I flicked my cigarette as I watched my little sister play on the swings. I got evil looks from most everyone that passed by. The long hair, tattoos, piercings, and cigarette to my lips always made people do a double take with their judgemental eyes. At least I got the park bench all to myself. I was about to take another drag from my cigarette but was shocked when some girl who looked to be about my age sat down next to me.
“Can I help you?”
She looked up from her phone and at me. “Excuse me?”
She had on pink sunglasses and her blonde hair sat in a messy bun on top of her head. She adjusted the strap of her tank top that had slid down her shoulder a little. I noticed she had a neon green swim suit top on under her tanktop. The beach front wasn’t far from here and by the look of her shoulders and nose, she was probably there all day.
“Just wondering why you decided to sit here.” I took a drag of my cigarette and went back to watching my sister.
She looked around the park and at me again. She looked at the bench we were sitting on. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you owned this bench.”
“I don’t. It’s just people usually avoid me. Especially, people like you.” I raised my pierced eyebrow at her.
“People like me?” She scoffed. “Well, for your information, I’m new to Corpus Christi and this whole place freaks me out. So, seeing that you look like a really punked out version of Thor, I figured I’d pick the seat next to a twisted super hero rather than that guy over there.” I looked where she was pointing and saw a guy in a suit with a backpack on the ground next to him. “He looks like he might blow something up. It’s the people that look normal you can’t trust.”
I burst out laughing. “That’s his son’s backpack. He’s over there,” I said pointing to a little boy about five.
She shrugged. “Well, welcome to how my brain works.”
“I like your brain. It’s interesting.”
She moved her sunglasses down to the end of her nose, looking at me with her icy blue eyes. “Besides, you’re at a park macho man. You can’t be that scary.” Her phone started ringing. “Finally!” She answered it and stood. “Where are you! I need a ride!” She started chewing on her nails that were painted black.
“Bubby, can you tie my shoe?” Ellie asked as she ran over to me. I picked her up and helped her tie her shoe.
“The park,” the girl said into the phone. “You know the one in the center of the city? Just a block from the beach front.” She walked off toward the corner where there were stop lights.
“Do you see that pretty girl over there?” I asked Ellie quietly.
She nodded and looked over at the girl I had just been talking to.
“What do you think? Should I talk to her more?”
Ellie smiled and gave me the thumbs up before going off to play more.
I got up and saw the girl about to walk into oncoming traffic. She was busily talking on the phone and not paying a bit of attention. I ran after her and stopped her before she went to walk. A car blared its horn.
“Whoa, it’s big city! You have to wait until you have the right signal.” I pushed the button. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
She hung up her phone and looked over her shoulder at all the traffic that about smashed her. “See? Superhero.” She laughed. “And I don’t want to bother you. I can call a cab. My roommate was borrowing my car, and she’s in a bind and can’t make it.”
“It’s not a big deal. Ellie and I were heading out soon anyway.”
I looked back toward where Ellie was and whistled. Ellie looked up and came running. I picked her up and tickled her making her laugh.
“Ummm, I don’t know.”
“I promise I won’t kill you. At least not in front of Ellie.”
Ellie grinned. “Bubby isn’t scary.”
She laughed. “Okay. But if you decide to, make it quick.”
“Will do.” I motioned my head toward the parking lot and shifted Ellie so she was on my back wrapping her arms around my neck.
“I’m Aaron and this is Ellie, my little sister.” Ellie smiled at the girl. “So, what’s your name and where are we taking you?”
“Peyhirk Heights. You know the condos over by that really big mall?”
I nodded. “Not going to get a name am I?” I smirked.
She shrugged and followed me.
“Okay, then we will think of name. What do you have think, Ellie?”
I chuckled. “Well, Princess it is.” I looked over at the girl.
She laughed. Her phone started ringing and she answered it. “Hey, I’m good. I have a ride. Just make sure you’re at class in the morning, okay?” She laughed at something the person said and then hung up.
“You going to college, Princess?” I asked with a smile as I unlocked my Jeep. I put Ellie in her booster seat and buckled her in.
“Yup. So, should I sit in the front or back?”
“Up to you.” I smiled and got in the driver side. I watched as she opened the passenger door and got in.
“My name is Austen.” She smiled and held her hand out to me.
I shook it. “Aaron. So, I’m guessing you haven’t started classes yet since they start tomorrow. What classes are you taking?”
“Basics. It’s my first year here.”
She looked down at her feet in the floorboard. “My Chucks are filled with sand. I was at the beach before walking over to the park. Sorry if I get some in your vehicle.”
“I’m in my last year.” I looked down at her shoes for a second. “No problem. I have to clean the Jeep anyway.”
She moved her sunglasses to the top of her head. She was a little sun burnt under her eyes making her freckles pop.
I pulled down another street. “We’re almost to your place.”
“Yeah, all of this looks familiar now.”
I looked in the back seat and saw Ellie sound asleep. She usually crashed after playing. I looked back at the road and turned into the condo entrance. I stopped at the gate and she handed me her card to scan. When the gate opened, I started driving again.
I pulled close to where she told me her place was. “Maybe I’ll see ya around on campus, Princess.”
She laughed. “Maybe. Thanks for the ride..”
She got out, and I watched her go inside. My heart sped up a little. I actually looked forward to the possibility of seeing her again.
After my first class was over, I went to the coffee shop on campus. I hated coffee, but I was told if I was going to do this college thing right, I’d learn to love it.
“What can I get ya’?”
I looked at the barista with her magenta hair and then at the menu. “Ummm, something sweet.”
“You like chocolate?”
I nodded and wondered if it’d kill her to smile. She tapped on the computer screen, and I handed her my debit card. I waited at the end of the counter and looked around the room. I smiled when I spotted Aaron sitting at a table by himself. People gave him funny looks as they walked by. He had books spread across the table. I guess he really didn’t look like a guy who took anything seriously, so seeing him study was odd.
I sat down across from him. “Hey.” I smiled when he looked at me. I took my backpack off and set it next to my feet. I laughed when he did a double take. “I know, I actually have makeup on and brushed my hair today.”
A few girls walked by looking at me oddly and then at him. A girl like me probably looked odd next to a guy like him. I was put together and he was… messy. A hot messy and one you wouldn’t bring home to daddy.
I looked at the girls and smiled. “Morning.”
They didn’t say anything and kept walking.
I frowned. People treating him like he was some freak show at a circus pissed me off. Yeah, he looked like he belonged in a biker gang and not pursuing a degree, but they needed to get over it. He was a nice guy.
“Assholes…” I mumbled as I took a drink of my coffee. I made a face. Nasty. I set the cup down.
He laughed. “I’m guessing you don’t like coffee.”
“It’s terrible. I was told to start liking it to survive college.”
He smiled. “What do you like to drink since it’s not coffee?” He took my cup and tossed it in the trash.
He leaned forward, so his elbows were on the table. “I won’t laugh.”
“Chocolate milk.” I laughed. “The way Mom makes it.”
“How does your mom make it?”
I shrugged. “I have no clue. I know she uses the chocolate syrup, though. Nestle.”
He stood up and held his hand out for me. “Come on. Let’s see if we can make that chocolate milk.”
“Ummm, I have a class.”
“We’re just going to the back.” He pointed to the kitchen area of the coffee shop.
I laughed. “Seriously?”
I took his hand and stood. He grinned at me.
We went into the back and he started pulling things out to make me chocolate milk. He mixed the milk and syrup together and handed it to me. “More or less syrup?”
I took a sip. “More.” I laughed and handed it back to him.
People saw him working on it, but didn’t say anything. “Why aren’t they kicking us out?”
He added a bit more and smiled. “Because I own it. It’s my master’s thesis project for my business classes. The university liked the idea so much they let me set it up and run it.”
“The coffee shop?” I watched him stir the milk.
“Yeah. I’m in my last year of my business program. I started college at fifteen.”
He handed me the cup and I took a drink. I smiled. “Not Mom’s, but it’s close.” I laughed when he smiled. “You started college at fifteen?”
“Yup. And next time you come here, just ask for chocolate milk and tell them your name.” He wrote down something on a notepad and smiled at me. “I’l tape this to the counter.”
We walked out of the kitchen, and he handed the note to the barista before sitting back down.
He put his books in a stack and smiled at me. “Have you gotten your books yet?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I got them when my parents dropped me off here.”
I watched him put his books in a back pack. He had a ton more books than I did.
“I guess I should head to my next class. Thanks for the almost-mom’s-chocolate milk.”
He smiled and chuckled. “You’re welcome.”
“What’s your last name?”
He stood up and slung his bag onto his shoulder. “Charles.” He picked up my bag for me. “Do you mind if I walk you to class?”
“Not at all. It’s nice to know someone around here. My roommate is flaky as hell.” I started walking, and he followed beside me. “Glad I sat down on ‘your’ park bench yesterday,” I said while making air quotes.
He burst out laughing. “Me too, Princess. How many classes are you taking?”
“Four.” I took a drink of the chocolate milk. “So, have you always lived around here?”
“No. Ellie and I moved here with her mom, my stepmom, when I started college.”
“Well, we moved here when I started college here. Ellie was just a baby. So, how do you like it here so far?”
“I like the beach. Not sure about much else yet.”
We made it to my building and Aaron handed me my bag. He looked down at his watch. “You better hurry or you’ll be late. Have a good day, Princess.” He smiled and walked off heading in the opposite direction.
“Yes, Dad, I lock my doors every night. Stop worrying so much!”
He chuckled. “I can’t help but worry, Austen. You’re my baby girl, and it’s my job to worry.”
I laughed and paused my show on Netflix. “Says every parent in the entire world. I think it’s in the parent owner’s manual that all parents have to say that same exact phrase at least one time in their kids adult life.”
“I already told you that the parent manual is a top secret document. I can’t tell you if it does or not.”
I smiled. “O-kay, Dad. But really, this week has been great. My roommate is weird, but she helps clean and doesn’t eat my food. I’ve made a few friends, so that’s a plus.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me about your friends. And I’m putting you on speaker so your mother stops smacking me on the arm. She wants to hear everything, too.”
I laughed. “There are few girls from Comp that I clicked with. We’re actually going out for a movie in a little while. And…” I almost told him about Aaron but stopped. I liked Aaron, but I only knew him through our brief encounters on campus, and if I told Dad about a boy, he’d flip out. Especially, if he took one look at him.
“And? You paused after ‘and’,” Mom said and Dad laughed.
“I did? Oh. Well, that was it.”
“I miss you, honey,” Mom said sounding majorly depressed. I was always her mini-me, sidekick, and best friend. They still had my brother Jacob at home. He was the uh-oh and still in junior high. Mom was outnumbered now and she was sure to remind me every chance she got.
“Who is gonna stay up and re-watch Gilmore Girls with me when I can’t sleep?”
I laughed and looked at my TV which had an episode of it paused. “We’ll just have to catch up together when I come home to visit.”
I heard my doorbell ring which was weird. I didn’t expect anyone to be coming by already.
“Guys, I gotta go. I’ll call you Sunday. Love you!”
“Love you, too,” they said in unison before hanging up.
I grabbed my throw blanket off the couch and wrapped it around my shoulders. I wasn’t wearing a bra under my t-shirt. I was going to get ready for the movie later and was enjoying lounging around in my pj’s. I opened the door and froze when I saw Aaron and a box of pizza in his hands.
I smiled as I looked Austen up and down.
“Now, this is the girl I first met.” I couldn’t wipe the damn smile off my face. I normally wasn’t like this. I kept my distance from people. I went to school, worked, and spent time with Ellie. I wasn’t even that close to Ruthie – my stepmom. I took care of he, but my heart only let Ellie in. So, why the hell did this little slip of a woman make my heart speed up and make me think about a different future than the one I already had figured out for myself?
“I brought pizza. I thought maybe you’d like to have dinner with me.” I took in her messy bun and lack of makeup. “You’re beautiful.” I cleared my throat and looked down at my feet as I rocked back on my heels. “So, I didn’t mean for that to come out of my mouth.”
She laughed and let me in.
“How did you get past the gate?” She shut the door behind her and showed me to the kitchen. She kept a blanket wrapped tightly around her.
“The guard might have thought I was the pizza delivery guy.”
She burst out laughing. “I’ll be right back.” She went down the hall and into a room.
I put the pizza on the counter and looked around the condo. It was an open floor plan so I could see the living room, dining room, and kitchen. I saw pictures on her fridge of her and who I was assuming were her parents. There was also a teenaged boy that favored Austen.
When she came out she was adjusting her shirt. She looked down at her flannel pajama pants and smiled. “I’m having a lazy afternoon until it’s time to get ready. I’m going to a movie with some girls later.”
“That sounds like fun.” I looked at my watch. I had two hours before I had to head to work. “I’m glad you’re making friends.”
“Yeah, me too.” She got out plates and set them at the bar. She went and opened the fridge. “I have water, Coke, milk, and orange juice. What do you want?”
“Milk.” I opened the box of pizza. “You sure you’re okay with me being here. I would have called but I don’t have your number.”
She got out the milk and poured two glasses. After putting the milk away, she walked over and sat on a stool at the bar.
“I’d be stupid to turn down pizza.” She grinned. “And, it’s a nice surprise, Aaron.”
“I’m glad.” I sat down on the stool next to her’s. “How are your classes going?”
“They’re… going.” She got out some pizza and put it on her plate. “Definitely different than high school. How about yours?”
“A lot of work. I’m in the last year of my master’s program. I have a lot of work I’m doing with business and the coffee shop. It’s insane.”
“How old are you?”
I chuckled. “Twenty.”
She took a drink of her milk. “I’m eighteen. But you mentioned you started college at fifteen. Which is crazy insane. You must be super smart.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I’ve been in school for five years, and I’ve already finished two degrees and on my last year of my Master’s.”
I blushed a little. “It’s not a big deal.”
She smiled, making two dimples appear that I hadn’t noticed before. “It’s pretty amazing and very much a big deal.” She crossed her right leg over her left and took a bite of her pizza.”You’re the first person I’ve met that drinks milk with their pizza like me.”
“I drink milk with almost everything. It’s an addiction.”
I laughed. “Is that why you’re a giant?”
“Maybe, considering my father and mother both weren’t this tall.”
When we were done eating we went into the living room and she moved a duffle bag that had pom poms sticking out of it to the floor.She turned off the TV that had a show paused on it.
“You’re a cheerleader?” I asked as I picked up a pom pom.
She smiled. “Yeah. So is my roommate.”
I laughed. “So, I’m guessing I’m definitely not your type then.” I put my hands in my pockets. Of course she isn’t you idiot.
She frowned. “Actually, I don’t really have a type thank you very much. ” She put her hands on her hips and turned into a ball of sass. “And did you come here with pizza because you’re trying to hook up? I’m not that type of girl, Aaron.”
I put my hands up in defense. “Whoa, Princess, it was just a question and I don’t hook up.”
She looked relieved. “You don’t seem like the type to give a damn about stereotypes. I may look like a girl who does, but I don’t.”
“Well, then I’m sorry for assuming things.”
“No one is my type and never ask me to explain because it’s complicated. But, I’d really like it if we could be friends.” She smiled.
I leaned down and kissed her cheek. “I’d like that too. I should go. I have to head to work soon.”
She raised a brow at me. “Friends don’t kiss friends on the cheek, Aaron.”
“Maybe I do.” I grinned.
She walked me to the door. “Thanks for the pizza.”
I was exhausted. I was glad this was my last year of all this shit. My last year of school, last year of working at the mill, and the last year before I get one job that can help me take care of Ruthie and Ellie. I yawned and looked up as someone sat across from me. It was Austen in her cheerleader outfit. I leaned back in my chair.
“Hey!” Okay, I said that rather happier than I should have. Just friends. Just friends. I tilted my head to the side as I looked her over. “Do you have practice today?”
She looked around and then at me with a chuckle. “Aaron, it’s Friday night. Have you not noticed everyone is wearing the school colors? It’s the first football game tonight. You sure you’ve been going to school here five years or was that a load of shit?” She smiled. She looked at her uniform. “And we don’t practice in this.”
“I don’t have time for games. And I don’t usually pay much attention to anyone.”
“So, you’re a legit loner?”
“Yeah. I guess that’s what you’d call me,” I said looking down at my books with a frown.
“You should come to the game tonight.”
“Ummm, I don’t know.”
She shut my book. “What if I told you I want you to?”
I scrunched my eyebrows at her. “You don’t want me there, do you?” I asked in confusion. I started putting my books in my backpack.
“Of course I do! I told my friends all about you. I don’t want them thinking I just made you up.” She smiled real big when I looked at her. I noticed she had gold glitter around her eyes, making them look even bluer. “Please?”
“How could I say no to that. I’d hate for your friends to think you’re crazy.”
I finished packing up all my books. “I have to work the late shift tonight, so, I will be able to go for a bit anyway.”
She grabbed one of my hands in excitement but stopped and turned it over when she felt how rough they were. I tried to pull my hand back but she had a strong grip for a little thing.
“What do you do where you work at night?”
“I work at the local steel mill. It’s hard work, but it pays well enough.”
She let go of my hand. She was about to say something when a group of cheerleaders came over stealing her away. She looked over her shoulder at me with a huge smile.
“I better see you tonight!” She said before turning back around and following them.
I groaned when I realized that I was already in deep, and I barely knew the girl who made it clear we can only be friends.
“Well, fuck.” I mumbled.
I was a sweaty mess. I put my duffle bag over my shoulder and walked out to the parking lot. When I made it out the gate of the football field, and I smiled when I saw Aaron standing there.
“We won!” I jumped a little and he smiled.
“I guess we did.” He chuckled a little.
“Did you have fun? Or did you hate it?”
He shrugged and took my duffle from me. “I enjoyed watching you. You really get into the game.”
I blushed a little. “Yeah… I’m really competitive.”
“I could tell. It was cute.”
I looked at my bag he carried as we walked. “I can carry that.” I reached for it.
He moved it his other shoulder. “I’m trying to be a gentleman and good friend.” He grinned.
Of course I noticed the muscles in his arms flex as he moved the bag. He was such a good looking guy; it was hard not to stare. I stopped walking. “Shoot! I totally forgot I didn’t bring my car. I rode with Jen, but she’s headed to a party. I’m not going. Too much homework.” I reached for my bag and laughed when he moved it again. “Can I at least get my phone?”
“I can give you a ride home. It’s on way to work.”
“I’m sure. The mill isn’t far from your condo.”
“Thanks.” We started walking again.
The group of girls from my class I went to the movies with stopped us. Emma wiggled her eyebrows at me when she saw Aaron.
“Is this your date for the party tonight?” she asked in a sing song voice.
I laughed. “He’s my friend I was telling you about. Just friends, Emma. He has to work and I’m headed home to work on that paper. Writing takes me forever.” I looked at Aaron’s and smiled. “This is Emma.”
Aaron nodded a little. “Nice to meet you.”
I looked at the other girls. “And Val and Marlee.”
They both waved.
“Well, I’ll have a drink for ya!” Emma smiled at me, then looked at Aaron. “Nice to meet you. Oh, and we all like pizza too.” She winked.
The girls laughed.
“Good to know,” Aaron said as he took a step back from Emma who had taken a step closer to him.
I felt my girl-claws coming out but quickly remembered that Aaron could be nothing more to me than a friend. He was free game.
“We should get going. I need to head to work,” Aaron said looking down at me with a smile.
We told the girls bye and then headed to his Jeep. I watched as he put my bag in the backseat and then we both got in.
As he drove I crawled over the console and leaned into the back to grab my cellphone.
“What are you doing?” he asked with a laugh.
“Getting my phone if I can find it.” I dug through my bag until I finally found it. I sat back down in the seat and started scrolling through my messages.
“So… I’m guessing you have a guy back home.” Aaron turned down a street.
I tensed a little. “Something like that.”
Just then I saw a text from Clay.
Clay: Did your team win?
Clay: Good. Make sure to let me know when you make it home.
Me: I will.
I set my phone on my lap. I looked at Aaron. I loved the way the streetlights highlighted his features. I sighed. I knew I needed to give him some sort of answer. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s okay, Austen. You don’t have to talk about it.” He patted my leg a little, then moved his hand as he turned down the road that lead to my condo.
I picked up my phone and pulled up my contacts. “What’s your number?”
“Honestly, I don’t have a damn clue.” He laughed and pulled his phone out of his pocket and used his thumb to unlock it. When he handed it to me, I saw a picture of him and Ellie. I put my number in his phone and after texting my phone from his, I handed it back to him.
“Your sister is super cute,” I said as I created a contact for him in my phone.
“Yeah. She is.” He smiled and it took my breath away. Seeing the love he had for his sister was adorable. “She’s a mess though. I think I might have spoiled her a bit.”
“I have a little brother, but not as little. He’s fifteen.”
He pulled up to the gate of my condo and put his phone under his leg. He looked over at me.
He smiled. “I need your access card.”
“Crap.” I laughed and climbed over the console and leaned into the back. I started digging around my bag for my card. It was late, so the cards only worked at this hour. No gatekeeper.
“I have seen your ass an awful lot tonight. I think as a friend I should let you know you have a nice one,” Aaron said teasingly.
I burst out laughing and sat back down in my seat after I found the access card. I held it out to him.
“You didn’t have to look.”
“I’m your guy friend. Not your gay friend,” he said with a laugh as he used my card to open the gate.
I laughed some more. “Alright, to be fair, I’ve totally checked you out, too.”
“I believe it’s okay to look just not touch.” He smiled as he drove to the front of my condo.
“Do you need me to walk with you?”
“I can go alone.” I smiled. “Thanks for the ride. Again.”
“Any time. Goodnight, Austen.”
I leaned over the console and kissed his cheek. “Night.”
“I thought friends didn’t kiss friends on the cheek.”
“Well, maybe I do.” I winked at him before getting out. I reached in the back and got my bag. I shut the door and headed inside.
How I got talked into the party instead of writing my paper, I’ll never know. I was serious when I said I wasn’t going, but then girls from the squad, my roommate Katie, and my other girlfriends came and got me to go. And, dammit, was I paying for it. Just when I thought I couldn’t puke anymore, there I was, hovering over the toilet throwing up.
My parents didn’t want me to come here. They wanted me to at a school close to home where they could watch my every move. But, this was a part of the agreement. I needed four years to just be me, then I’d go back home and be who they needed me to be. And me having a hangover from hell is one of the reasons they didn’t want me to come here. It was a party school and it worried them. Not so much for my health, more for their image if I were found out about.
I walked back to my room after washing my face and brushing my teeth and fell into my bed on my stomach. I groaned.
My phone dinged.
I moved my hand around my comforter until I found it. I squinted my eyes as I looked at the screen.
Aaron: I just got off work. Do you want to eat breakfast with me?
Aaron: did you already have breakfast? If you did, I can take this all home.
Me: You’re here?!
I sat up and the room started to spin.
Me: Come in. The door should be unlocked.
Aaron: that’s not safe at all.
I quickly got out of bed which was a mistake. I was still semi-drunk and fell on my ass.
I crawled around in my dark room trying to find my bra. I knew I would have thrown it on the floor somewhere when I got back. It was the first thing to go as soon as I got home.
I found it and took off my shirt. I put it on and then got up and turned on the light. I squinted my eyes because it hurt my head. I went to my closet and found a pair of jeans and a tank top. I put them on and smoothed out my hair the best I could as I walked into the hall. The door was opening and Aaron came in carrying bags of groceries.
I leaned against the counter, well, more like the counter held me up. He stopped when he saw me.
“Damn, are you hungover?”
“Well, you definitely don’t want food then.” He put the bags down on the counter. “Why don’t you head back to bed. I can show myself out.”
“You’re all about surprises aren’t you?” I slowly made my way over to the bags and started peeking in them. “I’m just really thirsty. And you don’t have to leave if you don’t want. I’m sure you’re exhausted, and I plan on doing absolutely nothing today. We can be lazy together.” I smiled when I saw Gatorade. “Are you reading my mind?” I pulled it out.
“It’s not really that I’m about surprises, it’s more like I have limited amount of time so I tend to make the most of it.” He smiled. ” And no, I actually got it for me, but I can drink orange juice you can’t.”
I set it down. “No, I’m not taking your drink. I’ll be fine with water.”
“Drink it. I’m sure you’ve been throwing up. I’m okay with orange juice or milk.”
I opened it and took a long drink. “See? You really are a superhero.”
I walked over to the couch, thankful for the open floor plan so I could still see Aaron in the kitchen. I sat down and rested my head on the back of the couch.
“Do you want me to cook you anything?” he asked as he put stuff into the fridge.
He walked over to me and looked at me – towering over me. I knew he was a large guy, but I didn’t realize just how tall he was until he was standing and I was sitting. He was a giant.
“I’m okay right now. And did you seriously buy groceries for my house?” I smiled.
He shrugged and sat down on the couch next to me. “When I was here last, I saw you had a very empty fridge.”
“I eat out a lot and so does my roommate. It’s easier.” I moved until I was sitting on my feet and facing him.
“I can see how that would be easier.”
“I know it’s terrible for me, but I’m too busy to cook.” My head was pounding. “Do you have to work tonight?”
“You should do what I do. I meal prep, and no, I’m off today. I go back in tomorrow morning.”
I looked at the sleeve of tattoos on his left arm. The art was amazing. I looked at his eyes and noticed they were hazel. I hadn’t let myself stare at them long enough to notice before.
“I don’t know. I’m a professional procrastinator. Drives my dad crazy.”
He laughed. “Everyone is different. It’s what makes things interesting.”
“Alright, then maybe you can teach me to meal prep.” I yawned. “So, after working all night, you went to the grocery store?” I smiled a little.
“Yeah. I tend to run on very little sleep. Now, speaking of sleep, go back to bed.”
I yawned again. “But, I want to hang out with you. You’re fun.”
He stood up and scooped me into his arms. “I’m glad I’m fun. But I will still be around after you get some sleep. Just text me when you want to hang out.”
The movement of him walking made me nauseous. I closed my eyes and buried my face against his chest. I groaned. “Second door on the right.”
He opened my bedroom door and walked in. He gently laid me down in bed. He covered me up and kissed my forehead. “Get some sleep.”
It was strange. I wanted to spend every second I could with this guy. He was so easy to be around and made me laugh more than I had in what felt like forever. It felt so easy to be me with him, and I barely knew him.
I grabbed his hand when he went to walk out. It still shocked me at how rough his hands were from work. I had never been around men who did manual labor. I was raised around suits, expensive dinner parties, and really important people. I was always the odd ball, though. The bad apple of the family. It felt good to be near someone who I could just be me around.
“Stay,” I whispered.
He sat down on the floor. “I’ll stay until you fall asleep.” He laid down on the floor with his right arm behind his head.
I moved to the edge of the bed and laid on my side so I could see him. “Can we hang out this afternoon?”
He smiled at me. “Of course. What do you want to do?”
