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As Dreams Go By

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As Dreams Go By Picset Chapter 1

 

Listen to As Dreams Go By

Stay
Make this forever
And lay love in my life
Come what may
Cherish each moment of love
As dreams go by

The envelope was thick, manilla, and weighed heavily in Annabelle’s hands. She knew what was inside--didn’t have to open it to know these were the documents solidifying Clay’s insistence that his year of infidelity proved he wanted another woman.

It wasn’t supposed to matter now, not nearly ten months after finding out about the affair. But it did, and it hurt deeply. It hurt like nothing had ever hurt before, especially to have these papers in her hands at long last. She knew they were coming, but hadn’t been emotionally prepared to see them in the hands of a courier at the doorstep of her small Bozeman apartment.

At her kitchen table now, she laid the envelope on the maroon Christmas placemat she’d bought at Target, one of four, of which she only displayed two on her miniscule kitchen table. What was the use, when she had downsized to this apartment that no one ever came to, after Clay had asked her to move out of the five-bedroom house he had built with his construction company?

It was almost comical, how the yellow-brown color of the envelope almost looked like a festive addition to the darkness of the maroon, as though Annabelle had intended for it to be there all along.

But she hadn’t. So she slipped the papers out and held them in her hands, noting the weight of the paper, and how the bitterness that crept up her throat whispered the good stationary had been bought with her money.

No, it hadn’t been her money. Every cent they’d earned in their marriage was Clay’s, at least according to the divorce attorney he’d hired.

Made with his hands, at his company, with his tools, and through his careful job planning.

It was a shame, Clay had told her one day in the parking lot outside that attorney's office, how there was nothing to prove Annabelle had ever done an ounce of work for the company they had built from the bottom up, together.

And it was a shame, she thought now, that they had never put anything in her name. She was the silent partner, the absent partner, the invisible partner.

And so, by stipulation of the divorce decree, she was entitled to only that which would get her by until she could find a job. He would pay her rent, give her a small stipend for groceries and bills, and she was to be out of the house in thirty days. But she only had ninety days to become self-sufficient, or she’d be out of a home, and out on the curb.

That had been a month ago, and now she sat looking at these papers, with their perfect fonts and flourishes, wondering if she had enough money in her wallet to buy prints of her ridiculously sparse resume on similar paper to hand out to prospective employers.

The pages felt smooth and cold in her fingers, and yet textured in a way only thick paper can be. Right away her mind drew a parallel between those papers and Clay--he had also been smooth, with plenty of texture to keep her interested, to make marriage seem like a dream come true. But in the end he’d been as cold to her as he was warm to his mistress.

With dry eyes, she took a pen out of the cup at the back edge of the table where it pressed against the wall, and signed--three signatures was all it took, and she was done.

It was later, after she’d taken a long, scorching hot bath in the small bathtub--the scent of a pumpkin spice candle on the corner filling the bathroom--that she had dressed in her fuzzy fleece bottoms and soft sweater. She was curled up on the corner of her second hand couch with a mason jar of cheap wine when she finally succumbed to the tears that had threatened all day.

She cried for ruined dreams, for her own gullibility, and in anger at Clay for his betrayal. She cried for the years she had felt were wasted on him--not exactly her best, since she was only 30, after all--and for her inability to see through his odd behaviors and how he had become distant. She’d been blind to the lie that the problem was her. All that time, she had thought she needed to change, be a better wife, make herself worthy of him.

How stupid she’d been, and how dumb she felt about it now.

By the time she stopped sobbing into her wine, the hour was late. She dragged out her ancient laptop and fired it up, setting it on her lap as she sat up in bed.

Writing had been her only solace when things weren’t going well between her and Clay. It had started out as journals, but when she realized her depression was worsened by the fact that every day, day after day, all she was writing was negative things about herself and her difficult husband, she turned to fiction, where she could write about relationships that went right, marriages that lasted, and knights and ladies who found each other during hardships and powered through them, instead of falling prey to weaknesses and temptations that drew them into infidelity. It was there in the pages of her stories where she found her respite from her own hardships and for the stress Clay put her through--stress that could have been avoided had she recognized the signs earlier on.

The sign being Nicky. Clay’s weakness, who turned out to be an expediter he’d hired, and a pretty one at that, eight years Annabelle’s junior at 22 years old.

As it turned out, Annabelle had no compulsion to write about 22-year-old expediters and their 34-year-old sugar daddies.



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Five years later…

Rory wanted to be left alone. Just one more season of the show, and he’d be able to take a break, do the things he wanted to do--sailing, alone time, seeing some family, alone time, drinking, alone time.

It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy being a celebrity, because it did have its moments. He really did enjoy the fans, for the most part. In the beginning it had been like one big game--he played a monster on TV, so his fan base had grown quickly once it got out that he was actually just a six and a half foot teddy bear who liked to goof off in front of cameras.

It was always fun to stop for a selfie with a fan. He would either make a goofy face, or snuggle indecently close with the women just to see them smile and blush, or he’d glare at the camera, attempting to look as dour and unhappy as his character on the show, along with the person who he was taking the selfie with, who inevitably weren’t able to hold it together long enough to take the serious photo.

Yes, it was fun. But as the years ticked by and he filmed season after season, his role in the show grew. Not only that, but the locations of filming turned from warm, summery locales to blustering cold--with industrial sized fans creating incessant wind and extreme chills.

He was ready for this shit to be over with. He wasn’t a spring chicken. There was a part of him that wanted to be done with the show so he could enjoy down time in a warmer climate, with no swords to swing or fight scenes to act out, and no pulled muscles, or late nights, or early mornings, or long hours.

Fresh off the final publicity tour for the second to last season, he was just now trying to get home. He’d spent the last three days in California doing the last round of interviews for media outlets and was supposed to be flying across the country, stopping briefly on the east coast, before continuing on to London and then finally Scotland.

In California he’d been inundated by fans. This last season had seen more screen time for his character than usual, and the people either wanted him to say something in character, act in character, or to be his character. It had started to get frustrating that he couldn’t simply be Rory.

The last straw had been last night when he had been coming out of the bathroom at the resort, intending on heading back to dinner where several of the cast and crew were saying their goodbyes.

Out of nowhere some twat of a man had run up behind him, not even greeting him politely but instead calling him by his character’s name and seemingly assuming Rory wouldn’t mind stopping his return to discuss the merits of whether The Hound and The Mountain would finally get the on-air fight fans had been dying to see.

Rory, in all his freshly-washed, recently relieved splendor, had turned on the man and growled a menacing, “Fuck off,” and had resumed his long strides that brought him back to the restaurant, without looking to see what reaction the fan had given his outburst.

It was a low moment, he knew. It didn’t fit in with his personality, didn’t fit in with what fans knew of him in real life, and fuck it all if he didn’t feel bad for the fucker who had caught him at a bad time.

Things had only gotten slightly better later, after goodbyes had been said and Rory found himself finally on his way to Boston, where he had to switch flights and get on a fresh plane.

It was there that his day took a serious downturn, even before the long flight that would take him to London had left the ground.

He barely managed to make it to his seat, comparing his boarding pass to the numbers above the first class seats, when he felt something brush his hip. Looking down, he saw a pale hand drop something onto the aisle seat in front of him, before its owner--a woman with long, black hair--sauntered on down the aisle, the obvious sway of her hips as unnatural as her hair color.

Should he tell her she forgot her panties on his seat?

With a shake of his head and a disgusted sigh, he used a rolled up magazine from the back of the seat in front of him to nudge the panties off his seat before kicking them underneath with his boot.

It’s not like he was so desperate that he’d take the advances of any of the anonymous women who threw panties in his direction. It was ridiculous, as though he was some sort of flirtatious metal band drummer. It made him feel like… meat.

He stowed his bag in the overhead compartment and sat heavily in the window seat, using the additional room first class afforded to stretch out his long legs. Outside there was quite a bit of snow on the tarmac, and he wondered if he should have checked the weather before getting on the flight. But as he looked around, seeing the hordes of people boarding and moving about, filling the plane to capacity, he decided he had nothing to worry about. Surely the plane wouldn’t have been so full if there had been any hint of an impending storm that would prevent them from making it to London.

He stared out the window as the snow really started coming down, his thoughts returning to the pair of panties that now laid limply underneath the seat.

He wasn’t sure if he should be irritated with the woman, or sad for her. It was presumptuous of her to proposition him in that manner, terribly forward and not at all polite or respectable. It made him wonder almost every single time if this was who they were in their everyday lives--easy, loose.

And this is what made him feel sad for them. Was their self esteem so low that they had to pine after a fictional character? That they had to assign romantic feelings, sexual attraction, to a man they had never actually met? Somewhere out there, he was sure, there was a man for every woman who did that to him--a man who wanted to hold her, love her, spend the rest of his life worshipping her.

But they must not know this, and it not only made him sad, but a little bit mad at the world. If he had a daughter--something that he didn’t think about very often, really--he would make sure she knew what it meant to be loved, so that she would know what to look for when it came time for her to find someone to settle down with.

He leaned forward to replace the magazine in the back of the seat in front of him, and caught a glimpse of the fabric--neon pink, probably some kind of satin with lace.

Fresh anger at their owner welled up inside of him, remembering the unwelcome touch of her hand against his hip, the invitation clearly evident in her action. He thought about picking them up with a pen and walking back towards the back of the plane until he found her, and dropping them in her lap with a very loud, “Thanks but no thanks.”

It was this thought that was on his mind when a slim hand reached out for him, stopping just shy of his shoulder when it caught his attention and he turned.

A woman stood there, blonde hair loose about her shoulders, solidly covered in a dress that hit just above her knees. Probably to eliminate the amount of clothes she’d have to take off for a man , he thought snidely.

He closed his eyes, unable to hide his reaction now that it was about to happen again.



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“Fuck off.”

Annabelle was shocked. She hadn’t expected that rude reaction when telling the man he was in her seat. She glanced behind her at the person waiting to pass, and apologized with a placating smile before glancing at the electronic boarding pass on her phone.

5A. The aisle seat in first class was 5B. He was sitting in her window seat.

“Excuse me,” she attempted again, and this time she made contact before he could turn--a single firm tap of her fingertips against hard muscled shoulder, and he rounded on her.

“I said,” his voice rasped, deep and irritated, but not loud enough to draw much attention from anyone near them, “Fuck. Off.”

She knew who he was. The realization struck her at the same time his accented voice penetrated her shock.

“You’re in my seat.” He had turned back towards the window, his body angled away from the incoming passengers, but he looked back at her now. She saw a flash of uncertainty in his eyes before it disappeared, to be replaced by annoyance.

“The fuck do ye mean,” he ground out, and Annabelle knew a moment of pure, unadulterated self-righteousness. “There’s a seat right there. Sit in it.”

What kind of celebrity--what ass of a man--spoke to a woman in this manner?

She stepped forward into their row, her calves pressed against the seat he intended her to take, to allow the other passengers to move behind her.

Rory McCann. Grade A Douchebag.

“My seat is 5A. I paid for a window seat, and you’re sitting in it.”

Don’t back down , she thought. Meek and mild, my butt. That seat is mine.

He stared at her, brown eyes looking harsh under lowered brow, his big hand gripping the very end of the armrest in a tight grip.

Then he said in a thick Scottish accent that made him sound like he’d just walked out of a time travel romance novel, “Show me your ticket.”

Annabelle was prepared for this. Thrusting out her phone at arm’s length, it wasn’t lost on her that this would bring it inches from his face, and she inwardly smirked that he had to sit back to read the seating assignment on the small screen.

His eyes flicked to hers and then back to her phone, but he made no move to vacate the seat. She slowly inhaled through her nose, imagining herself inhaling strength and courage as she faced an adversary she had not expected. Then she leaned forward and with as much menace as he’d spoken to her, she let out the meanest thing she’d said to any fellow human being in five years.

“Get your big ass out of my seat, or I’ll get the air marshal to do it for me.”

Chapter Text

As Dreams Go By Picset Chapter 2

Mr. McCann sat there for a few moments, taking Annabelle in with his gaze as he raked it from head to toe and then back up, looking more irritated when his eyes returned to hers. He looked miffed that she was in the right about the seat mix-up, and possibly that she had called his ass big.

But she didn’t care. What she cared about was what was right and fair, and these were two things Mr. McCann was not being.

But he picked his hat off his knee and slid the faded green cap back onto his head before taking his sweet time standing up and getting out of the seat.

Annabelle didn’t move from where she stood in front of 5B, in part because she felt the inexorable urge to make this as hard on him as possible, but also because the crush of coach passengers behind her was unrelenting and likely wouldn’t budge for her to make room for him to switch seats.

Excuse me.”

His arrogant tone slithered over her and she looked back at him, only to find his face very close to hers, his shoulders and back hunched where he was attempting to stand up from the seat. The overhead compartment was preventing him from rising to his full height, which she knew would be considerably taller than her and likely any other man on the flight.

He seemed to come to the same conclusion about their predicament, and he reached down to flip up the armrests of both seats, managing to slide his big ass into 5B.

This left 5A open for her, but unfortunately caused a sudden lack of walkway for her to get by, as his knees pushed forward almost clear to the seat in front of him.

No wonder he flies first class , she thought. He’d never fit in a coach seat . His long legs completely blocked her way to the window seat.

Glancing up at her, she was suddenly caught off guard when he grinned, white teeth flashing, eyes crinkling, looking the perfect imitation of his own publicity photos and candid shots with fans. And it made her mad--that his anger was such that he could find humor in her plight. His face told her that he knew exactly what he was doing, and that he was merely being difficult for the sake of being difficult. She needed to get passed his legs to get to her seat, but he wasn’t going to give her an easy time of it.

“You’re welcome,” he offered with a slight sneer, and Annabelle widened her eyes briefly at him, stunned into silence that he was being this much of an ass. He really was a big one.

She pursed her lips and reached over him to drop her bag in the window seat, then dropped her scarf on top of it. Still holding onto her phone, she lifted one booted foot over his shins, feeling the stretch of her sweater dress as the hem tightened over her thighs.

Somehow that foot almost made it over before the chunky heel of her boot caught in the fabric of his jeans, and she nearly tripped, catching herself with a hand once again on his firm shoulder, bracing the hand with the phone on the seat back in front of him.

She pulled her hand away from him quickly, feeling for all the world that the last thing she wanted was to be in physical contact with him. But at her quick withdrawal he smirked again, likely at her fluster, raising her hackles and making her feel like he could turn anything into a joke.

Attempting again to step over him, she landed one booted foot on the other side of his legs.

Painfully aware that this gave him an excellent view of the knitted dress stretched indecently tight over her butt, and conscious of her loose hair coming too close to him, she lifted her second leg, attempting to angle her body towards the window so that she could pull her leg over his without stretching the dress too much.

But then, as she lifted that leg to step over him, someone walking down the aisle with a bag slung too low momentarily caught her her boot in a strap, and Annabelle went down.

Right onto Rory McCann’s lap.

“Oof!” His exclamation of discomfort mortified her, as she knew exactly on what body part of his she had landed.

Trying to extricate herself from the embarrassing situation as quickly as possible she tried to stand, to slide her legs over, to get out of that position in any way possible--using the seat in front of her for leverage--when suddenly his large hands grasped her hips and held her lower body locked in one place.

“Stop, just… stop ,” he commanded quietly, and she stilled, her body tensing even more than what it had been after her clumsy fall. Beneath her bottom she could feel him--his long thighs spread slightly, the feel of his palms circling her hips…

But before she could think of anything else she was feeling beneath her butt, she scrambled off of him, ignoring the initial grasping of his hands until she was seated in 5A with her bag and scarf on her lap, looking over at him and finding his expression had changed from a smirk to a grimace, and whereas before he had lounged back into the seat, he now sat forward, one hand fisted against his upper thigh and his other hovering directly over his groin.

Then he surprised her by closing his eyes, and chuckling softly with a shake of his head.

She had hurt him. This was obvious, in the white knuckled fist on his leg and the deep breaths he was taking in through his nose. And despite his abhorrent behavior and churlish manner, she felt bad for it. It had been an accident--it’s not like she made it a habit to fall into strange men’s laps every day.

So she did what her ingrained sense of propriety dictated she do. With a gulp to rid herself of all mean-spirited retorts and comments on getting what he deserved, she turned to face him, genuine concern for his well being inching its way into her thoughts.

“Are you okay?”

He sat back and resting his head back against the seat. After a moment his eyes opened, and he turned his head, another smug grin on his pompous face.

“Next time ye sit on my lap, face the other way, will ye?”

Annabelle’s eyes really widened that time, and to her surprise she felt the urge to wrap her hands around his ridiculously thick throat and choke him.

But no, that wouldn’t be proper, and she supposed murder would get her thrown off the flight for good. So she dragged out her very large pair of headphones, shoved them on her head, and effectively cut off all communication with the big, chuckling ass beside her and anyone else on the flight.



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“There has t’ be another flight to London. She just booked hers!” Rory gestured in the direction of the sweater dress woman, who was walking away from him, hips swaying and a gloating smirk sent in his direction over her shoulder.

The lady behind the desk shook her head, tapping away at her keyboard before looking up at him with a sorrowful frown on her face.

“I’m sorry, sir, she got the last one. If you’d like me to put your name on our list, I’ll notify you via the intercom when one comes available.”

Fuck . Rory just wanted to go home. Whatever roll of the dice fate had seen fit to give him--a roll that somehow made Sweater Woman get to the desk before he did, despite being in the window seat and despite Rory not being a gentleman and letting her go ahead of him when it was time to disembark--had put him in an even worse mood than the announcement of cancelled flights and the coming winter storm.

And she in those ridiculous heels, no less.

“Yes,” he groused, “Put my name on th’ bloody list.” Then, as he walked away, he grumbled, “Fuckin’ incompetent airlines,” despite knowing it wasn't the lady’s fault. She couldn’t control the weather, any more than he could.

He caught sight of Sweater Woman seated a ways away from the ticket counter, obviously waiting for her new flight to announce that it was boarding. It was a different airline, and the next flight wasn’t for another hour, but it seemed as though she didn’t want to do anything in the airport except wait patiently until her time came.

Rory was irritated. How the fuck had she done it, getting to the ticket counter before he did? What man did she flirt with, what womanly wiles did she use to bypass Rory and get there before he did?

He knew that was an unfair assessment of the situation, because the fact of the matter was, he had at least a hundred pounds on her and she had likely been able to maneuver the crowds of disgruntled flyers better than his six and a half foot frame. The slender body that Mother Nature had seen fit to give her had obviously aided her in this situation.

And there she sat, with those enormous headphones covering her ears, holding her loose blonde hair back from her face as she looked down at her book.

He remembered the way she had looked at him that second time he’d told her to fuck off, when he had actually turned to look at her. When he had thought she was just another sleazy woman offering herself up to him, all the while she was unaware of the panties he’d already kicked under the seat, the way this woman looked at him set him straight almost immediately.

But to cover for his blunder, and due to his already aggravated state, he kept up the attitude.

Then she’d stepped into the row, closer to him and nearly in his space despite the roomy first class seats, and he had smelled her--a soft, flowery perfume that actually could have been dryer sheets, it was so subtle. She smelled like summer, when driving down a country road and you pass a meadow covered in wildflowers. It only further annoyed him that she was attractive.

Long blonde hair hung nearly to her waist in large, perfectly styled waves. Her eyes were a vibrant green, nearly glowing with her own anger as she informed him he was sitting in her seat and shoving her phone into his face to prove it.

But it wasn’t until she leaned forward and threatened him that it really clicked--totally, unequivocally clicked--that she didn’t want to be fucked with.

With a last perusal of her from top to bottom, he relented silently and stood, only to find her completely blocking his way out. Their faces were close and he watched her purse her lips as he lifted the armrest and slid into the aisle seat.

So much for staring out the window during the flight , he’d thought. Next time I’ll pay closer attention to what seats my agent books for me.

And then it had happened--in her clumsy attempt to climb over his long legs, which he refused to move to make things easier on her, she had quite literally fallen onto his lap.

Yes, it had been very uncomfortable.

Yes, if he had known her better he likely would have rested his forehead against her back and willed away the pain.

But as it was, he didn’t know her, and her damned wriggling had caused a second unforeseen consequence of her blunder and he’d had no choice but to attempt to hold her still while he battled not only the pain but his sudden desire for this woman with the amazing hips.

So at her surprisingly sincere question as to whether he was okay, with the feel of her on his lap fresh in his mind and the discomfort slowly dissipating from his groin, he’d uttered the most chauvinistic, piggish statement he had likely ever said to a woman, and had even enjoyed the way her eyes blazed in anger, and how she’d huffily put on her headphones and ignored him for the rest of their short time on the plane.

The good humor that interaction had caused was fading now as he took a seat on a bank of chairs a couple rows across from her, noting how he could surreptitiously watch her between the people who sat across from him. It’s not that she was doing anything interesting, but she was just… easy on the eyes.

Although she had intrigued him, with that heated comment about his big ass and calling the marshal to remove him from her seat.

What kind of a woman must she be to speak so forcefully to a man who was obviously so much bigger than her? She couldn’t have come up to his armpits even in those high heeled boots of hers. And did she know who he was?

Rory wasn’t one to throw around his celebrity, or to use it to influence people. But if there had been any moment where he wished he was the type to act in that manner, keeping that window seat on the airplane would have been one of them.

Whether she knew who he was or not, she appeared more put out that he was reluctant to give up the seat.

And even after getting her way--okay, even after he had done the right thing and given her what was actually her seat--she had still treated him with disdain and stuck her nose in her book. Not that he would have wanted to talk, anyway, but… well, right? A man doesn’t speak to a woman the way he had spoken to her unless he was either a complete ass or attempting to chase her away.

Thinking back, and watching the way she ran her thumbnail over the seam of her lips now, Rory was in fact not quite sure which one he had been leaning towards.

She really was quite attractive, her short stature perfectly accented by curves in all the right places--hips and thighs, waist and bust, with a mass of blonde hair that fairly called out to him when she had been on his lap, to touch it and feel it’s softness.

It was no wonder that, even through the pain of her collapse onto his lap, he’d felt the first twinges of arousal.

Fuck , he was just a man. Any red-blooded male would have reacted the same way to her plopping down on his lap like that.

Rory used the empty bench of chairs as an excuse to stretch out. He rested his arm along the back of the chairs and crossed one ankle over his knee, looking out over all the airline customers who had been booted off the grounded flights. There was no word yet on whether they were going to get planes off the ground.

He sat there for a while, sending stealthy glances in the woman’s direction every minute or so, under the guise of surveying the entire airport terminal. But really it was to watch what she was doing.

Her hand had flipped at one point, so instead of her thumbnail, she was rubbing the pad of her thumb over her lower lip slowly, from side to side. That turned into wiping across her lips with all four fingertips, again side to side in a leisurely manner. Rory couldn’t help but wonder why she did it, though all it was doing was drawing his attention from every other facet of her to her beautiful mouth.

When at last her hand drifted away from her face it came to rest on the upper corner of her book, where she spent the next few minutes fanning the pages between her fingers while she read page after page.

Strange. It wasn’t quite like high energy, which he had seen before. She wasn’t moving around a lot. But it seemed like she needed to be moving just a small amount, but all the time.

That was, until a commotion started up at the ticket counter and nearly everyone in the terminal turned to see what was going on.

There was a young woman standing there, face red and eyes swollen from crying. She looked to be about twenty, and she was going on about needing to get to London, and how important it was that she get there soon, before it was too late.

No one was doing anything, and the woman behind the counter was uttering apology after quiet apology, saying there was nothing that she could do and that the airline would get her on a flight to London as soon as one came available.

A woman just down from Rory put her hand on her chest and spoke in hushed tones to her companion, another woman nodded before turning back to watch the girl.

From somewhere behind him he heard a man mutter Fucking airline , and could hear the displeasure in the voice.

There were quite a few head shaking, and slowly, one by one, everyone who watched the situation turned back to their own conversations, their own phones, or their own books; whatever it was they were doing when the commotion started.

All except for Sweater Woman. She stared at the young girl as though the entire terminal had disappeared and she was unable to tear her eyes away from the spectacle. He watched her close her book on her finger and stare at the younger woman, her brow narrowed in a look of concern that mirrored the one she had finally turned on him when she had asked him if he was okay on the plane.

So the lady had a heart, he decided. One more thing that made her intriguing to him.

As soon as he had that thought, she tucked away all of her things into her big bag and hooked it over her shoulder, rising from her seat to walk over to where the young woman was still standing at the counter, sobbing loudly now.

With a gentle hand on her shoulder, Sweater Woman spoke quietly and Rory caught snippets of the young woman’s sobs--”My father… hospital… might be too late… cancelled flight!”

She cried, and Rory watched Sweater Woman enfold the taller young woman into a comforting embrace, allowing the girl to cry on her shoulder as she turned to the desk attendant and spoke something Rory wasn’t able to make out.

But it caught the attention of the girl on her shoulder, who stood with a shocked look on her face, fresh tears pouring from her eyes as she hugged Sweater Woman, spoke to the desk attendant, nodded emphatically, and hugged some more. Sweater Woman, to her credit, returned the hugs with equal fierceness before the attendant handed the girl some papers and she rushed off in the opposite direction.

Words were exchanged between the two remaining women, with Sweater Woman finally turning back to her seat.

But her face was downcast, and he watched as she made her way back to where she had been sitting, dolefully setting down her belongings to bring out her phone.

He wanted to know what she had just done, what had caused her to look so discouraged, and what she was doing on her phone that eventually led her to huffily slide it back into her purse as though she was mad at it. A text conversation? Email? Then she appeared to think better of it and she dragged it out again.

No one else, it seemed, was interested in what she had done or what she was doing. Rory watched her unashamedly, with no other passenger apparently caring that he was.

She tapped, scrolled, tapped, scrolled, and finally set the phone heavily down onto her lap, the slope of her shoulders becoming more pronounced as they dropped as well.

Then without warning her head came up and immediately caught his gaze.

Rory was surprised, but he held her stare, not wanting to look as though he was ashamed to have been caught gawking at her. She held his gaze as well, though hers morphed slowly into more of a glare, obviously irritated to have found she was under scrutiny, but also likely even more irritated to find that it was under his.

Then just as suddenly as their eyes connected, she broke it and picked up her stuff, glaring at him one last time before standing and walking away.

It was so abrupt that Rory didn’t have time to think about the wisdom of his decision as he stood and followed her.

Chapter Text

Rory McCann... Rory McCann had followed Annabelle to the little hole in the wall cafe just down from the airport seating area. He stood behind her in the line to order food.

She was determined to ignore him. Never in her life had she met a more pigheaded man, and she wasn’t about to indulge him in whatever game this was that he was playing. Not only had his attitude on the plane completely disillusioned her to the vague image of him she’d had in her mind after seeing his picture and name tossed around online for his work on the hit TV show; but he had also stared at her--stared at her for quite a long time while she sat and read her book, and then after she’d gotten up to help the girl.

What was his problem? Hadn’t he ever seen a woman before? Knowing his attitude and knowing how much his words had made her skin crawl with indignation, but paired with how handsome he was and what an imposing figure he struck, only served to irritate her even more.

And now he had to stand behind her--close, if that earthy, musky scent of his cologne was in any way indicative of his proximity--addling her brain and making it hard for her to concentrate.

Of course, the line was long, at least ten people in front of them waiting to order their own food. Annabelle didn’t know if she’d be able to handle standing in line for that long, knowing he was right behind her. If she had a mind for confrontation, she’d turn and ask him what the hell he wanted.

But she didn’t, so she remained quiet. All she wanted was to order a sandwich and a cup of tea, and she could wait while she figured out what she was going to do.

The airline had said they would supply cots for anyone not able to get a hotel reservation, and as it turned out, Annabelle was one of them. Unless she wanted to reserve a room on the opposite side of the city, all hotels near the airport were completely booked. This would not have been a problem had she not given up her ticket to the young woman.

But right was right, and getting that girl to London to see her father who was dying in the hospital, suddenly seemed more important than making the next stop on her book tour.

Of course, this hadn’t made Douglas happy. His text had been scathing, and for the umpteenth time she had told herself she would fire him if he wasn’t so damned useful. He wasn’t useful to her now, as there was no way he could snap his fingers and make the weather clear. And he had berated her in text for giving up the only seat left on the single flight still planning to leave the tarmac at the Boston airport.

There was nothing to do about it now. Annabelle would suffer through a night on a cot in an airport terminal so she could make it to the remaining two London book signings she was scheduled for.

So lost in thoughts regarding her disappointing situation, she didn’t realize the line had moved until a deep Scottish accent rattled next to her ear.

“Line’s moving.”

Startled, she jumped, and shot yet another glare back at Mr. McCann. She was certain he would think that was the only expression she was able to form around him, and he wouldn’t be far off the mark.

But Annabelle followed the person in front of her regardless, vowing to pay more attention and not let her thoughts wander so much.

“I apologize for earlier,” came his accented voice again, though not so close this time, “For what happened on the plane.”

Annabelle couldn’t stop the snarky response that leapt from her mouth.

“For being a douche, or for attempting to steal my seat?” She didn’t even look at him to gauge his reaction to her reply. But she heard the low chuckle, and in her mind she pictured the images of him she’d seen online of that smile--crinkled eyes, laugh lines, slightly crooked teeth. If only the man in real life matched with what everyone online assumed him to be like.

But his reply surprised her, and she struggled not to turn around as he said, “Wouldn’t they be one in the same?”

Well, now that he mentioned it…

Annabelle nodded, actually agreeing with him.

Turning her head slightly so he would know she was speaking to him, she observed, “That is a very accurate description. You are correct, sir.” And content to leave it with that, she followed as one more person left the front of the line, having ordered. Only eight more to go.

“Do you not accept my apology?” His Scottish voice was different, almost musical, as the end of his statement took a downturn to phrase it as a question, rather than the traditional American upturn. But his tone also lacked the good humor of his earlier declaration. He almost sounded sincere, which was what Annabelle had wanted to hear in his voice.

Instead, still caught up with everything he had shown himself to be since she first laid eyes on him, she shook her head.

“I do accept the apology, but not the man behind the delivery.” Getting the feeling that he wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, she decided to be blunt. “I don’t wish to speak to you,” was her finishing thought put into words.

He was silent for a moment, perhaps as long as a minute, and Annabelle thought that maybe she had won; maybe he would leave her the heck alone, as she wanted him to do.

But then that voice came again, a simple, “Please,” and this time he truly did sound genuine, and as much as she wanted to hang onto the anger and affront at his treatment of her, she found her ear tilting in his direction, and her mind preparing itself to focus and analyze what it was he was about to say. With a heavy sigh, she turned halfway so that she could pay attention to the line in front of him, but also give at least some of her attention to him. With a slight nod, she glanced at his warm brown eyes and then away, letting him know she was ready.

It wasn’t easy. She had to look up in order to make contact with his face. It was almost comical how her head barely reached the top of his shoulder, even with the aid of her knee high boots and their three inch heels.

“First, let me say I apologize for the way I spoke to ye. I should not have.”

Again, genuine. Annabelle nodded, looking up at the menu board as though choosing what she was going to eat, despite already having done so. He was standing too close to her for comfort, but to move away from him would put her too close to the person in front of her.

“Second, the seat mixup was my mistake and I also apologize it. I promise to check my boarding pass better the next time I fly.”

She granted him another nod, looking back at him quickly before looking away, but long enough to note his raised, plaintive eyebrows, his entire expression willing her to believe him.

Annabelle felt the beliefs she now held about him slowly begin to crumble, and she found herself becoming slightly grumpy because of it.

“And third, I apologize for being difficult. I was not in a good mood, and you just happened to be in my crosshairs.”

He remained where he stood, arms at his sides while looking down at her, as she looked off over the heads of the other diners already seated at the small tables.

She could find no fault with his apologies, and he seemed to have covered every base in regards to all the ways he had wronged or insulted her. Annabelle also had to admit, though, that she had also behaved badly, despite it being in response to his own behavior. She was old enough, mature enough, to know that that wasn’t a good excuse for what she had said.

So as they moved forward another few steps, she hesitantly turned to look up at him.

“Thank you for the apology. I apologize as well. I…” She turned away and swallowed, unaccustomed to finding herself in a position where she had to apologize to anyone anymore, whereas it had seemed like for years that was all she did with Clay. “I apologize for calling you a big ass.”

But she could see in the edge of her vision that he shook his head, his smile broadening--as though her admission was a sudden and yet tentative truce. It wasn’t, not really. But Annabelle was, as always, weary of the drama and in need of some downtime while she decided what step to take next in her travel plans.

“Then please, let me make this right between us by buying you lunch, and you can tell me what just happened with the woman at the ticket counter.”

Again, her eyes shot up to his, his offer surprising her to her core. But all she saw was real curiosity, and maybe a bit of humor in his gaze.

Her initial reaction was to refuse. She knew she wouldn’t be able to forget what he’d done, and what he had said to her--both the fuck you and his proposition for how she should sit on his lap the next time she found herself there.

But, what did she have to lose in sharing a meal with him, except for maybe a half hour of time she wouldn’t get back--which would indeed get her a half hour closer to the next flight to London. She was obviously never going to see him again, and there really was no harm in telling someone how she had given away her ticket to the distraught young woman.

Plus she wouldn’t mind the company--even his , truth be told, if he was going to be as nice and charming as he was now. It was a rare thing these days for her to have a conversation with a man that wasn’t tinged with suspicion, or consisting solely of book discussions.

Annabelle looked away, questioning her sanity for only a moment before turning back to him.

“I accept.”



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They sat in a small booth off to the side eating their food, both listening to the sounds of hurried travellers attempting to keep calm amidst talk of the storm that was coming in from the west. It was hard, being without the silence Rory tended to crave, but it was made easier by having something nice to look at while he dined.

Some one . There hadn’t even been any introductions, but thus far he didn’t need them. The woman who had turned his day upside down tucked into her sandwich with hardly a glance in his direction, affording him ample opportunity to study her.

She looked to be a natural blonde, or else she had just dyed her hair that morning. There were absolutely no dark roots. Her eyebrows were light brown, though her long eyelashes had been darkened with mascara. Those brilliant green eyes--green with flecks of gold, he’d noticed being this close to her--weren’t looking at him much, intent as she was on finishing her food. She even looked as though she might relish the idea of being rid of him.

A few minutes later she thanked him for lunch, while she was still working at her sandwich, she paused to wipe her mouth daintily with a napkin and sat back against her side of the booth.

“I know who you are,” she murmured quietly, startling him.

He hadn’t seen any recognition in her face and so he thought she might be one of the people he often met who had never heard of him or the television show he starred in. But to hear that she did indeed know who he was also gave him a deeper sense of shame for the way he had acted earlier. He could only imagine what she’d thought of him, pairing being a celebrity--he bristled at the ridiculous term--with his seeming inability to be civil to her on the airplane. No wonder she had referred to him as both a douche and an ass.

So he merely nodded, watching her as he chewed the bite of his sandwich and washed it down with a drink of black coffee.

She wasn’t saying anything else, nor was she looking at him. Was she waiting for him to say something? She almost looked distracted enough by the condensation on her cup, that putting her finger tip in the water droplets and dragging them down to the growing pool on the table was more interesting than continuing her train of thought.

“Aye, you know me. Have you seen the show?” Without moving a muscle except for the finger that moved on to another droplet, she flicked her eyes up to his and nodded once, then dropped them again.

“I have,” she affirmed, though she didn’t quite smile as another drop of condensation joined the little puddle. She surprised him by continuing, “You do a good job at portraying that man, though I must say you don’t match the description the author wrote in the books.” Again her eyes rose to his, but this time they held. Then her chin slowly rose, her expression genuinely inquisitive, and Rory realized she was skipping introductions and going straight to picking his brain. “Do you have any thoughts on that?”

With the way she was looking at him--straight faced and with hardly any emotion in her eyes at all--Rory felt like this was some sort of test. He hadn’t read the books that the show was based on, but he’d read a description and had to agree with her on his character not matching that which was written. However, nearly all the characters in the show showed the same or greater levels of discrepancies between their on screen characters and the book counterparts off of which they were based.

But she hadn’t asked him why that was; merely what his thoughts were on it.

“Well,” he started, taking another drink of water as she pulled another drop towards the table, “all television shows and movies based on books are afforded some leeway in that respect, and the screenwriters of the one I work for are no different.”

He drummed his own fingers on the table once, contemplating the reason for her question at the same time he was formulating an answer for it.

“So my thoughts on my particular character are, I do my best to play the part the screen writers have given me, and that’s all. No more, no less.”

She seemed to mull over his answer, nodding as she tucked her long hair over her shoulder. Rory smiled gently, wanting to prod her into conversation before he took another bite of his sandwich.

“You think I do a good job? What do you like about my character?”

Again she nodded, saying, “I like where the writers have taken him, and how he has developed into a rather upstanding, moral character. He has a conscience, which wasn’t as apparent in the beginning of the series.”

Rory agreed with a nod, happy to find that she apparently knew the show well enough to have done considerable character analysis, instead of drooling over his male colleagues as many women seemed to do. But he made no move to speak, and she seemed agreeable to filling the silence.

“I think it’s important for authors to write characters that evolve throughout a storyline, and a show such as yours has the unique task of doing so over the course of eight seasons, but also to a much larger, more diverse list of characters than a normal show.”

She sipped at her water, and he watched her carefully replace the cup back into the circle of puddle the condensation had left on the table. She shifted it, left and then right, seating it in what appeared to be the same exact place it had been before she picked it up.

“I don’t envy the writers at all,” she went on, “seeing as how they had to pare down not only that list of characters immensely when adapting from the books, but also cutting out large portions of the author’s original plot due to time constraints.”

“You don’t envy them?” Rory asked, around a bite of food. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about. He wiped at his mouth with his napkin and swallowed, taking a drink of water before prodding, “Do you have something to do with books or the big screen?”

At that she raised an eyebrow, but waited to answer until she had swallowed her food.

“I am a writer,” she said vaguely, and her face sparked a memory somewhere deep in his consciousness.

Leaning forward, he turned his head to focus on her skeptically with one narrowed eye.

“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”

Her hand gave her away--pausing in its path to her cup for just a moment, before resuming and lifting it to her mouth. Then her small shrug and the way she only glanced at his eyes before setting the cup down again. But something in the way her shoulders dropped the smallest amount told him she was going to reluctantly tell him who she was.

“Annabelle Harkness,” she offered, and that was it. Just a name, but it was enough.

He did know who she was--an author whom he’d heard of on the morning national news program here in the States; and just recently, if his memory recalled correctly. She had written several books and was currently on the book tour for her latest, a romance something-or-other that he hadn’t bothered to read. He preferred historical books, both fiction and nonfiction, and could proudly say he’d never read a romance in his entire life.

He hadn’t actually seen her on the television--it had just been on for background noise while he got ready to leave his hotel room--but he recognized the voice and the name. It was a good name, he remembered thinking at the time--an author’s name.

He nodded now, showing her a gentle smile and feeling how hesitant she’d been to tell him anything about herself.

“Annabelle Harkness,” he repeated, and she dipped her head, trailing a finger tip down the side of her cup. “Author extraordinaire,” he added, and the half-smile she gave him was diffident, wholly unpretentious, which inexplicably made his heart warm towards her.

“I’ve been fairly successful--”

“Being on The Today Show is hardly what I would call fairly successful ,” he cut in, though as good naturedly as he could. He hoped his smile lightened the rude effect of his words, and it did seem to--the other side of her mouth joined the first and she smiled sincerely.

Rory could only hope this was a topic he could get her invested in. He was already liking her smooth voice, her kind and contemplative eyes, and could hear through her speech that she was an intelligent woman.

The more he sat with her, the more he wanted to get to know her. So he softened the moment with a smile and watched her drag another droplet of water down the side of her cup.

Chapter Text

Annabelle felt herself smiling, and nearly laughed out loud that she was beginning to feel the whispers of enjoyment in his company.

“Yes, thank you Mr. McCann.” But before she could go on he held up a hand.

“Please, call me Rory.”

His smile was so good natured that she was put at ease almost immediately. She also wondered that he seemed to be warming to the topic of her own career, and obviously happy to stray from talking about his own. Perhaps this is what he’d needed to be brought out of the foul mood he’d been in on the plane.

Annabelle had always been one to cheer people up. Some said it was a character flaw or a weakness--Clay in particular had told her that, several times when he’d come home ranting and raging at her for not having chores done, or for not dressing to impress him, or whatever it was he chose to rub in her face that day.

It had taken several months of therapy to know that this was just how she was, one facet of her that she really shouldn’t have tried to sweep under the rug during her marriage. Being true to herself meant being her most authentic self, and her authentic self was beginning to feel that this time with Rory was also an opportunity.

“Well, Rory, my agent got me that spot and he’s been doing a good job at promoting my most recent book.” She reached into her bag and pulled out the thick work she’d been reading earlier, holding it up for him to take from her.

He did so, looking over the cover and seeming impressed at its heft. She had never been, after all, one to mince words when it came to story lines. Perhaps that was one thing she had in common with the author of the books Rory’s show was based on.

The cover of Annabelle’s book was practical and elegant, navy blue with a strip of night sky scenery running through the middle. Rory glanced up at her, a smile playing at his lips.

“You were reading your own book?”

Annabelle felt a flush steal across her cheeks, and was dismayed to find herself blushing in front of him. She felt like an adolescent girl, suddenly shy and proud in equal measure.

“It’s pretty long, nearly eight hundred pages, and I will have a lot of people asking me questions in London at the book signings. I like to brush up before an event on what I have written.”

Rory finished his sandwich and wiped his hands on his napkin. Annabelle’s gaze was drawn to them, and how enormous they seemed using a napkin that was the same as the one she held in her own hands. Although in hers the napkin was normal sized, he appeared to need three or four of the same napkin to do an adequate job of cleaning his hands.

He asked a couple of questions about the venue she was going to, and about the events she had coming up. It was public knowledge, according to her website, that she initially had three book signings in England and two more in Scotland, before flying to Spain and then on to Italy. It was only after those that she would be able to fly home for time off for Christmas.

Not that she was looking forward to that--it would be her sixth Christmas as a divorcee, her sixth straight Christmas celebrating alone, perhaps in her apartment as she had done the year before, or out on a long walk as she’d done the year before that when the weather had been unusually warm for December. But she didn’t tell Rory any of this, choosing instead to make her holidays sound like something happy and exciting.

They sat and ate, speaking about their respective careers and what they liked or didn’t like about them. It was nice and simple--no drama, no artifice; just two people who sharing a meal and who were having conversations like normal adults.

Annabelle didn’t realize how much she had been craving it, until she glanced at her watch and realized they’d been sitting there for longer than she’s expected.

“Oh my goodness, it’s been an hour and a half! I really have to go, I need to figure out what I’m going to do until they can get me on board another flight.” She slid out of the booth, genuinely having enjoyed her time with Rory, but knowing it must come to an end.

He seemed confused, and she figured out why when he asked, “What do you mean? I thought you had the last ticket to London?”

Annabelle smiled lightly and shook her head.

“No, I gave it to that woman who needed to be on the flight. I disappointed my agent but he’s just going to have to deal with it.” She slung her bag handles over her shoulder. “She needed to be in London more than I did.”

His surprised expression made him also look like he was going to say something, so she pulled her scarf against her and stepped back from the table.

“Thank you for having lunch with me,” he was saying as he, too, rose from his seat. She had to look up at him, though she did so now with a smile on her face instead of the scowls that threatened earlier when he was still, according to her, a menace to society.

“You’re welcome, and thank you again for paying. I had a good time. It was nice meeting you!” She backed away a step, and then another. “Good luck with season eight, I’ll be watching.”

And then she quickly turned her back and walked away, heading towards a customer service sign she could see in the distance.

There was a part of her that wanted to turn around and look back at him, to see if she really had just spent a good chunk of her afternoon sitting at a table with Rory McCann, actually enjoying his company.

But she knew she had. His scent was in her nose, his image in her mind’s eye, and she was never going to forget the way his voice held such intriguing intonation, and how his Scottish accent seemed to flow through her like water. It had been mesmerizing, she realized now, and she’d found herself forgetting to play with the condensation on her cup, forgetting to find something with texture to run her fingernail along.

It was because, she realized with a start, that as the afternoon had worn on, her hands had wanted to stray to his--to his skin, to feel his nails, his knuckles, the dusting of hair on the backs of his hands.

So yes, it was indeed a good time to walk away.

 

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Rory didn’t know what to do. Her admission of giving away her ticket had stunned him.

Who did that kind of thing? There didn’t seem to be enough altruistic people left in the world, and he was strangely suspicious that Annabelle Harkness was likely one of the last.

After all, he’d seen the same thing she and dozens of other people had--the sobbing woman, face red and wet from her tears, begging the woman at the desk to find a ticket for her to get to London. And no one--including Rory--had offered her any sort of help.

That was, except Annabelle. After having watched the situation for only moments, she’d risen, offered comfort, and then had apparently given away the last ticket available on a flight that was still due to leave the airport en route for London, thereby ruining any chances she had of reaching her first book signing and speaking engagement, as well as possibly the others following in England.

So yes, he was stunned. And as he watched her walk away he wondered not for the first time whether he should do more to convince her to stay and talk.

But that would be futile , he thought. She was due for speaking engagements in Europe, a successful author with her own busy life, and he was an actor in a hit television series, successful in his own right, also with a busy life. American citizen, Scottish citizen. Not to mention that she looked to be somewhere in her thirties and he was forty-eight.

But then, was he considering her as a companion for conversation, or some sort of intercontinental affair?

He snorted and finally turned away from her retreating form, as enticing as those knee high boots and thick tights were. He was sure that even if he never set eyes on her again, he’d remember the way that dress encased her curvy bottom probably for the rest of his life.

Annabelle had told him all about her books and her writing career, and how she had two apartments here in the States that enabled her to spend time at either while she was working on her writing. She had been fascinating to listen to, and had somehow drawn out of him quite a bit of information about the show and his career, even to the point of laughter over some of the funnier roles he’d had over the years.

He wondered, had they stayed on that flight and traveled for over six hours sitting next to each other, if they would have somehow gotten over their initial confrontation and had struck up a conversation.

Smiling to himself, he picked up his things and turned back to the seats, leaving the now empty booth for the patrons waiting for a place to sit.

When he was back amidst the throngs of people sitting on the banks of chairs in the terminal, he took out his phone to search for a hotel reservation for the night in case the flight didn’t pan out. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he’d taken too long to realize this was the next step, and that the only hotels with vacancies were either clear across the city, or in neighborhood slums. He was better off inquiring at the desk whether they had any extra large cots for him to borrow for the night.

And that’s where he found himself, sitting on the edge of the cot later that evening, tucked into a small alcove where he thought he could escape from some of the airport lights, when a familiar voice sounded from around the corner.

“Douglas, there’s nothing I can do. The storm isn’t letting up, and there’s no way I could get to another airport before tomorrow anyway, even if there was a flight I could catch.”

She was walking towards him, though he suspected he was hidden from her view by the large fake tree he’d parked the cot next to, unless she happened to be looking anywhere but straight ahead. Which she wasn’t--as became apparent when she came into view, her eyes glued to the floor as she slowly walked past the tree while listening to the phone.

“I can’t do that… No, there aren’t any hotels available tonight so I booked one for tomorrow… Yes, I know …” She sounded almost sad, but there was a hint of irritation in her voice as she spoke to whomever this Douglas was.

“I know, I know. Listen, I know it was important, but--... Yes, I understand that, but I can’t control the weather--Douglas? Hello?”

She stopped when she was a few feet beyond him, the same bag hanging off her shoulder but this time her scarf was unfolded and it was wrapped around her shoulders, snug around one side with the ends crossed over and the fringe swaying despite her lack of movement.

Her hair hung down her back, waves that looked soft to the touch, but her shoulders were rigid, and by the sound of it, Douglas had just hung up on her. She sighed heavily, and he only gave a moment’s thought before calling out her name softly.

“Annabelle,” he spoke, and she turned with a start, realizing it was him and smiling softly.

That was a much better reaction than the glares she had given him the first few times they had graced each other’s presence.

“Rory, hello. I see you’ve been set up for the night.”

He looked at the cot he was sitting on and nodded, his hands clasped between his knees.

“No hotels,” he said, nodding in her direction. He knew she’d understand, judging by the conversation he had just overheard.

She nodded, letting the hand holding her phone fall to hit her hip as she looked around at the crowds of makeshift beds appearing along the edges of the terminal.

“That was my agent. He’s… upset, over this turn of events.” She looked back at him and sent him a timid, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry if you heard that conversation. He’s a good agent, but not so good with small talk.”

Rory nodded.

“I did hear, and I’m sorry you have to deal with that. Will you be getting a cot as well?”

With a sigh, Annabelle caught him by surprise when she shook her head, dropping her bag to the floor before sitting in the chair against the wall at the head of the cot.

“They’ve informed me they are all out, and now I’m just waiting for someone to get me my bags from luggage.” She looked over to where a big duffel bag peeked out from under the cot, noting that he had already retrieved his.

Rory turned towards her, disappointed for her that things weren’t turning out the way she’d hoped.

“No flight, no hotel, and no cot? Sounds like you’ve got a shit deal.”

And for the first time, she laughed. It was light, a tinkling laughter that sounded genuine and that made her eyes twinkle at him. It was marvelous.

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“You will take the cot,” Rory heard himself say, and he made sure his tone brooked no argument. Her good humor faded into shock at his offer, and she shook her head vehemently, sending a cascade of blonde waves over her shoulders.

“Rory, no, I couldn’t do that,” she protested, and he could see she meant it. “The cot is yours, and it’s huge--it’s made for you.”

But he could imagine how uncomfortable it would be for her to sleep on the floor tonight, and forced himself to ignore how much more uncomfortable it would be for him.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll find some extra pillows, and blankets, and my coat,” he ticked them all off as though he was holding up his fingers.

But Annabelle’s face was serious, her brow furrowing at his authoritative expression, a look that he hoped told her he wasn’t going to relent as he added, “I won’t sleep a wink knowing you’re on the floor. You’ll take the cot and that’s the end of it.”

She stared at him for a moment, lips parted, taking his all the features of his face, and then the cot, and the floor beside it, before her eyes returned to his. She seemed to weigh the possibility that he would give in if she put up another protest.

“Bossy,” she muttered then, but he only smiled gently at her.

“Considerate,” he suggested. Then he looked away, appearing to think about what he was saying. “Thoughtful,” he added with a nod and a smile, turning his gaze back to her. “Chivalrous? Honorable? Gentlemanly?”

Laughing again, Annabelle shook her head.

“I thought we’ve decided that you are anything but gentlemanly?” She bit her lip and he knew she was thinking back to their meeting, and that unfortunate seating incident again.

He smiled anyway and let his head drop, nodding before he raised his eyes back up to hers.

“True, true. But at least I’m not suggesting we share the cot.”

Had the airport not been so quiet then, it was likely that even he wouldn’t have been able to hear Annabelle’s gasp. But when he thought he had gone too far with his joking, she narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips at him, attempting and failing to hide the scolding smile she shot back at him.

Then he laughed softly as she wagged a finger in his direction before saying she was going to find a restroom.

Rory watched her walk away, seeing her glance back at him and shaking her head once more with a smile before she disappeared into a hallway that led to restrooms.

Yes, her walking away was indeed an enjoyable sight, but he needed to remind himself that flirting was not a good idea--for all the reasons he had told himself earlier, about living on two continents, having different lives, and being so far apart in age.

But it was fun, he had found. And the more smiles she sent him, the harder he wanted to try to make more come forth from her lips.

Chapter Text

While Annabelle was in the restroom, Rory set up a blanket on the floor to go beneath him and one to go on top, plus a pillow, while he did the same for the cot, giving her a couple pillows just to be nice. He really did want her to be comfortable, and he knew sleeping in the terminal wasn’t going to be the most pleasant experience.

When she came back he was already laying on the floor, so close to the cot that his arm was underneath it. He had taken off his jacket and now wore a t-shirt and his jeans, his boots lined up at the end of the cot.

“Thank you for getting it ready, Rory,” said Annabelle as she walked up. “You didn’t have to do that, I could have.”

He pointed out that he had stored their bags beneath the cot, another reason why he laid so close to it. No one was going to steal their stuff while he slept.

But another reason was just to be close to her. He didn’t examine exactly why he wanted that, other than to admit to himself that he did feel a level of attraction for her that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

This admission was quiet, and small, and yelling at him from the deepest depths of his mind that he was lying to himself and that she was gorgeous and You should be so lucky!

Ignoring his libido, he watched her as she sat on the edge of the cot by his feet and unzipped the impossibly high boots, sliding them off her legs to reveal feet encased in thick thermal tights. She looked amazing, sitting there in that short sweater dress that covered her nearly to her chin. He wasn’t sure if he should be staring, but with her hair flowing and her makeup freshly washed off, she was stunning.

When she laid back against the cot and pulled the blanket up to her chin, he waited, not sure if he wanted to try to talk some more or if she wanted to sleep. He laid there for a few minutes looking up at the high ceiling of the terminal, trying desperately to think of anything other than the woman who rested beside him.

She apparently was thinking similar thoughts. He suddenly saw her face come into view, a slender hand wrapping around the edge of the cot near the top a moment before her face came to rest on the back of her hand. The fingers of that hand worried at the edge of the blanket she was laying on.

“The weather isn’t supposed to let up until the day after tomorrow,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. Everything was quiet inside the airport except for the whirring sounds of ceiling fans and the occasional murmur of a voice. In their dark little alcove, they seemed to be shielded from much of the sounds.

“I saw that too,” he nodded, looking up at her, using this opportunity to study her face under the guise of holding a conversation.

Some of her hair slipped past, falling against his shoulder. Before she scooped it back up over her shoulder she apologized, resuming her fidgeting with the edge of the blanket beneath her, but he smiled and shook his head.

“Don’t be.” He’d smelled that same floral perfume again, and knew it was a fragrance he would likely always associate with memories of her.

“Since we have our names on the list for tickets, I wonder when they’re going to start the flights back up. I might call around tomorrow and see about a hotel room.”

Rory closed his eyes before saying, “Make sure it’s big enough for two of us,” just able to inject enough humor in his voice to lead her to believe he was joking. He wasn’t, anyway, but she didn’t have to know that.

Apparently she saw right through him, because when he opened his eyes, hers were narrowed at him in that way she had done moments ago on her way to the restrooms. Her lips tightened into another scolding smile.

“Yes, well, I’ll ask them if they have a storage closet we can squeeze you into.”

Rory chuckled, appreciating that she was willing to joke back with him

It had been too long since he had enjoyed the company of a woman he wasn’t working with, or related to, or acquaintances with. Annabelle was quite literally a breath of fresh air.

They were silent for a little while, her face still perched above his as she let her eyes wander around the quiet terminal. Rory laid there, one hand on his stomach with his other arm bent beneath his head, studying her and not bothering to hide it. He contented himself with watching her large eyes looking at their surroundings, and noting the way her lips looked soft enough to kiss, her skin clear and clean.

He mused over the fact that he liked everything about her, not just her looks. She was obviously independent; capable of taking care of herself not only in the usual sense, but when someone--him, or men, maybe, in general--were assholes to her. She also had a sense of humor, and was obviously kind to a fault. Not many people would have done what she had for that young woman earlier.

But despite being independent, she was still incredibly feminine, and appreciated chivalry. He’d seen how her face had shown genuine gratefulness when she had come back from the restroom, seeing that he had set up their beds.

As he looked at her mouth he suddenly realized her eyes were on him, though he had been so lost in thought that he had no idea how long she’d been watching him. So when he let his eyes connect with hers, he didn’t allow his gaze to waiver.

Let her know , he told himself. What do you have to lose?

They looked at each other for a few moments, each openly studying the other. He wondered if she, too, was pondering their meeting, and how nice it felt that they had come to this place between them where neither was irritating the other--where she had realized he was only tired of travel and not wanting to be bothered, and he had realized she just similarly wanted to be left alone, so caught up in the stress of travel that she had decided not to put up with any man’s crap.

Her face remained expressionless as she looked over his features, and he watched her eyes slide away from his face, down to his neck and shoulder, and up and over his raised elbow. When her gaze completed the short circuit, it came back to rest on his face.

Before he could say anything, the hand she’d laid her cheek against slipped out from beneath her face, her fingers hovering over his face for just an instant before her eyes widened and she clenched her fist, frozen.

Rory simply stared at it, and then at her, asking with a rise of an eyebrow what it was she was doing.

Her lips parted and then closed, her eyes looking at her own hand and then sliding back to his as she softly stammered, "I'm--I'm sorry, I should have asked... May I?”

Despite wanting to, he heard no desire or attraction in her voice. There was curiosity, and an awareness between them that went unspoken that said this was highly improper of her. But her curiosity was mirrored in his own voice when he quietly told her yes .

With a single finger, she traced a line from the center of his forehead down to the tip of his nose, over the fine lines between his eyebrows. Then with the same finger she stroked his eyebrows outward, both of them, and then mirrored the motion beneath his eyes on the soft skin of his cheeks.

It was strange, being felt like this, but the changes he saw in her face made it worth it.

Her mouth opened slightly, though he was certain she didn’t realize it. And in the dimly lit corner he could have sworn her pupils dilated further, darkening her eyes until he could no longer discern color in the irises.

She touched the shadow of hair that grew on his upper lip, long enough to show he hadn’t shaved in a few days but not quite long enough to consider a mustache. Give it a couple days and it would have been, but right now, without the looming public appearances and interviews, he really didn’t care about it. He was just glad for the shorter beard after months of wearing it long for the show.

Although now, he almost wished he still had it. He was sure her fingers would have found it as interesting as they were finding his scruffy face.

Her finger drew down one side of his upper lip, dipping into the groove of his laugh line before repeating the movement on the other side. It wasn’t sexual by any means, but Rory prayed the darkness of their little alcove hid the bulge that threatened to show itself through the blanket that covered him.

When her perusal of his face passed his lips he was unaccountable disappointed when she bypassed that particular part, instead turning her hand so the backs of several fingers could ghost over the beard that was growing in on his chin and cheeks. But once they’d felt both sides, she drew them down the center of his chin and down to his neck, until they reached the V at the neck of his polo.

