You can’t hurt me the way you think you can. But even if you could? I would rather die with the taste of you on my tongue than live and never touch you again. I’m in love with you, Mara. I love you. No matter what you do.”
My breath caught in my throat. No matter what. The words were a promise, a promise I didn’t know if anyone could keep.
“We’re only seventeen,” I said quietly.
“Fuck seventeen.” His eyes and voice were defiant. “If I were to live a thousand years, I would belong to you for all of them. If we were to live a thousand lives, I would want to make you mine in each one.”
Noah knew what I was and what I’d done and he wanted me anyway. He saw me. All of me. With my skin peeled back, my heart bare. I was inside out for him, and trembling.
“All I want is you,” he said. “You don’t have to choose me now or ever, but when you choose, I want you free.”
Something inside me stirred.
“You’re stronger than you believe. Don’t let your fear own you. Own yourself.”
I turned the words over in my mind. Own myself. As if it were that easy. As if I could walk away from grief and guilt and leave fear and everything behind.
I wanted to. I wanted to.
“Kiss me,” I whispered.
Noah’s fingers traced the column of my spine, exposed in the dress. Heat bloomed beneath my skin.
“I can’t. Not like this.”
Noah started this chase and I stood before him, waiting to be caught. He could have me, but he refused to move.
Only now did I realize why.
He wanted to be caught. He was waiting for me to chase him.
I lunged for his shirt and pulled him to me. Against me. My hands became fists in the cloth but his were stone on either side of my rib cage; they rose and fell with each hard breath I took but didn’t move. Mine did. My fingers wandered beneath his dress shirt; his breath quickened when they met his pale gold skin. They traveled over ridges of muscle and sinew, hard and hot beneath my palms. I tried to reach his mouth with mine, but he was too tall and he wouldn’t bend.
So I backed down onto the sand. And I pulled him down with me.
The hem of my dress touched the water but I didn’t care, not then. The earth gave way beneath my body as Noah moved over me and slid his knee between mine, stoking my flame. His arm slipped beneath my back and his mouth moved over my neck, his lips brushing my collarbone and the hollow beneath my ear. My arms twined around his neck, my fists curled in his hair. My heartbeat was wild. His was still calm.
And then I slid over him. Above him. His ribs moved under my hands, now. His waist was between my legs. I was breathing hard and feeling reckless. Noah watched me, and if I didn’t know him as well as I did, I wouldn’t have known that there was anything unusual about this. But I did know him, and still though he was, there was something different about the way he looked at me now.
I placed my hands on his chest. His heart beat faster. His control was slipping.
I leaned closer, my hands moving lower down his stomach, my back arched above him. I kissed his throat. I heard a sharp intake of breath.
I smiled against his skin, moved my lips along his jaw, his throat, marveling at the point where the rough became smooth. My hands wandered slowly to his waist and he slid my dress up, his fingers hot on my bare skin, making me breathless. Making me ache. I pressed into him harder, my body bent, bowstring-tight over his. His mouth was just millimeters from mine.
“Fuck,” he murmured against my lips. The feel, the word, sent a hot little shock through my spine. It skittered through my veins, danced through every nerve.
And then I brushed his lips with mine.
I knew Noah worshipped Charlie Parker and that his toothbrush was green. That he wouldn’t bother to button his shirts correctly but always made his bed. That when he slept he curled into himself and that his eyes were the color of the clouds before it rained, and I knew he had no problem eating meat but would subtly leave the room if animals started to kill one another on the Discovery Channel. I knew one hundred little things about Noah Shaw but when he kissed me I couldn’t remember my own name.
I was starved for him, for this. I was a creature of need—soaked in feeling and breathless. There was a pull, furious and fierce, and part of me was frightened by it but another part, low and deep and dark, breathed yes.
Noah whispered my name like a prayer, and I was free.
I moved his jacket off of his shoulders. Gone. Unfastened the buttons on his shirt in seconds, loosened the tie at his neck. His skin was on fire under hands that traveled the slender muscle and bone beneath them of their own volition. Over his abdomen, his chest. Over two slim lines of silver that rested against his throat—
Colors burst in my mind. Green and red and blue. Trees and blood and sky. The sand and ocean vanished; they were replaced by jungle and clouds. There was a voice, warm and familiar but it was far away.
The word filled my lungs with a rush of air and I breathed in sandalwood and salt. Then there was strong pressure on my hips, shifting me away. Down. Gray eyes pinned me to the earth and the sky changed again above them; the blue chased by black, the clouds chased by stars. Noah was above me, his breathing quick, his pupils blown. He looked down at me.
My thoughts were hazy, and it was difficult to speak. “What?” I managed to say.
Noah’s eyes were lidded, and there was a storm beneath them. “You—” he began, then stopped. “I felt—”
“What?” I asked again, louder this time.
“I believe you,” he finally said.
Heat rose beneath my skin as I understood what he meant. “Did I hurt you?” I asked in a rush. “Are you okay?”
A slight smile turned up his mouth. “I’m still here.”
He considered his words. “You sounded different,” Noah said slowly. “I was listening for a change and I heard it but didn’t know what it meant; I’ve never heard you like that before. I said your name but you didn’t respond. So we stopped.”
I didn’t know what it meant either and I didn’t care. “Did I hurt you?” I asked again; that was what I cared about. That was what I needed to know.
Noah helped me up and we rose from the sand together. His words and eyes were soft. “I’m still here.” He laced his fingers through mine. “Let’s go home.”
Noah led me along the water, looking forward, not at me. I studied him closely, still unsure if he was all right.