Serena stared in bewilderment at Damon, who stood just a few feet away. He was dressed for a day in the sun. Khaki shorts, polo shirt and brown sandals. Sunglasses were shoved to the top of his head, messing his hair slightly. He was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and he stood there watching her, his liquid brown eyes bright with concern. But he was here.
Joy, pure and unfettered, flooded her body until she feared she’d fall to her knees. She swayed and threw her hand out only to catch air as she tried to steady herself.
He stepped forward to catch her, but she righted herself and blinked away the shock of seeing him so close after so many days.
“What are you doing here?” she asked faintly.
“I came for you.”
A shiver worked over her body.
He frowned, concern brightening in his eyes. “Are you cold?”
“I’ve been cold since the day I left your house,” she whispered. She wanted to cry. But more than that, she wanted to be warm again.
He held out his arms, and she walked into them, unable to deny the comfort of his embrace. He tucked her head under his chin, and she laid her cheek against his chest. She closed her eyes as his warmth bled into her.
Slowly the ice began to melt. A low throb began, and sweet relief whispered delicately through her veins.
He lowered them both onto the sand, arranging his body around her as he positioned her between his legs. He kept firm hold of her, absorbing the trembles of her body as the cold gradually eased, and she could feel the sun once again.
“What happened, Serena mine?” he asked against her hair. “Why did you leave?”
She buried her face in his neck and tried to keep the tears at bay. “She died, Damon,” she said hoarsely. “Michelle, the girl I told you about. She died during the cruise I arranged for her.”
Damon stroked her hair, offering her comfort with his touch. He was calm and methodical, no urgency to his actions. No question. Just acceptance. Did he have acceptance enough for both of them?
“I’m sorry,” he said huskily. “I’m so sorry, Serena. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you let me help you? Why leave?”
For a long moment she lay there, unable to form a response around the knot in her throat. She knew her thoughts weren’t logical. Maybe she’d always known she was chasing a fantasy.
Damon waited. He sat there quietly, just holding her as she collected her courage.
“I thought that if I could give her her dream, it would be enough to save her. That if I could make magic for her, I could save her.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Damon said, his voice cracking as emotion throbbed in his throat.
“When she died, I realized that nothing I’d done made a difference. None of it. She got a few minutes to be a princess, and her parents have a lifetime to live without their daughter.
“My clients still have to go back to their normal lives. They enjoy a brief respite and nothing more. I realize now how cruel it is. To give someone a taste of paradise only to yank it away? I can’t think of anything worse.
“I never knew, would have never known if I hadn’t tried to fulfill my own fantasy. It was then that I realized that there are worse things than never living your dream or never indulging in a fantasy. It’s far worse to get a taste and know that it isn’t real, will never be real, and then go back to your regular life
what it’s like to have perfection and that you’ll never have it again.
“Some things . . . some things are better left in the realm of fantasy,” she said faintly.
“I think I understand what you’re saying,” he said.
She pulled slightly away so she could look into his eyes. “Do you? Then you know why I can’t . . . why we can’t . . .”
He shook his head. “I said I understood what you were saying, not that I agreed.”
He lifted a hand to her face and trailed his fingers over her temple and to her cheekbone. They shook as he moved them to her lips.
“I have a lot I want to say to you, and I want you to listen to every word.”
She nodded slowly.
“Good. Now, I understand that you’re afraid. I understand that the volatility of our attraction, of our relationship, frightened you. It scared the shit out of me as well.”
Her eyes widened.
“Don’t look so surprised, Serena mine. You knocked me for a friggin’ loop.”
He leaned in and brushed a light kiss across her lips before withdrawing again. “Somewhere along the way, you decided that the Serena who gave me the gift of herself couldn’t possibly be real. That not only was she not real, but she could never be what I wanted and needed. And so, you decided that in order to do what was best for me, you were going to leave me. Never mind the fact that you never once consulted me in the matter. Pretty messed up, wouldn’t you say?”
“It’s not that simple,” she argued, remembering that she’d said the exact same thing to Julie and Faith not long ago. She glanced away, no longer able to meet the burning intensity of his eyes.
“Serena, look at me,” he said gently.
He didn’t prod her, didn’t tug at her chin as he had so many times before. But she turned back anyway, unable to resist his softly spoken request.
“It’s as simple or as complicated as we make it. Me? I’m a simple kind of guy. I love you, and I hope to hell you love me or that maybe you can love me, given a little time and persuasion on my part.
“You, on the other hand, are as complicated as they come. You twist yourself in knots until you don’t know which end is up. You try to convince yourself that you can’t be what I want or need, but you’ve never asked me what I want. Or what I need. Because if you had? I would have said only one thing. You.”
She opened her mouth, but nothing would come out. He wiped his thumb over her lip as if removing the obstruction.
“Don’t you have anything to say to me right now? Like that you’re sorry for running out on me, or that you’re sorry for worrying the absolute hell out of me, or that I had to make your friends kidnap you so I could see you again?”
He took a deep breath as though he was gathering his own brand of courage.
“Or that you love me just a little bit?”
She stared at him for a long moment, trying to match his courage, trying to form the words and work them past the knot in her throat.
“I do love you,” she finally whispered.
