The Darkest Hour, Page 21Maya Banks
“Hey, you okay? Sorry, didn’t mean to get carried away. ”
“You asked me out,” she blurted.
Joe cast a nervous glance over at Ethan then grinned at her. “Yeah. Well not lately. ”
Sam stepped forward, and she willed herself not to flinch.
“You remember him, Rachel?” Sam asked.
She raised a hand to her brow and pressed over her right eye, suddenly aware of the slight throb. Ethan’s hand slid over her shoulders and he massaged, a silent message of support. Reminding her of his presence. She sank back against him, tired but unafraid. She may not remember these people, but she couldn’t refute the love in their eyes.
She stared up at Joe again, searching the vague images for something that made sense.
“You were standing in front of me. You had your uniform on. And you were nervous. ”
Joe smiled. “Hell yeah. I was asking a gorgeous woman out. ”
She tilted her head. “Did I accept?”
Joe adopted an exaggerated crestfallen expression. “No. You let me down easy, though. ” He clutched his heart and staggered back a step. “I recovered. Eventually. ”
She chuckled at his antics. Then her gaze flittered to the man she now assumed had to be Nathan. He stood back, a slight smile curving his lips.
“You don’t look alike,” she said.
“Thank God,” Nathan muttered.
“Yeah, I got all the looks. He got . . . Well he didn’t get much,” Joe said.
Nathan rolled his eyes then shoved by Joe. “Got a hug for me?”
She went willingly, her unease gone. His body shook with emotion, and she realized that despite his and Joe’s back-and-forth, they were as affected as the rest of the family.
When he let her go, she stepped back, putting enough distance between her and the rest so that she could study their faces.
“I really do have a family,” she said in wonder.
Pain flashed in Ethan’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. Why had her words hurt him?
“Yes, sweet pea,” Garrett said. “You have a family. You have all of us. Warts and all. ”
Ethan moved to her again. His hand slid over the side of her neck and then up to cup her jaw. His thumb grazed restlessly over her cheek, and she tilted her chin so she could look into his eyes.
“Are you okay, baby?”
Everyone else seemed to disappear. His face lowered precariously close to hers. He hadn’t kissed her yet. Not as a husband. He’d been so careful with her. Understanding.
She licked her lips at the same time she realized she wanted him to kiss her. Here. And then her gaze skated sideways to his family all standing there. Watching.
She ducked her head and took a step back, Ethan’s hand falling away. But she reached out to catch it, wanting to maintain some semblance of contact with him.
He smiled and laced his fingers with hers then pulled her against his side.
“Are you hungry?” Marlene asked.
Ethan chuckled. “Ma’s answer to everything. Food. ”
Marlene harrumphed, but her eyes twinkled. “You didn’t turn down a hot meal. ”
“I’m no idiot. ”
Donovan spoke up. “Hey, if she’s not hungry, I am. ”
Rachel turned in the direction of his voice. He smiled and nodded, but he kept his distance almost as if he knew how overwhelmed she was.
“You’re the quiet one, aren’t you?”
Donovan’s eyes widened a little, but his cheeks colored slightly.
“If you’re asking if I’m an obnoxious loudmouth like all my other siblings, the answer is no. ”
“I danced with you at my wedding,” she said, as the music danced in her head just as they had done. “I teased you and said you were the only one of your brothers who hadn’t bruised my toes. ”
His smile lit up his face. “Yeah. I always said they were uncouth mammoths. ”
Laughter rang out over the room, and she realized that it was a sound she’d heard often in her past. She stared from face to face, her heart swelling and aching with the irrefutable truth. She was home. She had family. She was loved.
IT had taken a while for Rachel to become accustomed not only to sleeping in the wondrous luxury of a bed, but also to sleeping with Ethan. Not that she’d had any difficulty making the transition. In fact, she was usually so glued to him by the middle of the night that she was surprised he didn’t shove her away. But he seemed as content as she was to sleep so melded together.
The part she’d had to grow accustomed to was not living with the fear of him being gone when she woke up. He never left the bed before she did and always made sure he was there, holding her, when she woke up.
Some mornings they’d lie there lazily, limbs entwined, and he’d rub a hand up and down her arm as the sun rose higher, filling their bedroom with light.
This morning was no exception. She’d actually woken before Ethan, and she lay there watching him sleep. He looked almost vulnerable in this unguarded state, and she found the contrast fascinating. He was so hard and tough, so very protective of her, and yet right now she wanted to touch him, ease the worry she often saw in his eyes.
She wondered what he’d do if she kissed him. Though he was affectionate with her, and touched her frequently, he hadn’t made any effort to kiss her—really kiss her. There were light kisses to her forehead. A peck on the lips. Sometimes a brush across her cheek. But he hadn’t kissed her like a lover.
Part of her was curious to see if she’d remember the passion that once existed between them, but the other part of her was scared to death. What if she didn’t react appropriately? What if she couldn’t remember her feelings for him. Worse, what if she felt nothing if they tried to make love?
She frowned. No, that couldn’t be possible. She was too physically aware of him.
She snuggled a little closer to him, until her mouth was hovering just an inch from his. Her pulse pounded, and she chided herself for being so ridiculously nervous. It was just a kiss. They’d kissed any number of times before.
She licked her lips and then carefully pressed her mouth to his. The kiss was so light and yet it gave her a giddy thrill. She pulled quickly away, worried she’d woke him. But he hadn’t moved.
Encouraged by the warm sensation all the way down to her toes, she moved forward again. This time she kissed just the corner of his mouth and enjoyed the scratchy sensation of his morning shadow against her cheek.
