"He never kissed me like that," she told him. "He barely even touched me."
Liam wanted so badly to believe her. But how could he when he knew firsthand that she was utterly irresistible? "That's impossible. How could he have been with you and not touched you?" He shouldn't have reached out for her again, shouldn't have let a strand of her hair thread through his fingers, but he had no self-control anymore. "How could any sane man possibly keep his hands off you?"
"I swear," she said in a raw whisper. "We barely even kissed in all the months we were together."
He should have been ecstatic to hear it--and he was--but in some crazy way, he was angry too, on Christie's behalf. "How could you have accepted that? Didn't you think you deserved to be with a man who wanted you? How long did you think you were going to be able to keep your desires buried?"
"Wesley was kind. I knew he loved me. Maybe not as a woman, but as a person. It was more than anyone else had ever given me. I thought that dating a married guy was my biggest mistake, but I managed to top that by almost marrying a gay man." She slapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh no! I promised him I wouldn't say anything. He told me he needed time." She looked horrifically guilty about the secret she'd let loose. "It was his secret to tell, not mine."
"Why didn't he tell me?" Liam was reeling from her revelation. "Why didn't he tell any of us, only you?"
"He said it would break your parents if he told them, though he wouldn't tell me why. As for why he didn't tell you--" She looked away, as if she didn't think he could handle hearing the truth.
"Christie." He put his finger on her chin to tip her face back up to his. "Be honest with me. You're the only one who always is."
He could hear, could feel her breath catch, before she finally said, "Maybe he didn't tell you because you make sure everyone is afraid of you. That they don't get close to you. Like how you barely say a word to your mother, even though she's so hurt every time you push her away. Your father too."
They were hard truths. Each and every one of them.
Because for all that he wanted to tell himself he hadn't known about Wesley, was that really true? Wasn't it more that Liam had been so caught up in his own life and career and doing anything he could to stay away from his parents? Hadn't he been so damn busy telling himself it was better for everyone if he stayed out of their business, that he hadn't had even a minute to spare for his brother? And even after returning to Summer Lake this week, hadn't he made sure not to get too close to anyone? He hadn't looked up any old friends. His mother had to beg him to come to dinner. His father was desperate to take an hour and go for a hike.
And all he'd done was work like hell to shut them out.
"I care about you, Liam." Christie's words were filled with the sweetness he craved, warmth that seeped deeper into his cells with every moment they spent together. "All week I've been trying to tell myself to stay away from you. But you're a good man."
"How could you think that when you're right about everything you just said?"
"Because you didn't have to help me today--you did it because it was the right thing to do. You didn't have to stay to pitch in at the inn. That wasn't your agreement with Wesley. But even though you don't really want to be at Summer Lake, you've stayed to help. And--" She paused, then swallowed hard before saying, "I want you. I can't seem to stop wanting you."
Just the way he couldn't stop wanting her. "If I were a good man," he said in a raw voice, "I would walk away from you so that you could find someone better."
She blinked up at him. "You're not going to walk away right now?"
He answered her by sliding his arms around her and kissing her in a way he'd never kissed another woman. There was heat there, of course, but emotion trumped everything else. Emotion that stunned him in a way very few things ever had.
Liam had believed he would always be able to compartmentalize the physical from the emotional. He'd been so sure that no woman would ever change the core of who he was or what he believed to be true.
But with a handful of kisses, Christie was already breaking in. Breaking through. Breaking down. Everything he'd been so certain about. Everything he'd held on to for so long as the only way to move forward.
From the first moment at the inn, he hadn't been able to take his eyes off of her. And now that he knew just how sweet she tasted, now that he'd heard her sounds of pleasure, now that he'd felt the shiver of arousal move from her body to his--there was no way he could keep denying that he was in deep. Far deeper than he'd ever thought to be with anyone.
So when he finally lifted his mouth from hers, there was only one thing left to say. "How can I walk away from you?"
