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Unconscious Hearts

Harper Sloan

  "I don't mean to say this without care, especially after you've given me all of that, but I thought you said you lost your sister? You got more than one?"

  I shake my head. "I might not have lost her like I lost my parents, but she's gone to me, regardless, after what happened."

  "Explain that," he orders, his thumbs rubbing soothing circles against my legs. Encouraging me. Supporting me silently. Giving me the courage to keep going.

  "This is what we've been dancing around while we've been enjoying our day to day. You know that, right?"

  Some of the harsh lines leave his face, his lips twitch, and he nods.

  I dance my fingers across his warm skin, the light dusting of hair on his chest tickling my pads. My heart pounds, knowing I'm about to let him the rest of the way in to a place that I've only allowed Piper near since the day my world started falling around me.

  "Three weeks before the day I was supposed to be married ..." I pause when anger slashes across his face.

  "Not easy to tell me this, Ari, I know that. Don't let the jealousy I can't hide from you just thinking about you almost never being right here with me keep you from letting me all the way in."

  I nod. He has no idea what gift he just gave me with that, but I soak it up, knowing he's just as far gone to me as I am to him. Especially if he's angry just thinking that I almost married someone else.

  "Ari," he urges.

  "Right, sorry. So, there I was three weeks out of that day when I walked in on my sister sleeping with the groom. They saw me but didn't stop. Sometimes, I can picture it in my dreams as clear as the day it happened." I shake my head, ignoring the anger that is back on his face. "If it wasn't for those unwanted flashbacks from that moment, I don't think I would have seen clearly what happened after. I don't remember everything. To be honest, I think I blocked it out. One thing I do remember is they didn't stop. I never had trouble remembering that, but it was how wild they became when I caught them that sneaks back into my memories. I think they got off on it. Whether they meant to get caught, I don't know, but when they were ... I'll never forget the sounds he made after that. I just stood there in shock while my heart was breaking. I just stood there, tears burning down my cheeks, and didn't even move when he pushed her off and climbed from the bed. Do you know what he said when he walked over to where I was standing in the doorway?"

  A deep grunt comes, Thorn's stomach clenching with the sound. "What?" he asks, teeth clenched and jaw tight.

  "He thanked me for saving him a trip, then held out his hand, and told me to give him back my ring so he could make sure the sister that didn't just lay there like a dead body got it this time. He said we might share a face, but she's the wild I couldn't give him to tame."

  "You're fucking kidding?"

  "I wish."

  His frown deepens. "What did you do?"

  I shrug, looking down and resuming my exploring of his muscles. "I took it off, my tears betraying what I didn't want him to know he was doing to me, and threw it at his crotch. I got a tiny bit of satisfaction when it bounced off his erection and landed on the floor. I ran after that. Ran from the house where I had been living for two years before that day."

  "Jesus Christ."

  "I didn't see them again until my parents' funeral. I didn't pay much attention, but Piper told me a few years later that my ring was, in fact, on London's hand."

  "London? That's your sister."

  I nod. "Yeah. Paris and London. Our parents were travelers, and those were their two favorite places. Though, my father always joked that they were lucky to have twins since they wouldn't be sure which of the two cities they conceived us in." I smile, remembering with fondness how many times my parents would joke about that.

  "I've always been fond of Paris, myself," Thorn says, breaking into my thoughts and easing some of the pain I feel when I think of my parents. I smile at him.

  "I miss them. Even my sister, in her own way."

  "Not sure she deserves that."

  "Maybe not but still, I miss them all the same."

  He doesn't speak for a while, his thumbs continuing to glide against my legs and my fingers continuing to explore his chest. I had moved on to tracing his tattoos when he spoke again, but his next question causes my hands to still.

  "How did you lose them?"

  "Car accident." I pause, frowning at the ink on his chest, my hands shaking as they hover over the line I had been following--the one that ended after the word "pain" that was inked in thick black directly under his left pec. How appropriate.

