Shot to the gut.
“I’ve never claimed otherwise, cher.” My voice is perfectly calm. My hands are in my pockets, so I don’t reach for her and pull her in.
“You just play with people and their emotions! You’re just selfish and heartless!”
My eyes narrow on her face. Her eyes are tearing up, her cheeks rosy, and her bottom lip quivers as she shoves her fists into my chest, knocking me back a step.
She’s surprisingly strong for such a little thing.
“You just hurt people!” she yells.
“Who are you talking to right now, Kate?” I ask softly. Her eyes focus on me, and her face crumples as she begins to cry. “Ah, bebe.” I hug her tight to me, and she fights me, trying to wrench her way out of my arms, but I hold firm. “Shhh. You’re safe, Kate. Let go. Cry. Scream. Do whatever you need to, sweetheart. I have you. I’m not letting go.”
“I don’t want you to see this.”
“God save me from proud women,” I mumble into her hair, as I press kisses to the top of her head, breathing her in. She begins to cry in earnest now, gripping onto my shirt rather than trying to get away. I scoop her up into my arms and carry her inside as she buries her face in my neck and cries; loud, body-shaking sobs making their way through her as though the storm has finally washed over her and all she can do is ride it out and survey the damage later.
And it’s killing me. I don’t take her upstairs to the bedroom. Instead, I carry her into the living room, sit on the couch, and simply hold her in my lap, my arms tight around her, and let her cry.
I brush her hair off her face, wishing I had a cool washcloth. Her back is slender under my hands as I caress her slowly, trying to comfort her.
Finally, after long minutes, the sobbing slows, and she is reduced to hiccoughs, then sniffles. Her small body still shaking. Her hands still clinging to me, as if I could let her go.
“Made a mess of you,” she whispers roughly.
“Doesn’t matter,” I reply in the same whisper. The house is quiet around us as we sit here, holding onto each other.
“I know what she felt,” she whispers, but then doesn’t elaborate, and I don’t ask her to. Finally, she says, “I know how it felt every time he kicked her. Pulled her hair. Wrenched her arm. Held her down while he—” The last word comes on a sob, and I tighten my arms around her as I wish for the chance to have Kate’s ex-husband alone in a room for just five minutes. “At least I was never almost drowned.”
I have to swallow the bile that rises up in my throat.
“Do all men hurt women?” she asks softly.
She simply nods.
“I hate that this happened to her. She’ll question herself for a long time. What did I do to make him hurt me? Why wasn’t I good enough, smart enough, for him? If I had just done this or that, he wouldn’t have gotten mad.” My hands reflexively fist in her shirt. “Long after the bruises fade, and her shoulder heals, she’ll still be broken.”
“Do you think you’re still broken, Kate?” I ask softly. She stills, then loops her arms around my neck and hugs me close, burying her fingers in my hair, and I return the hug, enjoying the way she feels in my lap, pressed against me.
“Sometimes I think I’ll always be broken,” she whispers into my ear, tears in her voice.
I cup her cheek in my hand and tip her face up so I can look her in the eye. Her tears make me feel so fucking helpless. I don’t do helpless.
Shit, I don’t do feelings. Or I didn’t, until I met her.
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“Maybe,” she replies with a sniffle.
I grin and tuck her hair behind her ear, then let my fingertips trail down her wet cheek. “I think that you are smart, funny, and sexy as fuck.”
She grins and her green eyes darken, making my cock stir.
“I also think you’re stubborn.” She sniffles and raises an eyebrow. “I know you’re beautiful.” She tries to look down, but I tip her chin back up with my finger. “You are beautiful. Every freckle on your gorgeous little body drives me crazy. But, more than that, Kate? You’re strong. Determined. You have a backbone.”
Tears fill her eyes again, and I can’t stand it. I tip my forehead against hers. “You’re not broken, cher. He hurt you. But no one broke you.”
“Thank you for that,” she whispers, and kisses my lips softly before tucking her face back into my neck and beginning to cry again. Softly now. A cleansing cry. The kind of cry that sweeps out the demons and makes room for the good.
Kate deserves so much good.
There’s a buzzing in my pocket.
And a woman lying on top of me.
I open one eye and squint at the light in the room. We’re still in the living room, stretched out on the couch, cuddled up much like we were at the inn when we watched the movie.
Well, pretended to watch the beginning of the movie.
Kate’s face is snuggled against my heart, her arms wrapped around my sides, legs entangled with mine. The only way we’d be able to get much closer is if we were naked. And it feels fucking amazing.
The buzzing begins again in my pocket.
“Are you going to answer that?” Kate asks without moving, making me grin. I fish my phone out of my pocket, with Kate’s dead weight on me, and frown when I see Declan’s name on the caller ID.
“Hey,” I answer. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, as far as I know,” he replies. I can hear street noises. “You sound funny. Were you still asleep?”
“No,” I lie, and Kate pokes me in the ribs and hisses, “No lying.”
“It’s after nine, Eli.”
“Are you the morning police?”
“Don’t you have to be at work?”
“That’s the thing about being the boss. I can go into work when and if the desire strikes.” I kiss Kate’s head and grin again as she shimmies against me, getting more comfortable, and succeeding in making sure my morning semi-hard-on is now just a hard-on.
But then she looks up at me, and everything in me just goes…tender. Her eyes are swollen and red. Her hair tangled around her face. Lips swollen from licking and biting them as she cried.
If I have anything to say about it, she’ll never have another reason to be devastated like this in her life.
And that’s ridiculous because she isn’t mine.