Chapter 9

Disclaimer: All creative rights to the characters in this story related to High School Musical belong to its original creators. Any other names, places or events that may have similarity to existing/actual names, places or events is purely coincidental and the use of such is for the purpose of this story alone. Lastly, the author does not, in any way, profit from this story.

She was a bundle of nerves. A feeling long since felt that she realized she was fidgeting like a young adult faced with an enormous task ahead . . . or better yet, facing her worst nightmare come to life.

A handsome nightmare now entering the room provided as her office in the Social Services center and his nightmarish presence further diminishing the already constricted space that she felt there was not enough air for her to breathe. It was utterly ridiculous, of course, and she was annoyed with herself that after all these years—twenty long years—the mere sight of him still affected her so.

He made his way across the short distance with a well-remembered smooth, animal grace and then he was there, standing just opposite, with her small office desk serving as some sort of divider. Her mind emptied suddenly, the sight of him this close was not something she'd envisioned nor hoped ever happening again. Everything in the room spun out of focus for a few dizzying seconds before she grabbed hold of her wits and violently refocused back on his tall, unsmiling face.

She'd regretted making that phone call as soon as it ended. Her only intention for calling had been to inform him where his son is but after answering several questions from him regarding the circumstances that brought Troy to her residence, he'd began arranging to meet with her to discuss the matter in person. She balked, arguing it wasn't necessary to talk face to face and that she'd done her duty as a concerned acquaintance by informing him and there was nothing else to talk about. But he'd overridden all that by saying his son was a 'delicate matter' to be dealt with and that he needed her help.

Standing from her chair as common courtesy dictates, she noted pristine white shirt with a designer label and black trousers. If he was aiming for casual, he certainly achieved it. She could see no accoutrements that would look like he came from a business agenda across several miles and flew out here on a tight schedule. A thought that made her all the more wary and nervous because she wanted this meeting to be brief . . . very, very brief.

She squared her shoulders and assumed a polite but detached demeanor that was in contrast to the complicated mix of emotions suddenly shaking up inside her and coolly greeted him, "Jack."

"Lucy . . ." He returned huskily.

The unexpected use of his pet name for her badly dented her composure. Lucille was shocked. Her mouth wobbled. She was transported back in time—happier times, forgotten times—a time she'd be wise not to remember.

Something blazed in Jack's eyes at her reaction and he took a step to come closer to where she stood only to stop and tense as Lucille held up a hand to warn him to keep to his side of the room.

"Troy." She began regaining her equilibrium once more. "You came here to discuss Troy. How do you plan to take him back and away from my niece?"

Relationships—for that was what they had and it was the romantic kind as Troy insisted he neither wished nor considered to have a brotherly relationship with her—isn't as easy as she thought it would be. Her love for romance books apparently wasn't adequate to prepare for her relationship with Troy. Not that the idea of being romantically linked to someone ever crossed her mind . . . well, maybe a little wishing here in there of Prince Charming and happily ever after like most young girls . . . but the point is she never aimed nor expected to be in one.

Romance in books as is the same with romance in movies usually give the perception as something nice, uplifting to the heart and leaves a warm fuzzy feeling which is true . . . only up to a certain point. But because no self confessed romance, chick flick lover out there wants to dwell on the depressing scenes, of course, the wonderful scenes are often re-read or replayed. She was no different.

Before Troy came along, she was content to live romance through her books. Unlike most teenagers, she lived without the existence of any romance. Guys just weren't attracted to plain looking girls. Fact of life. So she'd come to accept that romance and anything it entails would probably never figure prominently in her life.

But Troy ran away, got mugged, mistook her for a boy and the rest was history. And here she is holding a handsome guy's gaze while trying hard not to blush as they eyed each other from across the expanse of the modest living room of their neighbour. Her, leaning against the closed bedroom door of her charges who thankfully are peacefully dozing off now. Him, looking like a potentate in casual clothes, seated indolently on the sofa with come-hither eyes silently telling her to move forward and come to him.

