Elodie and Clark’s First Date
An On Dublin Street Christmas
BRADEN’S POV – THE FIRST KISS
A man didn’t get far in business by being impulsive and impatient. Ever since Braden’s wife had betrayed him, he’d chosen to use the same methods he used in business in his relationships with women.
The problem was Jocelyn Butler wasn’t like other women and he knew it. It wasn’t merely the intriguing vulnerability she hid behind the wall of steel and grit he respected. It was the chemistry between them. That chemistry was undeniable. Its promise was explosive, and Braden was sick and tired of Jocelyn dodging it. He found himself giving in to an unfamiliar impatience.
In order to move things along, Braden had decided to use one thing that was certain to create action: reaction.
Weeks before, when he’d taken Vicky out for breakfast after their one night stand, they’d bumped into Ellie, Hannah, and Jocelyn on Princes Street. Braden had seen it then. Reaction. As much as Jocelyn had used other excuses—primarily that of her issues with any familial emotional entanglements—he’d concluded that, although her issues were partly to blame for her taking off on them like she had, her jealousy had also played a part. He’d seen it. A flicker in her eyes that she’d tried to bank. Shock. Like she was surprised how much she didn’t like seeing him with another woman.
He was going to use that flicker against her.
Braden had known by the look on his wee sister Ellie’s face that she’d worked out exactly what he was up to when he told her and his other companions for the evening—his best mate Adam, his nightclub manager Darren and his wife Donna— that they were heading to Club 39 for drinks. Club 39, of course, being Jocelyn’s place of work.
“Braden, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Ellie sighed in worry as they approached the basement bar on George Street.
Feeling confident that he could manipulate a reaction out of Jocelyn, Braden grinned. “Always do. You know, Darren knows the doorman here.” He turned to his manager. “Darren, why don’t you go on in ahead and get us drinks. We’ll find a table.”
Pleased, Braden watched Darren move down the steps to the bar, ignoring the people who were standing in line to get in. He approached the large doorman and they began to speak, and a few seconds later they were waved in past the queue as Darren disappeared into the club. It all was going as planned.
Braden gave his arm to Darren’s gorgeous wife, Donna, and walked into the bar with her, able to flirt innocuously with no concern that it might come back to bite him on his arse. If there was one thing Braden had gotten good at it, it was reading people. Donna was mad for her husband and she didn’t cross Braden as the disloyal kind. Which meant he could use her to make Jocelyn jealous without causing trouble between husband and wife.
It took some self-control but he managed not to look at Jocelyn as soon as he entered the bar. The difficulty in that was that the draw between them was so great his eyes usually found her before he could stop himself. Somehow, he kept his eyes on Donna’s face for the few seconds he needed to capture Jocelyn’s attention.
Then he felt it.
He lifted his head, masked the triumph that rushed over him when his gaze collided with Jocelyn’s, and pretended to look right through her.
But he’d seen it.
Tonight was definitely going to go to plan.
They were seated and Darren was at the bar when Jocelyn walked over to them. Braden’s eyes ate her up as she strode over with that natural swing in her hips. Donna was far more glamorously dressed, and yet it was Jocelyn Butler in black skinny jeans and that fucking tight white tank top that showed a generous cleavage that elicited a visceral reaction in him.
She was deliberately avoiding his gaze, saying hello to Ellie and Adam, offering them drinks. When she discovered Darren was Donna’s husband and Donna was not in fact his attractive date, she couldn’t mask her surprise as she finally turned her gaze on him.
Braden smirked, his cool expression daring her to pretend she didn’t give a fuck.
Understanding dawned in her intelligent tip-tilted eyes and he watched the irritation flash through them seconds before her whole body turned rigid with determination.
Watching her stride back to the bar to get them drinks, Braden couldn’t decide if he was excited by the thought of her challenging him tonight or if he was pissed off she hadn’t just silently admitted she wanted him as much as he wanted her.
It wasn’t long before Braden decided on pissed off.
Definitely pissed off.
The obvious flirtation he could see going on between her and her colleagues escalated when one of them took hold of her and kissed her. With tongue. She didn’t stop him, and Braden knew she was the kind of woman who didn’t do anything she didn’t want to do.
Watching her colleague kiss her gutted him in a way he wasn’t expecting.
Although he knew it wasn’t rational, Braden felt betrayed by the kiss, and the way she continued to avoid his gaze and flirt her arse off with her two male colleagues for the rest of the evening. As it went on, he withdrew into himself, frustration and anger burning deep in his belly. Jocelyn knew what was between them. She knew.
It occurred to him as he watched Jocelyn disappear out of the bar and into the staff room beyond, that she’d merely turned the tables on him. He’d wanted her reaction and her reaction was to provoke a reaction out of him.
Fine by me.
He stood up, ignoring Ellie’s question as to where he was going and he strode toward the staff room. The other bartender, the one who hadn’t kissed Jocelyn, attempted to stop him from entering, but after taking one look at Braden’s resolute expression he’d just grinned knowingly and backed off.
Braden tried to cool his anger before going to her.
Yes, she knew what was between them, but she wasn’t his wife— she hadn’t made him promises and then stuck a knife in his back.
Her kissing another man shouldn’t wound him.
But it did.
That’s when he knew. Jocelyn wasn’t just the ultimate sexual challenge.
She was more. It was possible… she was his.
It was with that primal knowledge deep inside him he opened the door and stepped inside a tiny office to find her.
Jocelyn had her delicious derriere perched on the edge of a desk, her eyes coming up from the carpet as she sipped at a can of soda. Braden was once more impressed by her ability to keep her face perfectly blank. Not many people could do that. Sometimes he could read her. Sometimes, like now, he definitely couldn’t.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, seeming completely unconcerned that he’d searched her out.
Then she made a mistake.
She let her eyes roam.
She was checking him out.
She wanted him.
That pissed Braden off.
If she wanted him, what was so damn complicated about it that she had to fuck around with other men and he had to fuck around trying to get a reaction out of her?
“Well?” Jocelyn attempted to gain back her earlier nonchalance, but Braden felt a modicum of control now that she’d let the mask falter.
It was time to lay it all out.
“I don’t like to share,” he stated.
Those unusual gunmetal gray eyes of hers rounded a little as she detected the obvious anger in his voice. “What?”
Braden narrowed his eyes. Still with the games? He’d make himself clear then. “I said, I don’t like to share.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard?” she answered coolly.
He knew instantly bloody Ellie had told her that there had been occasions he and Adam had swapped women. It was decided: his sister knew too much about his private life.
And now Braden was done messing around here. The thought of Jocelyn with any man stirred the old hurt and a possessiveness he didn’t know he was capable of feeling. “Let me rephrase,” he said, his voice no longer sounding like his own it was so guttural with jealousy, “When it comes to you… I don’t like to share.”
Weeks of build up, of pent up frustration, of anger at her and at himself for playing games, fought with the more overwhelming need to taste her. It overtook reason, logic…
Suddenly she was in his arms, one hand gripping the back of her delicate nape, the other jerking up her curvy thigh so he could push in between her legs and position her on the desk to be devoured.
The sight of her full lips, open on a pant of surprise and thrill, was a reminder of the number of times over the past few weeks he’d been close enough to taste them and yet pushed so far from her by her own stubbornness.
He crushed that lush mouth beneath his and groaned deep as Jocelyn clung to him, kissing him back.
Pure, undiluted, raging lust, like nothing he’d felt before licked at Braden’s skin and burned in his blood. His grip on her tightened, their kiss deepening, becoming rough and desperate. The fact that she’d totally lost control right along with him fired him even more, his erection thickening and straining against the zipper on his suit trousers. He wanted inside her so badly, wanted her naked and passionate beneath him.
At the thought Braden pulled back, breaking the kiss as he slid two fingers under the strap of her tank top. Their eyes locked. It was always hot to watch a woman’s eyes darken and fog with desire, but there was nothing quite like seeing that look in Jocelyn Butler’s eyes. There was something hard and cold in the very depths of them Loss. No matter how strong she fought to be he could always detect it in her depths, and since the moment he’d felt the spark between them he’d been desperate to see that hardness soften, that cold warm up.
And he’d done it.
Her gray eyes were soft and dazed, her fingers dug into his skin, and right then he was the only thing on her mind.
If possible he grew even harder.
Eyes still locked on hers, Braden tugged gently on the strap of the tank top and brought it down, revealing her bra beneath, before repeating the process with her bra strap in order to bear one luscious breast to his world. His eyes dropped to it, and he glided his hand up her ribs to cup the delicious weight. She was perfect. Her skin satin soft under his caresses. He brushed his thumb over the tight, puckered nipple of her left breast and his muscles tightened at the little erotic gasp that fell from between her lips. His eyes shot to her face and he was overwhelmed by what he felt in that moment. Braden felt raw. A little lost.
If it was up to him this would be the beginning of something, but it wasn’t just up to him. It was up to this young, terrified, stubborn, sexy as hell woman who seemed determined to keep him at bay. While he felt like they were on the cusp of something here, to her was he just a man she was attracted to? If her colleague was standing between her legs, fondling her breasts, would she be gasping and panting for him, giving him the soft in her eyes?
“You like that, babe?” he murmured, eyes on her trembling mouth as that anger and uncertainty simmered beneath his skin. “Do you like my hands on you? Or,” he dipped his head to brush his lips softly against hers, “will any man’s do?”
Braden’s eyes flew to hers as she reared back from his question. He caught the flash of hurt in her gaze before it turned furious as she jerkily yanked her bra and top back up.
“Fuck you,” she snapped and tried to push him off her.
Guilt for causing her any kind of hurt warred with satisfaction as Braden denied her space, taking hold of her wrists to stop her physical assault against him. He pushed deeper into her legs, determined that by the end of this night there would be a new understanding between them. She wanted him, he wanted her. His emotions were involved, and now he knew for definite that hers were too.
Which made what happened earlier really piss him off.
“What the hell was that out there?”
He watched the hard return to her eyes but the fire hadn’t dimmed from them. They were anything but cold as she hissed, “None of your business, that’s what it was.”
“Are you fucking him?” he wasn’t quite sure what he’d do if she said yes.
“None of your business!”
Wrong answer. His grip grew unyielding. “Considering I want to fuck you, it is my business. And considering you definitely want to be fucked by me, I think it’s in your best interests to answer me.”
He tried not laugh in triumph as that fire in her eyes exploded into towering flames. “You are an arrogant, egotistical asshat, you know that! I wouldn’t have sex with you if you were the last man on earth!”
Well, we’ll just see about that.
He kissed her, deliberately tormented them both by rubbing his hard on between her legs. The struggle died out of her pretty fast and as she began to melt into him, pushing against him for more, he tried to get the answer he needed out of her while she was lust-drugged. “Are you sleeping with him, Jocelyn?”
“No,” she panted.
“Do you want to sleep with him?”
Relief and need, pure and simple, overpowered him. He needed inside her. Now. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
She shuddered against him but shook her head at the same time.
Stubborn little brat. He smiled, sliding his hand along the inside of her thigh until he was cupping her. He rubbed two fingers hard against the seam of her jeans and watched her face flush and her eyelashes flutter shut over her extraordinary eyes. “Oh God…” she moaned.
Fuck if he wasn’t enjoying the torment more than he should be. The anticipation was sweet, hot foreplay. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
To his surprise her eyes flew open, blazing. “What the hell do you think?” she growled at him seconds before tugging his head down and crushing their lips together.
No. This woman was not like any other he’d met before.
And if he didn’t get inside her soon he was going to explode with frustration.
Braden lifted her easily, delighting in the disappearance of her recalcitrance as she eagerly wrapped her legs around his waist. He turned, pinning her against the nearest surface, which happened to be the wall, fitting his erection between her legs and thrusting against her. She gasped against his mouth and that was it for him.
He held her fast with his body and was just reaching for the zip on his trousers when—
They were instantly pulled out of their sexual bubble by the intrusion of the colleague who’d tried to stop him either. As Braden tried to catch his breath, he glared at the bartender.
“Break’s over,” the guy told Jocelyn pointedly.
“I’ll be right out,” Jocelyn panted.
The door closed behind her colleague and Braden reluctantly eased her to the ground. He’d actually forgotten where the hell they were. He’d almost fucked her at work.
Jesus, what the hell was she doing to him?
“I need to get back to work.”
She attempted to push him away but Braden wasn’t letting her go without her knowing this wasn’t over. Gently, he grasped her chin and raised it so she had to meet his very determined gaze. “We need to talk.”
“I don’t have time right now.”
“Then I’ll come over tomorrow night.”
He unconsciously tightened his grip on her when he realized she was actually going to try to deny what was between them. “I’ll come over tomorrow night.”
Unease moved through him as he slowly watched the hard and the cold return to Jocelyn’s eyes. “Braden, I don’t want anything to happen between us.”
Needing to fire back he deliberately provoked her with, “Tell that to your damp knickers, babe.”
