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Fire In You: Volume Six (Wait for You Series), Page 2

J. Lynn

  Once she left to put in the order, the conversation picked up again, and I loved listening to Cam and Avery banter back and forth with one another. Those two made me smile even when I wasn’t comfortable with the way it felt or looked.

  I was quiet while the appetizers arrived, murmuring my thanks when Grady offered to load up the small plate for me.

  “Cam was saying you’re starting a new job on Monday?” he asked, genuine interest shining through his eyes.

  “I totally told him who your father is.” Cam’s grin was sheepish. I wasn’t surprised. Cam was a total Lima fanboy. “Sorry.”

  “It’s okay.” And it really was. Even though I’d distanced myself from my father’s profession, I was still thoroughly proud of what my father and his brothers had accomplished. “My last name kind of gives it away.”

  “I wouldn’t have known,” Grady admitted, his cheeks turning pink when I looked at him in surprise. “I mean, I don’t really follow the whole mixed martial arts thing.”

  That mixed martial arts thing had been a part of my life for a long time.

  Dad had been at me for years, especially once he opened his new state-of-the-art mixed martial arts and then some training facility in Martinsburg, less than fifteen minutes from where I’d been attending college at Shepherd University. God, I’d been so pissed when I’d discovered that my family had practically followed me to college. Dad would’ve stayed at the Philadelphia location, but one of my five thousand uncles would always be with stalking distance.

  Dad had wanted me to come back home and work at the center in Philly, but he’d finally caught on about two years ago to the fact that was never going to happen. Ever. There were too many memories there, too much that reminded me . . . reminded me of him and of the way I used to be.

  But about six months ago, Dad started on me again. So did my mother. So did Uncle Julio and Dan and Andre and, oh my God, the Limas were like mogwai fed after midnight. The pitch had started off differently this time. Andre, who was currently the General Manager of the Lima Academy in Martinsburg, wanted to move back to Philly by the beginning of October, because I guess West Virginia just wasn’t cool enough for him. Dad wasn’t offering me the GM position, but the position of assistant to the GM—a manager position that hadn’t existed before at the Martinsburg location. The assistant manager would oversee the day-to-day functioning of the Academy while helping expand services. He wanted someone he could trust and who knew the business while he found a new GM. The offer was, well, very tempting, but I’d turned it down.

  Then Dad showed up at my apartment and handed me a piece of paper that had my salary written on it, along with a slew of benefits, and I would be the stupidest and most stubborn person to refuse that, but even though the offer was amazing, it wasn’t the real reason why I finally accepted it. He just came at the right moment, when I just . . . just was so damn tired of the windowless room and working a job I didn’t give two craps about. The offer poked and prodded at the Jillian I used to be, and a part of me knew that was who Dad had been trying to reach this entire time with one crazy job offer after another.

  “I do,” Cam confirmed, breaking me out of my thoughts.

  “We know.” Avery sighed. “We all know.”

  “So, you . . . you really have no clue what my last name means?” I asked, finding it somewhat freeing that there was a red-blooded man who didn’t secretly wish he could climb into the Octagon and walk back out in one piece.

  “Not really. Is that a bad thing?”

  “No.” I dipped my chin as I smiled and peeked back up at him. “It’s a . . . a good thing.”

  His gaze met mine. “I’m happy to hear that.”

  My face heated again, so I focused on my plate. I poked at the cheese fries as my stomach grumbled. If I was at home, I would’ve already consumed half my plate, but I forced myself to not eat like I hadn’t seen food in a week.

  The dinner went . . . surprisingly smoothly.

  Cam and Avery kept the conversation flowing naturally, picking up whenever the gaps of silence started to stretch out too long, which didn’t happen often. Grady was easy to talk to, guiding me into conversation. There were only a few times when Cam or Avery had spoken to me and I hadn’t heard them, so Grady had to catch my attention. This didn’t seem to bother them, which made it easy for me to gloss over it.

