Sultry Oblivion by Alexa Padgett
“I’m exhausted,” Aya said, rising to her feet. “I’ll head to a hotel and—”
“No, don’t.” Letting her out of my sight meant losing her. I clung to her hand. “Stay.”
She blinked at me.
“In the house, Ay. I have four bedrooms. Or you can have my room, and I’ll go to one of the others…”
She shook her head. “No way am I staying in your room.”
I frowned. “What’s wrong with my room? You’ve never even seen it.”
She fidgeted and turned away, her cheeks flaming. “This was a mistake.”
Anger washed over me. “What are you talking about? You’d throw what we could have away because of—”
She whirled to face me, her eyes wide, wild, and wet. My anger dissipated as I realized just how close she was to losing control. Whatever went through her mind when I mentioned my room hit her hard.
“I’ve had sex with one man in my life,” she snapped. “So you’ll have to forgive my disinterest in being one of your...thousands.” The last word dripped venom.
“What about Alistair?” Vicious jealousy clawed at me. Before I registered the action, my fist plowed through the painting and wall next to me. Probably a good thing I split the canvas first because the drywall still cut into my skin.
I heard Aya’s strangled gasp. But I stood with my back to her, chest heaving. I was losing her. “I’ve never had a woman in my bed. Here or anywhere else.”
I yanked my hand from the wall, gritting my teeth against the throbbing in my knuckles. “Never. If it couldn’t be you…”
I dropped my gaze to my feet. Bits of plaster dotted my feet. I frowned. I’d thought I’d bared my soul to her already. I knew other men had held her, kissed and caressed her.
Fuck. I hated them. My hands clenched, but the ache radiating up my arm kept me from punching the wall again.
“But our last time together…” She trailed off. “That was years ago.”
“And as much as I hate that memory, I love it, too. Because I was with you.”
I worried, belatedly, that I’d broken my hand. I ran my other hand down my face as I forced my feet to shuffle around. I faced her. “I freaked out after you told me you loved me,” I said. “Each time, I had these panic attacks even as I waited, desperate to hear you say it.”
She kept her gaze trained on me. I moved toward the kitchen. Regardless of the extent of my hand’s injury, ice would help. I tugged a dishcloth from the drawer and threw it over my shoulder as I continued to the huge, glass-fronted freezer unit. I opened the door with my good hand and pulled out a bag of peas. After some finagling, I managed to wrap the peas in the towel and set it over my swollen hand.
“Will you come in here? Sit at the table? I’ll get you some tea.”
“I’ll get the tea,” she said, voice soft. “Ice, too, if you’ll let me.”
She looked haggard, as if this night had gone on for years. Mascara streaked her cheeks, and her hair was a mess from my fingers.
“I’ve got frozen veggies. They’ll work fine.”
I moved around the space, giving her ample room as I collected mugs and the tin of British teas I’d bought—in case Aya ever visited.
I couldn’t even muster a smile when I realized my dream had come true.
“Nash, how could you not have… I saw you with that woman in your band.” Aya’s entire body tensed, and I wasn’t sure if she was rejecting my statement as a lie or working to reorient her belief about me.
I pulled out a chair and leaned my head back against it as I sat. “You know what it was like with my parents. They weaponized sex. And my d—Brad liked to give those big, elaborate speeches about how much he loved my mother, how she was the shining light of his life…”
I rolled my head in time to see her nod. Talking about my mom led to a sick oozing in my gut. Now wasn’t the time, not for that story.
Aya remained intent, focused on me.
“Even Cam had told me about his first wife, how she screwed around on him—can you imagine? So sex—if it couldn’t be with you—just wasn’t something I wanted. Plus I spent a lot of years too out of it to feel anything.”
Aya nibbled on her lip, her beautiful violet eyes darkening. She heard me, but I wondered if I could make her understand.
