Jimmy stepped out of Captain Jack’s, into the storm-cooled night, the temperature a stark contrast to what it had been a few hours earlier. He hadn’t heard the thunder. He hadn’t seen the lightning. He hadn’t felt the shift of pressure in the air when the energy had rolled through. All he felt was the aftermath of the violence, the chill raising bumps on his skin.
Sarah swung open the door, called out to him. “I told you I’d give you a ride!”
He waved her off and headed up the block, searching his pocket for keys. His hand came out empty. As he shoved a hand into his other pocket, he struggled to keep his balance, stumbling off the curb. His foot landed directly in the center of a deep puddle. Cold rain water rushed through the worn seams of his boot, soaking his foot.
Son of a bitch.
“Jimmy, get back here!”
With considerable effort, he stepped up onto the sidewalk. Continuing down the block, he dug around the change in his pocket, searching.
“Fine! Walk then! Like I care.”
The sound of the bar door slamming echoed up the empty street. He walked a half a block before he remembered; Sarah had his keys. Shit.
He debated returning to Jack’s to demand them back, but it would be a wasted trip. She had taken his keys, pointed at a stool, and told him to sit. Stay. Like a fucking dog. She’d take him home. He’d told her to take him to Kylie’s.
“Kylie doesn’t want you.”
He’d forgotten. But now he remembered.
Kylie doesn’t want you.
No shit, Sherlock. She never had.
His eyes darted, his vision swam out of focus, as he looked up and down the street, trying to remember which direction he was supposed to go. The streetlights reflected in the puddles on the bricks of the downtown square. Raindrops glistened on glass, sending out sharp rays of color. He reached out, but couldn’t touch them. They disappeared from his grasp, nothing more than an illusion of what could be.
But his truck was real. It didn’t disappear when he focused his eyes. It sat parked where he’d left it, in front of Charlene’s, tangibly real.
One foot wet, one dry, the wet foot pulled him into the buildings as he passed by. His hip slammed into the handrail of the steps leading up to the floral shop. He pitched forward, barely catching himself before he fell. While he waited for the street to stop spinning, he held onto the handrail and stared at the roses on display in the window.
He’d buy Kylie some roses, a great, big bouquet of them—red, pink, white, yellow. He’d buy ten or twenty of every color and deliver her a rainbow. But she hated store-bought roses.
What kind of woman hated roses? A difficult one. One who was impossible to please and even more impossible to understand. One who was too stubborn to see he was trying so goddamn hard to give her everything she secretly wished for, but she was too damn independent to ever accept.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down…
His life, his love, for naught. Beauty Kylie refused to see.
But, God, he loved her anyway.
He leaned against the railing and stared the roses down, daring them to reveal their flaws and confess why Kylie hated them so. Why she didn’t trust them to be exactly what they claimed to be. Why she assumed they had dirty secrets tucked between their velvet petals, born of sin and full of trouble. Why she couldn’t accept their beauty for exactly what it was, God’s most beautiful gift… Love.
He waited, but the roses had no answers. They were as dumbfounded by her distrust as he was.
Ky was difficult, and confusing, and infuriating, and sexy as fucking hell, and she hated roses. But she loved wildflowers. If he were smart, he’d drive into the hills and pick her a bouquet of every color in nature. He’d pick them while the rain still filled their warm petals, while they smelled of wet sunshine, sex in the summertime.
Kylie doesn’t want you…
He wished he didn’t know she hated roses. He didn’t want to know anything about her. It had been easier when she had been a mystery, when he had desired her for her body and the fire in her eyes, for what few hints she had accidentally revealed about her mind. Life had been simpler when he hadn’t known the tiny scar on her inner hip felt like a thin rope of silk under his fingertip, or that she sprinkled salt on her watermelon. It had hurt less when he hadn’t known her middle name was Ann.
He wanted to undo time and forget what she tasted like, what she smelled like, how her chest flushed pink right before her orgasm crested. He wanted to remember what it had felt like to not care. Not love. Not dream of the future. He wanted to go back to the day before he’d met Ashley, before Kylie had entered his world, and be that guy again. The guy who had worked, and played, and fucked, and hadn’t cared about a goddamn thing. His life had been empty, hollow, his heart scarred and numb. He felt nothing, wanted nothing. Craved nothing.
