The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 12

Kat

“Did you have fun last night? You’ve been quiet since I picked you up.”

With my back to my mom, I shrug. “It was fun.”

“You say that like it was jury duty.”

She moves next to me as I unload plastic bags containing boxes of nails, staples, and screws that my brother Tony left for me to sort into piles. I’m so important here.

“How much did you drink? You’re barely wearing makeup today.”

I look up at her in mock horror. “Am I underdressed? Tony said I looked like shit, too.”

“Not shit.”

“I’m just tired.”

After I confessed to Jared about wanting him to be more than friends, I had blown my own mind from doing so. I thought I’d never have the courage to tell him how I felt if I ever saw him again. Having some alcohol coursing through my veins helped somewhat.

Leaving him on the dance floor, I went straight to my brother Pete, telling him I was sick and needed him to take me home. He proceeded to argue that he was working, but I reminded him of his predicament.

Our mother’s house fire was deemed electrical, which is true since it started in the old breaker box when an overloaded breaker failed to flip.

A couple of days before the fire, my mom was out of town. I had walked to her house to get the mail and to check on things. I found Pete setting up one of his big poker parties. He said it was just one night, and nothing would be out of order. Apparently, that wasn’t true. The fire marshal had pointed out the overloaded outlets on the circuit, but nothing of significance was plugged there during their investigation. Pete left the house when the fire had unknowingly already started in the basement. We can’t know for sure if he caused the overload since he unplugged his shit before he left, but he was there, and then he wasn’t.

I wanted him to tell Mom that he was using her house, but he said he doesn’t want her to know about another kid being responsible for a loss in her life. That comment is why the asshole is paying for it now. I want to tell her about Pete being there, but then he reminds me of what I took from her. Much worse.

I sigh as I continue to stack boxes. “I had a good time. I even sang a little.”

My mom moves closer to me. Crossing her arms, she leans against the foldout table. “Did Pete make you sing?”

“No. That was my own stupid idea.”

She knocks her elbow into my arm. “Sounds like you had fun with Dash.”

“Dash is fun.”

“Is he a fun drunk?”

Laughing, I say, “He was totally sober.”

Working on my stacking, she scrutinizes me in silence and then says, “Dash is so sweet and such a cutie. You should give him a chance.”

“Dash?” I suddenly laugh and look over at her to see if she’s joking.

She fiddles with a ring on her hand and shrugs. “Why not Dash?”

“He looks like he’s in a boy band.” I laugh again as I slide a box of nails to the end of the table. “He’s a good friend.” My smile is grateful.

After the weird encounter with Jared on the bridge, the next day, Dash and I had a very enlightening talk over lunch. I told Dash all I could about meeting Jared and of our odd relationship in high school, and he started putting pieces together.

“You’re shitting me? Jericho acted like that with you?”

“It eventually became a daily thing. He had to touch me somehow. He’d constantly massage my neck or put his arms around me… Even if he were just passing me in the hall, he’d reach over and touch my arm. On my birthday, he picked me up and spun me around.”

“Holy… wow, Kat. That doesn’t even sound like Jared. I had no idea that he was… He didn’t tell me anything. And he asked you out on a date?”

“Again, that became a regular thing. He’d bring it up a couple of times a week, but he didn’t call me or offer something definite. He asked me to wear his jersey but never gave it to me. We talked so much, though. In passing, he did mention his mom leaving him when he was a kid, but he never made it the topic of conversations, and I never asked more about it, thinking it was a tough subject for him.”

“You don’t get how big all this was for him to do.”

“I don’t know. I guess I don’t.”

“He… He doesn’t act like that with anyone. Ever. This is serious. He’s very standoffish and calculating, but with you, it’s like he forgot about all that. From what you just told me and since I’ve known him since second grade, I can say I’m ninety-nine percent positive Jared Beckett was… He was fucking in love with you.”

I burst into tears right there in the deli. I never expected to hear Dash say that. I never suspected Jared might have felt that way about me. If he did, he sure sent me mixed signals.

“I loved him, Dash.”

“Then, go for it.”

“He might not want me.”

