Nate has developed quite a playboy reputation around campus. It's not that he doesn't respect or trust women; he doesn't trust himself. The men in Nate’s family are prone to abusive behavior—a dirty secret that Nate’s been running from his entire life—so Nate doesn't do relationships. But he can’t help himself around one girl…
Jessie is strong, independent, and works at a tattoo parlor. Nate can’t resist getting close to her, even if it’s strictly a friendship. But it doesn't take long for Nate to admit that what he wants with Jessie is more than just friendly.
With Jessie, he can be himself and explore what he’s always felt was a terrifying darkness inside him. Even when Nate begins to crave her in a way that both shocks and horrifies him, Jessie still wants to know every part of him. Testing their boundaries together will take a trust that could render them inseparable… or tear them apart.
INCLUDES A PREVIEW OF TWO OF HEARTS.
Raves for Christina Lee’s Between Breaths series:
“This is one New Adult you don’t want to miss.” —New York Times and USA Today bestselling author A. L. Jackson
“Hot, sweet, emotional, page-turner, awesome.”—New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Monica Murphy
“Steamy, honest, and full of heart.” —Roni Loren, national bestselling author
Christina Lee lives in the Midwest with her husband and son. She is the author of The Between Breaths Series, including All of You and Before You Break. She also owns her own jewelry business, called Tags-n-Stones, where she hand-stamps meaningful words or letters onto silver for her customers.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I backed the brunette against the wall, my lips at her neck. Her perfume was sweet, almost too sugary—a stark contrast to the one fragrance I’d grown accustomed to, sought out even.
Jessie always smelled exotic, like wildflowers. But I quickly forced that thought from my brain. Not that her scent wasn’t permanently etched there anyway.
I nudged the girl into the empty restroom and flicked on the dim light, which might’ve been a terrible idea given our surroundings. This same chick had been eyeing me the last couple of nights in Zach’s Bar and she wanted to hook up. Bad.
But her version of bad was different than mine.
Since I wouldn’t be skydiving or logging time around my uncle’s racetrack anytime soon, this was the rush I wanted—needed—tonight. Soft skin, a warm body, a nameless girl I’d never see again.
My fingers curved around her shoulder and then traced the low slit of her fancy blouse. When she whimpered in response, I had the urge to rip the buttons down the front. But I was pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate me ruining her expensive shirt. I’d venture to guess that most girls wouldn’t.
“I’ve seen you at a couple frat parties,” she mumbled.
I shrugged, because I’d definitely been to my share of them. Sure wish I had access to one of their spare rooms right about now. Because being with this girl might help dull the noise in my head. Soothe the urge to lose control, to get blissfully lost in someone, to reveal the overwhelming hailstorm brewing inside me.
But I couldn’t let it happen. I could never become my dad.
Not when all he had to do was raise his hand to make my mother cower in the corner. I’d made myself a promise that the moment a woman looked at me with similar panic in her eyes, I’d be done for. As a man. As a decent human being, for fuck’s sake.
Instead, I chose not to know any girls, not to see them, really—unless they were the blurred body lying beneath me for a couple of hours. That way, I couldn’t give myself to them, not all of me. Not the terrible, disgusting, callous parts.
There wasn’t a woman alive who would understand the delicate line I towed during sex. I had constructed a whole regimen of rules and logic inside my own head. No tongue and no rough hands. And certainly never any spanking or hair pulling.
My fingers slid to the brunette’s waist as my eyes met my own reflection in the mirror, temporarily thwarting me. They were red-rimmed and tired-looking. Empty, even.
Except for what was hidden beneath.
Hunger. Longing. Fear.
A sharp knock startled me. The girl’s eyes narrowed in frustration.
“Wait your damn turn,” I growled into her shoulder, hoping whoever was outside the door would get the hint that it was occupied.
Another insistent rap of knuckles. “I’ve gotta pee and this is the only bathroom in this joint.”
The voice on the other side of the wall was heated, throaty, and a little too familiar. “Is there even anyone in here?”
The door burst open and Jessie stood blinking at us. I let go of the girl as if she were on fire—though I wasn’t sure why I’d done that.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her pouty red lips or her sleeve of colorful tattoos. What was she doing here? Jessie was never at the bar with the Raw Ink crew on Thursdays—she had her night class at the university.
