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“Strip down as quickly as possible. Don’t inhale while you’re pulling your shirt over your head.”

Barba had already flung his jacket aside and tugged his suspenders down his arms. He loosened his tie and pulled it over his head, then grabbed his shirt at the collar and yanked it open, popping the buttons even as he was toeing off his shoes.

“Lieutenant,” the woman in the HAZMAT suit said. She’d already taken Benson’s gun and everything from her pockets.

Benson pulled her shirt from her trousers and stripped it over her head, holding her breath. The night air was cold, and her skin was already prickled with gooseflesh. She hesitated with her fingers at her fly. She was standing in her bra, within the barricade of firetrucks and hastily-erected tents, visible only to a man and woman in protective gear—and Barba.

“Lieutenant Benson,” the woman said, and Benson knew that every second was vital.

Barba met her eyes and, without comment, turned away as he peeled his undershirt over his head. Benson caught sight of a jagged scar, pale in the flashing red lights of the emergency vehicles, running diagonally across his shoulder blade, and then she was turning, too, yanking her trousers and underwear over her hips without allowing herself any further hesitation.

She stripped off her bra and, in a matter of seconds, stood completely naked, shivering in the night air.

“Spread your feet apart and hold your arms up and out to your sides,” the woman said. “Tip your chin up, don’t let the water run into your eyes. I know it’s cold. It’ll be over quickly.”

The water hit Benson before the woman had finished speaking, and the lieutenant clenched her jaw against the sound that tried to escape her lips. Behind her, she heard Barba swear.

The water quickly numbed her skin and made her teeth chatter, and she wanted to hug herself. The feeling of being exposed was nearly as excruciating as the bite of the cold, and she closed her eyes, trying not to think about the eyes of the man and woman, or who else might somehow be watching.

She wasn’t overly worried about the possibility of contamination. They’d gotten out within seconds, and more than anything, this was a precaution. They couldn’t afford to risk not going through the process, though, no matter how uncomfortable.

The water was sluicing off her body as she shivered, running in rivulets from the tapered ends of her hair down her back. She could feel the cold ache in her breasts, could feel the gritty concrete beneath her feet, and over the sound of the water, she could hear voices from outside the cordon. For several seconds, a feeling of unreality washed over her, and she tried to wrap her head around the fact that she was standing, completely naked, in the middle of Manhattan, with Barba less than ten feet behind her.

“Turn, please,” the man in the HAZMAT suit said.

Benson’s stomach squirmed as she obediently turned, fighting the instinct to lower her arms.

Barba’s eyes were closed. Benson’s gaze skimmed down his body before she could stop it, following the flow of water over a handful of scars across his chest and abdomen—standing out paler than normal because of the cold, revealed by the flash of red lights—and down to the dark curls below.

If that’s after the cold water—she thought, before jerking her eyes away and slamming her mind shut against the inappropriate thought.

Her gaze met his, and a rush of blood made her face the only warm part of her body. At least, the only part she was going to admit, even to herself.

“Keep your chin up, close your eyes,” the woman said, and Barba and Benson both obeyed without hesitation.

Benson cursed herself a dozen times, not only for looking at him—an action for which there was no excuse—but for being caught doing it. In a couple of minutes, they were going to be in an isolation tent together, and what was she supposed to say? Oh, hey, sorry for checking you out, just curious, you know?

She almost laughed at the thought, but nothing about this situation was funny.

The spray of water stopped, but it took a moment for Benson to realize.

“Dry off with the towels before you go in the tent, leave them outside. Inside, you’ll find clean robes,” the woman said.

“You’re not to leave the tent until you’re cleared,” the man added. “Someone will be in to check on you periodically. You should be released in an hour, barring any symptoms.”

“How do we know if we have symptoms?” Barba asked.

“You’ll know,” the man answered, gesturing without ceremony toward the tent.

