Noah had never felt like more of a bastard. Kit’s words couldn’t have hurt more if they’d been designed for it—but he knew she hadn’t done that. Her whispered declaration had been too raw, held too much pain. “I’m sorry,” he said, pressing his forehead to hers. “I’m so sorry.”
When he felt wet on his hands, he realized she was crying. “Please don’t. Please,” he begged. “Kit, please.”
Her hands closed over his wrists as she swallowed repeatedly. “Want to go for a walk in the garden?”
Choking on a burst of laughter, he said, “Okay.”
“What’s so funny?”
“I wrecked my garden,” he admitted. “It was pathetic anyway.”
“Noah.” Her mouth fell open. “That was a lovely garden! How bad? Maybe I can—”
Shaking his head, he said, “I really did a number on it. Beyond redemption, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll plant you a new one.”
Noah wasn’t used to putting himself out there. He’d been protecting himself for a hell of a long time. But Fox was right—he was the one who’d screwed up here, not Kit. It was time he acted like a goddamn man and not the scared little kid he’d carried inside for more than twenty years. “Or I could sell my place,” he said, speaking past the huge clawing fist around his heart. “Of course, then I’d be homeless.”
Kit’s hands tightened on his wrists. “We have to figure this out first,” she whispered, and the claws punched in, drawing blood. But then her lips curved. “If you were homeless, I’d buy you food and get you coffee. You could sleep on the sidewalk outside the gate.”
The fist eased open. “Very funny.” He wiped his thumb over her cheekbones to get rid of the remnants of her tears, aware it wasn’t going to be as easy to fix things between them. Kit had let him in the door, but the wound he’d caused tonight wouldn’t heal quickly… if it healed at all.
He went out to the garden with her, staying silent as they walked through the neatly tended pathways. When he reached down to weave his fingers through her own, she curled hers around him, but there was a stiffness to her.
“Noah,” she murmured a couple of minutes later, “I watched that episode of Blue Force again.”
Nausea swamped him, along with a wave of black rage. His fingers threatened to tighten to crushing pressure. “Why?” The single word came out as harsh as broken stone.
A quiet glance that was more of an answer than any words she could’ve spoken. She’d looked because she loved him and she was trying to find a way to help him.
“What did you figure out?” he asked, every muscle in his body so rigid he felt as if he was made of thousands of pieces of steel wire.
“Were you kidnapped as a child?”
He laughed, and it was a broken sound. “That would’ve been simpler.” Tugging Kit against him, he thrust the fingers of his hand into her hair and cupped the back of her head as he pressed his cheek to her temple.
He could feel the tremors running through his body, couldn’t make them stop, the past he’d spent a lifetime trying to bury suddenly shoving at his mind. He’d never, never wanted Kit to know, but she was starting to suspect. Whatever she’d imagined, it couldn’t be as bad as the truth, but he realized at that instant that he couldn’t live with having her guessing, having her hurting for him as she imagined scenario after scenario.
He didn’t know if this was better. It made him feel sick to even think about.
She ran her hands down his back. “Noah, I’m sorry.” Her breath against his neck. “It’s all right. We don’t have to talk about it right now.”
He couldn’t stop the damn shaking, and he couldn’t let go of her. It felt as if he’d throw up, but his body was ice-cold at the same time. When he tried to speak, nothing came out. He was that child again, that small six-year-old boy who couldn’t escape from under the suffocating body of the man who was hurting him.
Shaking so hard now that he felt as if he’d break apart, he turned his nose into Kit’s hair, breathing her scent in an effort to forget the acrid, sweaty, ugly scent of that bed, that room, that man.
“Noah.” Kit’s voice, a little thready but resolute. “Noah, it’s Kit, and we’re standing in my garden after having a really big fight.” She stroked his back again. “Your face looks like you ran into a brick wall. Three times.”
He wanted to laugh, couldn’t manage it.
“Does it hurt here?” She petted his back gently. “I didn’t even ask if you guys kicked each other around.”
“No,” he managed to rasp out. “Fists only.”
“Glad to see you two have standards.” Her voice steadied with his response, as if she’d just needed to hear him. “The real question is whether you rolled around in the mud after you destroyed your garden.”
