“Ros?” He leant around to get a better look.
Her eyes were closed and her face relaxed. Really relaxed, more than he’d ever seen.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Go to sleep.”
She gave an almost imperceptible nod and her breathing fell into a deep, steady rhythm and stayed that way. He’d really worn her out.
“You don’t hate me. You trust me,” he whispered, because it was true.
“I need a knife,” Roslyn announced the next day.
She stood beside Nick, hands hanging by her sides and face serene, waiting calmly. Or hopefully it looked like she waited calmly. What a joke. Her insides had been a jumble all day, humming and buzzing, anxious about everything. She’d read Gone with the Wind for a while, paced for a while, then read while she paced for a while. Not even having her beloved spare reading glasses could help her mood. Scarlet schemed and it just pissed her off. Normally she adored that southern belle, but not today. The walls were pressing in again but there would be no walk outside as promised the night before. The constant drum of rain on the rooftop assured her of that.
“Why do you need a knife?” Nick crouched beside the fireplace, feeding it wood. He pottered along, one job after another, keeping himself busy. His industriousness peeved her, too. The dude couldn’t sit still. Flickering flames cast weird shadows across his face. The hollows beneath his cheekbones made him appear positively evil.
Candles were scattered about the place. With everything shut up they’d be sitting in the dark without them. No need for socks or sweaters in the cozy, warm air. She’d been plodding around in jeans and T-shirt, feet bare. All the better for dragging them across the wooden floor, making the chain scrape and sing. Nick rewarded her with a flinch each and every time, like clockwork.
Fuck him. He deserved that and so much more.
With a flourish she brought forth the glossy red fruit. “I need a knife because I like to peel the skin off my apples.”
“The skin’s good for you.”
She just looked at him and waited.
“Alright.” He rose to his feet with a long-suffering sigh and looked down at her. Eyes boring into her like he could read her mind. He wished. He’d wisely refrained from any further recitations from her diary. Just as well; her insides were wound tight enough. From his back pocket he pulled a Swiss Army knife and extracted the shiny silver blade. “The rest are in the truck. Will this do?”
“That’ll be great. Thank you.”
But he didn’t hand it over, just held it there. He appeared to be doing the rugged-man thing again, overdue for a shave. She’d shove him into 573.3—Prehistoric Man. A couple of days’ growth lined his jaw and framed his mouth. His fringe flopped over his high forehead and he pushed it back with an impatient hand, not taking his eyes off her. “Why don’t I do it for you? Don’t want you to slip up and cut yourself.”
“I won’t. And I know how I like it done.”
Dark eyes stared her down for a long moment. If he wanted to unnerve her he’d have to try harder. Familiarity had definitely kicked in. “Okay.”
Without further ado she took the knife from his hands. Her fingers accidentally brushed against the palm of his hand and heat raced up her arm. She jerked back, almost dropping the knife. Best not to touch him. Safer. Distance was her friend. “Thanks.”
Sadly, the furthest point of retreat remained the kitchen. She pulled out a chopping board in preparation for part two of the process. But first for part one. There was a ritual to this. One she’d always been rather particular about.
Nick’s eyes were still on her. She could feel him attempting to mess with her mind. Trying to drive her batty seemed to be his life plan. Her shoulders rose and her spine curved, creating the illusion of privacy. He had no place in her thoughts.
Things had become weird, or weirder, since the massage last night. Or even further back to the turning her on bullshit from yesterday morning. Neither of them spoke much. Talk had become quick and to the point, efficient and minimal. But he watched her.
And while he’d always watched her, now there were subtle differences. Her traitorous body seemed over-aware of him. Nerve endings lived in a constant state of high alert. Ignoring him had become more taxing than usual. Being tuned into him sucked the life right out of her.
She about-faced and set her butt against the kitchen cabinet, began the slow and careful procedure of taking off the apple skin in one long strip. Round and round she went, sinking the sharp blade in just the right distance, her concentration absolute. She was a pro at this. It had been her trick at the school when she’d been rostered on to monitor lunch breaks. The kids loved it. Had loved it. There was something almost Zen about it.
She did her best to ignore him when he joined her, his stare set on her practised hands.
Not so fucking relaxing. Because she couldn’t have a minute’s peace, could she?
