Near and Far
Page 24

 Nicole Williams

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That earned him another splash. “Go to hell, Black.”
“Lucky Jesse,” Garth said with a wink.
I was obviously getting nowhere with Garth. Actually, I was obviously getting somewhere—backwards. Not the direction I’d been hoping to go. Taking a handful of slow, not-quite-soothing breaths, I decided to do something high on my list of Never Want to Do: swallow my pride in front of Garth Black. The one thing higher on that list? Delaying sex with Jesse Walker.
“Please?” Yeah, it was as hard as I imagined it would be. Just one word in and it had already singed my throat. “From one misunderstood, glass-half-empty misfit to another . . . please?”
The cocky smile fell right off Garth’s face. It was working. My momentary lapse into sincerity was doing exactly what I hoped it would do: throw Garth for a loop. He studied my face for a few more seconds, trying so hard to glare at me his brow almost broke out in a sweat. Then he let out one long sigh, slid his hat low on his brow, and shook his head. “You women and your pouty faces are going to be the death of me.”
“Was that what I thought it was?” I bit my lip to keep my excitement contained.
“Yeah, it was. That was me slitting my own throat when I had my opponent right where I wanted him. That was one misfit taking one for the misfit team.”
I’d known it all along. I forgot it along the way sometimes, but Garth wasn’t the hard shell of a man he liked us all to believe he was.
“Thank you.” I beamed at him. “So, so much.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved at me dismissively. “Get the f**k out of here and go f**k your boyfriend already.”
Well, the redeeming thing had been nice while it lasted.
“Fuck, that felt good.” Garth hopped up like new life had just burst into him. Arching his head back, he cupped his hands around his mouth. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!!! FUCKITY FUCK, FUCKERY, FUCKER!”
Jolene and Josie must have had their music blasting or were comatose because Garth was shouting so loudly, the next zip code could have heard him.
“Done?” I twisted my finger into my ear.
“Just getting warmed up, Topless-Wonder.”
“I’ll leave you to it then. Have fun.” I shoved away from the dock and started swimming for a certain clump of trees in the distance. I’d only gotten a few yards when I stopped. “Hey, Garth?” He looked like he was about to break into another chorus of curses. “Thanks. For a self-proclaimed a**hole, you’re a pretty decent guy. From one misfit to another, I’m glad we’re on the same team.”
From the looks of it, Garth would have been more comfortable having his nether-region waxed than receiving a compliment. He looked off in the distance and scratched the back of his neck for a moment, at a total loss. How could someone render a man like Garth Black speechless? Give him a compliment.
Finally, he glanced my way. “Rowen. Go f**k yourself.” His words were softened with a smile and a wink. In terms of endearment, that was the pinnacle in Garth’s world.
Before things got any more record-breaking with Garth, I continued my swim back to Jesse. If I thought I’d swam fast the previous one-way, that had nothing on the return trip. Not only had Garth just fallen on his own bet sword, but Jesse was a few more kicks away, nak*d and still hopefully . . . ready.
When I resurfaced after my dive beneath the willow branches, I didn’t see anything nak*d or ready waiting for me. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I’d picked the wrong section of trees when someone bubbled to the surface behind me. I almost burst out of my skin in surprise before those strong, familiar arms wound around me.
“Looking for someone?” Jesse lowered his mouth to my ear.
“Yeah. But you’ll do.”
“I know I should at least pretend that hurt my feelings, but I need to confirm something first.”
I rolled my head back and let it rest against Jesse’s shoulders as his hands traveled up and down my body. “What do you need confirmed?”
“Was that what I thought I heard coming from Black’s mouth?”
“Yes. And from the sounds of it, it’s what’s still coming from his mouth.” Garth sounded like he wasn’t only making up for lost time, he was making up for future time as well.
“And am I right to guess you might have had something to do with that?” Jesse’s hands stopped moving, but his fingers started, and they were about to send me right over the edge.
“Yes,” I sighed, draping an arm behind his neck. “Yes, you’re . . . oh my god, you’re good.” He chuckled against my neck, his pace slowing. “I mean, yes, oh my god, you’re right.” Come on, he knew better than to expect a logical string of words to come from my mouth when he was doing those kinds of things to me.
“Why? Why was it so important to you that I not lose? Why beg Garth to let me win?” His fingers stopped altogether, and while I could at least think, that wasn’t what I wanted to concentrate my efforts on.
“For the same reason it was so important to you that I didn’t lose to Jolene back there. For the same reason you pretty much shoved her off your back. We’re a team.” I twisted until I was facing him. Cupping his face, I kissed him softly. “Win or lose, we’re in it together. Right?”
Leaning his forehead into mine, Jesse’s eyes went soft. “Win, lose, on top of the world, or at rock bottom . . . I’m with you, Rowen Sterling. To the very end.”
