Cosmos and Commitment
Book Three in the Girlfriends of Gotham Series
by Delancey Stewart
“You are the coolest girl I’ve ever known.” CJ’s warm hand slid across my stomach as we lay side by side in his bed, staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom. One jagged crack ran from corner to corner. On my worst days I imagined it would cave in and we’d be suffocated under the weight of someone else’s bed, someone else’s life crashing down on us. CJ always laughed when I mentioned this fear.
I turned to look at him. “I’ve never been cool. I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out how to blend in and not make a jackass of myself.”
That slow sexy grin spread across his full lips as his brown eyes danced. It both honored and irritated me that he found my confession amusing. “You should never try to blend in. You’re amazing, Natalie.” CJ rolled toward me and kissed me gently on the lips. Not a suggestive kiss, just a sweet reminder that he was mine, and I was his. That we were finally together.
“Thanks.” I kissed him back, letting myself lean into his warmth for a few seconds, and then rolled out of bed, excusing myself to the bathroom. I took in my reflection with appraising eyes. Blue eyes—maybe too close together, blond hair—long and straight. Ears that were slightly asymmetrical, and front teeth that I’d always thought were too big. Was I the coolest girl in the world? I doubted it. I was twenty-five, living in New York City and just trying to figure out how to get from day to day without dropping one of the balls I felt like I was always juggling.
CJ’s assessment of me certainly stroked my ego, but after a year in New York, I didn’t have much confidence in myself. I had great luck, as it turned out. I’d stumbled into a position as marketing director at a start-up Internet company, and I’d convinced the greatest guy I’d ever met that I was somehow worthy of him. But as I stared in the mirror, all I could feel about myself was that I somehow didn’t deserve any of it. And I was sick of that feeling. I was sick of being a pushover, sick of waiting on luck and the whims of others to decide my destiny. 1999 was going to be the year of Natalie Pepper. Sure, it was already October, but a lot could be accomplished in two months. And if these two months went well, I might just declare myself to be destined for greatness in the next millennium as well.
I brushed my teeth and hair and splashed some cold water on my face before wandering back into the bedroom, a plan forming in my mind. I’d keep it to myself for now.
CJ had turned the television on and was intently watching some financial news show. The man could find investment news at any time of day or night. And he ate it up like the girls and I devoured Friends or Sex and the City. I settled onto the bed next to him and leaned over, blocking his view of the television. “I’m gonna head out. Meeting the girls for brunch.”
His dark eyes sparked. “You sure? We could just stay here in bed all day…” his voice was low, and his fingers were tracing up my arm. My stomach tightened as my skin heated under his touch. CJ was the one thing I couldn’t resist in the world. I’d wanted him for so long that sometimes I still couldn’t believe he was mine. I was about to give in when his phone rang, breaking the moment.
“You get that,” I said, standing up. “I’m gonna sneak out.”
“I’ll call you later,” he said, rolling to pick the handset out of the base station.
I glanced at the phone as I left the room and wished I hadn’t. The caller ID displayed the name Irene Halliday. Not a name I enjoyed hearing or seeing. But one that didn’t seem to want to go away. I lingered in the living room, putting my shoes on and gathering my things slowly while CJ talked. I wasn’t really eavesdropping. I just hadn’t left yet.
“I understand, Irene,” he was saying. He sounded exasperated, and that made me feel better. “I just don’t think it’s the right time. Even if it is in the city.”
I took my time latching my watch, which had lain abandoned on the breakfast bar.
“Well, I’m not exactly qualified, for one thing,” CJ said. “It’d be a pretty big jump for me.”
Irene must have been making her point for quite some time, because CJ was silent. I began to feel awkward just standing in the living room, so when CJ said nothing else, I picked up my bag and headed for the door. I pulled it open, and as the door swung shut behind me, I thought I heard CJ say, “Fine. We can meet to discuss it. I’m free tomorrow.”
My happy mood dissipated as I rode the elevator to the lobby of CJ’s Upper West Side building. By the time I’d reached the sidewalk, any giddy happiness I’d been feeling had evaporated in the face of the ever-present Irene. What the hell did she want with CJ? She’d tried unsuccessfully to lure him back to Buffalo, and now she was here in the city. She was way too old for him. I hoped they both knew that. I poked around the discomfort that always bloomed inside when Irene’s name came up. Did I really think CJ would do anything to jeopardize the relationship that we’d fought so hard for? Not really. But Irene’s presence made me uncomfortable all the same. The sooner she was back in Buffalo and out of his life, the better.