The look of absolute joy, the crushing relief that flooded his eyes, took her breath away. His hands shook so badly against her face that he had to take them away to prevent them from bumping her skin.
She put her hands to his face this time, needing the contact and needing him to understand that loving wasn’t the be all, end all in the equation.
“I think I love you,” she amended. “I want to love you. I just want to be sure of who it is I love, and I want you to be sure of who it is
“You’re going to need a translator for that, Serena mine, because you lost me at the
I think I love you
“You were very honest about what you want in a relationship, Damon. I was honest about what I wanted out of my fantasy. You said you’d never settle for less. And I’m frightened of the person I became during that fantasy.”
“Why does she frighten you, Serena?” he asked softly. “Why do you think that this part of who you are can’t be reconciled with all the other facets of your personality?”
“I lose all sense of myself when I’m with you,” she blurted. “You’re an addiction, Damon. I can’t stand the thought of disappointing you. I’d do anything for you, and that scares the shit out of me. It’s like as soon as I get near you, I have this overwhelming desire to please you, to do anything you ask of me. Do you understand that?”
“I understand it because I live it every day that I’m with you,” he said. “Do you think that I don’t burn to please you? That I don’t live in fear of disappointing you, that I’m not afraid that I’ll let you down or fail to protect you? It’s hell, Serena. But it’s also the sweetest pleasure I’ve ever known.”
She stared back at him, stunned by his declaration. It mirrored her own feelings, her fears and panic. He described the jagged line she trod with him so very well.
“What if there comes a day that I can’t give you what you ask for?” she choked out. “What about when the fantasy dies and that person who’d do anything to please you ceases to exist? What then?”
He put a finger to her lips. “I’ll never ask for something you can’t give, Serena mine. I only want what you freely offer. I only want you. With me, belonging to me. Me protecting you, cherishing you, honoring you with my every breath, with my body, my soul and my heart. What we have isn’t fantasy. You may have convinced yourself that it isn’t real, but it doesn’t get any more real than what we’ve shared.”
Her heart ached so badly that she feared it was going to swell right out of her chest. How could she make him understand that what she feared the most was disappointing him? Of seeing the love that shone so brightly in his eyes fade and die because she couldn’t be what he wanted?
“There’s nothing to say that we have to rush into this,” he continued. “All I want is a chance. Time. You with me. Us working together.”
“And if I disappoint you?” she asked. “If I decide I can’t be what you want? What then?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Stubborn, hardheaded woman. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? Serena, you can call yourself whatever you damn well want to. I’ve never liked the word slave, as Faith will attest. That was your word, your label. You once asked me what you were to call me and I told you Damon. Just Damon. So why can’t we be Damon and Serena? Two people in love. We can work on everything else.”
Hope fluttered and uncurled, rising toward the sun from its cold haven in her soul. Her pulse sped up, as against her will, she looked ahead to what could be if she took a chance.
“I’m sick to death of the word
,” Damon said. “If I never hear it again, it will be too soon. I’m real. You’re real. Our love is real. Our attraction is real. Those welts on your pretty ass were real.”
His hands moved to her arms, and his fingers collided with her arm band through the material of her jacket. He stilled and glanced up at her, the question in his eyes. Then he carefully tugged at the sleeve of her jacket until he had her halfway out of it.
The gold band gleamed in the sun, bright against her pale skin.
“You kept them on,” he said softly. “You left and yet you still wear the gifts I gave you. My mark of possession.”
She raised her hand to touch the intricate design, tracing one of the lines until she bumped into his hand. “I couldn’t bear to take them off,” she admitted. “It seemed so final.”
He put his other hand on the opposite arm and pulled her gently to him. Their lips touched, reverently, light and seeking. As her body pressed close to his, she could feel the tension rolling through his body, and it was then she realized how afraid he was.
“What’s this about you selling your business?” he asked in a quiet voice as he pulled away.
There was no censure or reproach, no disappointment. Just loving concern that made her throat swell and ache. She dropped her head only for him to cup her chin and tug gently until she faced him with watery eyes.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she whispered. “I can’t sell false dreams.”
His gaze softened, and the look he gave her was so full of understanding that she had to swallow back the tears.
“You’re raw right now, and you’re hurting,” he said gently. “I think you should give yourself time before you make any decisions about your business. Spend some time with me, Serena mine. Give me—us—a chance. Let me take care of you. Let me cherish you the way I want to cherish you. Then, when you’re ready, you can decide about Fantasy Incorporated. There’s no hurry. You and I have all the time in the world.”
The tears that had so threatened and stung her eyelids slid silently down her cheeks. “I’m so afraid,” she whispered. But at the same time, the heavy weight, the burden she’d been carrying around, lifted and took wing. She felt lighter and freer as hope unfurled.
He pulled her away just far enough that he could look into her eyes. “The only way you could disappoint me is by giving up on us, because all I ever want you to be is mine.”
She stared at him for a long moment, taking in the loving sincerity in his voice. And then she smiled through her tears. “I certainly never
to disappoint you, Damon.”
“Then say yes,” he said, his voice urgent and hoarse. “Say you’ll come home with me.”
She curled her arms around his neck and raised her lips to his. For the first time, her fears subsided. Renewed hope, alive and strong, surged hotly through her heart.
“Take me home,” she whispered.