leigh57 (leigh57) wrote in 24_fanfic,

Speed of the Sound of Loneliness

Title: "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness"
Author: Leigh57
Characters: Jack, Renee, Chloe; mentions of Kim, Stephen, Little!Teri
Summary: “Back on the couch, she clutches the saltines and ginger ale Jack brought her, because this is what remains in the aftermath. Concrete objects she can hold.”
Warnings: Language, violence, sexual situations. All the standard disclaimers about my fics apply. Also, I guess one of the plot points is a speculative S8 spoiler. I know nothing.
Disclaimer: They’re so not mine. I think we’ve established this quite clearly.
A/N: Under the cut.

A/N: This didn’t turn out quite like I intended. What’s new? All of these snapshots are a hundred words long, unless they’re multiples of a hundred. Don’t even ask. Huge thank yous to Jess, Katie, and Adrienne for giving me such different perspectives. I would never write anything without you guys. Also, granola bars to cybertoothtiger, both for comments and for reassuring me that I wasn’t klepping her excellent writing (also for saving me from one of the most hilarious word disasters of all time), and to dealan311, for brilliant dialogue suggestions and noticing everything about the big picture. All fail in this story is my own.

This is for century_fox. She knows why.

The story title is taken from a Nanci Griffith song. Lyrics here. It’s beautiful. And I’m shutting up now.


On the blustery November afternoon when she’s released from prison, some lunatic goes on a shooting spree at a Wal-Mart in suburban Phoenix. Before capping himself, he kills eight people.

One of them is a twelve-year-old boy.

Renee doesn’t have an HDTV converter box yet, so she turns on NPR.

Her apartment smells like a rarely-visited museum exhibit, like debris and decay.

She starts when her cell rings, the gratingly cheerful chime of her own ringtone alien to her ears.

“Hi Mom.”

In the dust on her toaster she draws an upside-down smiley face, complete with angry furrowed eyebrows.


He’s coming back from PT, creeping through late-afternoon traffic on 95, when his cell vibrates in the console.

Swapping the water to his other hand, he steers with his knee and flips the phone open with his thumb, pushing aside the moment of ludicrous self-satisfaction at the fine motor coordination it took to execute that triple-play.


“It’s Chloe.” Her brief pause sends a crawling sensation up his spine.

“They released her today, Jack.”


“Byron Joerger wants to ‘talk’ to her. Tomorrow at ten. Here.”

“Goddammit.” He’s so focused he hears Chloe swallow.

“I know. That’s why I called.”


She arrives at Union Station early enough to select any seat she wants for the trip from DC to New York. She chooses a window.

Book. Headphones. She presses her body against the smudged plastic beside her and cranks all her “fuck off” signals to high.

It’s 6 a.m., morning rush. She knew she wouldn’t get lucky enough to be alone. Still, she’s irritated when a hand brushes her shoulder.

She glances up to see Jack, upright and whole.

His distinctive gravelly rumble rises over Mark Knopfler’s guitar.

“Were you going to call?”

Relief. Joy. Guilt.

She wants to run.


She yanks out the earphones, fumbles with the controls on her iPod. The nervous energy pouring off her could power a small city. He almost says something to make it easier for her, but residual anger silences him.

“Jack. I don’t-”

He waits.

“You look-” She pauses, uncertain. “Great, actually. Are you?”

He watches her eyes, recognition spiraling through his midsection, snaking up his neck.

There’s a filter now. Opaque defense.

He knows because he wore that expression for years. Still does, sometimes.

“I’m fine. I’d be better if you tell me why the hell you’re meeting with Byron Joerger.”


“I want this shit finished.”

Jack rummages in his duffel, extracting a chocolate peanut butter Clif bar. “I learned to love these in the hospital. You want one?”

“No. Thank you.” Her back is sweaty, the fabric of her shirt irritating where it chafes her shoulder blades.

“I tried to visit you.”

Sometimes she hates him for the way he never bullshits. Now, for example.