I got on the southbound subway at 72nd Street and hoped that mimosas with the girls would help lighten my mood.
* * *
By now, the staff at Cafeteria knew to expect us on Sunday mornings. Not everyone made it each week, and sometimes there were boyfriends or even straggling remnants of what would become one-night or weekend flings. But every week we had brunch together, and it was one of my favorite things. It was a chance to catch up, to recap what had happened each week. Most weeks we already knew some of each other’s lives, but lately it felt like everyone was getting busier and Sunday was the one day we could all take to slow down and spend some time catching up, pulling our little group back together. This week Candace had come solo, but Lulu and Andrew were both there. I got to the door at the same time as Tamara, and Lulu and Candace waved us over as Lulu continued whatever monologue she was in the middle of. Tamara and I sat down together across the round table.
“I know you had planned to move, Candace, but Brooklyn? Why not just move to New Jersey? Or Queens?” Lulu sounded disgusted at the thought, and while her words were nearly venomous, her intentions were not. Lulu was hard to understand sometimes, but I’d gotten to know her well. She was an exaggerated personality, and she often made off-the-wall proclamations and completely judgmental pronouncements. She wasn’t intentionally argumentative, just passionate. “We’ll never see you.” She pouted, the full lower lip pushing out as she pushed her long dark hair off her shoulders.
Andrew, Lulu’s boyfriend, put an arm around her and smiled. “I think we can manage the subway out to Brooklyn, Lu.”
“Seriously,” Candace huffed. “If you can find me fifteen hundred square feet on two floors and a garden in the city, we’ll move back.”
“You have a garden?” Lulu sat up straighter. “You’re a gardener now?”
Candace rolled her eyes. “I’m not a farmer, Lulu. It’s a green space. Somewhere to sit outside.”
“I’m just glad you got it,” Tamara said, pulling a roll apart as she spoke. “I had like six other couples come in the same day you applied.” Tamara was in real estate. She’d found my apartment for me, and now she’d helped Candace and Gregoire find theirs. “You guys had the best credit profile by far, though.”
“Of course we did.” Candace sipped her mimosa. “Gregoire has the best everything.” She winked, but then her eyes fell on Andrew. “I mean, no offense Andrew. I’m sure your, uh, assets are impressive.”
“So hi, by the way,” I said.
“Sorry honey,” Lulu leapt up, nearly knocking down a passing waiter as she rushed to my chair to hug me. People at nearby tables turned at the commotion, and the waiter looked offended as he moved around Lu to another table. “How are you? How’s CJ? How’s work?” She stopped to hug Tamara on her way back to her chair.
“Everything is good,” I answered. “I think.”
“You think?” Tamara looked skeptical, her blue eyes flashed. “That means something is not good. What is it? Wait, is it breakfast-appropriate?”
“Lulu’s here, so we’ve already veered into inappropriate. No worries there,” Candace smiled.
“You’re the one who wants to know about my boyfriend’s penis size!” Lulu returned, pointing across the table.
Andrew reached over and pulled Lulu’s pointing hand back into her lap. “It’s okay, Lu. They’re kidding.”
Lulu sniffed and took another sip of her drink.
“What’s wrong, Pepper?” Candace put on her problem solving face. She did have a way of seeing the world that made it easy for her to blow through obstacles. But Candace wasn’t exactly subtle. She went after what she wanted like a linebacker, which wasn’t really my style. And I wasn’t about to share my self-improvement plans over the brunch table with everyone here to offer advice. I went with the obvious.
“Remember I told you about Irene? The woman in Buffalo that offered CJ the job last year?”
“The old lady?” Tamara said.
“She’s not that old. Maybe forty.”
“That’s pretty old.” Tamara nodded at her own proclamation.
“Well, she’s older than us, for sure.”
“What’s going on? Is the cougar prowling around again?” Candace leaned in.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. She called CJ this morning as I was leaving. He said something about meeting her.”
Lulu sat up straighter. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”
Andrew looked at her, his eyebrows raised and a puzzled expression pulling one side of his mouth up. “It’s a phone call, what are you sorry for? He’s not cheating, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know?” Lulu asked him.
