Stroked long, p.9
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       STROKED LONG, p.9

           Meghan Quinn
 

  “Oh, that’s okay.” She waves my suggestion off as if it’s nothing.

  But it isn’t nothing. It isn’t nothing at all. In fact, it’s as if the entire world is pressing down on my chest, so you can’t tell me that’s nothing.

  Fuck.

  My breathing starts to get heavy, my anxiety is rolling in my stomach, and all I want to do is go to her front door and lock it . . . three times just to make sure. The urge to do so is so powerful that I don’t hear Ruby talking to me until she places her warm hand on my clammy forearm.

  “Bodi, are you okay?”

  Grabbing the back of my neck, I close my eyes tightly and beg myself to calm down, to ease my breathing, and to act fucking normal for once.

  But it doesn’t work. Knowing I’m embarrassing myself in front of Ruby only makes it worse.

  “Hey, you know what? I think I will go lock the door. You never know about creeps, right?” Her voice is calming, reassuring.

  Without another word, she enters the apartment again and takes a few steps to her entryway where she locks the door. The click of the lock instantly eases my heart, despite the self-hatred flowing through it.

  It’s obvious she knew I was about to lose it, and she accommodated me. Fuck, she must think I’m the biggest pussy in the world.

  But you are.

  “All right, are we ready to get started?”

  I study her as she begins to pour out paints and pick brushes. She doesn’t even address my minor freak out; instead she invites us to escape the moment, as if the awkward moment never happened.

  Why?

  She’s different. She’s compassionate, empathetic, non-judgmental.

  “Here.” She stands up and hands me a pink cloth.

  “What’s this?”

  In that cheery voice that is starting to become engrained in my brain, she answers, “It’s a smock, of course. You don’t want to get paint all over those nice monotone clothes, now do you? Heaven forbid you put a little color in your wardrobe.” The wink she adds lets me know she’s teasing.

  “But it’s pink.”

  “Yeah, well I don’t have fire truck smocks big enough for you so you’re going to have to settle for what I use. Go ahead, don’t be shy.” She nods at the smock, encouraging me to put it on.

  “What makes you think I’m going to fit in your smock? I’m much larger than you.”

  She rolls her eyes. “Bodi, we are all aware of the muscles you have under that shirt of yours, no need to rub it in.”

  “I wasn’t—”

  She holds up her hand, a smile gracing her face. “Save it for the jury, muscle man. I wear an extra-large smock in men’s.”

  A crease in my brow forms. “You’re not an extra-large.”

  “Awe, look at you being all sweet. Yes, I’m aware I’m not an extra-large, I just like to swim in my smocks. It’s comfortable, especially when I wear nothing underneath.” She bends over and fixes the drape on the floor, acting as if her last statement should have no reaction and was just casual conversation.

  She wears nothing under this smock? Fucking hell, the thought of her naked in this smock has my dick hardening. Where the fuck did that come from? Well, I know where it came from, but fuck! I can’t get hard around Ruby.

  “Well, are you going to put it on or risk getting paint all over those pristine grey jeans of yours?”

  Pulling my mind away from dirty thoughts, I put the smock on and roll up the sleeves.

  “Oh, you look so pretty.” She claps her hands.

  “Not the look I was going for.”

  “Oh yeah? What kind of look were you going for? I wasn’t aware you were Mr. Fashionable.”

  “I know some fashion,” I say quietly, adjusting the sleeves.

  “Enlighten me.” Her smile is so damn big, I can’t help but engage in this conversation and feel somewhat . . . normal.

  Leaning against the exterior of her apartment, I say, “Eva was always into fashion when we were growing up and I remember her distinctively saying ‘black and brown make her frown’ and to never pair them together.”

  She nods, understanding the rule I still apply today. “A good concept but so out of date. Black and brown actually can be a good combination when done in the right way.”

  “What?”

  “Yeah, you can pair black and brown together. I actually saw your sister in black skinny jeans the other day with brown suede pumps. She’s misled you, Bodi. Black and brown is in now, especially with all the leopard-print trends. Although, you can really wear leopard print with anything. I have these cute leopard print flats that I love pairing with bright dresses. Do you have any leopard print?”

