Playing With Fire

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Message Received

Lucas

“I kicked your ass Sutton! Twenty line drives to your ten measly pop flies. I should have placed a bet,” Holli teases. For the hundredth time since we left the stadium.

“Yeah, you’re a real Mike Trout. You hungry?”

“Don’t be a sore loser,” she sing songs from the passenger seat. “And I wish, but it’s a school night for me. I’ve already stayed out way too late.”

“No problem. You want me to walk you to the door?”

Holli bites into her bottom lip. “Could we just wait a little longer before telling Andy? It’s just… this is still pretty new and he’s made progress but I don’t want to poke the bear, you know?”

“Whatever you want, Holli.”

She exhales. “Thank you. I want you to know, I’m not trying to hide you or anything.”

“I get it.” Whatever she’s been through before, I don’t want to push her into anything with me. After dad died, the revolving door of losers my mom used to staunch the pain of her loneliness only got worse as they went on.

I’d seen them all— controlling, lazy, rude, disrespectful. But it wasn’t till I was nineteen and already out on my own that one of them laid a hand on her for the first time. If it weren’t for my football coach, I’d have gone to prison for assault even though it was self-defense.

Holli is a lot stronger than my mom was then—grieving a dead husband with two kids to take care of. But that doesn’t mean I want to press before she’s ready. I of all people, know the repercussions of abuse don’t go away in one night and Holli fits all the signs. I should have seen it from night one.

The second I’d stepped into her hotel room, the air had shifted. I’d originally thought she was just shy, but looking back she might have been fearful and if I’m being honest, that gutting realization is the only thing keeping my hands off her right now.

Holli spooks easier than a frightened animal and since the morning she kicked me out of her hotel room, I’ve had tunnel vision when it comes to her. For the first time in my life, it’s not a pretty face or a nice body holding my attention, but the kindest, sassiest, brightest woman I’ve ever met.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I make myself a promise. I’m going to bring back Holli’s light. She’ll feel safe again even if working at it takes years.

Because the more time I spend with her, the harder I fall.

I reach for her hand and squeeze it. “Let’s get you home.”

~~~

“What’s wrong with you?”

I look up from my phone. After dropping Holli off, she’d surprised and texted me. About an hour later, I’d gotten a picture of her in a backless sundress, her wild golden curls uncontained. Holli told me the picture was taken on her last night of a recovery program she’d attended after her marriage ended. She hadn’t said as much, but I’d put two and two together— it was a program for abuse survivors.

It wasn’t the happiest smile I’d ever seen from her but who knows how long it’d taken her to get there in the first place. I make the picture my lock screen before acknowledging Dale.

“What do you mean?” I ask, locking my phone.

“Who are you talking to?”

I raise a brow. “Do I ask you about all the girls in your contacts list.”

“So it is a woman,” he says, triumphant.

I don’t deny it. “What do you want, Dale?”

“Believe it or not, I am actually bothering you for a reason this time. I need you to look something over for me.” My younger brother’s face brightens and he looks away.

“I’m writing this essay on bravery and I don’t know, I just really want it to be good because Miss DeLower said I could probably use it for my college applications.”

I set my phone down and study my brother. Of all the things I’ve ever expected Dale to come to me for, school work hadn’t even made the top ten.

“Well, when’s it due and how much do you have so far?”

“Wednesday. And the final draft is done.”

I chuckle. “There was a first draft?”

Dale blushes again so I decided I’m done fucking with him for the moment. “Hand it here. Let’s see what we’re working with.”

He hands me a folder and inside is a hard copy of the essay. I scan through the first few lines, then the next few pages and when I’m done, I can’t even hide my surprise.

“You wrote this?”

Dale frowns. “Don’t look so shocked, your girlfriend helped me with it.”

Shit.

“You’re not exactly subtle, you know. You disappeared with my teacher and now you look at your phone like a thirteen year old girl. I might not be as smart as you, but I’m not dumb,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest.

I shrug. “So?”

My brother’s nose wrinkles. “I mean, she’s hot so I get it, but you banging my English teacher is weird. Now every time I’m in her class, it’s all I’m going to be thinking about.”

“Dating, not banging. And if that’s what you’re thinking about, that makes you the weirdo.”

My brother’s expression goes serious. “Miss DeLower isn’t like those fake girls mom says you run through like water. She’s really smart and she’s nice to everyone, even the school janitors. She’s special so if you’re not into her like that, do the right thing, Luke.”

I stifle a laugh. “Noted, chief.”

“I’m just saying,” he says, shrugging. “Mom avoids the convenience stores just so she doesn’t have to see the magazines with your face on them.”

This is news to me. “You know half that shit is made up right?”

I’m not the least bit exciting enough for tabloid attention. I don’t own so much as a dog, I live alone, and when I’m not working out or working, I’m raising a freaking teenager. Even when Dale wasn’t living with me, he and mom were all I thought about constantly.

The only reason I’d figured I didn’t have interest in a long term relationship is that I was just too busy to keep up with it, but after spending my entire evening with Holli, I realize it’s more than that. I can’t chalk it up to timing or the roller coaster of shit I’ve dealt with since my father died. Because the second she sat down at that bar, I’d known she was special. It wasn’t anything she said or did, or had anything to do with her beauty. It was what I’d felt the second I had her beneath me and for the first time ever, I hadn’t been thinking about trades or routes or Dale or keeping my mom’s fridge stocked. I’d been present. And that high was the most delicious kind of living I’d ever experienced.

Dale snorts. “So you didn’t have a threesome with Jessica Alba and Mandy Moore?”

“I don’t know what’s more disturbing, the fact that someone printed that and my mother saw it or the fact that my own little brother would believe I’d fuck two married women. At the same time.”

“As opposed to separate?” he raises a brow.

I wipe a hand over my face. “Isn’t it a school night?”

Dale salutes me. “Alright, I know when I’m being told to fuck off. You don’t gotta tell me twice.” He points at me. “Just remember what we talked about, and I won’t have to fuck you up.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. “Message received.”

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