Stroked long, p.32
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       STROKED LONG, p.32

           Meghan Quinn
 

  Instead, I’m standing in uncomfortable heels, in a dress no one will truly appreciate on my form, with a glass full of champagne and very empty and hopeless feelings in my body.

  “Can I help you with anything?” one of the wait staff asks.

  “No, thank you. Just needed a breather. Looks like you guys have this covered. I’ll head back out.”

  Through the swinging door, I make my way into the crowd. Lola is talking to Eva and Lauren in the corner; she’s animated as she talks, and the excitement on her face is adorable. Rita, my boss at the club, is gushing over Reese King and Paisley who are standing together, hand in hand, next to Reese’s painting. Getting him to participate was huge. There is no doubt his painting alone will be able to fund a few children.

  And Paisley and Reese? Yeah, that was a surprise. They are actually perfect together. I wish I would have seen it sooner.

  Wanting to thank them for coming, as soon as Rita leaves to get a drink I make my way toward them. Paisley spots me immediately and opens her arms for a hug.

  “Ruby, you look stunning.”

  “Thank you. You look gorgeous yourself.”

  “I would have to agree,” Reese says, pulling Paisley to his side once we disengage. He holds his hand out to me and says, “Reese King.”

  “This is Ruby, Reese. She worked with Bodi on this whole event.”

  “You did a fantastic job. I can’t commend you enough.” He tilts his head to the side and then says, “Have we met before?” Visions of my grocery store mishap flash through my mind but I keep my lips sealed as I shake my head no. “Hmm, maybe you have a familiar face.”

  “Maybe.” I shrug.

  “Where’s Bodi?” he asks, looking around.

  Clearing my throat, I stare at my champagne and I’m about to say he couldn’t make it when Reese interrupts me.

  “Hey, man. I was just asking about you.”

  My stomach bottoms out and a tingle of nerves shoots rapidly through my body, turning my mouth dry and my palms sweaty. My body trembles, my legs become unsteady on the heels I’m barely standing on as I take in the man behind me.

  My breath catches in my throat and the urge to cry surfaces from the mere sight of Bodi in a well-tailored suit. A beard caresses the jaw I once ran my lips along, his once-clear denim eyes are hidden behind shadows rimmed by dark circles, and his hair doesn’t rest under a hat, it’s styled perfectly to the side, framing his handsome face. The suit he’s wearing spans across his broad chest, clinging to his biceps, and narrowing at his waistline. His slacks cling to his strong thighs and reach the top of his dress shoes. I’ve seen him in a swimsuit, but that little piece of material has nothing on the suit that stands before me.

  He’s so handsome.

  “Great event, man.” Reese shakes Bodi’s hand and then runs his fingers over his jaw. “Love the beard. You might give me a run for my money.”

  “Not possible,” Bodi says, his voice hitting me like a wave of pain.

  That. Voice.

  It washes over me, dragging along lust-filled memories, reminding me of the battered heart that sits right below my breastbone.

  “Thanks for coming. It means a lot.”

  “Anytime,” Reese says genuinely. “Have you met Paisley, my girlfriend?”

  Paisley holds out her hand, and I watch Bodi’s large hand take hers, sending a tinge of jealousy through me. How I wish that was my hand connecting with his.

  Giving Reese a confused look, he says, “Girlfriend?”

  Reese laughs and claps Bodi on the shoulder. “Long story, man. I’m having a barbeque next week; come by and I’ll tell you all about it.”

  “Sure,” Bodi says with no hint of promise.

  “I need another drink. What about you, baby?” The adoring look Reese gives Paisley cuts me in half one more time.

  “Yes, I plan on getting liquored up.”

  “Just the way I like you.” Reese winks and then turns to Bodi and me. “Please excuse us. Make sure these people pay for my painting. I don’t think you could get any more artistic than that.”

  “Pretty sure you can.” Paisley rolls her eyes and drags Reese to the bar, leaving Bodi and me alone.

