“I might go take a nap.” She couldn’t back up, with the counter behind her.
“For my peace of mind, will you nap in here?” His voice had a noticeable rasp. “You can have my bed.”
“I... You don’t think...?”
“No. But right now, I need to keep you close.”
“Are you going to stand there staring at me while I sleep?” she joked, wishing her voice hadn’t wobbled in the middle. She could not imagine lying down and closing her eyes with him watching.
“I won’t do anything you don’t like,” he said gently.
Nell let herself look into his gray eyes. It was like falling down the rabbit’s hole, tumbling and tumbling. She couldn’t look away.
She knew what she wanted, but...was it what he wanted, too?
He took a step closer and cupped her cheek in his hand. “Nell?”
A little sound escaped her. Tears burned her eyes, and she couldn’t do anything but step forward, almost as close as she wanted to be.
“Nell,” he said again, this time sounding raw. The next minute, he was kissing her, devouring her, and she lost herself in a kind of pleasure she had never even dreamed she could feel. She flung her arms around his strong neck. He gripped one buttock and lifted her against him even as his other hand cradled her head. She was shaking, and thought he was, too.
He tore his mouth away at last and looked down at her, the gray of his eyes now molten. “Nell, the last thing I want is for you to feel pressured. I’m here for you, no matter what. Tell me you know that.”
“I know that.” She rose on tiptoe and pressed kisses along his hard, scratchy jaw. “I know you wouldn’t abandon me.”
“I want you.”
A chill chased away some of her body heat. “I want you, too, but...I have to tell you something first.”
His fingers sifted with exquisite gentleness through her hair. “Are you infected with HIV? Something else?” He sounded impossibly kind.
A little shocked, she stared at him. “No!”
“Then what, Nell?”
She closed her eyes, feeling such shame. Wanting to hide from the expression she feared to see on his face. “When I first got to Portland...I was afraid to ask for help, or go to a shelter. Some older kids sort of took me under their wing. They thought I was even younger than I really was.” She opened her eyes. “I did, too.”
“I know what you’re going to say, Nell.” His hand slid around to lift her chin. “Those kids told you how you could make enough money to buy food, maybe pay your share of a room, didn’t they? They probably told you where to go and what to say, how much money to ask for.”
Her face wanted to crumple, but she nodded.
“What were your options? Begging, stealing or selling yourself.”
“I couldn’t make myself steal. I just couldn’t.” She gave a broken laugh. “Letting a man do...do that upset me less than shoplifting. What does that say about me?”
For a moment something hard and dangerous crossed his face. “You’re honest,” he said finally. “That’s what it says.”
She shook her head even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what had passed through his mind. “You were thinking something else.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “All right. I’ll tell you, but first let’s go in the bedroom. I’ll tuck you in, and then you can invite me...or not. Completely optional.”
After a moment she nodded, wanting to believe she was courageous enough to take a step so monumental.
WITH COLIN’S ARM around her, Nell felt brave. Besides, the worst was behind her, wasn’t it? She’d told him, and he really didn’t seem to mind.
As he guided her toward the back of the house, she caught a glimpse of an office. The other room, the one he steered her into, had a huge bed with a comforter covered in patterned ivory and navy blue flannel. She had trouble taking in anything but the bed. She made herself glance around, however, pretending if only to herself that accompanying a man to his bedroom was at least a seminormal occurrence for her. She liked the few furnishings, the simple Shaker-style. Closet doors were closed.
He sat her on the bed and knelt to untie her shoes.
“Oh!” Nell tried to stand. “You don’t have to...”
He smiled at her, so much tenderness in his expression she came close to crying. “I want to.” When she sank back down, he removed first her shoes then her socks before rising to his feet. “Do you want to take off your jeans?”