The lights are still on when I get to the Ellis place, an old rancher out towards the river. I pull off onto the front lawn, and it’s like no time has passed. I haven’t been out this way since I came home. There’s been no reason. Barrow Road is a country lane that leads to nothing but shotgun shacks and flood plain.
As I slam the truck door, I can almost hear Nevaeh’s mom primly ordering me to stop tearin’ up the grass. Even in the dark with no porch light, it’s obvious no one much cares about the lawn these days. I heard that when Nevaeh’s stepdad passed, Mrs. Ellis moved to Florida, leaving Lou the house. Looks like he takes care of it about as well as any guy in his twenties who installs cable and plays bass in a jam band.
There are two overturned buckets by the front step with cigarette butts scattered around, a few empties on the step itself. Mrs. Ellis’ kissing Dutch couple is knocked over, and at some point, someone mowed around it, so the little boy and girl are lying flat in an island of tall weeds.
Lou’s work van, his bike, and a beat-up, red Hyundai take up the short driveway. Must be Nevaeh’s ride. Back left tire is low.
Clearly, they’re home, and my truck’s not subtle. I’m surprised no one’s looked out yet.
I hop up on the running board, reach through the open window, and lay on the horn. Mrs. Ellis used to hate when I did that. She’d hassle Nevaeh, tell her only sluts go running when a man honks. Nevaeh’d cry about it, but it was always easy to distract her. She was the kind of girl who wanted to be happy.
I told her I’d walk up to the door—it was the right thing to do, even I knew that—but she didn’t want me anywhere near her folks. Guess they didn’t approve of me.
Still no movement in the house. I lean on the horn again, and I keep the pressure on until I see the curtains flutter. Then the porch light flickers on, the door flies open, and there she is. Every muscle in my body goes as hard as stone.
I round the truck, stalk forward, my legs drawn to her, my brain struggling keeping up. Nevaeh Ellis. She’s here. In real life.
She’s the same. But more.
The force of her standing there sends a sizzle of electricity down every nerve, priming me like the sound of gunfire.
She’s framed by the doorway, backlit, her mess of curls still the biggest thing about her. No matter that round ass and those thick thighs, she’s so damn small. Short and compact. She’s got her hands on her hips, and damn, but they’re even curvier than I remember.
“Lay off the horn, asshole!”
I already have. I’m nearly on her; she’s almost in my arms. I need to see her face, plunge my hands in that wild hair, shake her and make her cry and take her mouth until she whimpers with need. I’m furious, horny, and crushed, sickened by the weight of time passed. It’s been too long.
Then when I get four, five feet away, her chin loses the arrogant tilt. She crosses her arms, hugging herself. Glances over her shoulder into the house. Is she scared? Nevaeh Ellis? No way.
Still, I stop. I’m a few steps away from the porch, and I can make out every inch of her now. She’s wearing a white, long-sleeved sweatshirt with a rainbow across the chest. It’s cropped, revealing the gentle swell of her belly. She’s got on a pair of white boy shorts, so tight I can see the cleft of her pussy lips.
I stand, shoulders back and level with my chest, heels together, arms at my side. I realize as I’m doing it that I’m standing at attention, presenting myself to her, and blood rushes to my cock. My cock’s as ready as it’s ever been. It takes everything in me to be still while she fidgets, gnawing her bottom lip, scratching her heel with the toe of the opposite foot.
Then her big, brown eyes dip below my belt. She snorts, the fear or whatever it was gone. “At least someone in this town is happy to see me.” Her gaze slides to my truck. “Where’s your bike?”
My face burns, but damn if my cock doesn’t press harder against my zipper. “Where are your pants?”
She rolls her eyes. “Same place you left your manners, I suppose.” She wrinkles her nose. “No, hi, Nevaeh? How are you? Long time, no see?”
I’m close enough to see her shiver when I say her name. Goosebumps pucker her belly and legs. It’s early spring, and it’s cold out here. Where’s her jacket? Where are her shoes? She’s in her socks. White with pom poms on the heels. They’ve got to be filthy on the bottoms.
She ducks her head, suddenly shy, and her hair shifts. I see a bruise above her eye. It doesn’t look fresh, but it’s hard to tell with the shadows. I steel myself as a wave of aggression rolls over me.
I jerk my chin toward the shiner. “Danielle fix your face?”
“Which one’s Danielle? The one with the hair or the one with the eyebrows.”
“The eyebrows.” I can’t act like I don’t know what she means. Danielle paints those suckers on. They make an impression. Cheyenne must be the one with the hair. It’s always some color or another.
“Nah. That one’s all mouth.”
“What were you doing at the clubhouse?”
“Looking for you.”
“We have no business.”
“I wanted to talk.”
“I’ve got nothing to say to you.”
She winces like she’s hurt. Fuck. My abs tense, and my fingertips twitch, like they want to grab the words back.
She swallows, and her gaze dips before rising again. “You look different.” Her voice is shy.
