He wanted to laugh, couldn’t manage it.

“Does it hurt here?” She petted his back gently. “I didn’t even ask if you guys kicked each other around.”

“No,” he managed to rasp out. “Fists only.”

“Glad to see you two have standards.” Her voice steadied with his response, as if she’d just needed to hear him. “The real question is whether you rolled around in the mud after you destroyed your garden.”

Her hair was soft against his chin, her body slender and yet curvy in all the right places. He could smell that fruity shampoo she liked, the one he’d used once and felt as if he’d been emasculated. On her, it was perfect. And her skin, it had its own Kit scent. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and it had nothing to do with her face.

I love you.

I love you, but I won’t be an emotional punching bag.

He knew at that instant that he hadn’t just hurt her. He’d come very close to abuse of the kind that left no bruises but hurt just as bad. “I’m sorry,” he said again, the tremors still rocking his frame. “Forgive me.”

“It’s okay, Noah.”

No, it wasn’t okay, and he knew she wasn’t fine with it, but right now she was so worried about him that she was giving him a pass.

“Fuck!” Wrenching away from her, he strode into the garden.

He half expected her to follow, but she didn’t. Instead, she let him walk into the darkness and when he came back ten minutes later, having conquered the shaking but with his body covered in a cold sweat, she was waiting for him on a picnic blanket she’d laid out on the mossy grass, her head on a pillow as she looked up at the stars.

Coming down beside her, he laid his head on the pillow she’d placed next to her own. It was automatic to stretch out his arm so she could use that as her pillow instead. He had a stupid fucking romantic dream of waking up one day with his arm all numb because she’d slept on it through the night. Yeah, he was screwed.

She accepted his silent offer while, above them, the sky glittered bright. “That’s part of why I love this place,” Kit said to him. “It’s far enough away from the lights that you can actually see the stars.”

Noah had spent more than one night awake staring up at the night sky. “You know that group of stars?” He gestured up. “That’s called Pegasus.”

“How do you know that?”

He shrugged. “I was up late and bored one night, so I started looking stuff up online and kind of got into it.” For a while, he’d thought about buying a telescope, but he didn’t want to take away the magic by making the stars too real; he’d rather just look at them as sparkling pieces of light, clean and untainted.

They lay there in silence for a long time, and the claw was back around his heart when he found the courage to speak. “It happened when I was six years old.”

The shaking threatened to start again.

Nails digging into the palm of the hand he had by his side, he clenched his jaw and breathed short and shallow in an effort to fight it. “My father had this friend.” Noah tried to say the name, but all that came up was choking bile.

He swallowed it down, kept going, aware that he was destroying his future with Kit—what woman would want a man who’d had that done to him? He’d been made less than a man before he even had the chance to grow up.

“My family and the friend’s family used to spend summers together in houses side by side on Cape Cod.” Noah’s chest was so painful now that it was as if his rib cage were crushing his internal organs. “He had a son around my age, so my parents thought it was the perfect arrangement. Emily was only a few weeks old, and she stayed with the nanny, and the other boy and I were sent off to play while the adults socialized.”

Kit curled her fingers around the hand he had beside her head.

He held on tight, knowing he’d soon enough have to let her go forever. “Only it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes my dad wanted to work and my mom wanted to go out for a coffee with the other boy’s mom. So my father’s friend would volunteer to watch us boys.” His breath was a wheeze now.

Oh, don’t coop the kids up with the nanny. She can’t keep up with two growing boys anyway. I’ll make sure they stay busy and out of trouble.

Noah could still hear that voice in his head, so jovial and friendly. He’d trusted that man because his father had trusted him. The man was a dad too. Dads were to be trusted.

“He hurt you and his son,” Kit said softly. “You don’t have to give me details, Noah. I can imagine.”

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