CJ and Andrew had been hanging out for the last few months, since Lulu and I spent a lot of time together. They’d developed kind of a bromance, and they always seemed to have the other’s back when issues came up. It was like they’d signed some kind of man pact.
“CJ’s a good guy,” Andrew said, leaning in. His expression was serious. “Like a really good guy. He’s not the cheating kind. Plus,” he looked at me. “He is head over heels in love with you, Pepper. He’d never screw it up on purpose.”
I felt a blush creep up my neck as my heart warmed just a bit. I knew Andrew was right. And if CJ had told Andrew how he felt about me, then it was certainly true. “Thanks,” I said. “That makes me feel better.” I looked up as my waffles were placed in front of me and thanked the waitress who delivered them. “I still don’t like it, though.”
“I wouldn’t either. This is why I don’t get involved in relationships. Too much potential for confusion. Too much drama. Too much everything.” Tamara was the only one at the table not involved in a serious relationship. She dated. A lot. Like really a lot. But she didn’t seem to fall for any of the guys she went out with. I hadn’t quite figured her out.
“You just haven’t met the right guy,” Andrew said. “Let me set you up. There’s a guy at the hospital…”
“Wait.” Lulu interrupted him. “Who is this guy? Why are you saying ‘guy?’ If he was a doctor, you’d say, ‘there’s this doctor at the hospital.’ Is this guy a janitor or something? Tam won’t date a janitor.”
“There is nothing wrong with the custodial arts,” I volunteered, feeling protective of the janitors in the world.
“I’m just saying. If Andrew’s setting Tam up, it should be with someone impressive.” Lulu sniffed.
“Janitors can be impressive,” Andrew said. “Like what if he’s a janitor who goes home and studies opera in his spare time? Or is just dabbling in the custodial arts while he’s finishing his doctorate in theology? Or what if he’s just the best damned janitor there is—like if janitoring is his calling?”
“Is he a doctor or not?” Lulu said.
“He’s not a doctor,” Andrew said. “He’s actually a nurse.”
Candace spit out her coffee, then looked around apologetically. “Sorry,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “I was just picturing a dude in one of those little white hats, with the squeaky shoes and the white skirt.”
Andrew squinted and pursed his lips in irritation. “It’s 1999, Candace. Men are nurses, too. And we all just wear scrubs.” His face cleared and he turned back to Tamara. “He’s a really awesome guy. He plays rugby, is part-owner of a bar in Soho, and he’s pretty handsome, according to all the girls at work. You interested?”
“Why is this incredible man-nurse still single?” Lulu asked.
“Why is Tamara still single?” Andrew returned.
“Hmm. You touched me.” Lulu leaned back in her chair as everyone at the table began to giggle. Lulu looked around blushing, and demanded, “What?”
“I think you’re looking for ‘touche,’” I suggested.
Andrew was practically crying, he was laughing so hard, and Lulu stared at him, her eyes squinting slightly like she was trying to decide whether to be angry at him for laughing at her. Finally, she shrugged and turned to Tamara. “Tamara? Why are you still single?”
Tamara smiled a wide smile that made her blue eyes gleam, and then sipped her lemonade, shaking her head slowly. She wasn’t talking.
Lulu shrugged again and turned her attention back to her food.
We ate and enjoyed the zinging atmosphere around us as New York City woke up and stretched, recovering from its Saturday night pursuits in the brightening Sunday afternoon. Traffic picked up out on Seventh Avenue, and from our table near the window we could see people heading out for runs and shopping outings, dressed in shorts and T-shirts as summer’s warmth lingered into the last sultry days of September.
Candace seemed determined to spend the day with me Sunday, despite the fact that I’d planned to head home, get a workout in, and get to work on plans for the week. I had several open houses and a few clients that I was pretty sure were ready to pull the trigger on the next good thing I found for them. It was shaping up to be a good month and I had been expecting to get a jump and keep it rolling.
“So what are you going to do?” Candace asked as we strode up Seventh Avenue.
“I was going to get some work done…”
“No. About the nurse.” Candace stopped walking and pulled at my arm, tugging me into a bodega where she continued talking as she pulled water from a refrigerated case and grabbed a pack of gum. “I think men can be nurses. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course,” she said. “And if he’s hot, well, that obviously makes up for a lot…” She gave me a green-eyed gleaming look and began digging in her purse.
