“I think you’re ready for the road.”
“What if I—”
“Don’t finish that fucking thought. You’ll do great.” So tired of her finding reasons to fail or reasons to make me change my mind, I glare at her from across the table.
Kat cranes her neck to look out the window behind me. “It’s nighttime!”
I instantly roll my eyes. “By the time we’re done with dinner, there’ll still be some sunlight. According to the rules, you do have to drive after sunset, but you’re not ready for that.” I pick up my iced tea and grin at her. “Yet.”
She anxiously looks around the sparsely occupied Italian-decorated dining room, cordially smiling at someone passing our table. “I know I’m acting like such a baby.”
Looking down at my menu, I reply, “I do not think you’re like that.”
“Being like a what?”
Peering up at her, confused that she didn’t remember what she just said. “Baby?”
Her eyes light up, and her smile could rival a street lamp with a new bulb. “Jericho, did you just call me baby?”
I warily laugh. “Oh. I see what you did there. Clever.” Fuck.
She returns to her menu, her smile still bright. “It took some thought.”
“It probably took too much thought, when you should’ve been pondering the rules of the road.”
Flipping the menu over, she says, “I can multitask.”
“That’s dangerous to do while driving.”
Her eyes flicker over me. “A lot of things can be dangerous or risky.”
Restless, I sit back and cross my arms, incapable of looking at her yet. Trying to sound uninterested, I ask, “So, how was your dinner with Calder?” As I casually peer over at Kat, she smiles. The way she’s looking at me piques my suspicions. “What?”
“Nice. He quizzed me on some rules of the road, too.”
“Too bad driving on the sidewalk with his Big Wheel doesn’t count.”
Kat laughs. “Poor Dash. You pick on him so much.”
“He’s a somewhat big boy. He can take it.”
She sets down her menu and proceeds to idly spin the salt shaker. Looking up at me, she vacillates. “I remember in school you told me your mom left when you were a kid?”
“You remembered that?” I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed.
Her smile turns sad. “Have you heard anything from her over the years or know where she lives?”
I look down at my menu. “No. When my dad signed the divorce papers, it listed a Milwaukee address, but we don’t know if that’s where she was.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I can’t believe she’d do that to all of you.”
Staring at the list of salads, vaguely wondering if a cobb salad is a corn on the cob thrown on top of a pile of lettuce, I frown. Considering that Kat is waiting for some sort of response to the subject I’d rather avoid, I absently shrug at the menu. “I’m over it.”
“I could never do that to my kids or husband.”
My eyes fly up to her face. “You’d try marriage again?”
Kat reaches for her drink. “I want to get it right someday. Don’t you want that for yourself?” Here we go again. Question of the century.
I return to my menu. “I’m not getting mixed up in that bullshit.”
“What if you find The One and fall madly in love with her?”
The One. Christ. I grimly laugh as I drag my attention to the main entrees section. “Nope. Imaginary bullshit.”
“You don’t think you’ll ever fall in love?”
I laugh again, this time more like she told me a faintly humorous knock-knock joke. I glance up at her expectant face and then aimlessly skim the alcoholic drinks. “Positive. It’s a romanticized ideal that doesn’t even exist.”
“Why do you say that?” More fucking questions.
Irritated, I sigh, blowing a breath across my balled hands. Why can’t we just talk about driving? Or what she talked about with Calder? “Like my sister. She’s in love with a guy who’ll never marry her. It’s a waste of her time to wish for something she doesn’t need or won’t happen.”
“Being in love is a waste of time?”
I again shrug but don’t look up. “From what I’ve seen, pretty much.”
“Maybe you’ll miss out on having something really beautiful with someone.”
Venturing to see her optimistic expression, I scowl. “Did Dash tell you that?”
She flinches, and her brown eyes fall on the table. “No. My mom did.” I’m relieved. I thought I might have to kick his ass for sounding more of a pussy than I thought he was.
“She thinks you should get married again, too?”
Kat rests her cheek on her hand, her gaze skeptical. “Definitely. She thinks my first marriage didn’t count because he wasn’t my soulmate.”
