23. The Sweetness of Water

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Ayla tried to be angry with him as she left the bedroom and ran to the kitchen to get some water. She really tried—but she couldn't. She was just so overjoyed to see him alive, to see that stupid, arrogant, devilish grin on his face and see those steel-gray eyes twinkling as they looked up at her.

The last night had been one of the worst nights of her life. She had been working ceaselessly over Reuben, hoping against hope that he wasn't going to slip from her grasp and disappear into the darkness. More than once, when his breathing had been labored and the sweat had streamed down his face in rivulets, had she believed her efforts would be in vain. And even in moments like these, no, especially then, she could not stop noticing how incredibly handsome Reuben's face was, longing to touch it just once without a cold linen in her hand, without the thought of impending death in her mind.

She had really believed that he was going to die.

But somehow, he had survived. She didn't know how, and she didn't really care. He was alive, and he was with her.

Before that unseemly thought could take root, she pushed open the kitchen door and grabbed one of the pitchers of water that was left over from her efforts in the night.

Returning to Reuben, she knelt beside his bedstead and held the pitcher out to him.

“Can you hold it yourself?”

He lifted his hand and tried to hold the pitcher, really tried. You could see his jaw working and the massive muscles in his arms bunching—but it was no use.

“No,” he growled.

“It's no problem, you know. I can hold it for you. You're sick. Just because you're too weak to hold a pitcher full of water, you are no less of a man.”

He closed his eyes and groaned. “Will you just get on with it?”

Obviously, he didn't quite share her opinion. He didn't like that she had to hold something for him because he was too weak.

Smiling with silent satisfaction, Ayla put the pitcher to his lips with one hand, while with the other, she softly gripped his neck from behind and pushed his head up.

Reuben's eyes flew open in surprise.

“You don't need to hold me,” he protested. “I'm no infant that can't move on his own!”

“Of course not. Just humor me, will you?” she said, smiling at him, stroking the back of his neck with her thumb.

He opened his mouth—and no protest came. “All right, get on with it,” he sighed. “If only this were honey wine, then it would be worth all this trouble.”

“Oh, water can be sweet too, after you get used to it.”

“Which I hope never to accomplish.”

“Drink already, will you? I haven't got all day.”

He did as she asked, and she grinned down at him, triumphantly. “Sweet enough for you?” she asked.

Instead of answering with one of his usual sarcastic remarks, Reuben fixed her with a gaze that felt as though it would make her melt inside. Quickly, so quickly she wasn't even sure it happened, he raised a hand and stroked a strand of her hair that was hanging into his face. “Yes, sweet enough,” he said. “Without a doubt.”

She flinched, and his head slipped from her grasp, thudding onto the bedpost.

“Oh my God, I'm so sorry!” Hurriedly, she put the pitcher away and bent forward to examine his head.

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