“I’m not-” She pulls her clingy shirt off her back. “I wasn’t in a visiting mood.”

“I figured. That’s why I didn’t press it.” She wishes he’d stop looking at her as if she were a textbook he had to memorize within the next ten minutes. “You’re all right?” he adds.

“Yeah. It was a blast.” She envisions words so brittle they crack if you drop them. Slowly, she withdraws her thigh where it brushes the edge of his jeans. “Could we change the subject? Tell me about you.”

God. She sounds like a fucking bitch.

Softer this time, she tacks on, “Please.”

The word echoes as he continues to study her. “Yeah. Sure.”

Stuffing the last bite of the bar into his mouth, he pulls out his digital camera. “You haven’t seen Teri. She and Kim just came to visit. They left on Saturday, so I’ve got some new ones.”

He leans toward her, the length of his upper arm touching hers as he angles the tiny viewscreen so she can see. She inhales to combat the compression in her chest.

The barely perceptible spice of his cologne abruptly rewinds her mental DVD to the six months ago chapter. She can still feel him sweaty and trembling, his body awkwardly leaning into hers.

Now, she wants immunity to the charge in his skin, the pressure of his concern. To retract.

She blinks and focuses on the sharp picture in front of her, the smiling blond wavy-haired child, cradling a rumpled polar bear and looking exactly like a miniature female version of Jack before life shoved him headfirst into the trash compactor.

“She’s gorgeous. She looks like you.” It slips out. Renee senses her face warming, not that it matters. Every electron of Jack’s concentration is focused on the screen in his hand. She notices his knuckles are dry, cracked in places. “It’s a long way to Penn Station. Show me all of them.”

When she moves away a fraction, he extends only the camera.


Through the sparkling one-way glass of the CTU NY interrogation room, Jack watches Joerger circle the table where Renee is seated. She’s stiff and motionless, eyes locked on a spot near the upper left corner of the gleaming rectangle.

Everything is so clean and antiseptic Jack wants to stick all five fingers against the glass.

Fingerprint smudging is the smallest offense he’d like to commit.

Hastings glances sideways. “You really don’t want her here, do you?”

“If she had information relevant to Wilson, she would have contacted you.” His eyes don’t move from Renee. “Why did the president let Joerger make this deal? Agent Walker didn’t ask to be released.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Hastings responds. “Or the president’s. We didn’t have a choice. The AG won this round.”

“He’s made her a target by bringing her here. Both of you had better hope nothing happens.”

“She’s not helping herself by refusing protection,” Hastings retorts, moving toward the window.

“You can’t protect her from Wilson’s people.” Jack exhales. “And you’re not gonna put this on her. It’s your responsibility to make sure you get to them before anything goes down.”

“Don’t worry. The president made the same message crystal clear.”


“You spent six months in prison with a minimum of five former government employees convicted of working for Wilson’s group.”

Joerger reclines against the edge of the table, easing his body into Renee’s personal space.

He smells like cheap cologne and orange tic-tacs.

She stares at him, seething. “Thanks for the refresher course.”

He leans in. Closer.

“You expect me to believe that you didn’t pick up a single piece of information pertinent to this investigation?”

“What I believe is that you’re a fucking idiot.”

Joerger flushes, bending forward until his face is so close she can see the tiny beads of sweat on his upper lip and smell the noxious orange on his breath.

“How did you reach that conclusion, Ms. Walker?”

Right now, if someone offered to drive her back to prison, she’d go. Cheerfully. The debilitating sense that all of this is futile makes her want to push Joerger’s face in.

“I threw away my career and went to prison to get the information I already gave CTU. Why the hell would I withhold new intel on Wilson’s group?”

“You have a reputation for playing by the rules only when they suit your purposes.” He pauses, inches from her face. “I notice Jack Bauer’s with you. I wouldn’t put it past you two to be working this on your own because you don’t trust CTU to handle the operation.”

“If they left you in charge that would certainly be tempting,” she snaps back.

