This scene takes place the November following the last chapter of Credence–not the epilogue. It is a spoiler for Credence.
“Van der Berg Extreme,” I answered, holding the phone to my ear with one hand and the cam shaft with the other.
“You want to tell me at what point in your life your brain literally detached from reality?”
I paused, instantly recognizing Mirai Patel’s voice. A memory of an old gramophone, the needle digging into a record and whining the most awful tune burrowed its way into my ear.
“Do you really have so few critical thinking skills,” she continued, “that you thought it was a good idea to have Tiernan straddle a motorcycle, sexually taunting a young man who…wait for it…happens to be her cousin?”
I dug in my eyebrows, pulled the phone away from my ear and ended the call.
I guess the ad in Total Racer Illustrated was published. Took long enough. Tiernan and Noah posed for those pictures six months ago.
Someone needed to tell that chick that Tiernan wasn’t a celebrity who needed to be protected, and Mirai Patel’s job was done the moment my stepbrother and his wife died. Why was she still hanging around?
Even now, months after Tiernan had started school, taking Kaleb with her, and was no longer living in California.
The phone rang again, and I grabbed a wrench as I grabbed the phone, answering it as if I had no idea who it was.
“Van der Berg Extreme,” I said as I tightened some bolts.
“Bad decision after bad decision,” she griped like I didn’t just hang up on her.
“He’s not her cousin,” I bit out.
“That’s not how the press sees it!”
“Just be happy the press doesn’t know everything,” I fired back, hanging up again.
She should be happy that Tiernan’s time up here, and whatever rumors were floating around Chapel Peak of what went on during the long months last winter never accumulated to more. I’d say we got lucky.
The shop door blew open, a gust of night wind blowing in.
“Noa…” But I stopped calling for my son, realizing he wasn’t here.
Tossing the phone onto the tool chest and the wrench into my back pocket, I walked over, noticing tiny peaks of dirty snow lining the driveway outside before pulling the door closed again.
Paperwork from the workbench fluttered and floated to the cement floor, and I dived down, gathering everything up.
Being November, I should’ve been locked up here by now, but the winter was taking its time on settling in. The roads were getting bad but not unmanageable.
And thank goodness for that. Normally, I didn’t care if I ever left this house. The long winters weren’t much different than the long summers.
It was different this year.
The phone rang again, and I tilted my head, hearing my neck crack as I stood up.
Walking over, I picked it up, ignored the call, and tossed it back down before retrieving the wrench out of my back pocket.
I turned on the bike, revving the engine, the sound filling the whole shop.
I hadn’t seen the ad she was talking about yet. I hadn’t gone to retrieve mail at the post office in weeks, but it couldn’t be that bad.
Tiernan wouldn’t regret posing for the picture, would she?
I knew Noah wouldn’t give a shit.
Fucking Mirai. She had a problem with everything I did.
The phone rang, and I reached over, answering it this time with a little extra pep to my voice. “Van der Berg Extreme.”
“I’d like to speak to a manager, please?” Mirai chirped.
“Hang on,” I told her. “I’ll get him.” And I hung up, throwing the phone down again.
Maybe she thought that she was going to have to deal with me forever, and that’s why she wouldn’t let me off the hook about anything, but the truth was, I had more of a place in Tiernan’s life than she did. Patel could move the fuck on whenever she was ready.
For a bit there, I almost thought we might enjoy a combative friendship. I even thought she might be flirting that night last summer I came to check on Tiernan in L.A. The woman refused to simply ignore me.
She engaged, and so did I, and…it wasn’t completely horrible.
I lifted my hesitant eyes, seeing the dried blood staining Kaleb’s work table, and all of Noah’s tools blissfully abandoned as if he were escaping an FBI raid and left in a hurry.
Maybe that was why I kept answering the phone when I saw Mirai’s number pop up. There was no one else to talk to.
Ringing pierced the air again, and I picked up my phone, opening my mouth to say “Van der Berg Extreme,” but she spoke first.
“Was it fun for you?” she bit out, and I could almost picture her eggplant colored lipstick forming the words. “Did you like it? Fucking a kid you had charge of, confusing her mind?”
“That’s how you see it.”
The vantage point from outside rarely gave you an equal representation as it did when viewing it from within. She should stay out of business that wasn’t hers.
“Who did it help?” she asked. “Her or you?”
I dropped my eyes, memories of having my son’s girlfriend in my arms coming back to me.
Of having a kid I had no intention of making mine for life in my bed and in my shower and…
“Was it worth it?” Mirai pressed. “You’re all alone now.”
My chest caved a little, and I gritted my teeth, yanking the wrench and tightening and tightening, even though the bolt wouldn’t tighten any more.
She hung up first this time, and I stuck the cell into my pocket, staring at the motorcycle.
I’m glad it was you. Tiernan’s voice carried through my head, the memory making my mind bend in a way I didn’t like anymore.
Mirai was making it dirty, and it didn’t feel that way last winter. She was fucking with my head.
Yeah, maybe I used Tiernan.
Maybe I shouldn’t have.
Maybe fucking an eighteen-year-old girl shouldn’t have been what reminded me of the life I forgot that I wanted.
Maybe I was all out of excuses, and I was a shit human.
I threw down the wrench, the metal clanking against the other tools, and gave up for the night, heading back into the house. The dogs followed me as I stepped into the dark, empty kitchen and glanced into the empty living room, lit only by the fireplace. Logs crackled under the flames, and I headed for the cupboard, pulling out a can of chili.
I had a mountain of steak and deer meat in the freezer, but I didn’t have the energy to cook these days.
Opening the can, I dumped the contents into a pot, the pools of grease coating the clump bringing a copper taste to my mouth.
I tossed the can onto the counter and walked off, abandoning it as I headed upstairs. There was no way Tiernan would let me eat that shit if she were here.
