“You can’t drive in the snow with bad tires. I told you to take the BMW and drop your car off.”
She scrunched up her nose. “I hate the BMW, it makes me nervous. Besides, I’ve driven in worse weather than this with worse vehicles. Oooh, the fire feels good.” She warmed up her hands and sneezed. “Damn cold, it just won’t go away. Do we have any holiday wine for tonight? I think It’s a Wonderful Life is on at nine.”
He scowled at her obvious attempt to ignore his advice. “That movie is corny. You’ve been sick for the past few days. You need to go to the doctor.”
“I have no time. Holidays are the busiest season at the store.”
“I’ll bring you tomorrow. Then I’ll drop you off at the bookstore and take your car to the shop for new tires. You should get rid of that thing anyway. Just buy a new one.”
She made a rude noise. “Okay, Mr. Moneybags. I can’t afford a new car right now and I happen to like my Bug.”
“I’ll buy it.”
Frustration nipped at his nerve endings. She loudly proclaimed her motive was money for marrying him. So why wouldn’t she take his money? He’d offered his free expertise for her cafe. A new car. A damn new wardrobe, though to him she’d look perfect in a sack. Everyone else grabbed at his money, which was the easiest thing to give. But no, not her, she refused to take a penny over what the contract stated and still managed to make him feel guilty. She drove him nuts. “You’re my wife and I’m allowed to buy you a car.”
“A car’s not in the contract.”
“Neither is sex.”
He waited for her to lose her temper but she just laughed. Then sneezed again. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. But I’ll keep the sex and say no to the car.”
He stomped over to her and the dog cowered. “Think of it as a gift then.”
“You can buy me flowers if you want, but I’m not getting rid of the car. Boy, are you in a mood today.”
“I’m not in a mood.” As he uttered the statement, he got even more annoyed. His denial made the accusation seem more truthful. “Why won’t you let me do something nice for you?”
She plopped down on the floor in front of the fire, kicked off her shoes, and looked up at him. “Let him stay.”
He played dumb. “Who?”
“I gave you time, Alexa. You promised he’d be out on Friday. I don’t want a dog. I don’t want him.” He waited for the launch attack and steeled himself to win the argument by sheer rationale.
Instead, she nodded, her eyes quiet and a bit sad. “Okay. He’ll be out by tomorrow.”
The guilt gnawed at his gut. He wanted to grab the dog and drive him to the pound tonight. Instead, he watched his wife hold out her arms and begin to croon to the mutt. The ugly, yellow hound inched forward until he paused in front of her. With slow motions, she reached over and laid a hand under the animal’s jaw, stroking underneath his neck as she murmured nonsense. After a while, the quivering muscles relaxed and his ears fell back. Within a few minutes, she urged the dog to lay down in her lap and she continued to stroke his coat, smoother now that she had bathed him, a little fuller now that she had fed him.
Nick watched the whole scene play before his eyes, a mingling of past and present, a battle between loneliness and the risk of pain. And for the first time in weeks, the hound dog seemed to surrender for only a brief moment, let himself bask in the tender ministrations of someone who proclaimed to love him.
And Nick saw his tail begin to thump.
The tiny motion was lost on his wife, who warmed herself in front of the fire with two wounded, lost souls beside her. She gave for no gain of her own, no goal she needed to reach. Love was not a prize but something she owned inside and shared freely. Every night she took him deep into her body and held nothing back. The woman who was his wife was a fierce, proud creature who both shattered and humbled him, and he realized in the glimmer of firelight, that he loved her.
He was in love with his wife.
The knowledge came like a tidal wave that swept him up and knocked him over to then rise, coughing and bruised, shaking his head as he wondered what the hell had happened. He stood there in the middle of the room as she ignored him, and watched his life veer off the main highway to a road filled with rocks and brush and potholes. Staggered with emotion, he took a step back as if to retreat from the whole mess.
Son of a bitch.
He was in love with his wife.
He opened his mouth to answer, gulped, and tried again. “Yeah?”
“If you don’t want to watch the movie, give me another suggestion. I thought we’d get drunk in front of the fire and watch the blizzard, but if you’re cranky, I’m open to options.”
She was talking about movies and he’d just experienced the biggest crisis in his life. Nick closed his eyes and fought off the emotions that burned through the last crumbling wall and left him with rubble. As if the dog recognized a fellow war victim, he lifted his head and watched.
Then Nick knew what he had to do.
Too new to express his emotions verbally, too confused to see how he’d play out this new hand, those whirling, messy emotions exploded through him until he could only reveal them one way.
He crossed the room and knelt before her. The dog made a low mutter and moved from her lap to disappear into the kitchen. Alexa looked at Nick with a question in her eyes as he laid a palm over her cheek and studied her face. As if seeing her for the first time, he took in every feature and let himself fall into the abyss.
