The right side, untouched by scars, and Lord have mercy, he was handsome, hair overlong and gracing the collar of his shirt. A stark white shirt. Always. It was as if he had a stockpile of business suits to get some wear out of. White shirt and dark slacks.
"You cut your own hair, don't you?"
He raked his fingers through it, chuckling under his breath. "I guess even in the dark you can tell."
"I'll cut it for you, if you like. I used to cut my brothers' and sisters'—"
"No, thank you. No one sees it, anyway."
"That's not the point." Laura stood. "You see it. Good grief, Richard…" She stalled.
"We can't go on like this. Hiding in the shadows isn't doing either of us any good."
"Speak for yourself."
"What do you gain?"
"My privacy, my dignity. My pride."
She shook her head. "No, you don't. You only keep fresh the wounds she inflicted. Not everyone is like her."
"I am long since over Andrea."
"I believe you, but she's left a mark and I don't like it."
"Too bad," he snapped.
She felt his defenses rising like a wave. "So that's it, right? Come only so close or you'll turn into a snarling beast."
"Don't force this. It won't happen."
"Oh, give it up, Blackthorne! I know who you are, just not what you look like." She took a step. "Let me see you."
"You've given me a gift more precious than anything I've ever had," she said, gesturing to the paints and art supplies spread over the floor and coffee table. "You've seen me. Not the face that won contests. But you won't let me give you anything."
He knew what she meant. To give a promise not to cringe, not to be repulsed. He couldn't risk it. Not when he was just beginning to feel like a man again, not when she made him want to step into the light as much as he needed to breathe in her scent. "You've given me a chance with my daughter."
"And that's enough?"
He didn't answer.
"No!" he bit out. "Not since you walked through my door."
Her breath skipped up to her throat and she took another step closer.
Richard glared at her, her beautiful face painted in silver moonlight, her long hair waving over her shoulders. Her body hidden in a thin robe and shapeless pajamas. "But it has to be this way."
"No, it doesn't. Not with me."
He closed his eyes and tipped his head back. He clenched and unclenched his fists at his side. Her fragrance wafted up to greet him, entice him, draw on the vestiges of his willpower and threaten to tear it from his grasp. "I have to go. Now."
Laura grabbed his arm.
"Dammit woman, let me go."
Her touch seared through his clothes.
He tilted his head, looking at her. She was inches away. Need raced up his body like ants beneath his skin, tingling and alive. Alive. His chest labored for each breath as if the air had suddenly thinned. He swallowed hard and confessed, "Because if I touch you, I don't think I can stop."
Laura's heartbeat thundered out of control and she lifted her left hand to his cheek, laying her palm to his flawless face. He flinched and she ached for him, for the pain he'd suffered, for the years of seclusion.
"Oh, Laura," he said on a harsh breath, turning his face into her palm, reveling in her touch, her scent. "I can't. I can't. I'll go mad."
"No, you won't."
"Yes," he hissed, folding his hand over hers and kissing her palm, her fingertips, and he trembled.
This strong man who'd survived horrendous obstacles, this man who hid in the shadows for their sake, not his, trembled. It made her feel gifted, cherished, and Laura knew her heart was already deeply involved, her body running a close second and wanting to be first.
She plowed her fingers into his hair, drawing him down to her. "If you do go crazy, please … take me with you."
In a heartbeat, his mouth was on hers, devouring, penetrating, seething with desire and unhinged passion. He wanted her more than anything, more than his need to be left alone. She opened wide for him, and he plunged his tongue deeply between her lips, tasting again and again. He couldn't get enough, couldn't breathe, couldn't think, only feel, feel when for so long he'd felt nothing but his ugliness. Nothing but desolation. She was a flash of sunshine in his dark life, a lure he couldn't resist, not when she was in his arms, not when she kissed like redemption and madness.
His arm circled her waist, drawing her tightly against him, letting her feel his arousal, what she did to him with only a kiss. He was almost embarrassed at how easily she could arouse him. He drew back for an instant, drawing in a lungful of air, wanting to see her face, her eyes.