“Are you serious? Would you really give me a job here?”
Leon grins. “Of course! If you want one, that is.”
“Hell yeah, I do! What would I be doing? I don’t know much about restaurants, but I can learn. I’ll learn how to cook anything you want. I’ll listen to cooking audiobooks and become a gourmet chef. Or I can be a hostess! I think I’d like that. I could show people to their seats and give children crayons for their kids menus and say, ‘Welcome to Fireside, my name is Naomi!’”
“You can do whatever you like,” he says kindly, “but I’m hoping you’ll help with the decorating.”
I stare at him. “Really? Me?”
“Remember those Rocky Horror cutouts?” he says. “You made it look like they were holding a séance, which was so weird but also so awesome?
Like, it’s the sort of thing people would remember if they came in and saw it.” I snort, remembering how many hours I spent arranging that scene, which indeed nobody came in and saw. I’d forgotten all about it. “I’m counting on you to make the place fun and memorable. A whole experience.”
I’m so excited, I could bounce off the walls like a rubber ball. “I can do that! Oooh, I have so many ideas already. If you’re going to have fake trees, we can hide little birds in them, and play nature sounds from tiny speakers. Maybe a waterfall feature somewhere? It doesn’t have to be big.
Wait, yes it does! We’ll put FISH in it!” I shake his shoulders. “Real fish, Leon!” I’m chattering away, but then I think—“Brandy! Wait till she hears! You’re going to invite her to work here too, right?”
“I was going to, but I heard she got hired somewhere else.”
“Oh, she hates it there.” I’ve already got my phone out. “Brandy!” I shriek as soon as she answers. Leon laughs while I tell her to hurry up and get down to the Junk Yard.
Minutes later, she runs through the door. She’s wearing Golden Girls PJs, flip-flops, and a perfect smoky eye. Leon pulls two more name tags out of a drawer: one that says BRANDY and another that says MELISSA.
Brandy pins hers to her shirt and throws the other one in the garbage.
Leon arches a brow.
“I can’t believe we’re all going to work together again!” she exclaims, tearing up. “My boss is so gross, you have no idea. According to my five-year plan, I’m still three years away from being able to move, so I need a win right now.”
Leon looks pleased to know he’s got two familiar faces on board with this new venture. “I’ve got to warn you, I’ve never run a restaurant before.
Or any kind of business. But my aunt has, and she’s going to be joining us.
There’s always a possibility it won’t be as successful as I’m hoping, so you’d be taking a chance. And in the beginning, I can’t afford to pay more than minimum wage—”
“I don’t care,” Brandy interjects.
I’m in agreement. “I love this place. I want to be a part of whatever it is you’re going to do with it.” The more I think about it, the stronger the vision grows in my mind’s eye. I’ll affix large, mossy stones around the windows and hang a canoe on the wall. Maybe we can give it an Alaska-outdoorsy feel, which Brandy will love. First thing tomorrow I’m going into my backyard to collect sticks, which I’ll twist into miniature trees with twine or use to adorn forest lanterns. I’m going to need some stuffed raccoons for sure. “I can’t believe you’re actually doing this,” I say. “This is— wow. Good for you, Leon!” I slug his shoulder, then add, “Duncan.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I wave him off, but he’s smiling. “How’s the car?”
“Better than yours,” he quips. “How’s the house?”
“Wonderful. I can’t tell you how glad I am that Nicholas bought it.”
“Did it work?”
I’m not sure I heard him right. “Did what work?”
“The house,” he replies. “Nicholas told me it was going to save you.
She’s worth the pain of trying, is how he put it. Worth the risk of failing.”
My mouth pops open. “Did he? Well—yes. I suppose it did work. Or at least, I think it did. Hope it did.” When Nicholas threw me a curveball with the purchase of that house and told me it was going to save us, I’d been ready to give up. I feel a rush of affection and appreciation for Nicholas, who held on.
“What?” Brandy pokes him. “Did I miss something?”
“We like Nicholas now,” Leon informs her. She frowns, but he nods solemnly. “We do. He’s a good guy.”
She looks at me suspiciously. “Are you sure you’re happy with him?
Sometimes I’ve wondered, but didn’t want to say anything in case I was wrong.”
“I’m happy.” I blink as it hits me how true this is. “Really, genuinely happy,” I admit, and then I go “Oof” because Brandy envelops me in a crushing hug.
