Keeley waited to ask questions until they had left the restaurant and were back at Clay’s. She watched as he transferred—a little precariously—onto the porch swing beside her. He pushed off the porch railing with his hand, setting them in a gentle swaying motion.
Keeley curled into his side, tucking her feet underneath her as he slung his arm comfortably around her shoulders, pulling her close. They sat there for a few minutes, enjoying the soft spring breeze and the quiet sounds of the night.
“How?” Keeley asked finally, breaking the silence. “And when?”
Clay chuckled softly, but something in his face told her that he regretted giving her free rein. “That’s two questions, Dr. Burns. Even if you ask in the same breath.” She rolled her eyes.
Clay gave the rail another push. Taking a deep, almost steadying breath, he launched into the story of how his ex-girlfriend, Brooke, had stumbled across a dump of a place out on James Island three years ago and bought it, dirt cheap, as an investment.
“I worked so damn hard on that thing,” he said. “Added square footage, new windows. Refinished the hardwood floors and completely repainted the interior.” He paused. Keeley could tell his mind was somewhere far away. “It never occurred to me that she bought it intending to flip.”
Oh. She realized, with a start, what he was saying. By now, she knew Clay wouldn't have put in that much work just to see it.
“After she told me that, though…” He shrugged, letting the sentence trail off. “The next day I started replacing the roof. Crawled up there early in the morning as soon as it quit raining, just anxious to be done with the project.” Clay laughed dryly. “You'd be surprised how unbelievably slippery shingles are when they’re wet.”
Keeley felt her jaw drop. “You went up on a wet roof?” She cringed as soon as the words left her mouth.
“Yeah,” Clay answered with a small, nervous laugh. “And then fell off said wet roof, breaking my back at the T8 level.” He shifted, pulling his arm out from behind her and held his hand up to the middle of his rib cage. “Compliments of the edge of the dumpster I banged on the way down.”
The swing had almost stopped, so Clay gave the wall another push. Keeley noticed how his legs dangled, how his feet sort of dragged. Despite everything he’d just told her about the severity of his injury, what resonated deepest was the fact that he had fixed up the house intending to start a life with Brooke. Keels, what are you? Thirteen? You're jealous of a relationship that ended three years ago. She pulled his arm back around her, pushed that thought to the back of her head and sighed, looking up at Clay.
He was staring down at his legs, looking a little uncomfortable as the swing swung back and forth. For a moment, she regretted taking him up on this little Q&A... but she still had questions. All her life, Keeley had preferred to dance around sensitive and painful subjects—in her own life, and with others.
Kind of hard to do now, she thought, glancing over at Clay’s chair. She reached over and gently squeezed his thigh, hoping he'd take it as an intimate, comforting gesture, an accepting show of affection. She was surprised by its thinness.
Clay cleared his throat. Keeley looked up, noting the guarded look in his eyes as he continued. “Some people are incomplete; they’re able to regain a little feeling and movement below their injury.” He averted his eyes as her hand moved a bit farther up his leg. In a regretful, almost shy voice, he muttered, “I’m not that way.”
Oh. The implications hit her, making her head spin a bit. She shrugged, feigning indifference.
Clay didn’t buy it, wrinkling his nose and giving a short, dry laugh. Shifting forward on the swing, he reached out to grab his chair. He pulled his body onto it, disappearing into the house moments later.
In a true “duh” moment, realization that he might be scared of her reaction, her rejection, dawned on Keeley. She leapt up to follow him. Spotting him heading towards his room, she slid in front of him, blocking his way. He sighed in mild exasperation. If she hadn’t felt as though their relationship practically depended on her next move, she might have laughed at the image of herself.
Everything about him radiated unease: the way he gripped the push rims of his wheels, the intense expression on his face. Hell, she wasn’t so keen on the route their Q&A had gone, either. She gestured towards the wheelchair. “Clay,” she said in a soft voice, laying her hand on his shoulder. “I can handle this.”
He shook his head, unbelieving, and rolled past her. “Brooke sure as hell couldn’t.”
“I’m not Brooke.” Keeley bristled. It was the first comeback she could think of. “Or any other girl you’ve dated in the past three years.”
For the first time since she’d known him, Keeley saw color rise to Clay’s cheeks. He pivoted around to meet her head-on, a rueful grin on his face. “What girls?” He wheeled past her into his room.
Keeley felt a lump rise in her throat. Is he kidding? But as she thought back to that first day in the parking lot, she answered her own question. She remembered the shock and embarrassment, even discomfort, that washed over her as she watched him pull his limp legs out of the truck, adjusting them with his hands because they didn’t move on their own.
She wanted to say something, express that on some level she understood. Being a divorcee at 28 didn’t exactly leave all the eligible bachelors lined up at her door. But at this moment, the comparison felt insignificant and petty.
She pushed the door open. Clay sat in front of his chest of drawers, shirt untucked and dinner jacket discarded on the bed, rummaging for something to wear while sleeping. Damn, she thought. I’m not used to this—this innate "knowing the problem and how to fix it" thing, or even how to take the reins.She took a breath to steady herself, thanking the half bottle of wine she’d consumed earlier, and wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders. “Give me a chance.”
She half expected him to push her away or tense up. Instead, she felt him relax, exhaling. Throwing the old shirt back into his drawer, he spun around and tugged Keeley gently into his lap. She felt his usual tenderness in his touch, but the ever-present sparkle of confidence seemed startlingly absent, replaced instead by a guarded expression.
