She’d been getting paler by the hour. As her departure time drew closer, he was worried she might pass out.
Rory pushed his chair a few inches to the right. Just enough to study her from his vantage point at the front counter without looking like that was what he was doing.
Daralyn stood before the mirror in the back of the store, where they sold outerwear and work shoes. Someone else would think she was fussing over her appearance, but he knew she rarely looked at herself.
He noticed everything about her. Every emotion transmitted through body language—a change in the angle of her chin, the light of her eyes. The rate of her pulse, the tiny beat of it in that pocket at the base of her throat, and how her breath made the slight curves of her breasts rise and fall.
Last Christmas, he’d kissed her under the mistletoe, in front of his well-meaning family who’d engineered the event. He remembered every detail of that, too. One of her nervous, chapped hands had fallen onto his biceps, her fingers tightening. He’d wanted to pull her into his lap, right there in front of everyone. Not because he wanted to disrespect her, but because he ached to do what a man with two functioning legs could do. Hold his girl flush against him, cradle her in his arms as he kissed her. Feel the give of her body as she trusted his strength enough, wanted it enough, to melt into him.
Not long before that Christmas, when he had thoughts like that about her, he’d put them away, appalled at himself. Since she was fifteen, she’d mostly lived with his family. But then Marcus had pointed out the obvious, and it had stuck to his brain cells like gum.
Marcus was his brother’s…husband. Yeah, Rory was small-town enough that saying it, even in his head, still felt weird. But Thomas was happy, and Marcus was a decent guy. When he wasn’t being a prick. So Rory was cool with his brother being gay, though he still reserved his right to block any images in his head of guys getting it on with each other.
A couple days after that Christmas, Rory had been in the driveway in front of the house, watching his mom and Daralyn say goodbye to Rory’s sister, Les, who was headed back to medical school. Marcus was standing beside him.
“You know she’s not your sister, right?” he said.
“I’m pretty sure she is,” Rory responded. “There are pictures of me holding her as a baby.”
“You know how easy it is to head slap a guy in a wheelchair?” When Marcus swept a palm toward him to demonstrate, Rory lifted a quick fist to block, and then cocked it to strike.
“About as easy as it is for one to punch you in the nuts.”
Marcus dropped his hand with a chuckle, but then he sobered. “You know I meant Daralyn. She’s twenty. You can treat her as a woman, Rory. A woman you want, with a man’s hunger.”
Marcus didn’t know everything going through Rory’s head when he was around her. At least he thought he didn’t. Because then Marcus demonstrated the uncanny insight Thomas had complained about, more than once.
“When you think about her, I’m betting a couple things happen in your head and your cock.”
At Rory’s narrow look, Marcus shrugged and adopted a Southern drawl. “The two are connected like biscuits and gravy, boy.”
“Asshole,” Rory muttered.
A slight smile played on Marcus’s mouth, but his intent green eyes remained fixed on Rory. “You want to protect her like it’s the only thing in life that matters. And you want to make her yours in ways that you’re worried are wrong. They’re not, and when you want to know why, you’ll come find me to talk it out. Don’t be proud. Desire can cover a fuck-ton of ground, but wanting to fly won’t keep you from crashing if you don’t learn how a plane works. Even if you’re willing to risk yourself, you can’t risk your passenger. She’s everything, right?”
Coming back to the present, Rory pensively tapped his push rim. He knew about being out of control, not having enough knowledge about what was ahead, and how crazy that could make a guy. But whatever this was, it was still a jumble between his head, his gut, and yes, his sexual desire for her. Even as, at other times, it was like a straight line between two points.
Biscuits and gravy. Shit.
He pushed out from behind the counter. “Daralyn.”
She turned, gave him an absent, jittery smile, and immediately came his way. Her glossy hair, the rich brown of a house wren’s back, was in a ponytail, the bundle of natural curls bobbing against her exposed neck as she moved. Depending on the light, her hazel eyes had touches of blue or amber scattered through the golden-green irises.
The blue shirt she wore had a scoop neckline and lace band at the bottom that hugged her narrow hips in jeans. A feminine ensemble that enhanced her body without being intentionally sexy.
She wasn’t girl-next-door. She was fragile angel, bewildered by the world in which she’d been dropped, like a puppy tied in a sack with a stone weight.
He knew that kind of anger on her behalf wasn’t useful, but her life had been a total shitstorm up until she was fifteen. When her father died, God rot him, and her uncle took off shortly thereafter, their closely knit rural North Carolina community had realized, to its shame, what had been happening in that rundown house for years. But until Daralyn came to live with them, even Rory’s mother, Elaine, who’d been first to notice the situation, hadn’t realized the worst of it.