“I don’t care if the guy’s a friggin’ manicurist,” I said.
She turned back to me and raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, well, that might be a stretch actually.”
She nodded and turned back to pay, her dark bob shining under the fluorescent lights.
“The point is that I’m not looking, Candace. I know you and Lu have found love, and Natalie and CJ are finally together, and you all think the world is love and roses, stinky cheese and champagne. But there’s more to life.” I knew that implying career-focused Candace was becoming distracted from her high-powered career by her boyfriend would stir up her ire. And then she’d get busy defending herself and quit harassing me. “I’m twenty-four. I’m not looking to settle down. I could’ve done that in Indiana.”
Candace steered me out of the bodega and we were walking again, side by side up the busy Avenue as horns blared, children wailed, and life of all stripes beat on around us. “First of all,” Candace began. “I’m not exactly laser-focused on my love life to the point that I’m ignoring my career. Or my friends,” she said, raising her eyebrows at me over her large dark glasses. “But when the opportunity presents itself—in any part of your life, you go after it.”
“Right.” She was staring at me. “So?”
“So I don’t need to go chasing men down at hospitals trying to create opportunities, either.”
“But if someone knows someone who might be a great fit…”
“Andrew was just pulling this nurse guy out of his butt because Lulu was pressuring him. It isn’t like he’s been at work thinking, ‘This guy right here, this scrub-wearing man-nurse, he’d be perfect for Tamara.’”
“Hmm. I guess you have a point.”
“I do.” I tilted my chin up slightly. People didn’t often win in conversation with Candace.
“I’m just saying don’t ignore opportunities.”
“And I’m saying I won’t.” I was the last person on Earth to miss an opportunity, but Candace had no idea that just my being here—in NYC on my own, healthy and alive—was the perfect illustration of me taking an opportunity by the balls.
Candace smiled at me, and then leaned in, giving me a quick hug. “I’m gonna head back uptown then. I’ve got boxes to pack, thanks to you.”
“Not really, but we get the keys next weekend, so I guess I’d better be ready.” She stepped to the curb and shot a hand out, hailing a cab that stopped suddenly with a grinding of gears. “See you later!”
I watched the cab pull away and continued a strolling pace back to my own apartment. As I fitted the key into the outer door, I thought about what she’d said. I knew I wasn’t missing opportunities. I was doing the opposite of that. For a long time, my life seemed like it was going to be devoid of opportunities altogether, filled instead with bleak pronouncements and family who refused to let me do anything for myself. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t been in relationships. I’d had relationships. I’d been in really long, really serious relationships. And now I was ready for other things.
I threw my keys on the side table as I let myself into my apartment. Home. I always breathed a sigh of relief on returning to my own space, my own refuge. When you grew up with four brothers, that was probably a normal reaction to finally having a space to call your own. And this apartment, small though it was, was my own space. In every way. The exposed brick held a painting that I’d done in junior high school, a scene of Lake Michigan that captured the winter’s lonely greys and a reflection of hopeful sunlight off the sand at the water’s edge. The mantle held my collection of glass boats—something I’d been hanging onto since I was a tiny girl. They were bright and clear, and to me they had always represented the chance to move on, to get away.
The bed against the far wall was dressed in muted colors with a few bright pillows, and it mimicked the clothes hanging in my closet. Staples with punches of individuality. A predictable constancy with small deviations. That was me.
I flopped down on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I excited by the prospect of being set up with some manly rugby-playing nurse that Andrew swore was hot? It wasn’t as if I never got excited about the prospect of meeting men. I liked men, I had no doubts about that. I liked them tall, broad and lean. I liked them in my bed, and I liked them to leave in the morning. I liked to set the agenda where men were concerned. Being in control left little room for misunderstandings, for anyone to believe that something was possible when really, nothing was possible at all. At this point, I wasn’t interested in the back and forth necessary for a long-term relationship. Not yet, maybe not ever again. I definitely wasn’t interested enough to distract me from all the other things that demanded focus. Work, friends, family, and just looking after myself kept me plenty occupied.
I pushed the button on my answering machine when I noticed the light flashing. Two messages.