“You won’t know unless you ask him or give him a chance to tell you, but just so you know, be careful. Jericho is fragile, but he doesn’t want anyone to know that.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not. It pays to be observant and intuitive, which he isn’t. Plus, those Aries—driven to succeed, yet secretly believe they’re destined to fail. He was scared, Kat—still is—but he’ll never admit that.”

I look around the yard and to the curb. “Where is Dash? His car’s not here.” He was DD, so I wonder how that worked out.

She weakly waves her hand in the air. “I haven’t seen him. You really don’t think there ever could be anything more with Dash?”

I smile at the idea and shrug. “We’re just too different for that kind of relationship.”

“Katydid, different can be good.”

Adjusting my pink tank top strap, I shake my head at her. “I tried that with Jed, Mom. He was nothing I ever wanted, and he proved to be the very thing I shouldn’t have tried. I wasn’t happy, and neither was he.”

“You’ll find him out there somewhere,” she says in an airy voice, readjusting my strap.

Baffled by what she means, I wince. “Him, who?”

She keenly sighs. “Mr. Right. He’s somewhere, looking for you, too.”

I roll my eyes and return to my sorting. “Okay…”

My mom lowers her voice. “What about Jared?” His name spears my attention, but I try to sound nonchalant, appearing to not give her suggestion much credence.

“What about him?”

“Are you friends?”

“I think so.” I hope so, but being friends with Jared is so confusing and heartbreaking.

“I wasn’t even aware you knew Jared until you mentioned it to Hadley yesterday. Adam and I didn’t even put it together that our kids knew each other.”

“What’s the big deal if we did?” I didn’t tell them what class it was that we met. Sore subject.

“I don’t know. Jared is rather handsome, don’t you think?” Utterly.

I crumple the bags together for recycling and lie, “I guess. I haven’t really noticed.”

She smacks my arm. “Kat, what’s wrong with you? I’m an old lady, and I noticed those muscles and hot body. And when you least expect it, he has a killer smile. I bet he’s a good kisser.”

Fumbling with the bags and dropping some, I stoop to pick them up, brushing the hair off my face as I yelp, “Mom!”

“Oh, what? He’s not here. Adam said they’d be over later after Hadley leaves. You haven’t thought about dating Jared?”

“He never asked.” I doubt he ever asks me out again, fake or real.

“You can ask him out, Kat. Jeez. Haven’t you ever heard of women’s lib.?”

“That’s a magazine, right?” I tease with a clueless look.

“You’re not taking me seriously. You could be missing out on having something beautiful with one of those boys.”

I sneer, “Boys? Mom, they’re both thirty.”

“Well, I’m not, so they’re boys.”

I turn to face her. “You’re not with Tony’s dad, and you’re divorced from Dad. Maybe there isn’t anything beautiful out there, after all.”

She puts her hands on my cheeks. “I had my beautiful children. That was the beauty I had.”

We smile at each other, and her phone buzzes. Pulling it out of her pocket to check her message, I ask, “Why don’t you date Adam?”

She laughs, peering up at me. “My boss? That’s frowned upon, and I guess like you said about Dash, we’re friends and very different. Adam is complex and so… damaged. That ex-wife of his really wrecked him when she left. From knowing Jared only a short time, he exudes pain, even if he doesn’t want to show it. Adam says Jared is growing exceedingly inaccessible to people, and they constantly argue. I think that’s only because Jared and Adam are so damn alike, but neither one sees that.”

“Poor Adam. Poor Jared.”

“I don’t know about Adam, but Jared needs to open up to someone before it’s too late for him, and he disappears from everyone’s lives around here entirely.”

I look at my mom, shocked. “You think that’ll happen? He’d just not come back?”

“Yeah, I do. He needs a… friend.”

“Jared has friends, Dash and Rio, and he seems to get along with Hadley’s boyfriend.”

My mom gloomily smiles. “He needs a closer relationship than that, Kat. A woman in his life. A positive one.”

“His sister is in his life.”

She shakes her head, resting her hands on my shoulders, again, her smile and eyes solemn. “Jared Beckett needs a savior.”

“I can’t be that. I don’t know how. That’s a lot to put upon someone.” I’m absolutely dumbstruck by her declaration. “Why would you want me to get involved with him if he’s so messed up?”

