“The thing is,” she said in a husky voice, “since then, I’ve never...”
Heat flared in his eyes, but he seemed to deliberately bank it. “I don’t suppose you associated men with anything good.”
“No.” She hadn’t consciously thought, I don’t like men, but knew now that it was true. She kept her distance from them. Her friends were all women. She exchanged as few words as possible with their husbands and had certainly never gotten to a hugging or kissing-on-the-cheek stage with any of them. She was cautious around men who came into the library. Not afraid, just...not letting them get too close. No wonder, now that she knew what her relationship with her father had been like. She’d had no basis for trust.
So how was it she had trusted Beck? If I actually did, she reminded herself.
“Were you a virgin the first time, Nell?”
She stared at Colin, shocked. “Of course I was!” Then she realized how illogical she was being and shook her head. “That’s a dumb thing to say. But it means I wasn’t sexually abused, doesn’t it?”
He was shaking his head even before she finished. “The abuse didn’t have to involve penetration. It could have been no more than touching. That’s plenty traumatic when you know it’s wrong and nobody will listen to you.” He kept his tone matter-of-fact, although a thread of strain told her it was taking him some effort. “There could have been oral sex. A man could have been grooming you for later, when you were more physically mature.”
She knew all those things happened because at SafeHold, she’d heard stories that gave her nightmares.
So why was it that, beneath her surface calm, pain gathered in her head, as bad as when she tried to remember Beck? Worse. She was so close to remembering this. Touches. Commands. Affection disguising something horrible. It happened to me. I know it did.
“Nell,” Colin said sharply. She blinked and discovered he was shaking her lightly, his hands on her shoulders. His face was creased with worry.
“I’m okay.” The sight of him brought her back to the here and now. The anxiety diminished. “I almost knew something,” she whispered. “I think...it did happen. What you said.”
“But you don’t know who.”
She shook her head quickly. “It was almost there, but...not. My head started to hurt.”
“Like at the restaurant.” He groaned. “My fault again. I’m pushing you.”
Nell stiffened. “I’m pushing me. I won’t be safe until I remember. I have to remember.”
“When?” she cried. “When?”
“I don’t know.” His guilt and discouragement weren’t hard to see. “Maybe I should leave you. Let you get some rest.”
It was only what she’d expected, Nell reminded herself. She didn’t blame him. She lifted her chin to be sure he didn’t know he’d hurt her. “If that’s what you want.”
“Damn it, Nell, you know it’s not what I want.” He glared at her. “I want you. But you’ve had enough today. We have time.”
Did they? She had come so close to dying today, she knew better. She sucked in a fortifying breath. “I’d like it if you would stay.” Uncertainty kicked in. “If...if you really mean it.”
His eyes blazed. “You’re sure?”
She nodded, even if she was also afraid of the unknown.
“Uh...give me a minute.” To her surprise, he stood and went into the bathroom. A drawer opened and closed, then another one. What on earth...? But when he came back, she thought, Oh. He had something in his hand.
He bent and unlaced his shoes and kicked them off, tossed his socks on top of them. He hesitated and unbuttoned his dress shirt, leaving it dangling over a rocking chair. Nell’s breath caught at the sight of his broad, naked chest. Over strong muscles, dark hair formed a triangle ending in a line that disappeared inside his slacks.
“Too much?” he asked, in a deep voice.
She gave her head an emphatic shake.
His mouth quirked in an almost-smile as he unfastened a narrow black belt and the button at his waist, then eased the zipper down. Beneath he wore snug-fitting navy blue knit boxer shorts that did nothing to hide the extent of his arousal. She desperately wanted him to shed those, too—and yet it was a little bit of a relief when he didn’t.
He grabbed the duvet, said for a second time, “Scoot over,” and slid into bed beside her. Rolling onto his side to face her, he smiled wryly, probably at the sight of her near-panic.
“Your first time.”
That made her stomach dip. “It’s not.” Had he not believed her?