I can barely breathe. Do I want to hear this? Christian closes his eyes and swallows. When he opens them again, they are bright but diffident, full of disquieting memories.
“It was a hot summer day. I was working hard.” He snorts and shakes his head, suddenly amused. “It was backbreaking work shifting that rubble. I was on my own, and Ele—Mrs. Lincoln appeared out of nowhere and brought me some lemonade. We exchanged small talk, and I made some smart-ass remark . . . and she slapped me. She slapped me so hard.” Unconsciously, his hand moves to his face and he caresses his cheek, his eyes clouding at the memory. Holy shit!
“But then she kissed me. And when she finished, she slapped me again.” He blinks, seemingly still confounded even after all this time.
“I’d never been kissed before or hit like that.”
Oh. She pounced. On a kid.
“Do you want to hear this?” Christians asks.
Yes . . . No . . .
“Only if you want to tell me.” My voice is small as I lie facing him, my mind reeling.
“I’m trying to give you some context.”
I nod in what I hope is an encouraging manner. But I suspect I may look like a statue, frozen and wide-eyed with shock.
He frowns, his eyes searching mine, trying to gauge my reaction. Then he turns onto his back and stares up at the ceiling.
“Well, naturally, I was confused and angry and horny as hell. I mean, a hot older woman comes on to you like that—” He shakes his head as if he still can’t believe it.
Hot? I feel queasy.
“She went back into the house, leaving me in the backyard. She acted as if nothing had happened. I was at a total loss. So I went back to work, loading the rubble into the dumpster. When I left that evening, she asked me to come back the next day. She didn’t mention what had happened. So the next day I went back. I couldn’t wait to see her again,” he whispers as if it’s a dark confession . . . because frankly it is.
“She didn’t touch me when she kissed me,” he murmurs and turns his head to gaze at me. “You have to understand . . . my life was hell on earth. I was a walking hard-on, fifteen years old, tall for my age, hormones raging. The girls at school—” He stops, but I’ve got the picture: a scared, lonely, but attractive adolescent. My heart twists.
“I was angry, so fucking angry at everyone, at myself, my folks. I had no friends. My therapist at the time was a total asshole. My folks, they kept me on a tight leash; they didn’t understand.” He stares back up at the ceiling and runs a hand through his hair. I itch to run my fingers through his hair, too, but I stay still.
“I just couldn’t bear anyone to touch me. I couldn’t. Couldn’t bear anyone near me. I used to fight . . . fuck, did I fight. I got into some god-awful brawls. I was expelled from a couple of schools. But it was a way to let off steam. To tolerate some kind of physical contact.” He stops again. “Well, you get the idea.
And when she kissed me, she only grabbed my face. She didn’t touch me.” His voice is barely audible.
She must have known. Perhaps Grace had told her. Oh, my poor Fifty. I have to fold my hands beneath my pillow and rest my head on it in order to resist the urge to hold him.
“Well, the next day I went back to the house, not knowing what to expect.
And I’ll spare you the gory details, but there was more of the same. And that’s how our relationship started.”
Oh, fuck, this is painful to hear.
He shifts again onto his side so he’s facing me.
“And you know something, Ana? My world came into focus. Sharp and clear.
Everything. It was exactly what I needed. She was a breath of fresh air. Making the decisions, taking all that shit away from me, letting me breathe.”
“And even when it was over, my world stayed in focus because of her. And it stayed that way until I met you.”
What the hell am I supposed to say to that? Tentatively, he smoothes a stray lock of my hair behind my ear.
“You turned my world on its head.” He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, they are raw. “My world was ordered, calm and controlled, then you came into my life with your smart mouth, your innocence, your beauty, and your quiet temerity . . . and everything before you was just dull, empty, mediocre . . . it was nothing.”
“I fell in love,” he whispers.
I stop breathing. He caresses my cheek.
“So did I,” I murmur with the little breath I have left.
His eyes soften. “I know,” he mouths.
Hallelujah! I smile shyly at him. “Finally,” I whisper.
He nods. “And it’s put everything into perspective for me. When I was younger, Elena was the center of my world. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for her. And she did a lot for me. She stopped my drinking. Made me work hard at school . . . You know, she gave me a coping mechanism I hadn’t had before, allowed me to experience things that I never thought I could.”
“Touch,” I whisper.
He nods. “After a fashion.”
I frown, wondering what he means.
He hesitates at my reaction.
Tell me! I will him.
“If you grow up with a wholly negative self-image, thinking you’re some kind of reject, an unlovable savage, you think you deserve to be beaten.”
Christian . . . you are none of those things.
He pauses and runs his hand through his hair. “Ana, it’s much easier to wear your pain on the outside . . .” Again, it’s a confession.