“I wasn’t in a place to offer myself to anyone else. I didn’t want to, because that had always turned out badly for me. I loved Lev. He died. I loved my mother; she left.” I closed my eyes as memories of our last conversation assaulted me. She’d been tearful and contrite, but I’d refused to budge.
“She…she died, and…” I bit off the final words: it was my fault. I refocused on what Aya needed to know.
“I loved Brad, and he turned on me.” I sighed. “And I loved you so much I couldn’t see straight. I hated being away from you, but there was this pattern, and I was sure you’d leave.”
“If you let yourself love me,” Aya concluded.
“Right.” I nodded. “And I know it’s stupid, completely illogical.”
Her shoulders rounded forward, and she bowed her head. “But it made sense to you then, based on what you knew.” She looked up at me. “And then I did leave.”
We were silent. After a long moment, during which my heart tried to thrash out of my chest, she came around the table, steps hesitant. Her dress was rumpled from where she’d taken to bunching the hem in her hands, and the mascara had dried in black streaks down her cheeks. Her eyes were bloodshot.
She was a hot fucking mess, and I wanted more of her. I wanted all of her against me, surrounding me, holding me together. I’d proven I could get clean, move past my demons, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to crawl into her arms once more. I’d felt safe with Aya, and I craved that feeling again—more so now with my world so topsy-turvy. I just needed to share my life with her this time, not encompass her completely.
“How’s your hand?” she asked. She reached out, fingers tentative, not quite touching my abraded skin.
“Hurts. Good thing I’m not touring for another month.”
She raised her gaze to mine. Aya had always been my calm. She’d radiated this peace I needed to center myself. I’d thought about how I’d placed her smack-dab in the center of my world and concluded that Aya knew who she was, what she wanted. Except now, she was fragile, unsure. That had been too much to ask her to bear when I wasn’t strong enough to support my part.
This Aya wasn’t the quietly confident young woman I’d once known. My stomach cramped as I thought of her words from earlier. I’d had public adulation for years; Aya had received public humiliation. That had affected her deeply, especially coming so soon after losing her mother, the only other person she’d loved.
“How come you didn’t screw Alistair?”
Fuck. Why had I said that? And why now?
“Because he wasn’t you,” she said. Her eyes begged me to understand.
And I did, completely. On this subject, it seemed we felt the same. I thought about the girl in San Francisco, the one I’d nearly puked on.
I nodded. “Like I said, enough of the pills dulled the cravings of my body, too.”
She didn’t blink, seeming mesmerized by me.
The tea kettle whistled. Aya busied herself with pouring the water into the pot. I had the whole setup, the same one she’d used in the photo of the drawing room when she and Lord Dickhead were photographed as the next Harry and Meghan.
“I didn’t tell you that to upset you,” I said. “I told you because I’m still processing what being an addict meant—means to me. I used to keep the sexual cravings at bay. I used to keep from feeling the pain of you leaving, of my mother’s and Brad’s rejection. I had lots of reasons, and all of them together made me a druggie.” I shook my head. “I was a fucking mess. I let myself become that mess because I didn’t know how to handle all the bad shit that happened.”
Her look held a helpless frustration I understood—I’d lived it for years.
“Look, I know we need to discuss the years apart more, but can we table that for the moment?”
Relief flooded her eyes, softening her features. “Of course.”
My guts churned, because even so, I knew eventually I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. She poured me a cup of tea, then one for herself, and I was transported back to her mother’s kitchen—the faint scent of harissa or chicken fricassee. Those aromas wouldn’t have worked together elsewhere, but in the Didri household—a mix of North African and French—the scents blended, giving the place a homey feel. I’d loved it there.
I stared down at the tea, watching steam curl upward. A faint hint of cinnamon teased my nostrils.
“I’d give just about anything to go back,” I blurted. I raised my gaze, meeting Aya’s troubled one. “Anything but this moment, because even though you’re pissed off, hurt, and confused, and I’m scared out of my mind that I’ll lose you again, I need you to know I’m working hard to be strong enough to fight for us—like you deserve.”