“Hey sissy, it’s Hal.” My brother. Hal was two years older than me and we’d been inseparable growing up. More like twins than just siblings. And he was having a rough time. Which meant I was having a rough time. “Just calling to, uh…check in, I guess. Things are…well, they’re okay. Clarissa left today.” Hal’s wife. “And before she went, she told me some stuff. I guess I’m going to be a daddy…” Tom coughed then, and I couldn’t hear the rest of the message because it sounded like he moved his mouth away from the phone, but my head spun as I replayed it. She was leaving? And she was pregnant? Oh God, poor Hal.
The second message was even less expected. “Hey Tam. It’s Spider. Hal told me how to reach you. Hope you don’t mind me calling. Hey, I’m gonna be in the city. I’ll look you up.”
My blood froze in my veins. Spider. In the city. Looking me up. I pushed down the agitation that began as a swirl of excitement in my gut and then spread out through my limbs as the thrumming pulse of anticipation that I had always felt when Gaige Spydell was anywhere nearby.
I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I’d never heard either message. I sat down and flipped open my laptop. I could at least pretend I hadn’t heard them. I could pretend for at least a few hours. Maybe a day or two.
Work and coffee became my best friends for the next eight hours.
CJ spent Sunday night at my apartment. We ordered in from the Italian place on Eighth and played SSX on the PS2 he’d given me for my birthday. Sometimes I felt like a kid again with CJ. We spent a lot of time just playing together. We kicked a soccer ball in the park, played video games, listened to music while staring at the ceiling, and often just pretended that we weren’t actual adults with real responsibilities. We did more adult things, too, of course. But I think part of what drew me to CJ was his ability to look at the world as it really was, to take each day as an opportunity and an event. If left to my own devices, the universe felt like some interwoven web to me, some complex structure full of meaning and requirements, something to figure out. CJ just took it at face value, and it was so much more fun that way. So much less stressful.
“Check out these moves, Cassidy James!” My fingers flew randomly over the controller buttons. I had no idea how to actually pull any tricks in SSX, I knew only that if I pushed all the buttons as fast as possible, my avatar did incredible things and I could win. CJ was more methodical and refused to throw his chances to fate. And so he lost. Repeatedly.
“Seriously?” His voice was a hilarious whine. “How the hell do you keep doing that? And don’t call me Cassidy.” His dark eyes were on my face as he delivered the last part, and his voice grew serious. He hated his name, but I had no idea why.
“Don’t be a sore loser, Cass.”
“I’m serious, Natalie.”
“You’re seriously losing.” I didn’t push the name again.
“I don’t mind losing to you. You’re cute when you gloat.” He dropped his controller on the coffee table and pulled me into his lap. I held my controller and continued flying down the mountain, accumulating points and hooting.
“I’m planning to gloat a whole bunch here in a sec, hang on.” My hands were flying over the controller buttons when CJ pulled it out of my grasp. “Hey!”
He leaned down until I was forced to look up into his face. I couldn’t help but smile up at him. He was, to me, the embodiment of every guy I’d ever wanted. He was the all-American football guy, big and broad and strong. His blond hair was cropped close and his dark eyes flashed with fun every time they caught mine. “Hey,” he said softly, the full lips delivering the word and making my stomach jump with the memory of everything else those lips could do.
“Hey.” He had my attention now. But CJ had something on his mind. He was silent, and a siren blared as it flew down the Avenue beyond 15th Street, where I lived. “I need to talk to you.”
I stared up at him, waiting for him to say more.
“Irene called this morning.”
“I heard. I was just leaving.”
“Right.” He ran a hand over the back of his neck as his gaze moved to the walls of my apartment, scanning around us before he looked back into my eyes. “Well, I’m meeting her tomorrow morning for coffee before work.”
“Why?” Irene had offered CJ a job last spring, and he had almost gone back to Buffalo, ending any chances we’d had to be together before I’d gotten brave enough to take a chance at all. But things had been quiet since then.
“She’s opening a branch of the firm in the city.”
I waited for more.
“She wants me to run it.”
“Is she moving here?” Irene’s actual presence was what concerned me. A job was just a job.
“Maybe for a bit, to get it set up. But she doesn’t want to live here. That’s why she wants me to take it on.”
“I guess she trusts me.”
“Because you have…a history.” Irene had given CJ his first job out of business school. And I had the sense she’d given him some other things, too, but CJ had never confirmed or denied it. And I’d actually never asked straight out.
