“What do you mean, you quit your job?” Amber screams, bursting through my front door.
“Exactly what I told you on the phone,” I reply, not bothering to look up at her. I need to finish packing these boxes. The movers will be here in the morning.
“I don’t understand,” she says, her feet in my line of sight now and getting closer. “Jessa, you love your job. Why would you quit?”
“You’re right, I did love my job, but it’s also my whole life. I’ve done nothing except work since I graduated. I had big plans, remember? I was going to travel the world, do a bunch of fun things before I settled down. None of that happened. Not. One. Thing.” Plopping down on the floor, I lean back against the wall, looking up at Amber. I hope she understands this. I need her to understand why I’m doing this. “Look at your life. You have a husband, three kids, two dogs, and a house. The whole shebang. I want all of that someday, I do, but more than anything else right now, I want to live. I need to. Part of that is living for me.”
“So, what? You’re going on an extended vacation? You didn’t need to quit your job to do that. You could have asked for time off, Jessa. Can you call your boss, explain this to him? Maybe he’ll let you have your job back.”
Nope. She’s not getting it.
“I don’t want my job back. I’m almost done packing up my apartment. I sold off most of the big stuff that I won’t need. The rest of this,” I say, motioning around me, “is going to Mom and Dad’s basement until I need it again.”
“And where are you going to live then?”
“It doesn’t matter where; it’s how. I’m going to live free. That’s the point. I cashed in the vacation time I never used, cleared out my savings account. I figure I have at least a year’s worth of traveling ahead of me and enough money to travel for longer than that.”
That’s a bit of a lie. I might have enough for the next year if I don’t go crazy.
“So, you’re leaving. When?”
It’s hard to miss the disappointment in her voice. Amber’s been my best friend since college. When I decided to pledge a sorority, I ended up in her house with her as my “big sister”. She took good care of me, we had a lot in common, and, despite our two-year age difference, got along great. When she graduated, I panicked and quit the sorority. Things weren’t the same without her around. After I graduated, I was lucky enough to find a job close to her and her new husband. She was six months pregnant with their first, a boy named Jefferson, and it was nice to be able to be here for her when she needed me most.
“I’m staying through the holidays. My plane leaves for New York the Monday after Christmas.”
“When are you coming back?”
From New York? I’m only staying for a week at most, but I don’t want to tell her that. She’ll want my entire itinerary if I tell her that.
“I should be back a little after my birthday.”
“What? That’s four months, Jessa. What are you going to do in New York for four months?”
We are going to talk in circles until I give her the details she’s looking for. It’s always been this way. She can tell when I’m lying or withholding information from her. She claims it’s a gift. I disagree with that statement wholeheartedly.
“Listen, I’ll make sure to keep you updated. You know I’m going to call you every few days. Why can’t you support my wanting to do this? It’s not like this hasn’t been planned for years. I just never made the time to make it all happen until now.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t remember you mentioning traveling before.”
I swear she would forget her own name if her husband was any less needy. Any given day, he asks for more shit than I do from my parents in a year. Then, there are the kids who are constantly calling for their mother. I don’t know how she handles that with such grace, but this is upsetting her.
Digging into my front pocket, I pull out a folded-up piece of paper and hand it to her. Amber looks at me suspiciously as she unfolds it. When she finally directs her attention to the paper, I let out a breath. She’s making me nervous. I don’t like it that she can see the truth, even when I do a great job of hiding it.
“You still have this?” she asks, giggling as she reads. “I completely forgot about this. I think I threw mine away back in college. This is what you’re doing?”
“Yep. I plan to check each and every item off that list. Maybe I’ll even add a few more things to it.”
My bucket list. The ten things I wanted to do most before I died. We both wrote one back in college as part of a sorority bonding thing. There are a few things on that list that don’t interest me anymore, but I’m going to do them anyway. There’s a reason I put them on there to begin with even if I don’t remember why.
“This won’t take you four months, Jessa. Six weeks tops. And you can’t do it all alone.” Pausing, Amber looks up, making eye contact. Wiggling her eye brows at me she continues. “Maybe that hunk next door could go with you.”
“Stop it, Amber. We have a different kind of relationship. You know it’s not like that between us. We don’t even go out to eat together.”
“Maybe it should be. You only live once, right? Why not make every moment worth it? And from what you’ve told me, he’s worth a few extra moments.”
“Why thank you,” a deep voice says.
My front door is wide open. Jackson is leaning against the frame, his body consuming more space than an average human being. His forehead is glistening with sweat, and he has a dark line that runs from his neck to his torso where the sweat has soaked through his shirt. Not that his shirt covers much anyway. He’s ripped the sleeves off.
Shit! I’m staring.
“Hey, Jackson. Amber was just leaving,” I say, pushing myself off the floor.
“No, no I wasn’t. I was just telling Jessa that she needs to ask you to go on vacation with her. She shouldn’t be traveling alone.”
