I NEVER THOUGHT A PHONE call could change my life.
Clothes are flying everywhere as I ransack the bedroom, grabbing everything I own and stuffing it into the open duffle bag on the bed. I don’t care how messy I pack right now. I don’t care if every article of clothing is wrinkled beyond recognition. I don’t want to stay here another second, and now, I don’t have to.
“What are you doin,’ baby?”
I look up at Rocco, standing in the doorway of the bedroom, self-righteous smirk in place.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“It looks like you’re boltin.’”
“Yeah, I’m boltin.’ I should’ve never come here in the first place.”
He grins and leans his shoulder against the doorframe. “Where you gonna go, huh? Back to sleepin’ in your car? You ain’t got nobody, Beth. No family . . .”
“I do have family,” I bite out as my bottom lip begins to tremble. It ceases with the sharp breath I take in. “Turns out my momma has a sister, and she told me I can live with her. That’s where I’m going.”
He shakes his head slowly through a laugh and I look away, grabbing my Kindle off the dresser and lying it on top of my balled up T-shirts.
“You takin’ that with you?”
I freeze with my hand on the zipper, slowly lifting my head to meet his icy-blue stare.
I’d never beg for anything from this man. But this, this I might just beg for.
“Go ahead,” he says, pushing off the frame and straightening up. “What the fuck would I do with it?”
“Thank you,” I reply sincerely, as he turns and heads back down the hallway.
I am grateful for a lot of things Rocco has given me. Food, shelter, money when I wanted a nice headstone for my momma. But there are other things he’s given me that I wish I could give back. Things I wish I could leave behind.
Zipping up the duffle and securing it over my shoulder, I step into my old, tattered Dr. Martens, grab my keys off the dresser, and tuck my cell phone into my back pocket.
I’m almost to the front door when Rocco puts his body in between me and the only family I have left.
“Where you goin’?”
“None of your business.”
His chest shakes with silent laughter. Mocking. Always mocking me. He tilts his head. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll be walking back through this door eventually.”
I reach up and adjust the strap on my shoulder, just as the whore Rocco picked up from God knows where giggles from her spot on the couch. I don’t need to look to know she’s naked. Rocco is, so why wouldn’t she be?
“I’m never coming back here,” I say through a clenched jaw, swallowing down my emotions. “You said you would never keep me here, Rocco. You said once I had a place to go . . .”
“Beth,” he says in the softest voice I’ve ever heard him use, “I ain’t keepin’ you here. I don’t need to, baby. Fact is, it’ll be real sweet when you come crawlin’ back to me. I’m lookin’ real forward to that.” His smile hits me, the same smile that lured me in three months ago, and I fight against my heart’s automatic response to this side of him. But it beats wildly in my chest, desperate for this type of connection with someone.
I don’t want it with you.
His hands mold to my face, and I brace myself for his next words. I know this mind-game he works on me. I’ve heard countless versions of it. It’s his way of keeping me here, because he would never force me to stay against my will. He’s never forced me to do anything.
Rocco gets off on your need for him. Not the other way around.
“No one will ever love you the way I do. No one, you hear me?”
I don’t respond. I don’t give him anything except my cold stare.
“Those fake pricks you read about on that fucking tablet of yours don’t exist. I’ve told you that. If they did, do you know what they would do?” He leans closer, brushing his nose against my temple.
I close my eyes to shut him out, to keep these words from staying with me.
“They’d fuck you cause you got a hot pussy, then they’d toss you out ‘cause they wouldn’t want you. No one will want you, baby.”
No. I don’t believe that. I’ve never believed that.
I jerk my head out of his hands and move past him, swinging the door open with enough force, the hinges shriek.
His laughter fades in the distance behind me, and I pray I never hear it again. It’s almost as bad as the words he uses to break me down with. But I’m not broken, and someone will want me. He’s wrong. He has to be wrong.
I slip my phone out of my pocket and dial the number I programmed a few hours ago. The one I didn’t know about until today.
“Hello?” A sleepy voice answers on the second ring.
“Aunt Hattie. It’s Beth.”
I hear movement, covers rustling, then a soft, “Sweetie, it’s Beth,” before she speaks into the receiver. “Are you coming, darlin’?”
I smile, my first real smile in months.
I WAS IN LOVE ONCE.
Once. One time too many.
I don’t remember what it feels like. I won’t let myself remember it. I’ve burned that part of me, stepped away from the ashes so that I don’t have this constant reminder of how pathetic I’d let myself become. That’s what love did to me nine years ago. It made me pathetic.
So fucking blind.
I know what kind of man I am. I know exactly what happens when I allow some piece of ass to become anything more than what I need them to be, and I won’t make that same mistake again. I fell fast and hard with her, but that shit was something I couldn’t control. What’s worse was I didn’t even want control.
I wanted it desperate. Thoughtless.
But that’s how I am. It’s how I still fucking am, and it’s what makes anything other than mindless, detached fucking out of the question now. I won’t leave myself helpless for someone again, not when I know how it’ll end for me.
So, I keep my heart out of it. I have to.
I’m a smart guy when I’m thinking with my dick, but when I allow the weakest part of me to get involved, I’m the dumbest motherfucker on the planet.
My heart isn’t mixed up in this. It’s not even in the damn state right now.
“I won’t fuck you again after tonight.” I drop my head and my voice, speaking against her hair. The scent of berries and cigarettes invade my senses. Not the most appealing combination, but my dick got past it enough to be interested.
She shifts her attention off the bar and looks up at me from her stool. Waiting.
“This is it. And it’s not a date. I don’t do that shit either,” I continue, needing to clarify this before I take her out of here. “Do you get where I’m going with this, baby?”
I never used to have this speech rehearsed. I figured most women were keen to have casual sex, but unfortunately, I’ve brought one too many of them home who seemed okay with this arrangement, only to have them clinging to me like damn Saran Wrap the next morning, begging to hang out for the day.