Jessie’s eyes widened as her heel caught on the doorjamb, and she stumbled forward, almost toppling to the filthy floor. I lunged forward, grasped at her arms, and pulled her toward me, cushioning her fall.
Her head landed on my shoulder and my lips were practically nuzzled against the nape of her neck. It was the closest I’d ever gotten so I inhaled her intoxicating fragrance.
She pulled back and our eyes met—her sultry mix of browns and greens seemed perplexed. Her hair was a shiny mocha color with blue streaks and her inked skin was smooth and warm beneath my fingers.
As she straightened, her eyes darted between me and the girl and her mouth curved downward.
“Really, Nate, in a bathroom?” she said, jutting her hands to her petite hips. “Way to keep it classy.”
A line of heat climbed up my neck. She rarely called me Nate. Her nickname for me had always been Square, so hearing my name fall from her lips throttled me. I liked the sound of it—if it hadn’t been cloaked in disdain.
The brunette had already stormed into the hallway, irritation transforming her features. She tried to signal for me to follow, but my interest had already waned.
For some reason Jessie’s words rooted me in place, while my brain searched for a decent explanation.
“It’s not . . . I wasn’t going to . . .” The syllables rushed from my mouth, as if spoken by another person. A real lame-ass person.
I attempted to come up with something witty to say, given our normal playfulness, but the words stalled on my lips.
“Who cares what I think?” Her eyebrow rose, as if she couldn’t understand my reaction. She nudged my shoulder toward the door. “Just get the hell out so I can pee.”
I walked back into the bar and found Bennett and his fiancée, Avery, at the far table, along with Cory, Dex, and a few other employees from the tattoo shop. “What’s up?”
This group was tight, a family really, and were hard-pressed to let anybody in. Somehow, I’d earned their trust over the past year. Dex had a history with Jessie, but he’d come to accept my friendship with her and even appreciated our teasing.
I sat down and tried to gesture the server for a beer, but she was on the other side of the room looking harried and busy, which meant they were short-staffed again tonight.
I was waiting on Jessie to return to the table, so I could somehow redeem myself in her eyes. I had acted strange in the bathroom and I needed to rectify it. She was the only female buddy I had and I wanted to keep our friendship intact.
Who cares if she practically saw me doing some chick against a sink? She knew I’d been with my share of girls, though it’s never been right in front of her face. Big deal.
There was something raw about Jessie, unrestrained and empowering, so unlike the girls I normally hooked up with. It turned me on—and scared the shit out of me at the same time.
I could probably get lost in a girl like Jessie, let it all hang out, and that was the problem. As soon as someone like her saw me for who I really was, she’d kick me the hell to the curb, be disgusted by me or maybe broadcast all of my secrets. She was badass, didn’t take any crap from anyone, and sure as shit would never be up for getting it on in a filthy restroom.
It was way better to keep her in the friend zone. Besides, I was definitely not her type, either. She liked her dudes tattooed and pierced and scruffy.
I’ll admit, I’ve often wondered if Jessie was wild in bed. I’ve fantasized about it, even. But as soon as I crossed that line, it would be all over for me. It was in my genes and blood; my own brother was proving that on a daily basis.
Jesse returned from the restroom and gave me a sidelong glance. “Where’s your friend? I didn’t mean to interrupt you in that grimy bathroom.”
I shrugged, my voice suddenly leaving me. I need to cut this shit out. We were friends. Friends who liked to clown around with each other.
“I don’t know, Blue,” I said using the nickname I’d invented for her months ago. “I tried to do her on top of the pool table but she wasn’t going for it.”
Her head fell back and she let out a good hearty laugh. Finally got us back on the same footing. “Oh Square, that’s so nasty. Who knows what’s been dropped on that green felt.”
“It would be over for her in ten seconds flat anyway,” I said, pretending to pound my chest. “One glance at my package and she’d probably faint on the spot. Not many girls could handle all of this.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Square,” she said, while the guys in the shop cracked up. “Someday you’re going to lose a bet and have to prove it. And when we finally see your teeny weenie, you’ll never live it down.”
I stood and flexed my muscles in a show of false bravado, then winked before heading to the bar for another beer.