She doesn’t look different at all. Except for the tiniest laugh lines at the corner of her eyes and twenty or so extra pounds, most packed on her ass and thighs, she’s the same. Messy. Squirmy. Beautiful.
“You’re taller than I remember.” She offers me a half-smile, a quirked corner of her mouth. My breath catches in my lungs.
I am taller. I left for basic before that last growth spurt. I got on a plane, and she got under every asshole she could the minute the wheels took off from the runway. Several helpful sweetbutts sent me blurry pics. Nevaeh sitting in some loser’s lap. Nevaeh grinding on a Rebel Raider at a bonfire. The stale, familiar rage rocks me in my boots.
What am I doing here? I was having a nice dinner with a nice woman, and I dropped her off early to drive out to the boondocks and waste time on a crazy bitch who couldn’t stay faithful for a week. I’m a fool. I need to say my piece and get gone.
But all the words I want to say would shame me as a man. No matter what a woman shows herself to be, it isn’t right to call her names to her face.
“Well? You gonna stand there and hate fuck me with your eyes all night long?” She raises her eyebrows. She’s got nerve. Always did.
“You gonna stand there and act all innocent?”
“Not all night, no.” She taps her foot. My pulse skyrockets.
“Why did show up at the clubhouse? You know you’re not welcome. What’s your game, Nevaeh?”
I bark a bitter laugh. “It was always a game with you.”
She snorts, but her eyes drop to the ground. “I guess it would have seemed that way.”
“It was that way. How long after I left before you were spreading your legs for any random asshole? Did you even wait until I left?”
She wrings her hands and rocks on her feet. She was always fidgeting like that. I attributed it to nervous energy, but from where I stand now? It looks like guilt.
“I never cheated on you.”
“I know what it looked like.”
“I got pictures of you crawling on men from here to Pyle. You flashed Heavy your tits and asked him if he wanted to fuck.”
She opens her mouth to protest, but I guess she thinks better of it. Instead, she draws in a deep breath, and instead of hanging her head again, she comes at me with those huge, brown eyes.
“Yeah. I did do that.”
I wait. Crickets chirp. Leaves whisper in the huge maple beside the house. What am I even waiting for? An apology? An explanation? As if anything she said—then or now—would change anything. She’s disloyal. Selfish. Nuts.
Her throat bobs as she swallows, and she shifts. It’s like she’s waiting, too. What for? What’s her game now?
“You seriously want me to believe you never cheated? If you didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”
Fuck. Why do I still care about this at all? It happened a lifetime ago. I’ve been around the world since Nevaeh Ellis. Stared death in the face. Came out the other side, scarred and fucked up, sure, but alive.
And some girl screwing around on me back in the day has got me this twisted? Why am I not at my house in Gracy’s Corner right now, balls deep in Amanda or Amelia or whatever her name is?
Nevaeh chews on the inside of her cheek, and stares at her feet. “I wanted you to get jealous and come home. Or, like, confront me. I was desperate. I wasn’t thinking straight.” She glances up, and her eyes are shining.
The tears piss me off. “That’s childish as hell.”
“I was a child!” Her voice breaks, and there’s pain in it. Something inside me lurches for her, and I barely stop myself from loping up the steps and folding her in my arms.
That hurt in her voice? It’s fake as hell. She’s not innocent. She never was. She’s a liar.
I’m about to tell her so and bail, but she keeps going.
“You know, I’m still mad, too.”
She scrubs angrily at her eyes, dashing away those tears.
“I hate you, too, so you can just fuck off with your wounded, wronged man routine. You said you’d always be there for me? Well, you weren’t, and I know that’s the way the world works, and you’re a hero or whatever, but you can just fuck yourself, Forty Nowicki. And fuck your fancy ass truck and fuck you coming here with lipstick on your collar. You look like a detergent commercial.”
I glance down. Oh. There’s a hot pink smear on the shoulder of my shirt.
Nevaeh spins on her heels and flings the screen door open. I start forward—to do what, I don’t know— but she suddenly changes her mind and whirls back around. Her shoulders are heaving, her entire body wired. Then she sucks down a deep breath, like she’s steadying herself, and she exhales slowly.
“I’m sorry. That’s not what I planned on saying. I was going to apologize for what I did back then. It was immature, and it was selfish and messed up, and I knew it was stupid and wrong at the time, when I was doing it, but…I was…I had my reasons, okay? And they weren’t good reasons, but I was young, and I know that’s no excuse. But still. I’m sorry. That’s what I had meant to say.”
She pauses for air, and then she waits, fingers plucking nervously at the hem of her sweatshirt.
I don’t know what to say. My brain’s on overload, glitching with the desire to grab her, shake her or throw her into the truck, tear those white panties to the side and fuck her raw, or curse her until she cries. My mind’s a wreck, like I’m eighteen again, and I know nothing.
I can’t act, can’t find words to say, so all I do is stare.
