Drake held up his hand to stay whatever words about to trip of Fritz tongue. A useless task, as his valet continued on anyway.
“You need to actually speak with the young lady instead of scaring her.”
“I’m not scaring Bella.” He passed the man in the hallway and entered his room.
Drake missed Fritz’s pleased smile at uttering Bella’s name. His mind was instead on the tightness of his trousers after his encounter with her. It had been too long since he’d felt a woman who wanted his touch. Without thought, he lifted his fingers to his face, inhaling her scent.
Fritz approached him to help him remove his jacket. The puckered skin on his back pulled as his shoulders bunched, making him grimace just slightly. It rarely bothered him anymore, but the tension in his body seemed to make him aware of his aches.
“Just… talk to her.”
Something that could’ve passed for a laugh left his lips. “Talk to her? Why?”
Unbuttoning his shirt and then his pants, he shed the material, his body relaxing as he let go of all the formality he was forced to wear. There was little about his life that was formal any longer. The past sat like a demon on his shoulder and every look in the mirror reminded him that he was a beast instead of the master he was meant to be. Gone was his zest for life.
Fritz blew out a breath as he collected the shirt and trousers off the floor. “How do you expect her to like you if all you do is growl and scowl at her every time you two are near each other.”
“I don’t growl.”
“‘I don’t growl. I don’t scare her.'” Fritz mocked. “You’re a bear and you know it. The funny thing is, I know you like her, Drake.”
Drake sat down at the vanity and stared at himself in the mirror. He swallowed hard at what he saw. The scars looked grotesque in the dim lamp light, stretching his lip up and causing his left eye to droop. Marring what could’ve been handsome features. It wasn’t the visible scars that made him stare hard into his own eyes. It was the ones no ones saw except him. The last moments of his life before the war wounded him, the look in his father’s eyes when he realized what it had done to his son. Every eye that filled with disgust when he entered the room.
This one was looked at him differently. Even when he’d seen her bound in that room, her fear had never turned to disgust.
The way she’d looked at him as he’d held her moments ago, as though she needed him to touch her had changed something in his mind. It couldn’t be true though. She couldn’t want him.
How could one woman make him so unsure?
“It doesn’t matter how I feel. It doesn’t change the fact that I look like this.”
Drake swiveled around to look at Fritz who stood like a fierce warrior in the middle of his room.
“What did you say?”
His menacing tone didn’t budge the older man. If anything, Fritz straightened up taller.
“I said you’re stupid. You’re using your scars as an excuse to push everyone away. You have since the moment you returned. Yowling like a wounded bear, cursing and retreating anyone tries to engage you. This is the most civil you’ve been in years and that isn’t much of a compliment.”
Dragging his fingers through his hair, he tried to find words to reply. “Life has been trying.”
“Oh please. That’s a terrible excuse and you know it. You’re scared and I’m not going to let you treat her like one of your whores you’ve brought home.”
“She isn’t a whore.”
“Then stop treating her like one. She certainly isn’t like the last daft one you scared off into the words. Everyone believes it was you and not the bears that mauled her.”
He squeezed his hands into fists, flashes of bodies on the ground riddled with bullets assailing him. The past rode so close to the surface there are times he wondered if he had hurt that girl. He never bothered trying to challenge the lie anyway. They believed him a monster. Wasn’t he, though?
Fritz’s hand on his shoulder shook him out of his melancholy. The older man looked down at him the way everyone used to look at him. A man, a whole man worth seeing.
“You aren’t bound by your past no matter what you think, Drake. All of us see your future and it isn’t hiding behind that mask. It’s this woman.”