“All right, then. If we like Nicholas now, then I’m going to make nice.
We’ll double-date and do those wine and painting parties.” This is one of the reasons why I love Brandy. She roots for other people’s joy.
“Nicholas’ll like Vance. Did I tell you he’s an optometrist?”
Leon and I both smile. “Many times.”
“They can bond over long talks about health insurance and bad patients or something.”
Leon watches me pin my name badge onto my shirt so that I match Brandy. “The way you’re dressed, it’s like you showed up today knowing you were going to end up working here.” He motions at the hat. “Very Backwoods Buffet. It’s hard not to suspect that Nicholas gave you a tip-off.”
“He didn’t. He did tell me to drive by the Junk Yard, though.”
I don’t know whether to text Nicholas with HOW COULD YOU KEEP
THIS A SECRET or BLESS YOUR GORGEOUS SOUL. “A mastermind,”
I agree. “Actually, I wore this outfit today because I thought it might suit the job interview I was on my way to. Which I need to call up and cancel
…” I reach into my purse and pull out a completed application. “When did you say the job starts, again?”
“No later than April. Maybe March, if I can swing it. You still going to be unemployed by then?”
“I’m all in,” Brandy says automatically.
That’s a few months away. Well past January twenty-sixth, which in my head has signaled the time of death on my relationship with Nicholas. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think that come April, I’ll still be living in that house in the woods.
“Yes, I’m going to wait for this job.”
He shakes Brandy’s hand, then mine. “Welcome aboard.”
Brandy glances at the application in my other hand, then frowns and does a double take. “I wouldn’t be using Melissa as a reference if I were you.”
She points at the number I have listed as my reference. “That’s Melissa’s number.”
“No, it’ s—” I scroll through my contacts and stop dead. She’s right. I’d meant to supply Melvin Howard’s information and gotten Melvin mixed up with Melissa. “Oh, shit. This is the number I’ve been giving out everywhere I apply.”
Her jaw drops. “No.”
“Oh no, Naomi.” She puts her hands over her mouth and snort-laughs.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. It’s terrible. I’m so sorry, I really am.”
The only reason I’m able to laugh along with her is that I’ve got a job now. “Laughing through my tears,” I pretend-sob. “I don’t want to assume that Melissa sabotaged me, but I also really want to think that now, because it’d be so nice to blame her for all those jobs turning me down.”
“Melissa’s the worst. Just for you, I’m gonna go to Let’s Get Crafty after this and mess up all the shelves. It’ll take her ages to put everything back where it goes.”
I give her a hug. “My sweet little protégé has come so far.” After I call my interviewer at the campground to cancel, we play Would You Rather and What’s That Stain—the answer to which is almost always Zach, since he liked to secretly shake our sodas before we opened them. Brandy tells me he’s busy forming a new religion in Florida. That absolutely sounds like something Zach would say, but whether he’s telling the truth is anybody’s guess. The man is an enigma.
Brandy and I head out to grab lunch for the three of us, and then it’s just like old times again, minus Melissa and Zach. We’re surrounded by sketches of what the Junk Yard is going to look like this spring, mocking up logos and a big road sign. Brandy uses a pencil to turn a hamburger grease stain on one of the papers into a lumpy rectangle. “And that’ll be the karaoke machine.”
“The what now?” says Leon.
“Oooh!” I squeal. “Karaoke! Brandy, that’s a great idea. Five stars.”
He stares at the grease stain with a look of revulsion. “Karaoke in a restaurant called Backwoods Buffet?”
“Yeah, and we’ll do luaus! We’ll put leis and grass skirts on your grizzly bears.” I beam at him. “Don’t lie. You love it. This is my decoration genius at work, remember.”
“All right, I’ve gotta go.” Brandy wipes her salty fingers on my knee and I wipe mine on her back. Leon shakes his head at us. “Have to sit in a hot warehouse for the next eight hours while Bob, my boss, follows me around complaining about his ex-wife because he thinks women exist to listen to his problems. I can’t wait to be out of there.” She points sternly at Leon. “Don’t you dare back out of this.”
“I can’t even tell you how much money I would lose if I backed out of this,” Leon replies. “If I go down, you’re all going down with me.”
“Good. Because I’m going to spend the rest of the day dreaming about how I’m going to quit. I’m thinking it will be very dramatic. I’ll throw a drink in Bob’s face and say ‘Go to hell!’ and it will be amazing.”