Right now, I’d be yelling for Noah, so fed up with the kid never making anything easy for me, but…he was always there, wasn’t he?
I’d be worried about Kaleb up at the fishing cabin or cops showing up at my door to finally arrest him for whatever I was sure was coming eventually, given his temper.
Tiernan would have her books spread out on the table, keeping her nose buried in her school work and pretending she didn’t know when he’d walk into the room to grab a drink from the fridge. And he’d only look at her when her back was turned, so she wouldn’t see.
The house would be warm, it would smell good, there’d be music playing somewhere, and those few months she was with us, it seemed like a lifetime, because everything was exactly as it should be.
Our home finally had a family.
I stop at the top of the stairs, gazing around at their closed doors, their rooms left almost exactly as when they lived here. Laundry and an unmade bed in Noah’s room. A set of Tiernan’s pajamas laying at the end of her bed and a red ribbon on the small table next to it. Kaleb’s books and belts laid about his room, but after Noah left, I’d just closed all the doors, making the house seem even more empty.
I just couldn’t look at the remnants of them still here. Somehow, I knew they would all move on eventually. I guess I never entertained the idea that it would happen all at once.
Tiernan left with Mirai last April, Kaleb disappeared to the fishing cabin that night, and Noah jumped on a plane for California a few days later.
And the joy of the past months immediately dissipated, the emptiness of the house and the weight of my age setting in hard. The sunny, warm summer, normally full of races and trips to the waterfall or camping, felt like shit, because Mirai was right. Seducing Tiernan might’ve cost me my family.
It didn’t make them leave, but what if they never wanted to come back?
I had nothing to show for my life.
Nothing if I didn’t have them.
“Jake?” a voice called downstairs.
I jerked my head, startled, but it was just a reflex. I recognized the voice.
Spinning around, I descended the stairs again, seeing Jules, her red hair hanging in a ponytail down her chest, her usual short skirts and skin-tight dresses replaced with jeans and a T-shirt.
Her boots were covered in dust, and she pulled off her camo jacket and hat, tossing them both onto a nearby chair.
I liked it when she dressed down like this.
And she knew it.
“Hey,” I said. I hadn’t locked the door.
She smiled, her playful mouth with a light pink tint. “You’ve been hiding.”
Meaning, I hadn’t called.
“Always been here,” I told her, heading into the kitchen.
She planted her hands on her hips, looking around and taking a few steps into the living room.
“Quiet house,” she mused behind me.
I pulled out a beer from the refrigerator, and twisted off the cap, setting it on the island.
“I wasn’t really in the mood for company,” I told her.
She gazed at me over her shoulder, and I let my eyes drop to the slice of skin under her T-shirt at the small of her back and the way the jeans hugged every curve.
We hadn’t fucked since last fall, before Tiernan. And I had no illusions she’d been lonely, either.
But she was good in bed.
I took a swig of the beer. Eh, what the hell? It’ll pass the time.
Get me out of my head tonight, if nothing else.
“And when did I ever ask permission to climb on top of you?” she teased.
A chuckle rumbled through my chest that I didn’t let loose. True.
When the roads were good and she was in between boyfriends, I’d wake up in the middle of the night with her mouth on me.
Approaching my side, she hopped up onto the counter and slid over, wrapping her thighs around me and circling my neck with her arms.
“And no offense,” she whispered over my mouth, “but you look like the one thing you really do need right now is company.”
She kissed me, pulling her hair out of the ponytail as she moved over my mouth and my hands settled on her waist, bringing her in. Her breasts pressed into my chest, and she pulled my T-shirt up over my head, dropping it to the floor.
I kissed her back, trying to get my body to stir—trying to concentrate on how good I knew she felt. Her hand slipped down my jeans, stroking my cock, but everything felt cold. Like I was in an unfamiliar place with someone I didn’t know.
“Let’s go to the bedroom.” She nibbled my mouth. “Turn off the lights and crawl under the covers. Let me keep you warm tonight.”
She slipped her tongue in, and I dug my fingers into her skin, diving deep into my head where I could see her bent over the bathroom sink and watch her getting fucked or any sordid image to make it as dirty as possible, so I could get turned on, but…
I hated it.
I hated the picture in my head. Shallow, empty, and fucking meaningless. I’d had better, and I wanted better now.
I jerked my hands off her and pulled my mouth away. “Wait,” I gasped, the taste of her on my mouth aggravating me. “Stop.” I backed up and leaned on the opposite counter, avoiding her gaze. “I’m not in the mood.”
She sat there, unmoving. And then, finally, “What?” she breathed out. “Seriously?”
I swiped my shirt off the floor and took my beer, walking back into the living room.
“Jake,” she called. “I’ll get you in the mood. I always get you in the mood.”
I didn’t reply. I just wanted her gone.
She came up to my back, slipping her hands around me and diving into my jeans again. “I’ll do everything,” she whispered. “Take me up to your bed, and I’ll let you play with me all night. Whatever you want.”
I turned, the bottle hanging between my fingers.
And then what, Jules?
Nothing, that’s what.
“You don’t look at me.” I stared down into her eyes. “And I don’t look at you when I’m inside you.”
Most of the time, I imagine these women are someone else. Someone I have to savor with every muscle as I wrap my arms around them, because I’m so afraid they’ll be taken away.
Someone I love. Like Flora.
And then I open my eyes, and I know it’s me and not them. I was just too old to be someone anyone deserved. Who was going to want me now?
She straightened, her eyes turning hard. “What the hell are you talking about?”
I threw my shirt onto the couch. “Don’t you feel like shit all the time?” I asked her. “I feel like shit every time we sleep together.”
Her eyebrows narrowed, and her jaw flexed, and I immediately knew I shouldn’t have said that.
