Just one touch, p.7
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       Just One Touch, p.7
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         Part #5 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks

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  His fingers, still tangled in her hair, gently pulled through the strands as he caressed their length and then the tips, wrapping them around his knuckles.

  “You can always ask me anything,” he vowed.

  “Can I . . . Can I kiss you?”

  Heat traveled to the center of his being. His blood blazed a trail of fire through his veins until he was certain his entire core was molten lava. He stared at her with hungry, hooded eyes, nearly groaning with the dilemma before him. The moment her request had registered, he’d gone rock hard, and the last thing he wanted was to scare the hell out of her with a monster erection.

  When she started to say something, likely to recant or apologize, he pressed one finger to her lips.

  “I have to ask you one question first,” he said huskily.

  She looked at him in confusion but nodded her agreement.

  Praying the entire time, he drew in a breath and said, “How old are you, sweetheart?”

  Her brow furrowed and he cursed himself, because once more shame made her features sad and distant.

  “I don’t know,” she murmured.

  “I don’t understand,” he said with genuine confusion.

  “I only have a few memories of my life before . . . them.”

  She shuddered with distaste when she said “them,” and chill bumps erupted over her skin. He drew her in closer and rubbed his palms up and down in an effort to warm her.

  “Mostly they’re like random, brief snatches of time, gone before I can grab on to them and hold on long enough to make sense of them. I know I was at least a few years old when I went to live with them and I’ve been with them for almost twenty years, but they’re all a blur, you know? In the beginning I would mark the passing of each day until I realized that no one was coming for me and that time meant nothing. I stopped counting because it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I didn’t matter,” she said painfully.

  Isaac cupped her chin, forcing her gaze upward, wanting her to see the sincerity in his expression and words.

  “You matter, Jenna. Don’t ever think differently. You matter.”

  She swallowed back a sob and then buried her face in his neck, grasping his shoulders with both hands. Then she finally pulled back and looked pleadingly up at him.

  “I want to kiss you, Isaac, but I don’t know how. I want it to be all the things you said it could be. I want to pretend just for a moment. Will you help me?”

  He wiped the twin trails of tears from her cheeks with his thumb. “It would be my pleasure, angel.”

  ELEVEN

  JENNA’S teeth were chattering as she questioned for the sixth time coming into Isaac’s bedroom. She knew it was wrong. Forbidden. That she’d be branded a harlot and worse. But she wanted this even if she wasn’t sure what this was.

  All her life she’d viewed kissing as nothing. No example of caring or regard because no one ever kissed anyone. The men treated the women in the group coldly, callously. Like they were possessions, there for the men’s pleasure and nothing more. It had never occurred to her that a man would kiss a woman for reasons of affection, caring or even love.

  Why had Isaac kissed her? He’d kissed her twice. Not on the lips, but she could still feel the warm imprint of his lips in the places he had kissed, and she never wanted to lose that sensation.

  Did she have the courage to be so forthright and bold? So brazen as to kiss him? He didn’t seem to mind the idea at all, but then he’d been nice to her and maybe that’s all it was.

  Shyly she moved her lips closer to his until she could feel his soft, even breaths against her chin. She wanted to kiss his lips but lacked the courage to be that bold, so she moved just to the side and feathered a soft brush of her lips right at the corner of his mouth.

  He let out a soft groan and his arms tightened around her, holding her still and firmly captured against his body. Then he lowered his mouth and took her lips just as she’d wanted to do to him. He was so gentle, it brought tears to her eyes.

  He took his time, the warm, gentle pressure of his lips against hers eliciting sensations in the rest of her body that she didn’t understand. Then he softly laved his tongue over the seam of her mouth, making her gasp in response. His tongue probed inward, licking the tip of hers before withdrawing, and he kissed his way out of her mouth again, finishing by sealing her mouth completely with his, leaving her entire body flushed and aching with awareness.

  As he drew away, his gaze was focused on her, piercing, studying her response.