Gaining courage and confidence, she slid her mouth fully over his and kissed him again. His lips parted, and she gasped in surprise. She pulled away to see him watching her through half-lidded eyes.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
Fire lit her cheeks. She felt like an errant teenager stealing her first kiss.
“G-good morning. ”
He smiled and ran his finger down her nose. “I like your way of saying good morning. ”
Her cheeks tightened and she ducked her head.
“Hey,” he said softly. “I liked it. Do you know how many nights I’ve dreamed of waking this way? You in my arms, your lips on mine. ”
She smiled shyly. “I feel so silly. We’ve kissed so many times, but to me this feels like the first. ”
He slid his hand behind her neck and cradled her head in his palm. “Then let’s make it perfect. ” He lowered his mouth to hers and pressed warm and sweet against hers.
Her heart fluttered and turned over like someone had set a jar full of butterflies free in her chest.
He was exquisitely tender. So reverent that it brought tears to her eyes. He kissed her lips and then started at one corner of her mouth and kissed his way to the other side.
His tongue slid sensuously over her top and then bottom lip and then gently slipped between to open her to his advances. With a sigh, she acquiesced, and their tongues met, tasting each other, exploring. Advancing an
d then retreating.
They performed a delicate dance, their tongues dueling, slowly at first and then faster. Their breath came faster and was swallowed up, given and then taken back. They shared each puff of air, savored it before demanding more.
Had she really thought she wouldn’t respond to him? She ached for him. All she wanted was to lose herself in him. Curl so tightly into him that she’d never be without his strength—his love.
The thought shook her to the bone. How could he love her when she’d forgotten their past? How could he love her when he’d thought her dead for the last year? And how could she hope to love him when all she had were bits and pieces of their life together?
Why couldn’t she remember?
Ethan drew away and moved his hand from her nape down her back to cradle her behind.
“What are you thinking?”
She smiled tremulously, her lips swollen from his kisses. “I wish I could remember. I want to remember how it was. Was it always like this? Was it as sweet? Was it better?”
“I think it gets better each day we spend together,” he said. “I think twenty years from now, we’ll look back and laugh at the idea that it couldn’t get better or that somehow we’d reached a standstill. Isn’t that the way it should be?”
She nestled back into his arms and laid her cheek against his broad chest. “I hope you’re right. ”
“I am this time,” he murmured.
She leaned back, puzzled by his response, but he kissed her again, and she forgot about everything but the heat of his lips on hers.
“I had an idea for something to do today,” he said when he drew away again.
She raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“I thought we could go to Sam’s to swim off the dock. You’ve remembered several instances of being there, and I thought it might help to be in a place you remember being happy. ”
Excitement bubbled up. Random snippets peppered her mind, crowding in until they overwhelmed her.
“I’d love that. When can we go?”
He smiled at her enthusiasm. “As soon as we get our lazy butts up and get out there. ”
“Sam won’t mind?” she asked anxiously.
Ethan laughed. “You, my darling wife, have all my brothers wrapped around your little finger. You may not remember it, but that doesn’t change the fact. They won’t mind a bit if we come over. ”
Her brow crinkled. “Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten you told me that Garrett and Donovan live there too. ”
“Don’t get all worried on me. It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. ”
He squeezed her hand for emphasis, and she leaned forward to give him a quick kiss, delighted that she could be spontaneously affectionate with him without awkwardness. It was a start.
RACHEL looked eagerly out of her window when they pulled into Sam’s gravel drive. The house was beautiful, and the lot was huge. A separate building, larger than the house, was situated to the right, and she focused on it intensely, but there was no flash of recognition.
“What’s there?” she asked, pointing at the building.
It was odd in that it didn’t look like a house. It couldn’t remotely be considered home-like. It was a square, gray stone building with what looked like steel doors. It reminded her of a bomb shelter or what she’d assume they looked like.
“That is the current KGI headquarters. Sam’s working on a much bigger place. He has this idea in his head that the entire Kelly family will live under lockdown in a compound that serves as the headquarters. Whatever you do, don’t ask him about it. He’ll talk your head off about it. ”
She laughed. “Really? The entire family?”
Ethan sighed. “Yeah. He makes a good argument, don’t get me wrong. KGI has made enemies, and that won’t stop. It’ll only get worse. He wants several hundred acres so that he doesn’t have to rely on any outside sources for transportation or supplies. If and when he gets it up and running, it’ll have its own landing strip, helicopter pad and training camp for the teams. ”
Her eyes widened. “I knew . . . I mean I saw the soldiers who were with you when you came for me, but . . . Well I don’t know what I thought. Are all those KGI?”
He nodded. “And more. I don’t think you saw Rio or his team. Sam’s looking to add more teams, but it takes time and training. He’s very selective, and he wants the recruits trained by Steele or Rio. In order for that to happen, he needs more manpower and more assets. ”
It was growing warm now that Ethan had cut the engine, so Rachel opened her door to let in the breeze. Still, she was curious about KGI and why Ethan didn’t work with them. What had he done when he quit the SEALs? For that matter, why had he quit?
“Seems like all that would take a lot of money,” she said doubtfully when Ethan came around to get her.
The corner of Ethan’s mouth lifted. “Sam’s made a lot of money since he got out of the army. He’s worked like a dog for it, and it all goes back into KGI. Garrett and Donovan are equal partners, and they pour all their take back into the company too, hence the reason they’re all still living together in the same house. ”