Misery churns in my stomach at the thought, but I push it away. Ignore it. I might not be able to keep Ethan forever, but I have him right now and I’m not going to waste a second of my time on regrets or maybes or why-nots. Not when there are so many better things to do.
With that thought in mind, I suck his lower lip between my teeth. Nibble softly. Then relish the groan that seems to come from the very heart of him. This time when he opens his mouth, I slip inside. Stroke my tongue along his, once, twice, then again and again as I absorb the sweet mint and lemon taste of him.
He groans again, even as he wraps his arms around me and presses his big, strong hands into the center of my back. I can feel the heat of him even through my wetsuit and he feels so good that I think about yielding, about ceding control, as I always do to him. But then he pulls his mouth from mine, gasps for air, and I know that I’m not giving up the power I have over this man. Not now. Not yet.
I move to recapture his lips and this time I’m not gentle. Instead, I grind my mouth against his in a desperate attempt to get deeper. To take more. To reach the very depths of him.
He nips at me in response, his teeth catching on my lower lip as he pulls me even more tightly against him. I bite back, not hard enough to do damage but definitely hard enough to let him know that I mean business. He groans and mutters a particularly vile curse, and I move to take advantage.
I plunge my tongue into his mouth, run it over his teeth, his tongue, the insides of his cheeks. I want to experience all of him, to find out every single thing I can about this man who is still a mystery to me in nearly every way that counts.
I keep expecting him to take control, to roll me under him and bend me to his will. He can do it easily—I’m so desperate for the taste and touch of him that I’ll do nearly anything to get it. But aside from plunging his hands into my hair to keep me close, he seems content to let me set the pace.
The freedom only makes me more frantic. Keeping my mouth on his, I shove at his shoulders until he leans back on his elbows in the sand. I start to scramble on top of him, but he jerks away before I can straddle him. The unexpectedness of it makes me freeze, afraid that I’ve somehow done something wrong. It’s been years since I’ve made any kind of move on a guy, let alone something this blatantly sexual, and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.
Convinced I’ve made a fool of myself in front of this man yet again, I scoot a few feet away from him. I think about apologizing, but what am I supposed to say—Sorry for trying to jump you? Just the thought makes the humiliation worse. But I have to say something. After all, I’m the one who practically attacked him.
But before I can form words, any words, I realize that Ethan’s grinning—and not in a you’re-an-idiot kind of way. No, his smile is pure sensuality, pure carnality, and it looks damn good on him. So good that I forget my embarrassment for a moment and simply stare.
How can I, when he’s just so damn beautiful? Too beautiful, really, for words or for me. I should pack it in now, give up before I make an even bigger fool of myself. But I can’t. I’m transfixed, as much by the way he’s looking at me as by his actual looks.
His eyes are a dark and storm-tossed blue that seem to see to the very heart of me, while his dark hair is wild and windblown from the hour and a half we’ve spent on the beach. Though, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that my fingers are at least as responsible for the disarray as the gentle breeze currently winding itself around us.
His cheekbones are high and sharp, his lips pink and swollen from our kisses. And inviting. So inviting. When his grin widens and his tiny little dimple flashes—so out of place in that fallen-angel face of his—it takes every ounce of willpower I have not to lean forward and pick up back where we left off only moments ago.
When I finally yank my gaze away from his too-perfect face, I notice for the first time that Ethan isn’t scrambling to get away from me at all. In fact, he’s doing the exact opposite. I watch in awe as he pulls his arms out of his wetsuit before rolling the clingy, uncomfortable material down his chest and over his chiseled abs.
It’s the first time I’ve seen him in person without a shirt on, and I realize I made a mistake when I was touching him earlier. Ethan isn’t hiding a six-pack under his dress shirts and suits. No, the man has a full-on eight-working-on-ten-pack, something I didn’t even think was possible outside of magazines and movies.
My fingers clench with the need to touch him. To pet him. To feel him. For a second I engage in a simple little fantasy that involves nothing but his abs and my tongue, and while it isn’t fancy, it definitely gets the job done. Already I can feel drool pooling in my mouth.
In the meantime, Ethan keeps tugging at the suit, rolling it past his hips and down his legs before kicking it off completely. Underneath, he’s wearing a pair of relatively tight board shorts that make it exceptionally obvious that he has an erection.
He reaches for me, his hands closing around my upper arms, and I feel a frisson of alarm as he turns me around so that my back is to him. I don’t like having any man behind me, not even him—it makes me feel vulnerable—but my fear dissipates as he presses soft kisses to the nape of my neck.
“Your turn,” he murmurs, his breath hot against my ear.
“Making out in wetsuits is not what I would call advisable.”
Then he’s pulling down my zipper and slowly—oh so slowly—peeling me out of the wetsuit. It takes a lot longer to get mine off than his, because he presses his lips to each part of my body as it is revealed to him. My shoulders, my shoulder blades, my upper arms, the curve of my elbow, my ribs. I try to stand perfectly still, but I can’t help the small shivers that run through me as he wraps his arms around me. Clasps his hands on my bare stomach. Trails soft, sweet kisses down my spine.
He licks under the strap of my bikini top while his hands slide up to cup my breasts. I gasp, arch against him as his thumbs brush over my nipples. They harden instantly and he laughs a little, a breathless sound of delight that only makes me shiver more.
“Stop teasing me,” I gasp between broken breaths as he gently squeezes my nipples, rolling them between his thumb and forefinger until I feel like I’m going to lose my mind.
“Baby, this isn’t teasing.” He drops to his knees, runs his tongue all the way down to the dimples at the base of my spine. Then he moves even lower, licking inside my bikini bottom as he continues rolling the wetsuit down my hips and legs.
