*This should be read after Credence. This scene takes place before the epilogue, when Tiernan goes off to college.
Anyone is free to translate and repost this.
Tiernan’s birthday is coming up. She suggested a leash to go with the belt I got her last year, but we’ve barely even used that. I like her to use her hands.
Maybe I’d like her to use the belt with me instead. She’s getting pretty bold.
And I’m addicted to it.
I roll my neck under the hot spray of the shower, my lids heavy. The lights are off in the bathroom, but a little morning sun spills through the window.
It’s early. I wish I could sleep in.
I still can’t. I still get up before dawn as if we’re on the peak and I have to go hunting for our food. I’d be in the woods right now if I were home. Taking advantage of the last of the decent weather to hunt for fresh meat.
I inhale, my chest starting to shake. I don’t want the day to start.
I miss trees. The forest.
Rooms with no walls.
It doesn’t rain correctly here. Just a constant mist in the air. Daily drizzles. No thunder. No lightning. Everything’s just always fucking wet. We’ve been here for almost three months and I’ve spent most of it indoors. If she’s not with me, I leave the apartment for work and that’s it. I have no interest in being reminded that I’m not on the peak.
Hands slide up my spine and over my shoulders and I drop my head back, leaning into Tiernan’s body. I didn’t hear her come in, but we never close doors.
Her breasts press into my back as she lays her head against my shoulder blade. “I can’t keep this up,” she tells me.
I open my eyes, every muscle tensing.
“I need sleep.” A tease lightens her tone as she comes to my front and slides her arms around my neck. “School is interfering with my love life.”
I exhale, relaxing. I thought she meant something else for a second.
But even though she’s joking, her statement is absolutely true. School takes a lot of her time. We’re not together often, and we still have three and a half years of this.
She arches up on her tiptoes and I take her ass in my hands, hauling her into me as I dive into her mouth. The shower courses over her back and hair, but nothing is ever warmer than her mouth. I move my hands up her back, curling my fingers into her skin and fisting locks of her hair.
And for a few seconds, we’re back at the cabin. Silence. Wind.
Where she was never away from me.
I miss home.
“I just…” she gasps as I go at her neck. “I just can’t stay away from you for a full night’s sleep.”
I miss disappearing with her in a million little places.
“I have so many needs,” she taunts.
I miss having her any time I want. I miss us not being subject to anyone else’s rules but our own.
I kiss her, feeling blood rush down low as I take her head in my hand and press her into the wall.
But she stops me, pulling back.
I breathe hard, staring into her eyes.
“Why aren’t you talking?” she demands, her brow furrowed.
“Because you’re not really complaining,” I finally say, nibbling her lips. “You want me to start saying no? Resisting you when you straddle me in the middle of the night or do that thing where you simultaneously stroke me, bite my neck, and get naked?”
She’s got skills.
She grins, but then the smile starts to dissipate as her eyes hold mine. “Don’t ever say no to me.”
A buzz lights under my skin. And what would she do if I did? I might like to see that.
She wets her hair and I start washing, stealing glances at her once in a while. She’s a lot more confident than when we met. She knew how to fight back and how to mouth off, but I’m loving how she climbs on me like she owns me.
She’s happy. Adventurous. Thriving.
She loves our life in Seattle.
She’s the only thing I love in Seattle.
She kisses me again, long and deep, but when she pulls back, I don’t let go. I know she has to leave. She always has to run off somewhere.
“What?” she asks as I gaze down at her.
My lips are parted, but I can’t say what I want to say. She won’t thrive on the peak. Not yet.
I shake my head, giving her a half-smile. “Nothing.”
She looks at me for a couple of more seconds, but I step away before she can ask more questions. Stepping out of shower, I grab my towel and dry off.
“I’ll be back about seven,” she says, turning off the water and sliding the shower curtain open. “Maybe eight. Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
I look over my shoulder, sucking in a shallow breath at the sight of her naked as she squeezes water from her hair. “With you, yes,” I say. “Not with them.”
Her study group tests me. One is a serious partyer who loves clubs. I hate clubs. And the other three are pretentious. They drink IPAs and wear collared shirts and ride Pelatons.
When Tiernan mentioned they were all going to an axe-throwing bar one night, I told her we should go.
Now the guys know. I never miss.
“You’ve got to get going, too,” she tells me, popping up on her tiptoes to kiss me. “I love you.”
I circle her waist one more time. “I love you, too.”
She smiles like she did when I first spoke last summer. She does that every so often as she drops her eyes to my mouth as if it’s still amazing to hear my voice.
I don’t really dislike her study group. I just don’t want to talk to them.
Most conversation with people you’re not close to is useless. There are a million other things I’d rather be doing.
I slap her lightly on the ass. “Go.”
She grins wider and kisses me one more time. Within ten minutes, she’s dressed, brushed her wet hair, slapped on a baseball cap, and is rushing out the door with her backpack.
I pull on some jeans as I hear a siren go off down on the street, even from four flights up. My job is a block away. A shithole auto shop without any trees around it. I can walk there, but I usually drive to miss out on the spectacularly rotten view around me as quickly as possible. The owner doesn’t talk to me much, though. It’s a perk.
I look at the clock on Tiernan’s nightstand. I’m supposed to be there in ten minutes.
I can’t make my feet move. Not out the door anyway.
Swiping my phone off the bed, I sit and hesitate a moment.
I never call him. We text.
But my chest swells and I bow my head, rubbing the back of my neck.
I dial and my dad picks up on the first ring. “Hey,” he says, sounding like his first cup of coffee has kicked in and he’s already been outside this morning. He’s an hour ahead of me, but he would’ve been up early anyway.
