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Authors: Unknown

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BOOK: fall
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Cullen stroked her hair and trailed his
fingertips lightly across her shoulders.

“This feels perfect, doesn’t it?” she
sighed in contentment.

“Yeah, pretty much.”
 
He chuckled.

Ivy turned and looked at him.
 
“Is something missing?”

“Just a couple of clowns, a dancing bear,
and a lion tamer.”

She shook her head at his joke.
 
“I’m serious, Cullen.
 
This is all I need.
 
You and me, just like this.”

He continued smiling, but she could tell
that he wasn’t denying that he felt the same.
 
“I agree,” he finally said, his tone
soft.

“Why did it have to be so difficult to
get to this?”

“Because,” Cullen told her, “I’m a
difficult man.”

“Not really.
 
Not deep down.”

He laughed.
 
“Deep down, and up top too.
 
I’m difficult from head to toe.”

“You want people to believe that so they
don’t mess with you,” she said, and her hand grabbed his hand.
 
“You’re soft underneath it all.”

“Maybe so,” he said.
 
“But if so, you’re the only one who’s
ever seen it.”

“You hide that part of yourself.”

He nodded, agreeing that he knew it.
 
He was aware of it.

Cullen turned and looked at her.
 
“When you’re young, and people mistreat
you, you find that if you can keep a tiny part of yourself safe and guard it,
there’s something that can’t be touched,” Cullen told her.
 
“You keep it away from the world so that
nobody can take it away.
 
The
deepest part of yourself.”

She swallowed, feeling the enormous power
of what he was admitting to.
 
“Who
hurt you?” she asked.

Cullen lay back and closed his eyes.
 
“I don’t like thinking about it.”

“Your father,” she said.

“Isn’t it always,” he sighed.

“Not always,” Ivy said, thinking about
her mother.
 
Her mother, who’d
nearly killed her with love.

“Well, in my case it was.”
 
Cullen opened his eyes but he seemed to
be far away.
 
“My father loved me,”
he said.
 
But it was as if he was
trying to convince himself.
 
“He
could be mercurial.
 
Demanding and
angry at the strangest times, and then he could be funny and charming and a
blast to be around.
 
But mostly he just
exerted control.
 
He controlled
everything and everyone in his life.
 
Especially me.”

“Did he hurt you?
 
Physically?”

“Sometimes,” Cullen said.
 
“He taught me to be accountable.”

“You were a child.
 
Children aren’t accountable like adults.”

“Life isn’t always easy,” Cullen told
her.
 
“And I’m not one of those
people that needs to punish people for what they did decades ago.
 
My father has paid for the things he did
to me.
 
He’s on the run.
 
He’s never going to be safe again, not
for the rest of his life.”

“But why do you help someone who’s so
selfish?” Ivy asked.
 
“He doesn’t
deserve your help, Cullen.”

“It’s not that simple,” he told her.
 
“Please, don’t make me defend my
decisions about him.
 
It is what it
is.”

She nodded, but she couldn’t help once
again thinking about Cullen giving his father more than two million
dollars.
 

Even if Lucas was a jerk, the FBI still believed
that Preston Sharpe was a real threat.

And maybe, just maybe—they had a
point.

 

***

 

After a little while longer lounging in
bed together, they decided to get up and do something.

Ivy and Cullen both showered.
 
Cullen went and used the outdoor shower,
and Ivy used the master bath.

Later still, they walked to a nearby clam
shack that served fresh clams and sat at a little old picnic table and ate
together, watching the boats in the harbor.

Nearby, other people were also
eating.
 
Families with small
children, an old retired couple, a group of construction workers with dirty
jeans and work boots.

The breeze cooled her skin and the smell
of salt water was in the air.

She could taste the salt.

The sun was bright flashing yellow and
the sky was blue, almost as if it has been colored with pastels.

Let
me always remember this
,
she told herself, as Cullen grinned, dipping his clams in the tiny paper
container of tartar sauce while he cracked jokes.

It was as if he’d become the man she’d
always known was lurking inside him.
 
A happier version of Cullen Sharpe.
 
Gone was the intensity, the rigid control freak, and in its place was a
man at home in the world and at ease with his life.

Seeing him like this gave Ivy more
pleasure and happiness than she ever could have imagined.

“You know, I kind of dig this marriage
thing,” Cullen said, dipping the last clam in its tartar bath and then popping
it into his mouth and chewing.

“Oh, do you?” she laughed.
 
“That’s a good thing.
 
Because we’re going to married for
life.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that
easily,” Cullen told her.
 
“I know
the line is ‘til death do us part’ and all.
 
But I’m going to revise our contract and
make sure that death is covered as well.
 
I don’t want you dating some new guy in heaven.”

Ivy giggled.
 
“Please.”

“Please yourself.”
 
He grabbed her hand and then stood up,
took their trash and threw it in a nearby bin.
 
“Want to walk the beach?”

“You don’t have to ask me twice,” she
said.

