If You Believe
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Pain welled through her at the thought of Mad Dog leaving her. Tears threatened, burned her eyes, but of course, didn't fall.
Her shoulders caved downward, her spine rounded. She squeezed her eyes shut, imagining all the moments with Mad Dog that mattered. The ones she'd remember long from now, during the endless winter nights when she was alone and lonely.
She'd remember everything about him—his gestures, his smile, his touch. The way it had felt when he curled his arm around her and held her close. The feel of him, the smell of him, the taste of him ...
Oh, God, the taste of him ...
Could she really let all that go? Could she stand by, afraid and lonely, and let him simply walk out of her life?
He'd never stay....
Once, the words had had the power to hurt her. Now they simply stated a bald, unemotional fact. He wouldn't stay. She couldn't go. In those simple words lay everything that stood between them.
It was so much . . . and it was nothing at all.
The truth, when it came to her, was blindingly obvious. She couldn't let him go, not now, not yet, without ever tasting the passion he offered. She'd been alone for so long, her passion pent up beneath starched layers of linen and too many hairpins.
She didn't want to be alone anymore. She wanted, needed, just this once to be touched by something more human than the wind....
She took a deep, steadying breath and stood. Her legs felt rubbery and unstable—whether from kneeling or from the decisions she'd made Marian wasn't sure, and it didn't matter. Straightening her spine, she headed back to the bunkhouse.
With each crunching step, her fear increased. So did her resolve.
She stopped at the door. The thick, white-planked portal filled her vision. It was the only thing that stood between her and passion. Her and pain. If she knocked now, her life would never be the same.
Don't do it.
She let her breath out slowly, forcing her hands apart. There was really no decision to be made. She didn't want her life to be the same anymore. She was tired of being alone and isolated, tired of being lonely. Her soul ached for the warmth of a touch.
For years she'd thought of nothing but the past; she'd worried about it, agonized over it, tried to atone for it. Now, for once, she wanted to think about the present.
Before she could change her mind, she knocked.
"Come on in," came Mad Dog's deep, masculine voice.
Marian's knees almost buckled. She jerked her chin up and opened the door.
On the bed, in a pool of golden light amidst a mass of wrinkled white sheets, lay Mad Dog. He was sprawled casually across the mattress, one leg stretched out, one leg bent, with the Turkish towel across his midsection.
Surprise flashed through his eyes. "Mariah." He said her name in disbelief. Then came the smile, a slow, steady curving of lips that made Marian's heartbeat quicken.
She swallowed hard and tried to smile back. She almost succeeded. "Am I going to regret this?" she asked in a voice so quiet and shaking, she wondered if he could hear it.
He sat up straighten Across the wide expanse of wrinkled sheets and naked skin, their eyes met. There was no laughter in his gaze this time, only a searing honesty.
He grinned. "Probably not."
In that instant, with that answer, Mariah felt her last crumbling remnant of resistance disappear. She laughed, and it was a musical, velvety sound that surprised her. "Mr.
Stone, I do so admire your honesty."
It was true, she realized. That's what had drawn her to Mad Dog, what drew her now. It wasn't his handsome face or ready smile or teasing words. It was his honesty.
He was recklessly, fearlessly honest. His integrity touched something in her, made her yearn for the days when she, too, used to be forthright. Unafraid.
She wanted that again, wanted it with a desperation that left her winded. And maybe, with Mad Dog beside her—even for a fleeting night of passion—she could find that kind of honesty within herself again.
And she was going to start right now.
She looked at Mad Dog, an honest, wide-eyed stare that held nothing back. "I want you, too."
Holy shit, she was serious.
Mad Dog sat up, yanking the towel tighter against his hips.
She was standing in the open doorway, as stiff as a blade, her hands balled at her waist. Fear had pulled the color from her skin and tightened her full lips into a thin, quivering line. With the moonlight drizzling through the doorway and bathing her in elysian light, she looked young and frightened and impossibly vulnerable.
He bit off a curse. Christ, she was such an innocent, standing there, quietly asking for something she couldn't possibly understand. He could give it to her— longed to give it to her—but she wouldn't be able to live with the consequences. And, surprisingly, he wasn't sure that he could, either. He liked Mariah, genuinely, honestly liked her. He didn't want to hurt her. She wasn't the kind of woman for him. She didn't deserve to be dallied with and then deserted. She deserved better than he could give her.
That shocked the shit out of him. He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. For the first time in his life, he was going to be a goddamn hero. He couldn't believe it.
He tightened the towel around his waist and eased carefully from the bed, walking slowly toward her.
She didn't back away, just stood there, as still as stone, haloed by ivory moonlight, her huge eyes focused on his face. A tiny pulse beat frantically at the base of her throat.
"Go home, Mariah."
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them slowly. "Don't make this any harder on me. Please."