I closed my eyes. “The beach?” I opened them again and looked at him.
“Then the beach it is. Get some sleep.”
I nodded with a sleepy smile and closed my eyes.
I arrived at Austen’s feeling full of energy and ready to spend the afternoon with her at the beach. A friend of mine was letting me take her to his private beach area. It would be just the two of us and no over crowded beaches. I hurried up the stairs to her door and knocked. I looked down at myself in my swim trunks and a fitted black t-shirt. I ran my hand through my loose long hair as I waited for her. She opened the door and moved back to let me in.
She smiled as she looked at me. “So, we have a problem.”
“And what’s that?”
“I can’t find my swimsuit. It’s gone.”
I bit my tongue to keep from saying something that would probably get me slapped. I mean, I was a good guy, but still a guy. “When’d you last wear it?”
“I go all the time, so just the other day. Is it okay if we stop by the store, so I can buy a new one?”
“Sure. What store do we need to go to?”
“Target should work. I always find stuff there.”
I put my hand to her lower back. “Alrighty then, let’s head there.”
She grabbed her purse on our way out.
As I drove, Austen scanned the radio until she found a station with classic rock she liked.
She rolled the window down and smiled at me as she sang terribly, but adorably to Stairway to Heaven.
She laughed. “Come on, Aaron, please tell me you know this!” She turned it up and started singing louder.
“Yes, I know it, but I don’t sing.”
“Me either, but it’s fun!” She smiled at me and then rested her arm on the window ledge and put her chin on her arm. The breeze blew through her hair as I drove.
She was pure perfection. I sighed and started singing to the song. I only ever sang to Ellie.
She looked at me and grinned.
There was a Target nearby, so it didn’t take much time to get there. When we made it to the bathing suits I felt a little out of place.
“I don’t think I will ever let Ellie wear a bikini,” I said as I noticed an extremely sexy one that would cover very little.
She laughed. “My dad hates them, too.” She grabbed a couple tops she liked and then searched the racks for bottoms. “But, think about it, guys get to wear just shorts. Why don’t girls get to go topless and just wear shorts too?”
I laughed. “If you want to, I won’t stop you,” I said teasingly. “But we don’t have anything as…” I waved at my chest. “Great as you girls do.” I could feel my face flushing. “I mean… I’m going to stop talking now.” I looked down at a black bathing suit.
She laughed and eyeballed the suit I was looking at. “You like that one?”
I held it out to her. “Yeah.” She looked at the size, then added it to the rest of the ones she had in her hands.
“I’m gonna go try these on.” She handed me her purse to hold and went to the fitting rooms.
I sat down on the bench next to the fitting room. This was all new to me. I usually went in with Ellie when I bought her clothes. I didn’t know exactly what to do.
“So, do I just sit here. I’m in new territory here,” I said with a laugh.
“What else would you do?” She laughed.
“I don’t know. When I bring Ellie I go in with her, but I think that would put a strain on our friendship,” I said teasingly.
She laughed. “I’d say so.”
I chuckled. “How’s it going?” I leaned my head back against the wall. I burst out laughing when an older woman came out of the dressing room next to Austen’s looking upset. She gave me the evil eye before leaving the area. “Do you want to hear something entertaining?”
“It’s… going. And sure.” I heard her groan. “Finding a top that supports the girls is the worst part. Be glad you’re a man, Aaron.” I saw the black top of the suit I liked be draped over her door.
“We had someone next door listening to our conversation. She gave me the evil eye.” I stood, grabbed the top, and looked at the size. I walked around looking at swimsuits till I found a top I thought she would look amazing in. I walked back and draped it over the door. “Try this one.”
“It’s neon orange. I look terrible in orange.” She laughed. “But I’ll try it. I found bottoms, though.”
I sat back down. “You’ve tanned some. I think the orange will look good.”
“Very observant,” she said with a laugh, then she was silent. “Damn, it actually fits. Nice job, Aaron!”
“Like you said. I’m very observant.” I couldn’t stop smiling.
She came out of the dressing room all dressed and holding the suit she picked out. “Does that mean you’ve been staring at my chest?”
I swear I grinned from ear to ear. “Maybe.” She shook her head and smiled as we headed toward the registers.
I got the snorkeling gear out of the back of my jeep as Austen hurried to put her feet in the sand. This was my favorite place to go and the best place to go snorkeling. I walked over to the chairs I had brought and put all the stuff down next to them before joining her.
“So, you said you wanted to find awesome shells, right?” I took my shirt off and tossed it onto the chair. My six seven self was mostly covered in tattoos. There were a few places without ink, but I was saving those areas for special occasions. I looked down at Austen, and I felt myself blush a little with how her eyes were staring at me. “Do I need to put my shirt back on?”
“Please, don’t.” She smiled and her cheeks flushed pink. She looked at the water and her smile grew. “In another life, I would have been a mermaid.”
I chuckled a little. “You ready to go snorkeling?”
She looked extremely unsure. “Are there sharks?”
“Probably, but I’ll protect you. And how would you be a mermaid if you’re scared of sharks?”
“If I were a mermaid, then I wouldn’t have a reason to be scared.” She took off her tank top and slid her shorts down her legs. “Sharks freak me out.”
Now, I was the one who couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Damn. I cleared my throat as she adjusted her bright orange top and forced my eyes to look at the ocean. “We’ll stay close to the reefs.”
She tossed her clothes into the chair with my shirt. “Alright. Let’s do it then.”
I helped her get all of her gear on and then got ready myself.
I smiled and took her hand in mine. I started explaining what all she needed to do. She looked scared to death as I walked backward toward the water holding both of her hands.
I chuckled. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Princess.”
“I love the ocean, but I have phobia of what’s in the ocean.”
“It’ll be fine, I promise.”
She started laughing. “We look silly in all of this stuff.”
I smirked. “Yeah, we do. But I promise it’ll be worth it.”
I helped Austen carry up all the new shells we had found up to her condo. “Is it safe to say that you liked snorkeling?”
“Loved it!” She got her door unlocked and we went inside.
I put her shells on the counter and smiled. “You got quite a stash.”
I loved watching her. I loved the way her freckles stood out from being in the sun all day, how her cheeks were a little pink, and how she scrunched her nose as she looked at all her shells. She was too perfect, and I knew the way I was feeling was dangerous.
“I did! Thank you, Aaron. I had the best time.” She smiled at me as she set a shell down. “Want to stay for dinner?”
“I’d love that, but I should head home. I was going to cook dinner for Ruthie and Ellie before I headed to work.” I leaned against the counter. “You’re more than welcome to join us.” I laughed at the uneasy look on her face. “It’s okay to say no.”
“Do I have time to take a quick shower?”
I grinned. “Yes, you do.”
She motioned her hand toward the couch. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be fast.” She walked down the hall and into her room.
I walked into the living room and started looking at all the pictures of her and her family while she got ready to go to my house with me. Well, damn. I’d never invited anyone over to my place before. It wasn’t anything to be proud of. I sat down on the couch in shock that it was so easy to invite this girl to my place. Fuck.
On our way to Aaron’s he seemed nervous. I turned down the radio and turned in my seat a little. I loved how he had his hair pulled back and how his fingers tapped to the beat of the music on the steering wheel. He looked at me confused when he noticed there was no more music playing.
“You’re nervous. Why?”
“I’ve never taken anyone to my house before. It’s not… glamorous.” He winced at that word. “That’s not the right word. It’s a nice place it’s just kind of small, and I really hope clean. Ruthie said she would do that today.” He groaned. “I’m talking extremely fast. Sorry,” he said as he slowed down his speech some.
“Aaron,” I laughed. “It’s okay. Calm down.” I rubbed his shoulder. “Really, no worries, okay? You don’t have to impress me. You won my friendship with chocolate milk. You’re golden now.”
He laughed and eased up some. “I’m glad.” He turned into an apartment complex and parked.
This was one of those places you avoided at all costs. As a matter of fact, this was one of those places you would never go unless you were dealing drugs. I looked at Aaron.
“If you want me to take you back home I’ll understand, Austen.” His hands were gripping the steering wheel, and he wasn’t looking at me as he spoke.
I got out of his Jeep without answering. It may be sketchy as hell, but Aaron would never let anything happen to me. Aaron got out and smiled a little. He took my hand and led me to the apartment building and up the stairs to the second story landing. He pulled out his keys and opened a his front door. We were almost in when Ellie ran to us. She wrapped her little arms around his legs.
“You’re home!” she squealed.
His smile grew as he scooped her up. “Of course I’m home. I told ya I’d cook pancakes.” We walked inside, and he shut and locked the door. He turned and froze when he saw the place was a mess. He sighed in frustration. “Where’s Ruthie?”
“She went to sleep.” Ellie played with his hair.
I smiled a little. “I can help clean up.” It truly was a mess, and I hated to think that Aaron may have to do it after a long shift at work. I looked at Ellie. “It’s nice to see you again, cutie.”
Ellie grinned. “Hi. I started cleaning Bubby’s room.”
Aaron kissed her head. “Let’s just worry about cooking dinner.”
I followed them through the small apartment and into the kitchen that was not much bigger than my bathroom at the condo.
Aaron looked at me. “Do you like pancakes?”
I smiled. “Who doesn’t?” When he set Ellie down I bent down and held my hand out to her. “I know he says we don’t need to, but what do you say we make this place spotless?”
She grinned as she took my hand. “Okay!”
“Can you show me where everything is?”
She nodded and took the lead. We walked into the small living room that was semi picked up.
“This is Bubby’s room and the living room. He sleeps on the couch.”
I looked at the small couch and knew there was no way it was big enough for him to sleep comfortably.
“Oh, really?” I could hear Aaron in the kitchen starting to cook.
She kept her hand in mine as she walked me to a tiny room with a TV. It was the first room we had come into, and it was filthy. I couldn’t even tell you what the room was supposed to me. Maybe a foyer and hall mixed. I do know it branched out to the living room and kitchen and now down a hall. She led me to a very small bathroom then to a small bedroom that was full of toys and pink.
“Bubby decorated my room for me.” She looked up at me with a bright smile. “He plays barbie’s with me too!”
“That’s awesome, Ellie. You have the best big brother in the entire world.”
She nodded proudly, then showed me where everything was, and we started cleaning.
I was in the record store that wasn’t far from where Aaron lived. The part of town was questionable, but when I spotted the store when Aaron was driving me home, I knew I would have to go.
When I was ten, my grandmother bought me a record player. She swore it was the only way to listen to music, and being ten and seeing her as my idol, I believed her. Music didn’t sound the same any other way.
I picked up an AC/DC record and started looking at the back to see which songs were on it. My phone started ringing, so I set the record down and answered it.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing in the worst part of Corpus Christi? Are you suicidal, babe?” Clay said, sounding worried.
I looked around to see if he was here watching me.
“How do you know where I am? Are you here?” I asked, getting really nervous. I had plans to meet Aaron for a movie tonight, and I’d have to cancel if he was here.
He laughed. “Nah, it’s the Find My Friends app. Remember I downloaded it on your phone before you left?”
“Oh… yeah.” I laughed a little, but it annoyed the hell out of me. I completely forgot he could stalk my whereabouts if he wanted to.
“I googled the street you are on and do you know that there have been over six murders in two years on that street alone? Not to mention the surrounding areas-“
“Clay, stop. I’m fine.”
“I just want my girlfriend-“
“I’m not your girlfriend. We’re taking a break. Remember?” I looked at the album again.
“Okay – which doesn’t make sense. We’re taking a break, yet we aren’t seeing other people. Doesn’t that still make us together?”
I sighed. “We already talked about this. I’m going to buy an album and then get out of here. I’d let you know when I get home, but I guess you’ll already see that, huh?”
“Don’t be a bitch, A. I just care and you know that.”
“I know.” I picked up the AC/DC album and headed toward the cashier. “I’m gonna get off here. I’ll call you tonight, alright?”
“Sounds good. And we all miss you back home. Love you, Austen.”
“Love you, too.” And I did love him. But, it wasn’t the kind of love that I needed to love him with. He was one of my very best friends who I ended up dating for a long time. We got serious, I got bored, I asked for a break, and here I am going to school four hours away from home.
I hung up and put my phone in the back pocket of my shorts. I set down the album on the counter and started digging through my purse to find my debit card. Just as I was about to look at the cashier for the total, cash was being placed on the counter. I turned to my left and smiled up at Aaron.
“How’d you know I was here?” I picked up the cash and handed it back to him. I then swiped my card.
“Thomas called me.” He smiled at the cashier and did a handshake thing. “Okay, let’s get you the hell out of here.” He put his hand on the small of my back as we walked out of the store.
“Aaron, I’m fine!” I laughed, holding onto the record.
“This isn’t a nice neighborhood, Austen.” I looked at him and saw that he was filthy like he just got off work. “Thomas called me worried about the fact the girl he saw me with the other day was here alone. If you like record stores, I can show you some in a nice neighborhood.”
We made it to my car. “Nothing happened to me.” I unlocked my door, and he opened it for me. He was in such a rush to get me in the car that it was frustrating me. I got in and narrowed my eyes at him. “Okay, I’m in!”
“Aaron, who do we have here?” A hispanic man with sagging jeans said as he looked at me.
Aaron tensed in a way I had never seen before.
“Drive home. Okay?” he asked not taking his eyes off me.
He shut my door, and I left. As soon as I made it to the highway, I called him.
He didn’t answer at first. It took me calling him three more times before he answered.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Yeah. What the hell was that all about?”
“Well,” I heard a door shut and some locks go into place. “The man that asked who you were is a local drug dealer, so, yeah…” I heard him groan.
“Oh.” I looked at the record in my passenger seat and at the road again. “I just wanted a new record.”
“I know. It’s okay, Austen. I just think it would be better if I show you the one near the college. It’s better anyway.” I heard him yawn.
“You must’ve just gotten off work.” I took the exit toward my side of the city. “And if it’s so bad over there, I really don’t like that you are there with your little sister.”
“Yeah, I just got off, and I don’t like it much either. I’m saving for a better place.”
I wanted to tell him he not only needed a better place to live, but also needed a bigger couch if that’s where he was gonna sleep. But I didn’t want him to think I was judging him, so I kept my mouth shut.
“You still there?”
“Yeah, sorry. Go get some sleep. We’re still on for the movie tonight, right?”
“Of course! I’m looking forward to it. I need a relaxing night.”
I smiled. “Good. See you tonight. And thanks for rescuing me from the dangers of Corpus Christi, yet again,” I teased.
He chuckled. “You’re welcome. Just do me a favor, okay? Don’t come to this part of town unless I’m with you or you’re coming to my place and I know it. Please.”
“Yes, sir.” I laughed.
He laughed. “I’m going to get a shower and a bit of sleep. I’ll see you at six.”
“See you later.” I hung up just as I was parking at my condo.
I was exhausted as I pulled up to Austen’s condo. After getting off the phone with her, it was park time with Ellie then I had to clean the apartment and pack Ellie’s stuff for her to go away for the weekend with Ruthie to her family which I hated. It was good that they were going there every weekend now, but something in the pit of my stomach felt off. I finished off my cigarette before I got out of the jeep and walked to Austen’s door. There was no reason to dwell on the negative when I was about to spend the evening with a woman that was quickly becoming such a big part of my life.
I came to the door and knocked. Austen opened the door with a huge smile. I couldn’t help the huge grin that split my face. She seemed to give me a whole new burst of energy.
“Hey, you ready for the movies?”
She looked down at her navy blue dress that was sleeveless and simple and her grey Converses. “Yeah, is this okay?” Her hair was braided loosely to the side with some strands falling around the sides of her face. She didn’t have on as much makeup as she normally wore, only enough to make her blue eyes stand out and a little blush to show off her cheekbones.
“You’re looking at me weird. Should I go change?” She bit her bottom lip and looked nervous.
“You look perfect. This is my favorite you.”
She smiled again. “Oh.” She let me into the condo. “I need to grab my purse.” She hurried toward her bedroom and went in.
I put my hands in my pockets as I waited for her. I smiled when she came back out. “What do you want to see?”
“I’m good with anything. I guess let’s just go and see what looks the most interesting.”
We were about to walk out the door when her roommate Katie was coming up the steps.
She smiled at us. “What’s going on here? This looks like a date, Austen.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
“It is a date. As friends,” she clarified.
“Hmmm.” Katie raised a brow and walked past us. “Have fun.” She went into the condo and we walked to my Jeep.
“Sorry about that,” Austen said once we were in my Jeep.
“It’s not a big deal.” I smiled as I started up the jeep.
“Wait! Don’t leave!” She stared out the window. “What the hell?” she mumbled as she saw a car pulling next to hers. She got out of the Jeep in a hurry.
I saw her hurrying over to a shiny black Mercedes Benz. She embraced the guy when he got out. He was just a little taller than her. I turned off my jeep and got out. I leaned against it waiting for either a dismissal or an introduction.
She grabbed his hand and led him over to me. “Jacob, this Aaron, Aaron this is my little brother Jacob.” Austen was beaming.
Jacob smiled and held his hand out to me. “Hey, I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Looking at him more closely, I could see the resemblance. Him and Austen looked so much alike with the almost white blonde hair and nose and cheeks sprinkled with freckles. I took his hand and shook it.
“I’ve heard about you, too. Austen speaks very highly of you.”
He laughed as he put his arm around his sister’s shoulders. “She better!”
Austen smiled. “What are you doing here? And where the hell is the driver? You aren’t supposed to be driving!”
He raised a brow. “Actually, I turned sixteen two days ago. Someone, I won’t name any names, forgot my birthday.”
Her face fell completely. “Shit! I completely forgot. Dammit. I am so sorry! I’ve been so busy with-“
He laughed. “Calm down, sis. It’s totally fine. And I wanted to come here and surprise you. I got permission from the rents and everything.”
Austen looked toward the car. “You promise you’re alone?”
“Clay tried to come, but I insisted it be just me because I needed time with my big sis.” Jacob chuckled. “You think I could stand him for a four hour drive?”
She smiled and looked relieved.
I felt completely in the way. I didn’t know what to do here. “So… I guess I should leave and let you two have some time.”
“No way, man. I don’t mean to crash the party going on here, but I promise I’m a lot of fun.” Jacob took his arm off Austen’s shoulders.
“We were just going to the movies.” Austen smiled at him and then looked at me. “He can come, right?”
I smiled. “Of course. He can even let me in on some embarrassing stories about you.” We started walking toward the Jeep.
“Oh, I’ve got em’.” Jacob said walking next to me.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” Austen laughed and walked on the other side of me.
“Fair or not, it’s happening. Remember that time you stuck Red Hots up my nose while I was sleeping and it backfired because I ended up at the emergency room?”
“It still haunts me,” she laughed. “You had to be put to sleep to get them out! Mom and Dad still bring them up anytime we’re in a store and we see a box of those at a check out. I thought you were going to die and cried for hours!”
“Or that time when we were fishing with grandpa and-”
“Okay, enough stories, Jacob!” She burst out laughing.
Jacob laughed and looked at me. “No worries, I’ll tell you about it later. It’s a good one.”
I burst out laughing. “This is going to be so much fun.”
I had a blast with Austen and Jacob. I loved every minute of it. I hated that I now had to go to my empty home. I handed Austen a blanket to cover Jacob up with. He had crashed about ten minutes ago. I looked at the time and realized it was almost four in the morning. I stood up and grabbed my keys.
She followed me. “You could just stay here.” She smiled when I looked at her. “Katie is staying at her boyfriend’s place tonight. So, it’ll just be the three of us.”
I tugged on her braid gently. “I’d like that, but I can’t.”
“And why not?” She leaned against the door, blocking me from leaving. “It’s late, and I don’t want you driving tired.”
I kissed her cheek. “I have to be at work at six, Austen. I’m going to just go home and get ready.”
She looked upset. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have made sure you went home hours ago.”
“Because I didn’t want to go home hours ago. I was having a lot of fun.”
She frowned. “Call in.”
“I can’t. I can’t afford to lose this job.”
She begrudgingly moved away from the door.
“I’ll be fine. I’m used to going on little sleep.” I opened the door and smiled down at her. “Would you and Jacob be interested in going to the beach tonight?”
Before I could leave, she hugged me tightly.
I smiled and hugged her back. “I’ll call you later. Go get some sleep.” I kissed the top of her head before heading down to my jeep and home.
When I got home I took a shower and fixed something to eat. By the time I was finished with that, I had enough time to email one of the companies that I did marketing consulting on the side for. I sent in my new ideas for the upcoming month and shut my computer down.
I looked at the time and groaned. The only thing that was going to keep me energized to make it through the day was knowing I’d get to spend the evening with Austen and her brother.
I sat next to Jacob on the balcony at the condo. My parents bought me everything I’d need for this place. My favorite thing they bought was the outdoor furniture set, and I was finally finding time to use it. I laid my head on his shoulder and propped my bare feet on the ottoman.
“So, why are you really here? Dad piss you off again?”
“Something like that. You know how he gets when he starts talking to me about future shit. I just want to be young and stupid right now. I don’t want to talk about oil company bullshit. I’ll have plenty of time for that when I’m older.”
I sat up and looked at him. “They know you’re here right?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I told you that already.”
“Just making sure.” I smiled and put my head back on his shoulder.
“So… Aaron?” He chuckled. “He is… a giant and covered in ink. And the hair and piercings… is this a new phase, Austen?”
“We’re friends, Jacob.”
“Austen, I know you better than anyone. I see how you look at him, and I know it’s more than that.”
I sat up again and took my feet off the ottoman. I looked at him, but I couldn’t keep eye contact with him or keep from smiling like an idiot. I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees and buried my face in my hands. I groaned.
I felt him rub my back and laugh. “I like him if that’s worth anything to you. I know you’re worried about Mom, Dad, and Clay.”
I sat up straight and looked at him. I was worried about the entire family and my friends back home, too. “Don’t tell anyone and don’t be weird around Aaron at the beach tonight. He can’t know I’m into him like that, Jacob.” I felt like I might cry. “I don’t want to ruin what we have right now.”
“I promise to keep it a secret.” He patted his shoulder and I laughed. I leaned back and rested my head on his shoulder again. “I miss you, lil’ bro.”
“I miss you, too. Don’t feel bad, but I feel so alone at home. No one get’s me. Well, except Frieda. That’s bad when your nanny becomes your best friend.” He chuckled sadly.
“What about your friends from school?”
He shrugged. “It’s not the same. You were home and there everyday. I’m fine, I promise. It’s just taking some adjusting to not have you there.”
“You’re welcome here anytime, and you know I’ll come visit as often as I can.”
“We should go find something to eat for breakfast.”
“Ihop?” His eyes lit up.
I smiled. “Hell yes!”
I came into the living room drying my hair with a towel to see Aaron and Jacob in an in depth conversation about video games.
“Oh no,” I laughed and set the towel down on a stool at the bar.
Aaron looked over at me and smiled. “Oh no what?”
“You’ve entered his world,” I teased.
Aaron chucked. “I think it’s all pretty cool actually. I just don’t have time to play.”
I ran my fingers through my wet hair and plopped down on the couch in between them.
Jacob stood and stretched. “I’m gonna get a shower next. You two… be good.”
My mouth fell open when he hurried down the hall. I felt my cheeks turn bright red. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t look at Aaron, though. I was going to kill my brother for saying that.
“I think he’s afraid we’re going to have all the fun without him,” Aaron said holding back a laugh.
I looked at him and smiled a little.
“He’s a good kid. I like him.” He touched my cheek and smiled. “You’re blushing.”
His touch made goosebumps cover my arms. I tried to smile, but instead, I felt like crying. It was ridiculous. Have you ever wanted someone to kiss you so bad that it made your head all crazy? Yeah… me either. I looked away from him and stood. I went into the kitchen to occupy my mind with anything other than his perfect mouth. I went to the cabinets and started pulling out things to make brownies but was pulling out all the wrong things. My head as a damn mess.
I heard footsteps behind me. “Austen?”
I pulled out vegetable oil and set it on the granite countertop. I kept my eyes focused on it instead of turning to look at him.
“Yeah?” I asked quietly.
He moved me back enough so he could put his back to the countertop. He gently lifted my chin up and ran his thumb gently across my lips before leaning down and kissing me.
“If you want to slap me I understand.”
I let out a shaky breath and a smile spread across my lips. “Were you reading my mind?”
This was bad. So so so bad.
Aaron would never fit into my world. He’d hate it and he would be treated unfairly. Then there was Clay. There were so many things that were wrong about this.
But what did I do?
I kissed him again.
He wrapped his arms around me as he pulled me closer to him. I didn’t mean to, but I moaned quietly against his mouth. I couldn’t help it. Not with the way he held me close to him and the way his hands gripped my hips. Who knew a kiss could be so damn hot.
Aaron kissed me like it was his major and let me tell you, he was getting a 4.0. Guaranteed.
“Oooo, you’re gonna be in so much trouble,” Jacob said, completely ruining the moment. When we pulled apart and looked at him, he was cracking up. “Now, I clearly remember telling you two to be good.” He tsked us. My little brother actually tsked us.
I looked at Aaron still trying to catch my breath. The fire in his eyes matched my own. This was bad. So bad.
“Sooo, the beach? You two ready?” Jacob asked with a laugh.
I narrowed my eyes at him.
He threw both hands up. “Hey, I did nothing wrong. This time. This is all on you, sis. But,” he made a zipping motion with his fingers across his mouth. “I can keep a secret.”
I looked at Aaron, unsure of what to say. What do you say after a kiss like that? I felt like I was floating, drifting away from earth into some unknown galaxy. I didn’t think a kiss could do that and always thought when people described a kiss in books or in movies, they were full of bullshit.
Aaron looked as confused as I was, but he managed to smile at me and wink. “I’m going to go smoke while you guys finish getting ready.”
I nodded and just before he made it out the door, I called after him. “Aaron?”
When he turned and looked at me, I smiled and winked at him. He grinned and walked out chuckling.
“Well, this will be entertaining to see how this plays out.”
I smacked Jacob’s shoulder and rolled my eyes. “Go get ready.”
After Jacob walked down the hall, I sighed. Entertaining was right.
After the moment of awkward that Jacob caused when catching me and Austen making out, we had a fun evening. I cooked them dinner and we watched movies until Jacob was asleep on the couch, and I was struggling to stay awake on the love seat next to Austen. I felt her touch my shoulder, and I knew I had started to fall asleep again because it startled me.
“Go get in my bed,” she whispered.
“I don’t want to take your bed,” I said with a little smile. I ran a hand through my hair and sat up a bit.
She stood and held her hand out to me. “Come on.”
I took her hand and stood. I looked down at her and gently brushed some hair out of her face. I smiled a little then yawned. She led me to her room and when we went in she pulled back the white down comforter, her bed was huge.
“The perfect bed for a giant,” she teased with a little laugh.
I sat down and smiled sleepily at her. “I’m guessing Ellie showed you my bed then.”