  “What kind of kiss was that?” she whispered, dazed and shaken by the experience.

  “One that says I care a great deal about you and one that says you’re a very special woman.”

  “You do? I am?” she asked in bewilderment.

  Isaac sighed. “I don’t know who made you feel like you were unworthy, like you were nothing, because you don’t trust me enough to share that with me yet, but Jenna, it’s bullshit. It’s complete bullshit. You’re a fucking miracle, honey, and I don’t mean because of your gift.”

  “I do trust you, Isaac,” she said, staring earnestly into his eyes. “I’m sorry if I made you feel as if I don’t. I’m just worried. I don’t want you or any of your men to be hurt or killed because of me. I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you—any of you.”

  Isaac cupped her cheek tenderly, luring her further into his embrace.

  “Jenna, I want you to listen to me. Really listen to me, okay? Nothing is going to happen to me or any of my men. Our job is to protect you. It is not your job to protect us. Do you understand?”

  “You have no idea how ruthless they are,” she said tearfully. “Or what their plans are.”

  “No, I don’t,” he said calmly. “Because you won’t confide in me. If you want to protect me and the others, the best thing you can do is to trust me and tell me everything. We can’t prepare for the worst if we don’t know what the worst is.”

  She ducked her head, guilt overwhelming her. He was right. What was her shame compared to their lives? She was being selfish, choosing her pride over their safety.

  “I’m so sorry,” she choked out. “I know you’re right. You need to know everything. You’ve been nothing but kind when I’ve been nothing but ashamed, and my pride could get all of you killed.”

  Isaac squeezed her in a gesture of comfort. “No one blames you, baby. But I won’t lie. It’s driving me crazy not knowing what those bastards have done to you. I want to kill every last one of them so you’ll feel safe, so you can stop running and constantly looking over your shoulder. And honey, you can trust me to take care of you. If you let me in I’ll make sure nothing ever hurts or frightens you again.”

  “I do trust you,” she said softly, reaching up to palm his stubbly jaw.

  Never before had she met a man like Isaac. So formidable, a warrior, and yet so gentle and patient with her that she wanted to weep.

  “Then will you tell me everything?” he asked, stroking a hand through her hair. “And I mean everything. I want to know everything about you, Jenna. What makes you happy, what makes you sad, what makes you smile, and especially what hurts you and frightens you.”

  She didn’t realize she was shaking or that her alarm was evident until Isaac sat up and pulled her across his lap, cradling her in his arms. He rubbed his hand up and down her back and pressed his lips to the top of her head.

  “You’re trembling, honey, and panic is all over your face. You’re safe with me. Nothing can touch you while you’re in my arms. I need you to relax and take some deep breaths, try to calm down. We don’t have to talk about this right now. I’ll wait as long as necessary until you’re ready to tell me, okay? I will never pressure you.”

  She was silent for a long moment, grappling with painful and humiliating memories. Isaac didn’t break the silence. He continued to hold her, rocking her in a soothing motion, hand rubbing lightly up and down her spine as he waited patiently, almost as if he sensed th
e intense battle waging inside her.

  “I belong to a cult,” she said boldly, her gaze immediately shooting to Isaac for any sign of judgment or condemnation. But he didn’t react, nor did he stop the gentle caresses up and down her back.

  “I say ‘belong,’ but belonging indicates a conscious choice,” she said bitterly. “I was a prisoner and treated as such.”

  At that, Isaac’s expression darkened but he remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

  “I wasn’t always with them,” she said wistfully. “Or at least I don’t think I was. I have memories of when I was young. I think they were of my parents. I remember a man—my father? Tossing me in the air and then kissing me on the nose.”

  Tears burned her eyelids as she strained to assemble those memories in her mind, desperately wanting to hold on to them and for them to be true. That at one time, someone had loved her and had wanted her.

  “He always smiled at me. And the woman . . . I don’t have as many memories of her, but I remember her making a birthday cake for me and me blowing out the candles.”