Now, he wanted it all, the need hurt so goddamn bad he couldn’t breathe.
He ignored the cry of the roses and let go of the handrail to cross the street to his truck, the last vehicle parked on an otherwise empty block. Allman Falls had long ago rolled up the streets, its residents tucked safe into their beds, sleeping or making love, by themselves or with someone else. He didn’t want to make love. He just wanted to sleep. That was all he wanted. One fucking night of deep, heavy sleep, and then to wake up holding Ky in his arms.
“Goddamn it, Deuce! Get your ass back here!”
Jimmy turned, watching as a car tore out of Gimp’s parking lot. Frozen where he stood in the middle of the road, Jimmy dared the black Mustang with rain diamonds on its hood to drive right through him and put him out of his misery. It didn’t. Instead, brakes squealed, a horn honked. The Mustang fishtailed to a stop, blocking his path. Its sleek form sparkled in the streetlights, blinding him.
“Get out of the road, jackass!”
The horn honked again, the wail long and drawn out. Jimmy squinted through the windshield. He knew the guy driving. Probably. He knew every asshole in this godforsaken town. The engine revved and the car hopped forward, taunting him. Jimmy raised his middle finger to the car and the driver.
The screaming girl caught up to the car and tried to open the passenger door. When it didn’t open, she smacked the window and screamed a wicked string of profanities. She hadn’t looked Jimmy’s way, but he didn’t have to be sober to recognize Marissa. If her stupid, fake breasts hadn’t given her away, her temper would have.
“Open the door, you stupid prick!”
Jimmy stepped around the Mustang and continued his journey. If he could get in his truck before Marissa caught sight of him, he would be home free, but his truck sat a block away and the street suddenly had a fucked-up incline. It slowed his feet down, especially the wet one.
The Mustang engine revved, and Marissa kicked the door.
“Stop kicking my car, bitch!”
Jimmy turned and watched as Marissa kicked the glistening metal hard enough to leave a dent. The driver’s door flew open and Deuce lunged out, his face belying his desire to put the same dent into Marissa’s ass. Defiant, she kicked his car again.
“Fuck,” Jimmy muttered and reversed course. He grabbed Marissa by the wrist and yanked her out of the line of fire, using his body to shield her. Fueled by adrenaline and bolstered by the river of whiskey sloshing through his veins, Jimmy landed the first punch, but Deuce got in the second and third.
“Stop it!” Marissa screamed.
Jimmy managed to land one more solid punch before Marissa wedged herself between them and shoved Jimmy away. With her hands gesturing wildly and her voice high enough to shatter glass, Marissa screamed at Deuce. He responded by spitting in her face. Seconds later, the car door slammed. Tires squealed on wet bricks as Deuce tore out of the sleeping downtown square in a rush of pissed off testosterone.
Marissa picked up a rock from the road and threw it in the direction of the disappearing Mustang, missing completely. Jimmy rubbed his jaw as he started for his truck again. Thanks to Deuce’s fist and Marissa’s goddamn temper tantrums, his very expensive, cheap whiskey was already wearing off. His hand throbbed in time with the pounding of his head, the hangover kicking in as he sobered.
“Jimmy!” Her heels clicked along the brick road as she chased after him.
He ignored her and knelt beside his truck, feeling along the inside of the driver side wheel well with numb fingers for his spare key.
Marissa muttered to herself as she leaned against his truck and dug through her purse until she found a piece of gum. He didn’t fucking care about the who, the what, or the why of her night, but it didn’t stop her from detailing it in a cinnamon-scented, ranting soliloquy. Her words buzzed around his head, bored into his skull, causing his jaw to ache. It was always the same story with her, the only difference being the name of the guy she had screwed, only to be screwed over in return. He was sick and tired of saving her from herself.
As soon as he located his key, he ripped off the dirty duct tape holding it in place and tried to brush past her to open his door, but she blocked his path.
“Take me with you.”
She stuck out her lip in a playful pout. “Come on, Jimmy. Let’s go back to your place. You can pour me a drink, or seven, and help me forget about tonight.”
From the way her hand played along his arm, she had already forgotten all about her date, and had moved on to better plans. He jerked away from her touch. “I’m not in the mood for your shit tonight.”
She smiled, her breasts rising as her hands found his body again, drifting down his chest, heading for his belt and what lay below. “You know I can get you in the mood.”
