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You Deserve Each Other: Chapter 13


Our cease-fire comes to an end, predictably, twenty minutes after dinner when he hears my phone buzz on the mantel. I don’t get up.

He glances at the mantel, then at me. It’s a long, considering look. “Not going to see what that is?”

“Nope.”

His suspicion is palpable, but I’m not mentally prepared to check my notifications. My heart is racing just knowing what it might be, and I have to give myself time to come down from the anxiety rush, bracing myself for bad news, before I brave a look.

One of the people I’ve secretly been in touch with about a job at a craft store I’d really, really like (and have already gotten my hopes up about) told me three days ago after I interviewed that she’d take three days to check my references and consider other applicants in the pool before emailing me with a decision. I’ve spent the day alternating between obsessively checking my phone (and my computer, in case for whatever reason the email doesn’t pop up on my phone) and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist. My nerves are shredded.

The longer I go on pretending I don’t have a notification, the heavier Nicholas’s gaze becomes. It weighs on me, distrustful. I see his problem clearly, because it’s one I’ve been struggling with myself: he has questions, but with the state our relationship is in right now, certain information feels privileged. We’re not in a position to demand answers.

It’s like when two people are casually dating but haven’t made it official yet. In this tender stage, they’re not entitled to know everything they want to know about each other, so they can’t behave with unearned familiarity. That’s how it feels between us.

Nicholas is frustrated by his restraint. The whole situation is an annoying dance that breeds resentment.

“How did Brandy’s orientation go?”

I’m surprised by his interest, especially since he didn’t even pretend he doesn’t know her real name. “She says her boss is sleazy. She’s already looking for a new—”

“Melissa doing well?” he asks, interrupting me.

“Uhh …” Melissa and I are both grateful to be able to let our acquaintanceship drop. “I haven’t talked to her.”

“Still talk to Zach?”

I shrug. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zach and I never crossed paths again.

He’s the kind of guy you can picture running off to Los Angeles on a whim, where he’ll invent some simple gadget that becomes a daily staple you can’t imagine ever going without, and in five years I’ll see him on the Forbes list of billionaires.

Nicholas’s gaze darkens. His foot jostles restlessly on his knee.

“What kind of lotion do you wear?” he asks me.

“Huh?”

“I’ve been thinking of ideas for Secret Santa. Your lotion smells nice.”

It’s called Sweet Seduction, and I slather it on after every shower. The notion of him giving Stacy Mootispaw a present called Sweet Seduction and subsequently having that woman smelling like me makes me want to scratch my eyes out.

“I think what you’re smelling is my shampoo.”

“No, that’s not it.”

I sort through a stack of junk mail because I desperately need to break eye contact. I’m not as talented a liar as I used to think, and I don’t want him seeing that this bothers me so much. I’m not giving him the name of my lotion even if he stabs bamboo shoots under my fingernails. Stacy can smell like latex gloves and antiseptic and stay in her own fucking lane.

My phone buzzes again. Is it the craft store job? Or somebody else telling me no? There’s a zero percent possibility that it’s good news, whatever it is, so why bother getting up? What’s the point in ruining the rest of my night and getting myself depressed tomorrow? I’m never checking my phone again. I’ll become an anti-technology recluse. I’ll be wholly dependent on Nicholas, which he’ll love. He wants to yank away all my safety nets before tossing me out to sea.

“I think someone’s messaging you,” he says quietly.

I shrug. “Probably a spam email.”

“And you don’t want to check? Might be Brandy.”

“I don’t think so. She’s on a date with Vance the optometrist.”

He hears the fear in my voice, the stubborn refusal. His eyes are lasers burning right through me; I can smell my skin heat up and start smoking.

The fact that he doesn’t know all my notifications are rejections means he hasn’t tried to pry into my phone when I’m not looking, which I appreciate. No matter how much this bugs him, he won’t invade my privacy.

“Maybe jewelry,” he says suddenly.

I glance up. I haven’t applied to any jewelry stores. But then, he doesn’t know that’s what’s on my mind. He doesn’t know my organs are being pressed in a vise. “What about jewelry?”

“For Stacy.”

This topic is annoying. I am thoroughly, decidedly annoyed and there are thorns growing out of my flesh. Who cares what she gets? Does he ever put this amount of thought into presents he gets for me? I’ll tell you the answer to that one: no. “I still don’t see anything wrong with getting her a gift card.”

“Jewelry would be nicer.”

“Expensive jewelry would be, but isn’t there a max on how much you’re supposed to spend? Most offices that do Secret Santa keep it under twenty bucks or something like that.”

“No, there’s no limit,” he says slowly. His eyes glitter, one corner of his mouth hooking back. I hold my breath because I can just tell he’s about to toss a grenade. “Besides, I want her to know I care.”

“She won’t know it came from you,” I remind him. “It’s Secret Santa.”

“I think she’ll know.”