She nodded but didn’t comment. She stripped out of her shorts and put her back to me while she took her bra off under her t-shirt. She pulled it through one of her sleeves and dropped it into the floor. She climbed into the other side of the bed and laid down. She covered herself and smiled at me.
“Oh come one, I’m sure you’ve seen more than a girl in a t-shirt and undies.”
I bit my lip to keep from commenting. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot more, but this was Austen. This was the woman I was falling for. I cleared my throat and slipped my shoes off. I took my shirt off and tossed it on the floor before covering up. I kept my jeans on because if I took off anymore clothes, I would lose all self control.
“I usually sleep on the floor. The couch is a tad cramped for me.”
She scooted over until her body was against mine under the covers. She moved until she got snuggled against me just right. Her fingers found my hair, and she played with it as she sighed contently. My jeans got tighter.
“This feels perfect,” she whispered.
“Yeah, it does.” My words were a little strained. She had to know what she was doing. I draped my arm on her hip. “Goodnight, princess,” I whispered softly before kissing her.
She moved her leg until is was over mine as the kiss intensified. Her fingers knotted in my hair. Things got crazy intense until she pulled away. She moved away from me and sat up.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said over and over as she ran her fingers through her hair.
“To be fair, you started it,” I teased with a grin. I sat up and looked at her when I saw she sincerely felt bad about it. “Do you want me to leave, Austen?”
She shook her head. Good, because that was the last thing I wanted.
“Talk to me,” I pleaded.
“I’m scared.” Tears filled her eyes.
“Okay.” I cupped her cheeks and wiped at a lone tear that fell. “Of me?”
“No. Of me. Of screwing this up. Of hurting you.”
“Austen, all that scares me too, but not trying things with you and being with you right now scares me a hell of a lot more.”
She leaned over and kissed my lips gently. “Don’t hate me if this all blows up.”
“Never in a million years. Even if everything goes to hell in a handbasket.” I smiled a little.
“How’d you get so brave? Because I’m scared to death right now that I’m going to screw this whole thing up.” She laughed nervously.
I chuckled. “I’m not brave. I just learned long ago to live every day to its fullest. Lately, the brightest days are when I’m with you. So what if this whole thing is fucked up in the end, at least we have now.”
She laughed and a few tears fell. She snuggled close to me again and rested her head on my chest. Her fingers traced one of my tattoos on my upper left abdomen. “We should get some sleep,” she said with a yawn.
I chuckled a little and grabbed her hand. “That would be easier if you weren’t tickling me.” I played with her hair with my free hand.
She laughed and intertwined her fingers with mine. “Night, Aaron.”
I rested our hands on my chest. “Night, Austen.”
I woke up to someone bouncing on the bed. The nice comfy bed. I groaned and slowly opened my eyes to see Jacob bouncing on the edge of the bed like a little kid. I looked over at the time and saw it was only eight. What. The. Fuck. When did teenagers wake up early?
Austen pulled the covers over her head. “What the hell, Jacob?” she whined.
He laughed. “Let’s go do something fun!”
I yawned and smiled a little. “Like what?” I asked barely awake myself. My eyes started to close again.
“I’ll go Google fun things. You two get up!” He left the room.
Austen peeled back the covers from her face. “What time is it?”
“Eight. What teenager wakes up at eight on a Saturday?”
She laughed. “He’s always been like that.” She groaned. “Let’s go back to sleep and hope he doesn’t notice.”
I rolled onto my side and pulled her until her back was pressed against my chest. I buried my face against her neck. “I think he’ll notice.”
She hugged my arm. “I’m staying in the bed for at least ten more minutes.”
I loved the sound of that. “If I stay in bed for ten more minutes I might fall back to sleep,” I said with a slight yawn before closing my eyes again.
“Then sleep. You need it. I can go entertain him until you wake up.”
I chuckled. “You’re an angel.”
She laughed and kissed my arm she was holding. “Sometimes.”
I listened to her breathing until I fell back fast asleep.
Aaron took Jacob and I to the zoo. Jacob was like me and loved animals. We were headed to go find the giraffes when Aaron took my hand in his as we walked. He didn’t look at me, and had an unsure look on his face like he didn’t know if that move was okay or not.
Jacob was walking behind us so I knew he saw everything going on. I didn’t have to worry about him telling Clay or our parents, though. He was good at keeping things to himself.
I gave Aaron’s hand a reassuring squeeze and he smiled.
“Austen, what time did you say you had to go to cheer practice?” Jacob asked, catching up with us and walking beside me.
“Not until six. We have plenty of time.” I smiled at my brother and he wiggled his eyebrows at me. I laughed. “Not a word,” I whispered.
He zipped his lips with his fingers. “Aaron, did my sister tell you she was in dance competitions since she was eight? If my parents weren’t snobs when it came to career choices, Austen would have gone to be a professional dancer somewhere.”
I blushed. I didn’t like to brag on myself, but Jacob had no problems doing it.
Aaron’s smile brightened as he looked down at me. “No, she didn’t. That’s amazing!”
“I wish I didn’t have to do something that my parents would approve of. I wish it was enough to make them proud of me.” I did everything possible to avoid talking about my family. Aaron would probably ditch me as soon as he found out where I come from and how deep my Reeves roots run.
Aaron kept his eyes on me. “Me too. I’d love to have seen you dance.”
“At least I still get to dance some doing cheer.” I looked at our hands. Jacob walked over to the fence when we came to the giraffes. “I like this.”
Aaron brought my hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. “Me too.” He looked so lost and unsure as he looked out at the giraffes. I wanted to ask what was going through his head, but I didn’t. “Whose favorite animal is a giraffe?” he asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I laughed at my brother who was talking to the giraffes. “My favorite is the flamingos.”
He chuckled and cuffed Jacob’s shoulder. “Have you ever feed one before?”
“No. My parents have a phobia over letting farm type animals touch us. One time our nanny-“
I eyed Jacob. I hadn’t told Aaron we had a nanny, and I didn’t want him finding out like this. Most people insta-hated me once they found out I came from money.
Jacob looked at Aaron after nodding at me. “No. I haven’t.”
Aaron looked confused for a minute, then shook his head. He looked at his watch. “Then come on. They’re about to feed the baby giraffes.” Aaron looked at both of us and smiled when he saw us looking at him oddly. “I do some marketing for the zoo and they let me come feed the animals. It was a good trade off. Ellie loves it.”
“That’s so cool!” Jacob said as we followed Aaron.
We came to a place that was marked Employees Only and had a buzzer. Aaron pushed the button and after identifying himself, we were let in. He smiled as Jacob immediately started talking to a guy that worked there about giraffes.
“He’s a good kid.”
I smiled. “Yeah, when he’s not high as a kite and acting like a douche-teenager.” I laughed a little. “He’s my best friend.”
I wanted to ask Aaron, what now? We kissed, we made out, and we almost went too far. I was trying not to think about it, but we definitely took things further than friends last night. When the baby giraffes came into view, all of my thoughts temporarily faded away and my mouth fell open. I looked up and saw Aaron watching me and not the giraffes.
“You’ve become my best friend, Austen. And nothing will change that.” He put his hand to my lower back and pushed me forward a bit. “Go feed the babies.”
My lips broke into a huge smile. “I hope not.” I grabbed his hand. “Come on, you feed them too!”
“Do you have to leave?” I pouted as I walked Jacob to his car. “And I still can’t believe Mom and Dad let you drive this far by yourself. You just became a legal driver.”
He unlocked his car and laughed. “Tony’s been teaching me since I was tall enough to reach the pedals. I’m a good driver, unlike you.” He opened his trunk and put his bag in.
I laughed. “So not true.”
He shut the truck and leaned against the car. “Totally true. How many times did you back into Mom’s car? And that was a year after you learned to drive.”
I playfully shoved his shoulder. “Shut up.”
He chuckled. “I honestly think Mom and Dad were just ready for me to get out of the house. I’ve been getting into trouble. I think they thought this would be good for me.”
“What kind of trouble?” I raised a brow. “I told you to lay off the pot.”
“I’ve been bored. And I actually have. I stopped hanging out with Jake, so, I’m doing better.”
I smiled. “Good.” I sighed sadly and hugged him tightly. “I wish you weren’t so far away, kid.”
“You chose the school, not me.” He hugged me tightly back.
“I had to get away from there.” I pulled away.
“You had to get away from Clay,” he said in a correcting tone.
I half-grinned. “He was part of it. And look, I met Aaron, and he’s perfect.”
Jacob nodded. “Right now he is. But Clay was perfect too, remember? I really like him, so don’t fuck this up alright?”
What little smile I had faded. He was right. I’d fuck this up somehow. All the boyfriends I had ever had ended with me getting bored and breaking their hearts. I never suffered from a broken heart, but something told me that I would this time, and it’d be all my fault.
Clay lasted the longest, I was sure he was the one, and then he wasn’t.
“You better get going.” I looked away from him.
“Don’t be pissed, okay?”
I nodded and wrapped my arms around myself. I forced a smile when I looked at him.
“You better get on the road, and I better go not fuck up this relationship. And I know you know this already, but say nothing.”
He saluted me. “Got it.”
He gave me one more hug before getting in his car and leaving.
I looked at my cell and smiled when I saw I had a missed call from Aaron. He had to work a short shift but promised we’d hang out after he was done working.
I called him back.
“Hey! Are you on break?” I walked back into my condo and laid down on the couch.
“Actually, the mill got shut down for the day. I’m off.”
I sat up and smiled. “Does that mean you’re on your way here?”
“If you’re okay with that.”
He chuckled. “Good thing I’m already on my way then. Actually, I’m pulling in right now.”
I hung up and hurried to my door. I opened it and smiled when I saw him getting out of his Jeep. I catcalled him and laughed when he looked at me.
He grinned and hurried up the stairs to my place. When he got closer my smile faded some as I saw a bandage wrapped around his forearm.
“Morning. You up for some breakfast. I’m starving.”
“What’s that?” I asked pointing to his bandaged arm.
He looked at the bandage for a moment then back at me. “The mill got shut down because of an accident. A forklift tipped over spilling its load which caused this chain reaction of shit to happen. My part was I got fallen into and my arm pressed against a very hot surface. But I’m fine.”
I watched as he pulled out his keys from his pocket. His lighter came out and hit the ground. He picked it back up and gave me a small smile when I continued to frown at him. He gently touched my face. “I promise I’m fine. It’s part of the job. Accidents happen.”
“O-kay. And this smoking thing…” I put my hands on my hips. “How long have you smoked?”
The corners of his lips twitched a little like he was trying not to laugh. “About three years.”
I moved back and let him in the house. I watched him shut the door. “Three years? Hmmm.” I hated cigarettes. Jacob smoked sometimes and it always drove me insane.
He leaned his back against the door. “Yes. You don’t like them, do you?”
I shook my head and scrunched my nose a little.
He chuckled a little and pulled out his pack from his pocket. He looked at it for a moment before handing it over to me. “I might become a bit of an ogre.”
“Good thing I have a thing for big sexy ogres.”
He laughed. “How about we go and eat? I’m starving.”
He grinned and leaned down to kiss me. “That sounds great.”
I grabbed my keys trying not to think about what Jacob said. Totally not going to screw this whole thing up. Things with Aaron were different. The best kind of different and exactly what I needed.
I finished my workout and took a shower. I had a long day ahead of me, and I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. A fourteen hour shift awaited me, and I’d only be off four hours before another eight hour shift. I hated it, but it paid the bills.
I got dressed and came into the kitchen. I started working on breakfast. I smiled when Ellie came into the room dragging her blanket and holding her bear.
“Morning, Munchkin.” I picked her up and held her with one arm while I flipped the pancakes.
“Do you have to go to work?”
I kissed her head. “Yes. I’d much rather be with you all day, though.”
“I don’t want to stay with mommy all day,” Ellie said quietly.
I hated leaving her with Ruthie for so long. I never knew if Ruthie was going to wake up and take care of Ellie or zone out all day ignoring her.
“I know. I will see what I can do.” I put her down. “Why don’t you go watch cartoons? The couch is all ready for ya. I will call you when breakfast is ready.”
She crooked her little finger at me, and I bent down. She kissed my cheek before running off to my room, or rather, the living room. I picked up my phone and started making calls. After I tried calling everyone that I knew would keep Ellie and she’d be safe, I was out of luck. I looked down at Austen’s number and chewed on the inside of my cheek. Well, it was worth a try. I pushed her name and put the phone to my ear as I put pancakes on a plate.
“Hey,” Austen said breathlessly. Music was blaring in the background. “Just a sec.” the music cut off. “Hey, sorry. What’s up?”
I started fixing Ellie’s plate. “Could you do me a huge favor? If you can’t, I understand.”
“Sure. I had a early morning practice, but we’re almost done. This routine is kicking our asses.”
I poured Ellie a glass of milk and called her name before answering Austen. “I have a long shift today and Ellie doesn’t want to stay home. I have someone who can watch her for my second shift, but not my first. Is there anyway you could watch her?”
I smiled as Ellie came in and crawled up the stool to sit down. I kissed her head before making myself a plate.
She was quiet for a second. “Umm, yeah. Why doesn’t she want to stay with her mom? Sorry, I’m being nosey.”
“Ruthie isn’t the most stable of people. Ellie hates being home with her. I tried to make sure when she is, it isn’t for long. Usually, I have sitters lined up, but this first shift was thrown on me last minute.”
“I don’t mind watching her. No need to find anyone for later shifts either. I can handle it. Do I need to come pick her up?”
“No, I will drop her off on my way to work. I have to head in in an hour. Thanks, Austen.”
“Anything for you.”
“I’ll see ya soon.” I smiled at Ellie when I hung up the phone. “You’re going to hang out with Princess today. That okay?”
Ellie grinned from ear to ear and nodded. “Princess is fun!”
I chuckled. “She sure is.”
After breakfast, I helped Ellie get ready and pack a bag of things for the day. I quickly did the dishes and when I was finished with that, Ruthie came dragging herself into the kitchen.
She looked at Ellie who had her pink Barbie bag on her back waiting on me.
“Where are you going?” She asked in a bit of a snap.
Damn, it was one of those days.
“Ellie, can you go get my keys, phone, and wallet?”
Ellie nodded and quickly left the room.
“She’s going to a sitter while I go to work.”
“I need her here today,” Ruthie said as she looked at me.
I cocked an eyebrow at her. “Why?”
“To help me clean.”
I scoffed. “The apartment is already cleaned. And she’s not staying with you when you’re like this.” I turned to head to the living room.
“She’s my daughter!” she said as she grabbed my arm digging her nails into the bandaged area. I gritted my teeth and turned my head to glare at her.
I jerked my arm away. “And she’s my sister. I’m not leaving her with you like this.” Ellie handed me my stuff when she came into the room, and I picked her up. We left without another word to Ruthie.
When we got to Austen’s Ellie was so excited. We went up the stairs, and I let Ellie knock on the door. When Austen opened the door, Ellie was beaming.
“Hi, Princess!” She was practically bouncing up and down.
I laughed. “She’s not like this with many people.”
Austen held her hand out to her and when Ellie grabbed it, we walked into the condo.
Austen took her bag from me and her eyes focused on mine. “What’s wrong? You look really upset,” she whispered.
I smiled a little. I looked down at Ellie who was standing right next to us. “Just not wanting to go to work.” I looked back at Austen. I wouldn’t talk about Ruthie in front of Ellie. She already didn’t like staying with her. If she knew that she got angry and grabbed me like she did, she’d not want to be around her at all; which might be a good thing. I was absentmindedly rubbing my bandaged arm where I’d have nail marks.
Austen didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she smiled at Ellie. “I bought stuff at the store to bake a cake! Do you like cooking?”
Ellie nodded excitedly. “Bubby lets me help him.”
I picked Ellie up and kissed her cheek. “Have fun and behave. Listen to Austen. Okay?”
Ellie gave me a hug and a thumbs up. “Okay!”
I put her down and kissed Austen’s forehead. “Thank you. If you need me, I will have my cell on.”
She nodded and smiled. “Okay, so get going! This is a girls day and no boys allowed!”
I laughed and kissed her before leaving.
I was completely exhausted. It was two in the morning, and I was supposed to work another shift at six. I got in my Jeep and headed to Austen’s. I texted her letting her know I was on my way because without her card, I wouldn’t be able to get into the condo parking area.
I yawned as I pulled into the long drive and made my way to the gate. I picked up my phone to call her. I was about to dial her number when the gate opened. I drove through and saw Austen standing outside in her PJs and slippers. I rolled down my window.
“Get in cutie”
She laughed. “Cutie? Do you have a thing for girls in their pajamas, Aaron?”
“I have a thing for you in anything, Austen.” I grinned. “Get in.”
Once she was in, I drove toward my normal parking space next to her car. I looked down at myself when I parked. I was filthy.
“So, you like me in my PJ’s, and I think you’re hot all dirty. I guess I like you in anything too.” She smiled.
I chuckled. “That’s a first. I’ve never been told I look super sexy dirty. How was my two favorite girls’ day?”
“Really good! She’s sound asleep now on the couch. We were watching Little Mermaid. By the way, I braided her hair and now she wants me to teach you how.”
“Yeah, I suck at that. Do you mind if I take a quick shower here?”
“Not at all.”
I grabbed my bag as we got out of the Jeep and headed into her condo. “I’m exhausted.”
When we got inside, she looked up at me. “You can just crash here tonight.”
“Thanks.” I went over to the couch, bent down, and kissed Ellie’s cheek. It was something I always did before I took a shower after work.
Ellie opened her eyes enough to give me a smile before falling back to sleep. I stood back up and walked over to Austen. “You sure you don’t mind me staying here?”
“I’m sure.” She motioned for me to follow her down the hall. “You can take a shower in my bathroom.” We came into her room and into her bathroom. She showed me where everything was.
I leaned down and kissed her lips softly. “You’re amazing, Austen.”
“When I’m with you I am.”
“Maybe we bring the best out in each other.” I kissed her lips again. “It won’t take me long to shower.” I stood straight up and started undoing my bandaged arm as I walked into the bathroom.
After the text from Clay this morning, I was stressed. When I was stressed, I danced. It was the only thing that could make me forget about things going on. I was in the gym, rap music blaring, and practicing the new routine, when all of a sudden my music stopped. I whipped my head around to look at the stereo. I smiled and let out a relieved breath when I saw it was just my cheer coach, Shelby.
“Hey,” I said wiping sweat from my forehead and walking over to her. I picked up my water from the bench.
“Who did you think I was? The Boogie Man?”
I laughed. “I had no clue. Whatcha doing here?”
“Came to find you. You’ve perfected the routine, but I’m not surprised. I really like what you did on the second part of the song. Can you show me that again? I think we should add it.”
I laughed and set my water down. “I was just improvising after I practiced the routine. I don’t even remember what I did.”
She smiled a little and started up the music. I watched her make her way through the routine and when she got to the second half of the song, she did what I was assuming the move I added in.
She stopped the music. “Something like that, but I butchered it. Teach it to the squad at practice tomorrow.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
She nodded. “Really. It’s great, Austen. Oh, and you should know, I accidentally slipped your name into a conversation with the dean of Juilliard. It’s what I needed to find you for.”
I froze and my mouth fell open. “Y-you did what? Coach, I can’t and you know-“
“I know talent when I see it, but you also have passion, Austen. The dean is my cousin, and we were Skyping over coffee. She asked me if I had any raw talent, and I had to tell her about you. I know you have already made it clear when we discussed dance school before that it’s not in the cards for you, but I think you should reconsider.”
I was excited for an amazing two seconds before I remembered that it wasn’t a reality for me. Never would be. “Thank you, but that’s not a career choice for me. I need to study here and get a real job.”
“Says who? I know you say that, Austen, but is it what you want?” she asked, raising a brow.
I shrugged. “Says my entire family, Coach.” I started packing up my things. “I need to go get a shower and write a paper.”
“If I were what my parents wanted me to be, I would be in a stuffy office dealing with crabby ass people. Austen, you know you can do something you want to do, right? You don’t have to work toward pleasing others.”
I put my bag over my shoulder and left before she could say anything else.
As I was heading to my car, I saw Aaron leaning with his back against a tree as he worked on his laptop.
I walked over and nudged his shoe with mine. When he looked at me, I smiled and sat down across from him. I set my bag beside me.
“Hey, beautiful,” he said with a grin as he closed his laptop.
I laughed. “I’m a sweaty mess.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that you’re very beautiful.”
“Well, thank you. So, what are you working on?”
“I’ve been hired to do a marketing campaign for a couple of large business as a freelance.”
“That’s cool.” I got my phone from my backpack when it started ringing. I sighed heavily when I saw it was Clay. I answered it because I knew if I didn’t, he’d keep calling back.
I mouthed, sorry, to Aaron and stood. “Hey.”
“I’m sorry for what I texted you. After our conversation last night, I didn’t sleep, and I was talking out of my ass. I’m sorry, A.”
I rubbed the back of my neck with my free hand and stared at my feet. “Clay, I just need you to be my friend right now. If you keep making things awkward-“
“I won’t. I promise. I’ll stop.”
“Space, Clay. Just give me some space, okay?”
“I will, A. I will. But understand that I care, and I just miss you.”
I closed my eyes as guilt filled me. I cared so much about Clay, but he was at a different level than me. “I know. Talk to you later, okay?”
He sighed heavily. “Just answer one thing for me.”
“Are you dating anyone new?”
For a second I got nervous. Did Jacob snitch on us?
I looked at Aaron and then at the ground. “No, why would you think that?”
“I just had to ask. You’re miles away, and I’m here. I’m paranoid I guess,” he said, sounding relieved. “Talk to you later?”
Okay, so my little brother wasn’t going to die today.
“Yeah.” I’d eventually tell Clay the truth about Aaron. I didn’t want to tell him now; not over the phone. I didn’t want my parents finding out through him either. I needed to tell him when I was face to face with him and told everyone. “Promise no more weird texts?”
“Promise,” he said with a chuckle.
When he hung up, I looked at Aaron. I wanted to hang out with him to get my mind off everything. He was like novocaine for the brain. “You hungry?”
He packed up his stuff and looked at his watch. “Yeah, a bit.” He stood up.
I smiled. “Alright. What do you want?”
He put his bag on his shoulder before grabbing my bag from me as well. When he did, I saw some nail marks bruising his injured arm.
“How about Firehouse Subs?”
I cleared my throat. I never thought of myself as the jealous type, but all I could picture was Aaron making love and those marks were from a good time. Or… I was being a complete idiot, and it was something else. He noticed me staring at his arm.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” We never technically made it official. I mean, we were definitely something, just no definite explanation of what we were.
“Ruthie got angry with me and grabbed a hold of my arm to try and get my attention.”
Anger filled me, and selfishly I was relieved it was just that and not the other scenario. “The more you tell me about her, the more I don’t like her.”
He opened the door of his Jeep for me. “I don’t much either.” His eyes took on a sadness I didn’t like. There was so much pain in his eyes.
“Ellie told me she never wanted to go back the other night I kept her. I didn’t tell you because I know there’s not much you can do since Ruthie is her mom. I didn’t know what to say to her.”
He got in the Jeep and started it up. “I don’t blame her. I’m going to talk to a lawyer tomorrow.” I didn’t like seeing him so sad. “I refuse to leave Ellie alone with her anymore.” As he started driving, he grabbed my hand and laced his fingers with mine.
“What did you think the nail marks were?” He asked with a slight smirk.
I shrugged and felt my cheeks turn red.
He brought my hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. “Did you think I was with another woman?” he asked with a smile. “I’m only interested in one woman, Austen.”
My heart sped up, and I grinned like a love sick puppy. “Oh. Well, good.”
He chuckled a little and gave my hand a squeeze.
“I swear it’s like you hear my thoughts.”
“Maybe I can. That or it’s the fact your facial expressions give you away. I’m just glad you can’t read my mind at the moment.” He gave me a mischievous grin after he parked at the restaurant.
“Or can I?”
He cocked an eyebrow at me and kept his eyes locked on mine.
I laughed. “Let’s go eat.”
He burst out laughing and got out of the Jeep. Before I could get out, he jogged to my side and opened the door.
I laughed as I got out. “Keep spoiling me and you’re gonna create a monster.”
He leaned down and kissed me. “I think I can handle it.”
I laced my fingers with his. “You think that now.” I smiled when he laughed. “Okay, time to feed me before I get hangry.”
We walked into Firehouse Subs, and just when I thought my mind was free of thoughts of Clay and what Coach Shelby said about Juilliard, it came creeping up again when I saw a little girl in line with a pink tutu. I smiled sadly. Once upon a time that was me. I wanted to grab a hold of her dad and tell him not to ever discourage her if she wanted to make a career out of it one day, but I knew that would be inappropriate. I bit my tongue.
I felt Aaron let go of my hand and put his arm around my waist. “What has you looking so sad all of a sudden?”
“Hmm? Oh… nothing. Just thinking about what to eat.” I gave him a bright smile before looking at the menu on the wall hoping to keep Mr. Know It All from reading my mind. There was no need in talking about it because it wouldn’t change the fact that it wasn’t an option for me. “I could eat a sandwich the size of my head right now.”
He kissed the top of my head and leaned down to whisper in my ear. “All you have to do is say you don’t want to talk about. I will respect that.” He kissed my cheek before standing straight up and looking at the menu.
I smiled up at him. “Thank you,” I said quietly before looking at the menu again.
My day sucked. After doing my school work, I had to work on the books for the coffee shop, make schedules, go to talk to a lawyer about my little sister, and would be left with only two hours of free time before going to work at the mill. I had two hours to spend with my girls before they had girl time, and I worked my ass off.
I looked down at my little sister who was bouncing she was so excited. I loved how Austen was with Ellie and how much Ellie adored her. We walked to Austen’s door and knocked.
“Come in,” Austen called from inside. “It’s unlocked!”
I opened the door and Ellie ran in. I chuckled as I shut the door behind me.
“You’re supposed to lock the door.”
Austen was busily making her way around the kitchen. I noticed a ton of food, some looked great, some not so much. She huffed, blowing a strand of hair out of her face and smiled when Ellie hugged her legs.
“I live in a gated community, Aaron. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry so much.” She smiled down at Ellie. “Hey, pretty girl.” Austen looked at the food. “So… trial and error, right?”
I chuckled. “You do live in a gated community, but I got in without much trouble. And if I can get in, anyone can get in.” I leaned down and kissed her cheek. “What’s with all the cooking, love?” I smiled as Ellie brought a stool over and climbed onto it next to Austen.
Austen put her hands on her hips and looked at everything. “Well, I talked to my mom earlier today… She made a comment and it made me mad.”
I scrunched my eyebrows at her. “Which lead to you cooking?”
“I was never taught to cook, Aaron. It was always done for me. I think I’ve only made my bed once…” I watched as he counted on her fingers. “Okay, two times.”
