I’m not sure what reaction I was expecting, but it was certainly not the one I got. Erik’s eyes snapped open, his entire body stiffened, and the look of terror on his face almost made me abandon my idea. Almost.
He tried to pull away from me, but I tightened my grip on his arm, determined to finally get through to him.
“I want you to kiss me,” I said softly, gazing into his eyes.
I sighed, frustration building. “But what? You like me, and I like you. A lot. Is it so surprising that I want a kiss from you?”
He nodded his head, his mouth set in a firm, thin line. He stared at me for a moment more and then his eyes suddenly darkened with anger. He forcefully pulled his arm from me and stepped backwards toward his apartment. His lip curled into a grimace, and he glared at me.
“I never thought you’d be one to tease me, Sarah,” he growled, and then he spun and stalked back into the room.
I rushed after him, but his long strides had taken him halfway across the living room before I even made it inside.
He did, but I didn’t. As I covered the distance between us, I could see that his fists were clenched at his sides, and he was taking long, deep breaths. Just as I reached him, he spun to face me, and I stopped short, astonished by the fury I saw.
“What do you want with me, Sarah?” he said through clenched teeth. “Just go away and leave me alone.”
My own anger built rapidly, and I bit back a nasty remark. I knew that was what he was expecting, and I refused to give it to him. My voice was tight, though, when I answered him.
“No.” I blinked rapidly to keep in the hot tears that were forming behind my eyes. “I can’t believe you think I’m making fun of you. I thought you knew me better than that.”
“So did I.”
I sighed and pointed to his white, leather couch. “Sit down.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Damn it, Erik! Just sit down!”
His wide eyes told me he was as shocked as I was at my words, but the fire in them dimmed slightly. He stayed still for a few moments, and then he slowly walked to the couch and sat on the very edge of it, not looking at me. I sat next to him and turned sideways so I could see him. He stared straight ahead, his fists bunched tightly in his lap. He was so rigid that it was as if he would shatter into a million pieces with a single touch.
This reaction hadn’t been even a consideration in my plans, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. Somehow, I had to get him to understand how I felt about him. Then I knew. He would never, ever take the first step, and, brazen and forward as it might be, I knew I had to.
I reached over and tried to take one hand from his lap, but he flinched away from me. I almost cried at that simple motion, for he hadn’t pulled away from me like that since before his self-imposed seclusion. I persisted, though, and wrapped both of my hands over one of his. He tried to jerk it away, but I held on.
“Erik, stop it,” I said softly. “Why don’t you want me to touch you?”
He just shook his head and turned it so that I couldn’t see his face anymore. I tugged his hand from his lap with only the smallest resistance from him. I dropped my eyes to it. It was clenched so tightly that his knuckles were white, and I turned it palm up. I ran my fingers over his and then slowly began to pry his fingers open. Once I had done so, I saw fingernail marks on his palm, and I took a deep breath before lifting his hand. I felt him tense as I leaned close, and he sucked in a harsh breath through his teeth when I gently laid my lips on the first mark. I didn’t look at him but only softly kissed each of the other crescents where his nails had dug into his skin. When I finished, I threaded my fingers through his and held on tightly. Only then did I look up.
His expression as he stared at me was one of utter confusion.
“Give me your other hand, Erik,” I whispered, and he shook his head, but he still held out his hand to me. It was no longer in a fist, but as I turned it over, I saw the same marks on the palm. I kissed each of them and then again threaded my fingers through his.
“Why are you doing this, Sarah?” His words were soft, and his voice caught at the end on a small sob.
I looked up at him and smiled through my tears. I let go of his right hand and raised my hand to his cheek.
“Because you are an incredible person, Erik, and I like you very, very much. I want...no, I need to show you how much.”
“But...” he stopped and frowned. He half-heartedly tried to stand, but I pulled him back down.
“Stop running,” I whispered, my face tilted up to his, my eyes on his full, red lips. I trailed my hand to the back of his neck and gently tugged. His eyes were wide and full of fear, but I didn’t stop. I took a deep breath and brushed his lips with mine, barely making contact. He gasped and again tried to pull away, but I held him still and increased the pressure. The kiss only lasted a few moments, but when I broke it and sat back, Erik’s eyes were closed, and he was breathing hard.
