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She went on as if she hadn’t even heard him. She seemed so lost in her thoughts that she was rambling, trying to get it all out, like ridding poison.

“And I left because it hurt too bad to stay. But then I came back, because I knew the way I left wasn’t cool. I needed to stop running. Face you. Do this logically. But there I was in the kitchen, feeling like my world had come to an end. I was cold and wanted a cup of hot chocolate and when I opened the cabinet, there was the bottle of pills staring me in the face and I knew if I just took one that I’d feel better, that I’d be better able to cope with the mess that is my life.”

“Oh God,” Jace breathed. “Baby.”

“I was this close,” she said, holding up her trembling fingers an inch apart. “I was this close to doing it. I had the pill in my mouth. I took a drink of water, fully intending to swallow it. It was right there. At the back of my throat. And then I realized what I was doing. What I almost allowed to happen.”

She choked on a sob and then bowed her head, her fingers balled into tight fists at her sides.

“But you didn’t,” Jace whispered, guessing.

“But I almost did,” she said in a voice filled with desolation. “I wanted it. I needed it. And I spit it out and washed all the pills down the sink. I can’t go back there, Jace. We have to end it now before we destroy each other. If this is what being with you does to me, I can’t do it anymore. I’m not good for you. I’m not good for me,” she finished on a whisper.

Fear seized him by the balls. He shook his head, unable to wrench the words from his closed throat. He was devastated by what she’d almost done—not because he judged her, but because she’d hurt so badly that she’d nearly done the unthinkable. What if she hadn’t stopped at one?

What little restraint she was holding to seemed to dissolve with the rain. A gut-wrenching sob tore from her throat and then she clutched herself around the middle, sinking to her knees as she rocked back and forth.

Jace followed her immediately, his arms going around her, hugging her tight against him. He kissed her soaked hair and rocked with her as the rain pelted them.

“I hate myself for that,” she sobbed. “For my weakness. For even being tempted. I hate myself for hurting you, for disappointing you. But I can’t just turn away from Jack. I don’t expect you to understand it. I’ve never explained.”

His rage at Jack, at the situation, burned through him, hot and fierce.

“Why do you risk so much to protect him? He’s an utter fuck-up, Bethany. Why do you continue to allow him to rule your entire existence?”

She pushed away from him and shot to her feet. “Because he took so much for me!” she screamed out, rain sliding down her face, mixing with her tears. “He did so much for me. Things I can never repay! You don’t understand. You could never understand all he suffered for me.”

Grief was so thick in her voice that she choked on every word. She was distraught, barely clinging to her composure, and she shivered violently in the cold.

There was something in her voice, in those yelled words, that made him go cold from the inside out. Whatever was in her past, what connected her to Jack, haunted her on a day-to-day basis. And whatever it was he had to know. It was pivotal to understanding her and why she clung so fiercely to Jack.

“Then make me understand,” he said quietly. “But we’re going to talk inside where it’s warm, after you’ve gotten into dry clothes. Then I’ll listen and you’ll explain. We’ll figure this out. Together, Bethany.”

She started to shake her head but he stood, scooping her up with him.

“I’m not taking no for an answer,” he bit out. “The hell I’m letting you walk out of my life. We’re going to sort this out and you’re going to tell me why you have such blind loyalty for fucking Jack. And by God, when it’s all done with, you’re not walking out of my life. You’re not going anywhere but to bed with me.”

Chapter thirty-one

Jace breathed a discernible sigh of relief as soon as the elevator doors shut behind him in his apartment. He’d make damn sure she didn’t get anywhere near the elevator. Not for a damn long time.

He carried her into the bathroom and after setting her down on the closed toilet, he reached in to turn on the shower. Then he immediately began to peel off the soggy clothing. His hands were shaking—not from cold—and he was powerless to make them stop. He was utterly wrecked by the magnitude of what he’d almost done. Had done.

“Jace, please, just let me go,” she said in a soft voice choked with emotion. “There’s no need to prolong this. Just let me go back to my life and you go back to yours.”

He grasped her face in his palms and stared fiercely into her eyes. “I’m not letting you go. Ever. It’s not happening. How the fuck am I supposed to get back to my life when you are my life? As if my life would mean a goddamn thing if you weren’t in it. Now we’re getting into the shower and warming up. We’re both freezing our asses off. You more than me. You’ve been out in the fucking weather for hours. I’ll be lucky if you don’t have hypothermia.”

Her eyes widened, and then he released her face and pulled her to her feet, shedding his own clothes as he shoved her toward the shower.

He couldn’t control the shaking that had invaded his limbs. He could barely manage to hold on to her in the shower, but he anchored her firmly against his body, using the heat of the water as well as the heat from his own body to warm her.

She was like a block of ice, the cold so deeply ingrained that it had chilled her blood. It killed him that she’d been so long out in the rain, desolate, distraught, all because he’d handled things completely wrong. He’d made her believe she was nothing. That she had nothing. When she was goddamn everything to him.

He loved her. If there’d been any doubt before this, it was gone now. And you didn’t treat someone you loved like he’d treated her. He hadn’t shown any understanding. He hadn’t listened to her, hadn’t waited for her to explain. All this time, he’d been patient, waiting for her to discuss her past, to share that part of her with him. And when he’d had the opportunity, he’d blown it.

That would never happen again. And he’d be damned if he let her walk out of his life when he’d waited thirty-eight years for her to walk into it.

Heat swelled and surrounded them and he felt her shivering finally ease as she sagged into his arms, warm and pliant and so very precious. All he’d ever wanted, he held right now in his arms. He wasn’t letting go. He never lost a battle he was truly invested in and this was the most important one of his life.