She didn't know how she was able to read into his stare and it freaked her out a little that she could but regardless she felt her feet move one in front of the other like she was a puppet being pulled by a puppet master. She couldn't resist him, that much was obvious, and she probably would have died of mortification if Troy wasn't as eager for her.

But, lo and behold, he seems to seriously want her!

She still had her doubts though. It can't really be wiped out on the strength of a few words from a gorgeous male or the fact that the next day after he declared to want her in the park, he picked her up from East High to make sure she was okay and wasn't being bothered by Steven or Tamsin—she was expecting to be taunted by those two and their cronies but surprisingly nothing happened. She was ignored and she had a feeling Troy had something to do with it as well. Kelsi thought so too.

The good thing is recent events made her self confidence gain some ground and her doubt isn't as overwhelming as it used to be. All because Troy seems to know how to make her feel special.

Two days since that fateful night in the park. Two days of heady thrill an effect of subtle touches, secret smiles, meaningful looks and stolen kisses happening under her aunt's roof and mostly in their oblivious presence. Like a secret, forbidden romance or something. She was all together happy, thrilled and scared. Thrilled because she was learning there's some kind of excitement involved with the idea that there's a chance they might be caught by her aunt or her brothers as they sneak around kissing. But she was also scared because if they do get caught, she was afraid the situation might get out of hand. Her aunt for all her kindness and understanding, in an instinctive drive to protect her, might be forced to send Troy away which—aside from her family having a negative feeling or opinion of Troy—is something Gabriella would not like to happen.

That concern though, among others, could not pull her down from the floaty feeling she's in. She feels like she's walking on a cloud of happiness. She's never felt like it before and, for all her doubts, apprehensions and serious consideration of their situation, given a choice, she doesn't want it to end.

She stood before him and Troy smiled. Easily, ignoring her shyness and tension, he spanned her tiny waist and pulled her onto his lap. Gabriella gave a little, muffled shriek of surprise but didn't struggle once he rearranged her on his lap to his liking. She was careful to avoid looking into his eyes, he noticed. And he couldn't help smirking at her timidity.

Since the park, two nights ago, they've kissed several times. Short, hurried mostly and he's been the one to initiate—couldn't help himself and she's either too shy or too worried that they'd be found out—but apart from a healthy frustration which in his opinion is perfectly warranted in their clandestine relationship, he is actually quite happy with what they have together.

Well, he would've preferred not sneaking around but then again he's not in control around here and he had to admit the secrecy added a certain piquancy to his desire . . . so it was a sacrifice worth enduring. Besides that, he's not willing to give up what he just recently acquired. Certainly not if it's something he wants very much.

"Troy . . . the boys might—"

He shook his head, noting her lips were a little tremulous. He loves her lips—told her so several times. He's never seen nor tasted anything so perfect. Pillowy soft, delicately shaped and lusciously pouted that invites one to think it holds delightful promise of pleasure, which it does.

"They're dead to the world." He stated, amused by her shyness.

That was true, of course. The boys sleep like logs but Gabriella felt she should still voice these concerns to him as a reminder that they shouldn't be too careless. It was Troy's idea that she agree to babysit their neighbour's kids so that they can get a few hours alone time. He had his shift at the diner extended until seven o'clock instead of the usual five but told Lucille and Jason that he's on a much later shift. It made it easier for him to head straight to Edna Warren's apartment right across from theirs and spend some private time with her once the boys are asleep. The plan was good, leaving her family unsuspicious, but she couldn't help her apprehensions. She's usually not secretive with her family and the knowledge that she's deliberately hiding things from them made her uncomfortable.

"Edna might—"

"I like it when you blush." He waylaid her worries and gently brushed the knuckles of his right hand across her flushed cheek.

She didn't even realize she was blushing but he must've known she'd forget her worries about getting caught if he called attention to her flustered face. "W-why?"

Shrugging, he trailed a forefinger along her cheekbone. "It's a novel thing for me . . . your innocence. Almost like a child." He grinned as she frowned a little at that statement. "I can't remember knowing a girl who blushed from my attentions. You're also the only girl I know who gives homes to stray animals with homicidal tendencies. Call me crazy but I find it . . . endearing."