“You are such a dick,” she hissed, outraged. The heat flooded her gaze.
He grinned, pleased with himself and the reaction he elicited in her. Tenderness rushed over him. She’d lost part of herself somewhere. He was going to help her find it. After brushing a soft kiss across that gorgeous mouth of hers, he reiterated, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
BRADEN’S POV – THE (NAKED) SECOND MEETING
Letting himself into the airy flat, Braden immediately heard the loud music coming from the bathroom. He eyed the hallway for any signs of the new arrival, but there were only Ellie’s things. Hmm. He pressed his ear against the bathroom door, listening to The Killers filter through the woodwork, along with the occasional splash of water. The roommate was taking a bath. Braden sauntered through the flat, checking each room, and finding no evidence of someone new living there. Finally, he stopped at the entrance to the second bedroom and saw the empty boxes, books, laptop and photographs. She was still unpacking it seemed.
Deciding he’d timed this perfectly, Braden went about his business casually, making himself a coffee and settling comfortably into the sitting room with the newspaper Ellie always had waiting for him. Fifteen minutes later he heard the music stop and got up, grinning wickedly at the thought of catching this person unaware. Sometimes his sense of humor strayed into the playground.
Leaning casually against the sitting room doorframe, Braden thought he heard a muttered curse, and then the bathroom door was wrenched open.
Before him was not the stranger he expected in a bathrobe.
Before him was the girl from the cab. And she was naked.
Wet and glistening and naked.
And every man’s fucking fantasy come to life.
Struggling to control his body’s reaction as his gaze drifted over her ample, perfect breasts, flat soft stomach and mouth-wateringly full hips all wrapped up in gorgeous wet, olive skin, Braden choked out an inane greeting, “Uh…hullo.” Ellie’s flat mate was cab girl. What a delicious twist of fate. Hello, Jocelyn Butler.
Jocelyn. Braden suddenly liked the sound of it.
Her head snapped up, wet strands flying back over her shoulders as she made a hoarse sound in her throat, her eyes wide with shock as she stared up at him. He noted the confusion and panic in her eyes, but did nothing to assuage it; the allure of her body was too great and his eyes drifted downwards again. He’d known many a beautiful woman—he’d married one—but he couldn’t remember wanting any of them as much as he wanted this woman right then.
The image of her naked was seared into Braden’s memory forever.
Realizing he had visual access to all her good bits, Jocelyn clamped an arm over her breasts and drew his gaze back to her eyes. Her expression was one of cool annoyance and Braden was immediately impressed with her reaction. Most women would be a simpering, mortified mess right now. “What are you doing in my apartment?” She asked belligerently in that sexy, husky voice of hers. Jesus. She was killing him. He almost groaned, catching the sound in his throat and drawing her narrow-eyed gaze. Unashamed of his want for her, Braden let the heat blaze from his eyes and saw a tremor run through her as she felt the tension spark between them.
As if affronted that she could be turned on in this situation, Jocelyn’s eyes flared. “Turn around!” she yelled in outrage.
Not wanting the situation to escalate out of his favor, Braden immediately lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender and reluctantly turned around to face the sitting room. Not quite believing Ellie’s new flat mate was cab girl, and that he’d just walked in on her naked like some scene from a comedy, Braden began to laugh. This was fucking brilliant.
He heard her hurry off toward her bedroom and decided he better explain who he was in case she thought he was a stalker and decided to return with a weapon of some kind. “I’m Braden Carmichael,” he called to her. “Ellie’s brother.”
There was no response but Braden could hear shuffling, and then the sound of her deliberate stomping as she came back to him. When he turned around Jocelyn stood before him, gracefully petite in a tank top and shorts with her mass of hair haphazardly shoved on top of her head. He smirked, imagining her naked again. Oh yeah, he definitely wasn’t losing that image any time soon.
Her hands flew to her hips, her pale eyes darkening around the edges of the irises with obvious irritation. “And you just walk in here without knocking?”
“It is my flat,” Braden reminded her.
“It’s common courtesy to freaking knock.”
He shrugged, jamming his hands in his pockets. Despite her obvious desire to create contention between them, Braden was surprisingly comfortable with her. She was entertaining. And she wanted him too, he mused, trying not to smile as her greedy, exotic eyes roamed over him.
As if it suddenly occurred to her she was checking him out, Jocelyn shrugged back her shoulders defiantly. Braden tried not to laugh again as she asked, “Aren’t you going to apologize?”
Grinning, he shook his head. “I never apologize unless I mean it. And I’m not apologizing for this. It’s been the highlight of my week. Possibly my year.” Come on it’s funny. Laugh with me. You know you want to.
However, she didn’t. He thought he detected a lip twitch but he was wrong.
With her nose tipped haughtily in the air, she breezed past him with a, “Wow, what a boring life you must lead.”
Far from it, especially these days. Braden grunted in response and followed her neat little figure into the sitting room. His eyes skimmed the back of her neck and shoulders. She had such a small frame for a curvy woman. It was enticing. So was her throat. Stunning skin. And she smelled of that fruity stuff again.
Watching her, his amusement increased at the tight-lipped look on her face as she took in his empty coffee mug, newspaper and jacket. Realizing he’d been here a while, she threw him the dirtiest bloody look over her shoulder. God, she was fun.
Grinning at her seemed to disarm her somewhat, so Braden shot her another one and sat down in the armchair. As he did she drew in an exasperated sigh causing her braless breasts to tighten against the fabric of her top. Braden’s skin prickled and he could suddenly see her wet and naked in all her glory in the hallway again.
A small, delighted smile played on his lips. “So you’re Jocelyn Butler.”
“Joss,” she corrected him instantly, as if her full name left a bad taste in her mouth.
Joss? No, that wouldn’t do. It didn’t suit her at all. Jocelyn… now that did. Braden could imagine calling out ‘Jocelyn’ in bed. Not Joss, though. Too young, too boyish.
He relaxed against the chair, getting comfortable, hoping his five minute chat of intimidation with Ellie’s roommate would now be an hour’s chat with Jocelyn Butler. “Ellie likes you.” It was half-conversational, half-warning. The woman may be sexy but she still needed to know he put Ellie’s best interests above everything and everyone.
“I like Ellie,” she answered casually before raising an eyebrow at him. “I’m not so sure about her brother. He seems kind of rude.”
She had no idea. “He’s not sure of you either.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about my wee sister living with an exhibitionist,” he teased.
She made a face at him, like a five year old. Brat. “Exhibitionists get naked in public. As far as I was aware, there was no one else in the apartment, and I’d forgotten a towel.”
“Thank God for small mercies.” Really. Thank you, GOD. “Seriously,” he deliberately and blatantly ate her up with his eyes. “You should walk around naked all the time.”
Braden’s heart almost stopped as her full mouth twitched, and then it started racing hard as her lip curled up in amusement at the corner, and she shook her head at him. He was absurdly pleased he’d managed to make her smile and found himself laughing softly in accomplishment.
And just as quickly as the moment had formed between them, Jocelyn sought to end it with the roll of her eyes. “You’re such an ass.”
Braden snorted. “Usually a woman calls me that after I’ve fucked her and called her a taxi.” He tempered his bluntness around women. He was raised by his father to at least present the image of a gentleman. But with her… well, he didn’t know what it was about her… he just knew that he wanted to disconcert her and challenge her as much as she challenged him.
Seeing the muted shock on her face at his word choice Braden had to ask, “Don’t tell me you hate that word.” That would be a shame, because it’s one of my favorites.
“No. I just don’t think we should be talking about fucking when we’ve just met.”
Oh, beautiful. Amusement and the thrill of the chase took hold as he watched her blanch in realization. “I didn’t know that’s what we were doing.”
“If you’re looking for Ellie, she’s tutoring.”
A deliberate subject change. Damn. Just when it was getting good. “I came to meet you, actually. Only I didn’t know I was meeting you. Quite the coincidence. I’ve thought of you quite a bit since last week in the taxi.”
“Was that while you were out having dinner with your girlfriend?” she asked slyly, trying to draw some line between them in the sand.
Mentally, Braden kicked a football into the sand, destroying her neat little line and answered casually, “Holly is down south visiting her parents this week. She’s from Southampton.”
He could tell Jocelyn couldn’t give a crap if Holly was from the moon, and in that moment, frankly, neither could he.
“I see. Well,” she said, standing up in an attempt to usher him out, “I would say it was nice to meet you, but I was naked, so… it wasn’t. I have a lot to do. I’ll tell Ellie you dropped by.”
Laughing at her irreverent sense of humor, Braden took the hint and stood up to pull his jacket on. “You’re a hard nut to crack.”
Her eyebrows dipped together. “Hey, there will be no cracking of this nut. Now or ever.”
Oh she was just asking for it now. Choking on laughter, Braden took a step toward her so he had her trapped between him and the couch. The fruity smell of her shampoo caused a sensual stirring in his blood and his smile turned cocky as he came to a decision. “Really, Jocelyn…why do you have to make everything sound so dirty?” He asked impudently before abruptly turning on his heel, the image of her lush mouth falling open in outrage bringing him a sense of triumph.
Once outside, Braden stood for a moment on the front stoop, taking in a breath of crisp cool air. He’d entered the flat in the worse bloody mood, and exited it feeling better than he had in days.
Glancing back at the door, he chuckled under his breath. He was filled with anticipation.
BRADEN’S POV – FOR ELLIE & JOCELYN
It would be unbearable to lose either of them, Braden thought, standing in the doorway to his sister’s bedroom, and it didn’t seem possible he could lose them both.
His eyes swept over Ellie and Jocelyn as they laid sleeping together, heads tucked into each other, their hands held tight. Even now he could see the tear tracks on both their faces.
Braden’s chest burned with an ache so deep and dark it took all the strength within him to push back at the ache, to tell it to fuck off. He wasn’t ready to grieve.
Yesterday, he’d been delivered the worst news of his life when the doctor told his wee sister she had a tumor in her brain. That they wouldn’t know more for another twenty-four hours horrified him. When the possibility of losing someone you loved hung in the air, twenty-four hours might as well have been twenty-four years.
The whole time sitting in the cab with Ellie as he took her home, holding her small hand in his, he’d held it together for her. He held it together for her even after Jocelyn stormed out of the flat, leaving them to deal with the news alone. He’d held it together right up until Jocelyn had broken up with him hours later, so paralyzed by her own fucking issues and fear she’d selfishly trampled all over him to keep herself safe.
For a moment there he’d even believed her when she told him she didn’t love him.
Until he knocked on Elodie Nichols door and she led him inside. Ellie’s mum had always been a surrogate mother to him. She’d been there for him when his dad passed away leaving him angry and bitter that there hadn’t been enough time to rectify their relationship. She’d been there for him when Analise betrayed him with Gavin, making him feel like a fool for the first time in his life, not only because he’d been blinded by her, but because in the end he’d married a woman he lusted after more than he loved.
And now Elodie had been there for him again when he finally couldn’t hold it together anymore. For the first time since his father had died, Braden shed silent tears while Elodie stroked his back and offered him her counsel. Growing up, Braden had had no one. It was a lonely childhood with a negligent mother who didn’t love him and a controlling father who had no time for him until he’d reached his teens.
Then Ellie had come along when he was seven. Elodie had tried from the very beginning to be kind to him, but he was wary of women because of his mother. Ellie was a different story altogether. As soon as Douglas had impatiently put a baby Ellie into Braden’s young arms and introduced her as his little sister, Braden had claimed her as his family. His only family. From that point on he’d been there to teach her, to protect her, and to love her. She was one of his best friends. His mission in life had been to watch over her, shielding her from the world’s hurt, shielding her from their father’s indifference. And she loved him with a pure and utter adoration that an unloved young boy had needed. He truly believed Ellie and Adam had saved him. Moreover, over the years, Elodie’s unwavering affection toward him broke through Braden’s protective armor, and he had more to thank Ellie for—for giving him Elodie, and eventually Clark, too.
Els was a part of him. She was in his blood, in every breath— a basic, essential part of his very being. The thought of losing her was agonizing. But he had to be strong for her, because as terrified as he was, he knew she must be a million times more so.
With Elodie, he could finally break. They could break together.
Braden Carmichael was not a man to shed tears, nor a man who easily let his emotions show. He had too much of his father’s arrogant pride in him. But he wasn’t embarrassed to shed tears with Elodie. Not for Els.
After he’d wiped the tears from his face, he’d told Elodie in a hoarse voice everything that happened with Jocelyn. He didn’t have to say it out loud for her to know that his heart was shattered. The pain Analise had caused him with her defection was nothing compared to the furious grief Jocelyn’s retreat had caused.
Then as they talked it over, as Elodie gave him her perspective, the emotions of the day began to grow calmer, and Braden saw everything that little bit more clearly.
He’d been right the first time with Jocelyn. She loved him. He knew that deep in his bones. There was no way he could feel so much for her and not have that reciprocated. It was the kind of love that could only come with truly knowing someone, and Jocelyn wasn’t the kind of woman that let anyone truly know her unless she loved that person.