Sure enough, the atrocious testosterone-laden scent of him clogged up her nose. Damn it. He stood far closer than necessary, but she could block it out. Hold her breath so his smell couldn’t reach her and concentrate on the task.
But he radiated heat. The back of her hand warmed, the one carefully wielding the knife while her left tended to the apple. Round and round she turned the fruit, keeping the depth and width as consistent as possible. It was so much damn harder to do with him scrutinizing and distracting that she went much slower than normal. She could feel her face scrunching up in concentration. The tip of her tongue sat firmly between her teeth.
Good, this was good. Already, she felt more like she had herself back under control.
A nice slow exhale followed by a robust inhale, that’s the way. She hunched over further, focusing, trying to block him out. No problem. She’d done this a thousand times, a million. He meant nothing to her. He was a nonentity. Then he shifted slightly. He moved his weight from one foot to the other.
Her hand slipped, slicing through the apple’s skin, and the length of red peel tumbled to the floor.
“Fuck, no.” Inconceivable. That hadn’t happened in years.
“Never mind,” he said, like it was nothing. Like what he did to her life was nothing. What he did to her.
She lifted her head and glared at him. “You did that.”
His eyes widened. “Roslyn. I didn’t touch you.”
“You didn’t need to.”
“What are you on about?”
“You were lurking,” she said, voice rising with every word. She enforced her point with the tip of the knife, waving it directly below his nose. Anger didn’t begin to cover it. Fury coursed through her, making her tremble and shake. “You’re always lurking.”
Nick leant back, gaze glued to the blade. “Calm down.”
“Calm down? I can’t even get away from you for a minute and you’re back again, hovering over my shoulder. Stalking me. Sticking your nose into everything I do. You’re fucking insane! You’re keeping me hostage! Who does that? Huh? What kind of fucked-up individual pulls this sort of shit?”
Her livid words bounced around the cabin, echoing off the walls. The air hummed with them like static electricity. She could see the exact moment he snapped, when her abuse released the demon in him. Someone had flicked a switch.
“So put us both out of our misery,” he roared. His face morphed from calm to enraged, lips drawn back in a snarl. He snatched up her hand, gripping it tight, and pressed the shiny blade to his own throat. “Go on.”
“Nick!” If he frightened her before, he scared the hell out of her now. Strong fingers clenched her hand, making her bruise sting. The apple fell, forgotten, as she tugged on her wrist, fighting him for possession of the blade. “Stop it.”
“You know you want to.” His eyes were lit with anger or desperation or who the fuck knew what. They terrified her. “The key to your padlock’s in my back pocket. Now’s your chance, sweet.”
“Let me go.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, Ros. You gonna co-operate?”
“I mean let go of my hand.” She pulled, but he pushed back. His skin compressed into a single tortured point then gave. The tip of the knife punctured his neck. It was a pin-prick, nothing more. But blood bloomed bright and horror tightened her throat. “Nick.”
He bared his teeth at her in a wide, manic grin. “It’s not so hard, killing people. You can do it. God knows I deserve it, keeping you locked up like this. I’m an animal. You’re right.”
It felt like fire speared up her arm, her muscles straining furiously. He was too strong. But if he did this …
“No regrets. Nice and fast, Ros. Come on.” His fingers tightened around her hand. Panic scattered her wits and her heart beat so hard it hurt. Her pulse roared in her ears. No, no, no.
“Don’t you dare,” she cried, her eyes hot. Her vision swam. She blinked back tears, desperately trying to see him. “Don’t you fucking dare, Nick!”
The man stopped and stared, eyes fierce and mouth tight. Incredulous—that’s how he looked, as if he’d woken startled from sleep. “Me?” The back of his hand stroked softly across her cheek. “How about you? Crying is cheating.”
“I’m not crying,” she yelled in his face.
“You’re about to.”
“Yeah, well, you’re hurting my hand,” she said, the first thing to come to mind. His grip was bruisingly tight, but who cared? Compared to him threatening to slit his own neck with the knife, it didn’t really factor. It might distract him, though.
“Sorry.” He frowned. One by one he peeled back his fingers. Her skin was striped pink from his grip. “Didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said.
“And you think I want to hurt you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Stop that,” he tsked and put his hands to her face. Gently the pads of his thumbs brushed over her cheeks. “Do you forgive me?”