Benson had her arms crossed over her chest, now—for all the good it did. Barba’s arms were hanging at his sides; he was making no effort to cover himself—and again, what would be the point?—but Benson studiously kept her traitorous gaze from wandering.

Barba was headed toward the tent. He glanced sideways at her, and his eyes slipped down to her crossed arms before quickly skating away. In the strobe of red, she saw his throat bob. He reached the towels first, and snatched one up, handing it back to her without looking. His hand bumped against her naked hip.

“Shit,” he said. He jerked his arm back, almost dropping the towel, and she grabbed it away from him. “Sorry,” he said.

“It’s fine,” she mumbled, but her lips felt numb and her jaw was clenched to keep her teeth from chattering. “I’m freezing,” she added, unnecessarily, as she tried to dry herself with trembling hands. Barba had his back to her as he ran the towel over his wet skin. Up close, she had a much better view of the scar on his shoulder, and she couldn’t help wondering how he’d gotten it.

“We should’ve let them drown us and be done with it,” Barba said, and she could hear a slight tremor in his voice, too. “If there’s not a heater in this tent, so help me God—” He flung his towel to the ground and stepped into the enclosure.

She heard him mutter something in Spanish, but he spoke so quietly that the only words she could pick out were gracias and Dios. That was enough to be encouraging, so she quickly followed him into the tent. He was already slipping into one of the white robes. Benson grabbed the other one from the bench and promptly dropped it. Cursing beneath her breath, she bent to retrieve it.

Barba turned toward her; the tent was well-lit with portable lights, and there was no chance he’d missed the swing of her breasts as she snatched for the robe. She grabbed it to her chest; her nipples were painfully hard from the chill, and even the robe felt unbearably abrasive.

Barba let out a string of curses in a mixture of English and Spanish as he spun away, and she quickly shoved her arms into the robe and pulled it closed. She fumbled with the belt, unsuccessfully trying to tie it. Her fingers were nearly useless.

“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were—Sorry.”

“I’m covered,” she said. He turned—cautiously, she thought—as she was still trying to manage the belt. “How are you doing better than I am?” she asked, with just a hint of accusation in her unsteady voice. “You’re always cold, even with twenty-seven layers of clothes—” She broke off, making a sound of frustration.

“Here,” he said, reaching out. His fingers brushed hers as he took the ends of the belt, and she let her hands fall away, watching his fingers make quick work of a bow.

“Thanks,” she muttered as he stepped back. She hugged herself and walked toward the space-heater, letting out a breath of relief as the hot air wrapped itself around her damp calves and feet, warming her legs. Barba stepped up beside her, rubbing his hands together.

“This is fun,” he said drily.

She laughed, a short sound but not completely devoid of humor. “Perfect end to such a lovely day,” she answered, and there was no missing her sarcasm. It had been an exhausting day, and all she wanted was to go home, take a scalding hot shower, put on the fluffiest, warmest pajamas she could find, and snuggle into bed.

“Technically, the start of a new day,” Barba answered. They’d taken his watch, of course—and phone, and every other personal item, for decontamination—but it had already been after midnight when they were ushered between the firetrucks.

“Great,” she said, with a roll of her eyes. “That’s comforting.”

“I hope your nanny doesn’t get overtime wages, for your sake. Although for hers, I guess I hope she does,” he said as he turned his back to the heater, letting it warm the backs of his legs.

Benson laughed and followed his lead, also turning. “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just have my paychecks made out to her,” she said.

Barba glanced at her with a smile. “She’s lucky Noah’s a good kid,” he said. “If she’d had to deal with the kind of hell I raised, she’d have quit a long time ago.”

“I think you mean I’m lucky, then,” she said. She was deeply touched by the casual compliment toward Noah—and curious about what type of trouble Barba could’ve been as a child. She knew something of the friends with whom he’d surrounded himself, but she also had an idea that he’d spent far more time with his nose in a book than in anything nefarious. Perhaps she’d misjudged young Rafael, though; his scars weren’t papercuts, and would indicate at least a few real-life escapades.

