I wished I smoked. Or drank heavily. Or at least bit my nails. Something to get out this nervous energy that was bundled inside of me. All I could think about was how to get it out, how to not spontaneously combust with anxiety.
I had no reason to be anxious, but I always had been. I lived a charmed life, with wealthy, WASPy parents, I was mildly intelligent and fairly attractive as far as 20-something blonde girls went. The only time I had ever been in trouble in my life was with my friend Rowena, and incidentally, Rowena had gotten me into the situation I was in now.
I met Rowena in college. She was determined to go to school as far away from home as possible, and short of going overseas, a liberal arts college in Vermont was pretty different from her conservative Texas home. We were roommates sophomore year, and bonded over the fact that most of the girls in our dorm didn't like to take showers, protested everything from public breastfeeding to saving rainforests, and ate vegan-gluten free organic yuck. That wasn't Rowe--she liked to get pedicures with me, and scarf down copious amounts of junk food, and spend most of our time not studying and instead watching shitty TV shows on Netflix. We were soulmates.
The only difference between us was that Rowe had a bit of a wild streak, literally, and we got busted once for streaking. I still had panties on--Rowe was total commando. The police took pity on us and gave us T-shirts while we called mom and dad and begged for bail money. But that didn't stop Rowe from getting in trouble again and again--MIPs, public intoxication, armed robbery (that one was a mistake, thank God).
I got out all my angsty-teenageness with Rowena at Middlebury. Then, when we both graduated with useless degrees, my dad graciously gave us jobs at his real estate firm in Chicago so we could continue our high-jinx in an apartment in Wicker Park. Those escapades were mainly kept to casual sex with near strangers and the occasional loud party. Then Rowena met the man of her dreams, and he was from, if you can believe it, North Texas. So, at twenty-five years old, Rowe packed up all she had, we hugged and cried, and she headed south to start her life with Kiernan.
Now, it was two years later, and Rowena and I were still best friends, even one thousand miles from one another. And she needed a favor. And it was a big favor.
Kiernan was a rancher (how cute is that?!) and the family ranch was a busy place that didn't allow for vacations. And though she needed time off, she and Kiernan couldn't do it right now, and they couldn't put it off--because her brother Beckett was getting out of prison and needed a ride home.
That's right. My best friend's brother was in prison, up in South Dakota and needed a ride home to Texas. So...that was what I was doing, sitting outside Yankton Prison waiting for Beckett Carlisle to get released from a two year stint.
I loved my bestie, I trusted her, and if she needed me to pick up her brother and drive him across several states, I was going to do it. I still felt like I was going to literally explode into an anxious ball of fire at any given moment though.
I had gotten there early, probably because if I didn't go to the prison after a night in a crappy motel in Iowa, I may not have gone. I may have chickened out and driven back to my place in the South Loop. I had left mine and Rowe's den of sin in Wicker Park when she did and not looked back. But I didn't. And now, I was sitting in my Infiniti Q60, with Robin Thicke on the stereo, bouncing my knee with a fury.
I heard the large metal fencing open with a creak and my head swung toward the front of the prison. The dismal gray gate moved painfully slowly, and when it finally was all the way open, I saw two bodies come down the pathway to the parking lot. I was parked in a spot right on the sidewalk, and opened up my door with shaking hands and stood up, looking over the hood of my car.
I had never met Rowena's brother, but I had seen pictures of him. A lot of pictures, from the time he was born all the way up until adulthood. Beckett was dark blond, very good-looking and smiling in every picture. He was not smiling now, but he was still very good-looking.
There was a guard to his left and as I walked around the car to stand on the sidewalk, the guard's eyes traveled down my body and back up again.
"Not bad, Beck. You rent her and the car for the weekend, or is this one yours?" the guard asked with a smirk.
Beck didn't respond. He had a worn baseball cap in his hand, he put it on his head backwards, took the envelope the guard was holding and walked to the car without a word.
"See he stays outta trouble, blondie. At least until you get to the state line." The guard chuckled at his dumb joke and turned on his heel.
