Imagine Me, page 6
He’d tossed a stack of research articles that would take anyone a month to read through. So, my mind had been a little frantic over the week, trying to cram as much information in as possible. If I hadn’t taken a small break to eat, then I would’ve completely forgotten the bill that sat on the kitchen counter under my Chinese take-out menu.
Now I was about to be a frantic failure without power if I didn’t haul ass. Dramatic? Yep.
Slipping my last boot on, my phone began to vibrate in my hand. I almost drop it on the tile when at the last minute I caught it, bringing it to my ear with a breathless, “Hello?”
“Hey, Jules.” Hudson’s voice boomed through the phone.
“Hey, Hudson.” I locked the door and jogged down my apartment stairs toward Betsy.
“I was calling to check in. I haven’t heard your voice in a while. I miss you.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been busy with work and everything.” I purposefully ignored the ‘I miss you’ comment. “How are you?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m good. Got a promotion at work last week.”
“That’s great, Hudson. I know you love working for my dad.” I put my key into the ignition and said a silent prayer that Betsy would turn over on the first try. I didn’t need Hudson to hear her struggle and start in on me again.
“I do. Your parents had me and my family over for dinner this week.” I struggled to follow the quick topic change from work to my parents. “They asked me if I’d mention to you maybe calling more.”
“Hudson,” I said, hoping he’d catch the warning note in my voice.
“They miss you, Jules. We all do.”
“I know. But that’s just the way it is. My life is here now.”
Hudson and I had been friends since we were in diapers. We got in trouble together, played together, did everything together. We were each other’s first everything, too. It was no secret that our families expected us to end up together. And with me leaving, it had changed the future they had imagined for me.
They had been upset when Hudson and I broke up, but I guessed they’d expected me to go to grad school and come back to my rightful place by his side. I threw a curve ball to their plans when I left. I hadn’t realized Hudson had been expecting me to return to his side too until he’d dropped that huge bomb on me at the airport. But it was too late. I had never felt passion with Hudson. It was more like comfort. That comfort had become even more apparent after my night with Shane, which lit me on fire in ways I’d never experienced. I just couldn’t go back to Hudson after that.
“What happened to us Jules? Weren’t we happy together?”
This wasn’t the conversation I wanted to have as I sped through the streets trying to get my bill dropped off on time.
“Of course we were. Just . . .Maybe not in the way we should have been.”
“What do you mean? Did I not satisfy you? Because the way I remember it, I satisfied you many times.”
I laughed uncomfortably, not wanting to talk about our past sex life. “Did you honestly feel a fiery passion with me? If you did, then why did you let me walk away so easily?”
“Because it’s what I thought you needed, and time away would make you realize how great we were.”
“No, Hudson. I walked away because I wanted to feel more.”
“I refuse to believe we’re completely over. If you need to get it out of your system, then fine. But I’ll be here, waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry, Hudson. I have to go.” I hung up before he could respond. I didn’t know what to say anyway.
Finally, I pulled up to the building at twelve-ten. Traffic had been a bitch, but maybe someone was still there and would let me in. I parked and walked up to the door and of course no one was there. The place sat dark and barren. A sign on the door read that all weekend payments could be dropped off at the slot on the side of the building.
At least I wouldn’t be late.
I walked around and slipped my payment in, feeling satisfaction at having it done, just as the skies opened and buckets of rain poured down on me. I pulled my jacket tight and ran toward Betsy, getting soaked on the way. Freaking end of February was just cold enough to chill me to my bones, but not cold enough for snow.
I got in and blasted my heat, which decided to take forever to get going, but at that point, I was okay with even slightly warm air.
“Come on, Betsy,” I said, stroking the dash. “We just got to make it home. Mama will take you to the spa and get you an oil change and checkup. Just warm me up, baby.”
However, a couple blocks later, Betsy gave up on me. She sadly puttered, and I had enough sense to coast over to the shoulder. I placed her in park and tried to get the ignition to turn over. A couple of false starts, and then nothing. The lights came on, but the engine was dead.
“Betsy. Baby. Don’t do this. I’ve defended you to everyone. Don’t let me down, girl.”
I closed my eyes and whispered a quick prayer before turning the key.
“God dammit!” I yelled. “No! No, no, no!” Every word was punctuated by me smacking the steering wheel. Frustrated tears burned the backs of my eyes and I clenched my jaw to hold them back, but it was useless. The day, the week, the conversation with Hudson, it all caught up with me. I let my forehead fall to the leather of the steering wheel and cried. Who was I going to call? The obvious choice would be Jack. He’d know what to do. But my pride refused to give in.
He’d look at me with this I-told-you-so look. Then he’d call my mom and dad and I’d be fucked. And I couldn’t call anyone else because they’d all talk about it at Sunday brunch, and I’d sit there like a shamed child.
After letting a few more tears fall, I sat up and wiped my cheeks, taking a deep breath and tried to think until a light bulb went off.
