Dell shook his head.
“Nothing. I did nothing.”
“You were scared, Jade.”
“I was useless.”
“You were in shock.”
“So was Corey,” she said. “So was Karen. They were both hurt—”
“So were you.”
“Not like them.”
She blamed herself, he realized, for not suffering as much as they had.
“I wasn’t hurt like they were,” she said again. “And yet they never stopped fighting. I never started.” Galvanized into action by her own words, she shoved him away and grabbed the wine, tossing back a healthy long pull right from the bottle. Gently he took it from her.
“I let him into the meds lockup,” she said, not looking at him, swiping her mouth with her arm. “I let him take whatever he wanted as I begged him not to hurt me.” She looked away. “After . . . I figured there had to be something fundamentally wrong with me that I hadn’t been strong and brave.”
“No,” he said fiercely. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Jade, tell me he didn’t hurt you.”
“The police came. Someone in the next building over heard Karen screaming. The guy who had me, he had an accomplice. He was in the getaway car, but he came in to shut Karen up. The police burst in just in time. We were saved. No thanks to me.”
“You weren’t . . .”
“No. He intended to rape me, he told me several times.” She shuddered. “In graphic detail. But he didn’t get to it.” She closed her eyes. “I grew up hearing how strong I was. How I was meant for big things, how I could do anything I wanted. That I’d been born for running the family show, so to speak. But I wasn’t strong. I was weak.”
What she’d been raised hearing from her family sounded more like a major contradiction to him—do what you want, but make damn sure that what you want is to do our bidding . . . “You’re human, Jade. That doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
She turned from him and shrugged. “Everything I knew about myself was wrong. Nothing felt right. I couldn’t find my footing.”
“Anyone would have felt that way.”
“It was my own doing.”
“The holdup wasn’t your fault.”
She rolled her head on her neck, like her muscles hurt. Since she was tense enough to shatter, it was no wonder. He put his hands on her shoulders. Her muscles were bunched and tight as rocks. He dug his fingers in a little and she exhaled, dropped her head back to his chest.
“When I left Chicago,” she murmured, “I wanted to find myself again, but I couldn’t. I think it’s because I was trying to be someone who no longer existed.”
He dug in on a particularly tightly knotted muscle and she hissed in a breath. “God, that feels good.” She tilted her head to give him more room to work. “I think working at Belle Haven was supposed to be a statement, like look at me further sabotaging myself . . . but the joke ended up on me. I like it here. I like who I became here. And I liked to think I brought some things to the job that no one else has before.”
“Hell yeah, you did,” he said. “And you became an important, integral part of the place.” He turned her to face him. “You know that, right?”
She gave a little smile. “Turns out I have mad skills no matter what type of an office it is.”
“Turns out,” he said, smiling back. God. She looked so beautiful bare of makeup, bare of the clothes, of any of her usual shields. Just Jade. “But that’s just the job,” he said. “Did you figure out who you are outside of work?”
“Not a line dancer.”
He smiled. “Okay. Anything else?” When she didn’t say anything, he did. “You’re a good friend.”
She choked out a half laugh, and then another. And then as if her legs were weak, she slid down until she was sitting on the floor, her back to the cabinet. “Dell, I was here for a year and a half before I even let any of you come over here. Lilah—”
“Loves you. Adam loves you.” He hunkered beside her. “We all—”
She covered his mouth with her hand. He gently kissed her palm and pulled it away. “You give something to each of us. Hell, you give something to perfect strangers, like when you paid the rest of Nick’s bill from your own money.”
“You saw that?”
“I see lots of things.” He kissed her palm again, and held it in his. “I see the real you, Jade.”
She stared at him. “Do you think you can tell me who that is?”
He dropped all the way to the floor next to her and hauled her into his lap. “The real you is the woman who gets to work early to make my day easier because she cares. The real you is the woman who goes to lunch with Lilah even though for the fifth time that week she’s going to ask you if Lulu should be allowed at the reception, and even though you likely want to strangle her, you still smile and suggest that probably it’s not a good idea to allow lambs at the wedding reception. The real you is the woman who can make both of my big, badass ex–military brothers smile.” He lowered his voice and put his mouth to her ear. “The real you is the woman who, when you’re na**d in my arms, gives me absolutely everything you have.”
She closed her eyes. “How do you know?”
“Because I’ve never seen you give anything less, in everything you do.”
“You helped me.”
Maybe. She’d come to Sunshine seeking confidence and inner strength, looking to find herself. He’d done his best to give her whatever she needed but in the process he’d helped her become strong enough to go back. “So why are you going back now?”
“My dad’s ill. He has Parkinson’s and hasn’t been able to run the business for a long time. I was doing it for him, and when I left, they temporarily promoted a family friend to my position. Sandy’s good, really good actually, but . . .”
“But she’s not you?”
A small smile crossed her lips. “She doesn’t want the job long-term. She wants to get back to part-time so she can spend more time with her young kids.”
“They could promote someone else.”
“I promised. And I always did really mean to go back. I love my job with you and love the friends I’ve made . . . I’ll never forget any of it. But I pretty much ran away from home, you know? I can’t just . . . keep running. Without a compelling reason to stay, it’s time for me to go.”
He looked into her eyes and saw regret, and he wondered if it was as painful as the regret swelling in his chest cavity. “So stay for a compelling reason.”
What might have been a brief flash of humor came and went in her eyes. “Like more na**d-friends sex?”
He nearly said, Stay and you can have any kind of sex you want, as long as it’s only from me, but that would sound an awful lot like begging. “As hot as na**d-friends sex would be,” he said slowly, “you need to know, this isn’t anywhere near as casual as that. Not for me.”
