The next week was remarkably boring. It was a refreshing change after the drama of my panic attack and the appearance of the sinister bouquet. Lexi and Tyler were still attached at the hip, but were spending more of their time at our apartment. I think they were worried about leaving me alone, which was sweet but completely unnecessary.
I filled my days with homework and classes, and occupied my nights by knocking some books off my lengthy TBR list. I didn’t see Finn at all, and I tried to convince myself that it didn’t bother me. I did, however, see Dr. Angelini again. I told her about the flower incident and how Finn had cheered me up with corny jokes afterwards.
“You’ve mentioned Finn several times now. Is he someone you’re interested in romantically?” Dr. Angelini asked.
“I don’t date,” I responded instantly.
“That wasn’t my question, Brooklyn.”
“He’s different,” I said, struggling for the right words. “When he looks at me, it’s like he sees past all the bullshit barriers I’ve put up and gets a glimpse of the real Brooklyn – the one nobody knows. The one even I forget exists sometimes.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Scared shitless, if I’m being perfectly honest,” I said with a grimace. “That can’t be healthy right?”
“Well, in my experience, it’s usually the things we’re most afraid of that end up being the most worthwhile,” Dr. Angelini said, a small smile curving her lips.
“That’s deep, doc,” I teased, falling silent as the weight of her words washed over me. “The thing I’m most afraid of is forgetting her,” I murmured.
“Yes. I have a few photos of her, so I can still see her face when I want to. But the little things – how she smelled, the sound of her laughter – those are the things I feel slipping away.”
“What is it you remember most clearly about her?”
“Singing. She was a musician. I don’t have many memories without her humming under her breath as she composed a new melody in her head. We used to sing together.”
“Do you still sing?”
“Only in private, and only when I’m feeling particularly masochistic. I have an old guitar I found in an antique store a few years ago. I taught myself to play in high school, thinking it might make me feel more connected to her memory.”
“Did it work?” Dr. Angelini asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly, shaking my head back and forth. “I never really pursued it.”
“I think you should.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I think you should find a coffee house or a karaoke bar or even a street corner and perform. Just once, to see how it feels. In fact, that’s your assignment before you come back to see me.”
“You’re giving me homework?” I asked, incredulous. “You’re my shrink, not my professor.”
Dr. Angelini smiled placidly. “Your time for today is up, Brooklyn. I look forward to hearing all about your musical debut at our next session. “ She stood and ushered me into the hallway, closing the door firmly behind me. I stared back at her closed door, my mouth hanging open in shock.
This was going to be a disaster.
I wasn’t sure if my time at therapy was helping or not, but for once in my life I had someone I could discuss my problems and my twisted history with. I could talk freely because it was confidential and Dr. Angelini wasn’t a friend – she was just doing her job. I didn’t burden her and she didn’t judge me.
And while I was dreading getting up on a stage and singing in front of a crowd, I knew Dr. Angelini wouldn’t have recommended doing it unless it served a real purpose. Shockingly, I trusted her.
Our discussion of relationships had me thinking about sex as I drove home from my appointment. It had been months since my last random hookup, far longer than I typically lasted between boy-binges. Sex was the ultimate mind-numbing escape, reserved for situations where tequila alone couldn't block out my emotions.
I couldn't help but wonder if my sudden prudish tendencies had something to do with a certain new male friend, who sang like an angel and told jokes any five year old could top. I dismissed that unwelcome thought, pulled into a nearby liquor store parking lot, and began making plans for a much-needed Friday night out with Lexi.
“Lex?” I called, walking into our apartment and dumping two grocery bags full of ingredients onto the kitchen island. I could hear music thumping from her speakers, an auto-tuned pop track I’d never heard before. Lexi and I didn’t exactly share the same taste in artists.
She emerged from her room, hips gyrating in time to the beat as she crooned the lyrics into a hairbrush.
“Could you be any more cliché?” I asked, giggling at her as I removed several bottles of tequila, margarita mix, and two fresh limes from the grocery bags.
“Margarita night?” Lexi squealed, dropping her pseudo-microphone and pulling the blender down from a cabinet.
“Yeah, I was thinking we could head over to The Blue Note in a little bit.”
“The karaoke bar?” Lexi asked, her nose wrinkling in confusion. “But you don’t ever want to go there.”
“I thought we could change it up tonight, try somewhere new.”
“Works for me,” Lexi said, always agreeable to a night of debauchery. She was firing up the blender with our first round of margaritas in two minutes flat.
After a brief cheers, I left the kitchen and headed into my room to prepare for the night. Picking an outfit was the least of my worries; I somehow had to convince myself that singing onstage in front of a crowd of random strangers wasn’t going to be a total train wreck. Sipping my margarita, I hoped a bit of liquid courage would keep me from backing out at the last minute.
