I’m coughing, wheezing. I had asthma as a kid, and that’s what it feels like now as the pepper spray stings me all the way down. “Get off!” I gasp. “You’re too heavy—I can’t—get air.”
“It’s the spray you hit me with,” he says. “Breathe normal.”
I gasp for air, panicking. “I can’t!” Is this how I die? Suffocation?
“Pretend,” he says, letting up his knee. He shifts so that he’s straddling my back. He grips my wrists now, pressing them above my head, and I feel his boots locked over my thighs. His weight is off my back. “It’s something every thug like me knows, how to not breathe in the fucking Mace.”
I choke and cough. I still can’t breathe. He’s going to let me die. He’s going to sit on me and watch me die.
“Relax,” he says softly. “You’re making it worse by panicking.”
Hoarsely, I try to get air. The sounds scare me. I really can’t breathe. I suck faster as the panic rises.
“Hey,” he whispers. “Shhh.” He brings his head near mine, breath tickling the back of my neck. “Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent, okay? It swells your throat and sinuses, but it doesn’t shut them.”
He continues to speak in his calm, strangely soothing voice. Why is he soothing me? I can feel him rattling against my defenses with every word. “You’re still getting air, okay? Focus on that, Ms. Winslow. That little passage of air you can still breathe through. Slow it down now, got it?”
I can’t slow it down. It’s like I don’t know how to breathe anymore, and I’m shaking.
And suddenly he’s stretching his big body over me, on top of me. His weight isn’t entirely on me, or else I’d be squished; it’s more of a dull weight, as though he’s holding himself against me, warming me, pressing me to the forest floor. Into my ear he whispers, “Breathe with me.”
I suck in a faint breath. “Get off me, you caveman!” Why is he even trying to help me?
“You’re okay, baby,” he says. “Match my breath.”
I feel his chest expand against my shoulder blades. He’s like a big, warm animal on me. I twist, but there’s no moving. He presses down harder, and something about his weight soothes me. I hate that he’s actually calming me, helping me. I don’t want him to make me feel good—he’s my enemy.
I wheeze lightly.
He breathes on, hot and slow against me. A bird calls in the distance. I can hear the hum of the highway, the drone of a helicopter. My eyes tear, and my limbs feel floppy and warm, and suddenly I’m doing it—I’m breathing. I take an almost regular breath.
“There you go,” he whispers.
“Fuck you. I don’t want your help.” I gasp in another breath.
His whisper caresses my cheek. “Nice and slow, Ms. Winslow.” There’s something sensual in the way he says it. “Nice and slow.
He breathes again, as if to demonstrate. On the next breath I match him. Soon we’re breathing together. It’s strangely intimate, like we’re two wounded creatures under the forest canopy. It’s almost like dancing.
Almost like having sex.
I crane my head around just enough to see that he still has his eyes shut tight, dark eyelashes wet with tears from the irritation of the spray. Did I hurt him? Did I burn his eyes?
“Stop moving around,” he growls. “Lie still.”
Like I have any choice with him pinning me. My heart pounds under his weight.
Breathe in, breathe out.
It’s as if we’re in some kind of time-out, a no-man’s-land with the two of us fucked up and lying on the forest floor on a bed of pine needles that actually feels sort of soft and nice. The moments stretch on and on. I wonder how long it will take him to recover.
Maybe I really injured his eyes. Could I have hurt his eyes permanently?
He shifts, and I think maybe he’s getting up. But he doesn’t.
In a weird way I’m glad. If he got off me, that would end this strange, relaxing time out. It would bring back the harsh reality of who we are to each other.
For now, there’s nothing I can do with him lying on my back, and I let my limbs go soft, let my breathing calm, giving myself permission to relax. I feel like jelly suddenly, spread underneath him, spine flattened out. Us breathing together.
My eyes drift closed. The warm patch on my neck feels lit up every time he breathes out, and I imagine his lips hovering just over my skin.
I imagine him kissing me there, and a wave of forbidden feeling swells through my core.
My eyes fly open. There is no way I’m turned on.
Except I am.
My heart races. My breath gets fitful again.
“Hey,” he says. And then more softly. “You’re okay.”
I become aware of a hardness against my thigh. An erection. A melty sensation pulses through my pelvis. I’m trembling deep down, and it’s not just fear; it’s excitement.
Horrified, I try to shake him off, and he tightens his legs and arms around me. I feel his weight and warmth keenly now. “You don’t want to give me any more trouble, do you?”
“No,” I whisper huskily.
The energy of sex runs wild between us, and I don’t know how to stop it. Does he know? I flash back on him in the prison waiting room, the way he looked at me, and all that power and beauty barely contained in shackles. How stupid I was to think he was beautiful
“No, you don’t want to give me trouble,” he affirms. “So we’re going to stay just like this until my eyes can recover.”
“So you can kill me?”
“If I was going to kill you,” he says, warm and tickly beneath my earlobe, “don’t you think you’d be dead?” There’s something about the way he says this that makes my belly quiver, and I can’t stop focusing on his erection. His big, strong heart beats against my back, beating my heart like we’re conjoined in some primitive way.
His breath feels soft on the side of my neck, and heaven help me, I want to feel more of him. I imagine his skin on my skin. Dimly I’m aware that my breath is changing, speeding, shallowing.
I stiffen as he presses his lips to the warm spot; it’s a kind of kiss. Or is it? And then he whispers, “Penny for your thoughts, Ms. Winslow.”
Oh God, he knows. This man who’s going to kill me, this man I’ve been breathing with, he knows.