Just the Way You Are
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His boots scraped against the gravel as he closed the distance between them. “Waiting for my wife. She won’t return my calls.”
“Smart girl,” she said softly.
“She doesn’t deserve you.”
He laughed but it sounded hollow. “Funny, I frequently find myself thinking that I don’t deserve her. How else do you explain how I’ve managed to lose her twice?”
She shook her head. “I have already destroyed enough in your life. Don’t be a hero.”
“What do you think you’ve destroyed?”
“The baby…” Though the air was humid and the early summer heat lingered, she rubbed her hands over her arms, as if to fight off a chill. “You must hate me.”
His heart broke for her, for him, for them both, as she avoided his eyes. Here she was, doing her damndest to take on the sins of the father. “I wish you would have told me,” he said.
“I couldn’t. I’d just lost my mother when I found out, and the only thing keeping me going was the idea that keeping the truth from you…” She shook her head and swiped at her cheeks. “It sounds so stupid now, but I felt like I could save you. I was sixteen and terrified, and my world was a disaster. I needed to believe I was saving you.”
He swallowed the ball of emotion in his throat, pushed it down with the memory of that tiny gravestone. He’d tracked it down this week. He’d collapsed onto the damp grass and traced his fingers along the letters of the name etched into the stone.
“How far along were you that day I came to the apartment?” He needed to know.
She kicked a piece of gravel. “Five months. It was about a month later that the man decided to teach my father there were consequences to broken promises.”
His fisted his hands, anger at this unknown stranger whipping hot through his veins. “Did they catch him?”
“I helped identify him in a lineup. He had some priors.” She turned to stare at her fire-scorched house. “I thought it would feel good to see him put in prison, but it didn’t change a thing.”
The cicadas hummed around them in the darkness, amplifying the silence between them.
“The worst part was the labor.” The agony in her voice ripped at his heart. “I had already dreaded it—giving birth without my mother there to hold my hand—but it was so much worse than that. They hooked me up to those drugs and the pain—”
He reached for her and she shook him off.
“I wouldn’t take the painkillers they offered.” She let out a shaky breath. “I’d done this reading, you know. I’d decided I wouldn’t do anything that might be bad for the baby.”
“And there I was, alone, missing my mother, and delivering my little girl’s corpse, and refusing the meds because I couldn’t do that to her. I knew it wouldn’t matter, but—” Her voice broke. “She’d been through enough and someone needed to protect—”
He pulled her into his arms and she sobbed silently against his chest, her body heaving under his hands. He just held her, like someone should have ten years earlier. Like he should have—would have, if he’d known.
When she’d finally calmed, he whispered, “You don’t have to do this alone anymore.”
“I’m screwed up, Harrison. I have more scars than you know and they’re not pretty. Why aren’t you running away?”
“Because”—he tilted her chin up so she was looking at him—“you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. You’re kind and giving and so goddamn selfless it makes me crazy.”
“You’re not just taking on me. Don’t you understand? My father might be clean now, but he could screw up again. I can’t make any promises.”
“You father is part of your life, so he’s part of mine. For better or worse. We’ll handle it together. If you’ll let me in.”
She looked at the ground. “After my mom died, I used to imagine what her life would have been like if she’d never married my father. He put her through hell and if she’d married someone different…”
His chest ached. Had for days. He wiped a line of tears off her cheek with his thumb. He wouldn’t be whole again until she was sleeping by his side.
“You’re not your father, Stacey. You’re kind, and thoughtful, and caring. And I want you in my life. Will you please be my wife?”
She released a weak laugh. “I already am.”
He squeezed her against his chest. She wrapped her arms around him, and he relaxed for the first time in two weeks. “That’s pretty convenient then, don’t you think?”
She answered with her lips against his, and he was so grateful to be holding her again, to be tasting her again. He was afraid to let go.
“I’ve missed you,” she murmured against his mouth.
He growled. “Not enough to answer your phone.” He scooped her off the ground, and she yelped.
“What are you doing?” If it was supposed to be a protest, it failed as she nuzzled her face into his neck, pressing her hot mouth against his skin.