“I want to make love to you.”
Alexa listened to her husband say the words and her heart stopped, then pounded in an uneven rhythm. She didn’t know what was different this time, but sensed they had reached a cross in the road, and he was choosing the path less traveled.
They’d made love every night since Michael’s party, sometimes slow, sometimes hot and frantic. He whispered erotic words and compliments, telling her she was beautiful and he wanted her.
But he had never looked deep into her eyes like he knew who she was. As if the outside layers peeled off to reveal the ripe pulp of fruit beneath, Alexa felt exposed to him. She held her breath and waited for him to back away.
Instead, he cupped both of her cheeks in his palms and spoke directly against her lips. “You’re my wife and I want to make love to you.”
Then he kissed her, a warm, slow melding that heated her blood, like syrup being poured over hot pancakes, until her body grew pliant and her lips opened to him and their tongues mated in the ancient rhythm man and woman had danced for centuries.
He slowly pressed her back into the carpet and shed her clothes, pausing to taste and touch every inch of skin revealed to him with a reverence that excited her and humbled her and made her want even more.
With quiet command, he parted her legs and knelt, separating the folds that hid her sex with gentle fingers. And then he kissed her, using his tongue and lips to push her toward the edge, ignoring her frantic motions to pull him back up until she climaxed hard and arched beneath him. He caught her hips and continued kissing her, until a sob caught in her throat and she begged him, begged him…
He surged upward and paused at her entrance.
“Look at me, Alexa.”
Half drugged, she opened her eyes and gazed at the man she loved with every part of her being, waiting for him to claim her, waiting to take anything he could give.
“It’s always been you.” He paused as if to be sure she heard and understood the words. Intensity gleamed within amber depths. He gripped her fingers, as if trying to speak beyond words.
“And it will always be you.” He plunged and she cried out. Never taking his eyes from hers, keeping her fingers within his, he buried himself to the hilt and began to move. Every time he re-entered, he claimed more than her body. The stakes had changed and he was going for her heart, as he continued to give all of himself, pushing her with slow, steady strokes until she hovered on the edge of the cliff. This time when she fell over he followed, holding her hands the whole time he shared the journey. And when they drifted back, he gathered her in his arms in front of the fire, pressed a kiss to her temple, and lay with her in the delicious silence that settled over them like the lazy snow drifting to the ground. She realized something had changed between them, something he wasn’t ready to say yet, and she held tight to the hope, even as she cursed herself for ever having a thought he could belong to her.
A while later, drowsy in the delicious warmth of his body heat, he whispered to her. “The dog can stay.”
She roused herself for a moment and wondered if she’d heard correctly. “What?”
“It’s my gift to you. The dog can stay.”
Overwhelmed, she searched for the words to express what he’d given to her, and like him, found none. So, she reached for him again and brought his head down to hers and showed him in another way.
The next day, Nick looked at his very sick wife and shook his head. “I told you so.”
She groaned and flipped over to bury her face in the pillow, then gave a hacking cough. “You’re not supposed to say those words. I need more Nyquil.”
He settled the tray of liquids including chicken soup, water, and juice beside her. “Hell, no, not with the antibiotics and codeine cough syrup. The doctor warned me. No more nasal spray, either. I read an article about it.”
“I want my mother.”
He laughed and pressed a kiss on her tangled hair. “You have the television and remote. A box of tissues. A romance novel and the phone. Get some rest and I’ll be back soon.”
“I have to get to the bookstore. Maggie sucks at customer service.”
“She can handle it for the day. Think of all the men she’ll charm into buying more books. Eat your soup.”
She grumbled something and he gently shut the door behind him.
Nick jumped into the Volkswagon with an air of satisfaction. With her stuck in bed, he finally had the opportunity to get new tires and an oil change on her rust bucket. He’d personally escorted her to the doctor, gotten the prescription, stopped at the pharmacy for supplies, then settled her underneath the covers.
A piece of him watched the scene from above and noted he acted like a husband. A real husband, not a fake one. The worst part was the deep satisfaction the role gave him.
He dropped the car off, grabbed all the papers from the glove compartment, and settled himself to wait. He hoped she kept the history of the mechanics in the jumbled mess, and began sifting through invoices.
The formal letter from the bank stopped him cold.
He read through the letter and noted the date. Over a month ago. Way after the wedding. After she had got the money. What the hell was going on?
His BlackBerry buzzed. Distracted, he picked it up. “Hello?”
“About time you took my call.”
Memories from his past dragged him back. With long practice, his heart chilled, along with his tone. “Jed. What do you want?”
His father laughed. “Is that the type of greeting I’m warranted from my own son? How’ve you been?”
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