“He’s good because you’ve raised him,” he answered. “There’s no luck in that.”

Before she could think of anything to say, he walked over to one of the two benches and, straightening the flaps of the robe over his thighs, sat down with a grimace. He looked over at her and cocked an eyebrow at whatever he saw in her face. She gave her head a shake and walked over to sit on the other bench, facing him, trying not to shiver.

“You seem surprised,” he remarked. “Am I really such an asshole—”

“It’s just been a long day,” she cut in. “Maybe I’m feeling overly emotional. But thank you.”

“Hmm,” he said, smirking. “Nice dodge.”

She smiled. “You’re not an asshole, Barba,” she said. “Well, most of the time,” she added.

He chuckled quietly, crossing his arms over his stomach and his ankles before him. He was silent for a few moments. “You know this is just a precaution,” he said. “You’ll be home to your son in no time.”

She nodded and they fell silent again. She was sitting with her legs crossed and her hands braced on the bench on either side of herself. He was looking at her robe, and his brows were dipped down into a frown.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she joked, trying to keep her mind from straying to the image of him, standing naked in the wash of water and red lights.

His eyes slid up to hers, and their gazes locked and held. She suddenly couldn’t breathe, and she felt a flush warming her chilled skin.

“Honestly?” he asked quietly, and she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know. “I wish I could’ve seen them stick a needle in William Lewis’s arm,” he murmured, and she was so stunned by the words that she could do nothing but stare at him. He grimaced. “Sorry,” he said. “I know you had to watch him—”

“They’re not all from him, you know,” she interrupted, shoving aside the memory of Lewis blowing his brains out in front of her.

“No,” he said, barely audible. “I know.” He didn’t ask any questions, and they regarded each other in silence.

Benson decided to shift the conversation away from Lewis—and hopefully satisfy her curiosity in the process. “You’ve got some scars of your own,” she said. She saw something—was it fear?—flicker across his features, but it was hidden away before she could identify it. “From that raising hell you mentioned?” she asked.

“Something like that,” he said with a small smile. “You know how kids are.”

“Sure,” she answered. “But that one—” She lifted a hand to point at the backside of her shoulder—“is big. That must’ve been a nasty injury. How old were you?”

He shrugged, shifting on the bench. “It was a long time ago,” he said, his tone clearly dismissive.

She studied him, noting his discomfort. “You don’t want to tell me,” she realized. She knew she should back off—he had no obligation to share childhood stories with her if he didn’t want to—and she knew that the sting of hurt feelings was irrational.

“I’ve never told anyone,” he said. As soon as the words left his mouth, he pressed his lips together and looked toward the heater.

“No one?” she asked, unable to stop herself.

He gave his head a little shake but didn’t answer aloud.

“How is that possible?” she asked. “Surely you’ve—”

“Have you explained every scar to anyone?” he asked without looking at her, scowling toward the heater. At her hesitation, he said, “See? It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”

Her mind wrestled with itself for a moment as she fought the urge to press the issue when he clearly didn’t want to discuss it. “Is that the line you use on people you’re sleeping with?” she asked, and she could only assume the cold had affected her brain.

“People?” he responded, his gaze sliding back to hers.

“When they ask about the scar.”

“If they bother asking?”

“I’m sure it works the first time, but eventually they must be curious.”

“Eventually?”

“Want to know more details. Surely you can’t shrug them off forever.”

“Forever?”

“Why do you keep repeating me?”

“I’m trying to catch up.”

“I’m just thinking when you sleep with someone—”

Why are you?”

“—it’s natural for them to ask about something like that.”

“Are you asking about my sex life?”

“You said you’ve never told anyone.”

“And?”

“How can you have a relationship with someone and never talk about something so obvious?”

“Obvious?”

“Barba.”

