The Obsession Page 89

She woke herself from the nightmare, ripped herself out of the cellar, under a nurse log in the dark, green forest. The cellar where she’d found Marla’s body. The fear came with her, and the images of the killing room her father had built, and all the blood and death in it.

Her breath wheezed out, wanted to clog up. She fought to hitch it in, shoved it out again.

Then hands gripped her shoulders. She’d have screamed if she’d had the air.

“It’s me. It’s Xander. Hold on a minute.”

He turned her, one hand still firm on her shoulder, and switched on the light.

One look at her had his hands taking her face, a hard grip.

“Slow it down, Naomi. Look at me, slow it down. You’re okay, just slow it down. You’re going to hyperventilate and pass out on me otherwise. Look at me.”

She pulled air in—God, it burned—fought to hold it, slow it before she let it out. She kept her eyes on his, so blue. A deep, bold blue, like water she could sink into and float.

“Better. You’re okay, slower, slow it down some more. I’m going to get you some water.”

She lifted her hands, pressed them to his. She needed those eyes, just that deep blue for another minute.

He kept talking to her. She didn’t really register the words, just the hands on her face, the blue of his eyes. The burn eased, the weight lifted.

“Sorry. Sorry.”

“Don’t be stupid. Water’s right there, on your nightstand. I’m not going anywhere.”

He reached around her, picked up the bottle, uncapped it. “Slow on this, too.”

She nodded, sipped. “I’m all right.”

“Not yet, but close. You’re cold.” He rubbed those work-rough hands up and down her arms. He looked over her shoulder, said, “Ease off now.”

She glanced over, saw Tag with his front paws on the bed.

“I woke up the dog, too. At the risk of being stupid on your scale, I am sorry. Nightmare.”

Not her first, he thought, but the first time he’d seen the full-blown panic. “Not surprising, considering. You should get back under the blankets, warm up.”

“You know, I think I’ll get up, try to work awhile.”

“Nothing much to take pictures of at . . . three twenty in the morning.”

“It’s not just taking them.”

“I guess not. We should go down, scramble some eggs.”

“Scramble eggs? In the middle of the night.”

“It’s not the middle of the night on your time clock. Yeah, eggs. We’re up anyway.”

“You don’t have to be,” she began, but he just rolled out of bed.

“We’re up,” he repeated, and walked over to open the doors. Tag bulleted out. “Up and out. Waffles,” he considered, glancing over to study her as he pulled on pants. “I bet you could make waffles.”

“I could, if I had a waffle maker. Which I don’t.”

“Too bad. Scrambled eggs, then.”

She sat a moment, bringing her knees up to her chest.

He just handled things, she thought. Nightmares, panic attacks, hurt dogs on the side of the road, dead bodies at the foot of the bluff.

How did he do it?

“You’re hungry.”

“I’m awake.” He picked up the cotton pants and T-shirt he’d gotten off her in the night, tossed them in her direction.

“Do you like eggs Benedict?”

“Never had it.”

“You’ll like it,” Naomi decided, and got out of bed.

He was right. The normality of cooking breakfast soothed and calmed. The process of it, the scents, a good hit of coffee. The raw edges of the dream, of memories she wanted locked away, faded off.

And she was right. He liked her eggs Benedict.

“Where has this been all my life?” he wondered as they ate at the kitchen counter. “And who’s Benedict?”

She frowned over it, then nearly laughed. “I have no idea.”

“Whoever he was, kudos. Best four A.M. breakfast I’ve ever had.”

“I owed you. You came when I called, and you stayed. I wouldn’t have asked you to stay.”

“You don’t like to ask.”

“I don’t. That’s probably a flaw I like to think of as self-reliance.”

“It can be both. Anyway, you’ll get used to it. To asking.”

“And you brought me out of a panic attack. Have you had experience there?”

“No, but it’s just common sense.”

“Your sense,” she corrected. “Which also had you distracting me with eggs.”

“Really good eggs. Nothing wrong with self-reliance. I’d be a proponent of that. And nothing wrong with asking either. It’s using that crosses the line. We’re in a thing, Naomi.”

“A thing?”

“I’m still working out the definition and scope of the thing. How about you?”

“I’ve avoided being in a thing.”

“Me, too. Funny how it sneaks up on you.” In a gesture as easy, and intimate, as his voice, he danced his fingers down her spine. “And here we are before sunup, eating these fancy eggs I didn’t expect to like with a dog you didn’t expect to want hoping there’ll be leftovers. I’m good with that, so I guess I’m good with being in a thing with you.”

“You don’t ask questions.”

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