Stroked long, p.27
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       STROKED LONG, p.27

           Meghan Quinn
 

  I’m confused.

  Glancing away from my phone, I look out into the wide Atlantic Ocean. The water is not something I feel like dipping my toes in after all the reports I’ve heard on the news depicting how unsanitary it is. But still, it’s pretty to look at. Thankfully, there are no floating body parts in my view. A part of me wants to believe that the media was stirring the pot. I mean, really, would the International Olympic Committee really allow their athletes to swim in body-part-infested waters? I don’t think so.

  I will say one thing about Rio, the locals are not afraid to show skin. And what nice skin they have, all bronze and beautiful, compared to my fair white hue. I’m a total tourist. That and the fact that I’m actually covering up my girl bits. I didn’t receive the memo on the thong two-piece bathing suits.

  Would Bodi want me to wear one of those? Would he think it’s sexy or would he want me to cover up?

  I think he would be quite pleased in the bedroom if I wore something like that, but out in public there would most likely be some kind of animalistic, predatory kind of attitude he would take on. At least that’s what my little in-love heart would want.

  I’m in love.

  I’m in love with a man who struggles with his emotions, who’s shut every door on his soul, leaving the tiniest windows open for me to climb through. He’s a beautiful man, with an even more beautiful heart but doesn’t seem to see that, which terrifies me. If he can’t see the kind of man he really is, then will he be able to identify the feelings he has for me? Will he be able to reciprocate the all-consuming obsession I have with his loving soul?

  My guess . . . no.

  But, that’s not going to stop me from showing him, from helping him open his eyes to a world he’s been hiding from. One smile at a time, that’s all I need. One smile equals progress.

  “Ruby!” I turn around to see Bodi jogging to me in a pair of navy blue athletic manpris cinched below his knees, a white T-shirt, and a Team USA hat. He’s wearing flip-flops, which I’ve never seen before, but what I can’t get over are his manpris. What man can pull off such a pant? Uh, Bodi-freaking-Banks can. Why does he have to be so damn gorgeous? It’s almost unfair.

  “Bodi!” I say cheerfully, standing to give him a hug. I go to wrap my arms around him when he grips my shoulders and looks me in the eyes, sheer panic running through them.

  “Are you okay?” His breathing is extremely labored and there is sweat trickling down the side of his face.

  “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

  He swallows hard and steps back, gripping both sides of his bill, he squats down and from my view, I can see the muscles in his back tense with each breath.

  I’ve seen this Bodi. This is the same Bodi I witnessed in Target. He’s on the verge of a panic attack and I have no idea why.

  Gently squatting next to him, I place my hand on his back and speak softly, like the time I watched Eva do so in the coffee house a while back.

  “Bodi, everything is okay. Just breathe.”

  “Don’t,” he says in a clipped tone. “Just sit on the bench.”

  “Bodi, let me help you.”

  “Help me by not hanging out in a foreign city by yourself where anything could happen.” He stands quickly, knocking me over so my butt is planted in the sand. The minute he sees me on the ground, his face pales as he quickly squats in front of me. “Fuck, I’m sorry, Rubes.”

  “It’s okay. Caught me off balance.” I try to laugh it off, making light of the situation.

  He helps me up and then steps away, gripping the back of his neck and looking at the ground. “Fuck,” he mutters to himself, his breathing still a little erratic.

  I want to help him, I want to ease the tension coiling inside of him, and I want to make him smile again.

  Stepping closer despite what he asked me to do, I wrap my arms around him and snake one of my hands under his shirt so I’m touching his bare skin. I rest my head on his chest and hold on to him tight. We stand there for a few seconds, him stiff as a board, until he finally gives in to my embrace.

  His cheek rests on the top of my head and his arms pull me in close. This was the kind of welcome I was looking forward to, lost in his arms.

  “I missed you so much,” I say, pulling away to look up at him, continuing to rub his back with my fingers in a soothing motion. With each pass, I can feel him let go of his rigidity just a little more.