“The thing is, it’s a huge opportunity for me.”
I sat up, trying to read the hesitation in his face. “So what’s to consider?”
“It’s also a huge risk.” CJ looked down, breaking our gaze. “I’m not qualified.”
“Sure you are.”
He sighed and took my hand. “I love that you think that. But the fact is that I’m twenty-seven. I’ve been working outside of finance at All Night for two years now. I’d love to get back into finance, use my degree and the experience I got right out of school. But jumping into a new venture as VP—taking on the responsibility that would come with a whole new office—it’s probably more than I can fake.”
“Doesn’t Irene realize that?” This revelation had made me even more suspicious of her. “What exactly are her intentions?” When CJ didn’t answer immediately, the question I’d been dying to ask flew from my lips before I could stop it. “Did you guys have a relationship in Buffalo?”
CJ’s eyes widened. “No!”
“Then what’s her fascination with you?”
“We worked together, that’s all. She thinks I’m smart and that I have a good head for finance.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t she have a good head for finance? It’s her firm. Don’t you think she might be interested in something besides your financial intuition?”
CJ dropped my hand. “Is it so hard to believe that someone might want to give me a shot without being interested in sleeping with me?”
I shook my head slowly. None of that had come out quite right. “Of course not. That’s not what I meant. You said yourself that you’re not qualified.”
“Maybe I am.” There was a fire in his eyes I hadn’t seen for a while. CJ was angry with me. Crap.
“I’m sorry, CJ. I didn’t mean anything.” I tried to move the conversation from my belief in him, or lack thereof. “So what do you think will happen tomorrow when you meet with her?”
He gave me a skeptical look, an eyebrow raised as he seemed to ponder whether to even continue the conversation. “She lays out the terms.”
“And you accept?”
“And I think about it.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“I can’t work for All Night forever, Natalie. If I’m going to stay in the city, I’ve got to move up. And David has no intention of moving me up at All Night.” David was the CEO at All Night Media, the company I had also worked for until recently. That was where I met CJ. “I just wanted to tell you what was going on.”
I smiled, but something in the atmosphere between us had changed. All the fun had been chased from the room by the questions I’d thrown at him. “Thanks.”
“I’m tired. I think I’ll sleep at my place tonight.” CJ slid off the couch and picked up his bag. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Nat.”
“Okay.” I felt like all the cheer rushed out of me and was replaced by something that felt like heavy dark sludge.
He leaned down and gave me a quick kiss before leaving the apartment. The sound of door slamming behind him felt final somehow, and a knot of uneasiness pulled itself tight in my stomach. Irene was bad news. There was something going on there, I just didn’t know what it was. And if CJ knew, he wasn’t telling me.
* * *
I didn’t hear from CJ Monday, though I hoped it would be him each time the phone at my desk rang. When I left the office, I called him as I walked to the subway, but went straight to voicemail. He called later that night, but said he was tired and would fill me in later.
“Do you want to come up?” He asked the question, but something in his voice told me he wanted to be alone.
“No,” I said. “I’ve got a lot going on at work this week. I’ll probably just stay here.” I hated the idea of not seeing him all week. “Should we have lunch tomorrow?”
“Wednesday instead? I need to make up for not being there this morning.”
“Right. Okay.” I paused. He’d met with Irene. And now he didn’t want to see me. My mind raced with possibilities, and though I knew I should leave it alone, I couldn’t. “How did it go this morning?”
“I’ll fill you in when I see you.” His voice was friendly, straightforward.
“Okay. Talk to you tomorrow?”
“I’ll call your office around eleven.”
“Okay. Have a good night.”
“You too, babe.” I felt a tiny bit better that CJ had called me ‘babe.’ It was silly, but just hearing the term of affection from him warmed the icy corners of my mind, the ones that were harboring suspicions about Irene, the ones that had begun to freeze over after he’d left Sunday. Things didn’t feel right, exactly, but they felt better. We’d gone without seeing each other for a few days at a time before. I told myself that this was not a big deal, though it bothered me that CJ was grappling with a big decision and didn’t feel like he needed or wanted my input.
As I let my mind turn circles around all the possible downfalls of my relationship with CJ and Irene’s possible intentions, I realized that I needed to stop. This. This was what I wanted to change about myself. My life couldn’t be dictated by anyone else, even if it was CJ.
