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The second Andraste son, Sebastian, has always been the “spare.” His secret affair began as a lucky accident yet lasted over five years. After his older brother’s marriage, the press speculates wildly about which Dagmar will be next. The paparazzi dogs his every step, making it harder and harder to spend time with Meredith. When she abruptly ends the relationship, his world seems to turn upside down.
She’s his dirty little secret.
The last place Meredith Blake expected to find herself was in the bed of a prince, but her tempestuous affair with Sebastian Dagmar feeds her need for passion. He's put off revealing their relationship and, understanding his need for privacy, she’s contented herself with being the object of his very real affection whenever they were together. Those times draw farther and farther apart and his royal life stampedes their romance. She wonders if she's just not good enough for him. Deciding enough is enough, Meredith ends their affair, tired of being his dirty little secret.
Enough is enough…
Sebastian wanted to protect Meredith from the media and security circus that came with the royal package, but he refuses to lose the love of his life. He'd do anything to keep her—even kidnap her to a private isle. Can he overcome her reluctance, evade the press, and protect her from assassins determined to end the Dagmar family once and for all?
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It was over.
Also try out the rest of the series too, find out more on Heather's website.
The click of the phone disconnecting echoed in his ear. Such a quiet, decisive sound should not be the punctuation mark ending five years together. Prince Sebastian Dagmar, Grand Duke, and second in line to a non-existent throne lowered the cell phone in his hand and checked the screen.
The call was indeed as finished as their relationship—or so she’d declared—because of some ridiculous blog report. He barely recognized the woman named in the report and—of all the false engagement stories over the years—why this one?
A flash bulb went off to his right. Another to his left. Sound rushed back in as a reporter yelled out a question and then another. Their interest in him waned swiftly at the arrival of the second car.
“Sir, we should move inside.” Vidal leaned in and said the words in a soft undertone no one else would hear. Sebastian nodded once and resumed walking, while he squeezed the phone in his fist. He’d walked red carpets so regularly beneath singular scrutiny so often, he was able to manufacture a smile and a nod as easily as he drew oxygen in and out. Both seemed rather impossible under the circumstances, yet he managed.
At the top of the stairs, Sebastian spared a glance toward his elder brother’s arrival. Armand and his new wife made the perfect picture. The crowd gathered outside of…wherever the hell they were greeted them with loud cheers and applause.
“Vidal?” He glanced at his bodyguard. His nearly constant companion since before the death of Sebastian’s father, Vidal had earned his trust over and over.
“Where are we again?” Inside the event center, his detail closed around him in a phalanx.
“Los Angeles, sir.”
“Good to know.” The City of Angels—an appropriate graveyard to host the tomb of his relationship with Meredith. Vidal nodded and retreated a step. Sebastian drifted forward, soon immersed in the shaking of hands and innocuous small talk which accompanied attending such a social function.
Instead of relinquishing the private phone to Vidal’s keeping, however, he slid it into his pocket in the vain, if somewhat desperate, hope that Meredith might cool long enough to call him back. The next three hours passed in a blur of speeches, toasts, and the requisite unimportant chatter over expensive plates of poorly presented chicken.
When the dancing began, Sebastian made a point to partner with all three of the unattached women he’d shared a dining table with—all perfectly pleasant and perfunctory. The moment he’d completed his duty, he detoured toward the bar and ordered a drink.
“Not the best idea.” The quiet reprimand from Richard Prentiss, Armand’s best friend and legal counsel, was an unwelcome intrusion to Sebastian’s dour evening.
“Neither is it the worst.” Sebastian nodded to the bartender before draining the glass in one long swallow. The burn of the alcohol did little to alleviate the frozen tundra in his soul. His control may not have been a match for his elder brother’s, but Sebastian knew exactly what was expected of him. If he were to get utterly trashed over the next hour and make a spectacle of himself, most would only sigh and shake their heads.
What else did a second son do? His life, of course, was abysmally simple and utterly without complication or challenge. Fisting the thought, he motioned to the bartender. Richard leaned against the bar next to Sebastian, apparently not intending to leave him to drinking alone. Between his presence and the bodyguards, Sebastian enjoyed one of the quietest few moments of the evening—a perfect time to check his phone for new messages.
