CHAPTER FIFTEEN

I really didn’t want to get into that. I wished Hardy would go away and leave me the privacy for tears. I wanted to cry and go to sleep, and never wake up. But it was pretty clear Hardy wasn’t going anywhere until he got an explanation. And God knew I owed him one.I gestured clumsily to a chair on the other side of the table. “If you wouldn’t mind . . . I can talk about it easier if you sit over there.”

Hardy shook his head. The only sign of emotion on his face were the twin lines notched between his brows. “I can’t,” he said in a husky voice. “I think I might know what you’re going to tell me. And I don’t want to be far away from you when you say it.”

I looked away from him, shrinking into the folds of his shirt. I could only talk in fits and starts. “What just happened was . . . Well, I behaved that way because . . . I have some leftover problems from my marriage. Because Nick was . . . abusive.”

The room was deathly quiet. I still couldn’t look at him.

“It started out in little ways,” I said, “but it got worse over time.

The things he said, the demands . . . the slapping, screaming, punishing . . . I kept forgiving him, and he kept promising never to do it again . . . but he did, and it got worse, and he always blamed me for causing it. He always said it was my fault. And I believed him.”

I went on and on. I told Hardy everything. It was awful. It was a train wreck happening right in front of me and I couldn’t do anything about it, except that not only was I watching, I was also the train. I confessed things that in a saner moment I would have had dignity or sense to filter out. But there was no filter. All my defenses were down.

Hardy listened with his face averted, his profile shadowed. But his body was tense all over, the stark relief of jutting muscles in his arms and shoulders more eloquent than words.

I even told him about the last night with Nick, the rape, being thrown out, the barefoot walk to the grocery store. While I talked, I cringed at the ugliness of what I’d been through.

There was a certain relief in it though. An ease. Because I knew that with all the baggage I was unloading, any chance of a relationship with Hardy was vanishing. Syllable by syllable. No man would want to deal with this. And that was for the best, because it was obvious I wasn’t ready for a relationship anyway.

So this was goodbye.

“I didn’t mean to lead you on,” I said to Hardy. “I knew from the beginning I was playing with fire, having anything to do with you. But — ” My eyes watered, and I blinked fiercely and talked in a rush. “You’re so good-looking and such a good kisser and I wanted you so much last night that I thought I could go through with it, but I’m too screwed up and I just can’t do it, I can’t.”

I fell silent then. My eyes wouldn’t stop leaking. I couldn’t think of anything else to tell Hardy, except that he could go if he wanted. But he stood and went to the fireplace and braced a hand on the mantel. He stared into the empty space. “I’m going after your ex-husband,” I heard him say softly. “And when I finish, there won’t be enough left of him to fill a fu**ing matchbox.”

I’d heard louder and more colorful threats, but never one delivered with a quiet sincerity that raised all the hairs on the back of my neck.

Hardy turned to look at me then. I felt myself blanch as I saw his expression. It was not the first time I’d been alone in a room with a man who had murder in his eyes. This time, thankfully, the violence wasn’t directed at me. All the same, it made me fidgety. “Nick’s not worth going to jail for,” I said.

“I don’t know about that.” Hardy stared at me for a moment, registering my uneasiness. His expression deliberately softened. “The way I was brought up, ‘he needed killing’ is an airtight legal defense.”

I almost smiled at that. I let my shoulders slump, feeling drained in the aftermath of my personal catastrophe. “But even if you did, it wouldn’t change the way I am now. I’m broken.” I blotted my eyes with a shirtsleeve. “I wish I’d slept with someone before I married Nick, because at least then I’d have some good experience with sex. As it is, though . . . ”

Hardy watched me intently. “That night of the theater opening . . . you had a flashback when I was kissing you, didn’t you? That’s why you took off like a scalded cat.”

I nodded. “Something in my mind clicked, and it was like I was with Nick, and all I knew was that I had to get away or I would be hurt.”

“Was it always bad with him?”

