Truly helpless, p.40
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       Truly Helpless, p.40

         Part #10 of Nature of Desire series by Joey W. Hill
 

  "Nope. You can list a million things about him you like, and none of that will be it. Because it's all of it, and then something more that can't be defined." He cocked his head. "You're in love, Lady Regina. It's so sweet."

  "You're such an ass. I'm going to tell Athena some ways to cut you down to size. Because I know she's your blind spot."

  "Blind spot and the best thing in my life," he agreed. "That's the way it works." He jabbed a finger at her. "Which is why I'm warning you to be careful. Don't be blindsided by him. Everything I've seen says he's got a lot of shit to work out before he's going to be able to handle a healthy relationship. Soon as you can get him to agree to it, get him into counseling. Someone who deals with PTSD, extreme trauma. Don't make the mistake so many military spouses make, being put off by the 'oh, I can handle it myself' routine. PTSD can be unpredictable in how it manifests. You've got zero personal distance from this guy. You read me?"

  "Roger that," she said, borrowing some of his SEAL terminology. But she was taking him seriously. Marius's volatile reaction in the airport, triggered by nothing more than a casual comment, flashed through her mind.

  Dale shook his head. "Come on, smart ass. Let's have sandwiches and tea while your boy clears his head."

  Marius circled around it twice, three times. He'd told himself to stop. But here he was.

  As he'd predicted, the dogs had stayed away from him, though it pleased him when Tempest fell into a walk near him. She kept pace as he wandered through the junkyard, absent-mindedly digesting the wide variety of cars. He found a junker of his vehicle, same make, model and year, and wondered if he could buy some parts off Dale to put away for a rainy day. But that wasn't the first thing in his head.

  Eventually he was back at the cat building. He could hear the occupants, that tiny shrieking sound. It pounded behind his eyes, filled his ears.

  When he dropped his hand, he was startled to find Tempest under his palm. His fingers coiled against her sleek fur. She stood silently as he stared at the screen door. Cats were behind it. And kittens. He was pretty sure those little shrieks were in the here and now, not back...then. For one thing they sounded different. Not...afraid, or hurting.

  He backed up a step and almost trampled Tempest's paw. She adjusted, pressing against his leg. The sun-soaked dark coat penetrated the fabric of his jeans. He could feel her breathing, big rib cage expanding and releasing.

  As he took several deep breaths, matching her, he felt like a bull, preparing to charge into a china shop. Only he'd be creeping into it, one weighted footstep at a time, not sure why he was doing it. He just had to.

  He said "Free" to Tempest, but his voice was hoarse, indecisive. She gazed at him, then padded ten feet away and laid down, watching him with placid acceptance. Or maybe Dale had some freakish telepathic connection with her and she was here to rip out his throat if he did anything wrong.

  Putting his hand on the screen door latch, he peered through the mesh. There were six or seven floor-to-ceiling partitions in the building, chicken wire and wood creating separate play and sleeping areas for the cats, and an open space in the middle. Taking a deeper breath, he stepped inside. He was sweating again, but he was determined to get through this, as Regina had said. Just get through.

  Another screen wall and door separated this area from the middle corridor and the cat enclosures. It looked like he was standing where food preparation and supplies were kept. He guessed it also served the purpose of keeping the cats even more secure, so no one loose would have direct access to the door to the outside.

  As he put his hand on that second screen door, however, he found that one of the enclosures had been opened to let the occupants play in the middle area, which was apparently communal play space. A dozen kittens, barely old enough to be weaned, turned from their various activities to run toward him, probably thinking he was Dale with food.

  He thought of picking up one of the kittens and holding the small body in his hands.

  Lifeless. Broken like the most fragile toy, the fur holding the pieces together. He'd closed his fingers over it, his boy's hand almost not large enough to cup the creature. But he was a man now. His hand could choke the life out of a grown man, let alone squeeze the life out of a kitten. He'd thought about choking the life out of Regina, his Mistress, only a handful of days ago. Had a terrifying moment when he'd wanted to do it.

