Not because I had to.
Not because I feared what would happen if I didn’t keep the place tidy.
But because I wanted to. Because I wanted to be helpful and useful and respectful to my best friend’s house—the one he’d let me crash in for two months now.
Had it truly been that long? It felt like yesterday that I’d come storming up Roman’s driveway, tears streaking down my cheeks, and fear crippling my heart.
I shook off the memory, hating the ice that chilled my skin whenever I thought about it. Or whenever the flashbacks would haunt me, usually in those quiet moments before falling asleep and send me running down the hall to climb into Roman’s bed.
They’d created hellish nightmares, too, and on more than one occasion, I’d woken Roman up screaming.
I kept telling him I’d sleep in the guestroom, but I’d failed to make it through the night. Plus, he’d told me the nightmares didn’t bother him, and that he liked knowing I was safe. Here.
Roman would never force me to stay in his bed or in the guestroom. He’d always let me choose. Choose to do whatever was best for me.
That’s probably why I’d stayed so long already.
Guilt sparked a bitter tang in my chest.
I’d been taking advantage of his generosity for so long now…I needed to get back to work. My inbox had a half-dozen commission requests already. I needed to get back to painting.
A cold chill swept down my spine, tightening my lungs. My supplies were at Rick’s. The absolute last place I wanted to go.
The old cigar box I’d found at a garage sale when I was ten—the one I’d hidden beneath about a dozen perfectly aligned shoe boxes in Rick’s guest room closet. Had Rick found it yet? What would he do when he did?
I swallowed a lump in my throat, my heart aching for the contents in that box.
Not the gold and diamonds and precious gems Rick had bought me throughout our relationship, but that box.
I hefted a basket full of clothes and walked back to the living room. “Thanks for keeping my spot warm,” I cooed to Walt, who shifted next to me as I settled back down.
We’d just kicked a field goal, putting us up by three. I folded the clothes with a military-like perfection, not daring to question why I needed to be so damn perfect.
An hour later, I clicked off the TV, happy that we’d won the last preseason game. I couldn’t wait for the next one where my boys would play. I hurried to put up the clothes, rumpling a few of my shirts in the drawer I’d claimed, just because I could. I needed to remind myself that if things weren’t perfect, I wouldn’t be punished.
The smell of Roman clung to everything in this room—his bedroom—and I couldn’t stop the onslaught of memories hitting me. Memories from our past, both good and bad. Like the time in sixth grade when Roman had found me behind the school, crying my eyes out because the boy I’d had a crush on had played a prank on me. Asked me to the dance only to throw it in my face that he’d never go with a short, chunky girl like me. His perfect, model-worthy girlfriend had showed up to get in on the teasing.
Roman had broken the boy’s nose.
Or the time I’d taken Roman to the lake not far from our joined houses after his first real breakup in college. We were sophomores, and he’d been with his girlfriend for a year. He’d finally opened up with her and told her the truth about how he’d been born with the inability to have children. She’d immediately broken up with him under the guise that she absolutely wanted children someday and what was the point of staying with someone who couldn’t give her that?
It effectively crushed his heart. I’d stolen a cheap bottle of whiskey from my parent’s liquor cabinet and driven him to the lake—a constant throughout our childhood. A secluded place that we felt belonged to solely us. Maybe it was because it was free—a vacation we could take from our normal day-to-day without spending anything more than the gas it took to get there and the snacks we’d bring along the way.
We’d sat on the bank, the night sky clear above us, each taking pulls from the bottle until the sting in his heart had waned. I remembered the way his body felt leaning against mine, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, as we sat there talking about everything and nothing. As I did everything in my power to make him forget the monster who’d broken his heart. As I did everything in my power not to admit how I’d started feeling about him, about my best friend.