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Unconscious Hearts

Harper Sloan

  He didn't shave this week--his beard more of a shadow against his tan skin than anything--but it looks so good on him. It feels even better against my skin when his kisses are driving me crazy. I tighten my legs, trying to ease the ache between them, and sigh when I can't find the friction I need. Something he doesn't miss at all. His lips curl up, his white teeth flash, and I get one of those rare full-to-blinding smiles from him.

  "Hi," I mumble, smiling back before leaning into him and pressing my mouth to his. Complete and utterly hypnotized by that open proof of happiness so seldom given by him.

  Our kiss is brief but unfathomably hot. He groans loud enough that I know Piper won't miss it, but the one I give him in return is soft and just for his ears. He pulls away first and adjusts his hold on me, his wide hand burning through the material covering my bottom as it slides from my butt cheek to the center of my bottom, freeing up his other hand. He lifts it up, one finger moving in, and presses it against the frown lines that must have appeared between my eyes when he cut our kiss short. I'm not surprised. I felt the loss of his mouth the second he stopped kissing me. I felt it deep.

  "Now you know how it feels when I want my kiss, and you make me wait for it."

  "Very funny."

  He grins, not the same as the smile before, but no less heart stopping. When he looks away and starts roaming those bright green eyes around the room, his grin vanishes in seconds. He covers it quickly, though. Just not quick enough for me not to notice. If I hadn't been this close, I may have missed the pain that slashed over his face for just a second before vanishing. His eyes do another brief sweep before he looks down at where I had just been lying on the thick carpet.

  "Piper," he greets with a nod. "You need help getting yourself or your jaw off the ground?"

  I toss my head back and laugh, feeling the lightness his joke was meant to induce.

  "You know, it really isn't funny to make fun of the wounded, Thorn."

  "Wounded?" he questions, brows furrowing. "You hurt?" he asks me; even though she said it, assuming, without even considering that it was a joke, that I had somehow become injured in the time I haven't moved from his hold. Or that she might be hurt. He automatically heard her and made sure I wasn't part of her implication. Now, that's nice.

  I pat his shoulders. "I'm sore, but fine. Let me down, honey, so I can go pull the sarcastic gawker up from the floor."

  He drops me carefully, and I turn to go help Piper but stop when he moves around me and offers her his hand instead. She reaches up, places her hand in his, and plants her feet on the ground. It probably wasn't wise on her part to push off at the same time he gives a barely there tug because instead of just letting him lift her up, she basically goes flying.

  "You didn't tell me you were dating He-Man, Ari. Christ," Piper admonishes when she finishes getting her bearings. "Were you planning on tossing me through the roof or just out of the room so you could finish pillaging the innocent?"

  He shakes his head, laughing softly.

  "I mean, I bet you do sex like some kind of animal, don't you?" she continues, moving over to the island that we had turned into command central today. She packs up all the power cords, stuffing them into her tote bag with efficient speed. Next, she carefully closes her notepads full of detailed notes on the items she had handled today and places them neatly on top of her closed laptop before tossing her phone in her bag. She huffs a curl away that had fallen in her face before turning to look back at us. "It really makes sense now, why you've stopped spending every waking moment at Trend. If Matt hauled me around like that, I probably would stop living at Trend, too. Though I wouldn't lie around on the ground when the big brute wanted to haul me around like it's just no big deal, either. Really, Ari. When you jump back on the saddle, you really jump back on a beast, don't you?" She moves her attention to Thorn, then a wicked grin appears. "And getting her to finally stop spending fifteen plus hours a day at the store? Never been done before so well done, He-Man. I guess that makes Ari your Castle Grayskull, huh? Though, Ari, you should watch out when he starts hoisting his sword around."