Finn’s jacket still hung on the hook by my closet – he must’ve left it here after the night of the flower delivery. Before I could talk myself out of it, I crossed the room, grasped the supple leather in my hands, and held it up against my face. Inhaling, I could detect the faintest aroma of falling leaves and crisp apples – that uniquely autumnal, masculine scent Finn seemed to carry everywhere he went. Ignoring the pang in my chest, I dropped the jacket onto my bedspread and scolded myself for acting like such a girl.
The truth was, I missed him. I’d gotten used to him being around, and not seeing him for over a week was a slow form of torture. I wouldn’t seek him out, though. It wasn’t in my nature to chase after anyone’s affection.
After changing into a sparkly fitted grey blouse, dark skinny jeans, and a pair of black high-heeled leather boots, I pulled my guitar from a long-neglected back corner of my closet. It was out of tune; it had been months since I’d last played.
After making some adjustments, I strummed a few chords experimentally. For an old guitar, it had a nice sound. I smiled as I began to play the opening melody of one of my favorite songs, singing under my breath as I reached the chorus. Enthusiastic applause greeted me as soon as I trailed off; Lexi was standing in my doorway, watching with rapt attention.
“Does this mean you’re going to play tonight?” She squealed, clearly excited by the prospect.
“I was thinking about it.” I didn’t mention Dr. Angelini’s assignment, as that would’ve required me to tell Lexi that I was seeing a psychiatrist.
“Ohmigod! Brooklyn, I don’t know what inspired this but I’m so happy you’re going to play! I’ve been telling you for years, you could be a professional with pipes like yours.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, strumming softly. “My mom was a singer, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know,” Lexi sighed. “But that’s because you never talk about her. I wish you would.”
That had my attention. “You do?” I asked, surprised.
“Of course I do, Brooklyn. You’re my best friend.” She walked over to sit beside me on the bed. “I know I can be selfish, believe me. But I also know that my self-absorption is the only reason you’ve let me stick around this long. I figured out a long time ago that if I pushed you, I’d lose you.” Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at me. “And I can’t lose you, Brookie. But sometimes I wish you’d let me – or anyone – in, because you can’t keep it all locked up inside forever. Nobody’s that strong.”
I was shocked speechless. I wanted to shake myself for being so blind. Lexi wasn’t ignorant, self-obsessed, or totally uninterested in me. In fact, she’d figured me out long ago, understood how I functioned, and decided to stick around anyway. For the first time in years, I felt the telltale signs of tears prickling at my eyes. Placing my guitar next to me on the bed, I reached over and pulled Lexi into a hug.
“I’m kind of an idiot, huh?” I asked her after a few minutes.
“It’s okay. I’m kind of a vapid narcissist. So it all evens out in the end,” she giggled through her tears. “Great, now I’m going to have to completely redo my makeup! If you have any more sentimental bullshit to unload, now is the time. I refuse to redo it again after this.” Lexi winked at me as she hurried out of my room, no doubt headed for the numerous beauty products littering her vanity.
I rolled my eyes and felt a smile spread across my face. I had a best friend who actually gave a shit about me. And I was ready to kick some musical ass.
By the time Lexi and I walked into The Blue Note, open mic night was well under way. A boy wearing a dark fur vest and white leather pants wailed into the microphone on stage, accompanied by a willowy girl with shoulder-length dreadlocks who occasionally beat her tambourine in time with the chorus. I immediately felt like I’d been transported back to the 1970s; it was painful to watch.
Lexi stifled a giggle as we sat down at a small round table near the back of the room. I settled my guitar case on the ground by my feet and surveyed the club. It was dark in the audience, the only light cast by flickering jar-candles that had been placed on each tabletop. Dim halogen lamps illuminated the stage, creating a halo around a solitary stool and microphone stand.
Lexi headed to the bar to grab our drinks while I staked out our table; more people poured in through the front door with each passing minute, and the seating was limited. The club may have felt intimate, but was bigger than it had appeared at first glance. There were probably close to a hundred people scattered around the different booths and standing at the bar.
Watching as the room quickly filled, I began to reconsider coming here. Maybe performing wasn’t such a good idea after all. I could always try a coffee shop or – what had Dr. Angelini’s other suggestion been? Oh, right. A street corner.
Lexi arrived back at our table just as the next act stepped up on stage. A girl dressed in all black, covered in tattoos, and flaunting multiple facial piercings approached the mic. It was no great surprise when she began screaming out the lyrics to an angst-ridden Alanis Morissette song.
Sipping the lemon drop martini Lexi had gotten for me, I decided this wasn’t the right venue for my debut. I wasn’t nearly angry enough at the world to fit in amongst these performers. Nor did I have a fur vest or dreadlocks.
“Guess what?” Lexi exclaimed, a huge grin spreading across her face.
Oh shit. I knew that look. I felt a leaden weight drop into the pit of my stomach, dread mounting in anticipation of whatever she was about to tell me.
“What did you do?”