Joerger’s face reddens even more, a purple vein in his forehead swelling.

“Ms. Walker.” He takes in a breath, apparently working to calm himself. “I have significant influence with the AG. Perhaps I’ll suggest to him that we return you to prison to finish out your term. Or-” He pauses, raising an eyebrow. “Given your acknowledged enjoyment of living on the edge, maybe you’d prefer going undercover with one of Wilson’s men to get information by more traditional feminine methods.”

She halfheartedly wishes she had her gun. Maybe she’s starring in the latest reality TV show and nobody sent her the memo. This guy has to be a joke.

“Are you following what I’m saying?” Joerger’s hand reaches out, sketching the skin on her clavicle.

The door smashes open before she can respond. She observes in puzzled fascination as Joerger’s head ricochets off the table with a vivid crack.

Jack is behind him.

Snarling, he leans over to whisper in Joerger’s ear, “You gave the president your fucking word that you would treat her as a cooperative witness. What do you think she’s gonna say when I give her my version of today’s events?”

He glances at Renee. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she responds, so incensed she’s breathing in truncated gasps. “What the hell is wrong with you? I can handle this dickhead.”

“I know. But fuck this. Interrogation’s over.”

Joerger sits silent, trying to catch his breath.

Jack holds the door for her. She’s too pissed to do anything but stalk past him.


Renee pours her fifth shot of tequila, reveling in the way that each time she tips the glass back, edges blur and soften.

Reality recedes.

Another few shots and she won’t remember why she opened the bottle in the first place.

She likes this idea.

A lot, actually, so when she hears the unmistakable impact of knuckles on her hotel room door, she whispers Fuck.

“Go away. I’m drunk.”

“I’m sure. Open the door, Renee. I’m not leaving.”

“Hold on.” She navigates unevenly toward the door, fighting to ignore the uncomfortable heat in her cheeks, the rushing in her ears.


Twisting her robe’s sash, she scrutinizes the brown rectangle, intrigued by the way the wood’s grain reshapes itself in her vision.

She yanks the door open, regretting the rapid movement when Jack’s face temporarily blurs. “I don’t want company.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Fine. Have a shot of tequila? It’s Cuervo Gold. I splurged.”

“I’ll pass. I’m sure you’ve had enough for both of us.”

“Screw you.”

“Might be tempting if I thought there was a chance you’d remember in the morning,” he mutters, sounding darkly amused.

She doesn’t recall authorizing her hand to fly towards his face, but it does.


He catches her wrist, using only the force necessary to prevent her palm from impacting his cheek.

“Renee, don’t.” She’s trembling.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, pulling her arm away. She sinks into the couch, knees hugged to her chest, curling in on herself. “This isn’t the way it was supposed to turn out.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not. I don’t know what-” Pause. “Will you pour the rest out for me?”

He nods, upending the bottle. Golden liquid circles stainless steel.

“I don’t want anything,” she whispers.

Fist clenched so he won’t touch her, he sits. Carefully measured distance.

“I know.”


Later, she wakes up to vomit every milliliter of tequila she drank and what feels like a few she didn’t.

Jack holds her hair, his hand resting lightly on her neck.

She grips the antiseptic white porcelain, wondering if it’s possible to loathe herself more.

Back on the couch, she clutches the saltines and ginger ale Jack brought her, because this is what remains in the aftermath.

Concrete objects she can hold.

She stares at the ugly patterned cushion and thinks of words that designate things she apparently cannot hold.

Hope. Belief. Forgiveness.

She’s careful her eyes don’t drift up to meet Jack’s.

It must be ten or fifteen minutes before he says, “Please look at me.”

She forces herself to glance up.

His eyes are warm, filled with something that reminds her of trying to heat frostbitten skin too quickly.

She wants to look away.

“You think I’m judging.” He huffs. “You should have seen me on heroin.”

He’s done it again, knocked her off balance just when she was beginning to feel secure in her entrenched hatred of everything.