“Because Jared needs a purpose, and he isn’t the only one who needs saving.”

Stunned. Again.

Dash’s black car pulls up in front of the house, and I see his silly grin before he even opens his door. My mom and I both inhale as if to clear the conversation.

Dash trots over to us, his styled, platinum-blond hair glowing in the sun. “Good morning, Merrick. Brenda,” he greets with a cardboard tray of coffee. “Hangover aid is here.”

Dash sets down the tray and asks, “No Jared?”

I say, “I guess he’ll be over later.” Silence follows, and my mom excuses herself to talk to Tony.

When we’re alone, Dash asks, “Are you okay? You left in a hurry. What did Jared say to you?”

“It’s nothing he said. It’s something I said.” I uneasily laugh as I look to the street. “I told him that in school, I wanted him to be more than my friend.”

“Jesus. You did it? What did he say?”

I shrug, watching a squirrel climb a tree. “Nothing. I left. I felt stupid for telling him that.”

Dash sighs. “Well, the ball’s in his court. Let him come to you with it. Maybe he’ll…”

Facing him again, I ask, “What? Laugh at me? Avoid me like he has been? Forget about me for another twelve years or so? I’m prepared for all of those things.”

He frowns. “He won’t do any of those.”

“Where is he, then? Is it just a hangover he’s coping with, his sister leaving, or is it my revelation?”

“He doesn’t have his car. After you left, he became pissy, wanting to go home. Your leaving seemed to sober him. So, I dropped him off at his house.”

I fold my arms. “I freaked him out. I know it. He’s not coming back.”

“If his dad has anything to do with it, he’ll be here.”

Staring at the ground, I whisper, “I’m afraid to see him.”

“Don’t be. I should be the one afraid to see him. With the karaoke and then pilfering his car, he’s not too happy with me, I’m sure.” Dash reaches for a coffee. “See you in a bit. Let me know if you need reinforcements.” He laughs.

I glare into his blue eyes as I drag Tony’s notes and a notepad closer to me. “Not funny.”

Tony had given me things to write down for his trip to the hardware store later and pulling a tall, empty bucket over, I take a seat and become engrossed in writing down measurements and quantities. As I look back and forth between his scribblings and my organized list, jingling catches my attention from behind. Curious, I raise my head as a set of car keys dangles in front of my face, a hand now holding them over my head.

“Got a minute?”

I spin around on the upside-down bucket to see Jared. “For what?”

Taking off his Colts hat, he sets it on my head and sexily smiles. “You know.” He digs a hand into his hair, ruffling it, and shoves the other into his khaki shorts pocket. “For some flashbacks in the front seat of a car.”

I hold on to his hat as I shake my head. “What?”

Removing his hand from his hair and casually dipping it into the air, he rolls his eyes. “I’ll refresh you on the workings of a motor vehicle so you can get your license.” Is he teasing me… again? Is this a damn joke?

“Jared… I don’t… I can’t drive.”

He nods like I’m extremely slow. “Thus, the reason I’m helping.”

His hat is big and keeps sliding down my forehead, so I push it up again. “You’re serious?”

Jared puts his arms over his chest, his gaze unwavering. “You don’t have a license. Let’s fix that.”

I try to find reasons not to do this. “I can’t drive a stick.” I don’t even know what he drives.

He puckers his lips as he tries not to laugh—too much—and his eyes twinkle as they flicker over me. “Extra credit.”

I laugh and correct myself. “I can’t drive a manual transmission.”

“Got it covered.” He nods to the street, where a silver car sits.

Craning my neck, I ask, “Is that your car?”

He shudders. “Do you really think that’d be my car?”

“No?” He cocks his head with a disbelieving laugh. “Are you sure you want to help me?”

Jared’s head shake turns into an instant nod, his smile impishly growing. “Oh, yeah.”

“Um, okay. I should tell my mom where I’m going.”

“Text her on the way.”

I frown. “I can’t text and drive.”

He nods as his gaze drifts around me. “Yeah… Because I’m throwing you back on the road this second.”

I swallow as he stares at me, waiting for me to say or do something. I finally nod. “Okay. Let’s do this, Sonic.”

His responding grin charms me. “I swear. You won’t be sorry, Kit Kat.”

