Most middle-aged women would baulk at the idea of being stuck with an eighteen year old as their narcotics anonymous sponsor, but not Rhonda. Rhonda, who had now been sober since 2007, was a veteran of the programme, and personally vetted to help Harriet Franklin, sober for a little over a year, half of which she spent in a rehabilitation facility.
Junior year had been hard, no one could deny that. Ever since that year, Harriet had never been the same. Since getting out of Port Eden, she took the rest of the year off, what would've been her senior year. The trauma of her past was too fresh, she wouldn't be able to jump straight back into keeping up with assignments and rushing off to high school parties. Her time at home, with her dog Quentin, and a younger sister, who was growing increasingly distant from the rest of the family, was good, it was important for her. All the time she'd had to reconnect with her life was important: she was starting to feel like her old self again.
"And no doubt Christmas will be rough for you, kid," Rhonda said, after she ordered a cappuccino and a decaffeinated latte.
Harriet had cut out caffeine as part of her recovery. It hadn't been recommended, but a year later and she was still seeing the benefits.
"Yeah, Eva's coming back for the holidays, Nate as well. Darleen is coming back from San Francisco, you know since she moved to live with her aunt because the baby is nearly due and her dad won't help out," Harriet surmised for Rhonda, who seemed to like hearing about the teenage tales of Harriet's life.
Equally, Harriet enjoyed hearing about how Rhonda's kids, Jack and Fiona, were coping with middle school, and what Rhonda's wife Gina had made for dinner and why it sucked.
"And Jacob?" Rhonda said, microbladed eyebrows (Harriet remembered hearing about the whole process) pulling together with intrigue.
Harriet swallowed, looking down into her coffee cup instead of Rhonda's dark, interrogating eyes.
She remembered the day Jacob came to visit her in the hospital, the first time they saw each other since their breakup. She was packing up her room, standing on the bed to peel glow-in-the-dark stars off the ceiling as he lingered in the doorway. Still dressed in his athletic gear, his hair was damp from soccer practice in the reign. He was biting his lip nervously, crossing his arms over his chest, as if stepping into the room would be dangerous for him. The image was burned in her mind forever.
They'd said their awkward apologies, the conversation didn't last more than two minutes before Eva showed up to take her home, leaving Jacob to slink off down the corridor.
Seeing him again at that college party at the start of the new school year had been a different story entirely. She'd came along, a year sober, on the arm of a new friend at the school she was now attending (a public school just outside of Rutherford, and nothing like the academy she'd spent the first three years of her education). Jenny was nice, and when Harriet said solemnly 'you cannot let me have a single drink' Jenny nodded and made that promise. The party was being hosted at her friend's older brother's apartment, forty minutes outside of Rutherford. Harriet had shimmied herself into her favourite pair of dark jeans, and slipped on a satin shirt the size of a napkin before driving herself and Jenny over to the party.
Jacob had been stood in the kitchen for most of the night, and she didn't even see him until she looked up from her conversation with Jenny and glanced across the room. He was talking to a tall brunette, resting his hand against the cabinet door above his head to make it look like he was leaning down closer. Harriet was disarmed immediately: she hadn't expected to see him. Not like this, wearing a tight fitted t-shirt across his broad shoulders and muscular arms, which that mischievous dazzle in his dark eyes and the slow smirk pulling at the corner of his lips.
When he turned his head and saw her in the centre of the room, his arm dropped and he stepped back from the girl. He looked into Harriet's green eyes and felt himself drowning all over again, eighteen months after they'd broken up. But Harriet, this new, sober, fierce Harriet, she didn't drown.
She stormed right up to him, moving quickly through the people, running a hand anxiously through her blonde curls on her journey, and stood before him. Quirked an eyebrow, placed her hand on her hip, narrowed her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" She asked, tone harsher than she expected.
The glass behind him contained the remnants of a vodka lemonade, and Harriet knew Jacob well enough to know that was his drunk drink. That and the way he slowly swayed on his feet looking down at her, his flirty smirk turning into a lazy smile, told her that he was drunk better than any words ever could.
"Franklin," Jacob said, his tongue sliding across his bottom lip as he eyed the emerald satin fabric across her chest, admiring the planes of her collarbones, the slope of her neck, the fullness of her bottom lip.
Eighteen months, and he still felt as lovesick as ever.
He leaned down, until his hot breath was fanning across her ear and the skin of her neck, causing hairs to rise.
"I live here," he whispered slowly, before pulling back and laughing at the shocked expression on her face. "Better question is, what are you doing here? This is a college party, we didn't expect any high school kids to show up."
"Who are you calling a kid? I'm two months younger than you, asshole," Harriet bit back. "My friend Jenny said there was going to be a party. And I wanted to see if I could do it. You know, sober."