She rolled her eyes at him and wiggled off his lap to sit beside him. "If I'm the innocent child here that makes you the adult corrupting my innocence and don't forget you have Gaston. He's a stray too."

"Gaston is fat but not homicidal. And he's useful." Troy reasoned—suppressing a pained groan when she unintentionally wiggled her derrière on that aroused part of him—as he slipped an arm to her shoulders and pulled her closer, thinking instead of his dog's role in providing distraction to Jason. Gaston is a brilliant dog, in his opinion. He can be a handful, difficult and whiny at his command and he's using that to keep Jason from seeking Gabriella and from noticing too much. "You make it sound like I'm a sex offender."

"Are you offended?" She turned her head and smiled cheekily at him.

"Not at all. That sharp witted tongue of yours can hardly belong to a child and besides," Eyes turning dark as it dropped to her lips, he leaned close, lips grazing the outer shell of her ear as he whispered, "you are a willing innocent."

She blushed anew and Troy had to stifle a chuckle as she fought against her flustered feelings by asking in a cavalier manner, "How is Gaston useful?"

"Gaston helps keep Jason occupied . . ." The arm on her shoulder slipped down to span her tiny waist under her oversized shirt and before Gabriella knew what he was about she was hauled back astride his lap. At her gasp, he grinned and went on to say, ". . . so that when I do this," He kissed the corner of her slightly parted mouth. "I won't have to worry about Jason suddenly barging in on us."

He pulled back to grin at her dazed expression and then pressed his lips on hers again, nibbling lightly on her lower lip, a playfully teasing move which sent a faint shiver down her spine. This isn't an urgent, demanding stolen kiss unlike the other times where haste was necessary for discretion. "You should grow your hair." He murmured out of the blue, his ringers threading through her soft hair to angle her head so that her lips became easily accessible to his attention.

It doesn't take much effort from him to make her respond especially when he whispers innocuous yet strangely spine-tingling things like 'you should wear fitted clothes more often' or 'you have great legs' but Gabriella fought to keep her wits from slipping. Things may have changed between them but he's still just a temporary guest in her home and more than that, she has no idea what he plans to do in the near future.

Is he staying? For how long? Is he leaving? If so, when? What will happen to them? Also, she still doesn't know a thing about his family life specially his father who's the catalyst for his decision to flee. In all their conversations, Troy asks a lot of questions about her life and her parents which, no matter how ugly a tale, she willingly told him . . . but he shows no inclination to share about his own when it's her turn to ask.

Using her resolve to know more about him since by all accounts they are in a relationship, Gabriella refocused and softly, casually asked against his teasing lips. "Will you tell me about your parents?"

She felt him tense a little but it was quickly shrugged off. "There's not much to tell." Then he pressed his lips back on hers as if to stop further prodding on the subject.

But Gabriella didn't want to be denied this time by his evasiveness. After all that's happened between them, she deserved to know, didn't she? And really what harm is there in letting her know a bit of his family? Couldn't he indulge a healthy dose of curiosity? If currently she's forced to ignorance about what his immediate plans are and whether she's included in those plans or not, this at least was a fair enough trade. Unless for all the time he spent with her and her family . . . he doesn't trust her?

"Troy," She gave him a small smile, looked directly into his intense blue eyes and pressed a finger to his lips to stop from distracting her. "I'd like to know about you too."

Simple, straightforward and none of the irritating feminine wiles most females of his acquaintance used to get him to share his confidence. He kept her gaze for a second or two then slumped back with a heavy, resigned sigh and Gabriella tried to reign in her anticipation lest he change his mind when he senses how eager she is.

"I don't like talking about my family." He confessed looking like he was mentally preparing himself for a distasteful task ahead. "Actually I never discuss my family to anyone."