Her hair was soft against his chin, her body slender and yet curvy in all the right places. He could smell that fruity shampoo she liked, the one he’d used once and felt as if he’d been emasculated. On her, it was perfect. And her skin, it had its own Kit scent. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and it had nothing to do with her face.
I love you.
I love you, but I won’t be an emotional punching bag.
He knew at that instant that he hadn’t just hurt her. He’d come very close to abuse of the kind that left no bruises but hurt just as bad. “I’m sorry,” he said again, the tremors still rocking his frame. “Forgive me.”
“It’s okay, Noah.”
No, it wasn’t okay, and he knew she wasn’t fine with it, but right now she was so worried about him that she was giving him a pass.
“Fuck!” Wrenching away from her, he strode into the garden.
He half expected her to follow, but she didn’t. Instead, she let him walk into the darkness and when he came back ten minutes later, having conquered the shaking but with his body covered in a cold sweat, she was waiting for him on a picnic blanket she’d laid out on the mossy grass, her head on a pillow as she looked up at the stars.
Coming down beside her, he laid his head on the pillow she’d placed next to her own. It was automatic to stretch out his arm so she could use that as her pillow instead. He had a stupid fucking romantic dream of waking up one day with his arm all numb because she’d slept on it through the night. Yeah, he was screwed.
She accepted his silent offer while, above them, the sky glittered bright. “That’s part of why I love this place,” Kit said to him. “It’s far enough away from the lights that you can actually see the stars.”
Noah had spent more than one night awake staring up at the night sky. “You know that group of stars?” He gestured up. “That’s called Pegasus.”
“How do you know that?”
He shrugged. “I was up late and bored one night, so I started looking stuff up online and kind of got into it.” For a while, he’d thought about buying a telescope, but he didn’t want to take away the magic by making the stars too real; he’d rather just look at them as sparkling pieces of light, clean and untainted.
They lay there in silence for a long time, and the claw was back around his heart when he found the courage to speak. “It happened when I was six years old.”
The shaking threatened to start again.
Nails digging into the palm of the hand he had by his side, he clenched his jaw and breathed short and shallow in an effort to fight it. “My father had this friend.” Noah tried to say the name, but all that came up was choking bile.
He swallowed it down, kept going, aware that he was destroying his future with Kit—what woman would want a man who’d had that done to him? He’d been made less than a man before he even had the chance to grow up.
“My family and the friend’s family used to spend summers together in houses side by side on Cape Cod.” Noah’s chest was so painful now that it was as if his rib cage were crushing his internal organs. “He had a son around my age, so my parents thought it was the perfect arrangement. Emily was only a few weeks old, and she stayed with the nanny, and the other boy and I were sent off to play while the adults socialized.”
Kit curled her fingers around the hand he had beside her head.
He held on tight, knowing he’d soon enough have to let her go forever. “Only it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes my dad wanted to work and my mom wanted to go out for a coffee with the other boy’s mom. So my father’s friend would volunteer to watch us boys.” His breath was a wheeze now.
Oh, don’t coop the kids up with the nanny. She can’t keep up with two growing boys anyway. I’ll make sure they stay busy and out of trouble.
Noah could still hear that voice in his head, so jovial and friendly. He’d trusted that man because his father had trusted him. The man was a dad too. Dads were to be trusted.
“He hurt you and his son,” Kit said softly. “You don’t have to give me details, Noah. I can imagine.”
It was an out, and one he should’ve grabbed on to, but if this was the last night he was to spend with Kit, then why not give her the whole ugly truth? She deserved it after all the crap he’d put her through. “He never touched his own son. Only me.”
Noah forced himself to breathe. “He’d send his son to play in the backyard and then he’d…” The memories threatened to drown Noah in suffocating blackness. Staring up at the brightest star in the sky, he got the rest of it out before he could no longer speak. “He did pretty much everything you can do to a small boy with no defenses.”
He heard a wet sound, realized Kit was crying again.
Curling his arm inward, he held her against him. Again, he’d made her cry and it wasn’t over. Somehow he could still speak, and the words, they came out one by one, each a razor blade slicing his vocal cords. “Afterward, he warned me that if I ever told, he’d cut my parents’ throats in the middle of the night and do the same things to Emily that he’d done to me. He said that even if my parents survived, they’d send me away for bringing the monster to their door.”
