshield into the parking lot.

BOOK: Business as Usual (Off The Subject)
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