“Let’s take a bath,” I say, wanting to forget the past few weeks, and her trip to New Orleans…and her complete unwillingness to value her safety. “It’ll make you feel better.”
I take her hand and help her off the table. She follows me to the bathroom without a word. She’s always so tranquil after she comes—serene, not questioning a thing, not remembering what’s lost. I turn on the hot water and plug the tub. There’s a jar labeled “bath salts” with a scoop on the shelf. It smells like vanilla. I toss the scoop on the counter and pour a shot of salts into the water.
“Where’s your lighter?” she asks.
“You gonna start smokin’?” I tease, but stop short of making a crack pipe comment.
“To light a candle,” she says, exasperated.
“I’ll do it. You get in while it’s hot.”
I line the candles up on the counter and light them one-by-one. Annie doesn’t move from the mirror. She runs her hands across her bruised skin until she shudders. It’s the evidence of a thousand needs only she can satisfy. Usually it’s my fault. No matter how many times I tell myself to be gentle, as soon as she’s near me I lose control. This time though, these bruises are her doing. I wanted to talk. She wanted this.
Her eyes follow her hands over her breasts and down to her waist. I drop the lighter and turn off the lights. Her skin glows ethereal in the candlelight, but she still stares in the mirror, gliding her fingertips across the bruises on the inside of her thighs. I cover her hand with my own.
“Get in the tub,” I whisper in her ear.
She climbs in. Sometimes, when she listens without arguing, I forget how stubborn she is, how she can infuriate me more than anyone else walking this earth. Annie lowers herself until she touches the water and then pulls back up.
“I just need a second to get used to it,” she says. She rests her arms on the sides and sinks in, laying her head on the edge. I watch until the peace returns to her face and then undress myself.
I reach to change the music. Her taste is abysmal. But the lyrics grab my attention. They hint at a love affair with the devil. I drop my arm to my side and turn back to Annie. She looks like an angel, but she drags me through hell.
“I feel beautiful when you look at me.” Me, and every other man on the planet.
“You are beautiful, Annie. Surely you know that. I’ve heard you told a hundred times before.”
“Understanding the way others view my appearance and the way I feel when you look at me are two totally different things.” I climb into the tub and rest her legs on each side of my waist. I run my hands up and down them. My dick’s hard in the water and I force my mind to concentrate on the fact that she’s sore, that her body needs a break.
“What else do you feel when I look at you?” I’ve never had to ask before. Annie couldn’t hide a thing from me, but these last few weeks my misery has replaced assuredness. If she can hop in a car to Mardi Gras without telling me, I’m no longer sure what she’s capable of.
“I thought you didn’t want me to think about us,” she says, reminding me of the weeks following her parents’ death. She tortured herself with her mind. Every waking hour, every moment of sleep.
“That was then.” Now I need to know everything. I lean forward and run my hand up the inside of her thigh and she closes her eyes and surrenders to my touch.
“Transparent,” she says, and I swear her voice is inside my head. “Alive. Condemned.” She opens her eyes, waiting for some response, but I have only understanding. When she called from New Orleans, it was like a life sentence—incapable of finding her, waiting to hear she was safe, wanting to kill her myself. If something happens to her...
“Wanted. Safe.” Her words pull me from the horror. “I feel like nothing bad can happen to me if I’m with you.” Which is why you should be with me. I rest her foot on my shoulder and wash her leg with a sponge.
“It scares me, the control you have over me.” At this I laugh out loud. How ironic.
“That’s interesting because it’s the complete lack of control that keeps me awake at night,” I say, wishing she didn’t drive me so insane. I place her leg back in the water and raise the other one. Her legs should be wrapped around my neck every day. The familiar need mixed with anger and frustration returns and I bury it down deep. This can’t become an argument.
“What are you going to do after graduation?” I ask. On my list of things I’m not leaving Cedar Creek Lake without settling, the end of her Rutgers career is at the top. I run the sponge down her calf with my lips following it, reminding her of where her future is.
“I’m just getting used to the idea I’m back in school. I haven’t considered after. It’s common to have a Masters in Statistics. Maybe I’ll do that.”
“Probably not as common as Philosophy majors.” She smiles and watches my lips return to her leg. “What are you going to do?” she asks, and the smile drains from her face.
“I won’t graduate for another year.”
“Light credits, especially in the spring. Makes it easier to miss four days a week at rodeos.” The statement separates us, even in this tub. The rodeo is like a curse word she hates to use.
“Do you ever think it would be easier to date a girl from Oklahoma?”
“Every day you’re away I think it.” And every minute you’re doing drugs, and every time I see the way guys look at you, and every walk home late at night you take, and every mile you drove to New Orleans. But the thought of another girl is ridiculous. I half-laugh as I say, “They’re close. I could have them every day. They understand rodeo.”
“They have dirty shoes,” she plays along.
“They listen to good music.” Annie lowers her eyes to the bubbles and I lose her for a second. Her green eyes filled with doubt, hidden from the one person who’s incapable of hurting her. I slide forward and lift her head. “No matter what, I can’t get past they’re not you. You’re in my blood and I’ll never let you go.”