“It’s not so obvious during sex, Olivia,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Perhaps you have a misconception about my preferred—”

“It’s not just the one on your shoulder,” she cut in, refusing to be deterred. “That’s just the biggest. Your stomach—”

“Do you have a point?”

“I’m just wondering if it’s only me you don’t want to tell.”

“So you’re accusing me of lying. Noted.”

“Fine,” she said. “Forgive me for wanting—”

“Don’t you think if I’d had a relationship in the last six years, you’d know about it? I’ve certainly known about all of yours.” He paused. “Eventually,” he added, glaring at her.

She blinked, surprised. “Okay,” she answered mildly.

He sighed and looked away. “Let’s just drop it. Like you said, it’s been a long day.”

“That scar didn’t happen in the last six years,” she said.

“And, not dropping it,” he muttered.

“And I know you’re not a monk.”

“Do you.”

“And I know that I wouldn’t sleep with someone for any length of time without eventually asking about a scar that big.”

“Good to know.”

“You could’ve just said you didn’t want to tell me.”

“Obviously not.”

“That’s not what you said. You said you’d never—”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

She stopped. “Fine. I’m sorry I pushed.”

He flashed her a humorless smile. “No, you’re not,” he said. “Interrogation is your bread and butter.”

That hurt, but she tried not to let it show. “I thought I was talking to you as a friend. I didn’t realize you felt interrogated,” she said.

“I’m sure Tucker knew as well as I do about the cigarette burns,” he said, meeting her eyes and gesturing toward her breasts with a flick of his hand. “What about the others? The one on your hip, here,” he said, running a finger diagonally in the air in front of his own pelvic bone. “That one looks old. Early days on the job, maybe? Not in the last six years, I’m sure I’d know—”

“Okay, you’ve made your point,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were looking so carefully,” she added before she could stop herself. She had no right to throw that in his face, considering where her eyes had strayed, but she’d been caught off guard. Of all the scars on her body, that was the one he’d chosen to mention?

Instead of turning the accusation back on her, he sighed and ran his hand through his wet hair. “Is irritation one of the symptoms we should watch for?” he asked.

“It’s because you missed your dinner,” she said. “And your ten o’clock snack,” she added.

He smiled. “And eleven o’clock…”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, and she meant it. “You’re right. I should’ve dropped it. I just…don’t like the idea of there being things you don’t want to tell me.”

“It’s not personal, Liv,” he said quietly.

“No? Because you’re right, I haven’t told anyone about some of my scars. The one on my hip that you mentioned? I’ve never told anyone. Precisely because it is personal. Too personal. I talked about the…incident…with Casey Novak, but even she didn’t know about the scar.”

“You have a dangerous—and traumatic—job. You have no obligation to rehash injuries—”

“It didn’t happen on the job,” she said. And, before she knew the words were going to leave her lips, they were hanging in the air between them: “I was sixteen. My mother came after me with a broken bottle. I thought she might kill me. It’s not the first time she was violent but it was the first time I thought she might actually kill me,” she said. “I fought her off.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Dr. Lindstrom and I have talked about that night a dozen times and I’ve never mentioned the fact that I bandaged the wound myself so that no one would know she’d cut me. Covering for abusive parents is part of the landscape, you know as well as I do, we’ve seen it in hundreds—thousands—of victims.”

“Jesus, Liv,” he said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his expression tight. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

Someone tapped the outside of the tent near the door, and a moment later, a woman in a white anti-contamination suit opened the flap and stepped inside. “How are we feeling in here?” she asked cheerfully. Benson and Barba stared at her, and she held up a medical bag. “Just need to check you both out and we should be able to get you out of here in no time,” she said.

“Do we really have to stay here an hour?” Benson asked. “I feel fine. He feels fine,” she added, gesturing toward Barba. He was looking sideways at her, but she avoided meeting his eyes. “Surely we would know if—”

“I’m afraid it’s going to be at least another half an hour,” the woman said, approaching Barba first.