I smile and shakily stand, nerves suddenly taking hold, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’ll be behind the wheel, or if it’s because I’ll be alone with Jared again.

He takes back his hat, putting it on his head backward, which makes me laugh. Jared opens the passenger door of the Nissan Altima for me, and I get in, and when he shuts the door, I start breathing short, quick breaths. Still, I watch him walk to the driver’s side, and just as I used to do, I try to imagine what he looks like without his clothes. The only glimpse I’ve had of him is when he took his shirt off Thursday, and he caught me staring. Unnerving, but I was so aroused that I didn’t realize I was perving on him until Dash notified me. Double humiliation.

“Why don’t you lick him?”

“What?”

“You’re ogling Jericho so hard he might need a smoke when you’re done.”

“I wasn’t. I…”

“Uh-huh.”

Shit.

Jared gets in, and as he starts the car, I put my seatbelt on and text my mother. “Is this your dad’s car?”

He laughs, which catches me off-guard, not thinking I asked another crazy question. “This car doesn’t scream old lady to you?” He looks in his mirror as he pulls away from the curb. “It’s my grandma’s.”

He’s making fun of me. My heart comes to a grinding halt, and my stomach drops. Tears sting my eyes fast. “Jared…”

When it dawns on him what I don’t say, he gasps and looks over at me. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about…”

Relieved that he wasn’t intent on mocking me, I dab at the corner of my eye. “It’s okay.”

To the road, he says, “I thought her car would be perfect for you to use. That’s all. I didn’t think.” He looks over at me again, his eyes sincere.

I slowly smile. “Maybe I remind you of an old lady?”

He only looks away for seconds before he’s eyeing me again, his greenish gaze drifting down my body, and I feel every second of it. “Definitely not.” He inhales a terse breath and looks ahead, muttering, “Damn it.”

“What?”

“I need to watch the road.”

“Maybe you need a refresher course?” I tease.

Jared nods. “You could call it that.” Once more, he looks at me, giving me that beautiful smile of his.

He pulls into a closed office building’s empty lot. Parking and shutting off the engine, he then turns to me, propping his arm on top of the steering wheel. With raised eyebrows, he asks, “You ready?”

I avert my eyes to my lap. “No.”

“You’ve been ready. You just need the drive.” Hearing his pun, I swiftly look up at him. Relaxing some, I roll my eyes, again smiling. I didn’t think it’d be this easy to smile with him like it used to be, especially minutes before getting behind the wheel of a car the first time in years.

He opens his door, and a cold panic permeates me. When he makes it to the other side of the car and opens my door, he waits for me to get out, but I don’t.

“Kat?”

I nod, unbuckling my seatbelt but don’t make any further move.

Jared sighs, pulling the door open more and squatting next to me. “Hey. You can do this, Kit Kat.”

I shake my head, staring at the dashboard, instead of the nodding I did a minute before. “I can’t. I did it once and look what happened.”

“It was an accident, and it wasn’t even your fault. It was beyond your control.”

“I don’t want to…” I catch my breath and whisper, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

He chuckles. “We’re in an empty parking lot. The most you could do is run into a curb, and you’ve done that.” Doesn’t he notice lampposts running through the middle?

A laugh bubbles and I look at him. “You never forgot about that damn curb?”

He rubs his neck and fake pouts. “You gave me whiplash.”

“Shut up!” I push on his arm, and he drops the pout for a laugh, which I join him, calming me some.

Jared whispers, “There’s that pretty smile.” His comment has the opposite effect. It fades as I vacantly look at him while his eyes dart from me. He clears his throat, and the sounds of the road from beyond the shrubbery fill the silence.

He tentatively looks at me and gently says, “Kit Kat, come on. Don’t let this fear define who you are. It’s crippling your daily life. You can’t go many places unless you ask someone else for a ride or take a bus. Do this not only for you but for your grandma. She’d be proud of you.”

He’s absolutely right.

I still regard him doubtfully. “You have that much faith in me?”

Jared touches my arm. “I have all my faith in you.”

My heart just stopped.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

Grinning, he stands and offers his hand. I take it, and when he pulls me up, I unwillingly look up at his face, closer to him than we had been dancing.