It couldn't be that big of a deal, isn't it? Her family life isn't picture perfect as well. In fact, it was sad and a riot and tragic what with her father ending up in jail. She doesn't tell every soul either but those she trusts which are few. Gabriella could see Troy wavering and short of holding her breath, she wondered if his parents are just as whacked as hers. Or maybe they're much worse? Just how bad is bad for him to run away? How bad is bad for him to think she's not trustworthy?

What's the point of being boyfriend-girlfriend if one is ignorant about the other's background? Isn't that what relationships are all about? The couples she read in books aim at discovery, at learning about the other person. That's how the characters understand and appreciate one another. It was sensible to assume that was true also in real relationships.

She wanted to assure him that whatever he tells him stays with her, that it couldn't be as bad as her situation had been but she wisely kept quiet, letting him decide to talk or not—to trust her or not. She has no idea where their relationship is heading and she's reluctant to ask. If it is heading somewhere or if it's a temporary thing for him while he's still enjoying being here in the slums. Telling her of his background will, somehow, be a bit of assurance as to his real intention.

"Aren't you familiar with the Bolton name?" He spoke after what seemed like an eternity of silence.

He was going to tell her! And she had to school her features to a studied casualness. Gabriella shook her head slowly. She didn't know why it never occurred to her to search his name over the internet. But she was glad she didn't.

"My father is Jack Bolton, president and CEO of Bolton Enterprises. It's a family owned and controlled conglomerate that's into a diversity of very profitable business ventures. To put it simply, my father is powerful and loaded. My mother Therese was also from a well to do background. She died four years ago. She killed herself." Troy looked up and Gabriella was startled both by the flat announcement of his mother's suicide and the blank look in his eyes, as though he's looking right through her. She kept her silence, not wanting to interrupt and not knowing how. "Like your parents, they didn't get along well. It wasn't a love match either. My late aunt said my parents were casual friends before they got married but whatever relationship they had quickly soured soon after tying the knot. According to my mother, Jack loved someone else. He already proposed to another woman and was ready to plan a wedding but instead, he ended up marrying my mother because he got her pregnant with me. Jack resented marrying her, blamed her for everything that went wrong and he doubted if I was really his son."

Gabriella emitted a choked gasp and on impulse laid a gentle hand on his cheek. Troy reached up and held her hand, turning his head slightly to press a kiss and rub his lightly stubbled cheek on her palm as if to say thanks for empathizing. "The DNA tests proved I am indeed his son but it didn't make any difference in improving my parents' relationship or my relationship with Jack. He was neither sorry for doubting my paternity nor relieved he sired me. Financially he provides well, but he barely acknowledges me or my mother. I was sent away to boarding school at an early age while my parents lived like strangers under one roof. Publicly they acted the married couple, privately they were perfect strangers. There were discreet but numerous extra-marital affairs on both sides. I don't know why they didn't just get a divorce. It would've been much easier for all."

He paused, taking another deep breath probably to fortify himself, then continued. "One day, I came home during a school break and I found my mother had overdosed on sleeping pills while in the bathtub. She drowned." His tone was flat but she could see the pain and anger simmering in his eyes and Gabriella felt her heart pinch at the image of a younger Troy expecting a welcome but instead found his mother dead. Therese Bolton, unlike her own mother, was probably a wonderful, loving parent and she could only imagine what it must have been like for Troy to lose her.

At a loss for words to say, she acted on pure instinct. Her arms slipped over his shoulders as she drew him in an embrace. Was it any wonder why he chose to run away from his father? Sudden tears were blurring her vision as her emotions reached out protectively to him. She shut her eyes to keep the tears at bay, knowing Troy would think of it as pitying him, before she whispered, "I'm sorry . . ."

"It was years ago." He gruffly dismissed but his arms slid around her waist to return the embrace, his face burrowing in the crook of her neck, accepting the comfort she offered. "You know, we're alike somehow . . ." He mumbled after some time.

Pulling back a little to look at him questioningly, she searched his face noting the silhouetted expression in his eyes. "Alike?" She raised askance.

He nodded, his hand lifting to smooth the wisps of curls off the side of her face while her hands remained loosely looped at his nape. "Yes. We both hate one parent and love the other." He explained. "And the one parent we love isn't around. My mother's dead. Your father's in jail. But you're still luckier than I am."

