Book 4: Birch Crossing
In this moment, Blue knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted to help her. “Give me a chance to make it up to you, Chloe.” The moment he said her name, Chloe’s face softened, as if the sound of him saying her name had meant something to her.
Still watching him, she put the phone back to her ear, resuming the conversation with her friend. “Hi, Emma. Blue said that he’ll fix my car or drop me off, so I’m all set. But if he can’t fix it, I’ll need the name of a mechanic for the morning.”
Something inside Blue loosened when he heard her accept his offer, almost as if the chance to be with her for a little while longer made the tension inside him ease its relentless grip on his gut.
She listened for a moment. “Okay. I’ll stop at Wright’s for some food on the way. See you soon. And… Emma? Thank you. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.” Her voice choked up, and Blue looked at her sharply. Her eyes were shiny, and she was gripping the phone so tightly that her knuckles were white. She cleared her throat, and nodded, clearly listening to something Emma was saying. “Right, I know. I’m fine. Really, I am. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”
As she ended the call, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and pressed her phone against her forehead. She took a deep breath, and then another, as if she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. Blue watched her, noting the paleness of her skin, and the way her shoulders were tucked up toward her ears ever so slightly, in the protective posture he’d seen many times when a newly rescued kidnap victim had hunched in the corner of the helicopter, unwilling to believe the nightmare was really over.
Instinctively, Blue walked over to her and crouched in front of her. “Hey.”
She opened her eyes and quickly lowered the phone, sitting up straighter in a posture clearly designed to make sure no one knew the weight she was carrying inside. She met his gaze for a split second, then her attention dropped to the beer he was holding. “Is that for me?”
Silently, he handed it to her, still watching her. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “Whatever the nightmare is, it can’t get inside you unless you let it.” Of course, he knew all too well about the damage nightmares could do, but just because he couldn’t shield himself from his own baggage didn’t mean he was unaware of how it could work if someone had their shit together better than he did.
She narrowed her eyes. “It’s that easy to let it go? Really? I had no idea.” She sounded a little annoyed, as if insulted he would reduce all her problems to some philosophical resolution.
He got that. He inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Theoretically, yeah, it’s that’s simple. In reality, it can eat away at you until you’re so dead on the inside that life stops mattering. Until all you can do is run as hard as you can, hoping that you can escape the darkness before it consumes you.”
She froze with the bottle of beer halfway to her lips, her eyes widening in surprise. Belatedly, he realized what he’d said and what he’d revealed about himself. Grimacing, he shrugged, and took a sip of his own beer. “Or so I’ve heard.”
Chloe angled the mouth of the bottle toward him as if pointing at him. “You, my friend, are a wealth of complexity, aren’t you?”
Blue grinned. “Nah. I drink beer. I shoot guns. And, after tonight, apparently I can add terrorizing women to my list. It’s pretty simple and basic. I’m just your normal, upstanding boy-next-door kind of guy. I’m exactly the type that mothers fantasize that their daughters will fall for.”
Her gaze flicked to his cheek, and he suddenly remembered the scar that bisected the side of his face. He never thought about it much. Who the hell cared about a scar? But Chloe was soft, gentle, and sensitive. What would she think about a six-inch scar that belied every claim he’d just made? The thought made him tense, and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like worrying about his scar, or what someone would think about it.
Scowling, he stood up and paced away from her. He leaned against the tiny kitchenette counter and folded his arms over his chest. “So, tell me, Chloe Dalton. Why were you barging into this cabin at ten o’clock at night in the first place?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I felt as though my life was too tame and predictable. I thought that getting the living daylights scared out of me would make my day more interesting.”
He felt himself grin again, but he was learning not to be surprised by the fact she could coax a smile out of him. “Any other reasons?”
She took a drink of her beer, wrinkling her nose as the bitterness drifted across her tongue. “First of all, you’re kind of nosy. Second of all, the beer is kind of horrible.”
He grinned wider, amused by her inability to school her face into impassive, neutral expressions. “You know, the problem with trying to avoid questions with me, is that I’m an expert on not telling anyone anything that I don’t want them to know, so I see right through that façade. So yeah, I’m nosy. Yeah, the beer sucks. But I still want to know what’s going on that made you show up at this cabin and sprint into it without checking to see if anyone was here.”
She cocked her head, studying him. “Why do you want to know so badly?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just do.”
She smiled then, a gentle smile that made him want to grin. “Fair enough.” Her gaze flicked away from him, drifting over the bare walls of the rustic cabin, before coming back to rest on his face. “In addition to losing my job yesterday, I also got evicted from the place I’ve been living in for the last ten years.”
Her voice was tight and calm, but he could instantly sense the depth of grief at her words, grief she was absolutely refusing to succumb to.
Respect flooded him, but also empathy. She was tough, refusing to be broken, but something really shitty had crashed down upon her. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine.” She shrugged, tracing her fingers over the condensation on the bottle. “I was a little desperate, so Emma said I could stay here until I figure things out, because it was empty.” She glanced at him, cocking a sassy eyebrow at him. “She didn’t realize, however, that Harlan had given you the keys. That phone call I just answered? That was Emma calling to warn me that you were already living here. Of course, being the intelligent woman that I am, I had already figured that out.”