Her mouth closed, and the expression on her face had turned from curiosity to intent, her hand turning so that she could press a palm against his throat. She slid her fingers back towards his opposite shoulder before bringing them back, using the backs to slide down the side of his neck that was closest to her.

Rory was sure she’d see the bulge now. For fuck’s sake , she was just exploring his face and neck. He tried to tell himself that was better than her sitting there topless, but that image just made his eyes close and he heard himself groaning lightly.

When he opened his eyes, sure he was going to see shock or perhaps even disgust on her face, she was instead smiling--just slightly, but it was there; in the way her eyes creased at the corner, and the soft rounding of her cheeks. Her hand resumed its movements, sliding up that same side of his face so the backs of her fingers caressed the shell of his ear and ended up stroking into his hair.

Once again he felt her open her hand, and her warm palm moved over his forehead as she slid her whole hand back over his hair, using more pressure as though she was petting him.

He never knew being petted could feel so damned good.

He finally got what he wanted when she brought her hand down the far side of his face, the heel of her hand moving over the edge of his brow as her fingers skated against the shell of that ear, eventually trailing off at his chin and breaking contact there.

But then she did it--her single finger returned, and he thought he might embarrass himself when she brought it slowly, almost hesitantly to his lips, running the soft pad of her finger over the top and bottom, side to side, an incredibly gentle caress that felt like an exploration of the texture beneath her skin.

His internal debate only lasted for a second before he opened his mouth, surprising her so that she wasn’t able to prevent her finger from slipping between his lips. Annabelle gasped softly when he took the tip between his teeth.

Rory didn’t know what possessed him to do it, but he found himself sliding the tip of his tongue over her finger, just once.

It was there, in his mouth, so… why not? And damn, she was so incredibly sexy he likely wouldn’t have been able to stop himself even if he had thought about his actions ahead of time.

He didn’t know what goal he was aiming for, if any, when he touched his tongue to her finger--or previously for that matter, when he grabbed her finger between his teeth. But it wasn’t for her to remain frozen in place as her eyes darted from his mouth to his eyes and back again, before suddenly pulling her hand back up onto the cot.

They lay there for a minute, each one staring at the other until Rory decided he was either going to proposition her or put an end to their shenanigans. He opted for the latter, and reached up to tuck her hair back behind her ear.

“Goodnight, Annabelle,” he whispered, glad she didn’t pull away at his touch.

When he pulled his hand back, her gaze was fixed intently on his face.

“Goodnight, Rory.”

Then she rolled her body away from him, letting her gaze hold his until she turned her back to him and the open corridor, pulling the blanket up to her neck as she did so.

Rory decided it was going to be a very long night, indeed.

 

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Annabelle woke up to darkness, not remembering where she was. She was staring at a drab wall, and the air on her face was slightly cold, the bed beneath her even more so. She realized she was only covered by a thin blanket, and it was enough to jog her memory of the evening’s events--that the bed beneath her was in fact an enormous cot made to fit the bulk of a six and a half foot man, and that said man was beside her on the floor, sleeping on the hard tile because he had insisted she take the last available cot.

Ah--Rory .

Her fingers remembered--forehead, nose, eyebrows, cheeks, chin, beard, neck. Then her single finger remembered--lips, upper and lower, softness, opening, teeth, tongue .

Annabelle’s entire body shivered and she wasn’t entirely certain it was from the chill in the air.

She had just wanted to feel his face, to give her aching fingers what they had been wanting to do for several hours and touch the man. His hand would have sufficed. Even his knee. But when the opportunity had presented itself, it had been his face within reach.

Annabelle had been a fidgeter since she was a kid, and when she felt she needed that tactile stimulation, her hands sought out any texture they could find, any uneven surface, smooth surface, crack, corner, point--anything that would give her hands and mind the feedback they desired.

Clay had always teased her about it, and not in a nice way.

I’ll give your hands something to play with .

Watch your things, guys--she’s got sticky fingers.

That’s my fucking pen, quit rubbing your mouth on it.

He had made her feel so low, so worthless, for having this idiosyncrasy, that she had forced herself to hide it when she was around him. It was just one of many things that led to the breakup of their relationship--because if she couldn’t be her true self around him, she chose to spend less and less time around him, and he, her.

Of course, his affair with the expediter had something to do with it as well.

But that was old news, she reminded her foggy brain, and she indulged in her quirk now by finding and toying with the corner of the pillowcase, feeling herself calm and the bad memories fade as the sensitive pads of her fingers explored the seam, the thread, and the texture of the fabric.

Annabelle didn’t know what was going to happen when the terminal came alive again. She doubted they would have a flight out until the day after, and wondered briefly at the likelihood that she and Rory would be on the same flight. If not, she hoped she could at least find a hotel. Rubbing her cold feet together now at the thought of a warm hotel room, she felt they might never be warm again.

She couldn’t tell what time it was but guessed that it was still the middle of the night, because there was barely a hint of light in the night sky outside the windows just a few feet from where she was laying.

Turning slowly, quietly, so that she wouldn’t wake Rory behind her, she peered over the edge of the cot, only to find his sleeping place empty.

Inexplicable panic developed within her chest and she rose on one elbow, looking down the terminal corridor but not seeing his tall form anywhere. Turning the other way, knowing she wouldn’t be able to see past the wall they were up against in that direction, her eyes instead landed on Rory sitting on the chair at the head of the cot. He was watching her, an unsmiling, thoughtful expression on his tired, handsome face.

“Hey,” she said softly, her voice sleepy and a bit rough even to her own ears. She cleared her throat and smiled, pleased to see he at least smiled back.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” he whispered. His elbows had been resting on his knees but he sat back now, hands still clasped in his lap.

Annabelle instantly felt guilty, because she knew .

“You can’t sleep, can you.” It wasn’t a question. She knew the tile floor would be unforgiving on anyone’s back.

Rory looked down at his hands, but he still smiled softly. Then he looked back at her.

“Go back to sleep.”

But how could she? When he was sitting there on the bench in the middle of the night, all alone, unable to sleep on floor that must have been more like a torture device than a sleepable surface? No, there would be no going back to sleep for her, not unless she knew he could as well.

“Surely they have another cot? Maybe they found one, and you can have this one.”

He chuckled quietly, but Annabelle was serious. His reply deflated her hopes.

“I checked again. They don’t have any more. Now go to sleep, Annabelle. We’ll have breakfast in the morning when you get up.”

But she was not to be deterred. It would be impossible, literally impossible for her to get any sleep knowing he was going to be miserable without it.

So she did the only thing she could think of.

“Come share this one, then.”

Chapter Text

“Come share this one, then.”

Even as the words left Annabelle’s mouth, she knew that she sounded terribly presumptuous. But she forced herself to hold Rory’s gaze, and to offer him the kindness with her words as well as her eyes.

“What--no, Annabelle. There isn’t enough room.”

She just rolled her eyes at him, which she knew he’d be able to see in the dim light of their little alcove. Then she scooted over to the edge so her back was to the expanse of cot behind her, which even to her looked wide enough for him and one more of her, if they really spooned tightly.

“Try again, Mr. McCann,” she said, smiling. Trying to ignore the flutters in her stomach that had returned at her bold offer, she also found herself in a better mood knowing there was a way for him to get some sleep, and for the selfish reasons she was choosing to ignore about this scenario.

Namely, that she would have a giant heating pad at her back.

Rory was looking at her now, his expression a cross between thinking she had lost her mind, and curiosity for her proposition. She hoped she knew which option he was going to pick--bench, or cot?

To add weight to her idea, she laughingly added, “I’m freezing, Rory.”

He uttered the smallest, delightful, deflated sigh. Annabelle had to bite her lip to keep from grinning at him.

Her words seemed to convince him, though. He pushed himself off the bench with a chuckle and a shake of his head, and walked over to her, where he bent down to gather the blankets off the floor that he had been using. He cracked them open in the air above her, letting them fall to the cot so they covered the entire surface. Then, after adding one more of the small pillows to the cot for himself, he gingerly lowered himself to the taut fabric bed, only adjusting and getting comfortable when he was apparently satisfied that it wasn’t going to collapse under the weight of both of them.

“Relax,” she murmured, waiting for him to settle so she could do it as well. “I bet this is made for five hundred pounds. It’s a huge cot.”

“My feet are hanging off the edge,” he said, his voice close to the back of her head.

What? ” She leaned up on one elbow only to see that he was in fact at least a couple inches from the bottom of the cot.

“You liar,” she laughed, and she laid down to settle against her pillow, finding it difficult to keep any space between them. With them both laying on the cot, it dipped heavily in the middle and it seemed impossible to keep any amount of empty space between their bodies.

Rory must have seen this as well, because suddenly under the blanket a very large, very strong arm wrapped around her middle and pulled her backwards, flush against his chest.

“Mm,” he hummed, this time his mouth close to her ear as he inhaled deeply.

He’s smelling my hair , she thought, and damn it--heat pooled between her legs. It was going to be a long night.

Now I’ll get some sleep.”

His voice was both amused and satisfied, his large hand splayed over her stomach for a moment before he slid his arm up to rest his palm over hers. She was trapped, though willingly, in the cocoon of his embrace, and she was delightfully, happily warm.

“No funny business,” she whispered smiling, turning her head slightly towards him and waiting for a response. But inwardly she wondered if she would turn him away if he tried. He was pretty great… wonderful even. Just amazing, when he wasn’t being a grumpy ass. Kind, handsome, considerate, funny, and a gentleman.

And with her back to his chest, her butt cushioned in the angle of his pelvis, and her feet now pressed warmly up against his solid shins, she felt that this might turn out to be the most comfortable night she’d had in a long time.

Or the most difficult, but this she wasn’t going to dwell on. It was a sleeping arrangement that suited both their non-carnal needs, and it would work for one night. She would make sure of that.

But when he pressed a kiss to her covered shoulder and pulled his arm in tight against her body, murmuring, “No funny business,” in that deep rumble of his, she momentarily had cause to question the wisdom of this sleeping arrangement.

It was some time later that she woke again, momentarily confused before remembering that the wall of warmth against her back was Rory and that the arm around her middle was his. She hadn’t slept with anyone since Clay, so coming to that realization probably saved her from several moments of severe anxiety.

Her back ached a bit from being on the unfamiliar surface of the cot, so she struggled under the blankets to turn, coming to rest on her other side and facing him now. She pulled her pillow down towards her and moved in close, bringing her face up again his chest by wrapping her arm around his waist and using his body as leverage to scoot as close to him as possible.

She knew they were disruptive movements, but he seemed not to mind as his arm once again just wrapped around her and pulled her close, his strength tucking her into his chest and under his chin before he brought the blanket back up to cover her. Once it was there, he settled his arm back down on her, giving her hair a stroke, and then another, before his breathing once again evened out and she knew he was back to sleep.

Inhaling deeply the faint musk of his cologne and the scent of his skin, she fell asleep trailing fingers over the surface of his broad back.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Rory woke next when the faint light of dawn was peeking through the windows, and the terminal had begun to make noise once again. He listened and could hear people awakening, bags rustling, the low murmurs of voices as the stranded passengers began rising from slumber.

At some point during the night, he had thrown a leg over Annabelle’s, and her legs were entwined in his. Her arm was still around his waist, and his was still holding her to him.

It was the most intimate way he had ever slept with a woman, and it made his blood warm as sleep left him.

Her warmth, her small size, the inner strength hidden in the curvy frame of her body, all served to fan the fire that burned low in the pit of his stomach.

He was about to travel down the despondent path of thought, dwelling on why he had to meet her in passing and why it had to be in an airport and why wasn’t life different; when he felt her breathe in deeply, wakefulness finding her as well.

So instead of acting like he was willing to leave this moment in the past and to move on to whatever this day held in store for both of them, he tightened his arm and held her against his chest, feeling almost light headed when the arm around his waist did the same.

With his nose in her hair, he smiled.

“How did you sleep?”

There was a sound muffled against his chest, and he loosened his grasp on her enough to realize it was a chuckle.

“Never better,” came her soft admission. He laughed again, listening to her mumbled, “You?”

“Same, actually. It’s like having a soft--” he ran his hand over her shoulders, feeling the soft weave of her sweater dress, “--teddy bear to sleep with.”

She laughed against his chest, but nodded. Her hand came around to dip into the V of his shirt, just enough to tangle with the hairs she found there.

“I agree.”

Rory smiled and sighed into her hair.

“I’m going to have to find one of these cots and keep it with me in Scotland,” he murmured, “so whenever you happen to fly through, I can get some sleep.”

Another sleepy laugh came from her, but then they both quieted.

Rory didn’t want to examine the inevitable parting that was coming. He was just beginning to get to know her, just beginning to understand her, and he liked her. He really did, probably more than he should. It’s not that he had deluded himself into thinking he found some kind of great love with her, but rather that she made him feel like he'd found a friend--made amidst the plight of winter travellers trapped in the same airport together.

So as the airport began to teem with activity--weary travellers folding up cots and checking flights, kids running around while their parents sorted through baggage, and throngs of people heading to the few cafes serving breakfast--Rory and Annabelle remained where they were, just for a few extra minutes.

He was certain she was as comfortable as he was, and didn’t want to re-enter the land of reality.

But soon nature called, so they broke apart, Annabelle sending him a shy smile as she brushed her hair back down from where it had frizzed up during the night.

“If you want to go to the restroom first, go ahead,” he said gently, seeing that she was likely self-conscious about her appearance. He thought she looked adorable, but she didn’t seem to agree.

With a thankful nod she gathered an overnight bag from her suitcase and walked away, leaving Rory to sort through folding the cot they used and consolidating their luggage into a pile while he folded the blankets.

When she returned, she had combed her hair back into into a loose braid, leaving some tendrils curling around her face. A short, loose sweater replaced the tight dress, and she wore it over tight jeans tucked into the same boots she’d worn the day before. She came up to him smiling, obviously feeling at least somewhat refreshed as she agreed that coffee was on order when he returned from the restroom.

It was the first thing they did after checking the weather and verifying that the winter storm was indeed here to stay for another twenty-four hours. Once the storm passed, it was up to the airport for when the flights would resume, as they announced over the intercom that they had every employee available working on snow removal around the clock. But it was apparent no one would be flying anywhere until at least midday tomorrow.

With that thick scarf wrapped around her neck and the softly braided hair hanging over her shoulder, Annabelle could have passed for a college co-ed. He’d already asked her how old she was, and her thirty-five years had surprised him.

But when he looked at her--really looked , when she was speaking, and talking with her hands, and being so emotive with her facial expressions--there was a tiredness there that she seemed to want to hide. She was busy, he knew. Annabelle had told him about her schedule and what it was like when she was working towards a deadline, plus being on the book tour and having engagements scheduled for her--much like his own schedule. But to him it appeared she was in dire need of some time off.

Three more weeks, she’d said. Just three more weeks and she could have some time off for Christmas and the new year holiday.

Their attempts at finding a hotel room on this side of the city proved futile, as they both sat there on their phones, steaming cups of coffee in front of them as they spoke to desk clerk after desk clerk, receptionist after receptionist. Every hotel within range of the airport--and even some that weren’t, which would have cost an arm and a leg just to travel to for the night and then back again in the morning--were booked solid.

Rory had just put his phone down when Annabelle pulled hers away from her face and drew her lips into her mouth as she ended the call. Then she looked up at him, one eyebrow raised in a “No luck, either, huh?” expression.

He had to smile, she looked that adorable.

“There’s nothing,” he said needlessly. But he wanted to break the silence so that neither of them grew too disappointed at being stuck in the airport for another day and night.

“Nope. I almost can’t believe it.” She was smiling back at him as she said it, so he chuckled.

“There are always hostels. Feel like staying in a tent?”

Annabelle turned her face towards the window and then looked back at him, face still angled away.

“Feel free,” she suggested with a grin, and they shared a good laugh over the image of Rory freezing his butt off in a tent outside in the blizzard.

They ordered some breakfast burritos to start their day and then refilled their coffees before heading back to where the cot and blankets were still leaning against the wall in the corner of the terminal. Taking up the spot in front of the window, out of which nothing could be seen but the swirling snow, they sat facing each other, coffees in hand.

“So,” Rory started as he took a long pull on his coffee, “do you play backgammon?”

He watched as her head came up, her face curious.

“What?”

“Backgammon,” he said, smiling. “I have a game on my phone that I play sometimes. Do you know how to play?”

It struck him that she looked a hell of a lot happier now than what she did after giving away her plane ticket, but she shook her head, her blonde waves falling in front of her shoulder as she sat straight in her chair.

“Do you like thinking games? Because this is a game of strategy.” He pulled out his smartphone and laid it on the seat cushion between them, bringing up the game and changing the setting to two-player.

He watched emotions play across Annabelle’s face as she took in his actions--humor, interest, and finally a touch more happiness, which he was glad to see.

“I have been known to do a sudoku or a crossword every once in awhile.” She leaned forward then, moving to the edge of her seat and using the fingers of one hand to toy with the high neckline of her sweater. He watched as she fingered the fabric, scraping her thumbnail against the ribbed texture.

Then she caught him off guard by blurting out a question just as he was about to begin her first backgammon lesson.

“Why did you tell me to fuck off on the plane?”

If Rory had been drinking at that moment, he would likely have choked on his coffee.

He looked up, and her eyes were on him with genuine interest, the one hand at her collar and the other gently resting on her thigh. He took in the way her sleeves extended just beyond her natural wrists, covering her to the start of the flare of her hand; and the high, folded over neckline of her sweater. She was stunning in this light, wearing boots that on another woman might have looked slightly hooker-ish, but on her they were sexy as hell.

He almost laughed out loud, knowing now she didn’t fit the bill for the women who usually threw panties in his direction, or the ones who slid their numbers on napkins towards him, or the few who had cornered him in public restrooms.

But she was beautiful--gorgeous, even--any one of those adjectives would have worked to describe her. And if he was being honest with himself, it was usually the pretty ones who thought they could get away with the stunt that woman on the plane had pulled.

He remembered the panties he’d kicked under the seat, and he nearly blushed, not sure now if he wanted to tell her. He said as much to her.

“And no, it’s not because I’m just a horrible human being.”

Annabelle laughed at that, but she shook her head, fitting her unoccupied hand around the curve of her cup once more.

“I don’t think that. But yes, I do want to know. You seemed… tense.”

“Aye, so did you. You said I had a big ass.”

And then she blushed, and Rory thought he could hear angels singing.

“I did say that, but what I really meant was you are a big ass.”

“Oh, I am, am I?” He smiled broadly at her, enjoying the conversation despite the reason for it hovering on the outskirts.

“Well, telling a woman to fuck off --a woman who had just said excuse me to you a moment before--isn’t exactly a polite manner of greeting, don’t you agree?” She took a sip of coffee but watched him over the lid with laughter in her eyes.

Rory knew it had looked bad, and he could go on letting her think he was just an ass or he could tell her the truth. And because he so wanted her to like him, he settled on the truth.

“Alright, so the reason why I said that was because I thought you were going to proposition me.”

Annabelle’s eyes widened to saucers and she leaned heavily sideways into her seat, her mouth falling open as she grinned. It almost looked like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be upset with him for assuming such a thing, or amused that he had thought her possible of that. So he explained it further.

“Right before you appeared, a woman on the plane had dropped her panties onto my seat before walking further down the aisle.” It was actually embarrassing, admitting that to her. “You just never saw them--I dropped them on the floor and kicked them under the seat.”

Annabelle was obviously shocked, but then suddenly a laugh burst out of her mouth and she covered it with her hand, trying to stifle the giggles. Rory found himself laughing with her, despite the flush rising on his own cheeks at the admission.

“You’re kidding me!” she exclaimed, dropping the hand but not the shocked expression. Rory shook his head.

“I wish I was, actually. I never even saw her face, but she apparently knew who I was.”

“Ah,” she said with a nod, “Yes. And who better to proposition with an induction into the Mile High Club than the most fearsome warrior in all of Westeros.” She sent him a smile that told him she wasn’t patronizing him, but more sympathizing with him. Rory wasn’t sure, but he thought that perhaps she had gotten a bit of the same at some point, though probably from more intellectual types. Except he was sure men didn’t just drop boxers in her airplane seat.

Still, he looked at her with a disbelieving smile as he pressed the image on his phone that rolled the dice for the first time.

“Did you really just say that?” he asked lightly, shaking his head to emphasize the ridiculousness of her words. She smiled back at him, drawing her lip between her teeth and looking as though she was suppressing a laugh.

“I did.”

When their laughter died down it seemed as though a page had turned between them. Rory watched her over the small space between them, finding that he didn’t mind so much being caught in an airline terminal during a blizzard with this strange woman--world-renowned author extraordinaire and keeper of secrets. If the rest of their time together was spent in this kind of camaraderie, he was going to have a hard time saying goodbye. It had been a long time since he’d met a stranger and felt any fondness towards maintaining an acquaintance with them, let alone a woman stranger.

It was that last thing that made him want to make this right, so he ran a hand over his eyes, feeling for the first time in a long time that he was going to enjoy the company of another person. He wanted to do this right, and he didn’t want to screw it up anymore.

“Annabelle,” he said, her name a rasp in his words as he looked intently at her with a smile playing at his lips. “I am sorry for telling you to fuck off, and I promise I won’t do it again.”

Her responding smile lightened his heart, and he thanked all that was holy for whatever it was that caused him to take the wrong seat on that godforsaken plane.

“Apology accepted. And I’m sorry for calling you an ass.”

“A big ass.”

She laughed again, a high, pleasing sound.

“Yes, a big ass. I won’t do it again.”

It was the damnedest thing, that they seemed to have a tentative connection despite their rocky start. Rory figured it had something to do with the fact that they didn’t know how long they were going to be stuck there together, and that they both likely felt grateful for having someone whose company they could enjoy. Also, it didn’t hurt that they’d slept next to each other in a position of intimacy that they had neither planned nor avoided. If Rory were to be honest with himself, he was hoping it would happen again tonight.

So, having reached this truce between them, he settled into teaching Annabelle the finer points of backgammon, all the while casting surreptitious glances in her direction when he thought she wasn’t looking.

Chapter Text

"You shouldn't do that."

Annabelle looked at Rory, but pointedly ignored his advice and moved her backgammon piece to the position she had selected.

"I think it will work out better for me this way," she responded with a quirk of her eyebrow.

"Yes, but now I have two ways to get you out, instead of just one if you moved it here."

"I'm a risk taker."

"And I'm the queen of Boston."

Annabelle giggled.

They continued to play, Annabelle effectively beating Rory in that particular game, though he had already won four. And while they played, she marvelled at how long ago it must have been when she remembered enjoying someone's company like this. No posturing, no fake smiles, just a genuine warmth for the other person. She thought it might have been in the early years of her relationship with Clay, but even then it had seemed like infatuation. There were good times, but somehow Rory was making her feel like this was a true friendship, whereas with Clay it had always been man and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend.

Annabelle liked this dynamic. She couldn't remember feeling so light and carefree in her interactions with someone since college.

Back when she'd had friends. Was it really so long ago?

It had taken her a long time to realize that a marriage without any outside friends wasn't natural, that it wasn't healthy. When the problems between her and Clay started, she had no one to talk to. No family, no friends, and because she stayed at home to raise the kids she and Clay had thankfully never had, she didn't even have coworkers to speak to. There had been no one to voice her concerns regarding Clay's behavior, her own reactions, or their troubles.

The later years of her marriage had been incredibly sad and lonely. She had loved Clay up until the very end; up until he'd told her about the affair and that he wanted a divorce. So when he finally kicked her out and filed divorce proceedings, she had no support group to speak of.

If not for her therapist and for her writing, Annabelle realized she would have likely spiralled downwards into despair. Who knew what could have happened to her.

Her days would have been as colorful as... Well, as the blizzard that was waging war outside against everyone's holiday plans.

"Annabelle?"

Jostled out of her thoughts by his voice, she turned back to Rory, having completely forgotten about their game.

"I'm sorry, where were we?"

But he was sitting back, not looking at the game on his phone anymore. He had a slight smile on his face, and was gnawing at the corner of his lip as he studied her.

"Where were you?"

He looked genuinely curious, but she was embarrassed about where her thoughts had been. So she shook her head, tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear. Head bent, she picked at the upper edge of her boot.

"Somewhere I shouldn't have gone." Then she looked up, smiling more brightly than was necessary. "Shall we play?"

But when she looked at his phone it was off, and she glanced up at him to find him settling back into his seat, elbow cocked over the back of it.

"We can continue that later. So..." His smile was warm, and where on someone else she may have expected curiosity for entertainment’s sake, in him she saw concern. "Want to talk about it?"

"Goodness, no," she replied. Still looking at her boot, she explained, only lying by omission, "I was just thinking that I'm having a good time. A better time than I had thought I would, actually."

When she looked up again, her smile widening at the reminder that she was sitting across from the big Scotsman named Rory McCann, she saw an unidentifiable emotion flash through his eyes before it was gone and he was glancing out the window. She wondered what it had been, but the moment had passed.

"I am too," he said, looking back at her now. "You're good company." The humor in his voice didn’t quite cover up his sincerity, which made Annabelle feel really good--as though he was paying her a bigger compliment than what his words let on.

"You're not so bad yourself. Have you had bad company on trips?"

He laughed, giving her a look that asked her if she was being serious.

"I just told you about the woman who dropped her panties on my seat, and you're asking if I've ever had bad company?" His laughter rang out through the terminal, warming Annabelle’s heart.

"Well, being propositioned by the opposite sex isn't exactly a fate worse than death," she murmured with a blush, not quite able to meet his eyes.

He was quiet, but his chuckle drew her gaze.

"No, I suppose not. But it does help if it's a member of the opposite sex I would actually want to be propositioned by."

His tone was merry but his eyes were weighty, and she chose not to read too much into what he'd said.

If she had, she would have wondered if there was a possibility that she wanted to proposition him, or that he would want her to. But she didn't want to go down that road, either. She had to remind herself of who he was, and how not only unattainable he was, but about how their lives kept them on opposite sides of the planet. Entering into any sort of relationship with someone she'd met on an airplane--let alone a celebrity such as he--was not smart.

They resumed playing backgammon until it became apparent that Annabelle wasn't going to win any more games. A couple times she caught Rory moving his pieces in a manner that would give her an advantage and she'd called him out on it, but even that had just endeared him more to her.

In the early afternoon they both paid the required fee to use the lounge for its showers, with Rory offering for Annabelle to go first while he watched their luggage.

When she finished and walked back out to where he was sitting, the reaction she got wasn't what she'd expected.

○○○○○○○○○○

"You're hair..." Rory stood as Annabelle approached, not sure what he was seeing. He knew his mouth hung open but he couldn’t control it. "It's..."

She saw that he was obviously at a loss for words, and so supplied one for him.

"Curly?"

"If that's what you want to call it. Christ, Annabelle, what happened?" He felt almost comically alarmed, and yet amused at the same time.

"The hair I had earlier was the product of, well, products. Lots and lots of products. My agent hired a stylist who said it would look better on a book cover." She rolled her eyes, and he could clearly see what she thought of that suggestion. "But he's done well at selling my books so far, so I figured I'd listen to him."

At that, Rory scoffed.

"Annabelle, if your books are selling it's because I'm sure you're a phenomenal writer. Not because your agent says you need to cover up those curls." He reached out and pulled at a single damp tendril, the curl thicker than his thumb but so perfectly coiled that he almost expected her to say she'd gotten a perm while in the lounge. He pulled to stretch it, and the coil sprung back into place when he let go.

Her hair was drying nearly up to her shoulders, now that it was a mass of natural curls. He had the inexplicable urge to bury his face in it, and that urge brought on the thought that there was actually a chance they would share the cot again tonight. If he could keep his mounting desire down, he would love an opportunity to put his face into her soft hair.

Aware his thoughts had taken a dangerous turn, he covered it by looking intently into her face, urging her to believe what he was saying.

"Annabelle, your hair is beautiful. You shouldn't cover this up, it's the eighth wonder of the world."

Her tinkling laughter made him smile wider, but she shook her head, the cloud of curls moving in unison as though dancing about her shoulders. Then she picked up his small overnight bag and shoved it at his chest.

"You're turn," she said, and she pointed in the direction of the lounge.

Rory spent the short walk to the lounge and his time inside thinking on everything that had happened since yesterday, and found himself wishing the blizzard just kept on hammering the airport with ice and snow. He would have gladly remained cooped up with Annabelle for a few more days, another week, or more.

She had shown herself to be fun to be around, easy to talk to, and not at all boring. She also seemed to think the same of him, as they never lacked for things to talk about. She had been willing to learn backgammon, but had proven too much of a risk taker when it came to strategy. He got the feeling she wasn't that way in real life.

Which is why he needed to remember not to ask her about her plans once she reached London. He didn't get the impression she'd welcome that. He liked her, and would be more than willing to see where this would take them, but he was not willing to ruin the time they had left by muddying up those waters.

She was setting up her laptop when he returned, and they sat on opposite sides of the cot, their backs against the wall.

“I didn’t mean to pry earlier,” Rory said, broaching a subject that had been bugging him. It was a surprise that he wanted to know what had made Annabelle look so downtrodden--his interest in it such that he would bring up her earlier bout of melancholy, knowing full well that it might return. But he wanted her to know that while he was here, and while they were spending this time together, that if she needed someone to talk to, he was available.

Annabelle had the laptop open on her folded legs, and he watched as the screen came on and she signed in. Then she rested her loose fists on the edges of the base and looked out across the terminal, her face a mask of concentration.

“Would you tell me what you were thinking about?” He turned on the cot, bending a leg while the other foot rested on the floor. Annabelle continued to stare out the windows on the other side of the wide hallway, and he almost thought that perhaps she hadn’t heard him. But then he saw her hand begin to move, the pads of her fingers lightly ghosting over the surface of the smooth keys. It was a tell, and for her it meant her wheels were turning inside her mind.

He didn’t mull over what it said about him, that he knew that of her, but rather waited until she was ready to begin talking.

When she opened her mouth to speak, her eyes lost their focus and he could see that she wasn’t really seeing anything that they were aimed at.

“My husband’s name was Clay,” she said, and for a second Rory almost offered his condolences. But then her expression changed, just barely but enough to see a different sort of mask come up--emotionless, cold. It looked unnatural on her, but he knew what it meant. He sat still and listened.

“Playing backgammon, and talking, and joking yesterday and today made me remember how devoid our marriage was of simple pleasures like that. It was all or nothing with him. Have the trophy wife and the perfect home, or move on.” Her eyes dropped to her keyboard, where her finger was tracing the square of a key on the number pad, and she smiled. There was no humor in it, though he felt like she meant for it to appear that way.

“So he did. He moved on with his expediter, a pretty little number he managed to keep a secret from me for nearly a year.” Again, her gaze rose to something in the distance he couldn’t see, the smile fading from her face.

“She moved in the day he kicked me out.” The smile returned briefly as she flicked a look over at him before looking away. “She was actually waiting outside with boxes of her things as I was walking out with mine. And I’ll never forget the look on her face as I walked by her--like she’d won .”

Rory snorted, disgusted with a woman who would do that to someone’s marriage. Annabelle glanced at him, but showed him she wasn’t perturbed by his outburst. In fact, she smiled again--a small one, but it was there.

“Don’t worry--therapy and lots of introspection has taught me that I was the one who won; that I escaped marriage to a man who will likely do the same thing to her when he tires of her.”

Her eyes dropped to Rory’s knee, making him glad she didn’t look away from him completely, but her next words cut through him.

“But it hurt. Boy, did it ever hurt. I felt like I gave him the best years of my life, and he was throwing it away for a woman nearly a decade my junior.” Her eyebrows raised and lowered as she sighed, looking back down at her hands on the keyboard.

And as she focused on something that came up on the screen, she smiled. It was true, genuine--and he leaned over to see what it was she was smiling at.

On the screen was a picture of her--candid, with her hair naturally curly as it was now, her smile wide, but with dark circles under her eyes. And she was thinner in the photo, nearly to the point of looking gaunt. The background was an outdated kitchen, small with burnt orange accents and yellowed wallpaper.

But she was holding up a check, and it was obvious that the grin on her face was because of that tiny slip of paper.

“My first advance,” she explained, looking over at him. Their faces were close, not even two feet apart, and she had to look up to connect her eyes with his. But she was sharing a part of her that he was sure not many people got to see. “Six months later I was a published author, getting ready to start my book tour, and I’ve never looked back. I’m working on book number six now, with projected sales either meeting or exceeding the sales of my previous one.”

He could tell she was proud as she looked at that photo, could feel it emanating off her from where he sat beside her.

“And you’re happy?” He meant it to be a simple question, an inquiry as to the state of her mental wellbeing. But where it came from inside him, it felt more like a request for reassurance--that if the answer was anything but “Yes,” he would have to think of a plan to make it so.

So he was relieved when she looked at him, appreciation for his query radiating from her eyes.

“Oh, yes ,” was her emphatic answer. She raised a hand to her chest and pressed it to her heart. “I have found writing to be not only cathartic, but enriching and fulfilling as well. I know some people feel that their art is a piece of them and they die a little inside whenever they have to sell a piece.” She waved a hand at the screen, continuing, “But when I publish a book, and I hear about the numbers, and when I hear from readers who have been touched by the characters I’ve written, I feel nothing but joy that I’ve been able to share a part of myself with them.”

She seemed to notice at the same moment he did--so enthralled in her explanation that he’d been staring into her eyes--that tears had sprung there, and she turned away quickly, wiping at them to prevent any from actually falling. She chuckled, shaking her head.

“I’m such a sap--”

“No--,” he interrupted her, briefly putting a hand on her knee beside his. He withdrew it when she looked back at him. “You’re not a sap, you’re human. You’re... “ He looked away, clearing his throat as emotion formed a constricting ball there. “You’re full of love and passion, and it’s wonderful, Annabelle.” He turned back to her, making sure she was looking at him before saying, “You’re wonderful. And I’m sure your books are just as wonderful.”

Could he find a reason to call her wonderful again? He smiled, gesturing towards her bag on her other side.

“Mind if I read your book while you work?”

She seemed surprised that he had asked, and truth be told, he was surprised as well. But he wanted to do this for her--wanted to get to know a piece of her through her writing and be able to understand a little bit more about her complicated mind through her writing.

And he wanted it for himself, as well. He wanted to see the love and passion he’d spoken of, and to feel that maybe she’d be happy--that she would feel the same joy--sharing a part of her with him.


So he grabbed a pillow and tucked it onto the cot by her hip, and then laid down with his feet braced on the floor, reading glasses on and his head just inches from her jeans-covered thigh, as he turned to the first page of her book, Summer Paisley Blue .

Chapter Text

Annabelle found herself wondering what Rory thought of her book, but she didn't ask. He seemed content to lay there and read, although she did use the opportunity to study him. For all he knew she was sitting beside him with her headphones on, listening to music. Little did he know that she rarely listened to music through them. They were noise cancelling headphones, and the wire usually went into some vague pocket in her purse where she could lock it in with the zipper.

She thought perhaps he would find the pauses in her typing suspicious, but whenever he looked up at her, his forehead wrinkling as his eyebrows went up, it was to ask her a question--”Where did you come up with the name Summer Paisley Blue?” (It was something she made up) “Are you an artist like Summer?” (Her writing was her art) “Why did you make Joe such a shitbag?” (To which her response was, “I write what I know.”)

His questions were likely ones that any reader might have had, except he had the special opportunity to have the author there, next to him, available to answer any questions. Annabelle recalled how heavily she read during her marriage--how it had turned into an escape from her worries, as she was able to focus on the issues the characters were dealing with rather than her own issues--and how many times she wished she could have picked the brain of the author to find out why they wrote what they did.

She wrote intermittently in her newest book for an hour, pausing every now and then to look at the curl in Rory’s hair, or the way he wore his glasses low on his nose, or the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

She admired the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his body, and how it folded comfortably at the knees, the cot only accommodating so much of him in that position.

And she found herself wanting to touch him again--not because she felt desire, which she was learning how to steadfastly ignore, but because he was there and available . She didn’t think he would object, seeing as how he’d given her permission the night before, and how he’d seemed to accept if not exactly enjoy her touch.

So she saved her work and turned off the computer, folding it closed as she did so. He spared her a brief glance to see what she was doing, but not wanting to let the opportunity pass, she reached out and drew her fingertips over the patch of hair at the top of his head. She did it once, and then twice, letting him know she’d like to continue just so long as he approved of it, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief when he went back to reading, a contented look on his face.

She touched, and petted, and skimmed her fingers over his soft, curly hair. Keeping above the line of his glasses, she stroked the hair back at his temples and towards the pillow beneath his head. Over and over she touched him like that, until finally she rested her head back against the wall and did it while staring at nothing in particular.

“Why do you like to do that?”

His question brought her out of her trance and she looked down at him, only to find him looking up at her over the rim of his reading glasses, her hand having strayed over his ear and stopped. She didn’t know how long she’d rested it there, only that now she could feel the rounded shell beneath her palm, and the coarse hair of his sideburns beneath her fingertips, so unlike the hair she’d been touching on his head.

“Why do I do what?”

Rory blinked, explaining, “Touch. Why do you touch things? Me?”

For a moment Annabelle’s heart sped up. It was Clay all over again. Rory had let her touch him before, but now he was asking for an explanation, and what if her explanation wasn’t good enough?

It had never been good enough for Clay.

Through therapy she’d come to learn that her desire to touch things--sometimes her need to touch various textures--wasn’t harmful, nor did it need to be fixed. Whereas someone might turn to reading, art, or more physical exploits such as working out or punching a punching bag to deal with their emotions, Annabelle gravitated towards tactile stimulation.

Reminding herself of this gave her the courage she needed now to tell Rory.

“Well… It’s something I’ve always done,” she started, but she looked away from him as she spoke more. She couldn’t look at him and risk seeing confusion, or worse, disgust, on his face.

“Touching things gives me tactile sensory stimulation--basically the things I feel with my hands tell my brain to feel good. It’s something seen a lot in individuals with disabilities, though mine is just a… quirk.”

He was quiet so she went on, “While I was in therapy after my divorce, it took a long time for me to embrace it. Clay wasn’t always so…” It took a minute to think of a good word to use. “ Tolerant . He didn’t understand why I did the things I did.”

As though to emphasize her oddity, her thumb swiped over the stubble on his cheek, making her feel at the same time both gratified at the feel of his skin and embarrassed that she hadn’t even thought to stop herself from doing it.

She lifted her hand off his face, meaning to bring it to her lap, but his hand quickly came up and brought it back, resting it against his head before dropping his hand again. Its message was clear--obvious permission to remain where she was.

“Tolerant?” he said, his tone telling her the word used in that context wasn’t satisfying.

That was enough to encourage Annabelle to resort to the neatly packaged description she kept tucked in her proverbial pocket for the rare occasion that this topic popped up in conversation. She kept talking, giving Rory the information he was looking for in the least intimidating wordage she could muster.

“In some individuals, in order to get proprioceptive feedback--which tells our body where it is in space--we sometimes seek out behaviors that will give us the feedback the body is looking for. One way I can achieve this is tactile sensory stimulation.”

Again, Rory’s eyes flicked up to hers, and she glanced down in time to see him waiting for her to explain further.

“Touching things,” she said, then clearing her throat. “We--I--touch things. I’m not saying I need to tell my body where it is in space. But in the same way, I draw on touch to soothe me when I’m upset, to occupy myself when I’m bored, and to to express myself when words don’t work.”

Annabelle swallowed down the fear that threatened to invade her mind. There . It was out. She just told him exactly what Clay had said was wrong with her, and she was leaving it up to Rory to take it in whatever manner he saw fit.

She waited for him to say something, staring out the window on the far side of the terminal again while thoughts tumbled through her mind, one after another.

Does he really want me to touch him?

Does he think I’m weird?

Why did I have to say so much about it?

I need to get away from him. I don’t want to see the emotion on his face.

She waited and waited for him to say something, and each time she became aware of the placement of her hand on his face, she fought the urge to give in to the sensation--to feel the crisp hairs on the edge of his beard beneath his jaw, to feel the dichotomy of smooth skin and hairy cheek beneath the swipe of her thumb, or to move her hand enough to feel his ear beneath her palm.

But she waited, until she felt him tip his head up to her once more. His eyebrows were drawn down in confusion but there was a slight, enigmatic smile on his lips.

“So you’re saying,” he said slowly, his accent pronounced with his careful speech, “he wasn’t tolerant of your touch… even though it made you feel good to touch him?”

Again, Annabelle looked away, feeling a blush creep over her cheeks.

“I, um… He made it known early on that he thought the habit was… strange.” She flicked a glance at him before returning to examine the snow storm waging war on the tarmac outside. “So I never touched him… like this.”

Rory was silent again, tilting his head back down but tenting the book on his stomach, now forgotten.

“What a fucking cunt .”

His vehement words brought her shocked gaze back to his, and he looked up at her, a very serious expression on his face once the smile disappeared.

“Annabelle,” he said, his tone saying his thoughts were of powerful import, “Never think that I don’t like it, or that I don’t welcome it. Do you understand?”

Had he been any other man she would have looked for the teasing, his words merely a thinly veiled sexual innuendo. But this was Rory, and he was looking at her in such a way that spoke to the raw truth of his statement. He really did want her to understand, and it made her heart beat faster that for the first time in her entire life, she was being told by the object of her interest--the person whom she had the desire to touch--that it was not only allowed, but desired in return.

With a slow, wonder-filled nod, Annabelle said, “I understand.” And then he smiled, and she could do nothing but smile back.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Dinner was late that night, as they’d gone back to him reading and her working for another hour before putting their things away. Word in the terminal was that the weather was going to let up sometime tonight, and that by midday tomorrow flights would resume, and they would finally be on a plane headed to London. While Rory was glad to finally be heading home to his boat in Scotland, he was also aware that his time with Annabelle was drawing to a close.

It wasn’t lost on him that neither of them made any effort to find a second cot for the night. After her revelation about why she touched things, and why she seemed focused on texture and the way something felt against her skin, he found himself assuming that one of the reasons why she had reacted so well to sleeping with him on the small surface of the airport cot, was because she liked the physical touch between them. Perhaps her sensory needs extended to the pleasure of sleeping next to someone.

Once again he decided her ex was a cunt. Clay didn’t know what he’d given up.

Reading Annabelle’s book had turned into a revelation, as Annabelle’s words seemed in part autobiographical. He asked about a scene early in the story where the main character, Summer, hadn’t timed dinner right, and her husband was left waiting at the table while a roast finished in the oven, his scathing words flowing through the open kitchen door, aimed at her--words that spoke of her inability to do anything right, how he didn’t deserve this, and how stupid she was. Rory had turned to Annabelle to ask sincerely if she had written that scene from personal experience, as the depth of emotion in the writing had created visceral feelings in the depths of Rory’s heart.

She had turned to him and merely said with a small, sad smile, “It wasn’t a roast, it was a chicken.”

Another scene spoke of Summer dressing in lingerie, hoping to surprise her husband when he came home after work. Only he didn’t come home, not later, not after she’d fallen asleep, not until she was already awake and dressed and making coffee the following morning.

He’d been with his buddies, he told her, which she knew wasn’t true. As he walked by her the air was filled with the faint fragrance of a woman’s perfume.

Annabelle said, “There was no lingerie.” She blushed when she waited for him to realize she had waited for her husband, naked. “And he did not try to lie to me in the morning. He still had lipstick on his face.”

Rory wanted to send a big fist into Clay’s face.

He had watched her all evening and was struck by the inner strength she seemed to exude, though he wondered if she knew she possessed it at all. To pull herself up by her bootstraps, and to make a name for herself in a field where there were likely millions of people vying for bookstore shelf space every day, she had become successful, self-sufficient, while still maintaining what it was about her that made her so sweet and so likeable.

He admired her, and he told her so as they were getting situated for the night--unfolding the blankets, with neither of them mentioning the sleeping arrangements. They just knew how they were going to be sleeping.

Annabelle’s response was another smile, though he could tell she didn’t quite believe him. So after she’d come back from brushing her teeth and Rory had gone to do the same, he laid down behind her on the small cot and wrapped his arm around her middle, drawing her into his body.

His emotions surprised him, slinking up through the recesses of his mind as he felt her press into him--his knees cupped in hers, her bottom against his thighs, and her back pressed against his chest. It was when he was finally able to bury his face in her riotous curls that he found he could not hold back the groan of satisfaction.

Annabelle giggled, the hand she had rested against the back of his rubbing at him as though he were a puppy and he’d just done something funny.

“It’s your hair,” he explained, even though she hadn’t asked. “I can’t stop looking at it. I had no idea it would look like this.”

She turned her head slightly on her pillow, making the tendrils tickle his face even more.

“My stylist said the straighter, bigger curls were more mainstream .” The way she said the word made it sound like it annoyed her. Hell, it annoyed him as well.

“Because it looks good on the cover of a book?”

She nodded in response.

“Fuck that. This …” He pushed his face into it so his nose pressed against the back of her head. “This is amazing.”

Again she laughed, but was also quiet for a time. He would have thought he’d gone too far if not for the way her hand moved happily over his, her finger tips stroking through the hair on the back of his hand. They strayed to his fingers, feeling the sensitive dips in between before travelling down the lengths of his fingers where they rested against her stomach.

“Thank you, Rory,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper in the quieting airport terminal. Everyone was turning in for the night, and all that could be heard was the rustle of luggage and the faint murmur of voices. Somewhere down the long hallway a baby cried.

“For?”

“For being here, for keeping me company, for being so… accepting.”

He chuffed, giving her a squeeze with his arm.

“There’s no thanking me for accepting you as you are, Annabelle. Just like there’s no need to apologize for who you are.” Then, because he knew how she felt otherwise, he said, “I’ve enjoyed this time, too. I don’t think you’ll make a champion backgammon player, but you’re decent company.”

He waited for her to catch onto his joke, and when she did she pinched the back of his hand, making him laugh.

“What are your plans for when you return home?” She soothed the spot she’d pinched and resumed her rubbing, waiting for him to answer her.

“I’m planning on selling my boat to find a bigger one.”

“That’s right, you live on a boat, right?”

Rory nodded into her hair. “But it’s not very big. It has suited me just fine until now, but I’d like one that I can stand up in.”

She laughed, squeezing his hand as she spoke.

“I can see where that would be an appealing quality of a home.”

“And you? What does your itinerary look like?”

She sighed, “It’s busy. I’ll have two days in London doing book signings with not a lot of free time, and then I have two engagements in Scotland before heading to Spain and Italy. Two busy weeks in Europe and then I can finally head back here to the States.”

Rory pictured her arriving in Scotland for her book tour engagements, and suddenly grasped on a thought that threatened to flit through his mind and disappear as soon as it arrived. He spoke before he could think of the implications of his words.

“Do you have any free time in Scotland?”

Annabelle’s hand stilled on his, and he thought he could feel her hold her breath.

Chapter Text

Rory could have kicked himself had he not been laying on the cot with Annabelle. But the image of them together in Scotland was too good to let go, too good to not explore further. Would she go for it? Would she be willing to consider getting a coffee? Seeing some sights? Sharing a cot so he could get some more of this--this… He didn’t even know what to call it, only that laying here with her like this made his heart warm and his mind calm.

“I do, actually. I have a book signing in London to go to in the early afternoon, and then a flight to Scotland where I’ll spend the evening at my hotel. The following day is my first event in Edinburgh, and the entire next day I don’t have anything scheduled. It’s supposed to be my day to explore Scotland.”

Then she paused, and Rory almost said something-- wanted to say something, but was gratified when she beat him to it.

“I could use a guide for that day.”

And there it was--the invitation he’d wanted but hadn’t been able to request himself. But he also couldn’t just give in the way she obviously expected him to, seeing a chance for humor and to make her smile again.

“I can make some calls,” he said quietly, but he couldn’t help his own smile, and he knew she heard it in his voice. “I’m sure I could track someone down for you.”

Again, she pinched him lightly, giggling at his joke. He laughed into her hair, inhaling the fragrance of her shampoo and giving her stomach a small rub with his hand.

“You’re incorrigible, you know that?”

“I know quite a few places that I’d like to show you, if you’re asking if I’m available.”

Annabelle nodded.

“I’d really like that, Rory. I’d probably end up getting lost before I could leave Edinburgh.” She stopped, though her hand kept moving over his. She slid it down to his fingertips where she traced the outlines of his nails, her touch soft and inquisitive. “But would I be keeping you from anything? I don’t want to be a bother, and if there’s anything else you need to do, you can ditch me at the hotel. I have a flight already scheduled to take me from Edinburgh to Aberdeen--”

“Aye, we could fly together. You’d have your own tour guide,” he suggested, but was slightly discouraged when she laughed.

“Oh, Rory, you don’t have to do that.”

“What do you mean? I’d like to. Gives me something to do with my free time besides absolutely nothing.” Which was the truth. He’d likely buy up some groceries and go hole himself up on his boat until he was summoned next for a public appearance or cast meeting.

Again, Annabelle nodded, and they were both quiet for a while, content to lay with their own thoughts. It was some time before she spoke again, her voice hushed.

“Would you be okay if tomorrow I asked if we sit together? I mean, if they can manage that when they put us on a flight?”

Rory smiled against her hair.

“Aye, I’d like that.” And he meant it. A flight of that length--having met Annabelle and finding her to be such pleasant company--would have seemed interminably long without her next to him. First thing in the morning they would both go to the ticket counter to see if it could be arranged.

As he felt sleep overtaking him in the quiet terminal, he wondered what Annabelle would say if he wanted to spend time with her in London while she was there--altering his flight plan to accommodate a few extra days in that city before they both flew to Scotland for the next stop on her book tour. It was a pleasing thought to him, but something he’d have to run by her. She seemed to like his company well enough.

But as her breaths evened out and he knew she was asleep, he pushed away the thought and instead tucked the blanket up around her shoulder, pulling her once again into him with an arm around her waist.

This --this was going to be hard to give up.

 

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Annabelle woke for the second night in a row to a dimmed terminal, their little alcove serving to mute the sounds that existed in the space throughout the long hallway. She could hear faint snores of other passengers, rustling as people shifted in their makeshift beds, and the soft clinking of what she thought might be airport employees setting about their tasks.

She realized that she was being pushed nearly out of the cot, as well. Shifting up to her elbow, she could see that at some point since falling asleep Rory had turned over to lay flat on his back, effectively taking up the majority of the space on the wide cot.

Knowing she wasn’t likely to get back to sleep with her back pressed against his arm, she turned over, looking up to see that his eyes blinked a couple times before opening.

His face was smoothed, expressionless as he looked at her, so she smiled lightly before lowering herself again, this time into his outstretched arm, as his eyes closed. With an arm over his waist and her head on his shoulder, she settled into his side, cocking her knee over his thigh just enough to get comfortable.

One long arm wrapped around her back and he covered them again with the blanket. Then, as his breaths deepened and she felt sleep take him once again, he slid a hand up into the sleeve of her sweater to grasp her arm, skin to skin.

She fell asleep smiling.

When she woke up next, the airport was just beginning to stir. She could smell the aroma of fresh coffee from the cafes wafting through the air, and heard the low voices of passengers talking to each other.

Annabelle rolled into Rory, stretching her arm out towards his shoulder before bringing it back to rest over his collarbone. She turned her face slightly into his chest, inhaling deeply on a yawn and breathing in his scent. It was something, she thought vaguely, that she wouldn’t mind smelling all the time. Man and faded cologne and dryer sheets.

Her fingers worked at the collar of his shirt, pulling it down enough to let finger meet skin, and she traced over what she found there; skin and hair and contours so unlike her own. Rory was waking, and she felt his body tense, his limbs straightening to stretch.

All except for the hand that was buried under the back of her sweater, his fingers splayed wide over her bare skin.

She realized it was there probably at the same time he did, as she felt him come wide awake, frozen.

It’s not that she wanted him to remove it, or that the sensation of him touching so much of her wasn’t pleasant, that alarmed her.

No, what alarmed her was that he began moving the hand, back and forth as his elbow bent and straightened, sliding up the side of her waist to just below her the band of her bra, and then back down to where the curve of her hip just barely peeked over the waist of her jeans.

But just as quickly as she felt alarm at the touch, she also felt it melt away, until she rested fully against him and completely relaxed at his touch.

“That feels good,” she whispered, knowing he’d hear her but not taking that leap that would have their eyes meet. She wasn’t ready to face the world, but rather found herself wishing the world would just disappear.

Up and down his hand rubbed, and she could feel the roughened skin of his palms, the pads of his fingers, as they pressed and wove and undulated with the sweeping curve of her waist. Up and up until his fingers brushed the band of her bra, and then down, down, until they hit the fabric of her jeans. It was pure ecstasy, this soothing touch that she’d never experienced before.

“Mmm,” came his rumbling reply, half from his mouth and half from within his chest where she had her ear pressed.

Apparently it felt good to him, too.

After several minutes Annabelle rose onto her elbow and finally looked at Rory.

His hair was slightly rumpled from sleep, his scruffy beard a bit longer than it was yesterday, a slightly darker shadow on his face. She smiled, reaching up to gently scratch at his chin.

“Do you not shave often?”

He brought his own hand up and scraped at his jaw with his fingertips, closing his eyes and shaking his head once.

“Not if I can help it,” he mumbled, his voice raspy with sleep. Then his eyes opened and she saw a now familiar twinkle in them, a moment before he reached his hand up to tuck her curls behind her ear. “You?”

Annabelle chuckled and dropped her head back to his chest, happy when he resumed his rubbing of her back.

“Not if I can help it,” she replied, and she shook with his silent laughter.

After a moment more he said into her hair, “I suppose we should join the land of the living.”

But Annabelle slid her hand down his side and tucked her fingers beneath the edge of his body, effectively trapping him in her embrace.

“Not yet,” she whispered, pleased when he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held her close as his other hand maintained a steady massage of her back.

“Not yet,” he agreed, and she felt him press his lips to the crown of her head in an unmistakable kiss--the second time he’d kissed her on that cot. The first time had been the previous night when he’d kissed her shoulder and promised no funny business as they’d fallen asleep.

It certainly wasn’t unpleasant, but it did give her cause to wonder how she was going to give this up when it was time to part.

Rory was already talking about spending time in Scotland together. That meant that after London she had four days and nights in his country when they could potentially meet up.

Did she really want to do that? Did she really want to risk losing her heart to him, as she could definitely feel was a real possibility? He was everything Clay wasn’t, and was leaving a lasting impression on her. She knew she’d never forget this moment, with his lips pressed to her hair, wrapped in his arms as his hand stroked the bare skin of her back.

And if they spent time together, how would she feel when they parted?

“What’s wrong, Annabelle?” came his low voice, and he brushed her hair away from her face, bidding her to look up at him. She did, her cheek still pressed to his shoulder, and met his gaze.

“It’s silly,” she admitted, but he smiled briefly at her and used large fingers to comb her hair away from her face. His touch felt so good and natural.

“Nothing you say or feel is silly, alright? Now, tell me what’s wrong.”

Annabelle lifted her eyebrows skeptically.

“How did you know something was wrong?”

But Rory smiled again, his finger tracing a line from her temple, down her cheek, to her jaw.

“I just did. Tell me.”

But she didn’t want to--she didn’t want to tell him she was already thinking about missing him, already thinking about what it was going to be like to say goodbye. Would they keep in touch? If so, what was the point, living on separate continents? If not, how sad would that make her? She laid her cheek against his chest, hearing the strong beat of his heart.

What would life be like knowing that there was this wonderful man out there with whom she got along famously, who she was attracted to, and who was a good person with whom she shared a great connection--but she couldn't be with him?

But then there was a little voice in her mind that was saying “You deserve to have a good time. You deserve to make a new friend. You deserve to do what feels good.”

All around them the airport was teeming with life--passengers walking by their little corner, conversations filtering through, snippets reaching them as other noises began to fill the air. A child laughed, someone coughed, voices spoke through the intercom system. But Annabelle didn’t pay attention to any of it.

“I was just thinking about how the next two weeks are going to go.”

“And that's silly? Why would that make you sad?”

She smiled, her thumb rubbing at his side.

“It's silly because I shouldn't worry so much about the future and yet I do. And it made me sad because I'll be going on to Spain while you'll stay in Scotland.” She gave him a small squeeze. “I'm going to miss you.”

His chuckle reverberated through his chest and into the bones of her cheek.

“Aye, lass. I'll miss you, too.”

He inhaled deeply, Annabelle rising with the breath and then falling again as he sighed heavily. It was a minute before he spoke again, his hand ceaselessly stroking her back beneath the blanket during the gap in their conversation. When he spoke his voice was hushed.

“So what do you say to enjoying the time we have together? Making the most out of it. I was thinking of asking you if…”

She hadn’t known Rory long, but in the short time since they’d met she hadn’t known him to be a man who hesitated much in conversation. So when he stalled now, Annabelle caught on immediately.

“Ask me what?”

She felt him turn his face away from her momentarily, before his chin came back to rest against her hair. Another pause and he was ready to speak again.

“Would you mind--would you like it--if I changed my flight reservation, and I spent some time with you in London?”

Annabelle’s eyes widened, although Rory wouldn’t have been able to see her reaction. She hadn’t expected him to say anything like that, but now that he’d said it out loud--voiced something that she hadn’t thought of but that now sounded like a great idea--her heart tripped in her chest and she nodded slowly into his shirt.

“I would, Rory. I would like it. That is, if it won’t be interrupting your schedule…?”

Again he pressed a kiss to her hair, but it was accompanied by a squeeze of his strong arms and a raspy chuckle.

“I told you, I’m a free agent, as we just wrapped up the majority of the appearances for the most recent season of the show. I just wanted to make sure you’d like it if I did that--if you actually wanted the company.”

Rising up on her elbow, Annabelle smiled down at him.

“Well, I wouldn’t mind keeping you around for a bit longer.” She rolled her eyes dramatically, grin broadening as she teased a smile out of him. “After all, travelling alone can be so boring, I’ll need some entertainment after my events.”

He laughed openly at her sarcasm, and Annabelle told him that they should get ready. He seemed reluctant to leave the warmth of the cot, so she reminded him about the possibility of changing their tickets so they could sit next to one another on the flight to London.

That got him moving, and he once again watched their things while she went and cleaned up in the restroom, before returning and switching places with him so he could do that as well.