She backed away, grabbing her coat and hat. “Don’t worry. I won’t be back,” she told me, pulling her keys out of her pocket before she went for the door. “Fucking middle-aged, broken cock, waste of time…”
And then she was gone, but instead of exhaling my relief, sweat dampened my forehead.
At least it got rid of her.
What the hell was I going to do? I couldn’t spend six months up here alone, and I’d had no interest in getting laid since…
Well, it had been nearly a year.
I knew what I needed. I just didn’t know if anyone could ever take her place. God, I’d missed the feeling of Tiernan in the house, but I almost wished she’d never come. My head wouldn’t be so fucked up.
Pulling my phone out of my back pocket, I sat down on the couch and dialed, hoping she’d answer but knowing she had every right not to.
But she did.
“What?” Mirai said on the other end.
I opened my mouth, hearing the contempt in her voice. My heart skipped a beat, and I didn’t know why I thought she’d understand anything I had to say, but maybe I was hoping she wouldn’t at all. Maybe I was tired of being in charge of this business I was starting to hate without my sons here to help, and maybe I was tired of this peak and every day being the same now.
Maybe I hoped she’d give me the ass-whipping I deserved, and I was totally here for it.
“What?” she gritted out when I didn’t say anything.
I swallowed, leaning back in the sofa. “She brought me back to life,” I said, keeping my tone quiet and calm. “I was stuck, and Tiernan took me back there. Back to what it felt like to really want someone.”
“Made you feel young, did she?”
I sat there, listening to her breathing and prepared not to deny anything, because she was partly right.
She didn’t have to condone. But I wanted someone to understand.
“She made me remember what life should be like,” I told Mirai. “The feelings you should get to feel every day. Before I lost Flora. Before I turned around and married the wrong woman who didn’t give a damn about me. Before I felt like shit all the time…” The golf ball in my throat swelled so big it hurt. “It felt good to have her at the table, bringing life into the house. It felt good to have her arms around me and to be looked at. Really looked at. I’d forgotten what anything special felt like.”
She reminded me that there was a time when I’d wanted it all, and I could’ve had it years ago if I’d been a better man.
She reminded me that I was a failure at almost everything. But there was still time.
Mirai didn’t respond, and I blinked away the sting in my eyes. I wished I hadn’t been someone Tiernan had had to wake up. I wasn’t her responsibility.
“I can’t say I regret it, either,” I told her, “because she changed me. It meant something to me, Mirai.” And then I lowered my voice to a whisper. “It meant something.”
Tiernan wasn’t just some other girl. She woke me up.
Mirai still sat there, not saying a word, and I checked the screen to make sure she hadn’t hung up. What was she thinking?
It probably just sounded like more excuses to her, but I’d said it the best way I knew how. Not that she was entitled to an explanation, but I didn’t like her thinking it was all that simple for me. We’d all been hanging on by a fucking thread. I loved that girl.
“I just…” I searched for more words, but none came. “I just wanted you to know that.”
I moved the phone away from my ear, but then she spoke up.
“Who’s Flora?” she asked.
And I remembered, I’d told Tiernan about Flora but Mirai was clueless.
I didn’t feel like telling that story again, though. I was sick of it always being there.
“Someone who knew me when I didn’t feel like shit all the time,” I simply replied. “Goodnight.”
I hung up, almost smiling at how that came out. “Goodnight.” As if I’d talk to her tomorrow.
But I didn’t budge from the couch. I stayed, hearing the thunder crack outside as I watched the flames in the fireplace.
It felt good to have her arms around me and to be looked at. Really looked at.
Did he think that was an explanation? What if he’d been in an unhappy marriage? ‘Hmm, sorry, honey. She just made me feel ‘looked at’. My bad.’
I stared at the ended call on my screen and then dropped my arm and let my head fall back onto the white sofa.
The crackle of the fireplace made the empty living room seem quieter, the darkness like ice on my skin despite the heat of the flames.
I missed Tiernan around. Even that dipshit, Noah, and her boyfriend, Kaleb. Since they’d all left—Noah heading to JT Racing’s headquarters in Illinois and Kaleb and Tiernan to her college in Washington—the life and color that seemed to warm every room had gone with them. No messes. No noise. No laughter.
All that remained were the ghosts of Amelia and Hannes.
Tiernan asked me to move in a few months ago when she’d left for college—take care of the place, be a face to handle the estate and any of her mother’s affairs…
Which would be a lifetime job for anyone willing. Amelia hadn’t stopped making money just because she was gone. I’d had offers to work with others in the industry, but the taste in my mouth soured when I thought about going back to that life. The only reason I’d stuck around so long was because of Tiernan and because…I didn’t want to go back to Philadelphia.
I couldn’t go home.
My phone buzzed, and I blinked, raising it up and clicking the notification.
Forget everything I said, Jake texted.
I shook my head as I typed. Don’t worry. It didn’t change my opinion of you.
His little heart to heart was just manipulation. I’m sure he used it on that poor kid. It wouldn’t work on me.
Another text rolled in. Of course.
I narrowed my eyes. Of course.
As if he knew I’d be unwavering. Narrow-minded. As if I was an asshole for being incapable of seeing other points of view. Is that what he thought?
I tapped away on my phone. What do you mean?
Does it matter?
I scowled. He assumed he knew me, couldn’t change my mind about him, and had no interest in having this conversation. I wasn’t significant enough for him to win over.
An image of him in Tiernan’s kitchen last summer hit me, strolling around with his faded flannel, the tails hanging out of his jeans, his narrow waist…
For a moment then, I kind of thought he looked attractive.
And then I dropped my eyes to the coffee table, my gaze falling on the picture of Tiernan and Noah in the magazine.
She’d told me about the photo shoot. It had happened the day I came to get her last spring.
Long after she’d fallen in love with Kaleb. Long after Noah had had his fun.
