The Darkest Hour, Page 18Maya Banks
Transfixed by the stranger in the reflection, she pulled at her clothing. Soon she was nude, and she looked with clinical detachment at her breasts. Though small, they still seemed too large for her thin frame. Too plump.
She looked for any imperfection, turning sideways to study her profile. Her butt was just there, pale, unassuming, not too big, not too small. Just a butt.
She lifted her arm and ran her fingers over the now smooth shaven skin under it. Maren had offered her the use of a razor to shave her legs and under her arms but had refused to leave while Rachel used it.
A soft laugh escaped. Number one rule of dealing with crazy people. Never leave them alone with sharp objects.
There was nothing there to inspire a man to lust, but neither was there anything to send him running for the hills. Feeling marginally better, she moved toward the bath and stepped into the steaming water.
It slid over her skin like silk, and she let out a deep sigh of pleasure as she sank down into the tub. Such a simple pleasure, but right now she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
She lay back, allowing the water to creep to her chin. She closed her eyes and allowed peace to wrap her in its sweet embrace.
A moment later, she heard the door open. Automatically she sat back up, and she hunched her knees forward in a puny effort to shield her body from view.
Ethan walked over and sat down, still fully clothed, on the edge of the tub.
“Tell me how you want me to do this, baby. I can get in with my shorts on if it makes you feel more comfortable, or I can leave you alone if that’s what you want. ”
She emitted a shaky laugh. “If you get to see me naked, I get to see you naked. ”
He leaned forward and tucked a finger under her chin. “You can see me any way you want, whenever you want. ”
With that he stood and slowly pulled his T-shirt over his head. His chest and arms rippled with muscles, and she watched in fascination the dips and curves that traveled his taut skin.
He had the body of a warrior. There wasn’t an inch of spare flesh on his body. Every part bulged with muscle and his skin was a study in fascinating contours.
His hands traveled to his narrow waist and hooked into his jeans. The fly popped open and then the denim slowly worked its way over his hips.
No longer able to stare so avidly, she looked down, disconcerted by the heat in her cheeks. This was her husband. Why was she embarrassed to look? She desperately wanted to reacquaint herself with every nuance of her relationship with him. Wanted the intimacy back that he seemed to hint at. The closeness of their love.
When his jeans hit the floor, he climbed over the edge of the tub and gently pushed her forward so he could position himself behind her.
His penis brushed along her spine as he lowered himself, and she held herself rigid, not moving. She would hold it together. She would.
Finally he was situated, and then he wrapped his arms carefully around her and pulled her back against his chest. The springy hair at his groin, softened by the water, brushed the top of her buttocks, but she relaxed anyway and let him hold her.
She laid her head against his collarbone, and he kissed her temple. To her shock, she felt a shudder roll through his body about the same time she registered wetness against her skin. Tears. His tears.
She started to turn around, but he tightened his grip.
“Stay,” he said in a choked voice. “Just let me hold you, baby. Just let me hold you. ”
She let herself relax back into his arms and nestled her head into the curve of his neck. Tremors continued to work through his body, and quiet little huffs sounded past her ears.
He held her tightly, a wealth of emotion straining in those muscles she’d admired. Instead of being reassured by the knowledge that someone loved her so deeply, she felt vulnerable. Scared. And maybe a little unworthy.
After a while, Ethan seemed to collect himself. His grip loosened and he cupped water in his hands to wet her hair. Then he squeezed shampoo onto her head and dug his fingers into her scalp, rubbing and kneading.
She moaned and closed her eyes in absolute bliss.
“Feel good?” he husked in her ear.
She wanted to cry. Such tenderness was alien. She couldn’t remember this, and it hurt all the more that she couldn’t bring such sensation readily to mind.
“Why can’t I remember?” she asked in a choked voice. “I want to remember. I do. ”
His hands paused for a moment, and then he continued with gentle, loving strokes as he worked the lather. “You will, Rachel. You will. ”
After a moment, his hands drifted down to her shoulders, kneading and massaging her tense muscles. They moved lower, hovering at her chest and then dipping into the water. She sucked in her breath, but he didn’t cup her breasts. His fingers glided over the soft swells but went quickly past to her belly, where they stopped, content to rest there at her waist.
“Slide down so I can rinse you. ”
She went limp and eased down his body. He raised one hand to cup her chin and lifted so that her face stayed out of the water as her head reclined. Then he carefully rinsed her hair.
When he was done, he pressed a kiss to her forehead as she stared up at him, and then he put his hands underneath her arms and lifted until she was upright again. His fingers once again brushed across her breasts when he moved his hands, but as before, they didn’t linger.
Her name came out, almost an entreaty, expelled on a long, soft breath, one that bordered on an ache.
She stilled, waiting for what he wanted to ask.
“Do you remember much about your captivity?”
She stiffened, and her breathing ratcheted up. His hands smoothed over her shoulders, petting in a soothing manner.
Slowly she nodded. “Some. Not everything. The stuff . . . the drugs they gave me made things muddled. ”
“What can you remember? Can you tell me about it?”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t want to think about it. ”
His hands tightened around her shoulders. “Did they hurt you?”
She wilted against him, sagging like a deflated balloon. Around her the water was cooling, and a shiver burst over her skin. Ethan cursed softly and fumbled with his foot for the drain.
“Let’s get out and we’ll talk in the bedroom. We could both use some rest and it would be nice to hold you for a while. ”
He braced himself on the sides and pushed himself upward. Water rained down all around as it spilled from his body. He stepped out and reached for a towel. This time, she stared unabashedly as he dried himself off.