Rory returned the cot and they collected their bags, finding the first ticket counter to inquire about changing any possible flight plan. Because tickets had not been assigned as of yet, they were allowed to pay a fee (which Rory adamantly insisted on covering) to have their seats next to each other. If first class seats were available, they would be given them because that was initially what they both had paid for.

They had just sat down for breakfast when Annabelle’s phone rang in her purse. She pulled it out to see Douglas’s name on the screen.

“I’m going to take this, I’ll be right back,” she said with a smile, her spirits having been buoyed by the ability to sit by Rory on the flight to London.

“Hello Douglas,” she said when she stood off to the side. She could see Rory but she was far enough away that she was sure he wouldn’t have to hear her defending herself to her agent.

“Annabelle, please for the love of god tell me you’ll be on a plane to London today. Your second book signing is tonight and I haven’t cancelled it!”

She cringed at the desperation in his voice, but noted he at least didn’t sound mad at her.

“Yes, Douglas, I’ll be flying out at about lunch time and should make it there in time to head straight to the venue.”

“Good! Annabelle, I shouldn’t have to remind you not to screw this one up. It’s a big paycheck and the publisher won’t be happy if you miss it!”

Neither will you , she thought, but she kept it to herself.

With a hand in her pocket she turned her back on Rory, who was watching her with eyes tinged with concern.

“I’ll be there, Douglas,” she said tightly, hoping to end the call.

“You better be, because it’s both of our asses that will be on the line if you don’t.”

“I’ll call you when I land--”

But he had already hung up. Infuriating, annoying little man. She only kept him around because he’d been so good for her career in the beginning, and even now worked his tail off to make sure her books were as popular as they both wanted them to be. But he was disrespectful, and often downright rude. One day she wouldn’t mind finding an agent who was polite, and civil to her at all times, not just when she was earning them a hefty paycheck.

When she turned back to Rory he wasn’t looking at her, but rather down at his phone. Annabelle returned to the table just as Rory looked up, his expression completely blank.

His face was blank, but his eyes grew to be angry, and for a second she wondered what she had done before mentally kicking herself for acting the cowed woman again.

“Hey,” she soothed, sliding back onto her chair. “What’s going on?”

Rory’s lips drew into a thin line and his eyes closed briefly, enough to alarm her. He was always so happy, always smiling and looking for the good in situations. Plus she’d never seen him look this way--although she’d pictured it that time they spooned on the cot and he called Clay a cunt, but in that situation it would have been warranted.

He wasn’t answering her, except to glance down at his phone again, sitting back heavily in his chair with a long sigh.

“Annabelle--” he started, but he was still holding his phone up, the obvious source of his displeasure.

“What?”

He had her worried now. When he met her eyes, she saw a resignation that startled her.

“Rory…”

When she held her hand out for his phone, he just handed it to her, watching her face so intently that she almost missed the flash of emotion that crossed through them. And in the space of time it took her eyes to leave his face and land on the screen of his phone, she recognized it as apprehension.

There, at the top of the screen, was the headline “Rory McCann And Annabelle Harkness--Did The Famous Author Tame The Notoriously Single Hound?”

And below the text was a photo of them on display, obviously taken at some point this morning while they were asleep, of Annabelle wrapped around Rory’s side, their eyes closed, her arm resting on the center of his chest. Her hand was in the collar of his shirt touching his skin with her finger tips, and his face was turned into her hair.

Someone had stood close enough to them to hold a camera so that both of their faces could clearly be seen, likely ten feet or less judging by the angle of the image.

Annabelle suddenly felt nauseous.

Chapter Text

Rory could see that Annabelle was struggling to process what she was seeing. She stared at his phone with such shock on her face that he worried she was going to be sick.

“Rory…”

She spoke his name in a hushed tone, and then immediately looked up to scan their surroundings, as though she’d be able to see the person who had so grossly invaded their privacy, as if they’d still be standing there, their guilty, red hot phone burning their hands.

But he knew the person was likely long gone, one of the crowds of passengers who now occupied the terminal, awaiting flights to take them God-knew-where. No, they’d never find the person who took the photo, and now it was a matter of deciding what must be done about it.

The usual damage control was contacting his publicist and his manager, neither of which sounded like they were going to be fun phone calls. But first, seeing as how Annabelle was so intimately involved with this breach of privacy, he was going to have to talk to her. And by the look on her face it was obvious this had never happened to her before.

Hell, it had never happened to him . He’d been photographed thousands of times, often without his consent or knowledge, but he’d never been caught in a compromising position for one simple reason--he’d never been stupid enough to put himself in one.

But this was different. This wasn’t as though he’d made a bad choice. Annabelle wasn’t a hooker, or a married woman, or a man--he’d heard that rumor before--and they hadn’t been doing anything salacious. It’s not like they were photographed naked, or in a compromising position, or doing something bad. Other than the fact that Annabelle was plastered to his side and he was holding onto her as though he was claiming her, they were merely sleeping.

For fuck’s sake--sleeping!

But that sort of thing never mattered to the paparazzi, or to opportunistic bystanders. They saw a chance to make some money, and likely kept their discovery hidden so they could be the only one with the goods.

It angered him that their privacy had been betrayed--that Annabelle was in the tabloid because of him. But even more than that, he was angry at himself for not thinking it through. Truthfully, that first night when she’d woken and invited him into the cot, he should have known. He should have said no. He should have denied both of them what had turned out to be one of the sweetest, most comfortable things he’d ever done.

But no--what did he do? He went for it. He crawled onto the cot with her, held her, and had succumbed to the desire to do it for a second night in a row, the possibility of being caught never having crossed his mind.

“I have to call Douglas,” Annabelle said softly, breaking off his chain of thought as she handed the phone back to Rory. “He’ll be seeing this soon.”

Her voice was calm, her eyes almost serene, but as he watched he could see emotions swirling in their depths--anger, worry, stoicism.

“Annabelle, I’m sorry for this, but it doesn’t make me want to change our plans.”

He needed her to know that, because he was hoping this turn of events didn’t change anything for her, either. Although now when she arrived in London, this would be weighing heavily over her as she headed to the book signing and speaking event. For that, he was regretful.

She looked up at him at the sound of his voice, as though for a minute she’d completely forgotten they had decided to spend time together in London when she wasn’t fulfilling her authorly obligations. It made him feel sad, that this hidden person had stolen some of their joy; that they had taken from Rory and Annabelle some of the peace and happiness they’d found in that terminal together. Rory could barely form the turbulent thought in his mind--was their brand new friendship going to survive this?

He felt like he knew Annabelle fairly well--as only one could when one was forced to speak to no one else for nearly forty-eight hours. But this… this outing of their situation, made him painfully aware that he didn’t know how she responded to struggles, to hardships and unexpected events. How would she normally react when someone threw a wrench into her plans?

As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t ask her to explain to him how she was processing the photograph. He just needed to wait to see if she would show him what she would decide.

He watched her face as she stared off into the distance, knowing she was deep in thought. Even he glanced around a few times, knowing full well that he wasn’t going to see the perpetrator but unable to stop himself from looking.

But when he brought his gaze back to her, she also brought hers back to him.

“They’re going to think we’re a couple,” she observed, and Rory nodded.

“They will.” What to say to that? “But… would that be such a bad thing? It’s not like either of us is an unsavory character.”

That didn’t make her smile. Rory didn’t know what to do, what to say. He was certain that there was nothing to be done about the photo, and he meant what he said--he didn’t think there was anything bad about the public assuming he and Annabelle were in a relationship. The only reason why that wasn’t the best option was because people drew conclusions, and rumors truly did spread like wildfire when a celebrity was involved--meaning Rory or Annabelle.

And that just made it worse--that it was both of them. A celebrity and a celebrity. The gossip mongers were going to be chewing on this for a while.

Annabelle looked up at him again, but her gaze didn’t slide away as he expected it to. Rather, it remained on his face as though she were studying him--looking for a reaction? So he smiled, except what he really wanted to do was reach across the table and hold her hand.

Or hug her. God, he wanted to wrap her in his arms and promise her he’d shield her from whatever came of this ridiculous photograph.

Which surprised him, because he didn’t usually have a reaction such as that for anyone but his sister, and the occasional coworker whom he happened to befriend. But no, Annabelle was different--she’d gotten under his skin, and he’d do what he could to protect her.

But did that entail walking away? Even if he had considered the option--which he most assuredly would not and did not --is that what Annabelle wanted?

She hadn’t answered his question, but finally looked away, her hands falling to her lap. So Rory decided to try to convince her that this photograph was inconsequential.

“If you’re worried about your reputation--”

“What? No, Rory. I’m not worried about my reputation.” She brought her eyes back to meet his, an incredulous expression on her face. Then she did smile, just slightly as she said, “I know your reputation is impeccable, as is mine. I don’t think anyone will judge me for sharing a cot with a man in an airport terminal--for all they know, we’ve known each other for years.”

He agreed with her, and told her so.

“They also don’t know that we’ve only known each other for two days,” he agreed, “and that we’d never laid eyes on each other before now.”

Saying it out loud made him feel better, but it also gave him an idea.

“They also don’t know that we’re not in a relationship...”

Annabelle nodded, oblivious as to where he was taking that train of thought.

“Although now everyone who sees that photo will assume we are.”

“Yes,” he said, encouraging that line of thought. Then, as though in a tunnel where all he could hear was an echo, he heard himself blurt out, “So let’s roll with it.”

Annabelle’s eyebrows went up in surprise. She stared at him, soft lips parted, and then she laughed. Laughed --hard. She laughed until she had a hand on her stomach and her elbow propped on the table, palm covering her eyes. When she finally looked back up at him she had to wipe away the sheen of tears that had accumulated on her lower lashes.

“Oh, Rory--that was good. That was funny. Thank you, I needed the laugh.”

Rory was smiling, but he decided taking this risk--telling her he was serious--was worth it. The worst she could do was say no. But he was certain she wouldn’t leave him for just suggesting it.

“Annabelle, I wasn’t joking.”

That brought her up fast. She looked at him, one last swipe of her finger beneath her eye coming to an abrupt halt above her cheek as her gaze locked with his. Then her hand dropped to her lap once more, and she sat up straight.

“What do you mean, not joking ? You want to...  to... “ She waved her hand in his direction, and then back at her, and then flicked it a few times between them to encompass both of them. “You mean you want to pretend to be together?”

She looked just about as receptive to the idea as she would to being photographed again while sleeping.

Maybe he’d made a mistake.

Maybe this wasn’t going to happen--this continuing friendship that had been possible just minutes ago, before he’d received the email with the photograph attached to it.

Then again, maybe he should just be honest with her.

“Annabelle, look…” He leaned over the small table, keeping his voice low, as though what he was about to say was a secret. Which, he supposed it was. “We obviously enjoy each other’s company, yes?”

She tentatively nodded after a beat, one incredulous eyebrow raised in his direction.

“Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was pretty certain you liked sleeping with me as much as I like sleeping with you?”

I should stop , he thought, the expression on her face not fading in the slightest. But he went on, his opposing viewpoints about the whole damned debacle warring within him. Obviously the more positive faction was winning over the pessimist one.

It took her longer to nod this time, but she did, and he took it to heart.

“So if I wanted to, say, hold your hand… would you let me?”

Her eyes widened, seemingly of their own accord, before she quickly schooled her expression back to passive skepticism. But she gave another nod--more of a dip of her chin, but it was in the right direction.

“And if we were standing in line and I wanted to put my arm around your shoulders?”

Now her eyes narrowed, but another dip of her chin encouraged him to go on.

“Because a moment ago when you first saw the photo, I wanted to give you a comforting hug, but felt that it wasn’t my place.” Again her eyes widened briefly, so he smiled hopefully. “Might you be receptive to that, now?”

He sat back into his chair and waited, watching her watch him before her eyes drifted down to the tabletop where her hands were toying with the fringe from her scarf. On top of that damned photograph, he’d thrown his own wrench into her plans, and he needed to see if she’d pick it up.

It wasn’t that he expected their friendship to develop into something more, although that wouldn’t be a horrible thing should it happen. But he liked her, liked being physical with her, and had found himself growing so accustomed to her touch that he knew if he was presented with the opportunity to indulge in it more, he would not turn it away. And now he was just hoping that somehow, somewhere in her mind, she felt the same way.

So he was a bit disheartened when she glanced at him before standing up beside her chair, her fingers grasping at each other in front of her belly. They wrapped themselves in the fringe of the scarf she wore around her neck, and he knew then that she was likely the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her mass of blonde curls, the bright green of her eyes, her heart --goodness, she was a stunning person inside and out. He would be a fool to let her walk away, even if it was friendship that they had to look forward to in their future.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” But she turned before he could say anything, alarmed as he was by her sudden retreat. Her hair swayed with her slow walk, and her strides brought her down the hall to the hallway illuminated by a restroom sign. When she rounded the corner she hadn’t looked back, and Rory felt his hopes had likely been dashed.

He scared her away. Who the fuck would have known that Rory McCann, confirmed bachelor, had just chased away a pretty woman with pretty words?

He picked up his coffee cup and took a drink, wishing he had a shot of whiskey to mix it with.

Ah well . She’d come back, he told himself--they would talk, and he wouldn’t worry about it until they did.

But deep down he wondered if he had just ruined everything.

 

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Annabelle thought for sure she was in shock. She turned on the tap and wet the folded paper towels she’d gotten from the dispenser when she’d entered the restroom. Then she stepped into a stall and locked the door, wanting to be away from the prying eyes in the busy room.

She pressed the paper towel to her forehead and cheeks as thoughts assailed her, one after the other.

Had one of those ladies taken the picture? If so, which one? The grandmotherly woman at the mirror? The young mom drying her girl’s hands at the drying machine? Any of the faceless woman who were taking up the remaining stalls, hidden behind the closed doors?

Then came the thoughts of the repercussions of the image, and she pressed the cool paper towel to her lips to keep from biting them.

What would Douglas say? What would her fans say? Was she going to be inundated with questions about Rory tonight in London? In front of cameras and hundreds of her readers? What would she say if she was? Would she say the right things? What were the right things?

And Rory… What had gotten into that man? To proposition that they pretend to be together, simply because a rather embarrassing photograph of the two of them wrapped in each other’s embrace had been taken while they were sleeping, and posted to the internet! She didn’t know what to say to him, and so had escaped to the restroom where she could have a moment alone with her thoughts.

But it was those thoughts that then reminded her of what he’d said--about how there had been times when he wanted to touch her; about how he wanted to hold her hand, might put his arm around her shoulders, hug her. He’d been thinking about it, and the truth was, she’d been thinking of it as well.

How could she not, when they had spent two nights pressed together on that cot--so big, but tiny when Rory was taking up more than half of it and Annabelle had no other option but to somehow wrap her body around his to be comfortable?

Shoot . She scolded herself, knowing her thoughts were lying. She did have other options, but it was a choice to hold his arm to her chest when they had spooned that first night. It was a choice to nuzzle into his shirt when they’d faced each other the following morning, and when she had scratched at his chest hair and called him a teddy bear--though only after he’d called her one.

And it was a choice to drape herself over him, to press her cheek to his muscled chest and listen to his heartbeat, to wrap her arm around it and secure her hand under the curve of his side, and to touch him.

Goodness, the touching . How many times had she done it? His face, his neck, his chest and his side, his hands--knuckles, fingers, nails. She knew the back of his hands intimately, and thinking of them now made her want to know his palms.

She pressed the paper towel to her face now to ward off the blush she felt heating them.

Even in that small stall, standing so that the person in the stall next to her could see that she was obviously leaning up against the wall and not using the toilet like she should have been; Rory’s face came to her mind. His thick eyebrows and smooth forehead, the way his beard was hardly a scruff on his face and yet so thick that it just about obscured the skin of his chin and cheeks. She liked how it traveled down his neck and faded into his chest hair. She could feel the tactile memory from when she’d stroked his hair while he read her book, her fingers combing through the strands and feeling the softness of it glide over her palm.

What he was offering was more of the same, and… Who am I kidding? She wanted this--had wanted it since before the ridiculous photo and Rory’s silly suggestion.

She glanced at her watch and suppressed the urge to chuckle. Had she really just spent five minutes convincing herself to do something that she really didn’t need any convincing to do?

Yes. Yes, she did.

Deciding not to waste any more time, she opened the stall door, checked her appearance in the mirror and adjusted the scarf around her neck. She wore it for comfort, as well as for the added bonus that the short fringe gave her hands something to do when they were bored. But the plaid fabric worked with so many of her clothes that it was a staple in her wardrobe, like the black shirt and pants she’d worn today. It seemed fitting, as well, that here she was spending all her time with a Scotsman, and she was wearing plaid.

It gave her comfort now as she walked out of the restroom, looking at the floor with her hands twined into the ends, because she didn’t think she could look at Rory without smiling. Her heart sped up, knowing that what she was about to do was both completely selfish and just catering to her own whims; and also somewhat risky, as anyone could be hiding around a corner with a camera in hand, and she’d have no idea.

She only looked up when she approached the table where they were sitting, and his feet came into view. She slowed as he rose from his chair, unfolding his tall body to stand to his full height, hands in his pockets, while he watched her with a concerned expression on his face.

Have no fear , she wanted to say, to soothe that look away from his features.

But she didn’t, and when their eyes met she let loose the smile that wanted to split her face in two, and she walked into him, sliding her hands beneath his arms to wrap around his waist, not slowing until her body pressed up against his in the hug he had spoken of earlier. She turned her head to press her cheek against him, feeling the warmth of his skin seep into her face though the thin material of his t-shirt.

It wasn’t for a couple seconds later--when his arms finally wrapped around her back and she felt his mouth press into the crown of her head--that she realized how badly she’d needed this.

Chapter Text

Rory wasn’t sure but he thought his heart might have stopped. If not for the rhythmic pounding in his ears, he would have been convinced.

The time that Annabelle was in the restroom had felt like the longest five minutes of his life, which was almost comical because he’d lived forty-eight years, and that included a lot of five minute blocks of time.

He thought for sure he scared her off. During those five minutes he wondered if she was going to come back from the restroom, pick up her bags, and wish him good luck with the next season of the show. Not that he would have blamed her, really--he’d been pretty forward with his proposition of thumbing their noses at the paparazzi and rubberneckers, of throwing caution to the wind and being as physical as their bodies seemed to want to be.

But then she’d walked out of the restroom, eyes down and playing with the end of her scarf, and all he could see was the top of her curly blonde hair.

Yep, he’d ruined it.

And then she looked up, and that-- that , he was sure, was when his heart stopped.

Her smile had been blinding, ridiculously so, and he hadn’t been able to figure out why the hell she was looking at him that way. She was going to stop and say… what? What could be going on in her mind that she would be looking at him as though he was the best thing she’d seen all day?

But she hadn’t stopped--rather, he watched her walk towards him without stopping, until her arms wrapped around his back and she was hugging him more tightly than he could have imagined. All he had to do was lift his arms and wrap them around the curve of her back, and so he did, pressing his mouth down into her hair and breathing deeply the scent of her shampoo.

It was the most heavenly thing he’d ever experienced. Well, it was right up there with rubbing her back that morning. That had been pretty amazing, but he supposed he hadn’t been ready to admit it to himself until now. The feel of her soft skin beneath his hand, knowing that he was flirting with the band of her bra and the waistline of her pants--it had been a miracle he hadn’t embarrassed himself with arousal.

“What’s this?” he asked softly, head bending to the side so his words would reach her ear, except he knew he couldn’t keep the smile from being heard in his voice.

He was aware they were standing to the edge of the small cafe in plain sight of everyone in the terminal who might pass by, where now any one with a camera could snap a photo of them and put it on the internet.

In response, Annabelle squeezed him slightly about the waist, and then drew in a deep breath and sighed into his shirt, a long, drawn out sigh that spoke of her apparent need for this contact.

He chuckled at her murmured reply, “Just give me a minute.”

So he tightened one arm around her waist and used the other to soothe the muscles of her shoulders, skimming over the thin material of her black shirt and skirting his fingers up under the plush scarf to reach her upper back.

Then he thought, fuck anyone who wants to take a photo. They’d speculate even if Rory and Annabelle were photographed having coffee.

They stood there for a couple more minutes, just enjoying the closeness of the embrace, Annabelle’s fingertips ghosting over his lower back through his shirt. And when she spoke, it was with her cheek still pressed into his chest.

“This is nice, Rory.”

He chuffed, causing her to bounce slightly against his chest.

“That, girl, is an inadequate description.”

She laughed as well, and nodded, apparently agreeing with him.

“This is--” she thought for a moment, “--exactly what I needed?”

“Aye,” he agreed with her this time, “Me as well.”

“So what do we do now?”

Rory smiled into her hair, hoping she could feel it. If not, he knew she would at least hear it in his voice.

“You know that touching thing you do?”

Annabelle nodded before drawing back to look up at his face. They were so close, and if Rory really wanted to--which he didn’t, not right now, but only because he didn’t want to completely scare her away--he could have imagined them kissing just then.

“You can do that as much as you want, lass. Understood?”

To his surprise, she blushed then, and dropped her eyes so she was looking at the center of his chest. But Rory didn’t want that--he didn’t want her succumbing to self consciousness again. So he tucked a finger beneath her chin and brought her gaze back up to meet his.

With his voice full of earnestness, his thumb tracing the edge of her jaw, he said, “Hey now, none of that. Remember, Annabelle--I like it.”

He waited to make sure she understood, seeing her blink before she drew in another deep breath and let it out with a nod and a smile.

“Good. Now, what do you say to a round of backgammon while we wait?”

 

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That had been some time ago, and they now sat in the seats they’d been given on the airplane, a row with only two in which Rory had taken the aisle and Annabelle the window, approximately thirty thousand feet in the air.

Earlier, after Rory had made some calls--”Damage control,” he’d said with a grin--they had an early lunch and were both notified via email that they had tickets for a flight to London that was leaving just before 9:00am. They barely had enough time to return the cot, blankets and pillows, and to find the appropriate gate before it was announced the flight was boarding.

Turning to Rory in the boarding line, she said, “Two days ago I would have paid to not sit by you.”

He laughed as well, wrapping his arm around her shoulders just as he’d promised. And it didn’t feel strange at all, but rather nice. And welcome. In turn, Annabelle wrapped hers around his waist, and they smiled at each other. It was a smile between friends, two people who had come to an agreement on something that only they knew about, and Annabelle could feel genuine happiness radiating off Rory. She felt it was likely he could feel the same from her.

“Aren’t you glad I’m persistent?”

She nodded, her smile wide as she looked up at him.

“That I am, sir.”

His reply was a wink, and they had slowly proceeded forward with the line.

“I was horrible at music as a kid,” Rory was telling her now, his thumb rubbing at the back of hers. They had been holding hands since takeoff and neither of them had any inclination to let go.

“But all those videos of you online, you’re playing different instruments.”

“Aye,” he said, turning to her. “But I picked up many as an adult. And you? Do you play anything?”

Annabelle smiled.

“I played the flute in elementary school for a couple years, and could probably play a few notes now but that’s it. I think I was always in my head too much, thinking too much to worry about practicing. And in high school I gave it up.”

“When we get to Scotland I’ll show you my boat, and let you strum my guitar.”

She looked up at him and he was grinning, raising and lowering his brow suggestively, making Annabelle giggle.

“You’re horrible,” she chided, but was having too much fun to feel true shock. He’d been getting more bold as they day wore on, and she figured it had something to do with the touching.

At first she’d done what he had bid her do--to touch him whenever she felt the urge. And she found that she liked it a lot, and realized it was likely a large component that had been missing in her relationship with Clay. Annabelle thought there might be some truth to Rory’s assertion that Clay was an idiot for not allowing her to touch him like this, because Rory seemed to enjoy it. He never once flinched, and had even taken to returning some of the touches with his big paws.

One of them on her lower back as he ushered her towards the back of the boarding line had sent tingles up her spine, as she could feel the press of every finger through the flimsy material of her shirt. He left it there long enough to caress the dip of her spine with his thumb a couple tantalizing times, making Annabelle question the wisdom of this agreement as tingles of excitement shot outward from the spot he touched.

When he reached for her bag with the hand that still held his own bag, his other palm had slipped lower over her hip, to the area of Annabelle’s back that was open to interpretation of whether it was actually butt or back. Either way, it was incredibly intimate, and she wondered if Rory was doing it on purpose.

Then, when they finally boarded the plane and the line came to a halt before they’d even reached the first class section, Rory’s hand came around to rest on the front of her hip, sending prickles of awareness straight to her core.

Oh, yes , she was questioning the wisdom of all of this.

Rory was an overwhelming presence behind Annabelle. As she walked, she was conscious of his shuffling stride, almost as though her body could sense the space in which his form displaced the air in back of her. When she stopped, he simply did as well, though not before allowing his body to come in contact with hers. And that hand--a constant as they moved further into the depths of the plane.

Annabelle was now familiar with his height--his chin still a few inches above the crown of her head, and how if she turned to look at him over her shoulder it was his collarbone that was in her line of vision. He was a wall of heat at her back, and she wondered what it was going to be like sitting next to him for over six hours, confined to the small coach seats. She pitied him this inconvenience, even as she knew her position was enviable. What woman wouldn’t pay to be stuck next to him on a transatlantic flight?

And now it seemed as though they might be spending four days together--at least until she left Aberdeen for the events Douglas had scheduled in Madrid.

“What are you going to do while I’m working?” she asked him, curious. He glanced down at her, giving her hand a squeeze.

“What makes you think I’m not going to lurk in the crowd and watch you the whole time?”

Annabelle snorted.

“You’re a giant--there’s no lurking for you.”

He nodded, smiling.

“I suppose you're right.” After thinking about it for a minute he replied, “I don’t know. Hang out in my hotel room? Read?”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.” In fact, it sounded downright dull. She hadn’t really thought about it until now but he’d be spending hours by himself while she signed books and spoke with people who wanted to be introduced to the author.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Annabelle looked down at their entwined hands and grimaced. “You’ll be horribly bored when I’m not around.”

“A bit full of yourself, aren’t you?” he teased, and she squeezed his hand in return, laughing.

“You know what I mean. You’re changing your plans to spend time with me, when my time will in fact be limited.”

He aimed his brown eyes back down at her, locking them with hers.

“Will you be gone the entire time?”

“Well, no, but… For long periods of time. Like tonight. We get in at six and I have to head straight to the conference building. I’ll likely be there until close to midnight.”

Rory dipped his chin, moving his face closer to hers.

“I’ll have a key card left at the front desk for you and you can come wake me up.”

He wagged his eyebrows again, and again she laughed.

“Or I won’t wake you up, and I’ll just see you in the morning.”

With a dramatic sigh he pressed his lips together, as though he thought that was the less fun option of the two. But then he gave her a lopsided grin, keeping his voice low so she could barely hear it over the noise of the plane.

“Unless there’s some way I can convince you…?”

Another laugh, and Annabelle leaned her head against his shoulder, feeling butterflies in her stomach as he chuckled and pressed a soft kiss to her hairline.

“No? Well, I tried.”

 

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Rory wasn’t sure what he was doing.

Or rather, he knew what he was doing--he was flirting--but he didn’t know what the end goal of it was. Weren’t they supposed to be friends? Friends who liked to hold hands and touch? But nothing more--he and Annabelle had never spoken about any sort of relationship besides this nearly platonic, yet physical, relationship.

So why was he dropping hints every few minutes about wanting more?

If only his mouth and heart would remain on the same page as his brain, he’d be golden. Everything would be good. Annabelle would be happy, he would be happy, and they could part ways at the end of this as friends. They might even exchange phone numbers, which he was sure he would approach her with before she flew off to Madrid.

Then again, he didn’t have any pressing matters to attend to in Scotland, except perhaps the sale of his boat which could always be put off. It’s not like he hadn’t already lived in it and put up with it for years. Plus he had a certain level of pride invested in it, and there was still some work to be done before it was in sale condition.

Which meant, he was also free to take a mini vacation to Spain… right?

He wondered what Annabelle would say to that, but decided not to try it yet. He’d see how the next few days went in London and go from there. He knew she had two events in London, one today and one tomorrow before their flight to Edinburgh. Then in Scotland she had one book signing the following morning in Edinburgh, after which he planned on asking her if she’d like to drive to Aberdeen, where he could show her some sights along the way.

She also had some free time in Aberdeen, being scheduled for one book event but staying two nights before flying to Madrid. He wanted to make the most out of them--showing her some places he knew about, taking her to eat at famous local restaurants, to old castles and to see the sunsets on the beach.

He’d seen it all before, having grown up in Scotland, but he was already excited about doing them with Annabelle and showing her some of what made his country so great. He felt for sure that she would appreciate its natural beauty, having already told him she’d never been there.

Then, after getting to know her and likely finding out that she was even more amazing than the sensitive, generous, funny, inquisitive woman he’d already seen, he would be expected to say goodbye.

And right now he just didn’t see that happening.

With that thought came others, thoughts he wasn’t sure if he was ready to answer.

Did this mean he wanted to keep seeing her? Even after she went back to the States?

Was he going to follow her to Spain and then Italy?

What happened after that? Would he be able to say goodbye, and to never see her again?

He had never expected begin to have feelings for her. And that’s what was happening--he knew this now. How his flirting was happening like second nature, unconsciously. He just wasn’t the type to flirt with random women, nor to do it with even women that he knew.

And he welcomed her touches, now feeling pangs of desire shoot through him sometimes at the sensation of her fingertips gliding over his skin.

Like now, how she was silently leaning into his shoulder and running a single finger up and down, through the hair on his forearm. That, combined with the scent of her shampoo, and the way he could see her breasts rise and fall with a deep sigh--he had to look away, and not just because he was in danger of getting hard in this very public, very confined space. No, he was also in danger of losing his heart.

She had surprised him when she’d given away her ticket to the young woman with the sick father. Then she’d surprised him even more when she was completely calm as she told him she knew who he was. And the surprise had grown when she had treated him like a mere mortal.

But she was a celebrity in her own right--a published, successful author who was, even now, working on the European leg of a book tour for her latest novel.

A woman who had endured neglect and infidelity by the man she’d married, the man with whom she had pictured spending the rest of her life.

A woman who had been betrayed and who had turned around to lift herself out of the ashes of devastation, and created of herself this enigma of intellect and soul.

Christ , how was he going to say goodbye to her and just let her walk out of his life?

Her hand flattened over his arm, the warmth of her palm seeping into his skin, as though she would pull it away and he’d have a burn there. Then he watched her eyelids drift closed, and her entire body stilled.

With a quick kiss to her crown, he put his head back against the seat back, put one of his hands over hers, and closed his eyes, though he knew he wouldn’t sleep. His mind was in too much turmoil to even consider it.

Chapter Text

After an hour of backgammon games, and then Rory finishing reading her book and Annabelle working on her computer, it was announced that they would land in London within thirty minutes, and for all electronics to be turned off and put away.

Annabelle’s nap on Rory’s had been a short one, and not a nap at all. For just less than an hour she’d leaned against him, wondering yet again if what they were doing was the right thing--the wise thing.

But then she tilted her head back, still resting her cheek against his shoulder, and looked up to see his warm brown, obviously not sleeping eyes, looking back at her. This close she could clearly see the gray hairs mixed in with the black and brown of his beard stubble, the creases on his soft, lower lip, and how even when he didn’t look like he was smiling, the corners of his mouth turned upwards just enough to show that he was indeed happy.

He lifted a hand to push away some curls that had fallen towards her eyes, drawing them backwards with a gentle touch as his eyes followed his own movements, before he tucked them behind her ear in that sweet gesture he’d used before. The whole situation felt very similar to the intimacy they shared on the cot, when she had nuzzled into his chest and they had wrapped their limbs around one another, snuggling for warmth in the cold airport terminal.

But when Rory’s eyes returned to hers now, their faces mere inches apart, she saw his gaze drop to her lips and hold there for a moment before coming back up to hers. The weight of that gaze at first excited her, and then it made her fearful. She smiled briefly before pulling away and sitting up straight, making a show of attempting to stretch out her arms in the confined space.

It was shortly after that, that they had commenced the epic backgammon battle where he had narrowly won two of three sets they played, each of them lasting three games. Rory called her a cheater, she called him a bad sportsman for trying to convince her that her moves were bad, and they spent a good deal of time laughing at each other’s antics, the heavy moment between them apparently forgotten by Rory.

But Annabelle had not forgotten. She wrote and wrote in her new book after the games, but decided she’d either have to write the whole thing over again or else go back and do some major editing, because she wasn’t sure the passages she had written made any sense.

Rather than focusing on her task, she’d been distracted by Rory’s presence--by the scent of his cologne, all earthy and manly; by the way his large hands made her oversized, high quality paperback novel seem like a laundromat romance book; and his glances, being sent her way every few minutes as though to ascertain her continued presence at his side. It was all very unnerving, and by the time an hour had passed, she could hardly remember the plotline she had just advanced in her writing.

She finally put away the laptop when instructed to do so by the announcement of their imminent arrival in London, and she felt herself becoming nervous over the book signing she was to immediately head for when she got off the plane.

Anxiety had always been an issue with her before events, and there was never anything that she could do short of medicine or having a stiff drink beforehand. And since she was unwilling to do either of those, she usually resorted to powering through it.

But this time she had Rory, and since he’d shown himself to be her stand-in rock before, being so accepting of her and encouraging her to be her true self, and so she leaned into him.

“I’m nervous,” she said quietly. He immediately took her hand within both of his.

“That book was amazing,” he began, “and so is the author. You’re going to be brilliant. What is there to be nervous about?”

With a sigh, she leaned her head back against his shoulder once again.

“I’m always afraid I’ll be heckled,” she admitted with a laugh. “I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, or that someone will catch me forgetting part of my own book.”

He stroked the skin on the back of her wrist, pushing up the sleeve of her shirt as he did so.

“Has any of that happened before?”

“Well, surely you’ve had some incidents on stage where you’ve said things you didn’t mean to say, or have been given a hard time by a fan.” She glanced up at him, thankful that his face wasn’t quite as close to hers as it was earlier. He also seemed less focused on her mouth, which was definitely a good thing.

“Sure, I’ve said some things, but I made a joke out of it. And for the assholes who heckle me, I let it roll off my back.”

Annabelle chuckled.

“I must have shelves on my back because I carry it with me.”

She turned her face back down, looking across the aisle towards the middle row of seats, where a small family had sat during the flight. A man sat across from Rory, and there was a small child in the middle, with a woman on the far side. The couple had spent nearly the entire flight entertaining the toddler and ensuring she didn’t cry or bother the other passengers.

Her thoughts almost drifted to her long-ago dream of becoming a mother, but she stopped herself. There was no need to focus on that now, not here with Rory when she was trying to ease her own fears of public speaking. Besides, she was thirty five and it was very likely that dream was never going to happen, so why dwell on it?

Rory’s fingers were now stroking the underside of her wrist in soft, slow movements. It was soothing, so she looked away from the young family and lifted her head, remaining where she was leaning against him but reaching down to scrape at the seam of her leggings on the inside of her leg.

What she’d said was true--she did carry things, as though she was full of boxes, or covered in shelves, where she put all the emotional clutter and never quite let go of it. It had been one of the reasons why therapy seemed necessary after her divorce.

She had hoped to be able to handle stress better now, five years later, but sometimes it felt like this was just who she was.

The good thing was that it often helped her to see the right path long before it might have taken someone else. Imagining all the possible outcomes from the different directions in which she could take her life, often meant she planned things well ahead of time and always seemed like she got off on the right foot. It had helped her in her path to becoming an author, and had served her well throughout this whole journey.

But it also meant she worried more than normal, as now instead of worrying about a single possible path, she was instead worrying about five, and wouldn’t cease worrying until she chose one and the others disappeared.

She’d already started thinking along those lines with Rory, and how she could either never see him again, or she could give him her phone number, and hope to see him again.

But now was not the time to dwell on that, either.

She was brought out of her thoughts by Rory’s hand lowering to the one that had been toying with her leggings, and he lifted it to rest on her thigh, covering it with his own.

“You’re going to be great, Annabelle. Are you sure you don’t want me to go?”

He was grinning, hinting that he wouldn’t mind crashing the event and sending their fans into complete pandemonium. She told him as much, and he laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. She loved to see him smile, and it felt good to know she was the one who caused it.

“Pandemonium, yes, but it would be fun, wouldn’t it?” He winked at her, and she shook her head but beamed at him, sharing in his humor.

 

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It was actually nearly 2:00am London time by the time Rory heard Annabelle slide the key card into his hotel room door. And the Annabelle who walked into the room was not the same one whom he had parted ways after the baggage claim at the airport.

She looked tired, and he noticed she was dragging her big suitcase, with her carry on bag slung over her shoulder, beneath the purse that also hung there.

He quickly rose from the end of the bed where he’d been watching television to get her things from her, and to shut the door behind her.

“How’d it go?” he asked, genuinely wanting to know, despite also burning to ask her why on earth her luggage was now in his hotel room.

That could wait, since she looked as though she’d just sat through a harrowing ordeal. Her eyes were slightly red, and the only time she smiled was when he tilted her face up to his with a finger under her chin to get her to look at him.

“That bad?”

At his words, her smile fell and she closed her eyes as tears pooled in them. Surprised into dropping the bags and luggage, Rory wrapped his arms around her as she stepped into them, feeling her shoulders shake softly beneath the thin sweater she wore.

He didn’t know what to say, but let her cry for a couple minutes before directing her towards the bed. He sat on the edge, drew her down onto his thigh, and she took the invitation and wrapped her arms around his neck.

With a hand on her back and one stroking her hair, he held her as she calmed, feeling the gentle shakes as she quietly sobbed onto his shoulder. They lessened, until she was able to merely breathe with slight hiccups, and he rubbed her back with his palm while gliding a hand down her soft curls.

She fit so perfectly in his arms, with her legs between his and her upper body pressed against his, that he wanted to deny her when she went to pull away.

He didn’t of course, but he reached over to the bedside table and snagged a couple tissues from the box. She gladly took them, wiping the tears away from her face and blowing her nose before tossing the tissue into the wastebasket beside the table. She kept the other one balled up in her palm, but he watched as she picked at it, finding an edge in the folds and smoothing it with her fingers.

“Want to tell me what happened? Is there someone I need to go visit?”

Annabelle looked up at him with a start, and then surprised feminine laughter filled the room as she took in his stern glower. She actually seemed to cry and laugh at the same time, because new tears slipped out and left shiny trails down to her lips, where she wiped them away again. Then she brought a hand up and cupped his jaw, her watery smile tearing at his heartstrings.

“Oh, Rory,” she breathed, her shoulders slumping defeatedly. But still she smiled, and a swipe of her thumb brought it over the corner of his mouth.

He thought he saw her eyes land there but then she dropped her hand again, bringing it back to the tissue as she looked at the white ball in her hands.

“Tell me,” he implored again, and she nodded before wiping her face and blowing her nose again.

“Just… hang on, okay?” She sent him one last smile before finding the bathroom and closing the door. He heard water running but stayed where he was, knowing she’d come back out and explain everything.

Had she been heckled, as she’d feared? Did someone say something mean to her? Something rude about her books? Did she feel she messed up? Or did something happen, god forbid, on the way to the hotel?

But no, she didn’t appear hurt, although he knew her to be the sensitive type. So he’d wait in his worry for her to tell him what was going on.

When she came out a few minutes later she’d taken off her sweater and her scarf, now dressed in the simple black shirt and black leggings she’d had on all day. She approached the bed and went to sit next to him but he reached out and grasped her hand, pulling her back onto his thigh with a surprised “Oh” escaping her lips.

She didn’t move, however, and he took that as a good sign, resting a hand low on her thigh while wrapping the other one around her waist.

“Okay,” she started, and she took a deep, shaky breath. “So there’s something I didn’t tell you about these book signings, although in hindsight I probably should have so you’d be prepared for… this .”

She waved a hand in the general direction of her reddened face.

He was curious, but feeling better now that she’d made it sound like nothing horrible had happened to her on the way back to the hotel.

“Many of the people who come up to me merely say they admire my work, or that they’ve read all my books and can’t wait for the next one.” She sniffed, and smiled at him. “I get a lot of really nice comments, and tonight was no different.”

She paused, so Rory began to slowly massage her over her shirt, pressing lightly into the muscles above her hips and at the center of her back.

“So tonight I gave my speech, and I told them a very vague description of my new book because I can’t give away the whole thing--you understand the need for confidentiality; I’ve heard horror stories of what they’ve made you and your coworkers do for the show.”

Rory chuckled, nodding in agreement. All that time that he had to lie to people about his character’s death--yes, he completely understood.

She continued, “Afterwards I sat for the signing, and I had a few women come up and mention their past relationships and how hard it was when they found out their husband was cheating or lying to them or whatever it was he was doing…” Annabelle breathed in a shaky breath and he thought the tears might return soon. She glanced at him, looking as though she was embarrassed at her show of emotion, but he just leaned over and grabbed her a couple more tissues, giving her a gentle, knowing smile.

Returning his with a grateful one, she nodded slightly and seemed to steel herself for the telling of what happened next.

“Tonight, after the event when I usually mingle with the stragglers and speak with the managers of the venue, a young woman came up to me and asked me if I had time to talk to her when I was finished.” She shot him a self-conscious glance. “I said of course, because she looked really…” Annabelle seemed to grasp for the right word, looking away while she wracked her brain. “Distraught,” she mumbled, looking at the floor in front of them. “She was distraught, so I told her yes. And… Rory,” his name was a sob as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. “She’s in it right now. She showed me pictures on her phone that she’d taken of text messages on his own phone, where he’s talking to a woman and they’re flirting and--” tears were pouring in earnest now but she kept talking, “--and what she’s going through was just so much of what I’d gone through that we just sort of cried together and I lost track of time. She’s such a nice young woman, and I told her to leave him.”

Rory was speechless. He was trying to be supportive and to be there for her right now because she needed it, but what she was saying was so unlike what he had expected that he was stunned mute.

“I told her that it didn’t matter if he was her dream, if he had at one time been her perfect guy--that she needed to know she deserved the best and that she shouldn’t settle for seconds because she was worried she couldn’t do better.” She wiped her eyes and nose, depositing the dirty tissue in the trash. “She needed to know that she deserved to do what was right for her, and that was to leave that--that-- sack of shit --and go find her own dream.”

They looked at each other then, mutually surprised at her curse, and laughed together--Rory with his heart in his throat and Annabelle with tears flowing down her face.

But then she pressed the tissue to her face and leaned into him, propping her chin on his shoulder as she wrapped her other arm around his neck.

“You did the right thing,” he murmured into her hair, holding her once again as she wet the shoulder of his shirt. “When someone like that enters your life, Annabelle… You just did what she needed, and you did what you felt was right. You’re an amazing woman, you know that?”

She laughed weepily into his shirt and held him tighter.

“You know what I would have done if you weren’t here?”

He rubbed her back and asked her, “What?”

“I would have come back to my room, climbed into bed, sobbed into the pillow and fallen asleep like that.” She chuckled, but this time Rory didn’t hear any humor in it. “I do it after every event, actually, because… Well, because of who I am. And because of who my books attract into my life.”

He merely nodded, waiting for her to calm. Then something she said got caught in his mind like a broken record.

“Who you are?”

He pulled her back so she could look him square in the face.

“Annabelle, you’re perfect.” She huffed a laugh and rolled her eyes, but Rory shook his head. “You’re so much more than I ever expected. You gave away your plane ticket to a woman you didn’t know, and now you’re a sobbing mess--” he wiped a tear away with his thumb to emphasize his point, though he smiled at her as he did it, “--over a woman who is in the same kind of bad relationship that you were. Aye, I’d say you’re the best kind of woman, and the world needs more of the likes of you.”

He was beginning to realize that now, and so those were the words he spoke. The world did indeed need more people like Annabelle Harkness, more people who wore their hearts on their sleeves and who gave of themselves, even when it was inconvenient or caused them hardship.

It was just a crying shame that these were the same people who were so often taken advantage of, their kindness used for someone else’s gain, or trampled upon like a doormat.

He wanted to spend some time with her before they went to bed, but that made him wonder about her bags and her hotel room.

“Where’s your room, and I’ll help you get your bags there, and then we can come back and talk or watch TV or do whatever it is you want, okay?”

Annabelle shook her head and stood, retrieving her phone from her purse.

“I was so upset that I asked for the key and came straight here. I’ll call down and reserve a room.” She walked over to the small table and sat, using her phone to dial the number for the hotel that was listed on the stationary pad sitting at the table.

“Wait,” Rory said before his brain caught up with his mouth and he realized what he was doing.

Annabelle looked up at him, tissue still in one hand, phone in the other.

“Just… stay here.”

Chapter Text

Rory swallowed, taking a couple steps towards Annabelle but attempting to not look like a highschool boy asking a girl on a date. “The bed’s big, and nothing will happen--” he held up his hands as though warding her off, smiling lightly as he did so, “--but it might be nice to sleep like we did in the airport.”

It was out . He’d said it. He hadn’t even known he wanted to say it until it had come out of his mouth, but now that he had, it sounded really nice.

And he wasn’t lying when he said nothing would happen. He did not want to screw up this friendship by giving in to his growing attraction for her. They’d very nearly kissed twice--once on the plane and earlier after the photo of them had appeared on the internet. But now--when she was so emotional and reeling from her experience at the book signing--was the exact wrong time to even consider taking their friendship to a physical level.

The most physical he wanted to take it was holding her to him while he slept tonight.

Annabelle hadn’t said anything, still staring at him as he thought his thoughts about their friendship. Finally she shook her head, though in what appeared to be disbelief rather than a refusal.

“What--Are you sure? That's highly irregular, to share a hotel room after knowing each other for two and a half days.”

Her words said she wanted to do the right thing, but her eyes spoke to how appealing his suggestion sounded, and Rory knew she had already decided. Her evening was so rough on her that he knew she would draw comfort from sleeping with him tonight. And if every speaking engagement ended this way, as she'd previously said, he wanted her in his bed every night until she had to go home.

But one thing at a time, he reminded himself.

He watched her look from him to the bed and back again, and then down his body and back to his face. Her eyes were guarded yet curious, and with a firm nod she gave him his answer.

Rory let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding.

“Are you tired?”

Another nod, but her guardedness was fading and he could see how her shoulders sagged and her smile didn't quite reach her eyes.

She opted for a shower so Rory changed into shorts and a tank top in the room. When she finally came out of the bathroom, a puff of steam following her, she was dressed in impossibly short shorts and an oversized t-shirt. He hadn't seen her legs up until now and could barely drag his eyes back up to her face now. They were smooth and pale and gorgeous…

And short. She wasn't wearing her boots now, so she didn't have the advantage of a few extra inches of heel. Rory walked over to her slowly, a wide smile on his face.

Annabelle looked up at him, her own smile spreading over her lips.

“You're tall,” she said, a slight, self conscious laugh following her words.

Rory reached up to run a hand over her drying curls, nodding in agreement. The top of her head only reached the center of his chest.

“Aye, and you're short. You'll be needing a box if you want a hug, now.”

Her mouth dropped open in mock indignation and she lightly smacked his chest with her fingertips.

“Be nice,” she laughed, raising an eyebrow as she walked around him.

Rory brushed his teeth and came back out of the bathroom to find Annabelle already in bed, the only light on in the room coming from the two lamps on either side of the queen sized bed.

She was beautiful without makeup--chestnut eyelashes over moss green eyes, pouty lips now smiling at him, and that hair . It had dried more and was a mess of curls on the pillow beneath her head. He loved it, how the curls were so natural and soft, and the color like fall grass fields. He could already smell it, although that was likely the scent of her shampoo hanging on the air from her shower. But he knew when he buried his face in it tonight he'd be surrounded by the scent of chamomile flowers--he’d checked the label while he brushed his teeth to find out the fragrance’s identity.

Annabelle was laying on her side facing the side of the bed he'd be laying on, but he avoided her eyes as he pulled back the covers and slid into bed beside her, not wanting her to see how this was making his heart pound. He was sure she’d see emotion in his eyes that he would rather keep hidden--excitement; even arousal.

Facing her now, he finally looked into her eyes--still a bit red, but happier now--and smiled at her.

“This is nice,” she said quietly, her hands tucked up underneath her chin. Rory agreed with a nod.

“How are you feeling?"

She’d been so upset earlier that he forced his heart to calm as he remembered that right now all he wanted to do was comfort her.

“I’m much better, thank you.”

She blushed and dropped her eyes to the low neck of his tank top, but he saw her purse her lips as she looked away, over his shoulder and across the room. Perhaps she struggled with the same things he did. Was that attraction he saw in her eyes? The reason why she didn’t want to look at his chest? He’d seen the same thing those moments when their faces were close and the setting intimate enough to encourage a kiss.

Curious , he thought. But he didn’t think now was the right time to test her on it.

“What time is your book signing tomorrow?”

That brought her eyes back to his, and her jaw tightened.

“Two in the afternoon.” But she sighed as she said it.

“Are you not looking forward to it?” It was obvious she loved writing, and that she cared about her readers. But when she let out a nervous chuckle he realized what was likely the matter. “You’re not looking forward to the talking after,” he answered for her, to which she dipped her chin in agreement.

“It wears on me sometimes.”

“Have you ever thought of writing happier books?”

Annabelle smiled, but it was sad and it didn’t reach her eyes.

“Rory, I write what I know. Sometimes I feel like I’ll write happy romances when I have one for myself.”

That sounded so… sad . He lifted a hand to her hair and pet the curls back from her face.

“Weren’t you happy in the beginning?”

Her eyes sparked with displeasure and he thought that maybe he touched on a bad subject. He used his fingertips to gently stroke her forehead, combing through the hairs at her hairline and watching the calming effect his touch had on her.

Annabelle drew in a deep breath and sighed, closing her eyes briefly. Rory kept up with his touches, but watched how she rubbed her thumbnail over the pads of her fingers. When she opened her eyes again, they were cold.

“I was so young. It took a long time for me to realize that he just wanted me to be a tro--” she broke off what she was going to say, but he’d already caught it. He smiled at her, bringing her eyes up to his with a finger under her chin.

“A trophy wife?”

Annabelle wrinkled her nose in a grimace, but nodded.

“Yes. I don’t know if he ever really loved me. It didn’t take long for us to become unhappy.”

“But you held on? Why?”

“Well,” she started, but paused to move a bit closer to him in the bed. Then she looked up, gauging his expression as she reached out a hand to toy with the open neckline of his tank top.

“I held on because I really wanted to be married, and because for all outward appearances we had the perfect life. He was a contractor who made a lot of money, we had a big, fancy house, lots of stuff, rich friends, and I had enough money to buy anything I ever wanted.”

He could feel her sliding her fingers over the fabric of his top, over the low collar up towards his shoulders and back down to the center.

“I just wasn’t able to buy him , no matter how much I spent on myself. I know it might sound silly but… I had a personal trainer, I bought fancy clothes,” another blush as she continued, “Lingerie… I learned how to cook, kept a clean house, entertained his friends. But it wasn’t enough.” She sighed, staring at the point where her fingers worked at his tank top. “It didn’t stop him from having a year long affair. Nothing I did was good enough.”

She suddenly looked up at him and forced a smile.

“I’m sorry, I’m talking about depressing stuff, aren’t I?”

Rory chuckled, bringing a hand between them to grasp hers and pull it against his chest.

“Annabelle, you can talk all you want, and I’ll listen.”

Her smile faded and she nodded seriously, seeming content to be silent for a while. Rory left her hand where it was against his chest and resumed stroking her hair, drawing the curls through his fingers and watching them straighten and then spring back towards her head.

He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, being paraded around and shown off to Clay’s friends, expected to look and act perfectly to impress people who didn’t matter. And for her to change who she was to please him--Rory was certain if he ever happened to meet this Clay, he’d watch his own fist slam into Clay’s face. He didn’t feel at all bad about having those thought; the man deserved it.

But Annabelle hadn’t deserved any of it, and he told her that, asking, “How do you feel now? Do you miss any of what you had in your previous life?”

She laughed genuinely, her fingers now skimming over the hair on his chest. He felt his heart speed up again, but wasn’t able to calm it with deep breathing as long as he felt the warmth of her skin against his.

“You mean the house, the car, the manicured lawn in the gated neighborhood, the chandelier, the fine china, and the personal trainer?”

Rory was silent during her list, and he nodded down at her, unsure of what to think of her itemized inventory of perks of living with a cheating husband. But no, he reminded himself--that’s not what she was saying. Annabelle was intelligent enough to know nothing was worth living with a cheating spouse.

“Right now,” she said, her words slow and measured, “I live in a small apartment, I drive an older used car, and I eat my own homemade meals off of plates I bought at Walmart. But I’m happier than I ever was with Clay, so no. I don’t miss any of it. If it’s all some sort of Deluxe Douchebag package, I’d rather have my humble apartment with my houseplants and VHS collection.”

Rory’s chuckle was loud in the room, but he understood what she was saying. Why have all the things, if they didn’t make you happy?

He thought about the boat he was hoping to buy, and how it wasn’t nearly as big as what he could afford. But it was still good sized, with a bigger cabin, a better bathroom, and room for him to stand when he was inside for the night. He, too, knew what it meant to live humbly, and was happier watching his retirement account grow than buying all sorts of junk to clutter up his living space.

“I think you’d like my boat,” he said a minute later, when they had again sat in silence, enjoying the feel of each other. Rory could see Annabelle’s eyelids getting a bit droopy, and he turned away from her gently to reach to turn off the switch beside the bed that made both lamps go dark.

He didn’t have a chance to turn back to Annabelle, as she’d already moved closer to him and was curling into his side, head on his shoulder. With an arm around her back and his other up behind his head, he mulled over how natural it felt, how her steady breathing beside him was better than any music or noise he’d ever tried to fall asleep to.

“I think I would,” she murmured into his chest, agreeing with his earlier statement about the boat.

Rory thought ahead to her coming schedule, and how she’d planned on flying to Aberdeen in the evening after her only event in Edinburgh.

“How about we drive to Troon after your Edinburgh event. We can spend the night on the boat and have you in in Aberdeen before your signing?”

He felt her face move against him and realized she was smiling, but her voice was sleepy when she spoke.

“That sounds nice, Rory. I’d like to see your boat.”

Her arm slid over his waist and her hand curved around his side, tucking her fingers between him and the mattress as she’d done on the cot in the airport. He liked it--it felt like she was locked onto him, and he didn’t mind at all.

He could feel her feet against his shins, and once again marvelled at the size difference between them. It was more pronounced, now that they were pressed together so intimately, and he found himself liking it.

Annabelle was small and sensitive, yes, but she also had a hidden depth to her that seemed to only show itself as one got to know her. Rory counted himself as lucky that she had opened up to him as she had. But her strength was there, in the way she’d stood up for herself against him on the plane, and in how she handled the situation with the crying young woman in the airport--taking charge, and making decisions that would benefit others.

And it was there in her experiences at these book signings, and how her strength manifested itself as love for her readers.

Her breathing evened out and he knew she’d fallen asleep. So with one last squeeze and a kiss to her hair, he closed his eyes and fell into a deep slumber.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Annabelle slowly came awake feeling like she’d fallen asleep in London and had woken in Florida. She was hot, and she wished she could throw the blankets off. But when she went to move her limbs she realized much of her was pinned to the bed by the limbs of a rather large obstruction.

As she opened her eyes to the bright morning light she realized they must have slept in. Sunrise in London at this time of year wasn’t until eight in the morning, and it was already fairly bright in the room. She guessed it had to be at least 9:00am.

She moved her cheek against the pillow and felt soft hair against her jaw. Looking down, she realized it was Rory’s head, and that his face was pushed up against her chest. It was his breath that was making her feel like she was cradling a heater.

His breathing was deep and even, so she knew he was at least still asleep.

Taking stock of the rest of her body, she felt one of his legs draped between hers, her top leg resting intimately over his hip. They were belly to belly, with her arms holding him around his head and neck, and his pulling her against him, an arm banded around her waist.

It was incredibly intimate, though also incredibly comfortable. She didn’t remember moving into this position but instead felt like she’d just gotten the best sleep of her life.

She rested her chin against his head and took a deep breath, not knowing what was going to happen when he woke but wanting to enjoy this moment alone for a bit longer.

Rory was an absolute joy. He made her laugh, offered her good conversation, and their time together never felt forced. He’d taught her how to play backgammon, held her as she’d embarrassingly cried on his shoulder, and listened to her talk about all manner of depressing things, never judging her and in fact helping her see what she perceived to be flaws, as blessings instead.

She was never going to be the same, for having known him. She was sure of that now.

He stirred in her arms, though didn’t wake. His head moved, his face nuzzling at her chest again before he settled back into sleep.

She hadn’t worn a bra to bed, and was exceedingly aware that his face was pillowed against her breasts. Hoping to extract herself from his grasp before he realized it, and before she acknowledged the warming feeling in the pit of her stomach at his embrace, she leaned back, knowing that she would likely wake him once she pulled her arm out from beneath his head.

But then she froze. Dawning awareness told her that there was a new sensation between their bodies, and it was that of a growing hardness.

He was aroused. In his sleep.

Oh my god .

And just as she realized there would be no way to extract herself from embarrassing both of them, he rocked his pelvis against her upper thigh, making her gasp as the friction rubbed her intimately.

Chapter Text

It must have been Annabelle’s gasp that woke Rory, because in that moment before full wakefulness but after the haze of sleep had drifted away, he nuzzled against her breasts again and used his hand to pull her lower body into his erection.

Then he groaned softly against her chest, and Annabelle had to fight through the fog of her own sudden arousal to tap him on the back of the head, saying his name a couple times for good measure.

She could tell when he came fully awake because his entire body tensed, and without moving his lower body, he pulled his upper body away from her, looking up at her eyes, her mouth, and lower to her neck and her chest.

Nipples. Her nipples were hardened behind the flimsy fabric of her shirt. Oh god .

She watched his adam’s apple bob beneath the hair on his throat, the muscles in his neck working as he lifted his face to hers again.

“Christ, Annabelle,” he murmured, his gaze landing on her lips.

He wanted to kiss her, she knew. And, God , she wanted him to. She wanted him to rock his hips against hers again, and she wanted… she wanted…

It didn’t matter what she wanted. All that mattered was his unapologetic stare, and how she realized she was more embarrassed than he was at their current position.

