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Branded Sanctuary, Page 38

Joey W. Hill

Page 38


  Peering over her head, he slid his arm around her waist, pressing his body close to reach around her and pluck another picture. This one was probably from a perfume ad. Chloe saw a womans slender back, bare down to the flare of her hips, her long hair held up in one hand to show the nape. A tattoo, shaped like a rope of autumn-colored maple leaves, twisted down her spine and then flared out into a free fall of the same leaves, as if theyd been scattered out toward the rolling landscape of her smooth buttocks. A butterfly rode on one spinning leaf, jewel blue wings catching the eye among all the earth tones.

  Im sure thats airbrushed, not a real tattoo, but I thought youd like it. You dont have to use any of them. Just throw away the ones that wont work. If

  Picking up the hand on her waist, she brought it to her face, and inhaled strawberries. Pressed her face fully into his palm, her mouth against the callused heel.

  She turned, standing so close to him they could be one person, her feet inside the span of his. She put her lips against the base of his throat by laying her hands on his arms and stretching onto her toes.

  Im going to wake up and find you were the nicest, most incredible dream Ive ever had, she mumbled against his flesh. Damn it. Those sneaky tears were threatening again, and they werent supposed to do that. Hadnt she let some of it out last night? Couldnt it be over, and she go back to being the Chloe shed been? Why couldnt all the fairy tale enchantment of last night have lifted the curse of her rollercoaster emotions?

  Before she could get upset about what felt like a giant step backward, he eased her down into a chair by the bouquet and dropped to one knee, framing her face as he kissed the corner of each eye, catching the tears before they happened.

  Strawberries, heat and Brendan. A s he moved his lips to hers, she let herself get swept away by him again, her hands naturally creeping up to hold onto his biceps. His body insinuated between her knees so they bumped against his hips, his upper thighs. When he lifted his head, she wasnt ready for what she saw in his face. She squeezed one unyielding arm muscle instead.

  Dont. Lets pretend I didnt get all weepy and weird. M says youre a swimmer. That you usually get up at some ungodly hour and go do a thousand laps.

  She held her breath, waiting to see if he could respect her wishes, as well as blow off the top of her head with unrelenting lust.

  Todays a day off. I have something better to do.

  A s his gaze flickered, and he leaned in to take her mouth again, desperate humor fluttered in her chest, so she spoke right before his mouth closed the distance.

  Was that a double entendre?

  I think it was a blatant suggestion, if youre willing. Instead of a thousand laps, I like the idea of bringing you to climax a thousand times. He kissed her mouth, her cheekbones, under each ear and then her collarbone, punctuating each word.

  I didnt open your closet. Hed been so generous, she felt obligated to mention it, though the expectations she might find there gave her gut a nervous twist.

  Thats your choice, Chloe. Its not something I need or expect you to do.

  Her brow furrowed. Do you expect anything of me? Putting her hands on his chest, she managed to hold him off, though the bulk of her mind was happy drifting in a fog of desire and tactile pleasure, no thought or accountability required.

  When he didnt immediately answer, she made sure he met her gaze. Brendan?

  Yeah, I do. There was a trace of impatience in his eyes, but before she could determine whether shed pushed into a vulnerable area, he brought it back to her. I expect you to give yourself a break, and let me do whatever you want and need to make you happy this weekend. A brow quirked.

  A fter all, you did pay for the privilege.

  Maybe he meant it as a joke, but there was something beneath it, a dark quagmire that tripped off an alarm. Chloe tightened her grip on him, this time with a bite of nails. Brendan, youre not a whore. If you think I believe that, just because I bought you at some auction Hey. He closed his hands on her wrists, his expression suddenly a lot more direct and forceful than shed yet seen. I didnt mean it that way, Chloe. I was teasing. A t her look, he shrugged. Yeah, it was a crappy joke. I was frustrated, because I dont want you to be worrying about things you dont need to worry about. Is there anything about last night that suggests I dont want to be with you, a hundred and twenty percent?

  Nothing except her own mind, telling her there was no way anybody could want to be with her. Not now, pitiful, weepy, dirty That word, the way it kept springing on her like a monster out of a closet, took her out of the chair and away from him, though she practically tripped over him. She moved quickly to the open window, drawing in deep breaths. No. Im done with this. Please stop.

  She focused on the pond that formed a center point for the townhouse development and tried to imagine herself in that boat again. When he laid his hands on her shoulders, she shuddered. Im sorry.