“If-if I forget to-to thank you later, thank you.”

He narrows his eyes. “For what?”

“This. The pep talk. Coming back to Annapolis.”

Jared laughs, and the way he does makes my stomach swirl. “I didn’t know I was doing you a favor by staying with my dad.”

Even though it’s bright out, I look at him with wide-open eyes. “I told you. I’ve missed you.” He never did say he missed me back. Maybe he didn’t.

Jared’s head drops, and as I look at the top of his blue hat, he falters, “Kat… I… We didn’t…” He trails off and sighs. Taking Dash’s advice about treading carefully, I don’t want to push him before he’s ready, so I drop it.

Instead, I hold out my hand. “Keys?”

Lifting his head, he focuses his eyes on the interior of the car. “Ignition.”

I step away from him and unhurriedly walk around the car, taking more deep breaths as I go.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I shut the door and put on my seatbelt, needing that security around me. Not bothering with his belt, he leans closer and points at my feet. “Which one is the gas?”

“The one on the right. Brake is the bigger one on the left.”

“Yep. What’s that little pedal on the far left?”

I angle my head to look. Shit. What is it? Looking closer, I smile. “Emergency brake.”

“Good. This is an automatic transmission, and this model year has the e-brake on the floor, not up here on the console. All cars are different, so just make sure you locate it. You really won’t use it for much, except for parking on a grade or if your engine fails, and your brake pedal doesn’t work.”

I nod, and he points at the steering wheel. “On your left is your turn signal. On your right are your windshield wipers. You twist the left one for your headlights. What’s this down here?”

“Hazard lights.”

“Yep, and this? What’s the name?”

“Speedometer.”

“Your gear selector is right here, as you can see, and it’s at a zigzag, not a straight slot, so when you shift into drive, neutral, reverse, or back up into park, you’ll have to go with the pattern accordingly.”

He’s so in a zone, teaching me. “Okay.”

“Any questions so far?”

“I remember most of the car basics, but the rules of the road are tricky. I don’t know how much I remember.”

“Oh, good thing you said that because…” Jared opens the glove compartment and pulls out a small stack of papers, “I printed off some rules of the road for you.”

“You didn’t have to do that.” As he flips through them, what he did hits me. “Hold on. When did you plan this?”

He stops flipping and looks at me. “As soon as you told me last night.” Shit…

“You were drunk when I told you.”

He cautiously replies, “Yeah. I was.” Jared flips through the papers again, his way of avoiding me. I’m pushing too much, I suppose.

I clasp my fingers together and bring the subject back to the aspects of a car. “Okay. So, what do we do next?”

“With what?” Looking up, his eyes brighten, and a smile lights his face.

I quickly glance at the dashboard and then back to him. “Driving. What next?”

Jared lets out a small breath and shoves the papers back into the glove compartment. “Right. Start the car.”

I frown right away. “I think I forget how. I don’t want to break your grandmother’s car.”

With my hand frozen in midair, he leans over and grabs my hand, guiding it onto the keys hanging from the ignition. “You’ll want to twist your hand all the way to the end and then let go. You don’t want to grind the gears and fuck-up the engine.” His chest is against my arm, and his face close to mine. I swallow and try to focus on the task, but it’s so hard when his cologne bludgeons me, and I would swear on a stack of Bibles it’s the same scent he used to wear in school.

I nod as my hand shakes underneath his. He squeezes my hand before releasing it. “Go ahead.”

Twisting as he told me to, I successfully start the car as the times I did in school come back to my mind in an instant.

“Okay. Put your foot on the brake and shift down into drive.” My hand starts to shake even harder, and he again grabs it. “Kit Kat, it’s just us here.” He takes my hand and puts it on the gear selector, pulling our hands on the stick down into the zig he promised. “Keep your foot on the brake, and we’re now in reverse.” Another click into a zag. “Neutral.” One more click. “Drive. Look straight ahead and slowly lift your foot off the brake and give it a little gas.”

I close my eyes. “I can’t.”

Clutching my hand, he whispers, “Yes. You. Can.”

“I’m scared.”

Since his hat is still on backward, his nose smoothly glides over my ear. “Don’t be. I’m right here with you. If you get too scared, you can always hit the brake and start over.”

