Stripped Read online

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And that is something I can’t handle.

  My instinct is to flee, but I can’t move. I simply cannot make myself leave the protective cocoon of Dawson’s embrace, and I don’t want to. My confusion and fear aren’t strong enough to push me out of his arms. It’s a bad dream, a nightmare, and it’s fading quickly.

  I stop crying after a while, and I let myself be safe in Dawson’s arms. His mouth brushes my temple again, and then the curve of my ear. He settles a blanket around me, and his hands skate up and down my arms and across my back and shoulders, keeping me soothed and warm.

  I yawn, and Dawson shifts beneath me, cradles his arms under my knees and around my shoulders, stands up with me. I’m sleepy, emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. Dawson’s shirt is soft cotton and smells of him. He’s warm, and his muscles shift under my hands as I cling to him, like stones beneath silk. I let my head settle against his chest and absorb the feeling of comfort, of being cared for. It’s so unfamiliar. Ever since Mama died, I’ve felt alone. Unloved, unnoticed.

  He carries me up the stairs, down a long hallway and up three more stairs, through a pair of open French doors and into a cavernous master bedroom. The bed is the only furniture besides a huge flat-screen TV on the wall opposite and a pair of nightstands on either side of the bed. He carries me to the bed, leans against it, and sets me down.

  My heart stops, and my breath catches in my throat. I’m tense all over.

  And now here’s Dawson, this god, this iconic movie star, this all-too-real man, and he’s paying attention to me. As if I mean something to him. As if he wants something from me that I don’t know how to give. I don’t even know what he wants, honestly.

  Well, that’s not true. I do. He wants sex. I know this. I see it and sense it. It’s in the way he touches me, in the way he kisses me. I know it, because that’s what men want from me. It’s what he wants from me. And I don’t know how to give it. But I get the feeling he also might want something else from me. Something more. But that’s not his style. Nothing I’ve ever heard about him has said he wants anything from a woman he’s involved with but sex.

  All this runs through my head as he grabs at the pile of throw pillows neatly arranged on the bed and tosses them to the floor two at a time. Then he reaches under the pillows and tugs the blanket down until it’s stopped by my body. “Slide under,” he says.

  I tuck my legs beneath the blanket and lie back into the pillows, watching Dawson like a hawk. Is this where it happens? Now? In his room? My heart is pounding, but I’m still barely breathing. My fingers clutch at the edge of the blanket. Dawson moves across the room toward a pair of closed French doors, which he opens to reveal a closet larger than two of the dorm rooms at USC put together. There’s an island in the center with a marble countertop, and an actual sitting area complete with a deep leather chair. Dawson peels his shirt off and tosses it into a nearby hamper, and then his shorts. He’s in nothing but a pair of tight black boxer-briefs. My throat closes, and my fingers curl into fists at the sight of him. He’s…nothing short of glorious. The muscles in his back are clearly defined, rippling as he moves. His shoulders are like slabs of granite, and his arms thick and bulging with muscle. I simply cannot take my eyes off him as he opens a drawer, pulls out a pair of gym shorts, and turns toward me as he shoves one foot through and then the other. He tugs the shorts up, but not before I catch a glimpse of the front of him. Of the bulge in his underwear. My eyes are drawn there, almost instinctively.

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  I blush and look away quickly, but he saw me staring. The corner of his mouth tilts and tightens into a small quirk of a smile, quickly gone. He moves toward me, and I’m tense once more, staring at the ridged field of his abs and the narrow column of his waist, the inward cut of muscle where his hips guide inward to his groin. My mouth is dry as he approaches. I’m not breathing, not moving, not thinking. I’m totally panicked.

  He sees it in my face, and raises his hands. “Relax, Grey. ” His voice is a low, soothing rumble. “You need to sleep. I’m just going to hold you. If you’d rather not, I can sleep in one of the empty bedrooms. ”

  Just going to hold me. I’ve never slept in a bed with a man before. Not ever, in my whole life. My dad used to tuck me in as a little girl, but that stopped around nine or ten. I don’t know what to say, what to think, what to even want. I’m scared, exhausted, and nervous.

  “I don’t want to be alone,” I murmur. It’s the only true thing I know right now.

  He carefully slides into the bed beside me, then curses when he realizes the overhead light is on. He gets up and turns it off, and the room is enveloped in sudden shadows. A slim sliver of lesser darkness carves across the room from the doorway, but all else is pitch black. I’m not afraid of the dark; I’m afraid of my confused welter of emotions regarding this man.

  The bed dips, and I feel the warmth of his nearness. I hear him breathing. His hand touches mine, and our fingers tangle.

  “Are you okay?” he asks. “For real?”

  I don’t answer right away. It’s a serious question. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel. It was…terrifying, and so sudden. He was in the club. He was the last customer there, and he asked for me. He was…so drunk. Maybe on drugs. I don’t know. He was creepy. He wanted a dance, and he got all mad when I wouldn’t take my shirt off. I—I don’t usually do that, you know. If I’m on the floor, I’m wearing the shirt. I only take it off when I do stage dances. It’s basically nothing, that shirt, so it kinda makes the customers act crazy. Like, they can see, but not totally, and it’s different. ” I’m not sure why I’m telling him this, but the words are pouring out, and I can’t stop them. “I couldn’t do it, being totally topless all night. I hate it enough as it is, but…the whole shift? Ugh. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. The customers like the mystery, so Timothy lets me wear it. It’s my thing, and I enforce it. I only take my clothes off on the stage or in the VIP rooms. Not that it makes me being a stripper any better, but…it helps, I guess. ”

  It makes it easier that I can’t see him, that he can’t see how hard this is for me to talk about, although I’m sure he can hear it my voice.

  “So you hate it? Being a stripper?”

  “God, yes. So much. Every—every single time I do it, I hate it. ” I shudder, and his fingers tighten around mine. “I—I throw up, pretty much after every stage dance. ”

  “Did you throw up after I left, that first time we met?”

  I shake my head, then realize he can’t see the gesture. “No. You…that was different somehow. I don’t know why. ”

  He doesn’t say anything for a long time. “So he got mad that you wouldn’t take your clothes off for him, and then left and waited outside for you?”

  “I guess so. Hank made him leave when he got too upset. I thought he was gone. I went to my car…your car, I mean. ” I shudder again, remembering. “I should’ve…I should’ve listened to my gut. I had this bad feeling, but I ignored it. I didn’t want to seem silly. ”

  “Listen to your gut,” Dawson tells me. “Always listen to those feelings. ”

  An awkward silence follows. I don’t want to talk about what happened anymore; I just want to forget.

  “Why were you there?” I ask. “I mean, how did you happen to be there, right then?”

  Once again, Dawson pauses before answering. “I wanted to talk to you. I figured I could catch you after your shift. ”

  “What did you want to talk about?”

  I realize now, perhaps belatedly, that the brief pause before answering is a Dawson thing. He thinks before replying, puts together his thoughts and how he’ll say them. “You confuse me. ”

  This isn’t what I expected him to say. “I…what? What do you mean, I confuse you?”

  “You’re a contradiction, Grey. I can’t figure you out. ” He rolls toward me, and my eyes have adjusted enough to the darkness that I can just barely make out hi