Stroked long, p.8
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       STROKED LONG, p.8

           Meghan Quinn

  But how do I react?

  A part of me wants to apologize, to show him I didn’t mean what I said. I’m that person who wants to please everyone. But the other part of me, the part who talked to Lauren about some of Bodi’s personal quirks? That person wants to stand my ground, to help him grow, to not always coddle him.

  It’s time to test the waters.

  “You know what? I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think I can help with the foundation.” The minute the words exit my mouth, I start to sweat and rethink my approach. Do I want to stop tiptoeing around our work together? Yes. But I also don’t want to seem like a bitch. I’m about to take back what I said when Bodi’s head pops up and his eyes meet mine, deep concern reflected in them.

  “What? Are you going to quit?”

  Oh God, the look on his face is crushing. Big mistake. Huge! Way to go, Ruby.

  “You can’t,” he adds, once again looking down.

  I can’t help myself, I ask, “Why not? It doesn’t seem like we have a very good working relationship. I tried calling you all week to move forward with our planning and didn’t hear a word from you. If you don’t like me or don’t trust me, just tell me, Bodi. I can handle anything you have to say. I’m a big girl.”

  “Shit,” he mutters to himself, turning away from me. He’s very uncomfortable. “Can we have this conversation somewhere else?”

  Scanning down at my towel-covered body, I ask, “Can I get changed quickly?”

  “Meet me by my truck in ten.” He doesn’t wait for my answer.

  Will I ever get used to his abruptness?

  It takes me no more than six minutes to sprint to the locker room, pee, change, and check my damp hair in the mirror. Yeah, I threw that wet mess up into a tight bun. With my bag tucked under my arm, I head out to the parking lot to see Bodi sitting on the hood of his truck, forearms resting on his legs, his hands clasped together.

  Light flutters take place in my stomach.

  He’s so handsome.

  He’s so broken.

  He’s so tempting.

  “Hey,” I say, pulling his attention from the heated asphalt.

  Scooting off the hood, he stands, hands in pockets, a look of defeat sitting heavy in his stance. “Listen, I don’t want you to quit.” Boy, he gets straight to the point. “I know I’m difficult to work with; it’s something I need to improve on. I was embarrassed after leaving Target. I avoided your calls. I’m sorry.” Running one of his hands through his hair, he looks me in the eyes and says, “I don’t trust anyone else to work with the foundation. Will you reconsider?”

  It’s an awkward apology. Choppy in his words, almost slightly robotic, like he’d been practicing it for the last six minutes while I changed. I guess I wouldn’t expect anything else from him. I don’t trust anyone else to work with the foundation. I feel as though I have actually made a little headway. He was embarrassed. He did avoid me. But, he trusts me. And I can’t throw that back at his face.

  I sigh and nod my head. “It was never my intention to bail on you, Bodi. I just wanted to see how much you actually wanted and needed me. I don’t want to be a part of a project where I’m not valued. After not hearing from you, I started to rethink my position in the foundation.”

  “That wasn’t my intention.”

  “I understand that.” Now. I nod. “And I’m thankful for your apology and letting me know you’d still like me to be a part of this. It means a lot to me.”

  “Really?” he asks. The pinch in his brow is adorable.

  It’s almost like he’s never had a productive conversation before. Like he can’t believe an apology went so easily. Are his social cues really that far off?

  My hand presses against his forearm in reassurance. “Really. All I need is a little communication, Bodi.” I wink and pull away. “So, you’re coming over to my place tomorrow to work on the foundation?”

  “Am I?” Confusion laces his features.

  “You are.” I smile. “I’ll text you my address.” With a wiggle of my fingers, I take off to my car.

  Chapter Six


  “Why would I take flowers? This isn’t a date, Eva.”

  “It would be if you pulled your head out of your ass. Come on, Bodi, she’s perfect for you. Why won’t you just open up and ask her out?”

