“Oh fuck.” I stopped short. Gripping my dick in my hand, I turned toward Grace, but whatever I was going to say died in my mouth. She looked so gorgeous, her smile so loving, her expression sated and satisfied, and I didn’t want to do anything to ruin the moment.
After, I thought, I’ll talk to her after. In the bathroom, I wet a cloth and rubbed off the sem*n and Grace’s sweet lubrication. Tossing the soiled cloth away, I heated a new one up and carried it out to her.
“We made a mess,” she said as I tenderly cleaned between her legs. Her hand stroked down my side, tracing her fingers unconsciously over the branches and down the trunk of the tree I had tattooed on my side. Bo’d talked me into getting it after Boot Camp. As I’d looked through the catalog of designs, the tree one called to me. Not because I was a nature lover but because I liked the idea of creating roots, of being a steady, dependable man that my father wasn’t. I wanted to provide for Grace, shelter her, and love her.
Her inner thighs had streaks of come on them and part of me didn’t want to wipe them away. Part of me, the Neanderthal part, wanted to scoop every swimmer up and push them back inside her. The thought of Grace rounded and pregnant with my child made me instantly hard again.
I tried to ignore it because despite Grace’s consent earlier, she still had to study for a final. Reluctantly cleaning her off, I pulled back the sheets and tucked her underneath the covers. The studying could wait until after a short, post-dinner nap.
“I’ll wake you up in an hour, baby, so you can study for your Comp Lit final.”
“Thanks,” she said drowsily and fell off to sleep. I didn’t know if Grace really grasped the ramifications of what we’d done, hav**g s*x without the condom, but we’d do whatever she wanted. If she wanted to keep the baby, then my timeline had just been crunched into a shorter time period. Dr. Billings other offer seemed less offensive now.
I’d tell Grace tomorrow.
"WE SHOULD STAY OVERNIGHT IN the city. I’ll take you to Navy Pier and we can ride the Ferris Wheel," I offered. Grace and I had skipped all the fun dating things that high school students did since I was ass deep in dust and sand during her high school years.
"It’s nearly zero degrees," Grace said dryly.
"So that’s a no?"
Grace reached across the console and squeezed my thigh in silent reassurance. Apparently she didn’t want to tip off her cousin, who was sitting in the back of the rented Tahoe, that I was nervous as f**k about going to their home. But I figured that was probably a lost cause given that I’d suggested going to an amusement park in the dead of winter. In the rearview mirror, I could see Lana rolling her eyes at me. I should have recommended ice skating, although none of the water on Lake Michigan looked frozen so I wasn’t sure where that would take place.
I’d only been in Chicago once before, and I’d only really seen the airport and Interstate 94.
"You’re looking sterner and sterner the closer we get to my house." Grace leaned over and kissed my cheek.
My face felt like stone, and I tried to crack a smile for her, but it must have looked labored. The stress of not telling Grace about Dr. Billings, the possibility I was going to throw a fight, made my stomach churn. In response, I could feel myself shutting down, shutting Grace out.
She just patted my cheek again. "We all hate it there, don’t we, Lana."
"Yup, don’t blame you for not wanting to come with us,” Lana agreed. "Christmas with the Sullivans involves a lot of liquor, insults, and crying—and that’s just me. Your home life must really suck if you are voluntarily coming with us."
"Lana," Grace chastised.
Leave it to Lana, I thought. "Anything is better than Little Oak, Texas."
"What’s Bo doing?" Grace asked.
"He’s going to San Diego to visit some Marine buddies."
The rest of my roommates were all natives and were spending their respective holidays with their families. Bo had invited me down to San Diego with him, but I wanted to be with Grace. With my schedule, it was hard to have complete days with her uninterrupted by classes, business duties, and training for my New Year’s fight.
At Grace’s house, she promised me that I could work out and that the rest of my time, I’d be in her bedroom allowing her to judge the results of my workout. That cheered me up.
"Look, he’s almost smiling, Grace," Lana said from the backseat. "He must be thinking about boning you."
"Lana!" Grace exclaimed and turned about a hundred shades of pink. Loved it. If I wasn’t driving, I’d have hauled her into my lap and kissed the hell out of her.
"What?" Lana said innocently. "It’s true. I spend enough time around you to know that it’s a look Noah gets before he hustles you into the bedroom and I don’t see you for an hour. By the way, Noah, your stamina is really putting a pall over my entire hook-up philosophy."
Grace buried her face in her hands, but I just laughed. In the rearview mirror, I saw Lana slide back into her seat looking smug. She’d taken all of our minds off what was coming.
"I can still put that hit on Parker," I said to her. Parker was a guy that had cheated on Lana with some girl in London over summer vacation. That’s the type of people that Lana and Grace knew. People who went to foreign countries for the entire summer between college semesters.
"Nah, that would imply I still cared about him. Which I don’t. Although a girl from another house told me that he picked up herpes B from the London girl and now no one will go near him."
"Is that like a sorority alert that is sent out?" I asked.
"Something like that. Gotta look out for our sisters." Lana leaned forward toward Grace. "When’s Josh coming in?"
“Tomorrow, I think. He’s excited that we are coming to the game but sorry to miss your fight.”
“No worries,” I said. I didn’t have family come to my fights. Bo and the roommates did, and some of the guys from my Marine unit, but the only family I had was a drunk of a father who only cared that I fought because he believed it meant more money for him. I didn’t give him any money. Instead, I paid his rent directly and paid off his account at the local grocery store, which was under strict orders not to sell him liquor. I didn’t pay for any of that. I’m not sure if he sold his food stamps for liquor, but I knew he still drank.