I smiled at her. “I can teach you to cook. I’ve been cooking for myself since I was eight. But what did your mom say to you to make you do all this?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She smiled. “You guys hungry? I know the cake is edible. I can at least cook cake.”
Ellie giggled. “Yes please.”
I shook my head. “If I eat sweets before work, it doesn’t turn out well.”
Austen laughed. “Okay, so we go eat somewhere then.”
“Bubby doesn’t eat anything before work,” Ellie said as she looked at all the food.
I tugged on one of Ellie’s pigtails when Austen gave me a look. “Tattletale.”
Ellie giggled again.
“And why not?” Austen eyeballed me.
“It makes me sick to my stomach after working long hours and getting hot.” I shrugged.
“Yeah, but not eating isn’t good either.”
“I’ll be okay. No worries.”
She frowned. “The more I hear about your job at the mill, the more I want you to quit.”
“I’ve applied to some jobs in the marketing field. Hopefully, I will get one soon and be able to quit that job.” I moved so I was standing in front of Austen. I put my hands on her shoulders and rubbed them a little. “I’ve been working there for a while. This isn’t new to me.”
She pouted more as she looked up at me. “So? You can quit and let me help out money wise.”
“Thank you, but no. A little bit longer at that place won’t kill me.”
“Or will it?” She raised a brow.
“Stop,” I chuckled. I wrapped an arm around her waist. “Now, what do my girls want for dinner?”
“I will only eat if you eat,” Austen challenged me as she crossed her arms in front of her. She grinned when I raised a brow at her.
Ellie watched us giggling as I sighed in annoyance. “Fiiiine.”
Austen stood on her tiptoes to kiss my cheek and then walked down the hall. She came back into the kitchen with shoes on and her purse.
She looked at Ellie. “What are you hungry for?”
She thought for a moment. “Chicken nuggets!”
Austen laughed. “Well, we can get those anywhere.” She looked at me. “What do you think you can eat that won’t be too heavy and make you sick?”
I shrugged. “Maybe a salad.”
I turned my back and bent my knees some letting Ellie climb onto my back. She wrapped her arms around my neck. I looked at Austen. “Sounds good to me.”
I left the mill and headed to my Jeep. When I made it there, four men were at my Jeep. I stiffened when I saw they were wearing all black and their faces were shielded by hoods. I’ve seen this gang hanging around my neighborhood.
“Hey!” I yelled out once I realized they were trying to break into my Jeep. I hurried over to them and hit the hell out of one of them before he was able to pull out his gun. The next few minutes was a chaos of fists flying, knives being pulled out, and a gun pointed at my head before more of the men came out of the mill and hurried over to help.
My whole body ached as the fight came to an end and the assholes ran off. I slid down my Jeep until I was sitting on the asphalt. The cops were called along with the paramedics.
Damion, my friend and co-worker, knelt in front of me checking me over. “You sure put up one hell of fight, kid.”
I nodded a little, stopping myself when my head started pounding. I text Austen as the cops pulled in letting her know I was going to be running a few minutes later than normal.
Damion and Joshua helped me to my feet and over to the paramedic. I gave my statement to the cops while the paramedics looked me over. They wanted me to go to the hospital to get checked out a little better, but I refused to go. There was no way in hell I wanted that bill. I looked down at my phone once I got into my vehicle. There wasn’t a message from Austen. Her and Ellie must’ve be asleep.
I drove toward her place, and once there, I used the keycard she gave me to get into the gate. By the time I made it into the apartment, I was sore as hell. I shut the door quietly and locked it.
After a quick shower, I crawled into bed with Austen. I tensed and winced a little when she moved to snuggle against me.
She lifted her head to look at me. She started to smile but stopped once she saw my beat up face. Stupid street light was shining through her window right onto my face. She quickly leaned over me and turned on the lamp on the nightstand.
Her mouth fell open. “Aaron, what the hell happened to you!”
I winced when she touched my ribs and slowly sat up. “Some gang members were trying to steal my jeep.”
“Shhh, don’t wake Ellie.” I ran my hand gently through her hair trying to calm her down a bit. “The police are looking for them. I was the first to come out and tried to stop them from stealing my Jeep.”
“Quit that job, Aaron.”
“Austen, I’ve already told you, I’m the only one working. I have to be able to pay the bills. The owner said he was going to hire more security.”
“Not good enough. You are quitting.”
I felt my eyebrow shoot up before I could stop it. I smiled a little. “Oh really, bossy goods?”
She nodded keeping her serious expression steady. “Stop trying to be cute. Yes. You’re quitting. You leave that place every single time you work with a new bruise, cut, or burn. Now this? You’re quitting.”
I gave her a mischievous grin before wrapping an arm around her and rolling her so she was on her back, and I was hovering above her. The movement hurt, but it was worth it to hear her squeal and giggle. I leaned down and kissed the side of her neck making my way to her lips.
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Am I now?” I asked as my hand moved under the larger shirt she was wearing, genty letting my fingers touch her bare stomach. I smiled before I kissed her. She was perfection.
She grabbed my hand to stop me and raised a brow. “Aaron, tell me you’re quitting. Please.”
I scrunched my eyebrows as I looked down at her. “My job really bothers you that bad?”
I kissed her and put my forehead to hers. “I will give my two weeks notice tomorrow.”
She smiled and then kissed me. “Thank you. “
“I’d do anything to keep that smile on your face, love.”
“Good to know.” She kissed me again. “Did you get looked at to make sure everything was okay? You’re really bruised up.”
“A paramedic did a once over.” I moved off her a bit.
“A once over?” She moved until she was sitting up. She looked at my chest and then her eyes went to my ribs that were already bruising.
“Yeah, they made sure nothing was broken. I’m fine, Austen, just sore.”
She sighed and nodded. “Get some sleep, stubborn ass.”
I laid on my back and pulled gently until I had her lying next me. “Party pooper,” I teased.
“You need sleep,” she said, still sounding upset.
I kissed her head. “What’s wrong now?”
“I’m just pissed that this happened to you. I hope they find the ones who did it. I’m just shaken up over it.”
I ran my hand gently up and down her back. “I’m okay, love. I’m okay.”
She snuggled against me and I felt her lips kiss my chest. “Get some sleep.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I kissed the top of her head and closed my eyes.
“I told you no,” I said to Coach Shelby as I looked at the email from the dean at Juilliard.
“And I think you’re being stupid. I’m going to fight for you to do what you love and what you’re good at.”
I closed my laptop and glared at her across the table. I looked around the library before looking at her again.
“I’m going to school for business, possibly law. My dad wants me to be a part of the family company. I can’t pursue dance, Coach. I just can’t.”
She sighed heavily and leaned forward with her elbows on on the table. “Austen, your father does run a great oil company, and I’m sure it won’t fail if you aren’t a part of it.”
“You don’t understand. When I mentioned dance when I was a junior in high school, everyone laughed at me. I can’t make money doing that. It’s not a solid foundation to stand on.” I was getting very frustrated. I appreciated her pushing for my dreams, but it wasn’t realistic for me.
“Okay, so you and that Aaron kid are doing pretty good. I’m sure-“
My eyebrows shot up. “How did you know about him?”
“Is it supposed to be a secret?” She laughed. “Because if so, you two should stop stealing kisses from each other between classes.”
I didn’t say anything.
“What I was going to say is that I’m sure you will find someone, maybe it’s Aaron, that will support your dream. One day you’ll get married and you’ll realize money isn’t the most important thing. Also, don’t doubt the ability to make money dancing professionally. I’m not giving up on this. I know when I see talent and-“
“Okay, okay! I got it. Fine. I’ll audition.”
She smiled. “Good!” She stood. “Email the dean back and practice for the audtion starts first thing in the morning, an hour before practice.” She walked off before I could say anything else.
I put my forehead on top of my laptop and groaned.
I heard a girl giggle near by. “Aaron, what are you-“
Before she could finish I felt hands on my shoulders and knew instantly that it was Aaron.
“I thought I might find you here. What’s wrong, love?”
I sat up and looked at him. “Were you trying to call me? I heard my phone vibrating from my bag, but I was meeting with my cheer coach.” I looked around and saw a girl staring at us, making a sad attempt at pretending to look at a book and not checking out Aaron.
“Yeah I was trying to see if you wanted me to bring you lunch.” He sat down in the chair next to me.
I looked over my shoulder. I felt like everyone was watching us, although, no one was really paying much attention except the one girl who wouldn’t stop checking Aaron out and giving me the evil eye. I looked at Aaron. People knew about us, maybe not a lot, but it only took one person finding out who I was and this all getting back to everyone back home.
Aaron kept his eyes on my face. I saw hurt flash across his face for a second before he hid it and sat back. “I guess I should head back to the coffee shop.”
It wasn’t that I was trying to keep us a secret, but I needed to tell everyone back home without them finding out from someone else other than me.
“Can I talk to you about something before you do?”
He nodded but remained quiet.
“I wasn’t going to say anything to anyone because it doesn’t matter, but Coach Shelby is pushing for me to audition for Juilliard. That’s in New York. That’d be a waste of time according to every single person in my family. I told her I would do the audition, mostly for her to leave me alone. I love to dance, but I can’t make a career out of it. I don’t know what to do. It’s a great opportunity for me, but it won’t make my parents proud.”
“Do you love to dance, Austen?”
“Then do it. Don’t give up something you love. You’ll regret it and never truly be happy.”
“It’s not that easy.”
He smiled. “Life is never easy, but you can’t live your life for others. You have to do what makes you happy. A career and money can come later. Besides, you can make a career out of dancing.”
“If I do that, then I’ll always be traveling.”
“What’s wrong with traveling?”
I shrugged. He wouldn’t understand. I wanted to tell him everything. I needed to tell him who my dad was and the company being forced down my throat after graduation. I liked to pretend I didn’t have college figured out, and that I was just getting basics now. I liked to pretend I had this free life where I could do as I pleased, but I didn’t. Not if I wanted my parents to be happy.
“Aaron, I lied to you. I do know what I’m majoring in. I’m majoring in business and law. I like to pretend that I’m not. I am just doing basics now, but next year will be my core classes.”
He went to grab my hand but stopped himself and put his hand in his lap. He stood.
“Do the audition, Austen, and do your best. Follow your heart.”
“You sound like a hallmark card.”
He smiled a little. “Just being honest. I will support you no matter what you decide.”
He was being weird, but I’m sure I was giving off a weird vibe of my own. He was always so in tune with what I feeling or thinking. I appreciated it, but sometimes it freaked me out like he was a mind reader or something.
I nodded and opened my laptop. “Thanks. I’ll email the dean back then.” I smiled a little.
“You’re welcome.” He gave my shoulder a little squeeze but no kiss on the cheek or head before he walked off.
After emailing the dean of Juilliard, I packed up my things and I headed to my next class.
I smiled when I looked out the window and saw Aaron pulling up. I opened the door and let him in. Ellie was with her mom, which was probably most of the reason it was hard for him to smile. But, I knew I was also the cause of that. I was very standoffish earlier today and it was obvious he picked up on that as standoffish as he was.
When he was in the house, I shut the door.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I watched him kick off his shoes.
He looked at me in confusion. “For what?”
“For how I acted at the library. Coach Shelby said she saw us kissing, and I just panicked. We were supposed to stay friends, and now we’re more than that… and I just need to figure out how to tell everyone back home that I’m with you and not Clay. It’s so complicated.”
He tried to hide that he was hurt with a small smile. I hated that his shoulders slumped some. “It’s fine, Austen. I understand.”
“It’s not fine. You don’t have to be so agreeable and nice about this. I know I’m not being very fair to you.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “I know I’m not exactly a guy to write home about.” He chuckled sadly.
“But you are. It’s just going to take a lot of convincing. I just don’t want them finding out through hearsay.”
He kissed my forehead. “I’ll back off at school. On a different note I have some news that will make you happy.”
“What?” I smiled a little.
“I put my two weeks notice in at work and I was offered a job.”
“Really?” My smile grew. “Where?”
“With an oil company out of Austin, Texas. Actually, I had three competing but one had offered the best deal. I get to work from home and have to do some traveling but not a lot. That is if I take it.”
I froze. “Oil company out of Austin?” The city I was named after. The reputable only oil company there.
He nodded and frowned. “I won’t be leaving or anything. Do you not want me to take the job?”
“What’s the name of the oil company?”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“Aaron, what is my last name?”
“Well, you haven’t told me yet,” he said with a crooked smile.
“Really?” I felt worse than I had all day. “I’m a terrible secret girlfriend, aren’t I?”
He kissed me. “Sweetheart, you’re not terrible. We just are going slow.”
“Yeah, but you could at least have been told my last name. I didn’t even realize I never told you. Aaron, my last name is Reeves.” I waited for him to make the connection.
He shrugged. “Okay. I’m sure it’s a popular last name.”
“My dad owns the oil company.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Do… do you not want me to take the job? I don’t have to. If you don’t want me to work for your dad I’d understand.”
I sat down on a bar stool. “No. You can’t not take it. It’s just that… I come from money and I’m…” Tears filled my eyes. I hated that Aaron felt like he should turn down a job just because I’d want him to. I didn’t like having that kind of power. I didn’t deserve that. “My parents want me to be a part of the business and, specifically, a part of the law team that backs the company. Clay, my ex who isn’t content being my ex, is my dad’s right hand man. He does a lot of HR, and I’m sure he’s the one who you’ve been in contact with for the job.” I wiped away my stupid tears. “You’re so nice to me… you shouldn’t be so nice.”
And that was the hard truth. I knew the kind of person I was deep down. I was spoiled. I liked my easy life. I liked it so much that I knew I’d never fully pursue dance or…. or Aaron. My parents expected me to eventually end up with Clay. They loved him. I had a life of ease and money just waiting for me back home. I was a horrible person for even thinking that way. But I knew how all of this would end before it even got started real good.
He came over and stood in between my legs. He smiled down at me, and his smile and eyes alone put me at ease a little. He wiped my tears. “You’re an amazing person. The way we are raised does have an impact on who we are and what we decide. I know that if you’re willing to give up something you’re passionate about means that you adore your family. That’s not a bad thing.” He tucked some hair behind my ear. “You are an amazing person. And no I haven’t been speaking to anyone named Clay. I have been…” he stopped. “It doesn’t matter. “I’ll take one of the other jobs.”
“You have been what?”
“Only speaking with Mr. Reeves. He’s the one who has been contacting me.” He shrugged, put his hands on my waist, picked me up, and put my feet on the floor. He held my hand and led me to the couch. He sat down and pulled me down so I was sitting next to him. I touched his jaw that had a dark bruise on it. I hadn’t even looked at his ribs today.
“It’s a good company.” I lifted his shirt and frowned at his bruised ribs. “Take the job.”
“Are you going to frown at me all the time if I do?”
I put his shirt back down. “I’m frowning because of how your ribs and jaw look. And it’s a great company. My dad is an honest man. You deserve a job like that, Aaron.”
He took both of my hands in his. “But how would you feel with me working for him. If it’s a problem for you, then I can work for someone else.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. But I want you to do what you want. What would you do if I wasn’t in the picture at all?”
“I’d go for the job that offered me the most benefits. I want to give Ellie the life she deserves.”
Aaron working for my dad could go two ways. Dad falls in love with Aaron and when I tell him I’m dating him he’s not pissed about it, or… Dad keeps his business with Aaron strictly business, nothing personal like him and Clay’s relationship. But, this wasn’t about me. I know Aaron cared more about my feelings than his own, but his world couldn’t always be centered around me. That wouldn’t be fair, especially, if we didn’t work out. He had to put Ellie and him before me.
I kissed him. “Then take the job.”
He ran his hand gently through my hair. He didn’t say anything he just kissed me.
I was worried about Aaron being tossed into my world, but here he was, in it. He would be working for a hella good company. He’d be working for my father. I smiled against his lips and knotted my fingers in his hair.
“Just make my dad love you, okay?”
We both laughed.
“I will do my best, but you know I suck at people skills.”
I laughed. “No you don’t. You think you do, but you’re actually really good with people.”
He made a face that made me smile. “I think your father likes me okay. He is a very stubborn and persistent man, though.” He gave me a grin. “Which explains a few things about you,” he teased.
I laughed. “At least you know I get it honest.” I put my forehead to his and kept my fingers in his hair. “This is off the subject, but you really think I should go for Juilliard?”
I picked my head up to look at him.
“Yes, I do. Austen, there are times when life goes great, amazing even. Those times make you want to hold on to what you know. What’s the easy road. But one day you’ll back on things and say yeah it was good but I regret not doing certain things because it was too hard. Or not worth the risk. The amazing woman I have gotten to know doesn’t seem like the woman who wants any regrets.”
“I’m scared of disappointing my parents. They’ve worked hard for the life we have and they want me and my brother to take over the company one day.” I sighed. “And Jacob doesn’t want it either.”
He ran his hands up my arms gently. “I’m sure they made an amazing life for all of you but you and Jacob have to find your own path and make your own life. And just because you do dance now doesn’t mean that in the future you decide to help with the business. It’s okay to do one thing and another later.”
“Can you make my parents think that way?” I laughed.
“I will see what I can do.”
I smiled. “So… If I get in, that means I have to move to New York. What then?”
“Then Ellie and I move to New York. All my classes are online and so will my work be.
And the coffee shop is now self sustaining and can be given over to the campus completely now. I actually could have done that in may but I have control issues when it comes to my jobs.”
“You’d follow me?”
“As long as you don’t get tired of me between now and then yes. In a heartbeat.” He played with my fingers and kept his eyes on them. “I haven’t had a lot of good things in my life. So, we I find something that is good and amazing I tend to hold onto it and fight for it as long as I can.”
All I could hear right now was my little brother telling me to hold on to this and not fuck it up.
“Can we go eat something? This is so much heavy for one night and we have something to celebrate.” I smiled at him.
“And what’s that? Your audition?” He asked with a smile.
“No, silly. You quitting that awful job and getting an amazing job.” I got off his lap and held my hand out to him. “Come on, it’s your choice and I’m buying.”
He laughed and stood up. He brought my hand to his lips and kissed the top of it.
“Where’s your roommate tonight?”
“She’s never here anymore. She’s always with her boyfriend.” I walked into the kitchen and grabbed my purse. “Can we go see a movie, too?”
He wrapped an arm around my waist. “Sure.” He looked down at his phone when it dinged. His smile faded a little.
“What is it?”
He put the phone in his pocket. “The lawyer I’ve hired to get Ellie. He was just letting me know my retainer fee has gone through.”
“That’s a good thing.” I hated seeing him so sad. “Would you feel better if we go check on her?”
He chewed on the inside of his cheek. “I would. I’m sorry.”
I laughed. “It’s fine. I promise. Come on.” I opened the door and after he was out, I locked it and followed him to his Jeep.
Austen stayed close to me as we made our way to my apartment. I put my key in to unlock it but the door came open without me even having to turn the knob. I frowned at it and walked in. I stood frozen as I came into the living room and saw my stuff thrown about everywhere. The TV was gone and anything that I had that was worth even the littlest bit of money, was missing. My heart clenched as panic filled me. I hurried to Ellie’s room and felt sick to my stomach when I saw her things were gone. I went into Ruthie’s room and saw the same thing. Gone. All gone. Anger and fear filled me. I started shaking as I made it to the kitchen and saw Austen reading a note.
Austen looked at me, her eyes wide. “She found out about the lawyer and you trying to take Ellie,” she said, calmly setting the letter down. “Deep breaths, Aaron. Call your lawyer, okay?”
My hand shook as I tried to get my phone out of my pocket. I was on the verge of losing it.
What if Ruthie didn’t take care of her?
I swallowed hard and closed my eyes to calm myself down. It took a few minutes before I was able to calm down enough to call my lawyer. When I finished with the call, I sat slowly onto the stool feeling utterly lost at what to do. I hated waiting, and that’s all I could do at the point while my lawyer handled the situation.
Ruthie had no money. How was she — I stopped my thought as I thought about the extra debit card I kept here for emergencies. I swore and as quickly as I could, I pulled up my bank account app on my phone. I closed my eyes after I saw that my account was drained down to the last fucking penny.
“You look like you’re about to pass out,” Austen said worriedly, kneeling in front of me.
I handed her my phone so she could see my bank account. “She took Ellie, my money, everything…” I whispered. I’d give her whatever money she wanted as long as she gave me back Ellie.
Austen’s face turned red and the hand that held my phone started to tremble “What a bitch!”
I took the phone from her and put it down. “I would have given her whatever she wanted if she would have left Ellie with me,” I whispered.
Austen touched the side of my face and kissed my cheek. “We are going to figure this out. I promise. What did the lawyer say?”
I leaned into her hand as she wiped a tear that fell. I was a guy. I wasn’t supposed to cry.
“That she thinks I have a good chance at getting her. She’s been talking to everyone that knows Ruthie and me.” He stopped speaking for a moment and looked at me. His eyes widened for a second.
“What?” She let her hand fall.
“Your mom’s a lawyer isn’t she?” I asked as I realized Austen told me her mom was a lawyer. I had talked to a different lawyer to begin with, but then he recommended a Mrs. Reeves because she never lost a case when it came to custody battles.
“I think your mom is my lawyer. The lawyer here told me to call her. He even sent the retainer fee I had given him to her as part of the retainer fee that I would owe her.” I ran my shaking hands through my hair.
“She’s good, Aaron. Really good. I’ll…” She took a deep breath and let it out as she stood.
“I’ll call her.”
I grabbed her hand. “I honestly didn’t think about it being your mom until just now.” I gave her hand a squeeze. “I don’t want you getting in trouble because of me. I’m not worth that.” I stood up. I wandered into the living room with Austen following me. I sat down on the couch and picked up a shirt off the floor. It had been ripped and cut.
Austen put her hands on her hips and sighed. “I’m not worried about getting in trouble. You’re worth it. My parents… well, they’ll get over it. I’m gonna go call my mom and tell her to work on the case immediately. We need to go see her. I think it will be best for you to talk to my mom in person.”
“I need to go to the bank.” I looked at my watch. “I have some money in savings.” I stood up and pulled in her into my arms. When she wrapped her arms around me, I felt a little better. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me, Austen,” I said in a whisper.
I felt her hold on me tighten.
I kissed the top of her head. Austen didn’t know about my past or all I went through growing up. I sighed sadly as I realized that until she knew where I came from she’d never know the real me.
I pulled back some and looked down at her. “We’re an interesting pair. Neither of us have truly told the other about where we come from. I think maybe it’s time.”
Her eyes flashed with worry, but she nodded anyway. “I know you’re right. We should. But first, I’m going to call my mom. She needs to be on this case fast so we know Ellie is okay. Let’s head to my place and pack up so we can get on the road, okay?”
I nodded and looked around the trashed apartment one more time before we headed down to my Jeep.
My stomach was in knots as I thought about Ellie. I hoped Ruthie was taking good care of her. I sighed sadly and put my uneaten burger back into the bag. I kept my eyes on the road.
“So… about my past,” I said cutting through the silence. I gripped the steering wheel a bit before I continued. “My dad was an alcoholic abusive asshat. When he was sober, which wasn’t often, he wasn’t physically abusive just verbally.” I shrugged. I smiled a little as I thought about my mom. “My mom was amazing, though.” I hated talking about my family. Remembering everything hurt.
Austen stopped nervously tapping the window button on the door. She told her mom she was on her way and all she would tell her was that she needed to work extra hard on the custody case for Ellie and she’d explain more when she got there. She didn’t want to tell her over the phone the details of our relationship.
She looked at me with hurt in her eyes. Hurt for me. No one had ever really looked at me like Austen does. This girl would take bullet for me; I had no doubt.
“What happened to your mom?”
I focused back on the road as my grip on the steering wheel tightened again. “She died when I was eight.”
“Was she sick?”
“No. One night after my father had been…” I thought for a moment about the right word to use. “Extremely brutal to both of us she… she tried to get us both out of there. It was raining really bad and in her hurry to get us safely away, she lost control of the car. I woke up a few days later in the hospital to find out she had been killed in the wreck.”
Tears filled her eyes. She tried to say something but instead, closed her mouth and reached over and held my hand.
I gave her hand a squeeze. “Dad married Ruthie when I was thirteen. He left us with nothing two years later when he found out Ruthie was pregnant with Ellie. He never wanted me, let alone another child.”
“I don’t know what to say, Aaron. I’ve been given everything and more in life. I have a damn nanny. I’m privileged, and it’s gross how spoiled I am. What’s even worse is that I like it. That makes me a bad person right?” She didn’t give me an option to respond before continuing. “My parents are too protective and all in my business. They try to plan my entire life. You and I both come from extreme families, just on different ends of the spectrum. Aaron, I’m so sorry you went through all of that. I will never understand the pain you must have went through, but I know that it pisses me off and hurts to know you did go through that.”
I shrugged. “It sucked, but it didn’t destroy me or turn me bitter. I lucked out. When I was fifteen someone sponsored me to go to school, and I got a job at the mill and switched colleges at sixteen. I have had a rough start, but things can only get better. Plus, it has made me appreciate the good things in my life.”
“You’re amazing, Aaron. The best person I’ve ever met. I mean that.”
I gave her hand a squeeze. “You have my mom to thank for that.”
“One day you’ll have to take me to meet her.” She smiled. “We’ll bring flowers and everything.”
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
She got the bag that had my food in it and took it out. “Now, you need to eat.”
“But nothing. You’re eating.” She handed me my food.
I didn’t know what to expect with this impromptu visit, but as we got closer to my driveway, I started to panic a little. I rolled the window down to get fresh air and heard Aaron chuckle a little. He couldn’t hide how nervous he was, though. He kept wiping his palms on his jeans and turning the air down.
My mom had been blowing up my phone with texts, drilling me for more answers. I called her and only gave her enough information to get her on the case ASAP. I told her I was on my way with company and that her and Dad needed to be open minded when I got there.
As much as she begged me, I wasn’t going to tell her I was seeing Aaron over the phone.
Aaron pulled up to the gate that was at the beginning of my driveway. He looked at the code panel and his eyes shifted to the large gate, then down the road some to my large house. He swallowed hard.
“I kind of wish I hadn’t emailed your dad back accepting the job. If I had known all this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have.” He wiped his hand off on his jeans again. He turned the mirror to himself and I watched with confusion as he took all his piercings out.
“You don’t have to take those out.”
“Yeah, I do.”
I didn’t argue. If it made him feel better to have them out, then I wasn’t going to stop him.
He put his piercings in the cup holder and looked at me. “Do you want to put the code in or me?”
He rolled his window down and pushed in the code. Once the gate opened, he headed down the driveway.
“At least Jacob likes you. And my dad likes you because he hired you.” I laughed nervously.
He pulled his hair back into a tie and looked at me as he parked. “That laugh does not help, love.”
I looked at the white two story plantation house. Mom had it remodeled to perfection a few years ago. It looked like something you saw on Pinterest and Better Homes and Gardens. As a matter of fact, our house was featured in Better Homes and Gardens last spring.