He didn’t stop her when she pulled away, but as shocked as she was, all she could manage to do was move to her side of the bed and sit on the edge, her hands bracing her against the edge of the mattress as she dropped her head. Eyes closed, breathing deep, she willed herself to stay focused, and to not lose herself in the man who laid motionless on the bed behind her.

But oh, was she ever tempted!

She gathered her courage--not enough to face him, but enough to speak, at least--and started, “Rory, I…”

But really, what was she supposed to say?

Maybe we shouldn’t sleep together? No, because she had come to crave it, now that she knew it was what he wanted as well.

I’m sorry? Also no, because she really wasn’t.

It’s tempting? God, was it ever tempting. But no, she couldn’t say that, either.

So she gave up, and instead turned to look at him, facing the issue instead of trying to cover it up or ignore it.

And the issue was still there, plane as day, pushing against the fabric of his shorts. Rory hadn’t moved, and Annabelle brought her gaze up to his face and resolutely locked it there.

When she went to speak, he held up his hand, bidding her to let him go first. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what he had to say--was afraid, she supposed, of what he might say.

“Annabelle,” he began, but he, too, paused. That’s when she saw it--the smile that threatened to reveal itself on his face, the way the corners of his eyes crinkled and he pressed his lips into a straight line. He was leaning up on one elbow and looked for all the world like a very proud, very aroused man.

Annabelle was shocked.

“You think this is funny ?” But even she had to admit, he was making it that way, with his refusal to hide his arousal and the way he was looking at her--like she was both tasty enough to eat, and the source of his amusement.

“Em, no,” he said, his accent thick, but she could tell he was trying to figure out what to say. “Well, a bit.” He held up a hand and chuckled as she felt her nose flare.

Good lord, he was going to be the death of her. Here she was, mortified that they had apparently aroused each other without even trying, and had woken in a completely compromising situation--had even begun the motions of lovemaking if Annabelle was going to be completely honest with herself, and she’d liked it--and he was on the verge of laughing .

“Annabelle, you are a very desirable woman.”

“But--Rory--I’m--that’s not--” She couldn’t even formulate a sentence. What he’d said was most certainly not what she had expected him to say. He shook his head and went on anyway.

“I woke up with a gorgeous woman--no, correction, I woke up with you --wrapped around me like a scarf, and you don’t think my body will react this way?”

He waved a hand at his groin, but she still refused to look. It didn’t stop the blush from coming back, though.

“And for Christ’s sakes, woman, you’re not even wearing a bra.” His hand waved in her direction, and she glanced down--and immediately covered her chest with her arms.

“Rory, this didn’t happen in the airport! You didn’t--I didn’t--this didn’t happen! What are we supposed to do now?” She felt panic rising, unable to quell the feeling that they had just ruined what they had together. It felt so ridiculous to be at a loss for words, knowing she was a writer and getting words out of her mind was what paid her bills. But this--she was just speechless. And the elephant in the room--

She blushed furiously at that thought. She was not going to think about how big he was. That bulge in the front of his shorts was… substantial.

She turned to look out the window to avoid the seductive smile that spread across his mouth. But what he said next only mollified her somewhat.

“I think we should talk,” he suggested. “I don’t think we need to do anything about anything. You and I talk. It’s what we do.”

His voice was so low, raspy from sleep and deep enough that she felt it in her bones. It struck her again how ridiculous this situation was, but she stopped short of regretting the cancelled flight that stranded both of them in Boston. No, she didn’t regret any of that. But she also didn’t want to lose him prematurely, and she thought for sure this predicament would end with him walking out the door and disappearing from her life.

But Rory was right. They did talk, quite a bit. It seemed to help her figure things out, and having someone with her willing to listen to her, to give suggestions, and to bounce ideas off of was proving to be valuable.

That the object of her admiration was currently sporting a raging hard on for her was… well, it was a complication, but not one she couldn’t handle.

So she turned to him and said, “I’m going to go take a shower. We’ll talk after.” Because talking was a good idea, and she wanted them to work this out where both of them were happy, and they walked away at the end of this still friends.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Rory didn’t see it as complicated at all. He nodded at her as she rose, watching her shorts ride up as she bent to retrieve clean clothes from her bag on the floor, wondering what the hell she expected out of him--a man--traipsing around the hotel room dressed like that.

She was fucking gorgeous, there was no denying it. In the light of day she was even more so, and so it was no wonder his erection hadn’t settled when she had moved away from him.

Seeing her nipples poking through her t-shirt wasn’t helping at all. Nor did thinking about them now, actually.

His eyes followed her as she walked into the bathroom, her ass looking good enough to bite under those short shorts.

Fuck .

She glanced back over her shoulder one last time as she walked into the bathroom, and he could have sworn he saw the smallest confused smile in the corner of her mouth before she pushed the door shut behind her.

Double fuck .

He couldn’t bring himself to regret sleeping with her again, as he’d just gotten a fantastic night’s sleep. But what he hadn’t wanted to do was upset her, and apparently pushing his cock against her as he’d woken had done the job.

Damned body, doing what it wanted even as he was only half awake.

As he saw it, though, they only had two options, and he was going to have to be happy with either of them.

Act on these urges, or don’t.

It was that simple.

He found himself wanting to convince her of the former, though as he pulled himself up to sitting against the headboard, he wondered what the repercussions of it would be.

Casual sex. It wasn’t something he engaged in, nor was it something he would expect out of her. But him… with her? He could see it happening. He could see them enjoying it. He could also see it turning what they had into an awkward mess that didn’t end amicably.

But what would it do to them if they didn’t act on it? He couldn’t see them sharing the same bed anymore, as he would likely wake up with an erection every single morning he felt her small body in his arms. Not that that would make him irritable or cause him to treat her any differently, but it would be frustrating as hell, and probably incredibly awkward for her.

He remembered her gasp, the way his ears had filtered out the sleep that clogged them and how the sound of her indrawn breath had funneled into his brain like gasoline into a fire. That sound--he found himself wanting to hear it when he did things to her deliberately, and not while half asleep.

The feel of her lower body wrapped around his pelvis slipped into his thoughts, and he let his head fall back against the wall, closing his eyes as he groaned in sexual frustration.

He’d known she would be sexy in pajamas, and he had known she would feel like sex personified without so much clothing between them. But he hadn’t expected what had followed--not exactly the physical reaction but this inexplicable emotional reaction. He wanted her. He wanted to claim her. He wanted to make her his, and he wanted to keep her. This deep, animalistic urge to mark her as belonging to him was a foreign feeling, and one that made him incredibly uncomfortable and excited at the same time.

His thoughts circled back to their two options--act on the mutual attraction, or don’t, and he was definitely leaning towards acting on it. Perhaps…

Perhaps he could convince her to carry on this friendship, maybe to even advance it to relationship status, if he showed her how good it could be between them in bed.

It was a dangerous thought, one that caught him completely off guard, and not at all an honorable one he had to admit. But it was there, and now that it was real, it refused to be ignored. Would he want that? Was he ready to enter into a relationship with an American? A woman who lived on the other side of the world? But even as he questioned it silently, he knew the answer was a resounding yes, so long as that woman was Annabelle.

The only question was how to convince her of the potential for their coming together physically, and whether now was a good time or not, since she had the book signing and speaking event this afternoon.

When Annabelle was done in the shower, she exited the bathroom with a, “Your turn,” and kept her eyes on organizing her suitcase. It was likely because she wanted to offer him the discretion he needed to get from the bed to the bathroom without embarrassing himself. It was almost silly that his arousal hadn’t faded one bit in the time it had taken her to shower and dress.

So he thanked her, gathering his own clean clothes and entering the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

Relieving himself of his erection in the shower almost seemed naughty, knowing the object of his attraction was on the other side of the door. But he knew now that Annabelle would never take him seriously if he had a conspicuous bulge in the front of his jeans while they tried to speak about what the future held for them. She’d barely been able to concentrate on their short conversation a while ago on the bed, when he’d refused to cover it up.

Because her face --she’d been so flustered and embarrassed, and he thought it was so damned adorable.

When he finally left the bathroom, fully dressed and ready to face what was about to happen, he found Annabelle once again sitting at the small table, staring out the window. She was dressed in a cream colored top with jeans, and a pair of short heeled boots were already on her feet.

He took the seat opposite from her and waited for her to look at him. When she did, her face was serious, but she returned his smile when he gave her one.

“So, about what happened in the bed.”

He wished he had a cup of coffee or something to do with his hands. Annabelle was toying with the long necklace she wore, separating and feeling the metal fringe that hung from the bottom of the framed crystal.

It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to say anything so he decided to just get it out in the open and not mince words.

“The way I see it, we have two choices.”

Annabelle nodded, dropping her gaze to the necklace for a minute before looking back up when he didn’t continue. Rory just wanted her looking at him when he said it, so that he could gauge her reaction.

“We can either ignore it,” he said softly, noting her stoic facade and the way her hands had not stilled on the necklace, “Or we can act on it. Because--” he was gratified when her eyes widened and her fingers came to a stop, “--I think you feel the same way I do. Now, don’t take this the wrong way.” He held up a hand, as though warding off the refusal that he wasn’t sure would have been forthcoming from her anyway. “I don’t want to mess up what we have. But… I like you, Annabelle. I really do. And I think…” He hadn’t known it would be this hard to actually say the words. “I think it would be good between us.”

Then he stood abruptly, surprising her if her widened eyes and the way they tracked his face were any indication.

“I’m going to go down to the hotel restaurant for some breakfast, and you’re welcome to come with me. But I want you to think about what I said.”

With a hand out to her, he helped her out of the chair so that she was standing in front of him, within arm’s reach but he let go of her hand, allowing her space.

“Either way, I will not disrespect you, Annabelle. I will not hurt you. If you say no, you have nothing to fear from me.”

And with that he left her by the table to walk over to the door, his hand on the doorknob when he turned to see if she was coming.

She was beautiful, there was no denying it. She had pulled back the top of her hair so that a few curling tendrils framed her face and fell by her ears. No words came from her mouth, and yet he could see it displayed her shock and her confusion at his words, emotions visible on her lips as clearly as though they’d been shining from her eyes instead.

And it was that part of her that he was fixated on when she grabbed her purse and slowly joined him by the door.

“Annabelle,” he started when she was just a couple feet from him, but he found himself losing the words he’d been about to say. The prospect of spending more time with her and not doing as he suggested was going to drive him insane.

He toyed with the idea of telling her how he felt--how he really felt, about her and about them. That after this, after she was done with her tour and was ready to fly home, they should continue seeing each other because he felt how strong the connection between them was. It could grow; they could make it work.

But those words died on his lips as well, his courage failing him at the prospect of inadvertently chasing her away with them.

So he took a chance and decided instead to show her how he felt, which he felt deep inside was easier for him to do, and easier for her to understand, than a mountain of words and reasons.

He stepped closer to her, letting go of the doorknob to bring both hands up to her cheeks, giving them both loving strokes of his thumbs as he looked into her eyes. She was startled by the contact, perhaps even fearful. He was so close he could see the dark specks in her irises, and the faint crease of lines at the center of her brow. As he watched she opened and closed her mouth as though to say something, but no words came out. Just his name, “Rory,” a whisper; a question.

He wouldn't have been able to hold back even if he'd tried. As he bent his head, bringing their faces closer together, he watched the play of emotions cross her face--worry, indecision, surrender, anticipation . When she tilted her face to his to receive what was coming, he closed his eyes and pressed his lips to hers.

She didn’t move at first, even when he brushed his lips over hers, kissing at her mouth until he felt the telltale yielding beneath his skin--her lips moving in time with his, just enough to tell him she was participating.

It was heady, this new feeling of intimacy, and he wanted more--more of her lips, her mind, her body. As soon as her hand drifted up to his chest, not to push him away but to grasp a handful of his shirt in her fist, he realized his peril and broke the kiss, feeling himself in a canyon of arousal, with the wall just behind her ready to bear her weight if he were to back her into it and grind himself against her. And behind him--the door, escape, an opportunity for both of them to mull over this turn of events that he had forced out into the open.

She wanted him. He knew it. He could feel it in her kiss, in the needy grasp of her hand and the way she looked at him now--dazed, with eyes clouded by desire and uncertainty.

But ever mindful of her well being, and of wanting her to not think less of him for taking liberties with her just then, he reached a gentle hand up to softly caress her cheek before turning for the door, and opening it wide for her to precede him out of the room.

“Thank you,” came her slightly breathless voice as she passed, and it was all he could do to not drag her back into the room and prove to her exactly how good it could be between them.

Chapter Text

It was difficult for Annabelle to concentrate at the book signing later that afternoon. She had people asking her questions that she was just barely able to answer, because she had to constantly remind herself that thoughts of Rory did not belong where conversations of her books were happening.

But it was so hard to not think about him. The events of the whole morning had upended the recent days, which in turn had upended her life. It was all she could do to focus on her fans and sign their books, when what she actually wanted to do was to find a cave and lock herself into her mind, to pour over the morning and analyze everything that had happened.

When the signing was over and she moved on to the question and answer session, moderated by a local radio host, things got easier as she really did have to focus on what was going on.

Until one young man was given the microphone and upended her life once again with one simple question.

“Hello Ms. Harkness. I think many of us have seen the photo that has been circulating on the internet, and we'd like to know--are you dating Rory McCann?”

And for the second time that afternoon she wished she could crawl into a cave and disappear. Outwardly she laughed lightly, and answered with a negative. But inwardly she cringed at answering the questions that were sure to follow.

“But could you tell us, please, how it happened that you and he shared a cot in the Boston airport during the blizzard?”

She said the first thing that came to her mind.

“We happened to be on the same cancelled flight, and because we’re friends--” This wasn’t lying, right? “--he gave me his cot because they had none left, so I offered to share it.”

She pointedly looked around the room, signalling the end of that line of questioning. But the next person wasn’t finished with Rory.

“How long have you known Mr. McCann?” the young woman asked, looking as though she was going to write down word for word what Annabelle would say so she could put it on her social media as soon as she sat down.

Feeling self conscious and like at some point in the next few minutes she was going to completely blow her cover, Annabelle replied, “It’s been so long now, I can’t even remember.”

“He was seen leaving the airport instead of continuing on to Scotland. Are you two here in London, together?”

This particular woman didn’t look as though she would so easily be put off, so Annabelle pushed back.

With an easy smile she chuckled and looked around the room, ever conscious that she was being watched by every pair of eyes present.

“I thought we were here to talk about books! Surely they’re more interesting than what I do in my spare time…?” She surveyed the crowd, looking for anyone who appeared to be the type who would ask a literary question, but the next one was along the same lines as the previous four.

“Neither you nor Mr. McCann have recently been romantically linked with anyone. Is that because you’ve been seeing each other in secret?”

Good heavens, Annabelle was about to panic. She wasn’t known as the best liar, and this was getting ridiculous.

She looked over to the radio host with wide eyes and he caught on immediately, probably because it was his job to interpret his guests and react immediately.

With a gentle prompt from him the questions returned to writing and her books and all sorts of literary topics, which Annabelle felt comfortable talking about for long periods of time. She answered a question about whether she was afraid her best work was behind her, telling the audience member that no, of course she didn’t.

“I feel that, because I am fairly young--” There were some snickers in the crowd, to which she added with a laugh, “--Thirty-five is still young, mind you. Anyway, because I am young- ish , I have this mountain of potential that, should I choose to, I could spend the rest of my life attempting to summit. All of us do, in fact, and it’s up to us to seek out the opportunity to do so, and to seek out the ambition to realize our full potential. You can’t climb Mount Everest without training, gumption, and a good support team around you. So no, I don’t feel that my best work is behind me. I have a lot of life to live, and a lot of experiences I have yet to accomplish. It will all shape my future works, I can assure you.”

“This support group you speak of--does it include Rory?”

And that was a wrap. The radio host graciously announced time was up and thanked Annabelle for visiting London and loaning her time and efforts to her readers.

There was only one woman she spoke with this time, after the event was finished, and it was a woman with a familiar story--cheating husband, only this woman had children with the man, including the sweet faced baby boy she carried on her hip. He was small but very alert, with small, round cheeks and large brown eyes.

Upon learning that the man had also been violent, Annabelle could do nothing else but urge the woman to get away while she still could, and while he had not yet turned his violence against the children.

At the start of the woman’s tears, she handed Annabelle the baby so she could dig out a tissue from her purse, and Annabelle was powerless to nuzzle at the baby’s cheeks with her knuckle.

At one point in my life , she thought. At some distant point in my past, this was supposed to be mine .

Their conversation wrapped up with Annabelle referring her to a helpline that she knew for a fact helped women get out of exactly the kind of marriage this woman was currently trapped in, and a promise that the woman would follow up later with an email. Upon handing back the baby, Annabelle felt bereft of an imagining that hovered on the edges of her consciousness, a false memory that she had no right to conceive.

Slightly saddened by the encounter, she pulled her coat and scarf back on, calling her driver and telling him she was ready to leave. He said he’d be there in two minutes, so she got Douglas on the phone.

“No more pictures, I see?” Snarky as ever, Annabelle rolled her eyes at his first sentence to her.

“Yes, Douglas, the event went well, thanks for asking.” Her voice was dripping sarcasm as she went on, “I fly to Edinburgh tonight and I’m sure I’ll get there safely--”

“Want to explain to me this whole Rory McCann business? You were vague the other day about it and I’ve been fielding phone calls since it showed up on the internet.”

God, this man irritated her so much sometimes.

“Douglas, I’m not going to explain anything to you. This is my business, and your job is to sell my books and get me hired for events.” Softening her voice, unaccustomed to being so snippy with him but just having zero patience today, she continued, “You’re a great agent, and I think we’ve done well for each other over the years. But this is something you need to butt out of.”

“What--wait, what do you mean? Is it still going on? Annabelle, tell me! This could be big, this could get you more name recognition--”

No , Douglas.” She was going to put a stop to that before it even began. “You listen to me. Do not involve Rory in anything. If I get a whiff that you’re cooking up something to try to drum up publicity, I’ll contact my lawyer and terminate our contract, do you understand?”

She knew he wasn’t used to her being so assertive, so this was going to get his attention.

“Hey, whoa. Okay, Annabelle. You got it. I just… We’ve known each other a long time, and I’d like to imagine you wouldn’t keep me in the dark about something so big.”

She saw the driver coming around the corner and stepped out into the fading afternoon light.

“It’s not something big, Douglas, it’s my private life. And it will remain that way--private.”

The car stopped and Annabelle hesitated to get in, only long enough to say goodbye.

“I’ll call you from Edinburgh. I fly in tonight and I’ll be at the hotel. You can reach me there if you need anything. Thanks again, Douglas, for everything. Good night.” Then she hung up and climbed into the backseat of the town car.

It was a short ride back to the hotel, but during it she had time to finally welcome the thoughts of Rory and just what the heck she was going to do about this… this… She didn’t even know what to call it.

He had suggested a physical relationship, but was quite clearly ready to accept her rejection and remain friends. He showed her he cared for her, and wanted her to be happy. She felt the same towards him, but was that even something she wanted to consider?

Wouldn’t a physical relationship screw with their friendship? They were already sleeping in the same bed, albeit platonically. But a physical relationship was a huge step. They would be--she almost didn’t want to even think the words--friends with benefits. And when did anyone ever hear about that kind of arrangement working out in the long term?

Never, that’s when.

A small part of her constantly whispered that she deserved the fun, that she deserved to have a good time and that Rory was obviously more than willing to supply her with it.

And goodness, but the man was attractive. Tall, Scottish, handsome, not to mention generous and funny and caring. He was the whole package. The whole lumberjack package. The whole porridge commercial, sexy sword-wielding soldier package. And what woman in her right mind would be given the offer he’d delivered to her that morning and pass it up?

But it was the goodbye that scared her. It was the eventual goodbye that made her feel like it would be more than just friends with benefits parting ways. It would be a break up, and five years wasn’t long enough for her to want to suffer through another one.

How would it feel to go back to Montana, to her cozy little apartment and her long days full of writing and whatever else she chose to do with her time, and not have him there? With her?

How would it feel to leave him in Scotland, to walk away from him at the airport, or wherever it was she left him, never to see him again?

And how much harder would that be, if she gave her body to him and took his into her care for the short time they had left, to build the physical connection that she knew hovered just beneath the surface of both of them, only to wrench it away from each other when the time came for her to leave?

So many questions, and she had answers for none of them. None of them except one--would saying goodbye rip her heart out of her chest?

Yes. Yes, it most assuredly would.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Rory checked his watch for the twentieth time that hour. The time had passed when she said she’d be back, and he didn’t have her phone number. He was going to ask for it when she got back.

It had been so long since he worried about someone, that he found it unsettling. She had a driver, true, but she was also unfamiliar with the city, and if anything happened to her he’d be more than upset. He’d probably be murderous.

On the bed beside him were all of her books, his purchases from that day. He’d walked to the nearest book store and found all five, so he could return her copy to her. And he was only waylaid on his return to the hotel three times by fans wanting selfies with him.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought about how they’d be the evidence for the few gossip mongers who tracked his movements, and it would put him in London at the same time Annabelle was there. But it wouldn’t matter if she returned to Montana and he never saw her again.

That thought put him in a foul mood, and he walked with his head down and his collar up until he entered the hotel and returned to their room.

Their room. He hadn’t really thought of it as that until just then, and almost laughed, as though it were a cruel joke.

It didn’t make sense for the universe to send him this wonderful woman, only to take her away from him. In fact, it quite irritated him. Remembering their kiss from earlier made it worse, and by the time he heard her key card slide into the door lock and watched the door open, he was more despondent than he’d been in a long time.

So he wasn’t sure how to act when she entered the room and closed the door behind her. He watched as she flicked a glance in his direction, her face showing that damnable uncertainty and confusion. He’d caused it by kissing her, he knew, but damn it, he wanted to do it again. Of course he wouldn’t go back on what he’d told her earlier--that she had nothing to fear from him, and that if she didn’t want to progress to a more intimate, more physical relationship, that he was happy to continue this friendship just as it was. Because he really did enjoy having her in his life.

But… It would be hard. So there was a welcome reprieve from his melancholy when Annabelle draped her sweater and scarf over the back of a chair and walked straight into his waiting arms.

It was just a hug--him sitting on the edge of the bed and her standing between his legs. But it seemed as though they had both needed it, and when she wrapped her arms around his body and cradled his head to her shoulder, he wrapped his own arms around her torso and held her tightly.

Neither of them spoke for a long while, but rather just stood there, chest to chest, in an embrace that, to him at least, spoke volumes of their regard for each other. That he would trust her so much, and that she would return that trust, told him that she was not one to simply let go of. He wasn’t going to be happy saying goodbye to her when she was finished with Scotland. He was going to follow her to Spain, and then to Italy, and possibly back to Montana, if only to show her that what they shared deserved the opportunity to be fleshed out and experienced, rather than cut off prematurely.

He relaxed as her hands began to move, one of them tracing light circles over his upper back while the other stroked the hair on the back of his head. He could feel her nails parting the strands and scraping at his scalp, the sensation giving him goosebumps and funny feelings in his chest. He in turn rubbed at her shoulders, but held her tightly to him with his other arm.

After a while her hands stopped moving and she breathed deeply, letting out the sigh against his neck. Then he felt acute disappointment when she broke away, pulling back and rested her forehead against his.

“Not right now,” she said, and he didn’t have to ask her what she was talking about. He knew.

She didn’t want to explore the physical relationship. For a brief moment he felt a dismay that made his bones sag, but then he reminded himself she did say right now , which possibly meant she just wanted to postpone it for a while.

Anything, he told himself, was better than never .

So that’s how they ended up walking arm in arm, through the thin layer of snow that was accumulating outside, collars drawn up and scarf wrapped around her face, to a little hole in the wall basement pub a few blocks from the hotel.

Once inside, Rory found a small booth in the back where they could sit across from each other in relative privacy.

“So how was it?” he finally asked after they’d received their drinks, genuinely wanting to know. She hadn’t come back weepy like she had done the day before, but today it was a hug that had been needed, so he knew it wasn’t all good.

Annabelle smiled enigmatically at him.

“I was asked about us,” she said simply, though she didn’t elaborate, but merely drew the drops of condensation down the side of her glass like she’d done in the airport the day they met.

“And?” Rory was interested in hearing how that went, guessing that Annabelle wasn’t one to perform expertly under pressure.

She smiled again, glancing up at him. He was struck again by how beautiful she was, hair glowing under the low light of the dim lamp hanging above the center of their small table.

“I told them we’re friends, and that I’ve known you for such a long time that I couldn’t tell them exactly how long.”

He chuckled, interlacing his fingers beneath his chin, elbows on the table.

“Clever,” he admitted, and Annabelle smiled brightly.

“They also asked why we were sharing a cot, and I basically told them because it was the nice thing to do. Then I managed to give the host a sign and he ended the q-and-a.”

Rory nodded approvingly.

“So no damage control necessary.”

Annabelle’s laughter filled their small space as she shook her head.

“No, I think I did quite well, considering.”

“Considering you’re a horrible liar?”

Together they laughed, though she did nod in agreement.

“And after? DId you talk to anyone interesting?”

His question seemed to sober her, and she nodded, eyes on the side of her glass. He watched her pull drops down to the growing pool at the base of her cup, but when she began to nibble at her lip and her eyes filled with thoughts hidden from him, he reached out and took her unoccupied hand between both of his.

“We don’t have to talk about this now. I just thought might be you’d like someone to vent to.”

Her hand was so small within his that it disappeared up to her wrist, but he could feel it--soft fingers rubbing hesitantly at the skin of his palm, the smooth skin of her wrist beneath his own fingertips. He held onto her hand for so long while she contemplated her answer that their food arrived before she’d had a chance to say anything.

“There was a woman,” she said softly after swallowing a bite of food, “and I ended up giving her my email address because she’s in an abusive relationship.”

Rory froze. Annabelle had never said anything about that being an issue in her marriage.

“Did Clay hit you?” he ground out, his voice barely audible as he imagine Annabelle covering bruises with makeup, and then imagined himself going to jail for pounding in the face of the man who had done it to her. But she shook her head, and he breathed such a big sigh of relief that she looked up at him and smiled.

“It’s good to see you’re anti-violence against women,” she said softly, appreciation flashing in her eyes. Rory nodded, but then shook his head before elaborating.

“The idea of someone hurting you makes me see red.”

Annabelle’s eyes widened in surprise and a muscle in her jaw twitched, but she didn’t say anything. Her answer to his declaration was her hand coming to rest on his above the table. It was a thank you of sorts, as she stroked her fingers across his knuckles before drawing back to continue eating.

They ate in silence, Annabelle intent on her food while Rory studied her. She was a paradox--this woman who to the world seemed completely put together, but who was a jumble of emotions inside. Whereas with any other woman that combination might spell drama, with Annabelle it was endearingly magnetic, drawing him in like a moth to flame.

He wanted to discover her mysteries, and to find where he might fit into them.

Chapter Text

Annabelle and Rory had a short flight to Edinburgh followed by a short taxi ride to the hotel where they’d be staying. When they arrived, Rory didn't bother booking a second room, since they had already agreed that he would be staying with her until they had to part ways.

She wasn’t looking forward to that. More and more it was on her mind that at the end of this, she wasn’t going to want to say goodbye.

So while she was getting ready for bed that night in the small bathroom, she stood in front of the mirror, knowing the woman looking back at her was one who was already halfway in love with the man waiting for her on the other side of the door.

It wasn’t as though it had caught her by surprise, since she’d been thinking for days now how wonderful of a man he was, and how nice spending this time with him had been. But what surprised her was the marked absence of fear that came with that slow revelation. The longer she knew him, the more she also knew she was better off for having known him; the more enriched her life had become.

He was special, and he was special to her . And not only that, but she also wanted to make sure his life was enriched as well.

So when she crawled into bed with him a little while later, tucking herself back into the cradle of his body, she knew that some time in the next few days, before they said goodbye in Aberdeen, she would give herself to him, and she would freely take what he was freely offering.

With that decision had come a measure of peace she hadn’t expected. As he wrapped his arm around her, pressing his hand into the pillow near her face and sliding his head close to hers, hearing him inhale the scent of her hair, she felt an overwhelming peacefulness fill her heart. She was going to be okay, even though in three days they would say their farewells. She was going to be okay, even though she’d likely never see him again. And she was going to be okay, even though by the time this was done he’d have possession of her entire heart.

That night she dreamt of Clay, and in her dream he was walking beside her. But she felt no animosity for him, not any longer. He had been such a big part of her life that in this dream she was surprised at the absence of despair, which usually accompanied thoughts of him.

In this dream, she stopped on the long, straight dirt road they were on, but he kept walking. He never looked back, but it didn’t matter. He walked and walked, until somehow he crested a hill in the distance and disappeared from sight.

Then to her right another road appeared, and she turned to take it, never giving Clay another glance as she moved along this new path that she instinctively knew represented her life.

She walked and walked, never really going anywhere but happy all the same, with the endless fields stretching out on either side of her, butterflies in the air, warm sunlight heating her skin and giving everything around her a golden glow.

But as she walked, she became aware of a presence in front of her, and the minute she realized the presence had formed into a man, and that man was Rory, she woke with a start.

Annabelle wasn’t one to put much stock in dreams. She had never before thought that dreams could tell the future, or that her truest heart’s desires resided in those hazy, fantasy realms. But seeing Rory slowly walking towards her in that dream, a lazy smile on his handsome face, felt like a message coming through to her that instructed her to follow the path that would make her the most happy.

So she turned in Rory’s arms feeling him stir as she moved, and in the darkness of night, the cold weather blowing winter winds outside the window of their room, she found his face with her hands and pressed her mouth to his.

The emotions that swirled around her at that one simple movement were nearly overwhelming enough to bring tears to her eyes.

She was taking charge of her life, making a decision based purely on its ability to provide her with a measure of happiness she had never experienced. And though it spoke to the heartbreak that would occur when she said goodbye to Rory, it also spoke to a new stage of her life where, if she saw something she wanted, she could merely reach out her hands and take it, leaving hesitation behind her.

With a hand sliding over his hair to the back of his neck, she pressed closer to him, moving her mouth over his until he groaned and his lips began moving against hers.

“Annabelle,” came his half awake moan, his voice a sleepy rasp that tickled her ears and made her heart flutter unevenly.

She kissed him gently, urging him into participation as she opened her mouth over his, feeling the scratch of his beard and mustache on her sensitive skin. But it didn’t matter--if he branded her with burns, she would look on them with pride in the morning. What she wanted right now was to share the deepest part of her being with him, and to have him do the same.

His arm tightened around her as she slipped her tongue past her own lips, trailing them across the seam of his until he opened, relinquishing control of the kiss to her.

Annabelle moaned the first time her tongue touched his, and it was like she’d flipped a switch inside him. She felt him come full awake as he rose over her, a looming shadow of a presence, warm and hard and male, pinning her to the bed between powerful arms.

He spoke her name again between kisses, a hand coming up to slide his fingers into her hair where he held her still, taking back control from her and kissing her in a way that made her feel feminine and desirable and complete. Her hands moved over him where he hovered, feeling the muscular caps of his shoulders, the wall of chest so close to hers, and the hairs on his neck that prickled her palms.

He kissed and kissed, and she kissed him back, finally twining her arms up and around his neck to pull him down into her chest. His lips were soft, his breath warm on her face, as their tongues tangled and met and made love to each other.

It was so completely unlike any kiss she’d ever experienced--as though her global sexual experience had never really been complete because all her life she hadn’t experienced Rory’s kiss. It was--no, he was--the piece of the puzzle that completed the masterpiece, and she couldn’t wait to draw back and watch the whole performance.

Her name was a groan on his lips for the third time before he finally pulled back, having kept the rest of his body away from hers.

“Annabelle, I…”

But she stopped him with fingers pressed to his lips, where, for a few moments, she was distracted by the deliciousness of running her fingers over his kiss-moistened mouth, feeling blindly the contours and curves of his skin in the darkness of the room.

Then he was kissing her fingers, leaning to one side so he could bring a hand over and grasp her wrist, planting soft kisses to her palm and the back of her hand. He kissed her all over, leaving trails of wet impressions wherever his lips touched. And when he was done with her hand he moved to her wrist, where he swirled his tongue against her pulse point, and upwards over the sensitive skin of her inner arm.

She felt his tongue touch her again at the crease of her elbow, and pushed her other hand into the back of his tank top, sending it as low as she could go to feel the soft hairs that covered his skin. She was almost unable to concentrate on anything, so extreme was the dichotomy between warm back under her hand and sensual mouth on the skin of her arm. Added to that was the press of his body against her side, the firm grip of his hand at her wrist directing her arm, and her awareness of the movement of his head.

With every kiss he pressed in an upward trail on her arm, the closer she could feel his face getting to her breasts, and it was maddening--the urge to lift her chest towards him but the inclination to not appear too wanton. This struggle came out as a whimper, and she heard his husky chuckle in the nearly pitch black room.

He released her wrist to once again draw her face close to his, and landed a kiss to the corner of her mouth, missing his mark on the first attempt. When he moved to her mouth it was to kiss her smile, and they both laughed before resuming the soul searing kiss from earlier.

With both arms free now, Annabelle wrapped the other around his back and angled her body towards him. Deepening the kiss, she slid her leg over his hip and he took her invitation, pulling at her knee to push his thigh between her legs, his hard arousal grinding into her hip, making his condition completely known to her.

Annabelle had never been a sex goddess in bed, content as she was now to be the one underneath, the more submissive of the partner. She relished in Rory’s attentions, and was gratified when he trailed scratching kisses down her neck and finally, finally , found the peak of her breast through the material of her t-shirt.

With both hands on his head now, she arched into him, first her upper body in invitation, and then her lower body as he pushed his thigh into the juncture of her legs. It wasn’t long before she realized she was thrusting her hips against him, feeling the heated wetness between her legs rubbing at his thigh.

His hand came up beneath her shirt to cup her bare breast, his fingers toying with her nipple as his teeth nibbled at her other.

“Rory!” she gasped, and then she felt it--the unmistakable pressure building low in her belly as he rocked his thigh against her. Her breath came quicker and she felt his slight pause as she was certain he realized what was happening.

Then he suddenly changed what he was doing. He released her breast and brought his mouth to hers, laying one large palm against her cheek and thrusting his tongue into her mouth. At the same time he pressed his thigh into her core, pinching her nipple between his knuckles as he palmed her breast. It was too much, too intense, and Annabelle felt the wave of desire like an electrical current sweeping in from her limbs and through her body to the pit of her stomach, where it imploded, making her see flashes of light in the darkness of night.

Her cry was muffled against his mouth, but he didn’t stop rocking against her as she trembled until she was limp in his arms, wrapping them around her and drawing her into his body to cradle her as the storm passed.

It was quite some time before she was coherent enough to realize she could still feel him, hard against her hip, and she had a hard time beating down the embarrassment and self consciousness she felt at having been the center of… whatever that mind-blowing episode was. She didn’t want it to end there, didn’t want him to suffer through not having a release because he had turned her into a pile of sated goo.

“Rory,” she said softly, turning her face to him and once again finding his in the dark. But he didn’t kiss her mouth, instead dropping kisses to her cheeks, her forehead, until she was giggling for the struggle he was making it to connect her mouth to his.

It was her turn to kiss his smile, feeling his teeth beneath her lips before they finally coupled with hers. What began in her mind as a sexy, purposeful kiss, turned into a heart wrenchingly soft and emotional one, wherein she poured out her feelings for him in the way she moved with him. Slowly, gently, she pressed her lips to his, thanking him for what he had just done as well as letting him know she was not finished.

“Your turn,” she whispered.

But when she reached down and tugged at his tank top, he stopped her with his hands and pulled back. Bringing a hand up to rest against her cheek, he spoke.

“I’m going to take a shower, Annabelle,” he rasped, reaching out to absently draw a hand down her chest, over her breast, and bring it to a rest against her stomach.

Confused and disappointed, she merely nodded, not able to argue as he climbed off the bed and strode to the bathroom.

 

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Rory woke the following morning, immediately aware of Annabelle’s slight form tucked under his chin, facing him. It was the same position they had cuddled in while on the airport cot, and he liked it--the intimacy, the way he could feel her breath above the neckline of his tank top, and how her leg fit snuggly between his. He tilted his nose down and encountered the mass of ever present curls, enjoying that now familiar scent and the way they softly tickled his scruffy face.

As sleep left him, memories from last night filtered through his mind and he sighed. Annabelle was magnificent, and the way she had come apart without so much as a hand in her panties spoke to what sort of pleasure he could draw from her body. He wanted to explore further, to see what she would feel like, to taste her and smell her and experience her, but he also didn’t want to scare her.

So with his arms wrapped around her, he tightened them, rubbing her back with one hand until she began to stir and move against him.

One slight arm wrapped around him and pulled her closer into him, her face rising and lowering to nuzzle at his neck.

Annabelle inhaled deeply, and let out a soft, sleepy moan against his skin, but then fell silent again, her breaths evening out as she once again fell back to sleep.

Rory switched tactics and slid a hand up underneath the back of her shirt, stroking her bare back with his large palm. She was so soft, so supple, even her back was sexy. He suspected that, if he ever saw her naked, there wouldn’t be a single area on her that he wouldn’t find tantalizing.

He slid his hand from her lower back up her spine, all the way up to her neck, drawing her shirt up with the movement of his arm. Then it returned, going lower and lower until it slid over the hip. She had never put her sleeping shorts back on last night, so today he was able to enjoy the feel of her skin except for the small strip of fabric at her hip.

He squeezed the arm she laid on and rolled back slightly, bringing her with him so that she leaned against his body. That hand landed on her butt as the other resumed its stroking, and he felt her coming out of her slumber, her sigh now lucid and awake.

“Morning,” she whispered, tightening her arm around him and straightening her body in a full, almost feline stretch. When she was finished she draped herself over him, leg over his thigh and arm over his torso, brushing her forehead against the column of his neck.

He returned, “Morning,” into her hair, and felt her eyelashes tickle the hairs on his neck as she blinked the sleep away.

“I like this,” she said softly, sighing again. Rory chuckled.

“Waking up next to someone?”

Her soft, intimate chuckle made him want to squeeze her tightly to him, so he did.

“Waking up next to you ,” she replied, and then she rubbed the tip of her nose against his throat, bringing her hand back from around his chest to lightly scratch at the hair on his neck. “And this,” she whispered, tracing the curve of his jaw down to the hollow at his throat. “I like this, too.”

“My neck?”

“Mm,” she answered affirmatively, so softly he wondered if perhaps she’d forgotten that he had asked a question. When she rubbed her nose against him again, she followed it by pressing a soft kiss to his skin, lifting her face to press another, and then another, and another; soft kisses that threatened to expel all self control from his body.

“If you keep at that, I might have to keep you here all day.” To his own ears his voice sounded rough. How could something so simple as kisses to his neck affect him so greatly?

“Mm,” she murmured again, “Would that be so bad?”

“For fuck’s sake, girl, you’re killing me.”

Her chuckle was low, aroused, and he was suddenly in sore need of another cold shower.

“When do I get to return the favor?”

Annabelle leaned back slightly so Rory could look at her, their faces close together on the pillow beneath them. She was serious, but the corner of her lip was caught beneath her teeth, and she looked adorable--expectant, excited even, as though the prospect of furthering this physical intimacy between them was sparking a deeply buried curiosity within her.

On instinct, he leaned down and pressed his lips to the corner of her mouth she had been nibbling at, and she turned to him, opening beneath him when he drove his fingers into her hair and held her still while he kissed and tasted her lips.

Her own hand came up to rest at his jaw, sliding upwards over his ear, towards his temple, back over his hair, and then forward once more, her thumb resting near the corner of his lips as though she wished to experience his kiss with more than just her mouth. She held it there, the pressure just enough for him to know she was feeling him, her fingernails lightly scratching at the stubble beneath her hand.

Then, because it felt so right, he moved over her and pushed her back into the bed, settling between her legs as he drew her tongue out to tangle with his in a deep, sensual kiss. As his chest pressed down into hers, she lifted her hips in that unmistakable invitation, making him groan against her mouth.

“Annabelle,” he rasped, but when he pulled away she looked so damned alluring that he found himself sliding his hips against the juncture of her thighs, rubbing his growing erection into her.

The effect was nearly his undoing--the lifting of her chin to expose her throat, her lips parting as she locked eyes with him. So he did it again, and again, watching the play of sensations across her face.

She would bite at her lip and squeeze her eyes closed as he moved upward against her body, and then open them with a gasping breath as he pulled away.

“Christ, woman,” he ground out, repeating his movements as she grasped at everything she could reach--his face, head, hair, neck, shoulders. No part of his upper body went untouched as he thrust against her, and Rory was damn near certain he’d cum in his shorts if she kept this up.

“Don’t stop, don’t stop,” she panted, bringing her legs around to hook the backs of his.

Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew his face down to her shoulder, lifting her hips in rhythm with his, meeting his thrusts with her own movements, until Rory felt himself tighten, barely able to suppress the release that threatened as he fought to give her what she wanted.

But then it happened--her strangled cry telling him it moved fast through her, catching her off guard even as his own had him grunting against her shoulder, knowing he was going to have a mess inside his boxers and yet not giving a damn about it, what with her hands all over him, rubbing his shoulders, sliding up his neck and into his hair, bringing his mouth up so she could lift her face and capture his lips in a passionate, bruising, unexpected kiss. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced, this mutual orgasm that left them both still fully clothed and yet more closely connected than he’d ever been with another woman. He kissed her thoroughly, adding one thrust, then another lighter one, as he swallowed her gasping aftershocks and fought to calm his own trembling body.

When at last they pulled apart, Rory merely shifted down her body and rested over her, letting her draw his head down to rest against her breasts. They were a soft pillow against his cheek, and had he been so inclined as to move just then, he might have used his mouth on them, either through or under her shirt.

But he was sated, and the lazy movements with which she stroked his hair and temple and cheek showed that she was, as well.

For a long time they laid there, neither of them talking, both of them resting, and Rory suspected both of them thinking.

“I’ll send for laundry services while you’re gone today,” he said, his voice a low rumble against her chest.

He only knew Annabelle was laughing by how his head shook against her, so he lifted and rested his chin against her sternum, even more aware now that to either side of his mouth rested the perfect breasts he’d had in his hands last night, her nipples a memory on his tongue beneath the fabric of her shirt.

But he smiled at her, wondering if she felt self conscious about what they were doing, and about all the things they’d done. Despite the flush on her face, she was smiling down at him, her lips wet from where her tongue came out to lick them.

With one hand he skimmed over her breast, not breaking eye contact with her, savoring the way her breath hitched but her smile remained unwavering.

So, self conscious out of the bed, but not entirely so in the bed. He needed to file away that information for use later. He would need to see if he could make her blush at all the things he wanted to do to her.

“I’ll get some things together,” she said breathlessly, obviously meaning for the dirty laundry, but not quite able to get out the thought without her words sounding like an afterthought. With his second hand he pushed himself up, finally looking down at her breast and how her nipple pebbled beneath his hand.

He wasn’t going to get anything done today if he didn’t stop. This is madness , he thought, knowing his attraction for Annabelle could very likely unseat his sanity.

Drawing back from her and rising to his knees, he had to turn away before his eyes dropped to where he knew he’d see fabric darkened by her desire for him, where he knew he would just as soon be lost.

This woman… She was already well on her way to making an indelible mark on him.

Chapter Text

After Annabelle’s rough book signing that afternoon in downtown Edinburgh, she was exhausted by the time she returned to the hotel room. Rory was waiting for her, having exchanged phone numbers so she could call him and tell him she was on her way back to the hotel.

One look at him and she had nearly crumpled to the floor, so devastated by the barrage of women who had spoken with her one by one after the event was completed--women who were being beaten and abused, cheated on and betrayed, women whose dreams had been torn out by the roots, and ones who had realized long ago their dreams had withered and died, but they stayed with the men who had caused it.

She must have spoken with ten women that afternoon, and all of them were leaving with a little piece of her heart. So when she got back to the hotel room, there’d been nothing left but tears and a hollow, empty feeling in her chest.

“Why do you do it,” Rory implored, his voice rough with emotion as he held her against his chest at the head of the bed.

Annabelle sat on his lap, his long arm wrapped around her raised knees, cradling her as though she were a child. With her forehead pressed to the side of his neck, she could feel his pulse at her brow, slow and steady, a solid rhythm that would lull her to sleep if she let it.

“They respond to me, Rory,” she whispered shakily, wiping at her nose with the tissue he’d given her. “They… They see in me what they want to be--which surprises the heck out of me, considering I’m single, alone, no family, and my life is as boring as they come.” She sighed heavily, her hand coming up to play with the buttons at the V of his polo. He only had the bottom button done, so it was nothing to slip her fingertips past the fabric and into the hair on his chest.

“But I suppose they see a successful writer, single but in an empowering way, someone who likely has a social life to be envied.” She laughed but there was no humor in it. “If only they knew the truth.”

“They’ll drain you,” Rory said defensively into her hair, and she did agree with him.

But it wasn’t something she often spoke about out loud. Douglas certainly never asked, never cared. And there was no one else to talk to.

“If you keep this up, you’ll be a shell of a woman before long. I won’t--” he paused to awkwardly clear his throat, his accent thickening with emotion, “--I won’t always be here to support you. To hug you, to comfort you.”

“Oh god, Rory, don’t say that,” she pleaded, a fresh wave of tears dripping from her face to the front of his shirt. “I don’t want to think about that right now.”

“Aye, I know, girl, but you must.” He pushed her back so he could look her in the eyes, bringing his hands up to brush away tears that continued to escape from her watery eyes. “Come now, I hate to see you like this. Breaks my heart,” he added with a small smile.

Then he leaned forward and pressed a peck to her lips, which led to another peck, and then a deeper, lingering kiss, pulling apart before anything else could come of it.

“Come, we have a lot to do. Let’s pack up and go pick up our rental. We won’t get to Troon by sitting on our arses, moping about.”

His smile warmed her and she was able to return it, grateful that he was here, grateful for everything he’d done.

So before he could push her off his lap she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed tightly, gratified when his came up to wrap her in turn.

“Thank you, Rory,” she whispered, feeling such affection for him that new tears pricked her eyes.

“I’ve done nothing but lend you my arms,” was his reply, but she shook her head, leaning back to look at him.

“No, you’ve done so much more than that. Thank you, truly, from the bottom of my heart.”

“Alright, enough of that.”

She laughed as he picked her up and deposited her on the bed beside him.

“Our laundry is washed, and we need some food before we go. Feel up to a trip to the store?”

It didn’t take them long to gather their things, and they took a cab to pick up the small SUV that Rory would use to drive them to Troon for the night, and then Aberdeen in the morning. He had the seat pushed back as far as it would go, and Annabelle still laughed at how he looked inside the cramped cab of the small vehicle.

“Do you want to drive, girl?” He glowered at her, but his sneer was more endearing than menacing, and she laughed at him, watching him pull out onto the road.

“No thanks. Since I’ve never actually driven on the left, I’ll leave the driving duties to you.”

He smirked at her, obviously happy to have gotten the upper hand in that discussion. Then he followed the road to a small supermarket where, he suggested, less people would know them.

After picking up a few groceries, they got back on the road and made their way to Troon, a short trip that took just under two hours.

 

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Annabelle dozed on the drive to Troon, which was just as well because it gave Rory time to think about what was happening between the two of them.

Somewhere along the way--he wasn’t exactly sure when it had happened--he’d begun to fall in love with her. He had known for quite some time that he wanted to keep seeing her, and that after Scotland he didn’t want to part. He’d follow her to Spain, yes, and after that to Italy, of course, but after that? He didn’t know, as long as he was anywhere she was.

He had his filming schedule, and when she did a book tour she had that, but for the rest of the year their schedules seemed fairly open and accommodating of a long term relationship. The long-distance part of it would only have to be for a couple months of the year, at the worst. There was always the possibility that they could have an arrangement such as this one--where the one of them working kept working, and the other tagged along so they could be close.

But would Annabelle go for that kind of relationship? He wondered if her past experiences would cause her to see his plan in a more favorable light because it was unconventional and far removed from what she’d had in the past; or if her opinion would be less favorable, because perhaps what she wanted was the house, the car, the family?

And kids--Christ, they’d have to talk about that, as well.

But first things first--Rory needed to win Annabelle.

She was everything he wasn’t, and everything he could have ever wanted in a spouse. Not only that, but seeing as how the thought of living life without her seemed unbearable, Rory was positive--he was in love with her.

He glanced over at her, seeing how she had her face leaning against the seatbelt, her mouth slightly parted in sleep. He would have laughed at her exhaustion if he didn’t know what went into it.

This wasn’t a woman who was exhausted from a good workout, or because she’d walked twenty city blocks, or because she’d spent all day decorating her home or whatever else it was high maintenance women did. No, Annabelle was mentally exhausted for suffering from such high levels of empathy that the sheer act of supporting and crying with women who went through situations similar to what she did, drained her of her energy and left her running on empty.

Thus, the way Rory saw it, he wished to fulfil the support role she was missing in her life. He wanted to be the person she returned to at the end of the day when she needed a hug, or a willing ear to hear what troubled her, or arms to hold her while she cried. He wanted to be all those things, and more.

But he was concerned that it was too soon to tell her. Tread carefully , he told himself. Don’t fuck this up .

Because she was special. He’d never met anyone like her, nor was he likely to ever again. And if he somehow let her slip through his fingers, well… he’d just have to follow her and beg her to keep him.

He smiled lightly at the image that presented, but knew he wasn’t above begging.

Thankfully at this time it didn’t seem like he’d have to beg. She woke when they were about thirty minutes out from the harbor and reached over to hold his hand while he drove, studying him with hooded eyes as her fingers soothed his tumultuous thoughts with gentle, massaging touches to his hands. Over his fingers, between them, feeling the hairs on his knuckles, the cuticles at the base of his fingernails--all the while watching him, making him feel as though she were appraising him with that scholarly gaze. But when he looked at her, his brows drawing together in curiosity, the smile she sent him was so secretive, so sweet, that he couldn’t help but feel as though she found him to be just as valuable as he found her.

When they arrived at the harbor and parked the rental, Rory somehow felt that something in Annabelle had changed in the short period she’d spent observing him quietly on the drive. She was different when she got out of the passenger seat--pensive, but with a smile showing in the corners of her lips. And when she’d grabbed her bag and met him at one of the paths that led down to the docks, she unashamedly took his hand in hers and walked beside him, sending him sweet smiles every so often that did funny things to his heart.

She was beautiful in the twilight of evening, her hair bouncing as she walked and her pale skin fairly glowing within its halo. She wore another long sweater dress beneath a faded denim jacket, and he thought she looked incredibly young, surprisingly carefree considering what she’d gone through that afternoon.

But when she impulsively lifted his hand to her face and pressed her lips to the back in a soft kiss, he thought that perhaps she was showing him he was in part to thank for that relaxed attitude.

Then with one last bright smile, she let him lead her down to the docks where his yacht was waiting.

It wasn’t impressive by any means, fairly small at thirty-two feet, with a cabin not even tall enough for him to stand up straight in. But it slept four, and had all the amenities he ever needed.

The grand tour comprised of him pointing things out on the deck before preceding her to the cabin below. While she sat on one of the berths, he showed her the toilet, heater, stove, storage compartments, and whatever else he thought she might need to know in order to be comfortable there. He got the heater going, knowing she’d likely get chilly soon with the weather being so cold outside, and together they sat, talking about the day, and about what the next one would bring.

When she started to yawn they agreed it was bedtime, and they both looked at the small beds, laughing as they realized what was about to happen.

“These are the same size as that cot,” Rory offered, reaching down to untie his boots and take his socks off. Annabelle did the same, sitting on the opposite berth.

“Do you think you could comfortably sleep on one of these with someone beside you?”

She was smiling at him, peeling off her jacket to set it aside in the now warm cabin. He watched her, transfixed by her presence in his yacht, and the way she made the air inside smell like her.

“I believe so, yes,” he said. He scratched at his stubble and looked around him, noting the width of the small bunk. “You’d have to promise not to steal the covers, though.”

She laughed, and it was a sweet sound to his ears. Try as he might, he couldn’t avoid thoughts of having her next to him, her body pressed against his. He went through the day now imagining what happened in the evening--not anything sexual, but the pleasure of having her to wrap his arms around, the scent of her hair in his nose, the warmth of her body pressed to his. They had slept together for four straight nights, with this one being the fifth, and he didn’t want that streak to end.

When he sold this yacht he needed one with a bigger bed, that was for damn sure.

She readied herself for bed, brushing her teeth and using the toilet behind the small sliding door that separated the main cabin from the bathroom. Then he did the same, coming out to find her sitting on the edge of the smaller berth, wrapped in a blanket.

Rory awkwardly slid his pants down before sitting on the bunk, grinning at her only somewhat apologetically, knowing that while she had gotten undressed while he was in the restroom, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. So he stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, but then paused, having watched her watch him the entire time he removed his clothes.

It seemed such a silly thing, to lift his shirt up and over his head and to choose not to replace it with a tank top. But seeing as how this is usually how he slept, he wondered if it would only be awkward for her.

But the way she drew her lip under her teeth, he didn’t think it was as awkward as he’d thought.

With his back to the sloping wall, he laid down on the berth and held the blanket up in invitation, noting not for the first time how she could easily stand up straight in the small cabin whereas he’d had to duck his head for years maneuvering about.

So he thought nothing of it when she stood, draped in his extra blanket, until she parted it in front of her and revealed she was wearing her oversized t-shirt, and blue panties. No shorts.

It took a great deal of self control to not let on how beautiful he thought she was, but it wouldn’t matter as soon as she got into the bed. She’d feel his thoughts, that was certain.

When she slid under the blanket, she faced him, dropping her head to the pillow they’d share as she pressed her legs into his. With her upper body also close, she had mercifully spared him the embarrassment of what was steadily becoming an ever present erection around her.

With his knees slightly bent it was impossible for their groins to get near each other, so he felt comfortable wrapping an arm around her and pulling her close. She tensed as soon as he did it, and he stopped, waiting for her to say something.

 

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Annabelle bit her lip to keep from giggling. Rory had pulled her close and suddenly she’d been put face to face with the object of her curiosity--his chest.

She had been wondering what it looked like, and earlier when he had taken off his shirt, she got a good look. He was covered in hair, thicker over his pectorals with a definite darker, thicker trail leading down his center to the waistband of his boxers. It was surprising to her that, after all they’d done, this was the first time she’d seen him without a shirt.

Granted, it’s not like they had done a lot in bed. Neither of them had even touched the other below the waist, really. But he had elicited from her such intense reactions to his touch that she had to bite her lip to stop the moan when she thought of what it would be like to go all the way, to welcome Rory into her body and to make love to him.

To distract herself, she leaned forward, aware that he had ceased moving and knowing it was likely because she’d laughed. Having not intended to hurt his pride, she nuzzled at his chest as she had done that morning to his neck, feeling the hairs tickle her skin, the warm flesh beneath heating her face.

“I like this as well,” she said, her voice huskier than she had intended, her words mirroring those of that morning. “You’re so… hairy.”

He chuffed, a single laugh into her hair.

“Aye, I am that.” But his arms tightened around her, his hand going up the back of her shirt to stroke her back. “And you’re not,” he added with a laugh, though his hand never slowed. It felt so good, the way his palm traced up her spine to the back of her neck and then lowered again, just brushing against the waistband of her panties, making her wish he’d go lower .

“You’re… smooth,” he added appreciatively, moving his hand in large circles.

She hummed contentedly in answer and brought her fingers up to brush through the hair on his chest.

“I think we should get some sleep.” It wasn’t really what she wanted, but even as she said it she yawned widely, ending with a chuckle against his chest as she scooted closer.

“Might be right,” he agreed, now sounding somewhat sleepy. His hand slowed on her back. “I’m going to take you up along the coast tomorrow, show you some sights.”

She liked the sound of that--liked that he cared enough to want to show her some of his country.

She felt him lower his face to her hair, his hand coming to rest on the curve of her lower back, felt the way his legs stilled against hers, one having come over to hold her closer to him. It was heavy but not unwelcome, the coarse hairs gently abrasive against her own skin.

As sleep overcame her, the gentle rocking of the yacht lulling her to sleep and Rory’s body warming her, she knew unequivocally that she’d never been this happy.

Her sleep was deep and dreamless, though in the middle of the night she woke to find Rory’s back to her, so she curled around him, wrapping one arm around his waist and pressing her chest to his back, her cheek between his shoulders, and then fell back to sleep.

She was in the same position when she woke again, morning light peeking through the curtains as the boat gently swayed on the water. Annabelle could hear the lapping of small waves against the hull, finding how lovely the appeal was to live on such a vessel. Except for how Rory wasn’t able to stand up straight, she could see how such an existence would be so cozy and welcoming.

Though it was early, she knew she shouldn’t let him sleep much longer, as they had a busy day--driving to Aberdeen where they had a hotel room to check into and where tonight she had a book signing. With it came the last night she and Rory would be together, and that thought led her to begin rubbing his back, not ready for that sad eventuality.

He felt good beneath her hand--covered in a fine hair that tickled her palms, his skin hot beneath her cheek. She rubbed him from shoulder to waist, over the curve of his hip above the low waist of his boxers and back up again. She slid her hand up his side to the back of his shoulder, coming close to her face before she let it travel downwards once again.

His breathing changed as he woke, becoming less steady until she heard and felt him give a big yawn. With an impulsive kiss to his back, she murmured, “Good morning.”

Somewhat awkwardly, he turned in the small bed and moved down as he used his hands to nudge her upwards. Then, when she was situated back against the pillow, he tucked his head onto her chest and wrapped a great big arm around her waist, sighing heavily as he settled.

Outside she could hear sounds of the harbor coming to life, the lapping of waves against the hull accompanying low rumbles of engines as boats moved in and out of their moorings. Annabelle sighed contentedly at the sounds as she cradled Rory to her, stroking at his cheek, his neck and further down his shoulder to the arm he had wrapped around her.

“Good morning,” he said, but it came out more as a begrudging grumble. It didn’t sound like he wanted it to be morning at all.

“How did you sleep?” Another kiss to his hair, and she rested her chin against his head. She couldn’t help but smile, feeling how wonderful it was to lay there like this, curled together in the gently moving boat.

