GAGE MOVED AROUND THE KITCHEN, OPENING AND closing each cabinet.
I sat back at the table as he made his inventory of the place. I hadn’t checked out most of the pantry myself yet.
“Dude, you can’t just go through people’s cabinets like that. It’s rude,” Dexter complained, running his hands over his buzzed cut hair.
Gage turned to look at his brother. “I’ve got to see what they’ve got, to know what they need.” His tone was condescending, which I hated, but he was right, which I also hated.
“I don’t have anything. You’re looking through everyone else’s stuff.”
He leaned back on the counter, arms crossed, and nodded. “Fine. Then let’s go shopping.”
Dexter groaned. “It’s already ten, why do you have to go now?”
Gage nodded his head towards me. “She works crazy hours. We were supposed to do this yesterday, but didn’t. What are you going to eat tomorrow? What did you eat for dinner tonight?” He eyed me, waiting on my answer.
I shrugged. “Let’s go to the store then.” I had been eating leftovers from work, not the best of choices I knew.
After shopping and unloading groceries, Gage left with a promise to show me how to meal plan tomorrow. Dexter was staying the night with Leona, so he was charged with making sure I ate breakfast, not that I needed him to enforce it. I wanted to make sure I was in good shape before my photo shoot and future fights, and I was more than willing to take Gage’s advice on this topic. His body was proof that the man knew what he was talking about.
“It does taste better with the lime,” Gage agreed as he took a bite of his lunch.
I sat back in the chair with a small victory smile. I had suggested adding lime to the avocado salad.
We had been cooking and packaging up meals I could grab on the go, and surprisingly Gage had been very professional the entire time. He never got too close, and he never ordered me around too harshly. He had been a good teacher.
“Thank you for your help. I feel prepared now. It’s good.” Who would have thought cooking could make me feel so accomplished. But as I took a bite of the salad, I felt a burst of pride. I had cooked before, but not like this.
Leona came into the kitchen, scarf and jacket on. “Mm, it smells good in here. Can I grab some food? I have to get to class, but I’m starving.”
“Sure,” I said as she filled a Tupperware container.
“Dex should be back from class soon if you’re waiting for him,” Leona directed to Gage on her way out the door.
The room was silent after the door slammed shut, and I was all too aware that we were alone in the house. I had been fine around him while we were cooking, but now the familiar swirl of tension in my muscles returned. A feeling that only Gage caused.
I stood up with my plate and went to the sink.
“That’s all you’re eating?” he asked, remaining seated.
“I'd been snacking while we cooked,” I mumbled, as I busied myself with cleaning up the leftovers.
“Are all your roommates at class?” His voice was low.
I thought I could feel his eyes on me, but I didn’t turn to find out. I started loading the dishwasher. “Yes. But Dexter, Zoe, and Aliya should be getting back soon.”
“Why aren’t you in school?”
I straightened up and shook my head, my back still to him. “I work instead.” I tried to deflect the shame I felt; I hadn’t even finished high school. “Why aren’t you?”
“Life didn’t work that way for me.”
I turned at his words, meeting his eyes, and nodded in complete understanding. “Yeah, me neither.”
After a moment, I forced myself to ask the question I couldn’t stop thinking about. “You work at a summer camp for youth?”
He cocked his head, that cocky glint in his eye that he always gets when he corrects me. “I volunteer my time there. I don’t need extra money, and they help a lot of kids, kids that would otherwise get into trouble. I mentor a few during the school year, like Jovan.”
A wall within me cracked. I physically felt it and it hurt. He didn’t have to say it, but I knew he helped kids like the ones we used to be. Maybe like I still was.
The rumble of an engine pulled up in the driveway. The others had returned.
Gage broke eye contact first and cleared his throat as he brought his plate over to the sink.
Dexter came barreling in the door as Aliya chased him.
Anthony stood from the bar as I walked towards him. “You ready to go now?”
“As long as you don’t mind that I smell like grease.” I looked down at my shirt that had a few stains on it from various spills tonight.
The restaurant had been slammed, but I couldn’t complain since my pocket was full.
