The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 27

Sitting on the couch, staring at the wall, is what I do for who in the fuck knows how long. She could be in the bathroom all goddamn day. After last night, she should stay the hell in there.

I spilled my fucking guts to her. No. I tore my heart from my chest and offered it to her. More than once. But she has no fucking idea. None.

Rejection is something that I’ve grown accustomed to. I’ve lived and breathed it. This time it was stealthy and made me a pathetic idiot. And it was all by her doing. All over again.

No more.

The bathroom door finally opens, and she walks to the corner of the living room, but I don’t look away from the wall. It’s far more interesting.

She doesn’t say anything, only standing there for a strange amount of time. That’s okay. I can stare at nothingness longer than I want to look at her for one second.

From the corner of my eye, I see her approaching me, but I still say zilch. She said plenty last night.

“So this is how it’s going to be? What did I do? What didn’t I do? I have no idea what happened after we made love.”

Mechanically, I glare at her. That word makes me fucking sick, especially when she used it like a bulldozer to push me over a goddamn cliff.

She provokes me even more. “Why in the fuck are you looking at me like you want to shove me off the balcony?” I’d like to.

I want to push her so far away. I want to argue with her. I want her to fucking hurt as much as she’s hurt me.

I don’t want to feel shit.

I want to be all over her. I want her all over me. I want to kiss her. I want to feel what I did with her last night, both inside and out.

I don’t want her to know what she’s fucking done to me. I can’t. I’m trapped. I’m her victim.

I’m no fucking victim.

“Talk to me!”

Unable to look at her any longer, I return my gaze to the wall. However, she blocks my view. “How can I reach you? You shut down! I’m not your fucking enemy, Jared! Shit!”

I ignore her, staring right below her tits, but flashes of last night fill my fucking head. I want the bad to flood my mind, yet they don’t, and I bite my cheek to curb my responding cock. I fucking hate the hold she has on me. I got rid of the previous chokehold a female had on me. I can do it again.

I have to.

Fuck. I have to.

“What do I have to do? God! I could say I’m losing you, but I never had you!”

I still stare at her tits, and she looks down. “What?”

We’re both quiet, but her chest rises and falls faster, which has me breathing faster with her, but I need to control it. She won’t control my body. No way.

Unpredictably, she pulls up her shirt until it’s over her head and tosses it onto the floor. I can’t let her see me react. I cannot.

Her hands then go to the waistband of her shorts, and she pushes them down with her underwear. When her pussy is exposed, the taste of her infiltrates my mouth, and I bite harder but refuse to look away. She won’t have the satisfaction of believing she’s getting to me. She’s not.

Without thinking, my hand goes to my dick, covering it, but I keep glaring at her perfect tits, hidden in her bra, remembering what they feel like and how much I want to hold onto them. I can’t. Her voice trembles, “Is this the only way I can get through to you? If I bend over or get down on my knees, what will that prove? That I’m some pitiful weakling?” She inhales, and it’s wobbly. “That I’m a whore?”

I heedlessly look up at her glassy eyes, saying nothing. I’m the pitiful one.

She shakes her head before wiping her cheeks with her balled hands. With hesitation, she walks closer like she’s a rabbit, ready to meet her demise at the sharp teeth of a wolf.

Her legs bump the couch, and I curse myself for not crossing my leg to keep her at a distance. I drop my eyes back to her stomach. If I look anywhere else, I’m afraid of what will happen.

I’m a goddamn pussy, at the mercy of one.

“Jared, don’t you want me?” The tone of her voice isn’t tempting. It’s desolate, and I’m reminded of that fucking karaoke duet. “You can’t even look at me. Why am I not…? Don’t you…? Are we…?” She sighs, and I warily glance at her, but she’s looking down at the couch, her striped hair falling around her face. “I can’t… I need to be wanted, not used. I need to be loved, not resented. I need…” She loudly swallows and again wipes her cheek, and I fucking hate that I care.

But I won’t show it. I can’t trust her. I was stupid to do that.

She bends, putting her arms around my neck, and crawls onto my lap. And she hugs me. She’s nearly naked, and she’s hovering over my crotch. I want to push her off. I want her gone. She’s already invaded every cell of my life.

I again steel my resolve. I am a fortress.

I have to be.

However, she doesn’t try. She only hugs me. Her covered tits press up against me while the scent of her hair stirs me, and I hate myself for one more reason.

My hands, curled into fists, stay to the sides of my legs, and my teeth again clamp my cheek. I hear her soft sighs with slight shaking, and I don’t want to crack. Don’t want to give in.

When she lifts her head and sits back some, we catch each other’s gaze, yet don’t utter a word. Involuntarily, my eyes fall to her lips. When I make myself look up, I see her doing the same as a tear drips down her cheek, quickly compelling me to look away. With her arms still around my neck, her hot, peppermint breath duels mine.

Her hand goes to my cheek, coercing me to look at her, and she quietly studies my face, but I can’t keep my eyes on her. Yet each time I glance away, she either tilts with my gaze or pulls my chin so that I look at her again. She’s not making any advances for sex, leaving me confused, and resentfully aroused.