I took a long sip of my beer and subtly inspected Nate across the table while he chatted with Bennett. To me, he’d always just been a pretty boy getting a free ride to college from his rich daddy.
Except seeing him against the sink with that girl did something to the hardwiring in my brain. Sure, I knew he hooked up with women all the time and was razzed about never being with them long enough to know the color of their eyes.
But the way his fingers were digging into her hip and his mouth was hot and open against her throat—goddamn that had made me see him in a different light. I liked my boys rougher around the edges and he had never fit that profile, until I saw him all raw and powerful like that.
Nate looked relieved that I hadn’t teased him about it too much. I was always goading him and he usually gave it back to me good, but tonight he looked anxious, maybe even embarrassed that I had caught him in the bathroom.
I’d heard gossip that he was elusive with his conquests, not giving much away, not even genuine kisses—and that made me question why girls even sought him out.
If the rumors were true, he rarely made out with them for fuck’s sake. That’d make him one huge asshole for sure, except he didn’t flaunt it, never even spoke of it. Not unless one of us egged him on, then he’d ham it up, turn on that fake macho shit that was comical at best. Anything to keep these guys entertained. It’s what we’d come to expect from Nate.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wondering about him. Wondering if there’d ever been someone real in his life. Someone who’d hurt him, made him so defensive that he now kept that part of himself tucked neatly away.
Nate laughed and clapped Bennett on the back, reminding me of how alive and unreserved he was in every other way. With his friends and his sense of humor he lived out in the open—even with his daredevil antics, how he always talked about his next rock-climbing or snowboarding adventure—but there was that one area in his life that was most cryptic.
I’d just figured he was immature, given too much too early from his wealthy family. But tonight in the bathroom, I saw a flash of something different. Something that resembled a deep ache—an unfulfilled longing in his face—a split second before he’d pushed that girl away. It was there. I knew I hadn’t imagined it.
Regardless, Nate was way too straight-laced for me with his perfectly tailored jeans and button-down shirts, even if they did hug his muscles in all the right places. And the girls he spent his time with probably all looked the same—privileged and gorgeous.
I liked at least a little gravity to the guys I dated, so I never paid Nate much attention beyond our easy and playful friendship. But tonight I’d admit it was the first time I could picture myself up against that sink, with his hot lips against my neck.
“What are you doing here tonight?” Nate asked, nudging my foot beneath the table. Damn, I needed to snap out of it before Square figured out I was having dirty thoughts about him. “You’re usually not around on Thursday nights. Don’t you have a photography class?”
I’d forgotten how perceptive he had always been as well.
“Usually,” I said, folding my napkin to give my hands something to focus on. “But we’re studying large-scale photography and tonight was independent study night.”
Nate’s eyebrows bunched together. He was good-looking, but in a boy-next-door kind of way. He had dark blond hair and whiskey-colored eyes. His body was amazing, but way too muscular for my taste. He liked to work out as hard as he liked to party.
Despite outward appearances, he fit in pretty well with this crew, who could work a ten-hour shift at the shop and then drink past midnight, only to wake up and do it all over again.
“What exactly does ‘independent study’ mean?” Nate asked, his leg going a million miles an hour beneath the table, like he needed to blow off some steam. Which is probably where that girl had come in, until I ruined it for the two of them.
Pushing that idea out of my head, I focused on my assignment. I needed to come up with the subject, stat. “I have to create a huge photo exhibit, and the professor gave us a free period tonight to begin working on it.”
“Zach’s is the perfect place to do your homework,” Dex said, smirking into his beer glass.
“You shut it,” I said and then turned back to Nate. “It’s going to be on display at the upcoming art festival, worth half of my grade, and I don’t know what the heck to shoot pictures of. Yet.”
I was going for my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in studio art, with an emphasis in photography. I needed sixty credits to get there and was well on my way but wasn’t getting there as fast as I’d like, given the expense. But slow and steady wins the race or whatever the hell that saying was.
Like my father, my absolute true love was photography. I was excited to finally make good use of his Hasselblad 500C/M that I’d inherited when he passed away three years ago, but I had the worst creative block. So I figured a good beer would help me get some ideas flowing.