“While I was up getting our drinks, I may or may not have signed you up to perform! Isn’t that great?” She was giggling uncontrollably at this point, no doubt amused by the murderous expression thundering across my face.
“Lexi! Why would you do that to me?” I whined.
“Because I knew you were about two seconds from bailing as soon as we walked in and saw Sonny and Cher up there—” she nodded in the direction of the hippie couple who’d just left the stage, “—reliving their seventies glory.”
I didn’t respond; I hated when she was right.
Thankfully, several more acts were called to the stage before my name was announced, giving me time to gulp down my martini and slightly calm my ragged nerves.
“Let’s give it up for Brooklyn, everybody!” The MC was a blur as I walked to the stage and settled onto the stool, holding my guitar to my chest like a lifeline. My feet didn’t quite reach the ground, so I propped them up on the bottom rung. Lowering the microphone stand so it was level with my face, I looked out at the crowd. The dark room was a blessing; I couldn’t see anyone’s faces. It would almost be like I was back in my room, playing alone.
“Hey, you guys, I’m Brooklyn. I’ve never done this before, so cut me some slack, okay?” There were some appreciative chuckles from the audience, helping to put me at ease. “I’m going to sing one of my favorite songs for you tonight. This is Blackbird by The Beatles.”
I strummed the opening chords easily. I’d been playing this song for so many years it was ingrained in my soul, a melody my fingers had memorized long ago. And though I had the upmost respect for The Beatles, I couldn’t help putting my own spin on the song.
I’d slowed it down to fit the acoustic atmosphere, raised it up an octave, and tried my damnedest to infuse my voice with all the emotions that the lyrics conveyed. Hope, sadness, love, rebirth: this song embodied them all.
The crowd faded away as I sang about learning to fly with broken wings, losing myself to the music. Of all the songs in the world, I’d always felt that this one fit me best. The lyrics gave me hope that maybe I wasn’t the only one who’d been shattered by death and loss and sorrow. That maybe everyone’s a little bit broken inside.
As a little girl, I remember watching Peter Pan one night with all the other foster kids in the group home. The other children, most of whom were to old to be entertained by Disney, were making fun of the movie or ignoring it altogether. I alone sat quietly, transfixed by the scene where Peter chases his shadow around the room and tries to wrestle it back into compliance before Wendy finally sews the damned thing to his shoe. That scene had always resonated strangely with me, and after a time, I’d come to see my grief as a sort of disobedient shadow. I’d dragged a wraith of misery around for fourteen years and damned if it didn’t kick and scream the whole time, refusing to be ignored.
I was tired, so tired, of fighting my shadow every minute of the day. My grief had become a living entity, personified by years of self-blame and incarnated by my refusal to confront it. Like Peter, I’d chased my specter for years and repeatedly forced it into submission in a never-ending battle of wills. Too often, though, the grief broke free – and I broke down.
Singing on that stage, I wouldn’t say I felt my mother’s presence, or saw her spirit or anything ridiculous like that. It was more like a surge of warmth filled my veins and made my heart expand – like a moment of clarity as I realized she’d be proud to hear me carrying on her legacy.
It was closure.
I felt like I’d been drowning in my grief for years and hadn’t even realized it. Like I’d been gasping for breath for so long I’d become accustomed to barely breathing at all. And now, I’d been thrown a life-ring and hauled ashore and given a chance to live again. I imagined my grief, that phantom of perpetual misery, finally settling inside my heart. It no longer tugged at its tether, or rattled the bars of its cage – it simply took a deep breath of acceptance as it dissipated into me and finally, finally gave up the fight.
I smiled as I gave myself over to the feeling, completely surrendering to the music as it flowed from my lips and fingertips. I heard my mother’s voice in my head.
There’s a song for every feeling, Bee. Every tear, every smile, every heartbreak and every victory. Music ignites the soul and strips us bare. It’s our very essence. Even if you have no one else to turn to and you feel all alone, remember that you can always find comfort in ballads and melodies, serenades and love songs.
I knew my shadow would never fully leave me – that’s not how grief worked. What had happened to me as a little girl had changed me, altered me on a chemical level, forged me into the woman I was becoming. But maybe it wouldn’t fight me so damn hard from now on. Maybe it would take up residence inside my soul – a scarred, clouded part of my essence – and let me breathe unhindered.
Strumming the last note, I opened my eyes, growing nervous as I took in the utterly silent crowd.
Was I that bad? Jeeze, I didn’t even get a sympathy clap.
Then, to my utter surprise, I saw people getting to their feet and applauding wildly. Catcalls sounded from the bar area and I thought I heard Lexi screaming from somewhere in the back, but it was hard to tell over the rest of the cheers. Grinning, I hopped down from my perch on the stool, slung my guitar over one shoulder and waved to my new fans.
“Thanks, guys!” I called, walking off the stage to make way for the next performer. As I stepped back into the crowd to head for my table, I was immediately engulfed by a swarm of people eager to congratulate me on my performance. I laughed when several asked me where I performed locally, as they were eager to catch my next show.
