I BRACED ONE HAND ON THE CEILING and gripped the seat with the other as the SUV glided sideways across the snow. Nervous laughter rolled from me, joining the other screams and yells.
We slid to a stop just at the edge of the parking lot.
“Holy shit, that was close,” Danny exclaimed.
We were in a large, empty, church parking lot, forcing the SUV into slides, fishtails, donuts, and pretty much anything it would do in the snow.
“I don’t think I should do this anymore,” Leona said from the driver’s seat. “I almost ran us off the lot.”
Dexter patted her shoulder from the passenger seat. “It’s alright; you would have only gone into the snow. Rea you’re last, ready?”
“Uh.” I cut off my laughter. “I don’t have a license. I shouldn’t.”
Gage twisted in the seat in front of me, eyebrows raised. “No License? Got to fix that.”
Leona hopped out of the SUV, and Dexter called back to me, “Come on Rea. There’s no one out anyways. You can drive here and have a little fun.”
A giddy adrenaline was fizzing in me from just being in the car while they twisted it into slides, now it bubbled over.
Gage got out and lowered his seat for me to climb over.
“Your ass looks great in those jeans,” Aliya said from the other side of Danny.
I laughed off her compliment. I had no choice but to bend over while climbing out, and since Danny and Aliya were in the back with me, they got the view.
Gage tried to grab my arm as I stepped down, onto the snow, but I shrugged him away. I had been ignoring him since his ultimatum, but he frustratingly didn’t seem to notice or care.
I walked around the vehicle to the driver’s side, my shoes absorbing the wet, cold snow. The snow had stopped and the day was warming up fast, but the wind was ice. It wasn't until I was in the warmth of the dry driver’s seat that I paused to admire the tracks covering the parking lot, like toddlers artwork.
After buckling up, I turned in the seat. “Everyone ready?”
“Let’s do this,” Jase exclaimed from behind me.
My arm twitched with excitement as I put it in drive and the vehicle crept forward.
Dexter laughed next to me. “You’re going to have to go faster than that.”
So I pressed on the gas and cut the wheel hard. The SUV moved out of my control as it continued its spin.
“Ahh,” I squealed as I hit the brakes.
We continued to spin over the snow for a moment before the brakes took traction and stopped us.
I looked to Dexter with wide eyes. “Wow”
The bleep of a siren cut through my excitement and dropped my smile. Dexter’s face melted just as fast. Looking to the rearview, I could see the cop car blocking the exit to the parking lot.
“Uh, maybe we can switch spots Rea.” Dexter reached for his seatbelt.
“No!” I pressed back against the seat, stomach clenched with nerves. “He’ll see us moving.”
“Oh no. I can’t go to jail,” Aliya cried from the back.
“No one’s going to jail, we’ll just get a ticket,” Gage explained.
“We won’t, Rea will,” Jase clarified.
I couldn’t listen to them. I wound down the window and put my hands on the steering wheel, waiting for the cop to make his way over.
I kept checking the rearview for his progress. When he finally stepped out, I gasped. It was Anthony. Initially this caused relief, but the tension quickly returned. What would he say in front of everyone?
A static voice from his walkie-talkie grew louder as he approached. He said something back to them and then he was at my window.
“Ma’am, Do you….” He leaned on the open window, surprise and amusement flashed on his face. “Regan! What are you doing?” He looked into the SUV taking in the full load.
“Dexter, Gage, good afternoon.” His voice wasn't as light now.
“Thank God it’s you. We promise never to do this again if you just let us go with a warning.” Dexter crossed himself and put his hands up in prayer.
Anthony looked directly at me, no longer smiling. “Regan, can you step out of the vehicle for a moment?”
I followed him back to his car, hands shoved in my jacket pockets. He opened the passenger door for me and I hesitated.
“I just want to talk for a moment,” he explained, still holding the door.
I slid in and he closed it.
Once he was in the driver’s seat, his smile returned. His hand reached across me, and slid behind my neck, pulling me in for a kiss. Our lips met, his pushing for more, but I pulled away.
He nodded to the SUV parked in front of us. “What are you doing here with them?” It came out like a sigh.
I shrugged. “Having fun.”
“That’s not funny, but alright.” He looked so pitiful. His eyes cast down to his lap where his hands were knotted together.
He must have been thinking about when I told him that’s what him and I were doing, having fun.
“Not that I owe you an explanation, but I’m not sleeping with any of them.”
His warm brown eyes lit up as he raised his head. “Yeah? Well I wanted to talk to you anyways. I found some stuff out that could help you.”