Beckett was folding himself into my car, his shoulders broad and his legs long, and moving the seat all the way back. I kind of wished I had taken my dad's SUV for this trip. But the coupe was fast, and I assumed Beckett would want to get away from Yankton and back home lickety-split. So I opted for speed.
I walked around the car, got into the driver's seat pulling my door closed and put on my seatbelt. I didn't start the car. I just wrung my hands on the steering wheel, grasping in my head for something to say to the felon I had never met seated next to me.
"We can go, honey. I'm not lookin' to spend any more time here," he said. His voice was low and rumbly, and I liked it instantly. He still had a southern twang to it, one that Rowena fought long and hard to rid herself of, but that I heard more and more in our phone calls recently.
"Oh, um, okay." I said, starting up the car, looking in both mirrors, then pulling away cautiously and slowly.
I pulled out of the parking lot, turned left and headed down the road, chewing my lip and trying to think of something say.
"Are you hungry?" is all I could come up with.
"I'm good," he said, his eyes out the window.
Hmm. I spent another three minutes driving before I said anything else. "I'm kind of hungry" was what I managed.
I glanced at him as a slow grin crossed his face. "Then we should probably get you something to eat."
"Unless you don't want to stop yet," I added.
"I'm good," he repeated.
I didn't know what that meant, but I assumed it meant we were okay to eat. So, when we got to the small town just outside the prison area, I pulled into a diner that said ‘breakfast all day' on the sign. It was after two but I wanted pancakes. They were my comfort food and I was very uncomfortable. So, I was going to order thirty-eight slabs of pancakes.
Once out of the car, Beckett walked behind me, pulling open the door for the diner and laying a hand on my back. I jumped instinctively, then felt badly about it, because he dropped his hand like it was on fire.
It wasn't really the felon thing. Well, it was sort of the felon thing. But I'd had a bad boyfriend recently and he had made me jumpy. The guy was the bat-shit crazy type, and I got out fast, but he was still calling. And he was still borderline stalking. And it had made me nervous.
When we settled into a booth, I confessed this as a pathetic explanation.
"It's not you," I said, after the waitress handed us our menus and went to get our drinks.
Beckett looked at me.
"I had a shitty boyfriend. Every girl has a shitty boyfriend once in her life right? Well, I just had mine and he was super shitty and freaked me out. So, it's not you. It's him."
He just continued looking at me.
"I just didn't want you to think that it's you. Cause it's not." He was still staring, so I just stopped talking.
I looked over the menu, even though I knew what I was going to order basically, so I didn't stare at him, and think: wow, his eyes are a really, really pretty green. Because I had already thought that like a dozen times since I had picked him up. And how strong his hands looked. And how the sinewy muscles in his forearms flexed without him even knowing it. And how attractive his profile is. And how his light brown hair was just a little bit longer on the top than on the sides. And...yeah. Okay. Menu time.
Typical diner fare at low prices, when the waitress returned I ordered my pancakes, Beckett ordered a burger, fries and onion rings and we sat silently waiting for our food. It got uncomfortable. I fidgeted, and looked around, and bounced my knee some more. I didn't know what to fill the silence with so I didn't. And neither did he. It was after we ate, when we were sitting there and I was digging out money from my bag before he spoke.
"I have cash," he said, pulling out some bills from his pocket.
I had no idea how someone who just got out of prison had cash, but I figured we could split it.
"Oh, okay." I looked at the bill. "Your half is like eleven dollars. Plus tip," I said.
"I got it," he said, tossing me a twenty dollar bill.
"I don't have change," I said, picking up the bill.
"I got it," he repeated, throwing a ten down for a tip, I guessed.
"I can get it," I said, looking at him as he stood up.
"Be back," he said, and walked away.
Okay, well. That was that, I suppose.
I went to the register, snagged a cream soda flavored sucker from the bowl on the counter and handed the girl my cash.
"Your boyfriend's a total hottie," the girl at the counter said.
My eyes went to her. She was about eighteen, at most, and had that kind of desperate get-me-out-of-this-one-horse-town look to her. Her hair was underscored with blue dye and she was wearing four different colors of eyeshadow under thick brows, but it seemed to work for her.