God, I’ve missed the shape of her. The way her tits slope to a peak. She’s clearly not wearing a bra under the crop top, and her nipples are hard. I manage to drag my gaze away, and then my eyes are instantly drawn to the swell of her hips and the crease where her thighs press together. Those twenty pounds found the right places. She’s all sex. All bounce, all curves.
And she’ll pass it around to anyone and lie about it to your face.
“Aren’t you gonna say something?” Her voice is small. Meek. She’s not meek.
“How many?” I shouldn’t care. I should turn around, get back in my truck, and let the past be the past.
“How many other guys did you fuck when we were together?”
“I told you. None. I never did. I was…I don’t know how to say it. I was trying to make you jealous. I had this idea in my head that you could come back if you really wanted to. I mean, I knew better. I’m not stupid. But…” Her brow furrows, and she presses her fingers to her temple. “It was magical thinking, I guess.”
“No, you weren’t stupid, Nevaeh. You understood the deal. You leave basic, you’re A.W.O.L. Everyone knows that.”
“I never wanted you to go.”
“It was for us.”
She shakes her head, in denial or disapproval, I don’t know. The stale rage rises in me again. Same old argument. Meaningless now.
“What was I gonna do here?” I ask. “Pump gas? Drywall?”
“You would have been there for me. And yeah, pump gas. You too good to pump gas?” Her face is flushing red. I remember the look. She’s holding on to her temper by a thread. “I’m not saying what I did made sense. I was young, and I was…confused by a lot of shit.”
“Confused? Is that what you call it? That’s all you got to say in your defense?”
She balls her fists. “I’m not gonna stand here on the porch and spill my guts to you.”
“No. You were gonna spill your guts at my clubhouse, in front of all my people. You always did have to put on a show, didn’t you?”
Her brown eyes spark. “It always took a show to get through to you, didn’t it?”
“You could have talked to me.” I’m shouting. Fuck. I don’t shout.
“You left. And then you rang me up one Sunday, called me trash, and told me we’re done. And then you blocked me. How was I gonna talk to you?” Her voice cracks; her eyes darken. She’s remembering.
There’s no reason for the pit in my stomach. What she says is exactly how it went down. What did she expect?
“You came onto Heavy and asked him to fuck you.”
“Yeah. Not one of my finer moments.” She sniffs. Is she really crying? “I should’ve given up way before then. Packed my stuff and blown town with a little dignity left, you know? But I was such a stupid, little kid. I guess I thought you’d get so pissed, you’d demand that I tell you what’s going on, and I’d have no choice, right? You’d ride to the rescue and solve all my problems and make everything okay. I know, that was insane to put on an eighteen-year-old three hundred miles away in basic training, but you know what? You were my knight in shining armor.” She snorts.
“What was going on?” I can hardly follow her; she’s making no sense.
She blinks and glances over her shoulder like she hears a noise behind her. Must be Lou.
“It doesn’t matter now. We were kids. I’m sorry for how I acted. That’s all I wanted to say. If it makes you feel better, I lost all my friends, and it wasn’t easy, starting over in Pyle.”
I feel unsteady, as if my feet aren’t on firm ground. “Why now? Why come around now?”
“Better late than never?”
I scrub the back of my neck in frustration. “Can you just be straight with me? For once?”
She draws in a shaky breath. “I guess I’m trying to put some things right.”
“Does there have to be a reason?”
And there it is. The reason this isn’t gonna end with peace between us. She can’t be straight. People like her never change. Answer a question with a question. It’s all a game. And maybe her crazy was hot as shit when I was a teenager, but I’m a grown man now, and this kind of bullshit is just sad.
I don’t care if she’s working the ninth step, or she’s on some kind of journey to find herself. It doesn’t matter that my dick’s harder than it’s been in years, and I haven’t thought about the pain in my arm once the entire time we’ve been talking. I don’t need this in my life.
“I tell you what, Nevaeh. It doesn’t matter. You’ve said your piece. Now stay away from the clubhouse. Stay away from me and my brothers. We’re done now. For good.”
She takes a half step back. I guess she thought this conversation was going a different direction. Maybe for a second, before I remembered the complete havoc she wrought on my life, it was.
But fool me twice, shame on me, right?
She opens her mouth, as if she’s gonna argue. But then she sighs instead. She lifts a shoulder and flashes a weak smile. “Okay, Forty. It was good to see you.”
And then turns on her heels and disappears into the house, the screen door swinging shut behind her. My gut drops and for a second, my body mindlessly lurches forward, demanding that I take her back.
She’s gone too quick.
I’m left standing in the front walk, my brain spinning.
This is what I wanted, right? I don’t need to relive my worst choices. I was given a second chance when they pulled me from the wreckage of that chopper, and I’m not using that gift to take a walk down some misguided memory lane.
I force my feet to move toward my truck, drag my body into the driver’s seat.
I did what I came to do. She’s not going to cause a problem again.
And it feels like shit.