I stiffened. “Really? About the case?”
“Something like that. Can we talk when I get off tonight? Or tomorrow? I can pick you up since I know you don’t have a license.” His eyebrows lifted at the last part, making it clear that I could have gotten in trouble today.
It also made it clear that he had been looking up things about me; we had never talked about my license or lack of one.
I ignored the last part, for now. “Sure, we can meet up. But can’t you tell me now?”
He chuckled and leaned forward in the seat. “Don’t look like that.” He moved his hand across my forehead, trying to smooth the lines. “It’s nothing bad, but I can’t tell you yet. Insurance that you’ll have to see me again.”
I smirked with a small breath of laughter, raising my eyes to the ceiling. “Fine.”
He opened the door, stepping out of the car. “I’ll call you when I get off work.”
I got out and he followed me back to the SUV, stepping in front of me to open the back door.
“No more driving for you,” he said, a soft smile on his lips.
“Yes, sir,” I saluted.
Jase slid over and I got in, and then Anthony leaned into the car, his hand braced on the seat behind me.
“You all go home now. No more four wheeling.” In that moment he sounded extremely old. He winked at me and closed the door.
“Oh. Em. Effing. Gee,” Leona exclaimed, deflating the tension in the car.
Dexter hopped out, jogging to the driver’s seat. “That was close, let’s go home.”
“Did he kiss you? It looked like he kissed you,” Aliya shrieked from the back seat.
I felt all eyes on me, but Gage’s gave the most heat. His typical icy glare seemed more like smoke from a fire. Even Jase between us couldn’t block it.
But his anger only reminded me of my own. I wasn’t going to let him cause me to panic anymore. I wasn’t going to show him any fear. I needed to take back control in whatever this was between us.
“Yeah,” I said matter of fact.
“Damn. I wish I was a girl so I could get out of trouble by flirting,” Jase said.
Dexter pulled the SUV slowly back onto the street. “I knew there was something going on that day I saw him with you at Johnny’s.”
Excitement was high as everyone chatted on the way back, except Gage and me. We both stayed quiet for the rest of the ride.
“Haven’t you two studied enough for one day?” Leona whined, shaking Dexter’s shoulders.
“Babe, Regan needs to see how her opponent moves. Learn what to expect.”
“But you’ve been watching the same fight for-ev-er!” She groaned.
“Yeah dude, you two can take a break for a while. The snow’s going to be gone quicker than it got here with this crazy warm weather,” Danny plopped on the seat next to me, pulling Aliya down with him. “We might even have class tomorrow. Got to live it up tonight.”
Dexter looked at me, giving me the choice.
I shrugged. “Fine by me. I think I’ve seen enough for now.”
Draya, the girl I was going to fight, was tough. She was fast and came out swinging; I would need to block. In the fights I saw she was only hit twice, but both times she went down easy. I just needed to find an opening and take it. I was encouraged because I knew my strength was that I could take a hit, and hers didn’t seem that hard.
“Where’s Gage at?” Aliya asked.
Jase hit a ball in on the pool table. “He said something about an interview.”
Dexter changed the TV to his YouTube channel and started a funny video. “He has a big fight in Atlantic City next month, probably doing some promotion for that.”
Jase walked over with a liquor bottle and cups. He looked at the TV and pointed. “Did you upload Rocky’s suicide jump this morning?”
Dexter grabbed the cups and lined them up. “Not yet. Danny get up and get the soda. I can’t drink this straight.”
“Me,” he cried, unwrapping himself from Aliya. “Fine, but I get to choose the next video.”
They poured drinks for everyone and put a cup in my hand, even when I tried to refuse. I gave up protesting and set the cup down when their focus went back to the TV.
We laughed for a while watching stupid videos, and then a compilation video came on that made my heart stop. It was ‘slap cam’, and everyone around me found it hilarious. Granted no one was really getting hurt; I still couldn’t stomach watching it. It was too close. This stupid game was too close to the game that sent me to the hospital.
I cringed as I saw a person walk unsuspectingly through a doorway, only to be slapped by his friend on the other side, falling to the ground with the impact.
The laughter in the room scraped an already opened wound.
I burst up, unable to take anymore. “That’s disgusting.”
They all froze for an instant.
“Oh man, sorry Rea. I really wasn’t thinking. I’m turning it,” Dexter apologized, pressing buttons on his remote.
Danny groaned, “Really?”
I took a deep breath, unsuccessfully trying to calm myself. “It’s fine, watch what you want. I’ve got to… make a phone call.” I walked up the stairs, out of the basement.