She loved Ellie.
She loved him.
So gone was the loss and back was the pure anger.
Anger he had to keep tight to his chest for a little longer so he could make sure his sister got through this bloody awful day.
Quietly, trying his hardest not to look at the grief etched into Jocelyn’s sleeping, beautiful face, Braden walked over to his sister’s side of the bed. Unfortunately, his eyes strayed to his girlfriend (he would not call her his ex-girlfriend) as she clung to his sister in her sleep.
Compassion nudged at the ache his chest.
Jocelyn was too young to have lost so much. A mother, a father, a sister and a best friend. And now she was facing the possibility of losing another. It was ridiculous. It was a colossally sick joke. He got it. She was terrified. Terrified if she admitted she loved him and something happened to him, she’d be fate’s bitch all over again.
He got it.
So why didn’t she get that he loved her and he wasn’t going anywhere if he could help it. Why didn’t she get that right now his world was coming apart at the seams, too, and he needed her.
Pushing his frustration aside, Braden gently nudged Ellie awake.
Her eyes, eyes that matched his own, opened slowly and he tried not to inhale sharply at the redness in them, at the bleakness in the depths of them. Braden wished he could do something. He wished this were happening to him instead of her. Not to Els— one of the kindest, warmest, sweetest gift life had ever given him.
The other best gift (a less sweet, prickly, stubborn, passionate, smartarse one) he’d ever gotten stirred next his wee sister, but he steadfastly ignored Jocelyn as Els asked, “What time is it?”
“It’s past noon. I’ve made you some lunch.”
Braden felt Jocelyn’s eyes on him but he kept his on Ellie as she whispered, “I’m not hungry.”
Prepared for that, Braden shook his head stubbornly. “You need to eat. Come on, sweetheart, time to get up.”
Leading Ellie by the hand, he faltered when Ellie asked, “Joss, you coming?”
Good thing he’d made her some lunch, too. The petty inclination to leave her to starve had reared its ugly head, but it went against his nature not to look after her, so he’d made her scrambled eggs on toast once he’d made Ellie’s.
While he watched to make sure Ellie was eating, Braden was very much aware of the increasingly horrendous tension between him and Jocelyn, and although he tried his best, every time she came near him his anger made him instinctively move away from her.
Ellie caught on fast after that. “What’s going on?” she asked softly.
Not wanting her to worry about anything but getting through her doctor’s appointment, Braden mumbled “nothing” at the exact time Jocelyn did.
“Guys,” his sister said, looking suddenly stricken, “did the doctor call?”
He immediately felt like a Class A prick. For all his promises to himself to put Ellie first, he’d fucked up right away by letting Jocelyn get under his skin.
“No, Els,” he assured her. “We’ve the appointment with Dr. Dunham later this afternoon, just as planned.”
“Then why are you two acting strangely?”
He didn’t say a word and yet a few seconds later she guessed it.
“You broke up,” she said, looking so despondent more guilt crashed over him.
When he felt particularly guilty Braden did what he knew best: ordered people around. “Els, you should get in the shower, brighten yourself up a bit. You’ll feel better.”
She ignored him. “Because of me? You broke up because of me?”
“No, Ellie,” Jocelyn answered for them and he felt his muscles tighten at the sound of her voice. “Not because of you. This had nothing to do with you, and it’s done. We’re okay. Don’t worry about us. We’re getting through this minus the drama.”
So you fucking think, Braden just stopped himself from glowering at her.
Ellie jutted her chin out, her expression mulish, and Braden was actually happy to see the fire back in her eyes, even if he was to blame for it. “You’re clearly not talking to each other, though. What happened?”
Not wanting Ellie to feel like she’d caused this and letting the part of him that Jocelyn had hurt take control of his mouth, he said, “She doesn’t love me, and I think she’s an untrustworthy, cold bitch. Now get in the shower.”
Braden watched his sister’s eyes fly to Jocelyn’s face. His girlfriend’s expression was hidden from him but watching Ellie’s pale skin turn even more wan, and hearing the hurt reprimand she gave him just saying his name, he knew he’d wounded Jocelyn.
More guilt made him feel even more pissed off. “Shower. Now.”
Her worried eyes flew to Jocelyn.
“Ellie, shower,” she said, sounding surprisingly composed for someone he’d apparently wounded.
“You’re worse than my parents,” Ellie murmured, dragging her exhausted body out of the kitchen, leaving him alone with her roommate.
Like it had been waiting for Els to leave, his anger stoked to new life and he clenched his hands into fists to keep from yelling just for the hell of it. He held it together though. Braden needed a reaction out of her, anything to give away her true feelings. He took a breath and managed calmly enough, “You left some of your shit at my place. I’ll drop it off this week.” When Hell freezes over.
“I’ll get your things together for you,” she answered softly.
Not the answer he’d been hoping for.
New tactic? Perhaps something a little friendlier?
Braden cleared his throat. “You came back for her?”
“Well, sometimes untrustworthy, cold bitches keep their word.”
His blood instantly heated with indignation and he slammed his mug down on the counter. Just for once could she not put that fucking armor of hers away? This was Ellie they were talking about. “She doesn’t need your charity or your fucking guilt.”
“She doesn’t have my charity or my guilt.”
His eyes finally flew to her. She stood leaning against the kitchen counter, her usually healthy, olive-toned complexion was dulled with pain and fear. Her eyes kept shifting away from his, like she couldn’t bear to look at him.
She was such a Goddamn liar.
The anger took hold again. “So I was right last night, then? Unlike me, she has your love.”
Tell me you love me, Jocelyn. Be brave and fucking tell me.
“Braden…” she choked on his name and for one moment he thought she was breaking. He held himself still, waiting. “You don’t love me either, Braden.”
It was like she’d shot him. Point blank range.
How dare she! How fuc—
Braden fought for control, inwardly struggling while on the outside he kept his face icily impassive. The hurt he felt was unbelievable. He’d shown pieces of himself to her he’d shown to no one, and she dared to throw that in his face, to rewrite their history in order to make up for her own shortcomings.
In that moment he lost himself in the need to hurt her back. “You’re right.” He said stonily. “I don’t love you. I’m just annoyed I have to look for a new arrangement, especially when the old one wasn’t half bad.”
Jocelyn turned away instantly, depriving him of her expression, but he saw the tension in her shoulders and wondered if his words sliced as deeply as hers. “I’d hoped that we could still be friends, but clearly you don’t want that. So can we just agree not to talk to each other unless we have to for Ellie’s sake?”
God, he wanted to shake her. “If it were up to me, for Ellie’s sake, I’d kick your arse out and tell you never to darken our doorstep again. But Ellie doesn’t need that right now.”
Her head flew up at that and Braden felt triumphant that at least that got a reaction. If anything, he wouldn’t doubt her feelings for his wee sister. “Are you kidding?”
Still, he pushed. “No. I can’t trust you. You’re fucked up. I don’t think Ellie needs that.”
“Last night you wanted me here for Ellie.”
He shrugged, watching her eyes flare with anger at the casual movement and getting a perverse satisfaction out of it. “I’ve had time to think about it. If I could, I’d get rid of you. But that would just cause Ellie more pain. She doesn’t need that right now.”
“You could do that?” she whispered, shocked by his cold indifference. “Just throw me out of your life?”
And now they were getting somewhere. Just one more push. “Why not? You did it to me last night.”
Her eyes narrowed in outrage. “No. I broke up with you. I didn’t throw you out of my life.”
“But if I had known how little I really did mean to you, I probably would have.”
Oh no she didn’t, he thought, feeling that heat in his blood turn to flames. She was not playing the victim in this scenario. Didn’t she realize she’d fucking cut him in half last night when she told him she didn’t love him? “Oh, that’s right. You don’t love me, but you care about me. Well… I could give a shit about you.”
He waited a second for a reaction and got nothing but the obstinate locking of her jaw.
“As a matter of fact, I fucked someone else last night.” The shitty words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, the devil inside him, that bitter part of him that needed a reaction more than anything else, slipping past his control.
Watching her physically react to the words, Braden would have given anything to take them back. Guilt gutted his belly like a knife as he watched her jerk back like he’d hit her, her mouth parting as though he’d knocked the wind out of her.
Her eyes, rounded with horror, began to fill with tears.
He’d never felt like a bigger shit in his entire life, hating himself for hurting her. Jocelyn. He only ever wanted to protect to her and he’d fucking hurt her.
Self-recrimination somehow made him even madder at her even as he shot toward her to comfort her. “I fucking knew it,” he hissed.
“Don’t touch me!” she yelled at him, stumbling back from him as fury mingled with the pain in her eyes.
“Don’t touch you?” Braden shook with emotion he couldn’t seem to get a handle on. “I’m going to kill you!”
“Me?” she shrieked and promptly turned to grab a plate off the dish rack. A second later Braden ducked to avoid the missile flying for his head. “I’m not the one who fucked someone two seconds after we broke up!”
She reached for a glass but Braden was done. He was on her before she could grab at it, pinning her wrists to her sides as he pressed his body into hers to restrain her against the counter.
“Let me go!” Jocelyn sobbed, struggling violently with him and making something sharp and devastating twist in his chest. “Just let me go! I hate you. I hate you!”
No, she loved him. “Shh. Shh, Jocelyn,” he was almost begging her, he couldn’t stand that he’d done this. He’d wanted a reaction, though, and now he had to deal with the consequences of being a complete and utter bastard. “Shh, don’t say that. Don’t say that. I didn’t mean it. I lied. I was angry. I’m a fucking idiot. I lied. I was with Elodie all night,” he confessed, desperate now for her to believe him. “You can call her and ask—she’ll tell you the truth. You know I would never do to you what was done to me.”
Braden felt her struggling cease as his words penetrated. He wasn’t lying. He would never cheat on anyone. And he most definitely would never cheat on Jocelyn.
He loved her.
Though, he sensed a battle ahead, Braden’s anger had dissipated. He’d hurt Jocelyn and he felt like a right bloody git, but he also felt assured.
Today he’d find out whether his little sister had a fight on her hands, a battle he’d determinedly fight with her. But for now he felt less burdened than he had that morning because he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Jocelyn Butler loved him back. She’d admitted it, even if she hadn’t said it with words. They both knew. She couldn’t take that back.
So while Braden fought for Ellie, he’d be fighting for Jocelyn, too.
ADAM’S POV (A SCENE FROM UNTIL FOUNTAIN BRIDGE)
It had been a weird twenty four hours, Adam thought grimly, staring at his laptop. It was a Saturday night and instead of going out and relaxing with some mates he was at home, working. If he stayed at home he might be less inclined to put his fist through someone’s face. Say… Ellie’s ex, Rich Stirling.
Adam frowned, pushing his laptop away. Why did he have to go and think about that? He’d been doing so well.
Ever since he discovered that treacherous little git had been using Ellie as part of some melodramatic corporate espionage crap, the blood in his veins had been pumping at a melting hot temperature. He’d never felt anything quite so satisfying as slamming his fist into Rich’s nose.
Any man would be lucky to have Ellie Nichols and that punk idiot had made a crack about Ellie being nothing more than a bonus hot fuck. It had taken everything within Braden not to fly at the arsehole. Adam didn’t have the same self control. Rich hurt someone he cared about.
It was more than that, though. Adam couldn’t hide that from himself even if he could from others. His feelings for Ellie were anything but brotherly. He wanted her. It hit him like a thunderbolt when she was eighteen and standing before him all tousle haired and swollen mouthed as she told him she’d just lost her virginity.
The searing possessive jealousy that had coursed through him then coursed through him last night when Rich Stirling bragged about her.
So the heat in his blood… it wasn’t just about being mad that someone had hurt her. It was about the continual frustration he felt that he could never have what other men could have from her.
Not if he wanted to keep Braden and his sister in his life forever. They were his family. He couldn’t lose them over an attraction to Ellie. You didn’t fool around with your best friend’s little sister. End of.
“Fuck,” Adam muttered. He needed something to take his mind off… everything.
He checked his phone. Maybe he should catch up with Braden out on the town.
Just as he was about to call his friend his phone started ringing.
Ellie’s name pulsed on his screen.
Instead of being annoyed that the object of his distraction was now in his face distracting him, Adam felt concerned.
Ellie had had one helluva week and he had to make sure she was alright. “Hey, Sweetheart.”
“Hullo,” her soft, melodic voice warmed him. “I’m downstairs. Are you okay for me to come up?”
“Of course. I’ll buzz you in.”
He wandered downstairs, his heart pumping a little faster at the thought of seeing her. He opened his door and leaned against the doorjamb, waiting for the lift doors to open.
When they did something in his chest squeezed. Ellie stepped out, dressed casually and she somehow still managed to look like a supermodel. She raised an arm, waving a bottle of wine at him. The hem of the cropped top she was wearing rose revealing her toned waist and creamy skin.