Keeping one hand on my chin, she uses the other to sweep hair from my forehead while still gazing into my eyes. At this point, it’s futile to look anywhere else, which is not good. My cock aches from being restrained and painfully hard, but I keep space between us in an attempt to hide my desire for her. She will not have me.

Tilting forward, her face is closer as if she’s going to kiss my lips, but I won’t let her. She bypasses my lips and kisses my cheek. When she pulls back, our eyes are in a muted faceoff.

She will not.

Her eyes close as another tear falls. But as damaged as I am, I still… still hate seeing her cry.

With my hand still covering my crotch, I slowly move to push down my waistband, which makes my arm push against her stomach. She takes that as a cue that I want her to get off my lap, and she inhales another wavering breath as she shifts. With my other hand, I grab her hip and urge her onto my cock. However, she really hasn’t been turned on because I can’t get inside her so easily.

We look up at each other at the same time. Her expression is sad astonishment. I stoically watch her tears, giving nothing in return.

Her forehead goes to mine, but she tries pulling her hips away from me. I hold onto her, using both hands to keep her there. Our noses brush, slowly circling against each other. Our lips scrape, but I won’t kiss her.

I will not.

Yet, she makes no move to kiss me. We just circle, listening to our breathing, letting our mouths touch, but neither of us making that essential move to kiss or fuck.

Nevertheless, since I fucked her last night, she’s still wet somewhat, and my cock finally pushes into her. I did not give in.

I did not.

I pull down on her hips as I slide into her more. She moves her head to the side of mine, lightly gasping. I don’t know if it’s from pleasure or pain. I know I’m not getting any pleasure out of this.

Her purplish hair sweeps against the side of my face as I move her since she’s not contributing. As long as I’m inside her, I’ll have to make the best of the situation.

Not that I want to fuck her.

Her soft crying returns, and like a short-circuited robot doing its own thing, I angle my head, nudging hers with mine. My eyes close, and my lips unthinkingly inch forward, kissing her. There’s no response from her, so my mouth attempts to revive her lips by trying again. And again. And again, until she finally awakens. Slowly, we kiss, but it’s only to get her moving. I don’t want her reading anything into it. It’s just for a guaranteed fuck.

Still, she doesn’t move her hips. My hands leave them and go into her hair, clutching her head at the roots as I demand more from this kiss. I harden more inside her, and I involuntarily thrust my hips, hoping she gets the fucking hint. Literally.

I lick her trembling bottom lip and thrust again while panting over her mouth. Nothing. She fucking still does nothing.

Pulling away, I open my eyes to see her heavy tears, and my hands leave her hair to wipe them from her cheeks. Against any judgment I seem not to have, I look into her eyes while clearing the purpled hair from her face. I lean in to kiss her, but it’s only so I don’t have to see any more fucking tears. Her mouth moves more firmly against mine, and she lifts her hips. When I think she’s going to pull off me altogether, she doesn’t.

Our kiss and fuck deepen, but it’s only cause-and-effect. One affecting the other. Nothing more.

Her hands crunch at my T-shirt, shoving it up my chest, and I automatically pull my arms out of it, disrupting our kiss only long enough to yank the shirt over my head. She watches her hands running along my chest, down to my stomach, and further down to our juncture. Her hands are all over me, repeating her path as if she’s committing my body to memory.

Whatever she’s doing has me out of breath. My hands inevitably move to her bra, unhooking it so I can take advantage of my view. Her teal bra falls down her arms, but before she even gets rid of it, my hands go to her tits, pawing her. Anything to get her moving again. It’s all about the friction. That’s it.

Clutching her tits, I pull her forward until her lips fall onto mine. Our tongues war with each other, but she sedately rides me, our hips out of sync with our mouths. For what reason, I have no fucking clue, especially since I swore I wouldn’t kiss her.

And just as she did, my hands wander all over her. Dropping my hands from her tits, I skim her stomach, down to our merger. I then grab her ass, squeezing her, memorizing how she feels as her hard nipples stroke my chest. She moves faster, but now our mouths fall behind. Breaking away, our eyes scan each other’s face as we fuck, feeling our mutual build brewing.

Her eyes well with tears again, but she keeps them on me as our fucking slows. Not because we’re done, but just… because. Unfortunately, the measure proves to do the opposite. Keeping our eyes on each other, we wordlessly gasp as her spasms wrack us both, which sends me convulsing inside her. Panting together, we continue to watch as we bare our souls without saying a word, yet not understanding a damn word not said.

Our orgasms flare together and then burn out together. Plunging our gazes, she starts to move off me. Since I’m done using her, this time, I relent.

After we silently get dressed, she goes into my room. When she returns, she’s wheeling her suitcase. Standing, I go around making sure everything is turned off before we leave.

Then, as I set down my suitcase near the front door, noticing her suitcase, but not her, I go to the balcony. There, I see her sitting on the cement floor with her knees bent. I reluctantly stand over her, but she doesn’t acknowledge my presence. Sighing, I squat in front of her, and she eventually looks up at me, her eyes wet and bleak. We again look at each other, but neither of us can hold the gaze long, unlike earlier.

Unconsciously, I lean against her legs. Surprising me, her hand goes into my hair, and I close my eyes as she strokes her fingers through it. I hate that I feel so fucking much with her, though she thinks I feel nothing. Just as I thought I felt nothing.