“I could take you to your place to changed.” He held the door open for me as we walked out into the chilly night.
I eyed him with suspicion.
“What? I could find out where you live easily enough, remember my job? And you’re going to want me to drop you off there tonight, right?”
I paused; he was right. I hadn’t thought much about what our new arrangement would be, but I didn’t need to sleep at his place anymore. A slight pang of sadness flashed; I had gotten use to his warm body next to mine.
“What did you have planned for tonight?” I asked
He smiled, opening his truck door for me. “I was hoping we could do something, like bowling, or pool, or go to the movies.”
I had a moment to think as he rounded the truck to slide into the driver’s seat. This new territory was making me feel nauseous, or maybe that was the smell of onion drifting off my shirt.
“I should change before we do anything,” I relented.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back,” I ordered when we pulled up in front of the house. There were some lights on, but Zoe’s car was gone.
Aliya was sitting on the couch and I waved to her as I passed by to my room. A few moments later, a couple of car doors slammed, followed by the front door, and several giggles.
I shoved my legs into jeans and slid a long sleeve t-shirt on.
“Rea?” Leona yelled.
“Out in a minute.” I ran a brush through my hair and exited my room.
“Is your cop out in that truck?” Zoe asked.
My stomach clenched, but I nodded. “We’re just leaving.”
Aliya hopped off the couch and ran outside, more gazelle than girl.
I followed behind her. The idea of these two worlds meeting felt like a head on collision.
Aliya leaned into his window, and her voice travelled in the thin night air. “Come on in for a little bit. We’d love the company.”
Anthony opened the car door as I cut in front of Aliya. “That’s alright, maybe another time. We're going bowling, right?”
He stood up to his full height, inches away from me and stared me down with narrowed eyes, before relaxing and sweeping them to Aliya.
“We’re going bowling. You can come if you want.”
Aliya’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “Can Zoe and Leona come, too?” At his nod she said, “I’ll be right back.” She ran inside to get the others.
Anthony’s chest vibrated with laughter as he looked down at me and his arm circled around my waist. “Don’t be mad. I want to meet your roommates. This will be fun.”
And it was fun, for the most part. I sucked at bowling, but everyone got along really well and Anthony charmed the girls. They kept giving me thumbs up or mouthing “OMG” when he wasn’t looking.
When we pulled back up to the house, the girls said a quick goodbye and left me alone with him.
“You’re not mad, are you?” he asked reaching for my hand.
“No. I had fun tonight.” This felt like a date thing to say, making my stomach sink.
Anthony leaned across the console to me, almost kissing me. “I did, too," he breathed. Then our lips met, and his hands pulled me closer to him.
He deepened the kiss, leaning into me, pushing me back against the seat. His hands traveled over my shirt and curves. He broke away from my mouth and whispered to me, “Can I…” as his fingers ran along the edge of my jeans.
I pushed away, shaking my head, trying to clear the fog. Tonight had felt different at first, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted different. But now that we were going back to our same routine I felt dirty, and didn’t want to bring that to this house. I had hoped to be different here, and this was the first step.
“Not tonight.” I kept my hand up between us. I shook my head, trying to think of words to explain.
With a small smile, he caressed my cheek. “It’s alright. Tonight was good. Wait here.”
He hopped out and ran around to my door, opening it for me. “Let me walk you to the door,” he said with his good boy smile.
I still wasn’t sure what I was doing or how this was going to work, but I pushed those worries aside and enjoyed the moment, because it was a good one. I felt normal as he walked me to the door and kissed me good night with a promise to call me soon.
I had my headphones on while I folded clothes, putting some away and packing some for our trip to Atlantic City tomorrow. We were leaving on Thursday, Gage’s fight was Friday, and we would come home on Sunday.
My fingers trailed over my new clothes that the girls helped me pick out. Things really were different here, but I was still holding my breath.
This past week had been one of the best of my life. No drama, all focus. Gage stopped by frequently to help with cooking, and I had gone on a couple more dates with Anthony. And work had been really busy, which meant good tips.