  “How many candles?” Isaac asked, interrupting her for the first time. “Think hard, baby. How many candles were on your cake?”

  She frowned, concentrating on the fleeting image of the cake, the man singing “Happy Birthday” in an off-key voice, but one that was filled with love. She closed her eyes, focusing on the cake. It had been pink. Pink frosting with lots of flowers in different colors. The candles stood in a straight line, thin wisps of smoke rapidly dissipating when she’d blown them out.

  “Four!” she exclaimed excitedly. She turned to stare at Isaac. “There were four candles on the cake. I was four years old,” she said in a hushed voice. Then her expression became sad and she dropped her gaze from Isaac’s. “That’s the last memory I have of my parents.”

  “You must have been abducted soon after your fourth birthday,” Isaac said gently. “How many years were you with the cult?”

  Shame coursed through her all over again. “I don’t know,” she whispered sadly. “They seem like such a blur to me. The cult never celebrated birthdays. I mean, not for me.”

  Isaac tensed against her and she could feel the anger rolling off him in waves.

  “I tried to use other people’s birthdays to mark time, but people came and went.”

  She shivered. “It was forbidden for anyone to leave once joining the cult, but people disappeared over the years and nothing was ever said about them. No one questioned their absence. It was as if they’d never existed.”

  Isaac’s hold around her tightened and he pressed a kiss to her temple. “Don’t think about them right now, baby. Stay right here with me in the present where nothing can hurt you. Not ever again.”

  She leaned into his comfort and remained there in silence a long moment.

  “My best guess for how long I was with them is nineteen or twenty years. Wouldn’t that make me twenty-three or twenty-four years old now?”

  Isaac squeezed her to him and he seemed relieved. “Yes, baby. You’d be twenty-three or twenty-four. It’s hard to believe, though. You look and seem so much younger. So innocent for someone your age.”

  His reaction puzzled her but she didn’t question him. She was lost in the past. After maintaining strict silence for so long, it was as if a dam had burst and the memories came tumbling out.

  “I think I was targeted because of my ability to heal, but how had they known? I’ve never understood how they could have known when I was so young. But from the very beginning I was held separate from the others and I was routinely called upon to heal injuries. They convinced me that I was God’s instrument and it was my duty to help those in need, and yet I was kept in complete isolation. I was never allowed to heal anyone except the elders or those who were high ranking in the cult.”

  “Elders?” Isaac asked, his brow wrinkled in confusion.

  “They were the leaders. They held absolute authority over everyone. There were five of them. Older. Everyone feared them and were subservient to them. Their word was law, and they said that they were God’s direct messengers and we should take their word and judgment as being from God himself.”

  “Nice way to ensure absolute obedience and for no one to question your actions,” Isaac muttered.

  Jenna nodded adamantly. “Questioning an elder was the greatest sin a member could commit and punishments were harsh. Those that questioned or disagreed with the elders went missing and were never seen or heard from again.”

  “Son of a bitch,” Isaac snarled.

  She glanced down at her hands, struggling with long pent-up emotion.

  “What is it, sweetheart?” Isaac asked, hugging her a little tighter.

  “In the beginning when I was so young, they treated me like I was special. As I said, they told me I was God’s instrument, chosen by him, you know, like I was worthy in some way. But later I realized it was their way of brainwashing me and of gaining my compliance.

  “As I got older, I began to question things like why a woman in the cult was allowed to die in childbirth when I could have saved her. I was told that it was God’s will and I wasn’t to interfere. Foolishly, I told them that every time I healed someone I was interfering, so why was I given a gift from God if I was only supposed to use it selectively and only at the behest of the elders, and why were only some in the cult deserving of mercy and healing while others weren’t? I was beaten severely and then branded an abomination. Satan’s tool, and that the cult’s duty was to drive the demons from me.”

