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“You know, I’m not sleeping with Mickey, or Alison, or Lena, or anyone else.”
The night air was hot, and the river rolled steadily by below them. Even though she was sitting at least two feet away from him, she could still smell that eucalyptus and sandalwood scent.
“Don’t tell any of them that. They’ll be heartbroken. Also, your hickies beg to differ.”
Self-consciously, he rubbed his neck. “I don’t get hickies. And anyway, I haven’t had any make-out sessions in weeks.”
She wasn’t sure why she was even allowing this conversation. Maybe she missed the attention she usually got from Javi, but she had to admit she had come to look forward to the banter with Ben. “How sad for you. You must be so frustrated.”
“I’m serious, Lanie. Actually, I haven’t slept with anyone for almost a year.”
She nearly choked with laughter. “I’m sorry, but I find that hard to believe. You’re pretty much the biggest flirt here. And that’s a lot coming from someone who’s spent a cumulative two years with Mickey.”
He leaned back on his hands and looked at the stars. “So, I like to flirt. I like a little smooch session every now and then. But I’m serious. I haven’t slept with anyone in a year. And I haven’t kissed anyone in weeks.”
“And why are you telling me this? I don’t care who you sleep with. Or don’t. You’re a big boy, and it’s none of my business.”
He shrugged and gazed down at the ground. “I just – I didn’t want you to think that I was sleeping around or anything. When it comes to sex I’m actually…saving myself.”
“Oh my God, Ben. I don’t need to know that.” She punched his arm, and he smiled faintly. “Are you weirdly religious or something?”
But he didn’t seem as silly as usual. He seemed pensive. Almost shy. He flicked a glance at her, then away, his eyes shadowed by the moonlight. His eyelashes were so long. For some reason, this strange, vulnerable side of him pulled at her. He wasn’t just a big, silly oaf. She supposed she had known that before. He was well-educated. Smart. Strong. Caring and kind, and a magnet for small children. But he never stopped talking, and was such a dreamer that he was also a magnet for stupid accidents. It was so distracting. It was like she needed to watch him every second of the day just to make sure he wasn’t about to fall down a well or step on a rake. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him for more than five minutes. She was so aware of him that she knew where he was even when she wasn’t looking. Mostly because of his big, loud mouth. That mouth that was now pressed into an introspective bow. She could just imagine how soft they would be, since he never went anywhere without lip chap. How rough that perfectly trim beard would be on her skin. How good he would taste. How good he would smell. How good he would feel…
She didn’t realize she was staring at him until he raised an eyebrow and peered at her. Her heart leapt, but she remained still, refusing to show embarrassment and look away.
“Is there something on my face?” he inquired. His long eyelashes nearly touched his thick brows, and his grey eyes were soft in the moonlight, like spring rain clouds. It brought back the memory of an evening downpour, and Lanie remembered being safe and warm in her house.
What had he been thinking when he had touched her earlier? Was it something she had imagined when she saw the tenderness in his eyes? Or was it simply a kind gesture, with nothing else behind it? She tried not to care, but it was difficult not to wonder. These last few weeks on mission had certainly been confusing.
And why did he care so much about making sure she knew he wasn’t involved with anyone? It wasn’t like he didn’t have options. And he certainly seemed interested in anyone with pretty face. Though she had to admit she wasn’t disappointed, if it was true. Not that it should matter. No way would she ever consider starting something with him. He was the total opposite of the type of man that could hold her interest. He talked too much, spilling his hopes and dreams and whatnot. He asked too many questions.
He manscaped, for crying out loud.
She wasn’t looking to get attached to anyone. Javi was her type. She could basically count every muscle in his body. He was hard and unyielding. Not a single soft spot on him. When they were together, there was no introspection. No talking. No hopes. No dreams.
No eyes that seemed to be simultaneous see into and reflect her soul.
He shifted, and ducked his head to look at her better. “Lanie. What are you thinking? I’m sorry if I freaked you out. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable. It’s just that, well, I’ve been feeling like I want to tell you that I think you’re amazing. I really like you.”
“You don’t know me, Ben. We met a month ago.”
“It’s weird, right?” His voice was even deeper than usual, a little husky. “I kind of feel like I do know you, though. It’s a connection. Do you feel it too?”
She tried to lighten the mood, change the subject. “Is this how you got it with Mickey, Ali and Lena?”
