Authors: Lauren Blakely
he's sound asleep
, the sheet having slipped down to her waist. Her features are soft in the dark-blue light of the early hour. Her brown hair spills over her pillow, and her breathing is slow and even.
The clock flashes 5:30, and it's not just a warning that it's time for me to leave. It's a reminder that we're another moment closer to the end. Josie and I might not have an official expiration date, but we're as good as fully cooked.
Maybe one more night. Maybe one more time. Last night, she made it clear that the timer buzzes any minute.
I heave a sigh as I pull on work-out shorts and a T-shirt. Turning away from her, I head to the bathroom and brush my teeth.
I grab my bike shoes and pad quietly across the floor, favoring my right foot. I lied last night. My ankle did hurt. It still does, but I'm going to ride with Max this morning anyway. I close the door with a soft whoosh so I won't wake her up.
In the hallway, I put on my shoes. I snag my bike from the basement and dart downtown, the early-morning cabs and buses keeping me company on the road, along with my thoughts.
I wish there were other options.
But thisâhaving her in every wayâis the kind of procedure that reeks of malpractice. It's fraught with too many known risks that can lead to a negative outcome, including injury or death.
I try to weigh the choices like I'd evaluate such a complicated treatment.
On the one hand, I could tell her how I feel. But that's a surgical procedure with a great likelihood of morbidity. What if telling her freaked her out? Worried her? Made her kick me out of the apartment and say,
Sorry bud, you're not the full package I want
? We might as well kill the friendship on the operating table.
On the other hand, we could apply the brakes, preserve the friendship, and save the patientâour friendship.
That's the safest choice.
The only other option is so crazy, so ridiculous, I can't even take it seriously. It's the one where I tell her how I feel, and miraculously, she wants the same thing. We'd skip merrily down the street into la-la-happy-fucking-forever-and-ever land.
I scoff at that scenario as I slow at a light.
We have a name for that in the ER. It's the hallelujah scenario. It's the outcome so wonderfully unexpected in the face of outrageously bad odds that patients and families deem it a miracle.
You can't count on miracles. You can't practice for them. And you certainly can't bet something as critical as a life on them.
When I reach Max's building and wheel up to the lobby door, a heaviness descends upon my bones. There's only one procedure to perform. Josie and I will have to return to the way we were, like we'd planned. We'll remain the best of friends, and these last few weeks will simply be a fun little blip. We'll look back on this time and laugh about the days when we were roomies-with-bennies.
Max strolls out of the lobby, pushing his bike. He lifts his chin. “Hey.”
We ride along our usual route as the sun rises. But I'm off my game. That heaviness has spread through my body. It weighs me down. It slows me. I'm as sluggish as I've ever been.
From several bike-lengths ahead, Max glances back and shouts, “C'mon, man. Catch up.”
It's not an admonishmentâit's an encouragement. My brother knows me. He knows speed is my asset. This morning, though? My legs are lead.
I can't do it.
Max slows and stops. “What's going on?”
I roll up beside him on the path. “Nothing.”
He shakes his head then points to a nearby bench. We wheel over to it, unsnap our helmets, and park our asses, resting our bikes on the grass.
“Something's going on.”
I drop my head into my hands. I can't fucking hold this in a second longer. “I'm in love with Josie, but I can't be.”
For the briefest moment, my body feels light. I said it out loud. I voiced it to another person.
When I raise my face, I half expect my brother to laugh at me. But I know better. That's not Max's style.
“Love sucks.” He exhales heavily and meets my eyes. “Does she feel the same?”
I shrug. “I don't know. But it doesn't matter. She said we need to stop.”
Max holds up his hands in a
. “Whoa. Stop what?”
And so I tell him the CliffsNotes version.
“Chase,” he says with a sigh that contains all the older brother wisdom in the world.
He shakes his head. “She's gonna break your heart, man.”
I snap my gaze to him. “What?” I heard him, I just refuse to believe Josie would do that.
“Look at you. You're a mess. She's going to hurt you. Like thatâ”
I cut him off before he can say “Adele.” I don't feel the need to defend my ex, but I can't bear to have her name breathed near Josie's. “It's not the same.”
“I know, but fuck.” He drags a hand through his hair, heaving a sigh. “I hate seeing you so worked up over a woman.”
“She's not just any woman.”
“I get that.” He stares me down. His dark eyes have always felt like laser beams. “She's your roommate, and your best friend, and your lover, and you want her to be your girlfriend.” He takes a beat and shakes his head as if he's frustrated with the situation. “But she's told you that can't happen, and you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt.”