Adam ignored the heat that flooded him and gave her a curious smile, pretending to be completely unaffected by her perfection.
She sighed at the question in his smile. “It was either a bottle of wine or a slap on the wrist.”
Ellie hated violence. She particularly hated when he was involved in a brawl, no matter the circumstances. Not that he brawled a lot but he’d gotten into a few fights in his youth and little Ellie had always been flabbergasted by it. “Wine will do.”
Leading her through his duplex into the kitchen area, he smiled at her over his shoulder. “I think I’ll crack this open…I feel a lecture coming on.”
Adam reached for a couple of wine glasses and brought them back to the island he’d left the wine on. Ellie reached it at the same time he did and as she leaned against the counter her hem rose again, flashing more tempting skin.
He looked away quickly, pouring her a glass of wine. “Here.”
“I came here to thank you,” Ellie said, her pale blue eyes solemn.
“Ellie, you don’t need to thank me. It was my pleasure, believe me.”
“Braden said he had a hard time pulling you off of Rich.”
True. He’d been enraged. Adam actually couldn’t remember a time he’d ever been angrier. “He fucked with you, Els. I mean, he really fucked with you.” He looked away from her, a tiny, irrational, unfair part of him annoyed at her for letting Rich into her bed in the first place.
“Literally,” Ellie murmured dryly.
An image he did not want in his head lambasted him and the anger he felt from before threatened to rise to the surface. “Don’t,” he warned her. “I’m this close to finishing the scumbag off.”
“I should be reprimanding you.” She reached for his hand, her thumb brushing lightly over his swollen knuckles. “How many times did you hit him?”
Adam found himself moving unconsciously closer, his gaze fixed on their hands. She had such delicate hands for a tall girl. They were so small against his. He frowned, trying to remember what she’d just asked him. As soon as he did he felt another wave of angry satisfaction roll over him. “I hit the wall next to his head as warning shot. He didn’t heed the warning, said some shit he rally shouldn’t have, and I think I got in four really good hits before Braden pulled me off.”
“Did you leave him conscious?”
Adam narrowed his eyes. Christ, did Ellie still have feelings for that moron? “Do you care?”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble,” she explained.
Relieved that was her reason and unnerved by his relief, Adam pulled his hand gently out of hers. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. According to sources I was nowhere near New Town or Rich last night. We’ve got a dozen witnesses who will all claim that I was at Bar Kohl last night at the time of the said attack.”
She nodded but was nibbling on her lip. Something she did when she was nervous or worried.
“Els, how are you really?”
Instead of answering she ducked her head, hiding her eyes from him. She walked away from him. Instantly disliking the distance she was putting between them Adam followed her as she walked into the sitting area and sat down on his couch. Deliberately, he sat down close to her, putting his arm along the couch behind him, effectively trapping her. She wasn’t going anywhere until he knew what was going on in that pretty head of hers.
She flicked him a look. “I’m an idiot.”
He flushed with anger. “You’re not an idiot.”
“I’m an idiot.” Ellie insisted. “I’m stupid and naïve and… humiliated.”
It was decided. Adam hadn’t punched Rich enough last night. Trying to temper his emotions so he could get it through to Ellie that this wasn’t her fault, he slid closer and calmly touched her wrist. He had to comfort her not rile her. “You have nothing to be humiliated about. He’s a prick who played you. He’s the stupid fuck who’s going to look back and realize that for five months he was the luckiest bastard on this planet to be with you. He’ll regret this, baby.”
She was silent a moment, just staring at him.
Adam didn’t know what else he could say to make her understand that none of this was her fault.
Ellie smiled suddenly. “You always know the exact right thing to say.”
The tension melted out of him and he smiled in return. “Because I only ever tell the truth. You’re one of a kind, Els. Any guy would be lucky to have you.”
So fucking lucky. His eyes flickered over her and his mouth went dry.
He grabbed up his wine glass and took a drink, trying to erase the thoughts he was having.
As they sat and talked any attempt to fight his attraction to Els was foiled at every turn by her. She was an affectionate person but tonight she was being really touchy feely.
She was flirting with him.
Satisfaction thrummed through him. It was wrong that he cared that Ellie had feelings for him. He knew that. But there was a selfish part of him that was elated that Ellie wanted him in return, that was glad the frustration he felt was also felt by her.
He should have stopped her when she put her hand on his thigh or squeezed his hand. He didn’t.
So she pushed it.
He was in the middle of talking about his absent parents when she yawned, stretching her arms up. The movement forced her breasts out and her hem rose up revealing even more toned, silky skin.
She was trying to kill him.
Aroused and annoyed at himself for giving her the opening he bit out, “Ellie, what the fuck are you doing?”
She shrugged nonchalantly, her blue eyes glittering with wickedness. “Stretching.”
Christ, she could tempt a saint, Adam thought, drinking her in. She had the longest legs… those legs… he tensed at the thought of having those legs wrapped around him. “You know what I’m talking about. The talking, the flirting, the stretching…”
A nervousness flickered in eyes, betraying her. “I think you know…”
She wanted him.
But it could never be just a casual thing for her because… Adam knew she loved him.
And why oh why did that make him even more turned on. He needed her to leave. Right. Now. “Ellie,” he whispered, not sure what he was asking.
In answer she put her hand on his leg and slowly glided her head up his thigh.
The heat zinged in his blood, his dick so hard for her he was in pain.
Her fingers neared his straining zipper and his eyes fell to her trembling mouth.
He had to stop this.
He should stop this.
Adam grabbed her wrist and yanked her to him. Then he was kissing that mouth that provoked him so much. The kiss turned wild almost instantly. She was suddenly straddling him as he tasted the hot and sweet on her tongue. His hands were everywhere, desperate to touch every part of her beautiful body.
His control was gone.
All that mattered was the girl in his arms and tasting every inch of her.
She rode him as their kisses turned dirty and deep, wet and biting. His denim covered erection throbbed against her cotton-covered sex, and his grip on her sweet arse tightened as his tension increased.
He growled, amazed by the excitement between them. It was addictive. He pulled away, needing to see and feel more of her. Soon Adam had divested her of her top and bra and her perfect breasts were unveiled to him.
“So fucking perfect,” he murmured, not sure he could get any harder without needing some relief. She sighed, this breathy little sigh as her nipples tightened.
He reverently cupped her breasts in his hands and drew one nipple into his hot mouth.
She went wild in his arms.
Adam couldn’t take it anymore.
He pushed her on her back, ripping his shirt off before pulling her skirt and knickers off.
She was so goddamned beautiful it wasn’t fair.
Needing her mouth again, he braced himself over her, her nipples brushing against his bare chest as he kissed her. He insinuated himself between her legs, the kiss turning more desperate as he shuddered with the need to be inside her.
Apparently she was too impatient to wait any longer, her slim fingers working at the zipper on his jeans. She pushed his jeans and boxers down and his throbbing, hot dick pressed against her sex.
“Fuck,” he groaned as the head slipped over clit.
She tilted her hips and grabbed his ass, silently pleading with him to take her.
Yes, yes, fuck, yes—
“Adam, please,” Ellie begged. “Adam…”
This was Els. Braden’s little sister, Els.
Adam froze, his eyes locking with hers. More than anything he wanted to tell the world and all its occupants to bugger off so he could slide inside this beautiful, sweet woman who meant everything to him.
But the world and all its occupants included his only real family—Braden.
He couldn’t do this to him.
Or to Ellie.
He hurried off her, pulling up his boxers and jeans. Catching sight of her naked gorgeousness tempting him on his couch, he tossed her clothes at her. “Ellie, we can’t.”
He jerked on his T-shirt and stood up, putting distance between them.
Sexual frustration and panic made him curt when he realized she was still naked. “For fuck’s sake, Ellie, get dressed.”
She ducked her head, her hands trembling as she hurried to pull her clothes.
Regret and guilt pierced him in the chest. “Sweetheart, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
Instead of answering Ellie finished dressing and reached for her Uggs.
Something like panic began to creep into him. He couldn’t lose her over this. The thought was agonizing. “Ellie?”
Finally she stood up and looked at him. The raw expression in her eyes gutted him.
He had to explain, he had to take away that pain somehow. “Ellie, you’re Braden’s wee sister. I can’t… we can’t…” he gestured to the couch where they’d almost…
When Adam looked back at Ellie he felt as if he’d been punched in the gut.
She looked betrayed.
Without a word she whirled around, grabbed her jacket and hurried toward his door.
She couldn’t leave like this.
“Ellie!” he raced after her. “Ellie. Fuck!” the door slammed behind her. Desperate to fix this, Adam tore out of the flat after her.
She was fast. Her footsteps pounding down the stairwell. “Ellie, please!” he yelled after her, jumping over the stairwell to catch up with her.
But when he barreled out of the building she was running across the street, her long hair whipping behind her. “Ellie!” he cried after her, his own limbs shaking with fear. “Come back. Talk to me!”
He waited for a car to pass, impatient to get to her as he watched her hurry onto a bus. Adam ran out onto the road, racing toward it. He was nearly at its back wheel when it took off into the traffic, taking Ellie with it.
Distraught, Adam stumbled onto the pavement and dragged his hand through his hair.
His heart was pounding in his chest and not because of the running. It raced out of fear.
Somehow he had to make amends for the loss of his control. Somehow he had to win Ellie back and at the same time make her see what a mistake it would be for them to be anything but friends.
He would do it.
There was no other option.
And now that he knew that Ellie in his arms was like his own private Elysium, Adam was going to have to work harder than ever to convince himself to keep his distance from her.
Nate’s POV — The Break Up
What had happened at the weekend in Longniddry was a bit of a mind fuck. Okay, if Nate was being honest with himself it was more than a bit of a mind fuck.
Since beginning these sex lessons with Liv, Alana had never been far from his thoughts. She’d started haunting him all over again, and taking Liv home to meet his parents had stirred the memories until he felt on edge—his emotions too raw for him to handle. Nate was a laidback guy, he tried not to let too much get to him, so he wasn’t very good at handling anything too overwhelming.
He could admit that to himself even if he couldn’t admit it to anyone else.
There was a part of him that felt like he should apologize to Liv for his behavior, but the much larger part of him that was doing most of his thinking these days believed than an apology would only confuse her—it would maybe lead her to think that there was something more between them than there was.
So no apology. But he needed to see her so he could work out where things stood. However, for the first time in as long as he could remember Liv hadn’t been home when he’d come around to see her. He’d stuck around for a few hours waiting on her and she never appeared.
Nate almost called her. Just to see if she was okay. He was worried.
In the end he didn’t call because… he didn’t know why actually. After the events of the weekend, however, he knew it was time to decide whether they should end this thing between them before it all got too messy. So after a photo shoot Nate had gotten a cab to Liv’s and let himself in.
At the sound of her key turning in the lock, he tensed. Something like apprehension moved through him. That feeling only intensified when Liv walked in to find him there, uncertainty on her gorgeous face.
“Hey,” she said quietly.
Relieved to see her, Nate sat forward and switched off the television, giving her his full attention because he wanted hers in return.
The thought of ending things went up in flames at the sight of her. “I came by last night. You never came home.”
She dropped her keys in the bowl by the door, seeming to avoid his gaze as she said, “I stayed with my dad.”
More relief moved through him. So, alright, he could admit that it did cross his mind maybe she’d finally gotten up the courage to get together with that stupid bloke at the library she fancied. Ignoring his relief he said, “Are you okay?”
Hmm, she still wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Did we fuck up at the weekend?”
She sighed and moved toward him now, which was much better. Olivia was naturally affectionate. She should have been in his arms the moment she came in the door, and the fact that she wasn’t… “I don’t know. Did we?”
That’s why she wasn’t in his arms already.
She wasn’t looking for more. No… she was just confused. Nate could do something about that. Something he was very good at doing. He went to her, loving the feel of her lush curves under his hands as he drew her toward him. “I think it was a strange weekend. I think we should forget about it.”
She relaxed into him and Nate hid a pleased grin.
“Okay,” she whispered as he began pressing kisses along her silky jaw.
The smell of her perfume was a trigger for his body, and he felt all the blood rush to his dick. His fists tightened in the material of her shirt. Fuck. Would he ever stop wanting this woman? “I feel like I haven’t been inside you in forever.”
She leaned in to him and he stifled a groan as her soft, generous breasts brushed his chest. He wanted her on her back beneath him. Now. “It’s only be a few nights,” she said, the lust in her voice belying her rational reminder that they should be able to manage a few nights apart without wanting to rip each other’s clothes off.
To hell with rationality, he wanted her as fired up as he was feeling. His tongue swiped gently at her neck. “That’s what I said.” He pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the sweet spot just under her ear. “Fucking forever.”
Liv’s whole body sagged into him at the same time her fingers dug into his back. She let out that low, husky moan of hers and Nate was lost.