I stood up and tried on a new top, looking at myself in the mirror. Training this past month had tightened my muscles, but this new diet was already changing my body, making the muscles seen. Lines of abs were beginning to show, and my triceps had a nice lean cut to them.
My phone vibrated on the bed, and I jumped to pick it up. Nan’s name flashed on the screen, and my heart was in my throat as I answered.
“You have to stop calling me,” she hissed into the phone.
“I wanted to make sure you were alright. When I last saw you-”
“You made a bad situation worse, like usual,” Nan interrupted. “That’s what you do. And now you keep calling, and that’s not helping anything. If he saw that I was talking to you…”
“Nan, I can help you. You don’t have to be scared of him.” I wasn’t focused on her words, but the fear I heard under them. It terrified me.
“You don’t know anything Regan. That man you brought here can’t do anything. He can’t save you or me. You’re the one that needs help, not me. Worry about yourself.” Her words were little razor cuts in my gut.
“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
“I don’t want you calling me or helping me. You destroy everything! You make everything worse. So stay the hell away from me. Lose my number.”
Silence. She hung up.
I kept my headphones on, music blaring for only me to hear, drowning out my own twisted thoughts. I wanted to push away Nan’s phone call, lock it into the back of my mind. I didn’t know what else to do and I didn’t know what it all meant.
Searching the kitchen for food, I pulled out a bag of M&M’s, and poured a handful into my mouth. Anthony was on his way to take me to dinner, but I craved the sugary sweetness like a drug. I needed something to make me feel better, and chocolate seemed like the safest bet, but it wasn’t enough.
I reached into the top cabinet for my peanut butter, the all-natural one Gage made me buy. It took all the fun out of the creamy treat, but adding M&M’s to it might solve that problem. I sat on the counter as I stirred the colorful candies into the top layer of the peanut butter and took a big bite. I hadn’t cheated on my diet once since I started, but this was an emotional emergency. Creamy, chocolaty, sweetness melted into my mouth and I let all other thoughts go.
Except when I looked up, Gage was standing in the kitchen, watching me. I pulled my head phones off and swallowed my dessert. “What are you doing here?” I asked, scooting on the counter to sit in front of the bag of M&M’s.
He cocked his head at me, eyes suspiciously narrowed. “I was helping…” He crossed the kitchen, walking in slow motion, stopping just in front of where I was perched on the kitchen counter. “What are you doing?” One eyebrow glided up.
I screwed the lid back on the peanut butter, my candies still stuck inside. “Having a snack.” He smelled sweet, like fruit, but his natural fresh scent was just under it, making me dizzy.
He reached one hand behind me, almost touching me. The heat and static that swirled between us was intoxicating, putting me in a trance. All I could do was watch him as he lifted the bag of chocolates and set it back down on the counter, the corner of his mouth gliding up into a smile.
He braced one hand on the counter top next to me. The other inched to my face, his thumb dragging over the corner of my mouth
The feel of his hard, but smooth skin against my lip sent a surge of heat through me, but when he pressed the thumb to his mouth and licked off the peanut butter, I melted.
He put that hand on the other side of the counter top and nudged closer to me, my legs spreading to let him stand in-between without resistance or thought.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, not really wanting to break the spell between us but my heart was in danger of flying out of my mouth.
He inched closer as one hand moved to grip my waist. “Not breathing,” he said low, his head moving ever so slightly towards mine.
I wasn’t breathing either, and it took me a moment to get the joke, but I couldn’t laugh. The adrenaline rushing to my head made any thought difficult. I moved my hands to his shirt, wanting to pull him closer, feel his heat against me.
The slam of a car door snapped me out of it. I jumped and scrambled off the counter.
Gage stopped me with a hand on my hip. “Wait-“
I pulled away from him, feeling weak beneath his touch. “I have to go. Anthony’s here.”
I wanted to run outside and keep them apart and that thought made my head pound. What was I doing? I had been trying to deny whatever Gage and I had, but I couldn't. I couldn’t resist anymore, and I had almost given in moments before Anthony was supposed to pick me up.