I pulled out the phone book and flipped through the yellow pages to “therapists.” It was trendy to be in therapy these days, after all. And spending time working on yourself was never time wasted. I scanned the names, but most of them sounded pretty intimidating, and oddly similar. Dr. Elliott Anders, Dr. Anders Ellicott, Dr. Ellie Cott. How was a person supposed to choose? I didn’t really want to ask around for a recommendation. Maybe I was looking to improve myself, but if I started asking people to recommend a therapist, they might not see it that way. I decided to use a scientific approach to selecting the right therapist for me, the one who would be able to help me articulate my goals and desires and formulate a plan for reaching them: I closed my eyes and dropped a finger on the page. I circled the finger around several times—all part of the scientific process, of course. And then I held my hand still and opened my eyes. Perfect! I’d selected Veronica Chase, LF, LFMT, MA. I had no idea what all those letters after her name meant, but I was pretty sure they meant that she’d be really extraordinarily helpful.
As I got ready for bed that night I imagined myself and Dr. Veronica Chase becoming friends. I was sure she’d let me call her Veronica, or maybe Ronnie. I envisioned her being impressed with my ascension to marketing director of Adtrack, the company I’d just moved to, and imagined our sessions would be more like gossiping than therapy.
That was because I had no idea what therapy actually was.
Monday was a whirlwind. I was out of the office most of the morning with clients, and when I came rushing back in, my right foot aching in the new patent burgundy pumps I’d worn all morning, I blasted through the front lobby without a glance around. Which was why I was surprised to hear two voices calling me back as I took my first aching steps down the hall toward my office. One voice was female. The receptionist.
“Miss Hunt? I have messages for you.”
The other voice, the one that had me frozen in the middle of the office hallway, my heart doing double-time in my chest, was masculine. It was the definition of masculine, at least to my way of thinking. It was deep, rich, and low, and it sounded like a summer rainstorm drubbing lazily against the roof of a barn. It turned up images in my head of tractors and horses, boots and long lean muscles attached to the best smile I’d ever known.
“Hey Tam.” Gaige Spydell was sitting in my office. In New York City.
I took a deep breath and turned around, not sure what to expect. Would Gaige be sitting there in Wranglers and boots, lounging the way he did in every vision I’d had of him since I’d left Indiana? I couldn’t see him any other way. And the idea of him in the city…well, it was incongruous to say the least.
I walked to the reception desk, keeping a dark form in the corner of my vision, not quite ready to face him. I thanked the receptionist for the stack of little papers she handed me and then turned around slowly to face the couches.
Gaige, or Spider as we’d called him ever since we were little, sat on the leather couch in the corner looking like the thing was made of concrete. His long back was stiff and straight, and his knees were at awkward angles as he leaned forward. He was tall enough to make the couch look miniature, and I smiled at the image before covering my smile with an ambivalent gaze. He stood, looking grateful for an excuse to get up, and I was struck by the sheer size of him. He wore grey slacks, shiny black shoes and a black polo shirt tucked in with a belt. He looked like a businessman on a casual day, not like a cowboy out of place in the big city.
And when I let myself look up at his face, my breath caught in my throat. There he was. The Spider I’d always remember, with those penetrating blue eyes and that perfect cleft in his chin, the stubble around his jaw just begging me to scrape my fingers across it. I swallowed and shoved those memories away. That was before. That was the past.
“Gaige,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. “Nice to see you.”
He squinted an eye at me as he cocked his head. I could almost hear the thought go through his mind. Okay, we’re gonna play it formal. Have it your way. “Well, it’s nice to see you too. Did you get my message?”
I nodded. “Come on back, Gaige.” I turned and walked toward my office, conscious of the fact that he was walking down the long hallway behind me. I imagined I could feel those penetrating eyes on me, seeing everything, tracing my body.
I opened the door to my office and ushered Spider inside. He waited until I’d sat in the tall leather chair behind my desk and then settled himself across from me, the lazy half-smile on his face that had always turned my insides to Jell-O. For a long minute, neither of us said anything. We just stared at each other across the hard surface of my desk, the tall windows behind me filled with steel and glass and a screaming reminder that we were nowhere near Indiana, not anymore. What was my brother’s best friend, my first kiss—hell, my first everything, doing in New York City?
