In Your Arms: A Small Town Love Story (Safe Haven Book 1) (9 page)

10

W
hen they first got Justice inside
the house, he reverted to the same commando crawl he’d used to keep himself as small and pointless as possible during his first days at the Sanctuary. Marlo ignored him and worked with Fala on tricks for treats and after watching for a bit, Justice joined in. Perfect
.
In no time he was taking food from her hand and working without fear. She turned to Adam, her eyes shining. “Now that I’ve got Justice eating out of my hand, I’d like to work with him a bit on his own. Could you take Fala and give her one of your killer body rubs to distract her?”

He sent her a look that almost melted her insides, before settling as an exquisite ache in the pit of her stomach. “It will be my pleasure to massage Fala.”

“Thank you.” She concentrated on Justice for the next fifteen minutes, not trusting herself to look at Adam again. In no time, the dog was working like a pro. She gave him the last treat and scratched his neck. “That’s enough for you, clever boy.” Outside on the patio Adam sat on the ground, Fala on her back between his splayed legs. He worked his hands over her body and she seemed to have drifted to canine blissville, if the half-closed eyes and sporadic grunts were anything to go by.

Her stomach rumbled with hunger. “You continue with Fala’s relaxation therapy and I’ll fix us some dinner.”

In the kitchen she distracted herself peeling vegetables, pretending she wasn’t envious of the attention Fala was enjoying.

“We’re going vegetarian tonight,” she announced once Fala had finally let Adam free. “Could you take those out to the patio? I’ll grab the wine.” Marlo handed him a long platter of chargrilled summer vegetables, pan fried halloumi with mint and lemon, and a bowl of herbed couscous. “I hope this doesn’t insult the farmer in you?”

“Not at all, this looks amazing. It smells amazing. And I’m not so ‘steak-and-sausage’ that I can’t deal with a vegetarian dinner occasionally.”

When she returned to the patio, Adam pressed a finger to his lips signaling quiet. He pointed to the dog bed in the corner. Nestled within, Justice and Fala were curled around each other, gentle snores coming from the pair of them. Marlo grinned. “They look like an old married couple, all comfortable with each other’s lumps, bumps and quirks.”

She sat across from Adam at the table. He poured her a glass of wine as she served dinner.

“This halloumi is sensational. Did your mom teach you too cook like this?”

Marlo shook her head. “I suppose Mae started it, teaching me the basics. I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to explore food so whenever I got the chance I bought different ingredients, tried different recipes. Having fresh vegetables available from the garden is an incentive, too.”

“Wasn’t your mom much of a cook?”

“She didn’t really get the chance with her work…” Marlo fell silent, as good memories mixed with the really shitty ones.

“How do you find the time to do the garden with everything else?”

Relief buoyed her. It seemed he sensed that she really didn’t want to bring her mother to the table right now.

“I have help in the garden. Jacob, a retired guy who lives in town, does most of the difficult garden work for a very small fee. His wife, Alice, is in a wheelchair and they have this wonderful young dog, a retriever we trained to be her assistance dog. It means Jacob can take on small jobs and not have to be so worried about leaving Alice home alone.”

“You do so much good, Marlo. It must be rewarding.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of bad goes with this job, too. The good is needed for balance, otherwise we end up with emotional burnout.”

“And the rescuers need rescuing.” Adam said softly.

Marlo stood to clear away the plates.

“What about you, Marlo. How much good do you do for yourself?”

Her hand stilled on the salad bowl. It was cool and slippery with oil from the dressing. He didn’t have the right to dig any deeper than that. “Enough.” Her voice was tight.

“I doubt that.”

Now he was standing. He grasped the other edge of the bowl, taking possession of it, sliding it from her reach. He placed his hands flat on the table, arms wide so that he fenced in their plates, glasses, utensils. It looked territorial but held no threat.

“Look at me, Marlo.”

Oh, heck, she thought, back to this again. Why? Why all this looking? Slowly she lifted her gaze and found his smile. She stayed on the curve of his lips and her tension evaporated.

“Thank you. Why don’t you to take your wine and sit over there while I clean up?” He gestured towards her daybed.

