Finally he closed the distance between us and kissed me—a sweet, gentle kiss that held within it every single one of the thousand days I’d loved him as my everything, long after I’d begun to love him as a friend. I shifted into his lap, not caring whether or not someone could walk in at any moment and see us. I needed this. And after all we’d been through together, Benjy and I both deserved this.

He wrapped his arm around me again, safe and secure as I ran my fingers through his hair. He tasted like home. Like everything I missed about my old life, where we would spend the evening curled up together as he read to me. We would never have those moments again, but as soon as we were free of this place, we could make new ones. I’d spent so much of my time worrying about the present, worrying about being Lila, that I’d never let myself stop and think about what my future might hold. It seemed almost like asking too much—like I was challenging the universe by thinking about a life with Benjy as far away from the Harts as possible.

But Benjy had always been an optimist. He’d always seen good in the world where I wasn’t so sure it existed. And this kernel of hope, this ink on cloth, was exactly the future I wanted. I knew in that moment, as I deepened the kiss between us, that I would do whatever it took to get it.

“Kitty,” he whispered, breaking away long enough to glance anxiously at the door. “We shouldn’t be—”

“I am so sick of being told what I should and shouldn’t do,” I murmured. “Everything will be fine. Trust me. Knox agreed to let me stay in here tonight. He’s pretending I’m sleeping in his room, but he’s going to let us have the night together.”

Benjy’s gaze snapped back to me. “You mean—?”

I nodded. “I think it’s about time, don’t you?”

Even though we’d been together for years, finding a moment alone in a group home with thirty-eight other kids hadn’t exactly been easy, and neither of us had wanted it to be rushed. Now that we were both seventeen, I was Lila Hart, and Benjy was my fiancé’s assistant. It was dangerous, but behind closed doors, with Knox willing to cover for us—we would finally have that freedom. I wasn’t wasting it.

“The wedding’s less than a month away,” I said. “We might not have another chance before then, not like this. And I’ll be damned if I’m marrying Knox without showing you exactly how much I love you.”

Benjy blinked, looking torn between eagerness and confusion. “Is that why you want to do this? So Knox isn’t—”

“If he thinks I’m ever letting him touch me no matter how married we are, he’s going to lose his hand,” I said. “I want to do this, Benjy. More than anything. If you don’t, we can wait, but—”

“I want to.” He sounded breathless, and he pressed his lips together, his eyes locked on mine. “Like you said, more than anything. I love you. I just don’t want Knox to be the reason you’re doing this.”

“He’s not, and he never will be.” I brushed my lips against his again. “You’re the only reason I need.”

“Ahem.”

I sprang apart from Benjy, my heart racing. Knox stood framed in the doorway, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. “Ever heard of knocking?” I said, glaring at him.

“Considering it’s my suite, no.” He pushed off the wall and closed the door. “If you keep this up, it’ll only be a matter of time before someone catches you. I won’t be able to protect you then.”

“So I’ll tell them the truth—sometimes a girl just needs to be kissed instead of slobbered on.” I tucked Benjy’s drawing into the pocket of my dress. “Is the party over already?”

“No, but I couldn’t very well stay down there while my fiancée was ill upstairs. Speaking of, how do you feel?”

“Better,” I said, doing my best to look like nothing was bothering me at all. “When are we going?”

“We are not going anywhere.” Knox moved to his desk and bent down to touch the screen. “I am leaving now.”

“What? But—”

“Do you really think I’m going to let you come, after what just happened down there?” said Knox. “You need your rest.”

“That wasn’t my fault.”

He straightened. “Fainting aside, you’re having a bad day, and the last thing you need is a long night. The last thing I need is to worry about whether or not you’re holding up all right.”

“I’m fine,” I insisted. “Knox, please. We’re in this together. You said so yourself—”

“And right now that means I have to look out for you and your health. You’re exhausted. Your temper’s shorter than it’s ever been. Look at you—you’re practically shaking. You’re a liability, Kitty, and tonight is too important for me to take that kind of risk. I’ll fill you in when I get back, but right now, I need to go.”

I gaped at him. “You can’t just cut me out like this—”

“I’m not cutting you out,” he said steadily, but there was an edge of impatience to his voice. “It’s one meeting.”

“I’ve already missed three because of the speeches.”

“There will be plenty of others,” said Knox. “And look on the bright side—you’ll have even more time to spend with Benjy.”

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