“Shit. Don’t bring up that word around Calder. He starts salivating.”
She smiles against her hand, and I’m sidetracked by her lips. I bet they taste better than a cobb salad. Kat disputes, “He’s a good guy. You should know he’d do anything for you.”
I roll my eyes and stir my straw around my tea, trying anything to avoid staring at her mouth again. “Except shut up.”
Kat laughs, and it forces me to look up, our gazes inevitably latching. “He just wants you to hear what he says.”
“Right. He’s like one of those yippy dogs. I hear him. He’s hard to miss.” She laughs again, and still preoccupied with what she said, I mindlessly blurt, “What’s so beautiful about sadness and rejection?” Maybe I am a robot. Fuck Duquesne, too.
Sighing, Kat pushes away her glass. “That’s not what true love and marriage are supposed to be.”
“Tell that to my father.”
Frowning, she quietly says, “What happened to your family is horrible, Jared. My parents are divorced, but neither of them left my life.”
Pointlessly observing the empty table next to us, I grumble, “Rejection is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
“Jared, I’m familiar with rejection.” I look back at her. “Still, I believe my true love is out there somewhere.” Suddenly her voice drops to a whisper, “I just have to… keep looking, I guess.”
I shrug, even though she’s staring at the table. “It’s your time if you want to waste it, but right now, you need to use your time getting back on the road.”
As if in a trance, she continues musing to herself as if I didn’t say anything, keeping with the tradition of no one paying attention to a damn thing I say. “Maybe Dash is right, and I once had what I was looking for right in front of me.” What the fuck did Calder tell her? That is like a sucker punch to my gut.
Swallowing my useless argument, I return to perusing the alcohol, even though I know I can’t drink. Ultimately, I drone, “Maybe you did. I don’t know. Didn’t you date someone in high school?” Shit. I really don’t want to know anything about him. I saw enough of the asshole.
“My senior year. I broke up with him after graduation.”
What the fucking hell?
Her senior year? That’s not right.
“Wait,” I start, but the waitress interrupts us, which severely irritates me. I’m not even hungry anymore, and I order the first sandwich I see. All I can do is stare at Kat, barely able to contain my agitated questioning.
One second into being alone again, I spit, “You dated someone your junior year.”
A look of confusion shrouds Kat’s attractive features. “No, I didn’t.”
I poke my finger onto the table, insisting, “He was tall with dark hair and pointy ears.”
Her confusion changes to humor. “You just described Dr. Spock.”
“You didn’t date him?”
I struggle not to growl at her. “No. That guy you were with.” I lightly rap my fists on the table, annoyed. “I saw you with him several times. Between classes and at lunch.”
Kat’s eyebrow shoots up. “We didn’t have the same lunch period. How’d you see me with him?”
“I just did. I wasn’t always in class.”
“Oh.” She blinks as she processes that.
“Who was the guy?”
“Adam—same as your dad. Isn’t that funny?” Kat laughs, but I don’t. I’m waiting for a detailed explanation of what I fucking misunderstood all these years. When she sees I’m not in a joking kind of mood, she says, “We were just friends. I knew he was gay before he did.” She laughs again but mostly to herself.
I cease my rhythmic fist thumping and lean forward. “You didn’t date him?”
She emphatically repeats, “Just friends. Why?”
“I thought he was…” I’m so fucking tied up—my tongue, my mind… What the fuck just happened? My whole routine of believing something entirely different has been ripped out from under me like an old rug, and I just fell on my ass.
Our food is brought to us fast, yet we both sit staring at our plates, not wanting to eat or talk. Her dinner with Dash was probably more enjoyable. Another demerit for that fucker.
Glancing out the window, I state, “We’d better go so you can drive.”
Kat clasps her hands together as if in prayer. “Please, don’t take me on a busy road.”
I do smile this time. “I wanted to wait until rush hour tomorrow afternoon for that.”
Her jaw drops, and she assuredly snaps, “You’re a brat.”
Instead of laughing, I’m absorbed with fresh wayward thoughts of her open mouth being all over me. As my cock jolts to life, I clear my throat and tease, “I like honey better.”