He lets go of my hand. Distracted by how warm I feel all over now, my car jitters ease somewhat. I tentatively release my foot from the pedal, causing the car to start rolling forward. “Oh, God, Jared.”

Still close, but not as close as I want him to be again, he says, “You’re doing great. Put your foot on the gas and lightly step on it.” I do that, but it’s not enough, and the car rolls at a slow pace on the flat lot. “A little more, Kat.”

“Jared…”

“Come on. Gas.”

I increase the pressure and the car surges. “That’s it. Now, turn to go to the end of the lot with the opening to that other one.”

“I can’t go over there. I see a car.”

“Why not? It’s a Sunday. One car is there. Just give it slightly more gas.”

Keeping my eyes glued to the windshield, I plead, “Put your seatbelt on. It’s making me more nervous that you’re not wearing it. I don’t want to wreck and you…”

He sits back. “Okay. I will, but you won’t wreck.”

“I didn’t think I was going to before.”

“Kat, get it out of your head. You’re starting over. Do you think your grandmother wants you to live your life like this?”

I steer where he told me to go and uneasily laugh. “She’d yell at me.”

“Do you want me to yell at you, then?”

“No, but Jared, I just don’t think I can do this.”

He points at the windshield. “Pull over there and put it into park.”

As I stop, I hold the stick, but can’t manage to shift it up since my hands are again shaking. He grabs my hand and helps me once more.

When he lets go of my hand, I blow a huge sigh. I apprehensively ask the steering wheel, “What next?”

Jared throws off his seatbelt. “Turn off the engine.” As soon as I do that, he pulls my chin, so I look at him. His eyes are a raging forest fire. “Fucking get it out of your head that you’re going to crash! It happened. It’s over. You have got to move on, Kat Merrick. You cannot be afraid to drive for the rest of your life. You’re letting that accident win. Fuck! You’re better than that!”

Jared releases my face, and I bow my head, fighting tears. I don’t want the accident to win, but he’s made me see that it is.

His finger goes beneath my chin, and he tips my head up. “You have no choice. You’re learning how to drive again, get your license, buy a car, and live your life! Don’t you want that?” His eyes intently study my face, waiting for me to reply, but I can’t. Not the way he wants me to.

“I do, but…”

No. No buts. I’m not leaving for Philly, and you not have a driver’s license. That’s not happening.”

Looking at the small console between us, I wipe a tear. “Why do you care so much?”

He opens his mouth to say something but shrugs. Resting his hand on the dashboard, he says, “A friend would do this for you, and it seems only fitting that I am that friend.”

“Jared….”

He looks out the windshield. “Tomorrow morning, you’re getting your learner’s permit.”

“I really have to go through that again? I’m not a teenager.”

“Yeah, but in Maryland, since you haven’t ever had a driver’s license, you’ll have to get a driving permit before they let you take the driving test.”

Being realistic, I say, “I can’t keep borrowing your grandma’s car.”

Jared licks his suddenly smiling lip. “I can teach you how to drive my stick, but I don’t think you can handle it yet.” His smile widens, and he raises his eyebrow.

I challenge him by raising one of mine. “Maybe you underestimate me, Jericho.”

Closing his eyes, he groans. “Oh, no. Not you.”

“I like it.”

Upon opening his eyes, he rolls them. “Anyway, she’s not using this car. As long as I gas it up, she doesn’t care, and if she does need it, then you can drive her somewhere.”

“No way!” I squeal with sincere horror.

He laughs and nods to the steering wheel. “Okay. Start the car.”

“Why?”

He raises that eyebrow again. “Really? You think we’re done here?”

I pout, which is also sincere. “I thought we were.”

“Nope. I want you to drive the perimeter, hugging the curb, but not hitting it.” He adjusts his hat, so the bill is pointed down and then crosses his arms, settling back against the seat. “Get to it.”

I check my surroundings. “I can’t back out of here.”

His eyebrows nearly meet. “This model did come with a reverse gear. It’s not just a novelty anymore.” His shameless smile returns, and I take a deep breath and start the car. “Excellent. Now, foot on the brake and shift into reverse.”