“Everyone will applaud,” I say.
When she reaches the door, I call, “Text me info about those painting parties! Nicholas and I are going to drunk-paint with you and Vance the optometrist. Also, you guys are coming over to play Dungeons and Dragons sometime. I’ve never played before, but I feel like it will be an out-of-body experience for that nerd I live with, which I would like to witness.”
Leon looks excited. “I like Dungeons and Dragons.”
“You would, weirdo,” Brandy says, just before the door shuts behind her. Through the glass, she yells, “Just kidding! Love you! Please don’t fire me.” Then she blows us a kiss.
I leave, too, still smiling from ear to ear long after I’ve climbed into my car. Who knows, the restaurant might only last a year. But I can guarantee it’ll be a fun year. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. For the first time in a long time, my future unfolds before me bright with promise. I have dreams and goals and I will make them all come true. I can do anything, even learn how to change a tire.
I should probably learn how to do that, actually. Tomorrow I’m going to fire up the old YouTube and figure out how to do some of the stuff I’ve supposedly known how to do for ages. I’m going to symbolically adopt an endangered tiger and recycle my aluminum cans. I’m going to pay the library a sixty-five-cent fine I’ve owed for two years. I’m going to do three push-ups.
I come home to a purple front door and no fiancé. Or boyfriend, depending on whether he still wants to marry me. I’m not sure what to call him now. He’s my friend. My partner. A selfless but complicated man who would drive seven hours because his parents asked him to, and he’s a better son than they are parents.
He texts at six thirty. Finally done. Going to go grab dinner and find my hotel. How’s your day been, Miss Backwoods Buffet?
That devious man. I’m going to kiss him so hard when he comes home.
I construct four casual, everything’s-peachy replies but delete them.
They’re not the truth. The truth is this: I miss you so much. I wish you were here.
So that’s what I send him.
I’ve been awake since before three a.m. and it’s catching up. Upstairs, I pause at Nicholas’s door. He could have locked it but he didn’t. He could have shut it but he left it wide open, and I can’t help the heartache that overtakes me when I see the palm leaves on his blanket. I miss that blanket terribly. I miss our headboard, and the glow of his digital clock. I miss our bed. The piece of furniture I’ve been sleeping on has never felt like my bed. How can it? There’s no Nicholas there.
I snoop through his nightstand drawer to check if the straw wrapper bracelet is still there. It is. He’s also got the notes I’ve packed in his lunch and the popcorn necklace I made him, stashed away like a teenage boy with a crush. He’s pressed a stem of vitality-boosting myrtle between the pages of a book to preserve it forever. The tight, hibernating bud of a flower inside my chest yawns its petals wide open, taking up all the room until the pressure in my expanded rib cage leaves me airless.
Something is not right. Someone is missing. I am in knots.
I cross to my side of our bed and slide under the covers. I’ll be long gone before he returns and he’ll never know.
The bedclothes are cool and there’s no dip of weight where another body should lie, but his scent is here. My eyelids are as heavy as iron doors and I finally let them roll closed, breathing in a million memories of Nicholas.
I’m asleep when it sinks into my consciousness that I’m not alone. I open my eyes to the darkness, fuzzy-brained and not quite out of my dream yet.
It’s late, after midnight. There’s a man lying next to me, in exactly the place he’s supposed to be. This is where he belongs, and yet it’s a lightning strike straight to the heart to see him here.
“What are you doing home?” I blink several times, waiting for him to disappear. I’m still dreaming.
“You missed me.”
“You came home because I missed you?”
He’s got his elbow bent on the pillow, palm under the back of his head, watching me fathomlessly. His other hand drapes across his stomach.
My pulse speeds up, because I’m in his room and he’s caught me. He drove home all night in the snow and the dark and found someone sleeping in his bed. This is where he belongs, but he might not say the same about whoever it is he sees when he looks at me. Which Naomi? Can he tell a difference?
He sits up, leaning over me. My vision is adjusting to the dark enough to clear the shadows from his face, and now I can see that his gaze is liquid. His lips are a soft curve. “I missed you, too,” he says, and presses those lips gently to mine.
I loop my arms around his neck and tug him closer, in case he has any ideas of retreating after one kiss. He smiles against my mouth, closes his eyes, and I melt into the feel of him against me. The kiss is a hungry, powerful force, but he breaks it so he can travel down and kiss my neck.
