I was going to repeat what I said fifteen years ago; Jesse Price is a monster.
Staring holes at him through my window was not the good morning I thought it would be. But then again, I had never had a good morning ever since he moved his company right next to my shop two years ago, and I have despised more him ever since. I thought I could only bump into him when there was an event, but it turned out our fates continued to be entwined, and I couldn’t get rid of him even if I wanted to.
I roughly munched on the fries I was eating, sending daggers through Jesse’s back as my wide windows gave me the perfect view of him standing next to his car, talking to the baker woman next door, Mrs. Allen. I saw the box of goodies she gave him every morning, pampering him like he was a lonely kid who needed love and acceptance. But that was who he was. He attracted good people because he made himself look good to them. Everyone in the block freaking loved him. Everyone had something nice to say about him, and I remained the bitter and hateful woman.
Jesse was the person who took everything from me; my first kiss, my first dance, my virginity, and he was the one who gave me my first heartbreak. He was the person who took fifteen years of my life. My family. He stole everything from me and yet, I was the one who couldn’t let go of the past. I was the one who brewed hate. I was the one who ruin family gatherings because I couldn’t pretend like him. He was the one people invited first, and I was the one whom people dreaded to invite.
In short, he had ruined my life for fifteen years and he was still ruining it. I was twenty-five, but I still felt like that little girl who wanted to run off to her room and cry because Jesse Price had hurt her feelings.
It embarrassed me, the emotions he evoked inside me, and the person he turns me into. But it was not my fault. It had never been my fault. Jesse wasn’t nice. He was mean, and he knew the right words to press my buttons. At least, it was the face he had shown me all these years, but it was different from the one he lets everyone see.
I continued to stare at him, despite feeling the urge to turn away. But he was like a tick that won’t go away until I lose my mind, and I was starting to lose my mind.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the phone next to me started to ring. Cursing, I ignored it and walked around the counter to throw the rest of the uneaten fries into the trash. Then I walked over to the window. My palms pressed into it. There were times in life when everything sort of slows down, all your senses go on high alert and you see everything clearly. This was one of them. The world had slowed down and I was seeing him perfectly clear. I was seeing his big muscled body hidden under his white t-shirt and a blazer. He was a man who didn’t care about wearing suits, on any occasion.
And when he turned, his eyes locked on mine. I should have been ashamed that I was caught staring, but I couldn’t help it. Those eyes, deep-set and brown. Squared jaw and cheekbones that cut like ice. His hair was still glossy, even after so many years. Emotions that I didn’t want to deal with swept up at a startling rate and I felt my throat choking up.
As he stared at me, he wore a mixture of amusement and confusion, probably wondering why I was staring at him so deeply and immensely. Probably wondering if I was stripping him bare or recalling that drunk night. Sweaty body. Harsh breaths. Panting. Naked skin. Moans and groans. Whispered words I couldn’t remember. Images that were blurry to me. Neither one of us ever dared to bring up that night. I already felt like burying myself when I woke up in tangled sheets, cuddled by another naked body.
Shaking my head, I took the images out of my head. My lips curled when he raised his hand and waved at me. As I glared, Mrs. Allen turned in the direction, and I quickly scrambled away from the window back to the counter before I could glare at her too.
I never looked back at the window.
A few minutes later, the bell chimed when the door was opened.
“Hi, welcome—” the rest of my words died and my heart lodged in my throat when I lifted my smiling face to rest it on Jesse, who edged away from the door and started walking to me.
The smile on my face was wiped away immediately and annoyance rose in place of it. Despite the shop having different smells of flowers, I hated that I could pick out Jesse’s scent. It stood out to me, screaming for me to recognize it. I had always recognized his smell. His footsteps. His laughter.
He approached the counter and paused. His closeness confused and tempted me. His shoulders were much broader closer, his muscles hard and solid.
He tilted his chin up, looking down his nose as he examined me. It was giving me a condescending look and my nerves tattered.
“It’s not a good morning if you’re the first thing I see,” I bit out, my blood boiling. A lot of people think they knew the exact reason they started to hate. The exact moment that changes how you view someone, but it was what pissed me off. I didn’t remember the reason, but I knew what I felt.