  Our main dishes arrived while Grady was telling me about a new art exhibit that had come to Shepherd. The way his eyes lit up as he talked about the exhibit, you could tell that was the kind of stuff he was into.

  And it was cute.

  “Sounds like it’s an amazing thing to see,” I said, picking up my fork. “I haven’t gone to many art exhibits recently.” Or ever. Like, seriously. I didn’t go look at art. Not like I saw anything wrong with doing that, but it just wasn’t something I did.

  Then again, there wasn’t much I did.

  “I can take you,” Grady offered, grinning. “I’d love to.”

  My lips parted at the unexpected offer. We were getting along well, so I wasn’t sure why the offer caught me off-guard, but it did. I started to respond, but realized I didn’t know what to say, because I wasn’t sure if I was excited about what seemed like a genuine offer or if I was wholly unmoved by it.

  An all-too-familiar feeling swept through me, the one that usually hit me in the middle of the long night, keeping me awake. It was how I had felt when I’d been dating Ben; it was the feeling that had kept me with him, because I didn’t see anything better for myself. Not because I didn’t deserve better, but I . . . I gave my heart so completely, so fully to someone else, that when my heart was broken, those pieces I’d freely given away weren’t mine any longer.

  My heart wasn’t complete.

  And that might sound silly and overdramatic to some, but I didn’t care. It was the truth, and I wasn’t sure I could ever feel that way about someone else again. So I had settled with Ben. Would I be doing that again with Grady, if it got to that point? Settling?

  Oh God, wait a second.

  Was I really sitting here and thinking about settling after I just met this guy an hour ago?

  I needed to get a grip.

  “Jillian?” Grady said, and I guessed he thought I hadn’t heard him.

  “T-that would be nice,” I managed to force out.

  He studied me for a moment too long, and I wondered if he could sense my growing nervousness.

  “I’ll be right back.” Placing my folded napkin onto the table, I rose and stepped around the chair. I could feel Avery’s concerned gaze on me, and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of anything, but I assured her I was okay.

  I just needed a minute.

  Or three.

  Making my way through the narrow pathways between the tables, I headed back toward the bathroom. Only once I pushed open the double doors and stopped in front of the water-spotted mirror did I realize I’d left my purse at the table, so there’d be no reapplying my lipstick.

  I pumped soap onto my hands and waved them under the facet. Water flowed, washing away the suds as I slowly lifted my gaze to my reflection. Normally when I looked at myself, I didn’t really pay attention longer than was necessary to put makeup on without ending up looking like a tutorial gone wrong.

  Standing here now, I really looked at myself, though.

  I used to wear my hair up all the time, but I’d stopped doing that every day. My hair now hung in waves and the ends curled over the tips of my breasts. I also used to have heavy bangs, but thank God they were long gone. I’d finally learned how to put on eyeliner. That was another miracle. The slight flush of my face darkened my naturally tan skin. My lips were fuller and my nose straight.

  My hair was parted to sweep to the left so it shielded my cheek . . . and my cheek didn’t look that bad, especially considering how it looked the first time I’d seen it after . . . after days in the hospital.

  Hell, my entire face had been one hot mess.

  There was a de
ep indentation in my left cheek, almost like an icepick had been shoved in there, and as I stared at my right jaw line, I was still amazed by what reconstructive plastic surgeons could accomplish. Half my face had literally been pieced back together with an iliac crest graft with a reconstruction plate and a crap ton of dentistry to give me back a full set of functional teeth.

  Plastic surgeons didn’t have magic wands, but they were magicians. If you weren’t looking at me straight on, you’d have no idea that my right jaw was thinner than my left.

  You’d have no idea what had happened to me that night.

  Now I stared back at myself just like I had done that night, six years ago, standing in a bathroom, mere minutes before my entire life came crashing down.

  It wasn’t that I hated the way I looked now. The fact that I was alive meant I was one of those rare, walking and breathing statistics.