He was a cop, he had to help me. And he didn’t really chit chat with anyone, so it’d be fine. I’d just have to ask him to not tell Jack. A part of me didn’t want him to see me like this, but he’d already seen me low, so whatever. He was the lesser of two evils.
I pulled out my phone and scrolled until I found his name. It rang once before he picked up.
“Have a date so soon after the last awesome adventure?” His tone teased me, but it was all I needed to hear, and dammit, if I didn’t embarrass myself even further when I started to cry.
“What’s wrong? Where are you?”
Immediately his tone changed to serious, falling into cop mode.
“I’m fine. So-sorry. My car broke down and I didn’t want to call Jack because he would just get on my case and I can’t, I can’t have any more today. I didn’t know who else to call.” It all poured out of me and I could hear his sigh through the phone.
“Okay. Have you called insurance for a tow?”
“Umm, no. I didn’t know I needed to.” I was such a novice and felt like an idiot admitting everything I didn’t know.
“Where are you?” I gave him my location. “Stay in your car with the doors locked. I’ll be there shortly.”
As soon as I hung up, I dropped my phone into the passenger seat and pulled down my visor to check myself in the mirror and wipe away any stray mascara trailing down my cheeks. I did the best I could with a paper napkin I found in the glovebox, and then closing my eyes, I took some deep, steadying breaths to try and calm down. Shane had heard me lose my cool; he didn’t need to see what a hot mess I looked like on top of it.
Once I looked a little less horrifying, I began searching for my insurance card. I was pulling it out, as Shane nosed his car in behind me.
He came around to the passenger side and I unlocked the door to let him in. The rain had slowed, but not stopped. Water dripped down his temples and the bridge of his nose.
“I found my insurance card.” I held up the piece of paper like it was the answer to all our problems. He was nice enough not to laugh at me.
“Good. Why don’t you go ahead
I pushed me keys into the ignition and hoped that Betsy would both start, so I could avoid whatever was wrong with her, and also not start because I would feel like the biggest tool bag for making a mess out of nothing.
Taking a deep breath, I turned the key. Silence. The lights came on, but the ignition didn’t do a damn thing.
“Well, it’s not your battery. Besides that, it could be about anything.”
“That narrows it down.”
He ignored my sarcastic comment. “Pop the hood and let me see if I notice anything off.”
“Okay.” I started looking along my dash around my wheel for something that looked like it popped my hood. Apparently, I took too long, because Shane’s long arm reached across my chest and pulled a lever by my steering wheel. My breathing stuttered at having him so close, his body slightly leaned over mine, the heat from his skin reaching across the small space between us to light me on fire. He was so close, I had to fight from leaning forward to bury my lips against his neck and licking the drop of water that slowly slid down his sharp jaw.
A blush worked its way up into my cheeks from my thoughts, but deepened when he gave me a slightly exasperated look, making my embarrassment at looking so dumb impossible to hide. Miss I-want-to-be-independent couldn’t even pop her own damn hood.
Thankfully, if he noticed, he didn’t acknowledge it before getting out and moving around the front of my car. While he peeked under the hood, I called my insurance company and stumbled through answering all the questions. By the end of the conversation, I had been taken down a peg on how smart I thought I was. I had a Master’s in biochemistry and could break down the parts of a cell, but I could barely make an insurance claim. So much for college.
Shane climbed back in a couple of minutes after I ended the call. He was drenched. His light hair looked almost brown as it clung to his forehead. I clenched my fists to stop myself from dragging my fingers across his forehead and pushing it back to stop the water dripping down his face.
“I don’t see anything obvious out of the ordinary, so it’s going to have to be taken to a shop. They may get a chance to look at it today, but if not, they probably won’t until Monday.”
“Dammit. I guess I’ll have to see if Jolene can give me a ride. Or I’ll have to ride the bus.”
“Don’t ride the bus.”
“I don’t have much choice.”
“You have lots of choices. Jack—”
“I am not asking Jack for help. He barely thinks I’m capable as it stands. If he found out about this, he’d jump ship to Mom and Dad’s side and probably cart me back to Texas himself.”
“Okay.” Shane dragged the words out and lifted his hands in defeat. “Just, don’t ride the bus. They’re not always the safest places. Call me if you need a ride and, if I can’t give you one, I’ll find someone who can.”
“Thank you,” I muttered, my eyes glued to my lap. “The tow should be here soon.”
“Good. We’ll get you all squared away and then I’ll get you home.”
“Thank you,” I said again.
We didn’t wait long before the truck arrived. We were going to follow him to the shop, but the driver told me there was no point. They wouldn’t be able to work on it today. He said they’d call me with an update, then he looked me over, shivering and wet in the cold rain, and told me to hurry home before I got sick.
Shane escorted me to his car and blasted the heat. Actual heat. Not the pitiful gasps of warm air Betsy struggled to give off.
“Listen,” Shane said with his hands gripping the steering wheel, the car still in park. “I live right around the corner. Let me take you there and get you warmed up. I’ve got some soup too, and then I’ll take you home.”
“I can take care of myself.” I sounded like an ungrateful snotty child, as I sat shivering in the seat.