Jimmy grabbed her wrists and pinned her against the side of his truck, scaring her enough to erase the smirk from her face. “What do you want from me?”
She twisted against his grasp. “Just a ride.”
“Bullshit.” He jerked her away from his truck and let go of her wrists.
Her skirt was too short, too tight. Her blouse was cut too low, eagerly revealing what she should be carefully guarding. The beauty of her face had been erased by heavy make-up, teased and over-processed hair. He wondered what she saw when she looked in the mirror. Did she see what he saw—her once-gorgeous innocence painted over in ugly desperation? Or was she blind to the truth of what she had become?
“Why do all you girls dress like whores?”
Marissa shoved him. “I’m not a whore.”
“Then quit acting like one.” He ripped open his truck door to make his escape, but she slammed it shut.
“Apologize to me. Right now!”
“You act like a whore, I’m calling you one.”
“I’m not.” She crossed her arms under her chest, the motion lifting her plastic breasts onto her folded arms as though placing them on a serving platter for his enjoyment.
“What’s this then?” he asked, pointing to her fake breasts, the ones she had financed at an insanely-high interest rate and he’d paid off to bail her out. Long ago, she’d had beautiful breasts, breasts he had loved touching, caressing, tasting, teasing; breasts he had spent many teenaged nights dreaming about, waking up twisted in wet sheets. Now they were twin train wrecks he couldn’t stand to look at but couldn’t pull his eyes away from. The way she dressed them in push-up bras and silk blouses when she came to work, the cross she wore dipping in and out of her cleavage with every twist or bend. “Are you offering those to me?”
“I’m not offering you shit,” Marissa snapped.
“Sure could’ve fooled me.”
She ran a hand through her long, blonde hair and narrowed her eyes at him. “We used to have fun, Jimmy. You used to be fun. What the hell happened to you?”
“I grew up.”
“Yeah, well, you look like shit in your old age.”
He grabbed her arm to pull her away from his door, and she yelped out in pain. He immediately loosened his grasp, but he didn’t let go of her arm.
“I’m sorry, Missy.”
She pried at his fingers. “Let me go.”
“Not until you tell me what you want from me.”
“I don’t want shit from you.”
“What do you want from me?” he demanded.
Her body relaxed as she stopped fighting against him. She said, “I don’t know,” but when her gaze met his, he could read the truth.
“God, Miss, why do you do this to yourself?” He let go of her arm and lifted his ball cap, scrubbing his hair in frustration. In a heartbeat, he’d gone from pissed off at her to feeling sorry for her, the sudden change of emotion nauseating. Sobering. “It’s been over a year.”
“I miss you.”
“You need to stop.”
He didn’t have to look at her to know she was crying. She acted tough, dressed tough, talked tough, but she wasn’t tough. Not when she was drunk.
“I have to go,” he said.
Fat sprinkles started to fall from the sky. Marissa tipped her face toward heaven, welcoming the rain to mix with the tears on her cheeks.
“Do you love her?” she asked.
“You know I do.”
She nodded, the tears falling faster with the rain.
“Shit, Miss.” He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her out of habit, but he didn’t dare. He didn’t trust himself to stop with simply holding her. He knew her body too well to ever touch her again.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, the sprinkles turned into a shower. Time slowed as they stood in the street, life on pause. Waiting. For what, he didn’t know, but the faster the rain fell, the slower the earth spun.
“I have to go,” he repeated. But he didn’t move to leave.
He didn’t love Marissa. He couldn’t love her. He had known her forever. She had filled more of his lonely nights than he dared to remember. He had made love to her. He had said he’d loved her. A time or two, when his heart was young, and he was still wet with her heat, he had convinced himself he did love her. He had created life with her, proposed marriage to her. And then, in an instant, they’d lost their beautiful light. In the all-consuming darkness that followed, he realized he had never loved her in the way she needed him to. She had never loved him in the right way, either.
Yet, they were both still standing there.
“What do you love about her?”
The rain soaked through her blouse, matted her hair to her face. Her makeup slid off in colored rivers. With the armor washed away, she looked fifteen again, and his body reacted, filling him with a hot rush of longing. Not for her. For the life he’d had when his body had known only hers. He craved the simplicity of filling a carnal need, without true emotion, without caring beyond the night, without indulging in any sensation other than pleasure, the way it had been for so long before his heart had joined in the game and fucked it all up.