“You’re a brat, honey.” She bites her lip not to laugh, which results in me laughing, despite my mind raging in chaos.
After I take care of the check and we stand, Kat waits for me to leave, but with one hand hovering around my dick, I sweep the other out for her to go first. She smiles, and as she passes me, she gives my bare arm a squeeze. Fuck. That definitely does nothing to hinder my recurrent fantasy of her riding my cock instead of the brake.
In one of those damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t situations, I have to walk close behind Kat to hide any telltale hard-on I still have. Wearing jeans helps, but walking close to her only winds me up even more. Someone out there hates me.
Walking into the muggy heat, I ironically breathe a sigh of relief that my brain now has something to divert my attention.
Before we reach the car, I hand Kat the key, but she shoves it back at me. “I can’t drive now! We’re on a busy road!”
“If you turn right when you leave the lot, it takes you along a back road.”
She jerks her thumb to the road. “It’s still a road! There’ll be cars on it!”
I dubiously laugh. “That’s how they usually work.”
Kat crosses her arms tightly over her stomach and looks back to the road, whispering, “Jared, I’m so afraid.”
I watch the hot breeze, slightly blowing the strands of her streaked ponytail. “Hey, I’ll be right by your side. Stop thinking of all the negative things and think of the positive.”
“Not many positive things came out of me driving a car.” Ouch.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I didn’t mean… I’m… I really enjoy spending time with you.”
I shrug and walk to the passenger side. “Whatever. I wasn’t looking for a charity acknowledgment.”
“I meant that nothing positive comes out of me driving on the road. I didn’t mean this whole experience. I’m sorry.”
Standing on the other side of the car from her, I say over the roof, “Stop apologizing and unlock the doors.”
“Not until you believe me.”
I lamely reply, “I believe you. Unlock the doors.”
The car’s lights flash, and I open my door, sliding in before Kat does. The sting of her comment still burns, but I’m more confused as to why. I shouldn’t even care. Goddamn it.
Shutting the doors in tandem, she turns to me. “Jared, I like being with you. More than you even realize.” The same thing Kat probably says to Calder.
I can’t look at her. I want to believe she’s telling me the truth. I keep wondering if I’m just fucking clueless again, and she’s playing more damn mind games with me.
“Jared, what’s wrong?”
I grab my seatbelt. “Nothing. Don’t forget to check your mirrors.” Focusing on Kat’s driving is all I need to think about. For now. I know I’ll dwell on the rest of the shit later.
Kat frowns before she checks her mirrors—twenty times each—still not putting the car into reverse. Leaning my head against my seat, I chuckle at her stalling. “Come on, Kit Kat. Show me your skills.”
Kat narrows her eyes at me, and I teasingly lick my lip, which makes me suddenly laugh at my own absurdity. As I laugh, she says, “You wouldn’t know what to do with my skills, honey.”
I angle my head as a grin reappears on my face. “Really? I bet I could find a use for your skills.”
She teasingly palms the top of the gear stick. “Like, shifting your gears?” Holy fuck, Kat. I’d give anything for you to do that to me right here in this parking lot.
Tucking my hand between my legs to hide my rapidly returning hard-on, beyond the ability to stop my teasing or my erection. “Just make sure you use a nice, firm grip… baby.”
Her grin widens, and she slowly licks her bottom lip. “The knob always gets my attention.” Jesus Christ. Forget jerking me off. I’d give anything for her to blow me right here in front of anyone in our vicinity.
Swallowing hard, I sit up and try to curb the teasing since it’s getting too out of control for me. Adopting a more authoritative voice, I order, “Turn on your headlights.”
Kat gives a lascivious smile. “They’re already turned on.”
I smile because I can’t help it but still maintain, “I’m serious.”
“So, am I.” She wouldn’t mean what I hope she meant.
Wait. I can’t hope for that. Fucking shit, Jared Beckett.
I tell her and myself, “Okay. Focus.”
She stiffly nods. “Yes, Mr. Beckett.” Fuck me.
