Hunt was there beside me, asking me questions. His mouth was moving forever before I was able to understand him.

“You’re having a panic attack. Breathe. Just breathe. Close your eyes.”

I did what he said, and all I could say was, “Sorry.”

I was many things, but mostly I was sorry.

“Oh, princess. Don’t be. You never have to be sorry with me.”

I noticed my chest jumping before I noticed I was crying. “You’re okay.” His voice was deep and calm, and he pulled me into him. It didn’t make sense, but with my face buried in his shoulder, it was somehow easier to breathe.

“I don’t know where to start. I’m not that good with words. I’m a visual person. I know what I see, and I know that you are not missing any pieces. Not any, sweetheart.” My lungs ached, and my head spun. I held him tightly just waiting for it all to stop. “You’re bruised and battered from dealing with things you should not have had to face, but you are not less because of that. You’re more.” His hands smoothed through my hair, gentle and soothing. “Your parents were wrong. What happened to you was wrong. And they should have fought for you. You were brave enough to tell them, and they failed you, and I’m sorry. And I’m sorry that you had to learn how to medicate your own pain, and it’s not your fault that you had to do that. Someone should have been there to help you in another way. They weren’t, and that’s awful, but it’s also over. And this time I’m here, and I’m telling you there are other ways.”

I pulled back, wiping at my wet cheeks and said, “I thought that’s what you would be. I thought being with you was helping—but, oh God, it hurts worse.” I curled over onto my knees, as if making myself the smallest target possible would keep the pain from finding me. “Being with you made me realize what I’d been missing.”

“Shouldn’t that make you happy? That being with me feels good?”

“It does make me happy. When it doesn’t make me sad. I don’t know how to balance the two.”

His hand slid up my back, and then he pulled me up, prying me open. His hand curved around my cheek, and his thumb brushed over my bottom lip. “Not how you tried tonight. That doesn’t balance anything. It throws away the scale. I did the same thing once on leave. I went back to that life, tried to drink away what I saw in the sand. It made it easier to face when I was drunk, but twice as hard to see when I was sober.”


“God, I’m terrible. Making this huge deal when you’ve seen so much worse.”

“Stop.” He pulled my face close. “Don’t do that. Your parents may have made light of what happened to you, but there was nothing light about it. I signed up for the military. Mine was a choice.”

“So how did you deal with it?”

He smiled. “Trial and error.” His eyes dropped to my lips. “And I make sure there’s always another option that I want more. Just stay with me. We’ll beat it together, okay? Say you’ll stay with me.”

I swallowed, hoping that was enough. “Okay.”


“If you’ll tell me one thing.”


“The voice mails,” I began, and he tensed immediately. “There’s not . . . someone back home waiting for you is there? A girl?”

“Oh God. No, Kelsey. There’s no one but you. I swear.”

I nodded. “Okay.” Anything else I could deal with.

He pulled me into his lap. And this time, at least, it didn’t hurt.

We spent another few days in Cinque Terre, airing out our issues on hiking trails and ocean-side cliffs. There was no magic fix. I had trouble sleeping, and so did he. We reverted back to the way we’d been in Florence, finding sanctuary in simple touches only.

Jackson decided we needed a change of scenery to shake things up, so we went to Rome.

How crazy was that? Need something different, so hop on over to the home of arguably the most powerful ancient civilization. No big. For the first time, we acted like tourists, and I didn’t even care.

It was easy to pretend in the daylight. We were both good at that.

We took a walking tour of the city, saw the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and the Theater of Marcellus. Rome was a city I’d studied extensively in my theatre-history class, so I became a walking Wikipedia page as I told him about how the Colosseum had worked and the other crazy things the Romans did for entertainment.

“Mock sea battles,” I said. “They would actually fill up an entire arena with water, and watch two ships full of people battle until one sunk.”

“Sounds awesome.”

“Hell yes, it does. Except for, you know, the hundreds upon thousands of people who probably died.”

“Right, of course,” he said, laughing. “You know, you seem to really love this stuff.”

“Rome? I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t love this stuff at least a little. Thank Russell Crowe.”

“No, I mean, the history. You could be a teacher.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Me? Um, I would probably cuss out a student on the first day.”

I thought about that day in Budapest with my young artist. It had been exciting, helping him, but I’d also wanted to punch that bully in the solar plexus.

“No, you wouldn’t. You would be great. And all your students would actually listen because you’re gorgeous.”

“Yes, that’s what qualifies me for being a teacher. Having boobs.”

He shrugged. “That would have been enough for me when I was in high school.”

I shook my head and changed the subject. “I know you told me you don’t have anything waiting for you back home. Does that mean you’re still in the military?”

“Not anymore, no.”

I touched his shoulder where I knew he had a thin scar, wondering if that had something to do with it.