It was mortifying, talking about my pitiful sex life. But at this point I had no pride left. “It started out okay, I guess, but the longer the marriage went on, the worse things got in the bedroom, until I was mostly just waiting for it to be over. Because I knew it didn’t matter to Nick if I was enjoying it or not. And it hurt sometimes when I was . . . you know, dry.” If a person could have died of embarrassment, I should have been laid out on a mortuary slab right then.

Hardy came to sit on the sofa beside me, laying one arm along the back of it. I flinched at his nearness, but I couldn’t look away from him. He was ridiculously virile in that damned white T-shirt, with that long body and those sun-baked muscles. Any woman would have to be out of her mind not to go to bed with him.

“I guess it’s over now,” I said bravely. “Right?”

“Is that what you want?”

My throat clenched. I shook my head.

“What do you want, Haven?”

“I want you,” I burst out, and the tears spilled over again. “But I can’t have you.”

Hardy moved closer, gripping my head in his hands, forcing me to look at him. “Haven, sweetheart . . . you’ve already got me.”

I looked at him through a hot blur. His eyes were filled with anguished concern and fury. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “And you’re not broken. You’re scared, like any woman would be, after what that son of a bitch did.” A pause, a curse, a deep breath. An intent stare. “Will you let me hold you now?”

Before I even realized what I was doing, I had crawled into his lap. He gathered me close, cuddling and soothing, and the comforting felt so good that I almost wished I could keep crying. I nuzzled into the fragrant skin of his neck, finding the place where the shaven bristle of his jaw began.

He turned his mouth to mine, easy and warm, and that was all it took to start me simmering again, my lips parting to welcome him.

But even as I responded to his kiss, I felt the intimate pressure of him beneath me, and I stiffened.

Hardy drew his head back, his eyes molten blue. “Is it this?” He nudged upward, the hard ridge pushing against me. “Feeling that makes you nervous?”

I squirmed and nodded, turning scarlet. But I didn’t try to move off him, just sat there quivering.

His hands traced down my shoulders and arms, caressing me through the shirt. “Should I visit the therapist with you? Would that help?”

I couldn’t believe he’d be willing to do that for me. I tried to imagine it, me and Hardy and Susan discussing my sex problems, and I shook my head. “I want to fix it now,” I said desperately. “Let’s just . . . let’s go into the bedroom and do it. No matter what I say or even if I freak out, just hold me down and keep going till it’s finished and — ”

“Hell no, we’re not going to do that.” Hardy looked almost comically appalled. “You’re not a horse to be broken to saddle. You don’t need to be forced, you need — ” He drew in a quick breath as I shifted my weight on his lap. “Honey,” he said in a strained voice, “I don’t do my best thinking when all the blood leaves my brain. So you should probably sit next to me.”

A warm pulse throbbed where we pressed, our flesh fitting exactly. I realized I wasn’t quite as nervous, now that I’d had a few moments to get used to him. I settled a little deeper on him.

Hardy closed his eyes and made a guttural sound. I saw the color

heighten in his face. And I felt a rearing response in the thick pressure beneath me.

Hardy’s lashes lifted, his eyes bluer than usual against his rich rosewood tan. He glanced at the front of my shirt — his shirt — where it gaped open to reveal the space between my breasts. “Haven . . . ” His voice was hoarse. “We’re not going to do anything you’re not ready for. Let’s get you dressed, and I’ll take you out to dinner. We’ll have some wine, and you can relax. We’ll figure this out later.”

But later was too late. I wanted to figure it out right then. I felt the heat coming off him, and I saw the mist of sweat on his throat, and I longed to kiss him. I wanted to give him pleasure. And please, God, I wanted at least one good memory to replace one of the bad ones.

“Hardy,” I said tentatively, “would you . . . indulge me a little?”

A smile touched his mouth. He reached out and pulled the sides of the shirt closed, and used the backs of his fingers to stroke my cheek. “A little,” he said, “or a lot. Just tell me what you want.”

“I feel like . . . if we went to the bedroom right now, and just tried some things, I . . . I could handle it as long as you took it slow.”

His hand stilled. “What if you have a flashback?”

“I don’t think it would bother me as much as it did before, because now I’ve told you everything and I know you understand what my problem is. So I would just tell you if I got afraid.”

