CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I knew I looked like hell when I went into work the next morning, with dark circles under my eyes and whisker burns on my throat. I didn’t care. I felt more at peace than I had in months. Years. Maybe ever.I could still feel the imprint of Hardy’s body on mine, not to mention a trace of soreness that reminded me of all we’d done. And despite all the things I could and should have been worrying about, I decided to enjoy the simple human satisfaction of having been thoroughly made love to.

“Call in sick,” Hardy had whispered in the morning. “Spend the day in bed with me.”

“I can’t,” I had protested. “They need me at work.”

“I need you.”

That had made me grin. “You’ve had enough for now.”

Hardy had pulled me up on his chest and kissed me lustily. “I haven’t even gotten started,” he’d said. “In fact, I’ve been holding back on account of you being out of practice.”

We had finally agreed that we would both go to work, since it was Friday and we both had things that needed to be done. But at five-thirty that evening, the weekend would start.

Before Hardy had left that morning, I made him a five-egg omelet with cheese and spinach, a rasher of bacon, and three pieces of toast. He’d eaten every crumb. In response to my comment that he’d cleaned out the contents of my refrigerator, Hardy had replied that satisfying me took a lot of work, and a man had to keep his strength up.

Smiling, I went into my cubicle and opened my laptop. I reflected that I was in such a good mood, nothing could spoil it.

Then Vanessa appeared. “I’ve sent you some e-mails about the latest maintenance contracts,” she said without preamble.

“Good morning, Vanessa.”

“Print out the attachments and make copies. Have them on my desk in an hour.”

“Absolutely.” I watched as she turned to leave. “Wait, Vanessa. There’s something we need to discuss.”

She looked back at me, stunned by my crisp tone, not to mention the absence of the word “please.”

“Yes?” she asked with dangerous softness.

“I don’t want you giving out my personal information to people. So if anyone asks for my home address or home number, do not give it to them unless you’ve checked with me. I think from now on that should be standard office policy for everyone’s protection.”

Her eyes widened dramatically. “I was trying to do you a favor, Haven. Your ex-husband said he had some things he wanted to return to you. Evidently you left him in such a hurry, you forgot to pack everything.” Her voice turned soft, as if she were trying to explain something to a small child. “Don’t try to put me in the middle of your personal problems. That’s not professional.”

I swallowed hard, longing to inform her that I hadn’t left Nick, I’d been beaten up and thrown out. But one of Vanessa’s favorite tricks was to make accusations in her gentlest voice until I ended up saying things I hadn’t meant to say. I wasn’t going to fall for it anymore. And there were some things in my private life that were going to stay private.

“You didn’t do me a favor,” I said calmly. “Nick doesn’t have anything I want. And you’re not in the middle of anything, Vanessa.”

Vanessa shook her head and gave me a cool glance overlaid with pity. “He told me a few things. About how he’d been treated. He was very charming. A little sad, actually.”

I suppressed a bitter smile. How he’d been treated? That was what a narcissist did. He turned around and accused you of doing what he’d done, and he could be so convincing that you might even end up doubting yourself. I was sure Nick had told people that I’d treated him badly, that I’d walked out on him. But I couldn’t control what he said, or whether others believed him or not.

“He can be charming,” I allowed. “Every spider knows how to spin a web.”

“There are two sides to every story, Haven.” Condescension dripped from every syllable like rancid honey.

“Of course there are. But that doesn’t mean both sides are valid.” I probably should have shut my mouth right then. But I couldn’t keep from adding, “And some people are all bad, Vanessa. I wouldn’t wish Nick on any woman.” Even you, I thought privately.

“I never realized how naive you are,” my boss said. “I hope someday you learn to look at the world with a little more sophistication.”

“I’ll work on that,” I muttered, and swiveled in my chair until my back was facing her.

It was not a surprise when Nick called in the middle of the day. I had already figured he’d gotten my work number from Vanessa. But the sound of his voice still caused my stomach to turn over.

“How was your date last night?” Nick asked. “I bet there wasn’t much conversation going on after I left.”

“Don’t call me at work,” I replied shortly. “Or at home, for that matter.”

“There’s only one thing a woman wants from a gym rat like that,” Nick continued, “and it has nothing to do with talking.”

I smiled a little, enjoying the fact that my ex-husband was so intimidated by Hardy. “He’s not a gym rat,” I said. “He happens to be very intelligent. And a good listener — which is a nice change.”

Nick didn’t seem to notice that last comment. “You didn’t even go out. You stayed in the apartment and let him ball you all night, didn’t you?”

I wondered if Nick had watched my apartment. That gave me the creeps. “That’s not your business,” I said.