Some predators knew how to shape their victims to add to their camouflage. Her father and uncle had fucking excelled at that.
Her father must have been the brains, though, since the uncle had been caught a year later in Roanoke Rapids, assaulting a young girl within a block of her school. Rory kept hoping the son of a bitch would be killed in prison before his seven-year sentence was up.
“Do you need something before I go?” Daralyn asked. She had a breathy voice. When she had to raise her volume, her gaze would dart back and forth like a startled deer. “I can… I mean, I don’t have to go. I’m sure the first day is orientation, really, and…”
Her attention flitted to his face and then over his shoulder, somewhere else. She’d meet and hold Thomas’s gaze, or his sister’s. His mother’s. But not Marcus’s. And not Rory’s. Not without a different level of effort.
He couldn’t say why that was significant, but a primal part of him responded to it, tightening his heart in his chest. He also realized he’d said the words not just as encouragement, but as a command.
You want to make her yours in ways that you think might be wrong. They’re not, and when you want to know why, you’ll come find me to talk it out...
He was losing his mind to some weirdness Marcus had planted there. He tried easing his tone, no matter that it felt like he was backing away from something important, something she actually needed. He gestured to her. “C’ mere. I have something for you.”
He liked seeing the curiosity in her eyes. With how quiet she was, some people thought she wasn’t smart. But since she’d started working here, she’d learned everything about running his family’s hardware and general store. She knew where every item was and could give helpful guidance to customers, whether it was about how much grain to feed a horse, or what kind of tool was needed for a home or farm repair.
When they’d decided to employ her, at first they thought she wasn’t going to work out. She wouldn’t ask them any questions, though she was clearly anxious and frustrated when she didn’t know something. Then Thomas told her straight out, “Daralyn, the more questions you ask, the more you learn from Rory and me, or Mom, the better you’ll be at this.”
She’d mulled that over, a frown creasing her brow. “I’ll be more helpful to you?”
Thomas started to speak, and Rory knew he was going to assure her she’d have a job no matter what, but some part of him knew that fear wasn’t why she was asking the question. Rory spoke up before his older brother got it out.
“Yes. Tons more helpful.”
She hadn’t hesitated to ask a question ever since.
As Rory leaned back to reach behind the counter, her gaze slid over his upper body, the stretch of his T-shirt over his chest and shoulders. Even though she was quick to turn her eyes elsewhere when she noted his attention, her cheeks pinkened.
Gaining weight and spread was almost inevitable when a guy ended up in a chair, so much so the first wheelchair was often made wider to allow for it. He’d been an athlete before his accident. Over time, he’d built himself back to prime shape through adaptive sports, lifting at the gym, and religious dedication to the fucking hell of never-ending PT. He was never gladder for his commitment to all that than when he saw her sneaking those looks.
He had a recumbent bike he operated with his arms, and his weekly workouts included marathons on the county roads. Neighbors would shout encouragement as he passed their homes. His few old high school buddies who still lived in the area would come by in their pickups and razz him, pretend like they were going to nudge him off into a ditch.
Fuck, he loved those guys.
“Since you’ll be at school from four to nine,” he said to her, “you’ll need dinner.”
“You made me dinner?” Her eyes widened.
He snorted. “Yeah, if I wanted to poison you. Mom made it. I provided the lunch box.”
His mother was a feeder, and she liked to cook. She particularly liked to feed Daralyn, who’d been skin and bones when she’d come to them. She’d filled out some, in nice ways, but she was still an indifferent eater.
He’d figured out at least one food she liked, though. His contribution to the lunch box was three miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups. He’d tucked them next to the small container of soup and half a sandwich on homemade bread. Mom would have given her way more, but they’d all learned they couldn’t give Daralyn too much. It seemed to overwhelm her, and she’d eat nothing. But she’d tackle small amounts.
She’d find out about the contents later. Right now she was enchanted by the lunch box.
“Holly Hobbie,” she said, cradling the beat-up 1979 metal container. “Where did you find it?”
“Greenwald Reardon’s place.” Greenwald ran an old antique and junk shop off the interstate.
“I love it.” She gazed at the blue bonneted girl in a patchwork dress, standing in a field, holding a fistful of feathery wheat grass. “Thank you. I’ll be sure and thank your mother for making me dinner. That was really nice.”