He stared at me for a long moment. “You trust me, Haven?”

I ignored a twinge of nerves in my stomach. “Yes.”

Without another word Hardy plucked me from his lap, set me on my feet, and followed me to the bedroom.

My bed was an old-fashioned brass one, the sturdy, stately kind that weighed a ton and didn’t move an inch. It was covered in cream linen, and the pillows were made of lace taken from antique wedding dresses. In the feminine surroundings of my bedroom, Hardy looked even bigger and more masculine than usual.

Such a normal act, two people going to bed together. But for me it was invested with far too much significance, too much emotion, too much everything.

The air-conditioning imparted a soft chill to the room, the lace on the pillows fluttering like moth wings as the ceiling fan turned overhead. An antique Victorian lamp shed amber light across the bed.

I tried to seem casual, sitting on the bed and working at the tiny straps of my high-heeled sandals. I wished I weren’t stone-cold sober. A glass of wine might have loosened me up a little. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe I should suggest —

Hardy sat beside me, reached for my foot, and unfastened the miniature buckle. He squeezed my bare foot and ran his thumb along the arch before taking off the other shoe. Sliding an arm around me, he eased us both back onto the bed.

I waited tensely for him to start. But Hardy only held me, warming me with his body, fitting an arm beneath my neck. One hand traveled over my back and waist and hips, up to the nape of my neck, as if I were a skittish animal. And it went on until the petting and soothing had lasted longer than any sex act I had ever engaged in with Nick.

Hardy spoke against my hair. “I want you to understand . . . you’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you in any way. And if I do something you don’t want, or you start to feel scared, I’ll stop. I’m not going to lose control.” I flinched as I felt a tug at the front of my jeans and heard the snap being unfastened. “I’m just going to find out what you like.”

My fingers curled into his T-shirt as his hands ventured inside the loosened waist of my jeans. ” I want to find out what you like too.”

“I like it all, darlin’,” he whispered, peeling my clothes off as if he were unwrapping a bandage. “I told you, I’m easy to please.”

His breath fell on me with a sweet burn as he drew his mouth over my throat and breasts. He knew what he was doing, taking his time. “Relax,” he murmured, his fingers gliding over my straining limbs.

I clutched at his T-shirt, trying to pull it off. He helped me, stripping away the layer of thin cotton and tossing it to the floor. His skin was as brown as cinnamon against the antique-white bed linens. There was a light mat of hair on his chest, so unlike Nick’s smoothness. I put my arms around his neck and kissed him, gasping as my br**sts pressed into the warm, tickling hair.

Hardy caressed and explored as if he were intent on discovering every detail of my body. I realized he was playing with me, lifting and turning me, pressing kisses in unexpected places. He was so strong, his body sleek and beautiful in the muted light. I crawled over him and rubbed my nose and chin into the springy-soft fur of his chest. I trailed my fingers to his midriff, where the skin was satin-smooth and taut over bands of muscle. And lower, to the edge of his jeans . . . and lower still, to the part of him I was nervous of.

Watching my face, Hardy eased slowly onto his back, allowing me to explore him. I touched him over his jeans, hesitantly tracing the jut of his erection. His breath roughened, and I sensed how difficult it was for him to hold himself in check. My fingers wandered to the base of the shaft, where the flesh was weighted and tight-mounded, and I heard him give a soft grunt. A dart of excitement went through me as I realized how much he liked that, and I did it again, circling my palm over the taut denim.

A laughing groan escaped him. “You’re trying to torture me, aren’t you?”

I shook my head. “Just trying to learn you.”

He pulled me farther over his chest, guided my head to his, and gave me another of those insatiable kisses, until I was rising and falling with the rhythm of his breathing as if I were floating on ocean waves. He reached down to his jeans and unfastened them.

I hesitated and slid my hand down to grip him gingerly. At this point there was no doubt that Hardy was built to scale all over. It was, as Todd would say, quite a package. But instead of greeting the discovery with a hallelujah, I grimaced. “You’re a lot for me to manage,” I said doubtfully. “I wish I could start with something smaller and gradually trade up.”