He reached for her. For that painless, loveless past.
She took a step back, moving away from the embrace she had previously wanted.
“Does she love you?”
She knew him well enough to hear the hesitation in his voice, and she called him on it. “Does she love you, Jimmy?”
“Jimmy?” she insisted.
“What?” he snapped. “What do you want me to say, Miss? Yes, she loves me. But does she trust me? I have no fucking idea! She says she does, but she never looks me in the eye when she says it. And why should she trust me? I’m standing here, in the rain, with you, instead of going home to her…” He grabbed her hip and jerked her closer. “I’m holding you…” He stabbed a hand through her tangled, dripping hair, rough at first, but softening as he stroked his thumb along the side of her neck. “I’m touching you…” His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “I’m thinking about you… about what we used to do…” As he said the words, his erection came to life, straining against his rain-soaked jeans. “About what I want to do to you…”
“No.” She shook her head, her blue eyes a storm of fear and lust, her chin quivering. “No.”
“I want to…”
“Don’t,” she pleaded. Her hands slid up his arms to his shoulders. Her breathing grew sharp as she pulled him closer, her body betraying her words.
“Don’t what?” He didn’t know what possessed him to do what he was doing, but he didn’t fucking care anymore. He wanted his old life back. He wanted to stop feeling, stop loving. He wanted to stop hurting. He hurt so fucking bad he wanted to hurt someone in return. He didn’t care who. “Don’t what?”
Her fingers slid into his hair at the back of his neck, twisting into the curls he hated. “Don’t—”
Before she could answer him, he covered her mouth with his, tasting the rain as it mixed with her familiar, cinnamon flavor. The whimper she let out was one of long-suffering want, and he swallowed it as he forced her mouth open and plunged into her with fierce desperation.
She wanted him, but he wanted the impossible. He wanted to be that fifteen-year-old boy who played baseball and cheated on tests. The boy who thought the most incredible memory of his life would forever be of the night he had sat beside Marissa in the back row of the dark movie theater, when his hand had traveled up her thigh, under the hem of her skirt, his finger slipping inside her damp panties, not stopping. He wanted to be the boy who never planned, who never cried. He wanted Rich Handley to pull into the driveway in a dirty, white Rogan Construction truck at exactly five o’clock every morning and honk for James to come out the side door of the house with a Thermos of coffee and a greasy sausage patty sandwiched in a toasted English muffin. He wanted Rich to forever stay alive so he could forever be that horny, guideless, dreamless boy whose muscles ached from conditioning drills and Friday night games under the stadium lights instead of from wheel-barrowing concrete in ninety-degree, blinding heat for ten-hours straight without a break.
He shoved Marissa against the side of his truck and lifted her onto his thighs, spreading her legs as she clung to him, encouraging him with the desperate urgency of her kiss. He slipped his hand under her skirt and pushed aside her panties to slip his fingers into that glorious, musky heat he used to know so well. His erection pulsed in eager anticipation, but she didn’t feel the way his memories wanted her to. Her hips moved with experience. Her body moaned with knowledge. His fingers knew what they were doing, what they were looking for, finding it too easy. The mystery was gone. The innocence lost.
The dreamless boy had grown into a man with dreams so unbelievably incredible they would never release his heart, no matter how hard he tried to fuck them away.
And in trying to erase those dreams, he had just ruined any hope of ever achieving them. As surely as Rich Handley’s death had stolen Jimmy’s childhood, as certain as their carelessness had destroyed Marissa’s innocence, Jimmy’s desperation had just annihilated any hope he had of a future.
He tore away from Marissa, the violence of his guilt throwing her onto the brick street.
“Jimmy!” she screamed after him, her voice more anguished, more violated, more humiliated than he had ever made her sound before.
He was in his truck before she found her footing, to the end of the block before she had her clothes readjusted, and he was halfway down the Allman Falls spur, racing to outrun his shadow, before his stomach caught wind of how utterly and completely he had just fucked up, and revolted against him in a violent heave.
He threw open the door of the truck as he slammed on the brakes, fishtailing on the rain-slickened highway. The truck careened toward the ditch and he had no choice but to let it go. By the time his stomach had emptied onto the shoulder of the road, red and blue flashing lights filled the thunderous night sky.