Blinking my eyes open, we’re caught, staring into the depths of one another’s souls. Numbly, I offer my hand to help her up, being above leaving her low like she did to me.

Tentatively, she takes my hand, and I pull her up as I stand. Again, she hugs me, but I don’t hug her back. When she releases me, we go inside, and I lock the balcony door before grabbing my Colts hat, wallet, and keys. Holding the front door open for her, she exits, and we head to the elevator. We walk near each other but don’t touch. Don’t speak. Don’t make eye contact. I’m dying, but I’m not supposed to feel that.

The elevator ride is deathly quiet, which is unlike the ride up to my apartment, where we were joking and kissing.

The ride home is even worse. Since she’s unfocused, there’s no way she should be behind the wheel, so I do the driving. I guess we do have something in fucking common.

She looks out her window almost the entire time. The radio is irrelevant. I don’t have any inclination to say anything. If there’s anything left to say.

Resting my hand on the gearshift at a red light, I think nothing of it until my hand is picked up. My gaze falls from the windshield to her fingers, sliding between mine. I cautiously look at her, but she’s looking out the window, so I stare at her purple hair.

From the corner of my eye, I see the light turn green, so I look away from her. She holds my hand, squeezing it every so often. Maybe for some kind of reaction from me, but I don’t give her one.

Pulling into her driveway, I let go of her hand to put the car in park and to get her suitcase out of the trunk. Before I leave, she grabs my arm. Robotically turning toward her, she kisses me. But because it’s a precarious situation, I don’t want to kiss her back.

Cutting it off, I get out of the car. When I pull the suitcase from the trunk, she rounds the corner and stands there, expectantly, as if I’m supposed to make some kind of speech. Instead, she walks closer, clutches my T-shirt, and unsteadily whispers, “You call that a kiss?”

I glance over at her mother’s apartment, but she grabs my chin, forcing me to look at her. “If you’re not going to talk to me, will you please, at least, give me a proper kiss… goodbye?”

Is this goodbye?

Sighing at how fucked up I am, I kiss her forehead, but she grabs my face and pulls me to her lips and as much as I fight it… Fuck. I’m a pussy.

I can’t even fight off the first person I’ve truly ever kissed. The only one I thought I…

Fuck this.

I finally scrounge the will to end our kiss and get into the car, needing to get fucking plastered at 2:14 pm.

There’s a knock at my bedroom door, and I roll my eyes. His muffled voice asks, “Can I come in?”

Between sips, I reply, “I probably can’t stop you.”

Dad walks in, looking around, assessing as usual. “I just got back from your grandparents’s. How was your trip… with Kat?”

I concentrate on the beer can’s scrolled artwork. “Fine.”

Looking up, I seem him gawking at the two beer cans on the nightstand. “Why didn’t you tell me about you and Kat?” He sighs and leans against the doorframe.

I roll my eyes again and lift my beer can to take a drink. “Dad… I’m busy.”

“Jared. Something had to have transpired. You kissed her and then—”

Automatically looking up at him, I laugh. “Oh, no, no, no. She kissed me. So if you want to go there, get your story straight first.” Only if I could.

“How long?”

I frown in confusion. “Three seconds?”

He sighs again, rubbing a hand over his face. “How long have you been with her?”

“With her? What? Like in a bed, bouncing off each other, moaning each other’s names? That kind of with her?”

“Jared Adam.”

I lean my head back, saying to the ceiling, “Flipping hell.”

“You’re making jokes. This isn’t a joke. I’ve never seen you like this.”

“Getting drunk? I believe you have.”

Dad shakes his head as his disapproval mounts. “I understand some of your hostility toward me. I tried to be the best dad I could with you and Hadley. I’m far from perfect. I always felt like I failed. I was scared every day, Jared. I didn’t want my kids hating me.”

Christ. I’m not even drunk yet.

He says, “I know it’s hard for you to connect with people on a personal level. It’s hard for me, too, but I don’t want to see you encounter the same pitfalls. Kat is special to you. That’s why you’re scared.”

I glare at him. “I’m not scared of shit.” Suck on that, Finn Wilder.

“Did you and Kat talk in Philadelphia?”

“No, we used sign language.”

“Jared.” I sigh, knowing he won’t leave me alone until I give him something. “She stayed with you at your apartment. You’re adults, and I’m not naïve.”

“Oh. We’re back to the bouncing and moaning, right? That’s kind of hard to do when I slept on the couch.” Part truth. I did sleep on the couch. For an hour.

I grab my beer as my phone lights up. Looking up from the screen, I show it to him. “It’s Rio. Not some girl. He wants to go out on a date with me on Friday. I guess I didn’t tell you I swing that way. Oops. God. I hope he doesn’t expect me to bounce and moan with him yet.” Dad frowns. “Would it be okay to go, or do I have to marry Kat that day?”

“If you don’t want to talk to me, then fine.”

I shrug. “I don’t know why you get the impression I have anything I want to talk about.”

“But the look on your face is one I’m used to seeing in the mirror. Pain. I know it. Believe me. This kind is slashing your heart into pieces.”

“Nope.” Yes. With a chainsaw.