“Can we get a snack, at least?” Benson asked, and she saw Barba’s lips quirk before she once more looked away.

“Afraid not,” the woman answered happily.

“I find your cheerfulness intolerable,” Barba told her in a flat, casual voice, and Benson burst out laughing at the woman’s surprised expression inside her protective suit.

“You should’ve brought food,” Benson told her. “Never hose a lion down and then walk into its cage without a steak.”

Now Barba was laughing, too, and they looked at each other. “I’d settle for pizza,” he said.

“If they hadn’t taken my phone, I’d order you one,” Benson answered.

“Thanks,” he said, and she laughed again.

Benson felt like something had shifted inside of her. She’d often wondered if there weren’t some piece of her that was irreparably broken—so broken that even her sessions with Lindstrom couldn’t shine a light on all the shards. She’d told him so many things about herself, things that no one else in the world knew. She’d never been able to pinpoint the reason behind keeping a single scar to herself, when she was covered body and soul with scars.

Now, for the first time in her life, she’d bared a wound that had never fully healed, a wound that no one had ever truly seen. What she felt was relief, and a sense that there might be hope, after all.

The woman held up a penlight. “Tip your head back and open your mouth, please, Mr. Barba,” she said.

Within five minutes she was gone, leaving Benson and Barba to listen to the hum and tick of the space-heater. They looked across the quiet tent at each other. Benson didn’t regret sharing her secret with him, but she didn’t want him to think she’d only told him in an effort to get him to share his.

“Let’s talk about the Curtis case,” she said. “Mary has to take the stand on Monday. How bad is it going to be?”

“She’ll be massacred,” he answered. “I’ll do as much damage control as I can. I’ve prepared her as much as possible.” He hesitated, searching her face. “Liv,” he said.

She shook her head. “You know why she’s changed her story,” she said, before he could shift the subject. His expression was troubled but, after a few seconds of internal debate, he followed her lead.

“Let’s hope the jury understands,” he said.

 

*       *       *

 

“You didn’t have to drive me home,” he said, “but thanks.” He hesitated, shifting the hot pizza box on his lap. It was burning through his NYPD sweatpants, but he didn’t mind the heat after the chilly evening. “I’d invite you in for pizza and a drink, but I know you want to get home…” he said, regarding her in the dim glow of the dashboard lights.

“My relationship with you isn’t the same as with Tucker,” she said quietly.

He laughed, but it sounded forced. “I’m aware,” he answered. He reached for the door handle. “Have a good night, Liv,” he said. “What’s left of—”

She put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “Or anyone else,” she told him. “I thought about marrying him and he knows less about me than you do.”

“It’s just one scar,” he said, and his voice was tight, now. She realized she was hurting him, which was the last thing she wanted. “There’s a lot more to a marriage than—”

She lifted a hand, snaking her fingers into his hair, and leaned forward to kiss him. Her seatbelt locked, stopping her with a jolt. She looked down, fumbling for the buckle. As she finally managed to pop it open, Barba raised a hand and wrapped his fingers around her wrist, beside his jaw. She looked up and stilled, thinking he was going to pull her hand away.

His eyes searched hers, questioning. After a few seconds, he leaned toward her, slowly, watching her. He shifted the pizza on his lap, holding it with his right hand, and paused with his lips an inch from hers. His breath was warm and soft.

She closed the last bit of space between them, touching her lips to his. He drew a breath through his nose, and his hand left her wrist to thread its way into her still-damp hair. She opened her mouth to him, inviting him in, and he made a sound in his throat. He lifted the pizza box and shoved it blindly onto the dash, shifting toward her, raising his other hand to her cheek. She fisted her hand into the front of his sweatshirt, trying to pull him closer over the console.

Somewhere nearby, a car horn split the night, and Benson pulled back, startled, blinking Barba’s face into focus. He looked as stunned as she felt. She swallowed, glancing through the windshield. Barba drew away, lowering his hands to his lap, and she released his shirt reluctantly.

