Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(9)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(9)
Author: H.M. Ward

Jonathan's voice comes from the doorway. "I think emo Elmo has seen better days."

When I turn to look at him, the corners of his lips twitch, like he's trying not to laugh. I stare at my reflection and hear every nasty word my mother's ever said to me about my figure. They crash into me like a tidal wave. Even though I'm looking at my reflection, I no longer see myself, and the smile fades from my lips.

Jonathan's voice is suddenly right behind me, very close to my ear. "You don't need this. It's too hot and you look perfect without it." His fingers touch my shoulders lightly, making me jump. I can't help it. It feels like I've fallen off the top of the staircase and landed flat on my back. There's no air and my lungs won't work. What the hell is wrong with me?

Jonathan raises his hands and steps back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

Smiling too brightly, I spin on my heel. "No, it's fine. You just startled me, that's all." My eyes drift up to his and our gazes hold like that for a moment. I look away and pick at the sweater. It takes way too much effort to take it off, but I manage. Without the damn thing, I feel nak*d. It doesn't hide any of my body flaws, and the way this dress bodice clings all the way down to my h*ps shows off every imperfection I have. Before the sweater is dropped on Aunt Paula's bed, I stare down at it. I need it. Every piece of me is screaming to put it back on.

Then Jonathan's fingers are around mine, preventing me from putting the sweater back on. He's a step away from me, but I can still feel his breath on the side of my face when he speaks. "You look beautiful without it."

I don't believe him. I need it. A half grin covers my face when I feel a retort die in my throat. Jonathan places his finger under my chin and lifts my eyes to meet his. "You have no idea how gorgeous you are, do you?"

I laugh like he's joking, but that just makes Jonathan's brows pinch together, like he can't fathom that I don't know what I look like—but I do know. I see myself every morning. I see my out of control hair, my over-sized hips, my unfashionably pale skin, and normal-sized br**sts. I'm nothing to look at, and I'm okay with that. I know what I am, but the way he looks at me almost makes me believe him.

"You're pretty enough for both of us." I turn away from him, severing the contact. My heart races faster, like I'm being chased by a flock of rabid bunnies.

Somehow he took hold of the sweater and doesn't offer it back. My arms don't know where to go, so they fold across my chest. Jonathan says softly, "I'm serious, Cassie. What happened to you? Can you really not see it? When we walk around together, all the guys check you out. You're hot. You have to know—"

I swat my hand at him, meaning to dismiss his words that are bringing me close to tears for no explicable reason. "Everyone is looking at you. You're a Ferro, Jonathan. I'm not. They're looking at you and if a few eyes fall my way, it's curiosity and nothing more."

My arms are tightly nestled against my chest when Jonathan slips his finger over my hands and works them into the center of my palm. He slips one hand away and then the other, uncrossing my arms. He smiles at me sadly, like he knows how damaged I am—like he's never met expectation either. "Come on, Hale." His voice is kind, encouraging. He turns and keeps a hold on my hand for a second too long, pulling me towards the doorway before he lets go.

I glance back at the sweater on the bed, and leave it behind.



"What the hell is this?" I stop dead in my tracks after fighting to shut the front door of the trailer. The metal by the lock is bent like someone hit it with a bat a few years ago. It takes two hands to close and lock the thing, which is why I failed to notice the sleek black SUV at the curb, complete with driver.

Jonathan glances back at me. "Our ride. Come on."

I stop on the rickety little porch. "I can't—"

"Yes, you can." Jonathan turns back and looks at me.

A million thoughts smash into each other like atoms in a reactor when I see the car. It confirms exactly who Jonathan Ferro is, and it obviously links us if the press sees us together in this car. For the first time, I really see who I'm with and I don't know what to do. He's not a normal guy—he never was.

With a dramatic sigh, Jonathan steps up in front of me. The tiny deck is too small for both of us at the same time. He's too close, nose to nose. My stomach flutters when I catch his gaze. The intensity of that look is enough to floor me. My breath catches in my throat and I'm wondering what he's going to do.

Jon's voice is low, barely a whisper. "Walk to the car and get in like a normal person."

"You're not a normal person." My voice quivers as I glance over his shoulder and see the driver step out and open the door to the backseat.

"That's where you're wrong. I'm quite normal, actually. In fact, I'm so normal that I'll do what any man would do if you don't walk there yourself." His eyes are brilliant, sparkling with mirth and determination. It makes my stomach dip like I'm in a free fall.

My voice catches in my throat, "And what's that?"

"Throw you over my shoulder and carry you." He grins at me as my eyes increase to the size of tennis balls.

"You wouldn't!"

"Try me."