Richard’s continued attention, however, interfered with the idea. After the bartender delivered his refill, Sebastian finally turned to study the attorney. “I’m surprised your fiancée isn’t with you.”
“No, you’re not.” The attorney’s fast smile was easy and sincere. “She’s working tonight and this is not her favorite activity.”
Sebastian nodded. Kate Braddock worked personal security. Since her engagement to Richard, she only took certain types of clients—women in particular at a shelter Prentiss favored. She also avoided the limelight and, with the number of press present for the charitable function, she would definitely be in the spotlight.
“Well, please extend my regards to Ms. Braddock.” He’d grown rather fond of the woman during Richard and Kate’s sojourn on the yacht earlier in the year. She’d been recovering from wounds sustained protecting Richard and, while their presence required canceling his own plans, Sebastian couldn’t begrudge either for the needed downtime on the open seas.
“I will be happy—” He broke off as Giles Corbin, a hedge fund manager, paused three steps away from them, his attention flicking between Richard and Sebastian. Richard’s joining him at the bar was not happenstance.
While he was only the second son, protocol did prevent the majority from simply butting into a conversation. They waited to be acknowledged—well, at least those who wanted to be included in future conversations did. Clearly, Corbin wanted to speak to either Richard or himself.
Sebastian turned and motioned to the bartender. The second drink succeeded far more than the first. A third was definitely in order. “Do you want to talk to Corbin?”
“Not particularly, but it’s better if he pitches to me.” And by that, Richard meant it was better for the hedge fund manager to interrupt his evening rather than Armand and Anna’s.
“You two look like you need to be rescued.” Humor wreathed the familiar feminine voice and Sebastian turned to greet his cousin. Alyxandretta Dagmar Voldakov rarely stood on protocol and Sebastian’s grin was the first unforced one of the evening.
“Your Highness.” Richard inclined his head.
“You know better.” She gave him a scowl, but Richard merely chuckled and excused himself. He headed out of the circle of security, one made slightly wider by Alyx’s approach.
Catching Alyx’s hand in his, Sebastian gave her a polite bow and then kissed her cheek. She accepted the affection graciously, squeezing his fingers once before moving to take Richard’s place against the bar. Despite having taken the time to get to know her ‘new’ family over the last eighteen months, Alyx did not embrace public affection easily—save from her husband, Daniel.
Speaking of whom… It was unusual for him to be far from his bride. If anything, Sebastian admired how attentive the man was with Alyx.
“Don’t worry. Daniel is talking business and I saw you over here looking forlorn, so I thought I would come keep you company.” Alyx’s quiet voice wouldn’t carry and, even it did, no one was close enough to interrupt them. Not even the bartender, whom she waved off after he’d refilled Sebastian’s drink.
“Are you sure you don’t want some wine?” He considered slamming back the third drink as quickly as he had the first two, but restrained the impulse considering the concern on his cousin’s face. Alyx was a couple of years younger than him and occasionally even more guarded than he or his siblings.
“No, thank you.” She paused when the music changed and glanced at the dance floor. “I love this song.”
Sebastian could not ignore the hint of longing in her voice, no matter how dark his mood. Pushing his drink away, he withdrew a step and extended his hand. Perhaps he couldn’t make things right with Meredith immediately, but he could brighten Alyx’s evening. “Would you do me the honor of this dance?”
A hint of a blush turned her cheeks pink, but her smile filled with delight. “Are you sure? What about…?” She mimed a small twirl of her finger to include their circle of security.
“We let them do their jobs,” he told her gently, escorting her out to the floor. As expected, the men and women on duty widened their circle automatically, but Sebastian also knew better than to draw Alyx to the center, choosing instead an emptier part of the floor.
“I’m still not terribly used to having them shadow my steps—and before you start,” she wrinkled her nose, exasperation lighting up the words. “I know why I have to have them. Daniel and Armand are thick as thieves on the subject.”
He didn’t smile, though her eyes twinkled with the invitation for him to join in her laughter. “You will get used to it.” Years of living under the harsh lens of observation hadn’t dulled him to its effects—or costs.
“I accept the concept, if only because I think I’ve finally gotten used to the idea people want take my picture, even if I cannot truly fathom why they think I am so interesting.”
