Ten years earlier…
The determined rap on the door jolted me awake. It was beyond midnight on Friday night – or really early Saturday morning. I must had just starting dozing off, having long adapted to the array of footsteps and muted chaos from the hallway of a typical all girls dormitory. Blinking in the darkness, my ears perked up to the sound of rustling just outside of my otherwise quiet room. A fleeting, drowsy peek at the other bed against the opposite wall told me Anna, my dormmate, was still out with her boyfriend, and if previous weekends were any indication, she’d likely be gone the rest of the night.
Tap tap tap.
Pulling a face, I reached over and switched on the small reading lamp next to my bed, rattling the silver-frame photo of my family atop the small bedside table, before tossing back the comforter. If it was that jerk Oscar the Ostrich – so nicknamed because of his long, skinny neck – half wasted and knocking at the wrong room again looking for his fuck buddy, I was going to smash his balls in for sure, just the way my brother Jonathan taught me before I left for my freshman year in Boston.
“Who is it?” I called out, stifling a yawn as I padded over with annoyance. “And it better be good.”
A hushed male voice penetrated the barrier. “Maddy.”
Frowning now, I flipped the lock and wrenched open the door. The functional hallway light illuminated the tall, familiar figure from behind, though his face was cast in shadows. “Jake? What are you doing here?”
His gaze dipped almost imperceptibly, taking in my skimpy but comfortable pink cami and light gray sleep shorts. There was no way I wouldn’t feel the hot gaze lingering on the thin tank top, on what it barely concealed. Posting attitude galore, I planted my knuckles on my hips, more so I wouldn’t self-consciously cross my arms. His gaze jerked back up as though he finally realized he was gawking at me.
Without hesitation he slipped passed me and into the dim room, the weak glow of the lamp not doing any justice to what I knew to be one of the most striking face I’d ever seen. A face that rarely smiled, but when it did, you knew it to be more special than any exceptional gift money could buy.
Instead of answering my earlier question, he asked offhandedly, “Where’s Anna?”
His voice was rough, low, almost like he’d been smoking, except I knew for a fact he would never allow himself indulge in that kind of weakness. He wasn’t a fan of Anna, but that was because he didn’t like that I shared a room with someone. I didn’t have to, and Lord knew my family could afford way swankier – and private – student housing. I preferred the full student life experience, Jake’s frown notwithstanding.
“Out.” When he only nodded, I added, “I thought you went home.” Maybe it was because my sleepy brain wasn’t fully awake, but for some reason seeing him in my room in the middle of the night, when he told me he was flying out to L.A. last night for his father’s birthday and wasn’t going to return until Sunday, just perplexed me.
Letting the door shut behind me, I stood, fighting back another yawn, and watched him flop on top of the floral covers with so much force the thing bounced, stretching out on the twin-size mattress with his hands behind his head. He was glaring into space, dwarfing not only the normally adequate bed but the entire room, sucking up all the oxygen.
There was something off about him, an unusual restlessness and a sense of fighting… frustration.
I might have only known him for a year, but from the beginning we were inseparable, ever since I met him through my then roommate, whom he was banging out of boredom. They didn’t last long, and despite our very different personalities, Jake soon became the best friend I ever had.
This meant when something was bothering him, I could tell. It wasn’t like Jake went around sharing his feelings. On the contrary, he was more tight-lipped about these things than most men, resorting to glowering as his primary source of communication.
He shrugged a broad, grumpy shoulder. “Came back early.”
Well, duh. Stating the obvious in an attempt not to answer the question was also a sure sign something was not swell in Jake’s life. With a dramatically loud, exasperated sigh, I took the few steps required to plop down on what little space was left of the bed, folding my legs underneath me as I faced him. “You know, the fact that you showed up unannounced in the middle of the night when you’re supposed to be home at the other side of the country tells me that you either can’t go a day without me…” At that absurd suggestion I nearly snorted. “Or you had another fight with your father.”
The scowl almost brought down the ceiling.
I felt myself softening. Jackson Reed was the prime asshole in Jake’s life, and that was saying something, considering he had a lot of assholes in his life, but there wasn’t much he could do since he was his father, and the fact that he held the tight reigns to Jake’s imminent hospitality empire only aggravated Jake more. I knew he cared about his father, a strict, rule-driven man who didn’t know love, even for his two sons, if it came with a hard smack upside his dense, perfectly groomed head, but the two of them could really get into it sometimes. That was one of the reasons why, when Jake invited me last week to join him in L.A., I made the excuse of studying for finals.
It wasn’t exactly a lie. I did have to study, but I could have done that in L.A. just as well as in Boston. The one time I met the formal yet scathing Jackson Reed was enough to singe me for years. In town for business and, since he was already here, the chairman and CEO of R Hotels and Resorts decided to squeeze in some time for his eldest son. Over a flawlessly prepared dinner at the landmark restaurant inside one of his establishments, he proceeded to spend twenty minutes ruthlessly dissecting and wholly criticizing Jake’s case study, then moved on to look down his refined nose at my interior architecture major at the private design college. It wasn’t until he gave me the third degree and inquired about my roots and learned my family was prosperous in its own right that he backed off – and never mind that it was made clear Jake and I were only friends.
Poor Jake. He was among the most prominent grad students at Harvard, but that affluence came with a very hefty, often painful price tag.
At his continued gloomy silence, I let out a long exhale. Jake had his moods, but I loved him all the same. In good times and in surly times. Gingerly so as not to disrupt his sullen study of the darkened ceiling, I shifted, squeezing my petite form alongside him even as he adjusted his arms to accommodate me, our heads sharing the same pillow. Angling my head, I rested it companionably against the side of his.
“It’ll be okay,” I reminded him softly, viewing the same shadows on my nondescript ceiling. “If you want to talk about it. I’m here.” Even as I said it, I knew he wouldn’t, but I needed him to know that I was there for him nonetheless. “If you don’t, we can always just lay here.” That made me pause, because the idea of it didn’t sound ridiculous at all. “Not a care in the world,” I murmured into the gloom. “Forever.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. Hours, it seemed. Maybe months. I wasn’t counting.
Then, in the echoing silence of the stillness, he turned to me. Strong arms came around me and brought me close, pressing my face against his neck, his chin on top of my head. Without reservation my arm looped tightly around him, offering what comfort I could. My hands studied each strain and knot on his back, the tension-clasped muscles constricting against my fingertips.
Second by second, in what was a focused, concerted effort, his body slowly began to loosen, his breathing gradually steadying until he finally lost his battle to slumber.
Still I held him.
And breathed him in.