“Like the dead,” he said after a beat, his hand suddenly leaving to explore the curve of her waist, her hip, her thigh, all the way down to her knee before returning to her side. “You?”

Annabelle tightened her arms around him, and replied, “Like the dead.”

Rory glanced up at her, his brow wrinkling as his brown eyes focused on her smile.

But he didn’t return it--rather he looked pensive, as though he was thinking about something.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, soothing the lines on his forehead with her fingers. She smiled encouragingly at him, tracing her fingers down his temple, across the stubble on his cheek that was slowly becoming a beard.

But he looked away and rested his head back against her chest before he spoke.

“Tonight is the last night,” he said simply, and it was as though someone had deflated the bubble they’d been in.

It wasn’t like Annabelle had expected it to go on longer, but hearing it said out loud left her feeling more disappointed than she thought she would be. She wasn’t looking forward to their parting tomorrow, of course, but she thought now that she would have been happy not even mentioning it until it happened. Just twenty four more hours of this--this make believe, this pretending they were a couple who had all the time in the world. That would have made her happy.

“I had the same thought,” she sighed into his hair, pressing her lips there and not moving.

They laid there for quite some time, each lost in their own thoughts, Annabelle dwelling on what life was going to be like without Rory.

Boring. Sort of sad, in a way. Lonely. She would have to go back to her solitary life of a writer, speaking only to Douglas and the few people she knew, keeping up with her fans on social media and wondering if she was going to die alone or if the perfect man--not Rory, unfortunately--would miraculously waltz into her life.

She wondered what he was thinking, but moved to disentangle herself from him. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she glanced back to see him reclining against the pillow, looking at her. She sent him a brief smile, but then rose to get clothes out of her bag.

The cabin was chilly so she dressed quickly, happy that Rory did the same before he got the heater going again. It was soon warm enough to be comfortable, but that didn’t stop Annabelle from feeling a chill in her heart.

Tomorrow. It was like a bad word, one she didn’t even want to think about. And she mustn’t, or else she’d probably start to cry.

When Rory sat on the berth beside her and pulled her into his arms, she gave in to some of it--allowing her eyes to pool with tears but managing to hold back the full sobs that threatened. He rubbed her back as she fingered the hem of his shirt, for all the world feeling as though her departure was mere minutes away instead of an entire day in the future.

Rory kissed her crown, attempted to murmur soothing words to her, but she barely heard any of it. It seemed that, when he realized he wasn’t getting through to her, he tucked a finger beneath her chin and raised her face to his, swiping at the trails the tears had left on her cheeks.

“Hey, now,” he said quietly, his face a mask that betrayed no emotion. But then his brow furrowed, creases forming between them, and he looked to be struggling with something. It momentarily brought Annabelle out of her own mind, making her wish she could see inside his. As he opened his mouth to speak he hesitated, closed his lips, and then opened them again, his voice quiet, almost guarded.

“There’s been something I’ve wanted to say.”

Chapter Text

Rory had initially planned on waiting to talk to her about the possibility of him going with her on the remainder of her book tour, but his own silent emotions, as well as her very visible ones, meant the time had come now to offer her a bit of respite from the coming storm. It was a storm that, unbeknownst to her, he could provide her shelter from in the form of a steady, enduring relationship, but as of yet she wasn’t aware he had the answer to their problems.

So instead he would prolong that conversation, and instead initiate the one that would postpone what she assumed would be tomorrow’s heartache.

Plus her tears--he’d never be able to handle her tears. Every time he saw them, they shattered another piece of his heart.

“You have three more book events, correct?”

With a watery nod from her spot beneath his arm she affirmed that statement, though sadness still shadowed her face.

“The one in Aberdeen,” she explained, “One in Spain, and one in Italy.”

Again, Rory wiped away her tears with his thumbs as she blinked and several spilled over. She wasn’t actively crying, but it seemed like her emotions were leaking out her eyes. He rushed ahead.

“And in Italy you’re going to be spending a total of five nights?”

She nodded, though she didn’t show any signs of seeing where he was going with that line of thinking.

“What do you say to me coming with you? For all of it,” he added, clarifying. And then he watched her face for a reaction-- any reaction, to his words.

When she spoke, she still had not smiled, which he should have known to suspect. She seemed a bit of a skeptic, even slightly on the pessimist side, so he could understand her trying to work out the kinks in his plan--or at least, to her way of thinking, the barriers that would prevent it from happening.

“But you live here, you’re home. I don’t want to drag you across Europe with me. That doesn’t feel…” She seemed to struggle with the appropriate word, looking away as an expression of disbelief flashed through her eyes. When she turned back, he could see she’d settled on one. “That doesn’t feel right , Rory.”

He smiled gently now, knowing she was going to think of every possible scenario that would lead him to feel like he was getting the short end of the stick.

“You wouldn’t be dragging me anywhere, Annabelle. And before you say anything else--” he held up his hand as she opened her mouth, watching her close it again, “--my schedule is free, and I have nothing else to do; nothing else I’d rather do, than go with you.”

“But… it's Spain! And Italy, Rory--that's so far away. You just got home.” She looked worried now, as though somehow he would come to regret a decision that he had made, or that he would become irritated with her for, as she said, dragging him across Europe.

“My home is a boat, Annabelle, and as you can see, I don't have a lot of responsibilities tying me here.” He waved a hand to encompass the general interior of the small cabin. “What I'm offering--” he took her hands in his, “What I'm saying--is that I want to. I want to go with you and spend--what, the next week?--with you.”

Annabelle had fresh tears in her eyes, and Rory couldn't help but smile. She wore her heart in those gorgeous green eyes.

With a hand on her cheek he said softly, “Doesn't that sound better than saying goodbye tomorrow?”

She still didn't look like she should agree, or believe what he was saying. She looked away from him, around the cabin, taking in their surroundings--the meager belongings, their jackets draped over the end of the bed opposite them, and their bags--still packed except for the pile of dirty clothes beside them.

“See?” he asked, his gaze following hers. Then he smiled at her in a way that he hoped was as encouraging as he wished it to be. “I’m already packed.”

She did smile back, though possibly only because he had said it almost as a joke. It was funny, but he’d also meant to show her that there really, truly wasn’t anything holding him here.

Her indecision still showed in her face as she looked from him to the bags, to the window, where she stared as though she’d find her answers out there. So Rory stood while she mulled over what he’d said and made a pot of coffee.

“Come,” he bid, holding his hand out to her while cradling two mugs of the hot liquid in his other hand. She eyed him curiously and he wished he could decode her expression. He hoped she’d say yes--decided she didn’t have any reason to say no--but would ultimately leave it up to her. He didn’t really know what he would do if she said no.

Beg, wasn’t it? He’d decided to beg, he reminded himself.

She followed him up the ladder to the chilly morning, where a fog had rolled in across the water, obscuring their view of anything beyond the yacht moored next to them. But when he sat on the edge of the deck and set the mugs down next to him, he pulled her down onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her.

They sat there for quite some time, each drinking their coffees, Rory completely comfortable with Annabelle resting in his arms. She hardly weighed anything, as short as she was, and without a breeze, her hair laid limply against her head, making it easy for him to press his face into it and feel its softness against his face.

“So,” he started, but she didn’t turn to him. “What do you think?”

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Annabelle had thought about it, and nothing else, since he’d said the words.

“What do you say to me coming with you?”

She’d been so overwhelmed by his offer that she hadn’t known what to say at first, but then soon found herself thinking about all the reasons why it wouldn’t work, and why he shouldn’t go. But as he squashed her fears one by one, there was really only one thing she wanted to say to him.

She looked at him now, with that hopeful expression on his face, and wondered if she’d ever be able to deny anything he asked. How was she to tell him no when he was looking at her as though the only thing he wanted in the entire world was her?

No, how was she to tell him no, when the only thing she wanted in the entire world was him? It would be eight more nights with him--she’d already done the math, as soon as he made the suggestion.

Eight . Eight nights. Eight days. Plus three whole days in Italy with absolutely no obligations, after her final speaking event.

She wanted to argue with herself, wanted to see a disembodied copy of herself standing in front of them now, pointing a finger at her and berating her for such foolishness, telling her that she was going to lose her heart to Rory--as if she already hadn’t--and then would still have to say goodbye in the end. This disembodied copy of her also happened to be dressed in a pinstripe pencil skirt and suit with a severe bun and pursed lips.

Ah , but there on the other side was the other version, the spunky one who had to step away from massaging Rory’s shoulders and whispering sweet nothings into his ear, to tell her that this was pretty much a dream come true-- eight whole days , this other version of her squealed, with him!! This version was remarkably different from the first one, who was tapping her toe on the deck of the yacht. Dressed in her favorite pair of short denim shorts that were at home in her dresser, and that loose peasant top she’d gotten from a mall she had stopped at on a book tour stop in Miami, this one had a sly, happy smile on her face. Her hair was also Annabelle’s natural curls, and she had great big dreamcatcher earrings hanging from her ears.

Pin suit, or boho chic? Crushed dreams, or eight days in heaven?

Rory, or no Rory?

Well, when you put it that way , Annabelle thought, and the versions of her disappeared into the fog, but not before Ms. Boho Chic gave her an audacious wink.

Seriously wondering if she was bat shit crazy or just in love with the man on whose lap she sat, Annabelle figured she didn’t have anything more to lose, since Rory already had her heart in the palm of his hand.

She just couldn’t reveal that to him.

So when she turned to him, instead of putting her hands on his face and pulling him in for a kiss, or straddling his lap, or professing her love--all the things her heart was crying out to do--she nodded.

“I have thought about it, Rory. And I think it sounds fun.”

There was a split second where she thought the light of the sun was reflected in his eyes, but perhaps she was just seeing things, because then his smile was composed but genuine, and he tightened his arm around her waist. While they sat, the fog shifted and began to glow with the morning sun that shone from somewhere behind it, and the harbor came alive with the sounds of boats and people beginning their work day.

Annabelle stayed on Rory’s lap until they’d both finished their coffees, and after a quick breakfast they locked up the boat and returned to the rental car.

The drive to Aberdeen was wonderful, with Rory showing her all the sights he thought she should see, within reason. The one major detour they took was right off the bat, where he drove her North on the A78 to swing around the coast rather than heading directly inland, straight to Glasgow. The drive was beautiful, with so many sights that Annabelle knew she’d have to come back when she had the time to take a long, leisurely trip around that same coastal road, to stop whenever she wanted to take pictures. As it was, she was lucky to be in the passenger seat, since she didn’t think she even once spent much time actually looking at the winding road.

Rory was a capable driver, even though every few minutes Annabelle would reach over blindly to pat him, saying, “Look, look!” or “Rory, look!” or “Oh my god!” The times she glanced back to see if he did indeed look at what she was pointing out, he was usually looking at her, which didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would. He had, after all, already seen everything she wanted to point out.

Plus the look in his eyes was such joy and pleasure, if that’s the effect he received from looking at her, then so be it. Who was she to take that away from him?

She talked his ear off when they stopped for a snack and a restroom break, reaching Glasgow in just shy of two hours. She had seen so many things, she knew it would be obvious to him that she never drove to any of her scheduled events. She always flew, seeing as how they were never close together.

Driving today was a dream, not only because she was being afforded the opportunity to see the Scotland countryside, but also because she had her own personal tour guide, and that tour guide happened to be Rory. She really did feel like the luckiest woman alive.

From Glasgow he drove the A90, and they reached Aberdeen after having been on the road for about five hours total. Because she finally did take a couple extra stops to snap some pictures with her phone, Annabelle barely had enough time to prep in the hotel room for her speaking engagement.

“Is there anything I can do?” Rory asked, dropping their bags on the bed as she reached for the one of hers that he carried. She slid it in front of her and unzipped it, rooting through the clothes to find the outfit she was looking for.

“No, but thanks!” She ran to the bathroom, sending him a thankful smile before she shut the door. Off came her t-shirt and jeans, and the panties and bra she had worn on the trip. She pulled on the clean, black panties that would go under her black skirt, and reached for the matching bra, only to find she’d somehow missed it on her rush to the bathroom.

“Crap! Rory!” she called through the closed door. He didn’t answer her at first so she cracked open the door, looking around the room. He was just closing the outer door, carrying the largest bag.

“Rory!” she said again, getting his attention this time. She kept the door cracked only a couple inches and peeked her eye around the corner.

He smiled--a smile that said he was sure he knew what she was wearing on the other side of the door, making her laugh, embarrassed.

“Need something?” he inquired, his swagger incredibly sexy and self assured as he walked up to the bathroom door.

Oh goodness, those words were heavy with innuendo. She glared at him and ignored it.

“I grabbed my bra but somehow it’s not in here. Can you see it? On the floor, or on the bed? It’s black.” She glanced down at her watch--she needed to leave in less than twenty minutes or she wasn’t going to be as early as she had hoped to be.

Rory disappeared from her line of vision, only to reappear moments later from behind the door, peering into the crack with her bra dangling from his finger. His grin gave her an unexpected thrill, but she steadfastly ignored it, reaching out for the bra.

But Rory pulled it away just before she could grasp it.

“What--Rory, I need that!”

He smiled, looking down at it as she opened the door a few more inches to put her whole face into the space.

“This? You need this?” He inspected the bra, turning it this way and that, and Annabelle felt a blush rush through her face that he was so intimately looking at that particular article of clothing.

Then he looked down at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“What will you do for it?”

He was teasing her, and she was in danger of being late for the car that would be waiting downstairs to take her to the conference hall.

“Just give it here, you’re going to make me late!” But she couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her face at his boyish game. He was so cute, with the scruffy face and entirely youthful, playful expression.

“I demand payment--a kiss,” he said simply, his face softening somewhat though she thought beneath the surface he hadn’t left the humor of the situation completely behind him.

“Bra first,” Annabelle said, but Rory shook his head, swinging it on his finger side to side, taunting her with it.

“Kiss first, and if it’s good enough, I’ll give you the bra.”

“You are an incorrigible man!” But she was laughing by now, having to look so far up into his face, now that she had no boots on. She had worn her heeled boots for most of this past week, so it was strange having such a big height difference between them.

“Well?” he prodded, and with an exasperated sigh she reached out her bare arm and grasped the front of his shirt, dragging him down towards the door for a quick peck, hoping she didn’t lose her grip on the doorknob in her other hand.

Then she released him and held her hand out for the bra.

“You call that a kiss?” he taunted, swinging the bra once again. Annabelle bit her lip to keep from laughing too hard, completely, humorously aggravated at his antics.

Again, she took a handful of his shirt and dragged him down, but before their lips met she closed her eyes, anticipation thrumming through her veins at the knowledge that she was going to kiss him senseless, and all she wore on the other side of the door was a pair of black panties.

And she did kiss him senseless, her mouth sliding over his until he opened for her. But he didn’t touch her, except for with his mouth, and she suspected it was because he didn’t want to offend her or to enter her personal space without her permission. Rather, he remained on his side of the door, bra forgotten in his hand as she marveled at the softness of his lips, the gentleness of his kiss, and how she could feel the stubble of his beard abrasive against her chin.

Then she felt the familiar swipe of his tongue against her lower lip and found herself opening for him, moaning into his mouth as she tilted her chin to give him better access.

It wasn’t until his hand slipped past the door and touched her waist that she finally came to her senses, pulling back at the same time she sneakily pulled the bra off his hand. Then she firmly shut the door in his face, sending him a sly smile as it closed.

Minutes later she opened the bathroom door, only to find him still standing outside, where she had left him.

But instead of laughing, she stared for a moment, because he was descending on her almost as soon as her eyes landed on him.

His kiss wasn’t gentle, but nor was it bruising or uncomfortable. It spoke of need and want , emotions she knew were mirrored in her own body. He was pawing at her curves--reaching around to grip her butt, sliding his other hand along the curve of her hip. It wasn’t unwelcome--on the contrary, his touch sent a thrill through her, despite this sudden clashing of bodies being a sign that things were going to get rather heated between her and Rory. And not only that, but it wasn’t going to take eight days to occur--that she was sure of.

In turn, Annabelle found her hands wandering over him, never able to stay in one place when he was stimulating her own body’s reaction to him. Shoulders and chest captivated her, her hands skimming downward over his nipples through his shirt, back to his sides, and lower over his hips.

In the back of her mind she wondered what was making her so bold, but from somewhere she heard her own voice telling her, “This isn’t going to last forever. Take it while you can.”

And the voice was right.

It was just right at the very wrong time.

She pulled back from him, even as he was pulling at her and growling at her and showing her with his body that he desired her. It was nearly enough to make her weak in the knees, this physical evidence of his arousal.

She couldn’t help herself when she reached for his face a second time, the allure of his kiss too tantalizing to give up just yet. He simply bent and hoisted her up, settling the juncture of her thighs against the rigidness of his erection as her own arms entwined around his neck, holding him captive to her mouth. One hand went into his hair while the other flattened down the center of his upper back, feeling the tautness of the muscles there as his arms held her weight against him.

“Rory,” she gasped when his mouth tore away from hers and traveled, dropping scratching kisses to her jaw line, her neck, and the sliver of shoulder exposed by the open neckline of her blouse. “Rory, I have to go.”

He sounded like he wanted to say something but it came out more as a feral growl and less as coherent words. She was on her back on the bed amidst bags and suitcases a moment later, Rory cradled between her thighs as he ground himself into her. Annabelle whimpered, feeling the rasp of his beard from the kisses he pushed down into her cleavage.

Her shocked gasp seemed to bring him out of the fog, and his lips softened, the kisses gradually becoming sensual presses and seductive caresses of his tongue as his mouth travelled upwards. Once again it passed the column of her throat where he nibbled with his lips at the sensitive skin below her ear, and then down to her jaw, where he finally allowed them to make contact once again with her own mouth.

His slight, frustrated sigh shared space with her own hungry moan, even as Rory rocked into her one final time.

She forced all thought from her mind except the image he presented--heavily lidded eyes, darkened irises, his lower lip drawn between his teeth. His chest was heaving a bit from his exertion, and he was hard--goodness, was he hard.

But still, he let her up with a satisfied--and a little bothered--smile, and Annabelle self consciously adjusted her clothes, pulling her skirt back down to cover her thighs and making sure her blouse was tucked into the top. She was certain her hair was an absolute mess, but thankfully with curly hair, a few well-placed coils and no one would be the wiser.

But her skin…

“Do you think people will believe me if I tell them I reacted to the detergent in my clothes?”

Rory’s mouth fell open as she lifted a hand to her chest, absently drawing her fingertips over skin that still tingled with the effects of his kisses. He watched her hand, wet his lips as he stood there with the front of his jeans bulging, looking at her as though she was a buffet and he was the starving man suddenly dropped into her life.

And then he laughed. He was still laughing when she grabbed her coat and purse, grinned at him, and walked out the door.

Chapter Text

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on between you and that McCann guy?”

The slightly screeching male voice was coming through Annabelle’s phone so loudly that Rory could hear it across the small table in their room, where they were sitting for the room service dinner Rory had ordered. He’d thought that some good food and an intimate meal would cheer her up after her book signing, and to a point it had--until Douglas Fucking Agent called to ruin everything.

First it was complaining about her hair, to which she’d replied, “No, Douglas, you spoke with the stylist and decided how I should wear my hair. I’m not doing that anymore.”

Some more screeching on the phone and she’d lifted her eyes to meet Rory’s.

“I like my hair the way it is, and it looks nice. I get compliments on it all the time.” Then she sent Rory a small smile that told him exactly what she meant by that comment. Apparently Douglas assumed something else entirely.

“Of course you get compliments. You’re a best selling author and they want to suck up to you.”

Rory rolled his eyes and put a forkful of steamed vegetables in his mouth.

“Look, Douglas, I have two more events and then I’m taking my holiday break. I think the public will survive if I let my curls run free.”

And that’s when he’d abruptly changed subjects and questioned her about Rory.

Rory’s agent had been questioning him as well, though doing it in a much more respectful manner. The “As long as you know what you’re doing,” comments coming after damn near every one of her sentences.

He knew what Douglas was referring to. The photograph trail had finally showed up on the internet, putting Rory in all the same places as Annabelle, including hotels. She was still insisting to the public that they were just friends, but only because she was in the position to be publicly asked about it. Rory didn’t give a shit what the public thought about his private life--hence the term private --but he did care what Annabelle thought.

So he listened to her replies intently, waiting to see any signs that she wasn’t happy with how things were working out between them.

“Nothing’s happening, Douglas,” she said, that small smile still trained on Rory’s face. And she was right--her curls were magnificent. She’d teased them back into two long, low pigtails as soon as she’d stepped through the door, eyeing the dinner table with longing before quickly changing into her pajama shorts and a tank top.

“If nothing’s happening, why are you being photographed together? I thought you met him at the airport--why are you telling people you‘ve been friends for years?”

She smiled, looking slightly embarrassed for telling that fib.

“It’s easier than telling them we just became friends and now are spending time together. They’d never believe that, anyway.” But her smile grew, and she reached across the small table, her hand turned palm up, waiting for Rory to take it. He did, glad for the small sign that Douglas wasn’t upsetting her too much.

“You’re going to ruin your reputation, Annabelle, if you keep doing this your way. I’m telling you, we should drop his name in an interview. Somewhere the truth is going to come out and--”

“Douglas, you’re my agent, not my father. You manage my schedule, I’ll manage my personal life, okay? I’ve already told you, keep him out of it.”

“You’re not thinking straight, Annabelle--is he there? Is Rory there right now? Put him on the pho--”

“Bye, Douglas. I’ll call you tomorrow.” And with that she ended the call before pressing the button that turned her phone off.

“He’s… annoying,” Rory supplied, eyebrow raised. If he had an agent like Douglas he was sure he would have fired him long ago.

“Annoying, yes, but he’s good at what he does. The trouble comes when he tries to overstep his job parameters.”

“Like your hair,” he said, to which Annabelle nodded.

“It might have looked good in a photograph, but it doesn’t serve its purpose if it’s making me unhappy.”

He laughed, reaching over to tug at a few curls in front of her bare shoulder. The backs of his fingers brushed against her skin, and their eyes locked for a moment before she went back to eating her food.

“And doing your hair like that makes you unhappy?”

She shook her head, saying, “No, but standing in front of a mirror for an hour while styling it does.”

“Aye, I could see that,” he agreed.

She grew pensive, and Rory let her have her moments of quiet, waiting for her to speak. She finished her meal and started sorting through her things. It wasn’t until he saw her taking things out of her suitcase, refolding them, and putting them back that he rose to walk up behind her, hands on her shoulder.

“I can practically see the wheels turning in your head, girl,” he said quietly, turning her around to look at him. She had a dress in her hands, the sweater one she’d worn the first day he had seen her in Boston. It was clean, and she hadn’t worn it since, so there was no reason for her to have it out now to refold it.

He took the dress from her hands and dropped it on the bed behind her, then tilted her face up to his.

“What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours?”

She smiled up at him while he smoothed her hair back with his hands--always touching it, always feeling how soft it was. He couldn’t help himself. Douglas was a daft idiot.

But then her smile was gone and she was looking at him with narrowed eyes, looking as though she was trying to find the answer to all of her questions by merely looking into his eyes.

“What are we doing, Rory,” she asked, but it was nearly not a question. He knew it was also a statement, one that said she didn’t understand what was happening. In that one sentence she had told him that she didn’t know what was happening between them, but she’d also told him it was open to interpretation, which--to him--meant she was open to suggestions.

“Well, we’re together,” he began slowly, tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear, “In this room,” he stroked a thumb across her cheek, “Able to enjoy each other’s company,” his other hand reached down to grasp her hand, bringing it up to place it palm down onto his chest, “Without the hindrance of obligations.”

She smiled lightly, but her brow was still creased, confusion still legible in her gaze.

“But… why?”

He didn’t understand. Mutual attraction? But no, she likely didn’t want to be told what was in her own mind--which is probably what she had lived with for years with that asshole husband of hers.

No, she wanted to know what was in Rory’s mind, to explore his thought process.

“I’m here because I enjoy spending time with you,” he said softly, “And because you make me laugh, and you make me think.”

Her lips curved upwards as he turned them, sinking down to sit on the high edge of the bed and drawing her between his legs. She was so small compared to him, and yet so feminine, with that sweeping curve of her waist as it flared out to womanly hips; he could look at those curves all day.

“I make you think?” she asked, brow no longer furrowed but rather raised in question, her lips slightly pressed together to suppress what he expected would be a smile.

“Aye, you do,” he said with a nod. He cradled her hand to his chest while he brought the other up to his lips, kissing the backs of her knuckles. “You make me think about chance meetings, and selfless acts of kindness, and big hearts.”

He pressed that hand to his chest, pressing both of his on top of both of hers so that nothing was distracting him from looking into her eyes.

“That’s an interesting list,” she murmured.

He nodded exaggeratedly slow, still watching those wheels turning in her mind.

“You also make me think of other things, especially while you’re not with me.” Again her face showed interest, and she took the slightest step closer to him, though still only touching him with her hands on his chest.

“Go on,” she bid, and Rory bit at his lip to keep himself from smiling. He liked her like this--curious, waiting to hear him speak, as though the words he was going to say were fascinating to her. No one had ever made him feel so… intriguing .

“Things like blue panties,” he started, watching her eyes gleam with surprise. “Things like how you touch me when your hands are restless. Like the way you look at me when I kiss a part of your body.”

Now it was her lip being drawn between her teeth, and as he watched, a flush spread across her exposed chest and neck, creeping up to her cheeks.

“I think about sleeping beside you,” and with this he released her hands to pull her closer, holding onto that warm curve of her waist to pull her into him. Her hands slid up to rest on top of his shoulders, bringing his face indecently close to her breasts. “And I think about holding you in my arms, and about how your hair smells, and--”

“You think about a lot of things when I’m not around,” she interrupted, her voice barely above a whisper as she looked down into his eyes. Rory smiled, tugging her closer so she was leaning into him, her thighs firmly pressed against the inside of his own.

His eyes dropped to the smooth expanse of skin in front of him, and to the top edge of her tank top, and the shadowed dip between them.

“Aye,” he confirmed, again looking up at her. “I do.”

“And do all those things make you want to be here? With me?”

He nodded slowly again, saying, “Aye,” before pressing a kiss to her sternum, “They do.”

Rory didn’t feel like talking any more, and by the looks of it, neither did Annabelle. Her lips were parted, and her fingertips were stroking the skin exposed at the collar of his henley--back and forth, meeting at the nape of his neck before coming back around to his collarbones and back again. It seemed to him a nervous gesture, and he wondered if that meant she knew he wanted to make love to her tonight.

He’d only take it as far as she would let him, so for starters he slid his hands down to the hem of her tank top and lifted it, watching as she raised her arms and allowed him to pull it off her in one fluid motion.

She was wearing the black bra he’d teased her with earlier, and that exposed curve of flesh just above the edge of the cup was starting a fire deep within him. His mouth watered at the thought of finally taking her into his mouth--without the barrier of her shirt in the way, as had happened last time--so he pulled the strap down off her shoulder until it looped loosely near her elbow, and then lowered the front edge of her bra cup.

With a glance up at her to make sure she was okay with what he was doing, Rory leaned forward and draw the pink flesh into his mouth, swirling his tongue around it before sucking and nipping at her skin. Her hands came up to his head automatically, sliding through his hair to grip him, as though she wouldn’t let him move away if he was inclined to.

Annabelle’s mewls and whimpers burned at his ears as he did the same for her other breast, until he finally reached around and unhooked the bra, both of them separating long enough for her to drop it to the floor between them and kick it out of the way.

When she would have stepped back into his embrace, Rory instead held her apart from him, making Annabelle instinctively raise her arms to cover herself.

He didn’t want to be too pushy, forceful at all about what she wanted to give him. So instead he drew her back into the ring of his body and looked up into her eyes.

“You are a beautiful woman, Annabelle.” He said it earnestly, with conviction. Then he glanced down at her folded arms and back up to her face, a question in his eyes as he said, “Your body makes my knees weak, it addles my brain, and I daydream about having my mouth on it.”

It was as much explanation as he supposed she needed, because after a moment of hesitation she slowly dropped her arms, baring her chest for him. Rory forgot to look up at her in thanks, so drawn to those sumptuous curves that he merely growled and nuzzled at them with his nose, stroking the inner curve of a breast as his hand came up to fondle the other.

Annabelle was watching him, he knew, because her hand came up to stroke his forehead and back into his hair, several times before the second hand came up to rest against the back of his neck.

Again he drew her nipple between his lips, sucking before coming off of it with a scrape of his teeth. He heard her hiss, glancing up before switching to the other side. Unable to help himself, he wrapped his arms behind her back and pulled her in until there was no air between them, and he could freely press kisses over the swells of her breasts between nips and licks to the hardened tips.

“Christ, Annabelle,” he swore against her skin, “You’re so damned beautiful.”

He was having an affect on her--could smell her arousal from where he was sitting. And if he knew he could have done it with ease, he would have dropped to his knees and pulled down her panties to kiss and lick at her core right then and there, taking in her scent and tasting the way he made her feel.

So instead he pushed her back a bit to give him room to stand, and he maneuvered her around so the backs of her thighs were against the bed.

 

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Annabelle couldn’t believe this was happening. Was it just days ago that she didn’t know Rory? Days ago, when she thought her time in Europe was going to be spent writing and researching in various hotel rooms, perhaps a bit of window shopping while she wandered the busy city streets alone?

She could not have known the turn of events that would occur in the airport in Boston, and how giving up her ticket would lead to Rory becoming her companion. She wondered at the sequence of events that followed--getting to know him, her brazen offer of sharing the cot, and then sharing the cot for a second night in a row, before making that ridiculous pact in which they agreed not to be shy with physical touch.

She had known even back then that her heart was in danger, but no more than she was aware of it now, seeing him so worked up over what they were doing--what they were about to do. Her heart was beating wildly as she reached out for him.

He saw what she wanted and quickly divested himself of his shirt. Annabelle realized the sound she heard was satisfied humming from her own throat as she raised her hands and slid them up and over his bare chest. She had seen it just this morning but that had been in the tiny confines of the yacht’s berth. This was different--she was free to step back a bit to watch herself touch him--to watch her hands moving over his collarbones, down over his pecs, over his nipples, and lower to explore the pelt of hair that covered his entire torso. As her fingers skated over his stomach, the muscles twitched, and she smiled up at him in surprise.

“You don’t know what your touch does to me,” he admitted gruffly, the tone of his voice making her feel self satisfied.

She touched him for a few moments, hands sliding up his sides and back to the dip at his throat, and outwards over the rounded caps of his shoulder muscles. Then down his arms, over curving biceps, the crease at his elbow, before she lifted one forearm in both hands and pressed a kiss to the middle.

She didn’t know what to say. She knew how he made her feel , but felt silly saying the things out loud, as he had done. So she decided to try, and hesitantly she spoke.

“I like this,” she simply said, kissing his hairy army again, closer to his wrist that time. The underside had less hair, was more soft, and she darted her tongue out at his wrist, wanting to taste him as he had tasted her.

His skin was salty and she did it again before dropping a kiss to his pulse, and she heard him grunt, which sent a shiver of awareness through her body. Another kiss to the center of his palm and she moved outward, pressing kisses to the pads of each of his fingers before holding his hand against her cheek to look up at him.

She was nervous, more nervous than she had perhaps been in her entire life. More nervous than the first time she’d spoken in front of a crowd of people about her first book.

But she was determined to not let it show, despite the sudden sweet look of affection Rory aimed at her. He knows . So rather than linger in her mind on that train of thought, she reached up to pull him down for a kiss.

It was soft and slow, though she opened for him immediately. His tongue touched hers and they both sighed, their breath mingling in the slight space between them.

His chin scraped at hers, though as the hairs there grew longer, they also seemed softer. Another few days and she doubted they’d even leave red marks. But the way he was kissing her now, with head tilted and arms pulling her into the curve of his body, she knew she’d be marked by him, in more ways than one.

Knowing if anything else was going to happen they’d have to at least get rid of their clothes, she reached between them and undid his belt as he kissed her, then moved onto the button and zipper of his jeans. Once that was done, it was impossible for them to continue kissing until he’d slid them down and kicked them off his legs.

“Annabelle,” he whispered with a shake of his head, and he looked her over from her head to her toes and back again, before suddenly reaching down to pick her up, bringing her legs around his hips.

She had thought he would deposit her on the bed but instead he rose to his full height, and with her so close to his face, he immediately leaned in and captured her mouth again. Annabelle snaked her arms around his neck and kissed him fervently, even as she felt the evidence of his arousal pushing against her bottom. Just knowing what she did to him was making her wet, and a single squirm against his stomach achieved the desired results.

Rory lowered both of them to the bed, his large body coming to rest over hers, his knees up and his elbows down against the mattress. His mouth left trails of fire as his kisses moved down her torso, a swirl of his tongue and a kiss to each nipple before he moved lower over her belly, to the waistband of her panties. That’s when he finally reared up and, with eyes locked on hers, slid her panties down and off her legs agonizingly slow. Before tossing them away he looped them on one finger and waved them as he had done earlier with her bra.

His sudden display of humor caught Annabelle by surprise, so much so that she laughed out loud despite being bared completely to him. But she could see that it was just a part of him, and she was so incredibly thankful for it. Rather than maintaining the serious, intense atmosphere, he liked to break things up with humor, and could not have chosen a better time to do it.

That was, until he did finally toss aside her panties and rested his hands on his thighs, looking down at her where her feet now rested to one side of his legs, her knees and thighs firmly pressed together. She was embarrassed, because she hadn’t done this in five or six years--it had been so long.

But Rory just lowered himself again, hovering over her twisted body to press gentle kisses to her lips, leaving off the intensity in his bid to ease her into this. She appreciated it, and showed him by lifting hands to his face and cradling his jaw as he nibbled at her lips.

“Are you okay?” he whispered, looking deeply into her eyes. She knew he’d see the lie, so she answered honestly.

“Getting there.”

He nodded, smiled gently, and proceeded to once again leave a trail of kisses down her torso. It seemed as though the man couldn’t pass over an inch of her body without connecting his lips to it, and she would have smiled at the thought had he not put his hands on her legs to direct her feet to either side of his thighs. Then he looked up at her as he inhaled, his face leaning down over her center, a feral growl emanating from his throat.

“You smell so good, Annabelle,” he said, eyes locked on hers. Then he dropped a kiss to her curls and Annabelle found she was dizzy with the combination of shyness and desire.

He had driven her crazy before, with all the kisses and the teasing and touching. And now she was so close to getting what she was realizing her body craved--Rory’s mouth on her , moving on her , the part of her no man had touched since Clay.

There were no memories of ever being this turned on before, though, and she knew that what they said about sex drives as one aged was completely bogus. Rory had managed to endure a raging erection--if the tent in his boxers was any indication--for quite some time now, and she felt no closer to slowing down, either. Apparently thirty-five was the peak age for her sexual nature.

“Annabelle?” he murmured, pressing a kiss closer to her core, and repositioning himself so he could better hold her legs open. She whimpered in response, unable to hold it back as her body tensed in delicious anticipation of what he was about to do.

“Tell me to stop and I’ll stop,” he assured her, but her acceptance of his declaration was cut off when he used his hands to open her further, lowering his mouth to her as he did so. Using the flat of his tongue, he rubbed at her clit as she squirmed on the bed above him.

But his tongue was gone nearly as soon as it had made contact, and she looked down to see him kissing her inner thigh, pressing his open mouth to the sensitive skin on the inside of her knee.

Then just as quickly, his mouth came back to her center and she gasped, pulling at the sheet beneath her with closed fists.

But then he was gone again, kissing and licking the other thigh as she groaned in frustration.

“You’re an evil man,” she moaned, twisting her face from side to side as he came back to put his mouth on her, where he sucked and licked while she trembled beneath him.

“I like teasing you,” he admitted smugly, sounding satisfied with himself. Then his mouth was once again on her and Annabelle lost all sense awareness of where they were, what time it was--there was only her, with him-- Rory --between her legs doing sinful things to her body.

He dipped his face lower, drawing his tongue up through her slit, through the wetness she could feel there, her mind and body telling her exactly what this man was capable of doing to her. His tongue swirled around the sensitive nub and she cried out as he pressed into her, the rasp of his beard and mustache centering the sensations of his lips and tongue.

The pressure was building again by the time she lifted her hands to his head, unable to keep them still but running her palms over his scalp, her fingers through his hair, until he brought his hand to her core and gently squeezed a single large finger into her depths.

Annabelle’s hips bucked into his face and she felt the vibrations through her body at his chuckle. But his chuckle turned into a moan when they both realized at the same time that her insides had begun to tighten around his thrusting finger.

With her heels tucked into his sides and her hands in his hair, she consciously took a deep breath, awaiting the wave of release that was beginning to radiate inwardly towards her core. A few seconds before it crested she pulled at him, pulling his face into her as he sucked at her clit and thrust a second finger inside her, crying out loudly when the orgasm crested, robbing her of all rational thought and breath as flashes of light radiated from behind her eyelids.

Rory softened his movements but remained where he was, slowly pumping his fingers in and out of her as her muscles clamped and pulsed around him. His tongue gently swiped over her sensitive clit until she had to push his face away when the sensations became too much, a chuckle on her lips that had no root in embarrassment whatsoever.

Looking down at him, it was apparent he thought they were finished. He seemed content to lay there and watch her come down from the best orgasm she’d ever had, but she knew what state he was in, and her body was in no state to deny him.

With a hand to his cheek, she bid him rise above her, and he did, bringing his body up to cover hers as she lifted her face to kiss him.

Chapter Text

Rory was conscious of the smell that still lingered on his face, and the taste of Annabelle still in his mouth as she welcomed his kiss. He couldn’t tell if she enjoyed it, or if she was just too turned on to care that it was there, because she kissed him fervidly, her hands wrapping around his neck as her leg hooked him behind his thigh and drew him into her.

“Annabelle, we can’t,” he said softly against her lips, dropping kisses to her cheeks, her jaw, enjoying how she ran her hands over his shoulders and back, his neck and chest and hair and face.

“Why?” she asked, her voice plaintive and husky, her face lifting to find his mouth so she could devour it once more.

“Condoms,” he ground out against her lips. “We don’t have any.” But she was being so seductive, writhing her body beneath his, her limbs scrambling to pull him as close to her as possible, he was going to have a hard time pulling away from her. With her bare breasts rubbing at his chest, he broke the kiss and rested his forehead against hers so he could just feel .

“I’m on birth control,” she replied, breathless from the orgasm she’d had just moments ago, “It keeps my cycles regular. Please , Rory!”

Her words and her begging were his undoing. Christ, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex without a condom--wasn’t even sure he’d ever done it. But he trusted her, and before he could second guess what he was doing, he was climbing back onto the bed without his boxers, situating himself between her legs, and pausing to give her a minute to think about what it was they were about to do.

She paused as well, and what transpired between them in those few moments was something he’d never be able to understand. But it was as though a physical link had been created where, somehow, he knew he was meant to be there at that moment, in that hotel, with Annabelle. There was nowhere else he wanted to be, nothing else he wanted to be doing, and he knew the rest of his life hinged around this next week that he had with Annabelle. He needed to do everything within his power to convince her that she was his and he was hers.

She held his gaze as he entered her, a push and pull, and then a push further and a pull, and finally seating himself fully within her. She was amazing, the vision she presented him equal in intensity to the sensations he was feeling around his member.

Annabelle’s lips were parted, her hair was a tumbled mess around her head, and her eyes were dark, pupils dilated with the intensity of her arousal. She was completely focused on him, her hand resting against his cheek while the other had a vice grip on his arm. Slowly he withdrew, and slowly he re-entered her, his gaze all the while centered on her expression.

He wanted to know her--wanted to know what she looked like while he was inside her, how she bit her lip when he pulled out and extended her neck as he pushed in, the way her breasts rose and fell with heavy breaths and how they gently swayed as he picked up speed.

She was everything he’d ever dreamed she’d be, and felt exactly how--no, better than--he could have expected.

As he moved faster within her tight heat her eyes drifted shut and her hand slid back to grip his hair. She braced herself against the mattress with her legs as she simultaneously lifted her hips to meet his thrusts.

Rory slowed briefly, lowering his head to capture her lips in a kiss that left him dizzy. Suddenly her arms were wrapped around his neck and she was devouring his mouth, twisting her face this way and that to connect with him as deeply as possible. Still he rocked his hips, unwilling to cease moving altogether, until she began to scrape and scratch at his shoulders, unable to maintain a kiss with her interrupting gasps and moans.

“Annabelle,” he rasped, but she was nearly lost to him, so he moved closer, his body cushioned by her softer, smoother one beneath him. Dropping his head over her shoulder, he said her name again through clenched teeth, moving faster and faster until she was crying out beneath him, her body writhing and shuddering.

He was very nearly to the point of his own release when he sensed her body tightening, and felt her muscles clamping down around his cock. He pushed his arms beneath her shoulders and held her tight, snapping his hips into her hard and fast as the tempo and volume of her cries increased, until finally her entire body convulsed beneath him, spurring his own to a loud, prolonged release that robbed him of his senses and left him with a heart thudding so loudly he was sure she could feel it within her own chest.

He thrust again and again, milking both of their releases, until he felt himself begin to soften and her moans had turned to hitched whimpers and her body was jerking with his every move. She was still holding onto him with her tight grip, and when he stopped moving but she hadn’t let go, he settled on top of her, curling around her like a cocoon of sexual satisfaction.

Her curls ticked his face but he didn’t care. He could hear her uneven breathing in his ear, could smell her shampoo, and he shivered once and then twice, as her hand loosened so she could trail fingers up and down his spine.

She moved her legs as well, squeezing him about his hips and loosening them, rubbing the bottoms of her feet against his calves. Soon her other hand joined in the movement, and she began to stroke his hair, her breathing turning deep and intentional as she dipped her head to in turns kiss and lick the skin of his shoulder.

Rory didn’t know what was happening--why she moved the way she did, nor why her body didn’t seem to calm and become lethargic, as he figured most people’s did after climaxing. It was as though she craved the sensation--what did she call it? Tactile stimulation .

Afterplay. He had heard the term before but never really thought anything of it, having never been with anyone who wanted to explore it.

But Annabelle was initiating it, and the amazing thing about it was that she wasn’t doing it because she thought he’d like it, or because she thought it was expected. There was nothing artificial about it.

Annabelle was doing it because it’s what her body craved. He knew this as honestly as he knew her name--as surely as he knew her empathetic heart. This was her being her--pure, genuine, authentic.

He wracked his brain for ways he could help her, but none came to mind in this position. So he gently slipped out of her and turned, untangling himself only long enough to retrieve for them both wet washcloths from the bathroom to wash with. Then he returned to the bed, holding her to him as he moved to be the one on the bottom. He felt her attempt to resume her movements but he shushed her and began doing what she had been doing to him.

His hands found her shoulders first, sliding over the smooth skin of her back, down the dip of her spine to the dimple just above her bottom. There they split and he continued down, over her round cheeks and to the slope where butt met thigh. Further down her legs where they had drawn up by his hips, he moved until he encountered knee and then bed, sliding towards the tops of her thighs so that when his hands made the return journey, they encountered her hips and side.

He trailed his finger tips slowly up her sides, feeling the swells at the sides of her breasts from where they were squished between them, over her shoulders, into her hair, and then back down to repeat the whole process again and again.

Rory lost track of how long they laid there, his head on the pillow and hers resting against his chest, when he finally realized her breaths fanning his chest hair were slow and even, her body completely limp atop his own.

She was asleep--had been comfortable enough, and sated enough, that sleep had claimed her as she rested atop him--and something about that made his heart feel like bursting. He’d never experienced this before with anyone else. No one had ever been so completely satisfied after being with him, and so utterly relaxed and without worry, that they’d collapsed on him as she had done and let down their guard to the point of falling asleep. It was utterly, truly amazing, and he filed away this memory as one he’d savor until the end of his days.

Despite the early hour, though, he realized he wouldn’t mind also going to sleep. So he gently moved her off of him and to the bed, just long enough for him to rise naked and clear the bed of suitcases and clothes. Then he maneuvered her so he could pull the covers out from underneath her and slid into bed, gratified when she turned and draped her upper body over his once more.

As he watched her tired movements and how, mostly asleep, she was completely unashamed of her nakedness, affording him a good look at her beautiful body, he felt himself begin to harden again.

He cursed inwardly, wondering that somehow this woman had not only captured his heart, but was giving his body cause to want another go at lovemaking so soon after their first time.

Not now , he thought with only the slightest amount of regret. She was worn out, so much so that she was already back to sleep, her cheek resting over his heart with one arm flung across his stomach, her fingers tucked under his side in exactly the way she liked.

Fuck , he loved this woman. Somehow, in the six days since he’d met her, she had irrevocably taken his heart captive. It no longer belonged to him, and he was completely fine with that. As long as he could convince her by the end of this coming week that he was worthy of her own heart, everything would be okay.

But as he traced lazy lines across her smooth back beneath the covers, the thumb of his other hand softly swiping across the skin of her arm, he grimaced to think that all his hopes could be for naught. It was entirely possible that at the end of the week she would deny him and wish to return to the states without him, to which his only response could be to beg her. Again, he sighed at the thought--that for the first time in his life he didn’t feel above pleading for mercy.

In sleep she brought a leg up to drape over his thigh, and she inhaled deeply before sighing as she rubbed her cheek against his chest. Then she settled, her breathing becoming steady once again.

Rory tightened his arms around her and sighed as well. Then he tested those words out loud, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hear them.

“I love you.”

 

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Rory woke up uncovered in the middle of the night to a warm hand stroking his already hardened cock. He was immediately dizzy with arousal, and it took a moment for him to clear the fog of sleep from his brain and realize exactly what was happening. When he leaned over to turn on the bedside lamp, he wasn’t prepared for the scene waiting for him when he turned back to Annabelle.

She lay back against the pillows, her golden halo of curls fanned out around her head. The expression on her face was unadulterated desire, sated and satisfied, yet wanting more.

There was no hesitation in him when he turned to her, reaching one large hand out to cup her waist and draw her closer to him.

“Annabelle,” he breathed against her lips, and she smiled as her mouth opened to him and her tongue came out to mate with his. With one of her hands in his hair and the other wrapped around his neck, he was her prisoner, despite being the one on top.

Her nipples were hardened points when his hand left her waist to find them, lightly pinching and twisting, causing her to gasp into his mouth with his ministrations. She had her thighs pressed tightly together, though her feet were rubbing against each other slowly, sensually, drawing his gaze to the length and smoothness of her legs and the small, light patch of hair between them.

He was rock hard because of the way she looked now--turned on, incredibly sexy, with her eyes focused on him in such a way that said she was ready to take a bite out of him.

Rory rose up on his knees and watched her lick her lips. She took in all of him with her eyes--his face, his chest, down his stomach and to his prominent erection. Then her eyes flicked to his before returning to his groin and he growled, reaching over to grasp her ankles as he panted her name.

She gasped when he pulled her, just enough to angle her lower body closer to him so he could reach up and run his hands over her sweet thighs and down her legs. He smiled down at her, thinking this was the most exquisite way he’d ever been woken up, as he brought her foot close to his face and placed an open mouthed kiss to the top of her arch.

Annabelle watched him with focused eyes, her mouth parting as he kissed her ankle, her shin, moving up to just below her knee before maneuvering her leg to kiss the inside. With one of her legs on either side of him, he was free to move his mouth upwards as she watched.

He knew with her hand on him and the way she’d been moving it, she was ready to give him release. But upon seeing her like this, he found himself not quite ready to relent. He wanted to explore her once again, and to get to know her body in a way that would leave an indelible impression on her--body and soul.

Plus, he could forgo his own orgasm for a while longer, if it meant she continued to watch him like that.

Upwards he kissed, watching her with every press of his lips as she bit at her lip and held the sheets in a tight grip. But when he was mere inches away from her intoxicating scent, he paused, closing his eyes briefly before abruptly sitting back up.

Her moaned “Rory!” made him smile, and he made sure she saw it as she glared up at him, her own sultry pout marred by the upturn in the corner of her lips.

He repeated the process with her other leg, kissing the arch of her foot and moving upwards, swirling his tongue in a circle at the inside of her knee. Beside them her hand flexed against the sheet and as he watched, her eyes closed for a moment then reopened, burning with intensity.

With one foot on the floor bracing him, he lowered himself as he kissed his way up her thigh. He saw her draw her lower lip under her teeth in an attempt to hide the ragged, broken inhale, as his mouth ghosted over the curls at the apex of her thighs. Her hand flexed again, lifting from the bed before lowering again, then lifting and settling lightly on his shoulder, as though she couldn’t decide whether to pull him into her or push him away.

But when he opened his mouth and flicked a tongue against her folds, her eyes closed once again and her mouth opened, his name coming out as another moan, music to his ears.

She was amazing. Scintillating. Arousing. Any number of words could be used to describe what she did to him simply with a look, a sound. As he lowered his head to slide his tongue up her covered slit, breathing in her scent and feeling as though he was going to explode with his great need for her, he marvelled at the love he felt for her, and how it seemed to want to consume his mind and rob him of his concentration. It was interesting and confusing, all at the same time.

Rory felt her thighs tighten as he traced her contours with his tongue, tasting fresh wetness as she writhed on the bed above him. He held her legs apart at the knees, the strangled whimper she released goading him into pressing his mouth fully against her.

At the intense contact her back arched off the bed, and he felt her muscles quiver under his hands. It was then that he began to feel the loss of the ability to hold back from taking her, claiming her, sinking his erection deep within her body.

With tenderness, he pulled away to kiss the patch of soft hair again, and then drew his tongue across the expanse of skin between her hips, licking from one side to the other.

Above him he could hear her breathing quicken, and he nuzzled at her belly with his nose as he kissed her skin, moving up past the dip in the center, until he was faced with the most perfect set of breasts he’d ever encountered.

But he didn’t kiss her, didn’t put his mouth on her nipples nor lick at her skin, much to her obvious consternation. She lifted her face and looked at him with such an expression of dismay that he merely smiled, darting his tongue out to flick one nipple while watching her eyes intently.

Annabelle moaned loudly, her head falling back against the pillow.

“Tell me what you want, Annabelle,” he quietly urged her, pleased when she once again lifted her head to look at him.

“Rory,” she murmured plaintively, but he wanted to hear her--wanted her to know that he wasn’t just going to take from her whatever he wanted. He needed to know she wanted it as well.

“This what you want?” He circled the tip of his tongue around the same nipple, wondering how odd it looked from her perspective--that the only contact he was giving her between his mouth and her body was the featherlight caresses of his tongue around her beaded skin.

“Yes,” she hissed, her hand finally coming up to his head and resting against the back of it. She slid her fingers into his hair but, in his opinion, wasn’t demanding enough. She needed to know, she needed to unequivocally know , that she could tell him exactly what it was that she wanted.

“Tell me.”

Her response was then exactly what he’d intended--with her hand she pulled him almost desperately against her, and at her nonverbal command he parted his lips to draw her breast deeply into his mouth.

She tasted so sweet, and her moans and whimpers were merely fuel for his desire.

Wanting to touch her, he rose onto his knees to give himself access to her heated center, her legs spreading to accommodate him on the bed that, for any other man, would have been adequate. But for him, even folded in half his feet fell off the edge. But it didn’t matter, not with a breast in his mouth, one in his hand, and his other hand travelling downwards over her stomach to reach the soft skin of her lower belly.

A second slim hand came up to cup the back of his neck when his fingers dipped further, her thighs rubbing at his sides when the back of his knuckles disturbed the soft curls covering her. And he felt her whole body jolt when he slid into her wet folds and found her clit, swollen and sensitive from the stimulation he was giving her.

He switched his fingers with his thumb, rubbing gentle, light circles over the nub of flesh as he moved his mouth to her other breast, loving the way her hips rotated in time with his hand and how her fingers gripped his hair and held his mouth to her chest. He loved everything about what was happening, and released her nipple to rise up on the bed, capturing her mouth in a kiss.

Annabelle’s hands came up to cup his cheeks, his jaw, running her palms over his ears and the top of his head. His hair was going to be sticking up like crazy, he knew, with how frenzied her movements were, but none of that mattered. All that mattered was the way her tongue clashed with his, how she pulled at his head and tilted her face to deepen the kiss, tilting and rocking her hips against his thumb as her thighs captured him in their grip.

He didn’t know-- he hadn’t known --that beneath her calm and put together exterior, Annabelle would crave his touch the way she had earlier, and the way she was now. He hadn’t known, and therefore hadn’t expected, this firestorm of a woman to respond in such a heated, sexy, intoxicating manner.

She was beginning to move her hips in earnest when she suddenly broke the kiss and whimpered into his ear, “ Now, Rory.”

The two words, the demand in them, nearly broke him. He fumbled on the bed like a teenage boy until he found himself wrapped in her embrace, entering her swiftly and surely as she grappled for purchase on his skin and pulled him into her with her legs. But he wanted this time to be different than the last--slower, less hurried. He wanted to draw it out, to draw out both of their pleasures until she was writhing beneath him with want for release, and until he was near bursting from holding back.

It wasn’t difficult to achieve--her results coming from his slow rhythm, and his kisses to her shoulder, collarbones, throat and mouth; his results coming from her moans and whimpers, her mewls of pleasure and her wandering hands. It felt like the first time he’d ever made love with his heart, and he was surprised to find towards the end that he was near tears at the poignancy.

To hide it, he buried his head in the crook of her neck and once again wrapped her within the embrace of his limbs, cradling her smaller body beneath his as his hips moved in a rhythmic flow.

She was so soft and yielding, felt so good beneath him, that when he finally did lift his head it was to kiss her, and to pour his heart out in a way he thought she might understand. She was empathetic, discerning to a fault, that he knew she would at least feel his emotions, if not completely understand them herself. But still he tried, knowing that six days was an unfathomably short amount of time to have fallen completely in love with someone, despite knowing for a fact that it had indeed happened to him.

When Rory lifted his face to peer into her eyes, he saw them glazed over and dark, and he watched her from start to finish as the release built up in her.

She bit at her lip as he maintained the slow pace, but began nearly gnawing at it when he first felt her muscles clamping down on him from deep inside her body. Then her hands began moving, sliding over his body, as though they had minds of their own and couldn’t decide where to land to ride out the storm.

Then finally, when her breaths became pants and her whimpers became moans he held her face steady, locking his gaze on hers until her mouth contorted, she blinked, and then her eyes opened on a sob.

Feeling her convulse around his cock and watching her face as she came sent him over the edge, and he did the same, grunting as he used her body to milk him of his release, but holding her gaze until he was finished and she was a trembling heap of beauty beneath him.

Then he kissed her, tenderly and softly, tasting her lips as she kissed him back with equal tenderness.

There were no words to be said, because their bodies had said it all. Their lovemaking had communicated all there was to say, so once again he retrieved washcloths for them, and they fell asleep that night facing each other, with Annabelle snuggled up under his chin, nose to his chest, and his arms wrapped around her holding on tightly, unwilling to let her out of his embrace even in sleep.

Chapter Text

Annabelle was in too deep. She sensed it when she woke up in Rory’s arms, feeling no rush to leave the bed. They kissed and touched and explored until they both agreed they were too hungry to go on, and both in dire need of showers.

Then she sensed it again when he walked out of the bathroom, nothing but a hotel towel wrapped around his hips. She’d never seen anything so alluring as the sight he presented--a tower of a man who had obviously done little drying before wrapping himself before covering himself. Water droplets ran in streams down his chest, his hair dripping onto his back and shoulders before he used another smaller towel to rub it dry. She watched the water disappear into his chest hair, and found herself wanting to go up close to inspect what paths they had taken.

He was adorable with messy hair, until he combed his fingers through it while shooting her a wry glance. Still adorable, but without the tangle of disheveled hair. She was so caught up in watching the play of muscles in his raised arms and shoulders that for a moment she forgot to mull over this newfound love.

He watched her watching him, seemingly daring her to look away when he pulled his clothes out of his bag. That look on his face--both smug and somehow shy at the same time--was her undoing, and she turned her back, reminded again with the emotions on his face of why she loved him.

He was smug, probably because he knew she liked what she saw. Also, probably because he knew he turned her on, and that his hands and mouth could make her quiver and writhe with passion. She blushed just thinking about it.

But then, he was also shy, somewhat reserved. He was happy she was looking, yes, but there was something almost bashful about him in general, and how he comported himself day to day. He was humble, and she loved that about him. There was nothing pretentious about his personality.

She wasn’t as open with her body as he was, so she changed in the bathroom, putting on her pair of jeans beneath the sweater dress she’d been mulling over the night before. Rory had interrupted her as she’d attempted to sort through her thoughts that night, the sweater dress resting limply in her hands, forgotten. Yes , she’d been thinking, I want to spend this time with him . But her doubts were creeping in--or rather, they were returning from the outer reaches of her mind to where she thought she had banished them. Then, when he had asked her to talk about what was bothering her, somehow it had ended up with them not talking about it, and them making sweet, mind blowing love. Twice.

It turned out she couldn’t be one hundred percent happy with their arrangement, for the simple reason that she could never commit to a relationship with him. And if she couldn’t do that, then she was heading for impending heartbreak, and that thought never completely left her.

Well, it did when he was inside her and filling her and all around her… but at no other time was it far from her thoughts.

This internal battle was present throughout the next few days as their travels brought them to first Madrid via London, and then to Milan. Those were two glorious nights in Spain of making love and cuddling and talking about absolutely nothing that mattered--and the further Annabelle fell down that deep well of love, the more despondent she became.

If Rory noticed, he didn’t say anything. If tears leaked down her temples, he wiped them away with his lips. And if it seemed as though she couldn’t get enough of touching him, feeling him, he gave it back to her--holding her hands, combing his fingers through and playing with her hair, or stroking her back until she fell asleep as he had done that night in Aberdeen.

They didn’t even leave the hotel while in Madrid--not that they didn’t have time to explore the city, because two whole days and nights, minus the time it took for her to perform at a single book signing and speaking engagement, meant there was ample opportunity. But why spend their precious time, Annabelle reasoned, looking at buildings and sights when it could be spent looking at each other? Exploring each other? Finding out new things about each other?