Kat pulls onto the road, starting off great, but I soon notice we’re going slow. Really slow. I’ve seen cement set quicker than this. I give her a few minutes to acclimate to driving on the road, but she gives no sign she’ll increase her speed. I glance at the speedometer and then her face. “Kit Kat, give it some more gas.”
Without even blinking, she says, “I’m scared to.”
“You have to give it gas on the road. You can’t drive this slow.” I look over my shoulder at approaching headlights behind us. Shit.
“I’m trying, Jared.” I notice Kat’s hands shaking on the wheel. I won’t let her quit.
More forcefully, I say, “Try harder. You can do it.”
As cars start building a line behind us before passing, and some honking their horns as they do, I growl, “Fuckers.” Kat becomes more flustered, the more cars that whiz by. “You’ve been doing great with the accelerator. Make friends with it again.”
“I don’t want to go too fast!”
I don’t want to yell to scare her now, so I calmly inform her, “Parked cars go faster.”
“Shit. Calm down. Ease onto the gas pedal and at least get it to thirty miles per hour.” Her hands twitch more, and she chews on her lip. I can feel her will slipping. “Kat, focus.”
“You telling me to focus is not helping!” Another car passes us, and she squeals, abruptly steering us onto the side of the road, throwing the car into park. She’s out of the car, taking off somewhere behind it. I hit the hazard lights and jump out to follow her.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
As she jogs away from the car, she cries, “I can’t do this! I’m done!”
I walk faster. “Like hell, you are! Get back in the car! You can’t leave it here on the side of the road!”
“You drive it!”
“Get back here, Kat!”
She keeps jogging on the dark, gritty berm, which isn’t safe to do during the day, let alone at dusk. “No! Just go! I’m used to walking!”
“I’m not leaving you here! You’ll get hit by a fucking car!”
“I don’t really care!” Fuck. Code red.
“Get back in the goddamn car, Katriona!”
Kat breaks into a faster run, shocking me for a second before I take off after her. Dash may be the runner, but I’m not too shabby. Cutting her off, she makes an effort to dodge me. As she again tries to get past me, I successfully block her, and she spins around, darting back to the car. Sprinting after her, I finally grab her arm and attempt to yank her to me, but she twists away. Giving up on running from me, she paces into a small circle.
Exasperated, I shout, “Why’re you giving up?”
With her hands on the sides of her head, she shrieks, “You were yelling at me! You are now! You think I really can’t do this!”
“No! The only one who keeps saying you can’t do this is you!”
“Just leave me alone! I don’t need to drive!”
“Yes, you do! You just have to stop being afraid!”
Kat stops pacing to glare at me, her beautiful brown eyes sodden with tears. “Don’t you think I have good reason to be? I killed my grandmother!”
I angrily point at her. “An accident killed your grandmother! Not you!”
“I don’t deserve to experience anything when I took her life!” Kat catches her breath before letting loose with her cries.
As a wave of cars buzz past us and the hazard lights on the car rhythmically blink, I’m at a loss. I have no fucking idea how to handle this situation. None.
Kat buries her face in her hands, bowing her head as she sobs. I’ve only been around Hadley when she’s cried. I didn’t know how to handle that, either.
Sighing and doing the only thing I can think of, I walk over to Kat and gently grab her arm. “Kit Kat, come here.” I pull her to me, putting my arms around her as she shakes into my chest. “It’s okay. Shh.” With her this close to me, the potent scent of her hair is jarring, but I eagerly inhale it.
She garbles against my chest, “I’m sorry, Jared. I’m a failure.”
“No, you’re not,” I say over her hair as I impulsively move my hand up and down her back. My fingers graze her bra through her gray shirt. Since meeting her in school, my main thought has been about my need to see Kat naked. That’s an enormous amount of wayward thoughts coming from my corrupt imagination.
Reluctantly moving my hand to her ponytail, which is undoubtedly a better idea to stay focused on the problem at hand, I insist, “You had a hiccup tonight. Tomorrow we’ll get back on the road and try again.”
“No!” she yells into my shirt, vibrating my chest.