Clay kissed the nape of her neck. “Don’t say you weren’t warned. I gave you ample chance to run.” Keeley smacked his chest. “Ow! I felt that!” He laughed softly, leaning towards her: close enough to feel his hot breath on her lips, close enough for their lips to almost touch.
She found herself growing warm as she met his eyes, at the heat between them that was almost palpable. She smiled and leaned in, ever so slightly, bridging the gap between them. As their lips connected, she felt a familiar rush of electricity course through her body. It always surprised her how soft and warm Clay’s lips were. Keeley shuddered as his lips moved upwards to her earlobe and then down to her neck, enjoying the feeling of his hands as they roamed around underneath her rose colored blouse. Goosebumps rose from every place he touched.
Clay’s kisses were sweet and gentle, strangely cautious; his hands busy. Suddenly the room felt much too hot. In one swift move, Keeley pulled her blouse over her head, tossing it away. She fumbled with the buttons on Clay’s shirt. He grinned crookedly at her, waiting. “The buttons on men’s shirts are too damn tiny!” she mumbled, exasperated.
He chuckled and kissed her bare shoulder. She giggled as his beard tickled her, feeling him slowly work down the zipper on the side of her skirt. His shirt buttons finally came free of the buttonholes. She smiled triumphantly and ran her hands across his hairy chest, gently tweaking one of his nipples.
“Felt that, too.” He smiled wickedly, wheeling them the few feet to his bed. Keeley stood up, letting her skirt fall to the floor, not having even a moment to be self-conscious about her state of undress before she collapsed onto the bed.
When she hit the mattress, she lay there for a moment, just wanting to sleep. She couldn’t help it; she actually yawned. The exhaustion and the past two weeks were finally catching up to her. But Clay’s expression—cautious, yet lustful—made her forget that for a moment. She sat up and patted the bed beside her.
Clay gave a low whistle at the sight of her, then smiled. For the first time in the last thirty minutes, the smile truly seemed to reach his eyes. Keeley watched as he placed his hands on the bed and then pulled his body over, quickly adjusting his legs with his hands. He took a deep breath and unbuttoned his slacks. Rocking side to side, he worked to get them off his body, pulling one thin leg out at a time.
She squeezed his muscular arm and smiled. He returned it with a tentative squeeze of his own and reached out, gently pulling her towards him. Keeley melted into his warm body, appreciating how natural it felt, feeling strangely turned on. She stared for a moment at his legs, a shade paler than the rest of his body and eerily still. Sitting up a little, she ran a hand over his chest, rubbing it and tracing small patterns around his nipples. She placed a small kiss on each, smiling with success as Clay moaned softly.
She glanced up as a small gasp escaped Clay’s lips. She stopped her exploration right above his navel. That must be the place. He must have guessed what she was thinking because he nodded. With infinite tenderness, she leaned down and kissed the line.
Clay’s eyes were closed; there was a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead. Keeley ran her tongue lightly over the area, surprised at her own take-charge attitude and confidence. That wasn’t like her at all. She slowly moved further down his body. She hesitated when she reached the top of his boxers, wondering at the noticeable lack of excitement as she slipped her fingers under the waistband.
Clay opened his eyes, sitting up and propping himself on his elbows. He looked down and wrinkled his nose again. “Doesn’t get much more exciting, I’m afraid.”
Keeley nodded, the confirmation of what she’d suspected sinking in. She moved back above the belt and kissed his collarbone. “Not without help anyways,” he added in a strangely hoarse voice.
Keeley sat up and looked at him. She waited for him to go on.
He fell back against the pillows. “Shit,” he muttered. “Ruins the fucking mood, having to talk about it.”
She started to giggle at his word choice, unable to help herself, but quieted at the sharp look on his face. “I can handle it,” she repeated, for what seemed like the hundredth time tonight. “Besides, my fucking mood has been building for two weeks now. I doubt anything could ruin it,” she added, with a smile and a shrug. “I just want to know.”
Clay gave her a skeptical look. Then he mumbled something that sounded like “whatever.” He sighed resignedly. “Yes. Yes,” he repeated firmly. For a brief moment she wondered whether he was trying to convince her or himself. “Just takes a little more preparation.” When Keeley didn’t say anything right away, he added in a low voice, “A little more than what we’ve done tonight.”
“Well,” she said slowly. “We’ll just prepare better another night.” She smiled at him seductively and lowered her voice. “I’m all about preparation, you know.”
I’m getting better at this, she thought. Her insides tingled; a familiar lump rose in her throat as she registered the relief shining brightly in his eyes. God, you’re getting emotional, there, Keels. Get a hold on yourself.
Clay moved his hands further down her body. He smiled broadly as he made his way to a spot that made her flush—not from embarrassment, but pure pleasure. He didn’t look to her for confirmation as he slid his fingers in quickly, dipping his head to nibble her ear. Every minute movement he made sent little quivers of pleasure up and down her body. He placed one hand lightly on her quaking stomach; the slight pressure he applied, made her squirm in delight. There was a content gleam in Clay’s eyes as he started to move his fingers faster and faster. She marveled at how Clay caused her body to react as she screamed in release, shaking and hot all over, and muffled the sound in his bare shoulder as he lowered himself back down beside her with a pleased grin on his face and stretched out.
Clay turned to face her, gently cupping the side of her face with his hand. She ran her foot lightly up and down one of his legs, entwining it with her own. As they lay there, she realized Clay's height for the first time. At least six feet, probably a few inches over, with the sturdy, strong frame to match it. Keeley sighed in pleasure as he ran his thumb across her cheekbone. She felt bubbly and content and warm inside, yet strangely jumbled at the same time.