When he was done, he got another towel and laid it aside. Then he reached for her hands and pulled her to stand. As she stepped out, he wrapped the towel around her and pulled her against his naked body.
He rubbed her dry from head to toe and then toweled her hair.
“I know I told you to get an outfit, but how ’bout I give you one of my shirts, and when we get up later you can dress. Or maybe we’ll just stay in bed until tomorrow. ”
She offered a tremulous smile. “That sounds nice. I’m so tired. ”
He kissed her upturned lips then backed away. “Stay right there. I’ll get dressed and get you a shirt. ”
He returned a second later wearing gym shorts and carrying a T-shirt for her. He pulled it over her head, and it fell down her body to her knees. She looked down and then back up at him.
“That shirt never looked as good on me,” he said with a smile. Then he reached for her hand. “Ready?”
She slipped her fingers into his and nodded.
A normal bed. It looked warm, soft and inviting, and she all but dove into the mound of covers. The simplest pleasures, ones that would be so easy to take for granted in everyday life, were now the sweetest. A hot bath. A comfortable bed. All the things she’d been denied for
“Am I even going to be able to find you underneath all those covers?” Ethan teased as he crawled onto the bed.
“I think I’ll just stay here for a week,” she said wistfully.
“I could be persuaded,” he said as he settled beside her.
He lay on his side and propped his head in his palm as he wedged his elbow between the pillows. She stared up at him, studying his expression, the different glints of his eyes.
“Your eyes are darker than Sam’s,” she mused. “You look a lot like Garrett. You think that’s why I remember him?”
He blinked as if he hadn’t expected the random thoughts she’d thrown his way.
Her brow crinkled as she brought Donovan’s face into view. “Donovan has green eyes, but the rest of you have blue eyes. ”
Ethan smiled and touched her cheek. “Slow down, baby. Let me catch up. ”
She burrowed a little deeper into the covers and stifled a yawn as she stared up at him. She loved the contrast between the white sheets and his tanned skin. He was a beautiful thing to behold, and she ate him up with her eyes.
Had she always looked at him with such adoration? Why couldn’t she remember? A spark of emotion. Anything.
Darkness crept up again, uninvited and insidious. Fear took hold. Fear of the unknown, but there was also a fear of remembering. Why? What dark secrets did this seemingly perfect house hide?
“Most of us have blue eyes. Dad has blue eyes and Mom has brown. Van ended up with green, while Nathan and Joe got Mom’s brown eyes. ”
“I thought brown was always dominant over blue,” she said with a frown.
“You’re asking a dumb military grunt to explain genetics?”
“You’re not dumb,” she said fiercely.
He grinned and smoothed his thumb over her lips. “Still as feisty as ever when it comes to sticking up for those you love. Anyway, my granddad on my mom’s side had blue eyes, so Mom obviously carries the gene or whatever you call it. Geesh, I haven’t done those stupid gene squares since high school.
“And yes, I look the most like Garrett, but you and Garrett were . . . close. That’s probably why you remember him. ”
“I don’t remember your other brothers at all. Or your mother. ” She sighed. “How can I face them all when they’ll be strangers to me?”
Ethan shifted his weight slightly, and he scooted lower into the bed until their noses were just a breath apart.
“This isn’t about them. It’s about you. They aren’t going to be angry. Sad? Probably, but it’s because they love you and they hate what happened to you. They want you to be happy. They want you to get your life back, your health and your memories. ”
Her breath escaped in an unsteady hiccough. “Ethan?”
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear in a loving gesture. “Yes, baby?”
She licked her lips. “I don’t remember a lot about what happened. I mean I remember pieces, like when one of the men tried . . . ” She clamped her lips shut for a moment but then shook off her shame and reluctance. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. They tried to take everything from her. She did nothing to bring about their actions.
Ethan’s fingers stilled on her cheek, but she felt more than saw the shudder roll up his big frame.
“What did he try?” he asked in a low voice.
“He tried to hurt me,” she said vaguely. “But another man stopped him. I don’t know why, but he got the man off me and gave me back my clothes. ”
Ethan’s face was a rigid, immovable stone. Only his eyes betrayed the raw emotion burning inside.
“Did he ever try again?”
“I don’t think I was raped,” she whispered. She looked searchingly up at him. “Wouldn’t I know? How would I be able to forget something so terrible? I remember everything else, I mean about what they did. ”
“What did they do?” he asked gently. His hands shook against her face, and his eyes were so intent, so focused on her that she felt . . . cherished.
She frowned as some of the memories rolled back through the shadows.
“They told me I was never going home. That I was serving a purpose. An insurance policy. What did they mean, Ethan? I don’t understand. ”
His breath huffed out, and his fingers stilled against her cheek. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out. I swear it. ”
“Once when I tried to escape, they put me into this . . . cage. It was a box in the middle of the camp. The hot box they called it. One little hole at the top to let air in, but otherwise it was dark and so hot. I baked in it. ”
She shuddered involuntarily, and Ethan gathered her in his arms, pulling her close to his chest. His heartbeat thumped against her ear, and she could feel the rage billowing off of him.
“After that, they started with the drugs. I hated it. They frightened me so badly, but then I started needing it, and I only felt good when they gave me another injection. I hated them for that, for making me dependent on a drug for my sanity when all the while I was losing it bit by bit anyway. ”
“No, baby, don’t,” he protested.
“They used it to control me after that,” she said, barging ahead, recalling the bitter hatred and the incessant need that even now still crawled through her body. “They’d withhold the drugs, knowing what it would do to me. They kept me in a constant state of withdrawal until finally I hated myself more than I hated them. ”