My smile is broad.
I turn her to face me. “Here.” I give her the body wash. “I want you to wash off the remains of the lipstick.”
Her eyes flicker open and her expression is serious and earnest.
“Don’t stray far from the line, please,” I add.
She squeezes soap onto her palm and rubs her hands together to make a frothy lather. Placing her hands on my shoulders, she begins to wash away the line with a gentle circular motion. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
Can I do this?
My breathing shallows, and panic wells in my throat. She continues down my side, her nimble fingers tenderly administering to me. But it’s unbearable. Like tiny razor blades on my skin. Every muscle in my body is tense. I stand like a hollow bronze, counting the seconds until she’s finished.
It’s taking an eternity.
My teeth are clenched.
Suddenly her hands are no longer on my body and that alarms me more. I open my eyes and she’s soaping her hands again. She glances up at me and I see my pain reflected in her eyes and on her sweet, anxious face. And I know it’s not pity but compassion. My agony is her agony.
“Ready?” she asks, her voice hoarse.
“Yes,” I whisper, determined not to let the fear win, and I close my eyes.
She touches my side and I freeze, as fear fills my gut, my chest, and my throat, leaving nothing but the darkness. It’s a gaping, aching void that consumes me, all of me.
Ana sniffles and I open my eyes.
She’s crying, her tears lost in the cascade of hot water, her nose pink. Her compassion is spilling down her face—her compassion and her anger as she washes away my sins.
No. Don’t cry, Ana.
I’m just a fucked-up man.
Her lip trembles.
“No. Please, don’t cry.” I fold her into my arms and hold her. “Please don’t cry for me.”
She starts sobbing. Really sobbing. And I cradle her head in my hands and lean down to kiss her. “Don’t cry, Ana, please,” I whisper against her mouth. “It was long ago. I am aching for you to touch me, but I just can’t bear it. It’s too much. Please, please don’t cry.”
“I…want to touch you, too…” she stutters between sobs. “More than you’ll ever know. To see you like this. So hurt and afraid, Christian. It wounds me deeply. I love you so much.”
I run my thumb across her bottom lip. “I know. I know.”
And she squints at me with a look of dismay, because she knows my words have no conviction.
“You’re very easy to love. Don’t you see that?” she says, as the water falls around us.
“No, baby, I don’t.”
“You are. And I do,” she stresses. “And so does your family. So do Elena and Leila. They have a strange way of showing it, but they do. You are worthy.”
I can’t bear it. I put my finger over her lips and shake my head. “I can’t hear this. I’m nothing, Anastasia.” I’m a lost boy, standing before you. Unloved. Abandoned by the one person who was supposed to protect me, because I’m a monster.
That’s me, Ana.
That’s all I am.
“I’m a husk of a man. I don’t have a heart.”
“Yes, you do,” she cries passionately. “And I want it, all of it. You’re a good man, Christian, a really good man. Don’t ever doubt that. Look at what you’ve done. What you’ve achieved.” She continues to sob. “Look what you’ve done for me. What you’ve turned your back on, for me. I know. I know how you feel about me.” Her blue, blue eyes, filled with love, filled with compassion, leave me as raw and exposed as they did the first time I met her.
She sees me. She thinks she knows me.
“You love me,” she says.
Every ounce of oxygen evaporates from my lungs.
Time suspends and all I can hear is my own blood thrumming in my ears and the splash of the water as it washes the darkness away.
Answer her, Grey. Tell her the truth.
“Yes,” I whisper, “I do.”
It’s a deep, dark confession wrenched from my soul. And yet as I say the words out loud it all becomes clear. Of course I love her. Of course she knows. I’ve loved her since I met her. Since I watched her sleep. Since she gave herself to me and only me. I’m addicted. I can’t get enough. That’s why I tolerate her attitude.
I’m in love. This is what it feels like.
Her reaction is instant. Her smile is dazzling, lighting up her beautiful face. She’s breathtaking. She clasps my head, bringing my mouth to hers, and kisses me, pouring all her love and sweetness into me.
And my body responds. The only way it knows how.
Groaning against her lips, I encircle her with my arms. “Oh, Ana, I want you, but not here.”