  He began to tremble. Leave, leave, leave.

  But he was rooted to the spot.

  Chapter Sixteen

  They'd brought the refreshments back to the picnic table. Dale sat down next to Regina on her side of the bench so they could both watch Marius's progress. They'd seen him wander through the junk yard, then approach the dog kennels, circle and pause at the cat building several times. Regina's brow creased as he at last moved toward the door as if he was being pulled there by rope. Then he disappeared inside.

  Dale was already rising. Regina put out a hand. "Let me go see what's happening first."

  Dale nodded, but continued to collect his crutches. "You'll get there faster, but I'll be right behind."

  "He won't hurt them."

  "You don't know that. Neither do I. I should have told him it was off-limits unless I was with him, but I didn't think he'd go in there, after his wariness of the dogs. Go."

  She strode away at a fast pace, then broke into a jog. It didn't help that Tempest met her half-way and spun to lead her back, a worried look on her heavily jowled face. Marius, please don't have done anything. If he had, she'd seriously misjudged him, and would have to re-evaluate everything.

  No, she hadn't misjudged him, she knew that. Yet Dale had warned her. They'd had a significant breakthrough, and there'd be fallout. She knew as well as Dale did that PTSD could play tricks with a man's mind, changing the reality around him as decisively as a hallucinogen.

  As she entered the cat building, she saw there was a second screen door to access the cats. There was a kitten clinging to the mesh, mewling at her, but Marius had made sure the screen door caught securely, so there was no chance the creature could get out. She turned the latch and slipped inside, detaching the tiny claws from the screen and lowering the kitten back to the floor. "Marius?"

  The adult cats were bathing, eating, or playing on carpeted towers in their separate enclosures, about three or four cats per area. They didn't seem agitated, which reassured her. She noted a giant brown tabby tom cat with torn ears and a baleful yellow gaze eying her from the top of one of the enclosures, rather than from inside. He had a carpeted platform up there and was settled on his perch with his legs folded beneath him. He reminded her of a Chinese emperor with his arms threaded into his robes, staring down at his supplicants with terrifying inscrutability.

  She wrinkled her nose at him. "You don't scare me," she told him. Never mind that he looked like he might pounce on her head and gouge out her eyes. He lifted his back leg and started to bathe his privates, which she assumed was the feline equivalent of arrogant indifference.

  Her gaze slid around the area. Had Marius gone out the back door? Where... And then she found him.

  Toward the rear of the building, there was a smaller enclosure, probably intended for the corralling of the kittens when Dale was cleaning or letting the adults out to exercise in the communal area. The door stood open and a handful of loose kittens seemed to be darting in and out of that space.

  As she moved toward it, Marius came into view. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, against the back wall. She paused in the doorway.

  A black kitten with a couple sparse white markings on feet and chest was sitting in his two cupped hands, bathing itself. Another one, a yellow tabby, was on his knee, kneading his jeans. Two others played with a yarn toy beside his hip.

  His muscles were bunched, as if he were holding something much heavier than a kitten, and he was quivering. His eyes were closed, head bowed. As the kitten unconcernedly curled up, his fingers curved inward, making the nest more secure. She realized then his ey
es weren't closed, just lowered, watching the animal. As she moved to stand before him and dropped to her heels, her breath caught in her throat.

  The night he'd told her what his father had done, she'd heard the raw pain inside him, unable to be unleashed. It was too awful, too terrible. Tears were for things that could be healed, washed away. There was nothing to heal or wash away those memories, not in the re-telling.

  But now, as she touched his chin, she saw silent tears running down his face. That was why his muscles were so tight. He was breaking apart from the inside, only his frame holding him together. He met her gaze, his gray eyes swimming.

  "She came to me," he said brokenly. "Climbed on me like it was okay. She's so little, so easy to hurt, but she doesn't know it. She doesn't ever have to experience that fear. Not ever."

  "No. She doesn't. She's in good hands." She touched his.

  He swallowed. She moved her fingertips to his face, her thumb tracing the tear tracks. "Marius," she said softly.

