I do have some leftovers from dinner the night before last—Chinese food—so I dump it on a couple of plates and heat it up in the microwave.
By the time it’s ready, Z is out of the shower and lounging on my bed, dressed in nothing but the fluffy hot-pink robe I picked up on clearance last year. I’m not sure what it says about either one of us that it looks better on him than it ever did on me.
He sits up when he sees me, but stays on the bed. I don’t know if that’s because he wants to give me space and that’s pretty much the farthest he can get away from me and still be in the room or if it’s just because he’s a shit and he wants to remind me of everything we’ve done on that bed in the last two days.
If that’s his goal, it’s working. Because, pink fluffy robe or not, all I see is Z kneeling between my legs, his eyes dark and intense as he goes down on me. The memory has me blushing, and I can tell he notices because he straightens up, his eyes going sharp with purpose.
Plus there’s an awareness in the room, an electricity that seems to permeate the air whenever we’re in the same place. I’ve felt it every time we’re together, and this morning is no different. In fact, right now the pull is so powerful that it’s all I can do not to climb on and take him inside me.
But what happened yesterday hasn’t been resolved—I’m not sure it can be resolved—and I decide that until it is, I’m staying safely on my side of the room.
That’s when Z—fucking gorgeous, sexy, irresistible Z—holds out a hand to me and says, “Come here.”
I start to do just that, my body so enthralled by him that it responds without conscious instruction from my brain. I take three full steps before I manage to stop myself. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Of course you do. But that’s not exactly the point, is it?”
“I guess not.” He sits up then. “Why were you doing laundry at four in the morning?”
“I couldn’t sleep. Why were you wandering the halls here at four in the morning?”
“I couldn’t get you out of my mind, so I went for a walk.” He tries to say it like it doesn’t matter, but I can see the vulnerability in his eyes, and it gets to me even though I shouldn’t let it. “I ended up here.”
“A walk?” I eye him skeptically. “A walk doesn’t end up with you soaking wet like that.”
He shrugs. “Maybe it was more of a hike.”
“You think so?” My sarcasm is out in full form today, but after those videos I’ve seen of him, all I can picture is him scaling the side of a mountain in the middle of the night. The thought terrifies me.
“That’s not important.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Why?” he asks, and for the first time he looks totally exasperated. “Why does it matter how I got here as long as I got here? Can we at least talk about what’s got you so upset?”
“Somehow you’ve never struck me as the talking type.”
“I’m not the talking type. Which should tell you everything you need to know about me being here. I l—” My heart drops to my toes at the first sound of that l. He regroups though, and says, “I like you, Ophelia. I really like you, and that’s not something I say very often, either. So can we please just talk?”
I don’t want to.
I really, really don’t want to.
I’ve only just started to truly heal from everything that happened in New Orleans, from everything that happened to Remi and me, and the last thing I want to do is rip the scab off it now. But at the same time, I know that Z’s right. That I owe him as much. Because he likes me and is good to me and, most important, because I really like him, too.
“I heated up some food from the other night,” I tell him, trying to buy some time while I get my thoughts in order. “Why don’t you come get a plate?”
“Seriously?” He climbs off the bed and stalks toward me. It’s a total testament to his masculinity that not only can he pull off the stalk while wearing a hot-pink bathrobe, but he can actually look threatening doing it. “I pour my heart out to you and you offer me Chinese food?”
“In my defense, it’s really good Chinese food.”
He doesn’t so much as crack a smile at my joke. He just looks at me, and it’s like those crazy beautiful eyes of his can see inside me. More, it’s like they’re letting me see inside him for the first time. And I realize, suddenly, that I hurt him. Not with the Chinese food, but by shutting him out earlier when I had my little freak-out.
And while I can handle him being annoyed with me or angry at me or even indifferent to me, I can’t stand the idea that he might be hurt by me. By something I’ve done. So I forget about trying to get the words right and settle for just getting the words out.
“You were right, earlier. You know, when you said you were paying for things that Remi had done. I don’t think I realized it, but I’ve totally been measuring you against him.”
“Let me guess.” His mouth twists in a sardonic little smile that might have hurt me if I hadn’t had my flash of insight a minute ago and realized that all he’s doing is trying to keep me from hurting him any more than I already have. “I didn’t measure up.”
“I didn’t mean it like that—”
“You don’t have to lie, Ophelia. I’ll always prefer that you tell me the truth rather than what you think I want to hear.”
“Then you need to listen to what the truth is instead of always jumping to the worst conclusions about yourself.”
“Yes, you do. I’ve known you a week and I’ve heard you do it seven or eight times already. I bet if I ask Ash or Cam they’d be able to point out a million other times when you think the worst of yourself and try to get other people to as well.”