I smile a little, picturing him in the kitchen, pouring a second cup before he heads into the garage. The lights will be low in the room. He likes it dark in the mornings.
It takes a minute, but I finally get the word out. “Hey…”
I don’t know what to say next. I know why I called, but I can’t say it out loud.
“How is…everything?” I ask him.
“Well, we got an early snow.” I hear him draw in a breath and then sigh. “A little too early. I didn’t have time to get to town for all the feed and shit.”
It’s almost November. He should be prepared by now. He knows better than us that we can get snowed in anytime.
“Been out on the Cat since four a.m., plowing snow,” he gripes. “Lost electricity, and the generator was out of fuel.”
“The gas cans are full.”
“Well, they’re not,” he retorts.
“They were full when I left.”
“You know…” he bites out. “It ain’t easy doing everything myself now.”
And despite the fact that he’s mad, I breathe out a laugh. That is true. I didn’t think about it. He uses fuel for the trucks, the bikes, the tractor, the generators, and he always puts the cans back, because it was Noah’s job to refill them.
He’s not having an easy time, without us, and I kind of like knowing that.
“You got enough wood, right?” I ask him.
“Yeah. You always overcut.”
It was a good job for me. It worked off energy. Anger.
I squeeze the phone, a light rain tapping against our bedroom window that I might like if I knew it was going to last more than five minutes.
He sits there, and I sit there, and I don’t know what else to talk about. I don’t want to hang up. Something slaps repeatedly in the background, and it takes a minute to realize it’s the shutter outside the living room window. It always had a funny way of coming loose. It’s windy there. I love windy mornings.
I clear my throat. “Horses okay?”
I nod, searching my brain. “The snow will melt,” I tell him. “Get to town then.”
It’s still early in the season. It won’t stick.
I hear him sip his coffee, waiting.
“How’s the…um,” I shake my head absently. Fuck. “Yeah, those engines. From Shelburne Falls? They came in on time?”
“How’s Tiernan?” he asks instead.
Why is he asking me about her? I know how to take care or her.
“She’s fine,” I say.
I rise, pacing the room. He doesn’t need to worry about her. She’s not his to worry about.
“And work?” he asks. “How’s work?”
He knows something is up.
I run my hand through my hair, opening my mouth to tell him. Wanting to tell him.
“I remembered…” I blurt out. “I left my tools in the barn. Some are yours. You should go dig them up, in case you need them.”
I stop between the dresser and the bed. My eyes burn, and I blink, breathing harder.
“You’re unhappy there, aren’t you?” he says, telling himself what I couldn’t say.
I shouldn’t be unhappy, but I fucking hate it here. I can’t tell her.
“Are you going to tell me I can come home?” I nearly whisper.
I know I don’t even have to ask. It’s my house, too. I helped build it and everything else up there.
But then he says, “No. You’d just be coming home to hide.”
I clench my jaw.
“When you come home,” he tells me, “it’ll be with her and because you’re ready.”
I don’t want to leave her, but I don’t fit here. She’ll know. Eventually, I won’t fit her life either. It’s only a matter of time.
“I miss the peak.” I drop my head, biting my tongue to keep my chin from shaking. “There are too many people here. Too much stuff. Noise. Too much fucking talking. I’m alone all the time. She’s busy.” I let it out all out, slowly feeling the strain in my chest get tighter, because I have more to say than I thought I did. “I could be alone before I knew her. Now, I can’t… I miss looking around me and finding her at any time of the day. In the house. In the stable. In the shop. Working on her furniture. I don’t… I don’t…”
My brother is comfortable anywhere. He always was.
I never was. I don’t want to be anywhere but the peak.
“Oh, Kaleb,” my dad says. “I taught you and Noah how to survive. How to hunt, keep warm, build shelter… But the biggest struggles we will ever have are the ones in our head and the hardest survival skill to learn is the ability to adapt.”
I’ve tried adapting. It’s been months.
“You got too used to not having to deal with people, Kaleb. Try. You won’t be happy here without her anyway.”
I shake my head. I don’t want to be here. Not today. Not tomorrow. I could just take her. I can’t stay here, and she’s not staying without me. She—
I stop, knowing I’m lying to myself. She’ll be miserable if I take her home.
“Go to the woods,” he says. “Today.”
“I have work,” I say.
But he tells me, “Quit. You’re not going back there. You’ve simply been passing the time, waiting for her to graduate, and you won’t survive four years of that. Find your life there.”
I turn his words over in my head.
I don’t actually need the job. I never spent money at home, so I have a lot saved. The job was to keep busy and to contribute, even though she has a hundred times what I do in the bank. I don’t think another job will help, but I do know the one I have isn’t it doing me any good.
“You need air and you need perspective, so walk. Layer up, grab some water, and go to the forest,” he orders. “You certainly have plenty of them in that state. She needs to stay in school, and you’re not going to leave. Find a way to live.”
I close my eyes, hating that he’s right. I hate the hard way.
But I immediately feel some of the weight leave my shoulders, remembering how much I loved getting lost. He’s right.
He’s always right.
“Can you…put the phone outside for a while?” I ask him. “On the deck?”
I just want to hear home.
“Okay,” he says, and the next thing I know I’m in Colorado, outside the cabin, and listening to the trees creak in the wind.
I lean back into the wall and close my eyes.
I’m on the road for an hour.
I grabbed a pack like he told me to. Water, jacket, emergency supplies, but the first trailhead has too many tourists—for the fall foliage probably.
The second was nice and empty.
But it was then that I realized that I don’t hike.
I climb mountains and hills back home, but it’s in order to hunt. To go swimming at the waterfall. To get to the fishing cabin. Why do I want to go walking just to turn around and come back with nothing? It’s stupid.