  "Pipe, seriously." I blush, looking at her with wide eyes. Eyes that scream use your filter. Giving her the look that tells her to shut the heck up. Even if her nerd talk is funny. She doesn't know that we haven't had sex again since that first and only time. Who am I kidding, Piper any other way than my inappropriate best friend would just be weird. It's who she is, and I love her, no filter and all. Even if she did know we hadn't had sex again yet, she would still make her jokes.

  "I'm going to take this last load over to Trend and transfer it all to the cage until tomorrow. I'll deal with inventory and cataloging over the weekend, so the online team can start with photographs for the site on Monday without having to wait for me to do that. It's the smallest load we've had today, so I don't need to pull DeMarcus out of the security room to help me handle this one. Poor guy is probably just as tired as we are after dealing with each drop-off today. You two stay here and have fun in this big old house. Enjoy being manhandled, Ari. I'll see you guys in a few hours. We did decide on that Mexican place over by He-Man's den of sin, right?"

  "Yes. What time do you want us to meet you and Matt over there at?" I ask, not commenting on either her nickname for Thorn or the one she has for The Alibi. It would just encourage the no filter little nerd if I did.

  "Eight, I guess. It's half past three now. It won't take me long to get all of this offloaded and locked up. DeMarcus is proving his worth as head of security and already has the weekend set for two extra people until we get everything settled. I'll head right home and get ready after. I'll shoot you a text if I need more than four hours. I wouldn't count on it, though. Matt gets grumpy when we eat late." She shoulders her purse and holds her laptop and notepad to her chest. "Later, kids. Be good ... or good at it." With a wink, she's gone.

  "I would apologize for her lack of shame, but I think you know her well enough by now that it would be more shocking to you if she wasn't running off at the mouth like that. Even when she's getting tongue-tied around Wilder, she's still just ... well, that."

  He smiles, but with Piper gone, I can tell he's letting his guard down. His eyes roam the empty shelves again, taking in the room. Normally, when one of us brings up our two friends' weird behavior around each other, we tend to test theories on why that happens. It's what I see that makes a chill wash over me, and I know any of the joking moods we just had aren't coming back.

  He's silent. Pensive. Almost ... saddened.

  "What's on your mind?" I ask, moving closer and wrapping my arms around him.

  "I thought it would feel different when I finally saw all this shit gone."

  I tip my head back and study him, his attention still on the room around us.

  "What do you feel?" I hold my breath, waiting for him to share with me--to open up.

  There's no denying we've gotten extremely close, but there's still so much about the man who's quickly owning my heart that I don't know. I knew that the stuff in this room was more than just some "shit" he was given when someone passed away. You don't hold that kind of odd resentment for materialistic items unless there's some deeper significance at play.

  "Come on," he finally says, dropping his arms from around me.

  Not answering me.

  I actually have to work hard not to exude the disappointment I feel over him brushing my question off. I want him to open up, so much, but I won't push him--no matter how much I wish he would let me in. It will happen when he's ready. And if it doesn't, well, then what we're building together clearly isn't what I feel deep down inside it is.

  I walk over to the island, quickly packing up and grabbing my stuff. Silently, I follow him out of the room. He leads me down the hallway, going in the opposite direction of the main stairs. I frown but follow just a step behind him. My position gives me a front row seat to study Thorn. His tense shoulders, eyes directed in front of him, completely ignoring the lush opulence around him. It
only drives home what I already knew. This place, it has a hold on him, and not a good hold.

  When I first came here, over two months ago, I'll admit I was curious about what the rest of this house held. The urge to open the doors and peek in each room had been strong. Especially after I had seen the room full of heaven we just left for the first time. Then Thorn happened, and my heart cared more about the negative effect this place had on him. No longer did I care to snoop. I didn't want to know what other brilliant trinkets and treasures may be hiding around the corner. He invaded my heart, and instantly, I hated this place. I hated this house almost as much as I hated the development it was built in. All because I could see it was a place that hurt him on some level I didn't understand.