I eventually made my way back to Lexi, who was jumping up and down in excitement. Squeezing me so tight I could barely breathe, she screamed in my ear.
“You were freaking amazing! Oh my god, Brooklyn. You could’ve heard a pin drop in here during your performance and I swear I saw a few people crying. You’re a rock star!” she exclaimed. Releasing me, she turned to face the people seated in the audience around us. “MY BEST FRIEND IS A FREAKING ROCK STAR!” She screamed at the top of her lungs, entirely too loudly for such a relaxed venue. I smacked her on the arm.
“Quit it, Lex! You’re embarrassing me. Not to mention yourself,” I laughed.
“I’m declaring myself your official musical agent,” she said, eyes distant with thoughts of our future fame and glory.
“Lexi, don’t you think you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself? You do realize that I’m still going to become a lawyer, right?”
Lexi snorted, grumbling under her breath about wasted talent and missed opportunities. Oh well. Singing had always been just a hobby and though it recently may have become a therapeutic outlet, I doubted it would ever transition into a path to stardom. As exhilarating and enlightening as my performance had been, I didn’t see it going anywhere professionally.
A familiar, deep voice rasped into the microphone, immediately catching my attention. Butterflies erupted in my stomach as my eyes drank in the sight of the beautiful dark haired man sitting on the stool I’d just vacated. His eyes scanned the room restlessly, as if seeking someone particular in the dark crowd.
“Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to top that last performance—” Did he mean mine? “—but I’ll do my best. This song is dedicated to a friend I worried I’d lost for good. For a long time I thought it was impossible that this person might still exist out there,” he paused, clearing his throat and running a hand through his hair – a sure sign he was nervous. “But I’m happy to say that sometimes we get second chances in this crazy life. Sometimes the things we lose are returned to us. Sometimes, we’re lucky. So, yeah, enough of my bullshit ramblings. This is The Scientist by Coldplay.”
Finn’s voice was hauntingly beautiful as he sang along with his acoustic guitar. He’d never looked more attractive, but I could tell by just a glance that something was wrong. There were circles under his eyes dark enough to rival mine before my daily Sephora-intervention; it was clear he hadn’t been sleeping. He looked utterly worn out and it set me on edge immediately.
As the lyrics washed over me, I wondered about his strange song dedication. Who was he talking about? It was probably irrational for me to feel jealous, considering there was nothing remotely romantic between Finn and I. He’d made it clear on more that one occasion that he was strictly my friend and, with the exception of a drunken near-kiss in the bathroom at Styx, he’d never even implied that he found me attractive.
The man-whore doesn’t even want you. Talk about an ego-bruiser.
I wasn’t too proud to admit that his lack of attention over the past week had stung. I hadn’t heard from him at all, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way I’d avoided him at the beginning of the semester. Oh, how the tables had turned. How the mighty had fallen. How many more clichés can I use in a row?
I was getting a taste of my own medicine – okay, that was the last one, I promise – and, unfortunately for me, it was the disgusting store-brand, grape flavored liquid cough syrup my foster mom used to shove down our throats when we couldn’t sleep at night.
It was obvious that Finn had chosen this song, one that cried out for redemption and second chances, purposefully. It was equally unobvious why he’d chosen it. The lyrics were clearly an apology, a plea for someone’s forgiveness – and I was near-desperate to figure out whose. Somewhere along the line, he’d started to matter to me.
Evidently, the feeling was not mutual.
But he’d been there for me last week after my breakdown. Granted, his jokes were so pathetic they could barely be considered consolatory. Still, if he needed someone to talk to, I would try not to be a coldhearted bitch for at least five minutes and offer him some comfort. I would be his friend.
As soon as he stepped off the stage, women with too much makeup and too few clothes surrounded him. They reminded me of the seagulls that would swarm any flyaway scrap of food on the California beaches my mother had so often taken me to as a child. She’d called them rats-with-wings, laughing as she’d tossed yet another potato chip into the sky to increase their rabid fervor. Come to think of it, Finn could probably throw a dirty sock into this swarm of girls and they’d kill each other in the animalistic race to win it.
He was laughing, in his element as he soaked up their attention. The sadness that had been etched onto his face as he performed had retreated back behind his eyes and that trademark panty-dropping smile. Or maybe I’d been seeing things.
I rolled my eyes and turned back to Lexi, who was watching me closely.
“You like him,” she said, surprise written across her face.
“No I don’t,” I snapped, forcing a laugh as if she was ridiculous to think such a thing. “And we’ve already discussed this, haven’t we?”
“No. We talked about you sleeping with him and tossing him aside, like you do all the others. Not that there have even been any others lately – but we’ll get back to that later.” She stared at me, as if trying to decode my brain with just the power of her eyes. “You like him. As in, you care about him. I never thought I’d see the day.” Her voice was laced with something like awe as she continued to look at me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Lex. You know better than anyone that I don’t do relationships or commitments or even emotions.”
