Page 26 of Corrupted

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I inhale a sharp breath, and as I let it out, I work to keep my voice steady when I say, “I’m... I’m so sorry.” His head jerks back and his dark brown eyes move over my face as I say the words that should have been spoken many years ago. “So sorry...for everything.”

He looks at me for a long, still moment, his expression blank, unreadable. As the quiet fills the room, takes up space between us, the muscles along his jaw clench. I stare at him, trapped in the emotions passing over his eyes. Pain, sorrow, regret...loss. My body convulses, and I briefly close my eyes as my head spins, lost in a vortex of sadness and guilt. After a long moment, he scrubs his hand over his face, nods and stands.

He taps the pile of costumes, and I look at those big hands that touched me with such heated skill this morning. “How about you gather this stuff up and finish at home.”

“I can’t do that.” I swallow and push my next words past the lump in my throat. “I don’t have a sewing machine or any supplies.”

“You will,” he says matter-of-factly. “By the end of the night, you’ll have everything you need. I promise.”

This time my throat completely closes over and it takes all my strength to lift my trembling body from the stool. He’s wrong about that. I’ll never have everything I need. There is one big thing missing from my life that I’ll never have, and his gaze is currently roaming over my face.

Turning from him before he can see my shaky smile—the man has always been great at reading other people’s emotions—I gather up the clothes. He helps me and puts them in a plastic bag and I scribble a note to let the crew know that I’ll bring them back as soon as I fix them. Before we leave, I snatch a script from the pile on the table for a little bedtime reading.

“If there is something specific you need, just let me know. I’m not an expert on sewing machines or anything like that.”

“Cason, you...don’t have to do that,” I finally manage to say after finding my voice. “I can come back here tomorrow, and use this machine.” Okay, yeah, sure it snagged up on me more times than I can count, but he does not have to buy me one.

“Yes, I do. And I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Still bossy, I see.”

“Is that what you think?”

“It’s what I know.” I blink up at him, my heart pounding at his generosity. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

He wags his brows playfully and a streak of need sizzles in my blood. “I can think of a few ways.” I grin at his teasing words, and appreciate how he’s working to lighten the mood between us. “Besides, maybe I’m doing it more for me than you.”

“What do you mean?”

He grins, and gives me a nudge. “You’re kind of hot when you’re focused.” He laughs and releases a measure of tension in my shoulders.

“Always watching me when I don’t know. That’s kind of perverted.”

“I know, right?” he says, his voice full of playful tenderness.

He shrugs out of his wool jacket and drapes it over my shoulders. I sink into the warmth as he puts his arms around me, his big body dwarfing mine. Secure in his arms, with the strength of his body flooding my system, he leads me out of the building and onto the street. He puts his hand on the small of my back, his touch achingly familiar, warm and comforting. I never found my place in this world, never felt I belonged, but Cason has always represented safety and security, something I never had with anyone but him.

“Christmas, huh?” he says, breaking the quiet between us as he gazes at the script sticking out of my bag. “The one holiday we’d both rather avoid and here you are in the thick of a damn Hallmark movie.”

I laugh, and give him a sidelong glance. My heart quivers a bit. “Next thing you know, I’ll be wanting to put up a tree,” I say and brace myself for his reaction. When I was a kid, my mother always put up a huge evergreen. It was lush and gorgeous, with frosted tips and blue and silver bulbs. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it when I was a child. Sadly, she’d never hung the decorations we made in middle school. Apparently they clashed with the professionally decorated tree that was on display like a Picasso at the Guggenheim, but still...unlike Cason, I had a tree and even though there weren’t people around it, there were tons of presents beneath it. I would have preferred it the other way around.

Cason’s brow furrows and his lips curl in distaste. My heart goes out to him, wishing I could smooth away the years of loss and loneliness. If I could, I’d go back in time and change what happened to him. Losing your parents so young, and at Christmastime no less, is a double dose of pain no child should ever have to endure. Then to be tossed around from home to home. But maybe when I’m here I can somehow help him create

new traditions. Happy ones. Then again, he might not want any traditions with me, but what about his sister? I’d love to do something, anything, to make this time of year a bit easier for them. With Peyton in New York and him here though, it’s an impossible task.

“Would a tree be so bad?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says flatly, his eyes trained on the sidewalk.

Teasing, but half-serious, I say, “You’d probably hate me if I snuck one into your living room.” I snort at that. “What am I saying, you already hate me.”

His head lifts and his eyes slowly move to mine. “Is that what you think, Londyn?”