  I lower my glass of champagne so he can’t see the trembling of my hands. Taking a deep breath, I lift my head to meet his eyes, and I’m hit with an overwhelming anguish. This beautiful man who owns every inch of me has no light in his eyes, no smile to his lips, and no excitement to be standing next to me. He looks at me as if I’m a stranger, someone he can barely stomach standing beside.

  What happened to us?

  “Place looks good, Ruby.”

  Ruby. Not Rubes, not even baby. Ruby. The use of my full name stings more than I thought it would.

  Holding back tears that threaten to make an appearance, I swallow my sorrow and say, “Thank you. Lola was a big help.”

  He nods and looks around. The most intense feeling of awkwardness is between us. I want nothing more than to wash it away, but I don’t know how. For once in my life, I’m at a loss on how to react, and my normal blabbering mouth seems to have vanished.

  I feel broken.

  He grips the back of his neck, a nervous tick of his and takes a step back, my heart lurching forward, begging him to stay and talk. “You look . . . beautiful.”

  That’s my undoing. One single tear rolls down my cheek and I quickly swipe it away, hoping he didn’t see it. But from the tortured look on his face, I know he did.

  “Thanks. You look very handsome.”

  Taking another step backward, he nods. He’s retreating and even though I want him to stay, I have nothing left in me to convince him otherwise. He doesn’t want me. He doesn’t want us. Nothing has changed, Ruby. Nothing has changed. You have nothing he wants or needs.

  Swiping under my eye again, I give him a small smile. “It was nice seeing you. I hope you’re well. Have a good night, Bodi.”

  Mustering all the bravado left in my body, I turn and walk away, leaving Bodi’s burning gaze on my back. I walk to the farthest corner of the gala and take deep breaths, trying to put on a good face, but it doesn’t work. Every emotion I’ve been bottling up the entire night takes over, and I lose it. Warm arms wrap around me and pull me into one of the Staff Only hallways.

  Paisley encases me in her embrace and holds my head to her shoulder as I cry. Her hand rubs my bare back, and she whispers soothing words into my ear.

  I don’t know how long we stand there, but before I know it, I can hear the MC announce the purchases made. I should be out there but there is no way in hell I can be seen now. I know that I look like a drowned raccoon. Although I truly don’t care what I look like. My heart is breaking. I didn’t think it had any more pieces left to break. Clearly I was wrong.

  I pull away and swipe at my eyes. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be.” Paisley hands me a napkin that is damp from her drink. “Melony told me about your relationship with Bodi. From the looks of it tonight, it doesn’t seem like things are going well.”

  “They’re not.” I sniff. “It’s over. I would prefer not to go over it right now. I need to get out of here.”

  “No problem. There is a back entrance here. Did you drive?”

  “No.” I shake my head, still wiping away at my tears. The napkin has been used but I continue to get the most out of it. “I didn’t know how much I would be drinking.”

  “I’ll wait with you until we can get you an Uber. Hang in there, sweetie.” Her arm wraps around my shoulder as she guides me out the back.

  Within ten minutes, a car pulls up next to the curb. Paisley gives me a big, warm hug and makes me promise to call her tomorrow. I give the driver my address and let my pain fall from my eyes the entire way home.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  BODI

  What the fuck am I doing?

  Why did I even show up?

  Because she was going to be here. I’m a masochist and needed to see her, to look her in the face
and see how she was.

  Fuck, she isn’t doing well. Especially after I made her cry . . . again.

  I’m a fucking asshole.

  The gala is a total success and not because of me but because of the woman who owns me. Despite our differences, she went on with planning and made sure everything we talked about was executed. Pictures of my mom were framed around the room, telling of her dedication to the club and to the arts.

  It was too fucking much.

  And then to see my Rubes . . . in that dress. Fucking tore me apart. That’s why I’m sitting on the curb outside the gala, my heart bleeding.

  Love should mend a soul, not rip it to shreds, but I guess that’s what someone like me deserves.

  “What are you doing out here?” Lauren sits next to me, her hand using my shoulder to balance.

  “Fresh air.”

  “Don’t bullshit me, Bodi.” Lauren always gets to the point.

  “I can’t be in there. Seeing her almost killed me. Talking to her damn near destroyed me.”