He rolled his eyes. “How many times have you said this and how many times has it made a difference?” he remarked, his tone awfully matching his words, like he was fed up with the words stuck to my head for fifteen years...like he knew it wouldn’t make a difference whether I hated him because he was still going to be here. Still in my life, and still wreaking havoc.
Forcing deep breaths out through my nose because if I opened my mouth, I’d either start crying or I’d start screaming. His words really hit where they always hit. It was not the first time I had wished he would disappear or lose his memories so he could lose his way back into my life. Different scenarios were made up in my mind every time he pushed me to the wall and made me cry.
People thought I overact when it came to him, but how many of those people have put themselves in my shoes? How many of those would understand the position Jesse had put me in? My family, who get annoyed at me. My friends, who get tired of hearing me complain about him, and the people who didn’t like to see me in the same room with him.
Jesse startled me when he slammed a box on the counter to get my attention back on him. I felt a splitting headache as I looked down at the box, then back up at him, confused. “What’s this?” The box looked awfully a lot like what I had seen Mrs. Allen carrying.
He grinned now. It was slow and sexy. It was all Jesse. Annoying. Explosive. Devilish. He answered instantly, “I thought, since we are neighbors, I could share it with you.” He ran a hand through his hair, so black and soft looking it made my chest tighten. He rested his arm on the counter, keeping a watchful eye on me. “I could never resist wanting to be nice to you.” He opened the box for me to see, but I didn’t even have to look at it.
“Do I look like I want to eat your fucking croissant?”
“You look like you need to put some food inside you.” He gave me a slow sweep, and I actually wanted to smack him with the bouquet on the counter, mainly because he hit a nerve. Two weeks ago, he made a jab at my weight and I haven’t recovered from it.
“Thank you for your kindness, Jesse, but I need to get back to work now. You need to get back to work. Are we on the same page?”
We had never been on the same page.
“You’ve always been too scared to be in my presence for more than ten minutes, Iris. It makes a guy think.” The smirk in his voice was like a stab to my senses. I hated the way he says my name, all clipped and imperious as if he was superior to me.
I scoffed at his response. “I’ve been aware for some time now that the only thing you can think about and have thought about all through your life is me. It’s understandable that you’re a little obsessed with me. Unhealthy, but it’s understandable.” A smile played on my lips as I gauged his reaction and the way he rubbed his upper lip as if he was trying to hold back a chuckle.
“Oh, yeah?” He appeared to find my statement amusing, but I didn’t.
His hands gripped the edge of the counter as he pushed back, lowering his gaze before his shoulders began to shake. His chuckles were soft and low. When he brought his face back up to stare at me, he grinned and let his hands fall to his sides.
“Moving on from the topic that would obviously bruise you, and because it’s a good day,” he began, darting his gaze around my shop. “I would need three bouquets for my clients later in the afternoon. Don’t worry about the bill, I will send Viv to sort it out with you.”
“I won’t sell you flowers,” I stated firmly. “You have seen how easily things break. How beauty turns ugly. You can’t touch my flowers. They’re not meant for you or your clients. Send Viv to another shop.”
Another chuckle drew out of him, as he simply looked me over, his gaze leisurely and irritating. “Have you not learned anything before opening your shop? You don’t send customers away, Iris. You embrace your customers and you treat them well so they can return. That’s how you retain loyal customers.”
“You understood that, but you couldn’t understand that ′leave me alone’ means no interaction? No seeing each other?”
“We both know that’s impossible. You have to see me, whether you like it or not. I don’t know if that’s what you consider a curse, but as for me, it’s always been glorious seeing you.” Anger sliced through my chest, and he read it, his lips twitching with the need to laugh. His tone was amusing when he continued, “How do you plan on dealing with it today?”
“Deal with what?”
He cocked his head, not surprised by my question. “What’s today?”
“I don’t know, but it’s always an I hate you Jesse Price day.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, your family wanted me to tell you that Jason is proposing to Kelly today and your presence is very much appreciated.”