He kissed her hard, falling deeply into the taste and feel of her. He was a little rough, desperate even to push away all the complicated, annoying emotions that had been trying to fuck this up for them at the weekend.
Liv’s white blouse was in the way of his efforts to make them both forget. He tugged at the collar, ripping it open, buttons flying everywhere. She gasped but didn’t admonish him, shrugging out of the shirt so he could attack her bra next.
Skirt and panties flew behind him and as he shoved her gently toward the bedroom he jerked out of his own clothes. Naked he pushed her down on the bed and started kissing every inch of her beautiful olive skin.
It still blew him away that Olivia had had no idea how sexy she was. He’d actually never met a woman as gorgeous as she was with so many insecurities.
And he had to admit to himself, as he sucked on one very delectable nipple, his cock throbbing when Liv panted in response, he felt smug that it was him that unleashed her sexual appetite.
All she had to give in that very moment, all that beauty, all her kindness, her humor, all her lust, was for him.
Something crept into his chest, aching and warm, and he found himself reaching desperately for her lips. The kiss was slow, sweet, and his hands caressed every inch of her, committing her to memory. She raised her hips in invitation.
He answered the invite, guiding his dick into the slick, snug heat of her. Fuck, she felt amazing. She always feels amazing.
Her lips parted on an excited gasp, her lids lowering over her eyes.
Those stunning golden eyes were in his top five favorite things about her. “Don’t. Look at me. Give me those eyes,” he found himself demanding, gripping her thigh up so he could thrust into her at a deeper, more satisfying angle. His fingers tightened on her and he felt this overwhelming wave of possessiveness crash over him as she stared up at him in tenderness.
Moving slowly in and out of her, the knowledge that she was his grew from a seed to take root and cling onto him with a fierceness that heightened his arousal. There was nothing better. Nowhere better than being here with Liv. Nothing had ever felt more like home.
I could spend my whole life here… looking into those eyes.
Her inner muscles clenched around him as she cried out in climax with tears shimmering in her gaze. That and the pulsing of her sex around his cock was more than he could take—his release floored him. His hips shuddered against hers as he came harder than he ever remembered coming…
…However… once the haze of deep satisfaction lifted, Nate was instantly seized with panic.
Everything he felt for Liv… no, it was too much, too overwhelming.
He couldn’t feel that way.
Not after Alana.
The whole mood of the moment was flipped on its head.
Needing to get away and as fast as possible, he pulled out of Liv, rolling away from her without meeting her eyes. He couldn’t look at her.
Discarding the used condom in her bin, Nate quickly hurried into his jeans.
“You’re not staying?” Liv asked, sounding small.
He felt sick. Fingers shaking he reached for his shirt and shrugged it on without answering. How the hell… why… how…
Dragging a hand down his face, Nate braced himself to say what needed to be said. Reluctantly, he met her gaze. “I’m ending this, Liv. I can’t do it anymore.”
The pain in her eyes made him feel about two inches tall. “You—” she shook her head in confusion. “You make love to me and then… end it?”
Fear turned to anger. To desperation. “That’s why. Make love to you? That was never what this was about.”
He was never going back there. She knew that.
But as he watched her angrily throw herself out of bed to pull on a nightshirt Nate stood frozen in confusion. Why was she reacting this badly? This was always going to end between them, they both knew that. “Why did you come here tonight? If you were going to end it?”
“Because I wasn’t sure it needed to be ended… but after that…” he trailed off, remembering with horror now how lost he’d felt as he moved inside her. Lost but so un-fucking-believably found.
How the hell had this happened?
He had to make it stop.
Ending it was the only way to make it all just stop and go back to how it was.
Liv glowered at him. “I was just following your lead.”
Her anger was making his panic increase, but more than that the hurt in her eyes was killing him. It was all so messy. And it pissed him off. “Don’t. Don’t give me those wounded eyes and that hurt tone. We agreed that this was just sex. And you promised.” You promised me. You’re my best mate, Liv, don’t do this to me. I cannot lose you, too. “You promised it wouldn’t ruin us.”
“You want me to hold to that promise? Nate, don’t lie to yourself! For the past six weeks we’ve been in a relationship, and I’m sick of pretending it isn’t. You’re here most nights and it’s not just sex. It’s friendship and affection and tenderness. We make each other laugh and we get each other. What’s so wrong with that?” Tears were bright in her eyes, so much pain.
No. No she’s not…
Because if she was then he was going to lose her.
Terrified, Nate stared at her, aghast. She’d lied to him! She’d given him something special and was going to rip it away from him because she’d never had any of intention of keeping things uncomplicated between them. Rage and fear mingled with guilt he was frantic to push aside. “I can’t believe you,” he managed to choke out over the lump of emotion in his throat. “I’ve told you over and over that I don’t want that and you sat there and murmured your understanding and gave me your fucking assurances and all the time you were manipulating me!” he shook, trying to control himself as she flinched back from his uncharacteristic roar.
And then her low but soft voice reached him. “I wasn’t the one who asked you to sleep over after sex. You did that. I didn’t ask you to be here almost every night. You did that. I didn’t cuddle you on the couch. You did that. I didn’t ask you to come home and meet my parents. You did that.”
Nate couldn’t look at her. He fought for calmness as her words penetrated.
Liv was right. He had done all that. He’d been playing with fire all along and he’d done nothing to stop the blaze from getting out of control.
This was his fault.
“Looking back, I think you knew that there was more here. There were moments when I felt you pull away and I thought that was it—this, between us, was over. But then you’d come back. Why?”
Glancing up at her Nate almost shrank back at the tears, at the accusation. What could he say that wouldn’t confuse her more? That wouldn’t hurt her more? “Liv, don’t.” What I have to say is the last thing you want to hear. Don’t make me say it, babe. Don’t hurt us both here.
“Don’t. Don’t, why?”
God damn her! “Because,” Nate forced out, the control on his emotions, mostly his anger, slipping. “If you say any more I’ll be forced to say things I don’t want to.”
But Liv had lost all control on her anger. She was determined to push his buttons. “Just say them. Come on. Just say it! I’m a big girl.”
“Don’t make this ugly.”
“You’ve already made this ugly with your goddamn mixed signals, so just say it!”
His frayed nerves just snapped. “Fine. I don’t love you. I can’t and I won’t and you knew that, so don’t stand there like some victim.”
The anguish in her eyes gutted him.
Standing there, a liar and a coward, Nate couldn’t remember a time he’d ever felt more ashamed of himself. What kind of man did it make him to stand there and cause a good woman pain because he was… what… scared? He scoffed bitterly at himself and prayed to God that Liv had it in her to forgive him for his weakness.
The sound of her bitter laughter gouged into his hope that their friendship could be salvaged. “Last week I thought you might just be the best person I ever met in my life. Last week I loved you like I’ve never loved anyone.”
No, fuck, no. Take it back, Liv, take it back and we can start over.
“You taught me to be brave again, Nate. How can such a coward teach someone to be brave?”
He couldn’t hide his flinch. She thought just as badly of him as he thought of himself.
“You know what else you taught me?”
What, Liv? Give it to me. Hurt me like I’ve hurt you.
“You taught me to believe in myself all the way through. You taught me that I’m worth more than what I see in the mirror. So today, as you try to teach me the opposite lesson, I say fuck you.” She smiled through the tears falling down her cheeks. “I deserve to be loved. All or nothing.”
Christ, she was magnificent. His girl had come along way. And she was one hundred percent right.
There was no way he’d ever deserve her.
But that didn’t mean he wanted to lose her from his life and Nate didn’t need to be a genius to know that was where this was going. He had to save their friendship somehow. He had to remind her he wasn’t a bad person, that he hadn’t meant to trick her into feeling… so much for him. “Liv, I never made you any promises, you know that.”
It had the opposite effect of what he wanted. It only infuriated her. “Stop playing dumb. You’ve been in this with me for the last six weeks! This wasn’t just a casual fuck, Nate. It’s me!”
She was slipping… slipping through his fingers.
Just like Alana.
Liv sagged, stumbling back from him wearily. The urge to reach for her was so great he had to clench his hands into fists at his side. “You’re right, I did.” She nodded, lifting those beautiful eyes of hers. The accusation in them burned him. “I didn’t expect you to blur the lines, though. We blurred the lines. At least I can admit it. But if you admit it, you have to admit what a selfish bastard you’ve been, and I don’t think you’re going to do that.”
Finding himself afraid more of her hate than of her love, Nate attempted to make her see sense. “You’re wrong. I admit it. I thought we could be best friends and have sex. It didn’t work. And I kept coming back and making it worse because I didn’t want to lose your friendship. I’m sorry. But you know me. You know I don’t do relationships. You know that. Don’t hold it against me. Just be . . . my bloody friend.”
The look of incredulity on her face chipped at another piece of hope. “I just told you that I’ve fallen in love with you.” She started crying harder.
Nate’s whole chest and gut seemed to be shredded. That pain only worsened when she said, “You expect me to be able to be around you now?”
He was losing. “Liv, don’t do this.”
“I have to. I’m sorry. For the sake of my sanity I have to. You walk out that door, Nate . . . if you walk out that door . . . don’t ever come back.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck! “You don’t mean that.”
Her sad eyes tore through him. “Oh, come on. You just told me you don’t love me and you never will. I doubt you’ll even miss me.”
Babe, you have no idea. He’d never begged a woman for anything in his life before, but to keep Liv, he was throwing his bloody pride out of the window. Surely, she had to see that that meant something. “Olivia, don’t.”
She grew still at his plea, her eyes searching his face. “I love you, Nate. Do you love me?”
I can’t. You’d ruin me.
He couldn’t give her what she wanted.
An unbearable grief gripped him and he couldn’t fight the tears that sprung to his eyes. This was it. He’d lost her. “I never meant to hurt you, babe.”
Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. “I guess that was goodbye.”
Ever wondered what was going through Jake’s head after Brett’s death, during those awful days leading up to the break-up and then that fateful break-up itself?
Then read on for Jake’s perspective…
INDIANA, MARCH 2009
The crack on his ceiling appeared longer than it did … well, than it did for however long Jake had been lying on his bed staring at it. That could have been an hour, two, maybe even two days.
Staring at the crack did nothing to change it. As he lay there, it was going to splinter into more cracks.
Like he gave a shit about changing anything.
Nope. Still there.
As was the pressure. It was like he was weighed down at every angle by a piece of stone. He felt bruised. Tender.
But at least not dead.
How did it happen?
The question wouldn’t leave him alone. Nor the pleading in Brett Thomas’s eyes as he stared up into Charley’s face, dying.
Why did it happen?
Brett’s dad? Jake’s dad? One a bully, the other a reluctant pacifist. Because of whom? Jake’s mom. Was it her? Brett’s friends? Egging him on. Alex Roster? It was his house, his party, his alcohol. His kitchen knife.
New guy. Accelerant. Victim? Reluctant pacifist too. Stupid decision to go to the party.
I was the matador waving the red cape. He was the bull.
It was me.
I killed him.
Brett’s voice, ugly with childish bitterness, slithered into Jake’s ears. Yeah, you did. My blood. Your hands, Caplin.
Jake squeezed his eyes closed.
Go away. Go away. Go away.
Jake blinked. See? The crack grew.
Was it really me?
He tucked his hands under his head, the first movement he felt like he’d made in forever. Jake’s eyes narrowed on the purple uplighter. Jesus, I hate that thing.
You hate yourself.
Lifting his head, he pulled his right hand out and held it up to examine it. It was clean. He hadn’t even touched him. Not once.
He was taunting you for months. You should’ve stopped it then. He’d be alive.
Shoving his hand back under his head, Jake let the weight settle down all over him again. Hadn’t Logan Caplin raised him to be a man? A sensible man would have just walked away.
Jake’s chest shuddered on a sigh. He felt the nausea rise.
He wasn’t worth this. I should’ve walked away.
He glared at the uplighter again. He couldn’t make up his mind what he was guiltier of … not facing up to his bully, or giving his bully too much power. Or was that the same thing?
What power? Brett’s voice sneered at him. I’m the one who bled to death, bitch. What power did I ever have over you?
Movement caught his eye and he lowered his gaze from the ceiling. The sight of Charley standing in his doorway was a punch to the gut.
Music. He answered his own question. He was listening to crap shouty music in an attempt to shut out all the questions and he hadn’t heard her. Ha, the only questions the music was shutting out was everyone else’s.
Ignoring the spike in his pulse at the sight of her, Jake told her flatly, “I don’t want to talk to anyone.” The words felt weird, his tongue like sandpaper.
Disquiet moved through him as she shrugged out of her jacket, kicked off her shoes, and walked toward him like she could save him from the guilt slowly eating away at his insides.
She lay down beside him, not touching him, but close enough he could smell her perfume and feel the heat of her body trying to warm his.
“You don’t have to talk,” she shouted over the music.
Without a word, she invaded him.
Was it her? The insidious whisper pushed inside him before he could stop it.