"We get a lot of the crusties from the prison in here, and I don't think you're locals based on that flashy car you have, so I imagine your boyfriend is loaded and hot and you're just passing through to somewhere better. So, call me jealous." She continued, "I mean, he's like movie star handsome. I bet he's good in bed. A girl can figure that out just by looking sometimes, and I think he is. He's probably got a huge dick, too. Tight jeans, I can tell. So, he's huge and a talent in the sack. Am I right?"
She was way too young and way too forward to have this conversation with. I was going to extract the sucker from my mouth and explain that she was too young and too forward, but I felt Beckett at my back and turned to look at him.
"Ready?" he asked. He had a sly grin on his face that told me he had heard her every word, and was highly amused.
And I figured he probably hadn't been very amused the last two years so I went along with it.
"Ready, babe." I grinned back. I turned to the girl. "You're absolutely right," I told her in a loud stage whisper with my hand beside my mouth, sliding the change into my bag and turning to go.
"Lucky bitch," I heard her mutter and I stifled a laugh. Beckett didn't manage that, and laughed right out loud.
He was still chuckling when we got to the car.
"You should probably drive, since she thinks you're God's gift in tight jeans," I said, tossing him the keys.
He threw his head back and laughed, sliding into the driver's seat.
He adjusted the mirrors, steering wheel, found a song he liked on the XM radio and peeled away from the diner. He had no trouble with a manual transmission, and I almost warned a recently released prisoner against speeding on the freeway, but he seemed to be content and again, I doubted he had that the last two years, so I let it go.
The ride was quiet, it was calm, and the silence went from awkward to amiable. Then it started to get dark and we weren't even out of Nebraska. Which meant a hotel. Which obviously made me nervous again.
I knew this would happen. We couldn't drive it all in one day. But then I was thinking about what the girl at the restaurant said, and my weird outburst about Trent, my ex, before we ate, and the fact that neither of us had said a word for like four hours. We had stopped for gas and bathroom breaks, but we didn't even talk then. He just paid for the gas, pumped it, and got back in.
So I took a deep breath, ready to say something, when he put on his blinker to exit the freeway at Grand Island.
"Um--" I started.
"Need a hotel for the night," he said.
Okay, good. We were on the same page.
"And--" I started.
"Dinner," he finished.
He was right again. Okay. This wasn't so bad. Then we got to the Fairfield Inn and the desk girl, who was drooling over Beckett while finding us a room, booked us just one. With a king size bed. One bed.
"Um, we need two rooms," I said quietly.
She shot daggers at me in response, apparently interrupting her obsession with my companion. She clicked away for a minute on her computer and handed us two keys for the same room.
"Two queens. Room 318. Great view," she said, batting her eyelashes at Beckett. "I mean, of the parking lot. And I'm done at nine. So you don't have to stay in the same room."
Holy shit. She was propositioning him right in front of me. What a tramp! I frowned but she didn't seem to care. So, not only was she not good at her job, totally ignoring my request for two rooms, but she also was hitting on the dude I was now staying in the same room with and giving him an offer to not stay there. Clever little hussy, that one.
I decided I wasn't crazy about girls from the Great Plains. Two states now and both the girls we had encountered were kind of slutty and definitely not shy about expressing their unheeded desires for the man I was accompanying. They didn't know he was fresh out of the penitentiary. They didn't know I had never met him before. But they could at least pretend to have some tact.
Beckett didn't respond to her proposal. He just took one key, handed me one, and headed for the elevator, carrying my bags.
"Do you have--um, clothes? For the night? Tomorrow?" I asked as the elevator dinged open. I knew he didn't. I had picked him up and all he had was an envelope.
"No. I'll take care of it after dinner," he said.
Okay, he had this all worked out. And he paid for the room in cash, and he had a lot of it, so I wasn't worried about that. And his insistence on paying for everything made me reluctant to press about two rooms.
But now that we were in a small space, and we would be there overnight, I realized I probably should've pressed. I didn't know this guy. Maybe he went to prison for rape and murder. Though probably not since he was there less than two years and Rowena most likely wouldn't have sent me on a multi-state road trip with a guy who raped and killed people.