  His face got even tighter, more tears tumbling. "People who don't...who haven't been there...they don't know. They don't know how helpless... We're all like a kitten, no matter how tough and big we think we are."

  His gaze snapped up to her. "They don't know what it's like to be pulled into something you can't stop, where you're paralyzed, you can't move."

  "Duncan," she said gently, covering his hands with hers, drawing his attention down. "Ease up. You're trying to clench your fists."

  He loosened his grip so abruptly he would have dropped the kitten if she wasn't holding both his hands in hers, a nest within a nest. He hadn't affected the kitten's repose, but she wanted to make sure he didn't do anything to disrupt what his mind was working through.

  "If you really know," he said, gazing down at the kitten, "you don't talk about it, not to anyone, because there's a part of you afraid that you'll make it happen all over again. And plus, when you feel too much, you go back there in your head. Over and over. Less you feel, less helpless you feel."

  "I know." She cupped the side of his neck, stroked him with a firm touch. "But if you're in good hands, just like that kitten is now, you can be truly helpless and find something good."

  The words might or might not be penetrating. His gaze was haunted. "I never wanted a place to live, or to adopt a cat or dog. Not until you. Roots mean you stay still. I didn't want to stay still. Things catch up to you when you stay still. I don't deserve anyone's trust, especially not a Mistress's."

  "That's for your Mistress to decide, not you." She stroked a finger along the furry back of the tiny creature he held. The kitten yawned and curled into a tighter ball, making her smile.

  "She doesn't know I'm a monster," he said.

  "You're not one," Regina said, sharply enough to draw his eyes toward her face. Her heart was breaking for him, but she wouldn't let him get away with that. She captured his chin, a gesture intended to pull him back toward the here and now. "You are not him, Marius."

  "No. I'm not." His gaze filled with misery. "He wanted to be the center of everything, noticed. I don't want who I really am to be noticed...I want that part of me to disappear, but it won't. It keeps...when I'm with a Mistress, I can feel it trying to get free, but it doesn't deserve to be free. But I can't stop myself from reaching for it, so I trash everything."

  "Stop this," she said softly. "You're talking nonsense."

  She adjusted to sit next to him. As he quivered and a couple tears splashed down on his forearms, she turned to put her arms around him. He stiffened.

  "I can't." He tried to push away from her, but he wouldn't disturb the kitten, and she wouldn't be denied.

  "I'm here, and you can. Come down here. Let me hold you."

  She brought him down like a slow falling tree, easing his head into her lap. Regina rubbed his back, his arm, and curved her body over him. "It's okay," she whispered. "You're okay." I've got you.

  He'd kept his palms a joined cup for the kitten, and the creature wasn't giving up her spot, no matter his movements. When his knuckles hit the floor, his palms up, the animal merely adjusted to start bathing.

  His eyes latched upon the motion, and then he pressed his face into Regina's thigh. His powerful body vibrated like an electric current had passed through it, his eyes shutting tight.

  Just like that, the flood came.

  The shuddering through his shoulders became a jerking motion, and she tightened her grip on him. A sob ripped from his throat, more an animal sound than a man's. The storm of tears racked his body, and had her murmuring to him, rocking him. Tears tracked silently down her own face as she absorbed his pain and confusion, taking it within her. She would surround his heart, keep it together, so the broken edges wouldn't rip him to pieces from the inside.

  She heard Dale come in and stop in front of their enclosure. She didn't look up, her energy dedicated to Marius, helping him get it out. The fierce, hard sobs were those that the child had carried all these years, until they were finally released by the man. Which was good, because she was pretty sure their force would have torn a child apart.

  Seeing Dale, the kitten rose, stretched and only now left Marius, running across the enclosure to him with her several other littermates. Dale quietly closed the wire door, leaving the space to Regina and Marius. His hands now free, Marius curled them under her thigh and calf.

  "Ssh," she whispered. "It's all right. You're safe. You can be helpless with me and not be afraid. It's all right."