  “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why don’t you go love her, be with her, Bodi.”

  “It’s not that easy.”

  “It is.”

  “It isn’t,” I counter with a terse tone.

  “Really? Okay.” From the corner of my eye, I can see her gearing up to give me a lecture. “When I met your sister, she was just like you. Scared shitless to let go of the past and live in the present. She spent a lot of energy trying to prove to me why being with her would be wrong. I countered that energy with my own, showing her how right we would be together. It wasn’t easy. Our love came with heartache. Our journey was filled with night terrors, disbelief in her ability to love me like I love her, and lots of therapy. But she stuck it out, and do you know why?”

  “Because she loves you.”

  “Yes, but because for the first time since you lost your parents, she could breathe easily.” I exhale, my throat tightening. “She puts on a strong front for you, Bodi, never letting the past creep into your relationship with her, but know this: there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about your parents, that she doesn’t try to live in their memory, in the love they showed you two every day. It’s about time you did the same. You want to honor them? Fucking love her, Bodi. Love the fuck out of Ruby. Cherish the fuck out of her. Spoil the fuck out of her. Spend every goddamn waking moment of your breathing life worshipping the ground she fucking walks on. Emulate your dad, be the man he was, not a man he would be disappointed in.”

  Her words cut, hitting me deep in my soul.

  Standing up, she points down the sidewalk where I see Ruby get into a car, her red dress trailing behind her. “Be a man, Bodi. Be a man and love the fuck out of her.”

  Before I can answer, Lauren disappears back into the gala, leaving me with thoughts running through my head.

  Images of my dad kissing my mom in the kitchen when he thought we weren’t around, of him holding her hand in the car, of him wiping her tears when she was upset, of him covering her with a blanket when she fell asleep on the couch only to stare at her for a few minutes, totally in love with the woman that slept in front of him. If he had lived that night, and only she had been killed, he wouldn’t really have lived. His body would have but not his soul. His heart. She was his air, the reason he breathed.

  He loved her with everything in him.

  Can I be like him? Can I push past my self-loathing, my guilt, and fully love Ruby? Can I give her all of me? Fuck, does she even want all of me?

  Surely she’s had enough. Surely she doesn’t want anything to do with me. I made her cry.

  But she’s my air. She’s my reason I breathe. And for the last week, I haven’t been able to get enough air into my lungs.

  She’s my fucking air.

  ***

  I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life in the spotlight, practically naked and very wet, baring it all for billions on one of the biggest stages in the world. I’ve competed against the best swimmers in the world. I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone and interviewed with national networks. I’ve spent countless hours teaching children how to swim despite my insecurities.

  Nerve-racking moments for me. However, I’ve never felt as uneasy, as shaky, as fucking terrified as I do walking down Ruby’s apartment’s hallway. For some reason, I feel like a dead man walking, preparing for the worst, praying for the fucking best. I want to love her with everything in me.

  I turn the corner and catch my breath. Ruby is standing in front of her door, looking in her clutch for her keys. I take a moment to observe her. She’s so fucking beautiful. Drop-dead gorgeous actually. Her hair falls over her shoulders in waves, her back, bare and begging for my hand to caress it. That dress . . . clinging to her heart-shaped ass, and that red lipstick . . . Fuck what I wouldn’t do to see that staining every inch of my body.

  My feet propel me forward, my heart hammering in my chest, my palms sweating profusely. Fuck, she makes me nervous.

  “Hey.”

  “Pervert!” She startles and screams, pulling her lipstick out of her purse and holding it in my direction in self-defense. When her eyes focus on me, and she recognizes me, she lowers her lipstick and holds her chest. “Bodi, what are you doing here?”

  I close the distance between us and take in her reddened eyes. She’s been crying. I couldn’t hate myself more.

  “I, uh, want to talk to you.” Real fucking smooth, Banks.

  “Okay,” she says hesitantly. Without another word, she unlocks her door and lets me in. She flicks the lights on and I’m taken back by the amount of knitted scarves that rest on her couch. She notices my perusal and says, “I’ve had some spare time.”

