Protecting What's His Page 29

Then the kiss changed. His hips slowly distanced themselves from hers, the delicious friction disappearing. The hands manacling hers dropped lower to cup her face. Instead of being bruising and relentless, his tongue now soothed hers, as if apologizing for his earlier roughness. He brushed each of her swollen lips in turn, then left her mouth to dance across her face, planting soft kisses on her cheeks, eyelids, and forehead.

A sob broke from Ginger’s throat. Tears she hadn’t felt forming in her eyes cascaded down her cheeks. Derek kissed them away.

“Give me a chance, beautiful girl,” he whispered urgently against her mouth.

Something inside Ginger shattered. Self-preservation had her pushing Derek away and frantically pulling on her discarded shorts. Her hands shook so violently, it took her a full minute to get them buttoned and zipped. She could feel Derek watching her the entire time but she refused to look at him, knowing instinctively that his expression would force her to accept something impossible.

Snatching her purse off the counter, she turned and rushed to leave.

“Ginger, wait.”

“Don’t come anywhere near me, Derek. I don’t want to see you anymore,” she half-sobbed without turning around, then slammed the door.

Chapter Sixteen

Clip clip clip.

Ginger cut smoothly around the image of a giant duck and pasted it to the coffee table’s surface, smoothing the edges with her fingers. It reminded her of the disastrous Halloween she attempted to dress up five-year-old Willa in a makeshift costume consisting of a pillowcase and flip-flops. The final touch had been an orange funnel she’d taped over her sister’s mouth in lieu of a beak. They’d been forced to return home when Willa kept running into people and trees, unable to see over the kitchen utensil.

She turned the page in her Good Housekeeping magazine, eyes immediately drawn to the image of a family dressed in robes, gathered around a Christmas tree, complete with a wealth of wrapped presents at its base. Her smile disappeared. They’d never been able to afford a Christmas tree or presents, save the camera she’d bought Willa one year. Carefully, she cut around the tree, before applying paste to the back and slapping it upside down on the table, partially obscuring the picture of Dolly.

As she browsed further through the glossy pages, Ginger caught herself wondering what kind of home life Derek experienced as a child, then quickly sipped her scalding coffee to dispel the thought. She would never find out and it didn’t matter. His childhood could have rivaled hers in shittiness and it wouldn’t change a thing.

She ripped a page from the magazine and began cutting out a cherry pie recipe. Maybe this project’s theme could be Irony. A table full of things they’d never had. Disgusted with her attitude, Ginger let the scissors drop on the floor and heaved the magazine across the room.

Ironic is me buying Good Housekeeping magazine in the first place, she thought, looking around at her pathetic attempt to create a home for Willa. It might have been a vast improvement from Nashville, but to her it screamed low-class. God, she’d never escape the reminders of where and what she’d come from. Maybe she wasn’t meant to.

Ginger wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged them to her chest, letting her head fall forward. The second her eyes closed, Derek’s plea swam through her mind.

Give me a chance, beautiful girl.

Was she only imagining the plaintiveness in his tone? She hadn’t slept since their conversation, the memory still felt achingly fresh. Allowing herself to imagine, even for a second, what he’d meant by “give me a chance,” left her feeling dizzy and panicked. He didn’t know, couldn’t know, what he asked of her.

By forcing her to acknowledge that his interest went beyond sexual attraction, he’d effectively blasted a hole in the side of her already-sinking ship. She didn’t know her own identity without the illusion of sex. Had always used her looks to her advantage. But he wanted more. He wanted her.

Who am I, really?

Yesterday, she would have winked and told anyone who asked, “I’m a Southern girl with a big heart and an even bigger mouth.” Today? She didn’t have an answer. For so long, her focus had been solely on Willa, and she wouldn’t change her actions for anything in the world. But somewhere along the way, had she become the girl she’d merely been pretending to be?

Derek seemed to think more existed underneath the surface. How could he be so sure? If she gave him a chance, how long would it take him to realize his error?

She couldn’t open herself up for that kind of pain.

Not even for Derek, who could comfort, arouse, and challenge with a single look.

Caught up in her own thoughts, Ginger nearly jumped out of her skin when Willa spoke to her from the kitchen.

“Coffee, sis?”

How long had she been standing there? “No thanks, I’ve already had three cups.”

“Good lord.” Willa scooped the grounds into the holder, added water, and closed the lid. “Who are you and what have you done to Ginger?”

“Huh?” Trying to hide her puffy eyes, Ginger looked down, concentrating on the cigarette advertisement she pasted on the coffee table.

Willa frowned as she removed a coffee mug from the cabinet. “You worked last night. Shouldn’t you still be in bed?”

“Hmmm? Yeah. I couldn’t sleep.” She cleared the cobwebs from her throat and smiled at Willa. “Hey, I had an idea! I found this amazing coffee table downtown and I thought we could collaborate on it. We can combine some of your photos with the interesting clippings I find. It’ll be ours when we finish. We’ll keep it. What do you think?”

Willa finished pouring milk into the mug, then returned her smile. “I’ll go get my portfolio. Maybe I have some old shots we can use.”


Avoiding Willa’s intelligent gaze, Ginger ducked her head once more, pretending to consider different placements for the cutout she held in her hand. A few minutes later, Willa came back in the room carrying an oversize folder and took up residence on the floor beside her. Ginger felt a rush of gratitude for her sister when she refrained from mentioning the overtly sarcastic quality of the project so far.

Willa extricated a handful of photographs and began picking through them.

Ginger set down the magazine and picked up a glossy eight-by-ten shot of a broad-shouldered young man wearing a basketball uniform, his brows drawn together in concentration. The players surrounding him were the only giveaway that he was a high school student, because of how much older he looked. “Who’s this?”

“That’s Evan. Evan Carmichael.”

“Oh.” Ginger studied the picture. “Did you take this on Friday night? It’s really good, Wip.”

“Yep, I did. Thanks.”

Ginger set the photograph back down on top of the pile. “He’s really cute. Do you know him?” She winced at her attempt to sound nonchalant. Willa would definitely clam up on the double.

“Yeah. I know him. Actually…” She tugged the sleeves of her hoodie over her wrists, poking her thumb through a hole she’d created. “I think he’s going to ask me to the prom. Ha.”

Ginger’s mouth fell open. “Wh-what did you say? You’re considering going to a dance with this boy?”

“I’m thinking about it. Yeah.” She sighed. “If he asks, I’ll go.”

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