Unraveled (Turner 3) - Page 18

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He usually fobbed off such inquiries with frowns. But she wasn’t looking at him. He wasn’t likely to see her again, and so he’d not have to bear the burden of her pity. And so what came out was the truth. “When I was twelve, my mother locked me in the cellar. She kept me there for days. There was no light.” He smiled faintly. “There were turnips. Beets. Also onions. A great many onions. I can’t stand them anymore.”

He leaned back on the trunk, looking up at the ceiling. The trunk was bound by metal straps; they were uncomfortable beneath him, and it was just as well, because the discomfort kept him firmly grounded in the present. “And then it began to rain. It was the worst rain that Shepton Mallet had experienced in living memory. The basement walls began to seep water, and then to fill. It came on terribly fast. The water crept to my ankles, and then before I knew it, it was up to my thighs. There were no stairs, just a wooden ladder descending into the cellar. So I clung to the top for hours, beating on the door and praying. If I let go, I would drown. Even if I held on, I had no escape, and the water was rising.” He took a deep breath.

She set her fork down gently. But she didn’t say anything.

“I was trapped. I was certain I would die.” If he shut his eyes, he could still feel the cramp of his hands, clenched around the wood of the ladder. He’d been certain he’d not be able to hold on much longer.

“But you survived.”

“My brother stole the key eventually.”

“What did you do that warranted such treatment?”

“Hanging is fast,” he snapped back. “You think leaving me to drown in freezing water was warranted?”

She held up her hands. “No. That’s not what I meant.”

It was all too easy to see everything as an attack when he thought of the cellar. He forced himself to breathe slowly. He could trace it back, step by step. Years ago, he’d questioned each decision, wondering if he could have averted calamity after all. Now, he simply accepted what it had made of him.

“The day before, I went to the town elders and told them my mother was mad. That if they didn’t intervene, we would be in danger.” He met her gaze. “They laughed at me, and scarcely listened to my tale. I went home. Someone informed her that I’d asked for help, and she flew into a fury. Hence the cellar.” He ripped off another piece of chicken, and passed it under the table. “So I know what happens when justice lapses.”

She nodded.

“It’s why my duty is so important to me. When people come to me, I listen. So that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else. Don’t feel sorry for me. Most people can’t change their past. I change mine every day.”

“I see,” she said quietly.

“Sometimes,” he continued, “rain and darkness and closed quarters have an odd effect on me. It passes quickly enough. All of which is to say, this is quite normal. I haven’t any need for your company any longer.”

An odd smile crossed her face. “How like you, to be arrogant even when you’re vulnerable.”

“I’m not vulnerable.”

“Yes, you are,” she contradicted. “You’re looking at me as if I’m supposed to...”

His eyes riveted on her lips, and she stopped speaking. The heat in the room swirled about him, sinking beneath his skin. She blushed again. He stood. Two steps, and he was standing before her. She tilted her head back to look him in the face. Her eyes were wide and luminous, and he leaned down to her. She smelled softly, subtly sweet—like mint leaves, dried for tea.

“What is it you’re supposed to do?” he asked.

“Kiss you. Kiss you and make it better.”

“No.” His voice rang hoarse. “I don’t want that.”

She drew back.

“I want you to kiss me and make it worse.”

A little gasp escaped her. He touched his hand to the point of her chin, tilted her face up to his. Her skin was warm against his fingers, and she flushed under his touch. She looked utterly dazzled. Dangerous, that look, as if he’d hung the stars for her.

But he wanted to believe he could, so he kissed her.

As predicted, it made everything worse. Her kiss heightened the hunger for company that he’d long ignored. Her lips were slack in surprise at first, but then she came to life under him, kissing him back. That sparked a fierce, possessive desire. He wanted her. That want had the strength of years of loneliness behind it.

She reached up and twined her hands around the fabric of his shirt, pulling him down to her. She opened under his kiss, and then it was not just the softness of her lips, but that of her mouth, hot, melding with his. Their tongues touched; she made a little noise in the back of her throat—something fierce and needy.

