Stripped Read online

Page 18

My crossed arms are covering my chest, and I tighten my hold on myself. I’ve bared all, told the truth and I fear letting myself dive into him. “I want this. I do. I want you. But…all I have left of my family, of my dad, of what I used to believe, is that this has to mean something. It has to be real. It has to be…maybe not forever, but…it has to be more than just right now. I’ve waited too long. I’ve been lonely and scared and desperate too long for this to be a just-once thing. ”

  Dawson opens his mouth to speak, to protest, but I kiss him to quiet him—only I pull away, almost violently, before I get lost in it.

  And then I continue, “You have this hold on me, Dawson. I need this. I need you. You’re…stripping away all the ideas of who I used to be and who I am, and I’m…I’m yours. I don’t know how that happened, but it did. But…if this isn’t—if it isn’t everything to you, then I’ll be totally lost. Does that make any sense? If I give you this last piece of who I am, I won’t have anything left, and if you stop wanting me, if you don’t…” I trail off, unwilling to use the four-letter word hanging so thickly between us.

  He touches my mouth with his fingers, but I was already done talking. “Babe. Baby. Grey. I won’t stop. I want to tell you what this means to me, but I’m afraid if I do, you’ll just think I’m saying it to get what I want. ” He closes his eyes briefly, then opens them. “I can’t believe you’re a virgin. But then again, I can. ”

  The room is cold, and I’m mostly naked. I shiver, and Dawson sees it. He reaches down and unfolds the patchwork quilt folded lengthwise along the edge of the bed, and drapes it over me.

  “Tell me how I’m stripping away all the ideas of who you think you are. Explain that. ”

  “I thought you were going to tell me—”

  “It has to be my timing. And I need to understand this. Because I want you to be you. I don’t want to strip away who you are. ”

  “It’s not like that. Or maybe it is. It’s hard to explain. ” I clutch the blanket under my chin and roll into him. He snags a pillow and tucks it under our heads, nooks me into his arm, and I let it spill out. “I was a pastor’s daughter. For so long, for my whole life. That was my identity. I was a mama’s girl. That was another part. But then Mama died, and I ran away to USC to go into film school, and my father disowned me for it. I haven’t spoken to him—phone, text, letter, email, nothing—since I left Macon more than two years ago. I never will, I don’t think. I chose my way. I chose sin. So he’s done. So that left me without being a pastor’s daughter, without a mother, alone in L. A. Alone at USC. I never really made any friends. I was…too busy with school, and then the scholarship ran out and I had to find work to stay here, because I’ve got nowhere else to go, nothing else to do with my life, so failure’s not an option. And then I was too ashamed of what I do—”

  “Did,” Dawson interjects, forcefully.

  “What I did,” I agree. “And I just…I’ve never made friends easily. I had one real friend back in Macon, Devin, a dancer at the studio where I took lessons. But I came here and she went to Auburn, and we lost contact. We still email every now and then, but…it’s not the same. I can’t…I can’t tell her things. So…I never made any friends. All I was, all I am, is school. And stripping. But now stripping is gone, and school isn’t…it isn’t enough. And so there’s you. I was just going from day to day, surviving, basically. I wasn’t dancing, and that was as close to an identity as I had. You gave that back to me just now. And when I’m with you, I feel like I’m—like I’m a person again, not just this point of sentience floating from class to class, essay to essay, test to test, stage dance to lap dance to VIP room. And this, being here with you, this feels like…like…home. ” I whisper the word, and it’s a single, broken syllable.

  Dawson is breathing hard, like he just lifted a thousand pounds. He’s trembling all over. I crane my neck on his shoulder to look at him, and his eyes are closed, as if trying to summon something from deep within. Or fighting back emotion.

  “Home. ” He utters the word much like I did, almost a curse, shaping a syllable that has no meaning on its own.

  His eyes open, and he meets my gaze. A tear shimmers in the corner of my eye, and he leans in, kisses it away.

  “So—so…” I struggle for the courage to say this next part. “So if this, if me and you, if this isn’t real, then don’t—don’t play games with me, Dawson. If it’s not real for you, then tell me and I’ll go—”

  “I love you, Grey. ” He speaks over me, cuts into me with three razor-sharp words.

  I thought I would cry when I finally heard those words spoken to me again, but I don’t. I bury my nose in the hollow of his throat and breathe in his scent, and feel my tension bleed away. I hold the nape of his neck and just breathe him. And he lets me. He doesn’t demand anything from me. He just holds me, breathes deep breaths of my hair and strokes my back over the quilt.

  “My mom made this quilt,” he says, apropos of nothing. “In rehab. It’s really all I have of her. You know, she never told me she loved me. Neither did Dad. The closest I ever got to hearing those words was from Vickers, once. He’d just bailed me out of jail for speeding and reckless endangerment—drag racing Dad’s Ferrari—and he just looked at me, Vickers, I mean, and he goes, in his perfect, arch, British accent, ‘Lord love you, dear boy. This wild hair of yours will get you killed yet. ’”

  “No one? Ever?”

  He shakes his head, then shrugs in a strange rolling motion. “Well, I mean, I’ve heard it before. But not from anyone who’s really meant it. In the heat of the moment things from a one-night stand don’t count. ”

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  I grew up knowing I was loved. Mama loved me. Completely. Daddy did, too, in his own way, just not unconditionally. Not enough. But I knew, down to my atoms that Mama loved me inside and out. If she were alive, she’d still love me, stripper and all. And Dawson…he’s never had that. Not ever.

  I summon all my courage, and I roll over so I’m mostly on top of him. My br**sts squish against his chest, and the quilt—which I understand to be the only evidence Dawson has of his mother’s maternal affection—slips down around my hips. I wriggle and writhe against him, shifting until I’m pressed entirely into him, every inch of me against every inch of him. My leg is thrown over his hips, and I feel something thickening and growing against my thigh.

  I know this is true, so I say it, because he needs, more desperately than me, I think, to hear it: “I love you. ” I don’t garnish it with his name, or anything else. I just let it float out, let it hang. And I hold my breath for his reaction.

  His eyes are closed tight. His hands are curled into vises on my hips, holding me against him. “Say—say it again. Please. ”

  I’ve never heard such vulnerability in a man. In anyone. He’s just completely open, bare to me. I see the nerve endings of his heart, the pinkness of his inner need, the thick, tough skin peeled away to show the tenderness not meant to be seen.

  I writhe closer, pressing against him, cradling myself to him. I brush my lips over his jaw, then nip his earlobe as I utter the words again, a whisper so quiet it barely counts as speech but I know he hears it like a bullhorn shout. He flinches at every phoneme, every breathed letter.

  “I love you. ”

  Dawson shudders beneath me, shaking, and I know he’s as pierced and speared as I am by this moment. All the world is silent and still. The sun hasn’t moved in its arc across the sky. Motes of dust hang in the sunlight, frozen like beads of amber. There is only him, his heart beating against mine, the slow tangling of him into me, and me into him.

  His eyes flick open, and they’re all-colored and fusion-hot. He doesn’t have to ask me to do it. I reach down of my own will and push away the quilt, roll to my back, and strip away my underwear. I’m naked but no longer vulnerable. I’m nestled in the cocoon of Dawson, of his love, his need. His eyes rake me, take me. Cover me. Face, cheekbones and lips a