The soft plea coiled around his heart and squeezed until it hurt to breathe. "You don't know what you're asking. . .."
She looked up at him suddenly, met his gaze. "I'm no ... virgin."
He was so surprised, both by her words and her attitude, that it took him a second to answer. "You're not?"
"No," she said with a hint of something in her voice—perhaps pride, maybe pain.
"So you won't be 'ruining' me. That job's been adequately handled by someone else.
And—" she hesitated a heartbeat, then went on steadily "—I can't have children, so you've no problem on that account."
He heard the pain in her voice, and knew what that confession had cost her. It moved him immeasurably, her gutsy attempt at courage. He knew how easy, how safe, it was to be casual about the important things. It was a defense he'd used a hundred times in his life. Hit 'em before they hit you.
Obviously Mariah was a woman who'd wanted children, desperately. He remembered the baby blanket, and suddenly it all made sense. She'd embroidered it long ago, waiting, hoping.
Sadness tightened his chest. Once again he felt that strange, inexplicable need to comfort her. He brushed a strand of hair from her lip. "I'm sorry . .. about the children. But doctors cap be wrong. . .. They're wrong all the time. ..."
"I don't want your pity." She smiled, but it was a strained, hurting expression. "I want your body."
He laughed in spite of himself. "Jesus, Mariah—"
Her smile faded. She gazed up at him with heartbreaking seriousness. "I've been stuck on this farm for years, running away from everything and everyone. I don't want to run anymore. Please ... make love to me, Mad Dog___"
The softly spoken words hit him like a punch to the gut. Christ, he'd never had a woman say that to him before. Make love to me in that quivering, desperate voice. It tore through his resolve and started a red-hot fire in his groin.
He looked away, balled his hands into painful fists.
She shouldn't be standing there, looking so damn beautiful and vulnerable, asking him to make love to her. Not a lady like her; not to a man like him.
He should get the hell out of here, right now, just grab his shit and hit the road and never look back. Walk. Run. Ride. Anything to keep her from looking at him again, from touching him, from uttering those shattering words: Make love to me.
"Have . . ." Her voice fell to a throaty whisper. "Have you changed your mind about wanting me?"
He laughed sharply and looked away. "Hardly."
His answer seemed to give her courage. Slowly she moved toward him, until she was standing close enough to be kissed. The heat from her body was a tangible, erotic presence that filled his senses. She smelled of soap and water and wildflowers.
She looked up; he looked down.
"Is something . .. wrong with me?"
He flinched. "You're not easy, goddamn it. Don't you see?"
She tried to smile. "I believe I'm being extremely easy right now."
"I'm no good for you," he whispered in a harsh, throaty voice.
"I don't care___"
"I'll leave you."
"Don't you think I know that?" Her voice was reed-thin, almost frightened. "All I want is a night—one night—to keep me warm on all the long winter nights when I'll have no one. Is that so much to ask?"
He stared down into the warm bourbon of her eyes and felt like he was falling.
Jesus, suddenly it hurt not to touch her. He wanted her so badly.
"You're worth more than that, Mariah."
She made a tiny, gulping sound. "Don't . . . don't make me beg. . .."
"Christ, Mariah, I'm not trying to humiliate you. I just don't want you to hate me in the morning. I like you too much for that."
"I'll hate you more if you say no."
He wanted to back away from her, but he couldn't move.
Slowly, as if she were scared to death, she tilted her face up to his. "Kiss me .. ."
Her voice broke slightly, her lips trembled.
"Aw, Christ." The curse burst from his lips in a gust of breath. He couldn't stop himself. Without thinking, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her toward him. His lips came down on hers in a hot, hard kiss that drove the breath from his lungs.
And at that first intoxicating taste of her, Mad Dog was lost. His one and only attempt at being a hero shattered into a million desire-tipped shards.
A tiny, contented sigh escaped her, slipped from her mouth to his. He pulled back slowly, staring down into her eyes. A slow smile moved across his face.
"God, you're beautiful, Mariah."
A prickly heat crawled up her throat. Without warning, she was reminded of Stephen and his lies. Pained by the memories, she looked away. "You don't have to say that."
She felt his gaze on her face, pointed and searching, and reluctantly she looked at him. There was something in his eyes she hadn't seen before, a sadness. "What?"
"You think I'm lying, don't you?"
"You ... lie?" She gave a laugh that sounded fragile even to her own ears.
"Come here." He pulled her to the old oval mirror that hung above the lopsided dresser. Maneuvering her to stand in front of it, he slipped behind her. "What do you see?" he whispered against her ear.
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, for God's sake. What does this have to do with—"
"What do you see?"
Reluctantly she let her gaze move back to the mirror. "I see my face. And half of yours."
He placed his hands on her shoulders and began to knead her taut muscles. The rough-skinned pads of his fingertips moved gently up and down, massaging. "What color are your eyes?"