“What—what is it then?”
“Pleasure.” He nips gently at my ass, making me giggle even as he sends heat rushing through me. “Pure, unadulterated pleasure.”
I can’t argue with that, not when my entire body is awash in the most amazing sensations. He keeps kissing me, touching me, stroking me, anywhere, everywhere, until the last remnants of uneasiness slowly slip away and all that’s left is desire. Need.
Ethan seems to know instinctively when my apprehension disappears, because his touch becomes firmer, more aggressive. His fingers dip below the edge of my bikini bottom, skimming lightly over the curve of my ass and my hips before circling around to the front.
I gasp at the first glide of his fingers over my sex, stiffen despite myself. In my head, I know he’s touched me here before and that he’s given me nothing but the most amazing pleasure in doing so. But I can’t help it—the position is freaking me out. It’s so eerily reminiscent of that long-ago night with Brandon when he forced me to my knees and came at me from behind that I’m having trouble separating the past from the present.
Memories swamp me—fear, pain, helplessness—and I can’t help stiffening. Can’t help panicking. I try to ignore them, to push past them. I remind myself that this is Ethan, sweet, gentle Ethan who has never been anything but kind to me. Who has never done anything to hurt me. But it’s too late. Brandon’s already in my head and the fear is already coursing through me. It turns my desire to panic, my need to desperation.
I try to force the words through my suddenly tight throat. No. Stop. Don’t. But all that comes out is a low, inarticulate sound that makes no sense to anyone, not even me.
Shame courses through me. Five years have passed, five years filled with self-defense courses and counseling and learning how not to be a victim, and here I am, right back where I started. Unable to enjoy the lovemaking of a kind, generous man and unable to find the words to stop him, either.
But Ethan isn’t Brandon, not in any way, and it turns out he doesn’t need words. That one, desperate sound is enough to have him pulling back, dropping his hands.
“Baby? You okay?”
Tears burn in my throat and behind my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall. I haven’t cried about this since that long-ago week, and I’m not going to start now. What happened with that bastard might still have the power to shake me up and shut me down, but I won’t give him anything else. I won’t let him break me any more than he already has. Won’t let him ruin what’s growing between Ethan and me the way he ruined me.
I can’t talk, so I nod. I reach for Ethan’s hands, put them back on my stomach, my hips. I can do this, I tell myself. This is Ethan. Ethan, not Brandon, and I’ve already shared more of my body, and myself, with him than I have with any other man.
But that’s the problem, too, because Ethan knows me. Knows what it feels like when I’m responding. Knows what it sounds and looks and smells like. And he knows this isn’t it.
I try to hold on to him, try to keep his hands pressed to my body, because in some crazy, wild corner of my mind I think that if I can just let him do this it will make everything better. Make me better. Because I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to be broken. Not with him. Not anymore.
I don’t listen. I hold on to his hands like a lifeline, press them against my breasts, my sex. But I’m shuddering now, my whole body shaking with fear and rage and a horror I don’t even know how to acknowledge.
In some random, disconnected part of my brain I’m aware of Ethan cursing, low and long and vile. I want to apologize, to explain, but the words won’t come. Nothing will, but a low, keening cry I can’t seem to control.
Ethan pulls away from me again, and this time he pushes to his feet before circling around so that he’s standing in front of me. “Chloe, baby, talk to me. What do you need? What can I do?”
He doesn’t sound angry, doesn’t sound disgusted. No, the only thing I hear in his voice is a deep, aching concern, and just the sound of it nearly brings me to my knees.
I want him to hold me, to tell me that it’s okay.
That he doesn’t blame me for freaking out.
That he still wants me.
And that everything between us is somehow going to be all right.
But even as I think it, I know better. I gave up on fairy tales five long years ago, and nothing, nobody, is going to be able to change that now.
Besides, nothing is okay. How can it be when Ethan is standing in front of me, his hands out in the universal I’m-not-going-to-hurt-you position? When he’s staring at me with eyes gone dark and blank?
“I’m sorry.” I finally manage to choke the words out.
“You’re sorry?” He sounds so incredulous that the words hit me like a blow. It’s the last straw. “Baby, I—”
I don’t wait around for him to finish whatever he’s going to say. Instead, I push past him, make a mad dash for the uneven stone steps that lead up to his house. That lead to freedom.
“Chloe, stop!” He chases after me, which only makes me run faster. “Baby, you’re going to trip! You’re going to hurt yourself!”
I ignore the warning, keep running. It doesn’t matter. What’s the pain of a little fall when I already feel like I’ve been ripped open, my insides spilling out for everyone to see?
“Damn it, Chloe.” He’s right behind me. I can feel his breath on my neck, hear his footsteps slapping at the rock right behind me. I half expect to feel his hands on me as he yanks me to a stop. But still he doesn’t touch me. For some reason, his reticence only wounds me more.
Tears I still refuse to let fall are in my eyes, in my chest. My vision is clouded and I’m having trouble breathing. I’m strangling on my pain and the aching, painful breaths my body doesn’t quite know what to do with anymore.
I’m almost at the top when it happens. I stumble trying to climb up a particularly high step and I bang my shins, hard, on the harsh, jagged edge of the stair. My legs go out from under me and I start to fall, panic coursing through me at the thought of tumbling twenty feet off the side of the open staircase to the sand below.
Ethan does touch me then, his hands jolting out to grab me so quickly that I know he must have been waiting for this to happen all along. Then I’m in his arms, my legs draped over his arm and my side pressed against his chest as he carries me up the few remaining steps.