I stood in the center of the room, chewing my bottom lip and staring at the two beds that were like three feet from each other in the two-hundred square feet that comprised the entire space.
"Malicious destruction of property," he said.
I blinked at him.
He grinned. "Malicious destruction of property. Two years. Seventeen months in."
"Oh," I said. How did he keep knowing exactly what I was thinking?
"Federal building, federal prison."
I nodded, as if I had any idea what he meant.
He grinned wider. Wow, did he have a great smile. Sexy, wide, it transformed his entire face from hot to blazing. He needed to do that more.
"Your sister got me arrested three times in college. So, it's probably the Carlisle genes," I said.
"Could be." He smiled. "Steak?"
"Okay, I just need to freshen up, lots of hours in the car you know--" I said, glancing at the bathroom.
"Meet you downstairs. Take whatever time you need," he said, and headed out.
That was polite. I did the bathroom thing, splashed some water on my face and even changed my shirt. I left my jeans on because changing them would've seemed like a lot of effort and I didn't want him to think I was making a move on him like every other girl he had encountered since this morning. Though I did pick a shirt that showed some skin. Whatever, I'm a girl. I'm allowed to be contradictory.
He was sitting at the lobby bar, sipping a beer. I wondered if he was allowed to drink, being recently paroled, but I didn't ask.
"Hi," I said, walking up to him.
He looked over at me and smiled, swallowing. "Hi."
"I see that. You want a drink?" He tilted his beer toward me and I scrunched up my nose.
He chuckled. "I'm guessing that's no." He stood up, slugged back the rest of the bottle and threw a ten on the bar.
He motioned for me to go ahead of him, and I did.
"There's a good place up the road. Desk girl told me about it," he said, nodding his head toward where she was waving her fingers at him.
"I bet she did," I mumbled and he laughed.
"Small town girls like tattoos I've found." He held the door open for me and I looked at him.
He did have tattoos. I didn't even notice. They were just above his elbow on both arms and disappeared under his T-shirt. Huh.
He smirked at me. "Big city girls don't even notice tattoos I've found. Recently."
I laughed. "I didn't. I mean, I guess I did. Maybe not. I don't know."
He chuckled. "It's okay. You only met me five hours ago."
"Rowe talked about you a lot. I mean, she did when we were in college. Then she met Kiernan and everyone else in the universe ceased to exist," I said, as he opened my car door. The passenger side I noted. He wasn't giving up control of my vehicle.
"All girls do that," he said.
"It's a weakness of our species," I said, climbing in and he laughed.
He got in and pulled out onto the main road. The restaurant wasn't far, and it made me wonder if desk girl was going to hightail it over here during her break to buy him a drink or offer to blow him in the parking lot or something.
He opened my doors, pulled out my chair and waited for me to order.
And when that was all done, and we both had drinks in front of us, he started talking. Well, asking questions.
What did I do for a living? I was employed at my dad's office doing tedious filing work and booking his appointments. Where did I live? In a pretty cool townhouse in the South Loop area of Chicago, near where I grew up. Any siblings? I have one older brother Clay who also worked with my dad. But my dad's company was like a multi corporation conglomerate so it wasn't like our desks faced each other. We were actually on separate floors. Any pets?
I blinked at him. "Do I have any pets?" I repeated.
"Yeah," he replied, forking a piece of steak.
"Did you download a list of questions to ask a complete stranger on a road trip or something?" I asked.
He barked out a laugh. "No."
"No, I don't have any pets. I had a goldfish but he died. His name was Alexander the Great. He wasn't."
He grinned at me.
"Do you have any pets?" I asked in return.
He raised an eyebrow at me and I blushed. "Uh, yeah. Never mind."
He continued with questions. It was agreeable, and felt an awful lot like a first date, which freaked me out. But not in an unpleasant way. Which freaked me out more.
After dinner, he announced he was going to Target to get some things. He asked if I wanted to go back to the hotel.
I stared at him. "No girl says no to Target. Ever."
He chuckled. "All right."
Then we walked around Target. I helped him pick out jeans, which I'll admit I thought would look really good on him. Then I thought with all the single ladies tossing their panties at him on this sojourn, maybe I should have him buy something frumpy. I didn't.