“Talk to me about prison,” he murmurs.

No matter how hard she fights, the words rise, determined to escape.


She doesn’t answer her phone until it’s a ring away from going to voicemail. “What, Jack? I’m late.”

“I want to go with you. I just-” He pauses, the headache he’s had since he left her room at six a.m. pushing against the inside of his eyes, tightening his neck. “I have a bad feeling about all of this. Something doesn’t fit.”

“It’s fine. Joerger’s gone. It’s only Hastings today, and he’s not insane. I’ll probably be in and out of there in twenty minutes.”

“I’m not talking about Hastings.” He presses his palm into the crappy Formica of the hotel room countertop and wishes for the twelfth time in as many hours that she weren’t so fucking stubborn. “Wilson’s people know CTU questioned you.”

“I’m sure you’re right. But I can handle myself and I don’t need a repeat performance of yesterday. You’re not coming. I’ll call you when I get back. I really have to go.”

He slams his phone shut and throws it on the chair. Her obstinate, infuriated tone guarantees that nothing he could say will change her mind.

His head throbs. He might as well go find some Advil and a monstrous cup of coffee.


She steps out of her hotel room, still stuffing her left heel into her shoe.

An arm wraps around her neck. Instinctively, she throws her full body weight sideways and down, jamming her elbow back into her attacker’s ribs.

Grabbing for her gun, she levels it at another assailant running toward her down the corridor.

Two shots. He falls, yet there’s another man behind him. She fires, but the bullet only shatters the window. An arm around her neck again.

She kicks, punches, bites.

Color leeches from the atmosphere. It hangs that way, transient, until the grey descends into black.


Jack sits in one of the hotel lobby’s overstuffed chairs, crossing and uncrossing his ankles, fidgeting like a strapped-in toddler on a road trip without portable DVD.

He’s always been terrible at stillness, waiting.

He opens his phone and punches Renee’s number.

The cellular customer you are trying to reach is not available.

Oh, fuck. Disconnecting immediately, he dials Chloe.

“Jack, where the hell is Renee? Hastings is really mad.”

“They’ve got her. Can you pick up anything from her last call?”

“On it.”

“Call me the second you think you have a location.”

He closes the phone and runs.


The nauseating thud of her head against the floor of a moving vehicle slams her back to consciousness.

The blindfold diminishes images to patches of darkness and light.

She smells gas and body odor. Blood trickles into her mouth.

The truck jolts to a stop, metal crunch of doors and weapons.

She’s hauled up, dragged with such force that the momentum of her captor’s body propels her forward.

He shoves her to her knees. Steps back.

Jack. He was right, but he’ll still blame himself, still be haunted by his inability to save her this time.

She hates herself.



Rocks dig into her knees, cutting flesh.

She’s eerily calm, but acutely aware of the expansion and contraction of her chest as she breathes, curious to see which will be the last hit of oxygen before the fade to black.

She’d always believed that the victim wouldn’t even feel execution-style head shots, so her first reaction to the searing pain in her left thigh is surprise.

The impact of bullet on muscle knocks her off balance.

She smashes into the dirt, a jagged stone slicing her left cheek. Explosive staccato pops of gunfire.

“Renee, stay down!”


She acquiesces automatically.


He sprints towards her, the quiet following the barrage of gunfire so complete he can hear his own jagged breathing, the crack of his boots against twigs and rocks. He kicks the weapon from the motionless hand of the man who was half a second away from putting a bullet through Renee’s brain.

She’s fighting to sit up, hampered by the cuffs.

Blood, sliding down her face and neck, soaking through the denim on her thigh.

Finally he’s close enough to touch her. He grips her shoulders, pushing her back.

He tugs the blindfold. “Renee. Hold still. Let me look.”


“We’ve got maybe five minutes before whoever’s running this op realizes his people aren’t responding.”

“I should have listened.” It smacks her, ice water in the face, how lucky she is. “How the hell did you find me?”