She moved over to the daybed and eased back against the cushions as he’d asked. No, he’d insisted. She should be offended but his requests were small, not quite orders and asked so little of her that they were easy to obey. Almost like little tests to discover the strength of her fortress. Letting him take a little care of her, clear her dishes, pour her wine…that would be acceptable. He could have access to the peripheral part of her life, but she was incapable of anything beyond that.

She leaned back on the daybed and enjoyed the embrace of the odd assortment of cushions piled on it. It was where she often lounged on a summer evening with Fala up beside her, though she had to lift the old dog to the bed these days. Adam’s footfall made her sit up again. Tonight she felt exposed.

He’d made tea and she saw he’d found her lemon and honey, plus the milk she had in the fridge. He set the tray on the small table. “I’ll let you fix your tea. I believe the ritual gives you as much pleasure as the drink.” He added a little milk to his and took a place alongside her.

Yes, she enjoyed the ritual, she thought, as she swirled the small dab of honey over the surface of the tea, and watched it dissolve. Maybe, if she simply stirred for long enough, she might conquer the intense reaction her body was experiencing from being so close to his. Apart from her hand hovering over the teacup, she tried to stay still. She kept her breathing sparse, her elbows clamped close at her side, and her thighs pressed together. Alongside her, Adam sat relaxed, his legs splayed and so near to her that she only had to ease up on one muscle and they would touch. Thigh against thigh, knee to knee.

“Relax.”

She started. “What?”

“You’re perched there as if you’ve sat next to the pervy-raincoat-dude on the bus. I’m not going to jump you if we accidentally touch, okay?”

Was he a mind reader? How did he know about the touch thing? She looked down at her tightly pressed thighs. Big clue
.
“Okay.” She closed her eyes and allowed his body heat to envelop her like a cocoon.

“Tell me about Mae.”

Marlo opened her eyes again. “What would you like to know?”

“How did you meet her?”

“You mean, how did she become my guardian?”
She sighed. “She’s my savior. I owe everything to her.”

“Tell me about that.”

“It’s difficult.”

“That’s okay.” He took her hand and lightly stroked the back of it with his thumb. The pad had a line of roughness, like a nearly-healed cut, so that his touch became unique and unforgettable.

“She took me out of a difficult situation. Abusive, really. And gave me self-worth.” Her stomach knotted. Why did he have to bring this up?

Adam waited. “And?” he finally asked.

“And that’s it, really.”

“Well, that’s a pretty short story. I’m glad I didn’t ask for the condensed version.”

“That’s all you’re getting for now.” Her voice was soft. His thumb had continued the light stroke on the back of her hand and gradually the jammed knot in her stomach released. At the same time, it seemed to unshackle the grip she had on her secrets and she had this urge to share a little more with him than she had with anyone else.

“Tell me about your parents?”

That was close. With his change in questioning, she came back to her senses and slid her earlier thoughts neatly away. “Parents…what a joke. My father is a blank space on my birth certificate and my mother gave birth to me but forgot the mothering bit.”

“Oh, that’s rough. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m not. She was a prostitute and a drug addict. She didn’t take to alcohol much unless a ‘boyfriend’ brought some around. God, it sounds like such a cliché when I say it aloud.”

“Ouch.”

“Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but I really haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing my childhood. Honestly, I’ve got to say that I’m so damned angry with her, but as I get older perhaps what had seemed to be her bad behavior was really her idea of doing the best she could for me. Bad skills, I guess. And I think, deep down, despite the parade of men who passed through her life, she was lonely. She never had any girlfriends, instead, she treated me like one.”

Adam reached for his tea. “It can be hard to look at your parents objectively as an adult.”

Marlo nodded. “I’m with you there, it’s why I tend not to do it. Mom and I, we’d sit there, over the teacups,” she caught a small laugh, “as if we were confidantes. There would be her ashtray, cigarettes, tea, and she’d lean on her forearms, right in close as she explained about the new guy coming over later—Denny, Bob, Jack—and he was
the one.

