At any moment, p.21
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       At Any Moment, p.21
 

         Part #3 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey  

  We spent most of one day in the Louvre, where she got to study the Venus de Milo up close and in person. I’d been to the museum several times before but what I found most enjoyable about this trip was that I got to watch her react to the priceless, famous works of art hanging on the walls before her. Emilia looked at the canvases, spending time getting perspective, sometimes taking steps back to look at them from another angle. And I spent that time watching her.

  They say that a person should visit Paris three times in their life—once when they are young, once when they have the money to truly enjoy it, and once when they are in love. I’d already checked the first two off my list. This time, it was like a whole new city to me, because I was seeing it through her eyes, and through the eyes of love.

  A sappy, sentimental thought so uncharacteristic of me. But one thing I’d learned in the previous few months of utter tribulation that we had gone through…happiness and love were fragile things. And we should be thankful for what we have when we have it.

  And to say I was grateful for having her in my life was an understatement.

  We spent one afternoon on a park bench in the Tuileries gardens, sharing a baguette and some cheese between us.

  “So, we have two more days here,” she said munching the last of the baguette and murmuring regrets that it was gone.

  “Yep. We’ve ticked off your bucket list items. Anything else you can think of?”

  “Mmm. No. Not really. I’m just enjoying soaking up the ambiance of this place. I can see why they call it the City of Love. I still can’t get over how you ninja’d this trip on me. That was amazing. ”

  “Well, Jordan helped. ”

  She shot me a puzzled look. “Jordan? Really?”

  “He’d been planning the trip for a while. When he heard about you getting so sick from the reaction to those meds, he insisted I take over his plane and hotel reservations. ”

  Her faint brows rose. “So we are on Jordan’s trip?”

  “Well, kind of. I did a lot of tweaking to his plans but, yeah, more or less. ”

  She expelled a long breath and looked out over the park. “I always thought he hated me. ”

  “I think he more hated the idea that I wasn’t going to be his wingman anymore. ”

  “He sure tried to rope you back again…when we were broken up…”

  I shrugged. “I think he feels worse about that than I do, if that’s possible. ”

  She turned to me, frowning. “Why do you feel bad about it? We were broken up. You went out on a date with someone else. You didn’t do anything wrong. ”

  I shifted, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. I wanted to change the subject and opened my mouth to do just that when I realized that this was something we should talk about. We couldn’t avoid the subject of that dark time in our relationship forever.

  “It felt wrong,” I said.

  She watched me and I focused on the water basins, where laughing children were launching toy sailboats. “We both made a lot of mistakes,” came her soft reply.

  I took a deep breath, forcing myself to continue on when I just wanted to shut this down. “I was angry. I went out on that date because I was just so pissed off at you. So clearly, for the wrong reasons. ”

  “I did stupid things because I was angry, too. I shouldn’t have broken up with you. I just—” She sucked in a breath suddenly, and I could tell she was getting emotional but I didn’t stop it. This needed to come out and I had no idea how I knew that. Instinct, maybe? “I felt like you were being so demanding and unyielding and it made me want to do the same thing. That if I gave in…At the time it seemed all-important. Now, looking back, after everything, it was trivial bullshit that we could have worked out if we’d kept level heads and just talked. ”

  I reached for her hand, closed it inside my own. “We’re talking now. ”

  “Yeah, I guess we aren’t complete idiots if we can actually learn from our mistakes, right?”

  I raised her hand to my mouth and kissed it. “What’s important is that we can learn from them and also move past them. ”

  She looked away and I saw her visibly swallow. Her hand tightened around mine. “So you don’t think it’s too late?”

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  “Would I be here if I did?”

  She shook her head, closed her eyes.

  “And you? Do you think it’s too late?”

  “I hope it’s not. I don’t trust what I think anymore because my judgment hasn’t been good for me up to this point. ”

  “Hey,” I gently tugged her hand to get her to look at me. “We had a deal. No recriminations, self or otherwise. We move forward and we only look back to learn from our mistakes. ”

  “Okay. ” She nodded, the ghost of a smile hovering on her lips. “And when we get home…?”