He got a stack of T-shirts, underwear, socks--all utilitarian and similar. I figured this was a byproduct of two years in jail, but I didn't say so out loud.
I even picked him out a pair of shoes that he didn't seem remotely excited about but bought them most likely because I liked them. I tossed my usual shopping essentials of useless crap and snacks in the cart and when we got to the register, I flipped through a magazine while she was cashing us out.
"Oh, this is separate," I told her, grabbing the small bar to put between our stuff on the belt.
"No, it's not," he said, taking the bar from me and putting it back.
I looked at him. "You're not buying my hand lotion. And Twizzlers. And that bulldog candy jar."
"Yeah, I am," he replied.
"It's okay, Beckett. You don't have to pay for everything."
"I know that, Aurora."
I looked at him. "No one calls me Aurora."
He stared at me.
"Everyone calls me Rory," I went on.
He continued staring at me.
"I get paying for the gas, but this isn't like road trip fare. It's just crap I don't need." I glanced at the checkout girl. "No offense."
She was watching our scene with vested interest.
"I don't care," he said, taking out his wad of cash.
"Really, Beckett, I got it."
"Really, Aurora, I'm not arguing about this," he said, and he sounded serious. He hadn't sounded serious like that before, so I dropped it.
I stood there and chewed my lip, glancing at my buzzing phone for the sixth time since dinner. It was Trent, again. He just kept calling. I could block his number, but I figured I may need the number of calls on my log as evidence when he strangled me and cut up my body in a bathtub.
Then I grabbed a tube of Burt's bees lip balm and tossed that on the pile.
He glanced at me.
"Might as well live it up if you're buying, sugar daddy," I said.
He laughed loudly.
The cashier smiled at us. "You two are cute. You remind me of my parents."
I exchanged a look with Beckett that communicated that I did not enjoy being compared to an eighteen year old girl's forty year old parents, but he was just smirking that sexy smile. It was disarming how attractive it made him. He had a chiseled, manly look about him, and from what I remember about the pictures Rowena had, this was a new look. He hadn't always looked so built and so stern in his teenage years. But it worked for him, really well.
After we had our goodies loaded in the car, Beckett opened my door again and I stopped and looked at him. "Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome." He grinned.
"But you're done buying me stuff. From here on out, it's on me. I get to see my bestie for the first time in a year and picking you up wasn't a big deal. I feel like you're doing all this because you think it's a massive inconvenience for me. It's not."
"I appreciate that, honey," he said in a sincere, low voice. "But you're not paying for shit."
And that was that. I didn't take out my wallet again. It was probably the way he said honey, for the second time to me, in a soft, deep drawl that made my insides quiver. That would be the logical explanation. Another would be that I could vividly see myself falling in love with Beckett Carlisle after twelve hours together and I had no idea why.
Back in the hotel, I did my bedtime routine of face washing, hair brushing and limb lotioning while Beckett laid on the bed in jeans and no T-shirt holy fuck I was right about the chiseled part, watching ESPN.
My phone buzzed twice more, the second time being Rowena.
"Hey Rowe!" I answered.
"Hey! How's my favorite person in the world?" she asked with a smile in her voice.
"Liar. That's Kiernan now," I said.
She laughed. "Just because he gave me three orgasms last night," she admitted in a low voice.
"Slut," I muttered and she laughed.
"How's my brother?" she asked. I had texted her when Beckett was safely in my sights, but we hadn't spoken since.
"He's good. He's right here. Want to talk to him?"
"He's right there? Rory--he's right there? It's eleven o'clock! Are you in a hotel room with my brother? Oh my god!"
"Calm down, Rowe. The desk girl had an IQ of twelve and gave us one room. There's two beds. We're fully clothed, I promise." Minor lie. "Here, hold on." I held out the phone for Beckett and he glanced over at me. "It's Rowena," I said.
He gave me a smirk that told me he already knew that, got the phone from my hand and took it. "Hey."
She talked a lot. He talked very little. The call lasted about five minutes and he said about a dozen words. But I know it made Rowena feel better. Because I knew my friend, she loved her brother, and wanted him safe.