My body reacts, breaking out into an inferno of heat, sensitizing, knowing he’s the only one who can give me what I want. Into my skin, he murmurs,
“I’ve missed you everywhere.”
“Here,” he says as his lips brush where my heart beats, letting the pain and ache bleed into his voice. “I’ve missed you here.” He kisses my mouth. “And here.” My fingers tunnel into his hair, and his turn to fists that burrow into the mattress, lifting his body over mine. He stares deeply into my eyes. “Here.”
The word is a pale breath.
“I’ve missed you, too,” I reply, the edges of my vision going gray and blurry. Nothing else exists right now. The world begins and ends with this man.
I don’t know I’m crying until he wipes it away and his own eyes shimmer with tears.
We deepen the kiss, and it says what we don’t have to. I tug him closer, closer, until we align all over. When we part for breath, I ask, “Do you know you’re my best friend?”
His eyes are sapphires held in front of a roaring flame, glinting as they’re turned. I know every microscopic detail of his face. I know the shape of his brows for every emotion. He is the most beautiful man who ever lived, and at one time I couldn’t have said with any certainty what color eyes he had. He was no more memorable than a picture hanging on the wall that I’d long gotten used to. How many times did my gaze pass right over him, not realizing he was looking back at me? Always watching.
“You are.” My heartbeat is painfully strong and my torso is a twisted rag. My lungs claw for oxygen. Another tear slips over my cheek, which he kisses away.
I’m falling apart, and I think that Nicholas sees.
His hand is warm as it passes through my hair. His eyes are so tender that my muscles involuntarily relax, fingers uncurling. He buries his face in my throat and inhales. “God, I’ve missed you. Naomi.”
My name trembles in the air, and speech has never been so hard to find.
But he needs it. He needs me to give voice to my feelings, because he’s not a mind reader and it’s not okay that I soak up what he gives without offering myself in return. I can’t let him think he’s alone, not for one moment.
“I like it right here,” I tell him, cradling either side of his face between my hands. “You make me happy. It makes me happy that you came home because I missed you; I’m appreciative of everything you do, for me and anybody else. I’m lucky to be with a thoughtful man like you and I’m sorry that I’ve taken you for granted and acted like a jerk. I’m thankful that you stayed put until I found you again. You supporting me, and making me feel valuable, is everything.”
He smiles and leans his cheek into my palm. My throat constricts, more tears welling up. I blink and splash the pillow. It’s not scary anymore to strip down like this in front of him. He’s got me. He’s right here, and I’ve got him, too. “Relearning you has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He rubs a thumb over my cheekbone, down to my jaw. “I’m thankful you’ve forgiven me,” he says. “I’m sorry for every time I’ve ever made you feel unimportant. You are the most important, and I’m working on showing that better. You’re my best friend, too. I have more fun with you than anyone else, and I like how you challenge me. I like being around you and when I’m not around you, I’m always thinking about you. I want you to know I’m thinking about you all the time.”
It feels so lovely to be good to each other.
Being this close and not arching into him is an exercise in restraint. I’m starving, and I can feel that he is, too. He skates a heated glance down my body and his eyes haze, chest rising and falling more deeply.
I try not to let my voice shake when I say, “Where else have you missed me?”
He arches an eyebrow and a devious grin tugs at his lips. Actions, not words, are his reply. He divests me of my shirt and shows me where with his hands. My shorts and underwear follow, and he shows me with his mouth. Every little touch is magnified a thousandfold because it’s been a hundred years and counting since we’ve been skin on skin. I’m on fire and this has got to be downright excruciating for him, so I pull him back up to me.
“Hey, there,” he says softly.
“Mine.” I don’t have the mental faculties for conversation. I’m a single-minded cavewoman. “I need you. Now.”
“You’ve still been taking the pill, right?”
I slam his mouth to mine and while our tongues are busy, I impatiently yank down the waistband of his boxers. He leans back somewhat to help, laughing against my cheek. I feel the vibrations all the way down and it makes me crazy; I’d shake him for his ability to be amused right now if his extremely urgent erection didn’t tell a different story. He’s multitasking again, being aroused and entertained at the same time. It’s not fair that he can divide his attention and I can’t.
I palm him between the legs, and am rewarded with a fluttering of eyelids, Adam’s apple working up and down. His breath is sugar, the taste melting in my mouth.
“More?” I tease.
