“So this is the infamous Josie’s. It’s a lot more…..visceral than Foggy described.”
“It's a little rough around the edges, but I swear it's great.” Karen smiled up at her date as they weaved through the crowd at her favorite bar.
“No, no. It's cool. It seems really uh authentic.”
The AC was broken, as per usual, and the half a dozen fans scattered throughout barely did anything to suppress the humid August heat. Not that it made any of the crusty older dudes at the bar take off their leather jackets. That would mean showing off their guns—like actual guns, not their muscles. Still, there was raucous laughter and dancing to the jukebox in the corner that hadn't been updated since 1998. The regulars drank whiskey neat and knew better than to expect a chilled glass with their Miller High Lifes, but Karen spotted a smattering of hipster boys asking Josie herself for a craft beer menu. They were in for a rude awakening.
Speaking of rude awakenings…
Alex pasted a smile on his face, but she thought she saw his eye twitch as he pulled out a barstool for her. “Sticky floor. Like really sticky,” he observed. He lifted his cream colored boat shoe to inspect it. “Woah. What, uh, do you think that is?”
“It's better not to think about it,” Karen chuckled a little too forcefully. She was fixated on the boat shoes. What would Jessica say about her taking a guy wearing a polo and Sperry's to Josie's?
What would he say?
It doesn’t matter what he’d say, she reminded herself. He left you, dumbass.
For maybe the fifteenth time that night, she wondered if this was a mistake. It was only her third official date with Foggy and Marci’s former coworker at HB&C and Josie’s was...well, pretty real. Alex had seemed game, even a little excited to see her “home turf” (yes, those were his exact words), but he was already frowning at the menu and running a nervous hand through his blonde hair. Karen suddenly felt a little bad.
Bad for judging him and bad for bringing him here.
Though she would never admit it to Josie, she didn't exactly come here for the drinks and the ambiance. She loved Josie’s because coming here with Matt and Foggy after long days going over cases in their tiny old firm was the first time she'd felt like she had a home. She'd been so lost and alone when she first moved to New York, but here she belonged. Maybe she was expecting a little too much by thinking that Alex would instantly like it too. And yeah, maybe she was forcing it a little.
Okay, a lot.
“I'm sorry,” she said quickly. “If you want, we can go somewhere else. I know it's a little divey.”
Saying Josie's was a little divey was like saying sharks are a little bitey, but Alex was a good sport, smiling genuinely and shaking his head.
“Not a chance. Foggy told me if there was anything that would win Karen Page over, it would be taking her to Josie's. And I want to win you over, Karen.”
Heat rose to her cheeks. She wanted him to win her over too. She really really did. He was handsome, had a great job, and more importantly, he was an open book whose smiles came easily and often. He was basically the human equivalent of a golden retriever. Nothing like the man currently responsible for the pain in her chest and all the miserable sleepless nights over the last three and a half months.
“That's….um, that's a big declaration for a third date,” she croaked. Josie watched her from the other side of the bar, brows raised as she took in the scene unfolding. “Sorry, could I have a whiskey?”
“Make that two please.” As Josie set to getting their drinks, Alex surveyed Karen with warm green eyes. “Is it that big of a deal? We've been out a couple times, we've texted. You're smart, beautiful, funny. It may not be ‘cool’ or whatever to say how you feel, but I like you.”
She spoke very slowly and quietly. “You...like me?”
“Ms. Page, don't tell me nobody’s ever tried to woo you before.”
Alex grinned cheekily, like it was a known fact that Karen Page had had her fair share of wooing from countless suitors. She guessed she had in a way, though it seemed like a lifetime ago. There was a guy in college who surprised her with a candlelit dinner and roses on Valentine’s day. And a kiss in the rain with Matt years ago, back when she was all wide eyed and lovesick over him. But those moments seemed so minor now, barely blips on the radar compared to what she’d had.
Not had. Lost.
Karen’s stomach flipped uncomfortably and her eyes stung. Still, she smiled weakly and mumbled an apology before pushing through the crowd and stumbling into the cramped women’s bathroom.
She immediately locked the door and leaned back against it, squeezing her eyes shut against the ache growing in her chest. Don't tell me nobody’s tried to woo you before.
No, not in the traditional sense. He'd resisted her so hard at first, always one step forward two steps back with a raspy warning. Meanwhile, she pursued him with everything she had. Every fiber of her being wanted him, needed him. Because God, when he did make a move it was worth it. When he made a move, she felt it down to her core, deep in her bones, her blood. No one else made her feel that way.
Her breath still caught in her throat when she thought about a moment in a hotel elevator. Their noses brushed, breaths intermingling as his eyes lowered to her lips. They’d barely touched and were covered in soot and blood. Yet at the time it was the single most erotic thing that had happened to her. And it had nothing on the years that followed.
But then she let him go. Practically forced him to go.
