After stalling for a few minutes, Gus decided to sneak back out to finish the job he’d started, not wanting to leave the dog cages half-cleaned. Besides, he wasn’t done with his service hours for the week.
When passing near the office behind the breakroom, Gus heard Phoebe sobbing quietly and found her slumped in a chair with her face in her hands. He didn’t hesitate but dropped to his knees in front of her and pulled her into his arms, where she continued crying with her head on his shoulder.
Gus pulled her close, sitting down hard onto the floor with her in his arms. The strong woman who usually held her head high standing up to bullies and thugs and disrespectful jerks, like he’d once been, crumpled in his arms, surrendering completely to the need to be vulnerable for one moment of her life.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Gus whispered, kissing her forehead. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”
“I can’t”—she faltered through her sobs— “Can’t have you… f-fighting.”
“Fighting?” Gus pulled away slightly and creased his brow, looking down at her. “He was touching you inappropriately. I couldn’t allow him to do that. Would you rather me stand down and let that happen?”
“It’s too much like my dad,” Phoebe said through her tears.
“Your dad touches you inappropriately?” Gus gulped, wondering how he could help her out of that situation.
“No, you jerk.” Phoebe pushed his shoulder. “He fights. He drinks too much and then he fights with people. He fights with my mom. He fights with me. He fights with my little brother. Why do you think I spend so much time here at the animal shelter? I don’t want to go home.”
She broke into sobs again, clinging to Gus like he was a lifeline. He wanted to be a lifeline. He wanted to wrap her in a soft blanket and protect her like she was the little girl she hid beneath the surface. He wanted to take care of her. He wanted to love her. The notion took him by surprise and he almost pushed away to gaze down at her but instead pulled her just a little bit closer.
After a few more minutes of crying, Phoebe leaned her head back, letting it rest on his arm. “I can’t be with you, Gus?”
“Why?” He gulped.
“You’re too much like him. You drank enough alcohol that night to make you stupid enough to get behind the wheel of a car, then wrapped it around a tree.”
“Telephone pole,” he corrected her.
“What?” Her jaw gaped.
He cleared his throat. “I wrapped my car around a telephone pole.”
“Then you got arrested.”
“I did not get arrested.”
“Only because your daddy’s a prince.”
“Maybe.” Gus had to admit there was probably some truth to her statement. “But that’s behind me now.”
“Is it?” Phoebe asked, sitting all the way up so that she was on his lap rather than in his arms. “Because you still come here every Saturday and spend all day cleaning dog kennels and will be for five years. Five years! Do you know how long that is?”
“How many years have you been coming here?” Gus asked.
“That’s beside the point.” Phoebe wiped a piece of lint off her jeans, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t have to be here; I want to be here.”
“If I get to see you every Saturday for five years, the sentencing will feel like dating the girl of my dreams doing something she loves and serving alongside her.”
“You’re such a player.” She reached up and caressed his face then whispered, “Augustus Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
“I’m not playing,” Gus said, impressed she knew his full name. Most people didn’t take the initiative to dig quite that deep. “I’m totally falling for you, Phoebe Marie Harris.”
She giggled and they gazed into one another’s eyes for a moment.
Gus pulled her closer and touched his lips to hers softly, cautiously, letting her set their pace. He started to pull away, respecting her decision to not deepen the kiss, but she laced her hands into his hair and closed the distance between them, climbing further into his arms, wrapping herself around him, clinging to him, and kissing him with abandon, holding nothing back.
Had this been six weeks ago, Gus wouldn’t have hesitated to kick the door shut and flick off the lights, pulling her clothes off as fast as he knew she’d remove his. But that wasn’t who he was anymore.
He held Phoebe close, rubbing his hands on her back and allowing them to stray into her hair, releasing the loose ponytail and letting her hair drape all around him. But he didn’t allow his hands to stray anywhere else.
When he had made the decision to respect her, that included respecting all parts of her; mind, body, and soul. And right that moment, with her wrapping herself around him like a monkey, he fought every primal physical need she invoked from him and chose to respect her body.
That was the most difficult and emotionally satisfying kiss he’d ever endured. When they finally pulled away, and he pressed his forehead against hers, closing his eyes and breathing heavily, he was proud of himself for denying physical gratification and allowing their hearts to connect instead of their bodies.
Nothing had ever felt like this. Gus knew in that moment, holding her in his arms on the dirty floor in the office of the animal shelter, that he had fallen in love with Phoebe Harris.