“Aaron?” she says. “What’s—”
“Take off your dress,” I say quietly.
Understanding awakens in her eyes.
She says nothing, she only looks at me, carefully, as I watch, imprisoned in place by an acute form of agony. Her hands are trembling but her eyes are willing and wanting and nervous. She shoves the material down, past her shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. I drink her in as she steps out of the dress, my mind racing.
Gorgeous, I think. So gorgeous.
My pulse is wild.
When I ask her to, she unhooks her bra. Moments later, her underwear joins her bra on the floor and I can’t look away from her, my mind unable to process the perfection of this happiness. She’s so stunning I can hardly breathe. I can hardly fathom that she’s mine, that she wants me, that she would ever love me. I can’t even hear myself think over the rush of blood in my ears, my heart beating so fast and hard it seems to thud against my skull. The sight of her standing in front of me, vulnerable and flushed with desire, is doing wild, desperate things to my mind. God, the fantasies I’ve had about her. The places my mind has gone.
I step forward and pick her up and she gasps, surprised, clinging desperately to my neck as I hitch her legs around my waist, my arms settling under her thighs. I love feeling the weight of her soft curves. I love having her this close to me. I love her arms around my neck and the squeeze of her legs around my hips. I love how ready she is, her thighs already parted, every inch of her pressed against me. But then she runs her hands up my naked back and I have to resist the urge to flinch. I don’t want to be self-conscious about the scars on my body. I don’t want any part of me to be off-limits to her. I want her to know me exactly as I am, and, as hard as it is, I allow myself to ease into her touch, closing my eyes as she trails her hands up, across my shoulders, down my arms.
“You’re so gorgeous,” she says softly. “I’m always surprised. It doesn’t matter how many times I see you without your clothes on, I’m always surprised. It doesn’t seem fair that anyone should be this gorgeous.”
She looks at me, stares at me as if expecting an answer, but I can’t speak. I fear I might unravel if I do. I want her with a desperate need I’ve never known before—a desperate, painful need so overwhelming it’s threatening to consume me. I need her. Need this. Now. I take a deep, unsteady breath, and carry her into the shower.
Hot water hits us fast and hard and I press her against the shower wall, losing myself in her in a way I never have before. The kisses are deeper, more desperate. The heat, more explosive. Everything between us feels wild and raw and vulnerable.
I lose track of time.
I don’t know how long we’ve been here. I don’t know how long I’ve lost myself in her when she cries out, clutching my arms so tightly her fingernails dig into my skin, her screams muffled against my chest. I feel weak, unsteady as she collapses in my arms; I’m intoxicated by the pure, stunning power of her emotions: endless waves of love and desire, love and kindness, love and joy, love and tenderness. So much tenderness.
It’s almost too much.
I step backward, bracing myself against the wall as she presses her cheek against my chest and holds me, our bodies wet and heavy with feeling, our hearts pounding with something more powerful than I ever thought possible. I kiss the curve of her shoulder, the nape of her neck. I forget where we are and all we have left to do and I just hold on, hot water rushing down my arms, my limbs still slightly shaking, too terrified to let her go.
I wake up with a start.
After we got out of the shower, Aaron and I dried off, climbed into bed without a word, and promptly fell asleep.
I have no idea what time it is.
Aaron’s body is curled around mine, one of his arms under my head, the other wrapped around my waist. His arms are heavy, and the weight of him feels so good—makes me feel so safe—that, on the one hand, I don’t ever want to move. On the other hand—
I know we should probably get out of bed.
I sigh, hating to wake him up—he seems so tired—and I turn around, slowly, in his arms.
He only pulls me tighter.
He shifts so that his chin rests on my head; my face is now pressed gently against his throat, and I breathe him in, running my hands along the strong, deep lines of muscle in his arms. Everything about him feels raw. Powerful. There’s something both wild and terrified about his heart, and somehow, knowing this only makes me love him more. I trace the lines of his shoulder blades, the curve of his spine. He stirs, but only a little, and buries his face in my hair, breathing me in.
“Don’t go,” he says quietly.
I tilt my head, gently kiss the column of his throat. “Aaron,” I whisper, “I’m not going anywhere.”
He sighs. Says, “Good.”
I smile. “But we should probably get out of bed. We have to go to dinner. Everyone will be waiting for us.”
He shakes his head, barely. Makes a disapproving sound in his throat.
“No.” And then, deftly, he helps me turn around. He hugs me close again, my back pressed against his chest. His voice is soft, husky with desire when he says. “Let me enjoy you, love. You feel so good.”
And I give in. Melt back into his arms.
The truth is, I love these moments most. The quiet contentment. The peace. I love the weight of him, the feel of him, his naked body wrapped around mine. I never feel closer to him than I do like this, when there’s nothing between us.
Gently, he kisses my temple. Pulls me, somehow, even tighter. And his lips are at my ear when he says,
“Kenji said I was supposed to get you a ring.”
I stiffen, confused. Try to turn around when I say, “What do you mean?”
But Aaron eases my body back down. He rests his chin on my shoulder. His hands move down my arms, trace the curve of my hips. He kisses my neck once, twice, so softly. “I know I’m doing this wrong,” he says. “I know I’m not good at this sort of thing, love, and I hope you’ll forgive me for it, but I don’t know how else to do it.” A pause. “And I’m starting to think it might kill me if I don’t.”
My body is frozen, even as my heart pounds furiously in my chest. “Aaron,” I say, hardly daring to breathe. “What are you talking about?”
He says nothing.
I turn around again, and this time, he doesn’t stop me. His eyes flare with emotion, and I watch the gentle movement in his throat as he swallows. A muscle jumps in his jaw.
“Marry me,” he whispers.
I stare at him, disbelief and joy colliding. And it’s the look in his eyes—the hopeful, terrified look in his eyes—that nearly kills me.
I’m suddenly crying.
I clap my hands over my face. A sob escapes my mouth.
Gently, he pries my hands away from my face.
“Ella?” he says, his words hardly a whisper.
I’m still crying when I throw my arms around his neck, still crying when he says, a little nervously—
“Sweetheart, I really need to know if this means yes or no—”
“Yes,” I cry, slightly hysterical. “Yes. Yes to everything with you. Yes to forever with you. Yes.”