The announcement had me blinking my eyes several times before I recovered quickly. “What the fuck? They couldn’t call to tell me? You just decided to tell me today?” I shot the questions at him, angry, but mostly devastated that I had to hear about my brother’s engagement to his girlfriend from my enemy. What could possibly be more heartbreaking than my own family sending a messenger to relay their message rather than picking up their phones or coming over.
“One, you’re a bitch to your family so they were a little scared you were going to be your usual moody, bitchy self. You can’t hold it against them for wanting to avoid that. And two, you blocked Jason on your phone. Three, I tried telling you a few times for the past week, but you wouldn’t listen to me and kept running away. You’ve already blocked me in all socials.” There was a hardness lining his words, and I felt slapped by his words because he pointed out the dreaded truth of the situation between me and my family, and him.
Heat flushed over my cheeks, and I found myself glaring. I absolutely hated it when he stated the cold fact because sometimes, the things that came out of his mouth weren’t always bullshit. They were mostly the truth, which was why I hated him. For being honest, and for making me the liar.
“Now, throughout this narration,” he added on. “whose fault do you think it is?”
Refusing to accept the fault lied with me, I offered to give the messenger my message too. After all, it was why he was here. To deliver my family’s message, so here was mine too.
“Since neither one of them bothered to come to my apartment or my shop, then you can happily tell my brother congratulations. Also, tell him to tread lightly or the only presence of his sister he’s going to feel at his wedding would be the fingerprints I would leave on his wedding present, which I would mail to him.”
This was why they called me a bitch. Because I was indeed a bitch. An unapologetic bitch, fired up by my hatred for Jesse Price.
His lips flattened, going white at the edge. “Cute, but too bad you can’t ditch it. Grandpa Simon is coming.”
A large chunk of my head got blown by the news. I felt the urge to rub my temples to ease my aching head. “Was it your idea to invite him?”
Jesse shrugged one shoulder. “I can’t look innocent while I’m guilty.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“An asshole who knows the ways to deal with you.” The words were as flat as his stare. “You should know by now that I don’t fuck with your family’s happiness, and most especially your brother’s. If you’re going to make it hard for them, Iris, then I’m going to make it harder for you.” His voice worked over my skin like hot iron, his voice, deep, and raspy. “The more you piss them off, the more I piss you off, you get? Treat them nicely and I will think about whether I will allow you to leave my head.”
A fire lit in my stomach, and I leaned forward with clenched fists. “Well...” I drifted off, unable to think of anything to say.
“Well,” he repeated, and his expression remained blank, but something stirred in his eyes.
“Message delivered,” I murmured. “Thank you for coming to Happiness flower shop.” I couldn’t have chosen the best way to say fuck off. Jesse does not react to swear words. He reacted more to pettiness and sarcasm.
He made a throaty sound, then huffed out a laugh. “I’m sorry, but every time I hear what you call your shop, I can’t stop myself. Happiness for a name for someone who oozes none of that. How ironic.”
I felt so insulted I wanted to scream. This wasn’t the first time he had laughed at my shop’s name, but every time he does it, there was another level of insult added to it. It hurts every time. Every fucking time. “The door awaits you,” I said.
“Hmm . . .” His index finger rasped along his jaw. The stubble on his face drew attention to his lips and the soft curve of them. “Tell you what...” he stated, lowering his finger. “I can put in a good word for you with your family...make them understand why you can’t make it to the event. After all, it’s not an engagement party, so you don’t really have to go.”
“And why would you do that?” I crossed my arms.
“Because quite frankly, I don’t want you there as well. You are exceptionally skilled at ruining things for me.”
“Excuse me? You don’t want me to attend my family’s function because you, who is not a member of my family, do not want me to ruin the function for you? Did I hear that correctly?”
“To be fair, I’m more of a family member than most people in your family. Everyone in your family loves me. People who don’t know us assume I’m your brother.”
“Oh my god.”
When he did speak, the sound was so abrupt I almost flinched. “Do you think I want to be called your brother? Jason is already stressed enough being yours. You can’t rope a poor man into your nest. You cause destruction everywhere you go. I’ll be damned if I let you eat me alive too.”