And so they did walk the beach together,
and she took off her shoes and held them, feeling the fine sand between her
toes, and they got close enough to the water to let it drift over their feet as
the waves came in.

“It’s cold,” she shivered, as each wave lapped
over her feet.

“Don’t be a baby,” he said.
 
“This is warm.”

“Not to me.
 
I like my water to be hot tub
temperature.”

“This is mother nature, not a damn hot
tub.”
 
 

They held hands and kept walking the
beach.

Up ahead, birds strutted, pecking at
little specks of food that only they could see.
 
A few children were busy building up sloppy
sandcastles that were doomed to be washed away within minutes.

Ivy took a long, deep breath and let it
out.
 
“I feel like I’m dreaming,”
she said, after a moment.

Cullen glanced at her, still walking, his
fingers interlaced between hers, their arms lightly swinging in sync with one
another.
 
“At least it isn’t a
nightmare.”

 
“No, definitely not a nightmare.”
 
She gave him a look and felt her cheeks
flush slightly.

“You might not believe it, but this is my
dream too,” Cullen said.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly,” he said,
thoughtful.
 
“I never even knew that
being this way with another person was possible.
 
But if I’d known, I’d have dreamed it,”
he said.
 
“I’d have wished and
prayed and waited for it to happen.
 
But never in all my life did I think I could meet someone like you.”

His voice sounded thick with sudden
emotion.

When she glanced at him again, he was
looking out toward the ocean, as if he didn’t want her to see him this
vulnerable.

“Cullen,” she said softly.

He finally turned and looked at her, and
they stopped walking.
 
“Yes?” he
asked.

“You’re a good man.”
 
She gripped both his hands.
 
“I hope you know that.”

“When I look in your eyes,” he said, “I
can almost believe it.”

 

***

 

Hours later, they were arriving back at
Cullen’s home in the city via town car.

The dream had continued, as every moment
spent together just seemed to get easier and better.
 

They didn’t speak about legal troubles or
business or anything that could ruin the time they were spending together.

Occasionally, during a long silence,
Ivy’s mind would drift to the worries and problems that still lurked beneath
the surface, but she pushed it all away.

Just
enjoy this.
 
Don’t ruin it now.
 
The problems will rear their ugly heads
again in due time, you certainly don’t need to rush it and make it happen
sooner.

For the most part, it worked and she was
able to stay focused on the happiness of being with Cullen Sharpe and loving
him, and most of all, feeling loved by him.

His love was surprisingly soft and tender
for someone who’d been so harsh and demanding in the beginning.

Somehow, knowing that only made her love
him more.

He was a multi-faceted person, like a
jewel that could be seen from different angles, with different colors and
textures.

But deep down, beneath it all, what she
found was kindness.
 
Cullen Sharpe
was a deeply kind individual, even if he didn’t show it to many people.

Once they’d arrived back at Cullen’s home
in the city, Ivy was shocked to find that Cullen had somehow arranged to have her
clothes and personal items delivered and hung in closets, her books placed on
his shelves, even some of her decorations placed in his rooms.

“How did you do all this?” Ivy asked, as
she walked around the bedroom and stared at her own things, seeing pictures of
her and her mother on the nightstand.
 
Finding one of her old textbooks amidst Cullen’s medical
references.
 
“Did you hire someone
to break into my apartment?”

He grabbed her by the waist and pulled
her close, putting on a fake German accent.
 
“Ve have our vays,” he said, staring
into her eyes.
 

“I bet you do,” she laughed.

“And ve can get you to talk.”

Although he was only fooling around, his
demeanor suddenly reminded her of the Lucas and his cohort from the FBI, and
she vividly recalled the way Lucas had grabbed her shoulders while the
thin-faced man stared at her with pitiless eyes.

Ivy looked away from Cullen and withdrew.

“It’s all gorgeous,” she said, trying to
keep her voice light.

“Something wrong?” he asked, as she went
to the closet.

“No,” she lied.
 
“It’s just a bit overwhelming.
 
A long couple of days,” she continued,
running her hands through her clothes, hanging perfectly in his enormous
walk-in closet.

No.
 
It’s our walk-in closet.
 
I live here now.
 
This house is as much mine as his.

Cullen watched her, his arms folded.
 
“Do you want to nap for a bit?”

She shrugged.
 
“I think so,” she said.
 
“I am a little tired.”

“You do that.
 
Come on,” he said, walking to the bed
and patting the mattress.

Ivy laughed.
 
“I’m not a baby.
 
I’m just a little tired.”

“Get in this bed,” he said, his voice
taking on that commanding tone that she’d grown accustomed to.

She did as she was told, as Cullen pulled
off her shoes and then sat down on the bed beside her and put her feet over his
lap and began massaging them.

The moment he began touching her, she
instantly relaxed and her whole body grew loose and easy, her muscles releasing
all of the tension she’d been carrying.

Cullen’s strong hands worked with
knowledge and precision, tending to the soles of her feet, and it felt
amazing.
 
She moaned, as his hands
worked up her calves and then back down to her feet once more.

BOOK: fall
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