“It’s not you—” When her jaw fell, Sebastian felt another reluctant smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He genuinely liked his cousin. She didn’t play any of the familiar games. “Truthfully, you are charming and a delight—but their fascination is with the idea of you and the crown. Some believe if they can touch a part of your charmed life, the charm will rub off on them.”
“That is the most ridiculous thing.” She halted mid-step and he paused obediently. “I have hardly led a charmed life.”
“Again…” His smile faded as he coaxed her into moving once more. “It’s not about you. It’s about the position. An unfortunate by-product of our DNA in a world populated by social media and interaction is the public desire for wish fulfillment on their terms.” Meredith never longed for either. She’d respected his position, but guarded against their exposure. While he’d delighted in their privacy, he’d taken great pains to keep her protected.
The first waltz segued into a second and, when Sebastian would have guided her off the floor, Alyx looked at him imploringly. “One more? Please?”
Consenting, he drew her back into his arms. “It would be my honor.”
Three steps into their second dance, all of Alyx’s playfulness fled and he felt the full weight of her regard. The corner of his mouth turned up. He should have seen the ambush coming, but his lovely cousin was far more cunning than his brothers.
“Why are you so very sad, Sebastian?”
Though her question beckoned an answer, he could not indulge her curiosity. “It could quite possibly be the chicken. You did notice it was green, didn’t you?”
The glib non-answer didn’t satisfy his cousin. Her lips barely twitched. “You smile with your mouth and you say the words with just the right inflections, but your eyes are unhappy.”
Far too practiced to allow her keen observation to rattle him, Sebastian smiled and let his affection for her show. “You have no need to be concerned, but your worry is sweet and I thank you for it.”
“All right, if that’s how you want to play it.” Her candor never failed to entertain him. “But we are family and I would like to be your friend.”
Whether it was the frustration underscoring her words or his own bleakness over Meredith, Sebastian couldn’t say, but he wanted to put Alyx’s mind at ease. Directing her to the edge of the dance floor, he halted and took her hands in his. “I would very much like to believe we are already friends.”
His response elicited the most unexpected result. Tears filled Alyx’s eyes and he went still. Awareness of their surroundings and the level of observation had Sebastian turning her away from the tables and clear of the other dancers.
With care, he slid his hand into the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket and pulled out a clean, pressed handkerchief. Alyx accepted the cloth with a watery laugh and carefully dabbed at her eyes. “Victor would be horrified if my mascara started running.”
“You look beautiful,” Sebastian assured her.
Thankfully, her husband chose the moment to intercept them. With a cordial, if quick, nod at Sebastian, Daniel Voldakov slipped an arm around his wife. He kissed her temple gently. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, but Sebastian was very sweet and I think I horrified us both by bursting into tears.” Another damp laugh and her smile grew in brilliance. “I didn’t expect to be so hormonal.”
Not quite wincing at the word, Sebastian made a point of looking elsewhere. This seemed a very private discussion to have in such a public place. Then her words registered, and he took a really good look at his cousin.
Alyx flushed under his gaze and, after a quick peek at Daniel, she gave Sebastian a secretive smile. “We’re not confirming or denying anything yet.”
Message received. “Please, let me know when I may respond to any confirmations or denials.”
“I will,” she promised and leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder. “Do you think it would be poor protocol to slip away now?”
“Absolutely not. The dinner is done, as are all the tedious speeches. You have danced and smiled and been perfectly gracious.” Catching her hand again, Sebastian bowed once more and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
“He’s right,” Daniel agreed and nuzzled her forehead. “I’ve already asked for the car to be brought around. It was good to see you, Sebastian.”
“And you, Daniel.” Family did not have to stand on ceremony.
“Are you staying in Los Angeles for longer than a day this time?” Alyx asked. “We would love to have you over—dinner one evening, perhaps?”
Sebastian hesitated. He’d intended to leave the next day, but he hadn’t alerted anyone to his plans, save for his security detail and pilot. “I am not terribly certain of my schedule.” Not a lie. “I actually asked Vidal earlier what city I was in.” Also, not a lie. “But I will call, and we’ll make arrangements.”
“Perfect.” Alyx surprised him for a third time when she brushed his cheek with a kiss and paused to whisper, “I meant what I said earlier. I want to be your friend. I’ve seen the look in your eyes before on other people. If I can help—at all—please, let me.” She squeezed his forearm once then allowed Daniel and their security team to escort her away.