  As I take in the sweet smell of her apartment, of her, and I hear the distinct sound of her lock being put in place. My stomach rolls. Fuck, does she look at me and think of that moment in the hotel? Does she even think of me as a man anymore?

  Lauren’s words run on repeat. Be a man. Love the fuck out of her.

  A surge of confidence propels me. I turn and stand in front of her. I entwine our fingers together. God, she’s so warm, so soft. Just the small touch of her hand has my body filling with air. I speak my mind, not letting my insecurities run me scared. “I love you, Rubes.”

  Her eyes search mine, her lip trembles, and in one blink of her eyes, tears are streaming down her cheeks. Fuck.

  Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why is she crying?

  Does she feel guilty for not loving me anymore? Before she can turn me down, I make my case.

  “I’ve lived a pretty bland life. Some might say I’m lucky that I have a talent that comes along every generation, that I’m one lucky son of a bitch, but I’ve never seen my life like that. I’ve seen it in black and white. I’ve seen routine, and I’ve seen results from that routine. I’ve kept my life simple, never letting anyone in it because it would put a hitch in my schedule. It was easy, but it wasn’t living.” I squeeze her hand, hoping she can feel my love. “Then you came along. The artist I never expected to fall for. You took your paintbrush and blasted my life with color in every direction. You turned my bland life into something of beauty, changing my routine forever. For the best, Rubes. You showed me what it’s like to live, to love.” I take a breath and step closer. “You once told me you were made for loving me. At the time I couldn’t believe you. I didn’t know how to believe you. But now? I know you’re right. You were brought to me to heal my heart’s scars. I told you I would fuck this up, that I would somehow hurt you. I begged you to be patient with me as I pulled my head out of my ass. I hate that I’ve caused you pain, Rubes. I know I’m not easy. I still have a ways to go, but I’m working with my psychiatrist, Dr. Auburn. I want to share my story with you, Ruby. It might take some time, but I want to share me with you. Please tell me I haven’t lost you forever because I’ve been waiting so fucking long for you.”

  The hand I’m not holding grips my cheek, her thumb runs across my newly grown b
eard. And the smile I have missed so much graces her beautiful face. “You sweet, man. You can never lose me. I’m yours forever.”

  Holy fucking hell . . . she still loves me. My Rubes, she fucking loves me.

  A single tear slips down my cheek. I finally understand pure joy. Her hand slips to the back of my neck and pulls, bringing my lips to hers. She’s a whisper away from me as she says, “I love you, Bodi Banks. I love you so much.”

  I rest my forehead on hers, relief beating through me. “I love you, Rubes.”

  As our lips connect, I vow I will be the man she deserves for the rest of my life.

  I will cherish the fuck out of her.

  I will spoil the fuck out of her.

  I will worship the fuck out of her.

  But most importantly, I will love the fuck out of her . . . until my dying day.

  Epilogue

  RUBY

  “I’m finishing what I started when we get back home,” Bodi says, eying me from over the hood of his truck.

  Home.

  Yeah, Bodi wasted no time moving me into his place. Pretty much the next day he was packing up my apartment and making me a permanent fixture in his new routine. And you know what? I wasted no time in messing up that routine, of adding a whole lot of color into his life physically and metaphorically.

  Task number one. Curtains.

  I wanted hot pink, he wanted grey, so we settled on a butter yellow in a damask pattern. Let’s be honest, I used the pink to scare him silly only to pull the old, “Well, I guess the yellow will do,” when in fact, the yellow was what I originally wanted.

  Don’t judge. The man’s place is covered in grey, black, and white. I needed to add my feminine flair to it without offending his eyes right away. I’ve added hints of teal and green as well with picture frames, knick-knacks, and throw pillows. But my favorite piece in the condo is Bodi’s painting, which is over the top of our mantel, right next to two pictures of us. One of us at a baseball game, wearing our opposing team colors, and the other of us wearing all of Bodi’s medals together. It was a silly night we spent celebrating his wins, a night I will always cherish as a wonderful memory with the man I love.

 
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