My hand shakes, not as bad as it did before, but I still whisper, “Damn it.”

Sitting up, he puts his hand on mine. “Like this. Don’t think about it so much.” He pulls our hands back, clicking the car into gear. His hand stays on mine longer than necessary until he releases it and looks away, licking his lips as he faces the windshield. “Turn your upper body to the back window, looking for cars, and then if it’s clear, take your foot off the brake and lightly give it gas.”

I twist, putting my hand on the back of his seat and do what he told me. He moves to peer out the window with me, his face is close to my ear, and I hear and feel his quick breaths. When I stop the car, I ask, “Was that good?”

He whispers, “Perfect. Now, shift into drive.”

When I turn to look forward, our heads nearly collide. “Sorry,” I say, as his eyes meander around my face.

He quietly says, “I was in your way.” Our lips are so close. Fuck. I want to kiss him.

“You’re never in my way, Jericho.” I smile, which makes him smile.

Giving my head a slight shake to clear my mind, I drive the perimeter as directed, but with him saying very little this time, apart from telling me to go faster. Once I make one revolution, he says, “Good. Pull up here, turning so you’re pointed that way. I want you to gun it to the other end of the lot.”

My mouth opens wide. “What the hell for?”

“Because you’re afraid of the gas pedal. I want to break you of that.”

“I can’t…”

He leans closer, getting in my face. “If you fucking say you can’t one more time, I’ll make you push Dash Calder off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.”

I blink fast, so unexpectedly turned on. “Jared, I’m trying here.”

We’re nose to nose. “Not enough. You can do this!”

With him glaring at me and both of us breathing hard, I fight every urge to not yank him to me and kiss him the kiss I wanted to when we were kids. And damn it if he’s not harder to resist now.

Slowly, he sits back, eyes still on me. Reluctantly, I return to the wheel and pull the car to the spot he indicated. When I do, he calmly says, “Punch it.”

I look over at him. “Where do I stop?”

“Before you hit the building for crying out loud and give yourself plenty of time to not do that. I want it to be a safe stop, not slamming on your brakes and skidding to one.”

Nodding, I give it gas, and he shouts, “Harder!” I push on the pedal, and the car goes faster. “Get the lead out, Kat! Even this car can do better than that!” I stomp on the gas, lurching us forward. “Yes! Go! Go! Go!”

Bursting with a laugh, I do as he says, charging the car faster. “When you get to that light post, let off the gas and gently start applying your brake. Keep increasing the pressure until you come to a full stop.”

Feeling somewhat more confident, I do as he instructs, flawlessly. When I do stop, he jubilantly says, “Put the car in park. That was fantastic, Kit Kat!”

I put the car in park by myself this time, which makes him smile more.

“That was great!” I exclaim, feeling liberated from shackles I’ve worn for so long.

“After you get your permit tomorrow, we’ll do this all over again, practicing different things every day. Then, when you’re more comfortable, I’ll take you on some back roads, where they’re not as busy.” He gently touches my arm. “That’s all for today.”

I can’t chase the grin off my face. “Okay.”

After we change places, and I’m back in the passenger seat, he asks, “Where do you want to go? The construction or home?” Take me home and fuck the hell out of me.

“I guess the construction. I think my mom wanted to do dinner with me tonight.”

He’s quiet for longer than I expected him to be. He shifts into reverse. “Okay.” His cologne is again in my face, forcing my mind back to driver’s ed.

I silently watch Jared expertly handle the car and compared to how clumsy and virginal I was, his movements are that much sexier now. The way his leg moves to switch pedals, how his hand grips the steering wheel, his eyes darting over the road and up to the traffic lights, and how he sporadically licks his lip are damn turn-ons.

“What?”

I tear my eyes away from his crotch. “What?”

Looking straight ahead, he says, “You’re staring at me.”

“I was just watching and learning.”

“Really, and what have you learned?” That I can get wet from zero to sixty in two seconds flat.

“I learned to watch you as you’ve been watching me.”

He smirks. “Well, I’ve had to. A good teacher keeps an eye on his student. You should know that, Miss Merrick.” Shit. That’s hot.

I press my thighs together to dull the ache. “Yes. You’re absolutely right.”