How many times had Charley told him to ignore Brett? How many times had she stopped him from putting a halt to it once and for all?
A reluctant pacifist … because of her.
She was the reason Brett wouldn’t let up. She was the reason they were at Alex Roster’s party. She was the reason he hadn’t walked away when he should have.
She was the reason.
She’s the reason.
If I was the matador and Brett was the bull, was Charley the red cape?
My guilt. Her guilt.
He saw Charley bending over Brett, her hands covered in his blood as she pressed her jacket to his wound. He saw her calm surety as she told him to call 911. Her kindness as she sought to soothe Brett.
Her wet eyes as she turned to tell Alex that Brett was gone.
Her cool hand in his as they walked toward the patrol car. Her loving voice promising him she was there with him.
Jake felt his breath hitch but Charley didn’t move. She hadn’t heard it over the music.
How long had they been lying there? And she hadn’t pushed him to talk.
He couldn’t talk. How could he ever now?
He’d let himself blame her.
What kind of man was he turning into?
I told you. You never deserved her. Never.
Not. For. You.
Jake stiffened as he felt Charley’s warmth draw near. “I have to go,” she whispered, before pressing a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. As his mouth tingled, he didn’t dare look at her. “When you’re ready, I’m here. I love you, Jake.”
The words choked him.
For the first time … he couldn’t say them back.
No, correction. He wouldn’t say them back.
Someone died because of them.
Charley would die if she ever knew you were thinking this shit.
Jake waited for her to put on her shoes and jacket. He waited for her to walk out the door. He waited for her perfume to fade from his pillow.
In the dim light, he turned his head to stare at his empty doorway.
He was glad she was gone. He didn’t want her near while his fucked-up head played the blame game.
I never deserved you.
As the car pulled into the hospital parking lot, Jake’s foggy, jumbled thoughts were clear long enough to focus on one thing. A building rage … with himself. Brett’s friends, Damien and Jackson, had put their hands on Lukas to get to Jake. And Jake hadn’t been there to save Luke. No, once again Charley had done what he should be doing.
Impotent anger, the frustration of injustice, of being made to feel a victim, consumed Jake as he followed his concerned mom through the hospital.
He felt Charley before he saw her.
She chipped at his focus, her eyes burning his skin as he walked into the hospital room where she was standing by his brother’s bedside.
Jake took in the sight of his brother sitting on the end of the bed, his eye swollen shut, and he felt his fingers curl into fists.
That’s it. He was done.
“Don’t even think about doing anything stupid,” his dad warned in a voice that was not to be disobeyed. “Charley saw to it that those boys will pay for attacking your brother. Don’t make your situation worse by demanding your own retribution.”
“They can’t get away with this, Dad. They should leave us alone.” Why won’t they? What did we ever fucking do to these people?
“They won’t get away with this,” Logan reiterated firmly. “I told you Charley saw to it.”
Jake almost winced at the reminder.
Luke somehow managed to grin, even with half his face mashed. “She was awesome. She jumped in front of me and told them that if they wanted me, they had to go through her. If it hadn’t been so emasculating, it would’ve been hot.”
Charley smirked at Luke as Jake’s brain grew fuzzy with renewed anger. She said something to Luke and he replied, but Jake didn’t hear it.
She’d put herself in danger to save his brother? “You were going to take a beating?” he choked out, unable to shake loose the vision of her beautiful face bloodied and bruised. Was she insane?
“I knew they wouldn’t hit me,” she replied stubbornly. Jake had the sudden urge to grab her arms and shake her hard until some sense slammed into her.
“Uh, I don’t know. I think Damien definitely would’ve swung for you if Alex hadn’t stopped him,” Luke disagreed.
Jake couldn’t look at her.
As the doctor bustled around with discharge instructions, Jake stewed in thick silence. Was he mad at Charley because she put herself in harm’s way or mad at her for doing what he hadn’t? Again. Something like resentment built within.
She was the kind of girl you became a better man for, not a worse one.
He couldn’t live up to it.
He couldn’t live with it. Any of it. He had to get out of there before he lost his mind.
She followed him and his family into the parking lot. Jake could feel her. He didn’t want to. Not then. Just for a little while, he didn’t want the burden of being the kind of guy she deserved. For now, he had to focus on being the kind of guy he could live with.
And who he was right now was scaring him.
He looked at his parents. “Can you guys wait in the car? I need to talk to Charley.”
Jake was barely aware of them moving away as he turned to face her.
Memories tried to press at him. Precious, joyous, exciting, fucking beautiful memories. A lifetime of wonder crammed into just a few short months.
He blocked them out with guilt and blood and anger and fear.
Jake didn’t see how much he loved her. He didn’t see the anxiety in her eyes. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Just. Not. Now.
“I know you’re mad at me,” she began in her clear, strong voice. “But—”
Jake couldn’t hear it. “Just be quiet, Charley.”
“Jake, I know you’re going through a lot but I would appreciate it if you’d not speak to me like that. And stop shutting me out.”
Always so strong.
Yeah, she’s strong. She can handle this. She can handle anything.
His family couldn’t. They’d been through enough. And the truth was that they probably would have left town already if it wasn’t for …
If it wasn’t for how he felt about her.
Numbness settled over Jake.
It really was all his fault.
“Our front window got smashed in yesterday,” he answered flatly. “Our phone keeps ringing and then callers hang up. Trenton and his goons are getting restless.”
“Jake, I’m sorry. But it’s just Trenton. Everyone else knows you didn’t attack Brett. They know it was an accident.”
An accident. An unfortunate incident that happens unintentionally or unexpectedly, typically resulting in damage or injury.
No. It wasn’t an accident. It was months of pent-up resentment of a boy likely under the influence of mental, emotional, and possibly physical abuse on the part of his dickwad father, all of that fury aimed at the wrong guy. Everyone had seen it coming. It wasn’t unintentional and it wasn’t unexpected.
And the result was pretty fucking fatal.
“I should’ve walked away, called his bluff. He died because I wasn’t smart enough to walk away from a drunk. I didn’t put the knife in him but I’ve still got blood on my hands.”
Charley tried to tell him otherwise. He had to give it to her—he thought she might really mean it too. He watched her warm, small hand curl around his and for the life of him he couldn’t feel it. “We’ll get through this,” she promised.
Jake stared at her. As long as he felt this numb, he could do this. He could look at her and he could do this.
“I have to get through this on my own.” Her mouth moved but Jake kept talking. “I can’t do it with you around me.”
“… breaking up with me?”
Jake wondered for a moment why he could barely hear her and then it shocked him to realize his heart was racing and pounding so hard, the blood whooshing in his ears deafened him.
The panic in Charley’s eyes threatened to destroy all the numb. He looked away. “Yeah. I’m breaking up with you.”
The unevenness of her breathing punched right through the numbness. “And everything between us … everything you promised.” She sounded so small, so damn small. “That’s just gone?”
He felt sick. He was going to throw up. Right there. Cast up the guilt all over her. “I’m not sticking around to listen to this.”
“Don’t walk away from me!” she yelled. “You owe me!”
Didn’t she think he knew that? Didn’t she think he knew he was scum, worthless, not for her? He was responsible for a guy’s death and he couldn’t deal. Charley was calm, in control, trying to save people. To save his brother being beat up. Trying save him! Didn’t she know? Didn’t she see?
Jake turned back, spewing his fury all over her, and it came out all wrong. He said all the wrong things. He accused her.
But at least he spewed out one right thing. He was fucked up. So fucked up.
“All I want is to help you,” he heard her say. “I don’t understand why this is my fault?”
“I told you we shouldn’t have gone to that party.”
Now she’d know that he let himself blame her. It was just a second of thought. But a second was long enough.
The color bled from her features. “So you blame me?”
Feeling as if he was going to come out of his skin, Jake needed this to end now. “No,” he managed quietly. “I’m just done.”
But she wouldn’t let him go.
She held onto him, her hand burning through his shirt, her warm eyes hot with fury and pain and every ugly, dark thing Jake had only ever wanted to protect her from. But he couldn’t do it now. He didn’t have it in him to save them both. And he couldn’t let her save him. He would lose what little shred of self-respect he might have left.
Charley Redford had power over him. The whole town did.
For now … Jake knew that if he was going to get through this, he needed that power, that control, back.
He stared through her as she began to make her way through the five stages of grief. First there’d been denial. Then anger. Now she was bargaining with him.
“I’m standing here, ready to help you work it all out. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“No,” Jake bit out. “I can’t be here, in this town with these fucking people. And you’re one of them. When I look at you, that’s all I see.”
At his words, Charley looked broken. Jake felt like someone had rammed a spike down his throat. He struggled to breathe through the agony as he turned away from her.
She’s strong. She can handle this.
Brett’s voice was suddenly in his head again. Yeah, he snorted, she really looks like she’s handling it.
“You’re just as big an asshole as they are,” she said, the bite dissipating as she continued, sounding desolate. “I can’t believe I gave you everything.”
Jake knew nothing could change his mind in that moment. He was desperate to leave behind Lanton and everything it had taken from him.
Desperation could make people do things they’d never imagine.
Like cutting someone open just so he could end the conversation and get away as quickly as possible.
Like turning to the best person he’d ever met and ripping apart all their seriously fucking beautiful moments together with, “Yeah, well, we all do stupid shit sometimes.”
Jake walked away from her.
Left her there with those ugly parting words.
Brett sneered in his head, Still holding onto that little shred of self-respect, are you?
Go away. Jake fought for numbness. Go away.
In her freshman and sophomore years at Purdue we know Charley was determinedly moving on from Jake with Alex, Claudia and their friends. Have you ever wondered what was going on with Jake… and his inevitable jump into a new relationship with Melissa?
Read on for Jake’s perspective…
Chicago, April 2012
“Party tonight!” Beck’s voice hit Jake’s ears at the same time his dorm room door crashed against the wall.
Jake looked up from his laptop. “Have you heard of knocking? I could’ve been doing anything.”
“And yet instead of doing something base and immoral such as fucking Heather Denton, who so desperately wants in your pants, or hell, giving Little Jake a stress reliever, you’re alone in your room … studying.”
“Funny.” Jake pushed away from his desk. “I thought that’s what college was all about. And don’t call my dick ‘Little Jake.’ It’s a disservice.”
Beck snorted but shut the door so there was no possibility of one of their suite mates overhearing. “Seriously, man, it wasn’t that long ago you were all about the parties and the women. I don’t care about the change, I just … I mean, you’re okay, right?” He frowned. “Is this about Melissa? Something going on there?”
“Nah.” Jake rubbed a hand over his recently cut hair. “You know I can’t go there with her.”
His friend was quiet a moment. “Because of Charley?”
Jake’s heart no longer banged against his chest at the mere mention of his ex-girlfriend. It had stopped doing that a while ago. Still, an ache remained, a specter of what was possible, and of what he was sure he’d never have again. “You know I’m over it,” he said. They both knew he lied, but Beck never called him on it. “I just can’t go there again. Melissa is one of my best friends. I won’t mess that up by sleeping with her. She’ll want more and I can’t give her more.”
“Wasn’t she dating that frat guy for a while?”
“A few dates,” Jake said.
“I know you want her. Doesn’t that piss you off?”
Honestly, he was jealous but he just wanted her to be happy. “As long as she’s happy … whatever.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but Mel isn’t going to be happy until you two are neck deep in a relationship.”
Jake was afraid that might be true. Whenever Melissa hinted about it, Jake carefully avoided the subject. She had to know after everything he’d been through that he wasn’t capable of giving her what she wanted. As much as he wished he could.
“I fear an uncomfortable conversation in the future,” Beck said. “Speaking of which, you’ve got to come to this party, save me from Cheryl. I don’t know how to communicate any clearer that what we had was a beautiful thing, but it was one night of a beautiful thing.”
“You’re an asshole,” Jake groaned, standing up and reaching for his hoodie. “I told you not to go there with her.”
“I take it this sudden mobility is your acquiescence?”
Jake shrugged. “I’m bored.”
“You’re bored a lot lately.”
This was true. Jake felt restless. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sick of having a different girl in my bed every week, I’m sick of the parties, of the drinking, of the weed …”
Beck squinted at him. “I’m confused. You’re sick of it but you’re not sick enough of it not to want to settle into something with Melissa?”
It was a catch-22. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Right now, you’re coming with me to Bobb. Denver, Matt, and Lowe are already there.”
Deciding it was better to be restless in company than alone, Jake followed Beck out of Kemper and turned left toward Bobb-McCulloch Hall. They lived on the north campus of Northwestern, so it wasn’t exactly difficult to find a party. Not that it was ever difficult to find a party when you were best friends with a rock band.