Long after Jake Van der Berg, a man old enough to be her father and a man in charge of taking care of her, took her virginity on the backseat of a pickup truck.
I dialed his phone, angry all over again.
I should just get over it. I let her go there, knowing we didn’t know these people. This was my fault, too.
But he deserved to pay.
He picked up, but I spoke before he had a chance to say hello. “What did you mean?” I barked.
“God, you’re obsessed with me.”
“What did you mean?” I demanded again.
He fell silent. He wouldn’t have picked up the phone if he didn’t want to have this out, too, so I waited. I couldn’t imagine why he wanted me to understand. I guess he wanted someone to tell him it was okay. That he wasn’t a bad man.
He had guilt, and I was the only one listening. He always picked up the phone.
“You don’t want to understand me,” he spat out. “Thinking is hard. That’s why most people judge.”
“I think there’s right and there’s wrong. It’s not hard.”
“And I think there’s very little in this world that’s unforgivable if you’re capable of empathy,” he snapped back. “Capable of thinking beyond your own perspective. Have you ever wanted something that was wrong? Have you ever had to make that choice?”
I closed my mouth, those words finally reaching deep inside and tugging at a memory I wanted to be rid of.
Shhh, she won’t know. No one will know.
I want you so much.
My stomach rolled, and I closed my eyes.
“Go to bed,” Jake told me.
But before he could hang up, a word escaped me. “Yes,” I muttered.
It was barely audible, I didn’t even think he heard it, but seconds passed, and…he didn’t hang up.
Yes. I’d wanted something that was wrong. I’ve made that choice.
I made the wrong choice.
“When?” Jake asked.
I couldn’t tell him.
I was sixteen at the time. He was a man when he seduced Tiernan. My teenage mistake didn’t give us common ground.
But my insides started to crumble, the images rushing back like a flood.
“Who was it?” he asked, his tone suddenly interested.
I tried to get the words out—some words, any words—but it was just a tug of war between my pain and my pride. I couldn’t.
“You’re so full of shit,” Jake bit out.
Tears filled my eyes.
He continued, “Yeah, I’m alone, and maybe I did it to myself, but you’re alone, too.”
I stared at my jeans, gripping the phone.
“Why do I let you get in my head?” he growled. “You know so much less about the world than you think you do. When the fuck have you ever lived? Gotten broken? Made impossible choices?”
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t.
“Stop texting me,” he said. “And stop calling. We’ve got no reason to talk.”
And he hung up.
The tears spilled over, and I let them, listening to the empty line on the other end and feeling like shit in all the ways I did ten years ago.
How did he do that? Make this my fault?
I broke once. I made a choice that wasn’t so hard, and it was still seared into my memory how easily I’d made that decision.
I hadn’t lived since. Not for me anyway. The guilt was still there. After all this time, I could still feel the shame.
I’d never talked to anyone about it.
Contrary to what Jake Van der Berg assumed, I wasn’t without empathy. I wasn’t narrow-minded. I could see others’ points of view, because I’d been there, and fifteen years later, I was making better choices.
Unlike him, more than twenty years past the time he should’ve well known better.
I was sixteen. I typed. I had a crush on a friend’s boyfriend.
It hit me again—for the first time in years—what she must still think of me.
I didn’t want to have a crush on him. I texted Jake. I just couldn’t stop it.
I watched the screen, seeing the READ receipt on the texts, my heart pounding as I waited for the three dots to pop up, signaling he was replying.
Seconds passed and nothing.
He wasn’t replying.
Fine. At least now he knew that he didn’t know anything about me and his perceptions were way off. I might judge, but I did it from a place of some experience.
I tossed the phone on the couch and rose, heading to the kitchen.
But then my cell beeped behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder, seeing my screen lit up.
I didn’t hesitate. Bending over, I swiped it up and read the text.
Couldn’t stop what? he asked.
Pride hit me, and I still didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want him to think we were equal.
But I didn’t want to stop talking. I kind of wanted him to know—to let it out—because he was the one person whose approval I didn’t need. Why not tell him?
Still, though. Tightness gripped my throat, and I couldn’t type.
The phone finally rang, and I jumped, seeing his name on the screen.
“Couldn’t stop what?” he said, sounding impatient.
I opened and closed my mouth a few times, remembering that feeling like it was yesterday. And how sometimes I wondered if I’d learned anything at all, because as despicable as my behavior was, there were some emotions that had felt nice.
“My heart pounding when he was around,” I murmured, dropping my eyes.
I realized now that was the last time I was ever smitten with anything.
“That’s a good feeling when you’re sixteen,” he told me in a soft voice.
I nodded to myself. “Makes you excited to be alive. Fills your whole world.”
Young love is so naïve. Shallow. You have tunnel vision and can’t see the bigger picture, because for the first time you’re experiencing big emotions that you have no skill or experience with. I was stupid.
“I knew it couldn’t happen,” I continued. “Even if he wanted me and we were together, the betrayal would’ve broken her heart.”
Rising, I walked toward the kitchen, relaxing a little. I wasn’t going to analyze why I was indulging this conversation with him. Or why I wanted to keep going.
I headed toward the stove, taking the teapot and filling it with water. “And he was white too, so…”
“A white guy can’t have you?”
Capping the pot, I set it on the stove, turning on the burner. “My parents have never said as much, but they’re first generation, older, and traditional,” I told him. “I’m already thirty-two, unmarried, with no hope of being a mother any time soon. My siblings are all settled, homes of their own… By comparison, I’m…”
“The rebel?” he asked, a smile in his tone.
Like me? he probably wanted to add. I’d known more about Jake Van der Berg than Tiernan when her parents died. Dealing with every of aspect of Amelia and Hannes’ lives for several years, I was well aware of Jake’s history—and abhorrence—for his relatives.
That wasn’t what this was, though.
“I just don’t like disappointing them,” I said. “They had such high hopes for us. For all their kids.”