“But . . . but casual is your thing. It’s your signature. It’s what you do.”
“No, actually,” he said. “My usual thing is even less than casual. But that went out the window with you eighteen months ago.”
She shook her head. “Don’t do this to me,” she whispered.
“Do what? Tell you how I feel? You asked, remember? And yeah, you’re leaving. I’ve heard the news flash. But we can . . . visit.”
“Yes,” he said firmly. It would suck but it was better than nothing. “The occasional holiday, weekends, whatever.”
She stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Dell, it’s seventeen hundred miles. We can’t casually date from seventeen hundred miles away.”
“It’s a flight.” He shrugged casually, even as his heart was pounding, pounding, pounding.
Her eyes hadn’t left his. “I didn’t know you’d want that.”
Okay, that hurt more than it probably should. “Even casual friends would visit, Jade. And as we’ve already established, we’re more than that.”
“I’d have to think about that,” she said very softly, cutting out his heart. “Keeping this up once I leave.”
Because he didn’t trust his voice, he nodded. He had not seen that one coming. He started to get up, but she grabbed his wrist and he looked down at her hand on his arm. Pale. Small. Deceptively fragile-looking.
“I’d have to think about it,” she repeated. “Because I don’t know about my ability to keep this up with someone I care so much about and keep it as light as our distance will dictate.”
Dell wanted to point out that the distance part was her own doing, but she moved into him, pressing that warm, curvy body against him until his ability to talk, much less think, became impaired.
She brushed her mouth to his ear. “Dell?”
He let out a shaky breath. “Yeah?”
“Ever had good-bye sex?”
He made the fatal mistake of meeting her gaze. Her eyes were soft, solemn, as she rose up on her knees and gently touched her lips to his. “Jade—” He gripped her h*ps as his entire body reacted to that slight, almost chaste kiss. “I—”
She outlined his lips with her tongue and he groaned, sucking it into his mouth. God, he loved the taste of her, the feel of her. He couldn’t seem to get enough. He was starting to wonder if he’d ever get enough when her hands slid under the hem of his shirt and over his abs.
“Mmm,” she said in response to the feel of him, like maybe she couldn’t get enough of him, either. “Off.” Then she shoved the shirt up. When he took over the task, pulling it off, she straddled him, a knee on either side of his hips. Bending low, she licked his nipple.
He sucked in a breath, which made him realize his mouth was open to speak, but whatever he’d been about to say was gone since all the blood had drained out of his now poor, dehydrated, useless brain.
“I want you,” she said against his lips, pinning him to the cabinet at his back. “God, I want you. Please, Dell.”
He made a noise deep in his throat and kissed her long and deep. Not enough, not nearly enough, he thought. He had to touch her. “Stand up.”
He went for the belt of her robe. “What do you have on under here?”
He groaned again and tugged it open. She was right, nothing but warm, damp, sexy, curvy woman. His hands looked so dark against her pale skin and turned him on even more than he already was. “Stand up,” he said again, then without waiting for her, lifted her by the h*ps so that she was standing, still straddling him.
Leaning in, he nuzzled at her belly button, then lower. Then lower still. Above him she made a low sound of hunger that went straight through him, then repeated it when he slid his hands up the backs of her legs and grabbed her ass, urging her a little closer so that she had no choice but to lean over him and slap her hands on the kitchen counter.
“I’ve been aching to do this,” he said, and gently ran his thumb over her glistening folds, opening her before leaning in to stroke her with his tongue, sampling different spots, loving her reaction to each. A murmur, a gasp. His name torn from her throat. She was quivering in minutes, her breath choppy, her h*ps rocking into him, and he couldn’t get enough. “You taste good, Jade.”
“Oh God. Oh God, there—”
If he hadn’t already known exactly her “oh God, there” spot, the way her fingers tightened in his hair would have been a big clue. Loving the sexy sounds being ripped from her throat, and the way she looked above him, damp and trembling and gorgeous, he gave her exactly what she wanted, building her orgasm until she shattered.
Her knees collapsed and she slumped against his chest. Stroking a hand down her back, he pulled her close and kissed her neck.
“Please tell me you have a condom,” she said.
In his wallet, which contrary to what she probably thought, he’d put in there with her in mind. “Jade—”
She clapped a hand on either side of his face. “Yes or no.”
“Get it. For the love of God get it now.”
He reached into his back pocket for his wallet, not easy with her straddling his lap and very busy with her own agenda—unzipping his jeans. She freed him, then she tore the packet open with her teeth, laughing when she spit out the corner of the wrapper over her shoulder. “Always wanted to do that,” she murmured, and sheathed him, leaving him panting and sweating by the time she was done.
“Now,” she whispered, demanding, sure of herself, the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. She wrapped her hand around him, lifted herself up a little, and took him deep.
“Oh, fuck,” he managed.
He choked out a laugh and closed his eyes, thunking his head back against the cabinet, hissing in a breath when she bent over him and nipped at his exposed throat. Banding his arms tight around her, he opened his eyes and met hers as they began to move in tandem. Faster. Harder. She was moaning and whimpering for more, and he gave it, feeling . . . so much, lost, found . . . completely undone.
When she sucked his earlobe into her mouth and flicked it with her tongue, he knew he was an inch from losing it. “Jesus,” he breathed, trying to slow her down. “Jesus, Jade. Wait—”
No good, she was too far gone, grinding on him, making those sweet noises that told him how good he was making her feel, that she was as gone as him, and he nearly went off on that knowledge alone.