“You weren’t in danger,” I reminded her gently. “Be rational.”
“Don’t you ever tell a woman who’s tied up and alone to rationalize her situation. You promised to protect me.”
Admittedly her accusation stung. But that was what she didn’t understand. I had been protecting her. If I could only make her understand. First, I would have to get a word in edgewise.
“You’re also supposed to respect me,” she said.
“Clara,” I cut her off sharply. There was a time and place for feelings, but I could no longer allow her to misinterpret my actions. “I do respect you.”
“Like hell you do.”
“I respect you and I was protecting you.” I kept going in an attempt to explain myself before she ran away from me. “Will you let me explain?”
“You can try.” Her words sliced through the air but her chin dropped to rest on her knees. She was granting me an audience, but I knew I only had one chance to get this right.
“You offered me anything I needed from you.” I paused and waited for her to confirm this. All I got was a begrudging tilt of her head. “So, I took what I needed.”
“Bravo,” she interjected. “That really clears things up.”
I had expected that response. I didn’t relish how long it might take for her to see the situation through my eyes. “You know that I struggle with my compulsions. You’ve lived through the bodyguards and the distance and—”
“And the stalking?” she suggested.
I felt a twitch of annoyance in my jaw, but I ignored it. “Since that night in Brimstone I have wanted to take you and lock you away. I’ve wanted to keep you from the world, so they could never hurt you. I understand that’s not the politically correct way to have a relationship.” I attempted a small smile but it was met with a glare.
“That’s not the sane way to have a relationship, X.”
Using my nickname? I decided to take it as another good sign. “I resisted my urges then and focused on less mental ways of protecting you. I know you hate the bodyguards and security sweeps.”
“They’re part of being with you,” she said, “and I accepted that. But if you’re going to tell me that you need to lock me away to satisfy your compulsions, then you can kindly go and fuck yourself.”
“I don’t need that,” I reassured her.
“Then what was that?” she cried out. Our eyes met and I saw the moisture pooling near the edges. She blinked, but the tears didn’t dissipate. “I told you to take what you needed. I want to give you want you need, but I don’t know if I can give you that.”
“I don’t need you to.” I was repeating myself, although I knew it wouldn’t reassure her. “I took advantage of your offer.”
“You took advantage of my submission,” she whispered.
“I was always going to push your boundaries.” I felt sick saying it. I thought I’d become a better man for her. Now I realized I was still as fucked up as ever.
“And there will be no apologies for that,” she said.
I shook my head. “I took what you gave freely.”
Clara stood in a rush, her eyes darting between me and the door. I knew she was calculating whether she could get around me. When she stayed frozen in place, I guessed that she decided she couldn’t. That left her with pushing my boundaries: would I be able to let her go? Would I come after her?
History proved I would, and we both knew it.
“Clara, I don’t want you to be angry with me.”
She laughed mirthlessly and tightened the sash of her robe with a quick yank. “It’s a bit late for that. If you wanted to be in my good graces you could have just tied me up and fucked me. I thought we were past this controlling bullshit.”
The string of profanities littering her responses told me that she had only gotten more frustrated with me.
“I wish I could be the man you deserve,” I admit.
“I do, too.” Her words were a slap in the face, but she didn’t back down. “But you are the man I want—the man that I chose. That doesn’t absolve you from what you did, though. When are you going to see that I’m here with you? You aren’t going to scare me away, X. Not if you give me yourself. But you might push me away if you keep taking me without letting me in.”
“I want your life to be full of happiness.” Not stress or fear. I didn’t want to burden my beautiful wife with the secrets that continued to crash down upon me.
“How can it be when you keep resurrecting walls between us?” The softness of her words only made them fall heavier. “I know that we aren’t like most couples. You have to guide a country. I can’t run out to the market. So much of our lives have been determined for us.”
“For that I am sorry.” I’d tried to let Clara go when we first met, because I knew that claiming her would only bind her to a life of responsibility.
“I chose that life,” she reminded me, taking a tentative step in my direction before she stopped again. If we were too close to one another, we’d fall back on bad habits and wind up in each other’s arms. “But the duty should never affect us. There are no security precautions or state secrets. There can’t be. You know that.”
“Most of what I deal with would bore you,” I assured her with a wink.
“Don’t you dare!” She pointed a finger at me. “Don’t pretend like it’s all boring, mundane action items. You are keeping something from me. You have been since we were in DC.”
“Clara, I only want to—”
“Protect me?” she guessed with a sigh. “You aren’t. You’re protecting yourself. Maybe you think I’ll be angry or maybe you don’t really trust me. Honestly, trying to figure out why you keep secrets is exhausting. I didn’t marry you to have secrets between us.”
“I won’t ask you to carry them.”
“Don’t you see?” she asked in a weary voice. “You don’t have a choice. We’re in this together. I can’t imagine telling you that I don’t need your help.”
“You do all the time,” I said dryly.
“But you’re still there, helping me,” she corrected. “It’s what we do. Distance doesn’t work for us. We might as well try to be abstinent. It will go over about as well as you keep secrets. You don’t have to carry your burdens alone, and I don’t want you to. That’s what I was offering you tonight. All of me. You want to protect me, but when will you see that I want to protect you?”