He's right. Hell, I know he's right. And the dread that floods every corner of my body is the proof of how right he is. But still, some faint hope nags at me. “You sure?”
“Look, there's probably some school of thought that would tell you to man up and let her know how you feel. And hey, maybe you should. Lord knows, I don't have the track record to be any sort of relationship expert.” He scrubs a hand over his jaw. “But, Chase . . . this? This is a precarious house of cards.” He makes a flicking motion with his finger, knocking over the imaginary structure. “I just don't see how you can pull off this trick without everything tumbling down. She's not some nurse you're hot for who works the same shift. She's not a chick you met online, or a babe you hooked up with at a car show.”
I laugh for a second because that last is his weakness, not mine. “I thought you were cutting back on that?”
He makes a scout's honor sign. “I'm on the wagon.” He grips my shoulder. “Anyway, the point is . . . she's Josie,” he says, with an intensity that matches how I feel for her. “You've had a thing for her for about . . . forever. Everyone knew it but you.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Everyone?”
“Dude, it's patently obvious. You flirt with her constantly. Your face lights up when she comes in the room. You smile like an idiot when you talk about her.”
I sneer. “Shut up. I do not.”
“You do, too.”
I scowl, proving just how much I'm not a love-struck fool.
“That's why I don't see how even you can pull this off,” he says. “If anyone can manage balancing acts and feats of strength, it's my little brother. But this isn't just pushing your body to finish a race, or to handle a thirty-six-hour shift without a yawn. This isn't even skipping two grades in school, smarty-pants. This is a fuck-ton harder.”
I draw a deep breath, letting it fill me, letting it fuel me. “So I just shut it down?”
He sighs heavily. “I can't tell you to do that. All I can say is be prepared for a hurricane-size storm if you open it up.”
I sink back on the bench, certain that Max's advice is spot on. Because it aligns with the woman's wishesâJosie made it perfectly clear from the start that we are temporary, and she laid down the law again last night. “What do I do next? How do I just return to being roommates and friends?”
He drapes an arm around me. “You don't.”
I shoot him a look as if he's speaking Swahili. “What?”
“You don't go back. Come stay with me. Take a break before being so close to her drives you crazy. You can move in with her again if you want, but stay with me for a few days, a few weeks, a few monthsâas long as you want. Whatever you need while you get this shit sorted out.”
At first, I want to blow him off. To say “nah, I hardly need that.” But something about his idea gives me a sense of calm I haven't felt in a while. The longer I stay with Josie, the harder it'll be when it ends. And it will end. The clock is winding down.
“Maybe I should,” I say.
He nods. “I don't pretend to have any answers, but I love you, man. I don't want to see you hurt, and right now, I can tell you are.”
I am, and I can't stand feeling this way. I go for my best attempt at humor production. “So, you love me?”
He drops his knuckles to my head and grinds them against my skull. “I do.”
“Like a brother?”
He laughs. “Just like a brother.”
Right now, maybe that's what I need most.
rom the pages
of Josie's Recipe Book
Everything But Raisins Cookies
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup dried cherries
2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup flaked coconut
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans
. Preheat oven
to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheet. Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
. In a large bowl
, mix together butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until smooth. Add in the eggs one at a time, beating gently, because if you don't you'll ruin the eggs, and destroy the recipe, and you'll be left with a gigantic bowl of everything cookie dough disappointment that you can't bake and you can't eat either.
. Stir in vanilla
. Mix in the sifted ingredients until well blended. Carefully. Do it carefully. If you screw this up and stir too long, I swear you'll kill it. Do as I say.
. Using a wooden spoon
, mix in the cherries, oats, coconut, chocolate chips, and pecans. This won't be easy, so put a little muscle into it. It's hard, what you're doing. But it'll be even harder if you don't do this properly.
. Drop cookie
batter onto sheets, placing them two inches apart. Now, don't go crazy and get them too close. If you do, you'll have to ditch the whole batch. You don't want that, do you?
for eight to ten minutes in preheated oven.
. While you wait
, wipe that stupid tear from your cheek. It's better this way. You know that.
have a mind vise
, and I'm not afraid to use it.
Even though I've been bitten by the love bug, I can still depend on my special skillâseparating emotions from actions as if they're whites and darks in the laundry.
Back at the apartment, I zone in on Josie's hair and only on her hair.
Admittedly, the sharp, chemical odor of hair dye helps matters. Hell, maybe I've found the one thing about her that doesn't turn me on. This shit stinks.
