Near and Far
Page 28

 Nicole Williams

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I shook my head. How else could a person respond to that? “Jolene doesn’t like me like that.”
“Uh . . . yes, she does.”
I crossed my arms. “No, she doesn’t.”
Garth studied me for a few seconds, then sat up. “You really are clueless when it comes to the female species, Jess. You know that?”
“I suppose entrusting my girlfriend to my best friend a couple of years ago should have clued me into that.” I gave him an accusatory look.
Garth raised his middle finger at me. “That should have been a big clue, and you not picking up on Jolene’s borderline Fatal Attraction toward you is another.”
I settled my hands on my h*ps and exhaled. “You really think Jolene likes me . . . in that way.” I didn’t want to bring up the hump, hump, dream hump, ring analogy again.
“Jess, I’m ninety-nine percent she already has your wedding date set and your kids’ names picked out.”
As much as I wanted to believe Garth was wrong, he usually wasn’t about that type of things. Plus, even though she hadn’t outright said it, Rowen didn’t like Jolene and obviously had something against her. Could her knowing Jolene had a thing for me be the reason why? The longer I thought about it, the more it made sense. The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered how I’d been so oblivious. I’d been preoccupied lately, but really, I probably hadn’t noticed because I wasn’t concerned about what Jolene said or did. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t in a noticing frame of mind with her. I noticed Rowen, every single thing she did, and every undertone and hidden meaning in what she said. My mind was trained to notice her, not Jolene, and perhaps that was why I’d missed it.
“You’re positive?”
Garth chuckled darkly. “The only thing I’ve been more positive about is that I’m better looking than you.”
“Says no female in existence.” Narrowly missing his kick, I headed back toward Old Bessie and an even more complicated situation.
“Where you going, ugly?”
“Clearing something up.”
“When you’re done with that, let her know I’m available if she wants to work out any angst or frustration,” Garth said.
Jolene was still gripping the steering wheel and glaring out the windshield when I approached. It didn’t look like she was going to acknowledge me, and that was okay. She didn’t need to; she just needed to hear me.
I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for upsetting you, Jolene. I’m sorry for hurting your feelings too, if I did that.”
“You did,” she replied slowly.
“I’m sorry for that. But I thought you knew. I thought it was obvious.” I leaned inside the passenger window. My truck was, as I guessed, overpowered by that fruity, sweet perfume.
“What did you think was obvious?” She still wouldn’t look at me.
“That I want to spend the rest of my life with Rowen.” It was sure obvious to everyone else. I don’t know why it hadn’t been to Jolene.
“You’ve made that pretty damn obvious,” Jolene huffed, giving me a sideways glare. “But you know, what if Rowen doesn’t feel the same way? What if one day she wakes up and decides she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life with you?”
I didn’t want to think about that at all, but I had the answer. “Then I’ll die a single man.”
Jolene laughed a few strained notes.
“It’s her or no one for me, Jolene. I’ve known that for a while now. I can’t control Rowen’s future, but I can control mine. If she decides she doesn’t want me to be a part of hers one day, I’m going to wind up a lonely man.” I sighed, wishing the pain in my chest would go away. “It’s a better option than pretending with someone else.”
Jolene shook her head. “You’d really rather be alone than pretend with someone else?”
“Yes.” It was the obvious choice for me.
She turned the ignition and Old Bessie fired to life. I snagged the cooler out of the bed before she tore off. “You and I really are two totally different people, Jesse. Enjoy your life.” She finally looked over at me. Her eyes were shiny, which made me feel even worse than I already did. “I don’t want you to live alone, but something tells me you’re going to with the woman you’ve picked. A girl like that doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone. A girl like that doesn’t know how to give real love because she’s never been able to accept it.”
My body went rigid. “A girl like Rowen knows something about real love that a girl like you could never understand, Jolene. And that’s all I’m going to mention about Rowen around you again. I think it’s best you leave now. We’ve both said more than enough, I think.”
My words hadn’t been kind ones, I knew that, but neither had hers. I normally didn’t adhere to the repay fire with fire motto, but Jolene saying that Rowen didn’t know how to give or receive real love had angered me in a way that felt unbridled. Even though Rowen was hundreds of miles away and Jolene’s words would never make their way back to her, I still felt an overwhelming need to protect her.
“It looks like you and I finally agree on something, Jesse,” Jolene replied, before punching the gas. Old Bessie bounced through the field so furiously, I was certain the fender was going to pop off again, but it never did. Or at least not that I saw.
When I made my way back to Garth, he’d already dove into dinner. “So? How did it go?” He wasn’t even trying to keep his smile contained.
I dropped down beside him. “Shut up.”