Before I think to grab her arm or my list back, Amber’s standing in front of Jackson. Handing him my list, Jackson reads it over, grinning the entire time. Either he likes some of my ideas, or he’s laughing at me. It doesn’t matter. Nothing is going to stop me from doing this. Things are already in motion.
“Are you really going to do all these things?” Jackson finally asks.
“I am. I leave next week,” I reply confidently.
“And you want company?” There’s a shit-eating grin plastered across his face. He thinks he’s hot shit. Well, he is, but I’ll never tell him that.
“Of course, she does,” Amber replies before I have a chance to. “Just think about it. You two would have a lot of fun traveling the world together.”
“Amber,” I growl. “Quit trying to make Jackson feel like he needs to go with me. I can take care of myself. I don’t need a chaperone.”
“What if I want to go with you?” he asks, his voice less certain that I expect. His shit-eating grin has softened into a smile.
Amber’s head whips in Jackson’s direction before he even finishes speaking. I’m only a millisecond behind her. What did he just say? Does he want to come with me?
“I can’t ask you to do that. I plan on being gone for a while, and you have a business to run. Some people,” I emphasize, looking at Amber even though she’s avoiding eye contact with me, “have jobs and responsibilities. They can’t up and leave on short notice.”
“The gym runs itself. I don’t have to be there every day. That’s what I have managers for. What about your job?” Jackson asks.
“I quit yesterday.”
Nodding like he understands completely, Jackson pushes off the doorframe and steps inside. Quickly gathering her things, Amber scoots past him and waves, closing the door behind her. I’m going to kill her for this later.
“Want to tell me what’s going on, Jessa?”
“Nothing’s going on,” I lie. We may be intimate from time to time, but we don’t share things with each other. Not personal things anyway.
“Well, even though I know you’re lying to me, I’d still like to come with you. If that’s okay.” Looking over his shoulder at the closed door behind him, I see him planning his escape if he doesn’t like my answer.
Guess what? You wanna come with me? Fine. The company would be nice, anyway. Plus, I’ve heard Paris is romantic. If I’m going to make this trip the best it can be, having Jackson on top of me would be an amazing perk.
“Sure. We leave for New York Monday morning. I’ll text you the flight number.”
“I wasn’t expecting it to be that easy,” he says, taking a step in my direction. “I thought I would need to convince you how much fun we could have together if you let me come.”
He’s got that look on his face, the one I normally love. All I can think about right now is how my bed isn’t put together anymore and I have no idea which box I packed the condoms in.
“What’s going on in that big, beautiful brain of yours, Jessa? I can see you’re thinking hard about something right now. Or, are you thinking about something hard?” he asks, waggling his eyebrows at me.
Laughing, I step toward him and swat him in his chest. I know we’re headed to my bedroom and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, but why would I? I may not be in love with Jackson, but I do love the way he makes me feel. That’s why our arrangement works out as well as it does. Neither of us is attached to each other. It’s all about the sex. It always has been. Two years strong. Now, it looks like our arrangement is taking a road trip. Let the fun begin.
My parents are not happy with my decision. It’s all they wanted to talk about over the holiday weekend. After the first few hours I was there, I avoided them like the plague. It didn’t work out well since half of our family decided not to come into town with an impending snow storm. That also meant we weren’t leaving the house. Once the storm passed, I took a walk down our snow-covered street just to get away from them.
I love my parents dearly, but they like to talk themselves in circles. Over and over again, I explained my plan to them, and they still didn’t understand why I wanted to leave. I left the part about Jackson accompanying me out of it. They’ve never heard me mention him before, and if I were to do it now, there would have been even more questions and concerns. I can hear them now.
When can we meet him? Why haven’t you mentioned him before? What do you mean he’s not your boyfriend? Who is he, then? I can’t believe you’re sleeping with him and you’re not even dating him. We raised you better than that, Jessa Marie. Are you pregnant? Is that what this is about? If you’re pregnant, you can tell us. We love you, you know that, right?
The walk really helped me clear my head. I’ve always loved the smell of winter, especially after a snow storm. It’s such a fresh smell, like the air is cleaner. I walked around the block twice before I got tired of trudging through the snow and headed back. I grew up in this neighborhood. My parents bought the house when I was only two years old. A lot of good memories happened on this street, in this neighborhood. Some of my friend’s parents still live around here. I wonder if anyone is home for the holidays. If I had more time, I would visit some of them.
My watch tells me that I have fifteen hours before my flight leaves for New York. That means I need to pack up my things and drive to Jackson’s. He’s arranged for a taxi to pick us up in the morning and take us to the airport.
All packed up, I’m ready to say goodbye to my parents, but knowing I’m not going to see them again for a few months makes me miss them the moment I turn off our street. They are some of the best people I know. Generous and caring, they’ll do just about anything for anyone, no questions asked. They’ve always been like that.
Jackson is waiting for me at the rental car center when I pull up. Since I sold my car last week, I had to find a way home for the weekend. Jackson offered to drive me. He also offered to let me borrow his car. Both of those options led to huge red flags waving. I politely declined and then asked if he would pick me up tonight. Thankfully, he agreed.