“This was a mistake,” she murmured to her reflection in the dirty mirror above the sink.
She should have never brought Alex to Josie’s. There were too many memories here. Stolen kisses in the middle of pool games. Him holding her hair back in the cramped bathroom that New Year's Eve when she had way too much to drink. A few desperate, frenzied moments in the alleyway out back on one of the few occasions she made him really lose control. Karen shivered. No, this was a really bad idea. What was she thinking bringing him here, acting like she could just make new memories?
“Hey, are you alright?” Alex asked when she returned to their spot at the bar. “I hope I wasn't too forward or—”
“No, no. You weren't. It was sweet,” she said honestly. It wasn't his fault the thought of someone else wanting to be with her made her have a mild panic attack. Why was her heart such a wet blanket? “It's a little stuffy in here though. Do you want to just go somewhere else?”
He agreed, of course, and put down enough money to cover their drinks and a generous tip, despite her insistence that she pay half. They flip flopped between the idea of the trendy tequila bar two blocks over or the Irish pub next door until Karen finally suggested they just take a walk.
Walking through the city at night was an activity in itself, sometimes like a real life scene out of a Meg Ryan film, or sometimes like The Purge, depending on the night. She was really hoping for a When Harry Met Sally kind of evening, something to prove this whole thing wasn’t a total disastrous judgment on her part.
Karen got her wish. They joked about work and shared memories of small town life (he was from a tiny Wisconsin town that sounded a lot like her own Fagans Corner), and even split a pretzel. It could have been a scene in a romantic comedy. And not just a crappy Hallmark one, like an Anne Hathaway level romcom. Yet, when he reached for her hand as they crossed a busy street she felt nothing. No spark. No tiny electric thrill down her spine. Just nothing.
Karen dialed up her smile and gave his hand an encouraging squeeze. Like that’ll magically make you fall in love with him.
“Did you train with Iron Fist or something? Ouch,” Alex laughed, gently pulling his hand from hers. Instead he pulled her closer to the heat of his body and draped his arm over her shoulders. “Mm. This is better.”
Yeah, not really. It didn't feel like anything. It was like being squeezed next to a cousin on a family roadtrip.
Maybe her feelings for him would grow. Not every relationship sprang from wild passion. Her parents had been perfectly content to sit side by side on the couch every night watching Jeopardy, never sharing more than a chaste kiss throughout her childhood. It wasn’t exactly the kind of romance poets write about, but hey, at least it didn’t burn and fade out.
She wasn’t sure she’d ever be done licking her wounds from the last burn.
Despite enjoying their conversation and earnestly liking Alex’s company, Karen felt a surge of relief when they neared her apartment building. It wasn't just Josie’s that was a mistake. This whole night was beginning to feel like too much. Claire, Jess, Matt, Colleen, Trish, Malcolm, Luke, and well, okay everyone, was right (despite it being none of their business): she wasn't ready to move on. And Alex was too nice of a guy to string along in the meantime.
“So,” Karen started as they reached her building.
“So,” he mimicked, rocking back on his heels.
She bit her lip. Did he want her to invite him up? What was a nice way of saying, ‘I'm sure the sex would be great, but I really just want to eat a whole sleeve of Oreos and cry in the shower?
“I had a great time tonight,” she began gently.
“Ahh no. Here it is.” Alex’s smile faded slightly as he dug his hands into his pockets. “The letdown.”
Karen cringed. She’d never been good at this kind of thing. “I'm sorry. It's just a bad time for me right now. And I'm—”
“In love with your ex boyfriend.”
“What? No! W-what are you…?” Karen sputtered, trying to find her footing in the conversation. Bro-y, happy-go-lucky Alex was sharper than she gave him credit for. Though he was a lawyer. Not that his words made any sense whatsoever. No. She wasn't in love with anyone. She was just desperately sad and lonely and having a difficult time filling the massive gaping wound in her heart. Normal breakup behavior. Right?
“How do you even know I have an ex?”
“I wasn't completely honest when I said Foggy didn't tell me much about you,” Alex said with a shrug. “He said you have a pretty protective ex and that legally and morally he wouldn't feel good about setting us up unless I knew.”
Goddamnit, Foggy. Karen pinched the bridge of her nose and just barely stopped herself from muttering a slew of curses. “Okay, he's definitely….protective. But I would never have gone out with you if I thought you would be in danger. He's…he's complicated, but he's not a bad person. I am so so sorry Foggy freaked you out, Alex. I—”
“Your ex doesn't scare me,” he said.
Karen blinked in surprise. She'd never heard that one before. A not wholly unpleasant shiver ran down her spine as she bit back the words that instinctively rose to her lips. He should.
“I was more concerned when Foggy told me you were still in love with him.”
Karen’s eyes turned into cold blue slits. She didn't care if she had to fight Marci to get to him. She was going to strangle Franklin P. Nelson.