"I am?" Gabriella echoed incredulously, arms falling from his shoulders to her sides. She'd never been called lucky before. If not for his sombre tone and face, she'd think he was kidding her. "I'm luckier because I saw my mother in bed with another man and then saw her get shot by my father?"

Troy shook his head then absently threaded his fingers with hers. "Because even though you lost both parents to death and jail, you have Lucille and she's a great substitute parent."

Gabriella contemplated that for a moment, holding his gaze and his hands. What she saw, once the veiled look lifted a little from him, was need. Need to belong. Need to be recognized, if not loved. Need to be accepted for himself. The same compelling needs she felt when her mother was still alive and was her primary carer, or what was her own brand of caring. And she realized Troy filled all that need while living with them, much like how she felt when Lucille became her guardian.

"Yes, she is." She quietly agreed while a fierce wave of tenderness for him swelled in her heart.

"Whereas, I have my father." Troy closed his eyes and the hands holding hers moved up to cup her jaw, then he leaned his forehead against hers. Gabriella closed her eyes too, savouring the gently caressing touch of his thumbs on her cheeks. "He could learn a thing or two about proper parenting from your aunt. It's unfortunate she doesn't have a child of her own. She'd have been a great mother."

The idea of such a powerful and rich as Croesus man taking tutelage from her prim and financially-lacking aunt made Gabriella giggle. "I'm sure Aunt Lucille will prevail over your father." Then she sobered a little to add, "Lucille's husband, Gary, was diagnosed with cancer a few months after they got married. Having children didn't hold priority as they dealt with Gary's illness which worsened until he died."

"Lucille is an admirable person," Troy avowed with ringing sincerity. "and yes, without a doubt, she will prevail over Jack."

"Even if she has to use a stick to make him listen."

He chuckled, then lapsed silent again. "I wish I didn't have to leave here." He confessed after a while but Gabriella didn't need to hear him say it anymore. She understood him. She understands now why he had kept stall for time, why he didn't make any great effort to save money. He wanted to stay despite the far from luxurious living conditions or the lack of money. He likes living with them. And she likes to think she's one of the reasons for it.

But on the heel of that thought came another. He may not want to go home. She may not want him to leave . . . but he has to. It was the right thing to do. No matter how much he hates his father, as a parent, the man deserved to know where his son is. And Gabriella has a feeling the older Bolton, no matter how horrid he is, must feel a degree of worry searching for his son and only heir.

"But you have to, Troy."

"I know." He agreed quietly, his arms hugging her again and tightening to press her even closer. "But if I leave, I might not come back. I might not be able to. Jack won't let me. He's sending me abroad to finish college."

And I will no longer see you. It didn't have to be said. Gabriella knew. They both knew. Him going back home meant they have to end this. Because if they continue with this relationship it will take enormous effort to make it work and distance will be one of many hurdles to overcome. Because instinct and common sense, the reality of their situation, and the wide chasm of their individual lives—present and future—tell her it's not just foolish but also impossible to continue. They each have a life to live and continuing education holds primary importance, especially to her.

And from his brooding silence, she could glean that he knows it too. She can see now it was premature for her to marvel at the sheer rightness of them being in a relationship. The swift downturn caught her unaware, unprepared. The consolation at least, if you can call it that, was having to experience what it was like to be part of a romantic relationship regardless short-lived.

A heavy feeling settled suddenly in her heart as it fought against its own desires and her mind's logic. Gabriella was all too aware of what it means to think with your heart. Her first instinct, by experience, is protecting herself and that means, if she could help it, not invest too much on emotions. As it is, she's already involved with Troy more than she should have allowed but at this early stage she could still rescue her heart from falling out of its safety net.

With great reluctance but prompted to do what is right, she steeled herself and softly spoke, "We probably should—"

"No." Troy abruptly cut her off, surprising her. He pushed her back a little to challenge her with a direct and determined gaze, repeating firmly. "No."