“Condemnation.” Oh, you have no idea.
I turn her around and pull her back to my chest. The sponge in my hand runs down her neck and around her breasts. Here, in this tub in the middle of Texas, it’s impossible to think we can’t make this work.
“Close your eyes and, if you promise not to use it against me, I’ll tell you why I love you,” I say in her ear. Her head falls back on my shoulder and I kiss her neck.
“I love you, Annie, because when most girls would fall apart, you get pissed off. You don’t understand the concept of surrender.” She smiles at my words and floats up, arching her back at my touch. “And you can’t be tamed.” I pull her back to me. “And yet I’ve never met someone with a greater ability to see the good in people. You are the perfect mix of courage and mercy.” I stop. Unsure of how far I should take this, but the question has been pounding in my head since I left Stillwater. If we’re going to make it, we’ll have to be together. I run the sponge to her belly button and back up. My lips graze her neck and slide to her ear.
“Come to Oklahoma, Annie.” She stiffens in my arms. I should regret asking her, but I don’t.
“Haven’t we been over this?” Steady…
“Not now. Spend the summer there with me and then move there after you graduate. Spend my senior year with me.” She’s silent, searching her mind right in front of me. I know it’s not where she belongs, but it’s where I need her to be. And I’m selfish enough to ask her, knowing she’s generous enough to come.
“I’ll go. I’ll spend the summer there and if it works, I’ll move there after graduation.”
“You will?” I yank her around. Her answer shouldn’t surprise me the way it does. I realize now, a part of me feared this might be our last weekend together. A part of me I don’t allow myself to hear.
“On one condition.” She’s strong, and bold, and I stop breathing. Fuck.
“I would say anything, but it’s you so I’ll just ask what the condition is.”
“You’ve got to back off of me for the next year.” I’m a scolded child. One who doesn’t think they’re wrong. “Trust my instincts. Believe that I’m surrounding myself with good people. Give me some credit.”
“Annie, you have to admit your behavior is a little scary.” I plead with her to hear some reason.
“I live smack dab between Philadelphia and New York City. If I want a tranny hooker dressed as a nurse to deliver an eight ball of cocaine to me, I can get it in an hour.” God, I hate her sometimes. “I’m fine. I will get high. I might try ’shrooms. I’ll most definitely stay up too late and possibly not drink enough fluids, but I’m going to be okay. You have to trust me.”
I say nothing. A million contentions flying through my mind. She’s a danger to herself in an unsafe city. Backing off is not possib--
“You make me want to lie to you about what I do,” she says, and it could not have felt worse if she punched me in the face…again. She’s never lied to me.
I lean back in the tub shaking my head in defeat.
“All right. I’ll try.”
The thing he loves most in the world will kill him. It's only a matter of time . . .
College student Charlotte O'Brien is lost and she can't find her way home. Devastated by her parents' tragic deaths, she aches for any kind of connection . . . and finds it in a man who is all wrong for her. Jason Leer is a rough-hewn steer wrestler from Oklahoma-and the hottest thing Charlotte has ever laid eyes on. Yet he has his own dark secrets . . .
Burying herself in Jason, Charlotte soon discovers that life doesn't have to be so painful. When they're together their passion eclipses everything-and Charlotte can finally begin to see a way out of the darkness of her past. Fighting for a future with Jason won't be easy, but for the first time since her parents' deaths, this lost soul might have finally found a place that feels like home.
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Charlotte O'Brien desperately needs redemption. Torn apart by her parents' tragic deaths, Charlotte has no one to turn to after she alienates herself from everyone and everything. Fate sends her a lifeline when she runs into a childhood friend. Now all she sees is Noble Sinclair-tall, gorgeous, with a body made for sinning. But Charlotte knows better than anyone how quickly the things you hold dear can be taken away-and though loving Noble feels like it could be her salvation, Charlotte knows it could also destroy her.
Noble Sinclair has always loved Charlotte. Now seeing how far she has fallen, Noble vows to be the man who can make her happy and bring her out of the darkness that has haunted her for far too long. But to save Charlotte, he must make her learn to forgive everyone who has forsaken her . . . starting with herself.
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Eliza Freed graduated from Rutgers University and returned to her hometown in rural South Jersey. Her mother encouraged her to take some time and find herself. After three months of searching, she began to bounce checks and her neighbors began to talk; her mother told her to find a job.
She settled into Corporate America, learning systems and practices and the bureaucracy that slows them. Eliza quickly discovered her creativity and gift for story telling as a corporate trainer and spent years perfecting her presentation skills and studying diversity. It's during this time she became an avid observer of the characters we meet and the heartaches we endure. Her years of study have taught her laughter is the key to survival, even when it's completely inappropriate.
She currently lives in New Jersey with her family and a misbehaving beagle named Odin. An avid swimmer, if Eliza is not with her family and friends, she'd rather be underwater. While she enjoys many genres, she has always been a sucker for a love story...the more screwed up the better.
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