Jack jams the accelerator. “Chloe triangulated your cell before we lost the signal.”

Speed melds the trees into green blurs. She shuts her eyes to fight nausea, pushing the blood-soaked towel against her thigh.

Jack swerves onto a dirt road, spinning gravel. “If I keep going we’ll meet them head on. Can you walk?”

Her hands are sweaty, shaking. “I’ll try.”


“Jack, for god’s sake. Stop. We’re far enough from the car,” she gasps, pushing against his chest with a hand covered in blood and sweat.

“Okay.” He lowers her to the ground, pulling off his jacket to put under her head. Her eyes are glassy, face graying with each breath.

He swallows, hoping to eat the panic. “I need to look at your leg.”

Faking focus he doesn’t have, he pulls out his knife and slits her jeans to the hip.

“It’s clean. The bullet went through. But I’ve got to get Chloe. You’re going into shock.”

“I know. Go.”


“I can’t leave you here.” He wipes the back of his hand over his forehead, smearing god knows what combination of body fluids.

“Yes. You can. We had a signal not two miles back. You can run that far, can’t you?” She’s trembling so violently her voice quivers, but she says nothing about cold or pain.

“That’s not the point. You could lose consciousness any second. They’ll be here the minute someone figures out you’re not dead.”

“You know there’s no alternative.” Her tiny smile makes him want to touch her cheek.

He slams a fresh clip into each of the remaining weapons and places both of them beside her right hand.

“Jack, you can’t-”

“You keep both of them or I don’t go.”

“What if they find you first?”

“This isn’t negotiable.”

“Goddammit. Fine.”

“If you hear them, can you stand long enough to use one of the trees as cover?”

“I don’t know.” Pause. “Maybe.”

“Okay.” Brushing the back of his fingers over the clammy skin of her arm, he gets up and runs, trying to think of nothing but the forward propulsion of his muscles, the expansion and contraction of his chest.

He doesn’t look back.


The crunch and snap of Jack’s racing footsteps fades within seconds, leaving behind nothing more than rustling leaves and an intermittent birdcall.

She grips one of the weapons, finger resting on the trigger, metal chill cooling her palm.

The noise in prison was relentless. Mostly, she’d stared at the water damage on the ceiling, listening to the guards’ muffled conversations, unintelligible ranting from some disgruntled inmate.

When she managed briefly to fall asleep, she dreamt of camping trips, wind in the trees the only sound beyond her own breathing. It took her only hours to comprehend that while almost everything was beyond her control, one thing was not.


She responded when addressed by a guard or the warden. Beyond that, no one could punish her for her personal war on chaos. Yet six months of silence, enforced or voluntary, is difficult to reverse in a few days.

The fact that she talked to Jack for at least an hour last night continues to mystify her.

Her stomach tightens. Rustling. Not leaves this time. Occasional whispers, drawing closer.

She wipes clammy hands on her shirt and wraps a palm firmly around the butt of each gun.

Breathing shallowly, she waits.


He’s drifting in the ether between sleep and consciousness when he hears the cheap hospital sheets shifting.

“Why are you here?” She’s squinting, confused.

He wants to hold his fingertips to the place on her neck where he can see her heart beating, comforting and rhythmic.

“I didn’t want you to wake up alone.” He rubs his eyes. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Yeah. I kicked ass.”

He observes, mesmerized, as the edges of her mouth transform their shape, a full-blown smile that illuminates her face.

His fingers compress the chair’s scratchy brown fabric, relief pulsing through him.

She’s back.


It takes effort to break the surface of consciousness. The painkillers render everything hazy.

The dim hospital room transiently reminds her of prison; she fights panic before she orients herself.

Jack sleeps in the stiff green chair, his hand jerking occasionally. His awkward posture makes her back hurt.

Predictably, his eyes open the instant she moves.

“You need anything?”

“No, thanks.”

Minutes drift by before he says, out of nowhere, “What did you hate most about prison?”

“Noise.” She fiddles with the hem of her hospital gown. “What did you hate most about China?”