I don’t need trees. I thought I did.
Swerving to the right, I hit gravel and swing the wheel around, pulling a U-turn in the middle of the empty highway.
“What the fuck?” I growl under my breath, because I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, and that’s the problem. I’m not doing anything. I have nothing to do. Except my girlfriend.
Racing back into the city, I park in a garage near the Montlake Cut, put in my earbuds, and just start fucking walking. I love the peak, because it’s familiar, but I’d hate being there without her.
I don’t like it here, simply because it’s not home. But it is now. She’s here.
Zipping up my waterproof, black jacket, I leave my hood down and stroll in the light rain as I listen to music. Not because I want to, but because people won’t talk to me if they think I can’t hear them.
I walk along the canal linking the Puget Sound to Lake Washington, sliding my hands in my jeans pockets as I step onto the Montlake Bridge. Crews row past, their coxswains shouting to push them harder, and I bow my head, digging in my heels to walk faster.
But then I slow again, forcing myself to look up. I don’t have anywhere to be. Just fucking look around. Slow down. Look.
Glancing over the edge of the bridge, I take in the view. The midnight blue water ripples with rain and the wake of the racing shells slicing through the surface. Orange, red, and yellow trees surround the area on the banks to the left and right. Clouds hover overhead, and it’s kind of nice.
This one spot of Seattle isn’t so bad.
I keep walking, past the split across the middle of the road, realizing it’s a drawbridge, and I head off the walkway and past the Gothic-style control towers at the end. It’s an interesting design.
I’ll admit…the architecture in Chapel Peak could be better. Except for the cabin, of course. I don’t want that changed.
Joggers pass by, cars exit the bridge, and a nice chill seeps through my jacket. Octobers here aren’t much different. Maybe not as cold, but they’re colorful. Unlike her home in California. I’m glad she didn’t want to stay there. It could’ve been a lot worse, I guess.
I walk across the street, smelling coffee somewhere, and then cross another lane, seeing grass and a park surrounded by several buildings. Lots of walkers. People with backpacks. A college maybe.
I look around. The buildings are all the same, with buttresses and brick, and there’s a fountain ahead of me.
It’s the university. Not Tiernan’s school, though. This is bigger. I only hesitate a moment before I keep going, strolling down another lane and then another. People rush, diving through doors to get to classes, and I inhale the smell of grass everywhere. Trees with purple leaves sway in the breeze and there’s green everywhere. The wide lawns. The conifers. Buildings three and four stories high rise up, but they don’t feel like city buildings. Not cold or intimidating. I can’t see Seattle beyond them. They feel like home. Like a small town right here in the middle of a city.
“Hi,” a voice chirps through my music.
I look down, tapping my right earbud to stop the music as I stare at a tiny blonde in a white crop top and jean shorts. Jean shorts in October.
She’s got to be half a foot shorter than Tiernan.
“Hold this for me?” She hands me her jacket, and I guess I take it. “Thanks!” she says.
She swipes her card, and I take notice of the food stand I didn’t realize I’d stopped next to as she puts her wallet away and then tears the cover off a plastic package of something. I stand there with her fucking coat as she scoops out something that looks like a little biscuit and sinks her teeth into it, closing her eyes.
“God, that’s so good,” she sighs, then holds the package out to me. “Want one?”
I dig in my eyebrows, handing her the jacket. “No.”
“Take it now,” she demands. “Everyone tries to be too nice. Just say yes.”
She shakes it front of my nose, and I see it’s one of those egg bite things Tiernan loves. “I don’t…want it,” I bite out.
She may look like she still has slumber parties, but I will hurt her feelings if she asks for it. I don’t like being uncomfortable.
Her eyebrow arches, but she lowers her arm, giving up.
She still hasn’t taken her jacket. I hang it on a bolt sticking out of the arm that holds up the awning over our heads. Veering around her, I pull out my wallet. “Black coffee,” I tell the kid behind the counter.
The girl stays next to me, and I feel her eyes travel down to my boots and back up again. “You don’t look like a student.”
The cashier hands me the coffee with a lid, and I hand him money.
“Are you a teacher?” she asks.
“What class?” the bubblehead presses.
I shoot her a look, and her eyebrows dart up again. “Okayyyy,” she goes on, seeing I’m pissed. “Not a student. Not a teacher.” And then she adds, “Not a talker.”
The kid hands me change, and I wave him off and start to walk away.
“It’s not like I want you or anything,” the college girl says behind me. “I wasn’t flirting. I have a boyfriend!”
“A few, actually.”
Uh huh. I keep walking.
“I have my hands full, is the point!” she shouts.
“Fuckin’ people…” I say under my breath, getting as far away from her as I can.
I peel off my lid and move to throw it in a trach can, but when I look up, I stop. A cathedral sits ahead, and for a minute, I stare.
Little purple flags fly outside the entrance and there are a ton of people coming and going. I’ve never seen a church get so much traffic.
I’ve never been to church, though.
I dump the coffee and the lid, heading toward the entrance.
But as soon as I step inside, I see…
It’s not a cathedral at all.
I look around a huge room with tables and lamps, stained-glass windows and high ceilings, and the only sounds are chairs and books dropping on top of tables.
It’s a library.
I gaze around, unable to blink as I take in the expanse of stacks and people quietly consumed in their own worlds. Wood gleams everywhere as I drift into a large reading room, seeing a couple dozen gothic chandeliers hanging from long chains in two rows down the length. Arches rise high overhead, the room surrounded by cathedral-style windows and the walls lined with shelves of books.
This is a library?