  I inhaled a breath and held it. “When you’re better, and we know for sure you are healthy, then we’ll cross the other bridge when we come to it. ”

  She looked at me with that same enigmatic smile that might have put the Mona Lisa to shame. “I’m really, really looking forward to crossing that bridge. ”

  I grinned, a laugh slipping past my lips. “Me too. ”

  With that, we stood, discarded our garbage and walked back to the hotel, enjoying each other every step of the way.

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Mia

  The night before we were to fly home, I found the courage to take a bubble bath in the enormous bathtub in our penthouse bathroom. It had a full window in front of it from which I could watch Paris below me. So I dumped a ton of bubble bath into the tub and let the bubbles rise up. I didn’t lock the door. I’d built up a wall of bubbles all around me so that if Adam came in, he wouldn’t have to look at my ugly scars and tattoo marks. He’d just see a naked woman sitting in his tub. And, if I got lucky, he’d volunteer to join me.

  They had a special mechanism in the tub that kept the water warm so I could soak in there as long as I wanted. And after spending over half an hour with my eyes closed, my head resting against a waterproof cushion, I heard steps in the doorway.

  “Have you shriveled up like an old lady yet?”

  “You should try it before you knock it. ”

  “Hmm. So many things I could do with that. ”

  “When was the last time you took a bath?”

  “I have no idea. I can’t even think of a time I’ve taken a bath since I was a little kid. ”

  I turned around and looked at him. “Are you shitting me? Seriously?”

  “I’m seriously not shitting you. ”

  “Then strip and get in here. ”

  “Hmm. How do I know you aren’t just using this bath as an excuse to get me naked?”

  I laughed. I was extremely transparent these days, apparently. It had been way too long since I had seen him naked, goddamn it. And I didn’t want to leave the City of Love without a glimpse of my favorite six pack and muscular thighs—to say nothing of his butt. “Well, that’s not beyond the realm of plausibility. But until you’ve enjoyed the true luxury of soaking in bubbles, you can never understand. ”

  “I’m just having a lot of fun standing here watching you enjoy it. ”

  “Hmm. That sounds kinda pervy. I like that. ”

  “I do have a pervy streak. ”

  “I already knew that. Well, get over here and make yourself useful, then. I need my back scrubbed. ”

  He took a step forward and I glanced down, noting that the bubbles had mostly flattened after I’d been in the tub so long and, thus, were no longer covering my breasts.

  “Wait! Turn around, please. ”

  He froze. I could see his surprised profile in the mirror as I reached out, grabbed a small hand towel and draped it over the upper half of my body. He turned around, his features blank.

  “Okay, I’m good,” I said, leaning forward. With a little hesitation, he approached again.

 
There’s some soap over there, and a washcloth…”

  “As you wish, my lady. ”

  I laughed, amused by the Princess Bride reference. I adjusted the towel against me and said in my best imitation of an English accent. “Farm boy, wet the cloth and wash my back. Every bit of it—please. ”

  He did as I asked with a quiet, “As you wish. ”

  He used the towel at first, then his hands were on my back, sliding over my soapy skin. I let out a long breath, tantalized by the feel of his hands on me, even if just to clean me. After massaging my shoulder blades, along my spine and down to the small of my back below the waterline, he rinsed the washcloth and rubbed it over me again.

  “Farm boy, don’t forget my neck. ”

  “As you wish,” he repeated, but instead of washing it, he kissed it. I tilted my head, giving him access to more as tingling energy sluiced through me. My body was alive and coursing with lust from his touch in under five short minutes. When would it be time to cross that goddamn bridge again? Oh yeah, we hadn’t come to it yet.

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  “So… you want me to wash your hair, too?”

  I opened my eyes. “Shut it. ”

  “No, you have little teeny weensy hairs here. I see a couple. I could wash them. I think I could spare one or two drops of shampoo. ”

  I blew out a breath between my lips and instead of retorting, I splashed him.