  At times, she thought he might make himself sick, choking on all his rage and tears, but finally things slowed down and he was quivering in her arms, face still pressed into her leg. Because she'd gone through that storm of emotion with him, she felt shaky, too. Glancing up, she saw the brown tomcat was on top of their enclosure now, studying her and Marius as if they were in a zoo.

  "Look," she said softly. "He must think we're a strange new set of cats Dale's brought in."

  Marius adjusted his head and glanced blearily up at the male. "I think he likes you," he said in a thick voice. "You're the one he's looking at."

  "Well, I am irresistible to difficult and standoffish males," she said.

  The black kitten was back at the door of the enclosure, pawing at it, and meowing plaintively. A glance showed Dale had left them to their privacy. Regina was surprised when Marius pushed himself up stiffly and leaned across the distance without getting up. He opened the enclosure, then stretched back out on his side in the same position with Regina, head in her lap. It touched her, though he looked so tired. She kept rubbing her palm in slow, soothing circles along his back. The kitten mountain-climbed Marius's knee, sidling up to his hip, settling there and looking pleased with herself.

  "A female after my own heart," Regina observed. "She wants to be on top."

  "Sure she's female?"

  "Absolutely."

  "I thought I was getting a dog," Marius said after a time.

  "Looks to me like a cat chose you instead."

  His throat worked as he swallowed. "She deserves better than me."

  "That may be true, but since she's chosen you, sounds like you have one more good reason to get your shit together."

  His gaze lifted to Regina's face and held there. "Yeah, maybe," he said.

  "Yeah, definitely." She curled over him more tightly, putting his head and face in the cocoon of her body. "You're a far better man than you've let yourself be, Duncan Marius Walczek. I've every confidence you won't let me or her down."

  Proving it a moment later, he adjusted his body toward her, lifting an arm and looping it over her bent shoulders, rounding out the cocoon their bodies and limbs formed. His fingers delved into her hair to hold and tug. He squeezed her hard, giving her his strength in return for her own.

  He also surprised her when he at last shifted, making sure the kitten had a safe transition to the floor before he stood on his knees and wrapped both arms around Regina. Since she was still sitting, her head was on his chest, and he gave her that same se
nse of being surrounded by warmth she'd just given him.

  "Thank you," he said thickly. "In case I'm an asshole later, which is a pretty sure bet, I wanted to say that."

  "You won't be an asshole later, or I'll kick your ass. If that's what you need." She smoothed her hands over his back and pressed her face into his chest, liking his heated scent. "I promised you a walk along the waterfront. Why don't we go do that? We don't have to make any decisions here."

  "No. Yeah." He sat back on his heels and considered the kitten, who was playing with one of her brethren, tumbling and posturing with an adorable fuzzing up of tiny tail and back. "I think if I don't set things in motion, once I leave here, I'll talk myself out of it. I want to do it."

  "Okay." She put a hand over his. "Just don't push yourself to do too much, too fast. It might be a good idea to think it all over some before you make too many changes."

  He shook his head, a stubborn set to his jaw. "I've been stuck in this fucking rut for so long, all this shit about my dad in my head, and I'm done with it. It's like you said. Time to start living up to the expectations of people I want in my life."

  "Sounds like a great start," she said sincerely. And she didn't want to do anything to throw a wrench into it. But...

  "What you went through, Marius. It's not something you decide one day it's over, pick up your life and go on. Just now, when you looked at the kitten, I could see the hesitation in your gaze, even though she was sitting on you just a few minutes ago. It's going to be there for a long time, what happened with your dad."

  "So you don't think I should adopt her?"

  He looked so crestfallen, it gave his face a youthfulness she didn't typically see in his tough, masculine features. "I didn't say that." Though she realized she did think it might be too soon.

  "No. I think you should," she said firmly, hoping she wasn't mistaking soft-heartedness for good instincts. If she was, she had Dale as a safety net. "I just think you should also take it slow. Why don't we go take our walk, and let it all sink in? Though before we go, we can fill out all the paperwork and get things started."

  He gave her a searching look, but nodded. "Okay."