Battered by a life determined to tear him down
This quiet ex-con’s scarred hands may be the gentlest touch she’ll ever know.
…if only life were a fairy tale where Beauty was allowed to keep her Beast
Ivan thought the world was through giving him second chances. Who’d want a rough ex-con with a savior complex and a bad habit of bringing home helpless strays? Everyone in Blackwood, Virginia knew he wasn’t good enough for the fine things in life; they knew he was too damaged to save. He just needed to keep his head down, work himself to the bone, and pretend he was content with the lot he was given.
Until she came into his life. Until she changed everything.
Until he realized he would do anything, fight anyone, tear the world apart if it meant saving her.
Adriana Anders has acted and sung, slung cocktails and corrected copy. She’s worked for start-ups, multinationals and small nonprofits, but it wasn’t until she returned to her first love—writing romance—that she finally felt like she’d come home. Today, she resides with her tall French husband, two small children and fat French cat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she writes the dark, gritty, steamy love stories of her heart.
“No. You’re not beating anyone up for me.” She softened the words with a smile and met his eyes, where bloodlust still shone, perhaps even reflected in hers. “But thank you.”
It took all the courage Uma had to reach out then and place her clammy hand over his warm one.
It was her undoing, that contact. Or maybe it had been his tirade—the idea that this man who hardly knew her, this stranger, was willing to defend her. Or perhaps the sight of his heartbreakingly beautiful face, lovely and bare. Either way, Uma crossed a line with that touch. Like in a movie, when the shot pans around the room, flip-flopping the perspective, she’d changed the rules, broken the barrier, dragging them into unknown territory.
They both stared at her hand for a beat or two before their heads lifted and their eyes met.
He moved first, flipping his hand so their palms came together. That touch was so much more intimate than it should have been, like lying belly to belly, naked. Their skin rasped gently as his thumb rode the bumps of Uma’s knuckles.
Ivan’s lids looked heavy, and when she glanced at his mouth, it was no longer stern but lush and ripe and hungry. Her eyes fled the invitation there and skittered back to the safety of their hands, but that was ten times worse. Because watching that rough, callused thumb—capable of so much violence—barely skate across the surface of her hand, more gently than she’d ever been touched in her life… That was too much. Like hand porn.
Which obviously wasn’t a thing.
Although, maybe it was a thing, and if it wasn’t, damn it, it should have been. She could imagine the Tumblr feeds, ogled by closeted pervs like herself. She pictured herself hunting down shots of scarred, manly, thick-knuckled hands toying with pathetic, unsuspecting, small ones.
But then, in a moment of clarity, she knew, without fully understanding it, that what really turned her crank here wasn’t him dominating her. Oh no. It was the other way around. Her own tiny hand lording it over his big one. She had the power here—or at least the illusion of it. And it was heady.
“C’m’ere.” He sounded gruff when he tugged Uma toward him. She resisted briefly, but not out of worry or fear. No, she resisted for the stupid regular reasons: Would she make a fool out of herself? Did her breath stink?
She gave in and allowed him to pull her closer, to the edge of the armchair, and met him halfway.
Their noses were first to meet, hesitant and intimate. Brushing lightly.
“Can I get a kiss?” His hot breath shuddered the question against her, and she could feel his anticipation, nearly as strong as her own.
Without letting herself think too much about it, she did as he asked. It was so easy to brush her mouth to his. A dry touch, with none of the messiness his lush lower lip promised, but enough spark to make her want more.
The second was a real kiss, the kind that makes a noise, lips pursed. Another like that, chaste and neat, but ridiculously exciting in its simplicity. They tilted their heads in easy, mirrored unison, lined up for a deeper one.
And then his tongue, the tip against her lip, sweet and soft, requesting permission. Permission was granted, and he slipped in, sipped at her. Not a perfect kiss, because there were still teeth in the way and noses and such, but with such synchronicity and heat that it was by far the best she’d ever had. Massive hands stroked her cheeks, her ears, her shoulders, making her feel tiny and cherished. Fragile, in a good way, but still whole.
It was so right, and he was so patient, that something pushed her to ramp it up a notch, bite his bottom lip—probably a little harder than she should have—pull it taut, then dive back in. He made a little noise when she did that, a sort of surprised grunt, which made the whole thing even hotter. Uma grabbed hold of his hair and positioned his head right where she wanted it, then wiggled against her seat.
That’s when he started to lose it.