I ground my teeth. He made it sound as if I was a monster who sucked people’s souls.
“Jesse, I know you struggle with simple instructions, but can you please get the hell out of my shop? I’d volunteer to hold your hand and guide you out of here if that’s what will get you to leave.”
“Hold my hand? Like we used to?”
“We didn’t hold hands.”
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “No, we did a lot more.” His voice came out raspy.
My stomach kicked. I was immediately short of breath. “If you bring up that night, I swear to God—”
“Funny how your mind goes right to that.” He snorted amusingly, although, he stared at me for a long moment, not detaching. Tension stretched between us before he continued, “I was going to say we fought, pushed, and did a lot of bitings as kids, but thanks for telling me where your head’s at.” Oddly enough, he sounded pissed when he had no reason to. Was he pissed that I brought that night up? Did he think I wanted to?
My face felt hot and I backed away a little, crossing my arms. “I’m honestly considering learning French because you obviously don’t respond to the English language.”
Jesse pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes alive with irritation. “Iris,” he drawled my name.
“What?” I licked my lips. When he tried to speak, I hurried on, “I think your assistant is looking for you.” I nudged my chin towards the windows, and Jesse turned around at the gesture, his eyes settling on his assistant waving at him through the windows before she tapped on the watch around her wrist.
When his head snapped back around, he rubbed a hand over his stubble. “You will send the flowers, right?”
“I will think about it.” I’m lying.
His lips twisted on a half-repressed smirk. “Okay.” He knows I’m lying. “I guess I will see you later?” He arched a brow.
There was a weird sort of beat between us, a heavy pause. “I guess,” I returned.
My brother called me an hour later after Jesse left my shop. I was not sure if my message got delivered, but whatever it was, I didn’t pick up, nor did I call back. He was lucky that I unblocked him. Throughout the day, I avoided all the calls and messages sent to my phone. I tended to my flowers and sold zero flowers, and by the time five o’clock rolled over, I closed shop.
Jesse’s car was still parked in front of our building, which I ignored and got inside my own car. By the time I reached home to my apartment, I was exhausted. I only remembered hitting the couch and nothing else again. I jolted awake at the loud knocks coming from the door. I stood to answer, walking with more exhaustion than before. Yawning, I turned the knob and the door swung open, revealing Cece: one year older, an inch taller, and prettier. My cousin.
She waltzed into my apartment, her Gucci bag swinging on her arm. I drilled my eyes on the four-inch heels she was hearing, her caked face, and her formal attire. Then, I suddenly remembered something. I knew there was something that had skipped my mind earlier, but seeing my cousin here all dressed up reminded me about my brother’s proposal party. I slammed the door shut.
“Why haven’t you answered my calls?” Her voice was layered with frustration and annoyance. “or anybody’s calls?” She pierced me with her frosty gaze. One thing about Cece, she was scary when she was annoyed or pissed.
I yawned again, strolling into the living room before I lowered myself on the couch, tucking my legs under me. “It’s on silent, so I didn’t hear it.”
She huffed. “If I call you now, is it going to ring or is it still going to be on silent?”
Shit. I didn’t remember if I put it on silent before drifting off to sleep, and if Cece caught on my lies, she would never let me live the rest of my life peacefully. I regarded her tiredly. “Why would I lie to you? I really forgot to take it off, and I see you’ve dressed up for the party.” I changed the subject, surveying her from head to toe.
“I see you haven’t,” she shot back. “I take it you want to show up late?”
If I was smart, I would have jumped on that opening, saving myself from her wrath. Instead, I changed position on the couch, now lying down with my head being supported by my Spongebob pillow. “It’s just a proposal party. It’s not like it’s an engagement party or a wedding. Nothing will happen if I don’t show up.”
Her heels clapped against the hardwood floors as she neared the couch. “Jesse was right when he told me you weren’t planning on showing up.” She gave me a disappointed look I knew my mother would have given me.