“That they wouldn’t let me die.”


“Could you send me that last batch of files?” Renee peers at her monitor, her left hand maintaining its death grip on whichever cup of coffee this is.

12:52 a.m. He’s lost count.


“Yeah. Sorry. Just a second.” He clicks the mouse, searching for the right directory.

“These last five and we’re done. I’m in denial.”

He looks at her across the desk. Feet bare, one leg folded underneath her. Her perfume reminds him of sunrise, which he realizes is entirely insane.

“You must be so excited to head back to L.A.”

“I can’t wait.”

It’s mostly the truth.


The temperature plummets as they step from the restaurant’s warm interior into the frigid late-evening darkness.

Despite two generous glasses of Cabernet, Renee feels sedated, not relaxed.

Jack’s plane for L.A. leaves at 7:43 a.m.

The floating melancholy she’s been shadowboxing for days drifts around her, so palpable she half expects that if she only reached forward and closed her fist, she could capture a piece of the depressing fog.

She exhales, watching the vapor vanish as she glances at Jack. He’s studying one of the brightly lit Christmas trees in a shop window.

“What are you thinking?”

“Christmas. I can’t-” He coughs. “I’ve hated it for years. All the forced cheer and twenty-four hour shit music. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t spend the whole day trying not to think about Teri. She used to make me get up at fucking four a.m. the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line for whatever toy Kim wanted.” He smiles. “She’d give me this huge thermos of coffee and go back to bed. . .” He trails off. “I’m going to be with Kim and my granddaughter. I keep thinking something will happen. . .”

“It won’t.” She moves to get a better view of the tree that has him so transfixed. “I can’t wait to hear everything. I’m so-” She forces her toes forward in her shoe until they twist and hurt. “Glad.”

“Yeah.” Rough, the edges of his voice.

Shivering, Renee looks up toward the wreaths on the streetlamps, miniature halos decorating each individual white light.

She thinks about prison, grey brick and high-wattage fluorescent light. No beauty allowed.

On summer afternoons when she was small, five or six, she and her sister would take huge bottles of bubbles into the backyard and run barefoot through the grass until they reached their favorite rock. Then they’d sit and blow bubble clouds, competing to see who could catch the most without popping the fragile membranes.

Mostly, she failed. Yet every now and then, if the wind was right, if she was very lucky and very still, the magic alit on her finger. Suspended rainbows, shifting and swirling.

When she looks back at Jack, his face remains suffused with the indefinable expression that’s already outlasted the most resolute bubble she ever held.

“Are you cold?” he asks.

“No. Not at all,” she lies. “Let’s stay for a while.”


He calls her from the cushioned swing on Kim’s wraparound porch. His toes touch the Christmas lights Stephen has meticulously wrapped around the railing. Teri must have been tired; she only made him read Guess How Much I Love You three times before she squished her bear under her chin and reluctantly closed her eyes.

It’s the first week of December, eight-thirty p.m. and 82 degrees.

He doesn’t recall L.A. being this stifling.

“Hey. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Why does something have to be wrong? “Were you asleep?”

She laughs. “I wish.” He hears her TV, background static. “You’re missing Christmas In Tennessee.”

“Thank god,” he mutters.

“Are things good there?” she asks. “Kim and Teri?”

“They’re great.”

It’s weird. He had like five things he wanted to tell her. Now they’re intertwined in his throat like those pipe cleaners Teri uses to make art projects.


“I’m here. How’s your leg?”

“Fine. The scar’s gonna look nasty though. Not that anybody’s-” She stops.

Jack wrenches the conversational steering wheel sharply left. “I’ve got a follow-up with Dr. Macer next Tuesday.” He breaths in, cautiously. “I thought maybe-”

“You wanna get Thai and. . . watch a movie?”

“Yeah. I do.”


“I thought you were an English major. Why did I just kick your ass?” She picks up the last couple Scrabble tiles, raising an amused eyebrow.