“How about pictures of the neighborhood? The only thing you ever do is people-watch at the shop,” Cory said, egging me on. He knew there was rarely any downtime at the tattoo parlor. I was one of the receptionists at Raw Ink—more like an office manager, glorified maid, or employee wrangler—and a part-time student at the university.
“I’m not people-watching. I’m just ignoring you,” I said, sticking my tongue out.
Cory was cool to work with, but kind of a mess as a person. He was gay and knew how to pick the beautiful assholes. So he was always hurting in one way or another.
Despite that, his artwork was amazing. He specialized in portraits, so if you ever wanted your grandma’s face permanently engraved in your skin, he was your guy.
Just don’t ask him to draw your current flame, his personal hot button. He’d give you a good tongue-lashing, specifically telling you how goddamn stupid you are. If you relented, he’d make you promise not to return to him when you wanted it covered up or removed two months down the road.
“Why not tattoos?” Bennett said and Avery nodded. Bennett was one of the nicest humans on the planet, easy on the eyes too, and seeing him look at his fiancée, made every girl in a ten-mile radius sulk. Together they had sex appeal oozing out of their pores and I’d guess their sex life was combustible as well.
Bennett was expert in all areas but his work in specialized lettering was the bomb. If a customer wanted a favorite quote tattooed on their skin, I’d send them Bennett’s way in a heartbeat. Avery had proof of his expertise on her own skin.
“Those photos that you hung in the hallway at the shop are amazing,” Avery said.
Oliver, the owner of Raw Ink, had asked me to take professional photos to decorate the walls. I had used the university lab to process them and then took them to a framer to get them matted and hung properly. It’d been a yearlong project. I’d asked customers to sit for long minutes, while I adjusted the angle and lighting to snap their tattoos.
“I thought of that,” I said, nodding. “But call me crazy, I want to pick something else to challenge myself.”
“Makes sense,” Dex said, talking a long pull of his beer. I noted he was taking it easy tonight, only on his second beer—otherwise one of the guys would have to cart his ass home again. Even though Dex and Cory were older than the whole lot of us, they sure acted juvenile sometimes.
“I was thinking of photographing something outdoors,” I said to the group, my eyes panning across each of their faces.
“You mean like flowers or trees?” Avery asked. “The fall leaves would be gorgeous.”
I wrinkled my nose. I wasn’t much a nature girl and I knew she wasn’t either, even though I did admire it from afar.
“No, that would be too . . . lame,” I said.
“You could always come with me to the dog park,” Emmy said, still nursing her first drink. I shook my head. Her and those darn shelter dogs. She probably cared more about them than humans.
“I’m thinking something more gritty, industrial—like maybe bikes or motorcycles,” I said. “I don’t know, been wracking my brain about it.”
“Meet me at the biker bar this weekend,” Cory said. “The entire lot is filled with sweet rides.”
He was a true motorcycle aficionado and had even inherited a vintage Harley from his uncle. He’s met some of his past boyfriends at that bar, even though that was a tough room to work if you were gay. But Cory knew how to keep everything on the down low—at least that’s how he’d described it to me.
“Not a bad idea,” I said. We’d all been to that bar with him before. It tended to bring a rough crowd. If you thought these guys were exclusive, you should meet that pack. They don’t appreciate fake enthusiasts, either.
“How about photographing buildings?” Nate said. He was studying to be a structural engineer and loved anything having to do with blueprints and construction.
Last summer, Nate had invited me to a concert at the Artisan Music Center with his cousin, Kai. We’d road-tripped there with Bennett and Avery, her roommate Ella, and Ella’s boyfriend, Quinn. On the way up, Nate would point out interesting structures and tell me cool facts about them. It had never occurred to me to photograph them, though.
“Not sure that’s my thing,” I said. “Sorry.”
“No sweat,” Nate said, his leg finally settling beneath the table.
Avery motioned for Bennett to move aside so she could slide out of her seat to use the restroom. Bennett leaned over and kissed the side of her head before allowing her to pass and she smiled endearingly at him. When she first got together with Bennett, I thought she might eat him alive. That girl was tough and I loved her take-no-shit attitude, but Bennett had softened her. I thought they complemented each other well.
“I just thought of something for your project, Jessie.” Bennett said, turning back to me. “Maybe Nate here can help you out.”