Her smile was what had convinced Rory that Daralyn was an angel. It lit up every dark place he had inside him. As she took the box from his hands, he made sure their fingers brushed, just to feel the little quiver in them, see the quick flick of her lashes toward him.
His feelings weren’t a saving-the-damsel-in-distress thing, either. Hell, sometimes he wanted to drop on his knees to her, feel her arms around him, because he was pretty damn sure she’d survived something none of the rest of them could. It fucking awed him.
“That girl’s smile is God’s miracle,” his mother had murmured once.
Rory didn’t have his mother’s faith, not by a long shot, but he couldn’t argue with that one. He’d been told it was a miracle he hadn’t died when the tractor rolled over him. He hadn’t felt that way at first. Truth, he’d been a little bitch about it all, wallowing in his own pity. Which he’d learned was normal, a stages of grief thing. But Daralyn’s smile made him ashamed of indulging in even a second of that shit.
He’d had a loving family and friends who’d supported him, every step of the way. She'd spent her first fifteen years with people who never cared what she wanted, except to use it against her. No one in her corner.
She glanced at the vintage Coca-Cola clock on the back wall. It said three-fifteen, and her ride to the community college was coming at three-thirty. Just like that, the nervousness was back. Double the strength.
“I guess…” Her voice quavered, her eyes slammed shut, and her knees buckled.
“Shit.” He hit the brake locks on his chair and grabbed her elbow. He couldn’t stop the fall, but he slowed it down. She went to one knee by his feet, but her kneecap glanced off his carbon footplate and his steel-toed work shoe.
“Darn it,” she whispered.
He heard the helpless despair that turned the gee-golly-whiz word into a profound oath of self-condemnation. And he refused to allow her to go there.
“Breathe through it,” he said. “Just breathe. You’re fine.” He gathered up her long, thick ponytail so he could reach her nape, knead it with strong fingers. He wanted to soothe, be gentle. But seeing her on one knee before him, her head bowed, other reactions surfaced. He could feel her breath against his abdomen. Her hand was gripping his knee.
What surged up in him was too certain and powerful to be wrong. He might question it later, but not now.
He tightened his hold on her hair, let her feel the pull against her scalp. Her breath stilled, and the hand on his knee curled. He could see her fingers pressing into his leg. Yeah, he’d somehow known she’d react that way. He caressed her neck with a firmer, sure-fingered stroke.
“You’re going to school, and you’re not only going to be fine, you’re going to love it, do great things with the stuff you learn. Become a rocket scientist or something. Straighten up for me.”
She lifted her head and shoulders, bracing her hand on his thigh to stand. Instead of letting her make it all the way to her feet, he grasped her under the arms and brought her forward. He’d intended to turn her sideways, but her knees naturally parted, and he kept the forward motion, lifting her so she straddled him. Since his chair didn’t have arms, her legs slid past his hips, her calves finding a natural resting spot on the wheels.
Hell…finally. He had some elusive traces of sensation at the tops of his thighs, enough to conjure what her backside would feel like, pressed against his lap. Her thighs and knees brushed against his hips, his waist. That input from his nerve endings to his brain was heaven.
Even more importantly, having her legs spread loosely around him distracted her, which seemed to pull her away from her worries. Maybe he could get a straight answer out of her, help drive them away completely.
“So what’s the problem?” he asked bluntly. She blinked, moistening her bottom lip. Her hands were on his biceps, teasing a million responses from his flesh.
Stop thinking about that. Think about her.
“Tell me, Daralyn.”
She gestured helplessly around her. “I’m okay here with… At the store.”
She’d been about to say, “With you.” But as much as he loved knowing she felt safe with him, the crumpling of her features, reflecting the defeat her fears created within her, was a bigger concern to him.
Everyone wanted to be needed. But being needed through wanting and craving was way different from being needed as a place to hide from the unknown. He knew about that kind of fear. The first months after his accident, it had kept him paralyzed in ways that turned his wheelchair into a prison.
“When I’m here, and it’s not time to leave, I get excited, thinking about going to school.” She was trying hard to steady her voice. Trying not to shake. Her fingers continued to curl against his flesh, convulsive kneading. “Happy, even. Now it’s time to do it, and I’m thinking about the people, the noise, all of it. It’s like walking along the edge of the ocean, my feet in it. It looks so amazing and big. One part of me thinks being in it would be wonderful. But then I think about getting swept away from shore so I can’t get back. Untethered… Unmoored.”
She pronounced the word carefully. She kept a journal, and he’d seen her make entries when she heard words she liked or didn’t know. At fifteen, she’d been close to illiterate. Learning to read had been the first thing that had brought her out of her shell. He remembered her and Les sitting on Les’s bed, Les going over English basics with her.