He kissed her temple and let his mouth slide down her soft cheek to her chin. His. His woman. His lover. His wife, if he had any damn thing to say about it. He was going to tie her so tightly to him that she’d breathe the same air as he did.

“Are you warm now?” he murmured against her ear.

She nodded and he reluctantly pulled her from his embrace and turned the water off. He hurried her out of the shower and rubbed her briskly with a towel so she wouldn’t grow chilled again. When he got to her hair, he pulled it from her neck, his gaze settling on the choker he’d given her for Christmas. She hadn’t taken it off. Even when she’d been so hurt. He traced the lines with his finger and then leaned in to kiss the space between her ear and the choker where her pulse fluttered under his lips.

She took a step away, her eyes still haunted and guarded. “Jace . . .”

“Shhh, Bethany. Just give me some time here. You need to be warm and dry and then we’re going to talk. About everything. And you aren’t leaving. Don’t even think about it. I’ll tie you to my bed and not suffer an ounce of remorse, if that’s what I have to do to keep you here.”

She bit her lip but went silent, allowing him to wrap her hair in the towel. Then he grabbed his robe from the hook on the back of the door and helped her into it, tying it securely around her waist.

He took only a few moments to towel off and pull dry clothing on before he urged her into the living room.

He turned on the fire and settled her on the couch.

“Give me just a few more minutes to make you a cup of hot chocolate and I’ll be back.”

He waited, hesitant to leave her for even that amount of time, but the fact that she was only in his robe—something he’d done purposely—reassured him that she wouldn’t be bolting out of his apartment.

But still, he waited for her agreement and when she finally nodded, his chest lightened in relief.

It seemed to take an eternity for the milk to heat in the microwave. He hastily stirred in the mix and sweetened it just how she liked it and then he went back into the living room where she was cuddled on the couch.

Her feet were tucked underneath her as if she were seeking more warmth and she’d taken the throw from the end and positioned it over her lap. He wasn’t sure if she needed the extra warmth or if she was adding layers as a protective measure . . . from him.

He’d allow no barriers between them. Not anymore. But first they had to get everything out in the open.

He handed her the mug and she clasped it in both hands, absorbing the warmth into her palms. He settled onto the couch next to her, turning so they faced one another. He pulled his knee up and toward the back so that it was touching hers. She didn’t move away, something he took as a positive sign, but he knew he had a lot of ground to make up.

“I owe you an apology,” he said in a low voice. “I’m sorry, Bethany. I just lost it. When I thought of all the things that could have happened to you, I went a little crazy and I said things I didn’t mean. I never meant to make you feel like you were nothing or had nothing. If you believe nothing else, believe that.”

The mug shook in her hands as she lowered it from her mouth. “I understand. I do. But, Jace, I told you what I almost did.”

Her face was a wreath of pain and shame. It was nearly his undoing. No longer able to keep any distance at all between them, he took the mug from her hands and placed it on the coffee table before returning and moving closer. He looped one arm along the back of the couch so his fingers touched her shoulder and he pulled her other hand into his, caressing her palm with his thumb.

“‘Almost’ is the key word, baby. You almost took a pill. But you didn’t. You stopped. You didn’t do it.”

She closed her eyes and his heart clenched when a tear slipped down one cheek.

“I had come such a long way,” she whispered. “Until today. Until I saw those pills. I don’t think about them. I mean, I hadn’t. I haven’t wanted them. Not since I got clean. And then today I wanted it more than anything. It was a compulsion.”

She shuddered and bowed her head. He slid his fingers underneath her chin and gently lifted until she was forced to meet his gaze once more.

“Baby, you didn’t do it,” he said quietly, with emphasis. “It doesn’t matter what you wanted, what you thought. You didn’t take it. That took strength. You beat it and it doesn’t have you in its grasp any longer. Didn’t today prove that to you?”

Hope was so poignant in her eyes that it cut him in two.

“Do you think so?”

“Yeah, I do. I don’t want you beating yourself up over this. And from now on, I’m going to be here to help you. You don’t have to be alone. You won’t be alone. You’re moving in with me. I’ve waited. I didn’t want to push you too soon. That’s why I moved you into my sister’s old apartment. But I’m done with that. You’re going to be here with me.”

Her eyes widened. Her mouth opened to protest and he silenced her with a kiss.

“You’re mine, Bethany. You belong to me. I belong to you. You belong here. That’s not negotiable.”

“But Jack . . .”

He drew away, some of his mood deteriorating. “We do have to talk about Jack. He’s dangerous to you, Bethany. I won’t tolerate that. I won’t tolerate any threat to you.”

Her breath stuttered out and it was obvious she worked to control the tears that threatened.

“I can’t just turn my back on him, Jace. I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Make me understand. Tell me why. Tell me what hold he has on you.”

She closed her eyes and the tears she’d battled slipped in silent, silver streams down her cheeks.

“He took so much for me. He protected me. You can’t imagine what he took for me, Jace.”

His chest burned and a knot formed in his throat. He knew with certainty that he wouldn’t like what she was about to tell him, but he would sit and listen if it killed him. This was her past and she was finally giving everything to him. Trusting him with the secrets she’d kept and the dark pain in her eyes.

“We were in and out of foster homes. We aren’t related by blood. You know that. But we’d bonded and social services tried to place us together when possible. It wasn’t always. But they knew if we went together that we were less likely to cause trouble and so when they could they accommodated our need to be together. We were the only family each other had.”

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