“Can’t help you there, honey.” Hardy sounded breathless. “That one’s not available in a mid-sized edition.” He urged me over to my front, and I felt his mouth on my back, kissing and nibbling along my spine. But I stiffened as I remembered how Nick used to take me from behind. His favorite position. All the thumping excitement died away, and I broke out in an anxious sweat.

Hardy’s mouth lifted from my skin, and he turned me to face him.

“Scared?” he murmured, his hand skimming over my arm.

I nodded with a mixture of defeat and frustration. “I guess I don’t like it that way, with you behind me. It reminds me of — ” I stopped, wondering bleakly if I was ever going to get Nick out of my head, if I would ever be able to forget what he had done. The bad memories had been woven into the fabric of my body, threaded through every nerve. Nick had ruined me for life.

Hardy continued to stroke my arm. There was a distance in his gaze, as if he were turning a thought over in his mind. I realized he was considering how to handle me, how to slip past my defenses, and that made me feel apologetic and wary.

His hand wandered from my arm to my chest, his fingertips circling the br**sts that Nick had complained were too small.

Damn it. There was no way the good feeling was going to come back. I couldn’t stop thinking about my ex-husband, or my own inadequacies. “It’s not working for me,” I choked out. “Maybe we should — ”

“Close your eyes,” he murmured. “Lie still.”

I obeyed, my fingers knotting into fists by my sides. The lamplight shone dull orange through my lids. His mouth descended, trailing kisses from my chest to my stomach. His tongue slipped inside the tight hollow of my navel, and I squirmed in response. His hand settled on one of my knees. “Easy,” he whispered again, sliding lower until my eyes flew open. I jerked and pushed at his head.

“Wait,” I gasped. “That’s enough, I can’t . . . ” I was blushing furiously, trembling all over.

Hardy’s head lifted, the soft light running over his hair like liquid. “Am I hurting you?”

“No.”

His hand came to my stomach, rubbing in a warm circle. “Did I scare you, honey?”

“No, it’s just . . . I’ve never done that before.” Needless to say, Nick had never been interested in any activity that would enhance my pleasure rather than his.

Hardy contemplated my red face for a moment. A new glint entered his eyes.

Softly, “Don’t you want to try it?”

“Well, someday, I guess. But I like to take these things in steps, I think I should get used to the regular stuff before going to the advanced — ” I broke off with a little yelp as he bent over me again. “What are you doing?”

His voice was muffled. “You work on a plan for taking it in steps. Let me know when you got it figured out. In the meantime . . . ”

I squeaked as he pinned my legs, holding them wide.

Hardy gave a low laugh, enjoying my discomfort. There was no doubt about it — I was in bed with the devil. “Give me five minutes,” he coaxed.

“This is not up for negotiation.”

“Why not?”

“Because — ” I twisted and panted. “Because I’m about to die of embarrassment. I — No. I mean it, Hardy, this is — ” My mind went blank as I felt him lick deep into that vulnerable, secret place. I managed a feeble push against his head. There was no dislodging him. “Hardy — ” I tried again, but the delicate moist strokes opened the seam of closed flesh, and the pleasure was so acute I couldn’t think or move. He followed the sensation to its center, using the tip of his tongue, and then he breathed on the throb and ache, steam fanning across wet skin. My heartbeat slammed so fast that I could barely hear his mocking whisper over the blood-rhythm in my ears.

“Still want me to stop, Haven?”

My eyes were wet. I was strung tight with pleasure, shaking with it, but it wasn’t enough. “No. Don’t stop.” I was shocked by the sound of my own voice, so hoarse and low. And even more shocked by the way I cried out as he slid in one finger, and then another, stretching the glazed softness, while his mouth searched the furled flesh. The sensation was excruciating, my h*ps hitching upward and falling back. But release kept skittering out of reach, maddening in its elusiveness.

“I can’t,” I groaned, “I can’t do it.”

“Yes you can. Just stop trying.”

“I can’t stop trying.”

