Mindless sex – there’s a lot to be said for it. No commitments, no expectations, and no disappointments; I just have to remember their names. Who was it last time? Jojo? Jeanne? Jody? Whatever. She was some nameless fuck who moaned a great deal both in and out of bed. I lie staring at the rippling reflections from the Thames on my ceiling, unable to sleep. Too restless to sleep.

Tonight it’s Caroline. She doesn’t fit the nameless-fuck category. She’ll never fit. What the hell was I thinking? Closing my eyes, I try to silence the still, small voice that is questioning the wisdom of bedding my best friend...again. She slumbers beside me, her sleek body bathed in the silver light of the January moon, her long legs entwined with mine, and her head on my chest.

This is wrong, so wrong. I rub my face, trying to erase my self-loathing, and she stirs and shifts, waking from her doze. One manicured fingernail skims down my stomach and over my abdominal muscles, then circles my navel. I sense her sleepy smile as her fingers slip towards my pubic hair. Catching her hand, I bring it to my lips. “Haven’t we done enough damage for one night, Caro?” I kiss each finger in turn to take the sting out of the rejection. I’m tired and disheartened by the nagging, unwelcome guilt that gnaws at my gut.

This is Caroline, for heaven’s sake, my best friend and my brother’s wife. Ex-wife.

No. Not ex-wife. His widow.

It’s a sad, lonely word for a sad, lonely circumstance.

“Oh, Maxim, please. Make me forget,” she whispers, and plants a warm wet kiss on my chest. Tossing her fair hair away from her face, she gazes up at me through long lashes, her eyes shining with need and grief.

I cup her lovely face and shake my head. “We shouldn’t.”

“Don’t.” She places her fingers on my lips, silencing me. “Please. I need it.”

I groan. I’m going to hell.

“Please,” she begs.

Shit, this is hell.

And because I’m hurting, too – because I miss him, too – and Caroline is my connection to him, my lips find hers and I ease her onto her back.

When I wake, the room is flooded with bright winter sunshine that makes me squint. Turning over, I’m relieved to see that Caroline has gone, leaving behind a lingering trace of regret – and a note on my pillow:

Dinner Tonight with Daddy & the Stepsow? Please come.

They are mourning, too.

ILY x

Fuck.

This is not what I want. I close my eyes, grateful to be alone in my own bed and glad, despite our nocturnal activities, that we decided to come back to London two days after the funeral.

How the hell did this get so out of hand?

Just a nightcap, she’d said, and I’d gazed into her big blue eyes, brimming with sorrow, and known what she wanted. It was the same look she’d given me the night we learned of Kit’s accident and untimely death. A look I couldn’t resist then. We’d almost danced the dance so many times, but that night I resigned myself to fate, and with an unerring inevitability I fucked my brother’s wife.

And now we’d done it again, with Kit laid to rest only two days ago.

I scowl at the ceiling. I am, without doubt, a pathetic excuse for a human. But then so is Caroline.

At least she has an excuse: she’s in mourning, scared for her future, and I’m her best friend. Who else could she turn to in her hour of need? I’d just pushed the envelope on comforting the grieving widow.

Frowning, I crumple her note and toss it to the wooden floor, where it skitters to a stop under the sofa that’s piled with my clothes. The watery shadows float above me, the light and dark seeming to taunt me. I close my eyes to shut them out.

Kit was a good man.

Kit. Dear Kit. Everyone’s favourite – even Caroline’s; she did choose him, after all. A vision of Kit’s desolate, broken body lying beneath a sheet at the hospital mortuary appears unbidden in my mind. I take a deep breath, trying to dispel the memory, as a knot forms in my throat. He deserved better than dear Caro and me – his wastrel brother. He didn’t deserve this...betrayal.

Fuck.

Who am I kidding?

Caroline and I deserve each other. She scratched my itch, and I scratched hers. We’re both consenting and technically free adults. She likes it. I like it, and it’s what I do best, fucking some eager, attractive woman into the small hours of the morning. It’s my favourite recreational activity and gives me something to do – someone to do. Fucking keeps me fit, and in the throes of passion I learn all I need to know about a woman – how to make her sweat and if she screams or cries when she comes.

Caroline is a crier.

Caroline has just lost her husband.

Shit.

And I’ve lost my big brother, my only guiding light for the last few years.

Shit.

Closing my eyes, I see Kit’s pale, dead face once more, and his loss is a yawning space within me.

An irreplaceable loss.

Why the hell was he riding his motorcycle on that bleak and icy night? It’s beyond comprehension. Kit is – was – the sane one, the safe pair of hands, Lord Reliable himself. Between the two of us, it was Kit who brought honour to our family name, upheld its reputation, and behaved responsibly. He held down a job in the City and managed the substantial family business as well. He didn’t make rash decisions, he didn’t drive like a madman. He was the sensible brother. He stepped up, not down. He was not the prodigal mess that I am. No, I’m the other side of Kit’s coin. My speciality is being the black sheep of the family. No one has any expectations of me, I make sure of that. Always.

I sit up, my mood grim in the harsh morning light. It’s time to hit the basement gym. Running, fucking and fencing, they all keep me in shape.

With dance music hammering in my ears and sweat rolling down my back, I drag air into my lungs. The pounding of my feet on the treadmill clears my mind as I concentrate on pushing my body to its limits. Usually when I run, I’m focused and grateful that at last I feel something – even if it’s just the pain of bursting lungs and limbs. Today I don’t want to feel anything.

Excerpted with permission from The Mister, EL James, Arrow.