  But even knowing how lucky I was didn’t change the fact that I felt . . . deformed. That was a harsh word to use. I didn’t like to whip it out often. Doing so on what was so far a pretty good date was probably not a good idea.

  Taking a deep breath, I shook my head. I didn’t need my thoughts going in that direction tonight. So far, the dinner had been amazing. Grady was nice and he was cute. I could maybe see myself going out with him again, to an art exhibit, and maybe coffee.

  And that was what had freaked me out.

  I was not going to let living freak me out.


  I could give him a chance and not worry about whether or not I was settling.

  Turning from the sink, I dried my hands and then readjusted my hair so it fell forward, over my left shoulder and cheek. I walked out of the bathroom and into the narrow hall, gaze trained on the floor as I took about two steps before I realized someone was standing right outside the door, leaning against the wall. Before I nearly plowed into him.

  Gasping, I took a step back. All I could see were finely cut black trousers paired with . . . with old black and white Chucks? What an odd combination, but those shoes reminded me of . . .

  I gave a little shake of my head and stepped to the side. “Sorry. Excuse—”


  I stopped.

  Time stopped.

  Everything stopped except my heart, because it was suddenly pounding in my chest too hard, too fast. That deep, rough voice. I recognized it all the way to my very core. Slowly, I lifted my gaze, already knowing what I was going to see but refusing to believe it.

  Brock Mitchell stood in front of me.

  Chapter 3

  Shock held me immobile as I stared up at Brock, stunned into silence, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was no way he was standing in front of me. As far as I knew, he never came to Martinsburg. Ever. Because I was here. He had the entire world. I only had West Virginia.

  Those were the unspoken rules.

  Maybe I’d fallen and hit my head in the bathroom.

  Sounded unlikely.

  Because it was Brock, and he was so close I could smell the familiar cologne, the fresh mixture of burning leaves and winter wind.

  How in the world was he in this restaurant and I hadn’t seen him? Then again, I never was all that observant, even more so now. But that didn’t explain how Cam, who was majorly obsessed with Brock, hadn’t zeroed in on his presence.

  Cam was going to be so disappointed in himself.

  “Damn,” he rasped out.

  My lips parted, but I was at a loss for words. Brock looked the same as he had the last time I’d seen him, several years ago, but he was more . . . refined, more . . . well, everything. He was still a foot taller than me, but he was broader in the shoulders. The gray button-down pulled taut across his chest. Sleeves were rolled up, revealing those powerful, tattooed forearms. There was new ink on his forearm. New color. His waist tapered in and those pants were tailored to fit what I knew were still strong, muscled thighs.

  I dragged my gaze back to his face. Gone was the spiky hair of a man in his mid-twenties. Now the dark brown hair was calmer, cut so that it was styled back from his forehead, and there was a day or two worth of scruff along his jaw and cheeks. He was older.

  Well, duh. He would be thirty-four now.

  Faint lines were etched into the sandy-colored skin at the corners of his eyes. His face was still all angles. High cheekbones and a full, sensual mouth. The scar on his lower lip was barely noticeable now, after all these years. The one under his left eye still stood out, the one his father had given him the night he’d run away, sending him on a collision course with my life.

  Those eyes, the color of warmed chocolate, were just as I remembered, heavily lashed and sharp, and right now he was doing the same thing I was doing to him. Brock was checking me out.

  His gaze had started at the tips of my boots, had traveled up the dark denim jeans and over the thin turtleneck. Over the years, my body had evened out. I’ll never be considered thin. My body was rather average, and I didn’t have the desire or willpower to spend two hours a day trying to shape it into something that resembled the women in magazines. I liked my fatty food, and I also liked lounging around and reading in my spare time.

  But I remembered quite painfully the kind of women Brock had been attracted to when we were younger. Women with flat stomachs and toned legs. The type of girls where guys could wrap their hands around their waists. Someone who’d spend hours working out alongside him and still somehow looked sexy and amazing when they were sweaty and flushed red in the face. That was what he’d been drawn to. Still was, considering I knew who his fiancée was.

