Authors: L.J. Wilson
“Ruby, stop. Wait!”
She did because she’d passed by all the cars in the lot, because the sound of his voice was too much. But unlike that morning, Aaron kept a safe distance between them.
“What… what are you doing here?”
“Nothing.” She staggered back, alcohol sloshing through her stomach and head. “Out… I was just out walking… I mean driving.” She pointed to the cars, unsure if she could identify the one she came in. “I decided to stop for a drink.”
“Shauna said you seemed upset. She didn’t understand why you were here.” Ruby kept moving, Aaron following. “Neither do I.”
She shrugged, juggling the truth, a lie, and an excuse. “Aaron, just go back inside to your date.” Ruby pointed her clutch purse toward the door. “Really, you would have never done anything like that. Never left me standing in the middle of a dance floor to take off and talk to some other woman.”
“You’re not some other woman, and I’ll apologize to Shauna.” Ruby continued on a slow peel backward, stumbling as she went. Aaron moved in a steadier mirror-like motion. His hand, briefly, braced her arm. “Why are you driving around Nickel Springs in the dark, by yourself? I’m not sure I love that idea.”
“I’m not sure I give a damn what you think.” But it came out weak, insincere. “I can take care of myself, Aaron. I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Maybe not, but it smells like somebody should be keeping up with your liquor intake. And what about Stefan? He’s cool with you sitting alone at a bar?”
“I told you, I was out driving. I needed to drink… I mean to think. I just had to see…”
Ruby didn’t have an answer. At least not one that didn’t cave into every improper thought she’d been thinking. She swiped at a runaway tear, the alcohol having a truth serum effect. “I had… to see you with someone else.” Ruby managed a stronger step away, but she was glad when her back made contact with a giant tree. She wanted its branches to swoop down and pluck her out of the situation she’d so foolishly crafted. “If you need to hear me say it, I wanted to prove that you don’t matter… that
“I see. And?” Aaron stood as close as he’d been that morning. Ruby watched him glance over his shoulder. They’d walked—or stumbled—a safe distance from the parking lot and restaurant, which bordered deep woods. “Tell me we’re nothing, Ruby.”
She could smell his aftershave, all man, just like Aaron. She gazed into his sea-glass eyes. Using the massive tree as refuge, Ruby slipped farther around the trunk. He followed, the tree eclipsing them both from the restaurant view. “I, um… this morning. I had to get it straight in my head. Get past it. Everything you did… to me.” She was losing all rationale, breathing him and the past in. Her gaze ran hard over his body and words tumbled out, uninhibited and raw. “Aaron, today… earlier. All that and you never once…”
“I never what?”
“You never kissed me. Not on the mouth. Seven years go by. Isn’t kissing the first thing that comes to mind?”
“Why, was it the first thing on yours?”
Ruby didn’t answer, her gaze moving fast from his.
“You can’t have it both ways, Ruby. Or maybe you think you can. Is that it? You came all the way out here to ask why I didn’t kiss your mouth this morning.”
“No. Not until I saw… Well, inside the restaurant, it looked like you were going to kiss her... Shauna.” It had to be the booze talking. Those weren’t the words Ruby meant to say or the emotions she wanted on display.
Aaron’s hands were shoved in his pockets. It made Ruby feel like, along with zero intention of kissing her, touching her had also faded from Aaron’s scope of interests. “Shauna. Now you’re wondering if I was going to kiss Shauna?”
Ruby realized how idiotic it sounded. Yet, she kept going. “It crossed my mind.” Her arms folded tight as if this might rein in the mounting need to touch him. “I… I’m just trying to be realistic, Aaron—for my own sake. Clearly a lot of old emotional… sexual
“Baggage?” he said. “Try a fucking steamer trunk—several.”
