Falling into You, Page 9Jasinda Wilder
Okay would only ever be skin deep, though.
The note was under my pillow. I unfolded it, gazed at it.
…And now we’re learning how to fall in love together. I don’t care what any one else says. I love you. I’ll always love you, no matter what happens with us in the future. I love you now and forever.
I saw the splotch where my tear had fallen, staining the blue pen-strokes black in a sudden Rorschach pattern. Another wet drop splatted on the paper, just beneath the writing this time. I let it sink in and stain. The slanting downstroke of the ‘Y’ in his scrawled signatures blurred and became blotted.
Eventually the slow leak stopped and I fell asleep. I dreamed of brown eyes and blue, of a ghost beside me, loving me, and of a flesh and blood man sitting on a dock, drinking whiskey, playing guitar, and remembering an illicit kiss. In the dream, he wondered what it meant. In the dream, he stole into my room and kissed me again. I woke from that dream sweating and shaking and nauseous with guilt.
Chapter 6: Old Man Jack
Two years later
I’m sitting on a park bench on the edge of Central Park, busking. I’ve got my case on the ground next at my feet, a few bucks as seed money bright green against the maroon velvet. I haven’t busked in months. The shop has been too busy, too many orders, too many rebuilds and custom jobs. But this, the open air and the lack of expectations, this is where I live. Where my soul flies. Like my weekly gig at Kelly’s bar, it’s not about the money, although I usually make a decent chunk of change.
It’s about letting the music flow out of my blood and into the guitar, letting it seep through my vocal chords.
I’m adjusting a string, tweaking the tuning for my next song. My head is down, tilted to the side, listening for the perfect pitch. I get it, bob my head in approval.
I start in on “I and Love and You” by the Avett Brothers. This is a song that always draws a crowd. It’s the song more than me, really. It’s such brilliant piece of music. So much meaning stuffed into the lyrics. I look up after the first verse and scan the sidewalk in front of me. An older man in a business suit, a phone against his ear, another clipped to his expensive leather belt; A young woman with bottle blond hair in a messy bun, a sticky-faced boy-child gripping her hand, both stopped and listening; a g*y couple, young men holding hands, flamboyant, bouffant hair and colorful scarves; three teen girls, giggling, whispering to each other behind cupped hands, thinking I’m cute.
I could write a song, and her name would be the music. I could sing, strum a guitar, and her body would be the melody. She’s standing behind the rest of the crowd, partially obscured, leaning against a parking meter, a patchwork-fabric purse slung over one shoulder, pale green dress brushing her knees and hugging her curves, strawberry blond hair twisted into a casual braid and hanging over one shoulder. Pale skin like ivory, flawless and begging to be caressed, kissed.
I’m no saint. I’ve hooked up with other girls since then, but they’ve never been enough. Never been right. They’ve never stuck around long.
Now, here she is. Why? I tried so hard to forget her, but still her face, her lips, her body, glimpsed beneath a wet black dress…she haunts me.
She’s biting her lip, worrying it between her teeth, gray-green eyes pinning me to the bench. Shit. For some reason I can’t fathom, that habit, the biting her lip…I can’t take it. I want to throw down the guitar and go over to her and take that perfect plump lower lip into my mouth and not let go.
I almost falter at that first meeting of our eyes, but I don’t. I meet her gaze, continue the song.
I’m singing it to her, as I reach the final chorus. “I…and love…and you. ”
She knows. She sees it in my eyes. It’s utter madness to sing this song to her, but I can’t stop now. I watch her lips move, mouthing the words along with mine. Her eyes are pained, haunted.
The person standing in front of her moves, and I see a guitar case resting against her thigh, the round bottom planted on the sidewalk, her palm stabilizing the narrow top. I didn’t know she played.
The song ends and the crowd moves away, a few people tossing in ones and fives. The businessman—still on the phone—tosses in a fifty and a business card announcing himself as a record label producer. I nod at him, and he makes the universal “call me” gesture with his free hand. I might call him. I might not. Music is expression, not business.
She approaches, bending at the knees and lifting her guitar case, slides onto the bench next to me. Her eyes never leave mine as she sits, zips open her case, withdraws a beautiful Taylor classical acoustic. She bites her lip again, then plucks a few strings, strums, begins “Barton Hollow”.