“Giving up is not an option.”
“Trying shouldn’t have been a damn option.”
Pushing her away from me but gripping onto her shoulders, I look at her face. “Stop it! If I didn’t think you could do it, do you think I’d waste my time?”
She looks to the road, not at me. “You must think I’m—”
I lightly shake her, and when she looks at me, the red hazard lights reflect off her tearful eyes. “You have no idea what the fuck goes through my mind, but I can guarantee it’s nothing you would ever believe.”
I move a hand from Kat’s shoulder to wipe away a tear from her cheek. She asks, “What?”
Her watery eyes move to my hand and then back to my face as I whisper, “I told you. I can keep a secret.”
Frowning, I drop my other hand from her shoulder. Kat rubs her damp cheeks. “Please don’t make me drive anymore tonight.”
I sigh. “Okay. We’ll pick up again tomorrow.”
When I pull the car onto the road, she asks, “So, am I driving all of Independence Day weekend?”
“I thought Dash told you.”
“Told me what?”
“Shit. I’m going to his dad’s beach house for the weekend with him and Rio. I’m leaving Thursday afternoon and will be back Sunday night.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought he mentioned it, or I would’ve told you sooner. You get a break from me.”
“I need a break from driving. Not you.”
“What?” I lick my lips as I watch the road, still dazed. “I thought you’d be fed up with me.”
“Nope.” She sniffs, and when I turn to quickly look at her, she’s staring straight ahead.
Having no proper reply for her that I can think of, I instead say, “You can drive tomorrow and then have a break from driving before we’ll kick it into high gear.” I smile at my pun and look at her, but she doesn’t look back at me, so I return my gaze to the road.
“Can’t we do something else?”
“Like what?” Work at her mom’s tomorrow? Shit.
“Go to Quiet Waters?” Not what I expected.
“The park? For what?”
Turning to her, I see her shrug again, but she doesn’t look up from her lap. “Time to regroup?”
Nothing else is said until I pull up to her apartment. The awkward silence that follows is more painful than during the drive until she asks, “Do you want to come in for a little bit?”
Before I can say yes—against my better judgment—in my side mirror, I see her mom walking toward Kat’s apartment. “Your mom is here? Now?”
“Oh.” She turns to look. “Yeah. She’s temporarily my neighbor, but she seems to be at my place. A lot.” Shit. Maybe that’s a good thing.
“Hey, guys!” Brenda cheerfully greets into my open window. “How’d driving go?”
“Fine, Mom.” Kat’s tone seems to be edgier than usual, so I promptly peer over and see her giving her mother a strange look. What did I miss?
“I made an apple pie.”
“It’s late, Mom.”
Brenda consults her watch. “It’s 9:01. Jared, why don’t you come over with Kat and have some pie?”
I politely smile, hoping it’s sufficient for her to back the fuck off. “As tempting as that sounds, I’m heading home.”
“Give me a minute,” Kat rigidly says to Brenda, who strangely smiles at her daughter as she swiftly backs away from the car.
Brenda imparts, “Okay. Take your time, Katydid.”
When she starts walking back to her apartment, I turn to Kat and laugh. “Katydid?”
Still laughing, I say, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Unexpectedly, Kat grabs onto my arm and pulls her upper body closer to me. Almost nose-to-nose to me, Kat whispers, “You didn’t call me baby.”
I swallow, suddenly hoarse, trapped in my own game that I started. I endeavor to be casual when I repeat, “I’ll see you tomorrow… baby.” Fuck me. I like calling her that, and I’ve never called a girlfriend by that name before. However, Kat isn’t my girlfriend.
She softly laughs and leans in to whisper in my ear, “Goodnight, honey.” Without predicting it, she kisses my cheek. “Thank you again for your faith in me, Jared.”
And just as fast as she did that, she exits the Altima faster, leaving me stunned, alone, and hard, which is beginning to feel like a rule in itself when I’m with Kat. Cold showers are way past annoying, but they’re a recent necessity, along with now jerking off every night.
I’m the clueless one? Kat Merrick has no fucking clue what she’s done to my life.