"But, Troy, you have to—"

Feeling her withdrawal, he bit off a curse and halted her objection by capturing her mouth with a hard kiss. Troy felt her shock with his onslaught but he was relieved she didn't struggle. He winded his fingers through her hair, moulding the shape of her head as he plundered her parted lips, every foray of his hot tongue willing her to understand not to think for the moment, telling her not to let go, telling her to give them a chance despite the odds, telling her that he will make everything possible and telling her the depth of his need.

She has a stellar future ahead of her from anyone of the big shot universities she applied to. With her intelligence, it was done deal that she'll be accepted. He was being unfair, he knew, but he wanted to find a compromise.

Her soft hand blindly cradled his cheeks, stroking, gentling him. The light touch tormenting his senses but it made him gentle the kiss a fraction before lifting his mouth an inch to huskily say, "I know I have to go back to my father, Gabriella, but I'm not ready yet. I want to stay here . . . with you."

"I want you to stay too but—"

"No buts." He kissed her once, shifting on the sofa to sit more comfortably while keeping her steady on his lap. He was willing her to be patient with him. He wanted her not to think righteously just this once. He needed more time to consider what best to do because he can't simply accept that once he leaves here this'll all be over. If he has to bargain with Jack to keep Gabriella, he'll do it. The one good thing that happened to him after a series of bad, he refuses to toss away. "If there's a will, there's a way."

"If you say so." She murmured but Troy sensed she was still unconvinced. Apparently her optimism does not extend to this. But he couldn't really blame her. She was careful not to make herself too vulnerable, not to expect too much when chances of anything going her way were slim.

"I say so." He insisted. Now isn't the time to think about his plans or how best to approach his father. That task required his complete preoccupation and not while Gabriella was on his lap naively making him vibrantly aroused. So, abruptly, he changed the subject and the mood by telling her, "I should be teaching you how to kiss."

She knows him like this . . . evading what he didn't want discussed. Gabriella sighed. "Isn't that what you've been doing, Troy?"

He was comfortable with this kind of conversation. He didn't have to think twice about what to say or how to go about it. And Gabriella's innocence and his knowledge of it gave him much of a thrill than anything else. If he could spend the entire day kissing her and doing all sorts of intimate things to her, he won't hesitate for a second. "No, I've been kissing you and you are trying your best to kiss me back."

She flashed him an indignant look but the lovely blush tinting the slash of her cheekbones refused to abate. She was a little out of depth in this conversation and the way he was talking so matter-of-factly only emphasized her naïveté. "Well," She began trying for nonchalance and just about hit the mark. "I'm inexperienced as you know, but isn't that what kissing is? Mutual exchange of saliva?"

"Technically yes, but if I taught you how to really kiss, it's a shared act to be enjoyed. And, you should know, Miss Montez, it really hurts a guy's ego when a girl speaks so clinically about kissing. Makes him all the more eager to change the girl's opinion." Amused, he made a vague gesture with one hand while the other rested possessively on the curve of her hip. "Books tell little and imagination can only take you to a certain point."

"You mean you'll teach me to make it better for you? Why don't you just say you're disappointed, Troy? I feel gauche enough as it is." Her insecurity, irrationally, kicked in out of nowhere and she stiffened her spine as her defences automatically went up.

"Naive or gauche—which, by the way, is nothing to be insecure about—I'm not disappointed, Gabriella. Why else would I keep sneaking around your family to get you alone, hmm?" He stated plainly, holding her irritated and embarrassed gaze, daring her to challenge him with a better argument. She came up with none. The hand on her hip moved to the dip on her back just above her buttocks, and with his slumberous look dropping to her lips, he stroked the full lower lip with his thumb. "If I teach you how to kiss, the next time we kiss, it'll feel even better and so much more enjoyable for both of us."

She was far from hungry but his lazily spoken words sounded like butter melting over warm bun, like a delicious promise just waiting to be fulfilled, and Gabriella, despite her shyness, felt a thrill of excitement run through her nerve endings at the thought of what his kissing lesson would entail. With it, her insecurity flew out the window. Unconsciously, her tongue stuck out to wet her suddenly parched lips then she stammered, "H-how will y-you teach me?"