  I trace back over the word with my eyes before losing the ink and following the golden tan skin up his neck, not stopping until the intensity in his eyes wraps me in their comforting concentration--patiently waiting for me to finish giving him my more. "There was a heavy storm moving in that night, but I had called them upset, and they rushed to be at my side. They died instantly when another driver lost control and hit them on their way to me."

  He doesn't need me to connect the dots; I can see him figuring it out, the timeline of my tragic past taking root in his mind. This time, I'm sure the anger I see has nothing to do with jealousy and everything to do with the pain that followed two people's selfish actions, forever changing the lives around them.

  "Part of my sister's call," I continue, feeling brave and safe enough to tell him the truth of those nights--something I hadn't told anyone outside of Piper and Dr. Hart. And whether it's because of Thorn himself or the progress I gained from all my sessions with Dr. Hart since that morning I ran from Thorn's bed, I actually want to let him in. No, I need to. I need to not only to keep my momentum toward letting it go, but also because I want him to understand exactly why I was so scared. Giving him the final part of me. My more. "It's all part of a little game she likes to play with me. One that has her constantly telling me where the fault lies with their deaths, never letting me forget. I don't understand it, but she has spent the past seven years almost intentionally hurting me over and over."

  The transition on his face as he loses the sympathy and rage takes its place is brilliant in its display, momentarily rendering me speechless.

  "You're fucking kidding," he barks, making me jump. "You believe that shit?"

  "I used to. That morning, yeah. I'm not proud of it, but it's still the truth. I'm working on seeing the truth, though."

  "Working on it?"

  "Like I said, I wouldn't have been in a good place after her call. I got home, Piper showed, I lost it, and she gave me a dose of tough love that she had been keeping from me since it all happened. It wasn't pretty, Thorn. It really wasn't. I hit rock bottom, and it had everything to do with that call, but it was because of our night that I wanted to see things from a different point of view--the one Piper painted for me. I think I'll always feel some guilt over it being my call that had them rushing out in that storm, but like I said, I'm working on it."

  "Don't you fucking dare hold on to that."

  I move my hands, gliding them up from his chest and wrapping them around his neck. "I'm getting there."

  "You won't hold on to that shit." He keeps going as if I hadn't spoken. "Don't you, for one second, feel guilt that your parents loved you enough to need to be there when your sister caused you enough pain to need them in the first place. You put that blame where it belongs, which is on her and that motherfucker."

  "Thorn, honey."

  "Fuck, Ari. You'll always remember it, know that, but do that without guilt. My parents, not people who would feel the same, but I have no doubt that yours wouldn't want that."

  "I know, Thorn," I agree, trying to speak but pausing again when he continues.

  "I get it now," he says, nodding and moving his hands from my legs to wrap his arms around me and pull me to his body. "No clue how to promise you that you won't feel that pain again, but I can guarantee you, I would take a bullet for you if it would mean you didn't have to feel the burn of it. I don't need day by day to know where I want to be, but I'll give you wha
tever you need as long as you know I would never, not ever, make you feel pain I could keep from harming you, and you do it breathing easy, knowing that, no matter what the future brings us, I will never fucking burn you like that. Ever."

  My chin wobbles, and his eyes drop to it for a beat before looking back up.

  "No one knows what the future holds. No one, but I know you're worth figuring out what it does with. I might not have known it at the time, but for those two weeks after I ran, I spent working through the mess of shredded pieces they had left inside me. Every inch of that, I worked to piece as much of it back together as I could with my doctor. They're not all stitched back together, but they're getting there. You gave me that, Thorn. You, the promise of you ... and the promise of us you keep giving me day by day. So while you'll never know how sorry I am that I ran, I'm thankful at the same time because it made it possible for me to find my way back to the life I thought I didn't deserve anymore."