“How? How will she know, Nicholas?” God, it’s stupid for grown people to give each other holiday presents. When it comes to colleagues, anyway.

It’s undignified. People who work together shouldn’t be forced to socialize unnecessarily. Whatever happened to professionalism in the workplace?

It’s Nicholas’s turn to shrug, but there’s something pleased about his demeanor. “We know each other very well. We’re close. I think she’ll be able to sense it like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“Giving jewelry to a woman you work with is inappropriate,” I say frostily. “So is lotion. Get her a pair of socks, you pervert.”

He turns his face away from me, covering his mouth with his hand.

“Maybe a subscription service? A monthly delivery of flowers.”

My blood froths. The image of him presenting her with flowers makes me homicidal. “Buy her a travel magazine. She should get out of the state more. Out of the country, even.”

“Mmm, I think I’m leaning toward jewelry. A pair of earrings. What do women like, Naomi? You can be helpful here. Do women like diamonds?”

“Diamonds?” I screech. “For your coworker? What kind of message are you trying to send?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with diamonds,” he replies angelically, giving me a mock-puzzled expression. “Stacy’s a valuable member of our team. I think Stacy deserves—”

“I swear to god, Nicholas, if I hear that woman’s name come out of your mouth one more time, I’m gluing your lips together. I’ll drag you outside and throw you back into that stupid pond, butt-naked this time. I’ll go down to your office and chain myself to your wrist so you never get any private interaction with her. If you try to give her diamonds, I’m going to steal them back and bake them into your food. I don’t give a shit how valuable—”

I pause.

Nicholas is laughing.

“Is this funny to you?” I’m shrill as a siren.

“Little bit,” he admits, trying to hide a grin. “And it’s buck-naked.

That’s the phrase, just so you know.”

“If you give that woman flowers,” I growl, “I’m going to—”

“Going to what?” He stands and comes toward me so fast I don’t have time to react.

His palms sink into the fabric of the couch on either side of my head, face hovering over mine. I try to shrink back but there’s nowhere to go.

My blood pumps so forcefully, it makes my heart hurt.

Nicholas slants me a wild look, eyes blazing. “What are you going to do, Naomi?”

There’s a frisson of anticipation and suspense in his tone; something that still hopes, in spite of our constant attacks. I reach for a sharp weapon but don’t find any. Facing him on our battlefield, I drop all my armor.

“Cry,” I whisper.

The strings of our reserve snap and he falls onto me, astride my lap, knees digging into the couch to support his weight. His fingers tangle in my hair and his lips find mine, soft and warm and inviting.

He isn’t gentle. Nicholas’s tongue darts along the seam of my lips in demand, and I open for him because my head is spinning and focus is a myth and he’s kissing me like this. Has he ever kissed me like this? If he has, I don’t remember it.

It takes me a couple seconds to catch up, but when I do I’m floored by how eager my body is to betray my better sense, forgetting the destructive things we’ve done to each other. All those thoughts slip underwater as I arch against him and he tilts his hips against mine, needing closer contact.

We’re kissing so hard that we keep forgoing the need to breathe. It’s unimportant at this point. Minor details.

The longer we touch, the more confused I am, until I begin to think I’ve got my facts flipped. I think I hate him eighteen percent.

Nicholas repositions us so that I’m on his lap instead, which lends me a thrilling dynamic of power. I could derail this right now if I wanted. Or I could tighten my grip around his wrists and kiss, bite, taste. I can do anything I like. I can feel that he’ll let me.

One thing needs to be cleared up right now, though. “You’re never giving anything to Stacy for as long as you live,” I inform him. “I don’t care if she asks you for a stick of gum. I don’t care if she asks you what time it is. She’s not getting a single thing from you.”

His wicked laugh shivers against my neck. “There is no Secret Santa.”

I rip away to study him, my fingers curling around his collar. “What?”

He doesn’t reply, so I tap his shoulder with the back of my hand. “No, seriously. What? 

Nicholas’s eyes are lust-inked and volatile. His voice scrapes from his throat. “Tell me, and don’t lie. Are you cheating on me with Zach? Have you ever, at any point?”

There’ve been a few clues so far that I’m stuck in a dream, but this confirms it. I stare at him closely, trying to figure out if he’s serious. He cannot be serious. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Please don’t. Don’t make me feel like this is all in my head.”

It’s the tortured way he says it, and the please, that sways me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been tender with Nicholas before, and what a shame is that?

I don’t know how to be vulnerable with him, but there’s no alternative here. I have to tread gingerly. I try to kiss him, but he doesn’t move his lips against mine, waiting for the truth, breath releasing in small, staggered pants. He’s just as jagged as I am.

“No,” I say, gazing into his eyes so that he knows I’m being honest.

“I’m not cheating on you with Zach or anyone else. I’ve never cheated.

Why would you ask that?”