“Oh, the rat already told you?” I wasn’t surprised. He would grab at any chance to paint me in a bad light in front of my family, but well, in his defense, I allowed him to do that.
“Don’t call him that. Unlike you, he wants your brother’s happiness and he makes effort to contribute to his happiness.”
“Yeah, perfect Jessie Price. Everyone’s favorite person,” I muttered with distaste, trying not to let my stomach clench with guilt.
Her eyes narrowed to slits and she gave me a long look, finally coming to her own conclusion, which she, unfortunately, offered to share. “Is that why you won’t come? To piss Jesse off?” Now came the disappointed tone and the final delivery. “In case you have forgotten, it’s your brother’s day, not Jesse’s.”
Annoyed beyond words because I didn’t want to start my day with Jesse and end it with Jesse again, I flew down from the couch and threw my pillow, stomping off into the kitchen. As I walked, I threw the words over my shoulder. “Wow, bold of you to assume everything I do is because of him.”
I opened the fridge and gulped the juice straight from the can, slamming the door in annoyance before turning to face my cousin. Leaning my back against the counter and my fingers gripping the edges, I continued, “Maybe if either one of you had bothered to call or show up like you just did uninvited, I wouldn’t hear anything about the party from my arch-nemesis.”
“Archnemesis? What are you, fifteen?”
My cousin had finally exceeded her welcome. I was not going to have it. I may act like a bitch over this, but I was pushed to it. I crossed out of the kitchen and returned to the couch. “Is your husband out of town and you decided to load your frustrations on me?” I grabbed the remote and turned on the tv, ignoring her standing over me.
“Iris, I’m not going to drag this conversation with you. You need to get your ass off that couch, shower, and put some clothes on. People will talk if you don’t show up.”
I laughed. “You mean people won’t talk if I don’t show up because last time I remember, they talked because of one specific reason, and it wasn’t about my business or the fact that I’m still single at twenty-five.”
“Maybe you won’t be single anymore if you get your ass up and go out.”
“Mingle with people? No, thanks. I think my second option is to be a nun. Mum has to rely on Jason for grandkids now.”
Cece’s lips pursed as she continued directing her irritation at me. “You’re unbelievable. Nothing changes your mind, huh? How can one woman be so freaking stubborn?” She threw her hands.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, ask dad.”
“You know what? You’re not coming? Fine. You’re the one who will have some explaining to do. Just imagine how devastated your brother would feel when he learned that you ditched an important day because you cannot stop being childish.”
I heard her walking to the door and I turned around. “For the last time, Cece, Jesse is not the reason why I’m not going.” I wanted her to know that. He could not have that much power over me.
She stopped by the door and eyed me. “Everything you do has to do with Jesse, Iris, and for someone who claims to hate him, you sure made him the center of your world. You might want to revisit that.” She exited, her heels tapping in the distance.
“He’s not the center of my world!” I screamed after her, even though she might not have heard me, but I heard the thudding sound my pillow made when it hit the door.
I let out a long breath. I couldn’t believe she would say that and walk away just like that. Was she insane to say some bullshit like that? Jesse? The center of my world? Yeah, my cousin was nuts.
Fuck her, but that pissed me off. That bothered me.
I was up on my feet instantly, then sat back again when I realized I didn’t need to go anywhere. My mind was totally fucked by what Cece had said, and I could only chuckle in anger and disbelief, then frustration. I continued to change the channel, trying to settle on what to watch, but I was so annoyed I couldn’t enjoy anything. I ended up switching off the tv to cuddle my pillow on the couch.
The lights were turned off and the curtains were drawn. I could see the city lights and the moon from where I was lying, and that didn’t seem to calm my nerves. I swallowed hard.
The phone in my pocket rang. I thought of ignoring it, but I fished the phone out and put it on speaker.
“Jesse?” I frowned, then picked up the phone to check the ID. It was him. “Why are you calling me? Somebody died?”
“It’s going to be you if you don’t come outside now.”
“You’re here?” I sat up, walking over to the window, and sure enough, I saw him standing beside his car. He was looking up at my window. “Have you lost your mind? What are you doing here? I thought I said no contact with you when I’m home.”