  “Hey!” He jumped back but I scooped up more water and got him right in the middle of his chest. His shirt was now clinging to the muscles underneath. Oh, yummy. I should have done that a half hour ago.

  “Brat. ”

  “Dickhead. ” I splashed him again. “You’re wet now. Might as well get in here. ” I punctuated again with another big splash.

  He stepped back and slipped on the floor, only barely recovering his footing before he fell. He pulled a couple towels off the rack and laid them on the floor, then fixed me with a grim look before his mouth turned up in as mile. He reached up and pulled off his T-shirt.

  Hell yeah.

  I wasn’t coy about watching him strip, either. His body was solid, muscular, beautiful. I sighed with just a little too much longing when he finally pulled off his jeans and boxers.

  “You’re quite enjoying yourself, aren’t you?” he said as he placed his clothes on a nearby chair.

  “It’s an amazing view. And I’m not talking about the Eiffel Tower all lit up outside my window. ”

  He came over to the tub and I reached up and lightly stroked his washboard abs. I’d missed that hard, flat stomach. He stepped over the side of the tub and sank down opposite me. I grabbed some more bubble bath, dumped it into the water between us and said, “You need some more bubbles to truly enjoy the bubble bath experience. ” I opened the faucet, letting more hot water into the tub.

  I had to bend over him to reach it, but I made sure to keep my towel pinned securely to me. Adam’s dark eyes followed me and I leaned over him until the tub had refilled adequately, then turned off the water. Before I could lean back, he caught my arm and pulled me toward him and my mouth landed on his.

  I moaned as he plunged his tongue into my mouth. I fell against his chest, returning the kiss with about twice the passion he put into his—which was saying something because his kiss was far from chaste. But I was starved for him and I wasn’t going to let him out of the tub without letting him know that.

  He reached up and put one hand on my back, the other against the towel I held to my chest. When we finally came up for air, he looked up at me and swallowed hard. “This isn’t easy,” he murmured.

  I shook my head. “Nope. It’s not. ”

  The hand on my chest moved slightly to the side, as if he wanted to slide it under the towel, I pulled it tighter to me. Our eyes were locked and I could tell he wanted it as badly as I did.

  “I want to touch you. I want to see you,” he said.

  I hesitated, freezing in sudden terror. I couldn’t let him see me. I was ugly, scarred. It would disgust him. He’d never want me. I swallowed the fear but it rose up again immediately. Finally, I gently shook my head.

  He looked away for a stretch of minutes and sighed heavily. “Okay. I’m not going to make you do something you don’t want to do. But eventually…”

  I sat back, putting a little distance between us. “Eventually I’ll get some reconstruction…”

  His eyes flew back to mine. “So I don’t get to see you until after that?”

  I didn’t answer. I had no answer. It wasn’t fair of me. I did want him to touch my breasts. But the fear was too strong.

  “What are you scared of, Emilia?”

  I took a shaky breath. “You have no idea what it’s like to go out in public at your side. You are perfect. Everyone looks at you and they wonder what the hell you’re doing with me. ”

  He frowned. “You think that if I see you, I won’t want you. ”

  I nodded. “Yes. That’s exactly what I think. ”

  “Yesterday at the park you said you don’t trust what you think anymore because you question your judgment. That’s about right because with this, you’re absolutely wrong. If I just loved the outside of you, you’re right, I probably still wouldn’t be here. I’d see only that your beautiful hair was gone or that you were sick all the time. ”

  I lowered my gaze to the surface of the bubbles, his words stinging me. They were honest but they hurt.

  “But I don’t just love your hair or your beautiful skin, your breasts or your eyes, your body. Those are the bonuses and they will come back. I love you, Emilia. I love your heart, which is worried about me even when you are the one hurting. I love your brain—that we can have long conversations about things and you get it. You get me. I love your soul, which feels, sometimes, like it’s mine, only in your body. ”

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  It hurt to breathe as I sat there absorbing his words, the simple beauty of them stunning me to silence. For a moment, my mouth worked and then I began sobbing on the spot. His words were so honest, so unexpected. He moved forward and pulled me into his arms. I wept against his hard, naked chest, his warm skin against my cheek.

