“Yes,” he says harshly, digging his fingers in reflexively. “I was ignorant, stupid, whatever. But don’t tell me that it’s not love. Don’t you dare try to tell me what I feel right now. You have no right.”
“No right?” I ask incredulously, my hands coming up to slap his chest. I start to push him backward then my fingers curl into his shirt. I pull and give a shake. “I have no right to doubt you and your feelings? You…the man who thinks it’s good enough to fuck me and take everything I had to give, but couldn’t even recognize what was standing right in front of him.”
“You have no right,” he says as his hands drop to circle around my wrists, holding me pinned there, “because you are the woman who forgives above all else. Even when you thought I had received those messages…when you thought I had just cut you off without a backward glance, you forgave me and you opened yourself up to me again. I refuse to believe you won’t do it a third time. You still love me, Vale. I know you do. And I love you. So much it physically hurts when I think that I may have fucked this up for good. I am begging you not to close that door again. To give us another chance.”
Tears pool in my eyes, something that would ordinarily embarrass me, but I blink without hesitation and let them break free. They make warm trails down my cheek that immediately chill in the air. “I’m scared,” I say in a small voice. “I laid myself out there, opened myself up, and when you didn’t give it back, you can’t begin to imagine how badly that hurt.”
“You’re wrong,” Hawke says as his arms wrap around my upper back. He contracts, pulling me all the way in so my cheek turns to rest against his chest. “I do know how it feels. I’m not playing the blame game, but just reminding you…you told me once you didn’t love me, and I remember that feeling so sharply, it feels just like yesterday. So I know…I know how bad it feels, but I’m also here to tell you, we both have the power to make that go away for good.”
“How?” I ask, still wanting to rebel against this notion because it’s so terrifying, but finding myself snuggling into his embrace. “How do we have the power?”
“Do you really love me?” he asks gently, one hand stroking my back.
I nod into his chest. “Yes.”
“Do you believe I love you? Do you accept it?”
He doesn’t let me finish my doubtful thoughts. He pulls back, frames my face with his hands. His thumbs dry the tears from my cheeks and he leans in to whisper a gentle kiss across my lips. My eyes close in a silent sigh, and when I open them back up, he’s staring at me intently.
“Vale,” he says with quiet resolve. “I’ve always loved you. Even when I thought I hated you, I always loved you. It’s why I was never in another relationship. It’s why I couldn’t leave you alone when you came back into my life. I may have been too stubborn to give a name to it, foolishly hiding behind a mask of anger, but you have to know, thinking back over the last few months…everything we’ve shared, and talked about, every time we’ve made love, or just held each other. Every joke and smile and every fucking moment of amazing silence between us. You have to know…you have to admit, that was my love for you. Think about it. Search deep. Tell me you know it.”
Tell me you know it, he pleads desperately.
And I realize…I do know it.
I knew it with utter clarity that night by the airport where he brought me out to toast my dad’s amazing miracle, and when he made love to me wrapped in cool November air…
I felt it. It wasn’t in anything he said. He didn’t give me promises or sweet words of encouragement. I just…felt it. It’s why I was so compelled to tell him that I loved him. I was sure of our feelings for each other, so much so that I took the risk of getting hurt. I put myself out there, and yes, he did hurt me because he couldn’t say it back right then, still too burdened down with the ambiguity of our stupid past, but definitely…I knew it just as sure as I know the air I breathe is a necessity.
“You loved me,” I say in revelation. “You just wouldn’t believe it yourself.”
“Yes,” he groans in relief. “I was scared.”
“Hurt,” I add.
“Stupid,” he says with a smile and I smile back.
“A little slow on the uptake,” I offer kindly instead.
He laughs, bends to kiss me again before agreeing. “A little slow, but I’m caught up now.”
My hands come up, clasp onto his wrists. I stare into the blue depths of his eyes, filled with love, happiness, and the relief that comes with knowing all is right in my world.
“So where do we go from here?” I ask him.
“Anywhere we want to,” he tells me, and this I believe as well.
Brian Brannon’s house is a monstrosity. Which is good, because you need a place built like a palace to hold all the members of the Cold Fury organization for a Christmas party. It’s his traditional party held every year on Christmas Eve, as long as the Cold Fury isn’t out of town on a road trip. This year, we’re here and ready to celebrate the holiday as teammates and friends.
There’s a commotion over near the bar that’s tended by two people, dressed in crisp white shirts and red and green plaid bow ties. They’ll mix any cocktail you can imagine and the liquor is flowing freely. As is the army of taxis waiting outside to act as designated drivers, all paid for, of course, by Mr. Brannon himself.