  “Because I have no intentions of ever dating,” I say while I parallel park into a spot right below Ruby’s apartment. “Eva, I’m fucked up and fucked sideways. I have nothing to offer another human besides paranoia, unnecessary stress, and annoying tendencies.”

  “Why do you do that? Talk so badly about yourself.”

  “Because it’s true.” I throw the truck into park and get out, making sure to grab the grocery bag I brought with me. “Do I have good qualities? Yeah, but I’m smart enough to realize my bad qualities outweigh the good ones.”

  “Don’t you think you could meet someone who understands you? Ruby could be that person.”

  “Eva, stop. She’s a colleague, that’s it. Nothing more. So drop it.”

  She sighs into the phone. I hate disappointing her more than anything, but this is one of those situations where she will never be able to convince me otherwise.

  I’m complicated.

  I’m particular.

  I’m broken.

  I don’t want to bring someone into my kind of crazy. It wouldn’t be fair to them and if I tried to hide it, I know it would come out at some point. And then what? They stick around because they feel bad for me? No fucking thank you. I don’t need anyone’s pity. I don’t want to be another person’s burden like I am to Eva.

  “You can use that stern tone with me all you want, but you know I will never let this go. I want you to have what I have with Lauren. I will be damned if you spend your life alone, checking the locks of your windows and counting things in threes.” It’s a little stab that doesn’t go unnoticed. She’s frustrated with me.

  “I’ve got to go. Send me a picture.”

  “You don’t have to remind me every night,” she says angrily before hanging up the phone.

  Little does she know, if I don’t say it, I will have a full-blown panic attack.


  I run my hand over my face out of frustration as I ride the elevator to Ruby’s apartment. I’m not in a good place. My head isn’t on straight. I can foresee this night turning sour quickly. Then what do I say to Ruby? She’s already dealt with my moodiness at the pool.

  I could murder Lauren for bringing Ruby to that class. I could not focus one minute on what I was doing with Ruby traipsing around in that two-piece. Was it ultra-revealing? No, but fuck, it was more than I’ve ever seen of her. Considering the images are burnt in my memory, I won’t be able to forget those curves for quite some time.

  Then there was her swimming. She’s one hell of a shitty swimmer. Doggy paddling as an adult should be a crime. It almost looked like she was going to drown every time she let go of the edge. But then again, I found it . . . enchanting.

  Christ, when have I ever thought of anything as enchanting? That’s not the kind of term a guy uses, but hell, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. With every single scraggily stroke she made through the water, she captivated me, pulling my attention away from what was important: teaching the kids the basic technique.

  During my session with Dr. Auburn today, I talked about Ruby at the lesson, and he couldn’t stop smiling. The fucker. He and Eva could easily team up against me if they ever got together. Luckily, Eva stopped coming to therapy with me a long time ago.

  Usually when I leave Dr. Auburn’s office, I feel a little relief but not today. Instead, I feel more tense than ever. He made me think about my feelings, made me address them, resulting in a realization I wasn’t ready to face.

  I fucking like her.


  I want to spend more time with her and that terrifies me because more time means more exposure to the true monster I am.

econd-guessing my choice to meet tonight, I contemplate going back to my car and my safe haven when the elevator dings and the doors open, revealing Ruby hunched over, carrying a bag of trash over her shoulder. Out of instinct, I run to her side and snag the bag from her.

  “Where does this go?”

  A little surprised, she points to a trash chute behind me. “Thank you. I almost got it there.”

  “It’s too heavy for you,” I gruff out. “You should have waited for me to take care of this.”

  “Now why would I do that? I was trying to avoid making you an accomplice to my murder but due to your chivalry, you are now an accessory to my crime. Look what happens when you try to be a gentleman? It just smacks you in the balls with a life sentence. Hope you can handle prison. My suggestion, bow down to the hierarchy, you’re too pretty to not be someone’s bitch.”

  Where the fuck does she get this stuff?

  I blink at her, not quite sure how to respond to that. Does she really think I would be someone’s bitch? No, that’s not what I need to focus on right now. But for the record, I can hold my own.