“That part of us, it was always powerful. I get it. And kissing…”
“Kissing,” he said, cutting her off, “was even more intimate. So to answer your question, it wouldn’t be the same thing if I kissed someone like Shauna. It wouldn’t have been impersonal—I hate to think I’m that kind of prick—but it wouldn’t have been you. That’s a different universe.” Aaron’s fingertips brushed through a runaway strand of her hair, fast, almost daring. “So let’s go back to what went down this morning—besides me,” he said, raising a brow. “It was pent-up instinct. Touching you like I did… Last time we were together, that night… I knew I’d never get the lifetime I wanted with you. So yeah, that was me, grabbing at something I never thought I’d have again. And
kissing you, I think I was protecting what was most vulnerable… or valuable. Going for the animalistic urge, it seemed less… less complicated. If that makes me a fucking bastard, then I guess you can just add it to your list.”
wasn’t exactly what she was thinking.
“Does it answer your question, Ruby? Are we done?”
It was a challenge. Ruby’s jaw slacked. Nothing came out. Her most basic thoughts would make the moment explode between them. But her hesitation was enough. Aaron came closer, his nose flirting with her hair. “Or maybe this morning wasn’t clear. Could be my message was muddled. Maybe you
me to kiss you so you can be sure of how you feel. Is that it, Ruby? Do we need something more intimate to happen? Kind of hard to believe that the reason you’re here is because my mouth—on just about every other part of you—didn’t tell you what you need to know.” His arms drew upward, but Aaron didn’t touch her. Instead he braced his hands against the massive tree on either side of her head.
The impulse was even stronger than that morning. But Aaron made no physical contact. Neither his hands nor his mouth fed a desire that consumed Ruby.
she finally said.
Her eyes closed, but even the scent of Aaron was as intoxicating as it was unavoidable. Slowly, gently, Ruby felt Aaron’s lips touch hers. Her hands reached first, grasping the lapels of his jacket, quickly clinging to his shoulders. Her mouth opened wider, Ruby doing the coaxing. Aaron hung back, enticing her with flirtatious contact. She pulled away from the tree and burrowed closer to his body. That was it. Aaron gave in, offering Ruby what she so desperately needed. The embrace became shelter, the kisses traveling a fast path from unsure to passionate.
Aaron’s hands cupped around her face, but they didn’t stay there long, making a rapid descent down her body. Their tongues tangled before Aaron’s mouth trailed wistfully along the supple line of Ruby’s throat. His hand inched under her skirt, moving not so delicately between her legs. One way or another, Ruby knew he was intent on finishing what he’d started that morning. Ruby leaned back into the tree’s bracing strength, and the clutch dropped to the ground. This wouldn’t take much. The insanity of that morning had left her restless, miserably unsatisfied. Their thoughts were in sync, Aaron’s fingers remembering exactly how this worked. He was undeterred by underwear, a public backdrop, or inner conflict. The pressure was precise and intense as Aaron’s thumb moved over the swollen nub, his mouth on hers. “Aaron…” she said as her head came forward, nuzzling his neck. Ruby felt the heels of her shoes dig into the soft ground, her legs trembling with anticipation. Standing up while this occurred always presented a challenge.
Aaron stroked her clit harder—an unforgotten tempo. “Just… just let it happen, baby,” he whispered. As a thunderous orgasm hit her, Aaron deftly slid a finger inside, and Ruby clenched around it. She said his name again, or maybe it was Ruby just assuring herself that he’d be there when she opened her eyes. Her hand covered his, holding him there as he held her up. Without hesitation, she reached for his pants, Ruby’s hand not able to cover the strangling erection. Aaron’s voice was rough, frustrated. “Jesus… it should be me inside you—us together. You know it should be.” His finger pushed inside the warm emptiness again, a residual tremor winding through Ruby. Then he was kissing her again as if to remind Ruby that the two acts were not mutually exclusive.
She clung to Aaron, too spent to respond with more than an achy tremor seeping from her throat. Ruby had his belt open, pants unzipped, and her hand wrapped around a steely shaft that pumped hard into her palm. There was a low moan from Aaron as a drop a sticky wetness enhanced the glide of her hand. Ruby didn’t give a damn if it was against a tree, like two animals in a forest, or if he wanted to climb into a car in the parking lot—any car. “Don’t talk. Just… just do it…” Ruby wanted every part of Aaron around her, every part but the words, because words invited reality.