  Isaac swore violently, his arms loosening around her as his fingers flexed and curled into tight fists.

  “I was told to renounce Satan and to admit that my gift was evil and not in accordance with God’s will. I refused and I was beaten again. I was locked in a sublevel room with no light, no food or water, and left there until I was so weak that I didn’t have the strength to feed myself or drink when it was finally offered to me. I couldn’t even hold myself up, much less walk, when they came for me. They dragged me from the room after I had spent so many days there that in the end I lost count.”

  Isaac’s rage was a terrible tangible thing in the air surrounding them. His entire body was taut, his muscles rippling, as he sought to control his reaction to the retelling of her treatment at the cult’s hands.

  Thinking only to soothe him in some way, she tentatively placed her hand on his chest and looked at him with pleading in her eyes. Begging him silently for calm and perhaps a warning that her story would only get worse. He placed his hand over hers where it rested against his heart and he gently squeezed, not only acknowledging her silent request, but also offering her the reassurance, comfort and encouragement she so desperately needed in order to continue.

  Before she could go on, he gathered her hand carefully in his and lifted it to his mouth and pressed his lips softly over her palm. Then, cradling her hand as if it were something precious and infinitely fragile, he slid it from his lips to his jaw so that her fingers were splayed out over the stubble on his face. He left it there for a long moment, his hand covering hers as he stared intently into her eyes. There was more than just sympathy, comfort or even encouragement reflected in his dark gaze, but what exactly she couldn’t interpret. The way it made her feel was something entirely unfamiliar. It was something she had never experienced before. And she liked it. Perhaps too much.

  His gaze and his touch infused an intimate warmth into the very heart of her. Parts of her soul that had been cold for so very long felt as though the sun was shining on them for the first time ever. Perhaps more confusing for her wasn’t just her emotional response to this man or the fact that trusting him had been so automatic, so easy. She who had never been safe in her entire life, who’d never been made to feel safe with anyone, felt as though nothing and no one could ever harm her so long as he was with her.

  No, as confused as she should be by the faith she had in this warrior, her physical reaction perplexed her far more. Whenever he touc
hed her, whenever he even looked at her in that soul-searching way he did so often, she was mystified and shamed by the fact that her breasts swelled and became tender. Her nipples tingled and tightened into hard buds, thrusting forward as if begging for his touch. More embarrassing was that her most private parts became moist and hypersensitive and she had to resist the sudden urge to touch herself . . . down there.

  Sucking in a steadying breath, ashamed of the direction her thoughts had gone, she mentally shook herself and prepared to continue with all she had to tell Isaac.

  As she opened her mouth to proceed with her story, Isaac moved her hand back over his mouth and once again pressed a tender kiss into her palm before lowering it to his lap, but he didn’t release it, instead tangling his fingers with hers, lacing them together as they rested between them.

  “A gathering was called, one that every cult member was forced to attend. They dragged me into the meeting room and then threw me on the floor in front of the entire assembly. I was again told to admit that evil lives within me and that only God decided life or death. I was ordered to renounce Satan, to renounce my gift and to beg the elders for mercy and forgiveness.”

  Tears of rage streamed down her cheeks as she relived the incident as if it were only yesterday. She lifted her chin so that she could look Isaac in the eye.

  “They demanded that I beg the elders for mercy and forgiveness,” she said bitterly. “Not God. Them. They believed themselves to be gods and here they were accusing me of being evil. Saying that Satan lived within me, when they were the ones guilty of all they accused me of.

  “I defied them. I spoke out. I shouldn’t have, but God, I couldn’t do what they demanded. I don’t know how I found the strength to stand up on my own, but I did, and I faced them down, staring them directly in the eyes. I told them they were wrong. That it was they who were evil. Not me. That God wasn’t imperfect and that he created me, and it was he who gave me the gift to help others. I told them that Satan was evil and he would never, nor did he have the power to, grant someone the power to heal, to do good. They tied me to a whipping post and said that they’d drive the demons from me if it was the last thing they did.”