As questions go, it was a stupid one but that earned a wicked smile from Troy as his eyes followed the sweep of her tongue over the luscious lips. He was so pleased with himself and with her. From early on, he already sensed Gabriella's innate sensuality which he knows owes nothing to her love for romance books. But her early life experiences and her lifestyle had suppressed that passionate nature. The way she kisses and the way her body presses against him with a delightful mix of innocence, sensuousness, shyness and eagerness was proof of that. He wants to be the guy to help her unleash it as much as he wants to be the recipient of that passion. The end result, he knew, would be explosive.

And what better way to achieve all that was teach her. "With candy." He said, showing her the mint flavoured candy he drew from his pants pocket.

Liquid brown eyes blinked at the candy which he slowly began to unwrap, then she stared at him half bewildered, half knowing as to what purpose the candy will serve in her lesson.

Her lips parted to say or ask something but Troy chose that moment to slide the candy past her lips and told her to trap it between her teeth. He smiled, a devilish and slumberous kind of smile that made something tighten in the pit of her stomach, and she noticed his gaze seemed to be welded to her lips. He looked like he was carefully contemplating its shape, size and considering options for the best way to begin her lesson.

With the minty candy caught between her teeth, Gabriella swallowed, suddenly nervous and the dark flush that highlighted her cheekbones became even more pronounced as she waited what he'll do next. She was entirely at her mercy, probably looking like a shocked fish with a candy stuck between its lips—not a pretty sight, for sure—but she couldn't make herself move away. She didn't want to.

"Swirl the candy inside your mouth, Gabriella." He instructed in a huskily seductive voice that nevertheless sounded like he won't countenance any argument.

She obeyed, unable to think for herself, mesmerized by the burning intensity and sensual promise she could see in his azure gaze. She tasted the mint flavour as the hard candy moved around her mouth, savouring the refreshing burst, the saliva coating it, as though preparing for Troy's foray into the soft cavern, and waited what he'll ask her to do next.

"Lean closer to me."

She did.

"Arms around me."

Like an automaton now, she let her hands curve over his broad shoulders to slide slowly and settle at his nape.

The glitter in his eyes was the approval for following his softly spoken command. In turn, one hand cupped the back of her head and a strong arm banded around her waist anchoring her against him. "I'm going to press my lips on you, Gabriella, and I want you to open your mouth for me . . ."

"But the—"

"Ssshh." He pressed a forefinger against her lips, ceasing her initial protest and any other she might have thought of. "I will slide my tongue inside your mouth to get the candy from you. You will keep me from taking it . . . with your tongue. Fight for it, Gabriella. Imagine swordplay, a duel."

Eyes dilating, breathing becoming short and her heart drumming an excited beat, she asked herself if she could do it, if she dared to be that bold but Troy was looking at her, waiting for her assent and she found herself nodding very, very slowly . . . thinking absently that the word swordplay has never, ever sounded so stimulating.

He smiled, seemingly well pleased, the darkness in his eyes warming her insides as if he was already touching her. "Then you will do the same once the candy is inside my mouth." Pausing to give the words time to register, he watched as a tide of expressions flitted across her face in response to his words. He saw a degree of uncertainty still, prompting him to ask, "Are we heading in the same direction now?"

What direction? She opened her mouth to speak then closed it again. She couldn't think straight.

"I want to taste your lips, Gabriella. Really, really taste them, not just kiss." He said by way of explanation and cupped her cheek, feeling skin as soft and as flawless as silk. "Will you let me? Will you want to taste my lips too?"

She swallowed, a slight sense of trepidation crept up on her, but she was too caught up in the sensual spell of his words to heed any instinctual warning. "Yes . . ."

Something inside Troy tightened at that encouraging response. He covered the small distance between their mouths and gently licked the soft, outer contours. The second her lips parted on an acquiescent sigh, he slipped his tongue inside her mouth and savoured the luscious pleasure that greeted him there; mint coupled with a taste uniquely hers.

