Her hand looked pale and tiny wrapped in my dark brown fingers. I couldn’t bring myself to squeeze, so I just held it for a second, rubbing my thumb against the back of her hand, enjoying her softness. Her cheeks flushed in an attractive pink as she flashed her teeth at me, her blue eyes narrowed. Our gazes locked for a long moment. I was surprised to feel my heart rate pick up, my gaze drawn to her plump lips. She licked them as if she knew I felt drawn to them and stepped back.
“Take off your jacket and hat, please,” she said, getting right down to business. I took a deep breath, pulled the cap off my head, tossing it onto the sofa. I took my time shrugging out of the leather blazer, tossing it onto the sofa as well. I found it hard to meet her gaze after that, standing there, letting her look.
“Turn around, please.”
I grit my teeth, my hands going to my hips. There was no way to hide how uncomfortable I felt under her frank stare. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know this can feel unpleasant. My clients have very high standards. Standards that are commiserate with the very high fees they are willing to pay. You should expect the first impression you make will have little to do with…your personality. They’re bound to inspect you. Perhaps not this openly, but she will want to check you out to understand what she’s paying for. That’s just how it is.”
She smiled. “And how do we check our produce for freshness?” She asked as she walked toward me, circling. “By smell.” She stood behind me, rose on her toes and put her face near the crook of my neck, taking a deep breath in as a tiny brush of air tickled down my skin. She hummed in the back of her throat, the sound sending further sensations across my body. As if I’d been doused in cold air, my nipples sprang to attention.
“By touch to see if it’s softened.” She reached out a hand to touch my shoulder, allowing it to travel down my arm, across my back as she circled back around to stand in front of me. She let her gaze roam slowly up my body until we stared at each other, our gazes locked for a long moment. She focused on my lips. I focused on the rise and fall of her chest, her skin so white it was almost translucent even where the mounds of her breasts met in the deep v-neck of her blouse.
She let her hand slide down my chest, brushing her fingers over the hard nub of my nipple. I grit my teeth and stifled a moan, afraid to show her how much I wanted her to continue. Her gaze traveled further down my body. I closed my eyes, feeling embarrassed by her sure knowledge of what affect she had on me.
“You look very athletic,” she said.
“Is that good?” My voice sounded husky to my own ears, the thundering of my heart now drowning it out.
“Yes,” she cleared her throat. “Yes. It’s quite good.”
She let her hand drop but stared at me. I enjoyed looking down at her, the way the light reflected off the azure of her eyes and the way her white hair formed a soft radiance around her face. I wanted to brush a lock of hair from her forehead but used what felt like super human control to refrain. She looked angelic, pure, which was the impression I’d first had of her, but a stark contrast to the kind of business she was in and what I’d learned about her lately. I wondered how she’d become involved in such a sordid industry.
His shoulders shook as he cried silently. To see this big, powerful-looking man so hurt made my heart shatter. Gordon had been dead a long time. I’d gotten over my grief, had moved on. Seeing Derek brought it all back like a dive into a frozen lake. The sudden wash of grief felt fresh as if it had never left me. Still, the details of how he died didn’t matter, not to me. Not anymore. The details obviously mattered to Derek. The details haunted him.
I could almost feel the pressure of the guilt he must feel, for leaving him there, for coming home when Gordon didn’t. If what he’d said earlier was true, that he’d searched for me—then he’d done it in search of forgiveness.
Gordon was dead. Killed in a war. The man in front of me, while alive, was still a casualty.
I wiped away my own tears and slipped off the sofa, crawled to him on hands and knees until I kneeled in front of him where he leaned over, his face in his hands. I threaded myself through his arms, pushing myself up into his embrace. In an instant, his arms came around me in a panicked clutch, his deep throated sob so filled with misery it took my breath away. The bottomless, body shattering sounds felt as if they’d been unleashed from a place that had been locked away for a long time.
As painful as the memories were, it felt good to share my sorrow with him, with this man who obviously felt it as deeply as I did. When I’d received the news of Gordon’s death, I’d been alone, no one to comfort me, no family to harbor me while I grieved. I’d fallen so deep into the swamp of despair it took years to crawl out of it.
Here, now, in Derek’s arms, I smiled through my tears as I held him, his wracking sobs vibrating through my body, his tears dampening my shirt. Here was someone who understood, who knew the man I had loved. While I wouldn’t have wished the feeling on anyone else, the connection this grief, this misery created between us was the most pure thing I’d felt since Gordon.
“Forgive yourself, Derek. For being here. For surviving. Forgive yourself.”
He shook his head where it was buried in my shoulder. “It should have been me. It should have been me.”
The way he sobbed the words, I knew it was a mantra he repeated to himself over and over in his darkest moments. I sat back on my knees and held his face in my hands, wiping the tears away that seemed to flow from an unending stream now that the dam had broken. “Gordon would be so pissed at you right now. He’d say you were wasting time blaming yourself. You know he would.”
He couldn’t look at me, as he sat back, pulled the end of his t-shirt out of his pants and wiped his face, sniffling loudly. “I don’t blame myself, Beth. I take responsibility for it, for leaving him. It was my responsibility.”
“It was war,” I said. He refused to meet my gaze, his hands fisted on his thighs, his chest rising and falling in hitching breaths. I wondered if he had anyone in his life, wondered how much of the man Gordon knew was still here, sitting in front of me.