She felt as though it was a long goodbye, but not the kind that was expected, warranted. This was an inevitable ending--as though, as in the show he starred in, she had been stabbed in the stomach with a broadsword, where death came slowly and painfully.

They had both studiously avoided logging onto the internet, uncaring of the phone calls from their agents about photos that were popping up on social media sites--photos of them holding hands in airports, walking into hotels together, and reports that stated neither of them left the establishments except for the one book signing Annabelle had scheduled in Madrid.

But the real sign of the failure of the whole situation came while they were waiting in the airport for their flight to Milan to announce boarding, when her phone pinged with an email. She saw the sender and froze, just as Rory told her he was going to go find a restroom and that he’d be right back. The smile she sent him in response didn’t reach her eyes.

Annabelle,

I know I haven’t contacted you in a long time, but seeing as how you have been in the news lately, it has made me think.

This Rory guy seems to really like you. Is it serious? How did you guys meet?

Things haven’t been the same these last few years. Nicky’s gone. I figured you didn’t know. I never got over you baby girl.

Annabelle, felt sick. Clay was hardly a memory and here he was, talking to her in an email as though they were still intimately familiar. 

Cheating on you was the owrst mistake of my life. I want to get back together and I want to treat you right. I’m a new man Annabelle. Please come back to me.

Whatever you have with this Rory isn’t real. He’s a celebrity and will leave you when the next one comes along. You and I had something real. Something true. And we still do baby girl. .

You know my number. call me when you get home and I’ll come see you and we can move on with our lives.

All my love,

Clay

She turned her screen off and shoved her phone back in her pocket.

The nerve . She couldn’t believe Clay actually had designs on her. She knew without a doubt that he would never turn to her like this unless Nicky had left him, unless he finally saw that Annabelle was financially successful and he needed something, and that if he saw her as being his, that he was back to being possessive because of Rory’s interest.

If she had food in her stomach, it likely would have come up onto the floor. All the therapy she’d gone through, and all the suffering she had done, mental and physical, after he kicked her out, came rushing back to her and she had a hand to her forehead when Rory returned.

“Hey, are you alright?”

Absently she smiled at him, trying to remember that he didn’t know about the email. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him, so she reached out for his hand, aware that she only had a few more days to feel its warmth before they went their separate ways.

“I’m fine. You?”

He smiled at her in a way that warmed her to her toes, despite the coldness overwhelming her heart.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Rory knew something was wrong. It was likely that Annabelle still assumed they’d be parting after her last days in Milan, and that she was steeling herself for that eventuality.

But he hoped differently. He’d spent the last few days showing her how it could be between them, and he wasn’t about to stop. Taking her hand in the crowded airport, he lifted it to his face and kissed her knuckles, watching her smile at him in a way that revealed an inner turmoil he wished he could reach inside her and pull from her, letting her watch as he threw it to the floor and stomped on it.

She didn’t deserve to feel this way, so he had plans tonight that needed to go a certain way, or everything was going to be ruined.

Tonight he was going to tell her he loved her, and that he didn’t want to part ways when their trip to Milan was over. He was going to tell her that he wanted to spend the whole Milan trip doing things with her--not just sex, but sightseeing, eating at restaurants, going to museums, all while holding her hand whenever he wanted, wrapping his arms around her whenever he wanted, and letting her touch him whenever the fancy struck her.

He wanted to brush off this border that seemed to be ever present around them--one that hovered over their heads while they were in public.

It’s not that they held back from physical contact while travelling, but they stayed in their room, and whenever they did hold hands or touch in public, it was this awareness that someone somewhere might be taking a picture of them. He wanted to be unafraid to go into public with her, and totally unconcerned with whatever photos were taken by ignorant schmucks with camera phones.

The problem was, she was growing distant. Her smile never quite spread as widely across her face, and she hesitated to touch him, despite him knowing that she wanted to; yearned to. He would see her reach for him in his peripheral vision, only to hold back and to worry the hem of her sweater, or to play with the ribbing on her cuffs. She would find things over and over again to substitute him, and would end up dropping her hands into her lap out of frustration.

But he didn’t want to push her. He didn’t want to tell her she could run her fingers through his hair; or scratch at the stubble that by this time was a full, short beard; or to hold his hand in hers so she could get lost in her thoughts while stroking the contours and creases on his skin. God , he loved how that felt.

He wanted to tell her she didn’t have to stare off into space instead of initiating conversation, because he still wanted to talk to her.

There just never seemed to be a perfect time to tell her.

Then, when they stood to enter the boarding line and he stood behind her, he reached his hands up to cup her shoulders, and she stiffened .

It was like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over Rory’s head. Somehow the rapport they once had, had disintegrated enough in her mind that his touch had begun to upset her in some way. Sure, she held his hand on the plane but her own was motionless. She leaned on him once their seatbelt sign had turned off, but that meant she was cutting off the possibility of communication. That’s what pretending to sleep did, he’d thought miserably.

And when they had finally landed in Madrid late at night and found their way to the hotel room she had rented for the next five nights, she hardly said a word.

Rory was so caught off guard that he didn’t bring up his resolution that they be together--that they enter into a true monogamous relationship and lay claim to each other because of how good they both knew it could be.

They spent the evening with minimal conversation, her working on her book on her laptop, and he reading her second novel. Whereas before she seemed content to do that while snuggled up close to one another, this time she propped her laptop up on the small table, leaving him the only options of using the other side of the table or reclining on the bed. He’d chosen the bed, simply because he could watch her unobstructed and without fear that she would catch him.

Of the nearly two hours they both sat in their respective positions, Rory would estimate that Annabelle actually only typed for perhaps an hour. The rest of the time was spent staring out the window, her elbows propped in front of her laptop and her cheek resting on her closed fists.

He wanted to get into her head, wished he knew what she was thinking. But she had closed herself off to him, and he didn’t know of any way to reach her, aside from sitting her down and spilling his heart to her.

When he tired of watching her stare out the window he ordered sandwiches for them on the room’s phone, and watched as she packed up her computer.

“Did you get anything done?”

He spoke just as she slid the headphones off her head, her hair tumbling back down to hide her face from him. She nodded, but it was weak. He was careful to not let on with his tone how he knew something was going on. He didn’t want her to be suspicious, or to drive her further into this cave of despair she had found herself in. He wanted her out, open, speaking with him, and interacting with him.

“I’m nearly done, now,” she replied, surprising him as he gathered his clothes to have them washed by the laundry services. “After this, there will be several months of work refining it.”

“And? Are you happy?”

She did look at him then, and he thought her eyes were searching for a double meaning in his words. Finding none, they softened slightly.

“Yes, I am happy with it. I think it will be well received.”

“Is that the measure by which you determine the quality of your writing?”

He slid her own pile of dirty clothes into the laundry bag supplied by the hotel and turned his back on her, walking towards the door to drop it so he wouldn’t forget to give it to the person delivering the room service cart.

“No,” Annabelle replied somewhat testily. “It is the measure by which I determine whether it was a success.”

She was looking at him but her smiles were nowhere to be seen. Her expression hardened into a mask of self-preservation. She had put her guard up, and this conversation wasn’t doing anything to bring it back down.

He sat again on the bed but they only had to wait a couple minutes before the food was delivered. After that, they ate in silence, obviously many thoughts clouding each person’s mind. But Rory watched her, and he felt his own hope slipping at her lack of response.

As the evening wore on, it only got worse. She declined his offer to go for a walk, and his offer to play backgammon. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to shower first-- you can , she’d said--nor watch something on the television with him. It was as though they had reverted back to a state of being that had occurred moments after he’d told her to fuck off on the plane in Boston.

When she finally did take a shower, he had pulled on his shorts and nothing else, ready for bed and to see if she was going to kick him out of the bed as well. Then he stood at the bathroom door, his ear pressed to the cool surface, listening for any sounds that would give him insight into the privacy she had adopted in the recent hours. He heard none, but still he stayed there, listening as the water ran, hearing no movement under the water for quite some time. Then as the displaced splashes signalled her utilizing the hot water, he felt himself harden and cursed as he pictured her naked, water rivulets creating trails down her skin that his mouth wanted to follow.

He only moved from the door when the water shut off, and he took a chance and climbed into the bed. The heavy covers hid his erection, but he sat covered to his waist, his back resting against the headboard.

Annabelle stepped out of the bathroom, head down, gaze fixated on the floor. Her hair was still wet--this was the first time he had seen it so. She had never come out of the bathroom immediately after a shower, so it had always been at least partially dry. But this time was different, and he liked what he saw.

Her hair was dark, many of the curls caught together in clumps that, as she toweled them dry, she also separated into small chunks that would eventually dry into ringlets.

She was wrapped in a white terry cloth hotel robe, moving about the room gathering some clothes to sleep in before returning to the bathroom, having not even glanced at him a single time.

It hurt. Rory was surprised at how much. He’d always been good at hiding his emotions, which was a must in his profession. But today it was hard knowing how much hope he’d had riding on her accepting him into her life. He was still going to ask, still going to tell her exactly what was in his heart and the plans he wanted to make for them, but he wasn’t completely holding out hope that she would comply.

And it baffled him, because he was sure she returned his feelings. If he had to guess--if he had to put a name on what he saw in her eyes day after day, when they made love, when they spoke to each other, when she came back from her book signings and needed his comfort, his arms--he would call it love.

When she looked up at him while they both stood, those big green eyes were adoring. When she kissed him, the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was the love in hers.

But now… She finally came out of the bathroom in a tank top and those incredibly short shorts, her hair hanging about her shoulders in damp ringlets.

And when she looked up at him, he saw conflict in her eyes--as though her fight or flight system had given up and she was ready to fight, but that in the background, that love for him was waging a war against her desire to flee.

She locked onto his eyes and stood outside the door to the bathroom, steam rising out of the still lit room behind her, disappearing into the shadows above the door jam. Still she stood, looking at him, neither of them speaking. Rory sensed that now was not the time to talk. It was not the time to give her the gift he’d picked up while she had been at her second to last book signing for this tour.

He watched and waited, waited and watched, as she did the same.

And he noticed something--something that somehow felt profound and important but he couldn’t put a finger on exactly why. But it was there, standing in front of him, staring at him, louder than any scream he’d ever heard, real or imagined.

She was a different woman, so unlike the Annabelle he’d fallen in love with.

She was standing completely still, as still as a statue, and she wasn’t fidgeting with a single damned thing.

Chapter Text

Annabelle was in rough emotional shape, but that didn’t stop her from nearly attacking Rory in bed. Her entire being ached for him with an intensity that threatened to rip her apart from the inside out, but she was powerless to either stop it or ignore it. The only choice she had was to give in to it and hope that in the end, she could rise out of the pit with some semblance of sanity left.

She didn’t want to talk, so when Rory opened his mouth to say something she silenced him with her mouth.

When he moved his hands to direct her down onto the bed she batted them away and threw the covers off him, straddling his lap and wrapping her arms around his neck.

He tried to kiss her slowly, and to move his hands over her body leisurely, languidly, but she would have none of it. Annabelle ground into him to let him know exactly what it was she wanted, and she kissed him like a woman starved, showing him with her body that what she needed then was wild, even perhaps a bit rough, and certainly not timid.

Rory wasn’t catching on to her hints so she climbed off him, pulling at the waistband of his shorts as she went. He lifted enough to help her drag them off, and then seconds later she was back on him, naked this time, her mouth once again fused to his as she rubbed herself along the hardened length of him.

It was desperate, urgent, her motions matching the powerful intensity of the ache inside her heart. But she allowed it to manifest as brazen sexuality, taking over lovemaking for the first time in her life but also incapable of doing anything else.

Rory never stood a chance against her, she knew--he would have succumbed to her or she would have died trying. The look of shock on his face, quickly overcome by raw desire, was evidence enough when she abruptly sunk down onto him, taking all of his erection deep within her body.

There was no break, no respite, before she began to move. Being on top was something she had done before, but always still under the direction of the man beneath her. This was different--this was all her, all her movements, her will, and she took from Rory with hardly any thought to what she was also giving. But if his grunts and groans were any indication, she thought that maybe he didn’t mind too much.

But it was Annabelle who lifted his hands to her breasts when hers came back to his shoulders; her hands that roamed his body as she moved above him; and her hips that gyrated and determined the tempo of their lovemaking--that is, until she leaned into his ear, taking the soft flesh between her teeth briefly before gutturally whispering, “Take me.”

The look on Rory’s face when she pulled back almost stunned her into inaction. It was so impassioned, so dark and erotic, and so intense that for a second she paused her movements, certain he was going to lean in and just… just bite her!--so obvious was his desire for her.

But faster than she could think, he had flipped their positions and was pounding into her, one hand on the pillow behind her head and one braced on the headboard, while Annabelle clawed at his shoulders and wrapped her slender legs around his hips. It wasn’t long before the current of her release was catching her by surprise, sending her over the brink of orgasm so fast that she yelled his name into the quiet of the room.

Her cries echoed, as did his growls of passion, in the tense air around them, his body doing nothing to lessen the electrifying release coursing through her body. She was so completely filled by him, finding purchase in his shoulders with her nails, that it barely registered to her when he pulled out suddenly, until he grasped her by her sides and flipped her.

Again, large palms moulded to her hips and pulled her up to her knees, where he found her entrance and once again and slid fully into her, this time taking a brief moment when he was already completely buried within her for her to adjust any part of her body before he started again.

But Annabelle was still recovering from the first orgasm and didn’t move, so Rory started thrusting again, harder and faster than he had been before.

His body slapped against hers, his hips setting a bruising pace as she clenched fistfuls of sheets in her hands. She didn’t know what was happening--had once again lost all sense of space and time as she collapsed onto the bed beneath him. With a hand beneath her hips, Rory reached between her legs to find her sensitive nub and awkwardly rubbed her to a second powerful release as he growled into her ear. Then, when she thought she couldn’t take anymore--no more of the thrusting, the sensations, the assault on her senses and body and cognizance and sexuality--he thrust as he released, scraping her shoulder with his teeth as though, at another time, in another world, he would have gladly sunk them into her skin in time with his release.

With her legs spread wide, her face buried in the sheets she had torn from the mattress, the folds of fabric still tightly held within her grip, she felt Rory collapse on top of her, held up by his elbows but heavily weighing down her lower back and hips. It wasn’t unpleasant, feeling the way he softened inside her, his body as slick with sweat as hers was, despite the fact that they had both just showered.

But she was exhausted, and from the sound of his heavy breathing, so was he. So she moved slightly beneath him, enough that he caught her message and slid out of her, leaving her immediately feeling bereft and empty.

As he flopped onto his back on the bed, arm thrown over his eyes, she turned and slid into his embrace like a puzzle piece made for that exact spot, content when his other arm lazily wrapped around her shoulders, his palm landing on the round cap of her shoulder.

Annabelle dragged a corner of the blanket over them and collapsed against his chest, her cheek pressed into the crisp hairs covering his skin, and she promptly fell into a deep sleep.

What they had done, they repeated twice more, once in the night when the room was completely dark and they had no need for light--so in tune with each other’s bodies that they let their hands and mouths do the frantic exploring--and once again in the early morning hours.

It was then that Annabelle felt it, and she knew what was coming.

The way Rory caressed her face while he hovered over her--it was his hands speaking of his love for her. She knew, because her hands had spoken the same unintelligible words countless times over the last few days.

It was in his kiss, when his tongue made promises to her mouth, and his lips made vows they would never have the chance to keep.

And it was in his body as he made love to her--slow and sweet at first, as though it was happy that she was the only woman he would ever do that with, and fast and thorough towards the end, his roughness speaking to the urgent messages of adoration and love and forever that she didn’t want to hear.

And when his eyes attempted to convey the writings on his heart, she kept her own closed to them, not wanting to see the promises he was offering that she was going to turn down--promises that made her regret, for the first time, entering into this casual affair.

That day brought the final book signing and speaking event that Douglas had scheduled for her for that year’s book tour, and it was bad. So very bad.

Annabelle had dealt with hecklers before, as well as embarrassing questions--on level with or worse than the line of questioning she had first encountered about Rory. But tonight, the curious people in the audience were in fine form.

“Ms. Harkness,” spoke one young man who had approached the microphone set up at the end of his row, “Are you here in Milan with Rory McCann?”

She attempted a smile, but knew it wasn’t her normal level of radiance--the kind she felt when she was answering questions by doting fans. Already, she could tell how this evening was going to go.

“I thought we were here to talk about my book,” she joked gently, but he would not be so easily deterred.

“It would seem like you’ve been travelling with him. Is this true?”

She felt ice creep into her veins, a dislike for the man whom she knew not.

“I’m sorry,” she replied, not meaning it. “Are you a reader or a reporter?”

He laughed, but it was patronizing. He slid his glasses slowly up his nose and looked, in Annabelle’s opinion, like the type of man who thought he was God’s gift to women--as though she would be so lucky as to answer his question.

“It sounds like you’re prevaricating.”

“It sounds like I’m ready to move on to the next question.”

And with that she pointedly looked out across the large audience to see the next person already standing at a microphone. She was happy to note that the man had stayed at his, but that when he spoke, no sound came out.

Kudos to my host, she mused silently.

She fielded several questions about this and previous books, was questioned about her favorite writers, and a question from what looked to be an older teenage girl who asked what Annabelle liked to do in her spare time. She was more than happy to answer this one.

“Write.” The audience laughed but she smiled warmly, genuinely. It was true--much of what someone else would consider her free time was somewhat of a mix between meeting deadlines and writing for fun. After all, all of her books had been written by her because she loved to write, and she felt she had stories inside her that needed to be told.

“I’m serious,” she explained, raising an eyebrow at the well-meaning titters erupting around her. Turning back to the girl she continued, “I write because it feels good, so when I’m working on a manuscript that will someday earn me a paycheck, I am also doing something that I love to do. I am very fortunate in this.” Leaning forward against the table, resting her elbow on it with her hand on her fist, she aimed her gaze straight at the girl, as though they were the only two in the entire room. “Someone might think that I’m working, but in reality I’m spending my spare time writing a story about characters that I care deeply about, and someday, when I finish it--as long as I finish by the deadline,” more laughter, “I’ll earn money for having spent my spare time doing what I love.”

The girl nodded, smiling, so Annabelle added with a grin, “I also like listening to music and watching nature shows.”

More questions came in about her travels, and why she chose to characterize a displaced woman the way she did in her most recent novel. She was asked how she got into writing, to which she gave her rehearsed, watered down version of breaking up and finding herself through writing.

Then a middle aged woman stood, and she was openly looking at Annabelle without any hint of respect, or even kindness. Annabelle could see from perhaps twenty feet away that this woman looked at her as though she wasn’t the award winning author, and that the reason why they were all there was to speak about her book.

And it wasn’t that Annabelle was irritated by this--she of all people knew that just because she had decent stories in her head, the ability to get them out into a computer, and a good relationship with a popular publisher, that she was just an ordinary person. Exactly like everyone else--someone for whom the cards had just fallen into the right places. Sure, she was good at what she did. But she knew there were plenty of authors who could write much better than she, who just didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal to get their works published.

But because Annabelle did, and because this event was a celebration of sorts, to recognize her work as being not only award winning but captivating, with fans from far and wide congregating in one room to speak to her--because of all this, the way this woman looked at her sent a shiver down her spine.

As soon as the woman spoke, Annabelle knew why--this woman saw her as a rival.

And not just any rival. Not a rival author, or a rival celebrity--of which Annabelle knew hers was minor. No, this woman saw her as a romantic rival.

“Hello Annabelle.” The woman’s tone tipped her off immediately. She’d been addressed by her first name plenty of times, but she hadn’t heard it spoken like that since she was wrongly accused of stealing a popular girl’s lunch money in third grade and had been sent to the principal’s office.

The woman continued, “I want to know why you’re dragging Rory’s name through the mud?”

To say Annabelle was shocked would have been an understatement. And it seemed like much of the audience was just as alarmed, as a round of gasps and shocker murmurs filled the high-ceilinged room.

“Excuse me?”

The words were meant as a stalling tactic, but the woman took the opportunity to repeat the question, this time tacking onto the end of it, “And dragging him around Europe.”

“Ma’am, I don’t think that is an appropriate question,” the host replied in his heavy Italian accent, sitting a bit down from Annabelle at a lower table, his own microphone in front of him.

Unfortunately the woman would not be deterred.

“I would like an answer,” she declared, crossing her arms over her ample bosom.

“Here, here,” came a yelled response from the other side of the room--the man from earlier, no doubt.

Annabelle had to remind herself to close her mouth. She was in danger of sitting there with it hanging open, so shocked was she by this woman’s brazenness.

“I, uh…” She began, at a loss momentarily as to how to answer this woman--not to answer her questions, but how to simply respond .

The look on the woman’s face was one of such upper handedness that Annabelle bristled.

“Ma’am, I am most assuredly not dragging Mr. McCann anywhere, and if he happens to be in the same cities as I am, it is because he is doing so of his own free will. Next question please--”

“I highly doubt that,” the woman snorted, interrupting her. “Everyone saw you in that airport. Only a loose woman would lure Rory into sharing a cot like that.”

Again, shocked gasps and louder voices filled the room, leaving Annabelle to wonder why the microphone wasn’t shut off yet. She glanced over at the host, who was staring open mouthed at the woman in the audience, himself so shocked that he was apparently frozen.

Annabelle was left to stick up for herself, or completely ignore the woman in question and leave everyone else guessing. She was stuck, and she didn’t know how to get herself out of this until they turned off that damned microphone.

When next she spoke, she was unable to keep the waiver out of her voice, and her hands shook beneath the table where they were blessedly hidden by the table’s decorative skirting. She nervously brought one up to tuck a wayward curl behind her ear.

“You’re being very mean spirited to someone you’ve never met, ma’am. I’m sorry for whatever it is in your life that is making you so, but there’s no call to be so openly insulting--”

“Rory is everything that is good and right and sweet in this world, and women like you--” the mic was abruptly cut off, but it didn’t matter to the woman. She allowed her voice to rise to a holler as two security personnel strode purposefully down the aisle towards her.

“--Woman like you,” she yelled, “Get their grubby claws in him and-- no, I will not leave --you get your claws in him and then you-- get your hands off of me! --you leave him! You’ll break his heart!”

By now the woman the woman was fairly screaming in order to be heard, and Annabelle felt like she’d rather melt into the floor than have to endure any of this ruined question and answer session.

“You break his heart!” the woman screamed again, nearly out the auditorium’s door at the back of the room. “You don’t deserve him! You-- ouch! --You don’t deserve Rory!”

Hands fisted beneath the table to keep them from shaking, Annabelle would have taken a drink of the water glass provided for her had she not thought she would look as though she were a one-woman earthquake. She stared at the closed door at the back of the room, an eerie silence that was slowly permeated with whispers and murmurs filling the room.

“I think we have time--”

“Thank you, everyone, for having me,” she interrupted, not knowing what Douglas was going to say to this, but really not caring. She glanced over at her host, who looked surprised to be cut off. “Thank you,” she said again with a nod, “For having me. Please…” She swallowed, looking back out over the crowd that had gathered. Her heart was beating fast and she needed a drink of water, but knew better than to attempt to lift her glass to her lips. Her shaking hands would leave puddles all over the table from spilling its contents. “Please do comment and review on social media, I truly enjoy reading them.” She pushed her chair back and stood on unsteady legs.

Somewhere there was a group of women who were going to be wondering why they didn’t get a chance to speak with Annabelle, to have Annabelle hear their stories, to commiserate with them, and possibly to cry with them.

But that couldn’t matter right now. Annabelle’s heart wouldn’t let it matter.

She leaned down towards the mic for a final, “Thank you,” before she turned and walked off the stage.

Chapter Text

Annabelle was shaken to the core. She walked out of that conference center expecting a quiet evening and an even quieter ride back to the hotel, but it was not to be.

A mass of people awaited her as soon as she walked out the doors, head down, having not expected her path to the car to be entirely blocked by people. Phones were recording, it seemed like dozens of them, all pointed at her as people gave her only a small bubble of space through which to walk in the general direction of the car.

“Is it true that you’re in Milan with Rory McCann?”

“Is Rory staying at the same hotel as you?”

Annabelle glanced up, only realizing afterwards that it was the last thing--aside from admitting the truth--that she should have done. Seeing the eyes of a half dozen people widen at her movement made her realize they took the mere lifting of her eyes as assent.

“Are you and he sharing a room?”

“What do you say to that woman’s accusations?”

“Are you and Rory intimate?”

Head down , she reminded herself. Don’t show them you’re upset .

“Annabelle, are you pregnant?”

“Will you please sign my book?”

“Mine, too!”

She travelled through this cloud of questions until she reached the car, at which the driver was waiting with an open door. It was but moments later when they were on the road and she was raising the privacy partition so she could attempt to stem the flow of tears in peace.

The hotel was no different, so she asked the driver to drop her off a block away. With her slouchy hat hiding her hair, and her long wool coat covering the rest of her, she was sure she could get into the hotel through a back entrance without being disturbed.

There was only one sketchy moment where she saw a small group of people round the corner of the hotel, only to find a few straggling people milling about, Annabelle being one of them. If there had been a group of smokers she would have asked for a cigarette, so fearful was she that she would be once again accosted by nose, rude, downright insulting spectators.

Once through the lone door she found closest to her, she kept her head down until she found a staircase that led to the upper floors and travelled them slowly, not knowing what she was going to do or say once she got to the room.

Everything had changed, and yet none of it had changed.

She was still going to leave Rory so he could go back to Scotland and she could go back to Montana. She was still going to attempt to enjoy what was left of their mini vacation here in Milan, although it would likely be spent in its entirety inside the hotel. Perhaps they could find another hotel with better security, one where they could at least expect to leave the room without being confronted by paparazzi or reporters.

And she was still hopelessly, desperately in love with him, which made all the things that woman had said that much worse.

Did people really think she’d seduced him? Brainwashed him? That she had somehow trapped him because she was pregnant ? God, how ridiculous.

But the part that hurt the most, she supposed, was the accusations hurled at her by the woman at the book signing.

She was going to leave Rory. Yes, it was true, but the way that woman had said it…

“You’ll break his heart!”

This statement hurt the most.

She thought of the way he looked at her, the way he touched her, and all the small, kind things he would do for her.

He made her coffee just the way she liked it in the hotel room coffee maker. He always put her needs first. He supported her after the harsh, emotional interactions at her book signings. He made her laugh when she was distracted. He welcomed her touch, even though the longer they knew each other, her desire to touch him increased exponentially.

He did all these things because he loved her. She knew that without a doubt. Rory was in love with her and she was in love with him, although, God willing, he was not aware that she returned his feelings. Nor would he, she resolved as she pushed open the stairwell door that led to their floor. She would not tell him, because his heartbreak was already going to match hers in its enormity.

There was no need for her to justify her actions, or her thoughts, her motivations--not inside her own mind. She was resolved to end this when it was done, as soon as it had come to its natural conclusion on the day they were both scheduled to fly out. She had always known they would part.

Her biggest regret now was that they had started it in the first place, because the last thing she wanted was for Rory to get hurt. That had not been a foreseen consequence.

Herself, yes--she’d known likely from the very beginning that, being who she was, her heart would probably end up shattered into a million pieces. Sensitive, soft hearted, she had always been aware that when she fell, she fell hard. It had happened with Clay, and now it had happened with Rory--two entirely different men, to be sure, but the result was the same.

She slowly made her way down the hallway, grimacing at her last thought.

No, the results were not the same, she corrected herself. The way she felt for Rory was and always would be unmatched by her long ago feelings for Clay. This was wholly different, and she was now left with holding the memory very close to her heart for the rest of her life.

Not to mention, she would also throw away her TV. She would set her internet home page to a dictionary to avoid news stories. And she would carefully craft her social media preferences to weed out mentions of his television show, news stories, and whatever else might feature him when it popped up on her feed. She wanted no reminders of what never could have been . She didn’t want to see his face in suggested pages, didn’t want to see him smiling at premiers, didn’t want to see interviews where he was funny and witty and cute, and she most assuredly did not want to see him with another woman on his arm.

With her hand on the doorknob of their room she paused, thinking of that last thought.

She would be releasing him to find someone else, when she walked away--perhaps someone from Scotland, who was more accessible, more available for him than what Annabelle was. She was doing him a favor, she told herself.

Rory was there when she opened the door, and the look on his face told her he had seen her emotions as clear as if she wore a mask decorated with them. So after a brief hug after which she sent him another dull smile, she retreated to the bathroom, determined to wash away some of the gloom that had settled over her.

It was no clearer to her that her heart wasn’t going to survive these last few days, than when Rory entered the bathroom while she was still in the shower, rinsing out the cream rinse from her hair.

“Hey,” she said quietly, but she managed to chuckle. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

She watched his shadow come near the shower curtain before he sat on the closed toilet seat cover, his dark silhouette stark in comparison to the pale peach of the curtain.

“I’d like to talk to you, if that's okay,” he murmured, barely loud enough for her to hear over the running water.

 

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Rory could hear that she wasn’t moving, that the water was just running and she was standing beneath it. He wasn’t sure how to react to that, but felt slightly more comfortable saying these things when he couldn’t see her face--now realizing that he had no idea how she was going to react.

At one point he would have said she loved him too, and he was still fairly certain of that, but for some reason she was convinced that a relationship between the two of them wouldn’t work.

When she didn’t answer him, but also didn’t tell him to get out of the bathroom, he started to speak.

“I was going to talk to you about this last night but you didn’t seem to be in any kind of mood to be receptive to what I wanted to say, and I was hoping today would be better.”

He struggled with his words, and her continued silence felt like a heaviness spreading over his heart like a layer of lead. And yet he still felt a sense of subdued hope; cautious optimism. This still might go his way, he reasoned.

When she didn’t speak, he went on, “Annabelle, I don’t think we should stop seeing each other simply because we live in different countries.”

There. He’d dropped the bombshell, and thought that what he wanted to do was wait for her to respond. But as the silence continued, first for a few seconds, and then creeping upwards to a full minute, he didn’t know what to think.

“Annabelle?”

“Rory, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” came her voice from behind the curtain, her words tinged with sadness.

Since part of him was expecting some sort of refusal from her, he was also prepared with arguments.

“Now hold on, don’t say no until you’ve heard me out.”

When she didn’t speak again, he figured she meant to listen to him. Clearing his throat, he braced his palms on his knees, shoulders tense.

“I’ve had the time of my life this last week with you. Telling you to fuck off was one of the best things I ever did, in a roundabout kind of way, if it led me to spending this time with you.” He swallowed past the lump in his throat, feeling the meaning in his words, weighing heavily with love and sincerity.

“Annabelle, I don’t want this to end. I want to travel with you, to see Montana, to show you Scotland, and to make a go of this. I want you in my life as a permanent fixture, not just a passing fling.”

Again, he stayed silent, this time waiting as Annabelle turned the water off and a slim arm reached out to pull a fluffy white towel back behind the curtain. Then he watched as she pulled the curtain open, standing there with the towel wrapped beneath her arms, looking beautiful with water droplets running down her legs and dripping from her hair.

But her face caught his attention, because she looked absolutely miserable.

Perhaps what he’d said wasn’t enough.

“Annabelle,” he started, standing in front of her as he reached out to grasp one of her hands, “I love you. I want you in my life, and I want to be in yours.”

Other than the widening of her eyes as he spoke the words, her expression remained unchanged, giving him cause to worry. Her mouth remained in a flat line, and her body stayed rigid and unyielding. Then her eyes hardened, and she shook her head, just slightly at first, and then harder, more emphatically.

“Rory, this isn’t going to work,” she responded. Her voice was soft but firm.

But he almost laughed, his wry grin intended to show her exactly what he thought of those words.

“Don’t be ridiculous--of course it could work. And I’m pretty sure you feel the same way about me as how I feel about you.” He drew a finger down her jaw, saying, “Don’t you?” even as she pulled her face away from his hand.

Her chest rose and fell on a sigh, her breasts rising above the top of the towel, two creamy swells of flesh. But she shook her head, her eyes sad now as they looked up at him.

“Rory, no… I don’t,” she replied, and he felt the lead once again settle over his heart.

“What do you mean, you don’t? What has the last week been? Two friends hanging out?” As he spoke his voice became more incredulous, but he couldn’t help it. What she was saying was downright laughable.

“Give me a break, Annabelle, you and I both know it was more than that--that it meant more than that.”

He heard his voice going from incredulous to tinted with a pleading quality, but he didn’t care. Of course she felt the same way he did. He’d felt it; sensed it. He’d seen it in her face, tasted it in her body, and heard it in her voice. When they made love, when they spoke, when they held hands and spent time together. It was there--the undeniable evidence of her love for him.

And here she was, denying it.

“Come, talk with me,” he said, his brows narrowing over his worried eyes as she looked up at him with the saddest expression--as though she felt sorry for him.

It worked a small crack into his heart, and he steadfastly ignored it.

“No, Rory. You need to understand. It. Won’t. Work.” And then Annabelle pulled her hand from between his, bringing it back to the towel covering her body. There she began fingering the texture, and Rory was lost.

“Please,” he said, his voice more pleading than it was a moment ago. “Just talk to me.”

He wanted her to do anything with him right now, anything other than refusing to even consider a life together. He needed to get her to sit with him and listen. He had to convince her that what he spoke was the truth; that things could be perfect between them. That spending the rest of his life with her was what he wanted--what she wanted. That he loved her.

But Annabelle just stood there, stoic in her resolve to deny them the happiness that was even now just beyond their reach; so close that he had seen it, had felt it, touched it, tasted it. He felt like laughing at how ridiculous this whole situation was, but came up with utter bleakness when he attempted to see the humor.

Whereas normally she was pliant and soft, the embodiment of femininity and all that was sweet and endearing in the world, now she was staid and unsympathetic.

“I am talking, Rory,” she said, her voice noticeably devoid of all emotion. Except exasperation--and that, he did not understand. She looked at him as though what she was saying was so simple, and yet he felt the opposite. He felt that, where she thought they shouldn’t even try to make it work, he knew making that attempt would be worth it. Because deep down in his heart he knew she was the one. She was the woman he was meant to spend the rest of his life making happy.

“No, you’re not, Annabelle,” he retorted, his frustration mounting, and with it a fair level of desperation. “You’re not thinking about this in the right context--” he took a step towards her and she remained motionless. Another step and he was in front of her, crowded in the small bathroom but now was not the time for personal space.

She could look at his chest or she could look at his face, and when she lifted her chin to aim her eyes at his, what he saw there had him taking a step back.

She had made her decision, and her implacable expression told him he wasn’t going to succeed.

An overwhelming sense of despair washed over him, and his fists clenched and unclenched at his sides, still instinctually ready to grasp her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Rational thought left him as all manner of actions flashed through his mind--kissing her until she relented, taking her towel off and then stripping naked before her, showing her how their bodies fit together like they were made for each other. He wanted to rake his hands over her skin and make her feel his love, to shove his fingers into her hair and hold her face inches from his so there would be no doubt in her mind that the only emotion he held inside for her--that the only emotion she saw in his eyes--was unadulterated love.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His long dormant sense of honor dictated that not only must he back away and give her space, but that his inclination to beg her to let him in be dropped, simply because he knew without a doubt--with absolute, irrevocable clarity--that she would not budge.

And when the temptation to beg her faded, the anger within him rose.

“Did you know you’d do this? The whole time we were together,” he heard himself sneer, “did you never, not even once plan on seeing where this could go?” With that thought, he felt the despair begin to fade as well, to be replaced by a certain knowledge that she wasn’t who he had thought her to be. Deep down, somewhere inside his soul he knew this wasn’t true. But feeling it--holding onto it as though it were a shield--made him feel better, enough that he continued with it, throwing it back at her like a weapon.

“I hadn’t expected this out of you, Annabelle,” he said calmly, backing away towards the bathroom’s door. When he reached it he paused, waiting. He wanted to see a flicker of… anything. Something in her eyes that told him to stay and fight for what he had so recently believed in. To fight for her .

But he saw a nothingness that alarmed him, and at the same time it angered him.

When he stepped out the door and turned he thought for a split second the step she was taking was towards him, but as he continued into the hotel room and she followed him, she moved toward the area where they’d kept their bags and started pulling out clothes.

Rory didn’t know what to think. His thoughts were fuzzy, realizing that it was ending. It was ending, when he had thought he’d somehow, miraculously, stumbled on a truly wonderful beginning.

It felt like Annabelle was pulling his dream out from underneath him.

And god, it hurt.

So when he uttered his next words, he didn’t think about the repercussions until Annabelle rounded on him.

“I can’t believe I fell for it. And here, I thought you were different.”

When she turned, her mouth had fallen open, but initially there was no anger in her eyes--only pain and shock, which gave him pause and made him suddenly question the truth--the reason --behind his words.

Then it was too late to take them back, and when he watched the shock morph into ire in a matter of seconds, there was no room for second guessing. He’d stick to his guns, because she was hell bent on refusing him.

“What do you mean, ‘I can’t believe I fell for it?’”

“I mean,” he ground out angrily, “That I was wrong. I thought we had something, something worth continuing. But it wasn’t the same for you. Tell me, did you do it on purpose?” His hands clenched at his sides and he watched her gape at him, but he couldn’t fix this. He just couldn’t.

“Rory, I think you’re upset.”

Her face was devoid of emotion, the handful of clothes she held now forgotten. Water dripped from her hair, having sat so long that the ends were heavy with it. It was all he could do to not watch the droplets run down her chest and into the towel.

God, she was beautiful, and that only served to make him angrier--that he was being reminded of what he knew he couldn’t have.

It spurred him to make a rash decision then and there.

“Damn right, I’m upset,” he admitted coldly, and he finally tore his eyes from her, walking around the room to gather what few things were scattered there. A shirt, his phone, zipping his suitcase once he knew everything was inside. And all the while he felt her eyes on him, following him around the room, watching him as he moved.

He hated it, that he was in this position. He hated that, because of her stubbornness, they were going to miss out on their three last nights in Milan together. There was not even a possibility to end this on a good note, not now that he’d bared his heart to her and she had rejected him.

And he hated how, when everything was packed and his jacket was on, she still stood there, naked except for the towel wrapped around her, a dead expression on her face. Somehow, somewhere inside, he knew this was affecting her. And it drove him to approach her one last time.

“Tell me,” he pleaded, his voice breaking on the two simple words, his head shaking in denial that this was happening; that she couldn’t possibly be doing this to him, to them . “Tell me why.”

She was looking up at him, but her eyes closed briefly, looking as though she was steeling herself for more negative words. He saw this and ignored it, waiting for her answer.

When she opened her eyes again, he almost-- almost --felt a glimmer of hope as the shine of tears he could see in the corners, but it was dashed as soon as she opened her mouth.

“This would never be us,” she said enigmatically, shaking her head. Rory’s brow furrowed in confusion, but she went on. “This would be a big publicity thing, don’t you see?”

“What are you talking about?” he muttered, not bothering to keep the contempt for the situation from coloring his words.

“The pictures,” she waved her hand as she spoke, “The people who turn my book signings into some type of celebrity roasting, women who think I’m not deserving of you,” she swallowed at that, “My own agent seeing you as a tool to further my career--even Clay, who says--”

“Wait, what? You’re in contact with your ex?” Annabelle’s eyes widened at the same time the heavy weight in Rory’s chest dropped to the pit of his stomach. Clay . What the fuck did that bastard have to do with this?

“He emailed me, is all,” she said, but her eyes dropped from his face. She looked guilty, and it was his complete undoing.

“For fuck’s sakes, you’re going to take the opinion of that cunt to heart, but not of the man standing in front of you, the man who loves you, who wants to spend the rest of his life with you?” His voice rose now, his upset taking over his mind until all he saw was grayscale, the color and passion draining out of his vision. Annabelle wouldn’t look at him, and it was probably just as well. She didn’t need to see the anguish she was putting him through.

Abruptly he turned from her, his hands on his hips. Shaking his head, he just couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Fucking Clay,” he growled. “You’re letting him dictate what happens to what we have.” He rounded on her then, but she spoke first, once again bringing her eyes up to his.

“It’s not just Clay, Rory. Don’t you see? No one thinks this will work--not them, not me.”

I do! ” he cried, throwing his hands up in frustration.

But she wasn’t listening to him. The one fucking person she should be listening to, and she’d gone completely deaf to his words.

“My book signings are turning into publicity stunts, Douglas is hounding me about you, we’ve got people taking photos of us, not to mention our ridiculous schedules and how our lives are just completely different--Rory, it’s obvious! This wouldn’t work!”

But Rory was still stuck on Clay, that this bastard of a cheater had influenced her decision.

“Clay emailed you,” he fumed, “and you didn’t tell me?”

That hurt him, nearly as bad as her words.

He watched as a panic seemed to rise up within her, which didn’t make sense, because what was she panicking about?

But she prevaricated, “It’s my email, Rory. It’s no business of yours.”

Fucking hell . He felt as though she’d just twisted the knife she had previously sunk into his heart.

“It’s not my business?” Even to his own ears, his voice was incredulous, pained. “My business? I pour my heart out to you--I ask you to stay with me, to--to--” Words were failing him.

Annabelle opened her mouth to speak but Rory drew his lips back in a snarl. Disdain and disappointment in her clouded his vision, but the expression on her face would likely be burned into his memory, ripping the last shreds of vibrant color out of their time together.

“Annabelle, I told you I love you.”

Unlike the first time, this was no heartfelt declaration; it was an accusation.

Her response was slow, deliberately said words that cut through to his heart.

“That doesn’t matter, Rory.” He stalked to the window, but from behind him she must have turned because her voice was directed directly at him. “You don’t have any claim on me,” she repeated softly.

“Like hell it doesn’t matter,” He muttered, still turned away. He stood at the window in silence for a couple minutes, at a loss as to what to say to her.

But really, there was nothing to be said, was there? He’d tried everything--arguing, had even snuck in some begging, cajoling, reasoning. It all fell on deaf ears.

Without a final word or a final glance, he turned, picked up his suitcase and carry on bag, and strode from the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Chapter Text

Annabelle didn’t do anything over the following three days. There she sat, in her spacious hotel room, in one of the most beautiful intriguing cities in the entire world--in Italy , for crying out loud--and all she did was cycle through grief as though she had just cut off her own leg.

After Rory left on the first day she had texted Douglas that she was going to go off the grid for three days, and that she would contact him the day she was due to fly out. Then she’d shut off her phone, not bothering to wait to see if he would reply.

Christmas was two days after she was scheduled to fly into Bozeman, and now it seemed even more bleak of a holiday than it had two weeks ago. At that time it had simply meant her sixth Christmas as a divorced, single woman enjoying a Cornish game hen with boxed stuffing and a single serving pie by herself, in the living room of her apartment while she watched whatever Christmas specials happened to be on TV.

Now it meant all of that, plus the crushing memories of how happy she had been during her short time with Rory.

After he walked out, Annabelle spent the first hour sitting on the bed, her hair long dry by then but her body still wrapped in the towel. She didn’t quite understand what had just happened, other than that Rory had left three days early, and they would not be spending any of the remainder of her vacation together. She didn’t even know where he’d gone.

Then when the initial shock of the situation had worn off, she’d pulled on a t-shirt and panties, curled up in a ball on the bed, and spent hours sobbing into the pillow, a bone-crushing sense of pain and loss weighing heavily on her person.

She had never felt anguish so intense--not when her parents had died so many years ago, nor when Clay had informed her about the affair and impending divorce. She vaguely wondered if those situations were different because they were not her fault, whereas this one was. This was a break up of the worst kind--one that she had initiated. And the misery it was causing her was unparalleled.

Annabelle remembered the way Rory had looked at her, his face full of sadness and disbelief, and each time she pictured it she felt more and more guilt over having made him feel that way. She had always prided herself on being liked, even loved, and being a nice, good, kind person. But to know that she had caused him so much heartbreak was both surprising and devastating--devastating because it had turned on her and made her feel a despair the likes of which she’d never known, and surprising because of the revelations that had come about in the short period of time they’d spoken after her shower.

He loved her. Rory had said it himself--that he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

And she told him no, told him it wouldn’t work because she did believe that. Yes, she should have told him about the email from Clay because both she and Rory knew they were in too deep; that what they had wasn’t just a casual vacation fling.

But she hadn’t told him what Clay said to cause any more arguing--nor what Douglas was doing, nor the woman at the book signing. Annabelle hadn’t told him about them because she felt in her heart that any of the things they had described might come true--that she would end up breaking his heart, or that he would break hers. Douglas merely personified what every manager and agent would become if she entered into a relationship with Rory--money hungry salespeople who wanted to peddle her off to a celebrity with name recognition, because it would be good for her career and therefore good for their pockets.

That night she ordered room service but picked at her food, her appetite leaving her completely when she rolled onto what had been Rory’s pillow and smelled his cologne.

She could remember every single little thing about their encounters, and everything about him, from his head to his toes. Thinking of him in that way nearly made her want to drink to escape the images coursing through her mind.

She remembered standing flat footed in front of him, how they would both smile at her having to crane her neck just to look up into his eyes. But she would do so, lifting her hands to stroke his hair, his scruffy face, the coarse hairs on his neck. She remembered how broad his shoulders were, and how warm his chest was against her cheek, the pelt of hair ticking her nose when she nuzzled into him.

With an arm wrapped around his pillow, she held it to her face and inhaled deeply. That scent--cologne and man. If she could package it and keep it forever, she knew she would.

She could almost feel the way his arms had felt wrapped around her as they laid together, and how he was like an enormous heating pad, warming her up from head to toe. She’d never been cold, sleeping with him.

And his hands--like dinner plates, they’d been so skillful, so supportive, and so emotive. The way he scratched at his jaw when speaking, or how he couldn’t seem to stop pulling at her curls and letting them spring back into place.

She loved to touch his hands as well, and felt tingles now in her own hands as they remembered the tactile memories of how his skin felt beneath her fingertips--the soft hairs on the backs of his hands, the dips between his knuckles, the breadth and width of his fingers, and the creases of his palm. She was going to miss touching those hands.

Annabelle fell asleep that night remembering his voice and how his accent became thick and deep when he whispered into her ear as they made love. Her tears soaked his pillow so much that when she woke up the following morning, there were still dried tears on her cheeks.

Over the next couple of days she cycled through anger at seemingly everyone who had recently made an appearance in her life--Clay, with that damned email; Douglas and his scheming; the man and woman from the last book signing; even Rory, for being so… so… For being so damned perfect! This might have made her mad the most, because by the morning when she was scheduled to catch a flight to Amsterdam for a connecting flight to Minneapolis, she felt more alone than she had in her entire life.

Two days until Christmas, and here she was, boarding a flight that would take her across Europe before putting thousands of miles between her and Rory. Thousands of miles between her and the only man who had ever felt like he completed her.

Annabelle felt like a complete idiot for screwing up so badly.

What had she been thinking?

When she was on board the flight to Amsterdam she had to sit beside a couple, and she spent the whole flight trying not to be distracted by how they fawned over each other--the woman rubbing the man’s arm as she had used to do with Rory; the man opening the woman’s snack for her, and holding her things for her when she rose to use the restroom. It all made Annabelle sick with longing for what might have been.

Rory and her had acted that way, the things they did for each other feeling so natural and like second nature that she had to keep her head turned towards the window so the young couple next to her wouldn’t see her tears.

 

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Rory walked out of the airport in Glasgow, knowing the driver would be waiting for him to bring him back to Troon. He found the man who had already been his driver several times, shook hands, and climbed silently into the back seat.

He wasn’t up for conversation. He hadn’t been since yesterday, when he was still with Annabelle.

Just thinking her name now made his heart painfully clench inside his chest.

He wasn’t sure if anything would ever be normal again.

With a span of just under two weeks, one woman had managed to turn his whole life upside down, to the point where he declined all invitations to holiday dinners from friends. He wasn’t in the mood to be jolly.

Over the last few hours he had replayed over and over in his mind the events of the day, starting with Annabelle’s return from the speaking event to the moment he’d stepped on the hastily booked plane in Milan that would eventually take him back to Scotland.

Annabelle had been upset, but nothing she’d done or said had prepared him for her refusal. He had argued, very nearly begged, and then when all that hadn’t worked, he’d gotten angry. He had said things he didn’t mean, things he now regretted, but would never get a chance to apologize or rectify the situation. Annabelle wouldn’t let him.

It still irked him that she was allowing outside forces to influence her decisions as far as their relationship was concerned. He wanted to ram his fist into Clay’s face, to smash her phone so Douglas wouldn’t give her second thoughts about him. He wanted to sit beside her at book signings and hold her hand and shoot daggers from his eyes at anyone who dared heckle her from the audiences.

But none of that mattered now. He would never see Annabelle again, and as much as he hated the trite saying, que sera sera.

But then he’d unlocked the cabin of his boat and climbed down the small ladder, hunching over as he turned on a lamp to put his bags down on the small berth, and he saw her scarf laying there, a pile of soft woven plaid. The blue, green and black fabric just laid there unmoving, as though it didn’t have the power to once again rip his heart out of his chest.

He sat heavily on the opposite bed and reached tentatively for the scarf, wrapping his fingers around the softness and burying them in the bulk of fabric.

What had looked enormous on her simply looked like a normal scarf in his hands, and he brought it to his face, knowing exactly what he would find in it.

Her scent. The fragrance from her hair, the echo of what came off her skin when he’d nuzzled the back of her neck with his nose and lips. It was soft and feminine, despite the dark print, and he inhaled deeply before sighing heavily, resting his elbows on his knees.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, his face buried in the folds of Annabelle’s scarf, before he put it on his pillow beside him. Try as he might, he knew he wouldn’t be able to just set it aside and forget about it. No, he’d be sleeping with it tonight, and the next night, and every night thereafter, likely for a very long time.

He rose and pulled the collar of his jacket up before ascending the ladder once more. It was time to go see a man about a boat.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Somewhere over the Atlantic, Annabelle’s thoughts began to wander. What began as a crazy woman’s imaginings of what might have been , turned into thoughts of could they be? But, as she began to draw up a list in her notebook of why a relationship with Rory wouldn’t work, still somewhat attempting to convince herself that sometimes the road less travelled was not the right one, she heard a voice from beside her speak.

“Ms. Harkness?”

Surprised to hear her name, she glanced up, thankful her tears had dried and been wiped away long ago.

The woman beside her was smiling gently, long brown hair pulled to the side in a low ponytail, her smile warm with teeth that were slightly crooked.

Before Annabelle could answer, the woman smiled.

“I knew it was you. David,” she jerked a thumb in the sleep man’s direction, “insisted it wasn’t, but I knew. Even with your hair like that, you still look the same.”

She waved a hand in the general direction of Annabelle’s unruly curled mane, but she smiled.

Annabelle returned it, and held out her hand out of instinct. The younger woman shook it.

“It’s nice to meet you…” Raising an eyebrow, Annabelle waited for the woman to introduce herself.

“Oh! Lauren, Lauren Kelsey, and this is my husband David. I’ve read all your books, and I just wanted to say I’m a really big fan.”

When Annabelle’s smile wasn’t as big as the young woman seemed to hope, her own smile gentled.

“I bet you hear that all the time, though, right?” Tucking a hair behind her ear, she looked away from Annabelle self consciously.

Annabelle closed her eyes briefly, inwardly berating herself for what she was doing to this young woman. When she opened her eyes again, she placed her fingertips on the woman’s arm, drawing her attention back.

“Forgive me, I’ve had a long couple of weeks. I do really appreciate it when someone tells me they like my writing.” She smiled wider, though her humor was self deprecating. “Authors, and I think creative people in general, like to be built up like that, since we always seem to doubt the worthiness of our works.”

Lauren grinned and glanced back at her husband, making sure he was still sleeping before saying to Annabelle in a quiet voice, “I totally get it. David is a potter, and he’s always asking me to look over his stuff. But I’ve seen him trash more than a handful of good pieces because he doesn’t think they’re good enough.”

“So again, thank you for the compliment,” Annabelle said warmly, genuinely thankful to have this moment of distraction from her thoughts. “Tell me, which one did you like the most?”

Their conversation about books and writing and hobbies lasted for nearly an hour, Annabelle finding Lauren to be a good conversationalist and also good at drawing conversation out of Annabelle. It was what she’d needed, a simple conversation with another woman about things that didn’t have anything to do with men.

It didn’t stop her from thinking of Rory, but her internal dialogue didn’t revolve around him, even if everything she saw in her mind’s eye had something to do with him--Scotland, for one thing; towels wrapped low around masculine hips; airport sandwiches; neckbeards; seeing a long, masculine arm wrapped around her from behind in bed, the hand resting inches from her face where she could clearly smell his scent, and touch his skin.

Even when conversation segued into Lauren and David’s new marriage, it was easy to stay on topic while thinking of Rory’s easy smile, and his sense of humor. Annabelle almost thought she’d spoken his name out loud, hearing it now in her ears, until she realized she’d momentarily drifted away from the conversation with Lauren, and that it was the young woman who had spoken it.

“I’m sorry?” She felt guilty for missing what Lauren said, but wasn’t sure, if it had to do with Rory, that she wanted to hear it.

“I said I’m sorry if I’m prying, but weren’t you spending a lot of time with Rory McCann while you were on this book tour?”

Annabelle’s smile faltered, and she began fingering the hem of her long sweater beneath the lowered tray table in front of her.

“We were,” she said quietly, looking down at the empty drink cup on the table. “But he has a life in Scotland and mine is in Montana.”

“Oh,” replied Lauren, her voice almost comically skeptical in that single word. She went on, “You don’t sound like you’re entirely happy about that.”

Again, Annabelle looked up at her. Oh, to have someone to confide in , she mused.

But she knew better than to choose someone on an airplane to talk to about what she was currently struggling with, so she just smiled, saying, “It is what it is. Tell me, how long have you and David been married?”

Lauren seemed willing to revert the topic of conversation back to her, animatedly talking about how she and David had married a year ago and they had just finally honeymooned in Milan, touring the surrounding cities before spending two amazing nights in the large city. Annabelle welcomed the change of topic, and settled comfortably back into her seat as she listened to and laughed with Lauren.

But it wasn’t long until it circled back to Annabelle, and how she’d been married for a few years but it had ended badly, and she’d spent the subsequent years losing herself in her stories and her writing.

“That’s too bad. You totally deserve to be happy,” Lauren said, and then she pointedly looked at the notebook sitting to Annabelle’s right, beside the window of the plane. “I, um, I saw some of what you were writing.”

She waited while Annabelle struggled to keep her face clear of any emotion. She was only slightly disappointed that Lauren had read what she’d been writing, because Annabelle did after all leave it out in plain sight while doing so. But even more so, she was embarrassed at being caught reasoning with herself on paper.

“Ms. Harkness?” Looking up, Annabelle saw that Lauren had turned more fully towards her, and was looking at her in such a genuine, friendly manner that Annabelle smiled briefly in answer.

“Is that a list of why you shouldn’t date Mr. McCann?”

No wonder their marriage was still going strong--this young lady wasn’t one to mince words, and Annabelle figured David never had to wonder what his wife was thinking about.

“Actually,” she said, meaning to say something about it being a story idea, but she stopped herself. She and Lauren had been speaking for nearly two hours at that point, and despite the younger woman likely being at least ten years younger than her, Annabelle liked her. Lauren was joyful and optimistic, direct, friendly, and seemingly honest. She felt that somehow she would be doing both her and Lauren a disservice by lying about this.

“As a matter of act, yes,” she admitted, sighing as she pulled the notebook front and center, tapping on it with her nails.

“May I ask, why?”

Annabelle smiled at Lauren, feeling self conscious talking to a woman so much younger than herself about matters of the heart. But again, Lauren sounded like she genuinely cared, and Annabelle already knew that, because Lauren liked her books so much, that she was held in the younger woman’s fairly high esteem.

So she decided to take a gamble and speak openly, fairly spilling her heart out to this new acquaintance about how she and Rory had met in the airplane and the story that followed.

Lauren was easy to talk to, slapping a hand over her mouth as Annabelle recounted that Rory had said Fuck off not once but twice that day, and how it had somehow led to them sharing that extra large cot in the airport for two days. She told Lauren about the conversation that led her and Rory to come to understand that they both liked physical touch, and that if there was already a photo of them on the internet, than why not just continue it?

Annabelle then told her, in much less detail, about how amazing their time had been together, first in London and then in Scotland and even Madrid, before it had started to go downhill because Annabelle suspected Rory was in love with her but she thought that thinking was fatalistic, that they were destined to live in two separate countries so why even attempt to give a relationship a try.

She told Lauren of their last argument, though she left out mention of Clay’s email, only saying that outside forces had helped sway her from even considering a future with Rory.

That’s when Lauren pulled out her phone and brought up the video that had been posted to the internet, clearly showing a woman speaking to Annabelle.

“I want to know why you’re dragging Rory’s name through the mud?”

Then both she and Lauren watched as the situation escalated, Annabelle seeing this for the first time from multiple angles that did not include her own eyes.

So she was able to see herself for the first time, and to see what likely every person who had watched the video--more than five million so far, stated the count below the video--had seen on her face.

Annabelle was devastated by those questions and the woman’s hounding. She was devastated, and shocked, and for all the world to see, had her heart smeared all over her face--shock that someone would say things like what the woman was saying; horror that any one thought it was true; and denial--vehement denial, that she was going to break Rory’s heart.

Then finally, absolutely wrecked when the woman’s last intelligible words were, “You don’t deserve Rory!”

The scene was so fresh in her mind, despite that it had happened several days before, that Annabelle could still remember it from the angle through which she had experienced it--up on the dais, seated above the audience, watching that women spew venomous words in her direction. Even now, it made her stomach turn remembering the way the woman’s words had been like knives, stabbing at her heart.

Finally, the camera zoomed in on her speaking vaguely to the host and to the audience after she’d refused the last of the questions. From somewhere in that room there had been a camera, likely a higher end camera with great zoom, and in stunning clarity for all the world to see, Annabelle’s very stunned, very broken face was the last thumbnail to freeze on the screen when the video ended.

There, staring back at her now, was the face of a woman who had just been hammered the last nail in the coffin of her happiness, a nail that she had interpreted as being permanent.

“Dude,” came the hushed, dramatic whisper of the young woman beside her. Annabelle looked over, seeing her own shock mirrored in Lauren’s eyes. “You are so in love with Rory McCann.”