  Then I stopped thinking about what I looked like compared to the random chicks he’d hooked up with—to the woman I knew he was engaged to, because yes, I did know that about him. None of that mattered now, because he was staring at my face, and it struck me that he hadn’t seen me in six years without my face being swollen or bandaged. Other than what my family had to have told him, this was the first time he was seeing me since I wasn’t a fan of pictures. Never had been, but even more so now. Any time he would’ve seen me would’ve been a rare glimpse from a distance.

  His eyes were slightly wide as his gaze drifted from the left side to the right side of my face. The way he looked at me, a mixture of surprise and an emotion I didn’t want to see, something that turned the blood in my veins bitter, snapped me out of my stupor.

  “What are you doing here?” I demanded sharply.

  Brock’s gaze flew to mine. “Like, right now? Well, I was actually out here waiting for you.”

  “Outside the ladies’ room?”


  “That’s . . . that’s next level weird,” I muttered, glancing at the end of the hall. Avery and everyone had to be wondering where I was. “But what I meant is what are you doing in Martinsburg?”

  “Having dinner,” he replied, his gaze never straying from mine. He held my eyes with the intensity that I found more than just unnerving. “You look . . . look amazing, Jillian.”

  My breath caught at what appeared to be genuine sincerity in his voice, but then I realized that, compared to what he had seen, I looked like a million bucks. “So, you’re randomly in Martinsburg having dinner at the same restaurant I’m having dinner at?”

  Brock blinked, obviously surprised by my snappy tone. Couldn’t really blame him for that. Back in the day, I pretty much smiled and nodded at whatever he said, so much so that my middle name could’ve been “Brock’s Personal Doormat. Welcome.”

  And thinking that, I was suddenly thrust back to the night at the bar, when I stood in front of him in the dress I’d felt so grown up in, so hopeful, so in love, and so incredibly foolish.

  One side of his lips kicked up, and it was that half-grin, the one that pretty much got Brock whatever he wanted. “Are you insinuating that I somehow found out about your dinner and purposely came here tonight just to see you?” He paused, eyes glimmering in the low light outside the restrooms. “Like I’m some kind of

  Well, that did sound ridiculous but wasn’t impossible. Mom knew I had this date tonight. I’d told her where we were going. Though I doubted she would’ve told Brock.

  She had better not have told Brock.

  “Or maybe not a stalker, but someone who is desperate to catch a glimpse of another person who has been avoiding them for years?” he suggested smoothly. “Six years this December.”

  I blinked once and then twice. “What?”

  That half-grin grew as he eyed me. “Or someone who just happens to be having dinner with a friend who also happens to live in the same vicinity as you?”

  My cheeks started to heat.

  “If I was stalking you, I’m doing a really bad job at it since I waited for you to come out of the restroom,” he continued on, obviously amused by my observation. “From what I know about stalkers, and trust me, I’ve had a few, they tend to be a little more inconspicuous.”

  Anger flushed through my system. Did this amuse him—did I? Of course it did. I had always amused Brock. “I’m pretty sure most of the stalkers you’ve had in the past would’ve walked right into the men’s room instead of waiting for you outside, and you wouldn’t have had one problem with that.”

  “Damn.” Brock tipped his head back and laughed. Air punched out of my lungs. God, I’d forgotten how his laugh sounded. Deep and infectious, he laughed without a care. He handed those laughs out to anyone and everyone while I thought they were just for me. A smile played at his lips. “You are not the Jillybean I remember.”

  Brock using my nickname did funny things to me. Threw me back in time, to years ago, when we’d sit side by side on the old swing out in my parents’ backyard. Reminded me of how Brock would listen to me ramble on and on about all the places in the world I wanted to visit. It made me think of the way things used to be, and nothing could ever be like that again.

  “No,” I told him, lifting my chin. “I’m not her.”

  He dipped his head so he was suddenly in my space, his mouth nearly lined up with mine. “I know that.”