I laugh softly, and see that the pain has never left her. She’s carried it all this time. I weave my part in around hers, and then I’m singing. The words fall from my lips easily, but I’m barely hearing myself. She plays easily and well, but it’s clear she hasn’t been playing too long. She still glances at her fingers on the fretboard as she switches chords, and she gets a few notes wrong. But her voice…it’s pure magic, dulcet and silver and crystalline and so sweet.
We draw a crazy crowd together. Dozens of people. The street beyond is blocked from view by the bodies, and I can tell she’s uncomfortable with the attention. She crosses her leg over her knee, bounces with the rhythm, ducks her head as if wishing her hair was loose so she could hide behind it. She slips up a chord, loses the rhythm. I twist on the bench to meet her eyes, lock gazes and nod at her, slow down and accentuate the strumming rhythm. She breathes deep, swelling her br**sts behind her Taylor, and finds the rhythm with me.
The song ends, eventually, all too soon. I half-expect her to rise and put away the guitar and float away again, without a word exchanged, just gone again as mysteriously as she appeared. She doesn’t, though. Thank god for that. She glances around at the crowd, chews her lip, glances at me. I wait, palm flat on the strings.
She takes a deep breath, plucks a few strings, idly, as if deciding, then nods to herself, a quick bob of the head as if to say, “yeah, I’m gonna do it. ” Then she begins to strum a tune I know I know, but can’t place. Then she sings. And again, her admittedly mediocre guitar playing fades away, replaced by the shocking beauty of her voice. She’s singing “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele. The original is simple and powerful, just the piano and Adele’s unique voice. When Nell sings it, she takes it and twists it, makes it haunting and sad and almost country-sounding. She sings it low in her register, almost whispering the words.
And she sings it to me.
Which makes no sense whatsoever. But still, she watches me as she sings, and I can see the years of pain and guilt in her gaze.
She still blames herself. I always knew she did, and hoped time would cure her of that, but I can see, without having even spoken to her, that she still carries the weight. There’s darkness in this girl, now. I almost don’t want to get involved. She’ll hurt me. I know this. I can see it, feel it coming. She’s got so much pain, so many cracks and shards and jags in her soul, and I’m going to get cut by her if I’m not careful.
I can’t fix her. I know this too. I’m not going to try. I’ve had too many goody-goody girls hook up with me, thinking they can fix me.
I also know I’m not going to stay away. I’m going to grab onto her and let myself get cut. I’m good at pain. I’m good at bleeding, emotionally and physically.
I let her sing. I don’t join in, I just give her the moment, let her own it. The crowd whistles and claps and tosses dollars into her open guitar case.
Now she waits, watches. My turn. I know I have to choose my song carefully. We’re establishing a dialogue, here. We’re having a conversation in music, a discussion in guitar chords an
d sung notes and song titles. I strum nonsense and hum, thinking. Then it comes to me:
“Can’t Break Her Fall” by Matt Kearney. It speaks to me, and it’s unique, a song people will remember. And I know she’ll hear me, hear what I’m not saying when I sing it. The half-sung, half-rapped. The verses tell such a strong, vivid story, and suddenly I can see her and I in the lyrics.
She listens carefully. Her gray-green gaze hardens, and her teeth snag her lip and bite down hard. Oh yeah. She heard me. I catch the tremble in her hand when she sets her guitar in the case, zips it closed and tries not to stumble as she runs from me. Her braid trails behind her, bouncing between her shoulder blades, and her calves flash pale white in the New York sunlight. I let her go, finish the song, two more chords, then I click the guitar case closed and jog after her. Across the street, Yellow Cabs honking impatiently, city noise, and then down to a subway. She swipes a card and struggles with the turnstile, guitar held awkwardly by the handle. She swipes the card again, but the turnstile won’t budge and she’s cursing under her breath. People are lining up behind us, but she’s oblivious to them, to me mere inches away. She tosses her head, stops struggling, takes a deep breath. At that moment, I reach past her, swipe my own card and gently push her through the gate. She complies as if in a daze, lets me take her guitar from her and slip the straps over my shoulder, holding my own hard-case by the handle. The palm of my free hand cups her lower back, prompts her onto the waiting subway car. She doesn’t look me, doesn’t question that it’s me. She just knows. She’s breathing deeply still, gathering herself. I let her breathe, let the silence stretch. She won’t turn in place to look at me, but she leans back, just slightly, her back brushing my front. She doesn’t put her weight against me, merely allows a hint of contact.