I saw our landscapers working and then saw Mom standing at the door.
“You look like your mom,” Aaron said before turning the Jeep off.
I laughed. “I’d lie if I said that was the first time I had ever heard that.”
I took a breath of confidence as I got out of the car.
Mom shut the door behind her and walked down the front steps. She came over and her eyes immediately widened as she looked up at Aaron when he got out of the Jeep.
He gave Mom a little smile as he got my two bags out and his one little one. “Hello, Mrs. Reeves.”
“Mr. Charles? I know because I’ve seen photos of you. You work for my husband, and I’ve been on the case for Ellie.” She smiled a little. “You’ve met my daughter I see.” Mom’s attention went to me.”Are you two in the same classes?”
“No, ma’am. I’m in my last year of the Masters program. Austen and I met at a park, then the coffee house I run on campus.”
Mom narrowed her eyes a little. “Oh. Well, let’s go in we can discuss details over dinner.” She hugged me tightly. “I’m so happy I get to squeeze you again!”
After she let go, we followed her in.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked as I motioned for Aaron to set our things down in the entrance.
“At work, but he should be on his way here soon.”
Aaron set the bags down carefully and kept looking around. Anytime we got close to something breakable he would move away from it and give it a wide berth.
I laughed and Mom smiled.
“I’m going to go check in with Frieda and see what time dinner will be. Austen, show him to the guest room, okay?”
I nodded. “The one right next to mine?”
Mom raised a brow. “The one by Jacob’s room. On the other end of the house. I’m sure your father will have him out at the pool house by tonight, though.”
I looked at Aaron after Mom disappeared down the hall. “I might as well show you to the pool house.”
He chuckled a little. “I can go to a hotel if that would be easier.”
“Mom wouldn’t allow that.”
He followed me toward the back door.
I showed him where a bathroom was and the kitchen on our way out.
When we came outside, I smiled when I saw Jacob’s light on in his treehouse. That was his favorite place since he was four. I loved he never outgrew it.
The treehouse was pretty impressive. Dad had Pete Nelson from Treehouse Masters come out and build it.
“I guess you could stay in there, too.” I laughed. “If Jacob allows it.”
“I think I’m a tad too tall for that, but it’s fuckin’ awesome.”
I smiled. “We’ll have to bring Ellie to play in it sometime.” I motioned for him to follow me. We walked on the stone patio, and I opened the gate to the pool.
I smiled when I saw the pool house. It was great. It had a kitchen and everything. Mom called it her “she-shed” because it was made just for her own personal getaway when everyone was driving her crazy.
When we came in, Aaron did the same thing he had done in the house. He avoided getting anywhere near anything breakable.
Het set his bag down, and I laughed. “So, Mom handled everything way better than I expected.” I turned on the lights in the living room. “I guess she doesn’t know the extent of what we are exactly, but still, she wasn’t too weird.”
“Which is a good thing.” He sat down on the couch and ran a hand down his face. “I’m so big I feel like T-Rex in a China shop,” he said as he looked at a vase that was next to him on the table.
I walked over and sat down next to him. I looped my arm with his and smiled when he looked at me. “Super hero, ogre, T-Rex… you’re the Jack of all trades aren’t ya?”
That made him laugh. “I guess so.” He kissed the top of my head. “Are you happy being home?”
“I’m nervous as hell, excited, and scared to death. But, I know when Mom finds out how involved I am with you and Ellie, she’ll work even harder. And… everyone needs to know. It’s hard keeping a pet T-Rex a secret.”
He laughed again. “I guess it is.” He tilted my chin up and kissed my lips softly. “Let’s go say hi to your little brother. He’s going to be upset that neither of us text him and told him that we were coming.”
I stood when he stood. He held my hand in his and we headed outside.
Aaron was hanging out with Jacob while I talked to Mom and Dad. Before dinner, Mom said it’d be best to fill them in on everything to keep the shock and drama low when everyone was together.
“Do you want to tell me before your father get’s here?”
I looked around Dad’s office. He was meeting us in here soon.
I nodded. “Sure.” Instead of thinking too much on what to say, I just threw it out there.
“I met Aaron and we clicked. We went from friends to more than friends.” I watched Mom’s expression, trying to gauge what she was thinking, but she was a lawyer. She was damn good at not being readable. “We’re taking things slow. All we’ve done is kiss, I promise.”
Mom chuckled and her expression turned soft. “Sweetie, I didn’t ask how far you’ve taken things.”
I felt my cheeks get hot. I laughed a little. “I know, but I wanted you to know that our relationship isn’t like that. We’re being smart.”
“He’s… how do I say this? Not really your type, Austen. And what about Clay? I thought you two were just taking a break.”
I shook my head. “I thought we were too, but, Clay is the one who’s not my type. Aaron might look rough around the edges, but he’s really not. He loves life and has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. Clay and I are done. For good. He just doesn’t know that yet.”
Mom smiled warmly. “Then I’m happy for you. And I truly want you to find what I have with your father. Just be careful, because you know how you are.”
I wanted to get upset but she was right. I did know how I was. Once the new and shiney wore off, I’d get bored. I’d screw it up. I nodded, but didn’t comment.
“And while I’m happy for you, you know I can’t speak for your father. You know how he is about this stuff. You’re his baby, and as much as he loves Clay now, remember there was a time that he couldn’t stand him for the simple fact that he was dating his daughter.”
I smiled. “I know.”
“Aaron works for your father now, and he’s a client of mine.”
I nodded. “I know.”
Mom sighed. “This is going to be interesting, especially, when Clay finds out. Have you thought about how you’re going to present this to him?”
I shook my head.
The door to the office opened and Dad came in with a huge smile on his face. “There’s my baby girl!”
He held his arms open to me. I stood and hurried over to him.
He wrapped his arms around me and kissed my head. “I’ve missed you.”
“Missed you, too.”
He pulled back and smiled down at me. “Who do I need to thank for this impromptu visit?” he asked with a huge smile.
I heard Mom stifle a laugh.
“Your newest marketing employee,” I said with a nervous smile. I could have danced circles around why I was really here, but I needed to rip this conversation off like a bandaid. Do it and do it fast.
His eyes widened in shock. “Aaron Charles?”
Mom came over in a protective hurry. “You know I’m working on his custody case for his little sister.”
His smile completely faded, and his eyes remained on me. “And what is your relationship with my employee?” Dad asked ignoring what mom said.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. I suddenly forgot how to form words. I forgot how intimidating Dad could be.
“Austen,” he said in a warning tone that told me he was quickly losing his patience, and I better speak up.
“A little more than friends.” I smiled sweetly.
Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Is he here? Where is he?”
“Pool house,” Mom said quickly. “And they are here for him to talk with me about his little sister.”
I looked at Mom. I didn’t need her coming to my rescue, although, it was appreciated.
“Please be nice,” Mom begged.
Dad turned to leave the office. “I’m just going to have a little talk with him about his future at my company.”
I hurried after him and grabbed his arm. “Wait!”
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Don’t you dare fire him! He needs this job, and he’s amazing. You know this or you wouldn’t have hired him.”
Dad patted my hand. “I’m not planning on firing him. I just want to have a… simple discussion with him. You stay here with your mother.”
I started to argue but Mom touched my back and spoke up before could. “Come help me set the table. Frieda has been dying to see you, and getting involved will only be worse.”
I sighed and let go of Dads arm.
I kept my eyes on the door after he walked out.
“Austen, come on. Seeing Frieda will help distract you for a bit.”
I looked at Mom, my eyes filled with worry.
Mom looped her arm with mine. “It’ll be fine. I hope.”
I let out a nervous sigh as we headed out of the office and to go see Frieda.
I sat on the couch watching Jacob play call of duty. He was showing me how to play, trying to keep me from stressing about what was going on with Austen and her parents. It wasn’t working. So many what if’s were running through my mind. I was so stuck in my thoughts that the front door of the pool house opening made me jump a little. I stood up when I saw Mr. Reeves.
This was the first time we had officially met. He had seen a photo of me, but that was it. I hadn’t seen a photo of him, or rather I had, but I didn’t know it was him at the time.
“Hello, Mr. Reeves.”
Mr. Reeves looked at me in shock. “You’re a damn giant! I hadn’t realized you were so tall!”
I sighed sadly. I hated being called a giant.
He shook his head and looked at Jacob. “Jacob, go help your mother and sister set the table.”
Jacob looked like he was about to object, but one look from his father sent him to the main house.
“How much is it going to cost me?” Mr. Reeves asked in a low growl.
“Umm… I don’t understand, Sir.”
“How much is it going to cost to keep you away from my daughter?”
I swear the air was knocked out of me and my heart stopped. It took me a moment to respond. “Nothing. There is nothing you can give me to keep me away from Austen.”
“If you don’t break things off you’re fired.”
I nodded. “I understand and respect that.”
He eyed me for a moment. “I will give you 500,000 dollars.”
My eyes widened, and he smiled.
“I can’t be bought, and I would prefer you not insult me by thinking I can be,” I said in more of a snap than I had intended.
His eyes widened in shock. “I can make it where you never work in marketing.”
I shrugged. “I know how to work with my hands and hard work doesn’t scare me. I can find a job to support myself, Ellie, and your daughter.”
“And if she doesn’t want to be with someone who can’t give her any other life but one where you’re barely making it?”
“Then I will let her go. But I want it to be her choice not yours. I want her happy, and I believe I can make her happy.”
He crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked me up and down. He rubbed his chin and smiled. “Alright, Aaron. We’ll need to get you a few suits for your meetings.”
I blinked a few times thinking it might help with my confusion. “Sir?”
He smiled a little. “You passed the test.” He chuckled. “Most guys would have taken the offer and ran. I like you, Aaron. You have integrity and a backbone. It was two of the things that I noticed through our emails. I just wanted to make sure it stuck when offered a lot of money. My children mean more to me than all the money I have. I want them happy, and strangely enough, I think you might be what Austen needs.” He sighed sadly. “For years I’ve tried to tell her what she needed and what to do, but when she left for college, I realized that me being controlling was what pushed her to go to a college away from us. I just want what’s best for her.”
I nodded. “That’s understandable, but you need to let her decide what’s best for her even if that isn’t the dream you have for her. It doesn’t mean that she does appreciate all you do for her.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Are you sure you’re twenty? You act a lot older.”
I shrugged. “I’m sure. Situations have made me older than I am.”
He nodded. “Let’s go to the main house. I’m sure Austen is freaking out by now.”
We talked about different marketing ideas as we walked to the house. When we came in
Austen was pacing. I raised an eyebrow at her when she stopped and looked at us.
“Don’t look so worried, Austen. I didn’t fire him, although I threatened to destroy his career and offered him 500,000 dollars,” he said under his breath.
Mrs. Reeves on the other hand glared at her husband.
“What? He didn’t take it. Actually he pretty much said he’d go back to manual labor rather than stay away from Austen.”
I swear my face caught on fire I was blushing so much. I didn’t think he’d tell everyone.
A bright smile spread across Austen’s face as she looked at me.
I put my hands in my pockets and tried to get a hold on how much I was blushing.
“How about we all sit down and eat dinner? I’m starving.” Mr. Reeves walked over to his wife and held a chair out for her while I did the same for Austen.
Jacob walked into the room and looked at his chair. “No one gonna pull out mine?”
Austen laughed. “Yeah, yourself.”
He winked at his sister and sat down. “So, I see Aaron is still alive. That’s cool.”
I took the spot in between Austen and Jacob.
Their dad laughed. “He’s a damn giant! I’m smart enough to know not to even try and injure or kill him.
“Jacob, I thought you said Kimberly was coming for dinner.” Mom passed the salad to him.
Austen raised a brow. “Kim? Kim who?”
Jacob glared at Mrs. Reeves.
Dad laughed and took a drink of his water.
I took a drink of my own water as I tried to hide a smile.
“Jacob?” Austen kept her eyes on him.
“We went to the movies and that was it. Mom asked me to invite her to dinner. It’s nothing serious.” Jacob shrugged.
I put my glass down and smiled at Austen’s expression. By the look on her face she was not used to him not telling her everything.
“Austen, calm down. Do you honestly think I’d invite a girl I might potentially date to dinner with your new boyfriend?”
Austen frowned. “I guess not.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “I didn’t even know you were coming until you and Aaron were already here. So, you don’t tell me everything either.”
I scrunched my eyebrows at them both. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked in confusion.
“Nothing. Why?” Jacob asked.
“You said you wouldn’t invite her over with me here,” I said with a raised eyebrow at him.
“Because I had no idea if there’d be drama or not. You’re meeting my parents for the first time. Nothing against you personally.”
“Ah, got it.”
“Now that we are past that, let’s eat,” Mom said eyeing Austen and Jacob.
“So, Aaron, tell us about your parents,” Mr. Reeves said after there had been a few very awkward moments of silence.
I choked on the water I had taken a drink of and started coughing.
“There’s not much to tell.” I moved around my food some.
Mrs. Reeves looked at me with understanding. Being the lawyer on the case, she probably knew everything about my family already.
“How about we discuss a lighter topic like, how these two met.” Mrs. Reeves wiggled her eyebrows at me. “I’d love to hear it.”
Austen eased up some and smiled at me. “Yeah, Aaron, tell them.”
I smiled and looked back at her before looking at her parents. “I was at the park with my little sister when Austen decided sitting on my bench with me was safer than sitting on the bench with an older man in a suit. Best thing that ever happened to me. That and me and Ellie having to give her a ride home.”
Her parents laughed and Austen’s dad looked at her. “You have grown up around suits your entire life. And you thought sitting next to this guy, no offense, Aaron, was safer?”
Austen shrugged and smirked a little. “Exactly why I don’t trust a man in a suit.”
Her dad chuckled. “Smart girl.”
I shook my head a little. “Anyway, a couple of days later she came into my coffee shop on campus where I was studying.”
“And I told him about Mom’s chocolate milk and how I hated coffee even though I was trying to make myself drink it,” Austen added.
I smiled. “So, I took her into the kitchen and made her some chocolate milk. It wasn’t as good as yours, Mrs. Reeves, but it passed.”
“Awww, I miss late night chocolate milk talks,” Mrs. Reeves said as she looked at Austen.
Austen smiled a little. “Me too.” She looked at me with the smile that was mine, meaning she only smiled this way where her eyes sparkled when she looked at me. “And if that wasn’t impressive enough, he brought me pizza.”
I grinned at her. “We became friends and then started dating. It’s been hard with my crazy schedule and with Ellie…” my smile faded as I thought of my little sister.
“We need to discuss Ellie after dinner. I have good news, Aaron.” Mrs. Reeves smiled reassuringly when I looked at her.
“Really?” I asked feeling a little hopeful.
She nodded and started eating again. Austen nudged me and smiled. She was about to say something when an older woman with silver hair and wrinkles around her mouth walked in. Austen’s face lit up.
“Aaron, this is Frieda, the nanny but more like my second mom.” Austen was beaming.
Frieda held her hand out to me. “Welcome to the Nuthouse.”
I took her hand in mine and shook it. I smiled at her. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Frieda.”
“How’s the food?” she asked as she pulled out a chair and sat down at the table across from me.
I looked down at my plate. I had eaten only about half of it before the conversation came around to Ellie, and I lost my appetite.
“It’s amazing thank you.”
Frieda smiled. “Wonderful. And you are so welcome.”
We all started eating and all of the attention went to Austen. They asked her about classes and she talked about it like she actually enjoyed it, although I knew she didn’t.
After dinner, Austen and I went with her parents to Mrs. Reeves office.
I sat down in a chair in front of her desk. My leg was bouncing I was so nervous.
“I have everything you need and more to win a custody battle. As soon as I got off the phone with Austen after she told me she was on her way and to work on your case, I got to work.”
She handed me a file. “I’ve set up a court date and have notified the other lawyer you’ve been working with.”
I felt a little relieved, but it soon ended. “There’s a problem. I don’t know where Ruthie took Ellie.” My hand shook a bit when I took the file from her.
“She will be found and taken into custody.” She looked certain.
I nodded. “Thank you. I’m worried about her. Ruthie doesn’t take care of Ellie.”
I opened the folder and looked over everything including the price of her services. I also saw that I needed to get a new place in a nice neighborhood. The check that Mr. Reeves would be depositing into my account would cover the new place and stuff, but I would have to sell the rest of my mom’s valuables to cover the lawyer fees.
“It shouldn’t take long. The team of private investigators work fast when kids are involved.”
Austen wasn’t saying anything. She looked overwhelmed.
I nodded. “Thanks. One place you might want to look is… my dad’s. Knowing Ruthie like I do, she might go there for money and help,” I said reluctantly. “Not that he’d give it to her, but she’d try.”
She handed me a pen and paper. “Can you write down the address?”
I wrote the address to one of the richest neighborhoods in San Antonio. My father had moved there when he left us. As far as I knew, he was still living with my grandparents. I handed the notepad back over to her.
“I’ll keep you updated. How long are you two staying?” she asked Austen.
“Just another day.” Austen looked at me. “Or do we need to stay longer?”
“It’s up to you. I have some things I will need to do back home, but I don’t mind staying if you want to spend some time at home.”
“I think you should head back so you can start looking for a new place to live,” her mom suggested.
“Any suggestion on what type of place I need to get? I figured a nice neighborhood with two bedrooms. Any other suggestions?”
“Why not rent a place where Austen stays? I know for sure that is a great community.”
Austen’s face lit up.
“And that doesn’t mean live with you. Aaron working toward custody means that Ellie needs to be his focus, and it’ll look sketchy if he’s living with you.”
Austen laughed. “Well, duh. I know that. But having him and Ellie closer would be nice.”
I knew that the area where Austen lived would be extremely expensive, but I also knew that it had its own little park and was gated. I chewed on the inside of my cheek as I did the math. I would be able to afford it with my new job. I cleared my throat and nodded.
“I will see if they have any units available.”
“I’ve deposited the signing bonus into your account earlier, but if you need an advance on your first paycheck I can give it to you,” Mr. Reeves said as he sat on the edge of Mrs. Reeves desk.
I shook my head. “No, thank you. I have some in savings and with the signing bonus,” plus what I was going to sell, “I should be fine.”
“I’ve cut a lot of the costs out. I’m not profiting on any of this. This is the cost for the private investigations, court fees, and also what it will cost to legally adopt Ellie when the time comes.” Mrs. Reeves smiled. “It’s going to be okay, Aaron.”
I gave her a little smile. “Thank you.”
I finished up selling all of my mom’s jewelry but two pieces. What I made from it would cover all the cost having to do with getting Ellie, and it left me with a bit afterward. I headed up the stairs to my new place wondering what all Austen had bought. I hated shopping with a passion, but luckily my girlfriend loved it. So, I gave her my card and a limit on how much money she could spend.
I put my key in, but before I could unlock it the door opened and Austen was standing there smiling.
“Hey, love, how’d the shopping go?” I bent down and kissed her.
“Well… most of it will be delivered tomorrow, and your Jeep is packed full. I’m so glad you let me use your Jeep and you took my car. I need help unloading it all.” She looked nervous.
“Why do you look so freaked out?” I asked as we headed down the stairs to the Jeep.
“Well… I went over budget.” She followed me.
I stopped walking and looked at her. “By how much?” I asked worriedly.
“Well, you needed a bed even though you said you didn’t and you need this place looking like a home, not a bachelor pad.” She smiled sweetly. “Did I mention how nice you look today?”
I raised my pierced eyebrow at her. “How much, love?”
“I’ve never really been put on a budget before.”
I sighed heavily and shook my head. “It doesn’t matter.” I kissed her forehead.
“But it does because you’re gonna be mad at me…”
I took her hand and we finished going down the stairs. “You went a lot over, didn’t you?”
“But what?” I asked as we headed to where she had parked the Jeep. I groaned when I saw it packed full.
“I didn’t spend any of your money at all.”
I looked at her in shock. “What?” I asked with a bit more snap than I had intended. I closed my eyes and pinched my nose. “Why didn’t you use my money?”
“It’s my gift to you,” she said quietly. “To you and Ellie.”
I opened my eyes and looked at her. I hated the way she had started to pout. I pulled her into my arms and kissed her forehead before putting my chin on top of her head. “And that means a lot to me, but I can’t let you pay for all this stuff. That had to cost a fortune.”
“I have plenty, Aaron. I promise it’s okay.” Her arms held me as tightly as she could.
“Let’s get this stuff inside, and then I will cook you dinner.”
I pulled back and looked down at her. I smiled a little at her. “It’s hard for me to accept help. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was eight.”
“Well, get used to it.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed my jaw. “Alright, come on, sexy. Let’s unload all of this. I can’t wait to get it all set up for you!”
I chuckled and started grabbing things. “I have a surprise for you as well.”
“Maybe,” I teased as we headed back upstairs. I left her thinking about what I said and unpacking things while I made several more trips. By the time I finished I was exhausted.
I put the last of the things down and sat down on the only piece of furniture in the apartment. A large couch.
“Okay, I think ordering pizza would be better.”
She laughed. “Want our usual?”
I nodded and pulled the long box that I had stuck in my pocket earlier. I waited until Austen had ordered the pizza before pulling her down onto the couch with me. I handed her the box. Inside was a tear drop emerald on a white gold chain. It was my mother’s.
I was nervous. I knew how I felt about Austen and how much I knew she was meant to be in my life, but I knew she struggled with it.
She tucked her feet under her and smiled as she opened it. Her mouth fell open and she narrowed her eyes at me. “Aaron… you’re not supposed spend this kind of money right now.”
“I didn’t. It was my mom’s.”
Her eyes stayed on mine. “And you want me to have it?”
I tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “Yes, I do. She would have wanted you to have it. It was her favorite one. I saved it and her locket.” I scrunched my eyebrows. “I had to sell the rest of her stuff.”
Austen set the box down and moved until she was on my lap facing me completely and her legs were wrapped around my waist. She cupped my face with both of her hands and kissed me. Austen completely caved into the kiss, and unlike usual, she didn’t hold back at all.
I was shocked when my hand brushed against her cheek and I felt tears. I pulled back from the kiss and looked into her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
She smiled. “Nothing.” She wiped her eyes. “Everything is so right. I just realized something, and it’s something I’ve never felt with anyone before.”
“And what’s that, love?” I asked before kissing her cheek bone, then her cheeks where the tears had touched.
“I’m so in love with you, Aaron. It’s different. Unlike anything.”
I grinned from ear to ear. “I’m so in love with you, too, baby.”
More tears fell down her cheeks. She looked relieved. “I was hoping that’s what you’d say.”
I ran my thumbs across her cheeks to wipe the tears away. I kissed her with everything in me.
Before things could go any further than just a full on makeout session, Aaron and I both put the brakes on. It would be so easy to just give in and take that next step with him, but I didn’t want to be that girl, and he didn’t want to be that guy to rush this. Because that was just it. There was no reason to rush things. It was refreshing to be with a guy who wanted to take his time with me and wasn’t in it just for sex. That was almost sexier than actually having sex.
I was in the kitchen, unloading the first load of Aaron’s new dishes into the cabinets when I heard the doorbell ring. I walked out of the kitchen and saw Aaron answering the door to the pizza guy.
I hurried over and paid before Aaron could.
Aaron took the pizza from me and before I could do anything, he picked me up and flung me over his shoulder.
“Austen, love, I can pay for things.” He said as he put the pizza on the counter, then slowly lowered me back to the floor. “I have a good job now.”
“I know, but I want you paying for what’s important right now. I can afford to help, so let me.”
He kissed me. “What am I going to do with you?” He smiled at me.
“I know what I’d like you to do with me, but you won’t,” I teased.
I went and got a piece of pizza out of the box.
He groaned. “I’m trying to be good, love. And so are you.”
I went to the fridge and got out a water. “I know.” I set my water and pizza down on the counter when my phone started ringing. “Hello?” I said without looking to see who it was.
“Where the fuck are you?” Clay snapped.
“Whoa, ummm, excuse me?”
“I know about Aaron. Your dad told me. Where are you, Austen? Are you with him?”
I frowned. “I was going to tell you face to face. I’m sorry my dad told you. He wasn’t supposed to. And where I am or who is with me is none of your business.”
“Well, I’m here. I’m here for you tell me to my face. So, I can either come to the address on Aaron’s work file or to your place. You tell me.”
My heart sped up. My mouth fell open, and I looked at Aaron. “Stay here,” I warned before hurrying out of his condo.
I hung up when I saw Clay’s Mercedes driving slowly around the parking lot. I walked out to the parking lot and when he saw me, he parked and got out without shutting his car off. I couldn’t get a word in because he was in my face screaming at me. Before I knew what was happening Aaron was standing in between us grabbing Clay’s hand when he went to grab my arm.
“Keep you hands off of her,” he said in a growl.
Clay was about to shove him away but got a good look at him and backed off.
“This is between me and Austen,” Clay said, looking at me.
“Clay, I was going to tell you.” Tears filled my eyes. I hated seeing him hurting. He was so in love with me. I knew that, but I couldn’t love him back. I tried, but I just couldn’t. He was still my friend, and I cared deeply for him.
“Well, your dad beat you to it. And this is shitty of you, A! First, you stop talking to me even though you promise we could still be friends. None of your girlfriends have heard from you either. When you moved, it’s like you just gave us all up!”
Aaron glared at Clay but moved away from us giving us privacy.
Clay looked at Aaron. “You gave us up for that? For him?”
Aaron was leaning with his back to the wall looking toward the park. I knew he heard Clay when he stiffened.
I turned my attention back to Clay. “First of all, if you ever refer to Aaron in that tone again, I’ll punch you in your face. And, I didn’t give you guys up. I’ve been busy with school, and yes, pursuing a relationship with Aaron. But we’ve also been more busy trying to locate his younger sister who could possibly be in danger. I admit, I haven’t had time for you guys back home, but it wasn’t on purpose. It’s just life. This isn’t high school anymore.”
Clay scoffed. “No kidding it’s not fucking high school, A! But you don’t just stop talking to the people in your life because you’re busy! You make time for them! You’re such a bitch!”
I started to say something, but stopped when Clay kept talking.
“You’re a spoiled little brat and all that matters to you is what you want. I feel bad for Aaron. Maybe me and all of your other ex boyfriends should inform him of the kind of girl you are. Let the new wear off and where will he be? He’ll be a fucking nobody to you. Fuck you, Austen.” Clay got into his car, slammed the door, and sped off.
I really hoped he’d get a hotel somewhere and not make that long drive back home all upset. I texted Dad immediately and asked him to call Clay to make sure he’d get a hotel and not drive.
Dad: Why? What happened?
Tears filled my eyes.
Me: He showed up because apparently you told him about me and Aaron. And now he left all upset. I don’t want him driving all those hours back upset.
Dad: I’ll handle it.
I felt Aaron wrap and arm around me. “I’m sorry.”