  From my confession, his eyes squeeze tight before he opens them back up, giving me a beautiful view of his deep blue eyes. Shadows lurk in them and I wonder if he will ever tell me about his childhood, about what happened in his past that made him the man he is today.

  “Please don’t do that.” His voice strains while he talks.

  “Do what?”

  “Walk around here by yourself. It’s dangerous, Ruby. This is the perfect time for locals to take advantage of tourists. I couldn’t stand the thought of something fucking happening to you.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say honestly. “I just thought if I met you outside and not in the hotel, no one would see us together.”

  “I don’t fucking care if people see us together.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah, why would I? If anything, I would be happy for someone to catch us together so they can see how fucking lucky I am.” He pauses and brings my head to his chest by pressing against the back of my head. “Jesus, Rubes. You scared me so fucking bad. I can’t have anything happen to you. Promise me you won’t walk around alone. Promise me.”

  “I promise,” I say quickly, wanting to erase his panic. “I’m sorry, Bodi. I had no idea. I won’t do it again.”

  “Thank you.” He exhales and kisses the top of my head. “Just don’t do it again,” he repeats one more time.

  “I won’t.”

  As we stand there, tourists and locals bustling around us with their beach gear, I listen to Bodi’s heartbeat slow down, returning to a normal beat. I ache. Knowing I caused him such panic, especially now when he needs nothing more than to relax, I feel awful.

  “I didn’t mean to upset you, Bodi. Can we start over? This wasn’t how I wanted to see you after being apart for so long.”

  “Yeah, give me a second,” he says, gripping me a little tighter, his face buried in my hair, as if he’s trying to fully soak me in.

  Everything about his hold is loving, protective, consuming, a feeling I don’t want to lose . . . ever.

  “Okay,” he breathes out and then takes a step back. He adjusts his hat and gently smiles at me. With the corners of his lips twitching up, he says, “Hey, Rubes. I fucking missed you, baby.”

  I can’t help it, I grin widely. “I missed you too, handsome.”

  Both his hands grip my cheeks and bring my lips to his. The minute our mouths connect, I melt into his body, using him for support as my entire body tingles with delight and satisfaction. This strong, yet damaged, man missed me. It’s a sentiment that will never get old for me. I hope he feels the same way.

  When he pulls away, a small part of me feels empty as if our bodies are connected intimately, and I’m whole. With one hand gripping my cheek, he glides the other down my arm until our palms are touching and our fingers link together. He leans forward one more time, kissing me lightly, just enough to leave me wanting more.

  The warm smile on his face is endearing, addicting. I did that, I put that there. It will never get old.

  “What do you want to do?” he asks, his eyes full of happiness.

  “I want to walk the beach. Are you hungry at all?”

  “No, I had a protein bar.”

  “Of course you did.” I laugh. “Was it wrapped in kale?”

  “It was, actually.”

  I stop our slow pace through the sand. “Ew, really?”

  “No.” He laughs, a deep rumble coming up from his chest. Sweet heaves, he’s so damn sexy.

  “You know I would believe you if you said something like that, right? I wouldn’t put it past you to wrap something l
ike a protein bar in a kale leaf. I bet you keep kale stalks in your backpack and pull one out to gnaw on when you’re bored.”

  “Nah, they would wilt in my backpack.”

  I roll my eyes but lean in closer, taking in his fresh scent. “Congrats on advancing today. Are you excited?”

  “I am,” he sighs, gripping harder on my hand. “I kind of wish we just had finals and didn’t have to go through all the pre-races. I get why we do it, but it gets tiring. I just want to race for the win.”

  “Makes sense. I got tired just looking at the schedule. I don’t know how you do it.”

  Looking down at me, he winks and says, “Kale.”

  “Smart ass.” I pinch his side, well attempt to pinch it but thanks to his dedication to eating shrubs, there is nothing there to pinch. “Ugh, you’re so fit.”

  “Is that a problem?” His eyebrows shoot up.

  “Nooo,” I drag out. “It’s just annoying. Here I am, stuffing my face with the Oreo bar you gave me, and I can’t find skin on your body to pinch. Do you ever want to flick my love handles to see them jiggle?”