Karen ignored the claim that she was in love with her ex and zeroed in on the hunky blonde lawyer leaning on her front railing. “But we've gone out three times now. Why did you—”
“Bother asking you out?” Alex asked. “I told Foggy I understood and that I'd decline when Marci asked me if I was interested in you. But then I read some of your work, and I might have looked up your picture on the Bulletin staff page. So naturally I said yes instead,” he admitted with an unembarrassed grin. “At first it was just because you're gorgeous and talented, and I was a little intrigued. Who was this pretty girl with the big bad ex, you know? But then things went well on our first date. And on our second date I thought ‘hey, maybe he's wrong. Maybe I've got a chance.’”
“And on our third date?” She asked quietly. She didn't want to know, not really. Her stomach was already in knots and a guilty tension settled in her gut even though she knew logically that she had nothing to feel bad about. She wasn't a cheater. No one was waiting for her at home.
Alex smiled weakly. “On our third date, I really really wanted to kiss you outside your apartment complex. But I could tell you were thinking about someone else.”
“I'm so sorry. I-I wasn't trying to hurt you or lead you on.” Karen sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “I really wanted things to work.”
Her life would have been so simple if she could just fall in love with someone like Alex Waters. She could have moved into a spacious uptown apartment, had a decadent wedding with five hundred guests and quit her job at the Bulletin to pursue lifestyle blogging and pilates full time. They could have had pale blonde children with ridiculous names like Saffron and Indigo and a hypoallergenic cat. She could have been safe and comfortable and completely fucking bored.
“Sometimes what we want isn't the same as what we need,” Alex said, suddenly a lawyer, a bro, and a philosopher.
“I had no clue you were so wise,” Karen teased with a gentle smile. She extended a hand. “Can we be friends?”
“Only if you never try to bring me to Josie's again. I was lying when I called it cool. I'm pretty sure I have about twenty viruses running through my system now.”
She grinned as he took her hand in his. “Deal.”
It was surprisingly only about 10:30 when she finally kicked her heels off inside her apartment. Funny how romantic revelations seemed to tire the body out. But it wasn't too late to salvage the night. After all, she had a newfound friend and a bottle of white wine in the fridge. Things could be worse.
Karen found herself curled up on her couch wearing her faded old UVM shirt and flannel pajama pants, her face scrubbed free of makeup, her wine bottle next to her on the coffee table. There was only enough for about a glass and a half anyway so why not drink it straight out of the bottle? She was completely engrossed by an old black and white film about a woman who falls in love with a surly old ghost when she heard a series of clicks and quiet jangling coming from her kitchen.
She tensed and turned the TV down. The clicks stopped, replaced by the slow creak of her front door opening. In her gut Karen didn't feel like she was in danger—for some reason vigilantes always thought it was okay to barge in without knocking, and Karen knew a lot of vigilantes. But you can ever be too careful.
Karen quickly dug into the coffee table beside her for her old .380 and quietly approached her kitchen, careful not to trip over the empty dog bowls or step on the creaky floorboard next to the bookcase. No way in hell was she going to sit and wait for some asshole to come to her. Even if that asshole was just Jessica raiding her fridge.
“Who's there?” Karen demanded from the entryway to her kitchen. She had her gun trained on the shadowy figure leaning casually against her kitchen counter in an all too familiar manner.
He stepped forward into the dim lamplight spilling from the living room and held up a pair of keys. His voice was a low smoky rasp. “You didn't change the locks.”
Like she needed this right now. She was torn between feeling so emotionally drained and exhausted and being really really stupidly happy to see him.
A little over three months ago they'd fought. Badly. He was angry. She was hurt. They both said things they didn't mean. And then she told him to leave. Karen regretted it almost immediately, but she simmered and stewed and wallowed in her stubbornness and misery for about two sleepless nights before she tried to reach out to him.
She hadn’t realized the gravity of her mistake.
She went to every damn safe house and underground bunker of his she knew of, but they were all cleared out. No guns. No ammo. No bags of dog food or police radios. Just tiny traces of him--coffee grounds on a kitchen counter, a torn bandage on the floor. Jessica spent weeks helping her look for clues, anything that would help them find him.
But Frank Castle hadn't wanted to be found.
Until now apparently.
“You're here,” she whispered, pointing out the obvious. She felt dumbstruck, a million questions on her lips and a flurry of emotions swelling in her chest. Karen cleared her throat and spoke more firmly. “What are you doing here?”
“Heard you had a date.” Frank rubbed the back of his neck and glanced down at his combat boots. “Wanted to make sure you got home safe.”
“After three months?” Karen hated the way her voice broke. She ground her teeth and blinked back the tears gathering in eyes. “After an entire season you show up to make sure I ‘got home safe’ after a date with some guy?”
He flinched. “Karen—”
“Don't,” she hissed. She was dangerously close to yelling. “I looked everywhere for you! Where the fuck have you been, Frank?”