He dropped the tailgate of his truck and set her on it.
The moonlight filtered through the trees and cast light across her face as she peeled her shirt over her head.
A groan slipped from his lips as she slid her hands down her body and unbuttoned her jeans.
“I want you,” she said softly, fingers finding the fly on his jeans.
He fisted his hands in her hair and lowered his mouth to hers. Her hand slid into his jeans, stroking him with feather-light touches.
When her hand fisted his cock, she moaned. “I want you inside me.”
He pulled back, his blood pumping hard and fast as she shucked her jeans.
She laid herself out for him on the bed of his truck, nude but for her bra—her hard ni**les jutting against the lace.
“You’re beautiful.” He traced an invisible line between her br**sts and down her stomach. He dipped between her legs, toying with her cl*tbefore circling around her sex. “You’re so wet, Stace.”
Her h*ps bucked, back arched. “Harrison.”
He grabbed her h*ps and pulled her forward. Never taking his eyes off her, he pressed the head of his c**k against her opening.
She drew in a sharp gasp, eyes flashing on his.
He grinned. “I can watch you like this.” He ran his eyes over her full breasts, her soft stomach, and finally to the dark hair between her legs.
“God,” she murmured. “Harrison. More.”
He guided her h*ps as he drove slowly, deeply inside her, her pu**y tight and hot around his cock.
She drew her knees up and pulled him deeper.
Their eyes held for stroke after stroke as he made love to her in the moonlight, her soft cries rising up in the air and mingling with the cicadas’ song.
He felt her getting closer and he found her cl*twith his thumb.
“Oh—” She squeezed her eyes shut.
He stroked her again, watching her parted lips as he pushed deeper.
She cried out as she pulsed around him, her orgasm moving through her whole body and squeezing him.
When her eyes flickered open again, he moved slowly, his fingers curling into her h*ps as he thrust into her.
He loved this woman, dreamed of her, fantasized about her, needed her. “Stay with me.”
She squeezed his wrist. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He pressed deep a final time and let his orgasm ride over him.
Three Months Later
“How are you holding up?” Harrison asked, squeezing her shoulders.
“There are so many of them.” Stacey watched wide-eyed as Harrison’s family—her family—milled around her new kitchen.
Harrison slid his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. “Yeah, second only to staying past their welcome, Duvals excel at the whole reproducing thing.”
The family had come to celebrate the completion of the house renovations. Harrison’s siblings and parents were here along with some cousins and a handful of people she wasn’t convinced were actually related. But everyone was happy and wine was flowing.
Across the room, Addison grinned at Stacey and held up her left hand—as if anyone needed reminded of Addy and Chase’s recent engagement, but Stacey grinned and leaned into her husband.
It had been three months of bliss. Her father had checked himself into a program. Stacey had never seen him so clean and so productive. She was proud of him and was beginning to believe this might last.
“Speaking of procreating…” Harrison murmured in her ear.
She turned to him and raised a brow. “Harrison Duval,” she hissed, “if you’re going to ask me to slip upstairs with you, I already told you I’m not doing that while your parents are here.”
He chuckled and pressed a kiss behind her ear. “You’re such a spoilsport, but that wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
“Sure you weren’t.”
“If you agree to make a baby with me,” he whispered in her ear, “I will be more than happy to wait until everyone is gone.”
She froze then spun in his arms. “You want…?”
His lips quirked in a smile. “If you’re ready.”
She grinned. “I am.”
“Okay!” Harrison shouted, pulling himself to his full height. “Party’s over, everyone!”
“Harrison!” Her cheeks blazed. “You guys, he’s kidding.” But people were already placing their glasses on the counters and exchanging goodbyes.
“Nope. I’m not kidding.” He drew Stacey to his chest. “I’m not apologizing either.”
Someone grumbled something about newlyweds, and Kaleb crossed the kitchen to give Harrison a high five.
Harrison turned her to face him. “Remember,” he whispered, “you have to pretend like you like me.”
Then he kissed her, and Stacey stopped worrying about their guests and let herself be happy.