There’s no conceivable way I’ll be hungry in an hour. In fact, surveying the wreckage—discarded chopsticks, white cardboard cartons trailing semi-crusty noodles over the side, paper fortunes sitting among cookie crumbs and plastic wrappers—I can’t imagine ever being hungry again.
“May I clear this mess away, Master?”
“That would be most appreciated, Dane.”
He gives me a sly grin and somehow turns cleanup into a dance routine. My stomach rolls as he finishes up, and it’s not just from the food. Truth is, I’ve been putting this conversation off as long as I could, using the excuses of playtime, shower, and eating to delay the inevitable. It has to happen soon, and I’m certainly not going to initiate such a sensitive topic in the back seat of a hired ride. Besides, Dane will need time to digest before his performance tonight.
I intercept him before he sits down again, taking his hand and drawing him in for a kiss.
“Mmm, Kung Pao Master,” he says, making me chuckle.
“You do like it spicy, don’t you, Dane?”
“You know I do.”
Fuck. I think my least favorite thing to do in the whole world is spoil Dane’s happy mood, and this is bound to do it. Sometimes, it sucks to be me.
My face must tell the whole story, because Dane takes one look, and his smile fades away. “Master, have I done something wrong? Too cheeky?”
“God no, Dane. You’re perfect.” I hate that he jumped to that. We need to fix that—but that’s a long-term issue. Now is now.
“What is it?” he pleads.
I give his hand a squeeze. “C’mon, let’s go sit down in my den.”
He’s jittery. I’m jittery. Fucking fuck face Wayne strikes again. And this is exactly why we need to perform the exorcism.
Except for the fact that we’re both fully clothed, collapsing onto the sectional feels very much the same as it did last time we were here. Now, that didn’t end so badly, I attempt to cheer myself.
Dane sits cross-legged on the cushion next to me, hands folded in his lap, fully alert, and anything but relaxed.
“Dane, I want to remind you that I care about you deeply.”
“That’s an ominous beginning.” He hides his response well, but the white-knuckled hand-clenching does not escape my notice.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t meant to be. This is going to be a difficult conversation. I was trying to frame it for you.”
Confusion crosses his face. He lets out a pained, “Master . . .” before pausing, shaking his head, and coming out with, “Three, two, one, zero. Please.”
I nod, acknowledging his request. “It’s about Wayne.”
The color drains from Dane’s face. “Oh god! Has he hurt someone else?”
“Whoa, whoa, hang on. That’s not . . .”
But Wayne has hurt other people, and I’m not going to whitewash it.
I place my hand on his knee and squeeze him through his jeans. “Let’s take this one step at a time, okay?”
“I’m trying, Master.”
“I know. I’m sorry to put you through this, Dane. More than anything, I want to see you whole and safe. You’ve made a huge amount of progress since we started on this odyssey together. You’re expressing your needs and enjoying sex and smiling all the damn time now!”
He sees my grin, but he can’t quite return it.
“I love everything you’re doing, whether you’re chained to my cross or showing off at the Y; yeah, you were too showing off!” I add before he has a chance to object. “You’re moving in the right direction on so many fronts, and I don’t want to rush you.”
I pause for a breath and gather my courage.
“Here’s the thing, Dane. There’s this brick wall standing in the way of a full recovery, and I want to remove the obstacle for you—or to be more accurate, I want to help you remove the obstacle yourself.”
I nod. “And as I said, I wouldn’t rush you, but—”
“He’s hurting other people.”
“Yes, he is.”
Dane’s head droops forward in defeat. I cover his joined hands with mine. “We’ve got an eye on him now.”
“Yes. I’ve got people on the inside, Dane.”
And now comes the impossible part for me. Waiting for the words to sink in, keeping my damn mouth shut while he runs the data through his brain and his heart. He looks up, finally, with more questions than answers in his pained eyes.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed here. What am I supposed to do?”
“Dane, this problem is bigger than you, and I’m not going to let you be alone in this.”
“Have you and your ‘people’ done something already?” he asks with a tinge of horror in his voice.
“No, Dane, absolutely not. Look, I’ll be real honest here. My main reason for wanting to speak with Eleazar was to ask his advice on this. I was worried about putting you in the same room with your abuser, but at the same time, I think you’re not going to get unstuck until that happens. I wanted to make sure Eleazar agreed.”
“And did he?”
“He didn’t give me any guarantees, but Eleazar has faith in our bond. He acknowledged how far you’ve come and seems to feel you’re strong enough to handle it now—when approached in the right way.”
The light bulb goes on. “You have a plan.”
“Of course, I do.”
I smile. He smiles.
The boy who so recently could barely say the fucker’s name is now sitting here with me entertaining the idea of revenge. His strength propels me forward.
“But let me be clear, Dane. I made the mistake once, and I won’t do it again. From this point on, if you agree to go forward with this, you are going to be in on everything. Nothing happens behind your back or without your consent. And that means if you’d rather we take care of the rat bastard and leave you out of it, we will do it that way.”
He’s thinking again. I’m getting used to the tightness in my chest. I wonder if it will ever not feel this way when Dane doubts me.