“Then why haven’t you been with anyone else since you met him? Explain that!” She stared at me, triumphant.
“You know, you’re right. It has been too long,” I said, pushing back my seat and standing up. “I think I’ll go find someone to go home with right now.”
Sadness and regret instantly flashed in Lexi’s eyes. “I’m sorry I mentioned anything, Brookie. Stay with me,” she pleaded. “Don’t do this again.”
“Take my guitar home for me, ‘kay?” I tossed over my shoulder, ignoring her as I turned to head for the bar. A quick glance toward the stage assured me that Finn was still busy with his adorning fans. With one blonde on each arm, he certainly wouldn’t be in need of my friendship tonight. I mentally scoffed at my earlier thoughts of comforting him; clearly, I’d been mistaken.
When I reached the bar, I singled out the guy who’d be taking me home within thirty seconds. It was a talent I’d possessed for years: one glance told me everything I needed to know about a person.
My bedmate for the night was an easy mark. He was at the bar laughing with two male friends, which told me he was laid-back and likely single. He was drinking a beer, so he was probably straight and wouldn’t be so hammered that he’d have any problems performing in the bedroom. His light green plaid button down was casual, but showed off the muscles in his broad back and mirrored the color of his irises.
I could have him back at his apartment, naked, within the hour if I played this right.
Approaching slowly, I made sure to ignore him as I walked up to the empty barstool next to his and leaned over the bar. I waved in the bartender’s direction to signal that I was ready to order, then pushed my dark curls over my shoulder in a gesture designed to appear impatient. If my approach alone hadn’t caught plaid-shirt boy’s attention, the fragrance of my shampoo would do the trick. I bought it on special order and it smelled like apples and cinnamon – something that, apparently, attracted boys like crack. I think its male-enticement abilities would be surpassed only by bacon-scented shampoo, and I was pretty sure John Frieda didn’t make that.
When the bartender reached me, I ordered a bottle of Sam Adams and paid him quickly. Turning around, I faced the stage and leaned back against the bar, taking a deep pull on my beer. I could feel the weight of plaid-shirt boy’s gaze on my profile as the cool bottle rested against my lips and I swallowed slowly. The tip of my tongue lightly traced the glass rim, and I hid a smile as I heard him clear his throat roughly and shuffle his feet.
“Hey, I’m Landon,” he said, moving in front of me. “You were pretty amazing up there earlier.” He held out a hand for me to shake, smiling in a friendly, I’d-like-to-see-what-color-your-panties-are kind of way. His blond hair was lightly tousled and his eyes were gorgeous up close – green with flecks of hazel throughout.
“Brooklyn,” I said, smiling flirtatiously and placing my hand in his. This was going to be even easier than I’d expected.
“Don’t you know it’s not good to drink alone, Brooklyn?” He laughed.
I sidled a glance at him, winking. “Good thing you’re here to keep me company then.” He grinned and I downed the rest of my beer.
Two beers – courtesy of Landon – and thirty minutes later, I was feeling buzzed and ready to leave. I was anxious to get away from Lexi’s accusations and Finn’s flock of women. I’d purposefully avoided looking in his direction, then immediately scolded myself for doing so. If I couldn’t even watch him flirting with other girls, he was even deeper under my skin than I’d realized before. I needed Landon to help push Finn from my mind as soon as possible. Maybe then I could finally get back to normal.
Part of my mind was screaming at me, even as I allowed Landon to lead me toward the exit.
Is this the person you want to be, Brooklyn?
Do you really want to go back to being the guarded, selfish, self-preserving whore you were a few months ago?
What about all the progress you’ve made with therapy and Lexi and Finn?
Just thinking his name had me pushing away that annoying inner voice and snapping back to reality. It was suddenly easy to lace my fingers through Landon’s and follow him to the exit, once again eager to leave.
Near the club door, Landon bumped into a table of his fraternity brothers and stopped briefly to talk. He introduced me, laughing and blushing as his brothers made crass and utterly unoriginal comments about him “getting lucky” tonight. I rolled my eyes and waited impatiently for him to move on.
When nearly five minutes had passed, I tapped Landon on the shoulder and told him it was time to leave. Turning toward the door, I cast one final glance behind me and, to my dismay, locked eyes with the one person I’d been determined to avoid.
I grinned halfheartedly at Finn, but felt the smile drop off my face as I registered the anger in his eyes. His dark blue irises were steely with rage as they glared at Landon, who’d just placed his hand on my ass in an attempt to usher me out. When I didn’t move, Landon leaned down and kissed my neck.
“Come on, babe, I thought you wanted to go?” His breath was too warm and smelled like beer; it made my skin crawl. There were no butterflies, or chills, or stuttering heartbeats – just an intractable sense of wrongness. I ignored the feeling, pulled my neck away from Landon’s lips, and tore my eyes from Finn’s.