“You were planning to stay here?” Guilt shot through Blue. There was no chance in hell he was stealing her safe house. He stood up. “No problem. It’ll take me five minutes to pack, and the place is all yours.” He set his beer on the counter of the kitchenette, and strode across the room to where his duffel was stashed. “I’ve already been here two days, and I told Harlan I wasn’t staying any longer than that—”
“Whoa.” She stood up just as quickly, her hand going to his arm as he passed.
He froze, his senses flashing to awareness at the feel of her touch. Her fingers were gentle, barely there, and yet he couldn’t move away from her. He took a breath, and turned his head to look at her. “It’s okay,” he said softly. “The place is yours—”
“No, I don’t need it. Emma found another place, one that’s in town, which I would prefer anyway.” She rolled her eyes. “I was never a huge nature girl, but after tonight, I think I’d lie in bed all night waiting for the boogie man to get me if I stayed here. It’s all good.”
“But you’ll have to pay for that one, right?” He didn’t move away from her touch, and she didn’t take her hand away either.
Her face softened. “It’s very sweet of you to be concerned about that, but the answer is no, actually. You know how Harlan is a real estate agent in his spare time?” At his nod, she continued on. “He has a vacant listing that’s for sale, but the owners said I could stay there for free while it’s on the market. They figure it’ll help sell if the windows are opened and the mustiness is aired out, so I’m good. That’s where you’re driving me tonight, unless you can work magic with my car.”
He grimaced. “I don’t want to complicate things for you—”
“It’s not complicating anything,” she interrupted. “Seriously, this works out better for me.” She patted his arm. “But I appreciate your willingness to surrender the cabin to me.” Her smile faded. “It’s nice. Nice is good.”
He still didn’t move. “I’m not nice.”
She raised her brows. “No?”
“No.” Her face was so close to his. Only inches away. Her mouth…it was insanely tempting. He imagined brushing a kiss over her forehead. Across her cheeks. Against the corner of her mouth.
Her eyes widened, and she caught her breath. Suddenly, that same tension that had been strung so tight when they’d first walked in was back, only this time, it hummed with higher intensity, like the eerie silence when a night was too still, indicating that all hell was about to break loose.
He brushed his fingers along her jaw, and she froze, not even breathing. “Would it be inappropriate to kiss you right now?”
“Yes.” She blurted out the answer before he’d finished asking the question. “Don’t kiss me.” But she didn’t retreat, or even turn her head away from the brush of his fingers along her jaw. “Don’t even think about it.”
He shrugged. “Can’t help thinking about it.”
“Well, find a way.” She swallowed hard.
“Can’t.” Silently, he moved his hands so his fingers were resting on her throat. The frantic fluttering of her pulse was like a butterfly beneath his touch, delicate, untamed, and beautiful. “You could stay here instead of going into town tonight.”
Her eyes widened. “Stay here? With you?”
“Yeah.” He ran his fingers along her collarbone, tracing the delicate curve of her body.
She closed her eyes, inhaling sharply at his touch, leaning into him ever so slightly. “Never.”
“Why not?” He wanted to kiss that fluttering pulse in her throat. He wanted to trace it with his lips, and his tongue. He wanted to taste her lips.
“Because—” She stopped, her breath catching again as he bent his head and pressed a feather-light kiss to the delicate skin of her throat. “Oh, God. Really? You had to do that?”
“Yeah, I did. Your throat was calling to me. Didn’t you hear it? It was whispering my name. Blue, kiss me. Blue, kiss me now.“
She made a strangled noise that sounded like a cross between laughter and disgusted, skeptical scorn. “My body would never beg for a man’s kiss. Ever. You’re delusional.”
“Probably.” He pressed another kiss to her collarbone, and her fingers tightened on his arm, where they were still resting from her initial contact. “But as delusions go, it’s an extremely pleasant one, so I’m just going to go with it.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Can you hear it? Now it’s your cheek whispering to me. Blue. Kiss me.“
“My cheek is not saying that—” He brushed a kiss over her left cheekbone. “Damn you,” she whispered.
He bent his head, so his lips were hovering over hers. “What about your lips? Can you hear them whispering?”
“They’re telling you to stop bugging me.” But her fingers continued to grip his arm, and she didn’t pull away.
“What about the corner of your mouth? Right here?” He kissed the spot in question.
She tightened her grip on his arm. “Oh, yeah, maybe there. That might have been saying something to you.”
“And this corner?” He tried the other.
She made a small noise of pleasure that made him grin. “It’s a distinct possibility,” she muttered. “But only because that particular corner of my mouth is stupid, irresponsible, and a glutton for situations that would leave it strewn across the highway in a thousand shattered pieces.”
He slid his hand into her hair, tangling his fingers in the strands. “No need for shattered pieces,” he said gently. “I can’t have any of that when I’m around. I’m a sucker for picking up broken pieces and trying to glue them back together. I can’t ever leave them scattered around. It’s against my nature.” His lips brushed hers, barely, just a whispered touch that made visceral longing course through him, tightening every muscle in his body. “I need to kiss you, Chloe. Like my life fucking depends on it.”
Her eyes snapped open, and she searched his face. He knew he’d sounded too desperate, but he didn’t pull back. He let her see the raw brokenness of his soul. He let her see it, because she’d already ripped away his shields, leaving him with no defenses.
“Kiss me, Blue,” she whispered. “Kiss me, now.”
“Chloe.” With a low groan, he closed the distance between them, and claimed her mouth with his own.