“And you don’t have anything to get back to?”

“I told you, Kelsey.” He pressed his forehead against mine. “I’m all yours.”

That night, he set out to prove it. Slowly, like we were starting all over from scratch.

He kissed me until there was no trace of pain in his touch, until I couldn’t remember any other lips but his.

He found every little sensitive nook that made my toes curl and my eyes roll back in my head. He knew what made me hold my breath and what made me cry out his name.

He particularly enjoyed that discovery.

He explored my body like he was the very first one, and in many ways, it felt that way for me, too.

He held me close, his fingers wrapped up in my hair and our bodies connected. His breath tickled across my lips, and I thought . . . this is what it means to trust someone.

I didn’t realize I was crying until he kissed away the tears.

I didn’t realize a lot of things when I was caught up in him.

From Rome we headed to Naples, where I had three goals: pizza, Pompeii, and more pizza. And maybe to surreptitiously take pictures of Italian men in suits that I thought could be part of the Mafia. But that was an unofficial goal.

We boarded a regional train from Rome and found an empty compartment in the last car. There were three seats facing each other on each side of the compartment. Hunt took a seat by the window, and I sat in the middle and snuggled up against him.

“So, I was thinking we might go to Capri after Naples. It’s not too far.”

“Are there more nude beaches?” I asked.

He pinched my side, and I squealed, contorting my body away from him. He pulled me back to him laughing, and the train slowly pulled out of the station.

I said, “Fine. Then I’ll have to go shopping for another swimsuit.”

He shrugged. “I’m okay with that. As long as you model the options for me.”

I said, “I think I can handle that,” and launched myself into his lap, giggling.

He slid away from the window a little, so my knees could fit on either side of him. His eyes flicked to the compartment door, checking that the curtain was drawn.

“Now, this is by far the best way to travel.”

I found that spot on his jaw that drove him crazy and concentrated my energy there. His hands gripped my hips, pulling me down against him.


I ground my hips against him, and his head dropped back against the seat with a groan. God, I would never get tired of doing this to him.

“Kelsey, how are you feeling?”

“Really?” I pressed my chest against his. “Do you actually have to ask that?”

He pulled my hands from his shoulders and pushed them down by my thighs. “I didn’t mean that. I meant about the things we discussed in Cinque Terre. These days in Rome have been fun, but I need you to be honest with me and tell me where you’re at.”

“At the moment, I’m in your lap.”

“I’m serious. There are some things I want to talk about, but I don’t want to push you too fast.”

That didn’t sound even remotely like a way I wanted to pass this train ride.

I pulled his face forward and said, “Kiss now, talk later.”


“I don’t know, Jackson. I don’t know how I feel yet. I’m so used to pretending, to shoving it all away and pasting on a smile that sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I’m trying, but I don’t know.”

His eyes searched mine for a few seconds, and I saw something flicker there that looked like pain, and I didn’t want him to pity me any more than he already did.

So, I leaned down to kiss him again. He hesitated, and I pulled his bottom lip between my teeth. His hips lifted up into me, and his mouth seized mine.

“Irresistible,” he breathed.

“So you keep telling me.”

His hands ventured up from my hips to tease the skin just below the hem of my shirt. Then he stopped teasing and slid one hand up my spine to the clasp of my bra. My whole body seemed to bloom at his touch, like my heart expanded and my ribs had to unfold like petals to make room.

He broke our kiss and said again, “Kelsey.”

“Jackson.” I rocked against him again, and his body locked up, his grip so hard on me that it was almost painful. Almost. Really it just made me want him more.

“I didn’t think I would feel this way.”

“What way?” I asked.

“Like life is worth living again.”

I pulled back so that I could look into his eyes, and that feeling, that attachment I’d felt to him was no longer a hook, but an anchor buried deep in my rib cage.

“I didn’t believe you when you told me I would find another place to call home.” I kissed him tenderly, trying to pour all my gratitude and affection and all the other unnamed things that I felt into my kiss. “This feels like home.”


We subsisted on pizza, gelato, and coffee for two full days in Naples before taking a train out to the ancient city of Pompeii. I was so fascinated by the history there, and the way their lives were so perfectly preserved by the volcanic eruption that stopped this place in time. We wandered the ruins, looking at the frescoes and columns and homes that had been left behind.

There were stray dogs everywhere, and a small mutt with gorgeous blue eyes that I named Chachi followed us for almost the entire day. The ruins held not one, but two theaters. Yet, all that paled in comparison to seeing the plaster casts of the bodies. When the town had been buried, the people were buried along with it. And when the ancient city was rediscovered, the people had returned to dust, but the shapes of their bodies in their last moments were preserved in the volcanic rock. There were people with their hands over their mouths or trying to shelter another person. Some had barely even had time to protect themselves before they died.

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