He’d ignored me for an entire week, and now he was furious that I was leaving the bar with someone? Well he could go to hell, as far as I was concerned. Either he had some kind of multiple personality disorder, or I was missing some crucial information.
“Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go,” I said, setting my shoulders determinedly and ignoring the ache in my chest as I allowed Landon to pull me through the exit.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a long walk to Landon’s apartment. He lived about three blocks from the club, in the same neighborhood as me. I tried to remind myself how hot he was as we stumbled through his front door, his lips fused to mine. When his tongue entered my mouth, I responded on autopilot, unable to engage on a deeper level. Groaning in frustration – which Landon no doubt assumed was passion – I pulled off his shirt and ran my hands over his chest.
His six-pack was a chiseled work of art. If I’d met him months ago, I’d have gladly spent the night tracing my tongue along each indentation in a show of my appreciation. But tonight, I wasn’t going to waste any time. I needed him to clear out my mind.
Lexi used to say that I treat sex like a trip to the masseuse or the chiropractor – like a romp between the sheets was nothing more than a good back stretch or spine cracking. I’d always laughed when she’d said it, but deep down I knew it was true. I’d used sex to scratch an itch, nothing more.
Until I’d met Finn, and started to care.
I knew instinctually that sex with him would be different. I also knew that what I was doing with Landon right now couldn’t hold a candle to the fantasies I’d had about being with Finn, let alone compare to what actually sleeping with him might be like.
My grey tank top hit the floor, followed quickly by my bra. Landon’s hands cupped my breasts too clumsily and roughly to even remotely turn me on. He was slobbering on my neck, murmuring between openmouthed kisses.
“You’re so fucking hot, baby.”
“Don’t call me baby,” I said immediately, muscles tensing under his touch.
“Okay.” The slobbering continued as I stood unresponsive, my hands at my sides. “You’re so fucking hot.”
His hands reached for the button on my jeans, and I knew I had to put a stop to this before he went any further. Glumly, I admitted defeat – his touch couldn’t drive Finn out of my mind any more than alcohol or denial could.
I was screwed. And not in the literal, good sense of the word.
To his credit, he did stop immediately. Some guys probably would have been assholes about it – complaining or even trying to force me to continue. But Landon was understanding when I told him I needed to leave.
“It’s cool,” he said, grinning and running a hand through his messy blond mop of hair. “You ever change your mind, though, you know where to find me.”
I laughed as I put my clothes back on and said goodbye. He wasn’t a bad guy. I knew he’d be a good boyfriend to someone someday – just not to me.
Thankfully, the walk home was short. I hadn’t worn a jacket to the bar and the temperature had dropped in the hours since I’d left my house. I rubbed my arms with my palms, trying to work some warmth into my limbs as I turned onto my block. To my surprise, a familiar black pickup truck was parked in front of my house.
I approached cautiously, noting that the truck was still idling and that Finn was probably sitting inside. I’d stopped just short of the passenger window when I heard the engine cut off abruptly and the driver’s side door flew open.
Finn rounded the front of the truck in a blur, grabbing me by the arm and planting my back flat against the passenger door before I could even formulate a protest. He glared at me, his face mere inches from mine. A muscle worked in his jaw as he tried to get control over his anger.
“What do you think you’re doing? Let me go, Finn,” I glared back at him, tugging my arm from his grasp. “I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but I’m going to scream if you don’t back off.”
“You don’t know what my problem is? That’s perfect,” he barked out a laugh, but there was no humor in it. His hands ran through his hair in frustration. “You. You are my fucking problem, Bee.”
He was calling me Bee again. He’d only done it once before, so I’d dismissed it – but here he was, using it was again. No one ever called me Bee. It had been my mother’s special nickname for me. I decided to let it go, for now; it seemed I had to pick my battles tonight.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked, incredulous.
“Did you fuck that guy tonight?”
“That is absolutely none of your business! Now let me go!”
“NO!” Finn roared in my face, his anger reaching a new high. “I can’t let you go. I can’t. And believe me, I’ve tried really fucking hard. It’s impossible –You’re impossible.” He blew out a harsh breath, and some of the anger cleared from his face. He seemed defeated, suddenly. “I didn’t know how hard this would be. I wish I could say that if I’d known, it would have made me stay away from you. But I can’t, ‘cause I know that’s not true. There’s literally nothing that would’ve keep me from coming back to you once I’d found you.”
I had no idea what he was talking about at this point. His eyes were wild with a desperate intensity I’d never seen before, and he looked like a man close to his breaking point. Honestly, he was starting to frighten me, and I was dangerously close to delivering a swift kick to his balls and making a getaway.
As I was contemplating escape options, he startled me by gently cupping my face in his hands. Anger shifted to tenderness so rapidly I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment it had happened. His blue eyes pierced mine with a look of steadfast resolve, as if he’d suddenly made a decision about something, and I had the overpowering urge to run far, far away from whatever he was about to say.
