The darkest hour, p.17
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       The Darkest Hour, p.17

         Part #1 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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Page 17


  He drove on down the highway, so she would know he wasn’t taking her home right away.

  “Now, suppose you tell me why you’d think something so wonderful as Rachel coming home to us would change the way my mom feels about you?”

  “I’m nobody,” she said sullenly. “Just someone your mom felt sorry for. She was feeling sad because of Rachel, and I guess she thought I could fill in. ”

  “And she told you this?”

  Rusty hesitated. “Um no. ”

  “Maybe you overheard it. ”

  Again she shook her head, scowling as she got where he was heading with this.

  “Or maybe my mom’s done something to make you think she’s not very sincere and she enjoys jerking around teenage girls who are in trouble. ”

  “You know she hasn’t,” Rusty muttered.

  “Hmm, okay, well I’m out of guesses. Maybe you ought to just tell me. Guys can be slow. ”

  She was silent for a long time as she studied her hands in her lap. “I just thought . . . I assumed that since Rachel was coming back that she wouldn’t want me anymore. ”

  Nathan reached over and took her hand, ignoring her flinch of surprise. “I understand why you might have felt that way. But one thing you need to understand is my mother’s limitless capacity for caring. She taught school for years, and she can still tell you the names of every student who ever came through her classroom. ”

  He gave a light chuckle. “For that matter, try being her youngest child with five older brothers. If anyone ought to feel left out and overlooked, you’d think it would be me. But somehow she manages to make every one of us feel special, like we’re the only person in the world who matters to her. Don’t get me wrong. She’s not a pushover, and when she sets her mind to something, she’s like an alligator with fresh meat. ”

  Her lips trembled, and she pulled her hand away from his. “I’m not used to anyone giving a damn. ”

  “Well, maybe it’s time you got used to it,” he said simply.

  Her lips twisted again as apparently she roused her defenses. “What do you care? You and your brothers don’t like me. You’d prefer I go anyway. ”

  “This isn’t about me or my brothers, so don’t make it so. My mother cares about you. We don’t know you. Are we concerned that you’re taking advantage of our mother? Hell yeah. And you can bet we’ll be watching your ass, and if you make one wrong step, we’ll be on you like a duck on a June bug. But as long as you don’t screw up, you don’t have anything to worry about. ”

  “Are you saying you want me to go back?” she asked suspiciously.

  He sighed. “Quit twisting my words and buck up, Rusty. You’re capable of making your own decisions and taking responsibility for them. If you want to go back, then quit wasting both our time and say the word. I’ll take you home, no questions asked. If you don’t want to go, then fine, but you’re going to tell my mother that to her face instead of slinking off like an ungrateful coward. ”

  Her mouth rounded in shock, and then unexpectedly she smiled, and it transformed her entire face. Replacing the sullen, defeated look was a young, vibrant girl who was actually quite pretty.

  “I like people who don’t lie and say it like it is. ”

  Nathan chuckled. “Then you should get along with the Kelly clan just fine. Now, are we going home or not?”

  A sparkle lit her eyes, and she looked . . . hopeful. Excited even. Then as suddenly as happiness had fired, the flame died and she looked apprehensively at him.

  “Are you sure? I mean are you sure she wants me?”

  He stared at her a long time and gave thanks that he had never had to feel unwanted in his life. “Yeah, Rusty. I’m sure. ”


  RACHEL eyed the house from the window of the SUV as Sam came to a stop in the circle drive. She waited for recognition to hit her, but she stared numbly as if it were someone else’s house. Not her own.

  It was a beautiful house, and she could certainly see it as a place she would have loved. A cypress log house with a rustic front porch complete with swing and potted ferns.

  Ethan had told her that they didn’t live very far from the lake.

  “How long did we live here?” she whispered.

  “Three years,” Ethan replied. “We moved in right after our honeymoon. ”

  She cocked her head to the side and stared curiously at him. “Where did we go on our honeymoon?”

  He looked momentarily surprised and then he smiled, warmth flooding his eyes. “We went to Jamaica and spent a week on the beach. I don’t think you ever wore much more than a bikini the entire time we were there. ”

  A hot flush stole over her cheeks, and she ducked her head.

  “Ready?” he asked solemnly.

  She took a deep breath and nodded. He opened the door and stepped out and then reached back to offer her his hand. She slid her fingers into his, and let him pull her from the vehicle. Sam and Garrett had already gotten out and were standing in the walkway to the front door.

  She didn’t realize how badly she was shaking until Ethan wrapped an arm around her to steady her as they walked by his brothers.

  “Do you want us to stay, Ethan?” Sam murmured.

  Ethan paused at the steps to the front door and tightened his grip around her waist. “No, we’ll be fine. Tell Mom I’ll call her later. ”

  “Okay, man. Let us know if you need anything. ” Sam slapped Ethan on the back and started back toward the truck.

  Garrett hesitated a second then reached out to touch her shoulder. “Take care, sweet pea. ”

  She wrenched away from Ethan and threw her arms around Garrett’s waist. He stepped back in surprise but then curled his arms around her and returned her hug.

  “You’ll be back, won’t you?” she whispered.

  “I’ll never be far,” he murmured. “If you ever need me, I’ll be here. Promise. ”

  Reluctantly she freed herself from his embrace. Garrett smiled down at her and then turned to his brother.

  “Holler if you need anything. ”

  “We’ll be fine,” Ethan said softly.

  Garrett ambled down the walk and climbed into the truck next to Sam. They both offered a wave as they drove away from the house.

  “Okay?” Ethan asked as he turned to the door.

  She stared up the steps, almost dreading what was inside. Why did it scare her so badly? Why was she such a coward?

  “Let’s do it,” she said.