His jaw clenched and he shook his head. “You were the one who told me it wasn't working, that I should go.”
“I didn’t mean you should completely vanish!”
This time a tiny strangled sob escaped. She couldn't hold it back. In their early days of clandestine coffee meetings and tiny touches and lingering gazes, back when Karen was still pretending she wasn't head over heels for her unlikely ally, she feared the day he might disappear on her. She could see it perfectly: a sad montage of her waiting with a thermos on her fire escape, searching through alleyways and shady warehouses for him, and then finally finding him in a parking lot or an alleyway months later, his body broken and cold. She still feared it. The thought of him alone, bleeding out while she was across town laughing and drinking with friends made her blood run cold.
Frank stepped closer, his heavy boots surprisingly quiet on the linoleum floor. His expression was guarded, eyes sharp as they followed the fat tear that managed to roll down her cheek. But his voice was soft. “What did you want, Karen?”
“I don't know,” she said miserably.”You wanted me to give up the Bulletin. My career. My dream. I just...I was so mad. I don't think I've ever been so angry.”
“I didn't want you to give up your dream. I wanted you to live to see another year. You...shit.” He clenched his hands in fists before unfurling them and running a hand through his hair. When his dark eyes finally met hers they were burning like coals. “You could have been killed. You almost died, Karen. I can’t lose you...I can’t. Do you get that?”
The night he was talking about, the night that started this whole mess was….frankly, a total clusterfuck. The short version involved months of in-depth research into the misappropriation of funds for a charity organized by the mayor’s office, a few threatening emails Karen assumed were from the mayor, and Karen insisting on going to her interview with the mayor alone, despite Ellison’s protests. “He's the mayor,” she’d said. “He’s not going to shoot me in his office.”
She was right.
The mayor didn't shoot her. But the twenty one-year-old intern he was sleeping with did.
Luckily the shots missed her. Mostly. The intern riddled Mayor Paterson’s desk and windows with bullets, but one just barely singed the shell of Karen’s right ear. The intern and the mayor were now in prison and her ear really wasn't so bad once the blood was cleaned up—it just needed some bandaging. The Bulletin team even got her a cake that said sorry you got shot in flowery cursive.
But Frank hadn't exactly handled it with the same amount of humor. Matt and Luke had to keep him from storming into the jail for vengeance, despite her insistence that they were going to be locked up for a very very long time. When she got home from the hospital he paced the apartment, shooting horrified looks at her every few minutes and cursing Ellison under his breath.
Finally, he said it. “You can't go back there. No fucking way.”
Not can we talk about this? Or I don't like that this happened. Just you can't. Needless to say, she lost her shit.
Deep down she was scared too. It was easy to joke about her tiny little bullet wound, but if that bullet had gone just an inch or two over, she would have been dead. She only knew one person who came back from a bullet to the head and she didn't think she had the blind rage to survive it. She had been really close to dying and the thought scared the hell out of her. But this was her job, her passion. Leaving the paper would be like losing an arm or a leg. It was part of her. How could he not see that? What was she supposed to do, sit at home in a straight jacket all day?
Karen understood his point. She never wanted him to relive what happened to his family that day at the carousel. She never wanted him to go through another trauma, to be left alone in the world. But nothing challenged her or gave her purpose like her job at the Bulletin. And even though it was almost always an uphill battle, it was her way of doing something for Hell’s Kitchen, the only way she could make a difference.
Here, facing Frank under the dim light of her kitchen, Karen bit her lip. “I understand. But I'm not quitting my job. There are risks, there always have been. But I can't.”
“I know. I don't want you to.”
Um what ? Karen blinked once. Twice. And still thought she misheard him. “You don't?”
Frank let out a deep sigh. “I was an asshole. I overreacted, forgot you're not the kind of woman who who’ll put up with my shit. And that chasin’ stories and getting into trouble is who you are.”
“I wouldn't say getting into trouble is who I am...”
“Yeah it is,” Frank said with a faint smile that made her chest ache. God she’d missed that. “Just like killing assholes is my thing and handing out guilt trips is Red’s thing, and pretending to hate everyone is Jones’ thing. And I love you for it.”
Her heart took off at a sprint. Karen never doubted his love, never doubted that wherever he was, his heart still hammered for her. But she’d spent the last few months resigned to the fact that there might never be a future between them. That sometimes, no matter how badly you want it to, things just don’t work out.
“And there's the fact that I've been comin’ home beaten and bruised for four years and you never tried to change me,” he added.
“It took you three months to remember that?” She asked softly. She was relieved he wasn't trying to change her. But there was still the fact that he left for months without a word or even a text. Hell, she would have taken an email. A postcard. Anything.