“I know. Just . . .Just let me get you warm.”
Biting my lip, I watched his profile and my imagination took off. How would he keep me warm? Why did he care so much? He probably missed me and was using this opportunity to get close to me. The idea warmed me more than the heat coming through the air vents.
However, the snug image I had created in my head shattered with his next words.
“If Jack ever does find out about this, at least I can say I took care of his little sister and maybe he’d spare me some mercy.”
Shane’s garage had about ten spots for the residents in the converted corner building. Cincinnati had converted a lot of its older factories into condos and apartments. They were all gorgeous and Shane’s place was a lot more put together than I’d expected for a bachelor.
“I’m not a heathen, Juliana,” he said, watching me stare around his modern apartment in awe.
“I know. I just didn’t expect it to be so decorated, I guess.”
“If you want to call hanging curtains decoration, then sure.”
But it wasn’t just the curtains. It was the way they draped on the floor with elegance. It was the black and white photos of Cincinnati hanging on the exposed brick wall mixed with a few personal photos. It was the throw blanket that matched the pillows on the sectional couch. In my mind, Shane had been a playboy bachelor with pizza boxes, beers, and condoms littering his loft apartment. This image didn’t mesh with the one I was seeing now.
“Well, it’s a nice place.”
“Thank you.” His response was short and gruff and it made me think that maybe he was embarrassed by someone seeing that side of him. “Let me get changed and I’ll bring you some warm clothes to change in to.”
He disappeared down a short hall. I imagined him stripping off his wet clothes and the rivulets of water trailing down each ridge of his abs. But then I didn’t have to imagine because I remembered the way he’d looked standing naked in the shower in Jamaica when he’d told me to turn around and brace my hands on the wall.
I jumped when he rounded the corner and tossed some clothes at me. I muttered a quick thanks, keeping my head down so he couldn’t see the flush staining my cheeks as I walked past him.
“You’ll probably have to hold them up, but they’re the smallest pair I have.”
Then I stood in his room and it looked more like a man’s space. The bed was unmade with dark gray sheets and comforter. One nightstand with a lamp and glasses, and a dresser completed the room. There was only one picture on the wall of the precinct. The rest of the walls were blank. It felt intimate standing in the middle of his bedroom as I stripped off my wet clothes. I thought about keeping my bra and underwear on, but they were soaked. Besides, my small breasts wouldn’t be noticeable under the baggy T-shirt he’d given me.
Balling everything up, I walked over to where he stood in the kitchen, pulling containers out of the fridge.
“You can toss those in the dryer just around the corner.”
I walked past the open kitchen, finding the stackable appliances and threw my clothes in, hoping they took forever to dry, giving me more time with him.
When I returned he was pouring what looked to be soup out of the containers into a pot on the stove.
“You didn’t have to go through this much trouble,” I said, sitting on a stool at the island, watching his back muscles ripple with every move under his black T-shirt.
“It’s not much. I had leftover chicken noodle. Hope you don’t mind.”
“It sounds great. Thank you.”
“Do the clothes fit?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at me.
“I had to roll the boxers up and they’re still a little loose. Just don’t let me go bouncing around anywhere, and I won’t be in any danger of them falling off.”
A grunt was all I got in return for my joke. Okay, then. I watched him grab bowls and ladle soup into each before bringing both steaming bowls over to me.
“A beer would be great.”
He sat our drinks down and then sat on the stool beside me, not saying anything as he ate. I took his cue and remained silent until we’d finished. And as awkward as it sounded, it was actually really comfortable. He sat so close that his body heat was warming me up faster than the soup. I fought to not lean into him and let my arm graze his. I fought to not turn on the stool and let my foot glide up his sweatpants and feel his strong leg flex under my touch.
He finished before me and took long pulls from his beer. I struggled to keep from smiling when I felt his gaze on me. It wasn’t direct, but enough that it stoked the fire simmering beneath my skin.
Setting my spoon down, I grabbed my beer and turned to face him, holding his eyes as I brought the bottle to my mouth. His gaze dropped to my lips when I licked the residual beer from them.
“So, why don’t you come to the Sunday brunches?” I decided to break the silence before I climbed on his lap and begged him to lick my lips for me. Begged him to lick all of me. Begged him to let me lick all of him.
“It’s a family thing, and other than being close to Jack, I’m not family. I’m out of place there.”
“Well, other than Jack it’s not really my family either. But that’s the point. It’s more of a hodge-podge, create-your-own-family.”
“I guess I’m not very family-oriented.”
“What do you do with your family?” I asked hesitantly, remembering his comment about not having a mother.
“Don’t have one.” He turned away and pulled from his beer once he answered. I got the idea that maybe I was treading into a touchy subject, but having this man in front of me—finally—encouraged me to push for more. I wanted to know him, even if he wanted to ignore me.
“What happened to them?”
His teeth dragged across his lip as he scratched at the label on his beer. “Never knew my dad, and my mom died of a drug overdose. So, I was put in foster care.”
“Shane. I’m so sorry,” I whispered, my hand reaching out to touch his shoulder.
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