His reply tumbles out in a rush: “You don’t like me being around any of your work friends. Zach hates me. Whenever I see him, he’s hostile for no reason. You laugh really loud when you read his texts. And you’ve lost interest in me, which isn’t in my head, either. I’ve felt you going away.”

What he says actually makes sense, but at the same time it’s so absurd I can’t help the laugh that bursts from my chest.

It’s the wrong reaction. Nicholas’s eyes flash with anger. He tries to push me off, but I surprise him by locking my arms around his neck. Still shaking with laughter, I say, “I’m sorry. I’m just imagining the look on Zach’s face if he heard you accuse him of messing around with me.”

He’s embarrassed and irritated and struggling in earnest now, so I hurry up. “He doesn’t like you because you’re a scary bogeyman dentist and he thinks you’re on the warpath to give him twenty root canals without anesthesia. He’d love knowing he’s been living in your head like this, because that’s just Zach. He enjoys irritating people. But no, there’s nothing going on between Zach and me. Ever. If you don’t believe me, you can go ask him. He and his boyfriend will get a kick out of it, I’m sure.”

Nicholas falls still, eyeing me skeptically. “Boyfriend?”

“Yep. I think he dates women, too, or he used to, anyway.” I shrug. “It’s none of my business. We’ve never been interested in each other like that.”

I narrow my eyes. “What about you? Have you ever cheated?”

“No.”

He sounds sincere. He looks sincere. I want to believe him, but—

“Not with Stacy?”

He swallows and averts his eyes. My stomach bottoms out. “I was talking about Stacy to mess with you. I just wanted a reaction. I wanted to see if you’d even care if you thought I was …” He’s at loose ends, trying to come up with a decent explanation. “I shouldn’t have—ahh.”

“You deliberately tried to make me think you might be into another woman? To hurt me?”

“Not to hurt you. To see if you were capable of being hurt by it. It sounds bad, but there’s a difference.” I’m not sure there is.

“You’re right, that does sound bad.”

But I’m not blameless in all this. Just a couple of days ago, I filed a millimeter of wood off the leg of his desk so it would wobble. I’ve tried to drive him nuts on purpose, too.

With that, I lean in and kiss him again. His surprise gives way to desire, hands grasping my hips. It’s electrifying, how illicit this feels to me. I’m not the same Naomi and he’s not the same Nicholas. It’s like I’m cheating on my fiancé. The kiss keeps changing its name with new meanings. It’s fast and quick, hard; then slow, exploring. We’re in sync through every transformation, patient and then not, curious and testing and desperate.

Above all, aware. I don’t forget who I’m kissing. I don’t tune out.

That’s the element standing out to me so strongly now: how alive this man is. Every piece of him, vivid, communicating with all of my senses.

It’s not that he’s never looked like this, or felt like this, or tasted like this.

It’s that I’ve been asleep. I wonder what kind of revelations he’s having about our kiss. What he’s discovering about me now.

It’s a wonderful relief that for these moments, we’re on the same wavelength. Fighting him has been exhausting and it’s a nice change of pace to steam up the room in other ways. I want to generate a fog of lust so thick that he’ll never be able to find his way out.

He tastes like candy, the kind that starts off sour and dissolves into unbearable sweetness on your tongue. We’re boiled down to base needs and nothing more. Hot, searing skin. Lowered lashes. Heavy breathing.

Hands everywhere. I want him to touch me without wondering what I’m thinking—take the body, leave the heart. Being so close that he can’t study me is a blessing, hiding right in front of him, distracting him with my mouth on his neck every time he hesitates and tilts, searching out my thoughts.

I remember thinking during kisses past that him being too close to see my expressions provided good cover. I’m not sure what those kisses meant to either of us. For me, maybe unsatisfying release. For him, I think reconnection that never happened.

I’m still trying to decide what this kiss means when we break it. We pull away slowly, watching each other. He might have weapons behind his back, but somehow I don’t think so. Mine are within arm’s reach.

The emotions racing through me are so bewildering, I’m grateful when he gets up to go adjust the heat settings. I’m not usually a jumpy person, but right now I’m hurtling toward a full-blown panic attack. I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know what’s going on in Nicholas’s head these days. I certainly don’t know what’s going on in mine. I run to my bedroom, conscious of him watching me all the way up the stairs. Again, it’s like I’m moving underwater, under his microscope, Nicholas’s clever brain decoding messages I’m unknowingly sending with my gait, how far apart my fingers are splayed, the color in my cheeks. It’s never been so obvious that he can see right through me. The question is: how long has he been looking?

I can still feel his gaze pinned on me even while I’m lying in bed, heart thumping erratically, eyes wide open to absolute darkness.

It’s very late when I think I hear the doorknob rattle. I’ve locked it out of habit. Maybe I’m imagining the noise. I close my eyes for a moment, meaning to get up and go see, but when they open again a second later it’s dawn.


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