I haven’t been in many. School, of course. The public library in Chapel Peak doesn’t look like this, though. I usually just order collections of used books on eBay. I like reading. I can have relationships with people without any consequences, because they aren’t real. And I could talk. I could be one of the characters and say things when I wouldn’t speak anywhere else.
But reading isn’t something I do in front of other people. Since moving here, I hadn’t done it at all, in fact.
Pulling out my earbuds, I stuff them in my pocket and start to wander, listening to the quiet. I’ve never been somewhere with this many people and there’s no shouting or horns honking.
Or motorbikes buzzing around.
I walk past hand-painted globes, up the grand staircase, drifting past statues and artifacts, slowly finding my way up and down lanes of books. And more and more—a maze of stacks, towers of hardbacks and paperbacks.
Someone coughs nearby. An echo of a chair being pushed in rises in the air.
And I pick a book off a shelf. Just like in my room at home.
Walking with it, I swipe a pen off a table where someone has temporarily left their schoolwork splayed unattended and slip down another row.
I open the book to the flyleaf like I used to do and write inside.
I like it here.
I laugh at myself, kind of feeling stupid.
But for the first time in a long time, I feel like myself again.
Circling back around to the row where I got the book, I close it up and put it back, continuing to wander. I let my eyes skim over the books as I stroll down one row to another. No one talks to me. I like it. I miss it sometimes. There are other ways to communicate that mean more than talking.
I open another book, the plastic cover crackling in my fist.
I don’t remember what she looks like or the color of her hair or the sound of her voice, but I remember him. The shaking in his muscles as he crushed me in his arms and buried me in his chest and wouldn’t let anyone touch me until he got me to the hospital.
My dad will always be eight feet tall.
I barely remember my mother, and nothing my father ever said helped while I was growing up.
His arms did, though. I knew he loved me. People will forget what we do and they forget what we say, but they never forget how we make them feel.
I continue on, opening another book.
Call me. 970-555-9012.
I smile, closing the book that I just wrote Noah’s phone number in.
And I keep going, enjoying my own company more than I have in weeks.
The planet is dying. We’re dying. Everything is dying. What’s the point of all of this? Are we really alone? Am I making the most of it? Where did all of this come from? And where did that place come from? Can I wear jeans to this? Should I hit him? Should I have kicked him? Is she gonna yell at me if I say that? Should I order the steak or the pulled pork? Do I bend her over the couch or make love to her on the carpet? Do I need a shower? Is she gonna have sex with me if I don’t?
Everything is existential.
I close and restack the book, opening another.
Definitely the couch, I write.
I keep walking, heat coursing through my veins at how easily she can get my attention. All she has to do is drop down in my lap in panties and a tank top and pull my arms around her as she leans back into my chest. In three seconds, I’m hard and can’t remember whatever I was watching on TV.
I take another book off the shelf.
She always knew how to talk to me.
She pushed and pulled and was patient and put up with so much she shouldn’t have. She was right to leave me last April.
But there’s a version of me that does deserve her. I need to fucking find him.
I’m here, and I have everything, I write in one final book.
Well, maybe not the absolute final book, but the last one for today. I glance around, certain they have to have cameras somewhere, but I don’t readily see any. Tiernan would scold me for writing in books that aren’t my property and the police would probably call it graffiti, but it used to be the way I talked without anyone hearing me. Now, I think I like the idea of people seeing the words.
And not knowing where they came from.
I start to leave, but I look up and see the girl from the food stand outside. She leans against the stacks ahead, another girl reaching up to grab a book opposite of her. The blonde I spoke to outside cocks her head, watching the other one while her back is turned, the blonde’s eyes drifting down her legs and back up to her ass.
It’s how I look at Tiernan.
The taller one turns and hands her books before returning to the stack to grab more. She has dark hair, styled in two French braids, and wears athletic clothes. Skintight black leggings and a long-sleeved black shirt. She looks a couple of years older than the blonde.
The bubblehead can’t take her eyes off of her.
The brunette carries her books away and I walk down the row, the blonde starting to follow her but sees me and stops.
“A boyfriend?” I say, continuing to walk as she sidles up to my side.
“I have one, yes,” she explains. “But he has a friend…”
She cuts me off, turning and facing me so I can’t get through.
“And he has a friend and that friend has a girlfriend…” She looks over her shoulder, and I follow her gaze to a table with the brunette and two guys, who I assume are their boyfriends.
The blonde turns with a gleam in her eyes. “And I really, really, won’t mind it when they go off early to fish this weekend and leave her in the tent with me.” She grins wide. “She’s such a prude. I like prudes.”
She starts to back away, holding her books. “Sticking around, professor?” she asks. “This could be fun to watch.”
“I’m not a teacher.”
“Too late,” she sing-songs. “I already decided.”
I watch her return to her group, bouncing once on her toes and smiling at the other young woman who looks down at the blonde like she’s a mosquito.
I start for the circulation desk. I’m sure I’ll be back, but I doubt I’ll see the rest of that play out.
“Excuse me,” I say to the clerk, who rolls her chair over to the printer. “Do you have to be a student to use the library?”
I could grab some reading material while I’m here.
But the counter full of books behind her topples to the floor as people stack more on top, and I watch her spine go steel-rod straight as she bares her teeth.
“Want a job instead?” she growls, flicking her tongue piercing through her teeth. “You can have mine.”
I peer over the back of the couch as I sit with my cup of coffee.
Kaleb closes the closet door and hurries out of our bedroom, pulling his T-shirt over his head. I skim my eyes over his abs before he covers himself. I can’t not look. Like ever.
I rest back against the arm of the couch before he sees me watching him and listen to the rain outside. It taps against the three floor-to-ceiling picture windows in our warehouse apartment. Exposed brick covers the walls as shadows of the water dance over them. The cloudy Saturday morning is quiet. I really love it here.