Chapter Text

“This says after filming ends he likes to go sailing and doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going.” Lauren scrolled through the web page on her laptop, skipping over the pictures of Rory--except for the occasional “Oo, look at that one” --to read through the text of the article to see what information she could glean from it. David sat forward as well, having been included in the discussion when he’d woken to feminine giggles.

No, he was not included in that conversation. Talk of exactly how long Annabelle had held out before initiating sex with Rory would stay between her and Lauren.

But David had proven to be just as great a conversationalist as Lauren, and once brought up to speed, gladly lent his twenty-four years of masculine wisdom on how to woo a forty-eight year old man.

“So what if he’s not there?” Annabelle asked, meaning at the harbor in Troon. Her ticket was already booked, her rental car reserved, and two hours after arriving in Minneapolis she would be on her way back across the pond to Amsterdam for the connecting flight that would bring her into Glasgow. After that, well, she was just going to have to suck it up and figure out how to drive on the left side of the road, because after spending the same amount on this ticket that would have gone to half a year’s worth of car payments, she wasn’t about to pay a cab for that distance.

David reached across Lauren to hand Annabelle a piece of paper.

“Here’s a list of nearby hotels, all within walking distance or short driving distance of the harbor.”

“But check the harbor everyday,” Lauren was saying, still scrolling, “Because you’ll never know when he pulls in.”

Annabelle nodded appreciatively, but swallowed down her nervousness as she folded the paper and slid it into the side pocket of her oversized purse.

“And… what if he is? In the harbor, I mean?”

David looked over, brushing his bangs sideways across his forehead, his expression serious.

“Then you apologize just like we’ve rehearsed, and if you have to, grovel. Beg. Strip naked.”

“David!” Lauren admonished him but he grinned at her, tapping the tip of Lauren’s button nose with his finger tip.

What?? It would convince me if you did it, baby.”

Annabelle chuckled at the young couple in spite of the situation. They were being so incredibly helpful, and were so cute on top of that--she had been warming towards them both nearly from the moment she and Lauren had begun talking all those hours ago.

She took a sip of her soda, left over from dinner.

“But… what if he still says no?”

Lauren’s brown ponytail slipped over her shoulder as she looked over at Annabelle, sympathy in her eyes. Sympathy, but also determination as she then narrowed them and smirked just slightly.

“Then I would work at him.”

David nodded in agreement.

“If he is as worth it as you say, then you need to give this your all.”

“My all?”

“Pull out all the stops,” Lauren agreed, bringing up a photo of Rory at some panel he’d sat on. Momentarily distracted, Annabelle got lost in the image of him--hair combed back, the corner of his lip drawn slightly under his teeth, hairy face and neck on full display with the open collar of his polo. God, she missed him. She hoped fervently that she hadn’t screwed this up beyond all repair.

“Smile,” David was saying, drawing her attention away from the computer.

Oh yes , she thought. The stops .

“Ask questions,” Lauren added with a nod.

“Keep him talking.” David was really warming to the subject.

Lauren grinned, “Shake your money maker.”

“My what?

“Oh, definitely--maybe show some cleavage.” David was grinning as well, but Annabelle couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

“Oo, yes!” Lauren said excitedly.

“I don’t think that‘s a good idea.” In fact, it sounded more like something that woman from the last book signing would accuse her of doing.

No, don’t think of that, or her , Annabelle reminded herself. All of that was in the past, and she was getting ready to start building her future with Rory. She didn’t need to think of any crap that would bring her down. She needed to focus, wanted to focus on him .

“Why?” David looked at her as though her skin had suddenly turned hot pink. “He’s already been down there, right?” He waved his hand in the general vicinity of her chest, smiling again.

She blushed then, but nodded.

Lauren reached over and took her hand, smiling. “Then all you’re showing him is what he’s missing!”

“But most importantly--” David began, and then he and Lauren spoke together, their unity showing in their voices.

Apologize!”

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Christmas in Scotland came, and it saw Rory doing nothing except cleaning the yacht, making sure it was presentable for any prospective buyers who wished to come see it. The weather was well above freezing so he had the heat off, and around his neck he wore Annabelle’s blue and green plaid scarf. He’d been sleeping with it for four nights now so her scent had faded, but he couldn’t find it in himself to put it down, or to do anything to preserve the fragrance. He much preferred leaving it around his neck, where he could imagine the incredibly soft fabric was somehow an extension of her.

He missed her. He missed her more than he’d ever missed anyone else in his whole life. Standing on the deck of his yacht now, he looked across the water but didn’t see anything. Instead he was inside his mind, watching her smile at him, the scarf catching on the longer strands of his beard as he imagined her small hands coming up to scratch at it and to toy with it’s increasing length.

Would she like it? Would she like that he’d grown it out, not bothering to shave since before he’d met her on that fated grounded airplane back in Boston?

With a grunt, he picked up the small kitchen trash bag and left the yacht, heading back up the docks towards the shore.

He found himself asking similar questions throughout the day, always internally and never out loud, because who would answer them except the wind? He wondered what she was doing, what she was wearing, if she was thinking of him, too. He wanted to know if she was working on her book now that she was home, or if she’d taken a break to get over the stress of her book tour.

He wanted to know if she’d wrung Douglas’s neck for any of the shit he pulled while she was in Europe. Lord knows Rory wanted to.

The wind picked up and he pulled his beanie down to cover his ears, pausing to feel the chill breeze coming off the water. That smell of sea air, the scent of saltwater on the wind, always invigorated him. But now it made him wonder what the weather at this time of year was like in Bozeman.

That was easily fixed--he took out his phone, opened the web browser and, using talk-to-text, said, “Weather in Bozeman, Montana.”

“The temperature in Bozeman, Montana is currently nine degrees below zero.”

Celsius. Shit, that was cold. He hoped that wherever she was, she was bundled up and warm, preferably inside.

As they often did these days, thoughts of her now turned to all the things he had perhaps once hoped for--things like seeing her apartment, watching her as she gave him a tour of her city, spending endless late nights together snuggled on the couch or making love in their own bed. All of his fantasies revolved around their lives joining seamlessly, something he’d never considered before with other women--joint finances; her name on his boat’s paperwork, declaring her part owner; his ring on her finger, declaring his love for her and her devotion to him.

He looked back down the pier at the XC-45, the larger yacht now occupying one of the end spots reserved for boats its size. She was a beauty, all clean lines and comfortable for cruising. In another life he may have taken advantage of her racing design, but… that was in another life. For now, he was happy to finally have a yacht he could stand inside the cabin without bumping his head against the ceiling.

She had a queen size bed, which would have been nice if he had someone to share it with; if he’d had Annabelle to share it with. Otherwise he would be just as comfortable as he used to be sleeping on a single berth. And the twin double cabins would have served well for--

No, he didn’t even want to think about that. What’s done was done. It was time for him to give it a rest.

Returning to his task, he gathered the bag of trash and headed up to the parking lot and the dumpsters provided there.

The weather was cool, and with it being Christmas there was hardly anyone about, except for a light on in the main office building. Passing it, he found the dumpster, deposited his trash, and set out for the short walk to the closest pub still serving meals today, deciding against eating at the marina’s restaurant. It was time for him to have breakfast, and he fancied a more sedate atmosphere, and that someone else would make his food for him.

Paterson’s Pub was within walking distance of the harbor and was known to have decent food. The owner was a friend of Rory’s, a gentleman by the name of Brown. According to him he was related to this Brown and that Brown, but that’s what happens when a quarter of the residents shared the same last name. No one knew who was related to who anymore.

When Rory opened the door a call cried out from behind the bar, “Rory, my boy, sit, sit!”

Brown, who went by his last name likely just to confuse travellers, also got a kick out of likening Rory to any synonym of child that he could think of, because the man himself was six and a half feet tall and Brown probably topped Annabelle’s five feet, four inches, by an inch or two. Short and round, there was no nicer man this side of Glasgow.

“Hello Brown,” Rory greeted him, accepting the full pint that Brown delivered without being asked. It was just what was done.

“What brings ye t’ this lit’le corner of th’ world? Heard ye bought a new boat,” he said, his voice lowering as he leaned forward. “Also heard tell this’ns big enough for passengers. S’is mean yer ready t’ take ol’ Brown oot on th’ water?”

His smile was bright, missing a couple teeth on the side but clean and white, probably because he had a wife of nearly forty five years who was willing to both take care of and put up with him.

“Of course, of course,” Rory replied, smiling back. Over the last few years this man had come to mean more to him than just a friend, and he’d do anything for the fellow who always seemed to have a smile and a kind word--not just for Rory, but for everyone who walked into his pub.

He ordered some food and left Brown at the bar to find a small booth in the back, not quite ready for lengthy conversations. Not now, when Annabelle was fresh on his mind, and his thoughts all seemed to revolve around something that had to do with her. He wanted to just sit and think, sit and ponder, and perhaps sit and be a bit sad.

Brown delivered the simple meal of bacon and eggs, only sitting to chat for a few minutes. He must have figured Rory wasn’t going to be good conversation because he rose from his seat with a hand on Rory’s shoulder, giving a good squeeze before he set off in search of some task or another to occupy his hands, promising to check back in soon

As they had been doing frequently over the past few days, the events of the last two weeks replayed through Rory's mind, starting with that meeting in the plane.

God , Annabelle had been beautiful even then, though he would have been happy had he never again seen that ridiculous straight-waved hair. Her natural curls were nothing short of the eighth wonder of the world, and he was fairly certain he'd thought of them that way before.

As he tucked into his food, he was remembering how she had given up her ticket to a total stranger, thereby stranding herself with hundreds of other passengers as well as himself, out of the goodness of her heart, when Brown suddenly appeared in his peripheral vision, sitting back down at the opposite side of the table. 

“Lady troubles?” the older man questioned, steepling his fingers above the table.

Rory looked up at him but, for all that Brown was a nice guy, he had no clue about social graces. Seeing that the man had no compunction about interrupting Rory’s quiet meal, he put a forkful of food into his mouth, giving him just a few seconds to decide how much he wanted to tell Brown.

But then, there really was no question about Brown’s confidentiality. If there had been, Rory would have had much more trouble with fans and nuisances over the years, knowing exactly how much Brown knew about him, his habits and his whereabouts.

So by extension, he was fairly certain Brown would be discreet with his knowledge of Rory’s more personal issues with a member of the fairer sex.

“Aye,” Rory admitted after swallowing, and he reached for his coffee.

“Ah, m’boy, tis somethin’ ah can ‘elp with,” came the reply in a thick Glasgow accent.

Rory shot the grinning man a sardonic look.

“You’ve been married to the same woman for nearly half a century but you think you can give me dating advice?” With a chuckle, Rory shook his head and took another bite of food as Brown chortled across from him.

“Ah’ve ‘ad the same woman lovin’ me all ‘ese years. Means ah’m good at keepin’ ‘em happy.” His eyes crinkled at the corners and he wagged his brows at Rory.

And, Rory grudgingly admitted silently, it made sense. At least a little bit.

“Ye wanna know? Truly?”

Brown nodded, sitting back and crossing his thick arms over an even thicker chest. Rory sighed, taking the last bite of his food before pushing the plate towards the center of the table.

He didn’t have anything to lose, other than a bit of his time. And talking about Annabelle, he reasoned, might serve to get her out of his head some--although truthfully he doubted it. But still, it wouldn’t hurt, and he thought he might even feel better after talking to someone about her.

“Alright then,” he nodded, but as a caveat he added, a finger pointed at the older, grinning man,

“But if you say anything to anyone about her, I’ll spread the word that Brown’s has roaches and bedbugs, understand?”

Brown visibly bristled.

“One focking bug dinnae spell infestation, boy!” But he couldn’t complete the sentence with a straight face, and ended it with, “But ah won’t say enythin’ ‘bout ‘er to enyone, ah swear on me Milly’s life.”

Satisfied, Rory started his thoughts over with the first meeting on the airplane, and progressed through what happened in those early days.

“She offered the cot, eh?” Brown had a hand on his chin, his expression that of someone trying to figure out a puzzle.

Rory nodded, saying, “And we agreed to be… physical… because she likes to touch.”

“Touch?”

“Aye.”

“Like stickin’ ‘er ‘ands down yer pant--”

“No! No,” Rory calmed his outburst before he filled the small pub with his voice. “I mean, she liked rubbin’ at my arm, touchin’ my face, my hair, stuff like that.” With his beanie on the bench beside him, he was free to exasperatedly run his hand back through his hair, remembering the way Annabelle would pet him and soothe him with her soft hands.

“Yer hair,” Brown repeated, sounding confused. “And rubbin’ yer arm? Ye sure she was right in th’ head?"

Rory smiled but he nodded.

“Oh, aye, she was. She’s one of the nicest people you could meet, Brown. She’s compassionate, empathetic, and beautiful--curly hair, beautiful green eyes,” he warmed to her description and it easily rolled off his tongue, “She cares about people, would give you the shirt off her back, I’m sure of it.” He remembered the crying young woman in the airport and told Brown about how Annabelle had freely given up her ticket because of what the woman had said about her father. At that, Brown’s eyebrows shot up and he nodded.

“Aye, that’s unusual.”

Rory nodded, glad Brown could see how special Annabelle was.

“An’ ye travelled with ‘er?”

Rory took a long pull on his pint, and then tipped his chin affirmatively as he swallowed the bitter ale.

“To London, then Edinburgh and Aberdeen, with a stop here one night at the boat.”

“Oi! Ye were ‘ere an’ ye dinnae come see me?” Brown threw up his hands in disgust and looked everywhere but at Rory for a moment, until his laughing eyes landed back on Rory, a suggestive tilt to his head as he asked, “Or were ye tae busy tae come see me?”

Despite the nature of the question, Rory attempted to keep his face straight. But he felt the blush occur at the same time Brown’s eyes lit up with understanding.

“Oh, aye, boy--tae busy.”

Rory briefly but emphatically shook his head.

“Nay, it wasn’t like that--we hadn’t been intimate yet at that point.”

Brown once again chortled, his ample stomach jiggling slightly as he giggled like a little girl.

“Aye, but ye were at some point, yea?”

Rory rolled his eyes but looked out the window, suddenly assailed with those thoughts, and just as suddenly melancholic over missing that part of his and Annabelle’s association, as well. God, she’d been magnificent in the beds they’d slept in. So passionate, so responsive to his touch. And there had been so many more things they could do, so much more of each other’s bodies to explore, and now they’d never have the chance.

“Boy--” Brown was saying, and Rory realized he’d missed something Brown had said. He looked back at the man and merely lifted his brow in an unspoken bid to repeat what Brown had said.

“Aye, ah can see she was more’n just kind .” He winked boldly at Rory, but easily moved on from the intimate subject, despite having caught Rory daydreaming about the things they had left unsaid.

Brown leaned forward onto the table, warming to the subject at hand.

“So wot brought this young lady t’ our neck o’ th’ woods?”

Rory didn’t want to go into details, so he was purposefully vague. He’d grown used to discretion when operating in the circles of actors and actresses he’d been included in as a part of the television show he was on.

“She’s a bit of a celebrity herself, and she had a list of engagements in several countries.”

Brown nodded, not prying for more information, to which Rory was grateful.

“So…” Brown drew out the single word, his eyes on Rory’s face. “So, why is she not ‘ere, with ye?”

“She didn’t want to be,” Rory explained, staring at the bubbles floating to the surface of his ale. Condensation had gathered on the outside of the glass and he absentmindedly caught a droplet before it could travel down the length, and instead led it there himself.

“Och, ah cannae believe that. Look at ye--Rory McCann, actor extraordinaire, good guy, and she walked away from ye? No,” he added, shaking his head. “Must be more t’ it, else she’s no’ right in th’ head.”

But Rory shook his head, drawing another droplet down to the puddle forming at the surface of the table beneath his glass.

“She said it wouldn’t work between us,” he simply said, wondering if it had been wise to talk about this with Brown. It wasn’t helping at all--in fact, it was quite depressing.

“Wouldna work? Why th’ hell no’?”

“Schedules--”

“Fock schedules--they can be changed,” Brown interrupted, but then it was obvious he was waiting for the next reason.

“Nosy people and paparazzi--”

“Fock them as well, focking nancies.”

Rory had a hard time not laughing at the seriousness of Brown’s expression.

“She said we live in two different countries.”

Brown scrunched up his whole face, once again tossing his hands in the air frustratedly. When his eyes came back to Rory’s, he pointed a fat finger at Rory’s nose.

“Ye live on a focking boat, Rory McCann--ah think that means yer address is focking negotiable, eh?”

Rory did smile then, amused at how suddenly upset Brown was getting on his behalf.

“Aye, I know that,” he agreed, “but--”

“Do ye love ‘er?”

Rory snorted, taking another long drink of ale.

“Aye, I do,” he said resignedly. It somehow felt sad, admitting that to another person.

“An’ did ye tell ‘er that?”

Again, he nodded. “I did, and she said it didn’t matter.”

“Like hell it don’t,” Brown spat, his face red with indignation on Rory’s behalf. “Does she love ye?”

Rory didn’t have to think long on that question, because he already knew the answer. She did, but she just hadn’t told him.

“Aye, in my opinion she does. But she never told me so.”

“Fock that, words are focking wind, Rory. If’n she tol’ ye once with ‘er body, she tol’ ye ‘nough times.”

Rory smiled up at Brown, wondering how he got so lucky to have a friend like that.

“What do you suppose I do? She doesn’t want me. She’s back home, in Montana.”

Brown stood then, adjusting the short apron that was wrapped below his belly, sticking his hands in the two deep pockets and making it look as though he was cupping his belly to help hold it up.

“What do ah propose?” he repeated, with another snort. “Ah propose ye do wot ah would’ve done with me Milly. Ah’d hound her til she gave in, because ah knew she couldna resist me.” He looked as though he was going to say more but Rory nodded and stood then, handing Brown a handful of bills out of his wallet.

“Hound her, eh? I’m going to go get some groceries.” He turned towards the door, feeling that hounding Annabelle wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but nor was it the most comfortable. “I’ll think on what you said, Brown.”

From back in the pub where they’d been sitting he heard Brown’s voice call out to him.

“Aye, ye think on it, boy, but dinnae think too long--she’s like t’ find someone else to warm ‘er bed if’n ye drag yer boots too long, mind ye!”

Chapter Text

There were so many videos of left lane driving that Annabelle could watch on the flight to Amsterdam, and she was pretty sure she’d watched them all. But when she had familiarized herself with the little automatic compact car and had pulled out onto the road, all of the knowledge she’d gleaned from those who had come before her, suddenly left.

At the first roundabout she came to, she almost went the wrong way. It took a honk from the car behind her to remind her that she wasn’t in Montana anymore.

Then she hit a curb when turning at a left hand corner because she couldn’t figure out how close the car was and went for it anyway--thank goodness for extra insurance.

And the one thing she never was able to figure out was, was there a fast lane and a slow land in Scotland? By the time she saw a sign that read Troon, she was so nervous that she wanted to pull over and vomit.

And she did pull over, but it was to find out from the GPS on her phone that the harbor in which Rory docked his boat was less than a mile away, and that she had made it to her destination in relatively one piece--even if the rental car was a bit worse for wear.

It was about that time that the enormity of what she was doing came crashing down on her.

The flight to Amsterdam and then the connecting flight to Glasgow had been filled with anxiety over the prospect of driving herself for the first time in a foreign country. She’d always had drivers or had hired taxis, but that hadn’t been an option this time. So with the reassurance from the rental company that they had a car with an automatic transmission, she was then left to her own devices to not only drive on the roads, but to navigate to her destination, all by herself.

So now that she was parking just down the shore from the pier where Rory’s boat was usually docked, she was overcome by an unease that threatened to choke off her air supply--was she doing the right thing? Would Rory accept her apology? Would he be happy to see her? Was he even there?

That last question was what she attempted to focus on as she stepped out of the small car, locking it before pulling up the collar of her wool coat.

Deciding it was now or never, she set her feet in motion and walked down the path that she and Rory had happily traversed hand in hand, not so long ago.

Nothing had changed, obviously, so when she reached the walkway leading down to the docks she slowed her steps, gazing out at her surroundings.

The array of yachts was stunning, nearly all of them appearing to be similar in size yet some larger ones docked towards the ends where there was more room for them to maneuver. With masts of different heights, all standing at attention, the small section of harbor appeared to be full of sleeping boats, all with an arm raised towards the sky.

She walked down the walkway and stepped out onto the dock, her feet bringing her to the slip where she knew Rory had docked his yacht. Her hands were clammy despite the cool, crisp winter air, but the smell of ocean was strong and she took a deep, fortifying breath. There was something about it that jogged her memory, the memory of stepping onto Rory’s yacht for the first time, so happy to be there with him, and excited to see that part of his life.

Overhead a gull cried out, and Annabelle paused, briefly looking upwards to see if she could see the bird. It had seemingly disappeared, so she walked further down the docks until she came upon what she knew to be Rory’s spot.

Her heart was hammering within her chest as she looked on the boat that was lazily bobbing at its mooring.

This wasn’t Rory’s yacht. This was someone else’s, similar in size and even in color, but she could see the layout of the deck was all wrong, the mast was the wrong height, and the name at the back was unfamiliar.

She stared at it for a moment before looking around, wondering if she’d gotten the wrong aisle or if he’d moved his boat. She couldn’t see his anywhere, so she looked back at the one before her and stood there as though while she had looked away Rory’s would have magically re-appeared, right where it was supposed to be.

But it hadn’t appeared, and she began to feel disheartenment creeping into her throat.

Her heart was beating so fast that she put a hand to her chest, wishing she could reach within herself and cradle it in her palm.

It will be okay , she consoled herself. This is not the end . She remembered her conversation with Lauren and David about this very possibility, and she turned, her gaze scanning the shoreline as though Rory was going to magically appear in her sight. She began to move back towards the shore, lowering her gaze in fear that she’d be so distracted by her thoughts that she would walk right off the edge of the dock and completely embarrass herself.

She walked and walked, back up the suspended walkway, past where her rental car was parked, through the nearly empty parking lot and out onto the road. She didn’t have a goal in mind, except to wander along until she either felt like returning to her car, or until she found somewhere to dwell in her momentary misery.

As it turned out, the latter happened before the former.

When she sat in a booth in the small, dimly lit pub--Paterson’s, it was called--an older gentleman with a thick Scottish accent called out to her that he’d be out in a minute to tend to her, so just for a little while she was free to get lost in her own thoughts.

Had Rory left? Had he gone out to sea? Lauren had read that he’d been known to do that, and there didn’t seem to be any other explanation as to why his boat wouldn’t be in the slip he’d paid for. She knew once someone paid for a slip, it was theirs as long as they paid for it, even if they and their boat were gone for an extended period of time.

So what had happened? The boat in his spot had most assuredly not been his. But did that mean he had moved to another spot? She hadn’t seen it in the area where she had been looking, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t just overlooked it.

And that was preferable to the alternative--that he no longer moored his yacht at Troon Harbor and had instead moved on, finding somewhere else, perhaps somewhere that didn’t serve as a reminder of the woman who had so thoroughly spurned his love.

God, she wanted to weep at the thought.

How could she have been so stupid? Annabelle could look back and see herself in her memories, laughing with Rory, talking with him, making love with him, enjoying life with him. Everything had been so great, so fulfilling, that she had had no room in her mind to think of anything negative. Even the talks with the women who came to her after book signings had felt better, knowing that she was going to be able to return to the hotel room where he was, ready to console her, to comfort her, and to care for her.

She had turned him away. And why?

She closed her eyes against the tears that wanted to form, spurred on by the memories of her lame excuses.

She had blamed Douglas and his desire to use her association with Rory for his own gain; she had blamed Clay, using the other man’s opinion of Rory and her growing relationship with him as motivation to tell her to come back to him; and the woman from that last book signing--

Annabelle forced herself to remember that awful event and the ugly words the woman had hurled at her.

Those words had hurt, yes, and at the time they had sounded as though they had more than a bit of truth in them. But now they hurt because they were words she’d used to chase Rory away.

But none of it mattered--not Douglas, not Clay, and not the woman who had to be dragged out of the auditorium because she was being so inappropriate.

Why couldn’t she have met more people like Lauren and David while in Europe? More people who believed in true love, who rooted for true love and who encouraged her to follow her heart instead of her dumb brain? It was almost comical how she had happened to be placed next to Lauren on that airplane--apparently needing a six hour flight to Minneapolis to get her head screwed on straight. Thank god Lauren was Lauren and not some cynical burned-by-love pessimist. They had exchanged contact info, and that woman and her lovely husband were going to be getting a massive gift basket, no matter how this escapade turned out.

But again, Annabelle’s thoughts revolved back to Rory, and how she had to face the facts that he may have now slipped out of her grasp. The thought was enough to wet her eyes, and she frantically blinked it away as the portly man from earlier walked up to her table.

And sat across from her.

Slightly shocked, Annabelle sat up straighter and looked around, wondering if the lone employee should be sitting on the job.

“Hello lass, wot brings ye in this fine afternoon?”

“I’d, um… I’d like some lunch, please.” She saw he wasn’t holding a menu, but he had a pad and pen in his hands, and was looking at her with such a warm smile on his face that she couldn’t help but feel that he was perhaps an extremely friendly man. He looked like a grandfather, someone who would put anyone at ease and who would bounce little kids on his knee for hours just to make them happy.

“Ah kin do that for ye. Wot ye like?”

The man’s accent was so heavy that it took Annabelle a couple seconds to figure out what he was saying.

“Uh, do you have sandwiches?”

The man smiled widely, replying, “Oh, aye, ah’ve got corned beef, roost beef, paickled beef, fish sandwich, fish bairger, beef bairger--”

“Roast… beef, please,” Annabelle interrupted gently, shyly smiling at him and hoping he didn’t take offense. He had sounded like he was about to list every kind of sandwich that was made in the entire country of Scotland.

But he merely smiled at her, jotting down a note on his pad.

“Ahnd eh side?”

“Chips, please.”

Another note, and he was looking at her again.

“Drink?”

“Just water, please.”

He wrote it down, and then looked up at her, setting the notepad down. Annabelle looked at him, attempting to keep the smile on her face but confused by his lack of movement.

“So, where are ye fae?”

Annabelle’s smile faltered.

“Excuse me?”

“Fae--where are ye fae?” His smile widened and he cleared his throat. “From,” he clearly enunciated, but it appeared to take some concentration on his part. “Where are ye from?”

“Oh!” Annabelle’s smile returned and she nodded. “The states, Montana.” The corner of the man’s mouth twitched but other than that, he showed no outward reaction to what she’d said, so she went on, “It’s on the United States Canada border.”

“Oh, aye, ah think ah know where ‘tis.” His eyebrows lowered slightly. “Name’s Brown. And ye?”

“Annabelle,” she replied, seeing it unnecessary to offer her last name. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr Brown.”

"Och, just Brown’ll do, Annabelle,” he replied, though her name sounded more like Ah-na-bill in his accent. “So, Montana ye say? Wot brings ye t’ Troon?”

She wondered how much to say, because anyone around here had the possibility of a previous affiliation with Rory. So she chose to be somewhat vague for the time being, deciding to fight the desperate urge to beg for information and instead to focus on the hope she’d held in her heart that she would be able to find Rory on her own.

“I’m looking for someone, but I didn’t have any luck this morning.”

“Hmm. Aynythin’ ah can ‘elp with?” Brown’s face was pondering curiosity, and she felt that he was trying to puzzle her out. Perhaps she should have just said she was on vacation?

“I don’t think so, no. I’m going to wait it out for a while, see if he shows up.”

She glanced out the window beside her towards the harbor, and saw that Brown followed her gaze. His eyes flicked from the expanse of open water they could see, to her face again, the corners of his mouth turning upwards.

“A sailor, eh?”

Annabelle blushed, but nodded. She wished she could see the rows of boats where Rory had docked his yacht, but it was well hidden by the buildings in her line of vision. In the distance she could see several on the water but none that she could see clearly enough to ascertain whether they were Rory’s or not.

Brown studied her for a moment, but then smiled, smacking the table lightly but loud enough to make her jump, as he rose from his seat.

“Ah’ll bae right out w’tis, aye?” And with that he sent her a last smile and walked back behind the bar to the kitchen.

It was a cool day outside, and there was hardly anyone about. The pub was empty yet, and she wondered if he would be putting on a spread for dinner. If Brown planned on being open, perhaps she would come by for dinner.

The forecast called for rain, and she hoped that that didn’t mean fog as well. She couldn’t imagine a more dreary way to spend Christmas than in this hole in the wall pub, wondering if she was ever going to see Rory again. But if this is what she had to do in order to exhaust all possibility of finding him--to use every possible method she had discussed with Lauren and David--than this is what she would do.

While she waited for her food she checked her emails. She had never answered Clay’s email, nor did she ever intend to. Clay was in the past, and she refused to give him any of her time. He wasn’t worth it, didn’t deserve it, and he needed to know he would never again have any kind of claim over her. So when she saw two emails from him, she deleted them and blocked his email.

Douglas had written to her, telling her he was lining up some engagements for her in February, seeing as how she wrote romance novels and they were big sellers around Valentine's Day. He also asked if she was home and when she’d be available to meet with him about her plans for the new book and her schedule for the first half of the year. She sent a short reply, saying that she was not home, that she wasn’t sure when she would be available again, and that she would write to him once she was back in Montana. It would drive him nuts not knowing where she was or what she was doing or when she was going to be back, but he was also just going to have to deal with it. She wasn’t in the mood for Douglas’s drama.

When Brown returned a short time later with her food she didn’t try to dissuade him from sitting with her while she ate. He was pleasant to talk to, and asked her a lot of questions about the states and her home, and answering her vague touristy questions about Scotland.

It turned out he’d been married for quite some time but his wife worked at a local store and wouldn’t be home until nearly dinner time. They lived above the pub, all their kids having moved out long ago.

He asked Annabelle what she did and she figured it was okay to tell him she was an author, seeing as how it was apparent he had never heard of her before.

The food was good, and when she told him, he went ahead and told her there would be a Christmas buffet that night, and that she was invited back to join in. She accepted the invitation.

“Do you happen to know of any hotels or rooms for rent near here?” She had just finished half her sandwich, a toasted roast beef on rye of which she was only able to eat half.

“Ye’ll bae lookin’ for one, eh? Plannin’ on stayin’ long?”

Still unsure of how much to tell him, she opted for, “I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but… I’m thinking no longer than a couple weeks.” After all, how long could she possibly wait before she would give up? She hadn’t really considered that.

Brown folded his hands on the table and sent her a kind smile, his belly pressing up against the edge.

“Tell ye wot--me wife and ah ‘ave eh couple spare rooms, if’n ye’d like t’ rent one from us? Ye kin wait til she’s back from work, and ah’ll intraeduce ye.”

Taken back by his kindness, Annabelle lifted a hand and self consciously patted her curls.

“I mean, yes, that’s incredibly kind of you, Brown.”

But he waved his hands at he and shook his head.

“Nay, ‘tis nothin’.” Then he stood, turning his gaze out the window again and looking as though he was searching for something out there. When he didn’t see it, he turned back to her. “Ah’ve of a mind t’make yer stay eh pleasant one, aye? Kin hash out details late, right now ah’ve a dinner buffet t’start.” He began to walk away, tossing over his shoulder, “Milly’ll be back come five, yea?” And he disappeared once again into the kitchen.

Still stunned by this turn of events, Annabelle sat in the booth even after Brown had brought her out a container for her leftover food and a refill for her water. Then she sat back and stared out the winter, noting to her dismay the fog that was rolling on from the harbor.

It didn’t matter, as long as she still had her legs to carry her about and look for Rory. And she had decided to do just that when a group of what appeared to be locals came trudging through the pub’s door.

Not in the mood to listen to their boisterousness, Annabelle rose from her spot and gathered her purse and doggy bag. Then she navigated through the small but loud group towards the other side of the pub, where a sign depicting roosters and cats boasted the location of the restrooms.

She opened the door and walked through, just as the outer door of the pub was opened once again.

Chapter Text

Arms laden with enough groceries in canvas bags to last him two weeks aboard the new yacht, Rory managed to open the door to the pub and walk in, letting it swing shut behind him. He unloaded them onto the nearest empty table and looked about, seeing Brown towards the back finishing up taking an order from a table of youth.

When Brown turned and saw him, Rory thought the man’s eyes held slightly more joy to see him than expected, but he didn’t say anything as Brown approached and grinned.

“Me boy, s’good t’see ye.”

“I was just here this morning,” Rory pointed out, but he shook his head and smiled as Brown chortled in response.

“Aye, aye, still good,” he added.

“Will you be having your Christmas dinner tonight?” One last meal before he set sail would hold Rory over until the morning, and he still wasn't keen on cooking for himself, despite the noticeable upgrade in kitchen amenities in the yacht. It sported a full kitchen but he never was one to do a lot of cooking. Easy meals is what he preferred, so his bags were full of the like--bread and meats for sandwiches, eggs and bacon, fruit for easy snacking, and a few boxes of crackers and blocks of cheese. But tonight he was in the mood for some of Brown’s ham and potatoes, and possibly some pie.

“Aye, y’know Milly’s been preppin’ all week, ye kin. Even made ‘er famous blackberry pie. We’ll have quite th’ off’rings, yea?”

Then he walked towards the back of the pub and rounded the end of the bar, giving a quick glance down the hallway to the restrooms before shooting a grin back at Rory.

Puzzled even more, Rory narrowed his eyes at the old Scotsman. But he supposed Brown was allowed to be a bit strange, seeing as how he was born and bred Scottish and had adopted all the country’s quirks in old age. Rory could only hope he’d be as comfortable with himself at that age as Brown was.

With one last glance at the man in question, Rory scooped up his bags and nodded in farewell.

“I’ll be back tonight, then,” he said, forehead creased in curiosity as Brown’s face contorted into pure glee with an emphatic nod.

Once outside, Rory used his only available finger to nudge Annabelle’s scarf up towards his chin, blocking the breeze from biting at his neck. It was only about ten degrees, but as that was so close to freezing, the forecasted rain seemed more of a joke. Thank goodness the forecast for the following week was warmer. Freezing rain wasn’t fun when one had plans to sail.

The walk back to the harbor was quick enough, but Rory was nearly frozen to the bone by the time he closed the hatch behind him, setting his bags down on the spacious counter.

It was going to take a while to get used to the new surroundings, but he knew he’d at least be comfortable. Despite being several years old and well used, the XC-45 had been kept in immaculate shape, and the maintenance had been done on schedule, with a few extras.

And he could stand upright, which in itself was worth the price it had fetched from him.

He set the scarf on the corner of the counter and hung his coat in the closet before he put away his groceries. He didn’t have plans for the afternoon besides answering an email or two and checking in with his agent about the schedule for the Comic Con event in London in May--anything to fill his time so he didn’t spend the next few hours thinking about Annabelle.

Which was hard, seeing as how he kept that damned scarf with him wherever he went. It didn’t even have a spot in the closet with the rest of his gear, but instead sat on the corner of the counter the entire time he was inside the yacht. And when he wasn’t inside the yacht, at this time of year it spent the rest of its time wrapped around his neck.

It was almost enough to make him mad--mad at fate, mad at whatever forces it was that decided who ended up with whom, and who died alone, and who lived like Brown, with a wife of forty-five years and so tickled pink by her that she was all he talked about. Rory had to admit, he was slightly jealous of the man, although he would never begrudge someone their happiness. And he was truly happy that his friend was so happy.

He just wished he had some of it for himself; he wished he had even just a sliver of that pie.

But at the moment it seemed like it wasn’t meant to be.

He sat heavily on the end of the small couch, directly across from where the end of the blue, green and black plaid scarf dangled off the end of the counter. He stared at it, as he often did, willing himself to not think about its previous owner and failing miserably.

He wondered how she was doing, what she was doing, what she was wearing. He wanted to know who she was with, if she was happy, or if she was as miserable as he was.

Unable to stop himself, he reached over and grasped the fringe, pulling it so that it draped over his raised knee, and then reeling it in until the whole mass of softness sat in a pool in his lap. He fingered the tight weave, followed the lines of pattern with his fingers, and rubbed it in his hands, enjoying the way the fibers felt against his palm. Then he lifted it as a whole to his face, inhaling deeply, knowing he’d find the faint vestiges of Annabelle hidden in its scent.

He kept it there, heels of his hands pressed against his eyes before sliding the scarf over to rest his cheek against it’s pillowing shape.

Aye, he loved her still. And likely would, for a long time. But he had this scarf. At least he had this scarf, the only physical object to remember her by.

Rory only sat there for a few minutes before he stood, putting it back in its place on the corner of the counter, determined to not spend his time pining for her when he could be doing something more useful.

He happened to glance out the window when he stood to gather the paperwork that had come with the purchase of the yacht, intending to continue reading through the various manuals for the kitchen equipment and the engine components, when a group of people walking along the pier caught his eye. They seemed to be a group of youngsters, perhaps twenty-somethings, but one at the back, trailing behind them, caught his eye. From this distance, where he could barely see over the decks of all the yachts between him and the group, she appeared to resemble Annabelle. But he couldn’t quite tell how tight or lose the coils of curls on her head was, nor what specific shade her skin was, or if her nose was shaped like Annabelle’s. From way back at the end of the pier, her face appeared to him as just a blur.

For a few moments he watched her, letting his mind run away with thoughts of what would have happened had it actually been Annabelle.

What would he do? What would he say? What would she say?

As he watched, the group filed up the walkway, the woman who resembled Annabelle trailing behind them, pausing to look out on the marina once more before following her friends up the walkway.

Rory turned from the window and laid out his paperwork on the dinette, trying to focus on the task at hand when his thoughts all wanted to turn to golden curls and green eyes.

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Annabelle bristled walking behind the slow moving group of teenagers, having to listen to them laugh and complain about their peers in language she only halfway understood. Their accents were thick, the words they used so foreign to her they made Brown sound like he was simply from Alabama.

When at last they breached the top of the walkway and turned left, she turned right and headed to where her rental was parked. A few moments of peace and quiet was what she wanted.

Sitting in the rental, she leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, wondering, if this day was already this stressful, how would she last the two weeks she’d told Brown she would be here? How could she survive fourteen whole days, every morning waking up hoping that that day would be the day Rory would appear, and ending the day without him? Already she was beginning to feel the negativity sliding into her mind, the hopelessness threatening to trigger her surrender. She could easily call the airline and request an immediate ticket back to Montana.

And oh, it was tempting. Avoiding all of this stress and taking the easy way out.

But then, she wouldn’t know if Rory ever came back to Troon. She wouldn’t know if she could find him, or if he would take her back.

Take her back . She closed her eyes at that thought. God, she wanted him to take her back. She wanted to drop to her knees in front of him and beg him to forgive her for being so stupid and for letting outside forces influence her decisions. She wanted to cry that she’d never do it again, and that she would spend the rest of her life making him happy because she had never been happier than those few days she’d had with him.

She wanted to tell him, most of all, that she loved him--that she’d known it for a long time but that she had ignored it, and had denied them their happiness because she doubted their ability to make it work.

Make it work . Another phrase that had been stuck in her mind for the last five days, ever since Rory walked out of their hotel room in Milan.

How could she have thrown that in his face as many times as she did? She could only imagine the level of heartbreak she’d given him, after he had told her he loved her.

She remembered his face clearly when he told her that, and she had told him it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter . Even now the words sounded cruel, especially because he’d said it even after finding out she’d received an email from Clay that she hadn’t told him about.

Annabelle should have told him. She should have said something, been honest with him, and given him the same regard that he gave her.

Make it work . They would. They could make it work, she had no doubt. She loved him enough, yearned for him enough, and she knew she really would spend the rest of her life making him happy.

If only he took her back.

As she sat in the rental car she watched the boats bobbing gently in the marina below, seeing people milling about as they secured everything for the night, lights inside cabins coming on as the amount of people on the pier dwindled. A woman came out of one, it seemed just to turn on Christmas lights that wrapped all the way to the top of the mast. A man climbed out of a larger one, papers in hand, to do something that she couldn’t see. They were both too far away for her to make out any sort of detail about them.

Many of the boats sat vacant, their owners somewhere unseen--at Christmas celebrations, perhaps? Or maybe dinner? At relative’s houses? Annabelle wished she knew.

She tried to tell herself it wasn’t awkward or weird for her to be sitting at the edge of a marina in Scotland on Christmas Day, trying to track down a celebrity with whom she’d entered into a temporary relationship that she now wished to make permanent.

But she failed. It was weird, but it was everything she was resting her hopes on at the moment.

Figuring it was about time to head back to the pub to meet Milly, Annabelle locked up the car, having already paid for parking, and gathered her things out of the back seat. She still had her one large purse and the one suitcase, with all the clothes she had just spent living in for the last two weeks with Rory.

The walk back was quick, and just as she was getting to the door, a group of middle aged men barrelled out, laughing and pushing at each other. She tried to move out of the way and had nearly managed to, when one of them grabbed her by the shoulders and held onto her, forcing her to look up into his face.

“Well, wot d’we ‘ave ‘ere, boys?”

He glanced at his companions and then back down at her, his greasy tongue coming out to lick at his moist lips. His eyes were glassy and his breath stunk of alcohol.

One of his friends stepped on close, reaching out to slide his fingers into her hair before she could jerk away.

“Might be one o’ them tourists,” said the second one, more of her height but stockier than the first, with an equal stench on his breath.

“Aye, yea,” said the first, whose fingers were now digging through her coat and into her shoulders. “We should, y’know, show’er a good time!”

“Hey!” a voice yelled from behind them. Annabelle and the two men looked at the same time, the menacing voice easily breaking through their comments to commandeer the situation.

Brown , in all his short, round, red fury, stood there at the door, his hands balled into great big beefy fists at his sides. The look in his eyes was positively murderous, and if Annabelle wasn’t the victim in the situation she would have been scared out of her mind of him.

The men didn’t back down, but when Annabelle glanced at them she could see the one who held her had visibly paled. When Brown spoke again, she watched the younger man’s adam’s apple bob dramatically as he swallowed.

“Tommy, ye best ‘member wot ah did wen yer brothuh made eyes wi’ me Milly.” At those words his hands loosened, but not enough for her to escape. Brown continued, “If’n ye’d fancy a week ina hospital, ye just keep ye hands on’at lass en I’ll deliver ye there meself.”

That got the man to release her, and with a few more words, Brown had all of the men scurrying off at a fast clip, his face morphing from rabid bulldog to friendly pub owner in a matter of seconds. Annabelle had no doubt Tommy’s brother had suffered, if the size of those fists were any indication of the measure of the blows Brown could deliver with them.

Not wanting to think about what could have happened had Brown not been looking, she followed him inside where several patrons were already enjoying some of the food he’d laid out on a table off to the side of the bar.

“Me Milly’s in th’ kitch’n, Annabelle. Ye go’n back en meet her if ye like.” Then he turned from her and walked towards a back table where someone was waving him down.

Left standing in the middle of the floor, she realized how strange she looked so she quickly walked behind the bar and headed through the door she’d seen Brown filter in and out of several times that day. And what greeted her was a kitchen as hole-in-the-wall as the pub itself.

Along the left wall was a prep station, a large stove with ovens beneath it, and a couple vertical ovens beside. Across from her on the opposite sat the walk in cooler and freezer, and along the other side, next to the door to what she assumed was the office, sat an industrial mixer, another prep station with warming lamps above it, and the sink station.

It was small and compact, and Annabelle was more than a bit surprised that this fully functioning pub and restaurant operated out of this small space. But that they did, along with provided a good-sized spread of Christmas foods for any locals who wanted to come through when they had nowhere else to go.

Standing at the stove stirring a large pot of something that was filling the kitchen with a sweet, heavenly scent, stood a woman who would have looked completely out of place had she not been wearing the most garish, ruffled, wildflower print apron that Annabelle had ever seen. She was thin and petite, and would have looked to be in her forties had she not had shoulder length gray hair that fell in loose, glorious waves.

When Annabelle walked in she looked up, showing a youthful face with incredibly smooth skin, high cheekbones, and eyes that matched her silver hair. Simply put, she was stunningly beautiful, and Annabelle could only hope that she looked half as good when she was that age.

Brown must have said something to her about expecting her because the woman’s smile was only rivalled in warmness by his.

“Hello. My name is Milly, and you must be Annabelle.”

She put the spoon down on a spoon rest and wiped her hand on her apron before extending it for Annabelle to shake.

Annabelle was rooted to the spot, so caught off guard by this woman’s very American accent that she was momentarily speechless. Still, she held out her hand and gave the small yet firm hand a shake.

“Brown told me we’d be having a house guest.” Her smile was still wide and friendly but Annabelle was conscious of the way she’d chose to word the statement.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry,” she professed. “Did Brown not ask you? I’ll find somewhere else to stay, I don’t want to be in anyone’s way--”

“Calm down,” said Milly with a soft laugh. She put a gentle hand on Annabelle’s shoulder and motioned for her to follow back to the office. As they walked she offered, “He did ask, but when he told me how sweet you were and how you just needed a room while you looked for your friend, of course I said yes. I’ll be glad to have some female company for a couple weeks, I assure you.” As she sat behind the desk and gestured towards the one in front of it, Annabelle sat, letting Milly’s smooth, mature voice flow over her. It wasn’t often she had a chance to speak to women about things that didn’t have to do with bad relationships, or her books, or Did she want fries with that . Lauren had been the one anomaly in life’s plan for Annabelle, or so she had thought. It seemed as though in Milly, another anomaly had appeared.

“Thank you, I really appreciate this,” Annabelle said as she sat. She pulled her purse onto her lap and rested her clasped hands on top. “Name your price, I’ll pay whatever you want to charge me for the room.”

Milly laughed, a pleasant sound as she sat back comfortably in the padded computer chair.

“Nonsense. You’ve made quite the impression on my Brown, and since all of our kids are grown and gone, we’d be pleased to have you as our guest for the duration of your search.” She leaned forward, giving Annabelle a pointed grin when she added, “And I meant what I said about having another female around. Brown gets to be… a lot to handle, sometimes.” She laughed again, and this time Annabelle laughed with her.

“He’s very nice,” assured Annabelle, “And he just saved me from being accosted by some local men.”

“Oh, aye,” Milly chuckled, using a word Annabelle only associated with people who were from here. But she supposed if you lived with a Scotsman for as long as Milly had, you picked up on a few things. “Brown is a champion of the downtrodden, and sometimes ends up in somewhat precarious positions when he bites off more than he can chew.”

“By the size of his fists I’m guessing that’s not often?”

Milly smiled, but Annabelle was pleasantly surprised to see her blush at the same time.

“Oh yes, the size of his fists.” That statement was heavy with unintended innuendo, and Annabelle attributed it to two people who were most assuredly very happily married. “He has been known to speak before thinking, and those fists have gotten him both into and out of numerous scuffles.”

Milly paused in her description of Brown to ask if Annabelle would like a cup of tea, to which Anabelle replied affirmatively. When Milly returned from putting a kettle on to boil, she continued speaking about Brown.

“He is a special one, that one. And I snagged him before any other woman could.” She looked so wistful, Annabelle found herself asking how Brown and Milly met.

“The short version is, I came across as a teenager with my family and never returned home. Of course, it took several years for them to forgive me, but once my mom fell in love with Brown, everything was okay. We’ve been married forty-six years come spring, and every moment has either been a blessing or the means to creating one.”

She reached up and drew her hair over one shoulder in such a beguiling, unassuming gesture that Annabelle could easily see the young woman in her that Brown had fallen in love with. It was no wonder he still referred to her as “Me Milly.”

“I’d like to someday have what you have,” admitted Annabelle softly, squeezing the top of her purse as she realized the intimacy of her declaration. But Milly seemed not to mind at all.

“Oh, darling,” she cooed in a motherly voice Annabelle hadn’t heard in over a decade. It nearly brought tears to her eyes. “I’m certain that you will.” And Milly reached across the desk and held out her hands, leaving Annabelle no other option than to put her own in them.

“Have faith,” Milly continued, “Your man is just around the corner.”

Chapter Text

Rory opened the door to the pub, surprised at how crowded it was for Christmas dinner. Although he was happy for Brown and Milly and for the money they’d make from sales, he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to get much conversation in with his friend.

He barely caught sight as Milly disappeared around the corner and into the stairwell that led to their apartment above the pub, but decided he’d say hello to her later. Brown was behind the bar serving drinks to some folks, along with someone he must have hired for the night to help with service.

“There y’are, was wondrin’ if’n I’d see ye t’night,” Brown said with a big grin. Rory smiled in return, feeling better about his day after being greeted so warmly. That was something amazing about Brown--he could make you happy just by being.

“Aye,” he responded, taking an empty seat towards the end. “You’re busy, but I’d like to fill a container to take back to my boat.”

Brown handed him his customary pint and nodded, pulling a to-go container out from a shelf behind the bar for Rory to use at the buffet.

“Ye sure ye dinnae stick ‘round, Rory?” Brown asked intently, pausing in his gathering ingredients for a cocktail to wait for an answer. But Rory wouldn’t be swayed. He wasn’t fit for such large company this evening. He was looking forward to getting back to the boat and the silence it offered. It was better than milling about in a pub where he only knew the owners and he wasn’t up for conversation with anyone else.

He nodded, scanning the current crowd before returning his sardonic gaze back to Brown.

“I’m sure,” he replied with a smile. “You’re a bit busy for my tastes. But I’ll stop in tomorrow if you’ll be open.”

Brown nodded again, looking about the room with a smile on his face.

“Aye, I’ll be. Does eh man good t’see so many ‘appy faces. There’s one ah’d like t’see ‘appy, tho.” Then he turned sad eyes at Rory, making the larger man chuff.

“Brown, I’m good, really.”

“Might be. But ye’d be better wi’ yer woman.”

Ah, so that was what Brown was getting at. It was a step away from matchmaking and Rory wanted no part in it. He drank deeply of his ale, emptying half the glass before setting it down and wiping his mustache with the back of his hand.

“Nay, old man,” he said with a warm smile, looking into Brown’s twinkling, concerned eyes. “I don’t need a woman.”

“Oh, aye, ye do. Every man needs eh good woman, every man. Say, when’re ye plannin’ on leavin’ for th’ sea?”

“If not tomorrow, than for sure the day after. But I’ll stop by tomorrow to talk.” The bell above the door chimed signalling new arrivals, and Rory glanced over.

His heart skipped a beat at what he saw.

With her back to him, she looked so familiar--golden curls a bit looser than he remembered, solid black jacket, standing at the same height that he remembered her with, without those heeled boots she seemed so fond of.

What was she doing here? His hands were suddenly clammy and his breath stuck in his throat, suddenly self conscious of the plaid scarf he wore about his neck at the moment--

Then the woman turned, and she had a most decidedly hooked nose, and eyes a darker brown than even his own.

His evening, suddenly inflamed by the possibility that he was about to see Annabelle again, immediately crashed and burned around him, leaving him with slumped shoulders and the burning desire to leave the crowded pub.

“Eh, she’ll turn up, Rory, don’ ye be worryin’ ‘bout that.”

Brown’s voice was softened and gentle, as though he knew exactly what had just gone down inside his own pub. And when Rory looked back at him, it was a face overtaken with pity that looked back at him.

He couldn’t talk. His voice left him, or was at least blocked by the clot of emotion that suddenly clogged his damned throat.

With a brief nod at Brown he dropped a few bills on the counter, quickly filled his container with delicious foods he knew he wouldn’t taste, and made for the pier as fast as his long legs could carry him.

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Dinner was a quick affair, with Annabelle seated at the end of the bar with a plate in front of her and a massive glass of bitter ale beside it. When she was nearly done with the glass and full to her brim with the strong alcohol, she vowed to request water before ever ordering food from Brown again.

The food itself was amazing, with Milly coming out of the kitchen several times to greet people they knew, to give her husband a kiss on the cheek, or to join in when a particularly rowdy patron would erupt in song. All in all, the half hour Annabelle spent sitting at the bar listening to the other pub-goers proved to be a very exciting one, indeed.

When she’d finished off her food and had finally drank the last half inch of ale sitting in the bottom of her glass, she pushed both plate and glass towards the back edge of the bar and told Brown she’d be back soon.

“D’ye want me t’ find someone t’ go wit’ ye?” he asked, showing a fatherly concern for her that touched her heart. But she shook her head, patting the hand he’d rested over hers reassuringly.

“No, I’m just going to get some fresh air and I’ll be back. I’m still needing some of Milly’s blackberry pie for dessert before I turn in for the night.”

“Aye, well take this if’n ah can’t convince ye to take a partner,” and Brown dug through a drawer beneath the bar for a flashlight that he handed to her. “And take eh turn ‘bout th’ docks t’ clear ye head,” he suggested with a bold wink.

Annabelle looked at him oddly, though he just chuckled and went about his work after she thanked him for the flashlight. Then she headed out into the crisp air of evening.

It was mostly dark, but she felt less stifled as soon as she stepped outside. There were more people walking around than there had been before, but it was still not quite as busy as she had expected. She didn’t know if that made her safer or less so, but she was determined to look for Rory one last time before heading to bed.

Annabelle passed several couples and some small groups of people as she walked down the street towards the harbor, before turning and crossing the road to reach the parking lot. There she double checked that she had locked the car, although she knew she already had. It felt like what it was--a stalling technique. She was afraid she wasn’t going to find him or his boat and it was making her not want to go to the marina.

But she forced her feet to carry her towards the walkway, stopping once she reached the top. With her flashlight off, she could make out much of the well-lit space from where she stood, knowing exactly where to go to get to the spot Rory’s boat had once occupied. But thinking better of aiming for that place first, she proceeded down the walkway and turned left, heading for the very end aisle and choosing to work her way over to the other side.

As she walked she thought again of what she would do if she didn’t find Rory. She supposed she could always attempt to contact him through more official channels, such as his agent. But she was sure plenty of fans had already tried that so that avenue was closed.

He wasn’t into using social media, not that he would listen to a single fan begging for a meeting anyway, so that too was out.

Without any other ideas besides wait this out for two weeks to see if he showed up, she figured there was nothing to do after the failed endeavor but to go home. Perhaps it was time she got a pet, or looked into buying a home. She could make plans, continue her work, and maybe devote more of her time to her causes than she already did. Douglas wouldn’t like more volunteer work but he’d just have to deal with it.

Emotionally, though, she knew she’d be wrecked. After the complete upheaval her heart had endured over the last week, going home basically empty handed would hurt badly enough that even now she could picture herself holing up inside her apartment for a week or two, just drowning in her own misery until she was able to pull herself out of it and attempt to get over Rory.

But realistically, she knew there would be no getting over him.

He had completely, assuredly gotten under her skin. There would never be another man like him, no matter what Brown had to say about it. No matter what Milly, too, had to say about it.

Your man is just around the corner . Yeah, well, if the man wasn’t Rory than he wasn’t really her man .

Her one consolation would be that she had done everything she and Lauren and David had spoken about. If she didn’t find Rory she couldn’t very well shake her money maker at him, so anything in that portion of her conversation with the younger couple would be moot. But she would write to Lauren anyway and explain.

By the time she made it to the end of the marina, having traversed down every aisle and inspected as closely as the pier lighting would allow, every boat along her path, she knew for certain that none of them were Rory’s. And as she’d walked, and despair had settled over her heart with a steadily deepening stillness, she reached the end with tears once again in her eyes.

She would check back tomorrow, and the next day and the next, but tonight… Tonight felt like a goodbye.

With her heart tearing, she returned to the dock off of which Rory’s boat had been moored when they had come to spend the night. Stopping by the now unfamiliar yacht moored in that exact spot, Annabelle was thankful that it appeared no one was home. If anyone were to see her she would look like a strange woman staring longingly at a boat. But Brown would know, and Milly would know, as would Lauren and David.

Annabelle’s heart rested with the owner of that boat. And said owner was long gone.

Two weeks, she reminded herself. She would give it two weeks. And there were plenty of empty spots where, if she came down to walk several times throughout the day, each and every day she was staying with Milly and Brown, she might see Rory’s boat appear in one of them. It was possible. She had to keep telling herself that.

Her feet brought her to the end of the pier, standing at the corner next to the magnificent yacht moored there. It was big, much bigger than Rory’s, and swayed with the water lapping at its hull. Annabelle was beginning to love that sound, and everything good and pure and intimate that she now associated with it.

Rory. His yacht. Sleeping in his arms. Joy.

A tear slipped out as she looked past the yacht and out towards the lane along which diesel trailers were parked, likely awaiting cargo or ready to offload. Beyond them she knew lay the open water, something that up until now she hadn’t known she would want to explore with him. Wistful; longing--those were the emotions wrapped tightly around her heart, and the driving force that turned her face away from the sight and prompted her to drift back towards the walkway, slowly passing by boat after boat.

Tonight wouldn’t be the night she found him, and she needed to be okay with that. She was okay with that, her mind insisted. But, through tears, her heart insisted she wasn’t.

 

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Rory glanced out the window, seeing there a person walking slowly up the pier, head down. Turning back to his task of organizing the yacht’s paperwork in one of the cabinets, he wondered who it was.

Probably another owner , he thought. There weren’t too many visitors to boats this time of year. The cabin of a yacht, even one the size of his, weren’t incredibly conducive to large friends and family gatherings. He had enough room for perhaps ten people to sit, if you didn't count the bedrooms. And that’s only if they sat , and did nothing else.

The paperwork was proving to be more extensive than he thought, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the boat being so much newer than his previous one, it was nice to see so many of the different mechanical devices still had their manuals. If he were to go through every one, realistically he could spend the next two days reading them all.

A strong breeze sounded against the hull, making the lapping noises of small waves increase. Rory rose, intent on seeing if there was anything blowing about on the pier that might damage his or another’s boat. There always seemed to be those few owners who had not the common sense to properly secure everything on the decks of their boats. There had been more than one occasion where he’d returned after a long period away, only to find either damage to his own boat, or someone else’s belongings decorating his rigging.

There didn’t seem to be anything amiss out the small window of the cabin--no refuse blowing about, nothing in danger of colliding with his or anyone else’s boat.

A faint rumble signalled the starting of one of the engines further down his aisle, and as he watched, the person walking up the pier glanced in that direction.

When the boat’s exterior lights suddenly came on, they not only illuminated the deck and the two boats beside it, but also the golden halo of curls framing the pedestrian’s head.