As he expected, the initial response from her was of inhibition, but gently, teasingly, using expertise in kissing derived from several years of cavorting with equally aggressive girls, he coaxed her out of it. His aim was to kiss her into a state where she will allow him to do whatever he so desires—or at least up to a point that wouldn't shock her inexperienced self too much.

Gabriella's lids dropped on a sigh as she felt his hot tongue probe inside her mouth for the candy—going this way and that, gently stabbing motions, flicks here and there—spurring her to follow the movements of his tongue to parry for possession of the candy. She heard him grunt and correctly interpreted it as a sound of satisfaction to her response. He moved his tongue at a slow, leisurely pace as if he had all the time in the world to teach her . . . taste her. The effect was all the more devastating.

Pretty soon, she was French kissing him without conscious thought. She was reacting purely on impulse, on a wealth of feelings, forgetting the purpose of the candy. She was barely aware that Troy's grip on her tightened and that their bodies were practically plastered together from lips to hips. An overriding wave of pleasure enveloped her senses, drowning out all and any awareness of her surroundings or inhibitions she might have.

It was when she pulled back a little to gasp for necessary air that Troy took the candy from her into his mouth. Gabriella had a strong feeling that he could've easily taken it from her early on but probably for the sake of her supposed education on proper kissing, he let her duel longer with him. The effect on her senses was more than welcome. Definitely an education not to be missed, she surmised, or at least one she was glad not to have missed out on.

They stared at each other for long minutes, their chests were heaving as they took deep panting breaths; its sound unnaturally loud in the quiet apartment. The air around them felt thick you could slice it with a knife and Troy's entire frame felt like a tightly coiled spring waiting to be let go.

But their oral swordplay was far from over. Not when Gabriella was proving to be a delightfully responsive student, as he knew she would be with proper encouragement. What he didn't anticipate was how violent his reaction would be by acting as her teacher. So tamping down his raging libido, he ordered in a ragged voice, "You turn."

Gabriella's senses flared anew and before she could think better of it she was closing the space between their lips and pressing it on his. Guided by the small knowledge he'd just imparted and the swelling desire that he awakened inside her, she teased him the same way he did her and Troy couldn't help but wonder how this tame kissing has such an overwhelming effect on his self control when the more experienced girls he'd been intimate with before had to do the whole sexual shebang to make him lose it and not even completely.

He finally opened his mouth for her entry, flicked his tongue once for a brief lick to her lower lip before her sexy little tongue followed his back into his mouth, making him loose a little more of his restraint. He sucked on her delicious tongue and she moaned. The sound was like tantalizing music to his ears and it was the encouragement he needed to repeat sucking her tongue.

The candy was gone. Melted, disintegrated inside his mouth. But somewhere between their kissing something intangible shifted that Troy was certain they were no longer kissing for the candy. No longer was this a lesson. Teacher and student ceased to exist. They were boyfriend and girlfriend indulging, celebrating their physical chemistry and mutual attraction with a shared kiss. A hot, passionate and overwhelming kiss.

Gabriella's whole body felt haywire, restive and wanton hot with craving. It was extraordinarily crazy and a state of being so alien to her yet she was responding to him, unable to tear herself away and the strength of her response terrified her.

"Don't be scared, Gabriella." He rasped, brushing his fingertips along the delicate curve of her jawbone, as if he sensed her fear and wanted to ease it . . . to assure her she wasn't the only one. "I feel no different." And just to prove he was telling the truth, his hips thrust up once so that Gabriella felt the hard and straining evidence of his desire for her. Upon contact of his bulging zip to the clothed junction between her thighs, Troy groaned in time with the low moan that dredged from her throat.

She gave in, setting what remained of her reservations aside, letting him take over the kiss.

It demanded a leap of faith on her part and the willingness to believe that as time stretches on and reality intrudes, he would never treat her with the same callous lack of feeling his father had treated his mother or the unfeeling way her own mother had treated her as a child.