Josie is parked on the closed toilet seat in the bathroom, decked out in leggings and a bra, with a towel draped over her shoulders. I stand behind her, painting pink onto the ends of her hair.
“Do you think this is your new calling?” she asks as I wrap a section of her newly pinked hair in tinfoil. “You seem to be a good hairdresser.”
I stop, bend my face near hers, and speak sharply. “If I were you, Miss Josie, I wouldn't be mocking the guy holding a paintbrush full of hair dye.”
“I was just teasing,” she says softly, but with worry in her tone. “You know that, right?”
“Yes. I do. I'm just giving you a hard time,” I tell her, since that's what I have to do to make it through this. Joke, tease, play. Bring us back to who we were before.
“I appreciate you doing this,” she says, tilting her face up at me.
Fuck. Those green eyes. Those pretty lips. She makes it too difficult to give her a hard time when all I want to do is kiss her.
But duty calls, and I paint another strand. “I'm not doing this because I have hairdresser aspirations. I'm doing this for you.”
She moves her arms behind her and wraps them around my thighs. “Thank you.”
Even though all my instincts tell me to drop a kiss on her lips, or whisper something sweet in her ear, I don't listen to them. I ignore them completely and finish her hair.
At some point she lowers her hands and folds them in her lap. Briefly, I wonder if she can feel the tension in the room. If she can sense the shift.
When I'm done, she stands and looks at me. Her eyes are etched with worryâmaybe fear, too. “I have to let it sit for twenty minutes. Do you want to watch another episode of
Bored to Death
I say yes, and we settle in next to each other on the couch.
We started bingeing on this HBO show a few days ago. The first time we watched an episode was Tuesday night, after a wildly hot session under the sheets during which we learned that we're one of those couples that not only loves, but is really fucking good at sixty-nine.
I didn't mean
But, boy, did we rock that position. Neither one of us skipped a beat. I devoured her sweet pussy while she went to town on my cock, and we climaxed within about sixty seconds of each other.
And now I'm aroused while watching Ted Danson. Great. Fucking great. I'm not even touching Josie, she smells like a chemical factory, and yet the mere memory of her coming on my face is enough to get a hell of a rise out of me.
Maybe I need one more time with her.
Yeah, I definitely need a final round. We don't have to sixty-nine for me to be a happy camper. Any position will do.
When the show ends and she clicks off the TV, I offer my services. “Want me to rinse that out?”
Back into the bathroom we go. Josie drops the towel from her shoulders and strips off her leggings. She unhooks the bra, and the white lace falls to the tile floor. I strip off my clothes, too, while she turns on the faucet. As the water heats up, I reach behind her head and undo the tinfoil pieces, balling them up and tossing them in the trash.
Then she tips her head toward the shower.
She doesn't have to say it. But I swear I can hear the words on her lips.
One last time.
Or maybe it's just an echo in my head.
“Ladies first,” I say, and open the shower door for her. She stands under the stream, and I join her in the heat as she lets the water rinse out the color. Pinkish waterfalls slide down her body, over her breasts, down her legs. The dye splashes on the tile floor in a bright fuchsia puddle.
I grab her shampoo, pour some in my hand, and lather up her hair. She sighs happily, like a cat being petted. That's one of the very many things I love about this girl. She welcomes touch. She's amazingly good at giving pleasure, and accepting it, too. Not every woman can bask in the moment and savor someone adoring her body. But Josie can. She opens herself fully to feeling good, to being worshipped as she fucking deserves. And it's maddening how much it turns me on.
I concentrate on the task of washing her hair. Once she's all lathered up, I tip her head back and rinse out the shampoo. When her hair is sleek as a seal's, she raises her head out of the stream.
“There,” I say, and she opens her eyes and loops her arms around my neck.
She lifts her chin and says a soft, “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” I say, trying to keep it light, since I feel anything but.
She runs her finger over my top lip as the hot water beats down. “Did you know I'm on the pill?”
All the air rushes from my lungs. I nod. “I did know that.”
That's the thing about sharing a bathroom and a medicine cabinet. We don't have too many secrets.
“Do you want to do it without protection?”
I groan, and somehow my dick thickens more, practically begging me to get down to business this second.
Josie is killing me. Just fucking killing me. Max was right. I've got to get out of here. I can't be near her. I can't resist her.
Right now, I don't intend to.
I shift her to the wall, push her back against it, and slide my hand between her legs. I stroke her pussy and marvel at the feel. It hits me that she's this turned on simply from me washing her hair.
In some alternate universe I'm the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth, to have a woman who's so wildly aroused.