  “Can’t say that I do.” I chuckle, shaking my head.

  From the corner of my eye, I can see her head tilt to the side and a long sigh eases out of her lungs. I catch a glimpse of what seems like . . . lust in her eyes.

  Is that lust? I have no fucking clue. It seems like it.

  Clearing her throat and straightening, she says, “Okay, let’s get a move on. Are you ready to paint?”

  “I guess so.”

  “Do you need to warm up or anything? I don’t want you pulling something and then you can’t go to the Olympics because of me. Oh God, that would be devastating. I can’t have that hanging over my head.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “I really think you should do some arm swings,” she suggests.

  “I’m good.”

  Desperation laces her features. “Bodi, do some arm swings so I know at least I warned you. I can’t have this project hanging over me if something happens to you.”

  To appease her, I move my arms back and forth, knowing full well I will be fine. Visibly she relaxes and hands me the brushes once I’m done.

  “All set?”

  “Yup, all warmed up.” I try not to roll my eyes. She’s looking out for me, which is something I’m only used to from Lauren and Eva.

  “Good. Now I figure we start with the easiest stroke, your freestyle.”

  “What makes you think that’s the easiest?” I ask, curious to her reasoning.

  She pauses and thinks about my question. “I’m not sure. Just seems like the more natural one. Butterfly looks painful and breaststroke by far can’t be the easiest. Backstroke seems difficult to do right now so I figured we would go with freestyle.”

  “Not doggy paddling?” I quirk an eyebrow at her.

  “No.” She playfully pushes my chest, surprising the both of us.

  Fuck. It feels as though the weight of the world isn’t resting on my shoulders. I feel . . . light? It’s a feeling so unfamiliar I can’t really label it. I don’t know how to express myself, but right now, Ruby is making it a hell of a lot easier with her easy-going, accepting personality.

  “Freestyle works.”

  “Good. Now I picked a few colors for you to play around with, it’s your choice what to paint with, but I will say, I only chose bright colors for you.”

  “I can see that.”

  “Oh, don’t get your Speedo in a bind. It will be healthy for you to add some color in your life. Before you dip your brushes in the paint, why don’t we do a few practice strokes so you know how you’re going to hit the canvas.”

  “Fair enough.” With the brushes in my hands, I stand in front of the canvas, bend over into position and slowly move my arms, barely grazing the canvas with the tips of the bristles.

  “Good,” she coaches. “Now I think you can go a little faster than that.”

  “Faster?”

  “Yeah, just slightly, that way we get a crisper paint stroke.”

  A strange sensation rolls through my body and for the first time in a very long time, I feel the urge to joke around. So I pick up the pace for only a few strokes before I drop the brushes and grip my shoulder, acting as if I’m in pain.

  “Holy fuck,” I shout, playing it up.

  “Oh my God!” Ruby’s eyes widen to saucers, and she starts running in place. “Oh my
God, oh my God, you hurt yourself. I knew this was going to happen. This is all my fault. Your coach is going to kill me. Lauren and Eva will disown me and make sure I’m fired from the club. Oh God, and then I will be kicked out of my apartment because finding a job with an art degree is like trying to find a carrot at a doughnut convention.” Her hands are in her hair, pulling on the strands while her eyes search me out. “And now you can’t swim at the Olympics. Oh my God! Not only will your coach, Lauren, and Eva hate me, but all of America will hate me. I’m going to be deported and sent to some shoe factory in Bora Bora where we make moccasins for misbehaving mallards who have no interest in purchasing them. I’m not good in humid heats, my hair gets crazy, and I know I won’t be a good salesperson to the duck community when it comes to footwear. This is horrible.”

  Yikes. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.

  “Um, Ruby—”

  “No, don’t move. I need to get you ice. I’ll massage you until it’s better. Do we need to go to the hospital? Let’s keep that as a last resort; the press can’t hear about this just yet. Ugh, I can see it already: NBC Olympics on Facebook is going to crucify my face. The end of Bodi Banks’s career, taken down by an art major with no solid savings in her bank account.”