Jack relaxes into the couch, sipping the eggnog latte she made to test her new espresso maker. “You won by playing ‘paw,’” he retorts grumpily. “I can’t play anywhere when you stack the words four letters deep.”

“That’s how you win!” She carries her cup into the kitchen. “I’m having a brownie. You want one?”

“Still working on the coffee.”

She wedges herself into the couch, stuffing a corner of the chocolate square into her mouth. He doesn’t realize he’s watching her lips until out of fucking nowhere he’s thinking about their softness somewhere else entirely.

It’s been so long since he’s experienced, well, lust, that it takes a beat for him to identify the warm hum coursing along his nerve endings, cranking up his internal thermostat.

Renee licks a crumb off her lip and makes a face at him. “The latte can’t be that bad.”

“What? No.” He works to school his face and other parts of his anatomy. “Do you have a chess board? Because I think it’s your turn to lose.”


Sex, confused tangle of cotton and mixed messages, feels like an intentional accident.

Coordinated chaos.

Her fingers are hot where they stroke his skin, but he wants them everywhere at once, risking the burn.

Unintentionally, he discovers how easily he can make her breathe in sharp intermittent gasps.

More disconnected from his own signals than he could have imagined, he comes before he’s even fully inside her.

Cascading waves of pleasure, crushed within seconds by a deluge of shame, embarrassment, and fear.

Body still throbbing, he’s trying to pull away when he hears her voice.

“Don’t even think about moving.”


Fifteen minutes later, she’s working to keep her focus on the uneven pattern of scars decorating Jack’s back and off the simmering ache in her own body that makes it difficult not to wiggle against the sheets, not to breathe in shallow surges.

“I’m really-” She hears him swallow. “Fuck. I’m sorry.” He still won’t look at her.

“You’re an idiot.” She pushes up on her elbow, pressing her palm to his cheek so he has no choice but to turn his face. “If that happened every time, I’d get upset eventually.”

She slides her index finger up his bicep. “But. That was the hottest thing that’s happened to me in-” She presses closer. “A long time.”

“Right,” he mumbles, shifting his gaze again. “You didn’t get anything out of it.”

She grins, shaking her head as amusement and arousal twist together inside of her, expanding outward to flush her skin. “That’s not true. But if you’re so convinced, why don’t you fix it?”

“Is that a challenge?” His face remains a map of confusion, but his voice has gone low and liquid, tension evaporating.

“What if it is?” she teases.

He lifts himself over her, rolling her onto her back. His weight sinks the length of her body into the cool cotton of the sheets.

She’s still hot all over.

Renee studies his face as he moves, the beautiful arced lines tracing his eyes and his mouth. It’s exhilarating and intimidating, being the singular object of that focus, that concentration.

He stills, eyes locked on hers. His arms tremble slightly with the effort of holding himself above her.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

He smiles. “Nothing. At all. I’m just-” His eyes scan her face.

Suddenly, she realizes.

He’s memorizing.

She lets him for another minute before she smoothes her palms over the uneven terrain of his back and slips her fingertips into his hair.

His mouth touches hers, lightly at first, his tongue soft as it traces the inside of her lip. She opens her mouth beneath his, and before she can take a breath she wonders how they’ve almost hit terminal velocity. He’s kissing her fully now, like nothing’s quite solid beyond the shape of her mouth, the coffee on his tongue. And oh god, she can’t remember feeling this good. . . ever.

This time, when he eases himself inside her, the glide is so slow she bites her lip to keep still.

Panting, he stops. Motion dissolves into heartbeats and breathing.

He takes her face in his hands, thumbs stroking over her cheeks so softly she feels as if he’s touching her from the inside out.

His voice is hardly above a whisper. “Tell me what you want.”

She lifts her body beneath his; she can’t stop herself. The muffled Christ, Renee that vibrates from his throat has her wondering for a second if she’s going to come right then.

Unsure if she’ll make any sound, she answers him anyway, her lips almost touching his.


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