When Jake’s parents had returned to Oak Park, he met Beck. Beck was originally from Chicago but when his mom married his stepdad, they’d moved to Seattle for his job. He was some fancy-ass CFO in some fancy-ass division of some fancy-ass conglomerate that dealt in cars, media, and whatever else. He was a pompous, selfish asshole who didn’t understand Beck and really didn’t want to. Beck’s mom was so scared of losing the money and the lifestyle, she pretty much sided with the stepdad no matter what the issue. Beck had alluded to the fact his stepdad didn’t mind raising his hand against him. It didn’t happen now because Beck wouldn’t take it, but as much as he tried to hide it, such treatment had left scars.
Just when Jake had left Chicago for Lanton, Beck’s stepdad moved them back to Chicago, into a big house in Glencoe.
Upon returning to Chicago, Jake met Beck at a party of a mutual friend where they’d bonded over their religious love for Pearl Jam. Since Beck’s real dad lived in Oak Park, he and Jake hung out whenever Beck came around, which was a lot. Not only did he feel the need to escape his life with parents he couldn’t stand to be around, but his dad was an alcoholic and he worried about him. Beck’s dad used to write jingles for advertisements and he’d written a pretty famous Christmas jingle that was replayed more times than anyone liked to count. He lived off the royalties in a house he already owned. Jake had only visited once and he hadn’t known what to say. Beck’s dad was a mess.
It was a relief to Beck to move out of his mom and stepdad’s and into freshman dorms at Northwestern. He and Jake applied to be roommates and their neighbors turned out to be Lowe and Matt. Upon discovering fellow musicians among them, Beck started the band. They met Denver at a party and welcomed him on board as their bassist. The Stolen was formed. People always asked Jake why he wasn’t a part of the band, but the truth was, despite his love of music, he couldn’t play. He’d tried to learn guitar years ago and it just wasn’t for him. He couldn’t sing for shit, and the thought of playing the piano or the drums bored him to death. Jake would always love music but he was practical by nature.
He was a mathematician, a problem solver, and industrial engineering was a better fit. It was all about optimizing how something worked, whether a process or an actual organization. Jake loved the challenge. At the end of the day he felt like he’d accomplished something, and as he got older, he realized that was a feeling he needed to be happy in life. When he’d chosen industrial engineering, his dad had been proud. It was a degree that could take him places in the real world.
That’s why it was so surprising that Beck and Lowe had chosen the same degree. They didn’t live in the real world. They wanted to be musicians. Engineering was just a back-up plan.
“Are you going to be this quiet all night?” Beck asked, eyebrows raised in question.
Jake eyed him. “Does it bother you?”
“Nope.” Beck shrugged. “I just feel like you’re stealing my thunder with the whole brooding thing. Women love the strong, silent type but we can’t both be the strong, silent type.”
Jake stared at him.
Beck sighed. “Fine. You’re better at it tonight anyway. I’ll be the charmer.”
Eyeing the front of Bobb, Jake shook his head. “I’m not going in there to get laid, so you can be whatever the fuck you want to be.”
Beck smacked Jake hard on the back. “Dude, at least let’s get you drunk or high. We have to pull you out of this funk.”
“I’m not in—”
They turned to see Melissa hurrying toward over. Her girlfriends strolled at a distance behind her, smirking. Beck had slept with at least two of them. Jake had been smart enough not to mess around with Mel’s friends.
Jake smiled as Melissa bounced to a stop in front of him. Just like always, he felt attraction zing through him. Melissa was at once beautiful and adorable. Dark hair, tall, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Not to mention she was sweet and compassionate and a great friend.
She threw her arms around him and Jake automatically hugged her close.
She smelled amazing. She felt good against him.
“Beck,” she said, smirking at his friend as she pulled back from the embrace. “Trolling tonight?”
“I think you’re thinking of Matt,” Beck said. “I don’t troll.”
“In other words, they just flock to you?”
He shrugged in a way that clearly said yes. “Jake, man, I’ll see you in there.”
Jake nodded, knowing Beck was making his escape from the past conquests who had suddenly reached them.
Melissa looked at her friends. “You guys go in.”
Her friend Belinda frowned at Jake. “You sure you want that?”
And what exactly does that mean?
“Just go in.” Mel shooed her away. As soon as the girls were through the door, she looked into Jake’s eyes. “Can we maybe go back to your dorm? I really need to talk to you.”
Jake felt a prickle of sweat. Nerves. “Um … what about?”
“Not here.” She pleaded with her gorgeous eyes.
After all the hours he’d spent talking her ear off, he couldn’t exactly say no. Jake nodded and turned toward his dorm, not saying anything as Melissa looped her arm through his and walked beside him, pressing her body into his.
He had a feeling he knew what she wanted to talk about. Not only would he have to call on his willpower if she came onto him, but he was worried that what he had to say would send her running. The thought didn’t sit well with him at all. He really cared about her. She was a friend he didn’t want to lose.
They’d met five months ago at the Study Abroad Fair. That meant Melissa had known about Charley almost from the very beginning of their friendship—Charley was the reason he was at the fair.
The summer after his senior year, Jake borrowed his dad’s car and he and Beck drove to Lanton. It became clear that despite wanting to see Charley, wanting to apologize, wanting closure, Jake did not want to see Lanton. He’d broken out in cold chills as they pulled into town. Beck had made him pull over and trade seats so Jake could sit in the passenger side, hiding behind sunglasses. He directed Beck to Charley’s house, feeling sick the whole time.
They sat down the street from her house for fifteen minutes while Jake tried to gather the courage to knock on the door.
And then a car pulled up to the drive and Lois, the girl they’d hung out with at the party that fateful night, got out. The front door opened before she could even knock and suddenly, Charley was right there.
It was like staring at a dream.
She didn’t seem real.
And she was smiling, looking beautiful and happy and relaxed, and Jake knew that if he got out of that car, Charley wouldn’t be happy anymore.
So he let her drive away with Lois and he let Beck drive him back to Chicago.
That was the day Jake decided to move on.
Freshman year was a blur of school, partying, and girls. It was easy to get lost. Jake was convinced that though it felt empty to move from one girl to the next, it had helped him deal with the fact that his life would never have Charley in it again.
That didn’t mean, however, that he was over her.
It was something Melissa knew. She knew because after they discovered they were going to the University of Edinburgh at the same time, Jake found himself telling her the truth behind why he was going.
Because Charley might be there, and this time he might not be such a pussy. This time he might have the courage to get out of the fucking car and tell her he was sorry.
He’d told Melissa everything—from meeting Charley, falling in love, all the crap that went down with Trenton Thomas and Logan Caplin, Brett Thomas’s animosity, the party, the knife, the death, Jake’s issues … and how he broke Charley’s heart and his own in the bargain.
Besides Beck, Melissa was the one friend he had who knew he wouldn’t get serious with another girl when he still had Charley’s ghost hanging over him.
Once inside his dorm, Jake watched Melissa as she moved through his space. She smiled at him as she flopped down on the bed.
“I want to be with you,” she said abruptly.
Jake was surprised and also impressed. Melissa had never crossed him as the most confident girl when it came to men, so the fact that she was putting it out there blew him away. It was brave.
He’d always admired brave.
Even if it did put him in an uncomfortable position. “Melissa …” He slumped down in his chair, his eyes locking with her hopeful ones. “You know I care about you, a lot, and if it could be anyone, it would be you. But you know I can’t.”
She sighed. “Because of Charley.”
“I’ve never felt about any girl the way I felt about her. I can’t promise you I ever will and that’s selfish. I can’t get into anything with you. Not to sound like an arrogant ass, but what if you fall for me and I can’t fall back? Not to mention that we’re going to Edinburgh in six months and she might be there. That could get awkward.”
“Jake,” she breathed his name, the sound somehow compassionate, “I know she meant the world to you.” She leaned closer, her silky hair falling across her shoulder. “But even if she’s in Edinburgh, there’s a huge possibility that she won’t want to even talk to you. Believe me. I wouldn’t want to talk to Damon.”
Melissa’s ex. They’d dated for four years in high school and then one day in their senior year, Mel had caught him having sex with another girl. It had devastated her. Like Jake, she’d assumed her high school sweetheart was the one.
“And I will be there for you through that,” she continued. “If Charley’s there, and it’s difficult, I’ll be there. Just give me a chance.”
Jake eyed her carefully. “Mel, why would you want to be with a guy who’s messed up? I’m messed up when it comes to this stuff and I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“Jake, I already love you.”
He jerked back.
His body was suddenly at war. He wanted to run from the words and yet at the same time, they created a warmth inside him that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Melissa nudged his knees apart, insinuating herself between his legs as she curled her fingers into his hair. Jake stared up at her, feeling a surprising amount of longing.
“I’ll love you enough for the both of us. I’m not asking for more. I’m just asking for a chance to make us happy.”
He said quietly, “It’s a risk.”
“I’m willing to take it for you.”
Hands shaking, Jake reached for her, pulling her down onto his lap, bringing their faces close. “This is selfish of me.”
“No, it’s not. I know what I’m getting into.”
“Then okay,” he whispered.
Melissa smiled, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Really?”
“I want you,” he told her honestly. “I want to try this with you.”
And as he kissed her for the first time, Jake swore he had no idea why he felt so guilty.
Chicago, June 2012
Feeling all good kinds of exhausted, Jake caressed Melissa’s naked hip and said, “Hmm?” without opening his eyes.
Her hair slid across his chest and he felt the pressure of her weight as she pushed herself up. “Jake?”
Finally registering the serious tone in her voice, Jake pried his eyes open, a satisfied smile curling his lips as he took her in, in all her naked glory. Jesus, she was gorgeous. They’d been dating for the past few months and Jake had to admit, it was the first time in a long time he felt any sense of contentment. It wasn’t that he still didn’t feel restless. Sometimes he wanted nothing more than to jump in a car and drive and keep going until he felt his insides settle down. But since that didn’t seem to be happening any time soon, he took these moments with his girlfriend and held onto them for dear life.
Melissa was completely drama-free. She came from a good family, she had good friends, she didn’t like confrontation, and she was laid-back. They never argued, got jealous or possessive, or felt like they were coming out of their skin with the intensity of what they felt for one another. It was soothing.
Or it was until this very moment.
Jake watched, worried, as she stared at him, chewing her lower lip nervously.
“Hey,” he said, cupping his hand around her nape, drawing her closer. “What’s wrong?”
“I have to tell you something.”
Fuck, was she pregnant?
Jake’s heart hammered in his chest. “Okay?” He braced himself.
“I … I love you.”
His heart almost stopped. She hadn’t said that since the first time a few months ago.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she rushed to assure him. “I know what you said before, but I just needed to say it again.”
“Mel …” He sighed, feeling his heart start beating at a normal rate again. As he stared into her eyes, tenderness washed over him. He did truly care about her. They had it good, they had it easy, the sex was great, and there was definite affection there.
If something ever happened to her …
An ache cut across Jake’s chest.
“I love you too,” he found himself whispering.
A beautiful smile lit up her whole face. Jake felt like a jerk for not saying it sooner. “Really?”
“Really.” He drew her close, kissing her deep. If this were to be his life, at least it would be sweet. Jake pushed her back. “You still deserve more. You get that, right?”
Melissa shook her head, still smiling. “I told you, Jake Caplin, I will take whatever you’re willing to give. I love you that much.”
“Then I’m a lucky bastard.”
“Don’t you forget it.” She kissed him again before curling back into his side.
Ignoring an old, familiar pain near his heart, Jake said quietly, “Maybe we should cancel Edinburgh. If she’s there … I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“No,” Melissa shook her head, her hair tickling his chest. “We’re going. You need closure. We need you to get closure.”
Jake still thought it was a bad idea but he wanted to do right by her. “If that’s what you want.”
A while later as Melissa snored lightly beside him, Jake got out of bed and reached for his wallet. Inside was a picture of his family. Jake pulled out the picture he’d hidden behind it.
He stared at her image, her cocky come-hither smile. His fingers shook a little.
He was moving on.
Dropping his wallet, Jake hovered over the trash can, the picture suspended above between his fingers.
And suddenly he heard her.
“Do you promise to take care of me for the rest of forever …?”
Jake’s breath hitched, his hands trembling.
“We’re never going to lose this, Charley. I promise. Now tell me you love me.”
“I love you, Jacob Caplin.”
Heart pounding, Jake stumbled back over to his wallet and hurriedly slipped the photo back in behind the family picture. He braced his hands on the desk, taking deep, even breaths.
He didn’t know her anymore, so how could he still love her? He may not be willing to fall for someone like he had back then, but that didn’t mean he was over Charley. Jake shook his head adamantly. It was the just guilt. It was haunting him.
Glancing at his sleeping girlfriend, Jake rubbed a shaky hand over his short hair and decided Mel was right. They needed to go to Edinburgh so he could apologize and find some closure.
Once and for all.
Edinburgh, September 2012
It had been over a week since he’d last seen Charley.
She was an addiction he was craving.
Just as she’d promised when they’d hung out at Milk over a week ago, Charley had been civil to him. However, it’d been one very uncomfortable night. Jake had soaked in the precious moments in her company, hating the jealousy he felt as she flirted with Lowe, and exulting in the connection between them when Jake’s eyes met hers. Under the guilt that seemed to be a constant in his life, Jake felt that stirring of hope again.
