This is not the way I imagined this day would go. I knew I would stand in front of Kaitlyn’s house with a racing heart, but I didn’t think it would be for entirely different reasons than usual.
The frown on my forehead deepens as soon as Kaitlyn opens the door and the smile I’ve come to adore so much falters instantly. Her eyes widen, and her hand flies to her chest when I tell her, “We need to talk.”
Fuck, how much I hate those words. They never mean anything pleasant, and judging from the look on Kaitlyn’s face, she knows they won’t bring good news right now either. I pondered all night and all morning what to do, how to get out of this, but I couldn’t come up with anything that remotely resembled good news.
With a sigh, I take a step closer to her. All I want is to bury my fingers in her soft hair and devour her sweet lips, only I know I can’t. It’ll make everything harder.
“What’s going on?” She clutches at her shirt and grimaces.
“Can we go inside?” When she nods and steps aside, I turn my head to take one last look around before I enter the house. I follow Kaitlyn into the living room and sit down on the other end of the couch, facing her with a safe distance between us.
“Aaron,” she murmurs, fidgeting. “Talk to me.”
With a deep breath, I rub my burning eyes, trying to get rid of the sure signs of my lack of sleep. My stupid heart won’t slow down so I hear my pulse pounding in my ears. “I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier.” My gaze meets hers, and I have a hard time keeping eye-contact. I swallow to get rid of the lump in my throat. “Something happened.”
She raises her eyebrows but doesn’t say or ask anything. She tucks one leg underneath her while the other slightly bounces up and down on the floor.
I let out a heavy sigh before I continue. “Do you remember how some work thing stressed me out when we met? And how I told you I couldn’t give you any details?”
“Well, I tried to ignore the fucked up shit that happened, and now it’s catching up with me. I should have seen it coming, but because I was stupid and selfish, you got dragged into this.”
She tilts her head, her eyebrows drawn together, blinking rapidly. “Dragged into what? Aaron, what are you talking about?”
I run my hand over my face. With my eyes squeezed shut, I shake my head. Fuck, I don’t think I could hate myself any more right now. “Okay, um, I guess I should start at the beginning and tell you all the things I’ve kept from you.” I look back at her and cringe. Her eyes widen, and the pained expression on her face makes my chest feel tight. “You know how after Mom’s death, our grandparents looked after Ben and me?”
Again she just nods and lets me continue. “Shortly after my eleventh birthday, my grandma died too, and as my granddad wasn’t capable of looking after us by himself, Dad had to give up his job as construction manager—a job he loved because he traveled a lot as he had to stay at certain locations for sometimes several weeks at a time to oversee a project.”
Kaitlyn gasps. “He loved to be away from you?”
I shrug. “That was his way of coping. When he was away, he could escape his memories of how it was before Mom died. But when he had to work on local sites only, things went down the drain. He couldn’t bear being at home all the time, let alone be responsible for two teenage boys. That’s why he became such a workaholic and soon found other means to escape reality. At some point, Dad was more interested in booze and women than in what Ben and I were up to.”
“Shit, that’s awful,” she mumbles as she scoots closer.
She wants to touch me, but I hold up my hand. “No, please. Let me finish.”
She grimaces but refrains from touching me, and I feel like an even bigger asshole. “I’m sorry, but you need to know everything first.”
She bites her lips and nods yet again.
I take a deep breath and go on. “When I was sixteen and Ben almost nineteen, we met a guy. His name is Jackson, and he is head of a gang of drug dealers. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, my brother and I were making good money with selling drugs for him.”
“Oh fuck,” Kaitlyn mutters. She’s awfully pale as she tucks up her legs and wraps her arms around her knees.
I frown at her reaction. My shoulders drop, knowing that this wasn’t even the worst part of my story. “That’s all in the past,” I continue in a low voice. “I promise. Ben quit first. It took me another two years to come to my senses, but about four years ago, I quit too. Jackson wasn’t happy, and he’s popped up in my life every once in a while since, trying to convince me to join him again.”
I shift left and right the closer I get to the bitter truth—the fact that I put her life in danger. “Until now,” I continue after taking a deep breath, “I could ward him off every time, but now he wants to buy the bar where I work so he can use it for his drug trafficking. And he wants me to work for him again. Of course I refused. That’s when that thing happened.” I leap to my feet, unable to sit still any longer. I pace up and down before I come to a stop in front of the window, looking out into the backyard. “Jackson told me he was responsible for my best friend’s death.”
“The guy whose grave you visited,” Kaitlyn whispers behind me.