I mean, I loved it on the peak, too, but I’m glad we didn’t stay in California. I need weather.
Kaleb pulls on a hoodie, grabs his keys, and comes up behind me. Wrapping his hand around my neck, he gently pulls my head back and dives down for a kiss.
I swallow. “How’s the job?”
I hate his new job.
“Just good?” I ask, looking up at him. “You got home later than me last night.”
“I told you I was on second shift.” He bites my lips, sending tingles down my legs, but thankfully I have a blanket covering them, so he can’t see. “Remember?” he says.
Yeah, I remember.
I don’t hate his new job. But something’s different, and it definitely doesn’t feel good.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
I realize I haven’t answered him out loud. I lift my head back up. “Nothing. You seem happier. It’s good to see.”
He chuckles, walking toward the door. “I never thought I’d work in a fucking library, but it’s better than that auto shop.”
He shoots me an amused look. “Why do you sound surprised?”
“No reason.” I sip my coffee. “Are you going in already? I thought your shift didn’t start until noon.”
He slips his wallet into his back pocket. “They have someone coming in…” He glances at me. “What do you call them? The people who preserve antique documents?”
“An archivist?” I reply.
What the fuck…
“Yeah.” He nods. “I wanted to watch her process. Sounded interesting, so I switched with someone else. You have your study group today, right?”
Why the hell would he want to watch that? That’s not like him at all.
“Yeah,” I quickly answer. “I’ll be home by four. You hungry for anything tonight?”
He grabs the door handle, turning a grin on me as he looks over his shoulder. “You know what I like to eat.”
I suck in a breath, my ovaries exploding.
Laughter fills his green eyes and I hide my blush behind my coffee cup.
He leaves and in a moment, I hear the stairwell door open and close, because he always takes the stairs even though we have an elevator in our building.
I wait another minute and then set my coffee down and dial Noah.
The phone rings once, twice, and then three times, and I panic, ending the call. I can’t do that. Kaleb would be angry if I talk to Noah about us. I need to talk to Kaleb.
I mean it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine. I’m being insecure. I’m—
My phone rings in my hand, and I jump. “Shit.”
I read Noah’s name on the screen.
Son of a bitch.
I’m tempted to ignore him, but he knows I’m here. I just called.
I swipe the screen and hold the phone to my ear.
“Why’d you hang up?” he grumbles, sounding sleepy.
“Nothing. It was a mistake.”
We share a short silence, and it takes me too long to realize I’m still there, not ending the call.
“Dude…” he says. “It’s way too early to jerk me around. You woke me up, so spill.”
I pull my phone away from my ear, checking the time before holding it to my ear again. “It’s almost ten a.m. your time. If I’m up, you should be up.”
I’m two hours behind him.
“My obligations are later at night,” he retorts.
“I mean, motocross, dumbass,” he spits out, and I hear him grunt like he’s sitting up. “Events, races, schmoozing…”
“Whatever…” I fold my arm under the other one, trying to sound playfully combative, because that’s what Noah and I do, but it actually feels good to hear his voice. “It’s amazing how quickly someone who used to get up before dawn can break old habits in the blink of an eye,” I tease.
Kind of. I wish Kaleb stayed in bed on Saturday mornings now.
“So, what’s wrong?” Noah asks.
I draw in a breath. I don’t know what kind of assurances I think I’m going to get from Noah, but I don’t have anyone else to talk to. Other than Jake, Noah’s the only person who loves both Kaleb and me.
“I shouldn’t be talking to you about this,” I say in a low voice, like my boyfriend is still in the apartment. “But Kaleb’s acting weird.”
There’s a short pause and then a snort.
“I’m sorry.” He starts laughing uncontrollably. “It’s just so funny. He was that much of a raging psycho, you’re actually alarmed when he’s pleasant.”
“He was never a psycho.”
“Oh, you don’t have to defend him,” Noah replies. “He’s my brother. I loved him first.”
I sigh, throwing off the blanket and standing up. “Look, he wouldn’t want me telling you this, so keep your mouth shut, okay? He took a new job at the university library.”
“Is that a bar?”
“What?” I blurt out. “No. A library.”
“Is that some weird name for a mechanic’s shop?”
A fucking library! Jesus.
I hear a gasp. “Oh my God. Are you serious?” he asks.
“See what I’m telling you?” I cry. “It’s weird, right?”
Tears fill my eyes but only because I’m worked up. He confirmed that it’s weird, and I’m not sure if I feel better that I’m not imagining things or worse because he agrees with me.
“I’m trying to be cool about it,” I tell him. “He seems to have found something for himself. He hasn’t been that happy since coming here, and I wanted to let him settle in without hovering, but… I know he misses home.”
I knew when we moved in here that he was uncomfortable. It was awful, leaving for classes my first day. Going in a different direction than him. Not working together or eating every meal together like we used to. I was the only thing he had here.
“I avoided talking about it, because I hoped he’d acclimate, but I was also afraid that he’d work up the courage to tell me he wanted to leave. With or without me.”
I know he loves me, but that’s not enough. He hated it here and I should’ve acknowledged it. I just didn’t want to face it.
“But one day, a few weeks ago, he finally came home,” I explain. “He said he took a new job, and he’s been happy.”
“But he works with a lot of women,” Noah says.
I exhale, the weight finally off my shoulders. Yes. Thank you, Noah. I’m grateful I don’t need to say everything. He just gets it.
“Yeah,” I whisper.
“And it’s a university, which means he’s around a lot of young women.”
“I see now.”
I know there’s nothing to worry about. I know it.
I trust him.