“We can talk about your Jessephobia another day, Iris, but we’re thirty minutes late. Your mother has been calling me. I don’t know why the fuck I promised her that I would get you there, but I did, and I’m not about to break that promise. Throw some clothes on and come down, or I’m coming up.”
Panic flooded my system and made my words unsteady. “Wait, what? I thought I already told you I’m not going. I don’t care if you promised my mum anything. That’s your problem, not mine. Next time, you won’t make the same mistake again. Good night, Jesse.” I ended the call and drew the curtains to close it, then walked back to the couch.
I didn’t care that he was outside. I didn’t care that he was waiting, or that my parents and brother would be disappointed if I didn’t show up. I didn’t care. When I cared, all I received was a disappointment. My family had disappointed me more times than I could count and I had lived through those disappointments. Today wasn’t an exception.
The loud banging on my door startled me. I whipped my head in that direction.
“Open up!” he shouted, banging his fists against the door.
What the fuck?
“Are you insane? You’re going to wake up my neighbors.” I stomped to the door and yanked it open. He didn’t have time to process that I had opened the door before I grabbed his collar and pulled him into my house, slamming the door close just as my neighbor was opening the door to his apartment.
“For fuck sake, do you want my neighbors to hate me?”
He rolled his eyes and stalked into my living room, walking past me. “I don’t see how that should worry you,” he commented as he swaggered into my kitchen like he owned it and opened my fridge. He pulled out a plate of frozen pizza and sniffed it, then grabbed a can of coke. Jesse stalked back into the living room, adding, “You don’t give a shit that someone hates you, so don’t give me that bullshit of you caring about that.” He plopped down on my couch and opened his coke.
I stared at him in disbelief. “This is my home,” I went to remind him. “Ask me before you take out my stuff.”
“It pisses you off?” he asked, flipping through the channels. The can of coke was balanced on his leg. “Funny how you think I should consider your feelings when you don’t consider others.”
“You’re not going to the party?”
His eyes briefly flickered to me before returning to the television. “Yeah, I think I kinda like it here, but if you want to go, we can head out now.”
I took a seat opposite the couch, staring at him in disbelief. “I know what you’re doing and it’s not going to work.”
He swallowed his bite of pizza. “You’re lying. It’s already working.” He watched me like he always did, assessing my current state. “What would it take for you to give others some slack?” He wiped his fingers on a napkin and picked up his coke.
“You made me this way.” I was ashamed to say that. I wish I could take it back. Hearing it out loud brought red flames to my cheeks.
“I made you this way?” Jesse laughed huskily. “What, I’m your origin story?” His eyebrows rose. “Maybe take responsibility once in a while, Iris.”
“Don’t even start.”
“It’s not my fault you think I’m the thorn under your feet. Nobody started this shit, but you. Hell, I’m not even doing anything, but you always get triggered. You always lash out and blame me for everything. It’s a miracle you haven’t blamed me for the world’s problems.”
“I know, I’m still trying to find a way to link that back to you.”
He laughed again. “You’re sick, you know that? Fuck, I don’t even know why I’m here.” He threw the rest of his pizza onto the plate. “Why does it matter if you don’t go to the party?”
“I thought you were doing it for Jason.”
His eyes clouded for a second as he looked back at me. “Am I?” he asked, a husky note entering his voice. The words rang through the house, startling us both. The question was a tug in my heart. Jesse blinked as if coming out of a fog and looked away. “Or maybe I just like seeing you in torment.”
“Always have,” I pointed out softly.
He shot me another look. I tried breathing through my nose.
“Fine.” I rose to my feet instantly. He watched me with arched brows, and I threw my hands in frustration. “You win, okay? I’m going to the damn party, you motherfucker.”
The edges of his lips curled. It was not a smile. It looked more like a victory. “See, I knew you would cave eventually. It’s always been like this—you pull and pull, but I always make sure I push you over the edge.” He was back on his feet again, swinging his car keys. “I will see you outside.” He stalked for the door.
My lips tightened as I watched after him, trembling.
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