Branded sanctuary, p.12
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       Branded Sanctuary, p.12

         Part #7 of Nature of Desire series by Joey W. Hill
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Page 12


  What is this?

  His casually interested voice disrupted her internal argument. Peering cautiously around the bathroom door, she kept her brush in hand to give her something to do that didnt require direct eye contact. Brendan was leafing through a notebook holding magazine cut outs and newspaper clippings, pen scribblings. He glanced up. I assumed it was okay to look, since it was sitting here with your books.

  Yeah, its fine. She cleared her throat. I call that my happiness book.

  He was sitting on the quilt chest at the end of her bed. Like her, he was dressed now, having used her iron to make his shirt presentable for a consecutive day. Hed even shrugged back into his jacket, though she would have thought it was too warm in the house for it. A dditional armor .

  Happiness book? he prompted.

  She had to quell an unexpected desire to ask him to set it aside, say it was time to go. She didnt want to share any more of herself with him when he obviously was having second thoughts about all of it. Damn it, damn it. What had gone wrong?

  I used to I like a lot of things I see in stores and catalogs. I can get carried away with shopping. When he smiled at that, she managed a wooden one in return and turned away, going back to the mirror, speaking with the thin wall between them. So I started cutting out pictures of things I liked but couldnt afford. Then I found I liked them better that way. A s if it was even better to look at it than to have it myself. Sometimes, acquiring it lessens the appreciation.

  So it would seem.

  When she came out of the bathroom, those words echoing in the quiet room, he briefly met her gaze, reached out and took her hand, but it wasnt a gesture to encourage a breakdown of the wall. His unreadable expression didnt match the gesture, or the invisible tether of restraint that seemed to be holding him back.

  Theyd moved too fast. Hell, she had no idea what his personal baggage was, and maybe this morning hed woken up immersed in it.

  She retrieved her hand. Well, I guess I better get going.

  I can drive you

  No, thats fine. That was nice of you to do yesterday, but it will be fine.

  Goddess, now she was doing it. Instead of saying what she was thinking straight out, she was playing the same hateful game as him, putting distance and intimacy together in a confusing way to make it seem like everything was okay, but really using it to construct a barrier that didnt encourage conversation about what really mattered.

  He nodded, moved into her bathroom to do a quick swipe at his hair now that it was dry. She turned, caught his reflection in the mirror in an unguarded moment and saw the regret and frustration there, confirming what she was already thinking.

  Picking up her tote, she left the house, went and sat out on her front steps. Last night, shed never wanted him to go. Now she was counting the seconds. She felt like a puppet on a stage, fake and stiff jointed, in a spotlight she was unable to leave.

  During one of their long kissing sessions, hed shared some music from his player with her, a Celtic woodwind selection she loved. He knew so much about her, but hed kept himself a closed book. Shed let him make it all about her. Stupid men.

  When he came out on the porch behind her, his boots scuffing the boards, she locked her fingers together, hard. If you say last night was a mistake, I swear Ill never forgive you.

  She rose then, turning to meet his expression. Her directness may have surprised him, but the words obviously didnt, driving the knife in deeper. A fter a contemplative silence where she felt like he was twisting the blade, he shook his head. Coming down to the bottom of the steps, he faced her. She was a step above him, bringing her to eye level. This time when he tried to take her hands, she pulled away.

  No. Somethings wrong. Last night was perfect, as perfect as things can be, because I trusted you. Youre not supposed to play games with me. I cant take that, and if youre going to do that, then you should justfuck off and leave me alone. I wont take that kind of bullshit, you hear me?

  When he said nothing, his gaze turned inward as if seeking words he couldnt find, no instant denial coming to his lips, it welled up in her, huge and unwieldy, making her almost lightheaded. She felt betrayed. That was the only reason she could fathom for what she did next, something shed never done in her whole life.

  She slapped him.

  It wasnt as easy as they showed on soap opera dramas. A im and force werent easy to coordinate, though she had plenty of rage behind it. She hit his neck more than his jaw, but it unleashed something else. She followed it with an even wilder slap that went high, hit his temple and eye, but she didnt care. If she blinded him, he couldnt look at her like this.

  She flailed at him like a child on a playground, a flurry of slaps that canted her weight forward and made her fall into him. She was still pummeling at him when he turned her, waist secure in his grip as he got her feet safely on the ground. Later she would find it remarkable that he did so little to protect his face, a natural instinct for most people.

