But I felt fear. Deeply rooted, powerful, gripping, paralyzing.
Fear isn’t manly. When I ran from Gina and her father, I had some money and my name. I never used a fake name. Never pretended to be anyone other than myself. Yet when I ran from the Karahalios clan, I was running not just from the specter of death, from what Vitaly wanted me to do, from what Gina wanted me to do, but from my own lack of control with Gina. I’d acquiesced to her in so many ways. I’d given in again and again. I’d done things, let her do things I hadn’t wanted to. All because I had been afraid. More than I’d ever reveal to Kyrie, or even admit to myself. I had buried all that as deep as it would go once I was free of Gina, and I’d left it there, buried and denied, for almost a decade. And now it was all coming up. Coming back. Scenes from the past flashing before my eyes.
I was paralyzed.
Not just by what Gina had done to me while I was cuffed to that bed. I could get over that. I’d resisted her. She hadn’t broken me. I held on, held out.
No, the real nightmares came from the memory of nights in years past, nights I’d spent wondering what Gina would make me do next. I’d been just a kid. Not a virgin when we met, not by any means. Not innocent, but in no way prepared for the madness and insatiable cruelty of a woman like Gina. I’d been afraid of her. Damn right, I had been. Still was. Evil I do not fear. Death I do not fear. Violence and blood and torture I do not fear. The unpredictable blood lust, the cruelty for the sake of sadism, and the way she savored fear, delighted in agony, relished manipulation and madness—that I feared.
So, standing there with Kyrie naked and waiting for me to be her man—the man I was, the man I had been and should be, all I could feel was the fear of bygone days. Remembered fear. The feeling of filth on my skin after Gina finally left me. Wanting to scrub my skin until it bled to get the film of self-loathing off.
When I finally escaped to New York, I hadn’t touched a woman for more than a year. Couldn’t look at a woman, couldn’t bear to be touched, kissed, or spoken to unless it was for business. And the first time I did finally take a woman, it had been an escort. A prostitute. The terms had been laid out ahead of time. There would be no date. No illusion of romance. She would not speak. She would not touch me. If she wanted me to stop, she would say my name: “Mr. Roth.” At which point she would receive half-pay and would leave immediately. The first time, I’d been a bastard. I paid her triple. I hadn’t hurt her, but I’d been gruff, harsh, demanding. I’d done what I needed to do to relieve the ache, and then I sent her home. I hadn’t spoken a word. It had been brusque, cold, and cruel. The next time, with the next prostitute, I’d forced myself to go slower, to be kinder, gentler. As time went on, I learned a balance. I established my demands at the outset. Made it abundantly clear that this was to be a one-sided transaction, nothing more. It was about me taking what I needed and being done. Then one of the escorts broke the rules. She kissed me. She touched me. She’d refused to pretend to come. They all pretended; I knew that, and I didn’t care. This one, she didn’t pretend. She let me do what I wished, and then she’d…kissed me. Asked me if I wanted to try again, but this time not for business, no money changing hands. Just a man and woman in bed together. She wanted to come, too, she said.
I went with it. I didn’t follow her lead, but instead of merely taking what I wanted, I paid attention to her physical cues and tried to make her come. In so doing, I discovered a deeper pleasure. Something hotter and more intense than my own orgasm. Making that escort—whose name I never even asked—feel pleasure gave me something, did something to me.
When the night ended and the girl finally went home, I sat on the balcony of my high-rise, thinking. Reflecting. And I decided to embark on a quest. Instead of taking pleasure, I would give it. Under my terms, under my control. So I sent the escort a check for half a million dollars and a note thanking her for teaching me a valuable lesson.
And then I met Kyrie.
There had been other women in the years between that first meeting and sending Kyrie the first check. But when I made my decision, when I knew without a doubt that I had to make her mine, I stopped seeing anyone else. I cut ties with the escort service. Erased all the phone numbers of willing and discreet women I had on call. Over a year, not a single touch, not a look. By the time I had Kyrie sleeping in my guest room, I was crazed with need. I’d built up Kyrie in my mind. Made her into this…goddess. This was a woman who would change my life, a woman without compare. I made her into something no person could ever live up to.
And then…Kyrie did the impossible. She not only lived up to my expectations, but she shattered them. Defied them. Surpassed them and made me need her all the more desperately. God. And then I told her my secret, expecting it would be the end. She’d left. I’d wallowed in despair. But she came back, and she pushed me. Gave me life back. Healed me. Made me believe in love.
I’d told her I loved her, but I hadn’t known what love was. I needed her. Wanted her. But love? What was that? I didn’t know.
She’d taught me. She was still teaching me.
Her voice in the present shook me out of my silence. I’d been lost in my thoughts for who knew how long, the water from the shower sending steam billowing around us.
“Roth?” Her voice was soft, hesitant. She held out her hand to me, an invitation. “Come in the shower with me. We don’t have to do anything. Just be near me. You don’t have to do anything or say anything. Just…be here with me, okay?” The resignation in her voice sliced deeply, cut me down where I stood.
I was failing her.
I was still in my underwear, but she pulled me into the shower anyway, and I let her. She adjusted the water so it wasn’t scalding, and then backed under the spray, facing me, letting the hot water stream down her back and onto her hair, plastering the blonde locks to her skull and pasting them to her cheek. She tilted her head back and ran her hands through her hair, scraping it backward, letting the water run over her face and into her mouth. I couldn’t look away. I watched as she spat a mouthful of water out and watched as it merged on her chest with the sluicing rivulets from the showerhead above. I watched as she twisted in place, letting the hot water beat on her perfect skin till it was pink. I watched as she found the shampoo, my eyes following her curves as she bent to take the bottle out from beneath the bench, and I watched as she lathered the shampoo into her hair.