“I broke down. You told me to leave, so I left. Didn’t know if I could handle...” Frank ran a hand through his hair. It was longer, disheveled the way she’d seen it only once before. “Didn't want to see your articles on the newsstands or to hear about you from Red or Nelson. Couldn't stand to be in this goddamn city if I wasn’t with you.”
“Where did you go?”
“Seriously?” She'd been searching for him for months and he was less than an hour away in New Jersey of all places. Jessica would lose her shit when she found out he wasn't in the Himalayas or some tiny country in the Balkan Peninsula, but freaking Jersey.
He shrugged. “Had to go away. But if something happened and you needed help…”
He wouldn't be far.
Karen swallowed the lump of emotion rising in her throat. It was clear they both said things they didn't mean that night. They hadn't been their best selves, not even close. She was still so so mad that he just took off, but she was also just happy to see him, to know he still cared about her, even if their future was murky.
“I thought you were trying to punish me for choosing my job first. Or that you couldn’t handle the fear of what might happen, that I-I wasn’t worth it. Your safe houses were cleared out. You even t-took the dog.”
At the word dog her voice broke, her body giving into the sobs bursting from her chest. She'd been so fucking lonely and scared for him and losing the dog on top of it all was a punch to the gut. Gone were their morning walks in the park and snuggling on the couch, no more taking turns throwing the ball to her in the dog park. She’d adopted Daisy for him three years ago, but Karen loved that pitbull just as much. They had been a family. And now she was all alone.
“Hey, hey. Come here.”
Suddenly Karen was pulled to the sturdy wall of his chest, his thick arms wrapping around her, encasing her in his warmth. She let her tears flow freely now, letting them soak his black t-shirt as his hands smoothed her hair and rubbed soothing circles on her back.
“You’re worth it, of course you’re fucking worth it. That wasn’t it, okay?” Frank held her tighter. “And I didn’t take the dog and leave to hurt you. I wouldn’t...that’s not what I wanted.”
“She wasn't just yours to take,” she sniffed against a hard pectoral muscle.
“I know. I know. I'm sorry,” he murmured against her hair. “I didn't wanna take off without her and leave you with another obligation.”
“Love isn't an obligation. I really missed her.”
“She missed you too. Cried at the door every morning. Missed your walks. Damn near killed me.”
It almost killed her too. She hated the thought of them in some tiny shithole: Frank trying to forget her, poor Daisy thinking Karen abandoned her. So she banished the thought. Karen gripped his shirt, let him pull her closer, let herself get enveloped in him again. She missed his rough skin and that weirdly tantalizing scent of gun oil and rich coffee. God, it was so much better than the old t-shirt of his she'd been sleeping with. It lost his scent a month ago but she’d been too stubborn to put it away.
They stood like that for a while, not talking. Just holding each other in the middle of the kitchen while one of Frank’s hands moved up and down her spine. Finally, when her neck was starting to hurt and her bones were close to turning to jelly. Karen pulled away with a watery smile.
“Do you want some coffee?”
They settled into the routine like no time had passed. Karen scooped coffee grounds into a new filter while Frank rooted through the cabinet for their designated mugs: his a green Visit Vermont mug he’d claimed a lifetime ago, hers a pink one from Trish that said “less workee more coffee.” It could have been any other night of Frank getting home late from ‘work’ and Karen taking a break from the numbingly bright screen of her laptop. Until Frank broke the silence.
“So. Your date…”
Karen stiffened and spilled a spoonful of coffee grounds onto the counter. Oh right. That. She kept her back to him as she grabbed a sponge to wipe up her mess.
“Um. What about him...or it? Are you asking about the, uh, guy, or the date itself?”
Frank’s voice was purposefully level, seemingly indifferent, but Karen recognized the quiet edge to it. “Both.”
“The only thing you need to know is that I broke it off amicably tonight,” she said firmly, forcing herself to turn and face him. “You left and were gone for months with no way to reach you. I’m not...I'm not going to feel guilty or say I'm sorry for trying to move on. I didn’t think you were coming back. We were broken up. Are broken up,” she corrected quickly. Him just showing up here didn't change that.
“I'm not asking you to feel guilty or to apologize,” he rumbled. Though she couldn’t help but feel a little bad at the brief flash of hurt in his eyes. “I just wanna know--did he treat you right? Did you feel safe?”
“Um yeah. It was fine. He was nice,” she said quickly, begging for the end of this conversation. “It was only the third date, so...it's not like it was a big deal.”
“The third date?” Frank’s expression darkened. Clearly whoever told him she was on a date hadn't mentioned it wasn't the first. His voice was low and strained. “Did he kiss you?”
Oh Jesus. Karen was torn between anger and horror. On one hand, he had no right to ask her that—he took their dog and left her without a damn word. On the other hand, how could she casually talk about a date with another man to the one she was in love with? She wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. It was by far the most awkward moment of her life. “On the cheek. On our second date. We just held hands and shared a warm pretzel.”
