So dark, she couldn’t see for shit, but wow, could she feel. What she felt was jumbled. Complicated. It trumped the fear hands down.
She was so tired of being afraid, tired of living the rabbit. But the rabbit had kept her alive.
There was no sight of him in the dark hallway.
Daniel was gone. She missed him. Missed the press of his arm against hers. Missed the warmth of him at her back, despite the stifling heat. Not a panic thing but more of an ache, a yearning. The man couldn’t go down a hallway without her getting clingy.
She usual y didn’t glom, no matter what certain asshole exes might have inferred for their own nefarious purposes.
Something had to be done.
She had been working herself up to taking some constructive steps in his direction, yet here she sat. Stalled, frustrated, and thinking about sex. Dwelling on sex since the “holy shit” of being far away from her hidey-hole had eased within her. It had eased because of him.
A moment later Daniel hauled the rolled-up swag out from one of the bedrooms, hustled it down the hall toward her. When he spoke his voice was lowered. “Open the sliding door, please. All the way. Remember, we need to be nice and quiet.”
She jumped to her feet, pulled the door open as ordered. Her dinner curdled. “Daniel, I don’t know …”
“Shhh, it’s okay. You can do this. I’m a true believer,” he said, pushing as was his wont. “Besides, we’ll be safer up there. Safe is good, right?”
“Yes, safe is good.” Ali studied his face to see if there was some dig in it but he smiled back, serene. Maybe a touch arrogant, but hey, that was him. “Alright.”
The roof didn’t extend far over the balcony. Daniel positioned a chair below the roof edge, put a foot up on it and tested it with his weight. Once satisfied, he motioned to her with a finger. “Slow and careful, got it?”
His big hands settled on her hips, and she stepped up onto the chair, stretched her arms up, hands reaching, and – fuck-oh-my! She gasped and strangled a girly shriek as he lifted her high.
The roof was big and lined with a low rim of bricks. Ali scampered up and over, coming close to landing face-first. Her hands fumbled in the darkness before touching down on the gritty surface. Concrete, heated al day by the sun, warmed her palms.
The world was large up there, huge. Large and huge and open. On the other hand, she was very small and insecure. But he was right about being safe. No infected could manage a two-story climb any time soon. Knowledge that had sent her up into the safety of the attic from the start.
“Babe. You okay?”
“Yes.” Ali righted herself, hurried back to the edge and peered down into his face. His presence pepped her up immediately, bolstered her failing reserves. His unwavering smile. Her hands could shake al they liked. “No. Shit. Pass me the bedroll,” she said.
A quiet chuckle drifted up from below. “Repeat after me, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
“Shut up and gimme the swag.”
First he passed up the pack, then the bedroll. He eased it up with a hand to the bottom, taking most of the weight. “Move back.”
She did as told.
Big hands gripped the brickwork as he hauled himself up, muscles flexing and the sleeves of his t-shirt stretching. What a shame she only had moonlight to see him by. He was a whole display of delicious, packed full of win.
Shows of strength and daring had never really gotten to her previously. Not like this. Daniel made her stomach drop and swoop. He made her feel like she defied gravity. Every carnival ride she’d ever taken rolled up into one. She kept expecting the ground to give way beneath her feet, for his attention to wander and waver. But it didn’t happen.
At the end of the day, she couldn’t hope to live up to the hype. The truth of it stung. No, it throbbed like an old wound in damp weather.
The man in question put his feet on firm ground and started dealing with the bedding, spreading out the swag in the center of the space. He kept quiet, smiled at her once and watched her discreetly, which she shouldn’t have savored but did. Stupidly, his smile made her feel safe. Wanted. Those sidelong glances were potent things.
He didn’t say a word, however, and she could have done with a word or two from him right then. Next to him, the rustle of the breeze through trees and the chorus from the insects deafened. There were a lot of bugs carrying on, summoning up sex partners. She wondered if Daniel was thinking about sex – if he expected a suitable demonstration of her gratitude for dragging her reluctant butt back out into the world.
Maybe he thought of stripping himself out of the jeans and t-shirt and curling himself around her, the same as the night before, pressing every inch of his hot skin against her while setting her on fire. She had woken up aching that morning, and the feeling had yet to abate.
Was he really thinking about sex? Doubtful.
