Page 12

I moved my face closer to his skin and noticed how his chest rose and fell in quick succession.

How my breath caused goose bumps to break out over his smooth flesh.

I found the beginning of the poem, which was marked by a small star and read it aloud. “Unfurl your muscles. Slip off your skin. Drop your guts in a heap on the floor.”

I felt my airway constrict. Damn, this was profound. I continued. “Nuzzle inside the hollow of my bones. Let our breaths mingle as one. Turn liquid for me. Only for me. Bury your essence inside of my soul.” I sat up and let the fabric of his shirt fall back in place. I was lightheaded, my tongue thick in my mouth. I stared straight ahead at the cars in front of us on the freeway, trying to digest what I had just read of that beautiful and multilayered poem.

“Bennett, that’s just . . . wow,” I said, trying to meet his eyes. But he kept them trained on the road.

“What does it mean to you?”

“I believe it’s my turn, Ms. Michaels.”

“No! Time out, Bennett,” I said, gritting my teeth. “I really want to know. Please, tell me.”

He stared at me for a lengthy moment, then back at the road again, before answering.

“It’s written by a modern-day poet,” he said, almost reluctantly. “And it’s a reminder to me—of two very different kinds of love.”

I held my breath, praying for him to keep going. This man, this gorgeous man, continued to astound me at every turn. I pleaded with my eyes for him to continue.

“There’s the kind of love that’s unhealthy, all-consuming. You give up entirely who you are for that other person. Like my mother has done her whole damn life.”

He took a deep and meaningful breath.

“And the other kind of love is freeing. It allows you to be your best self. You’re seamless when you’re with the person you love unfathomably—but never invisible.”

As I sat there listening to him, something profound happened in the very center of me. Stuff began rearranging and clicking into place. My heart burst through my chest and landed at Bennett’s feet— asking, pleading, begging him to smooth out her creases, sooth all her wounded parts, mend her shattered center.

I couldn’t even talk any sense into her.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?” he whispered. He gave me a nervous sidelong glance.

“Because I have no words,” I said, still in awe of him. “What you just said . . . it . . . it left me . . .

breathless.” We didn’t speak for long minutes afterward, both of us lost in our own thoughts. I waited for my heart to get her butt home, back inside my chest, so I could breathe freely again.

Bennett was the first to speak. “Why the word survive?”

Bennett had shared some deep beliefs with me. It was only fair that I opened myself up, too. At least a little. I’ll admit he was way braver than me.

“Because I survived my mother. Growing up with her and all her . . . men. Her shit. Her selfishness.” Her betrayal, I left out. I huffed out a breath. “And I hope against hope that I can help my baby brother survive that woman, too.”

He grabbed my hand and tugged it toward him, squeezed it. “Thank you, Avery, for sharing that.” Like he knew how tough it was to open myself up to him. Damn, he got me sometimes.

Chapter Twelve

“My family lives just off this exit,” Bennett said, pointing east. “You ready for this?’ “I’m ready,” I said, fisting my seatbelt strap.

Meeting Bennett’s family? What the hell was I thinking?

He pulled into the first development off the exit and then down the second side street. The house was a ranch with peeling paint and half-dead flowers in the garden. But it had a sweet white picket fence that surrounded the property, and the lawn looked freshly cut.

We waited at the door as he knocked. A lady who was unmistakably his mother swung open the door. “Why didn’t you use your key, honey?”

She looked different from that picture I had seen in his apartment. Her hair was a mess, her blouse wrinkled, and a cigarette hung from her lips, like she needed a long drag to help soothe her nerves.

Hell if she didn’t remind me of my own mother.

“Mom, this is Avery,” Bennett said as we stepped inside.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, my palms sweaty and slick. I wondered what this family would think of me and my friendship with Bennett. I was glad I at least put on mascara and ran a brush through my wavy hair this morning. Not that I should want to look presentable for them. Or pretty.

“Benny!” the twins sang in unison, and came bounding down the stairs. They were identical and had long brown hair, and I wondered how anyone told them apart.

“Benny?” I mouthed to him. He narrowed his eyes at me.

“Lex, Soph,” he said picking each girl up and twirling her around. “Where’s Taylor?”

“Taylor,” his mother bellowed around her cigarette. “Get your ass down here!” “Coming.” Taylor appeared at the top of the stairs with a baby in her arms. He was maybe a year old, and I remembered Bennett saying something about her getting pregnant last year. I just never considered her raising the baby. I don’t know why.

When she landed on the bottom step, she said, “Hey.”

She was stunning. She could have been Bennett’s twin, with her dark curly locks and perfect complexion. Her eyes were blue, like his mother’s. The twins had hazel eyes.

“Everybody, this is my friend Avery,” Bennett announced. Right on cue the baby started wailing.

Bennett took his nephew from Taylor’s arms and circled the room. “Toby, what’s wrong, buddy?”

Toby stopped crying and stared at Bennett. Bennett made some crazy face and Toby cracked up.

“Again,” Toby said. Bennett made the same face over and over, until Toby was laughing so hard no sound came out of his mouth. It was completely endearing.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Mrs. Reynolds asked. She ran her cigarette butt under the faucet before pitching it in the garbage can under the sink.

Well, at least she knew about fire safety. But all of that secondhand smoke around these kids. Who was I kidding? I was probably a walking billboard for what a parent’s secondhand smoke did to you.

“Got anything with caffeine?” I asked.

Taylor opened the refrigerator and turned to me. “Diet Coke?”

“Perfect.” I looked around the kitchen. It was a wreck. Baby toys were everywhere, the counters were cluttered, and the dishes were piled a mile high. Bennett came around the corner carrying Toby.