BY THE TIME Garth and I’d been relieved and we’d made it back to Willow Springs, it was past ten. Rowen and I usually talked around nine her time since that was her break time if she was working and it was a little before I went to bed. Hey, don’t judge; when a person gets up at four in the morning, they can’t stay up until two . . . at least not every night.
I couldn’t remember if Rowen was working that night, though. That worried me. I always remembered what shifts she worked. Not because I needed to know where she was every minute of every day, but because I liked to know what she was doing hundreds of miles away. When I was out checking the fence, or hauling feed, or lately, up to my elbows in cow placenta, I liked to imagine for a few minutes what she was doing. Was she in class? Painting a picture, half of her face scrunched up as she decided what it was missing? Out with her friends, taking advantage of all Seattle had to offer? Or was she selling crazy doughnuts, turning down the music every time she passed the stereo system?
Usually I had to guess what she might be up to, and that was all part of the fun, but on the nights she was working, I could almost imagine exactly what she was doing. I’d watched her from the back table for so many hours, I think I knew her job almost as well as she did. But I didn’t know if she was working. I couldn’t remember, and that upset me more than it should have. I knew it had a lot to do with everything that had been going on in my head lately; my mind had felt like a never-ending maze of dominos tumbling over for the past month.
After getting Sunny taken care of for the night, I grabbed my phone from the small barn office and checked for missed calls. Sure enough, I had one and a voice mail.
“Have a nice night of phone sex.” Garth smacked my arm as he passed by. “Say hi to Rowen for me.”
I had the phone to my ear, waiting for the voice mail to start, so I gave Garth a reply in sign language.
“Sorry. I meant, moan hi to Rowen for me.” Garth gave me a thumbs-up as he left the barn.
I’d had my fill of Garth Black for one day three hours ago. Finally, I was getting a reprieve.
“Hey, Jesse, it’s me.” Rowen’s voice put an instant smile on my face. “So it looks like I missed you. Again. I know you’ve been really busy.” There was a long pause, long enough it made me freeze. “So, I really didn’t want to tell you this on a voice mail, but since I missed you last night and you missed me tonight, I have to tell you some way . . . I won’t be able to come out next weekend.” My smile was gone. So far gone. “I didn’t realize it when we made plans for me to come visit, but that’s the same weekend as the Spring Art Show. Since I guess I’m on the committee, I can’t really miss it.” Rowen sighed, sounding as bad as I felt. “And even though I know you can’t come see me with everything you’ve got going on, I’m still going to be selfish and ask if you can. Because I want to see you, Jesse. I want to see you so bad I’m half tempted to just drop out of school so I don’t have to be at this Spring Art Show thingie. Okay, so I’m exaggerating. A little.” Another long sigh. “I’m sorry. I suck as a girlfriend and, apparently, I suck at keeping a calendar. All right, I’ll stop taking up your time with my ramblings and let you get to bed. I know you’ve got to be exhausted. I’ll try calling about the same time tomorrow night. Okay?”
I was already trying to remember which button I needed to punch to replay the message because, even though it was just a voice mail, it was Rowen. It was a piece of her I could have and hold on to.
“I’m just getting ready to head out with Jax and the other person on the committee so we can get this sucker planned, but I couldn’t go a night without talking to you. Or at least, talking to your recording.” That time, I sighed with her. “I miss you, Jesse. Right now, it almost feels like I miss you as much as I love you . . . and you know how much that is. Sleep tight and sweet dreams. Sweet dreams of me, okay?” She ended her call with an air kiss, and I hit the replay button immediately.
So many things unsettled me about that message. I also knew there were just as many things that should have reassured me, and the old me would have focused on the good and barely noticed the bad. But the other person, the Jesse that was caught in a tug-of-war between the old and new, was only concerned with the unsettling parts. That, of course, unsettled me even more.
I left the barn listening to Rowen’s message again and wishing I could will her there. For one minute even. Just so I could hold her and she could hold me and I would know everything would be all right. I’d remind myself of the man she saw when she looked at me and remember why it was so important that I overcome my internal battle. I couldn’t seem to win the war for myself, but I believed I could for her. I’d do anything for Rowen, including caging demons I’d unknowingly set free. I just needed to see her. To feel her close. I needed more than a message left on my phone. I wished I didn’t, I wished a few voice mails and a couple of phone calls could be enough, but I knew it wasn’t. I wasn’t as strong as I thought, and realizing that was terrifying.
Heading up the porch steps, I was about to hit replay for the third time when I noticed something moving from the corner of my eye. Mom was on one of the swings, a plastic bin in her lap, smiling gently at me.
“Hey, sweetheart. How are you doing?” Mom’s voice always had an undercurrent of concern—that’s part of what made her such an incredible mother and person—but her greeting held more concern than normal. She knew something was up with me, but she’d given me my space. She’d always known what I needed, even during those first few years.