“Huh?” Nate’s head snapped up. “What the hell do you mean?”
“You have that cool internship where you get to go up on bridges and shit.”
“Seriously? I know you’re working for some firm this semester, but I never knew exactly what the hell you do for them,” I said, staring Nate down. “You’re allowed to climb on bridges?”
Nate nodded. “They have a contract with the city and my supervisor took me up on the Municipal Bridge—you know the big blue one that shines over the river downtown?”
“That is so rad,” I said, my mouth hanging open in awe.
“Yeah, you should see the view from up top. It was honestly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” he said, his eyes slightly unfocused, as if he was recounting it in his head. “But no way I’d be allowed to take you up there.”
My mind started firing away, think of bridges.
“Still, that fits into my industrial idea,” I said and then snapped my fingers. “I bet I could take photos of different kinds of bridges.”
“I knew you’d think that was cool,” Bennett said.
“Great idea. But this city has got nothing on Bridgeway, over the state border,” Nate said. “It’s known as the city of bridges.”
“For real?” I said. “Never knew that. What kinds do they have?”
“They have a few smaller ones constructed like the bridges we have here downtown,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “But if you travel into the rural section, there are several covered bridges.”
“Covered bridges?” Cory said.
“Yeah, they’re timber truss bridges with a roof and siding. You see them in old movies sometimes,” Nate said. “One of them even extends over a river and it’s pretty damn cool.”
“Hmmm . . . maybe my project theme can be bridges over time,” I said, my mind already wandering off about the lighting and the settings I’d use on my dad’s camera. “Dude, you just gave me the greatest idea.”
“No problem,” Nate said, with a playful wink that made my stomach buzz.
My phone hummed with a text from a friend. I turned away, avoiding Dex’s nosy gaze. He probably thought the message was from some new guy and I preferred to keep it that way.
Dating other employees at the shop was discouraged but not strictly against the rules. Dex had pursued me for a long while last year. I’d admit I found him charming and liked the attention, but didn’t want to step on any toes.
There was one time when I finally gave in, went for a drink and let him kiss me, but I knew it was all wrong. Dex on the other hand, wanted more, and it’d been an awkward few weeks of letting him down easy. I vowed to never date anyone at the shop again.
Customers were a different story, but still a bit tricky. That’s how I’d met the last guy I’d been seeing. He was Lila’s customer and had been to the shop a few times to get a series of skulls inked on his chest. He’d stop at the counter and chat with me for longer than necessary and then finally asked me out.
I had kicked him to the curb though, because he always seemed to have one excuse or another for cancelling plans. Still, he had some rad tattoos and piercings and was sexy and cute, I’d give him that. Not cute in a Nate kind of way—Mr. Pretty Boy with his full lips and eyelashes that fanned across those damn sculpted cheeks.
But I didn’t need some screw-up in my life, not when I was putting myself through college, one or two classes at a time, and nearing the finish line. I needed to get my fine arts degree, if for no other reason than to make my dad proud. He would have loved to see me graduate. Mom’s been cheering me on too, of course, but she knew what college had signified to him, since he’d never finished university himself.
My dad’s old buddy who worked freelance for several magazines advised me to get my portfolio together to send his way when it was ready. Then he’d see about getting me a gig. If I was good enough, I might get some more work thrown my way or even a full-time grunt job, just to get my foot in the door somewhere.
Even though these guys at Raw Ink were my people and we looked out for each other, eventually I needed to move on to a career that I loved. Or maybe I’d just do both. It would be hard leaving the shop behind.
While I was busy texting, Cory and Dex started a game of quarters with a couple of regulars who had sat down at the other end of the table. These two were forever playing something—flip the cup, euchre, Avery’s five fingers game, truth or dare, you name it.
Apparently already bored with the quarters game, Cory slammed down his cup. “Never have I ever . . .”
I rolled my eyes and Avery groaned. Here we go again.
Cory’s eyes zeroed in on Nate and then lit up. ”. . . Jumped off the side of the bridge.”
“You ass,” Dex said. “Had anyone in this group jumped off a bridge, they wouldn’t be here to answer your question.”
But then suddenly Nate raised his beer to his lips and took a long sip to disprove his point.