"You walked away from your family."
No one had ever called him out on his bad behavior like the one woman he couldn't stay away from no matter how hard he tried. "You're right. I walked away from all of them."
"Tell me why."
"People lie." He stroked her cheek, needing to touch her constantly, wanting to be as close to her as he could possibly be. "That's why I walked away. And that's why I can't lie to you. I can't tell you that everything is going to work out, that this kiss is going to turn into a happily ever after."
He didn't know what he expected her to do, but she didn't flinch. She didn't pull away. Instead, she simply said, "Tell me the truth, then."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"Good." Her mouth moved into a small smile. "I'm sick of being hurt."
If he were smart, he would stop right there and make sure he didn't say anything else that would drive her out of his arms. But, then, how could he possibly live with himself? "Christie, I'm trying to tell you that I can't promise you anything."
He was surprised by another one of her beautiful smiles, a bigger one this time. "Is this where I'm supposed to slap you and call you a cad for kissing me like you just did?"
This conversation wasn't going the way he thought it would. Any other woman would have pulled away and written him off. But not Christie. She surprised him at every turn. "You said it yourself," he forced himself to remind her. "You've been trying to convince yourself to stay away from me."
"Yup," she said, as blunt as he. "But I also can't seem to help myself where you're concerned."
It would be so easy just to stop talking and kiss her again. But he wouldn't be able to live with himself unless everything was laid out, clearly and on the table, so that neither of them could ignore the truth of the situation. "Your reasons for wanting to stay away from me couldn't have changed. Tell me what they are."
"Seriously? You want to hear why I should know better than to want you?"
It was the only way to ensure he didn't hurt her. Which was exactly why he needed to make himself say, "Here are mine: You were Wesley's fiancee. You work for me." He paused before giving her the most important reason of all. "And you deserve to be with a man who can give you everything you want."
She made a sound that was somewhere between disbelief and a laugh. "My reason is much simpler than that. You're the beast."
Whatever he'd expected, it wasn't that. "If it's so simple, then how come I'm not following?"
"You know, like the Beauty and the Beast fable. Not that I'm that much of a beauty--"
"I'm giving a point to you for saying that," she said. "But in a nutshell, I've spent way too many years finding broken men and trying to heal them--only without the happily ever after."
There was so much in what she'd just said, but one question stood out from the rest: "You think I'm broken?"
She met his eyes head on in the moonlight. "Aren't you? You barely speak to your mother. Your father is desperate for a relationship with you. And your brother has been keeping a secret from all of you his whole life. Did I miss anything?"
"Sounds like you've got it just about covered. Which means," he forced himself to add, "this is right when you should be saying good-bye to me."
"I disagree," she countered. "You and I have ju
st been completely honest with one another. In my book, that's cause for celebration." Instead of moving away, she put her arms around his neck. "So...what do you think we should do about all of this?"
A dozen heated visions flashed through his brain before he could make himself say, "Sleep on it, probably."
"I'm really hoping you're going to tell me you don't mean separately."
"You do know you're not supposed to say things like that out loud, don't you?"
"Only because you're always telling me so."
He shouldn't have broken out into laughter. But he'd never been able to help himself where Christie was concerned. And even though nothing had been settled between them, he couldn't help himself now either. Especially when she looked utterly delighted.
"It's even better than I thought it would be," she said.
No one had ever confused--or captivated him--this much. "What's better?"
"Your laughter. I've been wanting to hear it for so long."
His heart felt surprisingly full as he said, "Come here and give me a kiss good night before we go back to our separate rooms."
"See, what did I tell you?" she whispered as she raised herself up on her tippy-toes and held her mouth a breath away from his.
He told himself he was going to make sure this was the last kiss of the night even if it killed him to do the honorable thing. But he was so dizzy with the desire to taste her again that he could barely string words together. "What did you tell me, Christie?"
He felt her smile against his lips without needing to see it. "You are a good man."
And then she kissed him.