She couldn’t see a leer on his face. No knowing smile, either. She had, however, managed to rile herself up. Damn nipples. Time to think other thoughts.
A mass of stars twinkled above their heads. Looking up made space seem much, much greater. She didn’t do it twice. There were no lights on the horizon. No signs of life. The vast and silent land stood empty before her.
She focused back on Daniel before the agoraphobia could grab her by the throat and squeeze.
Dan squatted down with his back to her and fussed at his pack a minute. When he turned, a toothbrush stuck out of the side of his mouth. He held out its mate to her. A neat line of paste sat atop the bristles, brilliantly white in the darkness. He took such good care of her.
They brushed in silence. The spit, rinse, spit was soon done and the brushes returned to the pack. She wondered what came next.
Not talking, apparently. He was probably tired. She must have worn him out.
Daniel sat on the swag and yanked off his boots and socks. Then he leant back, putting his hands behind his head, stretching out his big body. He was beautiful, inside and out, picture perfect masculine beauty. His patience hadn’t gone unnoticed while she had taken her sweet time coming to grips with things. Everything inside her was raw and exposed up on the roof. Lust had long since gone to war against logic.
They had known each other what? Thirty hours. At most. She didn’t dare touch him, not even a toe or the cuff of his jeans. Ali kept her fingers curled tight, out of temptation’s way. There was so much tension in the air, such electricity. She would get zapped. Maybe he was immune to it. How disheartening. It was not particularly surprising, but truly disheartening.
Not knowing how he felt drove her nuts. Normal y so damn chatty, now he chose to shut up? She couldn’t stand it. The tension inside her twisted and turned, making sitting stil impossible. It wouldn’t do.
“Say something,” she blurted out.
“Huh? What’s wrong?” Daniel bolted upright. “What do you want me to say?”
“Shit.” Ali crouched down at the end of the bedding. What a spectacular mess. “Never mind. God, I’m such a head case.”
The man made a noise somewhere between disbelief and grand impatience. “Light of my life, come here, talk to me. What the hell have you been tel ing yourself for the past two hours, huh?”
She waved off the beckoning hand, settled her butt back onto her heels. Her own stupidity knocked her on her ass. “I’m sorry.
Really, it doesn’t matter.”
The hand fell and tucked back behind his head. “If it didn’t matter we wouldn’t be having this deeply confusing conversation. Now, tell me what I’m supposed to say.”
She didn’t answer but felt the words like a tangled, festering knot inside her. Hanging her insecurities out to air would not help.
“I like you cranky,” he said. “I like you cuddly.”
“Are you trying to be Dr. Seuss?”
“Only if you find his works sexual y arousing.”
She snorted. “No. Not really.”
“Probably for the best.” His hand beckoned once more. “Come on, babe. Come lie down. You’re safe with me.”
“I’m safe with you?” she scoffed. Ali climbed over to him and the mattress on hands and knees. Sick of not being able to see him properly, not being able to read him. He pushed al her buttons with ease and was pleased by the response, if his smile was anything to go by.
“Are you serious? You’re the least safe person I’ve ever met,” she accused. “The very least.”
“Oh, come on! You’re always pushing for more. You scare the crap out of me.”
“Everything scares the crap out of you. You face it down anyway. Try to run away afterward, sometimes, but still … You get what I mean.” He peered up at her. “Besides, you don’t look scared to me.”
“It’s dark. You can’t see a thing.”
“Babe,” he whispered, so low and gentle it hurt something inside her. She hadn’t done anything to deserve such care from him. She had been a prickly pain at each and every turn, walls up, guard on high alert. It made her feel like a fraud when he put himself out there.
He was fearless. “Ali, I see you just fine.”
His face was all shadows. But his voice was clear as day.
All the reassurances a girl could ask for. There had to be a catch. But what if there wasn’t? What if everything he said was exactly how things could be and she was too rabbit-hearted to reach out and grab him?
“Relax. Come and lie down. You can fight with me again tomorrow. I promise.” He closed his eyes, yawned, and made a show of settling in for the night. Sleep sounded real y good. She wanted to lie down beside him, rest her head on his shoulder and cut the shit for a while. To relax. Be calm. Get her head on straight and shore up her reserves for tomorrow.
Maybe the plan would be easier to deal with in the morning.
“I’m tired of fighting,” she admitted in a very little voice. It leant toward the pathetic.