“Well, don’t worry,” he sighed. “You didn’t disappoint them. If a crush on the wrong guy is the worst that happened, I wouldn’t be ashamed if you were my kid.”
“And I’m just about young enough to be.”
He broke into a laugh, but I kept mine under wraps, simply smiling to myself where he couldn’t see. We were only about ten years apart, actually. It wasn’t that bad.
But then my smile fell, realizing what he’d said before that. About a crush being the worst thing I did.
A crush wasn’t all that happened.
“One night, I was sleeping over at her house,” I told him, barely aware as I took out a mug and unwrapped a tea bag, placing it in the cup. “And he snuck into her room. We all played music and ate popcorn. And drank every flavor of Mad Dog 20/20.”
“White trash wine tasting, huh?” he teased.
I smiled small, appreciating his gentleness for a change.
I went on. “He left, and we stayed up watching a movie for a while before we went to bed. It was bunk beds. She was on top, and I had the bottom one.”
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever told anyone all of this. If anyone had given me a chance to.
“I woke up in the middle of the night with this weight on top of me.” I swallowed, remembering being disoriented. So tired. “It took a while to pry my eyes open, the alcohol blurring my vision, but when I finally did, I knew it was him. He’d snuck back in, hovering over my body and holding my face as he looked down at me.”
Everything had been cold. The bed, the air, his mouth… The hair on my arms rose.
I blinked, registering the pot whistle. I removed it from the stove and poured the water. “I’d love to blame the Mad Dog,” I said. “Or the sleepiness. But I knew what was happening, and I would’ve let it happen sober and alert. I’d wanted it forever.”
Letting the tea seep, I replaced the pot. God, how could I not have cared about anything in that moment? Malena was sleeping right above us. She could’ve woken up. What was I thinking?
Tears filled my eyes, remembering the dirt I could just never seem to get off my skin after that. “When it was over, I’d never felt so ugly in my life,” I nearly whispered. “He broke it off with her, tried to see me again, but I felt horrible when he was around. I felt horrible all the time.” Sobs lodged in my throat as I choked out my words. “Worthless.”
“Human,” he corrected. “The moment got away from you. Your feelings got away from you.”
I shook my head at his easy answers, not wanting an out from the guilt.
“You’re not a machine,” he told me. “At some point, we’re all tempted with the need to be selfish. Anyone who says differently is trying to hide their own shame or hasn’t experienced anything to have the right to talk.”
Like me? I wanted to ask. I’d handed out my tongue-lashings pretty readily with him. Was I just trying hide my own shame then? I was disgusted with myself, and I was projecting onto him?
“Did she ever find out what happened on the bed under hers?” he asked.
“I told her.” I dipped the tea bag in and out of the water. “She told my parents. And hers.”
“And everyone else,” he guessed. “And now, for the last fifteen years, you don’t take a step out of line, do you?”
How could I? Everyone hated me. Our friends. My parents were so hurt. Her parents hated me. It ruined everything. I was a walking piece of garbage every time someone looked at me.
But then, how did I expect it not to ruin everything? I allowed myself to have something in a dishonorable way, yet I expect zero consequences. I knew better now.
“I know who I am,” I said. “It just came at a cost I never wanted to see Tiernan pay.”
“At least Tiernan had the comfort of seclusion from the world to learn who she was. You weren’t so lucky. Most of us aren’t.”
His sympathy was hard to swallow. I didn’t deserve it. “I shouldn’t have done it. I knew better. Most people know better.”
“No, they don’t,” he shot back. “They just get away with it. I guarantee you your sisters have secrets they hope you never discover.”
I smiled softly, kind of intrigued by the idea. He had a way of making me want to believe that everyone is bad at some time or another, and that made our mistakes okay.
Part of me still thought it sounded like excuses. There was success and there was failure. That was the bottom line.
A tear spilled down my face, remembering my mother’s words. She’s had a hard time looking at me the same way since. I couldn’t make another mistake.
“Mirai, stop crying,” Jake bit out.
I guessed he heard me.
“No one is better than you,” he commands. “With some choices, we know. With others, we can only learn by getting burned. Sometimes, we need the fire.”
And sometimes we don’t. Why did I need to be stupid in order to learn? I sniffled.
“Don’t cry,” he said again. “Of course, he wanted you. Of course, he did. You’re beautiful.”
Warmth spilled into my lungs, giving me pause.
“And you were young,” he continued. “We’re all so desperate to feel anything at that age.”
But I was barely listening. I dried my eyes. “You think I’m beautiful?”
He was just screaming at me twenty minutes ago.
He hesitates, but then blurts out, “Oh, please. You probably get three-hundred-dollar facials every other week.”
I roll my eyes, drying the rest of my tears. “You know, working for rich people doesn’t make me rich. You know that, right?”
“I’m sure it’s part of your expense account.”
I fell silent, the familiar banter making me feel a little better again. I leaned into the phone, feeling him right there like his breath was in my ear even though he was hundreds of miles away.
“It is part of your expense account, isn’t it?” he asked when I didn’t say anything.
I bit back my smile. “Yes.”
Not that I’d used the perk since Amelia and Hannes’ deaths. Tiernan kept me busy and on the payroll, but since the money was hers now, I didn’t want to indulge.
Amelia had insisted on heavy grooming, though, since I represented her.
I stood there, waiting for another remark—maybe about how I took advantage of Tiernan, too. Or of how I enjoyed living in the luxury she provided.
But he just sat there, silent. Making no move to talk…or hang up.
“What?” I asked.
Why was he so quiet all of a sudden?
“I like when you say that word,” he said.
Word? I searched my brain for what I’d said before he fell silent. And then it hit me.
“Yes?” I repeated.
He liked it when I said yes?
“Yes,” he replied.