She steps off after a few stops, and I follow. She catches another line, and we continue in silence. She hasn’t met my eyes since she ran from the Central Park bench. I’ve stayed behind her, just following. I follow her to an apartment building in Tribeca, follow her up the echoing stairwell, trying not to stare at her ass swaying as she ascends the stairs. It’s hard not to, though. It’s such a fine ass, round and taut and swinging teasingly under the thin cotton of her sundress.
She unlocks door number three-fourteen, shoves it open with her toe and goes straight to the kitchen, not watching to see if I follow her in uninvited, which I do. I close the door behind me, set her guitar case on the floor beneath a light switch, just inside the doorway, next to a small square table stacked with sheet music and guitar books and packets of nylon strings. My case goes on the floor next me in the entryway to the open kitchen. I watch her jerk open a cabinet next to the refrigerator, pull out a bottle of Jack, twist the cap off and toss it to the counter. Her fist shakes and she tilts the bottle up to her lips and sucks three times, long hard drags straight from the bottle. Damn. She sets the bottle down violently and stands with her head hanging between her arms braced on the counter, one foot stretched out behind her, the other bent close to the counter in a runner’s stretch. She shudders in a breath, straightens, wipes her lips with the back of her hand. I cross the space between us, and I don’t miss the way she tenses as I draw near. She stops breathing as my arm dives over her shoulder and my hand grabs the bottle, brings it to my lips and I match her three long pulls. It burns, a familiar pain.
She turns in place, finally, retreating to the counter edge, staring up at me, eyes wide and searching. She looks like an anime character, suddenly, so wide-eyed and full of depthless emotion. I want to kiss her so badly, but I don’t. I don’t even touch her, even though I’m mere inches from her. I hold the bottle, my other hand propped against the counter beside her elbow.
“Why are you here?” she asks. Her voice is a harsh whisper, whiskey-burned.
I let a lopsided smile tilt my lips. “Here in your apartment? Or here in New York?”
“In my apartment. In New York. In my life. Here. Why are you here?”
“I live in New York. I have since I was seventeen. I’m here in your apartment because I followed you from Central Park. ”
“Because we weren’t done talking. ”
She scrunches up her nose in confusion, a gesture so absurdly adorable my breath stutters in my chest. “Talking? Neither of us said a word. ”
“Still a conversation. ” I tilt the bottle to my lips and take another pull, feeling it hit my stomach.
“You tell me. ”
“I don’t know. ” She takes the bottle from me, drinks from it, caps it and puts it away. “About…that night on the dock. ”
I shrug, tip my head side to side. “Sort of, but not really. ”
“Then what do you think we were talking about?”
She pushes past me, tilts her head to the side and peels her hair free from the braid, kicking off her flip flops. “There is no us. There never was and never will be. ”
I don’t answer that, because she’s right. But so wrong. There will be an us. She just hasn’t seen it yet. She’ll resist it, because it’s wrong on so many levels. I’m her dead boyfriend’s older brother. And she knows nothing about me. I’m bad for her. She’s underage, and I shouldn’t encourage her drinking. She’s obviously using old man Jack to cope, and I understand that all too well. But she’s still only twenty, which is just too young to be drinking like that, straight from the bottle like a jaded alcoholic.
She finishes unbraiding her hair and shakes it out, combs through it with her fingers. “You should go,” she says, disappearing into the bedroom. I hear cloth rustling and hit the ground. “I have class. ”
I’m a shameless ass**le. I know this, because only a shameless ass**le would move around the counter to see into her room. Which is what I do. She’s in a matching bra and panties set, pink with black polka dots. Facing away from me, tight round ass so delectably perfect in the boyshort panties. Oh god, oh god. She feels my presence, twists her neck to glare at me.
“Well you’re an ass**le. ”
“Should’ve closed your door. ”
“I told you to leave. ” She reaches into a drawer and unfolds a pair of jeans, steps into them.