  He stops walking and turns to me. Fierce anger is in his eyes. Note to self: don’t ever talk about flicking giggly love handles ever again.

  “Don’t fucking do that. Don’t devalue yourself in front of me, Ruby. I will not stand for it. You’re beautiful, gorgeous in fact. When I see you, I lose my breath temporarily. You make me fucking weak in the knees, Ruby. You’re everything I could ever ask for in a woman, from your big brown eyes that warm me with one look, to your sexy curves I grab on to when I fuck you senseless, to your warm embrace I crave every night. You’re fucking perfect. Got it?”

  I gulp, tamping down the sting in my eyes and the lump in my throat.

  I’ve had a few boyfriends in my lifetime, some good, some real losers, but none of them have ever spoken to me like Bodi; none of them looked at me as if I’m the sole reason they’re breathing like Bodi does. It almost seems like I’m his air, and when I’m around, he thrives.

  Lifting my chin with his index and middle fingers, he makes me look him in the eyes, his soulful blue eyes. “Got it, Ruby?” he repeats.

  I nod, feeling so incredibly cherished. “Got it.”

  “Good.”

  He observes where we are standing and guides me to a vacant spot where he sits on the sand and pulls me down with him, resting me between his propped-up legs. My back leans against his chest and he rests his chin on my shoulder while his arms wrap tightly around me, encasing me in a Bodi cocoon.

  “This is my first relationship,” he confesses, after a long time of silence. “I never felt the need to be with someone until you came along. You changed everything I ever thought I could have and it terrifies me.” He kisses my temple and then continues. “I’m a very routine-driven man, Rubes. I don’t adjust well to change. You’re the first person I’ve ever made accommodations for. You’re the first person to pull me out from under the dark shadows I’ve been living in. I don’t know how you do it, but you make me want more.”

  Oh God, my heart is beating out of control, and I don’t think I can breathe. The emotions skyrocketing through me are almost too much. This man is going to break me. He’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of and yet, he is very much a broken man, a man who needs me to guide him.

  I want to tell him, it’s on the tip of my tongue, I want to express how much I cherish what we have, what we share, how he makes me feel every second of every day. He deserves to know, but what if . . .?

  What if he’s unable to reach into his soul and find the same feelings for me?

  He kisses the side of my ear and presses his lips close enough that I feel the heat of his mouth on my neck. I hold my breath. Is he going to say those three little words?

  The air stands still, people around us disappear, and I wait for him to say it. It seems so right, the timing, the sentiment, the atmosphere. This would be the absolute perfect time for him to tell me how he truly feels.

  I feel him take a breath and I prepare myself for those three little words.

  I love you.

  But they never come. They hang in the air, never falling to my ears. Will I ever hear them? Will he ever love me the way I love him? Is he capable of such an emotion?

  Leaning against him, being captured in his embrace, I know he is capable of such emotions. I know, deep in my bones that this man can easily hand over his heart. He just has to be brave enough to do so.

  ***

  “How much longer do I have to sit here? My hair is wilting. Melon, do something about it,” Bellini snaps at Melony who glances at the production assistant and receives a wave off.

  Jasper, the wrangler of Bellini, says, “You have all day since the races are constant. Get comfortable, Bellini, you’re here for the long haul.”

  “Can someone get me a drink then?” she whines. Again.

  “You’re going to have to wait,” Jasper responds, his voice bordering on malicious intent for the woman. “When you get rid of your assistant, you have no choice but to wait for things.”

  “I didn’t get rid of her, she left on her own accord,” Bellini says, examining her nails.

  Yesterday we watched some swim heats and when Melony and I went back to the hotel, Paisley stayed behind. When she got back, her bags were packed and she was headed for the airport. We weren’t even able to ask her what was wrong or where she was going. Melony tried to call and text her multiple times but Paisley didn’t answer. To say we were concerned was an understatement.

  Melony is convinced Bellini did something but we can’t quite put our finger on it.

  “He’s not even racing now. Why do I have to be here? Can’t we ask them to move up the race?”

