Page 52

Jake’s on this infinitely long string, and no matter how far he goes, I will always feel that string connected to my heart, tugging and pulling. Reminding me that what we had was real.

“What we had was real.” My hand presses to my chest.

My phone chimes again.

Jake: If you need your own space, or if you get evicted from your sister’s house, you can stay in my loft while I’m in Milwaukee.

I grin. There’s no way I’m staying in his loft, but the fact that he’s offering it—that he feels the pull of that string—it makes everything inside of me come to life.

Why did it have to be Jake? The meanie. The bully. The crass-mouthed, over-tatted vegan. Why did my heart choose to take up residency in his lethal hands?

Me: Thank you for the offer. I’ll be fine.

Jake: I have no doubt that you’ll be fine.

Ouch. Letting go of Jake, in spite of all the terrible words that have been exchanged, feels like ripping off a Band-Aid one tiny millimeter at a time. Is this a mistake? Will my pride win at the expense of my happiness?

Me: But …

I draw in a slow breath of courage as the midday sun shifts just enough to steal my shade.

Me: On the off chance that I’m not fine. Knowing where you hide a key would be nice.

Me: If you’re okay with that.

Jake: No key. It’s a code. You can enter from the back of the building.

Jake: 91169#

I giggle.

Me: Emergency 69?

Jake: Get your mind out of the gutter.

I giggle more.

“Daddy to the rescue.”

I turn. “What are you doing home?”

Lautner rolls his eyes as a drenched Asher hugs his leg, saturating his dress pants with pool water.

“My dear daughter messaged me.”

Ocean smirks, beached out on a floating recliner.

“Your mom is not going to be happy that you messaged your dad. I’m here.”

“It’s fine. Family first.” Lautner picks up Asher, not caring that he’s so wet.

“Always Mr. Perfect.”

“You know it.” He grins at me. “Let’s go check on Mommy.” He kisses Asher’s wet head of blond hair.

Me: Need help?

I erase it, having second thoughts. Third thoughts. Four hundred thoughts. I have so many thoughts warring in my head that I can’t make sense of my life at the moment. Jake’s leaving. That’s good. Distance is good. I’ll move on. He’ll move on. We will simply go down in history as a close-but-not-quite relationship.

Me: Need help packing?

Gah! My stupid hands do their own thing. My body has never cooperated with my common sense when it comes to Jake.

Jake: I’m basically packed. Just a few things to throw in my bag at the last minute.

His next text is a facepalm emoji, not something I’d expect from him. It makes me giggle. He’s on his game with me today.

Jake: Yes. Of course I need help packing. Please!

Me: I’ll iron your jeans while you make me dinner?

Jake: Who irons jeans?

“What am I doing?” My teeth dig into my lower lip, suppressing the grin wanting to crawl up my face. He’s leaving. I’m staying. We are toxic together. Nothing good can come from going to his place. Ironing his jeans. Sharing a meal. We can’t be in the same room without wanting to kill each other or rip each other’s clothes off.

Jake: I’m here. If you want to iron my jeans … I’m here until Saturday.

* * *

Four hours later, I stare at the backstairs to his loft. He has a motorcycle parked next to his truck. I fidget with the long cuffs to my white boyfriend shirt. Then I tuck in just the front before smoothing my hands over my worn denim capris. Still … all these weeks later, I attempt to run my fingers through my hair running down my shoulders onto my chest, but it stops just below my chin. It’s like I’ve lost a limb, and I’m feeling the weight of phantom hair draped down my chest and back.

My feet wobble in my black heels as I take the stairs in slow motion. Why am I so nervous about seeing a man I spent weeks with in a tent and traveled miles with him in his pickup truck? My shaky fist knocks twice on the metal door.

“Hey!” He opens the door, grinning while attempting to tug on a T-shirt over his wet head.

Freshly showered Jake with a naked chest, ripped jeans, and bare feet. This was a really bad idea.

“Nice shirt.” I roll my eyes.

Jake looks down like he has no idea what it says. There’s a hand flipping a coin.

