“Fucking Valentine's Day,” Monroe says, head thunking back against the pole between them, his entire body vibrating with leashed fury. Charlie refuses to let his little temper tantrum break her concentration – she's been working on his cuffs for at least half an hour, under less than ideal working conditions, and just needs this to be over. She makes a soothing noise and keeps twiddling.
Just as well misogyny can work for a girl sometimes, she thinks sourly as she pokes at the mechanism with the tiny piece of wire that lives inside her bra. She'd been tied to the pole first, but their rope work was so sloppy, she had freed her hands within minutes of their captors leaving the tent. Unfortunately, they'd taken Monroe more seriously, sitting them back to back and then yanking his arms right around to handcuff them together in her lap.
“Maybe you can still give your girl a Valentine's Day treat this way,” the big guy had leered, complete with a set of crude gestures that had made Monroe thrash against the pole for long, fruitless minutes. Charlie had bitten down hard on her lip in a bid to ignore the sensation of his muscles flexing against her breasts and her belly, the prison of his arms making her feel more trapped than any number of idiot bounty hunters ever could.
He doesn't know what he's doing to her, she tells herself. She's not his girl. Who they are, the things between them … she can't be. But that doesn't keep her pulse from racing when his fingers brush hers, or do anything to dispel the tension that rises between them so frequently these days. A year since they defeated the Patriots, two since she found him in New Vegas, nearly three since she stared down Strausser's gun that first, crazy day in Philadelphia – she's an old hand at ignoring this stubborn, idiotic crush by now. But she's not usually tied to a pole, drowning in the smell and feel of him as she tries to concentrate on picking a lock.
And he wants to talk.
He's launched into all the evils of Valentine's Day, something about teddy bears and expensive cards and candies with U-R-Sweet written on them, but she's not listening, can't, because his voice rubs her raw and robs her of every last weapon she has.
He's craning his neck to try and see her and Charlie prays it was a snort rather than a moan that betrayed her, and hides her face with the fall of her hair as she returns to twiddling the piece of wire in the lock. “Nothing. Just annoyed I can't get this.”
“I'm sorry, kid. Didn't mean to keep you from all your not-so-secret admirers on Valentine's Day.”
She rolls her eyes at his mention of the soldier boys trying to talk their way into her bed. There aren't as many as he seems to think there are, and it's been a while since she let anyone past the door. Yet he still needles her with sly jabs about the men brave enough to take on a Matheson.
(He calls them boys, and in her mind, she does the same. Age has nothing to do with it, just like it's not her being a Matheson that's the issue.)
At least they're nowhere near as persistent as the women chasing Monroe. Not many seemed to catch him – or he's discreet if they do – but Valentine's Day had brought the pursuit into sharp focus.
“What about you? Is that how we ended up on this little roadtrip – you trying to hide from all those little presents they left on your doorstep? Was that actually a heart-shaped cake? Never seen so much home cooking in my life.”
He shrugs, and Charlie has to bite down on her tongue as his hands shift in her lap. The silken rasp of his voice leaves her a puddle of want at the best of times, and when he's touching her … she needs to focus on the cuffs, and getting them out of here, she tells herself, redoubling her efforts. No more idle chitchat.
“Hey. Don't knock it. I've never been one for Valentine's Day, but at least this stuff you can eat. Better than lace underwear and tacky satin sheets,” he drawls, disgust clear in his voice.
“And now I'm picturing you in lace underwear,” she says before she can yank the words back. Or the image. Dammit.
He barks with delight.
“Hey, I'd make it look good. You, though -” he stops, suddenly realising he's blundered over one of the boundaries they try to preserve.
But the damage is done, the hurt flickering over her face before she is able to push it away. She notices him noticing, and makes a pathetic attempt at turning it into a joke. “Not exactly the delicate type, am I,” she mutters, redoubling her focus on the lock.
“Charlie. Charlotte!” he says urgently as she refuses to look back up at him. “Goddammit, you know that's not what I meant,” he pleads. She flashes him a dismissive smile but can't bear his stricken face, the thought that he's worried about her feelings, like some protective uncle. So she looks away again, missing the moment he stares up at the ceiling, a desperate last salvo in the fight he's been losing for months.
His voice is edged with chaos when he finally speaks.
“No lace, Charlie. No fucking satin either. It'd be a fucking travesty against your skin,” he rasps, then nearly dislocates his shoulder to be able to look at her as he continues. “If you were my Valentine, I'd be finding us a room somewhere and locking us in for 48 hours solid and the last thing you would need would be fancy underwear.”
“I'd be so desperate to get to you I'd probably cut it off anyway,” he confesses, and Charlie's mouth drops open as every cell in her body screams the truth.
He's not talking in hypotheticals. He's not joking. And he's sure as hell not playing protective uncle. Bass Monroe wants her. In the naked way.
Charlie's fingers start to shake as she stabs at the lock with new fervour. In a minute, she'll be able to speak, but right now she needs these handcuffs gone. The expectant silence is heavy around her shoulders, and he's waiting for her to say something, stiff as a board.
The lock clicks.
Suddenly freed from his arms, Charlie wriggles out of the rope and is on her feet even before he has finished shaking out his aching limbs. She can see regret already clouding his features, and she knows she can't let him back away from this. It's the ringbelt that does it.
It clatters to the floor, and he twists around in surprise. She's already half naked, pulling her jeans free of her ankles, bra and tank already sitting in a heap beside her.
She lifts her chin stubbornly and glares at him, daring him to tell her this isn't happening. “Happy Valentine's Day,” she growls, and slides a pair of tiny red panties down over her hips to kick them in his direction. She takes a moment to drink in his gobsmacked expression, almost smiling, then stalks around to his side of the pole to drop into his lap.
"So what, exactly, were you going to do with me once you had me naked?"
He croaks a little, too shocked to respond, then decides there are better things to do with his tongue than try to talk.