“I should…go,” he said, but he sounded unsure.

“The scar isn’t the reason I couldn’t marry him,” she said. “I’m sorry, Rafael.”

He looked at her. “For what?” he asked carefully.

“I know my relationship with him hurt you.”

“It’s not your fault. I never asked,” he said, the words barely audible in the stillness.

“Asked…?”

“I never asked you to choose me.”

She felt the sting of tears behind her eyes. “No,” she breathed. “But I did, anyway. I chose you, just the faintest possibility of you. If you’ll give me a chance—”

He leaned toward her and kissed her again, and this time she could feel the desperation he was trying to contain. His hand was heavy on her shoulder, but his tongue was gentle as it ran along her lower lip.

She broke away before desire could rob her of all rational thought. The pizza was fogging up the windshield, but anyone could happen by and see them in her cruiser. “Can I come inside?” she asked.

“Can you—” He stopped and offered a chuff of laughter. “Liv, I—Yes,” he said, cutting himself off again. “If you want to.”

She killed the car engine and opened her door. He grabbed his bag of personal belongings from the floor by his feet and pushed his own door open, swinging his legs out. “Pizza,” she said, laughing as he swiveled back to grab it from the dash. “I thought you were starving,” she said as she climbed out of the car.

He looked at her over the roof as they both straightened. “I was,” he answered.

She smiled, locking the doors and pocketing the keys. They walked side by side without touching. She wanted to grab him and shove him against the building and plunge her tongue down his throat, but she kept her hands and mouth to herself.

“Rough night?” the doorman asked, eying their matching sets of sweats as he let them inside.

“I’ve had worse,” Barba answered cheerily, and Benson was still laughing when they got to the elevator. He glanced at her with a smile as they entered the car. “Something amusing?” he asked.

“Yeah, you are,” she said, bumping her arm against his. “Your mood swings could give someone whiplash.”

“Guess I’m just happy to finally be home,” he said.

“Oh, is that it,” she answered. “I thought maybe—”

He turned and backed her against the side of the elevator car. His hands were full; he held the pizza out to one side, and his bag by his thigh, as he pressed his body into hers and covered her mouth in a kiss that sent a hot wave of desire flushing through her. She grabbed his hips, pulling him closer, straining against him.

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened, and Barba moved away with a smirk. “Something like that,” he said, stepping out into the hallway.

“Wow,” she said, following him. “I didn’t expect you to be a tease.”

He laughed. “I have to leave something to the imagination, Liv. You’ve already seen me naked.” He grinned at her as he fished his keys from the bag.

“Hmm,” she answered. “I’m guessing not at your best, though.”

“You mean you’re hoping,” he shot back.

“I’m not worried,” she said, and his grin widened. “But the next time we shower together, I’m going to have to insist on warmer water. I can still barely feel my toes.”

Barba pushed his way into his apartment and turned on the light. He tossed the pizza onto the table, dropped his bag and keys, and then Benson had him pinned against the wall. He fumbled with an arm and managed to shove the door closed before slipping his hands beneath her sweatshirt. He’d wanted to feel her hardened nipples against his palms since the moment he’d accidentally seen them swinging toward the floor when she was grabbing her robe.

Benson grabbed his shirt and pulled him away from the wall, steering him toward his bedroom.

 

*       *       *

 

He kissed his way down her body, pressing his lips gently to every scar he could find—every cigarette burn, every faint white line, every puckered and jagged mark. He slipped down her body, his hands hot as they traced her curves. He kissed her stomach and felt her muscles quivering with desire. He turned his head and kissed the scar on the inside of her hip bone, letting his lips linger against the pale line.

She wanted to tell him that she loved him, but the words were too big to leave her throat; the moment was too big, and all she could do was tug at his hair until he obediently crawled up to find her lips with his. She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him over onto his back, swinging a leg over his thighs to straddle him.