I wiggled out of his hold. “Don’t.” I knew he heard everything Clay said to me, and the sad truth was it was probably true.
He nodded. I saw hurt in his eyes before he hid it from me.
I walked back to his condo to get my shoes and purse.
As I was slipping on my shoes, I saw a text from Dad saying where Clay was staying and that he promised not to drive until morning. Clay was very important to me. The last thing I wanted was to lose him altogether. I had to talk to him. I had to somehow fix this.
I looked at Aaron when he came into the kitchen where I was. I picked up my purse and
looked at him. “Clay is at a hotel. I’m gonna go talk to him. I can’t let him hate me.”
“Take the pizza. It might help if you feed him.” He picked up a bottle of water and left the kitchen.
I followed Aaron down the hall. “Are you not even gonna tell me bye?”
He turned and smiled weakly at me before kissing my lips softly. “Bye, Austen. Be safe. I love you,” he whispered before sitting on the couch.
I frowned. “What’s your problem?”
He scrunched his eyebrows and looked up at me. “Nothing.”
He sighed heavily. “What do you want me to say, Austen? Because what’s going through my head isn’t going to make you less upset at me right now.”
“Upset at you? I’m not upset. I’m worried because I don’t like seeing you upset.”
He looked down at his hands for a second before looking at me again. “I didn’t like how he spoke to you.”
“Well, I deserved it, and now I need to go fix it. He’s one of my best friends.”
“I understand, Austen. Friends are important.”
“Would you feel better if you came with me?” I needed to fix this with Clay, but I also knew I couldn’t let Aaron get hurt in the process.
“I don’t think Clay would like that one bit. I think if you’re going to fix things me going with you won’t help.”
“You can wait in my car if that’d make you feel better.”
He took my hand in his and kissed the back of it. His thumb gently rub across the top of it. “I’m a big boy, Austen. You don’t have to worry about me. Go try and work out things with Clay. I’ll be right here when you get back.”
I sighed and nodded. “Okay.” I bent down and kissed him before leaving.
I was worried sick. Austen never came back last night, and I never heard from her after her texting me to tell me the hotel she was at and what room Clay was in. It was morning and still no word. I tried calling Austen’s phone so many times it was ridiculous.
I got in my Jeep and headed to the hotel that Austen told me Clay was staying at. I needed to make sure she was alright. I was in full on panic mode by the time I made it to the hotel. What if she was in a wreck? I parked and froze when I saw Austen’s car. She was still here. With Clay. I stopped my thoughts from going any further as I hurried into the hotel and up to the room number Austen had texted me hours ago.
I stood at the door with a sick feeling deep down in my gut. Something was off. I knocked on the door and waited for what seemed like years before the it opened. Clay was standing there in only his boxers. I looked past him into the room and saw Austen, my Austen, asleep in the bed. The covers were all messed up and barely covering her bare skin. I couldn’t breathe.
Clay rubbed his jaw and smirked a little. “Well, this is awkward.” He held his hand up when I took a step toward the door. “Not a good idea.”
I clenched my fists wanting to punch the hell out of him, but I knew it was pointless. It’d fix nothing and only make everything worse. I looked past him again and saw Austen sitting up. My eyes locked on hers as she pulled the sheet against her chest. It was too much. I had so much I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. Nothing was working except my feet, so I turned and left.
By the time I made it to the lobby, Austen was yelling my name. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw her running toward me. I didn’t stop. I couldn’t make myself talk to her. I needed to leave. I needed air and a whole lot of space away from her.
I made it to the Jeep and jerked the door open before Austen made it to me. I gripped the door not looking at her. I had been a complete and utter idiot to think Austen was actually in love with me. Girls like her didn’t end up with guys like me.
“Aaron,” she cried. “I’m so sorry! It… it just happened. I wasn’t thinking. We were fighting and yelling and… ” she was bawling at this point. “Aaron, please don’t leave!”
I couldn’t look at her. Her and I were taking things slow to help her get to where I was. I loved her, and I thought she loved me, but it was crystal clear she didn’t feel the same.
I felt her touch my arm. “Please,” she begged. “Look at me.”
I stiffened and made myself look at her. “What?” I asked through my teeth, trying to remain calm, but it wasn’t working. I felt like a piece of me just died inside.
“I-I fucked up. I… I know that.” She was crying so hard she could barely speak. She ran her fingers through her messy hair. “I’m so sorry! I love you. I swear I do, Aaron! I’m so confused, and I can’t make sense of what happened. I was stupid-”
“Just stop,” I said harshly. “I can’t do this right now! I just…” I shook my head and got into Jeep. I was struggling to take a full breath. She sucked the fucking life right out of me.
She tried to open my door, but it was locked. She backed away, and I watched her cry in the parking lot as I drove away.
I had never cried like I did once I got home. I couldn’t seem to stop and that only infuriated me more. I wasn’t a damn crier. But with everything going on with Ellie and now Austen, I couldn’t stop the tears.
I tried calming myself down with a cold shower to no avail. And to make matters worse, everything Austen had ordered started being delivered shortly after I got dressed. I took all the invoices from them and after a few hours and the final deliveries, I had a good idea how much Austen spent. I looked down at my phone as it rang and saw Austen’s name. I shut it off before writing out a check for all Austen had purchased. I got it out of my check book and stood up to take it to her. I felt numb as I opened the door and walked down the stairs to the third floor. I knocked at her door and waited.
I wasn’t exactly sure what motivated me to go to her place this soon after the fact, but here I was. There was no way in hell I was going to let her pay for all of that shit. I couldn’t accept a gift like that from her. Not now.
I knocked again. I knew she was home. I saw her car parked in her normal spot.
I knocked a few more times. “Austen, please open up,” I hadn’t realized how raw my throat was until I spoke out.
I heard slow footsteps and then the door opened. Her eyes were swollen from crying. It pissed me off that I hated seeing her like that. I hated the fact that I wanted to hold her and comfort her for breaking my heart. I needed to tell her how bad I hated her for this. I needed to tell her we were done, but none of those words came out. Instead, I handed her the check and started to walk away.
“No,” she said, her voice breaking. “I won’t accept this.”
I stopped and turned to look at her with great difficulty. I didn’t want to look at her. I couldn’t hide the hurt that I was feeling, but I was kind of glad. She needed to see what she did to me.
“I’m not a charity case, Austen. I’m not someone that needs taken care of. I’ve been doing that on my own since I was eight. And I definitely don’t want anything from you.”
I shook my head. “No. Fuck you, Austen.”
“Please. Please just come in. Let me talk to you. Please, Aaron.”
I put my hands in my pockets and looked at my shoes. I deserved to hear what the hell she was thinking. Maybe it’d give me some closure. Probably not, but she could at least try. I deserved some sort of explanation. As hard as it was to make myself do it, I nodded and followed her inside. I remained standing and close to the door. so I could hurry out if I needed to. I leaned back against the wall and watched her rip up the check and throw it in the trash in the kitchen.
“I’ll just deposit it into your account,” I said as I stared blankly at the wall in front of me.
“And I’ll call my bank and tell them not to accept anything from you.”
“Fine. You win,” I said with no emotion and looked at her.
Tears started falling down her cheeks. “I know sorry will never be enough. I don’t have feelings for him anymore. It just happened, Aaron. I wish I had a better explanation for you, but I don’t. I’m a horrible person who has a long streak of screwing good things up.”
I closed my eyes and ran my hands through my hair. “Great. That’s great, Austen. Can I leave now?”
“If that’s what you want,” she said quietly.
I scoffed. “If that’s what I want?” I shouted making her jump a little. I couldn’t help myself. I gently grabbed her shoulders as tears poured from my eyes. “I want you, Austen! I fucking love the hell out of you, but you just shattered my entire world!”
Tears poured from her eyes. “I know! God, I know,” she cried. She was shaking, and I let go of her. She covered her face with her hands as she cried harder.
“I could see myself marrying you, having kids… I saw a whole life with you, and I was stupid for thinking you actually meant it when you said you loved me! Girls like you don’t love guys like me.”
“That’s not true! I do love you! Clay and I were together for a really long time. There is a huge history between us. I got so wrapped up in emotions and hurting him that in the process of fixing it, I went too far!”
“It is true! If I had been enough you would never have done what you did! No matter what history you have with him.” I put my hand on the door knob. “And in the process of trying not to hurt him you killed me,” I whispered before opening the door.
“Aaron,” she breathed out.
I shook my and head walked out. I shut the door and didn’t turn around.
I heard the door open. “It can’t end like this,” she cried.
My fists clenched as I turned around to face her. “How would you have ended it?” I snapped. “By you breaking up with me? What, me getting pissed because you slept with Clay isn’t the happy ending you wanted?” I hated myself for letting my anger get the best of me, but I couldn’t help it. I was fucking hurt. I looked down at her neck and sighed heavily. “Where’s the necklace?”
She looked shocked as she felt her neck. “I… I guess I lost it.”
I closed my eyes. “Where?”
She didn’t answer so that told me what I should’ve known. She lost in while in bed with Clay. Another blow right to my heart. Not only did the woman I love sleep with another man, but she lost the necklace I had given her that was my mother’s.
“I…I can’t do this anymore.” I turned my back to her. “I can’t even look at you…just leave me alone.”
Just as I turned to leave, Clay was walking up with that smug look on his face and take out from one of Austen’s favorite Chinese restaurants. I also noticed something in his left hand. It was the necklace.
I cut my eyes at Austen before looking back at Clay. “Looks like your boyfriend found it,” I growled a bit. This wasn’t me. I was normally the calm, nice guy.
“Austen, go inside,” Clay said calmly as he handed Austen the food.
Austen did as she was told and Clay shut the door. He handed me the necklace.
“She told me you gave it to her. I found it… well, it doesn’t matter where. Listen man, I’m sorry. I love her, and I’m going to fight for this girl until I can’t anymore.”
I clenched my fist around the necklace. “No need to fight. Apparently, she’s more into you than me.” I backed up from him. “Tell Mr. Reeves I’ll find another job.” I turned and walked off.
He caught up with me. “Aaron, you can’t quit. You’re exactly what this company needs.” He truly looked apologetic. “I have zero beef with you. I know this is hard. How do you think I felt knowing she was with you? I came here to fight for her. I don’t want you hurt, but I’m hurting too.”
I shrugged. “Fight for her then. I won’t. I’ve fought for every damn thing in my life. I’ve fought to survive, Clay. I won’t fight and beg for affection. I refuse.” I had done that enough as a child.
“Don’t quit. Please. Austen’s dad will have my ass if you do.”
I nodded stiffly. I didn’t care if he got his ass chewed out or not. The reality was I needed the job. “On one condition. You make Austen take a check from me,” I said with no emotion.
“A check?” He looked so confused.
I nodded and pulled my checkbook out of my pocket. I wrote the check out again and after tearing it out, I handed it to Clay.
He took it and his eyes widened. “Ummm, this is over six thousand dollars. Why?”
“She agreed to go shopping for me for stuff for my home. I gave her the money, but she used her own.”
“Oh.” He looked at the check again. “I’ll deposit it into her account without her knowing.” He folded it and put it in his wallet.
I nodded and left. I needed to be alone.
I moved around my food, not interested in eating it at all. I didn’t ask Clay to come here. I didn’t ask for him to bring this stupid food. I pushed my plate away.
“What are you thinking?” Clay asked. I envied how he had no trouble eating. I knew I needed to eat something. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and it wasn’t helping my pounding headache.
My vision was blurry from crying so much. I only met his eyes for a second before looking at the table. “That you shouldn’t be here,” I said numbly.
“I’ll leave then. I just needed to see you before I left. I know you’re so confused right now and hurting. But you need to figure out what you want, A.”
I laughed coldly and looked at him. “What I want? I thought it was Aaron and Juilliard.” I shook my head. He knew nothing about Juilliard, but I needed to get that off my chest. “I always think I know what I want, and then I screw it up somehow, or I think about what my parents would want and go for their dreams for me and not my own.”
“Okay, back up a second. Juilliard?”
I took a sip of my water. “Yeah. Long story short, my cheer coach got me in for an audition. That doesn’t matter, though. It’ll never happen for me.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “Clay, you know I care for you, but last night was a mistake. I truly do love Aaron. I care for you, I just… I just don’t know.”
Clay looked hurt, but I didn’t blame him. I just told him that sleeping with him was a mistake.
“I don’t think it was a mistake. And I think deep down you know it wasn’t either.”
I put my head in my hands. “Clay, I can’t wrap my head around anything at this moment. Everything is so heavy and weighing me down. I just need you to leave. Please.”
“Why? So you can figure out how to push me away more?”
I looked up from my hands. “I can’t do this. I can’t have this conversation with you right now.”
He laughed but not in a humorous way. More of a pissed off, doesn’t know what to do with me kind of way.
His eyes filled with anger. “It’s all about you isn’t it? You’re upset and freaking out inside so you think it’s okay to tell me to leave. But what about me, Austen? Do I not matter? Do you think last night was just sex for me, because you’re wrong! For me it was everything and for a second I thought maybe, just maybe, the girl I love finally decided she loved me back.”
I closed my eyes.
“I will not keep coming after you. You’re really good at pushing people away, but at the end of the day, who will you have when no one can take your shit anymore?”
I kept my eyes closed and jumped when the door slammed shut.
When I pulled into my parents driveway, I saw the light on in the treehouse. My parents were out of town this weekend, and I was so thankful. I needed time to clear my head, but more than anything, I needed my little brother.
I knew every bit of this, the hurt, the excruciating pain in my heart, was all my fault. And the hardest part of it all was that I didn’t know how to fix the problem: Me.
I walked up the stairs of the treehouse and did the secret knock.
The door opened and Jacob’s shocked face broke out into a smile. “Austen!”
“Can I hideout with you?” I was trying to hold back tears.
He tilted his head to the side and let me in. He shut the door behind me. “What’s wrong, Sis?”
I walked straight to the board he hid his weed under. I knelt down and smiled when I picked up the board and found his stash. I pulled out his tray to roll it on. I sat down in the floor and started to roll a blunt. I watched him enough times to know how to do it.
He sighed heavily and took it from me. I watched in shock as he opened the window and threw it out. “I’ve been meaning to get rid of that.”
“Hey! I needed that!”
“You hate that shit.” He came over and sat next to me. “Tell me what’s going on?”
I laid my head on his shoulder. “Your big sister is a fuck up.”
“Just start from the beginning. When I talked to you a couple of days ago everything was fine.”
“And it was. But then Clay showed up. I thought I was over him, Jacob. I knew I was. But then he was hurting, and it made me hurt, and I went too far trying to fix things.” I picked my head up and looked at him. “I had to fix it,” I cried. “He’s one of my best friends, and we have a huge history.”
He stiffened. “You slept with him, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” I looked at my hands, completely ashamed of myself.
He cursed. “What about Aaron, Austen?”
I shrugged. “I love him. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking, I guess. I just… I don’t know.”
“Did Aaron find out?”
“I need a drink.” I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to relive the whole thing over again.
“Austen, did Aaron find out?”
I looked out the window. “Yes. He caught me.” My eyes filled with tears. “I hate myself.”
“Damn,” he said softly. “Well, that explains why he sounded so upset on the phone earlier. And I think-” he stopped.
I looked at him. “You talked to him?”
“Yeah. Aaron is my friend. We talk all the time. I called to see if he would be playing this online game I got him into tonight. He plays it a lot when he can’t sleep, which is almost every night.”
I was so confused but didn’t really know how to respond. “Oh.” I had no idea he and Aaron were friends, or that Aaron wasn’t sleeping at night.
He looked at me for a moment. “You didn’t know he has trouble sleeping, did you?”
“When we stay together I usually fall asleep first, so, no.” I stood. I was feeling worse about myself by the second. “I’m going to raid Dad’s wine closet.”
Jacob eyed me for a moment before standing up. “We get wine, then you talk. I want to know what all happened, so we can fix it.”
We headed into the house and found the pink moscato. We took it to Jacob’s room and locked his door so our nanny, Frieda, wouldn’t come in and see me drinking. She hated when Jacob and I messed with things we shouldn’t and would always give us long speeches.
Jacob leaned his back against his headboard. “Okay. Tell me what’s going on?”
I took a good long drink straight from the bottle and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. I moved the bottle around and watched the wine dance around inside. I then told him everything.
I looked at at him. “That’s everything. Bad. I know.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Damn, Austen.”
“Maybe I’m not meant to love anyone.” I looked at the bottle that was now half empty.
“Don’t be dramatic. Do you see yourself with a future with Clay or Aaron?”
“I thought I knew, but then Clay showed up and yelled at me and that’s when shit got confusing.
I keep telling myself that sex with him meant nothing, but what if it did? What if subconsciously I still do love him? What if…” I took another drink. “Hell, I don’t know. I love Aaron, Jacob.”
“Don’t think about your subconscious. That sounds like some shit Clay would say to get you leaning more toward him. Who makes you the happiest? Who do you see marrying and having kids with some day? Who makes you the better you?”
I took another drink. “I don’t want to think about marriage and kids right now.” I frowned.
Jacob watched me. “Answer the questions, Sis.”
“Stop acting like you’re older than me.”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“Fine. Aaron. I’m my true self with him. But he hates me.” I furrowed my brow. “I’m staying here this weekend. I needed to get away from there.”
“Well, we can spend the weekend figuring out how to fix it. How to help you get Aaron back.”
I smiled a little but my face felt funny. I got up and stumbled a little. I caught myself on the dresser and laughed. Well, shit. I’m drunk.
Jacob got off the bed and took the bottle from me. “Let’s get you to bed. Tomorrow we’ll figure things out.”
“Will you lay down with me?”
“Of course I will.” He helped me to my room and into my bed. He took my shoes off and climbed in bed next to me. “We’ll figure this all out tomorrow, Austen.”
I snuggled close to him and let my tears fall freely. “What if we don’t? What if I just lost the best thing that ever happened to me?”
Jacob didn’t answer. He played with my hair until I fell asleep.
I opened the door and was shocked to see Clay standing there with two cases of beer in his hands. “What the fuck are you doing here,” I asked in a bit of a growl.
The man who had help Austen ruin our relationship was the last person I wanted to see. I had a bunch of stupid furniture to put together. I didn’t have time for this.
“You gonna let me in or not?” He smirked.
I looked at the beer and then at him.
“I’m here to help.”
I don’t know what made me do it, but I let him in. He set the beer down, opened one of the cases, and tossed me a beer. He looked at the entertainment center I was trying to put together.
“The instructions were made by dicks I swear,” I said before taking a drink of the beer. “China hates us.”
He opened a beer and took a drink. “No worries, man. I’ll help. Can I throw the rest of these in the fridge?”
I nodded. “Yeah.” I pointed toward the kitchen. “That way.” I sat back down and started working.
With the two of us, we managed to move through the living room set up in two hours. Then we moved to Ellie’s room. Austen had to order the most difficult shit, didn’t she? The instructions for the bed had me cursing, taking a drink, and then cursing again.
“This is bullshit!” I snapped in a bit of a slur as Clay and I tried putting together Ellie’s bed.
“What the hell was Austen thinking when she bought this thing?” He held up some sheer fabric that came with it. “What the fuck is this shit is, man?”
I took another drink. “A canopy princess bed I think. But I’m not really sure.”
He tossed the fabric behind him. “I say we burn all of this shit and send her a picture.”
I burst out laughing. I almost fell over I was laughing so hard. When I finally got control, I shook my head. “Can’t. The social workers will be here Monday for the home visit. I have to have it all ready.”
“I bet Austen is listening to Halsey and bawling her eyes out.” He took a drink of his beer. “She always listens to her when she’s sad. Serves her ass right, though. She played us both.” He took the instructions from me and started looking them over.
I didn’t comment back. The thought of her crying and upset made my stomach knot up and my smile completely faded. I shouldn’t care. I should be like Clay and be able to say she deserved it, but I couldn’t. I wanted to fix this even though I didn’t do a damn thing wrong. I looked at Clay who was attempting the first step in the instructions. I took a long swig of my beer.
He finished screwing together some wood pieces. He looked at me with a humorous grin. “Let’s take a selfie and send it to her.”
“You have issues man.” I stood up and swayed a little. I righted myself and started helping him out the with the second step.
He laughed and picked up his phone and snapped a picture of me working and him holding up his middle finger. He typed something and smiled evilly.
I rolled my eyes at his stupidity. “You need to see a therapist. You’re acting like a damn juvenile.”
I was impressed that I didn’t slur that time. Or I thought I didn’t, but by the look on Clay’s face, he didn’t understand me.
“Who is Jewel Nile,” he asked with a snort.
I frowned and stood up. I tripped over a board and landed on my ass. I started laughing.
He laughed and held his hand out to me. “You alright?”
I nodded and looked down at the beer in my hand. “I didn’t spill any,” I shouted in triumph.
He held his beer up. “Yes! Victory!”
I burst out laughing again and made it to me feet once again.
His phone dinged, and we both froze.
“Oh, shit. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that.” He didn’t look at his phone. “Now, I feel bad. Why do I feel bad? She is the one in the wrong.”
“I told ya you were being juv…juvnel…” I scrunched my eyebrows and swayed a bit as I took a drink. “Stupid.” I finished off my beer before grabbing another.
He laughed and swayed a little as he stared at his phone. “She’s not in her condo. She’s… back home. Jacob sent me this.” He handed me the phone. It was a selfie of Jacob with Austen sleeping next to him.
I messaged Jacob from Clay’s phone.
Me: This is Aaron. I told him not to be an ass.
I sent it then handed the phone back. “That was an ass move.” I slurred and shook my head.
“And what was her move when she got my hopes up and had sex with me only to tell me it was a mistake?”
“True,” I said as I went back to work. “But two rugs don’t make a white.” I nodded at him.
He started laughing. “Rugs… white? Oooh wrongs… right.” He looked at the bed we semi-had put together. “Maybe we should wait until morning.”
My phone started ringing. It was Jacob. I answered and walked towards the living room away from Clay.
“Heeeeeey,” I answered.
“What the hell is Clay doing at your place?”
“I dunno. He showed up with some beer and started helping me put furniture together,” I said trying to focus on my words, so I didn’t slur. “Delete the message so Austen won’t see it.”
“I did already.” I heard some shifting around. “Give me a sec. I gotta get out of her room so I don’t wake her up.”
I sat down on the couch and waited. I was suddenly extremely tired.
“Austen came here, and she told me what happened. You alright? I was gonna call you tomorrow.”
“No. I love her, Jacob, but I’m not enough.” I ran a hand through my hair. “I feel like my world has been destroyed.” A tear slipped down my cheek. “I hate that she’s hurting, but I can’t fix it. I’ve fought and struggled for everything in my life. I begged for my father’s affection. I won’t beg for hers. I can’t. I swore I would never beg for affection again. I want to be enough.”
“She really fucked up.”
“Yeah, she did.” My voice broke. “I saw me having a life with her. I was a fool.”
“She’s heartbroken, and she knows she’s at fault. I hope this doesn’t change things for us. I like being friends with you.”
“Of course it doesn’t, Jacob. I like being your friend, too.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I need to go check on Clay. I think we’re going to have to stop putting stuff together for tonight. All the instructions are just so confusing while drunk.”
Jacob laughed. “Go to bed and make sure Clay does, too. He tends to get a burst energy when drunk and he might—”
“What the—” My mouth fell open when I looked out the window and saw Clay streaking around the parking lot.
“He’s naked isn’t he?”
“Dammit! Yes. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I have to go catch his naked ass before he gets arrested.”
Jacob was cracking up. “Typical drunk Clay. You have fun with that.”
I hung up and stood. I swayed on my feet for a moment before heading out of the condo. How the hell did he even get past me? I shook my head in aggravation and began chasing after him.
I woke up with a groan as my phone dinged. I went to roll over in bed but hit the floor instead. I groaned when I realized I wasn’t in my room but in the living room. I had been sleeping on the couch. I slowly got to my feet, and froze when I saw Clay asleep in the recliner. He had a bruised jaw and looked like he was naked under the blanket that was wrapped around his middle.
“What the fuck,” I said before grabbing a pillow and throwing it at his head.
I looked around and questioned how we managed to get shit put together.
Clay opened his eyes slowly and lifted his head. He looked at me and groaned, laying his head back against the chair. He felt around until his hands were on the blanket. “Why the hell am I naked?”
“I don’t have a damn clue. Does your jaw hurt? You have a nasty bruise on it.”
He rubbed his jaw and cursed. “Yeah.”
I ran my hand down my face trying to figure out what happened. “How the hell did we get all this stuff put together with being so drunk?” I looked at everything, moving it a little making sure it was all sturdy. It all seemed okay. I poked my head into Ellie’s room and saw the bed wasn’t finished. I noticed Clay’s clothes in her room and picked them up. I walked back into the living room and handed over his clothes.
“Apparently, we moved to Ellie’s room to work and only halfway finished the bed.” I sat down and rubbed my head as I tried to remember what happened.
“Thanks.” He started getting dressed. “Let’s go grab some food and advil. Then we can come back, and I’ll help you finish before I head back home.”
I nodded and then grabbed my sunglasses and keys before picking up my phone to see a text from Jacob.
Jacob: Austen is staying here for the weekend. Wanted you to know. Oh, and how’s your head and the streaker?
Me: My head feels like someone has hit me repeatedly with a hammer and how did you know about Clay being naked?
I looked at my phone and realized Jacob had called me last night.
Me: We talked last night? Oh damn. What did I say?
I knew what I was like when I was drunk. I was more open and honest than if I wasn’t.
Jacob: Nothing bad. Just that you love my sister, and you’re not chasing after her. Which makes sense.
Me: How did you know Clay was naked? Do you happen to know how he got a bruised jaw?
Jacob: You called me after we hung up. He was streaking (Typical drunk Clay). You had to knock his ass out to get him to stop running away from you. Naked. LMAO
Me: Damn. Okay thanks for letting me know. I’m going to go get some Advil. I’ll talk to you later.
I looked at Clay. “So, I know why you were naked and why your jaw is bruised.”
Clay raked his fingers through his hair. “Yeah?”
“Apparently, you decided to go streaking and you wouldn’t stop running away from me while naked, so I punched you. Sorry.” I smirked a little. This whole thing was embarrassing but also seriously funny.
He burst out laughing but groaned as he laughed. He grabbed his jaw. “I can’t smile.”
“Yeah. My bad.” I chuckled. “Come on. I need Advil and food.”
He put his phone and wallet in his pocket and followed me out.
I was walking to the gym for cheer practice, and I had to pass by the coffee shop where he’d be. It had been five days since I broke his heart and mine. I tried to take the long way the past two days to the gym, but I was late both times. I had no choice but to walk past there and knew he’d be there.
I took a deep breath and pulled my sunglasses over my eyes. As I looked in the large windows, I saw that he was no where insight. He should be there right now. I pulled my phone from my pocket. Maybe he got Ellie back or something.