It wasn’t a full-blown panic attack, but it was something close. It took a while to even my breathing and calm the bile that bubbled in my stomach. This was the second almost panic attack I’ve had today. It was exhausting and I desperately didn’t want to be that girl.
I had no control over my body and the fear that surged in me. I felt weak. My life had always been screwed, but now, as an adult, it was supposed to be better. I just didn’t know how to make it better.
My phone vibrated with a text from Anthony:
I’m off in an hour. Pick you up?
I wavered on my answer, unsure if I should put him off till tomorrow.
My fingers slid over the keys to reply when a sudden knock on the door froze me.
Gage walked into the room without waiting for a response.
I slid off the bed as he sat on it.
He shook his head slightly, his lip curling into a smile. “Regan, are you still scared of me?”
I crossed my arms, keeping myself still. “More like appropriately cautious.”
His eyebrows popped up in surprise. “Really?” He reclined on the bed, leaning back on his forearms. “What do you need to be cautious of?”
Lounged back on the bed in relaxed jeans and Henley tee, he didn’t look too bad. In fact, he had my body clenching in a way that had nothing to do with nerves, but I wasn’t falling for it and I’d make that clear.
“You. You’re like a wild animal. Unpredictable and dangerous.”
He paused, eyes connecting with mine. “I’m not dangerous. I would never hurt you.” He sat up and patted the spot next to him. “Come sit. We need to talk.”
Part of me didn’t want to listen, to stay standing, but my legs felt like Jell-O and serpents were coiling in my stomach. I had to sit to keep up the bravado, but I made sure not to sit where he patted.
“The cop's a little old for you, isn’t he?”
I snapped my head to him. “That’s none of your business.”
He shook his head, his jaw tightening. “You’ve got to know I like you. I think I’ve made that clear.”
“No. You’ve made it clear that you want me, there’s a difference.” I wasn’t prepared for this conversation. I hung tight to my anger for support.
He reached his hand out to me and I jumped off the bed, avoiding his touch.
“There is a difference. And believe me, if I only wanted you, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I don’t need to chase anything.” He put his hands up, palms out. “I won’t touch you if that makes you feel better. Not until you want me to. I know you’re not like that, and that I have to go slow with you. I will. Just…” He reached out to where I stood frozen and grabbed my hand in his. “Relax. Sit back down.” His warm grip pulled on me as he tried to bring me back to the bed.
Confusion swirled in me, and I pulled out of his grasp. This man was dangerous. He wanted to control me, and I wouldn’t let him.
I stepped back and spoke through shallow breaths, “Stop pretending. You don’t know me to like me, and all we’ve done is argue.”
His lips slid into a sly smile. “Maybe I like that. There’s a fire there.” He stood and took a step towards me, snaking his arm around my waist. His movements were quick and fluid, and before I knew it he was holding me against him. “Feel that heat?” His eyes looked down into mine as his other hand stroked the length of my hair to my back.
I didn’t feel heat; I felt white cold shock.
“This isn’t normal. We could be good together.” He nodded his head, confident in his words. His hands tightened around me, pressing me to him. His lips touched the top of my head as he spoke into my hair. “I want to help you, take care of you.”
His words made my stomach clench in revulsion. I had heard them before, many times. My childhood was filled with those promises. And it was never true. Never. If it had been, I would have had a different life.
I tried to push him away, but his arms tightened. “Why? You see some charity case you can help, so you can feel better about yourself? I don’t want it. It’s like I said, you don’t know me.” I was able to break free at my last words. “You don’t know anything about me. I’m not who you think I am.” I could feel the words mounting in me, the anger growing. I knew what I could say, but hesitated for a second.
He took the pause in my speech to reach for me again and I laughed harshly as I stepped back. I had already started this, might as well finish. It’s like they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“You think I’m innocent? I fucked that policeman within an hour of meeting him. It’s you I don’t want.” The look that flashed over him shut me up, and I chocked on further words. Perhaps I had taken it too far, but he had to know he had it all wrong. He didn’t have me figured out.
His hands curled into fists at his sides and he glared at me. His chest heaved with his deep breaths. After a moment he said, “Maybe we're more alike than I thought.”
My phone vibrated from its place on the nightstand. I only noticed because Gage’s eyes flashed to it. Anthony’s name lit up the screen.
I picked it up and answered, never breaking my gaze from him. I was proving a point.
“Yeah. I can meet you tonight. I’m at Harbor View. I’ll meet you at the gate.”
His face turned to stone, his cool mask back in place, giving nothing away.
“See you soon.” I hung up the phone as Gage walked out of the room.