“I wish you’d have been half so willing to give it out while we were married. Put a wedding ring on you, and you turn frigid.”

Once that comment would have hurt. And I might have even believed that I was frigid. Now I knew better. And I knew Nick for exactly what he was, a narcissist who was incapable of caring about anyone but himself. I could never change him, or make him aware of his own flaws. Nick wanted what he wanted . . . he didn’t understand himself any better than a shark was aware of why it wanted to kill and eat. It just did.

“Well, think God you’re rid of me,” I said. “Do us both a favor and don’t call again, Nick.”

“What about your things? What about that bracelet from your aunt — ”

“If it means having to see you again,” I said, “it’s not worth it.”

“I’ll throw it in the fu**ing garbage,” he threatened. “I’ll pull it apart and — ”

“I’ve got work to do.” And I hung up on him, feeling triumphant and disgusted at the same time. I decided not to tell Hardy, or anyone, about the call from Nick. It would take little provocation for Hardy to track my ex-husband down and wipe him off the planet. And while I wouldn’t have minded having Nick gone for good, I wouldn’t be too crazy about visiting Hardy behind bars.

Over the next two weeks I learned a lot about Hardy. We spent every possible minute together, not by any plan or design. It was just that he had become the person I most wanted to be with. And the puzzling thing was, he seemed to feel the same way.

“It’s almost too easy,” I told Todd on the phone one night, while I was waiting for Hardy to come home from work. “There are no mind games. He calls when he says he’s going to. He shows up on time. He really listens to me. He’s sort of, well, perfect. It’s kind of worrisome.”

“No one’s perfect. You’re leaving something out. What is it? He must be hung like a cocktail weenie.”

“No. If anything, he’s too much the other way.” There was a pronounced silence. “Todd? Are you still there?”

“Yeah. I’m just trying to think of a good reason to continue our friendship.”

I grinned. “Jealousy is so unattractive, Todd.”

“It would help if you could tell me one thing that’s wrong. One flaw. Bad breath? Warts? Some condition that requires antifungal spray?”

“Would chest hair be a flaw?”

“Oh, yeah.” Todd sounded relieved. “I can’t stand a chest rug. You can’t see the muscle cut.”

I thought it best not to argue, even though I disagreed. There was something infinitely comforting and sexy about being held against a broad, hairy chest.

“Haven,” Todd said, sounding more serious. “Remember what I told you about him.”

“The thing about not being a simple guy? About being twisty twisted?”

“Yeah, that. I stand by my gut feeling. So be careful, sweetheart. Have fun, but keep your eyes open.”

Later I pondered what it meant to keep your eyes open in a relationship. I didn’t think I was idealizing Hardy . . . it was just that I liked so much about him. I liked the way he talked to me, and even more, the way he listened. I especially liked how tactile he was. He gave impromptu shoulder rubs, pulled me onto his lap, played with my hair, held hands. I hadn’t been brought up in a physically affectionate family — Travises put a high premium on personal space. And after my experiences with Nick, I had never thought I could stand being touched again.

Hardy had charmed me more than anyone I’d ever met. He was engaging, playful . . . but always and foremost a man. He opened doors, carried the packages, paid for dinner, and would have been mortally offended by the suggestion that a woman do any of those things. Having lived with a husband who had spent most of his time inflating his own fragile ego, I appreciated Hardy’s self-assurance. He had no problem admitting that he’d made a mistake or that he didn’t understand something, only turned it into an opportunity to ask questions.

I had seldom, if ever, met a man with such an endless reserve of energy, or such keen appetites. Privately I acknowledged my father had probably been right about Hardy wanting more . . . and it didn’t stop at money. He wanted respect, power, success, all the things he must have hungered for when the world had considered him a nobody. But the world’s opinion hadn’t crushed him. There had been something in him, a drive fueled by pride and anger, that had insisted he deserved more.

He was not unlike my father, who had also started from nothing. The thought was a little scary. I was getting involved with a man who might turn out to be as much of an ambitious, driven hard-ass as Churchill Travis. How did you handle a guy like that? How did you keep it from happening?

I knew hardy thought of me as sheltered. Compared to him, I probably was. When I had traveled overseas, I had gone with college friends and stayed in nice hotels that were paid for with my father’s credit card. When Hardy had gone overseas, he had worked on offshore rigs in places like Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. Fourteen days on, fourteen off. He’d learned to adapt quickly to foreign cultures and customs. And it struck me that this was the same way he was approaching Houston society. Learn the customs. Adapt. Find your way in.

We talked far into the night, exchanging stories about growing up, past relationships, things that had changed us. Hardy was open about most things, but there were a few subjects he was not willing to discuss. His father, for example, and whatever he’d done to land in prison. And Hardy preferred to keep his mouth shut about his past love life, which made me rampantly curious.