Sometimes he wondered if he was being fair, wanting her. Maybe her first true relationship should be with someone fresh and new, who could see her as she was now, rather than a culmination of her past.
He’d quizzed himself on that, ruthlessly. Was he going after her, interested in her, because she had been broken? Did he want her because he could feel powerful with her in a way he couldn’t anymore with the confident cheerleaders who’d once fawned over him? They’d loved his six-foot height and strong legs, his ability to pick them up and tease them.
And what about her? Was she drawn to him because he was safe? Known?
Yet as he looked at her pale face, felt her anxiety, he knew he wasn’t going to back off. He had an idea, supported by that gut feeling he’d had when he’d tightened his hand in her hair.
Still holding her in his lap, he fished out several more things from behind the counter. He’d had to shorten a length of chain for Kenny Fisher earlier in the week, and he’d dropped the eight-inch remnant behind the counter. It wasn’t a girl’s bracelet kind of chain, but 3mm links, extra durable hardware. Retrieving that, a spool of wire and the pair of small pliers with them, he nodded toward her left hand. “Hold it out to me. Palm up.”
An authoritative tone, easy as breathing. It was the way he talked to the seasonal help, the high school kids who helped unload Christmas trees in December.
But they sure as hell didn’t respond the way she did. He exhaled the command and she inhaled it, responding by lifting her arm.
She had a scar on it. The discoloration was faint, but the puckering of the skin was noticeable on a six-inch track of tender skin under her forearm. He thought it was a burn scar, but Daralyn had never offered any information about the old injury. Since it didn’t seem to bug her, and her worst scars were on the inside, making her self-conscious about one on the outside didn’t seem to serve a useful purpose.
He looped the chain around her wrist, figured out the length he needed, then removed it again. Sliding off his class ring, he laid it in her palm. “Hold onto that a minute.”
His initials were stamped in black on the square middle, his school name outlining it, the school’s mascot and graduation year on the dark gold sides. Her fingers closed over it, one of them slipping inside the ring to anchor it in her palm. She caressed the silky inside of the metal as if seeking the heat of his body. Maybe he was just imagining that, but the surge of feeling in his chest said he was right.
He used the chain and wire to form a bracelet, the ring the connecting centerpiece. After he fastened it on her, he ran his callused fingers over and around the whole thing to ensure nothing was jabbing her. As he caressed the soft skin, her pulse rate increased.
Registering the reaction, he glanced up, deliberately letting his gaze roam over her features. She had silky eyebrows, a fair forehead and straight nose. Then there were those very distracting pale pink lips. He wanted to place the heat of his mouth over them.
Her lashes swept down over her cheeks, but her wrist stayed willingly in his grasp. He kept his thumb coursing over that velvet stretch of skin below the bracelet as her fingers trembled. The chain was snug enough she would be aware of it there, the class ring a heavy, masculine weight at her pulse point. She’d folded her fingers forward, so one of her fingertips rested inside it again.
“Daralyn.” His voice had roughened, and he kept it that way. “Do you think about that kiss at Christmas?”
Her lips parted, her cheeks getting that charming pink color.
“Look at me."
He didn’t think he was breathing when her gaze raised to his, held. The golden-green color had deepened, the pupils big and dark. "Tell me," he said softly.
“Yes. I do."
Her eyes sparkled a little, showing some spirit he liked. A lot. "I have other things to think about than just that."
"That wasn't a no. I plan on kissing you again, really soon. So if you die of a panic attack, I won’t get that chance.”
Her lips curved, her eyes lighting in a way that shot heat straight through every nerve-rich part of his body.
Though it was the last thing he wanted to do, he guided her to her feet. When her gaze fell naturally to his lap, she quickly looked away.
No big surprise, the pressure of her body had inspired a reaction. While he took immense pleasure in thinking about her gorgeous ass being on his lap, he couldn’t get hard from just the thinking. Psychogenic erections, the term for that, weren’t something he could have any more. But reflexogenic, caused by direct physical contact to his cock? Damn straight.
The press of her lips together, the significant sudden absence of that trembling in her fingers, told him she wasn’t upset by it. In a polite world, he’d make things easy by pretending he hadn’t noticed her noticing. He wasn’t feeling polite. Instead, when his steady, silent regard brought her gaze back to his, he locked her into a full acknowledgement of it.
She’s a woman now. As Marcus had said.