“Nate?” Dex said, his eyes alight with amusement.
“It’s called bungee jumping,” Nate said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Dude, you forgot that my friend here has no fear of death,” Bennett said. “Pretty sure he’s done it all.”
“Oh, I fear death,” Nate said. “But if that’s the way I had to go, flying sky high, with my heart practically clawing out of my chest, I’d take it. It’s the other ways of dying that scare the shit out of me.”
My ears pricked up at this revelation. I knew he enjoyed those adrenaline-rush activities but I never really wondered why or how he felt about them.
“Well fuck, I guess you’re right. The alternatives aren’t much better,” Cory said. “Drowning, being burned at the stake, getting the living shit beaten out of you.”
Something dark crossed over Nate’s features before it quickly passed.
“See my point?”
“So if I said . . .” Dex rubbed his fingers along his chin. “Never have I ever jumped out of an airplane?”
Nate picked up his beer, took a hefty sip, while everyone around the table busted up laughing.
“My turn.” A smile burst from my lips, because it was so fun to mess with Nate, especially when he was looking all smug. I’d have him guzzling his drink down in no time flat. “Never have I ever . . . gotten it on with somebody in the bathroom of Zach’s Bar.”
Nate narrowed his eyes at me. “Nice,” he said, before gulping down more beer.
Then he leaned over to whisper, “You’re just trying to get me drunk, so I’ll give you a peek at the monstrosity between my legs.”
I snort laughed. “You wish.”
His eyes held mine for a bit longer than was comfortable and I wondered if he was getting tipsy. I felt a tingle descend down my spine like cold fingers. What in the hell was that about?
Avery cracked up as two other guys at the end of the table also took sips.
“I’m proud to not have raised a cup to my lips,” she said and then high-fived me.
“Yeah, me too, babe,” Bennett mumbled.
“But I’d get it on in the bathroom with you,” she whispered loud enough for me to overhear. Bennett’s fingers curled around her neck and he pulled her forward into a steamy kiss. I looked away as my cheeks heated up. These two were too sexy for their own good.
Bennett had been a virgin before he’d met Avery but the guys at the shop rarely razzed him about it—in fact, I think most were in awe that he could last that long. It wasn’t something he’d kept hidden, and given the shop owner’s past history with Avery, everyone pretty much kept their traps shut.
We were a tight-knit group and I was lucky to have even gotten this job. It was hard enough lining up an artist’s job in this town and these guys didn’t play. They took on very few apprenticeships, but the requirements to work the front of the shop were just as rigid.
Oliver required his front desk staff to have at least one tattoo so we could counsel new customers about the experience. My tattoo, along with my prior office management experience and no desire whatsoever to become a future artist, was what sealed the deal.
I was told in no uncertain terms that my job duties were to be only as described. If I was pretending to want to work the front of the shop only to get my hands on an apprenticeship or to get up close and personal with the artists, I’d be out on my ass faster than it took to fire up a tattoo machine.
“Well, if we’re gonna go there, it’s my turn next,” Zeke, one of Cory’s motor-head friends who had been sitting at the other end of the table, said. “Never have I ever . . . been handcuffed while doing the deed.”
All the guys laughed after he added, “But I’d like to be.”
Nobody around the table moved until Cory finally raised his glass. Then I shrugged and stretched my beer to my lips.
Again there were chuckles from the group and in my side view I saw Nate’s eyes practically pop out of his head. Suddenly it seemed too crowded beneath the table, so when Nate shifted his leg against mine, even if by accident, I nearly crawled out of my skin. Holy Christ on a cracker, I had no idea why I was feeling unexpectedly overheated being near my perfectly square friend.
“Oh, this is getting good. I’m going to flip it on its head,” the friend sitting across from Zeke said. “Never have I ever cuffed someone during sex.”
Another snicker around the table sounded after he added, “But I’d definitely consider it.”
Again, Cory lifted his glass and then his eyes shot to mine. I shook my head. “Nope. Been the handcuffee, but never the handcuffer.”
Avery’s eyebrows lifted as she playfully elbowed her man. “Apparently, we need to get more kinky to keep up with this group.”
Nate looked to be deliberating something, darkness shadowing his eyes, until finally he raised the neck of his beer to his mouth for a sip.