“I remember I used to keep watch on the cigarette captured between her fingers, not really listening to her. I was fascinated by its glow and mindful of the way the filter sometimes caught on her scarlet painted lips so she had to give it a little jerk to get it away from her mouth. Often the movement made the ash drop to the table and as soon as she wasn’t looking I’d try to pick it up. Never managed to do it, though.” That ash was like her happiness. One touch and it disintegrated.

“All the time she would try to boost me with enthusiasm. ‘Our ship has come in, sweet pea,’ she would say. ‘It’s going to be different this time.’ She knew it. Except, it never was.”

Anymore and she was going to sound bitter
.
Her mother’s utopia came decorated with the promise of a better apartment, air conditioning, pretty clothes and toys, even a vacation. Within weeks, Marlo would wake to shouting in the next room—because there never was a new apartment—followed by the blackened eye, the bruise at the throat, the split lip. The boyfriend would be gone, and a new one would be along soon.

“Where is she now?”

She’s nowhere. I don’t even keep her memory alive.
“Dead, she died when I was fourteen.”

“Hell, that’s awful. Is that when you met Mae?”

“No, I was put into a residential institution run by a church. It wasn’t good or bad. At least I didn’t go hungry and I received a decent education.”

“But not much love.”

She looked up at him. Despite the low light, she could see the empathy in his eyes. She shook her head. “No, not much love.”

He put his arm around her and drew her closer and she allowed herself to lean against him. She could feel the soft rise and fall of his chest and her own breathing changed to match his tempo. They sat like that for a while before she summoned the courage to ask him about Emma. He stiffened slightly, then pulled her in closer.

W
hat did
she want to know? He shouldn’t have started this. How could he ask her about her private life and not expect similar questioning in return
.
This would be the first time he had spoken about Emma to anyone who hadn’t known her. Well, there had been the counselor, but for some reason, that didn’t count. The memories were rolling and tumbling — hell, where to start?

“Emma,” he said. “She and I were childhood sweethearts. It sounds corny, but it’s true. God, we’re dancing with the clichés tonight, aren’t we? Everyone expected us to marry and that’s just what we did. We were married seven years. We made our home in one of the old cottages on the family farm but after a few years of dairy farming I was restless. I needed to get my teeth into something a bit more gritty. I knew I’d always go back to the farm, but I had found the opportunity to step away from the comfort of the home hearth and do something worthwhile. I’d been the volunteer SPCA inspector in the region but they had limits when it came to prosecuting the assholes of this world. They tried their best, but the law enforcement agencies couldn’t help and no financial help was available from the government. Very often a prosecution never even made it to the courtroom.

“That’s why I went into policing work and became the cop with the motivation to pursue animal abuse cases when the time allowed. My best mate from school is a lawyer who worked
pro bono
for the SPCA. We were getting somewhere…”

Marlo waited a bit before prodding. “Until?”

Adam tipped his head back and took a deep breath. “Until I got into some surveillance work. Undercover. Two gangs in neighboring districts were suspected of running dog fights, manufacturing meth, pimping, you name it. I infiltrated them. Hell, what a scene. You know, I look at Justice now and feel sick because I have a reasonable idea of what the poor dog has been through.”

“Which is why you came to be here, doing this research?”

“In a roundabout way, yes.” He paused for a moment. “Anyway, a match had been arranged and we were setting up a bust. Emma had stayed on the farm when I’d gone undercover so I knew she was okay. I went to the location for the match, but it was deserted. I don’t think anyone had been there in months.

“I figured I had been set-up and put a call in to the station. They told me to get home because the house I was renting was on fire. Out in the country, you know, it can take up to an hour for the fire trucks to arrive on a good night, but there had already been a suspicious hay barn fire in another part of the district and the firefighters were there, damping down. By the time they got to my house, there was little to save. My only relief was that Emma was back at the farm…a hundred miles away.” He tried to swallow away the lump in his throat he thought he’d excised years ago.

After a long pause, Marlo urged him on. “Or so you thought,” she said quietly, gripping his hand.

He’d thought she was fine. Thought he’d protected her by keeping his work secret so that she wouldn’t be worried, wouldn’t have those middle of the night moments where everything seems darker and more dangerous. He didn’t want her concerned that the man she loved would become emotionally scarred the way they’d seen with some of the other guys in the force. Totally misread that one.

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