He watched their exit silently and ran through his options. Switching gears, he glanced at Vidal. “I’m ready to go. Can you have security bring the car?”
“Of course, Your Highness. Destination?”
“The tower.” For the time being, he’d return to his suite at the Petersburg Tower. It would have been readied for him, since his appearance at the event was on his schedule. “One last circuit and we leave.”
“Absolutely, sir.” Vidal and the others fell into step as Sebastian glad-handed his way around the room. A prince had a duty to be seen. He must be remembered as engaged and available, at least while on public display. He’d perfected the part. It took nearly an hour, but he finally made it out and pulled his tie free as soon as the car doors closed.
Leaning his head back against the seat, he retrieved his cell phone from his pocket. The screen was dark, though when he unlocked it, no messages waited for him. It was after eleven in California, which meant after two in the morning on the east coast. She taught an early class and the last thing she needed was to be woken in the middle of the night, but he wanted to hear her voice.
If he took an early flight, he could be there by afternoon—or he could head to the airport immediately and be outside her class when she finished teaching. The car shifted abruptly and Sebastian glanced up at his driver.
“Apologies, sir. We have a couple of tagalongs.” The driver explained and Sebastian sighed.
He couldn’t go to the airport. Saying nothing, he slid the phone back into his pocket. Tomorrow he would call Meredith and make everything right again.
She was upset by their lack of time together. He understood her position and owed her an apology, but it would be better to let her calm before he confronted her. Anger sparked her declaration that they were through. His chest tightened. With her rejection, she’d thrown a gauntlet down, one he would gladly pick up.
They were not over. He’d protected her—cherished her—for too long to accept any other outcome.
But still, the ache in his heart wasn’t assuaged. She’d never hung up on him before.
Unsurprisingly, by nine-fifteen, Meredith Blake’s eight a.m. class on the elementary theory of numbers struggled to focus on the whiteboard where she’d scrawled several equations. Other professors made do with only punching in their time in these basic courses, but Meredith liked to challenge her students. If any of them could solve the equation by the end of the lecture period, she gave an automatic grade bump to the assignment of their choice.
Application, after all, was the goal of number theory. Pacing to the front of her lectern, she studied the glassy eyed students arrayed around the room. Normally, she’d go for a joke or a lighthearted story, but she felt like she was dragging worse than they were.
Gravity remained unaltered by physical events, yet depression and disappointment seemingly increased her mass. How else to explain the weight bearing down upon her? Maybe everyone deserved a bit of a break. “Let’s put it this way.” She spoke in a clear tone and knew her voice carried all the way to the back row. With seventy plus students in these classes, projection was everything.
“Numbers are the basic building blocks of every single thing we do. We use numbers to predict the weather, to predict crime, to predict investments—even to predict winners. If you understand numbers and their applications, you have the most essential tools to success.” Pausing, she let them absorb the information. Then pointed to the equation on the board. “Has anyone solved this?”
Not a single hand rose. She forced a conciliatory smile, but instead of letting them off the hook, she said, “How many of you tried to solve it?”
Only two hands raised.
Well, two out of seventy-three weren’t the worst statistics. “How many of you would have tried if I told you this formula will very accurately predict your chances of winning the lottery?”
Alertness sparked in her audience. Throw down a gauntlet, most people picked it up. Throw down the promise of money and those numbers increased. “I’ll give you to the end of the week to solve the equation and send me your answer.” But because she couldn’t resist trying to make them smile, she said, “Of course, if you win the lottery with it—I’m sure my free grade bump won’t be nearly as valuable, no matter how fun.”
Laughter erupted and she nodded, satisfied. “See you all next week.” Thumps of books, digital tablet covers snapping closed and the thud of feet on the stairs accompanied the students as they took advantage of their early release to rush out. All save Wes Keating and Rebecca Walsh—they headed straight for her. Holding up a hand, she stopped their questions before they could start.
“No, I didn’t offer any other assignments for extra credit. No, I won’t extend the deadline next week if you haven’t solved it. And unless blood and bone are showing, you better have your assignments turned in.” She raised her brows at their crestfallen expressions. “Any other questions?”
“No,” Wes resettled his backpack “Thank you.”