But his voice fell low and breathy when he’d said it, and my lungs emptied, a warm chill spreading up my arms and back. He felt close.
“I should let you get to sleep.”
“Don’t,” I shot out before he could hang up.
I swallowed, sliding into the chair at the island, not wanting him to go and mad at myself for feeling that way. Leaning down on my elbows, I listened to his breathing. The brush of his scruff against the phone.
“I want to be there,” he told me, making my blood warm in an instant. “I want to be in front of you right now.”
I closed my eyes, the urge to confess the same to him tempting, but I grinned instead, steeling my spine. “I’d hate you again, you know?”
Because I’m me. I love to overthink, and he…
“Do I make the lines disappear?” he asked.
I nodded. “Tonight, yes,” I whispered without hesitation.
Tonight, you do.
Just like Malena’s boyfriend in the bunk beds. Nothing else mattered when I could have something that made me feel so good. Desperate. Selfish. Willing to put up with whatever consequences and shame just to feel seen and touched and wanted.
The guilt wouldn’t come until tomorrow, but it would come. I know that now.
Tiernan cared for these men. And he’d slept with her. The Van der Bergs were three out of billions of men. I didn’t need to share one with a girl who was practically my charge.
“Take your hair out of its ponytail,” he said.
His smooth voice poured into my ear, making tingles erupt everywhere. I kept my eyes closed, almost dizzy as I shook my head. “I’m not eighteen,” I told him.
I’m not going to be easy.
But he replied, “I know who you are.”
His voice was suddenly firm but calm.
“You’re the only one I’ve talked to for longer than three minutes in months,” he told me. “You’re the last person I want to speak to on any given day, because I know I’m just going to get yelled at, but I always answer the phone, and I don’t know why.”
It felt like he was looking straight at me.
“You’re the one I called tonight after kicking another woman out of my house who was offering up every shallow pleasure you think I want from a woman,” he told me, “but I didn’t want that with her. I want it to feel like something worth a damn. I want the next woman I hold to be mine. You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
My eyes stung, the weight on my chest getting heavier.
“Do you want to know me?” he asked just above a whisper.
I opened my mouth, flutters hitting me at all angles. Do you want to know me?
I closed my eyes again. Yes.
“Take your hair out of the ponytail,” he whispered.
“How did you know it’s in a ponytail?”
I pursed my lips, withholding my smile as my heart still raced. He seemed to know me fairly well, despite only meeting me twice.
I pulled the black band out of my hair, my long, black tresses falling down my back.
“Okay,” I said when it was done.
“Go somewhere you feel safe.” His soft voice lulled me. “Your room, turn on the lights, and close the door.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What do you want me to do?”
A nervous laugh escaped, and I wasn’t sure if the question was too flirtatious and embarrassed me, or if I was excited.
I think I was excited.
“Just let me hold on to you,” I murmured. “Can I hold on to you?”
I wanted arms and warmth.
“You can do whatever you want to me,” he said. “You certainly say whatever you want.”
I pushed off the chair, leaving my tea as I traipsed up the stairs and to my bedroom at the back of the house.
“Why do you want the lights on?” I asked him.
“So I can see you.”
“But you’re not here.”
I bit my lip, feeling him everywhere. I stepped into my room and closed and locked the door. No staff was coming into the house this time of night, but he was right. It made me feel safer.
“Are you there?” he prodded.
“Do you have white sheets?”
“Light green. Why?” I asked, turning on the lights.
“I want to picture your skin between them.”
An image of him in my sheets—his hands on my body under the sheets—made me feel too many things all at once. Conflicting things.
Warm, but needing more heat.
Wild, but timid.
Dirty, but I liked it.
“I want to open your shirt,” he whispered. “Picture me opening your shirt.”
“I want to undress for you.”
I couldn’t believe I’d said it, and a blush rose to my cheeks.
Quickly, I shut off the lights, embarrassed, but then I walked to my nightstand and turned on the soft glow of the lamp.
A dim light spread onto my bed, letting me keep that illusion that nothing was really out in the open. This was stolen. Quiet. A secret. No one would know.
“Do it, Mirai,” he begged. “Please do it.”
I trembled, squeezing my eyes shut to steady myself. You haven’t gone too far.
Just hang up. Do it.
But then he said, “Come here.”
Like he was right here in front of me.
“Mirai?” he pressed again. “Come here.”
And I wanted to fall, suddenly swaying on my feet.
I was suddenly in his house, pellets of night rain hitting the windowpanes as the flames from the fireplace glowed in his eyes. My stomach warmed, and I wanted to do this with him.
“We’re standing next to your couch.” I pictured his living room from my memory of the one time I stood in it—the high ceiling, the log rafters stretching through the air above us, and the rock chimney rising to the roof. “You lift me up, and I wrap my legs around you, staring down into your eyes as I unbutton my shirt for you.”
“Slowly,” he told me.
Though he couldn’t see me, I nodded, imagining his strong arms lifting me up and staring up into my eyes as I took off my clothes. “I drop it to the floor,” I said, peeling off my shirt and letting it fall, the heat in his gaze as he stared up at me made my stomach dip, “and you can’t take it. You hold my eyes and grab the bra between my breasts and rip it, the shreds of fabric hanging off my shoulders.”
I gasped, reaching absently around with my free hand and unhooking my bra but feeling what he just did to it in my mind instead.
“God, you’re beautiful,” he whispered, the warmth of his skin heavenly. “I don’t want to put you down. I just want to carry you like this. To the kitchen. To the shower. To my bed.”
My fingertips tingled, imagining them running over his shoulders and down his arms as he held me.
“Your nipples are getting hard, rubbing against my chest,” he said. “They’re as dark as your hair, aren’t they?”
I let go of my bra, the air hitting my topless body and my hair tickling my back.