  I'm pulled from my thoughts when he stops at a staircase I hadn't seen before. I look over my shoulder, seeing the room we had just left farther down the hallway, and even knowing it's the same house, I can't help but notice the difference between what I've seen of the house and what I see down those stairs. Halfway down the steps, it seems to get darker, less lavish. There's no natural light for one thing, but it almost feels like the air around us is different. It's so strange.

  After a quick glance at Thorn, I know my assumptions are right. His jaw flexes as he clenches his teeth tightly. Okay, maybe he isn't shutting me out after all. Unless this is some hidden passageway to exit the house, something big is happening right now, and I have a feeling I might have jumped to conclusions with the disappointment I felt when I thought he was keeping himself closed off.

  He reaches over, taking the giant tote I had stuffed full with everything I had packed up before he appeared. He transfers the handles to the hand opposite of my body, the bag looking tiny compared to him. After I hear him roll his head, popping his neck, his free hand takes mine, lacing our fingers together tightly, and he clears his throat before beginning his descent. Slowly guiding us down the stairs and into the unknown.

  Everything looks the same, only dank and dark without the many windows the rest of the house boasts. Oppressive. It feels despotic against my skin.

  My grasp on his hand tightens, but I follow his lead silently even though my instinct is to pull him back and out of this house.

  When we reach the bottom, there's another shorter hallway to our right where I can see an empty garage type space through an open door. The other side holds a few doorways, all closed and with no windows. Thorn goes left, leading us down the longer hallway. He passes each of the closed doors at our sides before stopping in front of the one at the very end. Every other part of this house screams money--but this looks like an afterthought built off dollar menu building supplies.

  Thorn drops my hand, then reaches out and opens the door. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't the sun-room before us. Though, calling it a sun-room would be too generous. The huge growth of trees surrounding each glass wall blocks any sun that could ever try to shine inside. Just like the rest of the hallway that leads into it, it's run down compared to the rest of the house. There's a few couches and chairs, end tables on the ends of each, and a metal card table tucked into one corner. It all screams second hand but still well cared for.

  "What is this place?" I ask, looking around some more but not seeing anything personal aside from a few decks of cards carelessly stacked and a puzzle only halfway built on the metal table. Even though I just walked through the house, leaving the extravagant, I never would have believed we were still in the same house had I not witnessed the change myself.

  "This would be the servants' quarters. I'm sure it isn't lost on you that the rest of the house looks like it's never been lived in, yet this room does. I'm sure that isn't because the staff actually had time to enjoy their lives in this room, but because this was the only space--aside from their bedrooms--where they were allowed when not working. When I met them, shortly after acquiring this house, they would tell me about this section of the house. About their lives. No expense was wasted on them. I doubt the furniture in this area of the house even comes close to the cost of just one of those fucking bags you worked so hard packing up today. Even so, this room probably held more happiness for those who worked here than any other room in this place ever did." His dull voice makes me ache to hold him. "Money can buy a lot of shit, but the abhorrent pride of an evil soul couldn't even afford the price of happiness others get for free, just by being decent human beings."

  "Thorn?" He glances at me, coming out of the stillness he had fallen in while staring off at nothing. "What is this place to you?"

  He lets out a rush of air. Looking back around the room, he then pulls us toward one of the threadbare loveseats--if you could call the small two-seater that. It looks more like a bigger version of the small chair near it. He carefully leans my bag on the ground against the side before dropping his large body down and looking up at me with a silent invitation. I don't hesitate to place my knees on each side of him, climbing into his lap. The second my bottom hits his thighs, I take his face in my hands, studying the pain I see there. My knees dig into the poorly supported cushion, but I don't adjust myself, knowing he needs me.

  "Your more?" I test.

  He nods. My heart races because I hate seeing my strong man like this. I hate knowing his more holds the pain he told me in the beginning that he understood.

