If Noah’s parents had been in front of Kit right then, she’d have slapped them both sideways. They’d sent away a traumatized, scared boy without offering him any help. What must he have thought when he was shoved out of the family home? When he was abandoned?
Just like the monster had predicted.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly, conscious those beautiful gray eyes hadn’t met hers since he began speaking. “You know that, don’t you?”
“That night? The one of my eighteenth birthday party?” Noah said instead of answering. “It was the first time in eleven years my father asked me if I’d like to go on a hunting trip with him and the rest of the males in the extended family. Every other boy had been going since he could hold a weapon.”
Kit had never hated anyone as much as she hated Robert St. John right then. “That makes him an asshole. It doesn’t make any of what happened your fault.”
He still wouldn’t look at her, but he moved one hand to touch her lower back, the contact hesitant. “I don’t like sex,” he said, the words blunt and hard. “I fuck women because it makes me feel like a man, and for a short time afterward, I can forget that I had my manhood taken from me.”
Kit didn’t know how to deal with this—Noah’s pain wasn’t something that could be fixed with kisses and hugs or love. This was a down-to-the-soul wound, one that was still bleeding. But she knew one thing, and that was that she loved Noah. “Bullshit.”
His eyes finally flicked to her, the dark gray unreadable. “You never say bullshit.”
“I’m saying it now.” She held his gaze. “You’re one hell of a man—that bastard hurt you, but he did not make you any less a man.”
Jaw tight, he broke the eye contact. “Yeah, okay.”
Gripping his jaw, she made him face her. “What if it was me?” she asked him. “What if it had been a child Kit in that room instead of you? Would you consider me any less a woman?”
“No, of course not.” His fingers dug into the flesh of her hip. “But I’m a man, Kit. I was brought up to be the man of the fucking house. To take care of the people who were my own and to gut anyone who dared hurt any of them, and I couldn’t even protect myself.”
“Noah, you were six years old.” Kit was speaking, but she knew her words were hitting a stone wall of rage and self-recrimination and indoctrination. “Girl or boy, no six-year-old can protect themselves against an adult. The hurt is the same, regardless of the gender, and deserving of the same care.”
That held true no matter the age of the abused, but right now, she had to focus on the fact Noah had been a child—she might actually stand a chance of getting through to him if she made him consciously think about the fact he was pitting a small boy against a full-grown adult.
Her attempt didn’t work.
“I should’ve shot him,” Noah said. “That’s what my Dad said the day he found me with the gun. After I told him, he said I should’ve shot the bastard.”
“I want to shoot your father right now,” Kit ground out. “Jesus Christ, that man has no business being a father.” Her parents might be feckless and self-involved, but the one time she’d had a bully come after her in school, they’d marched in and torn the principal a new one, then confronted the bully’s parents. “Where was your mother in all this?”
“Shopping, tanning, taking Emily for walks in her stroller, anything to get away from the reality of a defiled child.” A vicious smile on his face. “She can’t look at me, did you notice?”
She had. Now that she knew why, she wanted to pound Noah’s mother into dust, just crush her out of existence. “That’s on her.” Kit’s voice shook with sheer fury. “It’s the job of a parent to be there for their child, to kiss the hurts and fight the monsters. It sucks that yours failed at that.” She reached out to brush back his hair.
When he grew stiff, she nearly withdrew, but gut instinct forced her to keep going, keep running her fingers through the golden strands. If he wanted her to stop, he’d pull away.
Inch by inch, second by second, his muscles eased until she braced her back against a tree, stretched out her legs, and coaxed him to put his head in her lap so she could continue to play with his hair. “Have you ever spoken to anyone about this?”
“No, I mean a counselor, or—”
“No. And that’s not going to change.”
“No.” He closed his eyes, one knee drawn up on the picnic blanket and shoulder muscles bunched again. “I’m not going to spill my guts to some shrink. Not now, not ever. It’ll end up on the front page of a tabloid the next day.”
That tone was one she’d rarely heard from him, but it always meant a hard, bright line beyond which he would not negotiate.
The worst thing was that she couldn’t even argue with him. She was sure there were trustworthy psychologists and counselors out there, but they kept records and those records went into computer systems or into filing cabinets, and Noah was a high-profile man. All it would take was a single nosy receptionist or file clerk who couldn’t keep the news to himself or herself, and it would end up in the tabloids, front and center.
Oh, the articles would be cloyingly sweet, giving lip service to Noah’s courage and strength, but all the while, they’d be ripping him to shreds by bringing up the most horrific time of his life over and over and over again. He wouldn’t be able to escape the knowledge in people’s eyes, and knowing Noah as she did and having just heard what he believed about masculinity and strength, she knew that would destroy him.
What she didn’t know was if he’d walk away from her too, now that she knew.
For this moment, he lay there quietly as she stroked her fingers through his hair, his eyes closed. She didn’t know when she realized the rhythm of his breathing had changed.
He was asleep.
Eyes wide, she almost halted in her soothing strokes, caught herself before she could interrupt the rhythm. If Noah was finally sleeping, especially after what he’d just told her, she wasn’t about to wreck it.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, lazily stroking her fingers through his hair, but the night was beyond quiet when he stirred.
“Wassasleep?” he mumbled, the words running together.
“Yes.” She stretched out her stiff legs when he rolled over to lie on his front, a pillow under his head. “You want to stay out here?”
Getting up, she went inside and grabbed a thick afghan throw to put over him. The nights could get cool, and he was already on nothing but a picnic blanket. She was tempted to stay beside him, but she wouldn’t take what he wasn’t ready—or able—to give. From what she’d picked up after all these years of knowing him, Noah never actually slept with another person.