“You look good, Tamara. Not that I expected anything different.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Thanks.” I was torn between warring emotions. I was confused and even irritated to find this visceral reminder of everything in my past sitting here squarely in my present. And yet, when the sound of his low honeyed voice rolled through me, I had to fight the urge to lean in, to get up, and climb into his lap. Spider had been my protector for long enough that letting him shield me from the world was practically habit. Between him and my brother Hal, I’d never have seen or done anything if I hadn’t left Indiana.
This staring contest we were having needed to end. If those crystal eyes watched my face any longer, I was sure I’d dissolve into a puddle. I cleared my throat. “Spider, what are you doing here?”
“I need an excuse to visit you?”
I shrugged, looking around my office. “Yeah. Actually you kind of do. I’m in the middle of a workday. I can’t just stop for an old times chat right now. What’s going on? Why are you in New York? Is everything okay?”
A shadow of doubt crossed Spider’s face, his lids dipping for just a second as the smile faded. But his cowboy bravado covered it quickly, replacing the genuine smile with a cocky grin. I knew every expression the man had, and this was the one that appeared right before he uttered something infuriating. “Came to bring you back home.”
I sat up straighter. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” I heard a small twang creep back into my voice as the words escaped my lips.
Spider heard it too. “You’re a country girl. And I didn’t like the way we left things. Plus, I’m worried about you. And about your brother when you’re not around.”
“Just because I was born in a hayseed town doesn’t mean I’m a country girl. And Hal is two years older than I am. He can take care of himself.” I leaned back in my chair. This conversation wasn’t one I wanted to have here in my office. And not in the middle of a busy day, but I doubted Spider would just turn around and get back on a plane without a real conversation. “I can’t really have this conversation right now. I need to get back to work.” I stood, and so did Spider.
“Have dinner with me, Tam.” He stood still, a mountain of man blocking my path to the door, blocking the path back to the life I’d very deliberately chosen. A scent wafted around him, something familiar and masculine, sweet and comforting. Damn it, but Gaige Spydell smelled like home, and I had to fight off the urge to walk into those big arms and surrender.
“Fine, dinner. Tonight?”
“I, uh, I’ve got plans tonight. Tomorrow?”
Surprise made me drop my guard for a minute. What plans could Spider have in New York City on a Monday night? And if he had plans, then it wasn’t true that he’d come here just to convince me to come home. Something close to disappointment chilled my expression, and I felt my face go slack before I recovered. Why would that disappoint me? That would just make it easier to turn him down. But I still didn’t know why else Spider would be in town. “Tomorrow works. Were shall we meet?”
“I’ll pick you up.” He still hadn’t moved, and I found myself staring up at him, that heady smell of his sweeping around me, pushed at me by the vent over his head. Cinnamon and rain, leather and a faint hint of whiskey.
“You know where I live?”
“Tam, I know everything about you. Just like forever.” He winked at me.
“Just like forever,” I repeated. We used to say it to each other. A silly promise that didn’t mean anything, especially now. “You’re gonna have to move, Spider.”
“I know,” he said, taking a step back. “Just wanted to pretend for a second that you might let me hug you.”
The vulnerability on his face melded with every memory I had of being inside the safe circle of those big arms, and I couldn’t stop myself from stepping in quickly and putting my arms around him. “It’s good to see you, Spider,” I said, my voice a hoarser whisper than I’d intended.
My cheek felt the beating of his heart through the warmth of his chest, and the arms that pulled me close brought back everything I’d left behind me at home. It was heady and overwhelming and way, way too much. Being in Spider’s arms made me feel vulnerable, weak, and in need of someone to protect me. I stepped back, wishing I’d kept my distance as the sheer proximity of the man before me threatened to undo every decision I’d made in the past two years.
He watched me for a beat longer, those eyes seeing every emotion I was trying to cover before he stepped back and turned toward the door. “Show me the way out, Ms. Hunt.”
The twang in his voice nearly killed me, and as I delivered him back to the reception area, the sight of his broad back moving away from me actually brought tears to my eyes. Spider was home, he was family, he was open sky and the smell of cut grass and bluebells. He was everything I’d chosen to leave, everything I used to be. The receptionist was eyeing me with interest, so I turned quickly and walked back down the hallway, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand as I went.
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