“If you do ever want to talk, I’m here. That’s all I can offer, but I hope you’ll take it sometime.” Not likely.

Giving up as usual for him, he leaves my room, and I return to staring at the wall while drinking my beer, and I impatiently wait for the numbness to set in.

But sometimes, the numbness isn’t enough.

In the morning, I text Dash to take Kat driving for an hour, and then to her class tonight. I have no inclination whatsoever to get out of bed.

And that’s what I do. I lie on the couch, watching whatever is on TV that doesn’t remind me of what a shitty world this is.

Tuesday, I do show up at the site, but I’m soon sorry I did.

Dash says, “I was wondering what happened to you.”

As he walks with me to the van, I grumble, “I died.”

“Sorry to hear that. I tried to take Kat driving, but she wouldn’t go. I took her to class, but she barely said a word to me.” I nod as I yank a spool of electrical cord out of the van for Tony. “Did she say something to you?”

Finding a pair of wire cutters in Tony’s toolbox, I look away from Dash’s scrutiny as I make the cut. “Uh, will you take her driving today and then to class tonight? I’m not feeling that great. I’m going home.”

“You two are always joined at the hip. Now, you can’t mention her name without a strange look on your face.”

I wrap the cut cord in a rush and shove it into his arms. “Here. Take this to Tony. I’m out.”

“Jericho!” I keep walking, and when I get behind the Nissan’s wheel, I have to hold my breath, so her perfume doesn’t hit me like a frying pan to the face. I don’t know how I’ll ever drive my goddamn car again.

Wednesday, I take a deep breath as I exit the Nissan. I need to get my shit together. I promised I’d help her. I’m seriously trying to.

Walking through the front door of the house, I go past the living room, briefly looking in there but then stopping when I see her standing at the front window.

Going in, I wait for her to turn around, but she doesn’t. I finally say, “You need to drive.” She nods, and I again wait for her to turn. I clear my throat. “Are we going now?”

She turns away from the window but doesn’t look at me as she walks past. Christ. This’ll be fun.

When she’s behind the wheel, she puts out her hand, and I drop the keys into it. Before starting the car, she sighs at the wheel, asking, “Are you talking to me now?”

“Seems so.”

She glowers at me. “Where’ve you been for the last two days?”

I tug down on my bill before crossing my arms and glaring at the dashboard. “I needed a… break.”

Turning, I stealthily glance at her as she shakes her head at the wheel and starts the car. “Where to?”

“Wherever.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“I’m here. Drive.”

“You’re here, but you may as well not be.”

I roll my eyes at the windshield but remain quiet. The drive is the same, with her picking odd roads to drive, but she does well, so I don’t feel the need to comment.

When she pulls in front of her mother’s house, she puts the car in park, turns it off, and says, “I won’t be here tomorrow or Friday.”

I sit, waiting for her to go on, but she doesn’t. Looking over at her, she stares out the windshield. Ultimately, curiosity wins. “Why?”

“I’m going to Virginia with Liberty. She’s apartment hunting. I said I’d go with her.”

“Oh.” My sympathies.

“I’ll be back on Saturday.”

“Why can’t you do it during the weekend, so you don’t have to miss class?”

“Liberty is going during the week.”

“Figures.”

“It’s not her fault. I said I’d go.”

“You shouldn’t be missing class. You won’t be done before school starts.”

“So? I won’t have a car before then, either.”

“I won’t be here. You’ll have to have someone else take you to class and finish your hours.”

She sends me a dirty look. “Yes, and we’ve established that may be a possibility. So, whatever works.”

“Fine.”

“Fine. I’ll see you on Saturday.” Without giving me a courteous glance, Kat gets out of the car and marches up the walkway, her streaked ponytail swinging riotously as she goes.

I’d stay in the car, smelling her perfume, but the fucking shit makes my damn eyes water anymore, so I get out, deciding I need to cut shit with the circular saw.

Starting with Calder’s throat should clear my head.

Checking my watch, I impatiently walk to the end of the porch, looking to the parking lot, and then walk to the other end, peering around the restaurant to the other end of the lot. No Duquesne. You’d figure with his bitch out of town he’d have a better grasp on time. Alas, Diet Dr. Pussy isn’t used to freedom.

Thursday, I spent the day at Brenda’s and then at the park. If it’s not Wednesday night at the races during the summer, there’s nothing else to do in this fucking town.

Duquesne’s truck pulls up, and I roll my eyes at his rueful smile as he walks over to me. “You run on your own time zone, Duquesne?”

His smile widens. “Sorry, Jare. Work ran over.”

“I don’t even want to know.”

“Not what you think.” He nods, looking to the side of the building. “Let’s go over here before we eat.”

“I’m hungry. Can’t you spout off about your pussy assembly line in there?”

“It’s not about that.”

I sigh. Her. I know it. He doesn’t want to cry in front of people. Why is he willing to cry like a girl in front of me? I don’t want to see that shit.

Following him to the side, where he lectured me last time we were here, I take a seat on the wooden bench, hanging my hands between my legs as I look up at him expectantly. I refrain from rolling my eyes because of the subject matter, trying to focus on being a better friend. Somewhat.