But then again, I don’t trust anyone one hundred percent. I don’t trust that he won’t change. I don’t trust that he won’t expand his horizons and meet people who suit his new interests more. I know I was meeting people who had nothing to do with him when I started school, so maybe this was how he felt.
“And it’s a university I don’t go to,” I go on. “So, I have no excuse to be there.”
“And you want to go check it out.”
But I don’t say that out loud. It’s insane. Kaleb never showed up in my classes or when I met with my study group.
“Why do you think Kaleb was unhappy before?” Noah asks.
“He was homesick.”
But Noah replies, “No.”
He says it like he was asking me a test question, and I got the wrong answer.
“He was miserable in Chapel Peak, too; before you came,” he tells me. “It had nothing to do with missing home. He was unhappy, because he was probably intimidated. Here you are, no longer the meek, little mouse with no friends and no family who came to Colorado and he got to be everything to you for six months. He got to be your whole world. Now you have a city, the money to go and do anything you want, and goals that don’t include him. He was scared you were going to really see him and see how little he had to offer. He can’t compete outside of the peak.”
“I would’ve followed him anywhere.”
“And he would never allow you to do that,” he says. “He loves you too much.”
My heart beats harder, warmth filling my chest.
“Go to the library,” Noah says. “Spy on him like a psycho girlfriend, and if he catches you, tell him the truth. He’ll probably like hearing you’re afraid of losing him.”
Or he’ll think I’m being overbearing. His life doesn’t revolve around me. Our move here doesn’t have to be all about me.
I chew on the corner of my mouth for a second before asking, “And if he is with someone?”
“Then fly to me,” Noah replies quickly. “We’ll watch porn and masturbate.”
“Ugh, fuck…” I grumble, dropping my head back.
He fills my ear with laughter and hangs up.
“Hey,” I call out, spotting Ashleigh Han outside Suzzallo Library. “Thanks for meeting me.”
“No problem.” She rises up from the stone steps, lifting her bag. “What made you want to work here?”
“Who cares?” someone replies before I can answer. I look over as Josh Biardi, Nick Lunger, and Eric Chung walk up, the latter carrying a tray of coffees. “The architecture is amazing,” Josh goes on. “Why haven’t we been here before?”
I relax a little.
I thought they might be in a bad mood about me switching locations at the last minute, but we’re design students. We love aesthetic and this place has that and more. I looked it up online when Kaleb got the job here.
I gaze up at the buttresses, but my heart is pulling me through the doors instead. Kaleb is in there somewhere.
We drift inside, and I lead them, but I have no idea where I’m going. I haven’t been in here, but Kaleb did mention there were multiple floors of books and lots of study spaces.
While the outside is composed of terra cotta, sandstone, and brick, I didn’t expect the inside would be so much of the same. Like a castle. We stroll past a grand staircase, into a massive room that looks like the nave of a cathedral; but instead of pews, there are rows of tables, chairs, and chandeliers. People read, students take books from the oak stacks lining the walls, and lamplight reflects off peoples’ glasses as they hover over their work.
“I wouldn’t mind meeting here every time,” Nick says.
Followed by Eric, “But this is farther away. That would involve you waking up earlier, and we know you don’t do that.”
I float my gaze around the room, slowly, so it doesn’t look like I’m searching for him.
“Like I can get to sleep at a decent time,” Eric mumbles. “With your snoring.”
Some students read, while others do homework. Some walk to the Help Desk and some move past us, up the staircase. More than half are women. Around my age.
“Three words,” Nick tells Eric. “Noise-cancelling headphones.”
“I can’t sleep with those on.”
I lead them up the stairs, because we’re going to get kicked out if they keep arguing.
Plus, it doesn’t look like Kaleb’s down here.
We find our way to the third floor, claim a small area, and dump our bags on the table.
“Okay, so I booked the studio,” Josh tells us. “Unless one of you has space to keep the project.”
“But then we’d have to work at someone’s house, and I don’t think so,” Ashleigh says.
“Yeah, no,” I tell him, as well. “Sorry. I don’t want that mess at my house.”
We’re supposed to design and construct a model. We need somewhere we can make a mess.
“I get it.” He holds up his hands. “I’ll pay for the studio rental. You both get the supplies.” He gestures to Eric and Nick before turning his attention on me. “And you. What are you doing again?”
“Snacks,” I say.
“Healthy and junk,” Ashleigh commands. “None of that guilt-free shit.”
I nod in agreement, but the hair on my arms is standing straight up. He’s around somewhere. He may already see me. My heart pounds in my ears.
I put my hands on my hips. “I’ll be back,” I say, feeling out of breath.
They get busy spreading out notebooks and packets of research, Eric doling out our coffee, and they probably think I’m going to look for a bathroom, but I stop at the Help Desk instead.
“Hi,” I chirp.
A young woman with two piercings in her eyebrow and one in her nose taps her fingers rapidly over a keyboard. Her yellow hair is pinned on top of her head, the ends sticking up in little spikes here and there. I glance at her sleeveless Black Flag T-shirt.
“Is Kaleb Van der Berg still working?” I ask her.
Her eyes flare out, annoyed. “Yessss. I’ll tell him you inquired.”
Inquired? She doesn’t know me. How would she know who to tell him stopped by?
She inhales, stops typing, and looks up at me. “Look, you can write your number down,” she tells me, her tongue piercing glinting in the light. “And after you leave, I’ll put it in the garbage like all the others, or you can just go find him and give it to him yourself.”
…like all the others.
What the hell does that mean?
She didn’t even ask why I wanted to see him. Just assumed. Like it was a given why I was here.
Spinning around, I start searching for him, moving around the entire second floor and up to the third and the fourth. Son of a bitch.
My group will get started without me.