“I stayed away from you all week, trying convince myself that I didn’t need you. I knew I should stay away from you, that I shouldn’t pursue this. But then I saw you leaving with that douchebag at The Blue Note and I lost it. I can’t even—the thought that—” He broke off, unable to even say the words. “Did. You. Fuck. Him.” He ground each word out, as if it caused him physical pain to expel them.
“No,” I said, glaring into his dark blue eyes. “Not that it’s any of your business. I can fuck whoever I want, Finn. You certainly do.”
“I haven’t been with anyone since I met you.”
I pushed my shock aside and scoffed. “Yeah, right. And even if that’s true, why would I care? It’s not like I give a damn who you’re fucking.”
In a flash, the anger was back. “Don’t do that. Don’t trivialize what’s between us. Don’t think you can pretend with me. Your little indifferent act might work with everyone else in your life, but I see through it. And you know what I see, Bee?” He paused, leaning in so close our noses grazed. “I see fear. You’re scared shitless that you feel something for me, ‘cause god for-fucking-bid you actually had to let down those walls you’ve built around yourself and let me in.”
My mouth gaped open like a fish as I tried to conjure a response, a denial, even a laugh – anything to steer this conversation into safer waters. My mind was reeling, though, and I couldn’t form a single sound. I simply stared at him, adrift in a state of shock. Years of shutting out my emotions had left me utterly incapable of processing his declaration, let alone how I felt about it. Maybe Finn recognized this about me, though, because he continued to speak, undeterred by my silence.
“Since the second you woke up in my arms on the sidewalk that day, it was only a matter of time until we got here, to this moment. We were inevitable. You know it. I know it.”
“You barely know me. And if you did…you might not like me so much any more. I’m sure you’ve heard my reputation…” I swallowed my embarrassment, looking anywhere but at him.
“It doesn’t matter, Bee.”
“But–” I protested.
“Look, I can’t fucking explain it, okay? I’m no good at this. All I can tell you is that it feels like the most natural thing in the world for me to be near you – like I was put on this earth just to breathe your air and tell you how beautiful you are. To make you laugh at my dumbass jokes, and hold you in my arms when you’re sad. And I don’t want to control you, or own you, or change you. I just want you, no matter who you are or what your past is. I don’t care about the other guys, or anything that happened before we got together, because all that shit made you you.” He inhaled deeply. “Being near you, Brooklyn…it’s like breathing. I don’t have a choice about it; I just have to do it or I know I won’t survive very long.”
His eyes were so startlingly earnest as he spoke the words, there was no way I could doubt the truth behind them. I’d thought he was done, but apparently he still had more to say; when he continued speaking, his tone had gentled and his gaze had grown serious.
“Even when I’m not with you, I can feel myself being drawn wherever you are, like a goddamned physical tether connects us. And it’s not going away; if anything, it’s getting stronger the more time I spend with you.”
He swallowed roughly.
“I’ve never felt anything like this before, and I know you feel it too,” he said, his voice low. “It’s undeniable – like a magnetic force. Like gravity. And it’s not something I can control, or change, or stop. It just is.”
His eyes softened as he recognized the raw fear in mine. “Don’t be scared, Bee. Don’t you know I’d never hurt you?”
“I know that,” I whispered, realizing it was true as soon as the words left my mouth. He’d been protecting me since the day we met. From fire hydrants, from Gordon, even from myself.
He slowly leaned toward me, resting his forehead against mine and closing his eyes. “I don’t think I can stay away from you anymore,” he admitted quietly, exhaling a breath and trying to shake off some of the tension in his shoulders.
“Then don’t,” I said simply, my mouth twisting up in a smile as his eyes popped open. His blue eyes stared into mine for a fraction of a second, evaluating whether or not I was serious, and then his mouth crashed down against mine.
His lips were demanding, his tongue tracing the seam of my lips and seeking entrance almost immediately. He backed me even more firmly against the truck, his body pressed flush against mine. My hands found their way into his unruly dark hair and I pulled him closer, standing on my tiptoes to reach him.
He smelled deliciously of fall again, and tasted even better. I grumbled a complaint when his mouth left mine to trail kisses along my jawline and down my neck. He laughed at the sound, a dark sexy chuckle that nearly set my panties on fire with want. Needing more, I hooked a leg around his waist and tried to pull him closer. He must’ve shared my thoughts – his hands immediately cupped my ass as he lifted me from the ground, allowing both my legs to wrap around his waist as he held me pinned against the truck. Tugging on his hair, I managed to get his lips off my neck and back on mine.
Usually when I kissed someone new for the first time, there was an adjustment period – a few fumbling moments spent learning how his mouth moved and adapting to it.