She tucked the throw into place and was about to leave when a strong hand encircled her ankle. Looking down, she saw that he was still in the same position on the pillow, his head turned away from her. Yet when she tried to tug away her foot, his fingers tightened.
Lips curving in a shaky smile, she said, “I need to go find a sleeping bag. You might like the cold, hard ground, but I prefer luxury.”
A stroke of his finger over her skin before he released her.
Returning inside, she gave herself a moment to cry and to punch out her rage on the pillows. She hated Noah’s parents right now, maybe even more than the man who’d hurt him.
Heart still thumping after she’d washed off her face, she dug up the sleeping bag she’d bought for a camping trip Becca had organized a couple of years ago. Putting it aside, she changed out of her slip and robe, and into warm microfleece pajamas. By the time she returned to the picnic blanket, Noah seemed totally out of it. Moving quietly, she rolled out the sleeping bag and getting in, turned on her side so she could look at his face.
Even in sleep, there was a tension about his features that said he didn’t rest easy.
Reaching out, she stroked his hair again until the strain seemed to lessen. She kept it up until her own eyes were so heavy and gritty that she fell asleep with her hand lying by his head, golden strands brushing her fingertips.
Noah woke in the hazy gray of early morning, but for once, he felt no sense of constriction, of being trapped. It took him a couple of seconds to realize he was outside in Kit’s garden… and that Kit was curled up on her side in a sleeping bag next to him.
Everything came racing back: what he’d told her, what she’d said, the way she’d touched him.
His heart thudded in a raw combination of anguish and shame and hope. She was still here, so maybe she wasn’t going to kick him to the curb. Maybe.
Moving very, very carefully, he ran a single finger over her cheek. She made a frowning face and snuggled down. He knew he should let her be, but he couldn’t. He had to know how she’d look at him this morning. So he did the same thing again, pressing a little bit harder so it wouldn’t tickle.
This time she didn’t frown, just kind of settled under the touch.
When her eyes opened a few minutes later, he had to fight not to look away. He had to see, because now, while she was unguarded, that’s when he’d see how she really felt. Later, she’d hide any disgust because she was a good person, a kind one. At this instant, she was vulnerable and he’d take advantage of that vulnerability to see… to know.
At first, all he saw was drowsy grumpiness. “I was sleeping.”
“I know.” He kept his hand on her cheek. “I wanted to wake you.”
“You know I’m not a morning person,” came the mutter before she yawned, her gaze clearing.
And then she truly looked at him… and he saw what he’d always seen when Kit looked at him: no shame, no pity, no disgust. Just Kit’s stunning amber eyes looking at him as if she saw something of value in him.
“So?” she said with a scowl. “You woke me. Now entertain the beast.”
He felt his cheeks crease. “I don’t feel sleepy. It has to be at least five hours since we fell asleep.”
“Since you fell asleep.” She poked him in the chest. “I was stroking your hair, remember?”
He did remember. The strokes had been soothing and caressing and just… caring. He’d never had that, never let anyone close enough to show care. “That was nice. Will you do it again?”
“I might.” A sparkle in her eyes, she turned her head to press a kiss to his palm. “But for now I’m going back to sleep.”
He didn’t think she’d be able to fall asleep, but he’d forgotten how often she had to sleep at odd times because of shooting schedules. She was out again in minutes, but that was okay. He could deal now that he’d seen her eyes, seen that she still saw him as Noah, the man she wanted, and not Noah, the boy who’d been helpless in that Cape Cod room all those years ago.
He didn’t know where they’d go from here, but for this one morning, everything was all right, and he could watch Kit while she slept beside him.
Kit groaned as she walked into the kitchen after her shower. “I hate camping.”
“I kind of liked it.” The freedom, the night air around him, the stars above and Kit beside him. It was all he needed.
“Come here, Grumpy Guts.” He held up a plate with a fresh waffle doused in syrup.
Eyes lighting up, she hopped up to sit at the counter and didn’t even protest when he insisted on feeding the food to her, taking a bite now and then himself. “Here.” He handed her a mug of coffee when he saw her glancing around for a drink.
“Mmm, my favorite blend.” Breathing deep, she took a sip. “More waffle.”
Laughing at her tone, he opened the waffle maker to take out the one he’d started cooking partway through their demolition of this one. He got most of the second one since Kit declared herself full after a couple more bites.
“Can we talk about stuff?”
He felt his back stiffen at the careful question. “Yeah.” It came out harsh.
But Kit’s question wasn’t what he’d expected, wasn’t about what had happened to him as a kid. “You don’t like sex, but what about the rest?”
“Jesus, Kit, you know I’ve been around the block. I’ve probably done everything they write about in Penthouse and then some.”
Kit scowled at him over the lip of her coffee mug. “If I come up with something you haven’t done, will you do it with me?”
“Yeah, why not?” If she was still willing to be with him, he’d give her everything he could. “But babe, you’ll be eighty before you unearth anything I haven’t done.”
“Uh-huh.” She sipped her coffee. “Have you ever had a massage from a lover, given one yourself?”
He stared at her, blinked. “No.”
A smug smile. “Oh, what’s that I hear?” She cupped a hand at her ear. “It’s the sound of Noah St. John eating humble pie. Why yes, Kit,” she added in a deep voice, “this humble pie is mighty delicious.”
“Smart-ass.” He grinned. “I thought you were talking about sex stuff.”
“It falls on the spectrum—that’s why they call them massage parlors.”
“Are you going to offer a happy ending?” She was right; it all came down to sex.
Another scowl. “I’m not that kind of girl.” A pointed finger. “And you owe me a massage tonight.”
He went to reply, shut his mouth when he realized that a massage would give him permission to put his hands on Kit. For a while at least, it wouldn’t be about sex. It would just be about touching her, and he wanted to do that. He’d always wanted to touch Kit. “I guess I’d better buy some oil.”