I go up and down aisles of books, past study areas and offices, and descend back to the ground floor, slipping my fingers into the pockets of my mini skirt to hide my fists that I can’t seem to uncurl.
No wonder he loves coming here. He gets to rule the roost again. It’s a fucking buffet of women who, like me, are too young to know better.
I wander into the Allen Library addition and up the stairs. I don’t see him anymore.
He’s got to be in an office. Or a private study space. With someone.
I inhale, my chest shaking. I won’t find him if he’s locked away somewhere. I…
There he is.
I stop, immediately diving behind a stack and peering around the corner.
My stomach coils and a light sweat breaks out over my forehead.
A young woman, looking like Miss Teen Alabama, jumps up and down in front of him, trying to snatch something out of his hand that he moves from one to the other to keep out of her reach.
He smiles, shaking his head and trying to shelve a book, while she bounces left and then right, trying to grab at his hands.
Her petite body brushes against his as she plays, her tan tummy bare in her crop top and long blonde hair streaked with lowlights. Once in a while I catch sight of her face, her stunning smile and full pink lips. Golden skin and bright eyes.
She looks like a Pretty Little Liar.
Finally, she catches his hand and pries it open, taking something small out of it.
She holds up a key on a chain, doing an excited little dance before wrapping her arms around him and kissing his cheek.
Tears fill my eyes. You son of a bitch.
What the hell is that key to?
I was right.
Kaleb fucking Van der Berg.
The first person whose love I could feel. My heart rips in two, and my chin trembles.
Just then, he looks up and his eyes meet mine.
I stop breathing, his smile falls, and the girl in her baggy sweat pants hugs him and skips happily away.
Eyes locked on him for one more second, I see him start after me. I whip around and charge back to my group to get my stuff and get out of here.
I race down to the ground floor, jogging down the stairs. His footfalls hit my ears, and he’s on my ass before I can get away.
He grabs my hand. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he says, pulling me to stop. “What do you think you just saw?”
I clench my teeth and yank my hand away. “You know, I honestly can’t say,” I growl, turning to face him. “But I think I would rather relive seeing you stuff your cock down Cici’s throat in that barn again than see you smile and be playful with quite literally the cutest fucking girl I’ve ever seen in my life!”
I clamp my mouth shut, because I was really loud. Luckily, the foyer is empty.
Kaleb straightens his spine, grinning. “I’ll tell her you said that.” His eyes sparkle. “She’ll like it.”
“No wonder you’ve been so happy.” I laugh bitterly. “I knew it wasn’t me. What was that key for?”
I cock an eyebrow.
“A private room,” he explains.
For him and her. For later. For what?
But his eyes dance, and he’s fucking enjoying this.
I start to back away. “I won’t beg you for answers,” I grit out. “I’ll be home late.”
But his expression turns dark and he grabs the waistband of my skirt, hauling me into his body. “You come home late, I’m keeping you up all night,” he says sternly.
A buzz lights under my skin, and I lock my jaw to tamp down the rush of excitement in my chest. God, fuck him.
“Follow me,” he says.
He takes my hand, leading through the library, toward the rear.
I try to pull my hand back. “Kaleb…”
I jog to keep up with his long strides as he takes me down a row, two walls of books shielding us on both sides.
“Go,” he tells a student at a lone cubicle against a wall of windows.
I roll my eyes, the poor guy gaping at my asshole boyfriend but then finally grabs his stuff and leaves.
Kaleb lifts me up and sets me down on the desk. I immediately fight to hop off. “Let me down.”
He holds my hips down, barely budging except to slightly smile when I try to push him away and fail.
“Stop it!” I growl.
But then he gestures to my right.
I follow his gaze, recognizing the girl he was just talking to through the window in the room. Another young woman with darker hair, leans over her, writing something on the other one’s paper. The blonde looks up, watching her.
“It was a key to the last study room we had open,” he tells me. “Her name is August,” Kaleb says softly, his jaw against my temple as he watches them too. “She’s eighteen, a freshman. Loves cupcakes with baby blue frosting, hates live music but goes for the crowd, and has three hundred twenty-six swim meet ribbons.”
I breathe hard. He’s obviously spent some time with her.
“She has a boyfriend who has a best friend, and…” He points to the other girl. “That’s his girlfriend. Her name is Nicolo.”
I watch the two women, something about the blonde girl’s movements giving me pause. The way she lifts her eyes, watches Nicolo, leans back a little, almost as if to touch her but doesn’t…
“She’s twenty-one,” Kaleb tells me. “A junior. Finance or something cold like that. They all go on double dates, camping trips, road trips… Neither one has any intention of breaking up with their boyfriends, but that doesn’t stop August from wanting Nicolo. The older one isn’t picking up on August’s signals, but August will get what she wants. I’m pretty sure she always does.” He chuckles quietly. “She’s pretending to be bad at statistics or something to get Nicolo to tutor her.”
He releases me and backs away. I look at him.
So, they’re friends? Him and August? Is that what he’s telling me?
“Why didn’t you tell me about her?” I ask.
“I might’ve,” he says. “We’re not close. Yet.”
“She has the makings of an annoying little sister, though,” he tells me.
Right. I hop off the desk, but he blocks me in, planting both hands at my sides.
“And because I don’t think about her,” he whispers. “I think about you.”
Goosebumps rise up my neck, and I feel it in my scalp.
“I like it here,” he says. “People don’t talk to me much, but I get to watch them. There aren’t many environments where you can have both.”
I lower my eyes.
Shame washes over me. Jesus.
They’re actually friends.
He left home. He moved somewhere he didn’t want to be. And at the first glimpse of him finding something of his own, I tried to ruin it. I could’ve just talked to him, but the forms of communication I learned growing up were nonverbal. Avoidance and neglect.