He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him. She came easily, her hands sliding down his frame. She was so warm, so present, that she drove away all thoughts of the cold and distant past.

There was nothing but her—her kiss, her caress. Her breathy gasp of pleasure.

He courted that now, slowing the kiss so that he could slide his fingers up her waist, up the fabric of her dress to cup her breast. It was small in his hand, small but round and perfectly formed. Her gown fastened in the front; he undid a button. Then another. She ran her hands along his chest, urging him on. He, in turn, loosened the laces of her stays, and slipped his thumb under the fabric.

She moaned when he touched her nipple—not loud, but deep in her throat, a noise halfway to a purr that drove him mad. God, he wanted her. Wanted to wring more sounds from her, wanted to lose himself in her pleasure—and his own. He slid her loosened stays down and captured the pebbled tip of her breast between his lips.

She was sensitive—so damned sensitive and responsive to his touch. Her whole body arched against his. Her hand clenched around his arm.

He wanted to take her, to have her—not just her body, but her warmth, her smile, her presumptuous clever wit. He ran his other hand up her leg, sliding her skirts up to bare her knees.

The skin of her thighs was impossibly perfect—not just soft, but taut and supple. He slid his hand up her leg, so close…

She laid her hand over his. “No,” she said distinctly.

He froze. He was inches from the juncture of her legs. He was burning for her. He was rock hard and ready; she was interested, too. His breath feathered against her nipple, erect in obvious arousal. “No?” he echoed in disbelief.

She struggled away from him and adjusted her stays. Her hands were unsteady, and tangled in the laces. “No,” she repeated. “I can’t do that.” She gave a shaky laugh. “I have one child I can’t manage. I hardly need another.”

It was on his tongue to make promises to her—that he’d keep her, that he’d shoulder any burden that she might encounter. Or he might have simply leaned forward and taken her breast in his mouth again. He knew the sound of an objection that could be easily overridden with a bit of judicious action. It would be the easiest thing in the world to seduce her.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she said earnestly. “But despite any appearances to the contrary, I’m not that kind of girl.”

He took the edges of her corset in his hands and looked into her eyes.

What a damned joy it would be for her—a quick tumble with him. After he’d slaked himself on her warmth, her generosity, she would turn to him, expecting what he could never give. He wanted to rip her stays off altogether, to slide against her bare skin.

But there was no point in wallowing in what he wouldn’t have. Instead, he pulled his hands away. “Lucky for you,” he said softly. “I’m not that kind of man.”

Nothing to do for it but tidy up her gown.

“I did want that kiss,” she said earnestly. “It was a lovely kiss.”

He tucked the ends of her laces in, before meeting her eyes. “Then here’s another one.”

This one was bitter in its sweetness. If the soft brush of her lips had driven away his loneliness before, her kiss now served only to remind him that this, too, was

coming to an end. This kiss wasn’t companionship or warmth. It didn’t even encompass lust. It was farewell, and when it ended he’d be alone once more.

He pulled away before it could become anything else.

“Stay safe,” he told her. “Eat well. I’ll walk you back—and I’ll hear no argument from you.”

“You’ll take me to the Bristol Bridge,” she corrected. “It’s dark. I won’t be safe in your half of the city, but you’d not be safe in mine.”

He leaned in and rested his forehead against hers.

“You won’t see me in your hearing room again,” she murmured. “I…you’re right. You and Jeremy both. I have to walk away from that. And Robbie is old enough to make his own decisions.”

“If I did see you again,” he said, “I’d not render judgment. I believe I’ve misplaced my impartiality in regard to you.”

“Will I see you at all?”

He shook his head. But he couldn’t yet make himself move away. He was unwilling to relinquish his hold on her, unwilling to say that final good-bye. He held her for a minute, then two, then three, simply holding her and committing to memory what he could not have in life. There was a sweet, comforting scent to her.

His memory was very, very good, but she was better.

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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