That’s how long it takes my face to heal.
I watch the girl in the mirror, looking for marks. She tilts her head this way and that, lifts her chin, stretches her neck for any sign of fingertip-shaped bruises, and then she sighs.
They are all gone. I can see a tiny scar on the edge of my lower lip, but it’s not as bad as it could’ve been if Jon hadn’t rigged up a rudimentary butterfly bandage so he didn’t have to take me to the hospital. It should’ve been stitched, but it wasn’t.
My pack is waiting on the floor of the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if today would be the day. I tried last week but there were still a few purple splotches on the skin under my eye and the lip was scabbed.
It’s been torture waiting to heal. And I kept thinking—what if he does it again? Before I heal? Then I’ll be stuck here even longer.
But enough of that. It’s healed now and I have an appointment. I take one more look in the mirror and give myself a little pep talk. “You’re going to live, Rook. You’re going to live. You might not have the best life, but it will be better than this one. No matter how bad it is at first. Things will get better.”
I really believe it too. Before all this mess with Jon—that’s what he calls it, the mess—I was what some people might call an optimist. A half-full kind of girl.
I think I can be that girl again.
I think I can.
“I’m Océane,” she says. Her accent is French. I have to turn away to stop the sneer. What did I expect? Antoine has beautiful girls walking around here every day. I’m one of them, actually. But even though Billy said they put out an international casting call, I guess I just expected Denver girls to show up. I take a deep breath and start checking her in, trying my best not to worry about Ronin being around all these beautiful women for the next few months while I’m up in the middle of fucking nowhere prancing around in my t-shirts and jeans, picking up parts for Spencer’s bike shop and playing extreme croquet in the snow with Ford.
It only goes downhill from there. One extraordinarily beautiful girl after another walks up those stairs. Billy knows what he’s doing sorting the wheat from the chaff, because they are all stunning with a capital S. I’m still mulling this over, half-heartedly checking in girls as they come up the stairs and sending them into the studio in groups of five, when the freight elevator dings.
We hardly ever use the freight elevator. Most of the time everyone just takes the stairs because the elevator is slow and clunky. So this ding actually makes me stop what I’m doing and turn around just in time to see a thin blonde girl exit with a man in a suit. It takes me a minute to recognize her because of the cute outfit and lack of make-up. She’s wearing pink sweatpants, a white tank top, and a cropped pink zippered jacket to match her pants. Her fresh face is glowing, her eyes are bright, and she is the picture of health. Her long hair is tied back in a ponytail and she looks like she’s about to model for Victoria’s Secret Pink line. She walks past me, never even looking in my direction, and the white letters splash across her ass. Yup. Pink all right.
“Who’s that?” someone asks from behind me.
She disappears behind the tall black partition wall put in place for the interviews and I can hear Ronin’s roar of delight.
“Clare Chaput,” I reply absently in a whisper. “That’s Clare Chaput.”
He leans in and kisses me, sliding my zippered hoodie down my arms and letting it drop to the floor. I never know what I’m in for when he gets in the mood. Sometimes he acts like he’s starving for my lips, desperate and wanting and rough. Then other times it’s like he’s afraid of breaking them, that’s how soft and tender he is.
Tonight it’s soft and tender.
I like it and I kiss him back just as tenderly, our tongues twisting together as he lifts up my shirt. He pulls back for a moment to slip it over my head and then resumes the kiss as the shirt is discarded. One hand cups my breast and then reaches behind to get rid of my bra while the other one unbuttons my jeans. “Kitchen or living room?” he breathes into my mouth.
“Right here,” I reply as I lift his t-shirt up—dragging my palms against his muscular back—clear his head and drop it in the pile of clothes at our feet. He pushes me a little until I take a step back. The back of my knees bump up against the leather couch and I am forced to sit down, coming eye to eye with his hard thickness through his jeans.
I smile up at him.
He smirks down at me.
I go for the button on his jeans but he gently takes my hands and pushes them away. “No, Gidget. Not tonight.” He pushes me back on the couch, unzips my pants, grabs them by the belt loops, and pulls them down, taking my panties with him.
He looks down on my naked body with hunger. Like he’s never seen it before. He licks his lips and kneels down.
“What are you up to?”
“It’s present time,” is all he says as his head dips between my legs. He lifts one leg up and pushes it towards my shoulder and his lips find the dent behind my knee.
I laugh when he sucks and nips the tender skin there, and then arch my back because holy fucking shit, I had no idea that spot was so, so, so… erotically sensitive.
We pass by her Shrike Rook bike as we walk to the truck and I catch her eyeing it with longing. “You gonna ride that thing, you think?”
“Absolutely. I can’t wait.”
“Hmmm, I’m not sure about that, Rook. It makes me nervous. Don’t ride it alone, OK? Make sure you’ve got Spence or one of the shop guys with you.”
I lean back against the truck and she pushes herself into me and purrs in my ear, “You worry too much, Larue. I’m a big girl. I’m only gonna ride it for a few weeks before it starts snowing. Besides, I have the Shrike truck to hold me over until I figure out what kind of car I want.”
“And that’s another thing—”
“Don’t start with me! I’m buying my own car, I already told you that.”
I lean down and kiss her gently. “What were you gonna give me, Gidget?” Her hands slip under my t-shirt and chills ride up my body. “Fuck, I’m gonna miss you.”
“Well,” she coos in my ear. “I’m gonna miss you too. But the gift I’m giving you before you leave is my heart.”
And then she turns her bright blue eyes up at me and I feel it.
I’m not a romantic, I’m really not. I believe in love and all that shit, and I like to make girls happy with presents and careful attention as far as sex goes. But this is something else entirely. She makes my heart ache. Literally. My chest feels like it’s gonna be ripped apart from the longing, that’s how much I love this girl. “I’m totally taking that gift, Rook. And I’m never giving it back, so please don’t ask for it.”
“OK,” Ford says once we get inside and choose a spot that’s not being used by other runners. “I will slow down for you. From now on, we run together. But I won’t slow all the way down, you need to meet me halfway. So you have to actually push yourself. No more slacking off.”
“Well, that’s no fun. I’m a moper, remember? I come to shuffle.”
“Your shuffling days are over, Rook. And I’m sick of your moping. From now on, you’re training with me. So keep up or I’ll find ways to make your life uncomfortable.”
“Ha! Like how?” I cross my arms in front of my chest in defiance and before I can even process what he’s doing, he leans forward into my personal space and slips his hand under my hair behind my neck, drawing me close to him. His touch affects me immediately and I flush with heat. I can probably count on two hands the number of times Ford has actually touched me, and most of them have happened in the past few days. His mouth dips down to my ear, his breath hot against my skin, and for a second I think my heart will actually stop from the shock of it all.
“Like this, Rook.” Ford’s soft words vibrate into me. “I like you. I’d like to show you how much, actually. I’m being a gentleman to make life easier for you, but believe me, it’s not really in my nature to be so accommodating. I typically just take what I want.”
A shudder erupts as his fingertips drag lightly across the back of my neck. He pulls away smiling. “So keep the fuck up or I’ll make things very confusing.”
And then he turns and takes off running up the stairs.
What the hell just happened?