Heads I get tail. Tails I get head.

“It’s just a shirt, not an agenda.”

I nod once, eyeing him with caution as I step inside and slip off my impractical yet highly stylish heels. He shuts the door.

“Something smells good.” I wring my hands together. Gah! I’m so nervous.

“It’s a curry dish. I think it’s actually the rice cooking that you smell. I love the smell of rice cooking.”

I smile and nod. Bobbing my head is all I can do since my voice wants to shake as much as the rest of my body. We stand nearly toe to toe. I think it’s out of habit. When you spend weeks with someone in such close quarters, the boundaries of personal space get skewed. It also happens when your favorite place to be with that person is as close as your bodies can get, touching at all points.

“Can I get you something to drink before you start ironing?”

I laugh. “Do you even own an iron?”

Jake smirks as his hands work a large knife, chopping red bell peppers. “No. There’s a dry cleaner across the street. If I need something pressed, I let Saul do it.”

“So you lured me here under false pretenses?” My resolve weakens with every second I spend near Jake.

Time is magical. It doesn’t erase things, but it gives a different perspective. There’s a shift in magnification. The negative blurs over time, and the good moments—the important ones—they linger and intensify. They become the drug. You want more of those moments, and the risk that held little worth gains value with each passing day.

Has Jake become worth the risk? Is that why I’m here?

He pauses, glancing up at me as I lean my hip against the adjacent edge to the counter, hands tucked into the back pockets of my denim capris. His gaze slides over me as a slight wrinkle forms along his brow. “Maybe.” The tension in his expression vanishes as he returns his focus to the chopping board. “But I thought you could look around the place and see if you have any questions. In case you decide to take me up on my offer to stay here for a while.”

I glance around at the large space with exposed beams, a bed in the far corner, an open door into the bathroom.

“Clearly you can find everything. But I’ll show you how the remotes work for the lighting, the shades to the windows, and I’ll make sure you understand the security, including the cameras around the building.” He pauses again, this time keeping his chin down. “I’m sure you’ve stayed or lived in places with fancy lighting and security.”

My ego jumps to its feet, fists up. Instead of letting it throw the first punch, I focus on his words and the tone in his voice. He made a simple assumption. The assumption was correct. No underlying tones of accusation or disgust.

“I have, but you should show me anyway. It’s probably a little different than what I’ve encountered.” I give myself a mental high-five. Look at me being a mature adult.

He slides the sliced peppers off the cutting board into a hot sauté pan where they sizzle and crackle.

“Are you taking your time driving back to Milwaukee? Camping along the way?”

Jake stirs vegetables, keeping his back to me. “I’ll camp two nights. I need to get back and start working on the fall menu. Also, I have … friends visiting next Friday. They’re staying with me for a week or so.”

“You have friends?”

He shoots me an evil look over his shoulder.

“Hey, I had to ask.”

He traps his lip between his teeth, eyes narrowed. Gah! I wish I could read his mind.

“Jace and Mo visit this time every year.” He clears his throat. It’s odd. Something feels off.

“Jace was a fighter too. That’s how we met. Mo is his … uh … sister, and she was his agent. Now they recruit MMA talent together. He trains, she does all the rest.”

“Mo? Bethanne said you took Mo on your summer road trip two years ago. Is this the same Mo?”

“Yep.”

“So … you and Mo were a thing?”

He shrugs, dumping coconut milk into the pan along with a ton of different measured out spices. “Jace had surgery on his shoulder that summer, and Mo had a fighter in L.A. she wanted to check out. It was last minute. We just decided to drive out here together.”

I return an easy nod and fake smile when he glances over at me. “That uh … didn’t exactly answer my question.”

“Were we a thing?” He shrugs again.

I officially hate shrugs.

“I guess you’d say friends with benefits when it served a mutual … need.”

I feel nauseous, probably from a bad case of delusion. In spite of one incident after another, I felt pretty damn special on our trip, like I was the first woman Jake had taken on his sacred summer trip. I thought Mo was a guy. Stupid, stupid me.

“Maureen?”

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