  “Ruby—”

  “I’m going to have to sell my story and throw you under the bus to the tabloids just to feed my Pop Rocks addiction, and I’m not talking about crackling cocaine. I really mean Pop Rocks, you know the little shards of sugar that explode in your mouth? Of course you don’t, you eat whey protein as a ‘treat.’ But let me tell you, I can’t get enough of them.” She drops down to her knees, fists in the air. “Oh Pop Rocks!”

  “Ruby!” I bend down and grip her shoulders so she’s forced to look at me. “I was only kidding.”

  “You were what?” Her eyes light up with fire.

  Fuck, here I thought joking around was a good idea, maybe not.

  “Uh, I was kidding. I’m fine.”

  “Why would you joke about something like that?”

  “I’m not sure.” I grab the back of my neck, uncomfortable now because Ruby truly looks upset.

  Shaking her head, she stands and crosses her arms in front of her chest. I know that pose: that’s a don’t fuck with me pose. Shit.

  “Yeah, I was going to really try, but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I’m sorry, Bodi, but you’re going to have to leave.”

  Standing tall, I search her eyes for the truth, but they are cast to the ground. Is she serious? All because I joked around? Fuck, if I knew that was going to happen, I never would have tampered in the joke department.

  That’s what I get for stepping out of my comfort zone.

  “Okay.” I nod and begin to take off the pink smock. “For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry, Ruby. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

  I hand over the smock but she doesn’t take it, instead she grips her stomach and starts laughing so hard tears fall down her cheeks.

  What the fuck is going on?

  “Oh Bodi, do you really think I would be afraid of being deported to Bora Bora to make footwear for ducks? It sounds like an absolute dream to me. And the hair, well, there are things called ponytails.”

  Confused as fuck, I ask, “So you were just playing around with me?”

  “Of course.” She nudges my shoulder. “Please, I would know if you really hurt your shoulder. I’m sorry to say, Bodi, but acting isn’t in your near future. I would stick to the pool.”

  “Christ.” I wipe my hand over my face and let out a long breath.

  “But you’re so cute for trying.” Out of nowhere, she steps up to me and wraps her arms around my waist, pulling me into a hug. Her head rests against my chest and her warmth spreads through me as she squeezes me tight. I stand there like the Tin Man, unable to move and not sure what to do. Something in my brain is telling me to hug her back or to at least pat her on the head, but I’m frozen.

  Everything about her feels so damn good pressed up against me.

  Before I can reciprocate, she removes herself and points at the smock. “Put that back on. I need to get some ridiculous pictures of us painting. I’m going to use them in a pamphlet. Good thing you did your hair all sexy like.”

  Sexy like?

  “Go on,” she encourages with a smile, “I don’t have all night, Bodi.”

  For some reason, I’m wishing we did, which surprises the fuck out of me.

  Chapter Seven

  RUBY

  “And I made you cookies. Your favorite. Butterfinger with big chunks. Maybe you can share them with your swimming friend, Bodi.”

  “He doesn’t eat candy, Mom. Or cookies for that matter. He’s kind of a health freak, and we are just work acquaintances.”

  “Is that why his picture is front and center in your living space?”

  The canvas Bodi stroked on two nights ago is sitting in the faux fireplace in my living space, hiding all the knick-knacks and decorations that occupied the space previously. I initially put it up there to dry but I can’t seem to take it down now.

  I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as I did the other night with Bodi. He was awkward, testing his limits, obviously stepping out of his comfort zone when it came to joking around, but it was endearing. From the way he pulled on the back of his neck to how quickly he retreated his hands to his pockets when he got a chance, everything about him reminded me of a little boy stuck in a man’s body . . . a very hot man’s body.

  And then that laugh. Holy goat nipples, it sounded like some erotic melody coming from his mouth. It’s deep, with a touch of husk, and a whole lot of sexy. The type of laugh that will drive any woman to her knees, begging to hear it one more time.