“Yes, Eric.” Thinking back to the day Jackson revealed his secret, the urge to inflict pain on him resurfaces. I grind my teeth and rub my chest. Before the feeling gets too overwhelming, I push all thoughts aside and turn around to face Kaitlyn. And again, just looking at her calms me down. I draw in a long, slow breath before I continue, “That’s why I was so beside myself with rage and grief. But you helped me through it. I would only feel at ease when I was with you.”
My chest feels tighter with every word I say, and the creases on Kaitlyn’s forehead deepen with every piece of information she receives. “Otherwise, the pain would have eaten me alive,” I add. “I needed to feel something different. And you made me feel. That’s why I couldn’t stay away from you.”
She draws in a sharp breath. “Are you saying you wouldn’t feel that way about me if that thing with Jackson hadn’t happened?”
I open my mouth to contradict her, but I hesitate a moment too long. Her eyes widen, and I want nothing more than to tell her she’s wrong, but all of a sudden, I’m not sure if she’s got a point, and I promised not to lie to her. “Fuck, I don’t know if it would have been this intense,” I mumble as I stare at the floor.
With a humorless laugh, she jumps up from the couch and paces up and down, running her fingers through her hair. “I can’t believe this.” She stops in her tracks and narrows her eyes at me. And here I was thinking I couldn’t make this any worse. “Do you regret what happened between us?”
Her barely audible voice hits me right in my chest. My heart stops beating for a moment before it continues to race like I’m running a marathon. She stands in front of me with her arms wrapped around her tight, staring at me with dull eyes. I would love to tell her how I could never regret anything we did or that she’s the best thing to ever happen to me, but this is not why we’re having this conversation. “Damn, Kaitlyn, this is one big fucking mess. What I’m trying to tell you is that you are not safe.”
“What?” Her eyes narrow. “What do you mean? I’m not safe?”
I grimace. “Jackson uses you as leverage to get to me. He knows about you and me, and he threatened to pay you a little visit if I don’t talk to my boss to convince him to sell his bar. So now I have to figure out how to stop him. But I have no fucking clue. All I know is you’re not safe as long you are with me. Maybe you should go back home.”
“What?!” she yells and takes a step back. “No way. I can’t go home. Not yet.” She shakes her head vigorously as she keeps staring at me, blinking rapidly.
I take a step toward her, but she holds up her hand. I frown. “It’s for your safety,” I tell her. “You’re in danger here.”
She snorts and throws her hands in the air. “You think not having you around will make me feel safe? No, Aaron, I won’t go back home. At least not because of this.” She narrows her eyes at me. “You never answered my question. Do you regret what happened between us?”
She presses her lips together in a tight line and draws her brows together. Fuck, I despise myself. Knowing I’m responsible for the hardened expression on Kaitlyn’s face is killing me. While all the things she made me feel so far were beyond exhilarating, what I’m feeling now is the exact opposite, another thing entirely new to me. Never have I felt this hurt, never have I felt more devastated at seeing someone else hurt because of me.
The painful tightness in my throat makes it hard to speak. “No, I don’t,” I choke out.
“Then why are you pushing me away? Are you ending things between us?”
With a heavy sigh, I shake my head. “No, I’m not ending things, but I need to figure this out.” I take a few steps away from her. “I’m sorry, Sunshine. I won’t come near you until everything is solved. Don’t worry though, my friends are keeping an eye on you to make sure no one comes too close.” I turn and exit the living room toward the front door. The longer I stay, the harder it will be to go.
Kaitlyn hurries after me. “What?! No! Don’t do this! Don’t just throw this at me and leave!” She grabs my arm and stands in front of me. We are only inches apart, and it’s taking me all my willpower not to wrap her up in an embrace. “Your friends are keeping an eye on me?” she asks. “Who? How am I supposed to act?”
I close my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath. “Daniel and Oliver and a couple of other co-workers,” I tell her, meeting her questioning look. “But don’t worry; you won’t notice any of them. Just act normal.” My gaze falls on her hand, which still rests on my arm, and her touch sends that familiar tingle through my body. I sigh and lift my eyes to hers. “I hate myself for doing this to you. I wish there were another way, but right now, there isn’t.”
She frowns, tightening her grip on me. “How will I know you’re okay?”
I grimace. “I’ll be fine. I know it’s a lot to process. I’ll give you some time to let it sink in and text you to explain more soon.”
With a deep sigh, she closes her eyes and lowers her chin to her chest. Knowing I’ll be leaving her like this, an unnerving sense of emptiness takes hold of me. I lift her face with my index finger and lower my head to press my lips on hers for a last, desperate kiss. I need to feel her one more time. She melts right into me, grabbing a fistful of my shirt, but before I won’t be able to tear myself away from her, I pull back and lean my forehead against hers. “I’m sorry,” I whisper before I walk past her and out the door, clinging to the hope I’ll find a way to solve this soon and return to the woman who means more to me than anyone or anything.