He didn’t seem to find that funny, and looked a little annoyed. He returned to staring at the moon, and didn’t say anything else.
With his eyes finally off of her, she returned to admiring him, because why not? Her gaze dropped down to his chest, his arms, his hands. While he was nowhere near as strong or fit as she was, there was a sturdiness to him. A permanence. She knew she was all hard lines and lethal power. But he was solidness. Reliability. Endurance.
She realized he was watching her again, too. His face was no longer annoyed, and his mouth was curved into a hopeful smile. “Come here,” he invited, the deep rumble of his voice passing over her like warm sunshine.
She met his eyes again, and was surprised when longing stirred in her. “Ben,” she managed, trying to chastise, but sounding wistful instead.
He smiled wider, his face soft and joyful. “Lanie,” he echoed, holding an arm out to her.
And this time, she went. Not because she wanted to. But because she needed to. Suddenly, she just had to know. She crawled over to him, and he drew her close. With her head resting on his broad chest, she listened to his breathing, and his slow, steady heart. He locked his arms around her, hands clasped above her hip, and rested his cheek on her hair. Wrapped in a tight ball with her arms around her knees, she felt protected. After countless hours of watching over him, defending him, and worrying about him, she was able to let her guard down, just a little. But…
“This doesn’t mean anything,” she muttered against him.
A deep, rumbling laugh shook her.
“Okay, Lanie. You just looked like you needed a hug.”
“Not really. It was you looking like you were about to come unglued.”
She knew this would make him laugh again, and she was pleased when she was rewarded with another soft rumble. “It has been a crappy day, hasn’t it?” His thumb stroked her side, and she shifted to look up at him. He grinned that impossible huge grin.
“Do you think you could go one hour without almost getting yourself killed?”
“Now, why would I do that? Then you wouldn’t be giving me so much attention. Plus, I like to watch you fight.”
“I’m serious, Ben. Sometimes I wonder if you’ve got any brains at all.” Scowling, she ducked back under his chin.
“Making sure you stay close to me is the smartest thing I can ever do.”
A small hitch closed her throat. She brought one hand up to rest on his chest, right next to her cheek. “It would be nice to have one quiet day, though.”
“And what would we do with ourselves then?” he teased.
“Gee, I don’t know, maybe have a normal conversation? Or, I could teach you how to defend your own damned self.”
She wasn’t sure why, but she just knew he was grinning. “How about a normal conversation, but you keep being my knight in shining armour?” he suggested.
“How about you learn to pull your own weight so I don’t have to be afraid to leave you for more than a minute?” Lanie countered, then snapped her mouth shut.
His fingers traced the deep groove of her spine, running along the canyon formed by the thick muscles in her back. Almost involuntarily, she arched into the caress. “Do you worry about me?”
“It’s my job,” she snapped, taking her hand from him and starting to pull away. He held her, though, and she leveled a gaze at him, calculating. They both knew that he couldn’t really hold her there. They also knew that if she decided he was taking advantage of her, she could end him. A quick palm to the nose, to drive bone shards into his brain. A knee to the chin, snapping his neck. As she considered the possibilities, she realized his beautiful grey eyes stayed steady on her. Aware, but unafraid. Acknowledging, but…intrigued?
When she didn’t try to pull away again, something changed in his eyes. She realized he was looking at her mouth. Before she knew what was happening, one of his hands was on the back of her head, gently borrowed in her thick curls. The hand at her hip scooted her closer, until she was almost in his lap. All at once, she became aware of the power in his body. And the flash of hunger in his gaze as he bowed his face closer, his lips parting in anticipation.
And for a moment, a quick, hot fire swept through her too. She was hit with the powerful need to let him control her, take over her body and fill every space in her soul with his warm, caring essence. The feeling was so powerful and sudden that she gasped, and he must have read it as an excited response, a sign that she was ready. But she wasn’t ready.
Panic was hot on the tail of that sudden sweep of passion, when she felt his breath against her mouth, and before either of them knew what happened, Ben was flat on his back in the grass and Lanie was several feet away, breathless and trembling.
Slowly, Ben pushed himself up, rubbing his neck and glaring at her. Riding high on adrenaline, she laughed and flitted back to him, pulling him up.
“Go one day without a near-death experience,” she offered wickedly, “and then we can have a conversation while I teach you to fight like a girl.”
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13