Rebecca sighed. “I was kind of hoping…maybe we could talk you into a second formula? You know, if we can’t figure out the first.”
Folding her arms, Meredith eyed the students. Every class always possessed at least one student who thought she’d change the rules just for them. “Sure, I can totally give you a second problem, however, you’d have to solve both for it to count.”
The color drained from Rebecca’s face. “I think we can stick to the first one.” Tugging on Wes’ arm, she led him from the lecture hall.
“That’s what I thought. Have a nice day.” She turned away because even what brief amount of amusement she gained from the interlude proved fleeting and she blinked back a fresh wave of tears. Gathering her notes together, Meredith glanced at the schedule on her cell phone. She held office hours in the afternoon and her schedule included two meetings with doctoral candidates to go over their theses.
Retrieving her purse, she felt the vibration of a second phone and sighed. She’d meant to leave it home when she came in for the early class, but some habits were impossible to break.
But I need to break them. Carrying the private phone, to which only Sebastian knew the number, was one such habit. Her heart twisted and her lungs felt like they’d seized. The hiccup in time couldn’t have lasted more than a bare few seconds and yet she wanted to curl into a ball and cry all over again.
Her fingers itched to unzip the inner pocket and pull the phone out. Any other day, she would have rushed to do so and asked him to hold on while she jogged across campus to her office. Once inside, she’d have locked the door, settled down behind her desk and—Stop it.
Just stop. Slinging the purse over her shoulder and stuffing the last of her things into her backpack, she refused to answer the phone. It wasn’t any other day. Last night, after blogs broke the news of his ‘secret’ engagement, all the while another news channel featured his arrival at a posh event in Los Angeles, Meredith found she couldn’t do it anymore.
Five years of passionate interludes when he could steal away from his life, of being at his beck and call and never knowing when his security would show up to smuggle her away, it was too much.
Under her arm, the phone kept vibrating. It would pause for a few seconds and then resume. A brisk wind cut through her thin sweater and she cursed herself for forgetting a jacket. This late into autumn, winter a promise delivered at sundown, though today it felt colder than when she’d walked to her class. She was frozen by the time she reached the building housing her office.
Bypassing the elevator, she jogged up the three flights of stairs in a vain attempt to alleviate her shivers. The news forecasted a cold front moving into the area later in the day, but Meredith suspected it already arrived. Exiting the stairwell on the third floor, she spotted Terry O’Connor leaning against the wall outside her office. The retired soldier straightened the moment he caught sight of her and a look, akin to relief, rippled across his face.
“I missed you at your class and you took a different route to the office today.” Meeting her halfway down the hall, he tugged the backpack from her nerveless fingers and held out his hand for her keys.
“I didn’t realize.” Not really. She varied her routes depending on which lecture hall she needed to use, but they were all predetermined so Terry could track her as needed. Trailing him to her office door, Meredith shivered with an unexpected dread. The last time he’d shown up unannounced was after someone plunged a knife into Sebastian… “Did something happen?”
She’d made herself turn off the television the night before. A clean break was better all the way around, but what if something happened afterward? The attempts on Sebastian’s family continued to increase and worsened in recent months and, while he didn’t share the specifics, she was perfectly capable of reading in between the lines of news stories to speculate at what they didn’t say.
Terry unlocked her door and glanced inside her office before allowing her to enter. “Nothing’s happened, though I was instructed to pick up your detail today.”
Instructed? Meredith deposited her purse on the desk. The crowded room boasted a variety of texts, some stacked ten and twelve deep on the floor next to her desk along with multiple white boards covered in equations. To the untrained eye, it probably looked like a lot of gibberish—a fact Terry pointed out on more than one occasion. Of course, he’d been to her office so many times at this point, the boards didn’t earn more than a brief glance. “By whom?”
Instead of answering, he secured her door and prowled around to the window overlooking the quad below. With two quick twists, he closed the blinds before turning to face her. “By our mutual friend. Did you misplace your cell phone?”
Relief swamped her. Their mutual friend. Sebastian sent Terry to check on her—most likely because she wasn’t answering her phone. If he’d called Terry, Sebastian was all right, at least physically. On the heels of her relief came resentment and its cousin, anger.
“No, I didn’t misplace my phone.” After circling her desk, she sat down then pulled her laptop out of the backpack. “I’m sorry he bothered you, but I am not planning on traveling anywhere. You don’t really need to be here.”