  “It’s just drying, Mom.” I dig into her cookies and plop one in my mouth. I’m not an Olympian. I don’t care what goes into my body, as long as I work it off in a step aerobics or Zumba class later then I’m good to go.

  “Is that so? Seems to me like you used basic acrylic paint which would have dried easily within hours.”

  Damn it, sometimes I forget my mom is an artist as well. “What do you want me to do with it? Throw it in the trash? Toss it on the ground and use it as a floor mat?”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if you take it to bed with you as a cuddle buddy,” my mom teases. She’s an artist and also a sassy mom who doesn’t ever let anything go. Can you tell?

  “Why would you even say that?”

  I don’t know why I ask that question because all it does is spur her on. Sitting up straight in her chair at my two-person dining room table, she prepares her speech. I can see it in the way she cocks her shoulders back, ready for battle.

  Fanning her face with one hand and using the other as a pretend phone, she says, “Oh Mom, Bodi is such a good man. He’s funny, yet shy, and he’s so strong. You should see his muscles. What a swimmer. And he’s helping me with this foundation thing, and I actually heard him laugh the other day—”

  I hold my hand up to her. “Okay, you’ve proven your point. And for the record, your impersonation of me is rather horrid. I do not sound like that.”

  Polishing her nails on her shirt, she examines them and says, “I thought it was rather uncanny actually, if you ask me.”

  “It was absolute piss.”

  “Oh sweetie, you always fail to remember that you came out of me, through the birth canal and straight out of my vagina. As much as you want to deny it, you are a mini-me, and if I want to do an impersonation of my daughter I will nail it every time. It’s far too easy for me.”

  Mini-me is correct. I look just like my mom from my blonde hair to my big brown eyes and share her quirky, artistic personality. I only have one trait from my dad: a terrible driver and road rage. Oh shit. That’s two traits. Living in Los Angeles has not been healthy for my temperament when driving, pretty devastating actually. The pounding my steering wheel has taken is unfair to the old thing.

  “But that’s beside the point. Tell me you do
n’t like Bodi. Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t like him one bit.”

  She’s got me. She knows I won’t blatantly lie to her face. A little denial here and there, maybe, but when she tells me to look at her and make a statement, yeah, I can’t lie.

  “Fine,” I concede. “I like him—”

  “I knew it!” My mom claps in glee, happy with her ability to read the obvious.

  “But it’s not that easy, Mom.”

  “Why not? He’s an eligible man, and you both have some things in common. Have you tried flirting? You know, flip your hair, put your finger in your mouth kind of stuff.”

  “As appealing as that sounds, Mom, I have not. I don’t typically like to present myself as a salami-eating ditz.”

  “Then why do you always wear short dresses?”

  “I do not!”

  Throwing her head back, she laughs and grabs another cookie. “Oh sweetheart, you’re too easy.”

  “For the record, my dresses come down to a respectable length. Just above the knee is nothing to scoff at.”

  “Yes, I know, dear. But back to the main topic. Tell me about Bodi. Why isn’t it easy with him? I would think since you are a brilliant and beautiful young woman he would want nothing more than to enter into a courtship with you.”

  I roll my eyes and shift my seat on the couch. “No one calls it a courtship anymore, Mom. And it’s not that easy because Bodi is a little darker than he seems on television.”

  Shifting in her seat as well, my mom leans forward, clearly interested in the conversation. Whispering and looking around, as if there are other people in my tiny five-hundred-square-foot apartment, she says, “What kind of dark?” She pauses and leans forward just a little bit more. “Like . . . drugs?”

  Of course my mom would go there. She’s quirky and open about practically everything. But drugs, oh boy, don’t even talk about drugs around her. Pretty sure if she had the opportunity, she would team up with McGruff the Crime Dog and take to the streets to end drug use.

  “No, Mom, not drugs. He’s an Olympian for Christ’s sake.”

  “Athletes lead secret lives sometimes.”

  “And Olympians are constantly drug tested, so him doing drugs is not even something you should be considering.”

 
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