We did have undeniable chemistry, that was for sure. I could feel the undercurrent in the air this very instant, yanking at my core. It was thick and suffocating.
Not knowing what else to say, I took a step back. “Gonna find my friends.”
I felt Bennett’s gaze bearing down on me, so I looked his way. Heat, uncertainty, and anger seemed to roll off of him. The brunette was trying to get his attention, but he wasn’t having it.
I could barely catch my breath. I backed away until I was under the canopy of the giant maple tree at the rear of the property. I tilted my head to look up at the top branches and colorful leaves. My cheek was pelted with a fat raindrop, and it cooled my heated face. The tree sheltered me as the drops came faster and heavier. Everyone else sprinted to the protection of the tents.
But I chose to disappear behind the trunk of the tree instead. I caught my breath and had a good talk with myself about burying my feelings for Bennett once and for all. Focusing on school, and Adam, and my career. It was quiet and dark, like I was in my own little secluded world. Until the rain came down in hard sheets and drenched me. I pushed away from the tree to make a run for the tent.
All at once I saw a blur of red as I was forced against the tree trunk, the bark digging into my sweater. Bennett’s soaked hair swung against my forehead, his hands gripped my face, and his mouth sealed over mine, fusing our wet lips and tongues together.
I scraped my fingertips up his chest to his hairline and felt him tremble against me. My heart thudded against my rib cage as Bennett’s mouth devoured me—like he was pouring all of his frustration into me.
We were sopping wet, our clothes clinging to us, and the rain wasn’t letting up anytime soon.
I swept my tongue across his lips and the hottest f**king growl erupted from his mouth. He flattened his body against mine, crushing me with the weight of his passion.
“Is this how you like it?” he mumbled, but my mind couldn’t register what he was asking. It had turned into a foggy haze and I couldn’t even remember the letters of the alphabet at that point.
Bennett was entirely lips and fingers and raw passion and I felt his arousal pulsing against my stomach. His hands were rough and they rushed down my body to palm my ass. He lifted me off the ground, and my legs gripped his waist.
“Tell me you want this.” He slid down to the grass with me straddling him, and all I could do was moan into his lips. It was as if all the pleasure receptors in my brain had expanded and then shot rapidly into my core, setting me on fire.
He licked the water from my neck and then moved up to my mouth. His lips fastened around my tongue and he sucked it hungrily while I whimpered against him.
His hands moved to my br**sts and he thumbed my n**ples in a frantic and angry rhythm. “Is this how the other guys do it?”
I jerked back from him and went completely still as a memory washed over me.
Is this how you let your boyfriend touch you? He’s too young to know what he’s doing. Let me make you feel good.
Bennett kissed me hard again and I wrenched myself out of his grasp.
“You let every other guy have you. You give away pieces of yourself like they’re candy.” I went rigid trying to make sense of this different side of Bennett. He looked lost and miserable and desperate.
“Maybe this is the only way. Maybe if I pretend to be like them.”
And then another memory made my throat seal shut as I struggled for a decent breath.
What is with you, Avery? We’ve been planning our first time for weeks. I’m so f**king hard, I need a release. Let’s just do this.
I smacked Bennett hard across the face and then pushed myself off the ground. Bennett was stunned into silence. He shot up, his hands shaking, and tried to reach for me, but I backed away.
“They don’t make me feel anything. Not one. Damn. Thing.” I shoved against his chest and his face crumpled. “But you . . . you already own a piece of me. Don’t you get it?” I yelled, stumbling back.
“Wait, Avery. I’m so sorry.” His voice sounded rough and tortured. “Please don’t walk away.”
I stood frozen under the tree, the rain pelting my body, my eyelashes gluing together.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I want you so damn much.”
I turned to him. “What you want from me is too goddamn scary. I can’t . . . I can’t . . .” My shoulders shook as sobs wracked my body.