Frank’s nostrils flared and his mouth twisted as if she'd said hot orgy instead of warm pretzel. He didn't say anything, just glared at the wall and drummed his fingers along the counter.
“So what's this guy’s name?”
“Oh, come on.”
“No, no. It ain't a big deal. I'm fine. What neighborhood is he from?”
She knew (hoped??) he was kidding, but she couldn't in good conscience let this charade go on. Besides, Alex had been nothing but a gentleman.
She filled his mug up with steaming hot coffee and gently handed it to him, lightly brushing his knuckles with her thumb. “Stop it. The pretzel wasn't even that good.”
Frank took a long gulp of it, his taste buds probably long desensitized to the burn. “I've got no right to be mad. I’m not gonna mope around like an asshole ‘cause you tried to move on. I deserve it. And probably a hell of a lot worse.”
He met her eyes then and it wasn’t a quick glance. His coffee brown eyes met hers and held her gaze captive, a warning, or maybe a promise in their depths. “But you’re not going out with him again.”
Maybe she should have said a big fuck you in the spirit of Jessica or Misty. Maybe she should have made him hurt a little for leaving her for so long. But with the shadows under his eyes and the rough stubble, he looked like he’d been hurting as much as she’d been. And who was she kidding? She was done lying to herself. She had zero desire for anyone else. Even if Frank left for good or the unthinkably worse happened, she knew no one else would cut it. Ever.
For better or worse, Frank Castle was the one for her. Her stupid reckless heart had claimed him five years ago when he kept her in his hospital room with a hoarse please. There was no one else, would never be anyone else.
Not with his dark eyes pinning her against the counter; not when his voice, even one quiet murmur, made her skin burn and her heart pound in her ears.
“I'm not?” She asked, her voice husky.
“Done a lot of stupid shit in my life, but leaving you topped the list.” Frank’s throat worked with emotion and he put his mug down before taking a cautious step closer to her. “If there’s anything—any ounce, any millimeter, any fucking atom of you that would ever take me back, I ain’t letting go. Never again.” He shook his head and met her eyes. “Never.”
God, she wanted to just run to him right then. Karen didn’t know how long she could stay even a foot away. She physically ached for him.
But she held back.
“For three months I didn’t know where you were, if you were alive or dead. Do you know how fucked up that is?” Karen demanded. “D-do you know how scared I was?”
“I was a fucking idiot, Karen.” He ran a hand over his jaw. “When Nelson told me what happened, I panicked. Couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t fucking see past all the fear and anger. All I could see was you dead in a ditch cause you took on the wrong story or pissed off the wrong shitbag. And when I drove you home from the hospital and you told me you were going back to work...I was outta my mind. I should’ve been there for you. I should—I should have comforted you. Instead I acted like a selfish fucking asshole.”
Frank slammed his hand on the kitchen table, making the dishes rattle in the sink. He clenched his jaw and rubbed his temples. “When you told me to leave, I thought maybe it would be easier for you if I did. Maybe you could find a better man, someone who could handle shit like this. Maybe I could disappear, go back to feeling nothing, being no one.”
Karen couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. They were both so stupid. They’d wasted so many days, weeks, months alone because they said things they didn’t mean.
“I didn’t want you to leave. I-I never should have said it. I wanted to take it back right away but I was too stubborn and angry.”
“If you weren’t stubborn, we would’ve never lasted,” Frank said. He took another tentative step forward and cupped her cheek in his calloused hand, swiping away the fat tears rolling down her face with his thumb. “You would’ve never broke into my house or crossed that red tape on the hospital floor. You would’ve never pointed that gun in my face and made me fall so deeply in love with you that sometimes when I look at you it’s like I can’t even fuckin’ breathe right.”
“I’ll never deserve you. I’ll never be a good enough man for you. But I’ll spend the rest of my life trying. I meant what I said, Karen. I fucked up. Deeply. But if you say the word—if you give me any indication that you still want me, I ain’t ever leaving.”
Frank’s hand fell from her cheek with the last of her tears. “Doesn’t have to be now. You can take your time, think it over. I’ll wait for as long as you need—”
Karen silenced him by sliding her arms around his neck and pulling him down to her lips.
Frank didn’t hesitate. Before she knew it, he was cupping her face with his calloused hands as his lips moved against hers. It started in a slow controlled rhythm, both of them savoring the feel of their lips sliding and tugging against each other so so softly.
It was like sliding into bed after a long day or sinking into warm bath water. It felt like coming home.
But Karen wanted more. No, needed more. Slow, decadent kisses wouldn’t do after months without his heat, his scent, his rough skin on hers. She nipped at his bottom lip just a tad harder than necessary and felt Frank’s control begin to crumble.
He made a low noise in the back of his throat and dug his fingers into her hair. He massaged her scalp, fingers sliding along silky strands of hair as their kisses grew more urgent. Karen’s hands moved slowly from his neck down to his chest and core, making his body shudder slightly beneath her fingers. She didn’t stop until she reached his belt.