Rio doesn’t sit. Instead, he leans against a wooden pillar holding up the roof overhang, with his foot planted behind him on it. He shoves his hands into his jeans pockets. “You know you’re my best friend, right?”

“Uh… I guess,” I answer, confused about where he’s going with this.

“You are. You might think you’re a shitty friend or whatever, but you’re not. You always listen to my problems, take my advice on some things, you always have my back, and you make me laugh. You may be the most stubborn guy I know, and we may argue, but you’re like my brother. I can’t get rid of you.”

Smiling, I nod. “Asshole.”

“Anyway, there’s the issue of my girlfriend. You two don’t get along. Everyone knows that.” I again nod but with a frown this time. “You both are the most important people in my life. You’ll be living in Philadelphia. She’ll be living in Virginia.”

I stiffly say, “Yeah…”

Shit. No.

Recognizing I’m onto him, he appears uneasy. “Jare…”

Sitting against the wall, I cross my arms, gritting my teeth. “Don’t fucking say it.”

You moved. You’re starting another chapter in your life. Why can’t I?”

I shake my head, glaring at him. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I’m not abandoning you. Don’t ever think that. I’ll be in Baltimore until I can get a job near hers. It could take months to find something.”

“You’re fucking leaving,” I state, saying it out loud to grasp the concept.

“So you can only do the leaving? How is that fair?”

“I’ll only be in Philly! You’re moving to fucking Virginia to be with a girl you’ve been dating for a few months?”

“We were friends for two years before we started dating. I know Liberty. I plan on marrying her. I want to ask her New Year’s Eve.”

“Jesus Christ! Why in the hell would you want to get fucking married? And to her?”

He drops his foot. “I love her, Jared! Why is that so hard for you to accept?”

I roll my eyes. “It’s your life. Ruin it however you want.”

You want to talk about ruin? What are you doing with Kat?”

“It was a joint agreement. Nobody was supposed to find out. That was my fucking fault.”

“I’m not only talking about you sleeping with her. We all know what’s really going on with you.”

“There’s nothing more to tell! We weren’t broadcasting it for all to analyze. It was our business.”

He runs a hand through his hair, looking flustered, which is not a Duquesne trait. “You are so fucking unconscious. I feel like I need to enlighten you because you’re now in a tailspin, but I’m positive it’ll only send you spinning into a goddamn wall at top speed.”

I resentfully grin. “Come on, Rio. Don’t hold out on me. Please, shed your pussy wisdom onto my fucked-up life.”

“You asked Kat why she couldn’t be a rational adult. Why can’t you? Sometimes it’s like talking to a toddler!”

“Fuck you, Duquesne! And by the way, why did your girlfriend take Kat with her? Is it some kind of Thelma and Louise road trip?”

“You know what, Jared? I’ve been patient with you and your attitude for years. If you can’t get along with Liberty or accept me moving down there, then fuck you. This’s it.”

“Me or her? Really?”

“I don’t want to do that, but Jesus! I’m building a life with her, but all you can focus on is trying to tear it down! Get over your damn self and look at your own life! Why can’t you just tell Kat how you feel?”

“How I feel?” I laugh. “Wrong advice to give, doc.”

“Then, you know what? You don’t fucking deserve her or my friendship. If that’s the way you’re going to be, I’m done.”

“I’ve been done, River.”

Rio shakes his head and pushes off the pillar, storming off to his truck.

I can’t even move my glare from the green car parked in front of me as I hear Rio peel out of the lot.

“What’re you doing?”

I stick my tongue out as I dribble the basketball. “Playing some b-ball. You forget how, old man?”

He looks from me to the cans of beer in the grass. “Jared.”

“Come, on, Dad! Shoot it!” I toss him the worn basketball, but he’s a horrible catch, and it flies past him, bouncing off a tree. “I thought you were some basketball star in high school. That attempt was lame.” He puts his hands on his hips and watches me like I’m some kind of exhibit at a carnival. “Aren’t you getting the ball?”

“Jared, we need to talk.”

I laugh. “We are. See? My mouth is moving.”

“You’re becoming an alcoholic.”

Holding the ball, I frown. “From playing basketball? I’ve never heard of that side effect before.”

He rolls his eyes. “From your drinking.”

I laugh. “Like you?”

“Yes. Like me. But I got help before it was too late. That’s not to say I can’t relapse. I take it one—”

I bob my head. “—day at a time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know the anthem. I don’t drink all the time.”

“This is how it started for me. Your mother left. I used drinking as an escape. I only drank after you and Hadley were in bed, so I thought I could hide it. I couldn’t. It became worse and infected my daily life.”

“I remember.” I stumble past him, grabbing the ball. I make a hook shot, but it bounces off the backboard and rolls down the driveway.

Sighing, I go after it. Dribbling it back to the garage, I look up to the basket but notice he’s still watching me, so I stop. “If you’re not playing some one-on-one, then just leave me to being one.”

“I know you’re drinking because of Kat. Why don’t you talk to me about it?” I open my mouth to speak, but he says, “Don’t tell me there’s nothing to talk about. I see it. I know, Jared.”

“You don’t.” I continue dribbling the ball and change the subject. “I wanted to play basketball in school.”

“You did? Why didn’t you?”

I shrug. “Your shadow was overwhelming.”

“What?”