He shifts a little, looks to the side of me instead of into my eyes, and I realize that I’ve really hit a nerve, which ends up freaking me out. What kind of a life has Z led that it’s so much easier for him to believe, really believe, the bad stuff instead of the good?
God. I sigh heavily and decide to go back to picking my words with care. This is going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be, and it’s not like I ever thought it’d be easy.
“Come here,” I tell him, walking back toward the bed and holding a hand out for him to join me.
He does as I ask, settling on the bed, and I curl up on his lap with my arms around his waist and my head on his chest. His heart is pounding fast and hard, and again I realize he really is just as nervous as I am.
“I met Remi when I was fifteen and he was seventeen,” I say, deciding it’s better to get it over with fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. “I fell for him instantly. It was hard not to, when he was pretty much every teenage girl’s walking wet dream.”
Z nods, and he looks as serious as I’ve ever seen him. “I know the type.”
I can’t help myself. I burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he demands, offended.
“Of course you know the type!” I say, in between giggles. “You’re pretty much the king of it. All badass and gorgeous, with a dirty mouth and a surprisingly soft heart underneath all those tattoos and piercings. Yeah, you definitely know the type.”
He lifts a brow, half amused, half insulted. “I’m not quite sure that’s how I’d describe myself.”
“Trust me, it’s probably the best description of you that’s ever been given.” I pause, pretend to think. “Maybe I should call up Sports Illustrated and make sure they’ve got it for the article.”
He tugs at one of my curls, frowning. At first I think he’s going to argue, but then I guess he decides to focus on what’s important, because he asks, “So, Remi wasn’t one of those clean-cut college boys with his whole life mapped out in front of him?”
“God, no. Remi was a drag racer.”
“A drag racer? You dated a drag racer?”
“Yep. And a damn good one at that. Up until two days ago, he taught me everything I knew about driving.”
“A drag racer,” he says again, like he can’t get his head around it.
“Why do you look so surprised?” I demand. “I’m dating a snowboarder, aren’t I? The two aren’t that different.”
“Is that what we’re doing?” he asks. “Dating?”
I freeze, afraid I’ve put my foot in it. “I don’t know,” I tell him as I pick some fuzz off his/my bathrobe. “What do you think we’re doing?”
He puts two fingers under my chin and presses up until I have no choice but to look him in the eye. “Since I’m not the one who slammed a door in your face after telling you to get lost today, I think I’m probably not the one deciding things.”
I knew he’d call me on my shit sooner or later, and I just nod. But I look away when I admit, “I’m scared, Z. I’m really scared.” The words taste bitter in my mouth. Being vulnerable is not something I’ve ever enjoyed.
“I get it. You were in an accident with Remi and you saw him die, nearly died yourself. Of course you’d be nervous—”
“Remi had a death wish.”
He freezes midsentence, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. “What did you say?”
“He had a death wish. I wouldn’t call him actively suicidal, but he was an adrenaline junkie with a really rough past. At first I thought that was all it was. That he took things too far sometimes, looking for the rush, and bad shit happened.”
Z shifts beneath me, obviously uncomfortable all of a sudden. And that’s when I know that I’m right. That what I saw on those videos wasn’t accidental. It breaks my heart even as it gives me the strength to continue.
“But then I started noticing a pattern, you know? We were together three years, and there were definitely times when he was less careful, more stupid about what he did. Which car he’d drive, how he’d drive it.
“I’d try to talk to him about it, and he always told me I was making a big deal out of nothing. That he was fine, and could he help it if he was always looking for the next big rush?”
I pause now, caught up in the memories despite myself. I loved Remi, I really did, and part of me will always miss him. But there’s another part of me, one I don’t acknowledge very often because it does no good, that’s angry at him. Furious. Because he took the easy way out and left me holding the bag.
“You don’t—you don’t have to tell me any more if you don’t want to.” Z sounds sincere, but I can sense the tension in his body and know that every second I delay is only making the telling of this story worse for him.
I also know he recognizes himself in it, can tell from the way he’s sitting rigid, and from the way his hands are clenched in the comforter instead of around me. My heart breaks at the knowledge, more proof that Z is like Remi in all the ways I need him not to be.
“It was December, which in New Orleans is nothing like it is here. Half the time it’s still in the seventies or eighties and humid as hell. December was always a bad month for him. I don’t know why—he never told me. But the longer the month dragged on, the crazier the stunts he pulled would become. Everyone else loved it, because they didn’t understand. They just thought he was wild and fun, and so much of what he did worked out the best possible way—because he was so talented, you know? I’ve never met anyone who could drive a car the way he could.
“Anyway, it was December twentieth and I could totally see the tension building in him. He was just snappier than usual, you know? And the stuff he was doing, the races he was driving, the risks he was taking … they were trouble. Not just dangerous, but dangerous.