Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(11)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(11)
Author: H.M. Ward

Crying, I shake my head and say, "No, Jon. Don't leave me." I'm ready to plead with him, to beg him to stay. I'm so frightened that I don't know what to do, and more afraid that I'll lose him.

Jonathan takes my hand and presses it to his lips. He continues to speak, but I can't hear his voice. Slowly, he rolls off me and pulls me from the spot under the bench in the corner of the room. In front of us is the security guard's wedding band and a trail of blood that leads back to his broken body on the other side of the room.



The art show isn't going the way I'd planned. Some lunatic bombed the damn thing. Cassie and I are lucky we're going to walk out in one piece, although we'll both have scars. A long gash mars the side of her perfect neck. There's so much blood when I look down that my terror turns into panic. A pool of crimson is under her head and seeping across the hard white floor.

"Cassie, it's all right. It's going to be all right." I stroke her face and whisper to her as I press her body to mine, waiting for the blasts to stop. My f**king ears aren't working and I can't tell if there are alarms going off yet, but we need medics. Now.

My eyes flick to the side and catch a flash of gold. There's a trail of blood that leads back to a fallen body. The old people who were on the other side of the room can't be seen. I feel completely useless and if I don't do something Cassie is going to bleed out on the floor.

When crap stops falling, I turn to see if it's over. Once I'm certain that I won't be shot, I whisper to Cassie, "I'm going for help. Don't move, Cass." As though she could. The truth is that I don't know what I'm saying. I can't even hear my own voice. Her eyes are glassy, wide with fear. Those beautiful lips move, begging for something that I can't hear. I rip off the bottom of my shirt and press it to her neck. Her eyes are glazing over and she shivers. I can't save her, I know I can't. My throat tightens as I realize what I have to do. Leaning in, I kiss her head. "I love you, Cass. Don't leave me. Hang on." It kills me to leave her, but I do.

Staggering to my feet, I look around at the museum. Canvases were blasted off the walls and there's debris everywhere. Chunks of concrete and wood line the floors. I'm walking like a f**king zombie, my feet won't move fast enough. I can't run. Shit, I can barely breathe. My ears don't work. It sounds like I'm walking through an empty cave, but there must be people screaming. There were people in here with us.

My phone. I dig into my pocket and pull it out as I stumble around. The screen is cracked and a few pieces of glass are missing. I flick it to life as I stagger toward what I think is the door. It's a bright opening that's flooded with light and white smoke. The screen comes to life and I dial. I don't know if they can hear me, but I scream into the phone and say where I am, and what's happened. I'm about to walk out into the sunlight flooding in from the next room when I see a piece of bent rebar. My foot stops just over the threshold. A gust of wind hits me in the face and I can see. I'm about to step through a hole in the wall and fall a couple of stories into the mob below. The phone tumbles out of my hand as my arms swing backward.

"Shit," I gasp, and press my back to the wall, trying to stop my sluggish momentum. My foot swings clumsily into the opening as my body lurches backward. I fall to the floor, instead of hitting the pavement below, and cough up a lung. There's tons of crap floating through the air. It flutters to the floor like gray pieces of snow.

I've crossed the room. This is the spot that was reserved for a painting that hadn't been installed yet. There was a temporary one in its place—not Gray's new piece. That means Cassie is across from me. As I try to make my way back to her, I see the old guy and his wife. He's hovering over her, holding her hand with tears flowing from his eyes. He says something to me as he tugs at his wife's lifeless arm. There's a thin cut on her forehead, but it shouldn't have killed her, and yet, she's not breathing. I can see it from where I stand. Her chest is still and her lips are turning an ungodly color.

Cassie is breathing, so I linger. Just for a second. I'm a selfish bastard, I know, but I can't lose Cassie. Not like this. I always thought if I never saw her again, it'd be because she got sick of my flirting and told me off. Things can't end like this.

I'm not really thinking at this point. My brain keeps running in circles, telling me to get the hell out, but I don't leave. More shit falls from the ceiling and shakes the ground. I can hear a distant thud, but it doesn't sound close. Not that I can tell.

Before I know what I'm doing, I'm at the old woman's side doing chest compressions. I stay like that until a medic pulls me away. They ask me stuff that I can't hear. I look behind me and say Cassie's name over and over again, but they don't answer me. A medic is pulling at my shirt, trying to remove it. I stop fighting. My body is covered in sweat and screaming at me to stop. The vise that's been squeezing my head tightens as sweat drips into my eyes. Hands are on me, and I fall to my knees and cough so violently that I expect to see my lung on the floor when I sit up.

When I glance across the room I can see police and paramedics. There are several people surrounding Cassie. "Is she all right?" They keep trying to help me, but I yell, and point at Cassie.

The medic next to me is a little thing with dark skin and slick black hair. Her hand lands lightly on my shoulder. Her mouth moves and she nods slowly, smiling at me weakly. Her lips say it's all right, and I finally stop fighting against everyone.

Today didn't turn out very well. Next time I take Cassie on a date, we'll have to roller skate across the spillway. It seems funny now. I finally found out why Cassie laughed at me when I tried to take a walk with her that day—Robyn said there are alligators in there and they walk across the road, happy to eat a few stupid pedestrians and go home.