Watching a girl dress is almost as hot as watching her strip.
“But I didn’t and you knew it. ”
“I didn’t think you’d blatantly watch me change. Fucking pervert. ”
I grin at her, the smile my buddies call the panty-dropper. “I’m not a pervert. I just appreciate art. ”
She smirks. “Smooth, Colton. Very smooth. ”
I grin. No one calls me Colton. No one. I’m Colt. “It wasn’t a line, Nell. It was the truth. ” I turn up the wattage on the smile, stepping toward her.
She tenses, clutching a pale blue T-shirt in white-knuckle fists. “What are you doing?”
I don’t answer. I continue toward her, step by deliberate step. I feel like predator, a lion stalking prey. Her eyes grow wide, doe eyes. Her nostrils flare, her hands twist the shirt, her br**sts swell as she breathes deeply, swelling until they threaten to spill out. God I wish they would. Like I said, shameless. She’s just inside the room, which is tiny. Barely space for the bed and dresser. I’m inches away from her again, and I could see her ni**les if I looked down, probably. At the very least, I’d be treated to a huge expanse of porcelain cle**age. I don’t look though. I meet her eyes, let my raw desire, my weltering boil of emotions show in my gaze as I reach past her. My hand brushes her shoulder just beside her bra strap as I grasp the edge of the door. I’m so close, now. Her br**sts are touching my chest, my arm touching both her shoulder and ear. Her eyes slide closed, breaking the contact, and I hear her breath catch. She wilts slightly, the tension bleeding out of her, and she tilts her head to rest against my arm.
Her eyes flick open, bright with renewed determination, and she straighte
ns so she’s not touching me. I pull the door closed between us. Just before I step out of her front door, I take one of my business card from my wallet and set in on the table, on top of the packet of guitar strings. I close her apartment door with deliberate noise, so she’ll know I left.
The walk back to the subway and the subsequent ride to my apartment in Queens is long, providing me with too much time to ask myself exactly what the f**k I’m getting myself into. Nell is bad news. She’s got major damage, a baggage train a mile long. And so do I.
I toss my guitar on the bed and go downstairs to the shop. I set my phone in the dock and blast Black Label Society’s “Stillborn” loud enough to drown my thoughts as I throw myself in the 396 big block I’m rebuilding. It’s for a classic ’69 Camaro, which didn’t mean shit to me until Nell showed up, and then all I can think of is Kyle’s Camaro, which I restored from a bucket of rust in a junk heap into mint condition, and then left behind when I moved here.
I loved that car, and it hurt so bad to leave it behind, but Dad had paid for it, so I couldn’t take it. Never mind that every penny of the parts came from me, or that I’d spent the blood, sweat and tears to restore it. The seed money came from Dad, and if I moved to New York instead of attending Harvard, then I brought nothing but what I bought myself. That was the deal.
At least Kyle took care of it.
I snorted as I thought of Dad’s expectation that I go to Harvard. He’d actually thought that would happen. Fucking ridiculous. Even now, almost ten years later, I can’t fathom what went through his head. I’d fit in at Harvard like a bull in china shop.
My thoughts return to Nell. Sanding piston rings is boring busy work, so of course I can’t help but think of her. Of her sweet crystalline voice and her piercing green-gray eyes and her fine, fine body. Goddamn it, I’m in trouble. Especially when I think of the deep-seated ache in her gaze, in the desperate way she drank that whiskey, as if the numbness was a friend, as if the burn was a welcome respite from reality. I know that pain, and I want to take it from her. I want to know her thoughts, know what haunts her.
I mean, of course I know. Kyle died, and she saw it happen. But that’s not really it. Something else drives her. Something else eats at her, some guilt. And I want to know what, so I can absolve her of it. Which, of course, is impossible and stupid and reckless.
I set the 400-grit sandpaper down and inspect the ring, finding it ground down to my satisfaction. The headers are the next item of business, and those too only take a portion of my attention, so my thoughts are free to roam back to the way she leaned her head on my arm for a split second, as if wishing she could let herself go, let herself lean further. But she didn’t, and I can’t help but respect her for that, even I know her strength is false, propped up by the shaky girders of old man Jack.