  Right now, though, she was occupied. One part of her stood to the side, horrified and fascinated by the shrieking, irrational, rage-filled Chloe, spewing foul curses in language she didnt use, but then a couple things penetrated. He was holding her, bringing her in to his chest so her punches had shorter and shorter range, until she was gripping his shirt and shaking him. He was sitting down on the upper step, putting her between his knees. A nd he was trying to tell her something.

  She blinked at him, her body vibrating. What? What did you say?

  He framed her face in one hand, holding her body so close with the other she could feel his heart beat beneath her shoulder. I said, last night was different for me too, different from anything Ive ever felt, Chloe. Im sorry. It spooked me, and I wasnt ready for it. Youre right. I shouldnt have acted this way this morning. It was unforgivable. I didnt handle it well, okay?

  The anguish of that was in his eyes. He wasnt just soothing her, she could tell. That frustration shed glimpsed in the mirror was with himself, struggling with his own feelings. She bit her lips, anger deflating. It left weariness, and the beginnings of mortification.

  No, you didnt, she agreed. Closing her eyes, she buried her face in her hands, rounding her body inside the shelter of his, conscious that her soft-soled canvas sneakers were curved over the toe of his left boot, pressing down on the foot beneath. But he didnt complain.

  Oh Chloe. He passed his hand over the defensive hunch shed made of her spine. I am sorry.

  Dont be. It wasnt my best moment, either. She blew out a sigh, feeling sick at heart. I completely fall apart over a second date, which happened to involve sex, so who am I to cast stones? Shaking her head, she pushed herself to her feet, making herself let go of him on a couple different levels. Im not ready for this, Brendan. I should never have called you that night, never should have taken it any further. Its not fair to you.

  A pparently, Im not even emotionally prepared for sex right now, let alone a relationship. We should cut our losses now.

  Chloe Davis. He captured both of her hands, bringing her gaze back to his resolute expression. Youre brave, and lovely, and Ive never wanted a woman more in my life. Never. He repeated it as if she should understand how significant that was, and it made her wonder what women hed had in his life that would make this moment so obviouslymore. The emphasis was so sincere it made her tremble. If I fuck up or if you dont want me, you end it, but you dont cut me loose because you think its too much trouble for me to hold your lifeline. Okay? No more talk like that.

  Youre already having reservations yourself. Why push something thats putting off wrong vibes on the second date?

  You need me.

  Could he have chosen a worse thing to say? Bitter anger clogged her throat, back as if it had never left. She took a step back, pulling her hands away. So rescuing girls is your particular sick little fetish? Thats what turns you on?

  When she saw shock flash across his
face, followed by hurt and anger, incomprehensible, detestable triumph flooded her. Who was this harpy, this thing that had possessed her tongue, turned it into a slicing weapon?

  Then he gave a nod, his mouth hard. If you want to call it that. I think its every mans responsibility to protect a woman, to rescue her if she needs rescuing, whether or not he has the white horse and armor. But youre more than that to me, Chloe.

  A m I? Because something real is holding you back, and the most logical thing is that its me. What, you didnt think I was all that fucked up the first night, but now youve reconsidered? Was I not a good enough lay? Too assertive? You didnt like me calling the shots?

  He rose, giving her a look that she expected hawks gave mice before they plummeted. But then he snagged her right hand, the one shed used to slap him first. It was still stinging. A s if he knew that, he put his lips to her palm, closing his eyes and holding his mouth there as her fingers curled, uncertain, over his brow.

  He held her there a long moment. That contact made her lightheaded, his hair under her fingertips, the stillness between them, weighted with ugly words and confused feelings. It made her want to sway forward, perversely ask him to comfort her for the pain shed caused him. His hand went to her waist, steadying her, but as soon as it was clear she had her balance, at least physically, he let her go. Ill talk to you soon, Chloe.

  He cut around her to walk to his Jeep. Chloe closed her hands into useless fists. She wanted to scream at him some more, but she knew it wasnt he who enraged her. She needed help, but she didnt want to be rescued by the guy pulling her heartstrings into knots. That wasnt who she wanted to be. When he put the Jeep in drive, she turned. He met her eyes. Though she wanted to be comforted by that lingering kiss she held in her tight hand, she saw the shadows. She wasnt wrong, what she had said. But that didnt mean she was right, either.

  * * * * *

  When she got to work, she spent as much time in the restroom as she could, under the excuse that she needed to put on makeup because shed slept in. Fortunately, once she came out, Gen was working on the brewing for the first half hour and conversation was limited. But when Marguerite came in and they began to set the tables, she braced herself. It was the unofficial time for not-so-idle chatting, at least for her and Gen. Marguerite would throw in dry observations on occasion. Chloe knew the question was coming, but that didnt mean she had an answer ready. So how did it go with Brendan yesterday?