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“Tea or coffee?”

Michael looks at you, his expression still faintly stunned. You doubt it’s the first time he’s discovered an unfamiliar woman in his brother’s kitchen (wearing his brother’s pyjamas, no less) but it’s obviously been a while since the normal rules made any sense in their lives. “Uh, coffee.” He blinks, then adds a belated, “Thank you.”

An uncomfortable silence falls as you rue Lincoln’s impulsive decision to go in search of the nearest deli to forage for breakfast fodder. Then again, perhaps introductions may have been even more awkward if Lincoln had been the one performing them. It seems incredible that you haven't met this man before today, given your involvement in his family's collective lives, but there it is. “Jane Phillips.” Sliding the coffee pot back on the hotplate, you hold out your hand for him to shake. “I knew your father.”

He clasps your hand firmly as comprehension dawns in his bright blue eyes. “You took care of LJ.”

Something dark and sour twists through your gut, and it takes more effort than you’d like not to touch the still livid scar that arcs across your ribcage. “Not as well as I should have.”

He releases your hand, and reaches instead for the coffee pot you’d set aside. “We all underestimated the Company, believe me.”

His answer doesn’t convince you any more than Lincoln’s platitudes had last night. “I used to be one of them. I should have known better.” The scent of coffee hits your nose as he fills the two mugs you’d set out on the counter top, but your stomach seems to be intent on churning. “I can’t claim any credit for the fact that LJ is still alive.”

He regards you steadily as you both find a seat at the kitchen table, his bright blue gaze unwavering. You’ve known each other for less than five minutes, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Brutal honesty is apparently the approach he’s decided to take, and you’re glad. You never did like having to cut through a wall of polite bullshit.

“Not a day goes past that I don’t catalogue the deaths I’ve left in my wake,” he says in a quiet, even voice. “But I much prefer to think of the deaths that didn’t happen.”

Your first instinct is to argue, just as you had with Lincoln last night, but you catch yourself. You think of the way LJ had greeted you when it was all over, how he’d flung his arms around you without hesitation, without censor, telling you that it hadn’t been your fault. You think of how Lincoln had taken you in his arms when you’d landed on his doorstep last night. You think of the soft nonsensical words of desire and relief and lust and apology he’d gasped into your ear when he’d finally taken you to bed, his body imprinting itself on yours in a way you never thought you’d experience again. You’re not usually a flippant person, but your next words refuse to be silenced. “In other words, all’s well that ends well?”

He flashes you a quick grin. “Something like that.”

You take a sip of coffee, the heat of it biting into your tongue. “Have you had breakfast? Lincoln will be back soon, and I’m sure he will have bought enough food for a dozen people.” You feel faintly foolish issuing the invitation, given that you’re officially the interloper in this situation, behaving as though you’re the expert on a man you barely know, but he just smiles warmly.

“Thanks, but I have to get home.” He gestures towards the small pile of medical textbooks he’d dumped on the table when he’d first arrived. “Sara sent those over for LJ.”

You wrap your hands around the coffee mug, casting your mind back to one of the many rushed exchanges of information you’d shared with Lincoln last night. “LJ really wants to study medicine?”

“This week he does. Last week he wanted to study law.” He takes a sip of his coffee, then gives you a wry smile. “Next week he might want to be an astronaut.”

You return the smile, a warmth that has little to do with the coffee flooding through you. You will never be able to erase the bitter reality of failing LJ, but Michael’s method has merit. LJ Burrows is alive and well and behaving like a typical teenager. Hopefully, that will be enough.

“Michael?”

Lincoln’s voice drifts across your skin like a warm puff of breath. A few seconds later, he appears in the doorway, all careless grace and piercing blue eyes, makes your mouth go dry. He pulls up short at the sight of you sitting with his brother, drinking coffee in a cozy tableau, but he recovers quickly. “I guess it’s too late for introductions?” he asks as he dumps a paper bag (hopefully filled with interesting things such as Canadian bacon and maple syrup) onto the kitchen counter.

You smile at him, wondering why the hell you’d waited so many months before admitting you couldn’t get him out of your head. Guilt, of course, you think, answering your own ponderings. Guilt has a very unfortunate way of getting in the way of things like desire and need. Oh, and the month you spent in hospital recovering from your Company-inflicted injuries may have also been a factor. “A little.”

Lincoln’s eyes lock with yours for a few endless seconds, then he’s shaking his brother’s hand, half-pulling him out of his chair into a back-slapping hug. “Good to see you, man. You staying for breakfast?”

“Uh, no.” Michael finishes his coffee in two quick gulps, as if the sudden tension in the room has flipped a fast forward switch in his body. “Sara’s expecting me back.” He gets to his feet, and tosses you a smile. “Thanks for the coffee.”

You nod. “Thanks for the advice.” Lincoln’s gaze settles on you, curious, but there will be time for explanations later. You hope. You haven’t exactly discussed the future beyond what would be the ideal breakfast this morning.

“You’re welcome.” He lifts his hand in a casual farewell to his brother. “You and LJ still coming for dinner on Friday?”

“Sure.”

Without hesitation, Michael’s gaze slides downward to include you. “We’d love to have you too, Jane, if you’re free.”

Lincoln’s hand is suddenly heavy on your shoulder, a silent question. You resist the urge to turn your head and press a kiss to his knuckles. “That would be nice, thank you.”

Michael shows himself out, displaying a casual knowledge of his brother’s apartment you can’t help envying. Left alone with the man who is both an open book and an enigma to you, you find yourself succumbing to an unexpected flurry of nerves. You look at your empty coffee mug, and clutch at a familiar social nicety.

“Tea or coffee?”

Lincoln’s big hands are on your waist, pulling you up out of your chair and sliding beneath your - his - pyjama shirt. His mouth is hot on your throat, his answer a gruff breath against your skin, and it’s clear he’s no more interested in social niceties at this moment than he was last night. “Neither.”




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