It was my turn for my eyes to go soft, although mine went so far they formed tears. “To the very end.”
Maybe there was more I wanted to say, and maybe there was more he did too, but when Jesse’s mouth crashed into mine as he shifted me above him, there were no words left. When Jesse entered me, I lost everything. All the words on the tip of my tongue. All the thoughts swirling through my head. All control. The only thing I felt was Jesse and his love.
I kissed him back, moving against him, hoping that was all he felt too. It didn’t take either of us long, but when we did fall apart around each other, the last thing I remembered thinking before crying out and the first thing I remembered at the end of it was that surely no one had ever loved another person the way I loved Jesse Walker.
Chapter Twelve
THINGS CAN CHANGE so fast. Too fast.
Spring break felt like it would last forever one Sunday afternoon while making love, and in what seemed like a blink later, I was on a bus heading west. Things changed too goddamned fast. Especially the good things.
That afternoon at the swimming hole had been the high point, the twelve-hour ride home the following Sunday had been the low, and for some sick, unfair reason, my low point followed me into Monday. Well, I guess it was actually Tuesday since we’d passed the midnight mark.
Alex had just flipped off the Open sign and was pouring herself another cup of coffee while I emptied the display of the remaining doughnuts. I’d been moving like a slug all day long, at barely half time. Even the first day of spring quarter hadn’t cheered me up, and I’d gotten every single class I’d signed up for. Art, art, and more art. Did I mention art?
I was doing what I loved and excelling at it. I was in the running for one of the most prestigious internships in the city. I had good friends who were always willing to share a laugh. I was healthy, living independently, and had managed to move forward from my past.
And there was one other thing. A monumental thing. I had the love of a guy who redefined what a good man was. I had the world at my fingertips.
So why couldn’t I shake the feeling that something was about to change? Like I’d come home to spring in Seattle to find my own personal winter about to set in? Why did I feel like I was walking around like I was waiting for the ground to fall out from beneath me? Why did I feel like the one person I cared about most was about to slip through my fingers?
Probably because I’d had to say a teary good-bye to him yesterday morning while knowing it would be another two weeks before I saw him next. I was pre-menstrual, and the clouds had been leaking rain non-stop since I’d pulled into the bus station. It was crazy how hormones and the weather could change a person’s entire outlook.
“So this Jolene chick pretty much followed you two around all week?” Alex plopped down on the display case I was cleaning, picking up our conversation from earlier. It had started out with what we’d done over spring break, then turned into a Jolene this, Jolene that fest.
“The only place we were safe was the other side of his bedroom door.” I smiled at a few memories as my heart ached. “So we spent a lot of time behind closed doors.”
“You saucy little sex-pot you.” Alex patted my head.
“So what are you going to do about this Jolene chick now that you’re hundreds of miles away from your boyfriend who she is probably, at present, knocking over the head with a fry pan so she can drag him into her bed and have her way with him?”
I slapped her hand away from where it was still patting my head. “So glad I told you. I feel so much better. So reassured right now.”
Alex laughed and twirled one of the chains coming off her black vinyl bustier. It was the first day of a new quarter. Chains, vinyl, and torn-up fishnets were the obvious choice. “Calm down, little kitten.”
“I might if you weren’t here, doing the opposite of calming me with your opposite of reassuring premonitions.”
She laughed again then cut it short when she saw my face. “Okay, let’s approach this rationally since approaching it emotionally is making you an angry cat.” She tapped her chin for a few seconds, then her eyes widened. “Are you worried about Jesse actually going for Jolene?”
After deciding that Alex was serious, I gave her question some thought. I didn’t need to give it much. “No.” It was a simple, truthful answer. Jesse didn’t possess a non-loyal bone in his body.
“Are you worried about him getting drunk off his ass and jumping into bed with her in his drunken haze?”
I rolled my eyes. Jesse did drunk about as often as he did disloyalty. “No.”
“Then what are you worried about exactly?”
That was the question that sent the proverbial punch to my gut. What in the hell was I so worried about? Why had I wasted precious time fuming over some inconsequential person? The lines in my forehead felt close to becoming permanent. “I don’t know.”
Alex’s eyes met mine. “So you’re not worried about Jolene and Jesse’s future relationship. Good, we got to the bottom of that. But, and this is one big but you better pay attention to, girl, because it’s a doozy . . . but you should be worried about Jesse’s and yours. Because this little jealous, insecure thing you’re dealing with will only hurt the two of you.”
And round two of the proverbial gut punch.
I thought about what Alex had just said for so long, the doughnut in my hand came close to petrifying. She was right on every single level I’d been wrong on. How had I missed that? What had clouded me to seeing it? Was it my tendency to glom on to the bad in life? Shit, I hoped not. Or was it because I loved Jesse so much I’d become a crazed person boiled down to raw emotion and instinct? I wasn’t eager for either of those possibilities to come out on top.