“I don’t understand why you never slept with Liberty,” I said to him one night. “Weren’t you tempted? You must have been.”

Hardy settled me more comfortably on his chest. We were in his bed, a California king-sized piled with pillows stuffed with Scandia down. It was covered in acres of eight-hundred-thread-count sheets, and bedspreads of raw silk.

“Honey, any man over the age of twelve would be tempted by Liberty.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Hardy stroked the line of my spine, gently investigating the shallow hollows. “I was waiting for you.”

“Ha. Rumor has it you were plenty busy with the ladies of Houston.”

“I don’t remember any of them,” he said blandly. “Beebe Whitney. Does that name ring a bell?” Hardy gave me an alert glance. “Why do you mention her?”

“She was bragging to Todd about having slept with you on her divorce-moon.”

He was quiet for a moment, his hand sifting through my hair. “Jealous? ”

Hell, yes, I was jealous. In fact, I was astonished by the amount of emotional poison that came from imagining him in bed with Beebe in all her spray-tanned perfection. I nodded against his chest.

Hardy rolled me to my back and looked down at me. The lamplight played over his strong features, a stray gleam catching the faint smile on his lips. “I could apologize for all the women I knew before you. But I’m not going to.”

“Didn’t ask you to,” I said sullenly.

His hand slipped under the sheet, gently sweeping over me. “I learned something from every woman I’ve been with. And I needed to learn a lot before I was ready for you.”

I scowled. “Why? Because I’m complicated? Difficult?” I fought to keep my breathing steady as he cupped my breast and shaped it.

He shook his head. “Because there’s so much I want to do for you. So many ways I want to please you.” He bent to kiss me, and brushed the tip of his nose against mine in a playful nudge. “Those women were just practice for you.”

“Good line,” I said grudgingly.

His hand covered my heart with light, warm pressure. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to get somewhere, be someone. I’d see other sons of bitches who had it all — an expensive car, a big house, a beautiful woman. And I told myself, ‘Fuck ’em. Someday I’ll have it all too, and I’ll be happy.'” His mouth twisted. “But the past couple of years, I finally got the things I wanted, and it wasn’t enough. I was still a miserable bastard. When I’m with you though . . . ”

“What?” I prompted.

“When I’m with you, I feel like I finally have what I need. I can relax and be happy.” He traced an idle pattern on my chest. “You slow me down.”

“In a good way, you mean?”

“In a good way.”

“I never slow anyone down,” I said. “I’m not a restful person.”

A lazy grin crossed his mouth. “Whatever you do works for me.”

He lowered over me, kissing my throat, murmuring that I was beautiful and he wanted me. I shivered as the light pelt on his chest dragged softly across my breasts.

“Hardy?”

“Mmmn?”

I put my arms around his neck. “Sometimes I get the feeling that you’re holding back, in bed.”

He drew back to look down at me, his gaze caressing. “I’m taking it slow with you,” he admitted.

“You don’t have to,” I said earnestly. “I trust you. If you show me what you want, I’ll do it. I mean, whatever you and Beebe did . . . ”

His lips twitched with rueful amusement. “Damn it all. Forget her, honey. I spent one night with her and never went back for seconds.”

“Well, regardless,” I said, filled with a competitive spirit. “You don’t have to be careful with me. I can take it.”

The hint of amusement broadened into a smile. “Okay.”

I tugged his head down. Reaching his mouth, I kissed him ardently. He responded without hesitation, searching the depths of my mouth until we were both gasping.

Hardy lifted me to my knees, facing him, his hands clasped beneath my arms in a strong but solicitous hold. His gaze was blistering, but his voice was gentle. “You want to try something new, Haven?”

I gulped and nodded, my h*ps riding forward in a subtle sway. He noticed. I saw how aroused he was, and it made me giddy with desire. His hands slid to my wrists. He raised my arms, and guided me to grip the top of the tall louvered headboard. My br**sts lifted with the movement, the tips contracting.

Hardy stared steadily into my eyes until I was drowning in the depths of blue. His breath was hot against my lips. “Hold on,” he whispered, clamping my fingers on the headboard.

And then came scalding minutes of intimacy . . . of skillful torment that led to fever. Fever that led to sweetness. He was everywhere, all around me, inside me. Somehow I survived, but just barely. By the time Hardy had finished with me, my fingernails had dug crescents into the headboard, and I couldn’t remember my own name. I collapsed slowly into his arms, every limb quivering with release.

“Just you,” Hardy said when he got his breath back. “All I want is you.”

I felt like I was falling through clouds as he lowered me into the down pillows. Falling hard and fast. And there didn’t seem to be a thing I could do about it.

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