Me: Hey, Mom! Any word on Ellie?
I kept walking as I waited for her to text back.
I looked down when my phone dinged.
Mom: Just that Aaron had his home visit on Monday. It went really good. Now, we’re just waiting for the investigator to get in touch with where she is. Did Aaron not tell you?
I put my phone back in my pocket. I didn’t tell Mom or Dad about my huge mistake and the fact that Aaron would probably never speak to me again.
“Hey, Austen!” Allie, one of the girls who worked for Aaron, said with a smile as she cleaned off an outside table.
I smiled at Allie. “Hey.”
“I haven’t seen you around for a few days, but I’m sure that’s because Aaron isn’t running this place anymore.”
I put my shades on top of my head. “Huh?”
“I haven’t seen you in awhile?” She asked in confusion.
I shook my head and blinked a few times. “Umm, no. I mean, I know you haven’t. But you said Aaron doesn’t own this place anymore?”
“No, he doesn’t. He finished writing his thesis and turned it into the university on Monday. They accepted it, and he turned over the ownership to them. Well, they bought it from him.”
“Good. Good for him.” I forced a smile. “Bye, Allie.” I hated that I didn’t know that. I pulled my sunglasses back over my eyes and headed toward the gym.
I hated this. I knew I needed to talk to Aaron. I needed to fix everything, but I didn’t know how. I messed with trust and that’s hard to overcome once broken. But my little brother gave me some solid advice which shocked me. Jacob had grown up so much in the past few months.
He told me give it a few days, and then reach out to him. He told me to prove that I was sorry instead of just saying it. It had been more than a few days, but finding the bravery to actually reach out to Aaron was hard.
I made it to the gym and went to the locker room to change. But before I did, I called Aaron. Now or never. Tears filled my eyes as I started to panic. I had no idea what I was going to say or if he’d even answer.
“Hello?” Aaron’s voice said sleepily.
I hung up.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!
I took a deep breath and called him again.
“Austen?” His voice was a little clearer.
The girls started coming into the locker room and were all talking loud and laughing.
“Can you hear me?”
“Can I… Can I see you tonight?”
There was silence for a moment. “Um, sure. What time?”
“I have practice until 5:30. I can run home and take a shower, then meet you at your place sometime after six.”
“That’s fine.” He hung up before I could say anything else.
I let out the breath I was holding and went to go change.
My luck was the worst. Or maybe it was just karma. I deserved this. I looked at the doctor when he came in to talk about my x ray. My leg was for sure broken, there was no doubt. But whether or not they operate or cast it was up in the air as of now. I hated being the smallest on the squad and always being the one being thrown around in stunts.
My phone dinged.
Jacob: Umm…did you stand Aaron up?!!!!
Me: SHIT. I didn’t call him… No. I didn’t. Not on purpose anyway.
Jacob: then what’s going on?
Me: don’t freak out. I’m in the hospital. I broke my leg at practice. Don’t tell mom and dad yet.
My whole squad was in the room freaking out. Jenna felt terrible. She’s the one who lost her hold on me and let me fall.
I laughed, mostly because I was high. “Girls, I’m fine. It’s okay. Really.”
I looked at my phone again.
Jacob: On my way.
Me: NO! I’m fine!
Jacob: Don’t be stubborn.
Me: I’m serious. I’m okay. Don’t come.
The doctor looked at everyone after he got all the x rays hung up.
“Alright, out you all go. I need to talk to Austen.”
The girls hugged me on their way out.
The doctor looked at me and sat down on the side of the bed. “Good news. No surgery. Bad news, cast for at least eight weeks.”
That meant no practice for Juilliard. I laid back and sighed. I looked at him. “Coach Shelby isn’t going to like you.”
He chuckled. “My wife will deal.”
“Your wife is going to push for a better recovery plan that gets my girl back up and moving,” Coach Shelby said as she came into the room. She kissed Dr. Turner and then looked at me. “You have a visitor.”
I scrunched my nose. My parents didn’t know, the whole squad was here, and there was no way Jacob got here that quick.
My heart sped up a little. I was hopeful. “Who?”
“Aaron.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
“Really?” I smiled.
“My brother must’ve called him. I was going to go see him after practice, and then this happened.”
She rubbed my shoulder. “It’ll all work out, Austen.”
I tried to smile, but I wasn’t sure. I mean, it’d work out, just probably not the way I hoped it all would.
“If you need to come stay at our place again, you’re more than welcome. Me and Doc can take care of you.” She nudged Dr. Turner. “Right, babe?”
He smiled and nodded. “Mend a broken leg and a heart.”
“Thanks. You guys are the best. Coach, can you go tell him he can come in?”
“Sure will as soon as we finish discussing recovery.”
I nodded and tried to listen to them discuss my recovery options but my heart was there in the waiting room. He was here to see me, and that was all I could focus on.
I was pacing the hall as I waited for Coach Shelby to come back out and tell me Austen was going to be okay. When I got here, they didn’t know if she was having surgery or just getting a cast.
When the door opened, I stopped pacing and looked at her.
“Does she have to have surgery?”
She shook her head. “No, just an ugly boot. The break is more toward her ankle than above the knee. She’ll need to be off her leg for a while and do some rehab to help heal faster.”
“Good.” I let out a relieved sigh. “When does she get to go home? Does someone need to take care of her?”
She smiled a little. “In the next hour she does. And I’m sure help would be appreciated. And I don’t mind looking after her,” she said quietly so the rest of the squad didn’t hear. “I know things will be weird.”
I ran a shaky hand through my hair. “No. I’ll watch out for her. It’s okay.”
What. The. Hell. Why was I doing this to myself?
She motioned for me to follow her. “She wants to see you.”
We walked down the hall and Coach looked like she wanted to say something but wasn’t. I put my hands in my pockets.
She smiled. “Yeah?”
“I still love her.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
She reached up and touched my shoulder. “Then you both will find a way to make it work.” She looked at the door when we stopped at it. “Now, go in, but be warned, my husband made her extra loopy.” She chuckled and walked off.
“Are you okay?” I asked not being able to stop the words or the worry behind them from coming out as I walked further into the room.
“I will be.” She smiled sleepily. “Sorry. I didn’t have a chance to tell you I wasn’t gonna make it to your house tonight.” She yawned. “Did Jacob tell you?”
I walked closer to her. “Yes, he told me.” I looked at her and couldn’t help my surprise when I saw her wearing the necklace I gave her. It made the knot in my stomach lessen but just a little.
“I was worried about you so I came.”
“Tell him not to come.” She looked past me and squinted her eyes.
“Why?” I asked confused. “He’s your brother, and he’s worried.”
Her eyes semi-focused on me again, but something behind me had her attention. “Because it’s just a broken leg. I’m not dying. And then my parents will ask questions, and I don’t want them to know about… ya know… not yet.” Her eyes focused on whatever was behind me again, and she squinted.
I turned my head to look behind me before looking back at her. “What are you squinting at?”
She pointed. “That picture on the wall. Who put a picture up of us?”
There wasn’t a picture of us.
I walked closer to the bed. “Umm…Austen there isn’t a picture of us up there.”
She closed her eyes and smiled. “I like it. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.”
I shook my head. “I think that’s the medicine making you feel all warm and fuzzy.”
She opened her eyes and looked at me. She held her hand out to me. “Nope. It’s you. You always make me feel happy.”
I hesitated before taking her small hand in mine. I ran my thumb gently over her knuckles.
She closed her eyes again. “I’m happy you’re here. Make sure you bring the picture home.” It was only a few seconds before her breathing evened out and she was out.
My shoulders slumped as I kept holding her hand. I sat down in the chair next to the bed.
What was I going to do with her?
I sighed and pulled my phone out.
Me: Austen is insisting you not come. She’s being stubborn.
Jacob: I’m just about to pull out of my driveway. Is she really okay?
Me: She’s high on meds, going to be in a boot, and have to stay off her feet for a few days, but yes, she’s fine..
Jacob: Who is going to take care of her for the next few days?
I looked at Austen before I ran a hand through my hair.
Me: I guess I will
Jacob: You sure about that?
Me: No, but she needs someone to look out for her. I’m the logical option since I live right by her now.
Jacob: My parents just got home. I need to go to tell them what’s going on.
Me: she’s going to be pissed. Lol.
Jacob: Oh well.
Me: See ya in a few hours then.
I looked back at Austen. This was going to be one hell of a few days.
I went to Austen’s door when I heard a knock. Austen was sound asleep and had been since we left the hospital. The doctor and nurses were only able to wake her up enough to get her into her clothes and to sign the release papers. I took care of the rest. I opened the door and nodded to Austen’s family.
“She’s asleep in her room,” I said once everyone was in.
Austen’s dad shook my hand and her mom hugged me.
“We really appreciate you helping her out,” her mom said giving me another squeeze.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Austen hadn’t told her parents we weren’t a thing anymore, so I knew better than to mention it. I smiled a little and nodded.
I was beyond exhausted. The last week I had slept very little. Between the stress of not knowing where Ellie was and Austen betraying me, I couldn’t sleep. When I tried, I had nightmares about both of them.
Mr. Reeves took his wife’s hand and they walked down the hall toward Austen’s room.
Jacob was setting bags down. “We aren’t staying long, just the night. This is some of Austen’s things she left.”
I sat down on the couch and ran a hand down my face.
“You like like hell,” Jacob said as he sat down across from me in the recliner.
He looked toward the hall. “I’ll go after they get out.”
“I feel like hell,” I said with a sad chuckle.
“I bet. You talk to her much or has she been out?”
“No. Most of what we talked about was her wanting me to talk you into not coming. And an imaginary picture of us on the wall.” I laughed. “That’s pretty much it before she fell asleep.” I leaned my head back against the couch. “This is a fuckin’ nightmare that just won’t end.”
“What’s a nightmare?” Austen’s mom asked as she walked into the living room.
I sat up and looked at her. I shouldn’t be the one to tell Mrs. Reeves that Austen and I were over. That was Austen’s place. I looked at Jacob for help before looking back at Mrs. Reeves.
“I miss Ellie.” It was the truth and part of what made my life a nightmare at the moment.
“I know you do. You passed the home visit, though. So, that’s great! Everything is headed in the right direction.”
“Thank you for all your help. It means a lot to me.”
“Of course! I’m gonna go cook dinner. I’m cooking baked potato soup. With it turning cold, I thought it’d be good. Austen loves it during late fall.”
She waved at Jacob. “Come help me.”
He scrunched his nose. “You should’ve brought Frieda.”
She laughed. “Come on. You need to learn.”
I looked at Mr. Reeves as he sat down on the couch next to me.
“Did you get my last report?”
He nodded but kept his eyes on me. “You look like hell, Aaron.”
“That’s what Jacob said.” I shrugged. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
“I’m worried about Ellie. I’ll sleep better when she’s home.” I stood. “I’m going to go get a shower. I’ll be back.” I needed out of that condo. I needed away before I suffocated. I left and headed toward the stairs just as Jacob caught up with me.
“Hey, can I come with you? I just spent two hours in the vehicle with my parents. I need to get away from them.”
I smiled. “Yeah, that’s fine, but I thought you had to help your mom cook.”
He laughed. “Nah, she kicked me out when I pretended not to know how to peel a potato.”
I smiled and shook my head. We headed up the stairs. “Can I ask you something?”
“Austen, hasn’t told your parents we’re not together?”
I rubbed my forehead. I had a killer headache.
“She’s hanging onto hope that you’ll take her back.”
I didn’t respond.
We walked into my place.
“Wow, this looks great, Aaron.”
I looked around the room and nodded. “Austen picked everything out. Clay and I put it together. It’s a miracle everything is actually sturdy since we were both drunk.”
He laughed. “Yeeeeah. Clay is an obnoxious drunk.”
“One who also streaks. Who does that?” I asked with a chuckle. “Does the bruise on his jaw look any better?” I asked with a smirk.
He laughed. “Nope.”
I laughed. “I only feel a little bad about that.”
I took my boots off and placed them by the door. “I’m going to take a quick shower. Make yourself at home.” I looked at Jacob and saw his eyes were glued to a framed picture. It was one of Ellie, Austen, and I. His eyes scanned the room and widened in shock when he saw more pictures of her with me and Ellie.
“You can’t deny how great you guys look together.” He sat down on the couch and turned the TV on.
I cleared my throat and headed to my bathroom. I hoped a shower to release the muscles that were so tense in my shoulders. Finding out Austen got hurt had pushed the tension to a whole new level. I shook my head and pushed thoughts of Austen to the side. For now, anyway.
I was thankful Mom was here to help me shower before dinner. That would have been awkward for Aaron to have to do. We came into the kitchen where Dad, Aaron, and Jacob were talking at the table. I was sick of the crutches already. Jacob moved out the chair between him and Aaron.
I sat down and looked at Aaron.
“Hey,” I said with a little smile.
“Hey. How are you feeling,” he asked me quietly. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He was completely guarded with me, and it hurt worse than the broke leg.
“It hurts, but I’m okay.” I cleared my throat and looked at my mom who was fixing a bowl of soup for me. Dad was looking at me and Aaron oddly.
Aaron looked at his watch, then pushed back from the table. He walked over and grabbed a bottle of medicine off the table. He came back over and handed it to me. “It’s time for you to take another one.” His tone lacked any emotion at all.
I avoided eye contact in fear of bursting into tears that this was who we were now. Nothing.
“Thanks.” I took it and downed it with some water.
“O-kay. What the hell is going on?” Dad asked.
Aaron and I both looked at him and Mom.
“What?” I asked in mock-confusion.
He waved his hand at both of us. “This. You two. You’re being weird.”
Jacob starting eating, most likely to stuff his mouth so he couldn’t tell me he told me so. He knew this would happen. He knew I couldn’t keep it from them.
Aaron sighed heavily and rubbed his head with his hand.
I moved my spoon around in my bowl.
“Austen,” Dad said firmly.
Aaron was the one who spoke up when he realized I wasn’t going to say anything.
“Austen and I broke up,” his voice was gruff and filled with emotion before he cleared his throat and looked down at his soup.
Tears fell from my eyes and into my bowl. It felt too official now that my parents knew and hearing Aaron say it.
“But… you two were doing so well I thought.” Mom was majorly pouting.
Aaron stood up. “I should go.” He looked at me. “Let me know when everyone leaves. I will come back to help you.” He quickly left the condo.
Jacob was eating a piece of garlic bread. The room fell completely silent except for Jacob’s obnoxious munching.
Dad kept his eyes on me. “Did Aaron break things off with you?” I could tell dad was getting angry. “Tell me what he did!”
More tears started to fall. “He didn’t do anything wrong.” I looked at Dad. “I did.”
Dad’s anger faded. “What did you do?” he asked, extremely confused. “I’m sure whatever it is you two can get past it. Couples fight.”
It was crazy how much my parents loved Aaron and barely knew him. It took Dad almost a year to accept Clay and I being together. Mostly, because he knew Clay’s dad and was afraid he turn out like him — which he was.
“I don’t want to tell you,” I said quietly.
“Austen,” Mom spoke softly. “What happened, sweetie?”
“You already know Clay came here when Dad spilled the beans about Aaron and I. Well, Clay and I… we…” I couldn’t say it. Not in front of my parents, especially, my dad. “We didn’t exactly fix things, but I cheated on Aaron with zero intentions of doing that. It just happened.”
Dad sat back in his chair in shock. “And he still came to the hospital and brought you home,” he said in disbelief. “Which condo is his?” Dad stood and headed to the door.
Jacob got up and offered to show him. They both left the condo, leaving me alone with Mom.
I put my head in my hands.
“Don’t!” I yelled and looked at her. “Don’t, Mom. I screwed up! I don’t know how to fix this!”
She looked shocked that I yelled at her. She regained her composure and cleared her throat. “I love you. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Liar.” I huffed.
She laughed a little but then her expression turned dispirited again. “Austen, honey, what were you thinking? I know you have a long track of breaking hearts, but this is a whole new level of hurt. You’ve never cheated. Have you?”
I shook my head. “No. Mom, I don’t know what I was thinking. Honestly, it’s all a blur now. I just hated seeing how bad Clay was hurting because I care a lot for him. I guess I thought maybe if I gave him hope, something to grasp, he’d stop yelling and not hate me. I love Clay. I just don’t love him like I love Aaron. Clay is one of my best friends. Aaron… I could see myself marrying.”
“Oh, honey.” She came over to me and hugged me. I felt her kiss the top of my head. “You eat. I need to go check on your father and make sure he isn’t making Aaron uncomfortable. I’ll be right back.”
I didn’t answer. I just stared at my food until I heard the door close.
It didn’t take long and the door was opening again with Mom practically pushing Dad back into the condo. Jacob was laughing as he came through the door.
I found none of this funny. I hated myself.
“What? I wasn’t doing anything?” Dad said innocently.
Jacob laughed harder. “I’ve never seen anyone’s face as red as his was, Dad.”
“I’m glad all of you can find humor in this.” I got up from the table with great difficulty. I got the crutches situated under my arms and started to hobble to my room.
Jacob quickly moved in front of me. “Don’t get that tone with me, Austen. If you had seen Aaron’s face you would have laughed, too.”
“Did you know he has pictures of you all over that place?” Dad asked with a smile.
Jacob closed his eyes and shook his head. “Dad we talked about this. You weren’t supposed to tell her anything.”
“She’s as stubborn as I am. If we wait on her to fix things it will never happen.” Dad let out a startled laugh. “Damn. I just realized something. Austen is me and Aaron is your mother.”
“Now, I’m just offended. I do plan on fixing things.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “Really now? And how’s that going for ya?”
“It’s been five days. Jacob, you told me to give him time to cool down. I was going there tonight to try and then ended up in the hospital.” I was fuming at this point.
“Good.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Now, you should be resting that leg.” He grinned at me.
“Get them out of here,” I whispered. “and remind me to kill you later for telling them.”
He burst out laughing. “I will, and you’ll have to catch me first, hobb-a-long.”
“I completely hate your guts right now.”
He kissed my cheek. “No you don’t. You love me.”
We got to my room, and he helped me into bed. I watched as he leaned my crutches against the wall near my side of the bed.
“I was worried about you, Austen. That’s why I told Mom and Dad. I didn’t want you to be alone.”
“I told you I was fine.”
“Yes, but you forget that I know you. Fine is never a good thing when you use it. If you were truly fine, you’d say you were good or okay. Fine is what you use when you want to be left alone, but you’re in a lot of pain.”
“It does hurt,” I said in a pout. I laid my head back and sighed heavily. “Not as bad as my heart, though.”
“Both will get better with time.” He kissed my forehead. “I’ll get our parents out of your hair. Call me if you need me or just want to talk.”
I grabbed his hand before he could walk off. “I love you, little brother. And I’m so proud of you. You’re really growing up.”
“I love you, too, and I guess you can thank Kim for that.”
I smiled a sleepily. “I need to meet her.”
“Maybe I can bring her here soon. Now, get some rest.”
“I’d like that.” I yawned. I shifted until I was comfortable. “It’s late. You guys should just stay here tonight. Will you stay with Aaron tonight? Make sure he sleeps.”
He covered me up. “I’ll do my best.”
“Can you hand me the remote?”
He nodded and got it for me. He handed it over before leaving my room.
I turned on the TV and found Gilmore Girls on Netflix. If I was going to have to lay in this bed, I might as well binge watch my favorite show.
“Jacob, go sleep in my bed. If you stay in here, you won’t get much sleep,” I said for what seemed like the hundredth time. I had work to do. Working until I fell asleep at my desk in the living room was what I had been doing this week. Between not knowing if Ellie was okay and dealing with what happened between me and Austen, I couldn’t sleep.
I rubbed my eyes and turned in the chair to look at Jacob. “Seriously, go get some sleep.”
He shook his head. “I was told to make sure you get sleep.”
“I will, eventually.” I stood and stretched. “I need to get some work done before I can sleep. My brain needs to be exhausted before it lets me sleep.”
My phone dinged. I picked up my phone and looked at it.
Austen: I’m about to fall asleep, but I wanted to tell you thank you for your help and that I love you.
I stared at the message not knowing what to say back.
Me: You’re welcome. I will see you tomorrow.
I put the phone down. I couldn’t bring myself to say I love you. Just thinking those words made my heart hurt.
I looked at Jacob again. “Go get some sleep.”
He yawned and shook his head. “Not until you do.” He yawned for a second time. “And I’m the one driving home tomorrow. Bright and early. It would be a shame to drive all tired and shit.”
I glared at him. “Are you trying to guilt trip me into going to bed?”
“Is it working?”
I didn’t answer him. I walked into the kitchen and made myself a glass of chocolate milk simply because it was my normal routine.
“I will take my work into my room so you can sleep,” I stated as I finished mixing it. I looked down to pick it up only to notice I had made two glasses. “Well, fuck,” I grumbled. I was definitely more tired than I had thought. “Do you like chocolate milk?”
He shook his head. “My sister loves it, though.” He was grinning now, and it pissed me off. “And I will go to your room with you. If you don’t sleep, I don’t sleep.”
I growled with frustration and held out the glass of milk. “Why don’t you go take this to her?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because I’m not her brother or her boyfriend.” The last part of what I said hurt me more than it should. I should be able to say that with confidence and no wavering. She ripped my heart out. I should hate her.
His smile faded and reached out to take it.
I started to hand it over but something in me made me stop. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I made this for Austen. I walked past Jacob.
“I’ll be back,” I said sounding exasperated.
What the fuck was I doing? Being a damn fool, that’s what.
I grabbed my keys that had Austen’s spare key and left the apartment. I heard Jacob’s snickering before closing the door. I rolled my eyes and made it to her place.
I put the key in and went inside quietly. I shut and locked the door back before heading to Austen’s room. I tried to be quiet knowing that her parents were asleep. I opened her door, closed it quietly, and walked over to the bed. Austen was half asleep when I made it to her.
“I made an extra chocolate milk and thought you might want it.”
I could tell she was completely high from her pain meds. She smiled sleepily.
“Do you want me to put it in the fridge for you?”
She shook her head. “Help me sit up?”
I nodded and helped her. I put her pillow behind her back. I loved being this close to her but hated it at the same time. She took the glass and drank some before handing it back. She patted the spot next to her.
“Lay with me?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Austen. I just thought you’d like the milk.”
A tear fell down her cheek, but she kept her tired eyes on mine. “Okay,” she said quietly and laid back down. “Thank you for thinking of me.”
I started to leave the room and as I closed my hand around the doorknob, I stopped before opening it. Tears falling down her face was all I had dreamt about the last few nights. They tore at my heart. I let go and turned around.
“I will stay until you fall asleep.” I walked over and laid down on the opposite side of the bed. Her bed was large enough that I could keep a safe distance.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you,” she cried with her back to me.
I didn’t like this. What. The. Fuck. Why couldn’t I hate her? Why did I feel guilty? Dammit. I rolled onto my side and pulled on her carefully until her back was pressed against my back. “Get some sleep, Princess,” I whispered quietly.
She held onto my arms tightly. I could feel her whole body trembling.
“Let me fix this.”
A tear slipped down my cheek. “How?”
“I haven’t figured that part out. But I will,” she whispered. I could feel her tears falling on my arm.
“Get some sleep,” I whispered before kissing her head.
“Don’t leave.” Her arms held mine tighter for a moment, but soon she relaxed and her breathing evened out.
I knew I needed to leave, but when I tried to get my arm from her her grip, hers would tighten again. I told myself I’d leave after she had been asleep for a while. But did that happen? Hell no. I was a damn fool and ended up dozing off.
I woke up when the sun hit my face. I was confused as to where I was until I saw Austen asleep next to me. I moved away from her and got out of bed. I ran a hand through my hair and watched her sleep for a bit longer before heading to the door. I walked quietly down the hall which wasn’t needed since her parents and Jacob were in the kitchen. I froze and felt my face flush with embarrassment.
“Morning,” Jacob snickered.
Mrs. Reeves smacked his shoulder but chuckled herself.
“Morning.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “She isn’t awake yet, but I’m sure she’ll need help once she wakes up.”
“Are you two back together?” Mr. Reeves asked with a small smile.
“No. She just wanted me to stay last night. I meant to stay until she fell asleep, but I crashed before I could leave.”
Mr. Reeves looked at his cell when it started ringing. “It’s Clay. He’s taking care of some things for me while we were gone. I should take this.” He stepped outside.
Mrs. Reeves hugged me. “Thank you for everything, Aaron. I will go in there and see if she’s awake.” She patted my back before walking to Austen’s room.
I pointed at Jacob. “Don’t say a word.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m going to take a shower. When are you guys leaving?”
I looked at the time. It was eight. “I will be back down as soon as I finish my shower. Do I need to go get breakfast for everyone?”
“Nah. We plan on going through a drive through somewhere.”
I nodded. “I’ll get a quick shower then.” I shoved his shoulder a bit before heading toward the door. I stopped when the door opened and Mr. Reeves came in. “I’m going to head up and get a shower.”
“Okay. Aaron, you sure you don’t mind taking care of her? We can stay longer if we need to or take her with us.”
“It’ll be fine. I don’t mind.” I gave him a forced smile. “I spend most of my time at home now working, so, it will be easy to take care of her.”
He cupped my shoulder, nodded, and walked inside.
I shook my head and went up the stairs to my apartment.
I was sick of being drugged out and sleeping my days away. The past four days had been nothing but a big blob of nothing. I knew Aaron was there, and I remember we talked a little, but I couldn’t really make sense of everything that was being said. I glared at the pill bottle when I hobbled my way into the kitchen and saw Aaron opening it.
“No,” I practically growled. “I’m not taking that shit anymore.”
“The doctor said you were to take it on time for the first week. Then you could start getting off of it.”
“Aaron, I’m fine.” I was in pain, but nothing I couldn’t handle. “I’ll take some advil or something.”
“Stubborn.” He put the bottle to the side. “You can skip one, then you take it the next scheduled time even if I have to put it in something you’re eating.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “I won’t eat your food then.”
He chuckled, then turned to the stove and started making pancakes. “You sure, Princess? I’m making chocolate chip pancakes.”
“I’ll just watch your every move and make sure you don’t.” I sat down at the table and leaned my crutches against a chair.
“I guess I’ll have to call Coach Shelby to help me make you behave.
He had me there. Coach Shelby was a beast. “I’ll take my medicine if you promise me something.” I moved a chair in front of me and propped my foot on it.
“And what’s that?” He asked as he put the pancakes on a plate and put them in front of me.
“You let me take you out on a date when I’m not a drugged out and off these stupid crutches.”
He pulled out a glass of chocolate milk from the fridge and put it next to my plate.
“A real date? In public? We haven’t done that yet.”
“Yes, we have.” I tried to think of a time we did, but he was right. Except for casual hanging out at the beach, we never did.