  "I left home when I was sixteen. You know this." I nod, and a huge exhale leaves him. "I escaped that hell I grew up in, Ari, and I don't regret leaving, not for a second. Even when I lived on the streets, I was better off. Growing up, fuck, it was terrible with the parents I was stuck with. My mom was a junky who left just a year before I did. I found out years later that she killed herself about six months after that. My old man, I couldn't do justice to the piece of shit he was if I tried. Not one thing about him could ever be redeemable. Fuck, for a long time, I had been sure he was the devil himself. Which would make sense, seeing as he's currently doing life in prison. We didn't have shit, baby. Lived like shit. Hardly had food, clothes were whatever I could steal for myself when they stopped caring about that, too. What little they earned by my old man whoring my mom out went to fund their habits."

  He stops talking, looking away from the void of nothingness he had been staring at, and frowns when he sees the tears falling from my eyes.

  "Ari. Baby, don't you fucking cry for me."

  I hiccup. "How can you ask me not to? I can't just turn off my feelings for you."

  His eyes flash. "Just because that shit wasn't pretty doesn't mean I kept living that nightmare, baby. I survived. Not just that, but after I dusted myself off and met Harris, all o' that meant I wasn't stupid with the future he put in front of me. That shit, those memories, they became my drive. I don't want you to cry for that shit."

  I nod, biting my tongue to try to keep myself from crying more. My heart breaks for what Thorn lived through. When a tear falls from my eye, I know I can't fool him.

  "You want the rest?" he asks softly, shaking his head and swiping the hot tear away with his thumb.

  "Yes," I whisper thickly through the lump in my throat.

  "It's not as ugly but still isn't pretty. When I met Harris, I gained a real father figure in my life. He's one hell of a man and more than makes up for the one I had for the first sixteen years of my life, Ari. With him came the closest person I have in my life to this day, aside from you, that is. The son I told you about?" I nod, and some of the pain leaves Thorn's eyes when he smiles. "I wouldn't be the man I am today without the two of them. The day I met Harris's pain in the ass son, I knew it would be Wilder and me against the world from that day on."

  My jaw drops, and Thorn laughs at the shock on my face.

  "Told you Harris had a son who wasn't interested in The Alibi, but what Wilder did want was Barcode. His father opened that place two years after I showed up, gave it to Wil the day he handed me The Alibi. Wil would have hated all the shit that comes with running The Alibi. He enjoyed his time dancing there, but it was just part of him loving the
thrills of fast and easy. But that bar, he fucking thrives there, and he's never alone with the crowd he has every single night. He can be who he wants to be, get what he wants, and he can do that with his clothes on."

  "Why didn't you tell me who Wilder was?" I gasp.

  "I just did."

  I narrow my eyes. "Not the same thing. I mean, I knew you two were close, but he's your family, Thorn."

  "Just didn't think about it, I guess. He stopped dancing a little after I did, and it's been a while since The Alibi was something I shared with Wil. Easy to forget the time before it became mine when I've spent so long with it being just that, but you're right. He's my family. I'm new to this whole sharing thing, remember?" He smiles--not a big one, but I'll take it.

  "No wonder you were so successful as a stripper. You two together? That's dangerous." I grin when he starts to get that jealous glint in his eyes. "Stop. There's only one man I would want to stuff his weird man G-string with dollars for."

  He shakes his head, then just as quickly as the lightness comes, it's gone again.

  "I didn't know she existed until I had been stripping at the club for a couple of years. At the time, Harris wasn't happy that I wouldn't take his offer to help me move into a better apartment. My place, it was shit. A cardboard box would have offered more. Not only that, but it was also in a bad area. I could take care of myself, but that didn't stop Harris from worrying. He knew about my mom. Knew my old man was doing time. But he thought if I knew I had other family out there, it would help. No clue how, but he somehow managed to track down my old man's mom. Someone I didn't even know about until Harris brought me to her. Brought me ... here."

  I shift, my legs stretching more to accommodate the man between them. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me closer, leaving them there like steel bands around me. I do the same with my arms around his neck and hold on, somehow knowing I needed to be closer to him for the rest.