He lets his eyes fall closed and tilts his head back, surrendering to the sensations. “Yes.”
His eyes flare wide, holding me captive. He grates a word, low and guttural. “Please.”
“Mmm, we’ll see.” I bite his lower lip gently between my teeth and scrape my nails down his chest, ending the journey with a tight stroke. I moan into his ear and steal away his hard-fought control. Nicholas groans when I undulate against him. His murmurs, too quiet for me to understand, track down my throat and chest until he finds something he likes.
His body is shadow, stardust, and moonlight. He angles his head in a studious way, scientific fingers exploring crests and valleys, burning slow circles with his touch. I whimper a plea and he smiles but doesn’t oblige.
He’s in no rush, which makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’m impatient and if it were up to me, we’d already be going for round two.
Rather than heed my begging, he lets his teeth graze across the soft expanse of my stomach. His hand moves down between my legs and applies pressure, relenting for one single stroke. His lips blaze a trail from my shoulder to my hip bone in an agonizingly slow, languid process, curls tickling skin.
Darkness closes over me and I let my other senses assume control, light-headed from the rush of his wanting, his delicious weight sinking me into the mattress. I sigh his name while he touches and tastes at his leisure, and he rises over me, breath flaring across my naked chest like the smoke of a fire.
Saying his name is what topples him over the edge. It’s the magic word.
He slams his wrists down on top of mine and is inside me before I can blink, swallowing my gasp down his throat. He feels incredible. He never stops kissing me as he moves in a measured, sensuous rhythm.
Nicholas smooths a hand around my waist, resting at the base of my spine so that he can hold me to him and do as he likes with perfect control.
His face is tight in concentration, sweat gathering at his temples from the effort of holding back. He won’t let me hurry him. Every time I try I’m chastised with a nip of teeth, the brand of his hand. His punishments are a reward of their own.
I kiss the soft flesh of a fluttering pulse on his neck, below his ear, and a deep rumble shudders through him. I take his chin in my hand and force him to look at me through half-lidded eyes that wrestle for control, to prolong this and make us suffer. His eyes are black as the night forest.
He rushes forward but his kisses are surprisingly gentle, halting the movement of our bodies. I want to protest, but he pulls back and I can see that he’s thinking hard about something. Worry lines his forehead. He lifts my thigh and hooks it to his side, every muscle rigid as he starts moving again. I can trace the tendons in his neck and arms. “Nicholas?”
He gazes down on me. “Say you love me?” he whispers.
My heart bursts in my chest, white light popping behind my lids like fireworks. “I love you,” I say, and watch it blaze through him. “Of course I love you, Nicholas.” His thrusts meet every roll of my hips, and we both come apart.
My thoughts are impossible to sort through. My body feels amazing.
Satisfied. It’s never been like this, or if it was, I’ve forgotten. When our breathing evens out, I trace the shape of a heart on his chest. His hair is a dark halo on the white pillow, and his eyes are still burning when they fall on my face.
I grin at him. “That might be the one to beat.”
“Even better than our first time?”
We both laugh, because our first time was a mess. He came to visit me on my lunch break at my old hardware store job and we ended up doing it in the storage closet. Standing up, he tried to position me against the wall and when we were done I came out to discover that hanging on the other side of that wall were tools, which now lay all over the floor. I’d forgotten to lock the front door, and the two customers browsing had likely gotten an earful.
“Remember that time in my car?” I snigger. “You got—”
“Hot coffee spilled all over us,” he replies along with me. Nicholas groans. “Nothing kills the mood like scalding liquid on your crotch.”
“And he was never the same,” I intone gravely. He smiles and elbows me.
“Felt terrible for ruining your sweater.”
“I forgot all about that sweater. Hm. Worth it, though.”
He twirls a lock of my hair around his finger. “Remember when we met?”
How we met is insignificant in light of how we met again. We met again while each trying our best to push the other one away. Whether we pushed each other too far remains to be seen. Can these past few weeks be real, and the past year a dream? Or is this the dream? We’ve been corrosive, and we can’t undo it, only recover from it if we try harder at this than we’ve ever tried at anything. He’s burrowed so deep beneath my surface, there’s no separating him from tendons and bones, no getting him out of my blood.
Of course I remember. It’s been sitting in the lost and found of happy memories, waiting for love to spin a revolution like the sun and light it up again.
“How could I forget?”
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