“Karen.” Her name was a curse and a plea on his lips. One of his hands fisted deeper into her hair, pulling it gently as the other slipped down her back and palmed her ass. “Fucking hell.”
Part of her wanted to fall to her knees right there. She missed everything about being with him. Not just the sex, not just his lips on hers. She missed looking up at his half lidded gaze, his hands fisted at his sides as he mumbled curses and promises as she made him come apart. She was tempted. But Frank gripped her wrists as her fingers descended over the hard denim.
“No.” He held her wrists in one hand, still holding her lightly by her hair with the other, and began leading her backwards until her butt hit the kitchen counter. “I won’t last a minute.”
She kissed the corner of his mouth, his chin, his cheek, his neck, trying to touch every part of him. “I don’t care.”
“I do.” Before she knew it, her feet were off the ground and he was setting her on the counter and moving between her legs. His palms spread over her ribs, moving up and down, his thumbs brushing the curve of her breasts with every ascent. She gasped as he kissed up her neck and nipped at her ear. “Missed you so fucking much. What do you need? Tell me what you need.”
“Anything,” she panted. “Just you. Please.”
Frank groaned into her neck and planted kisses lower, lower, lower, stopping briefly to scrape his teeth against her collar bone. He worked at the buttons of her blouse with clumsy fingers until he let out a curse. “How much do you like this top?”
Karen’s eyes sparked. She loved him like this, his eyes dark and half-wild. “Hate it.”
Frank fisted the silky white blouse in his hands and ripped it down the middle before pushing it down her shoulders, revealing her bra. It was a dull grey cotton thing, no laces or frills. She hadn’t been trying to impress anyone, definitely didn’t think anyone else would be seeing it tonight, no matter how well her date went. Still, Frank stared down at her like it was some kind of Victoria’s Secret number, like he wanted to devour her, before he pulled the cups down, exposing her.
Karen gasped as he kissed downward, sucking a nipple into his mouth while circling the other with the pad of his thumb. She squirmed and writhed desperately as he alternated between them, licking and kissing, rolling and pinching until she couldn’t take it anymore.
She pawed at him, incapable of full sentences. “Shirt. Off.”
He made a low noise as he pulled away and obliged. He liked Pushy, Demanding Karen just as much as she liked Caveman Frank. So as he tossed his t-shirt away she didn’t shy away from adding, “Pants too, Castle.”
He flashed her a grin. “Yes, ma’am.”
She meant to make a crack about him following orders but the words died in her throat at the sight of him kicking off his socks and shoes and yanking down his jeans and underwear. Instead she huffed out a sound like ungh at the sight of him hard, thick and straining.
Karen watched slack-jawed as he pumped himself one, twice, before her eyes slid up to his face. She expected the smug grin he wore every time she sat on the couch with her laptop abandoned, drooling at him as he did sit ups. Instead he watched her watching him, taking in her half lidded eyes and the rapid rise and fall of her chest.
When he spoke his voice came out hoarse but hard, authoritative. “Take off your skirt.”
Karen did one better, sliding her boring black underwear down with it and kicking them off. Frank was on her before they hit the floor, smoothing his hands up and down her thighs and kissing up her chest, shoulders, and neck. He got to her jaw as his thumbs reached the crease in her thighs.
Their noses touched and his warm breath fanned across her face. “You’re sure about this?”
What a stupid question. Karen answered him by tugging on his bottom lip with her teeth. “Yes.”
One hand gripped her hip as his traced her seam with his fingers and parted her. When his thumb found her clit she made a strangled noise against him. “Oh god.”
“You're beautiful,” he murmured against her lips. “So fucking beautiful.”
He kept rubbing and circling her clit until she was sweating and gasping. When he plunged two fingers inside her and curled them she cried out loud enough to wake her elderly neighbors across the hall.
Screw it. She didn’t care how loud she was. She didn’t care that she was so wet that she would have been embarrassed if he were anyone else. All she could think about was Frank’s shuddered breaths and thick fingers as her limbs slowly turned to jelly.
Karen reached for him, gripping his hard length in her palm. She loved his weight, the velvety feel of him, the way his breaths came out choppy and strained as she touched him. She stroked him slow and hard. “Please. I need more. I need you.”
Frank groaned. He grabbed her by her hips and yanked her to the end of the counter. She wrapped her legs around him as he lined himself against her, sliding his erection up and down her center.
“This is it. No one else. Just you and me. Two hands,” he murmured, repeating the words that he’d told her half a decade ago in a shitty diner. The words that changed her forever.
“Two hands,” she agreed breathlessly. “Now please, please fuck me, Frank.”
His answering chuckle turned into a low moan as he slowly pushed inside her.