I hold the ball, tucking it under my arm. “I was Adam Sure Shot Beckett’s only son. I wanted to make you proud in some way. Playing basketball was not going to get that job done. I didn’t want to play football, really, but I was good at it.”

“You didn’t have to play anything for me to be proud of you. I’ve always been. Always will be.”

“You wouldn’t be if you…” I laugh and take a shot. This time, it balances on the rim before falling into the basket. Grinning, I fist pump the air. “Ha!”

As it again rolls down the driveway, I chase the ball, nearly falling onto my face. When I pick it up, I hand it to my dad. “Come on, Pops. For old times’ sake.”

He gives me a tolerant glare, reluctantly snatching the ball from me and dribbling it while upholding his frown. I respond with rolling my eyes. He glances at the basket and then back at me, suddenly making a cool hook shot.

I turn to watch it go into the basket with a whoosh.

“Showoff,” I grumble.

“Still got it.” He laughs at the basket but then sheepishly shrugs at me. “Maybe I should dare Finn to play me.”

“Oh, Jesus. You can’t wipe the floor with him on his show. He’d break up with your daughter on live TV.”

“He wouldn’t do that, even if I beat him in a dare.”

“Right. I’m sure his ego doesn’t have a ceiling. And she’s better off, not going that route.”

“You don’t think he’ll marry your sister?”

I roll my eyes, making the driveway tilt. “Marriage. Give me a break. It didn’t work out for you… or other people.”

“But it does work for some. Your sister and Finn manage with his tough work schedule. They’ll be okay.”

“Whatever.”

“Jared, it could work for you… someday.”

I laugh. “No, thank you. Damn Duquesne is jumping aboard that train wreck. But hey, that’s his problem.”

“Oh, I see. Is that what you talked about tonight?”

“His warden is moving to Virginia for a job. I guess she snapped her fingers and whistled for him.”

“You wouldn’t do that for someone?”

Dribbling the ball, I scowl. “Nobody’s worth it.”

He sighs. “It’s not just Rio bothering you. Where’s Kat?”

I shoot the ball, making a basket, but I don’t care. “She’s not my parole officer. I don’t have to report to her every hour.” I let the ball bounce into the grass, and I walk over to my beer, picking up the spare cans, but they fall, so I leave them. “I’m done here.”

Hating that I’m thinking about shit I set out to forget, I go into the house and stuff two more cans of beer under my arm before heading to my room.

Looking up at the window where Lange is yelling measurements out to me, I give him a thumbs-up and walk over to the table to make the cuts in the baseboards.

“What’s up, Jericho?”

Writing down the measurements, I reply, “Stay out of my way, Calder. I have the saw, and I know how to use it for wicked, wicked deeds.”

“Uh, did you talk to Rio?”

I put the pencil behind my ear. “Who?”

“Oh. I’m taking it you did.”

“He can do whatever the fuck he wants. Doesn’t make shit to me.”

“I know you’re mad. What else did you think he was going to do? Stay apart from her forever?”

I mutter, “That would be the smart thing to do.”

“You need to make up with him before you move.”

“Nope.”

He sighs. “Did Kat get back from their trip yet?” Goddamn it.

I shrug but glance at him, hoping he doesn’t notice my interest. “Don’t know.”

“She texted me that she needs to ask me some questions, but she hasn’t said anything else.”

Putting on my safety glasses, I again shrug. “Haven’t heard from her.” She’s all I think about, though.

He laughs. “You suck as an actor.”

I flip off Dash before turning on the saw and making a slashing gesture to my throat and then pointing at him.

He responds by making a swirling motion at his head and points back at me.

Jesus Christ. I feel like I am losing it.

About three hours later, the metal grinding, still echoing in my head, kicked around all the shit with Kat and Rio, which makes my mind scream nonstop.

Pissed off, I throw a block of wood at the trash can, but it bounces off the plastic side and skips across the ground like a stone across water.

“Pretty cool, Jericho,” Dash garbles. I irritably look at him as he takes a purple sucker from his mouth. “Awesome. Kat just texted me. She’s home.”

“Uh-huh,” I say, trying to sound uncaring as I return to nothing in particular. However, as soon as Dash walks away, I head for the Nissan. I just hope she’s alone.

Rounding the corner, I see Kat’s empty driveway, and I heave a sigh of relief. I can’t deal with Liberty’s shit right now, and I may choke her for stealing my best friend. Both.

Going up the stairs, I’m hit with the realization that I have no idea why I’m here or what I’m going to say. I’m just a fucking idiot who can’t stay away from his obsession.

I knock on the door, and she answers within seconds, looking confused. She’s wearing her glasses, and her hair is all chocolate brown. Just like the Kat I first met. I nearly fall to my knees.

“Jared? What’s wrong? Did I miss a text about driving?”

“Your hair.”

Kat touches it but doesn’t comment as she warily steps aside. I breeze past her, and when she shuts the door, I spout, “Rio’s leaving.” She solemnly nods and looks to the floor. Propping my hands on my hips, I nod with a roll of my eyes. “Of course, you know that.”

“Liberty told me during our trip.”

“How can he want to be with her? And so far away?”