  One of his hands leaves my leg, and I feel it glide up and over my thin nightdress, our eyes saying so much in the silence. When he stops, his hand resting between my breasts and my heart beating against his palm, the most overwhelming calm settles around me.

  Yes, this right here, this is so much greater than any life I could have ever imagined when I thought all I would ever have, was no one.

  This right here is worth every second of pain I felt when I thought I was alone.

  I lean forward, press my lips to his, and it settles a second time. Only this time, I feel more of those shredded pieces stitching together--mending--and that void in my gut getting a little fuller.

  That woman is not you

  I walk into Barcode and when I see Wilder behind the bar, I give him a tip of my chin.

  "I thought you were busy with Ari all day," he says in place of greeting.

  "I am. Stopped by on my way to pick up dinner for her and Piper to see why you were acting like a dick last night when you called about watching the game today and I told you I had plans."

  "I wasn't being a dick," he defends.

  "You were being an asshole. That better?"

  "Fuck off. Seriously, why are you here?"

  "Just told you."

  "Aside from that?" He cuts a few more slices off the lime he had been working on, then looks up and frowns. "How are Ari and Piper? Haven't seen them in here for a few weeks."

  "You want to know how my girl is, or how her best friend is?" I ask, knowing damn well he doesn't want to know about Ari. Wilder's done a shit job of hiding the fact he's interested in Piper. He's just not done shit about it because of the ring on her finger. Still, he can't hide that shit from me.

  "Shut the fuck up, T," he grumbles.

  "Right. Denial is a fun playground, isn't it? I'm here because I had some time to kill, saw your car when I was leaving The Alibi, and walked over. Figured I would stop in to see what you're doing here all by yourself."

  He points at the limes, ignoring my jab. "Most of the bartenders are out with some fucking stomach bug. Perks of being the boss. They get sick, and I'm stuck covering for them. That shit land over at The Alibi yet?"

  I cringe, just picturing what would happen if it did. "No. Thank Christ."

  "Yeah, imagine that wouldn't be good. Not the same as the boss covering for sick fucks here as it would be for you over there now that you have yourself a woman."

  "She didn't seem to mind it last time I got on the stage."

  Wilder laughs. "The second you whipped your cock out, she was in your arms and hiding it from all the hungry bitches screaming around the room for it. You get this bug over there, and trust me, she'll mind."

  I ignore him, reach behind the bar, and grab the canister of nuts he has to restock the bowls he keeps on the bar when the place is open. I palm a handful and toss them back.

  "So what's going on? It's been a while since we've just had time to ourselves catching up. It's either work or whatever the fuck shit you two invite me to because Piper doesn't want to be a third wheel--which still makes me wonder why you always call me and not her fiance. And no, you don't need to give me more shit about denial. Trouble in paradise?"

  "Not even fucking close," I answer, feeling every word and ignoring his mention of Piper--again.

  "Goddamn, Thorn. Never thought I would see the day the mighty fell."

  The familiar burn I've become accustomed to, even welcomed, starts back up in my chest. Just thinking about Ari causes it to slam into me. I'm just able to stop myself from reaching up and rubbing the spot in the middle of my chest; the power that blows into me when I picture her in my mind would knock me to my fucking knees if I was a weaker man.

  "Not going to deny it, huh?" Wilder asks, cocky as hell.

  "Not for a second."

  He stops slicing, glances up, and really looks at me. No clue what he's hoping to find since I still don't understand what I'm feeling myself half the time. He shakes his head, a smile forming.

  "I'm happy for you, man. I really am."

  I lift my chin, nod, and reach for the container of mixed nuts again, tossing a handful in my mouth.

  "I take it that means you two got past all that shit that had her sneaking out on you then? Christ, what was that, like a month ago?"

  "Seven weeks, give or take."

  Wilder snorts. "Give or take, huh? Something tells me you know exactly how long it's been."

  I lift my middle finger.