His wicked fingers began a slow in-and-out slide. I sobbed as a surge began, my flesh rippling, closing. His knuckles wriggled deeper. His tongue flicked steadily, and his mouth . . . his mouth . . . I was gripped by an overpowering swell, every heartbeat, breath, impulse, guided into violent tumbling spasms. I arched into the intense pleasure, my trembling hands secured around his head.

Hardy pushed his fingers as deep as possible and his tongue circled to catch the last few twitches of release. When his touch was withdrawn, I whimpered and reached for him, tugging him upward. He rolled me to my side and put his arms around me, and kissed the tear smudges at the corners of my eyes.

We were quiet for a minute, my bare feet tucked between his, his palm warm on my bottom. I felt the urgency beneath his stillness, like the false lull of the bull pen before the animal exploded out of the chute.

My hand stole to the open waist of his jeans. “Take these off,” I whispered.

Still breathing heavily, Hardy shook his head. “That’s enough for tonight. Let’s quit while we’re ahead.”

“Quit?” I repeated in groggy surprise. “No, there’s no quitting now.” I kissed his chest, relishing the masculine texture of him, the warm fur against my lips. “If you don’t make love to me, Hardy Cates, I’ll never forgive you.”

“I did make love to you.”

“All the way,” I insisted.

“You’re not ready for all the way.”

I gripped him and ran my fingers up and down the silky, hard-sprung length. “You can’t tell me no,” I told him. “It would be bad for my self-esteem.”

I rubbed my thumb over the broad tip, slow circles that drew out a slick of moisture. A quiet groan escaped him, and he buried his mouth in my hair. Reaching down, he pried my fingers away. I thought he was going to tell me to stop. Instead he said in a muffled voice, “My wallet is in the kitchen. I’ll go get it.”

I understood instantly. “We don’t need a condom. I’m on the pill.”

His head lifted, and he looked at me.

I gave an awkward shrug. “Since Nick never wanted me to have them, they became sort of an issue with me. I feel more in control . . . safer . . . when I take them. And the doctor said it wouldn’t hurt me. So I never miss a day. Believe me, we’re covered. Even without any other protection.”

Hardy rose and braced his weight on one elbow, looking down at me. “I’ve never done it without a condom.”

“Ever?” I asked, bemused.

He shook his head. “I never wanted to take a chance on getting someone pregnant. I didn’t want the responsibility. I always swore if I did have kids, I wouldn’t leave them the way my dad did.”

“You’ve never had a girlfriend who went on birth control?”

“Even then, I always used a condom. I’ve never been a fan of the trust-the-woman method.”

Perhaps some women would have taken offense at that, but I understood all too well about trust issues. “That’s fine,” I said, leaning up to kiss his chin. “Let’s do it your way.”

Hardy didn’t move, however. He kept staring at me with those vivid eyes, and I felt something intimate and visceral flourish between us, a sense of connection I found more than a little alarming.

It felt as if all the rhythms of my body and his had been set to one invisible metronome.

“You gave me your trust,” he said. “Damned if I can’t do the same.”

I eased to my back, and my breath quickened, and so did his.

He undressed and pressed against me. He was gentle . . . so gentle . . . but I could feel the power and weight of him, and I tensed. He nudged more strongly until we both felt the snug, supple yielding, softness giving way to hardness. Me, taking him inside. Opening to him. The blue eyes turned drowsy, pleasure-clouded, his lashes throwing spiked shadows on his cheeks. He entered me by slow inches, giving me time to adjust, to span the heavy invasion. I turned my face against his arm, my cheek tucked against taut muscle.

When I’d taken all of him I could, Hardy coaxed me to lift my knees, spread them wider, and he gave me even more. So tight, wet, my body offering lubricious welcome. I saw the concern on his face being replaced by lust. I loved the way he stared at me, as if he wanted to eat me alive.

I wriggled, uncomfortable with all that fullness inside me, and Hardy shivered and gasped out a few words that sounded like, Oh God please don’t move Haven baby please . . .

“Feel good?” I whispered.

Hardy shook his head, struggling to breathe. His face was flushed as if with a high fever. “No?” I asked.