I dropped my hands to my lap, and his eyes snapped open. I could see numerous emotions within them, confusion and fear among them. He sat silently for a long time, staring at me, and I began to wonder if I had made a colossal mistake. Then, the right side of his mouth curved up in a shy smile.
Nice. I could live with nice for now. I smiled and said, “I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know I did.”
His eyes went wide, and his smile grew more bold. “Why, Miss McAllister, I didn’t know you were such a wild woman.”
I laughed loudly. “Mr. Desmond, if you think that one kiss makes me wild, then you are more sheltered than I had imagined.”
His smile slipped slightly, and I instantly felt horrible. I touched his arm. “Erik, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...”
“I know you didn’t.” He stood up and fixed his tuxedo, straightening the jacket and smoothing the lapels. “But you are right.” He looked down at me and held out his hand. I took it and stood next to him. “As far as relationships go, I am very sheltered. All I know about men and women is what I saw with my parents, and, naïve as I may be, I know that what they had was not normal.” He ran his hands through his hair, causing it to stand on end before turning from me and walking to the wall of windows that ran the length of the balcony. “Sarah, I don’t know how to do this!” He whipped around to face me again. “I am terrified that I will make some enormous mistake and drive you away.”
I moved to him, placing my hands on his arms. “Erik, I can’t imagine you doing anything that could ever drive me away. Except perhaps behaving like your father, and I don’t think you would ever do that.”
He growled and stiffened. “Never! I would never do that to you!”
Smiling, I raised myself up on my toes. “I know you wouldn’t.” I closed my eyes, tilted my chin up, and prayed that Erik would understand my silent plea. That prayer was answered a split second later when I felt his trembling hands on my cheeks and his lips on mine. His lips were soft but, at the same time, they were firm, and a shiver ran through my body.
This kiss was only slightly more intense than the one I had given him, but it lasted longer, and I never wanted it to end. Regretfully, it did, though, and I opened my eyes, only to have them captured by Erik’s. Their color usually reminded me of the purest sapphires, but now they spoke of ocean waves crashing against the shore. The turbulence in them was visible, and I didn’t resist the urge to wrap my arms around Erik’s waist and lay my head on his chest. He caught his breath and then encircled me in his arms.
“As much as I could stay here forever, Sarah, I have a showing to go to.”
“I know you do,” I said, pushing away from him, “and I don’t want you to be late.” I reached up and adjusted his tie. He caught my hand and raised it to his lips, placing them gently on my knuckles.
“Thank you,” he whispered, closing his eyes, bowing his head, and putting his forehead where his lips had just been.
“Everything.” The word was just a breath on the air, and then he opened his eyes and said, “Will you stay with me tonight?”
I frowned, not quite sure what he was asking.
“At the showing,” he clarified, correctly interpreting the look on my face. At my nod, he smiled, tightened his grip on my hand, and led me to the elevator. “I’m getting better at meeting new people, but it would be so much easier with you by my side.”
“Of course, Erik. Anything for you.”
We didn’t speak on the ride back down to the gallery, and Erik never released my hand. As we stepped out onto the balcony, I pulled him to a stop.
“What is it?”
“Bend down,” I said, laughing.
His brow furrowed, but he did as I bid, and I used my hand to smooth down his rumpled hair.
“There,” I said, stepping back. “Now you’re back to the handsome, perfect, Erik Desmond that your public knows and loves.”
His eyes darkened, and he opened his mouth but quickly shut it again.
“It’s nothing, Sarah.” He took my hand again and smiled. “Let’s go.”
Sebastian and my father were surprised to see us enter from the stairs, but neither asked any questions, which I was thankful for. My father knew that I had been going to tell Erik how I felt about him, but I wasn’t sure how he would feel about me kissing him. Sebastian, on the other hand, would have been overjoyed, I was sure.
