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With another deep breath, I met his stare head-on, part of me stunned to be confessing this to him, but the other part? There was only relief. Like I was releasing a pent-up breath. “But I couldn’t do that with you.”

“Emerson,” he said gently, his fingers flexing on my arms. “What happened to you?”

“When my mother started dating Don, I was living with her. I moved in with Dad afterward. After she chose Don over me.” I sniffed again, bitterness filling me as I remembered the morning I approached my mother and told her that Justin had crept into my room the night before. He had just come home from a night out with his friends. His breath reeked of alcohol. I guess I should be grateful that he was so drunk. It made him clumsy.

“After what? What happened?”

“At first I thought Justin was nice. He always paid me attention. He was twenty and drove a cool car. All my friends thought he was cute. I was fifteen, an only child. Suddenly having a cool older brother was . . . well, cool.”

Shaw’s face hardened and I knew he’d already guessed where this was headed, but he said nothing, just nodded for me to continue.

“It was just little things at first. He would always touch me, brush my hair back from my face. Then he started walking in on me in the bathroom, my bedroom . . . he acted like it was an accident . . .”

“Bastard.”

“I told my mom he was making me uncomfortable and she told me I was being silly. Then New Year’s Eve happened. It was really late. I’d stayed up to watch the ball drop and went to bed afterward. He came in my room drunk. Good thing, I guess. He wasn’t that coordinated, so I could shove him off before he did anything. He passed out on the floor next to my bed. I actually left him there and slept in the guest room. With the door locked. Mom and Don were out.”

Shaw’s gaze glittered brightly with a light I’d never seen before in his eyes. “He deserves to be in jail. What did your mom do when she got home?”

I shrugged. “Nothing. She told me that even if it happened, I was exaggerating the event. And that’s when she let me know she was marrying Don and I needed to learn to get along with Justin.”

“Oh, Emerson.” His hand cupped my face, his thumb grazing my cheek back and forth.

“That hurt the most, you know. It’s not so much what my stepbrother did. He was nothing to me. But Mom? Her betrayal was the worst thing. She’s my mother. She’s supposed to protect me. What did I do for her—”

“No. It’s not you.” His hands tightened slightly on me. “Baby, there’s something broken in her. A mother would die protecting her kid.”

I nodded, looking away, blinking burning eyes.

“I would, Emerson. I would die protecting you.”

My gaze jerked back to his face, my heart clenching at his words. They were words I hadn’t realized I needed to hear, but I guess I did. I needed to believe that someone cared enough to fight for me. That someone could love—

I killed the thought before it fully formed. No one had said the L word. Certainly not him. I wasn’t going to allow myself to even think it. Shaw was a Marine. He was conditioned to serve and protect. I didn’t need to read more into it than that.

He kissed me. His warm lips moved over mine. I slid my tongue along his, pouring all my feelings into it, all the turmoil that Melanie’s visit had stirred in me, all the emotions that this conversation with Shaw had created.

His hand cupped the back of my head. I deepened the kiss, pressing against him, delighting in the way my br**sts mashed against his chest. I looped my arms around his neck. We fell back on the bed, me splayed over him, our mouths fused, slanting one way and then another, growing hotter, more feverish.

He stopped abruptly, holding the hair back from my face with both hands as he looked up at me. “No way can you go to that wedding.” His eyes scanned my face, intent and determined.

“I wasn’t going to.”

Concern etched the lines of his face like he wasn’t fully convinced, but he nodded. “Good. I don’t want you anywhere near your stepbrother.” Some of my hair fell forward, dangling between us, and he smoothed it back with his palm, wincing a little as he added, “Maybe I don’t have any right to get all caveman and tell you that . . .”

I pulled back slightly. No one ever told me what to do. I’d been on my own too long to let a guy start controlling me now. It was one thing to sleep with him, but he couldn’t start dictating my actions. If that happened, then I had given up all control entirely.

He exhaled a great breath, evidently reading my reaction accurately. “I know I sound like a controlling prick.”

Suddenly I remembered him at the club, informing me that I had had enough to drink right before he yanked me out of there. I shook my head, unwilling to consider any of this right now and ruin whatever tenuous bond that was forming between us. “But it’s a nonissue anyway because I wasn’t planning to go.”

His thumb gently stroked my cheek. “It’s not only your stepbrother, you know. It’s your mother, too. She doesn’t deserve a daughter like you, Em. And I don’t trust her not to hurt you again.”

Okay, so he was bossy and high-handed and sent my feminist hackles sputtering, but he was sweet, too. He gave a damn. He cared. I let him in and he reacted with concern. With more than concern. There was a hint of . . . I don’t know . . . possession in those words. In his expression. Like a part of me belonged to him now. Like we belonged to each other. God. And I guess I wanted that. He tempted me on every level. It was beyond appealing to just lose myself in him and let him protect me.

Only it wasn’t that simple. I shook my head slightly as if to jog some sense into myself. She was my mother. Nothing could change that. He couldn’t save me from what I was. He couldn’t save me from everything wrong in my life. But a part of me melted to realize that he wanted to. My hand crept up between us to cup his face. My palm flattened against his cheek, fingers curling inward ever so slightly. I reveled in the scratchy hint of beard coming in.

Suddenly the door to the room opened and Georgia stepped inside. “Oh, sorry,” she mumbled. “I should have texted to make sure you didn’t have company.” She turned away, but not before I glimpsed her ravaged face—and ravaged was putting it mildly. It was splotchy pink and her eyes were puffy and bloodshot.