When he gets in the truck, I angle my body away from him, keeping my gaze affixed to the road outside my window.
* * *
“Do you want to stop for lunch?” he asks after several hours on the road.
I don’t acknowledge him.
We stop for Swarley. I get out, not giving Jake a single glance. Not a single word.
We drive until after dark, making one more stop for Swarley to get out of the truck and do his business. When we do stop for the night, it’s a small motel in Sedona, Arizona instead of a campsite.
Still, I don’t give him a glance or a word. Even my hunger wanes under the shadows of my anger. Swarley and I sleep in one bed. Jake sleeps in the other bed.
The next morning, I wake early, slip back on my sundress, and catch a pretty spectacular sunrise from the wood bench outside our door while Swarley sniffs the surrounding area. When the sun hits its halfway point on the horizon, the motel room door opens. I lift my knees onto the bench and hug them to my chest, trying hard to ignore Jake in his jeans and naked inked chest. I try to ignore his sexy, messy morning hair and his scruffy and equally sexy face.
He stands directly in front of me, blocking my view and replacing it with his well-defined abs and low-hanging jeans.
I’m not going to look at his face. Nope. He can block my sunshine in every sense, but I’m not going to acknowledge his existence.
He squats in front of me, resting his hands on my bare feet, sans toenail polish. As soon as I get back to L.A., I’m going to get a mani and pedi. I’m going to get hair extensions. And I’m going to sell some jewelry to buy new clothes because I like that stuff. Screw Jake and his bullshit. I don’t want to be his perfection. It’s an impossible role. I’ll take the designer handbag.
I just …. I just wish his touch stopped at my feet. It would make it easier to step on it—to walk away. Why do I have to feel the ache of his touch behind my ribs?
“Please …” he whispers.
My eyes betray me. They meet his gaze. It’s so sad, just like the slope of his lips.
His forehead rests against my bent legs. “Please everything. Just … please …”
“This is messed-up, Jake,” I say slowly … with little fight left in me. “I remind you of a woman you obviously despise.” My fingers find their way to his hair. When I run them through his thick, blond strands, he lets out a soft sigh.
He’s in pain, but I can’t fix him when I’m still scattered in so many pieces. And as much as he might like to put me together to fit the mold he desires, I can’t bend that way anymore.
“Good job, Ave. Stand the fuck up for yourself. You said that to me. So this is me, standing up for myself. I have no job, no money, no car, and I probably won’t have a home by the time we get to L.A. But … I’m going to stand up, even if the only thing covering my naked body is an itty-bitty piece of self-worth.”
Jake lifts his head. I hold my breath as he gives me an unreadable expression. Bravery isn’t a trait, it’s a few moments of time where we pretend that we’re not vulnerable. My chin tilts up a fraction. If he doesn’t say something soon, my bravery will slip, and once again I’ll be nothing more than a hot mess.
“You don’t want to go home.”
I narrow my eyes. “I hate camping.”
“But that doesn’t mean you want to go home. You could be home by the end of the day. I could hang out with Swarley and enjoy the peaceful camping I’m used to every summer. Your dad would expedite your trip home if you just asked. So would Deedy. So would your sister. Yet here you are … with me.”
My gaze drifts over his shoulder to the unquestioning sunrise. It just does its thing. It doesn’t ask why we need it. Why can’t Jake just do his thing and take me home? Why can’t he be the unquestioning sun—guiding me home?
I shrug. “You could have driven me to any airport along the way and put me on a plane to L.A. with the promise of delivering Swarley. Yet here you are … with me.” Letting my focus return to him, I swallow hard.
I’m not sure either one of us really has a damn thing to give the other one. Yet here we are, on this road trip—marking time, delaying the inevitable.
Jake’s sad face finds a hint of a smile. “Here I am … with you.” He pulls my feet off the bench, scooting me closer to him so his torso wedges between my legs, our faces just inches apart.
“We have nowhere to go,” I whisper past the lump of fear in my throat.