I stayed by Erik’s side the entire night, and I didn’t miss the looks of jealousy that were sent my way by almost every young lady present.
A couple of hours into the show, my father indicated that he was ready to leave. I opened my mouth to say that I wasn’t ready to leave, but Erik beat me to it.
“Mr. McAllister, sir, if you’d allow Sarah to stay, I’ll make sure she is escorted home after the show.”
Our apartment was only a few blocks from The Desmond Building, and I looked at my father beseechingly. He smiled down at me and then turned to Erik.
“I suppose that would be fine, Mr. Desmond, but understand that if anything happens to her, I’ll hold you personally responsible.”
“Understood, sir.” Erik held out his hand, and my father shook it.
Pulling me into a hug, my father dropped his voice and whispered in my ear. “Be careful, my darling. He still has a lot of issues he’s dealing with. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’ll be just fine, Daddy,” I reassured him, hugging him tightly.
He released me and nodded once to Erik before walking away from us. I looked up at Erik, and, by the frown on his face, I knew he had heard what my father had said. Only two people knew about Erik’s exceptional hearing, and Sebastian and I knew better than to say anything around him that we didn’t want overheard.
Without looking at me, he muttered, “I would never intentionally hurt you, Sarah.”
I sighed and grasped his hand. “I know that, Erik, and so does he. He’s afraid you’ll do it unintentionally.” When his frown deepened, I moved so that I was in front of him. I stared at him until he dropped his gaze to mine. “He’s afraid of that, Erik; I’m not.”
“Maybe you should be.”
Before I could answer, he turned his back on me and walked toward a group of people admiring one of his paintings. I huffed out a breath, irritated with him and his attitude toward himself. I watched him as one of the women laughed at something he said and then provocatively leaned toward him, placing her hand on his arm. He stiffened, and I could only imagine the look on his face. The others in the woman’s group must have noticed it, for they instinctively took a step back, but she either ignored it or was completely oblivious, for her high-pitched laugh rang out again, even as Erik’s hands clenched tightly.
I quickly stepped to him and said, “Mr. Desmond, Mr. Holdaway needs to see you right away.”
The relief I saw in his eyes almost caused me to tear up, but his voice was steady as he turned back to the group and said, “If you would all excuse me.”
Most of the group murmured something and nodded to him, but the women who had flirted with him turned a steely glare on me as he pulled his arm from her grasp. He took my arm as we turned away, and when we were far enough so that the others couldn’t hear, leaned down and whispered, “Thank you.”
I smiled as he tapped Sebastian on the shoulder. The latter turned from his accounting books and raised his eyebrows.
“Just talk to me about something,” Erik said quickly. “Make it look important.”
Sebastian frowned and looked at me, but he moved his hands toward his books as if pointing out something to Erik.
“What is going on?” he said softly.
I tried not to laugh, knowing that it would only make Erik uncomfortable. “There was a woman paying a little too much attention to Mr. Desmond,” I said quietly.
Erik leaned over the book and closed his eyes. With a deep sigh, he said, “That is putting it mildly. Some people have no respect for another’s personal space. She was practically trying to climb into my arms.”
I bit my lip, thinking to myself that I knew the feeling. I couldn’t tell him yet, but my feelings for him had blossomed over the past few months, and I already knew that I didn’t mind being in his arms at all.
“If you’d like me to, I could see her escorted out,” Sebastian said seriously, and I was filled with gratitude that Erik had such a good friend.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Erik said, straightening. “I’ll just do my best to keep away from her.”
“I know one way to make her keep her distance,” Sebastian said with a grin.
“Don’t let go of Sarah for an instant. Talk to her, and when others come up to you, make sure that you are looking at her, as if they are interrupting something. If you make it perfectly clear that she is with you, the other ladies should back off.”
Erik glanced at me with a smile. “Well,” he said softly, “that won’t be hard to do.”
My heart skipped a beat at his words, and I suddenly wondered if he really liked me as much as I liked him. I sure hoped so, and if I had to keep close to him in order to keep him safe from the less-inhibited of my sex, that was a job I would relish.