Kat sighs. “Jared…”

“What? Please don’t defend his decision! I’m sure it was Libby’s fucking idea. Jesus. Her claws are in so deep.”

“She said it was Rio’s idea. He wants to do this.”

I frown. “If he wants to move that far, then so be it. Fuck him.”

Kat crosses her arms. “You’re moving to Philadelphia.”

I throw out my hand. “It’s not that far from Baltimore! I’d still visit him there, just like I’ll be here visiting you and Dash!”

“Exactly! Philly isn’t that far from Annapolis, either, but you said long-distant relationships don’t work!”

I drop my hand, irritated more. “So?”

Her throat ripples as her gaze falls. “Our friendship has become complicated since we crossed that line. Feelings, for me at least, are involved. It’s too much. I can’t do it, and I can’t put my life on hold for you.”

I roar, “What in the fuck does that mean?”

“I mean, what the hell do you want me to do? Languish here while you sleep around during the week?”

“I won’t be sleeping around!”

“Why not, Jared?”

I restlessly pull on my bill. “Because I don’t want to!”

“Give me a real answer. What is keeping you from sleeping around?”

I shake my head and sneer, “Absolutely nothing.”

She nods. “That’s right. Nothing.” Kat swipes her nose on the back of her hand. “I told you I won’t be your weekly fuck reservation, but even I won’t be able to abide by that. You’ll come home on weekends, and I’ll spread my legs to welcome you because...” Her eyes heavily water, and she takes off her glasses. Setting them down, Kat uses the heels of her hands to dry her eyes. “I can’t do this anymore.” Her fist goes to her mouth as she glances at her suitcase sitting near the hallway. Suddenly, it fucking dawns on me.

I numbly ask, “Why did you go to Virginia?”

Avoiding eye contact, she whispers, “To keep Liberty company.”

“You’re fucking lying to me! Why can’t you give me a real answer?” When she closes her eyes, I storm over to her, grab her chin, forcing her to look at me, just like she did on my couch. “Tell me the fucking truth!”

The tears spill down her cheeks. “I went down there for an interview.”

“A fucking what?”

“An interview. For a teaching position next school year.”

Jerking my hand away from her as if she just electrocuted me, I dubiously laugh. “You’re joking, right?” When she doesn’t laugh, I shout, “Tell me this is a goddamn joke, Katriona!” Because I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Rio and Kat are both leaving and saved their announcements for a day apart, I take a deep breath and summarize, “You’re leaving Annapolis?”

She whispers, “Yes.”

I bite my lip hard as I aimlessly look around the living room. “So you knew all this time? You’ve only been using me to get your license—your ticket out of here?”

“No!”

I glare at her, not believing a word she’s saying. “Did that fucking bitch talk you into doing this?”

“No, Jared! This was all my idea! I have a teacher friend with connections who owed me a favor!”

Rubbing my hands over both sides of my jaw, I yank my phone from my pocket. “I’ll fucking kill him.”

“It wasn’t Dash! He doesn’t even know! This was all me!” Kat sniffs and shoves a hand into her hair. “Last week, I submitted my license application to teach in Virginia, and since I’m licensed here, it shouldn’t take long, and I have fewer hurdles to jump.”

As that reality sinks in, my hands fly to my head as I step back from her. I can’t form words. She sobbingly asks, “Why is it a big deal to you? Because you’re losing your foolproof fuck pawn?”

With my hands on top of my head, I laugh because she’s so damn preposterous. “You think this a game, do you?”

“No, but you think I’m a plaything! No commitment! No attachment! No cares!”

Lowering my arms, I slowly pace in front of her, darkly gazing at her like I am that wolf stalking the scared rabbit. “You think I’m not committed to you? Surprise, I am utterly faithful to you. So much so that after we met, every pussy I fucked was yours.”

She gasps, and I laugh as I incredulously spew, “No attachment? Really? My pathetic obsession with you for nearly half my entire life doesn’t count?”

I stop pacing to glower down at her wet face. “No cares? I guess I don’t anymore. So, Kat Merrick, fuck you.”

When she slaps me across the face, the sting doesn’t hurt as much as her decision to leave.

Blinking out of the shock, I grab her arms, jerking her to me. She struggles against me, crying, “Fuck you, Jared! You don’t even want me!”

“You think I don’t fucking want you?” Letting go of her arm, I yank her hair and dive in, kissing her mouth. She tries to push me away, knocking off my hat in the process, but I hold firm. We fight each other, pushing and pulling, but our mouths stay glued, engaging in their own battle. Kat pushes me hard, ramming me into the wall, and I slide until we reach the hallway. I walk backward, dragging her with me as she pushes me into a room, where we stumble onto a bed. I flip her over, trapping her beneath me. The only thing I notice is that the bedspread is a bluish-purple color.

Her fists pound my chest, and she yelps, “Go home!”

“Oh, no, you don’t.” I tear at her shorts, but she squeezes her knees together.

I’m still able to remove her shorts and underwear while she kicks at me. I lean onto her legs, holding them with my arm, and using my free hand, I shakily go for my fly. “You still need a goddamn label? I’m your boyfriend. Happy?”

“You’re not!” Finally, getting my shorts undone, I speedily shove them down. She cries, “Stop! I’m not a revolving door or your on-call skank!”