In this one, I'm just the schmuck about to enjoy his final benefit.
But make no mistake, I'm going to enjoy the ever-loving hell out of it.
I hook her leg around my hip, holding her tight, then rub my dick against her sweet, wet center. A sexy moan falls from her gorgeous mouth, and I slide home.
And I never want to wear a condom again because this is motherfucking heaven. Her heat envelopes me. Her walls clench around my hard-on. Her breath catches, the most desperate sound I've ever heard her make.
Then I fuck her.
In my head, I say that word over and over.
This is fucking. This is fucking. This is fucking.
This isn't making love.
This is just the final screw before I go. I can't care about the way she threads her hands in my hair. I can't linger on the murmurs she makes. And I can't give a second thought ever again to how she clutches me and cries my name when she comes, as if I'm the answer to her every wish.
I won't let myself think about how she sounds just as lost as I am.
Because seconds later, I'm coming, too, and the pleasure blots out the empty ache.
little later I
'm dried off and dressed. I zip up my backpack, which contains a few changes of clothes. Footsteps sound behind me, then a question.
“What are you doing?”
I turn around, take a breath, and rip off the Band-Aid like I promised I'd do. “I'm going to stay with Max.”
Her jaw drops. “What?”
I nod. “Just for a little while.”
“Why?” Her brow furrows as her voice wobbles. She stands in my doorway, dressed in jeans and a cute green blouse. Her hair is blown dry, and the ends are bright pink now.
I step closer. “I think the cake is baked now, baby,” I say softly, remembering I have to do this. “It'll be easier this way.”
“You're just leaving?”
“I'll be back. I promise.” Though, right now I don't know how to be near her when I want her this badly. “We always knew we had to stop. I can't stop when I'm living in the same six hundred square feet as you. It feels like we're playing house.”
She bites her lip as if she's holding in all her sadness. “You think we're just playing house?”
I glance around and wave at the walls, frustration building inside me, mixed with hurt. “We can't just go on like this,” I say. Then I can't help it. I'm done. I just can't hold it in anymore. I unleash my heart. “I wake up next to you, and I want to touch you. I watch TV with you, and I can't stop kissing you. Hell, I dye your hair and we wind up naked in the shower. I can't just cut this off like it's a growth and go back to watching
Bored to Death
without wanting to make love to you,” I say, then wince because I've made my great mistake.
I swallow nervously, but stand my ground.
Her eyes pin me, and she says nothing for a moment that lasts too long. When she speaks, her tone is soft and tender. “Was that what it was for you?”
I won't go first. “You tell me.” My voice is gravelly. Broken.
She crosses her arms. She doesn't answer me. Instead, she purses her lips then speaks softly. “I don't want you to leave.”
I reach for her elbow, desperation spiraling in me. But I'm not even sure what I'm fighting forâfor her to see what we could become, or for her to let me go. “You want to stay friends, don't you?”
She nods. “You know I do.”
I grip her arm tighter. “And you said this had to end. Josie, it's too hard for me to be here right now. You've got to understand.”
A tear slides down her cheek. Then one trickles over the other. More fall, like a summer rain shower. She swipes at her cheeks, but she's fighting an uphill battle.
I'm torn between wanting to pull her in my arms and comfort her and needing to protect myself. But there's something else at play, too. Morbid curiosity. That wins. “Josie,” I say, and she draws a sharp inhale and looks up. “Was it that way for you?”
She parts her lips, but no answer comes because a loud rap of knuckles reverberates through the apartment.
“Did you order lunch or something?” I ask.
She shakes her head and turns on her heel, heading for the door. “The doorman called a few minutes ago. He had to take care of something on our floor so he offered to bring up the package.”
The knocking continues. “Ah, your rolling pin.”
“Probably.” Her voice is empty.
She peers through the peephole then nods at me. She unlocks and opens the door. A short, stout man in a green blazer stands at the threshold. The day doorman.
“Ms. Hammer, this is for you,” he says, then hands her a white envelope. The legal size.
She regards it curiously. “What is this?”
“I signed for it yesterday. It's a certified letter.”
He turns to go, and she lets the door fall closed. She looks at me then at the envelope. I shrug and gesture to the item in her hand.
She takes out a sheet of paper and reads.
After a minute, she blinks and meets my eyes. “It's from the landlord.” Her voice is a barren whisper.
“What did he say?”
“Mr. Barnes needs the apartment for his niece,” she says heavily, then shakes her head like she can't believe the hand she was just dealt. “We have to be out in a month. We're losing our home.”
Looks like our days of playing house truly are over.