For the second time that night, Rory’s heart threatened to stop at the reminder of Annabelle. And for the second time he had to breathe deeply, knowing that this woman wasn’t her. It didn’t seem fair that twice tonight he would be confronted with painful reminders in the form of women who happened to resemble her.

But then this person froze, turning to look at the boat whose engine had been started.

Rory froze as well, noting that this woman did not have a hooked nose.

It was enough to send him scrambling for the ladder, his large form a hindrance in the confined space of the yacht’s cabin. It was bigger, yes, than his previous yacht, but still so efficiently packed with amenities that he couldn’t prevent his thighs from banging against the edge of the table.

His hand unconsciously reached for the scarf as he moved through the cabin, slipping as he climbed up the ladder and painfully scraping his shins in the process.

He couldn’t breathe as he threw open the hatch, his mind struggling between adamantly insisting it couldn’t be her, and his heart insisting they investigate until the theory was proven otherwise. With these thoughts warring inside him, he stumbled again at the threshold and climbed over the side, down to the pier.

She stood a good distance from him, now with her face turned away once again. From this angle it was impossible to tell whether it was Annabelle. The height was right, the jacket was right, that glorious hair color was right. But otherwise it was impossible to tell.

Still he approached, slowly. So slowly in fact that his feet made no noise on the pier.

And then he saw it--the proof he needed to see, and his heart began thumping inside his chest, so loudly that he wondered if she’d be able to hear it.

Her hand drifted down, and the only movement in her body, aside from the lifting of hairs caused by the breeze, was the way her fingers toyed with and slid along the hem of her jacket.

He stilled, her scarf still dangling from his hand. He stared at her dumbfounded, not understanding why she was here.

She turned her head once again to the boat and he saw her profile clearly now, though she still didn’t see him. It was her. It was absolutely her. His hand clenched around the scarf.

Why? Did she miss him? Questions revolved around in his mind as he drank in the sight of her, remembering the feel of her in his arms, the taste of her kiss, as though it had just been yesterday that he had experienced those things. What reason could she possibly have to be back in that harbor, at that particular marina, wandering the pier alone at night?

Did she want her scarf back?

His questioning was cut off when she began walking back towards the shore, her steps slow and her head down. She looked contemplative, perhaps even sad. But he didn’t have a chance to mull it over. Before she could get to far away he said her name, his first attempt coming out as a harsh whisper. He spoke again, knowing he needed her to hear him over the sounds of lapping water and rustling rigging.

Her name was still a quiet, “Annabelle,” but it was loud enough that he saw her stop.

Bringing the scarf up, he held it in both of his hands, clutching it to his chest as though if he loosened his grip, she would disappear.

He said her name again, louder this time, and she turned slowly towards the sound of his voice.

Rory’s heart hammered within his chest as her eyes met his where he was standing, at least six meters from her position.

Her gasp was loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the marina.

Chapter Text

Annabelle blinked, and then blinked again. She had spent so many hours thinking that she wasn’t going to see Rory again, and yet there he was in front of her, looking like he couldn’t believe it was her, either.

She raked her eyes over the length of him, as though making sure it wasn’t simply Rory’s face on someone else’s body. But no, he was all there--the extreme height, the long limbs, though his beard had grown in since she’d last seen him several days before, now thick enough to obscure the skin beneath. And his hands--she remembered those hands, how they felt in hers, the texture and smoothness of his skin, the way they were so gentle with her, hands which were now clutching tightly at--

“My scarf.”

She was surprised to see it, knowing she had likely left it somewhere during her stay but not knowing where. She hadn’t realized until now, seeing it in Rory’s hands, that she must have left it on his boat.

But something changed in his face as she said the words, and when her gaze darted from his face to her scarf and back again--something that made him look guarded, even wary of her.

Oh god , she thought. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

She took a step towards him, and then another, and another, walking slowly as though she was approaching a wild animal, only because the expression on his face was undecipherable. Was he happy to see her? If he hadn’t been, wouldn’t he have let her walk away without calling out to her? And why was he looking at her like that?

Should she do what she’d pictured herself doing and fall to her knees before him, begging forgiveness and professing her love to him? Would he appreciate that?

Deciding to start again, she swallowed before speaking.

“Rory--”

“Annabelle,” he said, speaking at the same time. She smiled lightly, close enough to him now that she could see the slightly upturned corner of his mouth.

“You go first,” she offered, gesturing towards him with her hand.

“Nae, you, I insist.”

She nearly closed her eyes at the sound of his voice. How many times over the last five days had she thought she’d never hear it again? And now that she was, she wanted to savor the moment, because she’d never been so happy to hear a man speak as she was right now.

“Well…”

She started to talk but stopped again, swallowing back her insecurities.

“I suppose you would like to know why I’m here.” Annabelle folded her hands in front of her, looking down at the wood beneath their feet as she shuffled her feet. When he didn’t answer she looked up at him only to find him studying her, still guarded but a little less wary now.

“I also suppose I just need to say it.” She chuckled again, adding, “You’d think for an award winning writer I’d be better with words.” When he didn’t smile at that, she swallowed again, unable to hold his gaze. She suddenly found the boat to their side extremely fascinating.

Lauren and David’s simultaneous voices rang in her mind, “Apologize!”

Deciding that postponing it would only make this agonizingly embarrassing moment worse, she closed her eyes for a moment before plowing ahead.

“I’m here, first and foremost, because I want to apologize for acting so horrendously towards you that last day in the hotel room. I shouldn’t have said all the things I said, and I was wrong to push you away, especially days earlier than we were supposed to part.”

She found herself wanting to look at him now so she did, also taking a step closer and bringing herself within just a few feet of him, just out of his long reach. She still had to look up into his face, her hands itching to reach out to him. Instead she pulled at the hem of her coat, unable to keep her hands still as he stared down at her.

“I had so much fun with you, from that first day in the airport, and I grew to… care… about you, Rory. I really did.” God, she should just tell him. But--

No, not yet. She couldn’t. She should , but she couldn’t.

“I said some truly horrible things and I didn’t mean any of them.” He’d remained motionless while listening to her this whole time, but at that she saw his face soften, just slightly but it was there. It gave her courage to continue.

“When you told me you loved me and I told you that it didn’t matter--” They both grimaced then, but it needed to be said, “--I was lying. It did matter, Rory. It mattered a whole heck of a lot. It meant more to me than any declaration of love anyone has ever given me. And I’m so, so sorry that I… that I…” She didn’t even know how to express how badly she had reacted to it.

“Shit on it?”

Her eyes connected with his again, and, while gnawing at her lower lip, she nodded. She wet it before speaking again, seeing the hurt again in his eyes, and this time her voice was quiet with sorrow.

“I’m sorry for doing that, Rory. I’m sorry for--for everything. Just, everything.”

Now . It had to be now, before he turned and walked away from her.

Annabelle stepped closer, just once. If he wanted to, he could have reached out to touch her.

“Well, I’m not sorry for every thing,” she amended. Still straight faced, she looked up into his eyes as she took a step closer. “I’m not sorry for getting to know you, or for having fun with you, for spending so much time with you. I’m not sorry for giving my ticket away to that woman, or for coming back to our hotel rooms and using you for comfort. I’m not sorry for…” She shook her head. “I’m not sorry,” stepping closer still, until they were but a couple feet apart, she said “for all the nights you and I spent together--whether we made love or not.”

With everything in her, she willed him to see the emotions in her eyes that were swirling in her heart, the crashing waves of love that washed over the cliffs of regret, cleansing her of all impurities that would have her be anywhere but there, on that pier, standing before him at that moment. She wanted to be nowhere else, and he needed to see that.

He still held the scarf with two hands between them, so she reached out and gently pried one of his hands away from the fabric, holding his large palm in both of her smaller ones. Momentarily distracted by the feel of his skin once more against hers, she was powerless to deny the urge to draw her fingertips from the soft skin of his wrist, over the thick skin of his palm and up the underside of his fingers, Then she wrapped her hands around his and looked up again into those soft brown eyes, craving the love she had once seen in them. Maybe she could put it there again, if she beared all to him.

“Rory, I’m not sorry that I fell in love with you, somewhere in Scotland--no--” She needed to be completely honest. “No, it was Edinburgh, do you realize that? I fell in love with you by the time we’d reached Edinburgh,” she smiled, feeling somehow lightened at saying it out loud. “And even then, when I thought I would be leaving you to head to Madrid alone, I decided to explore what we had, no matter what the consequences were.”

She bit her lip and looked down at his hand, still resting listless between hers.

“I just didn’t count on what happened.” Again she lifted her eyes to his, hoping that somewhere inside him her words were resonating. “I didn’t know I’d feel such a strong connection to you, nor that you would make me so happy. And it sucked--that I still felt up until the very end that I had to say goodbye to you.” She laughed lightly, thinking of how ridiculous she’d been. “God, I was so stupid .”

Finally he spoke, with a small shake of his head.

“No, not stupid.” His words were slow and measured, but they meant the world to Annabelle. “You were being cautious.”

Too cautious,” she agreed, “I can see that now. In fact, I really had no need to be cautious at all. You never would have hurt me, would you.”

It wasn’t a question, but he shook his head anyway and answered.

“I never would, Annabelle. Won’t,” he added, sparking hope within her chest. Still not moving, he finished with a quiet, “Never,” that made her heart flutter within her chest.

It was now or never.

“Rory, will you please forgive me? For being completely clueless, for turning down your love when you offered it to me so freely?” She swallowed yet again, but this time it was against the emotion welling up in her throat. For the first time in days she felt hope, and it was precious. “Will you accept my love now? Because I do, Rory--I love you. With every bit of me, I love you.”

And that was it. That was all she could say, because if he didn’t have forgiveness in his heart there was no need to speak of the next step, whatever that was. Why talk of where to live, what to do now, when to go back to Montana, if he didn’t want to accept her apology and return the love she now offered.

So she waited in silence, watching as he turned his face from her, though leaving his hand to be clasped by hers, and looked towards the very open water that she herself had gazed at earlier that day. He looked about, eyes scanning the horizon, not appearing to look at anything in particular but instead using the dark scenery as a diversion while he thought about how to respond.

So intent was she on her visual exploration of his features, that when he swept his thumb across the back of her hand, a gentle caress that harkened back to the lazy nights and sweet cuddling they’d enjoyed during their time in Europe together, she startled, feeling nearly every muscle in her body twitch in surprise.

Her breath caught in her throat and she ceased to breathe when Rory brought his eyes back around to look deeply into hers.

 

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Now that Rory had had a few minutes to realize that Annabelle was in fact standing in front of him, spilling her guts out to him, and telling him everything he’d ever dreamed of hearing her say, he was having a hard time restraining himself from touching her. He had slipped up, his thumb acting basically of its own accord, and had touched the back of her hand.

Damned thumb. Get a hold of yourself , he wanted to say to it.

But he wasn’t daft--here she was in front of him, and his body knew what it wanted. His heart knew what it wanted. His brain was just trying to take things slow.

And god, but she was fucking gorgeous. Looking at him like that, with her heart in her eyes, he knew he wasn’t going to last long. And so when moments later he heard the thought, Then why try? go through his mind, he knew he was a goner.

“I’ve worn your scarf every damned day--”

He couldn’t say anything else because she’d let go of his hand and lifted up on her toes to drag his mouth down to hers, and it was like they’d never been apart. There on the empty pier, where anyone could walk up on them at any moment, he wrapped his arms around her back and pulled her hard against his body as his tongue swept through her mouth and she whimpered against him.

It was similar to laying down in bed after a long day’s work--such blissful relief from the stress and disappointment that had clouded Rory’s heart and mind for days, since he had walked out on Annabelle in that hotel room. Her hands grabbed at him, with one fisting his shirt at the back of his neck and the other grasping what she could of his short hair. Then she held him captive as she claimed his mouth just as assuredly as he claimed hers, pouring his own heart out into it so that when they eventually broke apart she would have no doubt as to how he felt about her.

But not yet , he thought as he carded a hand into her hair, finally feeling those glorious soft curls slide between his fingers. The curve of her waist beneath his fisted hand, and the crush of her body against his, was eliciting in him that primal urge he felt when he was around her--to claim her, to mark her as his and only his.

“Annabelle,” he rasped against her mouth, and she pulled hers to the side to trail kisses across his cheek, directing his head with her hands as she nipped at his neck with her mouth. This left his own lips free so he could speak.

“I don’t ever want to be apart from you again,” he admitted, hearing the certainty and emotion in his voice, but not caring one bit. She was doing things to him that were scrambling his brain, and he was lucky to get out coherent sentences.

“Yes,” she agreed, hissing against his throat as she slid around to the other side. He felt her tongue dip into the hollow of his throat before she left a wet trail headed upwards towards his ear. When she drew the lobe gently through her teeth, he heard himself growl and pulled away from her, taking over this very public seduction.

“I’ll never,” she whispered heatedly when his mouth opened over her pulse point, dragging his beard across her skin knowing full well there would be red marks in the morning. He groaned in response to her words, nipping upwards until he was trailing his lips along her jaw, only lessening the pressure when he got to her lips. There, he savored them, running his tongue across the smooth expanse of lower lip, urging her to open for him with nibbling kisses to her mouth.

“I love you, Annabelle,” he whispered hoarsely when she finally did open, and he caught her moan with a kiss.

Her hands came up to bracket his face and she pulled away--”I love you too, Rory,”--before coming back for more, and then pulling away again, causing him to growl yet again--”I love you so much it hurts.”

And because he understood exactly how that felt, he broke the kiss and crushed her to his chest, this time in a hug that would leave no question as to exactly where he thought she belonged.

They stood like that, wrapped in each others arms, for so long that eventually he realized everything around them had gone silent. There were no sounds from the marina or the other boats, no people up along the shore, no faint echoes of conversation drifting down to them. Just pure silence, but it was a comfortable silence, with that familiar shape of Annabelle’s body resting against his. He sighed into her hair when she rubbed at his chest with her cheek, a soft mewling sound coming from her when she tilted her nose into his chest and inhaled deeply.

He felt the same way, inhaling her hair and finding intense comfort and reassurance in that fragrance--the same fragrance that had been fading from the scarf he still held for the last couple of days. He’d never have to depend on that scarf again, seeing as how the real thing was even now entwined around his waist, nuzzling at his shirt with her nose.

It was then that he loosened his grip on her, the silence around them also signalling a lack of some sort of threat to his newfound happiness.

He pulled back to find that he could barely see her face, except for the whiteness of her teeth that seemed to glow in the dim light of the marina lights. He lifted his hands from her torso and cradled her face in his large hands, swiping thumbs across her cheekbones and encountering wetness.

“No crying, Annabelle,” he pleaded quietly, thinking how at odds the tears were with her smile. But she merely chuckled, and nodded slightly, before leaning her cheek into one of his hands.

“I missed you so much,” she whispered, turning her face to press a kiss to his palm. It sent tingles up his arm and heat straight to his groin. He barely managed to ignore it so he could reply.

“Aye, I’ve missed you too, girl, more than you could know.”

Her face tilted back up to his and she whispered, even quieter this time, “I’m so sorry, Rory.”

But he knew the time for apologies was over. He wiped away the fresh tears and leaned down to press a lingering kiss to the center of her forehead, and then one to the corner of each eye, before his lips couldn’t resist and he pressed them once more to hers in a kiss that conveyed his love.

“None of that, now, love,” he whispered back. “It’s all over now. I love you, you love me, and we’re together.”

He felt her cheeks round in a smile as she nodded.

“Yes, together.”

But before he could say anything else, she pulled back, her mood suddenly shifting as she glanced around them, eyes wide with remembered surprise.

“Oh, Rory! Where’s your boat?”

Chapter Text

To say Annabelle had been shocked to see the new yacht was an understatement. It was used but had minimal signs of wear. But it was so different, so much bigger and cleaner than what he’d had, that she was caught off guard when he had initially pointed at it.

The same damned boat she’d been standing beside moments before, despondent over possibly never seeing Rory again, and he had been inside the cabin, just feet away from her the whole time. She wondered if that had happened before, seeing as how she’d walked down this aisle of moored boats several times already that day.

Hand in hand, he had helped her up onto the deck and had shown her around, before helping her descend the ladder into the main cabin. There he’d resumed holding her hand as he gave her the tour, sounding proud of his new accommodations and yet hopeful.

The hopefulness had caught her off guard, and it was such a boyish reaction on his face that she felt her heart warm with love for him. He was concerned that if they were to be together, that she wouldn’t like the boat.

So she’d turned to him then and put both hands on his chest, lifting her face in invitation to receive his restrained kiss before telling him the yacht was lovely.

His smile had shone and she’d felt a twinge in her chest, excitement at once again being confronted by those smiling brown eyes and warm expression. Her hands had slid upwards and around his neck, drawing him down for a kiss that better displayed her emotions of that moment.

After some time they had pulled apart, with him leading her to sit at the dinette while he made coffee, a steady stream of conversation coming from both of them.

“You drove?” Rory was asking, obviously shocked as he stirred cream and sugar into two mugs of coffee. “From Glasgow? ” He chuckled as he set the mugs on the table and sat across from her, their knees bumping beneath the table’s surface.

“Yes,” she said laughing, “And I will not be doing that again. I think I nearly took out a diesel and two minivans just trying to switch lanes.”

Their mutual laughter rang through the cabin and Annabelle smiled, happier than… she couldn’t even remember when.

This was different than the nearly two weeks they had spent together--mostly because this togetherness was open-ended, with no agreed upon time to separate. This was them together, and she knew the man across from her was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. No matter what trials they came upon, what their schedules held, or what curveballs life threw at them--he was hers, and she was his.

As though reading her mind, Rory’s face grew serious and when he spoke, his voice was reserved and quiet. He reached across the table to take her hand in his.

“I meant what I said earlier, Annabelle.”

She tilted her head slightly, wondering what part of their earlier conversation he was referring to.

“That you missed me?”

His mouth quirked upwards into a quick smile.

“No, I mean I really did wear your scarf every day.” He reached behind him and took it off the counter, setting it on the table between them.

Annabelle laughed, but nodded as she pulled it towards her. He’d really worn it every day? She brought it to her face with her other hand and breathed deeply, sighing into it before setting it back down and looking into his eyes.

“It smells like you,” she agreed with a smile.

“Aye, and it smelled like you, which is why I wore it.”

His voice was so soft it nearly sounded sad, and she laid her other hand over their entwined fingers. Knowing that he’d worn the scarf, that he really had missed her, and that he was willing to admit it to her now, brought the prick of tears to her eyes.

“I was such a fool, Rory,” she confessed, shaking her head.

It pained her to think back on that day in the hotel room when she very nearly couldn’t even look at it. It had hurt so bad, knowing they weren’t going to remain together, that she had shut herself off from him days before he was supposed to leave.

He appeared to see the pain on her face because he pulled at her hand, guiding her to rise and stand before him as he turned to face her.

Looking up at her, he reached up to brush some of her hair back behind her shoulder with the backs of his fingers, before guiding them to rest against her neck.

“Aye,” he merely said, but they both had to smile because he was just trying to be a brat. But more seriously he affirmed, “We both were. I should have stayed and fought for you, Annabelle, instead of giving up so easily and leaving. Can you forgive me for my part in all this?”

“I could forgive you anything, Rory,” she whispered in return, bending down to press a chaste kiss to his mouth.

“I really did mean what I said,” he murmured against her lips before she stood back up. “I missed you, Annabelle. So damned much.”

When his voice cracked on the last word he let his forehead fall to her chest, where she cradled him against her shirt in a position that mirrored one they had engaged in what seemed like an eternity ago.

She stroked her hands through his hair as he rested against her, feeling the cup of his hands on the backs of her thighs, moving up over her butt to her waist, where they finally went beneath her shirt and touched the bare skin of her lower back. He groaned into her shirt and she smiled, dropping a kiss to the crown of his head.

The first time they’d done this, it had ended with them making love for the first time. When that thought ricocheted into clarity in her mind she couldn’t stop the small intake a breath, bringing Rory’s eyes up to look at hers. His chin rested between her breasts and their faces were mere inches apart, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing.

He drew back enough to allow his hands to slide forward, bracketing her bare waist between his palms as her lips parted. With him this close, it was easy for her fingers to explore his face, which they did now meticulously, feeling once again the creases on his forehead, the thick brows, the soft skin of his cheeks above that thick beard that she adored so much.

But it was his lips that drew her gaze, and she was mesmerized as she traced a fingertip over them and he opened, drawing it between his teeth and giving it a single swipe with his tongue.

Oh yes , they were both thinking about what had happened last time, and Rory was waiting, she knew, for some sign from her that told him she wanted it as much as he did.

With the barest nod she gave the signal, and he looked down as he pushed her shirt up, agonizingly slow as it rose up and up, revealing her belly and then the lower band of her bra. Rory leaned in once a portion of skin between the cups was exposed, and he pressed a kiss there, causing Annabelle’s head to fall back as a hot desire shot straight to her core.

With his tongue he began following the trail left by her shirt, up and up between her breasts and over her sternum until the top edge of her bra was completely exposed to him.

“I love you, Annabelle,” came his hoarse voice as he used a finger to draw down the front of her bra on one side, his finger brushing over her hardened nipple as it passed.

His mouth --she wanted his mouth on her.

“I love you too, Rory,” she gasped, and her words became a moan when he flicked his tongue out to tease her peak.

“Mm--”

A knock sounded from somewhere on the outside of the boat and she yelped, dragging her shirt down over her disturbed bra and pulling back from Rory as his gaze went from passionate to irritated in barely a second.

“What the fuck,” he growled, though when he glanced up at her he was smirking, that male self-satisfied grin looking positively wicked and promising as he stood. With a graze of his hand over what was now hidden beneath her shirt, she bit her lip as his eyes glazed over with desire before he turned from her, adjusting himself with his back to her as he made his way to the closed hatch of the boat.

Annabelle frantically reached beneath her shirt and readjusted her bra, smoothing her hair even though it didn’t need it and attempting in vain to calm her breathing.

But when she turned, now confronted by the side of Rory’s broad back and his lower body encased in black jeans, her heart skipped a beat.

Lord , how did she get so lucky?

 

○○○○○○○○○○

 

Down on the pier Rory could see the couple walking away, far enough that he would have to yell at them to get their attention. Instead he picked up the platter that Brown and Milly had left, and returned back to the cabin of the yacht, locking the hatch behind him.

“Who was it?” Annabelle asked, apparently having calmed herself while he was outside. She now sat back at the dinette, looking perfectly put together, and as though they hadn't just been about to make out like wild teenagers before they'd been interrupted.

She smiled shyly at him now, also appearing happy that no one had followed him down into the cabin.

But when her gaze fell on the platter her brow furrowed, and she rose to look at the contents.

“Pie,” she observed, in a matter of fact voice. She looked up at him, and then back down at the selection of pie.

“That’s a lot of pie,” he agreed. “Blackberry--”

“Blackberry,” she said at the same time he did.

Then they looked at each other.

“This came from Paterson’s,” he said, watching for a reaction on Annabelle’s face. She nodded slowly, looking as though she was looking at his face for the same reason.

“From… Milly,” she said quietly, and Rory’s breath left him in a whoosh.

“And Brown.”

By the way her eyes widened told him everything he needed to know.

“Fucking bastard,” he muttered, looking again at the pie. At Annabelle’s gasp he smiled down at her, chuckling. “He knew,” he said, letting his smile soften his words. “He fucking knew, and he didn’t tell us. But… how?”

Annabelle blushed, and he wondered if he needed to be worried at what she was going to say. Then she swallowed visibly and smiled lightly, looking him straight in the eyes as she spoke.

“Actually, I’m their houseguest.”

“Their what?”

It took a while, but by the time they had polished off a third of the pie slices with milk at the dinette, Annabelle had told him not only about how she knew Milly and Brown, but everything that had happened after she’d arrived in Troon.

Rory had bristled at her being accosted by the men outside the pub, so much so that he drew Annabelle over to sit on his lap on the other side of the dinette. She came willingly, perched on his thighs with her feet still on the floor, yet seemingly content to wrap her arms around his neck and listen to him speak from mere inches away. It was the balm he needed, and his heartbeat steadied as he wrapped one arm around her waist and rested the other over her thighs.

Rory had agreed with her that Brown would have pummeled every one of the men if they’d given him any shit about leaving Annabelle alone. He also explained that he was certain, based on the things she had told Brown, that Brown had only figured out their connection after Rory had spoken about the woman who got away, and then said woman waltzed into the pub after he’d gone to get groceries.

“Because that’s when he offered you the room, yes?”

He could see all the detail on her face from this distance--the few light freckles on her cheeks and the lines at the corners of her eyes that said she liked to laugh.

Annabelle nodded, smiling as she slid her plate closer and took the last bite of pie onto her fork and inserting it into her mouth.

“And nothing after that sounded suspicious?”

She pulled the fork out of her mouth and a smear of blackberry pie filling was left on her lip. As he watched, her tongue came out to lick it off, and he immediately felt his blood heat at the sight.

“Well, there were some things,” she said vaguely, looking away and staring at nothing in particular. She looked like she was remembering her interactions with the older couple. Rory struggled to keep his mind out of the gutter while waiting for her to speak, but it was hard with the way her tongue worked at the sweetness left on her lips and how she sat atop a part of him he so badly wanted her to touch.

“Milly told me my man was just around the corner.”

She glanced up at Rory shyly after saying that, as though she was embarrassed that she was thinking of him as her man . Rory smiled encouragingly, and she cleared her throat before going on.

“And Brown suggested, when I said I was going to take a walk, that I should take a turn about the docks to clear my head, but he was very specific in what my destination should be.”

Rory nodded in understanding. If Brown wants something to happen, he makes it happen. In this way, he figured he had Brown to thank for his meddling personality.

“And you?” Annabelle took a sip of milk, looking at him over the rim of her glass. She set it back down and licked her lips before asking, “Did they give you any hints as to what they were doing, or what exactly they knew?”

“Now that I think about it, he did pester me about needing a woman. Then he asked me when I was leaving for the sea.” Rory could see now what those questions would mean to a man who was subtly attempting to plan another man’s future. If Brown knew about Annabelle when he and Rory had that conversation, the answers to those questions would hold incredible weight in Brown’s mind.

“He also seemed more concerned about my personal life than normal. I’ve known him for years, but his questions this time were leading, at best.”

“And suggestive at worst?” Annabelle supplied, smirking on Brown’s behalf. Rory smiled, knowing that she had gotten the measure of their mutual friend fairly quickly.

“You like them?” he asked honestly, wanting to know her answer. She hadn’t been very exposed to the people of Scotland except for her two speaking events, and that was a singular group of people interested in her for mostly one reason, her books. But Brown and Milly were good people, even if Milly was actually from the states. Rory was interested in hearing Annabelle’s opinion of these two people with whom he was nearly as close as family.

At Rory’s question, Annabelle gave him a bright, genuine smile.

“Oh, yes! I do, very much. Milly treats me as though we’ve known each other for years, and Brown is such a sweetheart.” She was using the tine of her fork to draw designs in the smeared berries left on her plate. Rory warmed at the sight, seeing her familiar quirk making him happier than was likely prudent.

“They are good people,” he affirmed. “I’ve known them for years.”

“Milly said she came to Scotland on a family trip forty-five years ago and never went home?”

“Aye, that’s the way of it. Met Brown, fell in love, and he’s been doting on her ever since. Tried to give me advice on women today and I thought he was talking about dating.” Remembering that conversation now, Rory chuckled as he shook his head. “The balls of that man.”

He looked up at Annabelle, only now noticing her smile had faded and looked somewhat false. He reached out and set her fork down, taking her hand and bringing it back to his chest. His other hand tightened around her waist in question.

“Hey now, what are you thinking that’s got you looking like that?”

Annabelle sighed. Then the smile completely faded away and she looked wistful, sad. Rory was pretty sure talking about Brown and Milly hadn’t brought about this change in her, so it must be something she’d been thinking inside that pretty head of hers.

“You said Brown wanted to know when you were leaving for the sea.” It was a statement but he could see she wasn’t done. She didn’t look at him until she opened her mouth to speak again. “So will I see you when you get back?”

She couldn’t have shocked him more unless she’d just announced she was leaving for the states.

“When I--Annabelle, what--are you daft , woman?”

His outburst was the product of utter shock. He wasn’t sure if she didn’t want to go with him, or if she thought he wouldn’t want her too.

“What did I just say about never again being apart?” This brought her gaze back to his, and he could see confusion in those green depths. “I just got you back and I don’t aim to lose you ever again.” His own brow furrowed in concern, but he leaned forward and gave her a firm peck on opened lips, lips parted in misunderstanding and remaining doubt.

When he sat back her eyes were still dull, perhaps a bit dazed, her face otherwise uncertain as to the meaning of his words.

He looked at her with eyebrows raised, a slight shake to his head. Then he raised his hands to cup either side of her face, his thumbs running that familiar path across her soft cheeks.

“I love you.” He pressed another kiss to her mouth, lingering longer than before as he closed his eyes and savored the feel of her against him.

When he pulled back and opened his eyes, hers were shining with unshed tears.

“Annabelle, would you come sailing with me?” Another kiss. “Will you disappear for a week, two weeks, however long you want to be gone?” He kissed her cheek, and then again closer to her ear. “Off the grid, just you and me.”

He pulled back and found her smiling, and he felt compelled to kiss her then--deeply, sensually--because he knew what her answer would be.

“Oh, yes, Rory,” she whispered against his lips before opening hers to him again, allowing their tongues to meet while her arms tightened around his neck. “Yes, I’ll come with you.” Her words meant he could trail his mouth down her neck, dropping wet, open mouthed kisses along her jaw and the column of her throat as she let her head fall back. When his lips connected with her thudding pulse, beating just below the surface of her skin, he opened his mouth and sucked at the skin, eliciting from her a moan that drove her face forward and against his head, her fingers sliding into his hair and gripping the short strands tightly.

“I would go anywhere with you,” came her hoarse declaration, and it was all over for him. Everything he ever wanted was in his arms right then--the woman, the love, the acceptance, the future, their future.

All of the crap they had gone through was all worth it because this was exactly where she was meant to be--in his arms, wrapped around him like she never wanted him to let her go--like she never wanted to let him go. With her chest crushed to him he stood, adjusting her lower body so she was straddling his hips, and with one hand on her hip to hold her and another held out for balance, he brought them back to the captain's cabin at the front of the boat.

“I love you, Rory,” she whispered, music to his starved ears, over and over again. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Until they were both naked and he had fallen over her, pinning her to the wide bed with his body.

Beneath him she was perfect--round breasts, slim waist, flared hips, and legs that wrapped around his thighs like vices. But up above, Annabelle wore her heart in her eyes and that was where the real price awaited. It was her heart that had won him over, her soul that had changed his own irrevocably, and her spirit that made him feel overflowing with love for her.

“Aye, I love you, too, Annabelle,” he breathed, his voice leaving him as he felt his erection probe at her entrance.

She lifted her hips and gripped his shoulder with one hand, the hair at the nape of his neck with her other.

With a lift of her hips, enough so that he sunk in by an inch or so, she demanded, “Love me now , Rory.”

Starting with one swift, sure stroke, he did.

Chapter Text

Annabelle would have felt strange waking up in the odd place, if not for the massive Scotsman who was currently wrapped around her body. With his head on her chest, his mouth dangerously close to her naked breasts, his heavy arm flung across her middle and an equally heavy thigh trapping her own beneath his, she was--for lack of a better word--claimed. She smiled at the delicious thought.

Aye, she was claimed. She’d been claimed twice already that night, she remembered with a blush, and she hoped he would claim her again sometime soon. Already she felt the stirrings low in her belly as she ran a hand over his broad shoulders and the soft, furry pelt covering them. Beneath her hand she could feel the warm skin, strong back, and muscles of the man who had so thoroughly stolen her heart.

It had come as quite the surprise to her that things would end up this way. It wasn’t a surprise that she loved him. Edinburgh, was it? Perhaps sooner? Yes, she’d known for quite some time that he had her heart.

But this trip, starting with the maddening drive from Glasgow--which she had already told him she would not be doing again on her own--and then yesterday, the entire harrowing day of wondering if she was ever going to find him, had left her feeling more complete than at any other time in her life.

How could she not, with this two-hundred fifty plus pounds of Scottish teddy bear trapping her in bed?

Replaying the events of the last two weeks, though, caused her breath to hitch in her throat.

She had almost thrown it all away. She worried her lip knowing that, had she not met Lauren and David, she might never have returned to Scotland. No, she most certainly would not have returned.

And Rory would be somewhere on the sea, sailing in his new boat by himself, while she would be in her apartment probably nursing a bottle of wine and watching reruns of sappy rom-coms on the Starz network.

Then there was Brown and Milly--they were going to be getting the same enormous damned gift basket that Lauren and David were getting.

She was starting to wonder if she was going to see them today when suddenly Rory yawned widely and lowered his head to nuzzle sleepily at her bare breast. She thought she felt a tongue come out to taste her nipple before she both felt and heard his smile as he spoke.

“I’ve died and gone to Heaven.”

Annabelle had to answer him with a chuckle.

“Then I must be there with you, because I never want to leave this place.”

His head finally came up, his forehead wrinkling as he looked up at her.

“I love you, Rory,” she whispered, feeling that prick of happy tears ridiculously early in the morning. She gave him a weepy smile, though she accompanied it with a finger drawn down the edge of his face.

“And I, you, Annabelle Harkness.”

Rory somehow drew her tighter into his embrace, wrapping his leg over hers into a tighter coil, his arms sliding beneath her torso and pillow so that between them the only area that wasn’t touching was their upper chests. 

Then he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her deeply, sliding his tongue into her mouth languidly, smoothly, making love to her with his mouth as he had done that first time the previous night--unhurried, as though they could draw it out for hours and never be rushed to part.

His kiss was so full of promises and love that it sent tingling sensations to her toes. Annabelle felt safe and cared for in his arms, like she was meant to be nowhere else. Nor did she want to be. It had taken her a long time to realize that when she told Rory she could write anywhere with an internet connection, it was a long-ago segue into transitioning into a life with him.

Because it was true. As long as she had her computer and at least sporadic access to an internet connection, her job allowed her to be anywhere on the globe and still be successful. Sure, there were times when she would have a book tour, or speaking engagements, and if she ever chose a cause to champion there might be obligations. But for now in her off season, in the time between book tour and next publishing, she had all the time in the world to write, live, languish, and love. The world was quite literally her oyster, and she knew she could happily spend the rest of her life traipsing around the world with Rory at her side, growing in love and enriching her spirit with his companionship.

And though they hadn’t talked about it, she knew Rory’s schedule was much the same. There might come a time when their work schedules overlapped, but she had no fears that it would in any way impede their relationship. She would just have to get used to flying often, as would he. Planes meant unlimited access to each other, even when they had to be on opposite sides of the earth.

Her thoughts were drifting through her mind, becoming more hazy as Rory’s mouth did wonderful things to her body. Coherent thought up and left when his mouth lowered to her core, and she was nothing but a ball of sensitized nerves and mewling whimpers when he sent her over the edge of release, the orgasm crashing through her body like waves on a surf before she felt him settle into the cradle of her limbs.

With hands on her head he directed her gaze up into his eyes, that familiar nudge of his erection pressing against her, poised and ready yet unmoving. Pulls from her heels against the backs of his thighs remained ineffectual, his unmoving body sandwiching her between his presence and the soft mattress beneath her. Unable to do anything to spur him to movement, she settled back and looked up at him, sighing softly as she watched him watching her, his teeth worrying at his lip while he studied her.

Bringing a hand up, she traced his lower lip with her finger, watching his eyes darken with her touch.

“What are you thinking about?” she wondered aloud, seeing unspoken thoughts revolving through his eyes. There was something there that she wanted to discover. If he said she wore her heart on her face, his was housed in his eyes, blinking down at her as though he was surprised she could see it.

“What makes you think I’m thinking?”

Rory’s voice was rough, like smooth sandpaper that made her ears ring with sensation. Again, she traced his lip with her finger, sliding over its width even as one side was caught beneath his teeth.

“You do this when you think,” she whispered, watching him draw the whole lip under his teeth. The pads of her fingers skimmed over the beard that jutted out with his action, that small space between his lip and chin now a spiky field of stiff hairs. As always with him, she couldn’t hold back a smile, drawing her own lip under her teeth.

With her other hand, she ran her fingers over his side and down to his hip, tilting her own in an attempt to distract him into movement, but it didn’t work. Instead he reached down to grasp her hand, pulling it above her head to lace his fingers with hers.

“Aye, I’m thinking,” he agreed finally, a slight nod paired with enigmatic eyes that showed more emotions than she could name.

When he still remained unmoving, Annabelle lowered her brows in confusion. It seemed to bring him out of whatever contemplative stupor he’d been in, because he took her other hand and laced his fingers with it, trapping her effectively beneath him as his head lowered.

First he nuzzled at her cheek with his nose, pressing a kiss to her jaw. Annabelle attempted to turn her head to capture his mouth in a kiss but he thwarted her, dropping his lips back closer to her ear before traveling down the length of her neck. He left a trail of kisses and nibbles that had her hips rocking against him, an itch growing between them that only he could scratch.

“I’m thinking,” he said again, mouth at the swell of her breast, “That I could do this every day,” he pressed a kiss there, then an open-mouthed one where he first swiped her skin with his tongue before nipping at it with his teeth, “Every day, for the rest of my life.” When he drew in her hardened nipple and sucked hard, Annabelle did cry out, throwing her head back at the simultaneous sensations and the loss of his hardness from her core. She wanted him, and she wanted him now .

But then he was gone, suddenly releasing her hands and leaning up to pull down the hatch of a small cubby above the bed.

Annabelle was flustered from his administrations, and chuckled, drawing her hands over whatever length of his skin she could reach--upraised arm, strong shoulder, muscular side. She knew she could explore every inch of his body and never get bored.

In fact… She pushed herself up on her elbows and pulled at the arm that was rifling through the cubby, and pressed her mouth to the cap of his shoulder; then his side, and she opened her mouth to nip at his skin with her teeth.

His groan was her answer, so she added her hands to the mix, using his heavy body as leverage to hold her upright as she ran her hand over his back.

“You know we don’t need condoms,” she said between kisses and licks, gliding one bold hand down the side of his ribs to cup his ass, then back up, squeezing between their bodies to run her fingers through the pelt of hair on his chest.

As he rooted through the cabinet, his body freezing as it landed on whatever it was he was looking for, she twisted to the same side he was leaning towards, looking up at his face as he drew his hand out of the cabinet and closed it.

“Aye,” he said, but his voice was rough when he brought his hands down to the mattress beside her head. Try as she might, she couldn’t turn her face to see what it was he held.

But his expression worried her, and the item was forgotten as she lifted her hands to cradle his jaw, drawing him down for a kiss she hoped would chase away the worry that had appeared in his eyes. With a calm swipe of her tongue against his lower lip, he opened for her, letting her soothe him and love him with her mouth.

 

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Rory was nervous. He’d never done this before. If Annabelle could feel the pounding within his chest, she gave no hint of it.

But the way she was kissing him cemented his drive to follow through… despite lingering over her as he was, drawing her tongue into his mouth and feeling how her hands slid around, one into his hair and one holding him at the back of his neck. Feeling her softness beneath him, all feminine curves and contours, turned him on like nothing else ever had, and he attempted to reign it in. He’d never get through this if she didn’t stop rocking her hips like that.

“Annabelle,” he gasped, tearing his mouth away from hers. Then he chuckled at her very unfeminine pout, when her attempts at bringing her mouth back to his failed.

“Rory, I need you,” she moaned, her hands roaming his body as though, if she needed stimulation, she would get it somehow, whether he liked it or not--over his shoulders, chest, arms and sides they skimmed, her fingers caressing and her palms exploring.

“Aye, and I need you as well, girl. But I need t’say something first.”

Frustrated in more ways than one, his accent thickened as instincts threatened to take over. Just one thrust was all it would take and he could put both of them out of their misery.

But this misery was essential, and he needed to keep his head on straight if he was to do this right.

When at last she settled, her hands coming to rest with a sigh against his shoulders, he swallowed thickly, his throat clogging with emotions he was only beginning to understand. They were from her, caused by her, and would forever be attributed to her and how she was looking at him at that moment. Love nearly poured from her eyes, and he imagined himself catching it with buckets, it was so tangible.

“Annabelle, I… I know--” He was having trouble finding the words. Perhaps he should have rehearsed this ahead of time. But then, he hadn’t exactly planned this out perfectly.

“I know ye,” he said, amending what he was going to say. “I know how ye like your coffee, and that ye like to touch things, and me --ye like t’touch me. And I want to be here for ye… to touch, whenever you want.” Fuck , he was buggering this up good. He didn’t have any flowery way to say this, and he really regretted not rehearsing what he’d say.

Annabelle’s face was screwed up in confusion by the time he stopped talking, although the corners of her mouth were lifted in an encouraging smile.

But then her mouth fell open when he lifted the small gray velvet box, setting it down on her sternum while he rested over her on his elbows. She went to reach for it and he caught her hands, once again lacing his fingers with hers and resting their twined hands beside her head. He watched her shocked eyes and dumbfounded expression shoot from the box to him, to the box and back again.

“Rory--”

Before she could say no, he interrupted her.

“No, wait. Hear me out.” He had to pause and clear his throat, looking away before turning back to her, the box on her chest a conspicuous object drawing both of their gazes.

When Rory spoke again, his voice sounded rough and he knew he had to get through with it then and there, lest he embarrass himself and release the tears that threatened to spill over his lower lashes. When Annabelle’s eyes lifted to his and held, he saw the same tears pooling in the corners.

“Annabelle Harkness, will you marry me? Be my wife, share my boat, sleep with me every night, wake with me every morning, and let me love you for the rest of my days?”

Finally releasing her hands, he picked up the box and opened it, revealing the pear-shaped diamond bracketed by a cluster of three diamonds on each side.

He watched Annabelle’s face as her hand came up to cover her mouth, her eyes wide with shock. She looked at him and then the ring, then back to him. Her other hand fell limply against the bed, and he wondered for a moment if she was going to faint while lying beneath him.

“Oh my god, Rory,” she whispered, her voice faint as she looked in the box. Her eyes glistened with tears, similar to the ones he fought to hold back. But then her hand dropped from her mouth to where he held the box, her fingers cupping his but not touching the gray velvet.

Slowly, the corners of her mouth turned up and her gaped expression disappeared as her whole face brightened, the tears now slipping out and running down her temples into the blonde curls. With the backs of her hands she brushed them away before looking back up at him, putting a palm to his cheek as she nodded once, then again, then several times, adding a chuckle at the end as he lowered his mouth to kiss her.

It was now a different kiss, one of wonderment and awe on both their parts, as he slid his lips over hers and tasted at this woman who had just agreed to be his wife.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she whispered into his mouth, making it so that eventually he was kissing her teeth because of how wide her smile was.

He pulled back to look down at her and both of her hands came up to bracket his face, her thumbs running over his bearded cheeks.

“Yes, I’ll marry you.”

With his breath leaving him in a woosh, Rory dropped his forehead to her shoulder, feeling her body shake with a chuckle.

“Did you think I was going to say no? Honestly? Rory, look at me.”

He did, and as he watched her face, she drew a finger down his nose, stroked one side of his mustache, and combed her fingers back through his hair. She was soothing both of them at the same time, grounding them with her touch so that he remembered she loved him as much as he loved her.

“I worried,” he admitted, a slight grin on his face. And he had, but… not now. Never again.

He watched her as her smile slipped suddenly, looking down at the box still in his hand.

“Wait, where did you get this? We’ve been together since yesterday. How could you--”

“Madrid,” he said, slowly nodding as understanding dawned on her face. He hadn’t known he was going to reveal this to her, but it seemed such a heavy confession that he didn’t regret opening up to her. “I went out while you were at your book signing and I found this in a small jewelry shop around the corner from the hotel.”

“But…” She looked at the ring again, seven total diamonds in yellow gold bezel settings. “That was…”

He knew what she was thinking, so he said it out loud.

“Seven days. Seven diamonds for seven days--the time it took for me to know I was in love with you and wanted to marry you.”

Even his voice was broken as he gave her the explanation, and the result was more tears from her as he slipped the ring out of the box and onto her extended finger, a kiss to her knuckles sealing his pact.

“I will love you until the day I die, Annabelle,” he promised, but she was staring at the ring, and the look on her face was no longer full of love, but… devastated.

When she brought her eyes up to his the tears were now thick, a shake of her head dislodging them down her temples.

“Oh my god, Rory. You had this that whole time, and I… I said… Oh god, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a sob wrenched from her lips at her last words.

It was true. She had fairly ripped his heart out when she had told him his love for her didn’t matter, and that she was going home anyway. He’d had this gift on him the whole time, and she’d jumped the gun and severed ties before he had the chance to ask her. But none of that mattered, and he told her so now.

“Because you’re here, and I’m here, and we’re together. Understand?” He swiped away tears with his thumb, kissing her nose and then her mouth tenderly, soothingly. “Now, we’ve settled that,” he added, wanting to lighten the mood. His hardness had withered considerably, but he knew it wasn’t going to take much, just a single word, for it to come back, “But you haven’t sealed this deal with a kiss.”

This time when her eyes lifted in shock to his, it was quickly followed by a laugh, a sniff, and her arms being thrown about his neck to pull him down for a quick kiss. “You’ve made me so happy,” she said against his lips, drawing the softness of his lower lip between her teeth and worrying it with her tongue. Then she kissed him, pulling at his head and neck until he lowered himself completely to her, his erection once again nudging her core.

“Aye, and you’ve made me happy,” he whispered, pushing into her slowly as she shivered beneath him. When he was fully seated inside her, his groin cradled within the nest of her hips, he paused, savoring the feel of this moment, because he wanted to remember it for the rest of his life.

He wanted to remember the exact moment he finally, after forty-eight long years, felt whole.

Chapter Text

“Bridget, please open the door.”

“I will not! You and Mama are being so unfair!”

“We are not. Ye can’t say ye’ve fallen in love with that boy. Yer fourteen years old, for christsakes.”

There was a pause, most likely for dramatic effect. He was learning pubescent girls could be very dramatic.

“Age is irrelevant.”

Rory muttered, “The fuck it is,” but louder, through the closed boat cabin door, he said, “Aye, when yer older. But at fourteen, yer still a child. My daughter. And… Just do as I say!”

He heard a loud, very characteristic fourteen-year-old snort of indignation through the wood door.

“And not as you do, Dad?”

“Aye!”

With a growl, he turned sideways and strode up the ladder to the deck, knowing he’d at least find peace in the arms of the woman who sat up there, book in hand.

Annabelle sat with her back resting against the back of the bench in front of the wheel, one leg tapping a rhythm on the deck and the other on the bench beside her. She was as stunning as ever as he rose to her level, smiling at her as she turned her head to see him. He was already so close to her that it was nothing to bend forward and press his lips to hers, feeling her smile against his mouth.

“Mmm, what was that for?” she asked when he pulled away, coming fully through the hatch and sitting beside her when she moved her leg to accommodate him.

“It’s to thank ye for waiting til ye were thirty-five to come into my life.”

Annabelle laughed gently, but when he put his arm behind her she went to him automatically, after all these years finding that her place was still pressed against his side. She set the book down and gave up to his embrace, resting her cheek against his shoulder.

“Bridget will come around, Rory. I promise.”

He sighed heavily, reaching up to scratch the beard that was now nearly all gray. He still wore it short--or rather, he shaved sporadically and never bothered to trim it in between--but Annabelle liked it that way. Something about how masculine she thought his neckbeard was, whatever the hell that meant. After fifteen years together, he figured he’d never fully understand her.

“Aye, I know she’ll come around. But… She’s fourteen, and fancies herself in love with the boy after having known him for a week. A fucking week!”

Annabelle laughed, soothing him with a stroking hand on his thigh. He turned his face into her curls, still half blonde but with quite a bit of white mixed in, especially at her temples. She was and always would be, to him, as beautiful as they day they’d met.

“And did she do the--”

“Yes, yes , she did ,” he interrupted with an exasperated tone. “ Do as I say --”

“And not as I do,” Annabelle finished. She brought her hand up to rub his chest, the warmth of her palm seeping through his thick sweater.

“Never should have told her our engagement story,” he muttered, but there was no real complaint behind it. “Now she thinks any cunt is husband material.”

Again, Annabelle chuckled against him.

“Ross isn’t any cunt , Rory,” she admonished. Her hand slid upwards, cupping his neck, her thumb stroking the coarse hairs covering his skin. He felt a familiar stirring in his groin as her explorations continued. Trying to concentrate on what she was saying, he heard, “Brown and Milly’s daughter is in town from London for the vow renewal tomorrow, and her son Ross is a nice boy. Didn’t you see how he treated Bridget when they met?”

“Aye,” Rory agreed, “Like she was a milk cow and he wanted t’haggle her price.”

At that, his wife laughed out loud before smacking him lightly in the chest.

“No, silly man. He’s done nothing but treat her like a little proper lady, every time they’re around each other.”

“He’s seventeen,” Rory groused in response, looking out over the marina they had called their temporary home for the last decade and a half. “He’s too old for her.”

“Says the man with a wife thirteen years younger than him.”

Her hand was moving south, over his chest once more, then across his stomach to his thigh. Rory looked down and found her smiling up at him, that look in her eyes the same as it was fifteen damned years ago. He could always tell exactly what she was feeling by how she looked at him, and he wasn’t so old that his almost fifty year old wife didn’t still warm his loins and make him lust after her like a horny young man.

“Better watch yourself, woman. We’ve got kids underfoot.”

His words were warning, but his tone was heavy with desire. He turned towards her, carding his fingers up through the back of her hair and tilting her head back to gain access to the sensitive skin beneath her ear. He lowered his mouth and tasted her briefly, knowing full well they were in plain view of every single one of their neighbors.

“Easily remedied,” she offered, breathlessly. “I have those centerpieces I promised Milly I'd help with.” He watched her swallow, head still tilted back and her eyes glazed, focused on his own. “We can send Bridget on an errand.”

“Alone?” Rory’s voice was wary.

His daughter was fourteen and eager to exert her independence, but he felt she was too young to walk that distance alone. He also suspected Annabelle felt the same. Pulling back to focus on his wife's face, he now saw the way her mouth turned up at the corners as she lifted a hand to his chest, pressing it to the center where he was certain she would feel the thumping of his heart, evidence of what she still did to him.

“Not alone.” Her voice was gentle, and he knew he wasn't going to like her suggestion. When the same hand rose to cup his jaw, her fingernails scratching through his beard, she smiled. “He's a nice, respectful boy, Rory.”

Rory released her hair from his grip and she adjusted herself so her cheek rested on his shoulder. Hand still on his face, she stroked his cheek and wet her lips, clearly directing her gaze at his mouth. It was a message he heard loud and clear.

“Fuck,” he grumbled, screwing up his face and sighing through his nose. “You drive a hard bargain, woman.”

“Well, it could be worse,” she suggested. “Tommy’s son has been seen around Troon.”

Rory's eyes widened for a moment, his entire body tensing at the man who even after all the time, got under his skin for that one time he'd accosted Annabelle outside Paterson’s. It was bad enough Tommy had cleaned up his act and bought the pub from Brown a couple years back. The trouble was, the apple didn't fall far from the tree and his son, Junior, had been rumored to be residing at some school for troubled youth over the summer. If he was back, it meant Bridget was a possible target for the eighteen year old boy’s sights, and Rory would not have Bridget be the third young woman Junior left with a baby in her belly.

“Fucking hell, call the boy.” He glared at Annabelle, though her simpering smirk said she knew there was no heat behind it. “He's to have her back by five.”

At that, Annabelle’s eyes widened.

“Two hours to ourselves?” Her soft lips spread in a grin, and she let her thumb swipe across his lip. “Do you plan on seducing me, husband?”

He snapped at her thumb, capturing it between his teeth in a gentle bite. Inside his mouth his “Very talented tongue”--her words-- did that thing that he liked to do to her, and she didn't catch the moan in time before it left her mouth. Satisfied that she was good and properly turned on, he smirked back, releasing her thumb as he leaned forward to speak again her lips.

“Aye, girl,” he said, knowing she liked it when he called her that. “Best call the boy, because I'm going to need an empty boat for what I plan to do to you.”

 

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Annabelle laid on her side nearly two hours later, completely sated, with a large, slumbering Scotsman behind her. Wrapped this way in his arms, she was always brought back to that first night they'd slept together, on the extra large airport cot in Boston. She could now recall with fondness those early days between them, which were followed by several very bad days. But once they’d sorted through what was going on between them and Annabelle had come to terms with the trajectory her life had suddenly taken, she had been like Milly--never looking back to where she had once been.

And that turn of events had, much to Douglas’s delight, suited both of them. Douglas found he loved Scotland and visited often, only sometimes attempting to lie and say it was a business trip.

Although Bridget was a bit of a surprise, Grant was not, and having the kids only completed the family unit both Annabelle and Rory ended up adoring. Grant was off somewhere helping Brown right now, preparing for the renewal of vows, the precocious twelve year old boy having adopted the older man and his wife as surrogate grandparents. Together, Grant and Bridget kept Rory on his toes, but Annabelle had spent the years watching them grow, and watching Rory grow into a wonderful father.

Through the years there had been more acting roles for Rory, to which Annabelle and the kids would follow him. He always had a trailer big enough for his family, and became known as the man who took them everywhere. When someone hired him for a job, they were hiring a family man, and that was that. Deal with it or don’t, Rory always told Annabelle she and the kids were his priority.

There were also more books, and more book tours. They avoided conflicting schedules when they could, and very rarely were forced to spend a night or two apart before they could reunite. Rory became good at not getting irritated when their lovemaking was interrupted by a crying child, and Annabelle found the coming together after an interruption always surpassed her expectations for sensuality and passion. Rory was never one to be deterred from a goal.

Their love for each other had simply grown, although their love for their boat remained steady. It was why they still had the same one he’d bought when he thought she was going to go with him all those years ago. It served their purposes, and now their family was close--four years, possibly--to once again being short a person. Then two years later it was very possible that Annabelle and Rory were going to be empty nesters.

It was bittersweet, but Annabelle knew she’d spend her later years loving this man as much as the universe would let her.

As though sensing the turn in her thoughts, he stirred behind her, tightening the arm he had wrapped around her stomach. His hand splayed across her belly, not as smooth and taut as it once was, but obviously still deserving of Rory’s attentions. He often kissed it and caressed it on his way to what he jokingly called The Prize.

“You’ve unmanned me, woman,” he grumbled into her shoulder, nipping her with his teeth before soothing the mark with his tongue.

“Mmm, that’s just how I like you.”

His rumbling laughter reverberated through her rib cage.

“The kids will be back soon,” she whispered. “I need to start dinner.”

“Ten more minutes.”

“Ten more minutes, and we might be caught without clothes on.”

Annabelle rubbed his arm, feeling the springy hairs covering his skin.

“Aye, but they know how they were made. Won’t catch them by surprise too much.”

He groaned as she laughed and turned, facing him in the bed then. Seeing him that way--gray hair and beard, eyes closed in sleepy satiation, his chest hair beginning to be more gray than black--she felt a warmth that hadn’t dimmed with the passage of time. Nor did her attraction to him, as she ran a hand along his shoulder and down his arm, sliding to his waist and hip and thigh.

“Girl, I’m an old man,” he grumbled, eyes still closed. Annabelle couldn’t help it--she giggled.

“Oh, don’t give me that.” With a forceful shove, she pushed him over onto his back and swung her leg over his hips, straddling him. He peered out one eye and, upon seeing her naked above him, opened the other and let out a very manly, very satisfied sigh.

“Damn,” he muttered appreciatively, almost to himself. His eyes skimmed over her body and she felt it nearly like a caress.

“You’re as ready to go as you were fifteen years ago.” She rocked against his growing hardness, sliding along his length in a move she knew could drive him wild with want. His quickly indrawn breath was her reward.

“Aye, girl, my cock is ready but my body isn’t.” His grumbling was familiar, as was the sly grin now spread across his face. They’d had this conversation many times before in recent years, and just as before, she knew how it was going to end.

Smiling in return, she rubbed against him again.

“You’ve had your nap, husband, and I want to go again.” She sensually slid one hand through her curling bangs, slowly pushing them off her forehead and letting them fall against one shoulder. He loved her hair and she knew it, using it to her advantage when she wanted to distract him.

His reply was a groused, “Ten fucking minutes.”

“Aye,” she said, the word coming easily after hearing it countless times over the last decade and a half. “So why don’t you just lay there and let me do the work?” She rose up and positioned him at her entrance, before sliding down to the hilt, taking him all the way inside her as they both moaned and sighed in pleasure.

Rory’s arms had been crossed behind his head, but now he brought them down to her thighs, running his palms up and down the lengths of them before sliding up and over her waist, up to her breasts. He cupped them in his hands and Annabelle held them to her, covering his hands with her own as he spoke.

“That sounds like a great idea, love.”

But when she began to move, so did he, rocking his hips to meet her thrusts, their eyes locked in such a way that Annabelle knew, as she did every time they locked eyes during lovemaking, that soulmates were real.

They moved together, they loved together, and when the end was near he reached down and made it so they came together, their release hitting them both just minutes before the knock came at the hatch.

“S’just Brown! Kids an’ ah’ll hang out up ‘ere til ye get yer skivvies on!”

With her cheek pressed against Rory’s slick, warm chest, Annabelle laughed. His long arms came up to wrap around her as she listened to his great big heart slow in the aftermath of their love.

“I need that now--need you now--as much as I did fifteen years ago,” he said quietly, drawing long strokes with his fingertips up and down her spine. Annabelle shivered, and he switched to full palms, coursing up and down her sides.

“Do you think Milly and Brown will need two kids to help them with preparations tomorrow morning?”

Rory’s chuckle sounded against her ear, and she slid her hands up his arms to his chest, lifting her head and pillowing her chin on them.

“Say please, and might be I’ll ask him.”

His answering smile warmed her heart, and made the promise of tomorrow even more lively than when it had just been the vow renewal.

Annabelle leaned forward to press her lips to his, whispering words of love and what she planned to do to him, while the voices of those they loved carried down to them through the cracked window, reminding them of all they had to be thankful for.