“What happened to you, Avery?” His arms gripped me from behind and his lips closed in on my ear. “Please. Please tell me.”
“Just”—I pushed out of his grasp—“leave me the f**k alone!”
I took off running. Away from Bennett. Away from my memories. Away from my f**ked-up feelings.
As soon as I got home I jumped in the shower and stood under the scalding hot water to wash it all away.
Ella left me a dozen texts messages until I finally replied that I was fine and going to bed.
Bennett banged on my door and pleaded with me to talk to him. I ignored him until he finally gave up and went away.
The following morning I slipped into my scrubs to get ready for my shift. I turned my phone back on and saw there were dozens more text messages from Ella. My finger hovered above the delete button before I decided to just weed through them all.
Ella: If you’re not going to pick up the phone and talk to me, I’ll just text bomb you all night.
Ella: Damn it, Avery! What happened tonight between you and Bennett was bound to happen with any guy you got close to.
Ella: You have to tell him what happened to you. Please tell him already!
Ella: He would stick around and work through it. That boy has deep feelings for you.
Ella: And I think you might feel the same way. In fact, I KNOW you feel the same way.
Ella: And I know you don’t want that, it scares you shitless, you feel out of control, but please, bitch, for the sake of all the fake players everywhere, take a chance on somebody.
Ella: You should have seen him last night. He tried to go after you, but Nate stopped him. He looked miserable. Felt sick about what he said to you.
Ella: Don’t worry, I told him nothing. Only that you’ll talk when you’re ready.
Ella: That boy is a damn good egg. Just like Adam.
I let out my breath slowly and stared at myself in the mirror. At my puffy and swollen eyes. The light rash on my jawline from Bennett’s rough stubble last night.
He’d been sensual and passionate and fiery. I felt safer with Bennett than I’d felt with anyone else, ever.
I knew he’d never hurt me on purpose, but his harsh words rocked my world. I felt off-kilter, unglued, out of control. The same feelings I’d successfully stamped down for years.
And did Bennett seriously think I gave myself away so easily?
Was that what I was doing?
He was so damn frustrated with me. Just like I was frustrated with myself.
Adam. Bennett. Mr. Jackson. Maybe there were decent guys out there.
But I didn’t let myself see it. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to feel it.
I grabbed my purse and keys to head to work. I heard a thump as I swung open my apartment door.
A large package that had been leaning against the doorjamb had fallen over. It was wrapped in shiny silver paper with a note attached.
I went back inside, rested the package on my coffee table, and opened the letter.
A, I’m sorry. Please believe that I never meant to hurt you. I’m so ashamed of myself.
But I heard you loud and clear. You’re not ready for this. For me. For us.
So I’ll leave you alone—I’ll walk away.
But if you decide you want to talk, you know where to find me.
I’d planned on giving this gift to you someday. I figure now is as good a time as any.
Take good care, B.
P.S. Here’s what I think of you in five words or less: Fierce, determined, scorchingHOT (yes, that’s one word), incredible, beautiful.
Fat tears rolled down my cheeks as I ripped open the pretty wrapping. I inhaled a lungful of air when I saw his gift. It was my favorite drawing from the art show.
He’d never sold it. He’d saved it for me.
My fingers were trembling so badly that I had to set it down before it fell from my grasp and broke.
But the drawing looked different today.
Now it seemed like the one figure was trying hard to reach across all the junk—in the spaces between—to the other side. But the other figure was so well hidden he could barely find her.
And she didn’t plan on coming out anytime soon.
I read Bennett’s letter three more times, dried my eyes, fixed my makeup, and left for work. The rain had cleared and the air felt warm. The walk would do me good.
My phone buzzed while I was crossing Albert Street, and I saw it was my mom. I so wasn’t ready to talk to her—to anybody, really—but because of recent events, I needed to.
“Hey, Mom. On my way to work. Everything okay?”
She was silent, but I heard her breathing. Prepping herself for something she needed to say. I gripped the phone tighter. “Just spill it, Mom.”
Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “What did Tim do to you?”
I stopped in my tracks, nearly tripping over my own two feet and causing a collision at the crosswalk. My voice was low and rough. “You know what he did. I told you everything, hoping my own mother would believe me.”
I heard her take a long drag on her cigarette. I could picture her sitting at the kitchen table chain smoking. “Is that why he left us?”
What the fuck. Is that what this was about? She had some sick need to know he didn’t leave her because of something she’dT done? She was always so weak when it came to Tim.
“He left because of what I threatened him with.”
She let out a long breath she obviously had been holding. “Is that why his arm was bandaged up the night he walked out the door?”
I’d been proud of that moment. Proud of myself. I had seen the fear in his eyes. Had the sharp utensil slipped just an inch the other way, I would have gouged his heart. “Yes.”
We were silent for a long minute, just listening to each other’s breaths. Would this woman ever tell me she was sorry? Or that she was proud of me? Or . . . something that showed me she was a mother?
“That’s why he beat me up.”
“What?” My heart raced a thousand miles a minute. “Damn it, Mom. Tell me what the hell happened the other night.”
“We got in an argument . . .” I heard the tears coming. “About you.”
“What about me?” I saw the nursing home in the distance so I slowed my steps. No way could I head into work without knowing what went down.
“He’d been asking questions about you every time I saw him lately—when had you moved out. If you were ever coming back. What you looked like now.” She was sniffling and coughing and all worked up. “I got the impression he was either afraid of you or had some kind of sick desire to see you again.”
She caught her breath for a moment while I let all of that sink in. My stomach churned just thinking about the low timbre of Tim’s voice.
“So I pressed him about it that night. I needed to know.”
Shit. This is where her story was about to get ugly. “What did you say?”
“I asked him if what you accused him of was true.”
I had trouble swallowing. “And?”
“He denied it up and down, of course,” she said. Now her words were rigid and hate-filled. “But this time, I wasn’t buying it.”
Was this finally Mom’s light bulb moment?
I knew my mother would never apologize for betraying me. She didn’t have it in her. And I’d gotten to a place in my life that I didn’t need it. Not anymore. Besides, this was as close to an apology as I would get.
“Were you alone somewhere with him?”
I could picture this going down. Tim getting more manipulative, more irate. Switching from his soft and soothing words to his harsh and threatening tone.
“We were in the parking lot outside the bar.” One, two, three puffs of her cigarette. “So I warned him that people would see us inside his car and call the cops.”
“God, it could have been so much worse, Mom.”
“I told him if he stayed away I wouldn’t go to the police,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll come around again. He doesn’t have buddies on the police force like he once did.”
“What else, Mom? I know there’s something you’re holding back.”
“So . . . I don’t think this restraining order is necessary.” And there it was. She was still protecting him. “It’ll only draw more attention to the situation, mess up his other family.”
“You assume his other family isn’t already messed up.” A cynical laughed escaped my lips. “How many times will Tim get away with stuff, huh? He got away with it years ago and now you’re letting him off again.”
“I’m not saying I won’t go through with it,” she said. Yes, she absolutely was saying that. “I just . . . I’ll think about it.”
“Geez, Mom, do you realize how f**ked-up your relationships with men are?”
There was a long, drawn-out silence before she said, “Is that why yours are, too?”
*** I checked in at the front desk ten minutes late. Thankfully my supervisor was in a staff meeting down the hall.
“I’m so sorry, Lillian,” I said to the nurse I was replacing on the floor.
“Uh-huh. Thought someone forgot to tell me you called in sick or something.”
“Won’t happen again,” I said. “Shift change report?”
Lillian grabbed her purse from the drawer beneath the desk and then handed me the notes. “Mr.
Brody in room 105 is waiting on an EKG, and Mrs. Jackson in 108 needs another vitals check in an hour.”
My stomach clenched. “What are her symptoms?”