“Felt good a half hour ago,” he managed to say, his accent slurry-like he’d just done about ten tequila shots. “Fifteen minutes after that it was the greatest sex I’ve ever had, and right about now . . . I’m pretty sure I’m in the middle of a heart attack.”

Smiling, I pulled his head down to mine and whispered, “What happens after the heart attack?”

“Not sure.” His breath whistled through his teeth, and he dropped his head to the pillow beside mine. “Hell,” he said desperately, “I don’t know if I can hold on to this.”

I drew my hands over his sides, his back, the muscles coiled and strong beneath my fingertips. “Don’t hold back.”

He began a careful rhythm, rooting out pleasure from the intimate channel where we were joined. One of his thrusts stroked a sensitive place, deep and low, and at the same time his body pressed the front of mine at just the right angle. A zing of delight went through me. I jerked in surprise and dug my fingers into Hardy’s hips.

He lifted his head and smiled into my wide eyes. “Did I find a sweet spot?” he whispered, and did it again, and again, and to my everlasting embarrassment I couldn’t keep quiet, groans climbing in my throat until my h*ps shuddered against his.

This time the spasms weren’t as intense, but they were long and slow, pulling at the length of him until he came. He buried the pleasure sounds in my mouth, and kissed me, and kissed me, stopping only when we were both oxygen deprived and completely spent.

I was filled with an overpowering drowsiness after that. I dozed for a while, with his body still tucked inside mine, and I discovered that the sleep after good sex was almost better than the sex itself. I woke later with him hard inside me, not thrusting, just wedged deep, and his hands were wandering everywhere, stroking and massaging. I lay on my side, one leg hitched over his hip. I wanted, needed him to move, but he kept me impaled and still. I gripped his bicep, his shoulder, trying to pull him over me. He resisted, letting me wriggle like a worm on a hook.

“Hardy,” I muttered, sweating at the roots of my hair. “Please . . . ”

“Please what?” He licked at my upper lip, then the lower one.

I rocked against him and pulled my mouth free long enough to gasp, “You know.”

He pressed his mouth into my neck. I felt the curve of his smile. Yes, he knew. But he continued to hold me locked against him while I clenched over and over, pulling at the deep pulse of him. Finally he gave me a hint of a thrust, more a suggestion of movement than an actual rhythm. It was enough though. It tipped me past the flash point, inner muscles contracting to gather sensation, and I came in rough shivers. Hardy drove upward in one strong shove and held, filling me with lustrous heat.

He continued kissing me in the aftermath, his lips wandering sweetly while his fingertips coasted over my chin and cheeks and throat. After a while he pulled me out of bed and into the shower. Feeling drugged, I leaned on him as he washed me. His hands were gentle as he soaped and rinsed my body. Slippery, veiled in steam, I rested my cheek against the hard plane of his chest. He reached down and slipped two fingers inside me. I was sore and swollen, but it felt so good that I couldn’t help pushing my h*ps forward. I heard a low crooning sound in his throat, and his thumb swirled tenderly around my clit. With infinite skill, he eased me into another cl**ax, while the hot water rained over me and his mouth ate at mine.

I barely remembered drying off and going back to bed, only that I was soon drifting to sleep with his solid presence beside me.

But some time later, I woke from a nightmare, my body alarmed by the awareness of a man sleeping nearby. I woke with a start, thinking for a moment that I was back with Nick, that I hadn’t escaped after all. There was movement beside me, a masculine weight, and I sucked in my breath sharply.

“Haven,” came a dark murmur. The sound calmed me. “Bad dream?” His voice was sleep softened and thick, like crushed velvet.

“Uh-huh.”

His palm stroked a circle on my chest to soothe my rocketing heartbeat.

I sighed, and quieted in his arms. His lips moved down to my breasts, kissing the tender, hardened tips. I put my arms around his head, his hair soft against my inner wrists. He worked his way down slowly. My knees bent, and I felt his hands grip my ankles like warm, living manacles. Even in the darkness, I saw the broad span of his shoulders and the outline of his head, anchored between my thighs. He lapped at me languidly, feeding off my pleasure, sending me into long, helpless shudders.

And when I fell asleep this time, there were no more dreams.

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