  “I’m just kidding.” She nudges my shoulder and waves her arm in the direction of her open door. Just the sight of her unlocked door, open and welcoming any stranger has my heart rate picking up. “Come on, let’s get our paint on.”

  “Paint?” I ask, not sure what her plans are for tonight.

  “Yes, paint. I want to make sure my idea of stroking on canvas is going to work before we invest in it. And who better to test it out than you? Lord knows if I tried it, there would be little mini doggy paddle strokes in the middle of the canvas and no one wants to hang that on their wall.”

  “You’re right about that.”

  She pauses on her way to her apartment and turns to me, her eyes lit with glee. “Oh my goodness. Bodi Banks just joked around with me.” She waves her hand in front of her face. “Be still my heart. I can’t believe it.”

  “Yeah, and that’s the last time I do that,” I mumble and continue to walk forward, grocery bag in hand.

  “What’s in the bag?” she calls from behind me. “Is it for me? Did you buy me lube and Chicken in a Bisket crackers? How did you know I was out?”

  The pitter-patter of her bare feet run behind me just as her arm links through mine, sending the beat of my heart into overdrive. She’s warm, soft, welcoming. I want to believe she’s non-judgmental, that she would understand me, but I can’t be sure.

  “I’m just kidding; I have plenty of lube.” She winks and escorts me into her apartment. “But Chicken in a Bisket, now you can’t have too much of that.” With a sweep of her arm, she shows off the small studio apartment she lives in. “Welcome to my lovely abode.”

  Holy fuck.

  This girl likes patterns and colors. My eyes have no clue where to focus. If a textile shop and a rainbow had a baby, it would be this apartment.

  A purple couch rests in the middle of the room with a colorful throw perched over the back. In front of the couch on the floor is a pink shag rug with a rather large vintage trunk as a coffee table. There is a television, but I’m pretty sure it’s from a second-hand store because there is depth to it in the back. It’s a tube.

  To the right is a little alcove in the wall that she converted into a bedroom and to the left her kitchen is decorated with bright green cabinets, making quite the statement in her already bold space.

  “What do you think?” She beams up at me, a mischievous grin on her face.

  “Uh, it’s bright.”

  It’s bright? Jesus, you couldn’t even come up with a fake compliment. You always have to tell it like it is.

  I’m chastising myself when Ruby starts laughing and shuts the door behind us. “Man, I have you pegged so perfectly.”

  Slightly confused, I ask, “What do you mean?” She doesn’t answer me, instead she picks up an envelope off her small kitchen table and hands it to me. “What’s this?”

  “Just open it.”

  Curiosity wins out and I open the envelope. Inside is a white folded piece of paper. I glance up at her to see her smile stretch from ear to ear and then unfold the piece of paper. In bold red marker, two words stare up at me.

  It’s bright.

  The melodic sound of her laughter echoes through the tiny space.

  “The look on your face is priceless. Come on.” She grabs me by the arm and pulls me to her couch where I’m forced to sit. “Are you thirsty? I have water. I know how much a fish like you lives by it.”

  “Water is fine,” I answer briskly, still a little perplexed over her little envelope trick. “How did you know?”

  Reaching up into a cabinet, her dress riding high on the back of her thighs, she retrieves a glass in the shape of Gumby’s head. I wouldn’t expect anything less from her.

  While she pours water into the glass from a filter in her fridge, she says, “You’re just easy to read. Visiting your apartment just once and the type of clothes you wear, I knew you would think my apartment is too bright.” She turns to me, a genuine smile on her face. “But there is nothing wrong with a little brightness in your life. I’m just glad I’m the one who gets to expose you to it.” With a wink, she hands me my glass.

  “Thank you.”

  “So what’s in the bag?”

  Glancing down at my bag, I feel embarrassed. “I brought some fruit salad, in case you were hungry.”