  Ethan put the key into the lock and opened the door. Cool air blew over her face as they stepped inside. She braced herself for the surge of memories, but as she moved farther into the interior, she was only struck by the feeling of unfamiliarity.

  Her hands crept up her arms and she rubbed absently as her gaze traveled the living room. It seemed so . . . quiet. Uncluttered. Still even. Calm was reflected in the decoration, from the piano catty-corner to the stone fireplace, to the framed art hanging on the walls.

  How could this house be hers when every part of her mind screamed chaos?

  “Baby? Are you all right?”

  Ethan touched her arm, and she jerked from her perusal of the room.

  “I-I’m fine. ”

  “Anything seem familiar?”

  She shook her head, precariously close to running as hard and as fast from the house as she could.

  “What’s bothering you?” he asked gently.

  She turned in a tight circle. The walls, the furnishings seemed to close in on her and mock her. They called her a fraud and told her she didn’t belong.

  “Are you sure I belong here?”

  “Come here,” he said as he pulled her into his arms. He held her tightly, resting his chin on top of her head. “You belong wherever I am. You belong with me. Always. I know this has to be overwhelming for you, but we’ll get past it. Just promise me that when something frightens you that you’ll tell me so I can make it better. ”

  She squeezed him, holding on as tight as she could. She inhaled his scent and felt the steady, reassuring beat of his heart against her cheek. They could do this. She could do this.

  Finally she pulled away and then reached for his hand, lacing her fingers through his. “Show me around?”

  “I’d be glad to. ”

  As they wandered through the house, Rachel’s frustration grew. She felt no kinship to this place.

  “This is our bedroom and through that door is the master bath,” Ethan said as they walked into a spacious room.

  The furnishings seemed feminine. Even the bed was a four-poster with a frilly bedspread. It was hard for her to imagine Ethan in such a setting.

  “It doesn’t look like you,” she said slowly.

  He smiled. “I have the decorating sense of a mule. ”

  “But it doesn’t look like me either,” she said helplessly.

  “It’s exactly you. Calm, uncluttered. Feminine and beautiful. ”

  She shook her head, hating those words. Words she’d used to describe the living room exactly. They weren’t her. She walked blindly toward the bathroom, just wanting an escape.

  The bathroom was large, with a Jacuzzi tub and a separate shower. The toilet was in its own tiny closet and there were his-and-her sinks lining the wall. But her gaze locked onto the tub.

  A distant memory floated by on a cloud, lazy and unhurried. The splash of water. Her sitting in the tub, the water up to her chest. Ethan. She blinked as the image came more sharply into focus.

  She was in his arms, leaning against his chest as the water lapped over her breasts. His hands cupped them, his thumbs brushing over the taut peaks. A shiver stole over her body.

  And then his fingers through her hair as he soaped the long tresses. Her hands automatically went to her head, to her shorn locks. Her hair had been much longer then.

  “Will you take a bath with me?” she blurted.

  He blinked in surprise, and for a long moment he didn’t say anything. He seemed to struggle with exactly what to say, how to respond.

  “You used to wash my hair. I remember you touching me. ”

  Fire built in his eyes, sparking the blue until it resembled a storm front.

  “Are you sure, baby? I don’t want to do anything to make you uncomfortable. ”

  She shrugged, hating the awkwardness of asking her husband, her husband, to be intimate with her again.

  “I just want you to hold me. ”

  He drew her into his arms, and to her surprise, he trembled against her. Was he as adrift as she was? In some ways this had to be even harder for him. He had memories that she didn’t. He could recall how it was between them and miss what they’d lost.

  “Have a seat on the bed. I’ll draw the water and then we’ll get undressed together, okay? Mom bought you some new clothes and left them on the bed, so you can pick out something to wear while the water is running. ”

  She nodded and retreated to the bedroom. There were several shopping bags on the bed, and she sat down and opened one. Jeans, tops, even socks and a new pair of tennis shoes. There was also a bra and several pairs of underwear.

  She glanced down self-consciously as she realized she hadn’t worn a bra in longer than she could remember. Or underwear.

  Unbidden the image of a man ripping her clothing and her underwear from her flashed in her mind. And then another man stepping between him and her, shoving her attacker away. She’d huddled naked on the dirt floor of the hut while they’d argued, and then her rescuer had shoved her tattered clothing back at her, minus her unsalvageable underthings.

  She hadn’t thought—or remembered—that instance until now. Her attacker was dead. But her savior? Who was he and why had he cared what the other man did to her?

  With nervous fingers, she pulled out the lacy panties and the bra that somehow looked too large for her small breasts. How would she look in them now? Even she knew she had to be thinner. Suddenly the idea of taking a bath with Ethan didn’t seem so appealing.

  She clutched the clothing to her and waited with growing dread for Ethan to come out. A few moments later, he appeared in the doorway, his body language as tense as hers.

  “The water’s drawn. Are you ready?”

  She stood and met his gaze. “Maybe I should go in first. Can . . . can you give me a few minutes to get into the tub before you come in?”

  “Absolutely, baby. Take as much time as you need. ”

  He gestured for her to go in, and when she passed him, he quietly closed the door behind her. She walked over to the sinks and laid the clothing on the counter.

  When she looked up, she caught the first look of herself in the mirror. She was momentarily startled. The woman staring back at her with wide, frightened eyes didn’t feel like her.

  Her hair curled limply at her nape and ears. Her cheeks were thin and hollow, her bones more pronounced. Even her throat looked too small, and her shoulders were angular, not softly rounded.

  Her gaze drifted down to her narrow waist and hips. Boyish. There didn’t seem to be any softness about her. What could Ethan possibly see in her? Had she always looked like this?