Stripped Read online

Page 17

“Which is this? Love? Or war?”

  “Both. Neither. It’s whichever you make it, babe. ” His voice rumbles in his chest, vibrating against my spine. His hand is around my arm, the other wedged between us, keeping his towel in place.

  Oh, god. Oh, lord, help me. I can feel him, all of him, pressed up against my backside.

  “Dawson, why are you doing this?”

  “Why are you fighting it?”

  “Because—it’s all so much. You’re…you overwhelm me. ”

  “I’m just a guy. ”

  I shake my head. My hair clings to the beads of water on his chest. I’m hyperaware of how my br**sts sway. He makes me aware of myself, of my body. “No, you’re more. You’re so much more. You’re…this—this experience. I’m getting…I get swept away in you, when I’m around you. I lose myself when I’m with you. ”

  This gets him. I feel him tense at my words. “Do you have any idea the effect you have on me?” He laughs gently. “You turn me inside out. I’ve never…I’ve never cared before. Not this much. Not about anyone. After Mom died, I just kind of shut down, and I never really recovered. Dad was always weird and quirky and reclusive, but when she died, he just—vanished. I basically raised myself…well, Vickers the butler was there for me a lot. And Betty, the housekeeper. ”

  I can’t help laughing. “You had a butler named Vickers?”

  “Shut up. ” He laughs. “I didn’t name the guy. And ‘butler’ is just a catch-all kind of word. Think Alfred from Batman. He did everything for Bruce, you know? That’s how Vickers was. Ran the house, kept track of everything. Made sure I went to school and shit. He wasn’t a ‘hugs and tuck me in at night’ guy, but he bailed me out of a few scrapes over the years. ”

  He pauses, breathes in, his chest swelling against my back, and exhales deeply. He’s pushing away memories. I know a little about that.

  “Anyway. You, and me. What you do to me. You can’t distract me from this. You need to know. ” He leans closer and his nearness makes my skin prickle, and my ni**les harden. Traitors. I feel that now familiar hot throb down deep. “You make me feel things. And you have to know what a big deal this is for me. I started acting—really acting, you know? Taking it seriously and doing roles I chose—because I wanted to feel. I had to act it out onscreen, because I couldn’t feel anything when I was just Dawson. Nothing, except this vague sort of loneliness. I was used to it, because I grew up alone. Vickers was all stoic and British, and Betty was just this frumpy lady with her own kids to worry about. So I stopped feeling things because it was easier. Being in Hollywood, you grow up around the life, you grow up in it like I did. Drugs and booze are just normal. I did my first line of coke when I was…twelve? I learned to party early. It filled the holes, kind of. Then, when I hit puberty, girls were part of it. I always had swag, you know? Always. It was just easy. And girls? They filled the spaces in me, too. But…all of it was fleeting. It was my life. Girls, drugs, booze, parties, shooting films all over world. Being a star. It was great—it was the life everyone dreams of. But it was always just me. Alone, after party ended and the girls went home. Meaningless. None of those girls meant anything. A whole messy train of clingy bitches I used for distraction. They couldn’t do shit for me when it mattered. ”

  I try to turn in his arms, but he won’t let me. He’s speaking into the hair at the top of my head, his breath warm on my scalp. I stay still and let him talk, taking in these revelations. Each word makes Dawson more and more real, and that much more all-encompassing, absorbing, intense.

  “I was working on the last Cain Riley flick. We were shooting in…Prague? Yeah, Prague. Last couple weeks of shooting. I’d been partying like a f**king rock star for days, going to shoots wasted. But I’d nail the scenes. Cain was this dark and brooding kind of character, all hard edges, a badass. So the half-wasted slur and the ‘I don’t give a f**k’ glaze to my eyes in the whole movie was real. I didn’t give a f**k, but it worked for the character. I was so strung out. And then one day I woke up in the back of a club in the nasty back end of Prague. I’d passed out, and they’d shut the place down, just for me, so I could pass out. Like I would’ve known or cared had the club party gone on while I was out. But whatever. I woke up, and I had blood on my face, under my nose and chin. There was puke everywhere. They’d just…left me there. Let me puke. It had become so commonplace for me to pass out that they didn’t bother checking on me, because I was always fine. Take a few shots, do a line, drink some coffee. Go shoot the next scene. ”

  Dawson tips his head back, drifting away into memory.

  “And I realized, you know, they didn’t care. As long I shot good scenes, they didn’t care. And I was gonna end up like my mom. It was pure luck that I hadn’t died that night in the club, that I didn’t just OD like Mom. So then I tried to sober up on my own and push through the rest of the scenes, trying not to end up like her. So…I finished shooting Veiled Threats and went into rehab. That was when I disappeared. Rehab was more to get myself away, you know? I mean, shit, yeah, I had a problem, but it wasn’t addiction to the drugs. It was addiction to the feelings. I felt things when I was acting, when I was strung out. Numb, good things. But empty things. You know? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you feel too much, feel it all so much that you can’t make any sense of it. That’s what I think your problem is. You feel too much. ”

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  I’m a captive audience as he rests his chin on my head and continues to speak, one arm wrapped around me, holding me in place. “I don’t feel enough. Never did. So then I met you. In that stupid titty-club. And you were this…this glorious creature. You were like an angel, trapped in hell. You couldn’t have been more out of place if you tried. I watched you out on the floor, you know. And that dance on stage. You…captured them. All those poor, sweaty, greasy, miserable ass**les. You were so different from the other blank-eyed, apathetic strippers you see in clubs like that. Where the smiles don’t reach their eyes. Where the affected sexuality is just…plastic. Fake. Put on. You? You…ooze sensuality, and you don’t even know it, and it’s like a drug for guys like me. I may have more money and sophistication than those other guys, but I’m just like them. Looking for a cheap thrill, a quick escape. And you? You’re a high we could never get anywhere else. Watching you dance? The way you move? The way you wait until the very f**king last second to take the clothes off? It’s maddening. You don’t even know. You can’t. There’s something inside you, beyond that innocence. I see it. It’s…fuck. It’s bright as the f**king sun, but it’s hidden, because you’re miserable. ”

  I’m squirming, tearing up, sweating from his heat and from the way he’s talking about me, but I can’t escape his hold, and I have to hear his words. I have to keep listening. He’s ripping this straight out of his soul and giving it to me. It’s a priceless gift, and I’m hoarding it in my heart.

  “And I met you,” he continues. “And you made me feel something. I wasn’t drunk. I can drink, you know. I’m not and never was an alcoholic. It was just…a Band-Aid on the wound. Anyway, I saw you, and then you came in to the VIP room and you were…so bright. But so scared. And you made something in me just…implode. Like I’d had an epiphany, you know? Like I knew, I had to know you, had to hold you and touch you and tell you everything. But you keep running. And you kiss me and you get me rock f**king hard, but then you run and you leave me aching and alone and worked up. You know I’ve put on, like, fifteen pounds of muscle since I met you? Because you get me worked up and then I can’t get off on my own, because it feels wrong, and I need to let it out, so I work out. You turn me on, just breathing. You make me feel like I’m someone, and not because I’m Dawson Fucking Kellor, either. ”

  He backs away from me, and I wrap my arms around his broad shoulders, palms sticking to his hot, damp skin. He stills, and looks down at me as he continues.

  “But that doesn’t matter to you. You run anyway, maybe because of that. And I can’t figure y