“Yeah,” I breathed out, finding myself in the gilded mirror across the room. I looked away, resisting the urge to cover myself. “You can see them through my tight T-shirts when I sleep.”
I wanted to walk around like that in front of him. Tease him.
But he replied, “I don’t want you wearing anything tonight.”
His whisper spread chills up my body. It wasn’t an order.
It was a plea. Almost sad.
I fought a smile. “I was hoping you wouldn’t let me sleep at all tonight.”
I could almost hear his smile. “Do you want to stay here? In the living room?”
I wanted to feel the fire.
“You’re little, aren’t you?” he asked. “Your breasts?”
I shrunk a little.
I supposed that was easy enough to tell through my clothes when he saw me in April, but…
I gazed across the room again, seeing my body in the mirror. I hated it sometimes. My breasts were the only part of my body that had never seemed to catch up to the rest, and I didn’t care about sexy clothes or having cleavage that I didn’t have to use contour powder to fib, but it would be nice to look good in bed.
When there was someone I wanted to look good for.
But then he continued, “I bet I can fit each one in my mouth.”
I stood there, still frozen but listening.
“Feel it, Mirai,” he said. “Your ass in my hands, your hair down your back, and I just can’t stop. God, I love my mouth on you.”
Tears brimmed, but I leaned into the phone, warming.
“I love my mouth on you,” he murmured again so softly. “I love how your body fits mine. I want to feel that entire fucking tit in my mouth.”
I licked my lips, closed my eyes, and tipped my head back, dropping my arms and letting him do it.
Fuck it. If he wanted to lie to me tonight and make me feel hot, let him.
“Do you feel it?” he asked.
I brushed my fingers over my nipples, his wet tongue and hot mouth…
“What do you feel?”
“Come on, talk to me.”
“You’re sucking me so hard,” I panted, heat pooling between my legs.
The skin of my breasts tingled, his teeth on my flesh driving me insane. I wanted him in the cabin—or here—alone, with all night ahead of us.
I bit my lips. “Jake, I want you here.”
I hated this.
I wanted this. I wanted him here.
“No, it’s not too hard, is it?” he taunted, ignoring me. “You like it. Your nails are digging into my shoulders, that’s how much you like it.”
“Harder,” I begged.
“Don’t worry,” he went on. “Mommy and Daddy will never know. You can go visit them on Sundays, clean and pressed, and no one has to know how good you like getting fucked by a roughneck at night.”
His mouth is all over me. My face, my eyes, my neck…
“You’re on the couch, aren’t you?” I asked, picturing it. “Shirt off, jeans open?”
Slouched and stroking it. That’s how I pictured it.
“I’m already sweating,” he bit out. “I want to jerk it faster.”
“I want to climb on top,” I told him. “I want to feel it.”
“You’re gonna feel it,” he retorted. “My way. Get on the bed.”
I stopped. “No.”
I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I didn’t like him thinking he was in control. He’d had his turn. I squared my shoulders.
He fell quiet, and I smiled, unbuttoning my jeans and sliding them down my legs. My lacy, lavender panties were all that was left.
“What are you wearing?” he demanded.
“Just my underwear,” I teased. “But I’m backing away now. I’m not getting on the bed with you.”
“And why not?”
“Because you’re bossy,” I fired back coolly.
He scoffed. But when he spoke again, his tone was hard. “Get on the bed.”
His breathing turned heavy in my ear, and I could tell he was stroking harder. “Get on the bed,” he whispered in my ear, and I could feel him right behind me, reaching around to squeeze my jaw.
“Get on…the bed.”
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was so dry. “Make me.”
I smiled, he growled, and I could feel the hand slam into my back and push me forward until I collapsed onto my feather down comforter. My thighs on fire and so fucking wet, I reached behind me and yanked down my panties just below my ass.
“I hate you,”I moaned, dropping the phone and putting it on speaker.
“But you’re fucking wet, aren’t you?” he charged. “I do know I’m good for that.”
“What do you know?” I shot back. “A reason to live.”
He grunted like he was thrusting, and I slipped my fingers down between my legs, trying to imagine him filling me from behind.
“Come on, you don’t have to hold back,” he egged me on. “No one to hear you up here. How deep am I?”
I rubbed my clit, grinding into the bed, groaning and crying out as I got closer. God, I was almost there. Damn.
“Yeah, you like it,” he bragged. “Your fucking hair is like silk on my chest. Your tit in my hand is there because you want it there. I think you like me, don’t you, Mirai?”
“I don’t.” But I looked behind me, my underwear still around my thighs, and envisioned him driving into me.
“Your back is arched for me, taking it,” he breathed out. “You like me.”
I thrusted into the bed, picking up pace, my breathing matching his.
“Say it,” he told me, like his lips were brushing mine. “Just say it, baby. You like me.”
His body on mine, fucking me as his hands and mouth taunted me, I threw my head back and just barely mouthed, “Yes.”
Oh, God. I wanted Jake Van der Berg.
“And you like this, don’t you?” he continued.
I nodded, no one in the room but us. My parents and sisters were far away, the lights low, no one to see or hear—just now, in this moment, I wanted him to do everything to me. Just this once. “Yes.”
Yes, I like it.
Just like that I was back in the bunk beds and hadn’t learned a damn thing, because I just wanted to feel and stopping was a thought that simply couldn’t be entertained.
My eyelids fluttered as my pussy contracted, and I picked up my phone, brought up the camera, and positioned it, my body flat on my stomach. My eyes peeked out from behind my arm, and my ass arched up a little, my panties stretched around my thighs.
Clicking the picture, I hesitated only a moment before I texted it to him.
That’s how much I want you.
Laying the phone back down, I thrusted and rubbed, his sweat on my back and my hair sticking to my skin.
And then I heard his groan. “Ugh, Mirai, Jesus,” he blurted out.
He got the picture.