Holy shit. Karen’s mouth dropped in a silent gasp as his hard length slid into her inch by inch, filling her completely.
Karen thought she wanted fast and hard. She wanted it to hurt, just a little, just enough to know this was real, that she wasn’t going to wake up alone. But now she realized this was what she needed: slow, measured thrusts, one of his hands gripping her hip, the other buried in her hair. It wasn’t a marathon. More like a slow dance. They moved evenly together, foreheads touching, shaky breaths intermingling as they relearned how to move together. They were both quick studies. Or maybe three months wasn’t long enough to forget. A thousand years wasn't long enough.
Frank's hips picked up the pace, pumping into her harder as his big fingers dug into her hip. He buried his head against her neck and breathed promises and obscenities against her skin. So fucking hard. Goddamn beautiful. Fuck yes.
It wasn’t long before she was tugging at his hair, practically clawing at him as her body began to wind up. Her body acted on it’s own, bucking and shaking beneath him even as part of her tried to hold back, eager but terrified of the tight feeling pulling inside her.
Frank kissed up her neck, along her jaw and pulled her earlobe between his teeth. His fingers moved out of her hair and down to her clit. “Let go. I’ve got you. Always got you.”
The feeling coiled tight and low in her belly snapped and exploded. Karen unraveled, crying out his name and squeezing every inch of him as Frank’s thrusts grew more frantic, relentless. He came with a hoarse sound, clutching her sweat-soaked skin hard enough to leave a mark.
“Holy shit,” Karen whispered as she caught her breath. Frank pulled out of her with a low hiss and let his forehead fall against hers. “Maybe you should take extended trips to Jersey more often. I’m starting to get the appeal of make up sex.”
He gave her a dark look. “Not happening.”
The next thing she knew she was in the air with a yelp as Frank slung her over his shoulder and began walking to their bedroom. She laughed and slapped at his back, probably with about as much force as a sad kitten against his muscled lats. “What are you doing?”
Frank dropped her onto the messy bed—his side was strewn with books and clothes and her seldom-worn glasses. Anything that might make the missing weight on the other side of the bed less palpable. He ignored the mess and settled gently on top of her. “Gonna have so much make up sex that we never need to fight again.”
Karen grinned. Yeah right. They hadn’t lasted this long without a few blowouts. They were both too stubborn, cared too much to just nod along when the other was in the wrong. But she wouldn’t want it any other way. Still she shivered. “And then what?”
“And then…Ball’s in your court. We could take it slow, I’ll find my own place for a while. Or,” he smoothed a piece of hair off her forehead, looking almost nervous. “I bring the dog and all my shit back here.”
As if that was even a question. Karen touched his face, cupping his cheek in her palm. “In that case, you really better make this make up sex count.”
Frank smirked and pressed his lower body against her. “I think I can do that.”
Hours later, when they sprawled boneless and wrung-out together in bed, Frank’s bags on the living room floor and Daisy snoozing at their feet, Karen remembered to ask the question that had been nagging at her since he showed up at their apartment.
“Who told you I had a date?”
Frank rubbed his jaw, clearly not thrilled at the reminder. “Jones. She caught me pulling up to the building earlier. Told me not to wait up because you had a hot date."
Karen buried her face in her hands. Oh Jess. But wait… “You were already back here before you knew I was seeing Alex?”
“If I knew you had a date I would have showed up earlier and explained a few things to him about you and me,” he growled.
Karen ignored him. “I thought you were just being like a macho alpha male and rushed back because you found out I was seeing someone.”
“I already told you why I came back.” Frank hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. “I can’t leave you alone. Never been able to—not when you were with Red, not when I was on the run. Not now. Not ever. If I were a good man, someone like Red or Cage, I would have stayed in Jersey. Would have hoped you’d find a nice guy and settled down in the suburbs. I would’ve left you alone. But that ain’t me.
"I couldn’t fight it anymore. Needed to see you, hear you. Needed you in anyway I could, even if it was just you telling me to go fuck myself.”
Karen smiled despite the wetness gathering along her lash line. “I almost did.”
Frank’s chest shook with a laugh. “I believe it.”
“But I can’t stay away from you either,” she said. Karen thought of all the moments leading up to them, the way she broke into his house, the way she spoke to him in the hospital, the flowers she put in her window...She didn’t even try to stay away. It was pointless. She would always end up running for him. “I need you in my life, Frank, holding on with two hands. No more deciding what you think is best for me. No more saying things we don’t mean.”
“Okay. I can do that,” he murmured as he kissed the tears falling down her cheeks. “No more crying.”
“Okay.” Karen wiped at her eyes and slung her leg over his hips as she climbed onto him. She balanced her hands on his chest and let her heart light up at the sight of him smiling up at her with an expression so tender she nearly fell off of him. Instead she leaned down and captured his lips in a long, sweet kiss. “And don’t ever go to freaking New Jersey again.”