  “Yeah, let me go ask the International Olympic Committee to move up Reese’s heat so you can leave because your hair is wilting,” Jasper deadpans. “Suck it up, Bellini, and shut the fuck up.”

  The most obnoxious and over-the-top gasp comes out of the wench as her hands go to her chest. “How dare you . . .?”

  Jasper turns in his chair so fast, I’m surprised he doesn’t get whiplash. His eyes scream murder and the tension in his jaw makes me want to wilt just like Bellini’s hair. He looks positively demonic. I cringe, in preparation for the tongue lashing Bellini is about to get.

  “Bellini, I will shut down production right now. I don’t give a fuck about ratings. You used your last life by getting rid of Paisley. Now I’m down one exceptional employee and have to put up with your bullshit. You either pipe down, suck. it. up, and do what you’re supposed to do, or I’ll call Wally Rose right now and end this show.”

  “You can’t do that,” Bellini says meekly. Melony glances at me and we exchange what the fuck looks. Bellini doesn’t ever cower, but under Jasper’s glare she seems to be shriveling. Besides seeing Bodi swim today, this is one of the best things I will ever witness.

  “Don’t fucking test me,” Jasper grits out between his teeth. As he turns around, he flings his hand in the air and says, “If you’re thirsty, get your own goddamn water.”

  Bellini goes to open her mouth but Jasper stops her before she can say anything. “And don’t bother asking Melony or Ruby, they are not here to be at your beck and call. The only reason I’m letting you trail Ruby around, on our dime, is because we have some money invested in your godforsaken religious wear for dogs.”

  Production is paying for me to be here? Well, that’s interesting.

  Jasper turns to me and smiles. “Bet you didn’t know that, did you?” I shake my head, no, not really sure how to respond. He pats my knee and kindly says, “If she gives you shit, you come to me. Her bitch days are coming to an end.”

  “Are you calling me a bitch?” Bellini asks as she grips onto the sleeves of her sweater set draped over her shoulders.

  “Uh, yeah. You’re a bitch, Bellini. Now, let’s all sit here and enjoy the rest of the games, shall we?” Jasper sits straight and plugs away on his iPad as if he didn’t just
put Bellini in her place.

  She starts sniffling, but we all ignore her. No one cares, even though she so obviously wants people to.

  I’m too busy focusing on the pool deck below. The swimming schedule is a bit of an erratic one. In my opinion, I would think they would do all the heats, then all the semi-finals, and then the finals, but that’s not the case. They have heats, semi-finals, and finals all mixed in together, so if you’re not paying attention, you could miss a medal race. According to my schedule, Bodi’s first final is next.

  Not caring what people think, I take off my light sweater and straighten out my Bodi Face shirt. Melony peeks over and scans it. She gives me a knowing smile. I shrug and turn my attention back to the pool.

  I’ve only watched Bodi swim at practice, so competition racing is something entirely new for me. It’s addicting.

  Watching the swimmers parade out of the locker room in their tracksuits sends chills up my spine. It almost seems like they are boxers, getting ready for a fight against water. I love every moment of it.

  Bodi is the fifth swimmer to come out of the locker room and from the mere sight of him, my heart starts beating rapidly, my palms begin to sweat, and I feel a faint sense of wanting to pass out. He’s wearing his swim cap, and he’s decorated in navy blue warm-ups with USA embroidered on the back. Standing tall among the competition, he looks like a force to be reckoned with.

  Staring ahead, he doesn’t look around the stadium, doesn’t bother to look for me or his sister and Lauren, doesn’t even bother to scope out the competition. All he’s focused on is the calm water before him that will soon be disturbed.

  Shaking out his limbs, he shucks his warm-ups as the announcer starts going down the lineup, announcing every swimmer’s name and the country they represent. There is a respectful amount of cheers for each swimmer, but when they get to Bodi, the place erupts and I wonder how that’s possible since we aren’t on U.S. soil. It doesn’t matter, I join in with them and so does Melony. Bellini, she’s slouched in her chair, hands in her sweater sleeves covering her ears. She looks miserable.

  Good.

  Turning to me, Melony grips my hand and winks. She so knows . . .

 
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