  Youve nothing to be sorry about. Rather than making her face him, he put his chin on top of her head, folded his arms around her so she could hook her hands on his forearm, hold on as he swayed them back and forth, giving her a rhythm that helped calm her. Chloe, other than last night, you havent talked to anyone about all of this, have you? The things youre carrying around inside you, about Marguerites father, and what happened to you when you were nine? He kept his voice soft, so it didnt make the anxiety in her chest worse, though it didnt abate. Have you cried about it, really let it out?

  She tightened her chin, shook her head. I thought You know, when it first happened, I thought I was all right. Getting better, at least physically, gave my mind something to do. Then afterward, when the nightmares started happening, I was so determined to do and be the way I was. But with every month my body got better, the nightmares were growing in my mind, taking away who I was, a piece at a time.

  He murmured something incoherent, but he stroked her forearm. You remember that first night, when I told you that you didnt have to handle this alone? Chloe, why are you trying so hard to do it that way?

  Shed let her head sink down on her chest, her arms folded against her under his grasp. Most of the time she didnt even realize shed taken what shed dubbed the dead bird pose until after it happened. Shed first noticed it as the way she woke from her nightmares, defending herself unconsciously. Recognizing it now brought forth that familiar desolation. Because I feel like its my fault, she whispered.


  Okay, she was wrong. This was the most forceful shed ever seen him. He turned her in his arms, lifted her chin to make her look at his enraged and amazed features. It just widened the crack inside her further. I know, dont say it. Its a stupid cliché, feeling that way. This isnt supposed to be me. I can control it, take care of it. Im not a dirty whore, or slut, something not worth living. So disgusting, no one would want me. I have light inside me, and that light will drive out the shadows. Her fists clenched against his chest. Only its not, and the dark is winning, which must mean its right

  That did it. Her chest was tearing open again, so that she had to bend over it fully, hold herself as he followed her down to a hunched crouch on the floor, sheltering her.

  Thats what he said to you, isnt it?

  When he was chasing me in the woods, and he couldnt find me, that was what he was saying. A nd then Marguerites dad, he said things like it too. Brendan, I know I shouldntthey were horrible, terrible messed-up people, but they want me to be messed up too. How can I know theyre wrong, and yet they still have this power over me?

  Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, he pulled her into that comfortable triangle formed by his lap. His hand burrowed under hers, her heart beating rapidly beneath his palm. He massaged, small circles, his other arm doing that rocking thing again. She had a fleeting thought that he would be the best father ever. If he had a girl baby, shed be a daddys girl all the way.

  Its all right. Im here. Youre not any of those things.

  I k
now. I know. Im supposed to know it, right? So why does it feel like a lie? Why is it, when these things happen, that the first thing you feel is so alone? Like evil just closes around you, so nothing feels connected to you?

  A t her lowest moments, shed decided that was what hell was, total loneliness. She had to stop thinking about this. She knew better. She was going to lose it entirely in a moment, and Brendan would have to call for strait jackets and restraints. Come to think of it, he probably had some upstairs.

  Hey, shh He kept up that rubbing as she hiccupped and strangled her way through the minor panic attack, murmuring to her until she could take shallow breaths. Easy, baby. A re you listening to me?

  When she nodded, he slid his fingers up her sternum to tease her cheek, bring her gaze to his worried face. You know how, when kids are little, and an adult does something wrong to them, the adult will say, this will be our secret, dont tell anyone?

  She nodded. Her eyes closed because it was easier, but she held on to his voice.

  Its no different when youre an adult. When someone hurts you, its like they put those same kinds of shadows in your head. Those shadows tell you that youre all alone, that theres no one who can help, that you shouldnt burden anyone. He kept touching her face, but she still couldnt look at him. It was okay, though, because he also kept talking. Chloe, the world is full of people who milk every little setback, become emotional hypochondriacs. Youre not that kind of person. From that one night at the wedding I could tell youve made so many people happy. Youve been so generous with your love. You cant see how much we want to help you, but I think thats because youve let those bastards close your eyes, make you believe for some idiotic reason that you dont deserve it.

  He went from quiet and soothing to righteous fury, and every word cut through that chitinous layer, finding his way to her beneath, so when he feathered her lashes with a thumb, coaxing her eyes open, she couldnt look away from his fierce regard. Where the hell is that coming from? Think about it. Why dont you deserve it? What one fucking thing did you do to deserve being attacked when you were a child, and then as an adult?

  I She didnt know, damn it, but that was how she felt. I dont know. But whyif I didnt deserve it, why did it happen? Why? Her voice came out a shrill, thin cry. Pain for her wounded his expression, made her crumble further, but he gave her an answer, in a low, determined voice that cut through every fear, told her she wasnt alone, that he wouldnt let her be alone, no matter how much those demons tried to make her feel that way.