  But I still held that damn towel to me as tight as ever. I wasn’t brave enough yet. It was too scary. His arms tightened around me. He said he loved my soul but he had no idea of the darkness lurking down in the depths. The wretched, horrid thoughts I forced down on a daily basis. The self-loathing.

  Yes, I was alive. But at what cost? Had it been worth it? I swallowed the sting of that hurt yet again and I turned and kissed his neck, his shoulder, his chest. I showered him with my love. The kisses weren’t meant to seduce or arouse, but to show him without words that I loved him too.

  “I love you—so, so much,” I said. It wasn’t nearly as poetic or romantic as what he had said to me but it was all I could choke out between whimpers and sobs. He held me to him until I stopped crying and for a long time after, the only sound the crackling of the bubbles and the movement of the water around us, echoing in the white marbled bathroom.

  I pressed my teary cheek to the damp skin of his shoulder and I felt calm, peaceful. When I spoke, it was with a quiet voice. “I’m scared to go home. ”

  “Why?”

  “Because it’s been so magical here. Like a fantasy. Here, I have you all to myself. I don’t have to share you. I’m selfish but I’ve loved every minute of it. ”

  “You have all of me, all of the time. ”

  No, that wasn’t true and he knew it. There I competed with the job, the friends, all the perfect-looking women around him, co-workers, acquaintances. There, I had the constant fear that I would lose him.

  “You have me, too,” I said. “Always. Forever. ” For as long as that happened to last.

  He kissed my neck and breathed against my cheek. “I need to tell you that I’m scared, too,” he said suddenly.

  I swallowed. “About the scan?”
<
br />   “Yes. ”

  “I guess it’s easy for me to say ‘forever’ when that might not mean a very long time. ”

  He pulled back and looked into my eyes. “None of us know when forever will end. It’s not just you. We never know. What makes forever worth it is each day we live and enjoy being with each other. Each day we make each other’s lives better. ”

  My eyes dropped and he trailed the tears on my cheeks with his thumb, outlined my lips. I kissed his fingers as he moved them over my mouth.

  “So you know that my love is not about your looks…any more than yours is for me…right? Or do you love me just for how I look?”

  I smiled, almost wishing I could make a joke, but I didn’t want to spoil the moment. “Hmm. I love the man who makes breakfast for me even when he can’t make toast without burning it. ” He laughed, continued to trace his fingers over my mouth, my jaw. I closed my eyes, relishing the feel.

  “I love the man who signs his notes to me with a lopsided heart. I love the man who…listens to songs only old people and hipsters know. ” He barked out another laugh. I smiled. “I love the man who was there for me…all the time, even when I wasn’t there. ”

  Silence again and the bubbles fizzed around us.

  Minutes later, muttering that I was turning into a prune, I carefully got out of the tub. He lay back and watched me cinch a fluffy terry robe around me before finally dropping the now-soaked towel. I snagged the other bathrobe and laid it near, where he could grab it when he got out.

  “Hey, farm girl, what about me? Do I get my back washed?”

  I sent him a lopsided grin and ducked my head. “As you wish. ”

  But it was hard—damn hard, rubbing the soapy washcloth over his muscular back, down his trapezius muscles and then down to his lower back along his latissimus dorsi, then to his narrow waist. Oh God, he was just too sexy for his own good. And touching him had riled me up again. It wasn’t fair. I was healthy enough to have an over-the-top sex drive but apparently not healthy enough for him until that clean scan came back. I sat back with a sigh of sexual frustration.

  “There. And now, I’ll be in my bunk,” I said.

  Adam laughed. Firefly was one of his favorite shows.

  I got up and went into the bedroom where I sat in the dark and listened to him in the bathtub. The real reason I’d gotten out of the tub was that it hurt too much to keep hiding myself from him. I knew he’d wanted me to drop the towel and stop covering myself. I was hiding from him, in so many ways. Hiding from myself too.

 
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