One of the guys whistled but Nate kept his eyes cast down, as if embarrassed by what I’d think after that bathroom incident.
A line of heat stretched across my cheeks. Little did he realize that he’d only intrigued me more.
Driving to my mom’s house for dinner, my thoughts turned to Jessie again. As soon as she admitted to having been handcuffed the other night at the bar, my fantasies had gone wild. Shit, part of me wished I had never been part of that conversation. The group had gotten stupid with that game before, between drugs of choice to favorite sexual positions, but even those exchanges hadn’t done to me what this one had.
I was comfortable with keeping Jessie as my buddy, because she’d never allow me to get close anyway. When her phone pinged with a text, most likely from her latest boyfriend, I got this funny feeling in my stomach like I always did. I wanted to protect her, like a good friend should. No way did I want her with any hard-asses—especially ones who might take advantage of her. I knew she could hold her own, but maybe my mom had thought so at one time as well.
And maybe when you spent a lot of time with a monster, it changed you. Made you afraid, sucked out your goddamn soul.
But sitting across from her that night at the bar made me edgy and horny and hard as fuck. I hung out longer than normal just so I could get my dick under some semblance of control, but it only made things worse each time our legs accidentally brushed beneath the table.
Who was I kidding? A girl like Jessie—the way she’d talked to the guys from the shop? She wasn’t going to take any shit and certainly not from a guy like me, which was why I never hooked up with anybody in front of her before.
She’d give me the business, already did in her own way, and I liked having her as a friend. But I could tell she loved it when I gave it right back. We could ping-pong off each other and I could explore a healthy way to be around a girl. For once.
Still, since that night at the bar, I hadn’t gotten any kind of release except from my own damn hand while I imagined her beneath me, tied to the fucking bed. And every time she’d text me with a bridge question this week, I pictured us way up high on that blue viaduct getting it on for the entire world to see.
I turned the corner into the Waterford Development and then pulled into the shallow driveway up to the house. I grew up in what someone like Jessie might consider a huge-ass mansion. We all drove nice cars and had high-end gadgets but I’d give it all up in a heartbeat if my mom finally announced that she’d leave my dad’s ass.
As it was now, the tension was at an all-time high when we were all in the same room—it was almost like Dad knew that since I’m an adult, I could take him down with one punch. That we were all just toeing the line to keep up appearances. But having my asshole brother there only fueled the fire.
My father still travelled quite a bit for business so tonight it was just the three of us. My mother often arranged dinner for my brother and me when he was gone, probably because cooking helped her relax. She seemed more like her true self when she wasn’t under my father’s thumb.
I always made sure to show up early so my brother, Luke, didn’t do some stupid shit like egg her on or make her cry. He was turning into my father with every passing year and it twisted my stomach inside out to witness it.
Especially since it had always been me and Luke who had cowered together on the edge of our beds listening to the fights, the anger, the crying. Now, it was as if that experience had hardened him as much as it had softened me. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. But suddenly the two of us were as different as night and day.
Luke pulled in behind me in his ridiculous mini-Hummer like he’d been off to war or something. Those cars were stupid as shit and only made him look like more of a meathead than he was. He was in his senior year at Rockwell University and was on the winning football team. He was a linebacker and huge as fuck. I thought I was built—but then I’d visit him in the weight room at his private Ivy League school and feel small in comparison.
He walked through the garage behind me and mumbled, “Gotta make this quick, picking up Anna in a couple of hours.” Anna was his latest girlfriend and I’ll admit it, their relationship made me nervous. Every time he’d bring her around, I’d check for signs of intimidation or manhandling. Anything that would give a clue that he’d finally crossed that line. I had no proof, just a niggling feeling and a mind-numbing dread that plagued me regularly.
My mother stood in the kitchen nursing a tall glass of wine. Her blond hair was up in a messy bun, so I knew she’d been working in the garden. She loved planting fresh herbs and root vegetables.
“Hi, Mom.” I took two strides forward and kissed her cheek. “Whatever you’re cooking smells good.”
“It’s chicken divan.” Mom was a fantastic cook and was always trying out new recipes. Before she married my father, she’d been a chef for a catering business. I figured if she ever left this marriage she’d have no problem finding a job again.