He looked up at her, his eyes bright and filled with emotion. He reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear, and he held it there when she ducked her head to kiss his chest. She flicked her tongue over his nipple and smiled at his sharp intake of breath. She traced her lips over each of the scars she could see, settling her hands at his waist as she sucked lightly at the soft skin of his belly. His fingers curled against her scalp, and he shifted restlessly beneath her.

Smiling, she made her way back up his body, moving slowly in spite of her own ache of desire. She watched his face as she took him in her hand and positioned herself, and ducked her head to kiss him as she sank down, joining their bodies together.

He held her hips when she started to move, but he let her control the pace, restraining his body’s desire to thrust. She rode him slowly until neither could hold back any longer. When their need for release had grown nearly intolerable, she shifted to her side and he wordlessly followed her lead, rolling over her. She wrapped a leg around his hips as he reentered her, tightening her muscles to pull him impossibly closer and deeper.

He bent his head and drew her beaded nipple into his mouth, rolling it gently between his tongue and palate. She cried out as her orgasm tore through her, rocking her body against his. After only a few quick thrusts, his hips stuttered and she felt him come inside her. He pulled his mouth from her breast, breathing her name against her moist skin.

 

*       *       *

 

“Ask me, Liv,” he murmured against her hair. She was lying in the crook of his arm, curled against his chest. They were snuggled beneath his blankets. His arms were warm and heavy around her, and she could scarcely remember how the coldness had felt.

She knew what he meant. “You don’t have to tell me,” she answered, twirling her fingers in the dark curls on his chest.

His arms tightened around her. “Ask me,” he repeated, and she could hear the plea in his quiet voice.

“How’d you get the scar on your back?” she asked.

“When I was nine years old, I walked out of my bedroom in the middle of the night because I heard my mother crying in the living room. My father had her up against the wall with his arm across her throat, with his face shoved up in hers, cursing at her in Spanish. She saw me, and she motioned for me to leave, but I told him to let her go.”

He paused, gathering his thoughts, and she touched an encouraging kiss to the skin over his heart. “He told me to go back to bed. I walked over and pushed at him, and he backhanded me in the lip, knocking me down. I got up and pushed at him again. He turned around, picked me up, and threw me through the glass coffee table. Surprised the hell out of him,” he said with a humorless twist of his lips. “That I was sturdier than that old table? My first thought as I lay there, stunned, covered in glass, bleeding, unable to breathe, my first thought was that he was going to kill me for breaking the table. And my mother was screaming so I thought maybe he had killed me and I just hadn’t realized yet.

“I told the people at the hospital that I was jumping on the couch and fell through the table. Like you said, part of the landscape…” He paused again. “I don’t blame my mother for not leaving him. He was different after that. No less of an asshole, maybe, but a lot more conservative with his hands. It would seem he didn’t actually want to kill me, after all. And my mother was, and is, one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. Second maybe only to you,” he added, pressing a kiss to her shoulder.

“Raf,” she said.

“Hmm?” he asked, running a lazy finger up and down her arm beneath the covers.

“Do you think we have a chance?”

“Us?” he asked, tipping his head so he could see her face.

“Us, as people. Do you think there’s a chance we could actually be okay, after all the pain…”

“Liv, in all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never once doubted I could do anything while you were beside me. And you? Honey, if you wanted to, you could conquer the world.”

She poked lightly at his stomach. “I’d be happy to conquer you,” she murmured with a smile.

“Consider me conquered,” he laughed.

“I love you,” she said.

He sobered in an instant, regarding her solemnly. “Te amo, Liv,” he answered. “Until my last breath.”

She tilted her face up to kiss him, spreading her fingers over his chest.

When she drew back, he said, “Are you tired?”

She smiled. She’d already asked Lucy to stay with Noah until morning. “That depends. What did you have in mind?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Pizza?” he asked hopefully, and she laughed, burying her face against his chest as she made a sound of assent. She was starving.