A crackle of gravel in the parking lot outside told him the community transport van for the college had arrived. But she still didn’t look away. It was as if she knew he had to tell her she could. His reaction to that was so strong, he considered pulling her on his lap again.
But Marcus had been right about that other thing. She’s everything. Her happiness, her well-being.
“Daralyn,” he said in measured tones, gripping his push rims so he didn’t reach for her instead. “Go on before you miss your ride.”
She swallowed. Turning away, she collected her backpack and picked up the lunch box. When she reached the door, she pulled it open, making the shop bells mounted over it ring. The chain on her wrist clinked against the knob.
“See you in a while,” she said, shooting him a shy glance.
“You sure will.”
A small smile, and she stepped out, letting the door close behind her.
He moved to the window. At the open door of the roomy passenger van, she hesitated. There were five people in it, in addition to the driver. Since Daralyn had her head lowered, as if she were thinking, he got ready to go out there and give her reinforcement if she needed it.
Then she curled her fingers over the chain, the ring. Taking a deep breath, she gripped the rail and mounted the steps into the vehicle. When the door closed, she had settled gingerly into a seat next to a nerdy-looking guy staring at his phone.
The van pulled away, trundling out of the parking lot and accelerating once it was on the paved road.
He sat in an empty store, his heart aching, desire coursing through him. She’d been gone five seconds, but the Daralyn-sized empty space in the store had the density of a black hole.
Truth Number One. He wanted her, and he didn’t want to hold back on that any longer.
Truth Number Two. Maybe he was channeling some bizarre Fifty Shades thing that he’d absorbed by falling asleep to late night TV, but that didn’t fit. He wanted to say that kind of thing wasn’t him or her, but their reaction to one another during those odd moments said otherwise. And yeah, he’d looked at some of this stuff online, but he hoped like hell he’d stumbled on the wrong places, because he’d seen things he… Fuck, he didn’t even want those things in his head.
But some of it hadn’t repelled him. Just the opposite. That disturbed him more than the stuff that had.
That brought him to Truth Number Three. He needed to talk to Marcus. Because there was another reason Marcus’s words had taken up residence in his head. The online sites had helped Rory realize it, too.
Marcus wasn’t “just” Thomas’s husband.
Marcus and Thomas split their time between Marcus’s penthouse in New York City and a 1940s farmhouse they’d bought here. A few months back, Rory had come by to see Thomas. He’d used the ramp that Thomas and Marcus had included in the house updates right after they purchased it to access the porch.
Seeing the front door standing open behind the screen, Rory had pushed into the living room, calling out. Nothing. The house was empty. They weren’t in the nearby barn, where Thomas had his loft art studio and Marcus his home office, but the cars were under the port. Which meant they were likely on the back porch.
The door to that was open, allowing a cross breeze through the house. Because the adjacent windows were also open, he glimpsed Marcus and Thomas before they were aware of him.
Thomas was against the wooden porch railing, clutching it on either side of him in white knuckled hands. Marcus had him pressed up against it. His strong hand was wrapped around Thomas’s throat as his lips cruised over his cheek.
Rory started to retreat, fast, but before he did, he heard Thomas utter a single word.
Rory hadn’t needed to see Marcus’s face that day to know what expression it wore. The satisfied growl of response had told him.
The fevered look Thomas sent toward Marcus was one Rory wanted to see on Daralyn’s face. And that word… Rory had never heard it used by anyone in his world. Yet it had come back to him again and again since then. Only in his imaginings it came from Daralyn’s lips, said in the same way Thomas had said it to Marcus.
With desperate yearning, but also an absolute certainty that the person who owned that word could answer that yearning and desperation.
So yeah, he needed to talk to Marcus. No matter his aversion to learning more about his brother’s sex life than he really wanted to know, he wouldn’t dive deeper into uncharted territory with just a gut feeling. No way was he going to risk fucking with Daralyn’s head.
That said, he also didn’t want to treat her like china. He knew better than most not to assume someone was too fragile to handle something because of what they’d been through.
The way she’d teased him just now, about having other things to think about than that kiss? That had been damn close to flirting. Like she might one day feel safe enough to mouth off at him, the playful way a woman did when she felt safe with a man.
He wanted to kill her uncle and father for treating her the ways they had, but she’d been stronger than the both of them. He believed in her strength.
He was a man who wanted to treat Daralyn like a woman. She could tease, defy or confront him all she wanted. He’d never hurt her. He’d celebrate that confidence, even as he’d challenge it, in ways she might just crave. Maybe she needed that.
He had an unsettling feeling he sure as hell did.