Rationality is gone. I sit, breathing way too hard, and laugh, because if I don't laugh, I'm going to cry.


Cassie is next to me, a week later, and things have gotten interesting. They stitched up her neck and she's healing. We're not supposed to do much for a few days, just lay around is what the people at the hospital told us. So, we do. And that's how things begin to change. Cassie will take my hand and wrap my arm over her shoulder while I read her a book. She snuggles up next to me when we're watching TV and rests against my side. It's like she's actually mine, even though I know she'd never have me.

Sex hasn't come up, it rarely does, but tonight is going to break me. My willpower has dwindled to an all-time low, and I want her so badly that I can't think of anything else. When I close my eyes I picture Cassie in my arms and imagine sliding my hands along her silky skin, feeling every curve and muscle beneath my palm. I want to know every inch of her. I want to know what makes her writhe and what makes her knees weak. I want to hear that sigh of delight after she comes and hold her in my arms. I'm not a one woman guy, but I would be if I had a shot with her. But I don't. I'm not the guy she's looking for. To her, I'm used goods so she won't even consider me. Meanwhile, the scent of her hair, and her skin, is lodged in my mind and it's all I can do to breathe like a normal person while she lays next to me.

We're at my uncle's mansion, laying in the yard, and staring up at the sky. It's an inky black with a spattering of glittering stars. One of my arms is around Cassie's shoulders, and the other is at my side with my hand on my stomach. The scent of honeysuckle and Cassie's shampoo fills my head. I want to roll over and kiss her, but I don't. I just lay still and stare at the sky, wondering what kind of hell I've thrown myself into by allowing her to linger in this in-between place that's past friendship, but not lovers.

She touches the stiches on her neck absentmindedly. "I should be glad this wasn't worse, but it's going to leave a nasty scar."

"It won't, so you don't have to worry about it, but in the off chance that it does, well, no one in their right mind is going to be looking at your neck." She smiles and elbows me in the side lightly. "What are you jabbing me for with those pointy things? It's the truth. You're hot. Learn to live with it." Turning my face toward her, I stare at the smoothness of her cheek and fight the urge to touch, and trail my fingers over her soft flesh. I look away quickly and suck in the night air and let it out in a rush. I'm so drawn to her—so pulled to her—that the thoughts never stop.

So, when Cassie sits up and looks down at me, all I can do is stare. She's amazing. Her dark hair is draped over her bare arms, and a little slinky tank top clings to her body, accentuating the fullness of her chest and her tiny waist. My eyes drift over her as she moves and before I can ask what she's doing, Cassie's fingers find my waist and start tickling.

"My elbows are not pointy! They're angular." Her fingers wiggle as I try not to laugh, but she has me. My lips curve up at the corners and I start to laugh when she finds the right spot. I'm not a particularly ticklish guy, but there are a couple of places that'll make me laugh uncontrollably and Cassie has found one.

"Angular is an understatement, and weren't we talking about your boobs?" My elbows are pinned to my sides as I try to tickle her, but I can't stop cracking up long enough to find her ticklish spot. She has to have one, so my hands move up and down her sides trying to find it.

"You're always talking about boobs. Come on, Jon, be original." she laughs as my fingers hit the back of her knee. It's the most wonderful sound. Cassie tries to kick me away, but we're a tangle of arms and legs, both laughing and rolling over the lawn.

We're sitting side by side as I paw at her calf and twist her around. Cassie goes face first into the grass with a yelp. "Okay, how about this..." I tickle the back of her knee with a gentle sweep of my finger and she bucks around on the lawn like a docked fish. She's screaming and laughing so hard that I doubt she can hear me over the threats she's spewing, so I say it. "You are the most amazing person I've ever met, despite your strange views on sex, and rolling around with you in the grass with clothes on is more fun than rolling around nak*d with someone else."

Cassie manages to sit up, and then laughs as she chest bumps me—hard. The chick launches her br**sts at me, slams into my chest, and sends me sailing back into the ground. It wouldn't have happened if I was expecting it, but who the hell chest bumps? Shock is plastered across my face and I'm caught somewhere between smiling, laughing, and surprise.

"Naked with someone else," she mocks, and rips out a clump of grass as she sits down hard, straddling me. "Eat dirt, Jon Ferro!" Cassie's smile is bigger than I've ever seen it. Her eyes are lit up and sparkling. For a brief moment, she's not holding back. I have all of her. This is as close to her heart as I'll ever get. I'm lost in thought, so my reaction time sucks. I barely manage to turn my face to the side as she tries to force-feed me grass.

"You chest bumped me?" Yeah, my brain is still in shock. I'm trying to piece together how she ended up on top of me. Her warm thighs cradle my h*ps as she squeezes tight, trying to stay there. She thinks I'm going to toss her off. Like that'll ever happen.

"You're two steps behind, Ferro." The clump of grass and dirt makes a pass for my mouth again. I manage to snatch Cassie's wrist and pull it down to the ground, so she falls flat against my chest. She gasps and then giggles, but I don't let go.

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