  He laughs, grabs the limes he cut so far, and tosses them into the bin attached to the rest of the separated containers full of the various produce he'll need throughout the night.

  "We're good, Wil. We talked about it a few weeks after I got her back. She let me in, I get what happened, and it's not a big deal. Not to our relationship, that is."

  "Relationship, huh?" he asks, smirking like the cat who ate the fucking canary.

  "The word fits. It's what it is."

  He nods, but there's no way he knows what I mean. The word might fit, but fuck if what we have isn't a hell of a lot stronger than just a simple relationship.

  "I told you she was different that day in my office, and that was after one night and knowing her for a weekend, Wil. She went from being the girl I saw across this very bar one night, shocking the shit out of me when I walked into her store and saw her again, to someone I don't just want to see every day but need to. You find a word that fits what we have better than relationship, and that'd be us."

  He drops the knife, wipes his hands, and leans back against the wall of liquor bottles, crossing his arms over his chest with a low whistle.

  "Damn," he finally says after studying me intently.

  "'Bout sums it up."

  "So what's the problem?"

  I toss back another handful of nuts. We're different people now since that night I saw her around the face of another. She didn't recognize me as that man when I walked into Trend, but fuck when I told her, she didn't even care I had been kissing someone else. She could only focus on the fact that, since first glance, we've had something powerful between us. It probably fucking helped that I told her, after seeing her, I had walked away from that woman and spent my night with only Ari's face to keep me company. Something so simple as seeing a beautiful stranger across the room had hit me right in the chest and changed my life ... starting the wheels in motion to heal hers and, fuck, probably mine too.

  I don't like talking about the things Ari's shared with me--the things that make me sure she's healed. It feels like a betrayal of her trust, but fuck if I can wrap my head around the way I felt when she laid it all out for me. Wilder might not have tons of knowledge in this area, his own relationships few and far between, but he knows more than me--a man who's spent the majority of his adult life avoiding any kind of attachment past one night.

  "She's been working through some shit. The same shit that made her do that fucking runner in the first place. I get it, Wil, I really do, but I'm worried for her if she really hasn't let it go."

  "Vague, but okay
. She told you she let it go?"

  "Yeah." I nod. "Told me but shows me every day, too. She didn't just wake up the next day and forget it. She's been seeing someone since the Monday after she ran. Every Tuesday and Thursday night since we started our thing back up, she's been in his office. Just last week that dropped to only Tuesday nights."

  "I'm not exactly an expert in this stuff, but I would think if she's down to one day, she probably really is letting it go."

  I pick through my thoughts, eating a few more handfuls before handing the container of nuts over when Wil reaches out for it.

  "I've held her in my arms when she talks about this shit, Wil. When she first told me about it--about the sister who has caused every fucking slash of pain in her past--it felt like I was the one getting those lashings when I heard the pain in her voice. What happens if that bitch pops back up, and Ari's tested on just how much progress she's made over the past two months?"

  "What's really bringing this on? If she hasn't given you a reason to think she's not really moving past her issues with the sister, then why are you sitting here, eating my shit and worrying about some hypothetical situation?"

  I shake my head, then give him the smallest bit of Ari's past with her sister. Mainly, that her sister slept with her ex close to the wedding and that her parents died the same night she caught them. I skim over the rest, not wanting to betray her trust any more than I might already have, but needing to get some advice from him at the same time to make sure she's covered if she's here and I'm not.

  "Are you kidding?" Wilder bellows, scowling at me. His reaction isn't a shock in the least. He and Ari connected instantly, and the few times we've hung out together have brought out some big brother tendencies with him. She's been at Barcode a few times since we started our day by day and never did I worry about her--before and after knowing about her sister--but I know I'll feel better with him knowing what he does, keeping a closer eye on her when she's here because of it. I asked him once how they got so close in such a short time, but when he said they bonded over dangerous dicks, I shut the fuck up about that. My girl and the closest thing to a brother I have being close is a good fucking feeling.