“You know,” I said. “There was a sign in the window at this culinary school on Front Street. They were looking for someone to teach cooking lessons to a kids’ group.”
My mother’s back became rigid. She had never been allowed to work outside of the home. Only to volunteer for charities or women’s groups.
“What the fuck does she need a job for?” My brother’s voice boomed a little too similarly to my father’s. Luke always seemed angry when it came to my mother. I didn’t know what the hell that was about, though I had my suspicions. I knew he saw her as weak, and probably saw all women that way.
But I thought my mother was strong to have survived all that she had. I just wish she had that final bit of strength it would take to ultimately walk away. The problem was that she still loved my father–-at least whatever fucked-up version of love she thought she felt.
But fear was not love, that was for damn sure.
“What the hell, Luke? Keep your voice down,” I growled and balled my hand into a fist. “Mom used to be a chef in another life, remember? Maybe she’d enjoy doing it again.”
“C’mon man, a cooking school?” he said as if it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “That would be like taking a step down.”
I tasted bile in the back of my throat. Listening to my brother speak was like a precursor to the way his life would lay out before him. How in the hell had he travelled so far off course?
“Boys, that’s enough,” my mom said in an exasperated voice laced with anxiety.
She was always afraid we’d get in a fistfight like we used to on many occasions growing up. Dad always encouraged it, said it would toughen us up.
I grabbed the red wine off the counter, filled up a glass, and chugged some down. If I had to spend more time with Luke, I’d need it. “When does Dad get back in town?”
“On Thursday,” my mother said quietly, almost reverently, and that made my stomach lurch.
I studied my mother’s tight smile, pale skin, and her light brown irises, same as mine. The little lines that had begun to form around her eyes and forehead, probably brought on early because of him. Her slightly crooked nose and forefinger, all telltale signs of how much of a monster my father had been. I knew she’d taken his wrath for us too many times to count and I wondered what deep-seated fear or need or principle kept her chained to this house and this marriage, now that we were grown.
The rest of the dinner was peaceful. My mother liked to deflect attention from herself so she always asked tons of questions to keep us talking. My brother could go on for hours about his damn self, same as my father. So she inquired about football and classes and about Anna—definitely about Anna. And I could see the same thought process, the same questions I had about how he was treating her, how they were getting along, ticking through her brain.
After Luke took off it was just my mother and me and we sat at the kitchen table playing a game of rummy. This was our thing. We’d play cards and talk about almost anything under the sun.
“So what do you think of Luke’s new girlfriend?” she asked, straightaway. I could tell it was something that was concerning to her.
“She seems nice.” I shrugged. I didn’t say what was on the tip of my tongue. That she seemed too nice for him. But my mother knew the score and probably had the same thought. “I just hope he—”
“Honey.” She cut me off before I could get my sentence out. Maybe it would’ve been too painful for her to discuss, to admit about her own child. Which is one of the reasons I kept myself in check. I didn’t want to see that same look in her eyes. “I can’t wait for the day you bring a girl home.”
I shook my head and smirked. “Sorry to disappoint you, Mom. I’m not sure if that’ll ever happen.”
Sadness filtered through her eyes. She was innately attuned to me, aware of my struggles, but she rarely spoke of them out loud. “Why would you say that?”
“Mom . . .” I laid down a pair of aces and looked her in the eye. “I think you know why.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her hand reaching across the table to rest on mine. “If only I’d—”
“Don’t you make any excuses for that bastard,” I said, through clenched teeth.
She inhaled sharply and squeezed her lids closed.
“Why do you stay?” It was a question I hadn’t asked her in years.
When she opened her eyes, I saw moisture gathering in the corners. “Honey, lots of things happened during a very stressful time in our marriage. Raising children is tough. Your father . . . he didn’t handle it very well.”
“C’mon, Mom,” I said, smacking my hand on the table and startling her. Shit, I needed to get my resentment under control. “Are you seriously trying to tell me it’s not still going on?”
She shook her head adamantly. “Not in a while.”
I didn’t know if I believed her. She might say anything not to have me worry.
“Then why are you still . . .” My eyes darted around the house. “. . . sticking around here. Not doing other things that you love?”
Her eyes crinkled in panic. I got her there. She was still being the dutiful wife.