He picked right up on it.
“Ruby, damn it, no… not here. Not like this.” Gently, he shifted their hands, releasing their respective holds.
“But this morning…”
“This morning was insane desperation—absolutely on my part. But now…” Aaron let go of her hands and zipped his pants, adjusting her skirt. His forehead bumped against hers. “Now I’m…”
Ruby’s head thudded against the tree. “On a date?”
There was a fraught punch of laughter. “Not what I was going to say… But yeah, as ridiculous as that sounds. I’m not fucking you in the parking lot of Incontro then faking dinner conversation.”
“Will you be fucking or faking anything afterward?”
“I’m not going to sleep with Shauna. Do I really need to tell you that?”
“I could hardly blame you. It’s not like I’ll be alone when I go back to Abstract Enchantment. How do people do that, Aaron? Have affairs, go home, and climb back into bed with somebody else?” A breath shuddered out of her and into him. “I take that back. I know exactly how it feels.”
“Since I’ve been with Stefan, deep down, I know that’s why it doesn’t work. That’s what it felt like, me cheating on you.”
He kissed the top of her head. “I guess we’ve both learned a few lessons we’re not going to forget anytime soon.” They stood that way for a while, fighting the past, fighting time. “Ruby, we can’t get into everything right now, but I need to know… I mean, you did slap me this morning for a damn good reason. What about…”
It was the first time she looked at anything besides him. “I’m working on that.” Then her eyes shot to Aaron’s, remembering what Alec had said. “Aaron, I spent years wishing there was more to the story. I realize now that no matter how many lawyers you insisted tell me otherwise, I should have listened to my gut. I know there’s more. I don’t know what it is, or why you’ve kept such an incredible secret from me… from your family. But I do know there’s got to be a reason. At least tell me that much is true?”
Aaron’s mouth gaped, like an explanation was right there. He only had to say it. Then it clamped shut. He closed his eyes, and Ruby watched his fists clench. In that moment, she saw something veiled by the shock and rage that had blinded her years before. She saw fear. “This…” Aaron said, opening his eyes, “was never supposed to happen.”
“What wasn’t supposed to happen?”
“You coming back to Nickel Springs. My early release. Us, together. I was supposed to do another ten years at least. I looked forward to coming out of that hole middle-aged. By then you’d be so gone from my life, I’d have no hope of getting you back.” Aaron stroked her cheek. “Being here, it’s some kind of fucked-up crazy fantasy.”
“Yet here we are.” Ruby smiled at him. “Maybe that tells us something.”
The storybook thought faded, and a look of concern fell over Aaron. For the first time since they came outside he leaned hard, peering around the tree. “I hope so.” He looked back at Ruby. “You have no idea how much I wish the world would disappear—seven years ago and tonight.”
“Why can’t it?” she said. The idea had great appeal. They could skip over the bad parts and start again, somewhere new. But with her palms resting flat on Aaron’s chest, moonlight toying with a five-carat diamond, Ruby knew it was nothing but more fantasy.
“Ruby, what… what about him? What are you going to tell Stefan?”
It was all so complicated. She didn’t want to hurt the man she was engaged to, but Ruby’s first instinct was to protect Aaron. “Whatever I tell him,
won’t be part of it. I’m not sure where I’ll start or what I’ll say. But he can’t know anything about us, Aaron. I don’t think I need to explain why.”
He was silent for a moment. “As much as it kills me to admit it, Stefan’s wielding some pretty good power. I don’t know if I could survive it, Ruby. Me, back in that place. You…”
She held onto him. “Don’t say it. Don’t think it. We’re going to figure this out. But for right now, I need to get back to Abstract Enchantment.”
Aaron shook his head. “No. You’re not going back there—not tonight, not ever. Do you seriously think I’m going to send you back to that slick-suit’s bed? It’s not going to happen.”
“Aaron, be reasonable. I know Stefan. Abruptly dumping this on him is not the way out. What do you want me to do—write him a Dear John letter and slide it under the door?”