For a long moment he simply stared, a war raging inside him, battling with what he wanted, what he could not have, and the choice between.
Richard lifted his hand to her. "Come to me, Laura. While I still have the strength." His hand trembled. "Come see the monster you want to touch you."
* * *
"You are not a monster." Laura rose slowly, gazing at his hand hovering in the air. His fingers trembled, the sight making her heart break, and she rushed forward, grasping his hand and holding it against her cheek.
"Oh, Laura," Richard groaned.
She pulled him toward her, into the shadows. "In the dark," she whispered, "we are the same. No, shh. I'm not an old beauty queen. You're not scarred. We are just two people, Richard. There are no flaws."
"We can't stay here, and in the light—"
"In the light we are two people with our own imperfections." She lifted her gaze to his, seeing the silhouette of the scars he'd hidden all this time, but nothing clearly. "Show me."
Richard inhaled and exhaled, knowing this was the moment when he'd lose all he'd gained and all he wanted so badly. He turned slightly, facing the fire and bringing her with him.
The light splashed across his face and he winced, yet his attention never left her. He waited. Waited for her revulsion, waited for her features to contort in disgust.
It never came.
Her gaze swept him slowly and Laura felt the tension in him, as if he'd snap in half or bolt for the door, or shove her away. She wasn't going anywhere. He'd found the courage to show her, and she would not fail him. This moment meant too much to her and told her things he couldn't say. And that trust was the greatest gift in her life.
He was a gloriously handsome man still. Just to look him in the eye, into those blue eyes identical to his daughter's, made her heart skip and sputter out of control.
They bored right into her soul.
"You have beautiful eyes," she said. "I feel as if I've waited a decade to see them." For a moment, she simply absorbed the simple act.
Then her gaze moved over the scars.
How much pain he must have been in, she thought. How he'd suffered for that valiant rescue. She reached up, and though he flinched, she pressed her fingertips to the healed wounds.
He slammed his eyes shut, his breathing slow and heavy.
The scars were like the claw marks of a wild animal, curved and even. Two lacerated his forehead into his hairline, one cut across his eyebrow, another the corner of his lid, dangerously close to his eye. More slashed his cheek, down his jaw and his throat before they disappeared under his shirt. He remained perfectly still as she studied each one, a stone statue about to shatter, his arms at his sides, his fists clenched like white knuckled hammers.
Laura's heart broke for him. For the years he'd spent in solitude, believing he was hideous, believing his appearance kept him from being lovable because no one saw the courage it had taken to earn these wounds.
"Look what you've survived," she whispered, awed, and he heard the wonder in her voice.
He met her gaze, watching as she leaned closer. Against his will, his body tensed. "Laura."
"Shh." She slid her hand around the back of his neck, drawing him down. She pressed her mouth to the mark on his forehead, his eyes, his cheek, tenderly, slowly kissing each wound, then prying open the buttons of his shirt and kissing the jagged scars across his throat and shoulder.
He moaned and clamped his hands on her waist and tried to push her away, turn away. "Oh, Laura, don't."
She held him still, understanding his anxiety. "Don't push me away, Richard. Please. You endured this pain when it was fresh. Now it's just scars in your mind." He shook his head, but she kept kissing his healed wounds, opening button after button, laying her mouth over the scars like a soothing balm. "I don't see a disfigurement. I see badges of your courage. Wounds of the war you fought to survive."
Richard's heart beat a steady, hard thud, his hand sliding up her back and into her hair. He gripped handfuls and tipped her head back. "I don't want your touch out of pity."
Her lips curved the slightest bit and she met his gaze head-on. "Oh, my beautiful beast," she said in a low seductive voice. "The very last thing I feel for you is pity."
His lips curved, then flattened to a thin line. "There are more … my ribs, hip … and leg."
"I don't care. When are you going to understand that?"
"I've never … I mean, no woman has ever touched me."
She smiled softly. "My, my, almost virginal then, huh?"
He choked on a laugh, then went still as glass as she pushed her body into his. He felt every curve and valley of her supple warmth, the firm press of her breast through her robe, and he realized she was naked beneath.