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For a moment, it was just the two of them. None of his false cheer and bravado. None of her cold remoteness. Just a man, and a woman, in a private world deep under the surface of a dismal reality.
Averting her eyes, she rubbed her neck again, rolling her shoulders and wincing. He wasn’t sure what possessed him, but he caught the back of her neck. She froze in place, and he did too. Her whole body rigid, she cut her eyes to him, then quickly away. What was he doing?
Her skin was so soft and smooth. Like velvet over iron.
No. He had to stop. But just before he forced himself to pull away, she suddenly melted into him with a sigh so deep he felt it in his own body. She bent her head, giving him more access and pushing the nobs of her spine out like little chocolate truffles. After only a moment’s hesitation, he gently kneaded the spaces between her joints with his fingers. A loud groan vibrated her body.
“Come here, Lanie.”
She peered at him, and he reached out to her. After a long moment, she reached back. And when she took his hand, his whole body sighed. He tugged, and she came, letting him tuck her against his side. He put both his hands on her slender, wiry frame, working out tension in her neck, shoulders, and back. In seconds she was nearly boneless, malleable as dough under his touch. She sounded like a contented panther, rumbling and making other sounds that drove him crazy, and might give an eavesdropper the wrong idea about what they were doing in her cabin.
Soon, though, before his agony became too unbearable, she was drifting off, and he dared to stop the massage. Chuckling, he locked his arms around her. The comforting weight of her head pressed on his chest as she laid her cheek over his heart. Her complete surrender was as magical as it was unexpected. Without letting his burned arm press against her, he held her as tightly as he could, filled with a mix of joy and breathless awe.
The moment felt so right and familiar that life outside of it felt like a dream. Somehow, everything since she got here had led up to this. He’d wanted to do this when he had touched her in the kitchen after she’d bandaged his arm. The way she had handled his face, analyzing and exploring him with her eyes, had turned his bones to water. Just like now, he felt like he could see beneath the surface of her, and something about that garden tattoo called to him. He’d had no idea she would react that way to his touch that night. But the look in her eyes had nearly stopped his heart when she’d stood there, frozen and vulnerable. And then…he wasn’t quite sure what had happened. Maybe he really had died, because he felt like he’d had an out-of-body experience. He watched himself talking to her, not knowing what he was planning to say, as unable to control his words as hers.
He wasn’t sure what it meant. All he knew was that it had scared him. Those feelings were…more. And he wasn’t sure what this meant, right now, but once again, it was more. And not enough.
That was it – the not enough. It was hazardous for him. As much as he enjoyed the thrill of triumphing over his temptations, there were times when he was too close to the edge, past the point of thrill and almost unable to come back. To the point where the craving nearly closed over his head and drowned him.
Unlike the other times when he played the game, he wasn’t afraid now, of drowning. Unfortunately, he was actually sort of enjoying it.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, unable to help it, letting his face come down to the top of her hair.
A soft little snore was the only acknowledgment of his very daring, and very inadequate compliment. He decided to take it as an agreement.
There was the distinct notion that he held something precious. Hers was a wild, unconventional beauty, but it was also the most rare and pure. Her neat twist felt like a skein of cashmere yarn, coiled and springy, scented by the hospital and her shampoo. Herbal Essences? The hibiscus kind. Funny. He had pegged her for a plain, unscented shampoo kind of girl. She was full of surprises and mysteries. He wanted to unearth all of them.
Because of this, he should leave. That was the right thing to do. But his arms tightened around her of their own accord. Instead of walking away, he clutched her to him as he carefully laid the two of them down, pillowing her head on his arm. He could stay for just a few more minutes – what would be the harm? It was quiet here. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed the quiet. Endless time to explore his inner world, thoughts and ideas and plans. Until that world had become dark, and rotten, and the last place he wanted to be.
Relaxed and smooth for one second, her face was as fresh and innocent as if she’d never had a care in the world. Almost as if she was the first woman to ever exist, born into a world of purity and vibrance. Strangely, he felt as though he’d never held a woman before this moment. He felt new – as though his life was beginning.
She shifted slightly in his arms, mumbling and burrowing her face into his chest, her fists in his shirt. Now a little scowl pressed between her brows. Would his doubled heartrate wake her? Now, she was less like a vulnerable lamb when she slept, and more like a sleeping lion – he felt electrified by the certainty that she could spring awake at any moment and maul him, once she realized what she was actually doing.
Plus, she was his boss. He had no idea why she’d let him hold her, or why she’d let herself fall asleep on him, but he figured she was so burned out from her ordeal today that she wasn’t quite all there. When she came back to her senses, she’d be angry. As much as he enjoyed seeing that heat break through her usually cool, superior demeanor, this small slice of the divine was one thing he didn’t want to see her angry about.
Carefully, he tried to extricate from her, but her grip turned to iron, sending a slight chill through him as he recalled all the ways she could kill a man.
“Don’t go,” she mumbled, twining her long legs with his. Her boots thumped his shoes, and the pressure on his thighs was almost painful. He reached down with his free hand to try and pry her knee off, but like a snare, the pressure only tightened. Her sleepy murmur turned plaintiff, heartbreaking. “Take me with you, Ben. Don’t go without me.”
He was imprisoned in the net her lips created by speaking his name. He gazed down at his warden, then put his cheek back on the top of her head.
Yawning, he gently stroked her back through her soft sweater. He only hoped that no one found out about this. It would only add to the rumours about the two of them, and she’d be livid. Whatever truce they’d just come to, he would do what he could to keep it. Tomorrow, he’d do all he could for the hospital. Nothing would stop him from making it the best it could be.
Her right hand loosened, then drifted up his chest and into the collar of his shirt. His heart skipped again at her cool touch, the result of poor circulation due to her height and slimness. Shifting, he pressed her closer to his warmth.
This was more than thrill-seeking lust, although that particular hunger had certainly not dissipated. Did he really care for her? This was deeper than he’d cared for a woman in a long time, that was for sure, considering the fact that he was no longer trying to picture her naked to theorize about her tattoo. He wanted more than just the physical. He wasn’t sure what, exactly. It couldn’t be possible that she was the one from his revelation in rehab. The two of them were just too different. But there was something about her that nagged at him, and he needed to figure out what all of this meant. Just the thought of walking away now was physically painful. Just before he fell asleep, he doubled his resolve to stay at Qalcad. He’d earn her respect, and she’d stop trying to make him leave. He’d earn her trust. Even if it was the last thing he did.
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~ Romans 15:13