He laughs. “I’ve been right a lot today, haven’t I?”

“Yeah. I think I might have to knock you down a peg or two.”

Jared bites his lip as he slows to make the turn down my mom’s street. He looks at me again, his eyes biting into me now. “Knock away, Kit Kat.” Fuck. Fuck. Holy fuck.

He pulls up to the curb, behind my mom’s car, and I suddenly feel awkward like a date is ending, and we both don’t want it to end without us loudly fucking in the back seat.

I brush my hair behind my ear and turn to Jared. “Thank you for the lesson.”

He drapes his arm over the steering wheel, like he did before we left the lot, and leans over to me. “Oh, we’re just getting started.”

I grin. “I truly feel honored that you’d spend your vacation helping, not only my mom but for me. I can’t thank you enough.”

His voice is husky, and I squeeze my legs together again. “Stop thanking me, Kat. Just please stop. I want to do this. You had an unfair hand dealt to you. If I can help you somewhat recover from it, then I’m your man.” Holy fuck. I want to beg him to slide his hand into my shorts.

Giving up arguing with him, I unsteadily smile. “So, how hard do you plan on riding me?” Jared’s eyes subtly widen, but that’s the only reaction he gives away. When I realize how that sounded, I say in a rush, “About learning this. How long do you think you’ll take drilling it into me? The refreshing, I mean.” I slump in my seat with a conciliatory laugh. “That went well. I’m done now.” I inhale a deep breath, not paying attention that he’s inclined closer to me.

I risk a glance at Jared, only to see a teasing grin. “Oh, Kit Kat. I plan on riding and drilling you for as long as it takes.”

I gulp so loud that my mother probably heard it. “I’m a fast learner.”

His breath caresses me as he whispers, “I’m willing to go nice and slow with you.” His gaze slides down my body, feeling him stripping me as he goes, and I nearly come. I want him to rip my clothes off, ending my years of misery, fantasizing about him being inside me.

I edgily laugh. “Not too slow. You’re right. I need to do this, but we only have so much time.”

The hair sticking out of his backward hat brushes my forehead. “And I’ll make it worth your while.”

I whisper, “I bet you will.”

“You saw how Dash lost his bet against me.”

“I would never bet against you.”

“Really, Kit Kat? What would you do against me?”

I smile, and his mottled eyes drift to my lips. “I guess you’ll have to wait and see.”

Looking back up to my eyes, he whispers back, “Like you said, we don’t have much time.”

Shocked by him saying that, I sit back some. “Jared, you’re leaving for Philadelphia soon. What are you saying?”

“I’m… It’s nothing. I’m only…” He sighs, and apparently, our flirting over, he sits back. Lifting his Colts hat, he runs a hand through his hair before putting the hat back on his head with the bill in front.

I can’t let it end like this. I want him to know that I do want us to have something real, even if he’s leaving. I’ll never forgive myself if I let him go, and we not actually give us a try this time. I’ll take having anything with him.

“It’s nothing? If you keep checking out my boobs, it’ll definitely be something.”

Jared’s mouth opens faster than I can open a bag of chips during a monthly salt craving.

Inching closer, his lips graze my ear. “Don’t tease me, Kat, because you don’t know the half of it.” Shit. I hope I don’t leave a damp spot on the seat.

“Who says I’m teasing?”

Suddenly, he moves away from me, his eyes distant, matching his entire demeanor. “That’s all you did to me in school.”

I shake my head emphatically. “That’s what you did to me.”

His eyes are everywhere, except for me. As I unbuckle my seatbelt, he asks, “Is it true what you said last night?”

I turn to face him as I grab the door handle. “If you can remember, I meant every single word.”

Jared swoops forward. Again, our lips nearly meet for the first time. “Take out those contacts and throw them away.”

“Why? I need them to drive.”

His voice grows louder and impatient. “Put goddamn clear ones in or wear glasses. I don’t give a fuck. They’re not you. Tomorrow morning, permit. Tomorrow afternoon, we’re in this car. Be ready.”

Wordless, I open the glove compartment and take out the papers he printed for me. He gives me a quick look before turning his head to the road, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I take that as my cue to shut the door and watch him as he leaves.

Something else he’s good at doing.

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