Bo’d left town with me and never looked back. He didn’t stay in touch with his old friends, let alone his mother. He hated that place and everything in it. I didn’t so much hate it as I regretted it. When my agent was putting together my promotional materials, he wanted to play up the small town kid makes good. I nixed that and sold him on just using the former Marine language.
The mixed martial arts crowd was full of people that wanted to see some former military guy get their ass kicked. If I got beat, this was their way of saying that they could have hacked it in the military if they’d wanted to. So I made sure I upheld Marine honor by not getting beat. Oorah.
My perfect record led to a professional contract with a management company and fights at holidays. I did a fight earlier in the year, and now I’m the undercard on a New Year’s Eve match in Las Vegas. Just being on the undercard for such a match was a big payday for me.
But no matter how big my paydays were, they’d never match what Grace had in her trust fund or what the house she grew up in was worth. I was going to have to use my fight earnings to leverage that into something else. The thought of the fight and all the implications it held brought on a throbbing headache that killed any good feelings I’d had about getting Grace alone in her teenage bedroom, which was too bad. Those were damn good fantasies. I shifted in my seat and pressed my temple with my thumb, trying to ease the ache.
"You can work out when we get there,” Grace whispered and squeezed my shoulder.
For a minute I wanted to shrug out of her grasp. I didn’t like that she had to comfort me. The pounding in my head increased like a goddamm woodpecker was on the inside, pounding away at me.
NOAH LOOKED TENSE, AND he was strung so tightly I thought he might shatter like glass with the wrong word or touch. I glanced in the rearview mirror and met Lana’s worried gaze. She raised her eyebrows in a silent question, but I couldn’t answer her—not without letting Noah know that I was concerned. He had some old-fashioned ideas about shouldering all the burdens. I think it had to do with the fact his mom died young.
The deaths of our parents was one thing that had drawn us together when I’d written to Noah while he was deployed to Afghanistan. The bond between us had seemed so strong and real that the letter he’d written telling me that we shouldn’t see each other after he separated had been devastating to me. It had taken me a long time to feel good about myself after that and to trust other people. I’d felt numb inside.
I learned later that Noah had been struck with his own sense of insecurity, particularly after he had come up to my house to surprise me on leave. Determined that he wouldn’t bother me with his struggle with coping with the civilian world and convinced that he wasn’t good enough—which in his mind was all to do with wealth—Noah broke it off. Then, just a few months ago, he came storming back, a Marine on a mission. It was hard to hold out, but at first I didn’t trust him.
We’d survived one test, one fight, but this was a real concern. Noah’s anxiety over coming to my home was scaring me. I wondered if he was going to drop Lana and me off at the gate and then speed back to the airport and join Bo in San Diego with all their buddies. Half of me expected this and half of me wanted him to go. If this was going to break us up again, I’d never forgive myself. And maybe I’d never forgive him either.
I looked at Lana again for reassurance, but Noah caught me and frowned. I gave him a weak smile, which only seemed to deepen the unhappy lines of his face. The passing scenery was the safest place to look right now, so I stared out the window and silence settled in for the last thirty minutes of our drive.
As we drove down the lane to the house, I thought back to the first time I’d come here after my father died. Mom had fallen apart. She went to bed after the funeral and didn’t get up. After the third day she’d refused to leave her bed, my older brother Josh called Uncle Louis—dad’s brother. I was twelve. Josh was fourteen. He let me sleep in his room that night. I was certain Mom was going to die, and while she still lives and breathes, she isn’t with us anymore. Uncle Louis arrived a day later, took the whole scene in with a glance, and by the weekend, we were living with my cousin Lana in her mansion north of the city of Chicago.
There were a few rules here. Stay out of the targeting range of Lana’s mom. Don’t bother Uncle Louis. Make sure my mom had her meds. Josh assimilated easily. Being athletic, Josh slid into an easy social class at school. I was a shy, sad, round ball of a girl, and while Lana made sure everyone included me, I still felt awkward—like I was always just visiting. I didn’t make close friends with anyone but Lana. I actually clung to her, and when I started writing Noah two years later, when I was fourteen and he was eighteen, I clung to him too. I was trying to give everyone around me space so I didn’t end up alone.
"Drive around to the side," Lana leaned forward, directing Noah to the spot to park the rental car. Having likely watched us arrive through the security cameras, Daniel, the house manager, came out the side door immediately to grab the luggage. It was a little amusing watching Noah and Daniel tussle over the cases, but Noah was a professional athlete and had about thirty years on Daniel. This would not end well.
"Noah," I said, slipping my hand around his elbow. I cringed when I felt how tight his muscles were. When we got to my room, I was going to give him an all-body massage. Thinking of Noah lying nude on my bed while I slicked oil all over the curves of his muscles was much better than thinking of Noah ready to run out of the house and back to Central.
AFTER UNPACKING MY THINGS, I walked along the balconette to the guest wing. There were three bedrooms here, each with its own bathroom, that were reserved for guests. There were more in the basement, and one on the first floor, though that was for our grandmother when she visited. She never did, though. She lived in a condo association in Northfield, and maybe she’d like to visit, but Uncle Louis never brought her here—probably because Grandma and Lana’s mom didn’t get along.
I hadn’t seen my mother yet. She could be sleeping or she could be dosed into zombie mode and sitting in the library. I didn’t rush to find her. During our brief conversation before coming home for Christmas break, I’d told her I was bringing Noah home. She made some polite noises, but I’m not sure she could repeat the information I’d given her if you asked her an hour later.
Still, someone had made up a room for Noah in the guest wing. While I would’ve liked to have him sleep in my bed, it was only a double—but I could’ve slept on top of him. Likely Lana was responsible. She would’ve called ahead and made the arrangements. Even though Uncle Louis wasn’t my dad, Lana and I felt that he’d have a hard time with Noah sleeping in my bed. Noah didn’t resist.