His fingers paused on my thigh; his skin was so warm it almost scorched me. Eyes losing their teasing glint, he shook his head. “Presentable?” he murmured as if the word were foreign to him. “Jesus, Caroline. You didn’t have to worry about that. It doesn’t matter what you look like. They’re going to love you because of who you are.”
I drew in a deep, shuddery breath. His words meant more than he could ever know. I was thrilled he had so much faith in me, but I still had no faith in myself. Now, I was even more nervous, because I kind of sort of really wanted them to love me. “But—”
He caught my hand when I started to smooth my hair out of my face. “No buts. Everything’s going to be fine. They’re easy to get along with, down to earth, laid-back people, so you have nothing to worry about. Okay?”
I nodded, but my stomach continued to churn.
“I’ll make you a promise.” When he leaned in to kiss my temple, I immediately glanced around to make sure no one had seen when it struck me...we didn’t have to hide anything here, not when we were so far away from Ellamore. Whoa. We didn’t have to hide here. “If you stop worrying, I’ll keep my hands respectable until after dinner with them. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said, though no way was I really going to stop worrying.
It must’ve been the right thing to say, though, because Oren beamed at me. “Great. You ready, then?”
Hell, no. But I nodded and sent him a tense smile. “Sure.”
An anxious fluttering instantly took root in my stomach as we climbed out of his truck and started up the front walk. But then Oren took my hand, and the fluttering instantly shot off fireworks through all my limbs. I glanced down at our linked fingers. His palm was so warm against mine. I felt strange, as if I was protected and cherished and desired, all due to one little squeeze from his fingers.
He was honest to God about to introduce me to his parents...while holding my hand.
Wow. This shit just got real.
As if sensing my nerves, he glanced over. His gaze moved from my face, and down to our hands, then back up to my face. “What?”
“Nothing,” I was quick to answer.
So he frowned. He even slowed to a stop and turned to face me...without letting go of my fingers.
“This hand-holding thing is freaking you out, isn’t it?”
“No,” I blurted.
He crinkled his eyebrows, calling bullshit with a single look.
My shoulders collapsed. “Damn it,” I muttered. He was getting too good at reading me. “Okay. Maybe it is. A little.”
Instead of letting go, his thumb started up, tracing the back of my hand as he tugged me closer. “Why? What’s wrong with holding my hand? It’s perfectly respectable.”
“I know, but it’s...I don’t know!” I growled as I looked away from him, feeling like a freak. “It’s public,” I hissed and chanced a glare at him, silently warning him not to make fun of me.
“Public?” he repeated slowly.
“Sander would never hold my hand.”
“Sander,” he hissed, his eyes narrowing as his grip tightened around mine even snugger. “The fucker who made you his dirty little secret? That jackass probably didn’t even talk to you in public.”
“No,” I murmured dejectedly, realizing he was right. “He never did. Only when no one else was around.” And the one time he promised to take me into public, he lied.
I wished I’d realized that before I’d fallen for his ploy and let him destroy such a fragile part of me.
“My point is...” I lifted my free hand and blindly waved it around before dropping it limply like the stupid idiot I was. “People don’t go holding hands when it’s just the two of them. They do it in public, as a sign to the world that they belong together, that—”
“Okay, wait.” He butted in, stopping me right there. “First of all, it’s not just something couples do in public. I don’t know how many fucking times I’ve caught my parents holding hands over the years when they thought no one else was around.”
“Aww.” A soft sentiment flooded me. “That’s so sweet.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” He rolled his eyes, because anything sweet and romantic that involved his mom and dad probably fell closer to an ick factor for him. “The point is, it’s not public. And it’s not some symbol to show others any such fucking thing. It’s just two people who want to touch and feel closer to each other. Nothing more.”