Gage frowned, looking out the window as Anthony walked up the driveway. “The cop?” he sneered. “You’re still with him?”
Anthony was almost at the door, but I didn’t want to leave Gage like this.
I shook my head, meeting his eyes, pleading with him. “It’s complicated. I…“
Anthony knocked, and I shrugged helplessly to Gage. “I’ve got to go.”
Picking up my jacket, I opened the door.
Gage stepped behind me. “Any news on the case?” he questioned with a hard voice, and my stomach clenched.
Anthony’s smile melted as he glanced between Gage and me. He nodded. “Regan can tell you any information she wants you to know. It’s not my place to share.”
Gage crossed his arms, “Four were arrested? Two of them I caught. So what have you done?” The challenge in his voice made me nervous.
“We’ll talk about this later. We’ve got to go.” I turned to close the door, but Gage grabbed my arm, pulling me back to him.
“Don’t go. Stay and talk to me now.”
“Get off of her.” Anthony stepped through the doorway.
Gage’s eyes were locked on mine, but I couldn’t stand the emotion in them, and I pulled his fingers away. “I have-”
Anthony slid in between us, pushing me behind him. “Stay away from her.”
I pulled Anthony back, putting myself between them again and tried to lead him outside. “Let’s go.
I spun around as Gage took another step forward. “Stop,” I demanded. “Don’t do this.”
His jaw clenched and the line of his body was rigid in anger. Aliya stepped into the kitchen looking like she just walked off the pages of an Abercrombie catalogue. She approached Gage, her eyes scanning between the three of us.
She touched his arm with her fingertips and he flicked his eyes to her but then met mine again as Anthony pulled me away.
The last thing I saw before the door closed was her slip her arms around his waist, and my heart nose-dived into my stomach. Now I knew why he had been here to start with.
“What the hell was that in there?” Anthony barked as he slammed his truck door shut.
I climbed up into the passenger side and shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Are you fucking him? Is that why you haven’t been sleeping with me?” He glared at me.
I stopped putting on my seatbelt and let it slide off of me. “No. I’m not sleeping with anyone.”
Anthony grabbed my hands before I could open the door to leave. “Wait. I’m sorry. This is driving me crazy. Please, don’t leave yet.” His eyes begged me to stay.
I nodded. “We need to talk.”
He ran his hand through his wavy hair, messing up the swoop back style he had it in. He turned to me with a deep breath. “We do. But not here. I know a place.”
Minutes later, we pulled up to a wooded park with a lake you could barely see through the leafless trees. He parked in the empty lot and leaned back against his door, looking at me.
“I’m not going to like this am I?” he asked, voice flat, and lines crossing his pretty face.
My heart pulled. “I’m sorry. I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
He scoffed. “And I’ve been paid in full for it, I guess.”
I deserved that, but it still stung. Staring at my folded hands, I buried my retorts. I knew I was the one doing the hurting here, and he needed to get out whatever he wanted to say, it was the least I could do.
“Seriously, Regan? You’re ending this when it only really just started? I thought things were changing this week, that we were moving this relationship forward. Is it because of Gage?”
When I didn’t answer quick enough, he banged on the steering wheel. “Answer me!”
I took a calming breath and raised my eyes to the ceiling. “No,” I spoke loud and clear. “It’s not anyone but me. I warned you from the start to not expect anything. It’s not my fault if you did.” But I knew it was my fault. I had leaned on him too much, needed him too much.
“You’re going to regret this.” He shook his head, teeth grinding. “This is a mistake. You we're lucky to have me. I’m miles above you, and you don’t even realize it. I’m the best you could ever have and you’re throwing it away.”
He was right; it had been my thoughts of him all along. “You can do better than me. And one day you will,” I said with control. His words may have been true, but they were still starting to piss me off. “Can you take me home now?”
“Get the hell out.” He waved his hand in dismissal.
I climbed out of the car and he drove away the minute the door shut.
At least we hadn’t driven too far away and the sun was only just beginning to set because I had left my phone back at the house.
The walk was needed anyways. I had to make sense out of my jumbled thoughts, especially those surrounding Gage and Nan.