Charley would never be his girl again, but maybe she would be his friend.
The chance to push the subject with her hadn’t come up since that night. Melissa had done a one eighty from insecure girlfriend to pretending like none of it was happening. He guessed he should be glad, but it gave him the strangest sense of foreboding. Jake didn’t want to disrupt the peace in their usually easy relationship, so he pretended that Charley didn’t enter his mind at least every half hour.
That fateful day, for once Jake’s mind wasn’t on his ex but rather on school. He searched the shelves in the reserve section for an article he needed for one of his minor classes.
The sight of pale hair caught his attention. He glanced in its direction, pulse racing.
She frowned as she scoured the shelves.
Jake grinned. It was not an opportunity he could pass up. Moth to the flame, he strode over to her. “Hey, Charley.”
Startled was understating her reaction. She jumped, her arm flailing out toward him as she turned.
Jake jerked back to avoid it. “Jesus,” he said, taken aback by her surprise.
Charley glared at him, resting her hand on her chest as she tried to catch her breath. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know the words, ‘Hey, Charley’ were considered lethal.”
“They are if you sneak up behind me and practically whisper them in my ear. It’s creepy. Creepiness often precedes death.”
God, he forgot how adorable she was. How much she made him laugh. He tried to contain his amusement since she seemed pretty annoyed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You do that.”
Jake studied her as she turned to look back to the shelf. Attraction flared in his gut as he took in her delicate profile, an attraction he tried to squash but instead leaned into. “Whatcha looking for?’ he asked, dipping his head close to hers.
Her perfume was different than before, but it suited her.
She flicked him an unamused look. “The equation for time travel. Some guy just gave me permanent heart failure and I’d like to go back in time and change today so I’m lying on a beach in Guam being waited on by a hottie named Han with heavy footsteps and an aversion to whispering.”
And suddenly he was sixteen again, falling for a girl by the light of a bonfire. Jake laughed, shoving the intensity of those emotions deep down inside him, somewhere he hoped they’d get lost. Pretending indifference, he observed, “Still a smart-ass, I see.”
She had a retort. She always had a retort. Jake missed that too.
To his delight, Charley agreed to have coffee with him. From there they fell into banter, just like they’d always been able to. Jake knew it wasn’t the same. She was guarded and even he was guarded, but the ability to just be with one another was still there. Like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together.
They talked a while about their families, catching up on each other’s lives until Jake couldn’t help but ask if she was seeing someone. He hadn’t thought he wanted to know until just then. He knew he couldn’t have her. Didn’t mean he wasn’t curious to know if there was a guy who did, and if he was worthier than Jake had been.
When she said no, Jake ignored his relief, a relief quickly blown to smithereens by her info-bomb that she’d been in a relationship with some guy in college for ten months. Ten months was longer than they’d had together.
That hurt like a motherfucker.
By the end of their conversation, Jake had rediscovered Charley’s humor, her kindness, her ability to try. He knew as she agreed to hang out with him at the gym that she was going to try to forgive him.
That was all he could ever hope for.
Edinburgh, Halloween 2012
The last few weeks had been filled with self-inflicted torture for Jake. Being with Charley and not having her, and knowing that despite their friendly banter, she was never going to forgive him. Yet still, he couldn’t help the way he felt about her, and feeling that way about her while he was with Melissa was wrong. He knew it. Melissa knew it.
The connection between him and his girlfriend was strained. They were constantly on the verge of arguing, and Jake felt like he was about to come out of his skin all the time.
But tonight … surely tonight was the final straw.
With deep, gnawing jealousy and anger burning in his gut over the wrong girl, Jake was lost.
Melissa stood silently at his side, hurt and pissed off and making him feel angry and guilty all at the same time. She never wanted to talk about what was going on, she didn’t want to see, and he’d been too fucked up to make things right.
But no more.
He slammed his beer bottle on the counter next to him, eyeing the idiot on the couch who’d just had his hands all over Charley.
Not only did she have to turn up at Milk tonight dressed in the sexiest fucking costume he’d ever seen his life, he’d walked into the party to find her on the couch, making out with the party’s host, Aaron.
Jake saw red.
And it was pretty damn hard to get a hold on it.
Charley had promptly disappeared with Beck but now Beck was back, making out with some random girl, and Charley was … fuck. Charley was walking toward them. Jake barely looked at her, afraid if he did, she’d see everything he felt for her.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Matt grab her into a bear hug and put her down beside him.
“Having fun, Supergirl?” Matt’s eyes raked over her. The way Jake was feeling, even that pissed him off.
“I will be once you get me a beer,” she flirted back, and something about the way she swayed annoyed Jake.
Charley was drunk. And he was worried that if she got any drunker, she’d do something stupid, like sleep with Aaron.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” he found himself snapping at her.
She sneered at him. “No, Dad, I don’t.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed as Aaron came up behind and put his arms around her waist, drawing her back against him.
“I need to steal Supergirl away for a bit,” he said in his posh English accent. It pissed Jake off even more. “She needs to rescue me from a dire, dire situation …”
Charley laughed and let him drag her away, while Jake stood there helplessly. His hands hung at his sides in tight fists as he brooded after them.
“Are you kidding me?” Melissa shoved him.
Jake eyed her warily. “Don’t, Mel.”
“Don’t Mel me,” she clipped out, not caring they had witnesses. “You can’t even hide it. You’re jealous!”
“Oh, so now you want to talk?” Jake said. “Not here.”
Uncertainty entered her eyes but she nodded. “Let’s go back to your place, then.”
But knowing how this was going to end, Jake shook his head. “No, let’s go back to yours.”
The walk back to her apartment was long and silent, the tension thick between them.
They could hear the chatter of her roommates in the kitchen, but Melissa walked past the door, heading for her bedroom.
She stood across the room from him, beautiful and in love with him, and it no longer affected him how it should. Instead of feeling grateful for it, it exhausted him. Almost resentful, the guilt it piled on top of him. That wasn’t fair to either of them.
He drew in a shuddering breath. “I think maybe we should take a break.”
Melissa made a face. “Like I didn’t know that was coming.”
“No, don’t.” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Are you insane, Jake?”
“I know you care about her.” She took a step toward him. “I’m not blind, or stupid, and I know that you’re a good person so you feel guilty for feeling that way about her.”
He gave her a look, telling her without words that she’d nailed it.
“Jake … I know you’re a good person and I know Charley must be a good person because she has been big enough to put the past behind her and try to be friends.” The sympathy in Melissa’s eyes was a warning. “But Jake, you need to move on. Not for me. For you. I’m a woman and I know women and I’m telling you that as much as Charley’s being cool with you, she will never forgive you long enough to take you back. She’s over you, Jake. Everyone can see that. Right now … she’s having sex with someone else.” She reached for him, cupping his face in her hands. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to stop you from making a huge mistake.” She kissed him softly. “Don’t you remember how good we were before all this?”
Jake felt himself clutch onto her, like she was a life raft. “Yeah,” he whispered.
“Don’t throw it away on something that’ll never happen.”
Chicago, December 2012
Standing at the taxi rank with Melissa, the smell of winter and exhaust fumes and Chicago all around them, Jake was reeling.
For the past few weeks, he’d attempted over and over again to choke his feelings for Charley, doing everything in his power to take his mind off her. There were times it worked. Like the times Melissa subtly reminded him that Charley would never see him in a romantic light again. He’d even analyzed the way Charley talked to him, acted around him, and decided Melissa was right. She never touched him casually unless he initiated it, her smiles were guarded, her laughter not as carefree, and he rarely caught her looking at him. This convinced him Melissa was right. Even with Beck’s offhand comment a few weeks ago—the suggestion that Charley wasn’t over him. Even with Lowe pulling him aside to berate him that night they’d gone to Frankenstein’s for the pub quiz, demanding he stop playing with Charley’s head.
Confused, Jake had turned to Mel, who in turn had told her Lowe was seeing things through the eyes of a guy with his own issues, a guy who was projecting those issues onto them.
He had been convinced.
Until fifteen minutes ago when Charley’s dad, Jim Redford (a guy Jake had always respected) had looked at him with such contempt, it floored Jake. After all this time, when Charley was supposed to have been over him for years, her dad hated him.
Which could only mean that Charley hadn’t gotten over him as easily as he’d thought.
Beck’s and Lowe’s comments came back to haunt him.
“You’re quiet,” Melissa observed, her voice a little shaky.
Jake stared at her blankly.
“Jake?” she sighed. “You’re still upset about Charley’s dad?”
His eyes washed over her beautiful face and Jake felt that same awful emotion he’d been feeling for weeks—resentment. More than that, suspicion niggled at him. This whole time she’d advised him to move on from Charley because she could tell Charley wasn’t interested in him. Jake had trusted Mel because she’d also been betrayed by the boy she’d loved in the past, and Jake thought she had real insight into the whole situation. But now Jake couldn’t help but question Melissa’s motives. And it occurred to him how stupid he was for not questioning them in the first place. She wanted to be with him. Would she say anything to make that happen?
He felt like a shit for even thinking it, but he wasn’t a big enough dick to say it out loud. Even if she had led him astray from the truth, he’d let her. He was still to blame.
Jake knew, as he stood there with her, he was tired of feeling like an imposter in his own life.
“This isn’t working,” he whispered, hating to hurt her.
Melissa didn’t look surprised. Just angry. “Because of Charley’s dad. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“This isn’t about Charley.”
“The hell it’s not,” she snapped.
Before Jake could reply, a cab pulled up to the rank. The cheery driver got out to help Jake put their luggage in the trunk.
“Where are we going?” the cabbie asked as they settled in the backseat, “White Christmas” playing on his radio.
Wishing he were anywhere but stuck in a confined space with Melissa, Jake managed to politely answer, “Northbrook first. Then Oak Park.”
“You got it.”
The radio was the only sound in the cab as they pulled away. Jake watched the driver give the two of them a curious look in the rearview mirror. The guy opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but Melissa beat him to it.
“Are you breaking up with me?”
Jake blanched, watching the driver’s brows snap together, his gaze instantly darting away, as if that would somehow give his passengers privacy.
Looking at her, stomach twisting in knots, Jake sighed. “We can’t do this here.”
She glared at him, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I’m not going home just for you to call and break up with me.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
She huffed. “Spare me, Jake.”
Anguished, Jake tried to make her see where he was coming from. “I’m not breaking up with you for Charley. I’m doing this for us. For you. You deserve more, Mel. You deserve a guy who’ll love you as much as you love him. You deserve a guy who you can’t live without, and I think we both know that’s not me. If I was the one, you’d demand I love you back the same way. You wouldn’t be able to settle for loving me ‘enough for the both of us.’”
The tears slid down her cheeks fast and Jake reached for her, pulling her into his arms. Despite everything, she clung to him. “Don’t tell me what I feel.”
“Melissa,” he tightened his hold on her, his voice thick with emotion, “I never wanted to hurt you. I should’ve walked away.”
She sobbed in his arms for a while, only quieting as they drew close to her neighborhood. Jake gave the cab driver her address and when they pulled up to the house, Jake helped with her luggage. For a moment they stood on the sidewalk, staring at one another.
Jake didn’t know what else to say.
Finally, Melissa glanced up at her house, and dread filled her eyes, as if she’d come to some sudden realization. That’s when she shot Jake a disgusted look, turned on her heel, and walked away without saying goodbye.
Not that Jake felt he deserved one.
Trembling, he got back into the cab. The driver pulled away and Jake decided it was best not to look back.
“So …” the driver winced at him in the rear mirror, “merry fucking Christmas, huh?”
Jake exhaled wearily. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts until he found the one he was looking for.
“Hey, man,” Beck answered on the second ring, “I just got into Dad’s. I still don’t understand why we didn’t share a cab. You and Melissa fighting or something?”
“Actually, that’s why I called.”
“Uh-oh. What happened?”
“I broke up with her.”
Beck was silent for a moment and then he said quietly, “It was about time, Jake.”
“How you feeling?”
Guilt punched him in the gut, but he answered honestly. “Relieved.”
“Need a beer?”
Jake nodded gratefully, even though his friend couldn’t see him. “Definitely. I’ll drop my stuff off at my folks, say hello, and then I’ll come around to your dad’s.”
“See you soon,” Beck said. “And Jake?”
“Try not to beat yourself up too much. I’ve never known a guy so emotionally black and blue.”
“Hey, those would be great song lyrics!” a rough voice shouted cheerily in the background.
Jake frowned. “Was that your dad?”
“Uh-huh. He started the party early. Like always.”
Jesus. He was calling his friend with girl problems and Beck had actual problems. “Dude, I’m sorry. I’ll be there soon.”
They hung up and Jake flicked down a contact. Charley’s name taunted him. They needed to talk.
It was time for some answers.
It was time to move on … one way or the other.