  “Jesus,” Isaac muttered, reaching for her and holding her tightly. “Baby, stop. You don’t have to relive this.”

  “But I do,” she said tearfully. “You have to know everything, Isaac. So that you understand what you’re dealing with and why I had to escape the hell I’d lived in for so long.”

  He tucked her head underneath his chin and wrapped his strong arms around her, creating a haven, a safe place where it felt like nothing could ever hurt her again.

  “I held out for as long as I could. I swear I did,” she said brokenly.

  “Baby, stop,” Isaac pleaded. “Do you think you have to defend yourself to me? You did nothing wrong and god damn it, I won’t have you think it. I won’t have you feel shame that you gave in when they damn near beat you to death.”

  “But that’s just it. I was so stupid. They never intended to kill me. They would have never killed me. They were simply punishing me and setting the stage. It was all an act. A pretense. They needed me for their own selfish purposes and had no thought for anyone else in the cult who may have need of my healing power. They made me a pariah. It was all a carefully staged way to alienate me from the rest of the cult so the elders could be sure no one would ever help me. So I would be completely isolated and on my own so they could do with me as they liked.”

  A growl sounded low and fierce in Isaac’s throat, startling her from the pain of reliving such terrifying memories.

  “They didn’t just try to isolate you, Jenna. They tried to break you.”

  “They succeeded,” she said dully, looking away from him, not wanting him to see her shame and weakness.

  “The hell they did!” Isaac barked, causing her to jump, nearly sliding off his lap and out of his grasp.

  He immediately calmed, though rage was still blazing from his eyes, and he gathered her back up in his arms, repositioning her on his lap. He shifted so he could frame her face with his hands. His touch was exquisitely tender. His thumbs feathered over her cheekbones, his caresses as soft as a butterfly’s wings.

  “Look at me, Jenna.”

  Reluctantly she lifted her eyes to meet his and felt tears well up all over again when she saw so much emotion reflected in his gaze. There was tenderness, understanding. Compassion, but not pity. To her shock, she also saw pride, but there was something else staring back at her. Something she couldn’t name because it wasn’t something she’d ever seen. But it warmed her from the inside out and gave her peace at a moment when her thoughts were anything but peaceful.

  “The woman sitting here in my arms is not broken,” he said fiercely. “You may be down and they may have damaged you—hell, they did damage you—but honey, they did not break you.”

  His words only made her want to cry even more.

  “Then why do I feel so broken, so shattered on the inside?” she asked in a small voice that stuttered as sobs knotted her throat. “Why does it feel like I have no idea who I am? That I’m nothing and that I don’t even exist? And that even if I’m someone, I’ll never be able to put the pieces back together of that person and I’ll always be what they made me?”

  Isaac gazed at her with a look filled with so much caring and respect that she wanted to turn away from him and curl into a ball so small that no one would ever see her. What she really was and not this person Isaac thought he saw. The pitiful, weak woman who hadn’t had the will or the strength to defy what she knew in her heart was wrong.

  He looked at her like she mattered. With admiration she didn’t deserve, but God how she wanted to be a woman worthy of having a good man, a man like Isaac who stood against evil every single day. Looking at her just like he was gazing at her right now. Like she was worth it. But she wasn’t. She’d brought him and the people in his life—people he obviously cared about—nothing but pain, danger and deception. How could he even stand to look at her at all, much less with such warm understanding and kindness?

  “You are not what they tried to bend you and shape you into, Jenna,” he insisted. “Baby, everyone bends, but not everyone breaks. If they had broken you, if they had succeeded in making you what they wanted, would you be here with me right now? Would you have found the courage to stand up to them even after they beat you down time after time? Would you have found a way to escape them and run despite your fears of the unknown world you were escaping into? You can think and say what you want about what a failure you are, how weak you are and how unworthy you are of anything good in this world, but baby? I’m going to call bullshit
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