“I don’t mind hanging out. You’re good company and, if we’re not traveling, I can catch up on my reading.” He settled in one of her empty office chairs. “But you should check your phone.”
Booting up her laptop, Meredith mulled Terry’s advice, but didn’t respond to it. Oddly, his presence and the crinkling of the newspaper he flipped open offered the most peculiar kind of comfort. Bringing up the college webmail, she skimmed the contents of her inbox without reading it. After several minutes of pretending to work and trying to ignore the insistent vibration in her purse, she retrieved the phone.
Forty-one missed calls and a fresh round of vibration.
She sighed. Bastian wouldn’t stop. “Terry, do you mind?”
“Not at all.” Her bodyguard—despite the years of acquaintance, it still struck her as odd that she had or needed a bodyguard—rose and folded his paper. “I’m going to the coffee cart on the first floor. Do you want anything?”
“A cappuccino would be lovely.” With about three fingers of butterscotch schnapps in it, but she wouldn’t ask no matter how good it sounded.
“You got it. Lock the door behind me. Don’t leave till I come back.” It was a familiar routine, but she nodded obediently and trailed him to the door. The vibration ended and quickly resumed. After locking up, she answered the call.
She couldn’t say anything.
“Meredith?” Pure masculine sweetness poured over honeyed rocks flavored his European accent. Her pulse raced and her hands began to shake. “Meredith? Are you there?”
Falling into old patterns helped no one, least of all her. Be strong. Don’t tumble down this familiar path, no matter how passionate his response. The man never failed to melt her past reason. A band around her chest squeezed all the air out of her. “I’m here,” she managed to push out past the lump in her throat, then swallowed with difficulty. “What part of ‘we’re over’ are you not understanding?”
Silence and then a whoosh of breath from his end. “All of it.” His words grew more clipped in rebuttal. “I am sending the plane for you. O’Connor will escort you to the airport and travel—”
“No.” She didn’t dare let him finish, since his words already weakened her. Her pulse picked up at the mention of his plane and heat flooded through her body. She couldn’t see him. Maybe it was the coward’s way out, but God knew he was a fantastic lover and when they were together—yes, he focused one hundred and ten percent of his attention on her. No woman could withstand the sheer force of his personality and devotion.
But when they were apart? They were always apart. The time they did have together shortened repeatedly while the time in between visits elongated…
“Darling, listen to me. I promise, we will talk all of it out. I need to see you.” Music to her ears, but how many times had he said the same thing before? Yet how many nights had she gone to bed alone, thousands of miles separating them and no one, not even her family, knew about the most precious relationship in her world?
“I said no, Bastian.” Gripping the phone tighter, she tried to calm her respiration. Anger, resentment, misery, and joy tangled together in her stomach. An icy cold sweat broke out on her skin.
“Meredith, I am not engaged. I understand the false story distressed you, but this is no different than all the others the last few years. Baseless speculation on the part of the press, their attempt to feed—”
“Actually…” She interrupted him before he went down the road of belittling her upset. He wouldn’t mean to—he never meant to—but he would because he appeared to know better. He lived in a different world, one she wasn’t even allowed to visit. “It is quite different. This time I don’t want to understand. I don’t want to pretend it’s all right you spend half your life gallivanting around the world, dancing, kissing, and in general allowing all those women to be with you…”
His voice sounded tight when he snapped, “They are not important.” Impatience fractured his normally calm and playful reserve, a first in their exchanges.
“Can’t you understand?” She almost felt sorry for him, because he didn’t seem to see it. Maybe he couldn’t—maybe his upbringing precluded understanding the role of ‘mistress.’ “They may not be important, but they have easy access to you. You’re not ashamed to be seen in public with them, and you certainly didn’t seem to be fending off their affections. I teach math for a living, Sebastian. Maybe I don’t understand protocol and politics, but I understand one plus one. Please respect my wishes, and leave me alone.”
She hung up because if she didn’t, he might keep talking and her traitorous heart would have listened. As she swiped away the tears on her cheeks, the phone began to vibrate again. She depressed the power button and held it down until the phone silenced.
It was over.
The sooner they both accepted it, the better off they’d be.
Also try out the rest of the series too, find out more on Heather's website.