Jacob quickly turned sincere, glancing to the side so Harriet could get perfect view of his chiselled jaw. If she paid enough attention, she could see the ghost of her kisses against his skin, feel the memory of her tongue on his neck.
But she wasn't going to pay attention, not if that's where her mind would lead her.
"And how's that working out for you?" Jacob said.
Harriet looked behind her at the living room of the party then scoffed. "Well, my sober buddy is giving someone a lap dance with a bottle of gin in her hand. So, I guess it's up to me to brave this alone."
"Not alone," Jacob said.
For a moment, she thought he was going to reach out, take her hand in his like he used to, press a kiss to her palm then seal it with his own hand. He faltered, then he didn't bother doing it at all.
"I thought you were moving away for college. Top Ten would help you get all the connections, you'd go to some fancy soccer school. What happened to that plan?" Harriet said, moving around the kitchen to find herself a can of Pepsi while Jacob poured himself a lemonade and got them each a candy bar.
Jacob gave a bitter laugh. They found themselves leaning against the kitchen counter, bare arms brushing as they watched the party from the outskirts, familiarity haunting them like a fond memory.
The memory of Mr and Mrs Smith costumes, getting to know each other over expensive wine, spending all night glued to his side as Harriet revelled in the feeling of new love. Winning beer pong games, laughing all night with her head pressed against his chest. And the final words he's said to her before they parted: 'don't be a stranger'.
"I-uh. I gave all that up. After everything. Just didn't seem to matter anymore, not like I thought it did," Jacob confessed.
Harriet had never before found herself pondering the weight of the word 'everything' but for her, especially now, it was hard to ignore. Everything with Montgomery, with Rutherford, with her addiction issues, with Eva. Everything with Jacob.
Because, with Jacob, she'd felt like she was Everything.
"Besides, I got into a good school, good scholarship. Free housing too. Have you checked out this house? It's real nice," Jacob said, holding his arms out wide to gesture to his new, humble abode.
It was a nice apartment, a bit more masculine for Harriet's tastes, but nice nonetheless. The couches were leather, and even had some decorative pillows. There were photo frames with team photos, and a distinct grayscale theme, with blacks, whites and greys across the rooms. The kitchen was fully furnished, with no evidence of irreparable damage. It was a lot nicer than most college apartment's she'd been in, most resembled a prison cell.
And, trust her, Harriet knew one or two things about prison cells. Thank God for the ability of rich parents to get records expunged.
"How-how've you been? Since getting out, I mean," Jacob said, sounding nervous to be approaching this topic.
"You make it sound like I escaped torture," Harriet said, with a smile. "But I've been good. The trial was... tough. It was for everyone."
Jacob hadn't been there at the trial, and he regretted it every day. Not being there for her as she stepped down from that podium, an extra person to reassure her, hold her, promise that this is when things get better, this is when they lock the sick bastard away. He couldn't face her then, just like he couldn't face her when she had been packing up her room.
"And Eva's gone now, for college. Candace really freaking hates me. Everyone's gone really. Everyone... but you it seems." Harriet said. "Why stay so close to town?"
"I had my reasons."
Jacob didn't look down at Harriet to see her gazing up at him, not quite the wide-eyed girl he once loved. Someone stronger, someone braver, someone who loved him just as fiercely as she used to. The things they said about first loves Harriet used to doubt, but she knew she couldn't now.
He knew as soon as he looked at her, he'd be lost again. She was slightly taller in her heels, but that still only made her barely average height. Her hair was shorter now, curled like usual so it hung around her sharp jawline. Her face was fuller than it was last time he saw her, healthier too. The strength was in her eyes, with Harriet everything was always revealed in her eyes. But while it used to be blown pupils and bleary eyes, now they were slightly narrowed with innate suspicion, the colour just as bright as ever, lined thickly with mascara and eyeliner.
And he didn't want to look at the tiny shirt she was wearing, highlighting the curves of her chest and the hint of cleavage on show. Her open shoulders and the necklace clinging to her throat, and her back totally exposed. And the way the dark jeans she was wearing clung to her legs, the curves more defined than ever. Jacob had never seen her so curvy before. He didn't know whether it was the alcohol or simply his inevitable attraction to her that had him feeling so... turned on?
"Your mom?" She said, thinking back to how she ruined things with his mother, how she missed pizza nights in the Talbot house and sneaking around so Fran wouldn't catch her in his room after hours.
"That. And hope."
The hope was written across his face, in the relaxed smile on his face, the calm set of his full eyebrows. His nose was turned to the sky, showing off every perfect angle of his face.
And Harriet could see the muscles on his arms as he braced himself against the cabinet. Remembered the feeling of those arms around her, the weight of his body on top of her, his hands touching every single inch of her.
"Hope? What were you hoping for?"