  With her hands on her hips, she gives me a surprised look. “Well, look at you being super sweet. I love fruit salad. Is there cantaloupe in it?”

  “Yeah, and honey dew.”

  Disgust is now replaced on her face. “Ugh, gross, the cancer of fruit salad. I will pass but why don’t I put it in the fridge for you?”

  “Okay . . .”

  That was fucking weird.

  Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I peer around her place some more, taking in the interesting art hung on her walls. There is no rhyme nor reason to any of it, they’re just canvases with a variety of paint strokes. I should compliment her on the paintings. That seems like something normal to do. I sip my water, swallow, and then say, “I like your paintings.”

  She brightens immediately, more than I thought was possible. “Thank you. I painted them myself. I know what you must be thinking: ‘wow a bunch of strokes on the canvas, way to go, Picasso.’”

  “I wasn’t thinking that—”

  She holds up her hand to stop me. “It’s okay, I think the same thing. It didn’t take me very long to paint them and all I did was toss my brush around, not really caring how it came out.”

  “Why paint it then?” I ask, not really sure if it’s a rude question. I’ve lived my entire life, putting my heart into what I’m working on. So why half-ass something?

  She smirks at me. “Sometimes the beauty in the art piece isn’t about the strokes, Bodi. Sometimes it’s about the colors and how you mold them together. It’s really about taking a dark, mysterious color and mixing it with something bright and cheery. It’s the contrast that makes them so beautiful together.”

  Why does it seem like she’s not just talking about the paint colors?

  Before I can look too deeply into her meaning, she claps her hands together and says, “Let’s get started, but first . . .” she holds up her finger and then snags a Tupperware container from the coffee table, “how about a little treat?” She pops open the top and holds out the container to me. “Peanut Butter Protein balls. I got the recipe from Eva. She said it’s the one treat you indulge in because it serves a purpose to your training.”

  Fuck. That’s considerate.

  “And I have to be honest with you, Bodi, they actually taste good. I was a little wary at first, given I had to buy whey protein to put in them. I mean, honestly, who puts artificial protein in a cookie? It’s just weird. So when I went to try one, I shut my eyes and just stuck it in my mouth, as if it was some kind of sardine. Thankfully, it wasn’t and I was delighted with its nutty flavor. I might even make them again for myse

  “They’re not for everyone,” I comment. Shit, I’m awkward. I don’t know how to react to thoughtful gestures. “Um, thank you for making these. They’re my favorite.” No shit, that’s why she made them. Christ.

  I hold my breath to see her reaction. I’m rewarded with another bright smile. Despite being awkward as fuck, I did good.

  “Anytime. Now, let’s take our balls out to the balcony and get our stroke on.”

  I can’t help it. “I hope you’re talking about painting.”

  “What if I wasn’t?” She wiggles her eyebrows suggestively, throwing me completely off. It must be the shocked look on my face that sends her into a fit of laughter. “Joking around with you has to be one of my favorite things, just to get a reaction out of you.”

  I shake my head and follow behind her. “Excuse me, but I don’t expect such things to come out of your mouth.”

  A swoosh of her body stops and she faces me. Doubt crosses her features. “Please, Bodi. By now you should know that you can never expect what’s going to come out of my mouth.”

  That’s one hundred percent accurate.

  Out on the balcony there is a sheet strewn across the floor, protecting the stone pavers that cover the floor. Erected next to the half wall is an easel with a blank canvas resting on its ledge. On a plastic crate next to the easel is a selection of brushes and paint and one of those things Bob Ross would hold in his hand as he painted, you know, the thing that holds the paint.

  “Looks like you have everything set up,” I acknowledge, looking around. The balcony is also a fire escape, the perfect invitation for any intruder. Looking back into the apartment, I notice she never locked her front door after we entered. This realization creates a reaction within me and I start to itch with anxiety. “Um, don’t you want to lock your door?” I ask, trying to hide the gulp in my throat.

  “What?” she asks, slightly confused.

  “Your front door, you didn’t lock it.”

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