His gaze finds my mouth, and it sends a tingly feeling to the rest of my body. “We have lots of places to go, Ave … just nowhere we need to be.”
Nowhere we need to be …
That’s liberating and sad at the same time. When did my existence become so inconsequential?
“Why me?” I don’t completely fall apart into an I’m-everything-you-despise mess. It’s not that I don’t understand why some men have wanted me, but I have no idea why Jake wants me.
“I don’t know.” Lines crease his forehead.
“I need more than that. Anything really. It can be the sex—which, since I’m obviously so bad at it, I don’t know why it would be that.”
“Are you bored? Am I a frivolous challenge? Is this a lesson you’re trying to teach me? Revenge?”
Jake’s head inches side to side.
“Then what?” I push at his chest until he stands and steps back. Running my fingers through my hair, I sidestep him enough to put him behind me because I don’t know what to do with this pull I have toward him. It feels dangerous to my heart. “You’re not the guy who needs a date to take to fundraisers. You’re not old and desperately searching for something—someone—to make you feel young again. I’m not a tree-hugging girl who works part-time at an animal sanctuary. You’re this sexy guy who could have that girl.” I turn back to him, letting my arms fall limp to my sides. “You could have someone who shares your dreams. You could probably have any girl you want. So … it makes no sense for you to want me.”
He rubs his lips together, nodding slowly. “True.”
That’s it? Really? I cough a laugh and shake my head. “A toy. I’m just a toy to you.” Retrieving my room key from my pocket, I open the door. Swarley follows me inside. I grab his bowl out of his bag and fill it with a cup of food. Then I get him water from the bathroom faucet. Jake observes me from the door to the room, his back leaned against it, hands resting in his jeans’ pockets.
“I don’t know, Ave.”
I laugh again. “Yes, Jake, I got that loud and clear.” Rifling through my bag, I look for something clean. I have nothing that’s clean. Perfect.
“I like that I don’t know.”
My eyes close, feeling the warmth of his bare chest pressed to my back, his hands sliding around me possessively like they did yesterday.
“What if we can’t explain it?” He continues. “Maybe the attraction is that nothing about it makes sense. Who chases the familiar? Who stays up all night solving mysteries that have already been solved?”
“Have you lost sleep over trying to solve this attraction?”
“So much,” he whispers in my ear. “Your incessant fidgeting with your hair, your nails, your clothes, your lipstick … it drives me fucking crazy.”
I stiffen in defense, and he squeezes me harder as if his arms are saying “wait.”
“But … for a mysterious reason, I find myself equally mesmerized by it.” He kisses my neck. “Three is your number. You comb your hair in the same spot three times before moving on to another section of hair. Three times powdering your nose. Three swipes with the wand to your lip gloss. When you put on a pair of shorts or pants, you brush your hands down the front and the back of them three times each.”
Emotion thickens in my throat and burns my eyes. I’m not sure I’ve ever been with a guy who knew the color of my eyes without looking directly into them, or my favorite fragrance, or anything other than my name and maybe my favorite flower.
My mom used to hug me and count to three with me when I would get angry or frustrated. A three-second hug made the monsters in my closet disappear. And the last time she kissed me, she did so once on each cheek and once to the middle of my forehead—three kisses goodbye.
I didn’t know that I did these things three times. Jake Matthews just knocked on the window to my soul and whispered, “I see you.” Not the million imperfections I see in the mirror.
Holding my breath for three seconds, I close my eyes. Then … I fall. It feels like an out of body experience, and I realize that I’ve never truly fallen before. “Take me with you,” I whisper.
My teary eyes open as I turn in his arms. “Everywhere … nowhere.” I grin. “Just take me.”
White teeth peek through his lips. I want those lips. And that smile.
I want everything, and none of it costs a dime, comes with a label, or will ever go out of style.
Jake lifts my sundress over my head and steals the kiss of all kisses. My fingers work the button and zipper to his jeans. We lose the rest of our clothes in the three steps it takes to get to the bed.
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