When he speaks again, his voice is soft and unsure. “What if I decide I want to leave it alone? Would you do that?”
“Just like that?”
“Of course, Dane. I want to put this abusive bastard out of commission, but you come first. End of story.” Of course, wheels have been set in motion, and I doubt I could stop Aro from taking care of the situation.
Dane launches forward and springs into my lap, wraps his arms around my back, and burrows in against my chest. My hand is in his hair before I draw my next breath. Our hearts beat against each other while he considers his decision. The waiting isn’t quite so painful with Dane snuggled against my body.
My ears strain for the slightest indication of his verdict, but all I hear is a soft purr. Fuck it, the world can wait. This is what matters, right here in my arms. I drop a kiss on the top of Dane’s head and soak him into my bones.
“I’m ready for this.”
I slip my hand under Dane’s chin, tipping his face up so I can see and hear him clearly. “Dane?”
“I want to help you take him down.”
There’s not a trace of anxiety in his eyes; in fact, I’ve never seen the man look so determined. He doesn’t flinch as my thumb brushes back and forth along his cheek bone.
“I promise you, Dane, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
“I know. I trust you.”
“I trust us.”
His smile knocks my thumb off track. “We do make quite the team, don’t we?”
Just like the kiss I lean in to give him . . . and give him . . . and give him. I can tell the exact moment the thought occurs to him, because his kiss is different, preoccupied, and I pull away.
“What is it?”
He grimaces. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“None of that,” I tell him, gripping his chin as he tries to lower it in shame. “What’s on your mind, Dane?”
“I can’t stop thinking about the other people he’s hurt. What if they don’t have someone like you to help them through?” He chuffs, blushing a bit. “Let’s face it; there is no one else like you.”
I don’t have the luxury of basking in his compliment right now, but I’m guessing the glow will stay with me for a long time. “We’ve got our feelers out in the community now, and Eleazar has seen a few of the others, so at least they’ve gone for help.”
“A few?” Poor boy looks ragged with the news. “All since he booted me? No, probably not,” he adds miserably, the depth of the bastard’s betrayal still boring fresh holes into Dane’s soul. “I could never have been enough for him. I see that now.”
The vise tightens around my heart. All the arguments that flood my brain get stuck in one huge lump in my throat, and I find myself choking out the only word that makes any sense to me: “Dane.”
His eyes shine with the beginning of tears, and I can feel the answering sting in my own. “I know what you’re going to say, Master.”
Humbled to my core, I lower my head until our foreheads meet. “Good. Now, let me know when you start to believe it.”
Dane’s upper lip gets tugged inside, and there’s a hot splash of tears on my cheek. I wrap him in my arms, finding his nape with my fingers. My words scrape along the surface of my throat until they find their way out. “Remember that first time you reached for my hand?”
He sniffles. “Of course.”
I have no idea where I was going with that. It’s just that the memory popped into my head so vividly, I had to share it.
My burning desire to bring Dane into the light, his first step in the direction of his own joy. My offer, his acceptance.
The way his hand felt in mine—so tentative and unsure of himself, yet so very desperate to believe in me. Even then, I recognized Dane’s need for redemption, yet I didn’t have a clue about my own. There are no boundaries dividing us, no arrows pointing in only one direction, and no big “D” and little “s.” There is only this unbroken link, a circle of infinite points of connection and need.
I suppose this is where I’ve been heading all along, and it feels so damn good to finally get there.
“I love you, Dane.”
Through my own bleary, watery eyes, I recognize it instantly. Not a casual, reflexive “I love you, too,” but something that holds far more meaning—a revelation from deep within those dark caramel candy eyes. Dane’s been waiting two long days for me to understand his “I love you” for all that it was. I’ve finally caught up.
“I believe you,” he answers. There’s a tick, a breathless, heart-stopping beat while Dane waits for me to really hear what he said.
Does he believe I love him? Absolutely, all the way, yes. But there’s more to it, and this time I’m way ahead of the two-day pace. He believes me. All that I’ve said before and all I no longer need to say. He believes it all.
I don’t know which of us starts grinning first, but pretty soon, we’re a matched pair of outlandish smiles and snotty tears.
Fucking ridiculous is what it is, two men who like things rough, reduced to sniffling saps by the mere tip of Cupid’s arrow.
I trace the trail of his tears with soft kisses until they bring me to his mouth. Dane’s lips yield to my gentle invitation. We have hours yet before we have to leave for the city, and I would happily spend them all right here, doing exactly this.
Tears dried, lips chapped, hair mussed, and hearts filled, we wake almost an hour later still wrapped in each other’s arms. I love you, Dane. He must be able to read my thoughts. I’m not even trying to disguise them.
Dane rolls onto his back, lifting our joined hands, a big smile on his face. “I think you put a sleeping spell on me. I never nap.”
“I blame the couch.”
“Hmm, or it might be the small continent we consumed.” He’s fiddling with our intertwined fingers, still happy but turning serious.
Where, oh where have you gone, Dane?
“So, this plan you and your ‘people’ have . . . May I hear it?”
Looks like we're gonna have ourselves a Wayne-y roast! Bahahahaha!