It wasn’t like that with Finn. It was like our mouths knew each other, like my lips had been designed to fit exclusively with his. I wasn’t a religious person; I didn’t believe in past lives or reincarnation. But if someone had asked me in that moment if I’d ever lived before, I would’ve said yes, because I must have known Finn before this lifetime. Kissing him was like coming home after an impossibly long journey – one so long I’d not only forgotten what home looked like, but that it even existed in the first place.
Our mouths explored, a passionate melding of lips and tongues and teeth. I wanted to drink him in, to bottle him up and carry him around with me so I’d never be without this feeling again – this sensation of completeness, of utter rightness – that made me ache with the need to laugh and weep and lose myself in him.
I gasped when I shifted in his arms and felt the strength of his arousal through his jeans. Finally seeming to realize that we were in a compromising position in the middle of the street, Finn pulled his face away from mine and looked into my eyes as he tried to slow his breathing. His eyes were dark, hazy with desire and surely matching the look in mine.
“We have to slow down,” he whispered, kissing my forehead.
I groaned in response.
Laughing, he set me down on my feet and wrapped his arms around me. My arms twined around his neck and my head nestled into the crook of his neck. A feeling of contentment filled me when his chin came to rest on top of my hair, and I thought back to the first time we’d hugged like this. I remembered thinking how well we fit together, like two missing puzzle pieces. After tonight, that feeling was only amplified.
“Come on,” he said, detangling our limbs. “Let me walk you to your door.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off. “Don’t even try. I’m walking you to your damned door, Bee.”
We walked quietly up the stairs, stopping outside my patio door.
“You could come in, you know,” I said, stretching up onto my tiptoes to plant a kiss on his lips. Finn groaned and pulled away.
“My self-control is hanging by a thread, here. Please don’t tempt me.”
“Fine,” I shrugged and turned to the door, not wanting him to see that his denial confused and hurt me. No one had ever turned me down before. “Your loss.”
“Hey,” he said, spinning me back around to face him. Tilting my chin up, he forced my eyes to meet his. “Believe me, I want nothing more than to stay with you. I want you pretty fucking desperately, if I’m being honest. The fact that you’d even doubt that is crazy.”
Suddenly, appallingly, my eyes were filling with tears. “Maybe I am. Crazy, that is. I’m fucked up, okay? You don’t know the first thing about me. And if you did, you’d probably just run.” I tried to break away from the grasp he had on my face, but he held firm. “I can’t give you what you want. A– a relationship. Even if I wanted to, I can’t make you any promises,” I hiccupped.
Finn leaned in and slowly kissed each teardrop from my cheeks. “First of all, I don’t want to hear you call yourself crazy, or fucked up, or anything like that ever again. Secondly, did I ask you to make me any promises? No.” His eyes radiated sincerity and warmth. “Nothing has to change. Well, other than the fact that I’m going to be kissing you as often as you’ll let me, because your mouth is amazing. Seriously, I may have to go home and write a song about it. We’ll play it at our next show; I’ll call it Ode to Brooklyn’s Orifices. It’ll be an instant Top-40 hit, just you wait.”
I deteriorated into giggles – he was so ridiculous. “I hate you,” I sighed, my laughter gradually subsiding.
“Impossible,” he grinned, pressing a chaste kiss to my lips and watching as I opened the door to my apartment. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I’m sure that’s what you tell all the girls,” I teased.
His face turned serious. “Bee, there are no other girls. There’s never been anyone real for me except you.” A wistful expression crossed his face. “It’s always been you.”
My heart stuttered in my chest at his words and I gripped the doorframe to keep myself steady.
“Goodnight,” I whispered, overwhelmed.
“Goodnight, Bee.” He winked at me before turning to walk down the stairs. I closed the door and brought a hand up to trace my slightly swollen lips, the only tangible proof I had of what had just happened between us. Otherwise, I might’ve dismissed it as some kind of misguided fantasy.
Could I do this? Could I get involved with Finn and remain emotionally detached? He said he wasn’t going to stay away from me anymore, and I didn’t want him to. He was my friend and all I knew was that I’d missed him this past week. But could I sleep with him without letting all my walls come crashing down? I felt like I’d been asking myself that question for months as Finn and I slowly circled each other. And now that we’d finally collided, I still wasn’t sure what my decision would be.
Sure, I was getting better – going to therapy, thinking about my mom and facing up to my past. That didn’t mean I was normal, and I was certainly not well adjusted enough to give myself to another person in a committed relationship.
I needed to sort out my own shit before I could even consider taking a leap like that. As if that wasn’t enough of a hurdle, I also doubted I would ever get to a place where I could be fully honest with Finn about my past – and he was too pushy to ever be content with being left dark. This relationship was a disaster, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, even in theory.
I was confused, and I definitely needed time to think about everything. I was also too tired to deal with the gamut of emotions battling for my attention.
Channeling Scarlett O’Hara, my all-time favorite literary lady and clearly a formative influence on my development, I decided I couldn’t think about the Finn situation right now – I’d think about it tomorrow.