He handed the phone back to me and I heard her sigh. "He sounds good," she said, choking up.
"He looks good," I said.
Beckett gave me that sexy, knowing smirk.
"I mean, you know, like, healthy?" I tried to backpedal, which made Beckett laugh as he settled back on the bed. "The desk girl propositioned him for some nookie tonight."
"Is he going?" Rowena breathed.
"I don't know," I replied.
"No," Beckett answered for us.
"Apparently, not," I told Rowena.
"Good. Girls ain't nothing but bitches and trouble," Rowena misquoted. "You'll be here tomorrow?"
"I think so. Beckett is navigating. And driving. I'm trusting him to get us where we need to go when we need to get there," I said.
"You'll be here tomorrow. You bring the Infiniti?"
"Oh, I bet he loves that. Beckett loves fast cars. And fast women. So keep your panties on."
"I will. Geez, Rowe," I said.
"He's got charisma. I've seen it," Rowena said.
I had too, but I figured I'd keep that to myself in present company.
"Any word from Trent?" she added
"All the freaking time. Eight calls today. Ridiculous."
"He doesn't know where you are, right?" she asked.
"No way. But he knows I'm gone, because one of his voicemails said he was in the garage at my building and my car was gone."
"He's fucking crazy, Rory."
"I know that. Now." I chewed my lip. She was right. And Trent's voicemails were getting more threatening and weirder. And he sounded drunk every time. We had only dated for about two months, a total of seven dates. And we had sex twice. He seemed to think this was a clear indicator we were soulmates. I just thought it meant we were definitely not compatible. I told him that, he disagreed and kept at me about us being destined for one another. I kept disagreeing, and he kept at me. Then he came to my apartment. Then he came to my work. And he kept calling, calling, and calling. Texts, calls, texts, calls--he was wearing out my phone and my patience.
"You tell your dad and Clay?" she asked. My dad was a busy man, the CEO of a huge real estate firm that took up most of his time. My brother worked for him, which took up most of his time. They both liked to make sure I was making the right decisions, from the time I was born until now. They weren't what I would call affectionate, but if I was in trouble, they would help. And they had, mainly to keep it from being an inconvenience. For them.
"I did. Once Trent showed up at the office, and Clay had him tossed by security, they've been keeping tabs on it. But Trent is squirrelly. So he knows not to make a spectacle anymore. To just be a pest."
"He's more than a pest. Maybe we should call the police."
"I'm several states away and he has no idea where. I'm okay."
"Tell Beckett," she instructed.
I glanced at him. His eyes were on the TV. "No."
"I--it's fine, trust me, Rowe. Don't worry about me. Just worry about your baby cows, sheep, horses and chickens. And keep the home fires burning, because we will be there soon!" I said excitedly.
"I know!" she said, just as excited. "Love you, babe. See you soon." And she hung up.
I hung up and dropped the phone to my lap. It immediately rang and I silenced it, turning the ringer off.
Thinking about Trent made my head hurt. And my stomach. I was sick of him being in my life. He had been after me longer than we had dated, and it was wearing thin. But not for him, since my phone lit up with another call from him.
I looked up as Beckett slid the phone from my hand and answered. "Hey," he answered. A pause. "Yeah, man, you need to stop calling. Now."
I blinked up at him, with Beckett's eyes on me. He listened into the phone and then spoke. "You keep calling Aurora and I will call the police. She'll file a report, you'll go to jail, and your life will be fucked."
He was speaking from experience. This I knew.
"You pick up your phone and dial her again, you'll regret it. Move the fuck on." Beckett clicked off the call and slid my phone back into my open hand.
"Keep it silent, put it away. He calls again, we'll call the Chicago PD."
I blinked up at him. "Okay," I whispered.
"You tell me if he calls, all right?"
"Okay," I whispered again.
He nodded, went back to the bed and resumed his TV watching.
I climbed into bed and laid on my side, facing him. "Beckett?"
He looked over at me.
"You're a good man," I said quietly.
He stared at me a moment, then went back to the TV.
I was asleep not long after.