“Austen, we haven’t. We’ve gone to the beach alone and hung out here, but never gone out together. You didn’t want it getting back to your family and Clay,” he said as he tried to hide the hurt in his voice. I watched as he went to get a fork. “Do you want anything on your pancakes?”
“Just syrup, please.” I frowned down at my plate. “A real date, Aaron.”
He went and got the syrup out of the cabinet. “If that gets you to take your medicine, then sure.”
“Promise?” I looked at him and hated how exhausted he looked.
“I promise,” he said, handing over the syrup.
I smiled and poured syrup on my pancakes. “What’s your favorite color?”
He looked taken aback by that question. “What?”
“Your favorite color. What is it?” I needed to know so I could pick out something nice to wear for him on our real date.
“Orange.” He fixed himself a plate and leaned against the bar as he ate. “Yours is black even though that’s a weird color choice.”
“How’d you know?” I took a bite of my food.
“I know a lot of things about you. Either by me asking you, from watching you, or from Jacob.” He shrugged. “And the last few days you’ve told me more about yourself than you have in the last three months.”
“I have?” I scrunched my nose.
“Yep. You’ve told me about your childhood and the different pranks you pulled on your friends and family.” He shrugged. “It’s been nice talking to you and you not be so guarded.”
“So, you want me to stay on pain meds forever?” I laughed.
“No, but I like getting to know you.” He kept his eyes on his plate. “And for the first time I feel like I am. I mean I know you in the here and now, and know a little bit outside of that, but you never told me personal stuff. Just basic stuff.”
“Oh.” I looked at my phone that was on the table and saw several texts from Clay checking on me. I picked up my phone and texted him back.
Aaron moved away from the counter and started cleaning his plate.
Me: Hey, I’m fine. Aaron is here with me. Clay, I need you to stop texting me, okay? With everything that happened, I can’t talk to you right now. I love Aaron.
I turned my phone off and pushed it aside. I took a drink of my milk.
“You finished?” Aaron asked as he came back over to me. “And what do you want to do today? I could go get some movies for you.”
My leg was starting to throb worse. I took a deep breath and and let it out slowly. “Yeah. And that’s okay. I can rent some on TV.”
“You’re in pain, aren’t you?” He asked after picking up the plate. He put it down and opened the bottle. He grabbed a butter knife and cut a pill in half. “Take half. It should take the edge off.”
I took it and looked at him. “Do I remember correctly that some of the girls from the squad came by last night?” I winced when I moved my leg off the chair.
“Yes. They stayed here about two hours. Very squeally loud group.”
I laughed. “Yeah… I like them though.”
“Yeah they seem nice. A bit…touchy but nice.” He started cleaning the dishes.
I slowly got up and grabbed my crutches but dropped one. He rushed over and got it and handed it to me. He was close. So close. And on a normal day, before I screwed things up, this close meant he’d kiss me. My heart ached.
“What do you mean touchy?” I asked, breaking the silence.
He blinked a few times and took a step back. He rubbed the back of his neck. “What?”
“Touchy. What the hell do you mean they were touchy?”
He went back to cleaning. I hobbled over. “Aaron.” I hit him in the back of the leg with one of my crutches.
He turned and raised an eyebrow at me. “Did you just hit me with one of your crutches?”
I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Two of them kept touching my arms and making comments about how big I was and things like that. I kept removing their hands. I finally left and stayed at my place until Coach Shelby text and told me they had left.”
“Which. Two.” I was seeing red.
“Austen, they’re your friends and you like them.” He finished cleaning. “Now, you need to be off that leg. Why don’t you go sit down while I sweep and mop.”
I hit him again on the ankle with my crutch. “Which. Two.”
“Damn, Austen, that hurt,” he said as he bent down and rubbed his ankle. He stood back up. “Sarah and Cathy. Why the hell does it matter? I told them I wasn’t interested.”
“Because they don’t know we’re not together!” I hobbled back over to the table and grabbed my phone. I turned it back on. I was going to text those bitches and give them a piece of my mind.
“Austen, they didn’t know we were together. Only Coach Shelby knew. You told all them we were just friends and nothing more. Remember?”
When my phone turned on, I saw a few notifications. One being an email from my bank saying a deposit was approved. I never made a deposit. I opened it and saw the exact amount I had spent on Aaron’s things. I looked at him.
He had started sweeping. He stopped as I stared at him. “What?”
“What? You tell me,” I threw my phone to him, and he caught it.
He looked down at it and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah. That. I gave Clay a check when he sent you back inside the day I found you two…” he stopped and shrugged. “I was pissed and hurt. He said he would deposit it.”
Tears sprang from my eyes. I was a damn mess. That was a gift. I told him I didn’t want that money back. He put the broom to the side and walked over to me. He handed me back the phone.
“Please, don’t cry, Austen.”
I leaned into him and only calmed down when his arms finally wrapped around me. “I’m a horrible person.”
His hand gently ran up and down my back. He leaned down so he could put his chin on the top of my head. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s mine. It’s all mine.”
His hand kept gently rubbing my back. “I do love you, Austen. You and Ellie are everything to me, but I don’t know how to get past this. It’s always going to be there in the back of my mind.”
“Aaron, if you give me a chance to fix this, I will. I will spend the rest of my life fighting for you.”
His hold tightened a little. “I want to give you a chance to fix it, Princess, but I’m scared. I feel like you ripped out my heart and did a tap dance all over it.”
“Because I did. I know I did.”
“And I don’t know how I will be now. I want to be able to trust you, but every time you’re around Clay or any other guy for that matter, I know I’ll see you in that bed after being with another man all over again. I don’t like not trusting the woman who I love.”
“Then I won’t be near him. Or any other guys for that matter.” I moved so I could look at his eyes.
“Listen, I want you to focus on Ellie. She’ll be with you soon, and you don’t need to stress about me. But when you’re ready, know I’m here waiting for you, and I’m going to fight like hell to gain your trust back. When you’re ready. As badly as I want to fix this now, I know it’s not going to be that easy.”
He nodded. “You should rest your leg.” He kissed my forehead.
I sighed, nodded, and then made my way down the hall.
Aaron helped me get settled into my bed and put a pillow under my leg. After he left my room, I cried. I wanted to text Cathy and Sarah and bitch them out, but he was right. I never made what we were clear to anyone, not even to myself. He was right. I was guarded. I hated that it took me fucking up to realize what I lost and how much I really did love him.
Instead of trying to rest, I called Dad.
“Hey, baby girl, how are you feeling?” He asked as he answered.
“Leg fine. Heart is in pieces, though. Daddy, I was so stupid.”
“Do I need to take off a few days and come take care of you? Is being around Aaron too hard?”
“No. I’ll be fine. I want to be near him even if it hurts. But I need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything, baby girl.”
“Aaron somehow got the money I spent on his condo and Ellie back into my account. That was a gift. Will you take it out of my account and open a savings for Ellie and put it in there?”
“I can. Keep an eye on him today, Austen. The private detectives called your mother with some information that will probably hurt him.”
“What do you mean?” My eyes started getting heavy as the meds kicked in.
“Just keep an eye on him. Your mother will call him later today. Get some rest. Love you.”
“Okay. I love you, too.”
After he hung up, I tried so hard to stay awake, but I couldn’t.
I ran my hands through my hair for the hundredth time as I paced back and forth in Austen’s living room. While she slept, I had gone home to take a shower and grab my stuff to stay the night. I didn’t want to have to go back and forth.
I planned on cooking, but when I tried earlier, my mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of my mother that I burned it. I raised the windows to air the condo out, but it still smelled like burnt chicken. I felt like I was losing my damn mind. I was so focused on my thoughts that when I heard my name called, I whirled around getting ready to protect myself. I hadn’t acted like that in years.
“Sorry,” I said to Austen when I calmed my racing heart down.
“Are you okay?”
My throat tightened, and I shook my head before looking toward the kitchen.
“I burnt dinner. I figure we can order takeout. What do you want?” I was fuckin’ proud of myself. My voice sounded steady, although, I was far from steady.
She nodded and hobbled over to the couch. She sat down after resting her crutches against the wall.
I walked to the couch and sat down. I needed to be near her. I felt like I was going crazy, and no matter the hell this girl put me through, just being near her calmed me down.
“What do you want to eat?” I was trying hard to remain calm, but was failing. The news I had gotten earlier plagued my mind.
She didn’t answer, instead, she kept her eyes on me. “What’s wrong?”
I clenched my hands into fists and my body started shaking some. “Your mom called earlier.”
Her eyebrows drew together. “What did she say?”
“The people who were looking into my family’s background and Ruth’s background to try and find Ellie found out that my mom…” I swallowed and felt tears filling my eyes. “She’s alive.” I couldn’t look at her. I stood up and started pacing. “She’s remarried and has another son and a daughter. What the fuck is so wrong with me that no one seems to want me!” I asked in a shout. I couldn’t control my temper anymore. I was beyond angry. The woman that I had adored, the woman I looked up to and grieved for all these years, was alive. And she had left me in that hell hole with my bastard of a father.
I stopped pacing and collapsed back onto the couch. “I shouldn’t have yelled,” I whispered as I tried to reign in my temper.
Tears fell slowly down Austen’s cheeks. “I want you, Aaron.”
I looked down at my hands. “Why? Apparently, there’s something wrong with me. Why would you want me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you. But there is something wrong with the people who don’t want you.”
I put my head in my hands. I felt worthless. I couldn’t explain the overwhelming hopelessness that was filling me.
I felt Austen’s hand on my back. “Aaron, I’m so sorry. I know I’m not the person you want helping you right now, but I’m here for you.”
I lifted my head some and turned so I could face her. “If I didn’t want you helping me or be here helping you, I would have called your coach,” I finally admitted. I finally admitted that I had wanted to be there for her. “She offered to take care of you. I told her no.”
She gently used her thumb to wipe away a tear on my cheek that I hadn’t even realized was there. I felt completely bare and raw. I never showed this kind of emotion. But I guess you do that when you’re on the verge of completely breaking.
“Tell me what you need me to do,” she said quietly.
“I don’t know. I wish I did. I guess things going right for me isn’t in the cards.” I closed my eyes and looked away. I wasn’t normally so negative. I always found something positive to focus on. But right now, I couldn’t see anything positive. “I’m sorry. This isn’t like me.”
“Don’t apologize for feeling something, Aaron. You’ve been through hell lately.”
“Your mom is pissed. She wanted to go have a few words with my mother.”
Austen patted her lap, and I moved until I could lay down and put my head in her lap. My feet hung off the end of the couch. Whether things sucked between us right now or not didn’t matter. I needed her.
She played with my hair and laughed softly. “My mom adores you.”
“I like your parents,” I said as I closed my eyes. “They’re good people.”
She leaned down and kissed my forehead. “Get some rest. We can eat later. I love you, Aaron.”
I was so exhausted. “I love you, too,” I whispered before falling asleep.
I sat up, confused about where I was when I heard a knock at the door. I blinked a few times and realized I was still on the couch. I shifted and stood up. I stretched and looked around for Austen. I saw her coming down the hall on her crutches, half asleep herself.
I looked toward the door when I heard someone knock again. I walked over to it and pulled it open. I was confused when I saw Austen’s parents.
“What’s wrong? Is it Ellie?” I asked in a panic as I saw the look on their faces.
Mrs. Reeves shook her head. “It’s not Ellie. I couldn’t tell you this over the phone.”
I let them in and looked at Austen as she hobbled over to us.
“What’s going on? Is Jacob okay?” Worry filled her eyes.
Her mom nodded. “He’s fine, Austen.” She turned her attention to me again. “I went to talk to your mother, Aaron.”
I stiffened and frowned. I had asked her not to go.
“I know you didn’t want me to, but I couldn’t help it.”
I felt Austen’s hand on my back.
“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said trying not to snap or growl at her.
“We need to. She didn’t know you were alive, actually, she still doesn’t believe us. Your father told her you died in the car wreck.”
I stumbled back a little feeling like I just took a blow to my chest. “W-what?”
“Go sit,” Austen whispered and pressed her hand against my back, trying to get my feet to move.
It took me a moment before I made my feet move toward the couch. I sat down and remained stunned and speechless as Mrs. Reeves explained things in further detail.
My parents had us on the first flight available. Aaron’s mother begged for him to come see her once she heard his voice over the phone. Aaron was still unsure if he really wanted to go, but we boarded the flight anyway. Ellie would be back to him soon, and this was a milestone that needed to be dealt with before his focus would be on helping Ellie.
Dad and mom paid for two first class tickets so Aaron didn’t have to be crammed into the other seats. Even in first class, he wasn’t completely comfortable.
I laced my fingers with his. “Talk to me.” I was still surprised that he asked me to come with him.
“I don’t know what to say.” He sighed and leaned his head back against the head rest. “My mom is alive and thought I was dead. It’s just… it’s weird. I should be focusing on finding Ellie.” He turned his head to look at me. “How’s your leg?”
“It’s fine and you can’t go look for her, you are paying people to do that. If you want to go back home, let’s go.”
He looked out the window. “I don’t know what I want.”
“I hate flying,” I admitted with a little grin. “I’m totally freaking out inside right now.”
He turned his attention back to me. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”
I laughed. “Because I fly all the time. I hate it, but I still do it.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever flown.”
“And how do you like it?”
He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. I thought it would be more fun.” He smiled when I laughed. “ I’ve always wanted to travel.”
“When you get Ellie back, we should go somewhere.”
“I’ve always wanted to take her to Disney World so she could dress up like a princess.” He smiled. “She’d love it. Especially, if her princess dressed up, too.”
A full smile spread across my mouth. “I’d love that.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go.” He played with my fingers. “What if… what if she doesn’t like me?”
“Your mom will love you.” I kissed his cheek and smiled when he did. I wasn’t a patient person, so being in limbo with Aaron sucked. I just wanted to be us again, but with all the bullshit going on in his life, I knew it’d take a lot of time.
“She has a sixteen-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter. According to your mom, she’s happy.”
“And she’ll be even happier now.”
He didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t comment.
I ran my fingers through his hair. “Aaron?”
“I love you.”
He looked at my eyes closely, as if searching for honesty. “I love you, too.”
“If this goes badly, you have me, Ellie, and my family.”
He scrunched his eyebrows. “If it goes badly, remind me not to look up any other family members.”
“You technically didn’t. My mom is to blame for that.” I laughed.
He chuckled. “True.” He smiled, but it faded when the captain announced we were about to start our descent.
His hold on my hand tightened some. His mother was supposed to be waiting for us once we got off the plane. Aaron looked terrified. He told me he hasn’t seen his mom since he was eight.
“Let’s make a code word. If you want to leave just say, mashed potatoes.”
I laughed. “Or I could say I’m in so much pain and we need to go home.”
He smiled. “Mash potatoes will work.” He gave my hand a squeeze. “You never told me how your leg is going?”
“It’s good. I want to take the stupid boot off, though.”
“You still have several more weeks.”
I shrugged. “Says the doctor.”
“Who happens to be coach’s husband. I figure you’ll be behaving.”
I shrugged again but this time with a smile. “You should know by now I’m stubborn. Besides, I still have to practice for Juilliard.”
He laughed. “Yes I know you’re stubborn but so am I. I don’t want you hurting yourself any worse and not be able to go to Juilliard eventually.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. I felt a flutter in my stomach when he smiled a real smile.
I laid my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes when the plane started moving downward. I hated the landing part.
“Have you’ve been to Boston before?”
“A few times,” I said quietly, holding tightly to Aaron’s arm.
“It’s okay, Austen. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“I know, I just hate it.” And I loved having a reason to hold him.
“It’ll be over soon. I think anyway.”
After we landed, we made our way to the baggage claim. We saw a woman with frizzy short brown curls and a huge smile. She waved at us, and I assumed it was his mom. She was short which shocked me.
Aaron’s dad must’ve been huge.
I held Aaron’s hand tightly when I noticed him tensing.
Aaron stopped a few feet short from her and stood there like a statue. I had never seen him look so unsure and lost.
“Aaron Charles?” she asked with tears in her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am.” His voice cracked a little. “And this is my girlfriend, Austen,” he said quickly.
I looked at him and smiled.
I could feel his hand trembling. “I…” he stopped and cleared his throats. “I don’t know what to say.”
She stared up at him in awe. “You look just like your father.”
“I know. It’s one reason for the tattoos, piercing and long hair. I hate looking like that man.”
She wiped her eyes and looked at the baggage area. “Let’s get your bags.” She looked at me.
I smiled a little. Aaron let go of my hand and went over to get our bags. I adjusted the crutches under my arms.
“He hates me doesn’t he?” she asked me quietly.
I shook my head. “No. He’s just confused. This is all a shock to him, and he’s been through hell.”
She nodded and looked at my leg. “What happened?”
She looked at Aaron when he came over with our things. “Ready?” She asked, offering her hand to help.
He adjusted the bags. “Yes, ma’am and I have them. Austen needs off her leg soon.”
I looked at Aaron. “I’m fine.”
He just raised an eyebrow at me before looking at his mom. “Mrs. Reeves told me you have a son and daughter.”
She nodded as we walked. “They’re home. They know you’re coming and are really excited to meet you.”
“Is your husband a good man?”
She nodded. “Very.”
Aaron nodded. “Good.”
When we got in the car Aaron barely fit he sat in the back so he could turn sideways.
“Mrs. Reeves said you were in college.”
“I’m almost finished with my Master’s. I’ll finish by Christmas. I work for Austen’s dad doing marketing.”
She smiled softly. “You were always so smart. You learned how to read by the time you were three.”
I winked at Aaron when he blushed. I reached for his hand and when our fingers meshed together, I could feel his hand shaking a little. I mouthed, I love you, and listened to his mom talk about childhood memories as she drove toward her home.
I was about to meet my half-brother and sister, and my stepdad. We pulled into a driveway to a beautiful two story home. My mother got out, and Austen started to as well, but I sat there frozen.
“Maybe we should have stayed in a hotel,” I said so only Austen could hear.
“I can call and get us one.”
I looked at my mother. My shoulders sagged. “Maybe in a little bit. We’ll see how it goes.” I got out of the car and helped Austen out. Once she was on her feet and had her crutches, I went to grab the bags. I stopped when a teen boy and a man came out to help me.
The younger guy smiled at me. “Are you Aaron?”
I nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“I’m Joshua,” he said with a smile that I couldn’t help but return.
Austen was watching me closely. I knew the moment I told her I wanted to leave, she’d get me out of here.
“This is my girlfriend, Austen.”
She adjusted the crutch under her right arm and held her hand out to him. “Hey.”
He shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Let’s go inside and get you two settled. I’m Peter. Your stepdad.” The older man had a kind smile as he held his hand out to me. I shook it.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
We all headed inside and after helping Austen sit, I propped her leg on a pillow. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I smiled a little as a little girl that looked like my mother came over to me. She grinned from ear-to-ear, revealing the most adorable gap between her teeth.
“I’m Madilyn. You must be Aaron.” Before I could respond she launched herself at me, hugging me. It was a complete shock.
“It’s nice to meet you, Madilyn.” I didn’t know what to do.
Austen laughed. “Looks like I have some competition,” she teased.
“Madilyn you’re making your brother uncomfortable. It’ll take time for him to get to know us,” mother said as she gently pulled Madilyn back from me.
I smiled at Austen before putting an arm around her shoulder. The next few hours were a mixture between amazing and awkward.
It took awhile before we all were able to talk without feeling awkward. I laughed as my younger brother told me some stories. He was a hilarious mess. My mother definitely had her hands full with that one.
“We should probably order something for dinner. What do you guys like?”
I looked at Austen. “What do you want?”
“I’m good with anything. I’m not picky.” She smiled. I could tell she was nervous too.
“How about subs?” Madilyn asked with a smile towards us.
“Sounds good to me,” I said as I smiled at her.
Everyone told Peter what they wanted, then Austen and I went up to the guest room to rest for a bit. I sat on the bed next to her.
“My life keeps getting weirder,” I said as I closed my eyes.
She played with my hair. “I love you, Aaron.”
“I love you, too, Austen.”
“So, I’m your girlfriend again?” She smiled hopefully at me when I looked at her. She absentmindedly started playing with my mother’s necklace that was around her neck.
“Yes, you are.” I looked at her seriously. “If you want to be.”
She shoved my shoulder playfully. “Shut up. Of course I do.”
I laughed and wrapped my arms around her before laying down with her. I buried my face in her hair. “I love you, Princess.”
“I love you, too. If we need to leave, just tell me.”
“I will. I want to try, but it’s really hard.”
“You have a lot going on. That’s understandable.” She ran her fingers through my hair and kissed my forehead. “Thank you for giving me a second chance, Aaron.” She smiled when my eyes met hers. “Really. I don’t deserve you.”
“I’m giving you a second chance, Austen. From this time on let’s not talk about what happened or who doesn’t deserve whom. I love you. That’s what matters right now. Let’s work on getting to know each other more and becoming stronger.”
Her nose crinkled she was smiling so hard. She nodded and kissed me. I wrapped my hand gently in her hair and kissed her back with everything in me.
There was a knock at the door and then a giggle. Madilyn caught us kissing.
Austen sat up and laughed. She held her hand out to me to help me sit up. Austen motioned for her to come over and she climbed into the bed. She reminded me a little bit of Ellie.
“Can I call you bubby? That’s what I call Joshua.” She bounced a little. Before I could answer she looked at Austen. “Are you two gonna get married? Can I be the flower girl?”
Austen smiled and was about to say something when Madilyn spoke again.
“My favorite animal is a bunny. White ones, black ones, it doesn’t matter. They are so fluffy and cute!” She touched the compass tattoo on my arm. “What is that?”
Austen was cracking up.
“It’s one of my many tattoos.” I chuckled. “And I like bunnies, too. You want to go to the pet store with me and pick one out. I want to get one and a puppy for Ellie.”
“Who is Ellie?” She asked excitedly.
“She’s my other sister. She’s four. Once I get custody of her, you’ll have to meet her.” My heart tightened some. I missed my baby sister so much.
I gave her a small smile. “Is there a pet shop around here?” I asked trying to change the subject.
She shrugged. “Mom hates animals. If there is one around here, she’s never taken us.”
I smiled mischievously at Austen. I guess our mother would have to get over it because Madilyn was getting a bunny.
There was something ridiculously sexy watching Aaron spoil Madilyn. He had the biggest heart, and I’d give the whole world to him if I could. Of course he spoiled Joshua just as much. The three had become inseparable the past few days. So much that I knew it would be hard on all of them once we left.
I looked at the box that had a little black and white rabbit inside. Aaron was carrying bags full of things for the rabbit, and Joshua was holding the cage.
“Mom is going to flip out, Maddi.”
Madilyn smiled at her brother. “Me and Whiskers don’t care. Do we, Whiskers,” she said in a mushy tone to the rabbit in through the holes in the box.
Joshua chuckled and looked at Aaron. “Can we come visit you in Corpus Christi? I love the beach. The whole family does.”
Aaron smiled and nodded. “Anytime. We’d love to have you.”
I loved seeing Aaron smile like this. He deserved this so much, but I also knew he worried it was all just a dream, and he’d wake up and lose it all. He told me so last night before we fell asleep. He said he finally felt like he belonged in this world for once in his life.
We made it to Aaron’s stepdad’s truck. After getting everything in, Aaron put my crutches in the back and helped me in.
I smiled at Aaron as he drove toward his mom’s house. I played with the necklace around my neck as I listened to Madilyn and Joshua talk about the rabbit. I reached over and held his free hand.
“What time’s your flight tomorrow?” Joshua asked.
I turned so I could look at him. “Six in the evening.”
He sighed in disappointment and nodded. He started talking to his sister again.
We had a great dinner grilling out with his family. His grandparents and cousins came over so they could all meet him. Aaron was on cloud nine, nervous, but enjoying every second of it. I snuck off so he could talk with his grandfather about past memories that Aaron had long forgotten.
I went into the kitchen to start putting away food so it didn’t spoil. I leaned my crutches against the wall and for the first time since being in the stupid boot, I put a little pressure on it. To my surprise, it was tolerable.
I stopped mid-foil as I was covering a pan when I heard someone clear their throat. I looked up and smiled at Aaron’s mom.
“Aren’t you supposed to be using the crutches?”
I smiled. “Yes, ma’am. They are driving me insane, though. My arms hurt. I’ll be fine.”
Her eyes went to the necklace just like they had everyday since we had been here. I wanted to say something every time she looked, but I didn’t know how to approach it.
She motioned her hand toward my neck. “I see Aaron put that old thing to use.” She smiled sadly.
I touched it and smiled. “It’s beautiful. If you want it back, you can have it. He thought… Well, you know.”
She laughed. “Thought I was dead. Just like I thought he was.” She shook her head. “You keep it. That was the first thing I had ever bought for myself without being scolded by his father for spending money. He was a tightwad unless it came to buying booze or a stripper.” She came over and started helping me cover food.
“I’m going to be one of the overbearing crazy mother-in-laws,” she chuckled.
“Oh, we’re not-”
“You will be. I see the way he looks at you and the last time I saw that look, he was six-years-old, and I was dropping him off at Kindergarten. He looked at me like I was the only thing that mattered in the entire world. He held so tightly to my hand and asked me to go with him.”
I blushed and put the lid on a jar of Mayonnaise.
“I’ve missed out on so many years of his life. I won’t anymore.”
“I hope you don’t. He’s amazing.”
We stopped talking when Aaron walked in.
He looked at us oddly. “What?”
We both started laughing.
My phone started ringing from my purse on the counter. “Baby, can you…” I stopped. I called him baby. I smiled and cleared my throat. “Can you get my phone, please?”
I really had crossed over to the other side. I didn’t give guys pet names. Ever.
He grinned at me and grabbed my phone. He brought it over to me.
He kissed me and smiled against my lips. “I love you.” He stood up straight again before walking over to his mom. He pulled the locket out of his pocket and handed it to her. He carried it with him everywhere.
“I saved this. I know it was a family heirloom.” He gently turned her hand over and put it in it. “I’m afraid the rest of your jewelry I sold. I was trying to get money together to pay the bill to get Ellie back.”
I left the room to call back Clay. I noticed he had called several times and texted me to call him ASAP.
“I thought I told you I couldn’t talk to you anymore,” I snapped when he answered the phone. “You better have something serious to tell me.”
“I tried to call Aaron. He didn’t answer. Your parents asked me to get in touch with you. They have Ellie, Austen.”
“Is she okay?” I asked as I started making my way back into the kitchen.
“She’s good. Scared, but your parents were able to get her. She is asking for Aaron.”
When Aaron saw my face he stopped talking to his mom.
I moved the phone away from my ear and held it out to him. “It’s Clay. My parents have Ellie.”
Aaron’s face broke out in the first real smile I had seen since he lost Ellie. “Is she okay?”
“Talk to Clay, I’ll go start packing our things.”
He took the phone and I kissed his cheek before grabbing my crutches and making my way to the guest room. His mom followed me to help.