“You’re killing me,” he said. “You fucking brat. Fuck, I wish I was there. Goddammit.”
“You feel me slipping inside of you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I whimpered. “I can’t stretch my legs wide enough, my panties are digging into my thighs.”
“Leave them on.”
I nod. “Okay.”
“Hold on, baby,” he said, his shallow breaths pouring through the phone. “Hold on.”
“I can’t. I feel you on my back, driving into me.”
His tongue was everywhere—my back, my neck, and my mouth.
“Fuck your fingers, baby,” he moaned.
“I am. My pussy is grinding into the bed.”
I worked faster, my body quivering as the orgasm crested.
“Faster, come on,” he growled.
“My thighs are so wet,” I cried. “Oh, Jake. Jake.”
“You want me to stop?”
“No,” I whispered over his lips. “Please don’t.”
Then…I cried out.
“Oh, fuck,” he shouted, coming too. “Fuck, fuck.”
My body erupted, shaking as waves washed over me, every nerve in my body firing with my orgasm. Heat shot down my thighs, my insides swimming with shocks, and tingles burrowed deep inside me.
“Yes, yes…oh God.”
“Fuck,” he said again, breathing heavy and fast.
I collapsed to the bed, my head swimming with images of him on the sofa in his living room, his chest glistening and his cock in his hand.
I laid there, my face buried in the comforter as I tried to pry my eyes open and stop the world from spinning. Air poured in and out of me as I fought to catch my breath.
Dammit. That was good.
My body settled, and slowly, I turned over onto my back and pushed myself up, sitting on my side.
Why did it have to be good?
The silence stretched, and I kind of hoped he’d hung up.
But then he spoke. “Are you okay?”
I looked away from the phone, letting my eyes fall closed as the heat from a moment ago was replaced with cold, post-coital reality. Without passion clouding my judgment, I kind of wanted to hide now.
He got what he wanted. Again.
“Just catching my breath,” I told him, all my weight leaning on my arm.
“I’d love to see you right now,” he said. “What you look like after.”
I shook my head, rising and pulling up my underwear and then retrieving my jeans.
A smile tugged at my mouth, still feeling the tingles in my body.
But I bit it back, because there were millions of men in this country.
Not him, Mirai. Not him.
“Delete that pic, okay?” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Oh, back to being a stick in the mud, are we?”
“I mean it.” I pulled my shirt on and buttoned it, my hair hanging in my face as I stared at the screen on my bed. “It was kink. It served its purpose. Please?”
“Of course,” he replied. “And you can go ahead and delete it from your phone, too.”
I stopped and stared at the screen. “Why?”
“Because tomorrow night…” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want to lick you. In the shower. And you’re going to send me a new picture.”
My breathing turned shallow, the pictures flooding my mind.
I grabbed the phone and turned off the speaker, holding it to my ear.
“I want to see lots of pictures of you,” he taunted. “Ones I’ll use while I’m up here alone all winter, keeping me warm as the cold forces me inside where I can think about you for as long… or as hard as I want.”
“Surprised you’re not asking for a video chat,” I fire back.
“Nah,” he mused. “I don’t want to know too much. I want to see how your body moves in person.”
He said that like it was inevitable. Like I’d be up there eventually, “moving” for him.
“And when you’re in my bed, dressed in my shirt, no ponytails,” he went on, “and I’m letting you hold on to me like I know you want to, I won’t need any pictures, Mirai.”
I closed my eyes, dropping my ass to the bed. Did he think I was going to fall for him and his shit? The smooth talk? Telling me what I will and won’t do? Acting like he wants me all of a sudden when we can’t stand each other? I don’t need a fuck-buddy a thousand miles away.
We connected tonight for a lot of reasons, none of which meant this was meant to be. I can get a man who isn’t Tiernan’s uncle right here in L.A., and I was just a crutch for him to get him excited and get him through the winter, same as Tiernan was for him was last year.
My God. I needed a husband and children at some point. That wasn’t him.
I exhaled. “Yeah, this was fun, but I won’t be in your bed, Jake.”
“You’re right, it was fun. And yes, you will.” He paused before adding, “In six days, when you come to close the deal on the property Tiernan bought up here.”
My eyes went wide. How did he know about that? I wasn’t planning on seeing him—I had no reason to—but he was right. I’d completely forgotten about the trip, Tiernan planned on settling there some day, with Kaleb. A piece of land became available a couple miles from Jake, so she snatched it up.
I was flying into Telluride, weather allowing. Jake would be locked up on the peak by then. I wouldn’t see him.
“I want to see you move,” he said softly.
Something felt like it was about to burst out of my chest.
“You like me,” he said.
I shook my head. Asshole. I’m not your distraction. I refuse.
“Well, you are good for something,” I replied.
There was silence and then he sighed. “Seems to be the consensus, yes. I’m good for that.”
His bite was back, and I smiled, knowing I’d pissed him off.
What? Did I misunderstand? Did we bond or something?
Women leave him. There was a reason.
“You’re a dick,” I gritted out.
“Yeah, so are you.”
I hung up, tossing the phone to my bed and burying my head in my hands. There was no way Tiernan wasn’t going to find out about this. That guy had no manners.
I smoothed my hair back, searching for a rubber band to secure it, get my life back in order, and get my head straight, so I remember why I should never do this again, but then my phone dings, and I look over my shoulder.
A text rolled in, and I grabbed the cell, swiping the screen.
I’m still going to lick you, Jake wrote.
My face fell.
See you in a week, he added.
I stared at the words, so many promises in such a small amount of text. My heart raced, and my stomach flipped, thinking about where I’d be in one week.
He wasn’t going to forgot this. He wasn’t going to let me forget this.
I tightened my ponytail until my scalp burned and stalked out of the room, leaving my phone behind.
I won’t see him.
I won’t be going to that house.
And he is not taking out my ponytail.