“How was your Christmas?” he asks, turning the heater on full blast.
“It was good. How was yours?”
“Eventful,” he says, looking over his shoulder as he changes lanes. My apartment, err his apartment, is only a few blocks away.
“What does that mean? Did something exciting happen?” I ask, looking to talk about anything other than my boring weekend.
“You could say that.”
“Um, care to elaborate?”
“Not really,” he says flatly, staring straight ahead.
“Why the hell not?”
“You said we didn’t do personal, Jessa. Your rule, not mine. Of course, I want to share with you because it’s funny as hell, but you made the rule, remember?”
Damn him. I did make that rule, but now I want to know what happened. I could use a good laugh at the expense of another person. The question is, do I let the rule go so I can hear his story. Why the hell not?
“We can cross that rule off the list. Now, tell me,” I demand.
“Are you sure? You were pretty damn serious about those rules when you made them. Don’t you remember that time I was drunk and tried to kiss you? You almost gave me a black eye.” He’s teasing me, I can tell, but he’s right. I’ve always taken the rules very seriously.
The day I met Jackson was intense. I was trying to get my apartment set up, and I could hear him going at it with some chick through my bedroom wall. At first, I listened, her moans and screams captivating my interest. After about an hour, I turned on music. It didn’t mask the noise, though. My ears were tuned into it, listening to her voice. Before I could stop myself, I started banging on the wall over my bed.
Dead silence. Thinking I had solved the problem, I went back to unpacking my apartment. There was a knock at the door a few minutes later. Thinking it was Amber coming to help, I answered without looking. Not Amber. Not even close.
Wearing only a pair of gym shorts that hung extremely low on his hips, Jackson proceeded to introduce himself. I was dumbfounded. Words would not come. I was staring at him, mouth agape, as he waited for me to tell him my name. It was what happened next that drew me to him.
“Are you enjoying the view? I can always try to go another round if you’re interested.”
Shocked, I snapped out of my trance and prepared to bitch him out. When I looked up, I could see that he was teasing me. If the huge smile on his face hadn’t given it away, the deep laugh that escaped him would have. We were instant friends after that. For about two days.
He brought me dinner one night and told me, flat out he wanted me six different ways. I promised to think about it, knowing full well that I was on board, but I wanted boundaries. That’s when I made the list. I wanted to make sure he knew that it was sex, just crazy-ass sex.
Rule #1 – No kissing on the lips
Rule #2 – No sharing personal crap
Rule #3 – No getting emotionally attached
Rule #4 – No other people in the bed
Rule #5 – The sex has to stop if one of us gets involved with someone else
My bet was it would last six months before he found a girlfriend. Rule number five was going to be the one broken first. I was wrong.
“Please, Jackson,” I say, begging him in a voice I know he can’t, or better yet won’t, deny.
“Fine. Both of my brothers made it home this year. Things can get a little rowdy around the house with all three of us there.” Pulling into the parking lot, Jackson lets his voice trail off as if there’s not more to the story than that.
“And…” I say, prompting him to continue.
“It was an interesting holiday, that’s all.” Opening his door to get out, he successfully ends the conversation. For now anyway. I don’t plan on giving up that easily, especially since I crossed one of the rules off the list for this story.
After dinner, I cuddle up on the couch. Jackson takes the seat at the other end of it. His focus seems to be on the television, but I can tell something else is going on inside his head. It could be work or our impending trip, but if I had to guess, it has something to do with his family. Even if I’m wrong, I want to know the rest of the story from earlier.
“So, two brothers, huh?” I ask, watching his reaction closely.
“Yep, and two sisters, too,” he answers without looking away from the television.
“And where are you in all those kids? Oldest? Youngest? Wait, you do have a little bit of middle-child syndrome.”
His head whips in my direction. “I’m the youngest, thank you very much.”
“How old are your brothers?”
“Devin is a year older than me and Thomas is two years older than him. Why?”
“I figured there was more to your story earlier. Just wondering how everyone stacks up. Do they fight or something?”
“You’re an only child, aren’t you?” How did he know that?
“Yeah…” I reply, stretching the word out a bit more than necessary.
“I should have known. All siblings fight. It’s what we do. We compete for our parent’s attention. We want to show each other up, prove each other wrong. It’s all a game. I don’t play the game well. I keep my mouth shut and let everyone else go head to head while I sit back and watch it all unfold. I hate conflict. My brothers are the worst. They seem to think that they still need to compete in every aspect of their lives. It makes them stronger, more successful, but it’s annoying. There’s no real story from earlier. It was an interesting weekend, that’s all. My brothers were especially caddy and my sisters egged them on.”
Jackson goes back to watching television while I let his words soak in. I never had anyone to compete with. It’s not like I missed having a sibling when I was growing up, but it makes me realize that one of the reasons I joined the sorority in college was because I needed that companionship. I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have Amber in my life if I hadn’t. If not for her, I would be embarking on this next chapter of my life alone. Having Jackson with me is proving to be far more interesting already.
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