The look he gave her sucked all the air out of her lungs, out of the room, out of the atmosphere itself. His eyes were on fire, and she felt like she was the only person who could put it out or add fuel to the flames. All it took for her to want to give him everything again was one look, the simple turning of his head. So she could examine the straight lines, the angles that made his face so perfect. That made her want to reach up, to touch him again, even if only for a fleeting moment.
"I missed this too." Her voice didn't fail her like she expected it too, like it used to when Jake was this close, looking at her like she owned every inch of him.
In a way, she did, she always had. She had just forgotten.
Stepping forward, Jacob placed one hand on each side of the counter next to her, bringing the two closer than they'd been in months. Harriet tried to tell herself that this was the alcohol making his decisions for him, surely he didn't want this anymore, didn't want her. She wasn't doe-eyed, innocent, naïve little Harriet anymore. She wasn't reckless, she wasn't spontaneous. She was anxious ninety percent of the time, overly cautious. She'd cut her hair, she didn't do her makeup the same anymore, she dressed differently. She wasn't the girl he had fallen in love with.
"What's stopping us from reliving it?" The words were released like a long-held breath, quiet like a wish, heavy like a prayer.
And despite how much she wanted to relive it, Harriet shook her head softly. "I can't start something serious now. I'm at a new school, I'm battling sobriety, my little sister hates me and thinks I ruined her life which I probably did with all the trauma I've given her since I almost died in front of her because of an overdose. I don't need getting back together with my ex to be the cherry on top of the hot mess cake that is my life."
Jacob laughed, and leaned in closer still, perfectly straight teeth biting into his bottom lip and Harriet couldn't look away. "Who said anything about serious?"
When he kissed her, she forgot her hesitations immediately because nothing had felt as correct as the feeling of his warm lips against hers again. Or how his hands slid up to cup her waist, cold against the heat of his face before they slid down to hold her waist, holding her between his body and the kitchen cabinet. She ran her fingers through his hair, moaned into his mouth and didn't feel one bit embarrassed to be making out with her ex in the middle of a college party.
The next morning, she remembered every second of it. Every burning touch, searing kiss, every breathless gasp and promise of more, more, more. When she woke up in his shirt, something light was blossoming inside of her.
Jacob was lying below her, her head against his bare chest, feeling his muscles shift and contract under her cheek. She traced the lines of his abdominal muscles, the contour of his cheek bone, the bruises and scratch marks on his arms and neck. And she knew his proposition of something not serious, she knew it was too good an offer to ignore when being with him felt like experiencing a small slice of heaven every time.
That had been the beginning of their arrangement. Stress release, Harriet called it when she found herself driving to the city to lose herself in Jacob's arms, Jacob's bed, Jacob's lips, between the sheets until the early hours of the morning when she'd pick up her clothes from his floor, drive herself home again. Mutually beneficial is what Jacob told his friends about their arrangement with a smug smile on his face, thinking about the shape of her body in his hands, the sounds she would make as she tipped her head back, the giggle she'd release as his tongue pressed against her neck.
And it continued like that for months, much to Rhonda's disapproval.
"Jacob's fine," Harriet finally answered her question from over the top of her coffee mug, avoiding the woman's gaze as she tucked a lock of her straight, short blonde hair behind her ear.
Rhonda tutted and shook her head. "You two are both playing with your own feelings. Fooling around with your ex-boyfriend and expecting not to get hurt in the end. And I thought you were some sort of child genius."
Harriet rolled her eyes. "You're aging yourself here, Rhonda. Friends with benefits relationships with exes work out fine all the time. No need for awkward conversation because we already know everything about one another. No need for childhood stories, or pillow talk. Just do what we intended to do and go. It's a flawless situation."
"What about the major flaw?" Rhonda said.
"Y'all are head over heels in love with each other!" Rhonda said, leaning across the table to swat Harriet's arm with the back of her hand. "And when this 'arrangement' falls apart, you'll fall with it, hun."
"I'm stronger than that, than I was last time. I'm not going to let some boy ruin my progress," Harriet said. "Besides, nothing is going to fall apart. This is all going to work out perfectly."
Because they both agreed that this would be for one thing: sex. Jacob was the only person she'd been with, he knew everything about her: mind, heart, and body. They worked together flawlessly, every time better than the last. She trusted him intrinsically in a way she wouldn't, couldn't, ever trust anyone else with herself. She shuddered to think at the thought of her body in a pair of hands that wasn't his. Not after what Montgomery had stolen from her.
So the arrangement with Jacob would work, she was sure of it. It would work, until it didn't anymore. Until she admitted that when he was hovering over her body, dark eyes full of adoration, a lazy smile pulling at his lips as he cupped her face softly in his hands, that she was hopelessly, head over heels in love with him.
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