8. Bath

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I stood in the doorway watching him. 

Wet, dark hair that glistened black in the reflected afternoon sunlight bouncing off the white walls of the kitchen. The same overly-broad shoulders with the prominent, knobby collarbone. A few light swirls of dark hair on the chest, trailing down over the long, straight line of his torso into the bath water. Long arms that ended in gentle hands with long, slender fingers resting on the sides of the tub. 

He reminded me of Valentino. Not that James was as handsome as Rudy. Charlotte would have thought me mad if I said that, but soaking there in the old tin tub with his head leaning back against the high end,  his eyes closed, he looked the picture of a sleeping Italian. 

A sleeping Italian with battle scars. 

I recognised the heat-pinked lines where the sutures had been. There were more of them now than I remembered there being. How many hospitals had he been in and out of? What had they been like in comparison to Cloud Hill's infirmary? Had be been treated well?

A sudden, unbidden image jumped into my mind: James gasping and moaning as I ran both hands from his navel up, up over his chest and neck into his hair and then back down again, delving lower and lower on each descent until he couldn't stand it any longer and pulled me down on top of him, kissing me like a man well beyond his nineteen summers. 

I wanted to touch him so terribly much, even now; the ache of it like a new set of muscles straining to be flexed and released. Simply looking at him naked made every inch of my skin feel alive, and yet frayed. I would have liked to say that the touch of his hands would have cured it, but I knew that wasn't true. 

His hands wouldn't have been nearly enough. 

"Don't fall asleep," I said quietly. 

Those storm clouds appeared again, direct, deliberate and suspicious. 

"I'll be trimming your hair and giving you a shave." I held up one of the extra toiletry kits left over from the war. 

"I can shave myself, thank you."   

"Splendid," I said, pulling one of the table chairs over the floor in a fashion Hammond would've been proud of, "Glad to hear I shan't be needing to add that to my list of morning tasks. Now, sit still while I attend to this donkey's breakfast on your head." 

Just as before in London, a shadow of a smile passed behind his features before disappearing altogether moments later. 

The man who was standing guard -- or rather sitting guard -- on the bench next to the door to the garden coughed slightly. I couldn't see more of him than his boot, but I could hear the sound of his knife against some wood as he scraped and carved. McCrory. 

Good old Agatha. Don't leave me alone with him for a minute

I threw a thin towel over James' shoulders and sat down. He silently allowed me to comb and snip out the matted bits before shaping it up into a respectable gentleman's haircut. 

I had so much practice with barbering men that it had almost become second nature to see tufts of  hair sailing to the floor and forming hillocks around my shoes. It even crept into my dreams now and again. Should one day the Rabbit Hutch go paws up, I knew where I could try my luck.

Unfortunately, the simple routine of it did little to dull the ache of desire I felt as I combed, finger-smoothed and snipped his dark hair. The urge to throw everything from me and wrap my arms around his wet, damaged body crested and ebbed with every breath. 

The heat from the bath water had flushed my face and although I attempted not to, I couldn't keep my eyes from being drawn towards the parts of him submerged in the heat-hazy, soapy water to see if this all was having the same effect on him as it was on me. Steady on, Olivia, steady on. He's not yours anymore. Not like that, anyway.

"There. Welcome back to humanity," I said quietly to his rosy, bare neck after I'd removed and shaken out the towel . "Now let's attend to your face, lieutenant."

"I'm not a lieutenant anymore."

"Lieutenant or mule driver, you'll be getting a shave next."

"I can shave myself, I said." His tone was rather acerbic. "Just give me a razor and a mirror."

"I can't do that, James. Not after that episode at the car."

He violently twisted himself in my direction, splashing bathwater over the lip of the tub, and glared at me. 

"Let's get one thing straight. That wasn't an episode," he spat through clenched teeth.  "He was taking my leg."

Ah

"You know perfectly well he wasn't stealing your crutch . . ."

"He was taking it away from me! That's enough. Nobody touches my leg and gets away with it. I can still beat the rotting guts out of anyone who tries."  

I believed him. Not his words or their meaning, but the deep conviction with which he spoke them. My first impression had been correct. He was still stuck in a mental trench. He may no longer have been in service, but he was still fighting a intense bloody war.  

And that would have to change if he was to stay here. Cross your fingers, Olivia.

"You still shan't be shaving yourself." 

"Then I shan't be shaving."

"Have it your way." I packed away the toiletries kit and rose, putting the chair back where it belonged. "See to it that you are dressed and out of the kitchen before dinner preparations start. McCrory!"

Our one Australian poked his head in the door. "Miss?"

"Do help our new arrival into his clothes, should he need any assistance." 

"Yes, Miss."

"Oh. . .and don't touch his crutch. You could risk a serious thrashing."

McCrory smiled at me, then turned up the wattage as he focused his smile at James. "I'm sure we'll get on like the best of friends, Miss. She'll be apples."

I left the boys alone, biting my lip all the way up to my room to change. If I was biting to stop myself from laughing at the idea of James being wrangled like an uncooperative sheep, or out of concern for my own sanity and good judgement, at that moment, I honestly couldn't say. 

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