“Haven’t the twins been doing their chores?” Bennett asked, looking at the kitchen sink. “Mom, you’ve got to enforce that stuff.”

She fished another cigarette out of her pack. “They haven’t been listening to me.”

“Alexis and Sophie, start on the dishes,” Bennett said in an authoritative voice. “Now!”

I’d never heard him sound like that, and it took me by surprise. The twins dragged themselves to the sink, both sets of eyes glaring at him. “Do they listen to Henry?” Bennett mumbled to Taylor.

“Yeah.” She sighed. “When he’s here.”

“He’s been working a lot of hours,” his mother interjected. “Don’t start, Bennett. You know he’s a good man.”

“Just making sure, Momma.” Bennett narrowed his eyes at Taylor in a silent form of conversation and she just shrugged. For the first time, I noticed the bags under her eyes, and I wondered if it was because of staying up late with the baby and then getting herself to school every morning.

I thought about how tough being a teen mom would be, and Bennett’s vow about not raising his own child so young suddenly rang true. I was starting to get it. Really get it.

“How do you and Bennett know each other?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.

“We live in the same building and attend the same university,” I said. I noticed Taylor had taken the baby back from her brother and was now feeding him a bottle.

“She’s an LPN—which is a kind of nurse,” Bennett said, placing his hand on the small of my back.

“She’s working on her RN degree.”

His warm fingers made me flinch, but I also liked his hand there; it felt safe and protective, and I wasn’t sure I wanted him to remove it.

His gesture didn’t go unnoticed by his mother or sister, either.

“I’m interested in health care,” Taylor said, her voice soft, almost humble. “I’m taking an elective at my high school.”

“I’d be happy to talk to you about it, anytime,” I said. “Just say the word.”

“Cool,” she said, adjusting the bottle for Toby. “Thanks.”

“How are you doing on homework, guys?” Bennett asked the twins. “You keeping up?”

“Taylor’s been helping us,” Alexis said, wiping a dish with a soapy sponge.

Damn, I felt sorry for Taylor. Sounded like she had a huge load. And I couldn’t help wondering if Toby’s father was involved in their lives. Somehow I doubted it. Bennett gripped Taylor’s arm. I saw concern in his eyes. The same concern I had for my own brother. “You doing okay, Tay?”

“Hanging in there, Ben,” she said. “Actually, Henry’s helping me with calculus and rides and stuff.” Henry. The stepfather. Sounded like he might be involved with these kids.

I shivered, remembering Tim taking an interest in my school work, and hoped Henry’s intentions were sincere.

I noticed these siblings spoke as if their mother weren’t even in the room. And she didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she had planted herself at the kitchen table with another cigarette and a soda. At least I hoped that was what was in her glass. It reminded me so much of home that I wanted to slap her silly and tell her to get ahold of her family and her responsibilities.

Now I understood why Bennett felt so damn accountable for this family.

“We’ve gotta head back soon, Mom,” Bennett said.

“I’ll let Henry know you’ll be here next week,” she said. “He’ll be disappointed you didn’t stay. He planned on grilling steaks and chicken for dinner.”

I wondered again about this Henry guy and whether he was a decent man. I felt protective of Taylor, like I wanted to invite her to live with me or Bennett. That was just how it felt to have so much responsibility put on you as a kid. When you finally broke away, the anxiety still lingered.

“Tay, you wanted to show me something upstairs?” Bennett asked, and a look passed between them that told me they needed to talk about something. “Do you mind?” Bennett asked me. “I’ll be right back down.”

“No problem,” I said, looking at some of the kids’ artwork on the refrigerator. The twins were still washing dishes and arguing about some video game.

I watched Bennett and Taylor make their way upstairs, and then turned to his mother. I wasn’t even sure what to say to her. Like with my own mother, I was pretty sure we had nothing in common.

“He’s smitten with you,” Mrs. Reynolds said out of the blue, puffing out a ring of smoke. “Hope you’re not a heartbreaker.”

“We’re . . . we’re just friends.”

“Sure you are.” She took a sip of her drink. “I see how he looks at you.”

“I’m not really sure what to say to that.”

“He doesn’t bring any girls around here,” she said and then sighed. “He’s a good boy.”

“I agree,” I said and sat in the chair across from her. “The best.”

“Well, he’s needed around here . . . a lot,” she said, her voice wavering. “So he doesn’t have time to get all caught up in some girl.”

What she was really saying was that she continued to lean on her son, instead of relying on herself, and that just boiled my blood.

“I hear you loud and clear,” I said, meeting her hard gaze.

She puffed her cigarette and turned away. Like she’d said her piece and was done with me.

“He’s an adult now,” I said, more for Bennett’s sake than for hers. And maybe a little for mine, too.

“He’s bound to make his own life, live his own dreams.”

I looked up and saw Bennett paused on the top step of the staircase. His brows were drawn together.

“You starting stuff, Momma?” The question was one he’d probably said to her a thousand times, and I realized it wasn’t my place to be here saying anything at all. They had a long history together, and even though I thought I understood it, I knew there was plenty more I didn’t.

“Everything’s cool.” I stood up. “It was nice meeting your family, Bennett. I’ll wait in the car.”

When Bennett came outside, his face was drawn, his jaw set tight. As he backed out of the driveway, he said, “I’m sorry I brought you here.”

“I’m not.” I placed my hand on his arm and felt him twitch. “Thankfully, Bennett, neither one of us is defined by our families.” I stared out the side window and felt him relax beside me.

We didn’t speak again until we got on the freeway. “What did she say to you?” “She was just being a protective mother,” I said. It was a lie mixed with the truth. A partial truth.

“Then you’ve got the wrong mother,” he hissed. “The only person she’s protective of is herself.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe it’s not so black-and-white all the time. I mean, you turned out pretty okay.”