“The woman…” I say. “The woman at the desk implied you get a lot of attention here. From women.”
I dart my eyes up, his green ones holding me like they always do.
“You’re not tempted?” I ask him.
“Tempted?” he teases. “Is that what you said?”
He looks like he’s about to laugh at me.
Fine. Whatever. I’m trying to be honest and talk to him, but if he’s going to make fun of me…
I move around him to leave, but he shoots out an arm, grabbing the bookshelf and blocking my way. I stop short, sucking in a breath.
“I’m sorry,” he taunts, his tone suddenly hard. “Did you think I’d changed?”
The vein in my neck throbs, and I can’t look at him. He straightens next to my shoulder, his tall form looming as his nose brushes my hair.
And he inhales, smelling me. My eyelids flutter, and I’m back in the garage in Chapel Peak. the first night I met him.
“I just… I just thought…”
“You thought I was finished with you.”
And he takes my jaw in one hand, pushing me back against the stacks.
I pant, suddenly unable to catch my breath.
“The worst is yet to come,” he taunts, moving one hand around my waist and the other into my hair. “Did you forget that you were always mine?”
His lips graze my forehead, and heat covers every inch of my body.
“From that night I first saw you to that night on the couch when I watched you touching yourself. From all the nights when I heard you crying and held you through your nightmares to the night of the fire,” he whispers. “I love you. I keep you.”
I lift my chin, my lips searching for his. “Kaleb—”
But his hand covers my mouth, and he reaches under my skirt, yanking down my underwear.
I whimper, flitting my eyes left and right to see if we’re alone.
With my underwear at my thighs, he glides his hand over my tender flesh, making me shiver.
He gazes down between my legs. “That’s real pretty, freshman.”
I start to smile, but I bite my bottom lip to stop it. I don’t want to please him. Not yet.
He lifts my shirt, squeezing me through my bra and holding my eyes as I plant my hands on his stomach. He traces the skin just above the lace, grinning when he sees the hickey he left there two days ago.
I start to pull up my underwear, but he takes them and yanks, ripping them off my body.
I gasp, breathing hard. “Kaleb, we can’t…”
He slips my torn underwear into his pocket and bows his forehead to mine, sliding his hand between my legs. Pushing one finger up inside me, he watches me as he slides it in and out, and I feel a vibration in the stack at my back.
“You got it?” someone calls out.
I round my eyes, Kaleb slipping a second finger in. I open my mouth, sucking in a breath.
“Got it!” someone whispers right behind me, on the other side of the books.
“Kaleb…” I mouth, shaking my head.
We’re going to get caught.
He pumps two fingers in and out of me, curling them to hit the tender spot deep inside, and every time he pulls out, I feel how wet I’m getting.
Fuck. I’m not stopping him. I don’t go to this school anyway.
I capture his mouth with mine, sliding my arms around his neck, pressing my body to his, and thrusting onto his fingers. He trails kisses down to my neck, and I groan as he continues moving in and out of me. I feel the thick muscle in his jeans hardening.
“Take it out,” he orders in a low voice.
A surge of excitement flows under my skin.
I look up at him as I unfasten his belt and open his jeans, reaching in and stroking him.
I pull him out and he removes his fingers from inside me, lifts my leg, and positions himself right at my entrance. With our lips less than an inch apart, he thrusts inside of me, and I moan, burying my mouth in his neck to stifle the sound.
Holding me tightly, he moves in and out in shallow thrusts, and I look over just as someone walks by. She doesn’t see us and is gone in a second.
But he flicks his tongue up my lips, and we lock eyes, watching each other feel it every time he’s buried in me. Now. And again.
I whimper. And again.
My orgasm builds.
“Hey, do have the outline?” someone whisper-yells somewhere around us.
We move small, holding each other’s gaze.
“It’s in my blue binder,” comes a reply.
He kisses me, teasing my lips as he fucks me slow. My orgasm crests, and I wrap one arm over his shoulder, the other under his arm and around his back as I hug him close.
We rock together, my muffled moans in his chest growing louder, and I’m too close to care.
I suck in air, tighten, and burst, digging my nails into his neck as I come.
“I love you, Kaleb.”
My head floats high above my body as I ride it out.
“I love you too, baby,” he says.
He lifts me into his arms, wraps my legs around his body as he thrusts hard and fast, and dives into my neck, biting it.
In a minute, he comes, driving up into me hard, and then he holds me there for a minute as we both try to get our breathing under control.
God, I love him.
“Hey, where are you going?” someone suddenly asks.
I pop my head up and push him back, pulling my shirt back down and righting my clothes.
Shit. We had to have been seen.
Or we were really lucky.
He fastens his jeans and his belt, and I smooth out my skirt and Polo shirt, tightening my ponytail.
I’ll have to get to the bathroom to clean up. He has my underwear, and he’ll be dripping me out of me in a second.
I don’t want to leave him.
But I have to get back to the group. I pull him in and smile as I kiss him once more.
That was crazy.
But when we finish, he looks down at me, grips my left ass cheek through my skirt and says, “If I find you wandering around alone anymore, freshman,” he warns, “we’ll be doing that again.”
I bite back my smile as we both walk to the end of the stack, he walks one way, and I’m about to turn the other, but I hesitate just long enough to see him turn his head and throw me a grin over his shoulder.
My nipples harden, chafing against my bra, and I turn, heading the other way and back to my group.
I’m definitely going to be back.
But not alone.
Just in my tightest jeans and no bra, driving him crazy as I work ever-so-innocently with my group.
He needs to learn there are wild animals to hunt in the city, too.