Prying her legs open, I lean close to her mouth. “No, you’re my girlfriend.”

She adamantly shakes her head. “We’re fucking nothing!” That hurts more than the slap did.

Incensed, I pin down her arms, next to her head, and her eyes widen. She twists her wrists, but she can’t free them from my grip, and she sobs harder.

Even though I’m full of rage, I know I’m entering a dark place I shouldn’t be. I release her wrists and push myself up. Sitting back, I catch my breath as I stare at her. She hurriedly sits up, facing me on her knees, more angered than before. When her gaze drops to my hard cock, I grab her hand and put it on my shaft.

“Fucking tell me you don’t want me.”

She clamps her hand onto it. “I don’t!”

“You’re lying!”

She suddenly lets go of my dick and pushes my chest. I push her back, but not nearly as hard as I can. When she pushes me again, I grab her arms and force her down onto the bed with me, rolling onto my back.

On top of me, she growls, “Yes, I’m lying. You don’t even realize how much I fucking want you.”

I sneer, “I knew you wanted my cock.”

“You’re so damn clueless.”

“Oh, yeah?” I grab her hips and drive her onto me. She whimpers as I dig deep. We viciously fuck. Fast and hard. Cold and to the point.

Over her shirt, I grab her tits and squeeze my fingers into them, pulling her each time she pushes me into her while she claws at my chest hair through my shirt.

My hands fall to her waist, and I brutally yank her back and forth. When she gripes, I seethe, “Shut up and take it. You wanted me to fuck you.” Her hands slide up my shirt, and her nails dig into my skin. “Ow! Fuck!”

“Shut up and take it. A fuck is all you do want from me.”

I’m already near the edge. I roll my head back. “Jesus Christ!”

Surprisingly, she comes before me, crushing the life out of my cock. She grabs my T-shirt and falling close to my face, she snarls, “I’m fucking in love with you, Jared Beckett.”

I shoot inside her. “You bitch! Goddamn it!”

Her voice becomes a tearful whisper. “I love you so much.”

Panting, I push her off me and sit up, grabbing my shorts from the floor, with my cock barely finished twitching. Tugging on my shorts, I spin around, glaring at her as she sits up and curls her legs in front of her. I yell, “That’s a lie! How can you fucking say that? You’re leaving! Just like every other fucking female in my life!”

She cries, “Jared, it’s the truth! I love you! I’ve been in love with you since high school!”

I zip up my fly over my rapidly shrinking dick. “Bull fucking shit! You don’t have a clue what that is! You went off and married some fucker you didn’t give a shit about! And let me guess, you want me to marry you now? You couldn’t even keep your first marriage together! Like I want to be involved in another one of your disasters!”

“You’re my only love!” she wails, her head shaking her brown hair as she leans her forehead onto her arms.

I didn’t even listen to my own advice I gave Finn. I told him to cut Hadley loose. I’ve been hanging onto Kat way past her expiration date.

I laugh. “Right! I’m sure you told him that, too! Fuck! You and Duquesne are fucking stupid, falling for that shit!” Going to the living room, I snatch my hat from the floor as I hear scurrying behind me.

I turn around, and as she pulls up her shorts, she shrieks, “How could you say that to me?”

“How could you say that… shit… to me, especially after I begged you not to leave me, after I…” I yank the front door open. “Fuck! You wrecked what we had!”

“How? We had an actual fucking friendship! You never wanted anything more!”

I bitterly laugh, shaking my head. “Don’t you get it? You said I didn’t notice you taking me on dates but did you even notice I’ve been dating you? We were together in every sense of the word! In a fucking relationship! As a damn couple, just like you wanted! But it seems that all you wanted was the fucking label! A place card!” I yank my hat on and impart, “Well, you can label us as over.”

Her hands go to her face as she shudders. “God! I shouldn’t have told you!” She whips her head up. “The fucking label didn’t matter! You didn’t even want a future with me! That’s what I wanted!”

“Future? I barely got through the past with you, and now, I can’t even stand having you in my present.”

“I wanted you to love me. You’re smashing my heart all over again!”

“Oh, yeah, because I broke it in high school! We’ll get some damn Scotch tape and move on!”

“You fucking asshole!”

Clamping my hands into fists, I shout, “I’m the asshole? You fucking broke my heart in high school, but you never cared! I fucking wanted you! Every goddamned day! Being with you has been hell on Earth!” She wraps her arms around her stomach and falls to her knees, but all I see is blind fury. “Why don’t you get one of your new best friends to help you get your license? I bet they’ll be all over that shit since they like charity cases!”

She screeches to the floor, “Get out!”

“Gone!”

As I slam the front door, I hear her scream, “I hate you!”

I storm to the Nissan. My hand shakes as I start the car, but my foot has no problem stomping on the gas, backing out of the driveway, and speeding out of the complex.

Unfortunately, my resolve crumbles as soon as I hit the road. I automatically drive straight to the park since I have nowhere else to go. Pulling into the furthest spot at the first lot, I throw the car into park and lean back as my hands shove beneath my hat, lifting it. The howl that follows is unexpected and mind-numbing.

Like a goddamn baby, I fucking bawl at a park. In my grandmother’s car.

But a robot does that kind of shit.

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