“That fucking bastard.” Kit’s hand was a fist on his chest, her voice thick and harsh.
He crushed her closer, the tremors in his body having turned stiff until his muscles and bones felt like those of an eighty-year-old man. “I was only six, and he showed me the knife he’d use to cut my parents’ throats. So I didn’t tell.”
To this day, Noah didn’t know if he’d have been believed if he had told. “That summer, he did it again and again and again.” Noah’s father had brought a lot of work with him, and Noah’s mother had so many friends to see after having been on bed rest for most of her pregnancy; they’d thought nothing of leaving Noah with the man who was thought to be a friend. And the man’s wife had thought him a great guy for offering to babysit so she could accompany Noah’s mom on her visits.
“Even after we returned home,” Noah continued before he couldn’t, “I didn’t tell anyone. He’d convinced me that he was a real monster, that he could get to my family no matter where we lived.” Huddled and shivering under his blankets, he’d barely slept as he waited for evil to crawl through the window. “It was only when my parents started making plans to spend the next summer with the same family that I broke. I had a screaming tantrum, saying I didn’t want to go.”
“Time out.” He smiled grimly. “My father told me I was too old for such theatrics and left me alone in my room to think it over. What I did instead was go into his study and use the key hidden under his lamp to unlock the drawer in which he kept his gun.”
Kit’s gasp was loud.
“I knew how to use it.” How to load the bullets if it was empty, how to release the safety, how to brace himself for the recoil. “My father’d taught me—we’re all ‘real men’ in the St. John family. Guns and hunting and women.” His father had always had a woman on the side, all part of the proud St. John tradition.
Bitterness in his mouth, Noah fisted his hand in Kit’s hair. “My father walked into my room an hour after he’d left to find me pointing the gun at the window.”
Kit went as if to rise up, but he couldn’t bear to see the disgust on her face, so he used his grip in her hair to keep her down. Not resisting, she stayed.
“To his credit, he didn’t yell. Instead, he asked me why I had the gun. I told him it was to shoot the monster so he couldn’t hurt us.” Noah could still see his father’s face as Noah finally told him about how the monster liked to do “bad things” to Noah: a mix of shock, pain, disgust… and shame.
Noah sometimes liked to imagine the latter two had been directed inward or at the man who’d done the crime, but Robert St. John’s later actions had made it clear the disgust and shame had been directed solely at Noah. “To cut a long story short, my father told me we wouldn’t be going to the Cape, I gave him the gun, and two weeks later, after a discreet medical examination to make sure there was no permanent physical damage, I was shipped off to boarding school.”
This time when Kit jerked up her head, he couldn’t keep her down. Turning his face away, he stared out into the garden.
“What about counseling?” she said, horror in her tone. “Did they even talk to you about—”
“No.” After the medical exam, no one in his family had ever again discussed the events of the summer of his sixth year. “My mother couldn’t even bear going with me to the doctor, and my father… he looked at me and was ashamed of me because I’d allowed it to happen.”
“You were just a child!” Open rage in Kit’s voice as she sat up beside him, her knees brushing his side. “They didn’t report the man, did they?”
“No. I spent my first year at boarding school having nightmares about him hunting me down.” It was after a screaming nightmare that Fox had tried to comfort him and he’d spilled the whole truth. His best friend had responded by putting a chair under the doorknob so no one could get into their room, and together they’d rigged up a noisemaker across the window.
“Tell me they didn’t just let that monster walk free,” Kit pleaded.
“On my eighth birthday, my father gave me a cutting from a newspaper. It was the man’s obituary.” Putting one arm under his head, he chanced looking up at the stars again, Kit in his peripheral vision. “It wasn’t until I was older that I searched online and discovered the man had been found in his study at home, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“Suicide. He did the world a favor.”
Noah wanted to laugh. “He did nothing. My father used to defend small-time mobsters, did you know that? The kind of men who’d do him a solid, no questions asked.”
“You think he had the bastard killed?”
“I know he did.” Noah was certain Robert St. John had done it because that man had dared shame the family name, not because he’d hurt Robert’s son. “When I turned eighteen, after a big-ass party my mother threw because that’s what she does, my father found me fucking some random debutante. Later that night, he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Good to know that asswipe didn’t ruin you, boy. I hear the pussy begged for his life.’”