My pulse rushes in my ears as we stare each other down. The idea of having his hands on me is too much. I cave and go to push past him, but Jonathan won't move. When I glance up into his face, he's looking down at me. There's no gleam in his eyes, no smirk on his lips. His lashes are lowered as he gazes at my mouth. There's barely any space between us and it's difficult to resist the urge to slip my hands around his waist and hold him. I'm drawn to him. I know it and I've accepted it. My plan to not act on the attraction has been going well. Right up until this moment. The way my heart flutters and toes curl in my heels is too much. I imagine him closing the space between us, I want him to, but—

The thought cuts off, because Jonathan leans in slowly. Panic sets a fire in my mind and everything turns to chaos. My reasons, my organized thoughts of why we can't be together, go up in smoke. I have half a second to decide before those soft, pale, pink lips meet mine. Every inch of me is screaming to lean into him, to let him kiss me, but I can't. I can't. I've waited too long looking for the right guy to throw it away now. My kiss doesn't belong to Jonathan.

He can't have it.

The thoughts rush through my mind like spilling water. Before I know it, I'm plastered against the screen door, sucking in air, trying to get some space between us. Jonathan slows when he notices my reaction, pressing his lips together as he watches me try to merge with metal. My face turns to the side and I look down. Heart beating hard, I say, "I can't. Please don't."

He watches me for a moment. "Not even a kiss?"

I shake my head and don't look up at him. I don't trust myself, and I saved this kiss for so long. It's not his. "No, I'm sorry."

He steps back and nearly falls off the porch, which makes me look up and react. I reach out for him and grab his wrist, steadying him as he steps onto the ground. He glances at my hand for a second and then up into my face. "Thanks." He pulls his wrist away and takes a shaky breath, pushing the hair out of his face and trailing his hands down his neck when he's done. "Damn, I haven't been this inept in a while... I thought—"

I shake my head, not wanting him to apologize. "It's weird, I know—"

"It's not weird at all." He looks up at me and I can tell he means it. "You have more conviction in that one belief than I have in my whole body. So, no first kiss?"

I shake my head as my face flames red and avert my eyes. "Not yet. I'm saving it."

He nods and looks down at his hands before shoving them in his pockets. "Then I'll be certain not to screw that up for you. I just wanted you to know—without a shadow of doubt—how beautiful and completely kissable you are..." His voice trails off like he doesn't know what else to say.

I glance up at him from under my lashes, careful not to meet his gaze, and smile. I can't help it. Awkward silence starts building and quickly grows bigger. I hate it and smash it back with some classic Cassie. I stomp down the steps and walk up to him. "I'd kiss you if I wasn't waiting."

He smirks. "So, you're eighteen and never been kissed?" I nod. A wicked grin crosses his face and I can't tell if he's serious or joking. "Promise me something. When you turn thirty—if Mr. Right still hasn't swept you off your feet—come and find me."

My stomach twists hard. The way he looks at me makes me think he isn't talking about lips on lips, but something more. I swallow hard and nod, tucking a curl behind my ear. "Don't worry, when I give up, you'll be the guy I go looking for to deflower me."

Jonathan nearly chokes at my comment, and then we both start laughing. It pushes things back to the way they had been, which is good. I spend my entire day with him, every day. Jonathan's become the reason I get out of bed in the morning and has learned more about me than most of my friends at home. I hold everyone at arm's length, but this guy managed to get closer. It makes me wonder when I dropped my guard, and if he snuck under the fence or if I let him in.



Jonathan Gray is a famous painter that I've been following for a few years. I made the mistake of buying one of his pieces a few years ago and giving it to my mother as a gift. She has no appreciation of art, other than the hope that it'll increase in value. When I bought it, Jonathan Gray was a no-name, just another hack slapping paint on a canvas, as mother kindly stated.

A few weeks later the guy became huge, like instantly famous. Mom didn't care. Suddenly my good eye was perceived as luck. Even an idiot can get lucky. That's what my family thinks of me, that I have no mind and that I'm all about flash and charm, with nothing deeper.

After a while it's easier to give in and be what they see instead of trying to convince them that they're wrong. I admit it, I gave up. I'm the monster they made me into. Serious about nothing, and a total player.

The past few weeks here have been different though. Something about Cassie is different. She seems to see through me. It's like she knows there's something else beneath this smokescreen I'm wearing all the time. It's like she knows I'm a fake and is okay with it. It's hard to explain, but when someone actually sees the person inside and doesn't run screaming, or try to get into my pants, I don't know what to make of it.

On the car ride over, Cassie is quiet. I bump my shoulder into hers. "When we first met, you asked me what I did that got me banished here for the summer."

She smiles at me. "You don't have to say anything, Jon. It's none of my business. I shouldn't have asked."

I press my lips together for a second, as my hands get hotter. This could backfire, but I want her to know. A lot has happened in a short time, and it feels like things should go this way. If there are walls between us, I don't want them there because of me. I glance at the driver. The divider is up so I know he can't hear. "I don't mind that you asked. Actually, you're the only person who did ask. Everyone else just assumes that I did the same old shit and pissed off my mother, but it wasn't like that. There's this school in Jersey that is doing some pretty cool things. They have this curriculum that favors kinetic learning and incorporates computers, online programs, and some other stuff that puts it light-years ahead of every other school in the country. It's impressive." I feel her gaze on the side of my face as I speak. Damn, my palms are hot. I don't look at her. I continue and spit it out as fast as I can. "So I bought it."

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