Easy (Contours of the Heart #1)(16)


by Tammara Webber

“Aww, what a sweet and not at all demeaning sentiment.”

She laughed while she pulled on platform heels. “I know, right? What a bunch of pricks.” Her smile fell. “Seriously, though, I could use a buffer between me and Chaz that night. Not that he’ll, you know, bother me. But I know some girls who’ve just been waiting for me to be out of the way. They’ll be on him like ticks on a country dog, and I really don’t wanna see it.”

I nodded. “I understand—and eww on that visual... though it’s revoltingly appropriate. Can’t you just skip the brotherhood thing? You could have the Asian Flu. Or Malaria. I’ll vouch.”

Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she grabbed her purse and walked to the door like a runway model—not the slightest wobble. “Nope. It’s a huge deal. Besides, I’ve gotta face it sometime. Plus, I already RSVP’d for us both. And I have a couple of weeks to mentally prepare for it.” She yanked the door open. “We’re going power shopping after break, though. I’m gonna make that ass**le gnaw his own hand off that night, dammit.”

As the door shut behind her, my phone trilled a text alert.

Lucas: Do you still want to see the charcoal?

Me: Yes

Lucas: Tonight?

Me: Ok

Lucas: I’ll be outside your place in 10? Pull your hair back and wear something warm.

Me: You aren’t bringing it over?

Lucas: I was bringing you to it. Unless you don’t want to.

Me: I’ll come down, but I need 15 minutes.

Lucas: I’ll wait. No rush.

I tore around the room like an insane person, stripping off my flannel PJs and snatching a clean bra and panties from the clean-but-not-put-away laundry pile. Warm clothes… Sweats? No. Jeans. Black UGGs. The soft sapphire sweater that made Erin say, “That makes your eyes pop.” After brushing my teeth, I brushed my hair and secured it at the nape—though I wasn’t sure why.

Grabbing my black wool peacoat on the way out the door, I left the building by the main exit. I hadn’t been in the stairwell since Buck caught me there, even when it meant extra steps.

Lucas was at the curb, leaning against a motorcycle, arms crossed over his chest. Along with his now-familiar boots and jeans, he wore a dark brown leather jacket that made his hair look black. Watching me with those light eyes, his gaze didn’t waver from me, no matter the distracting Saturday night noises of residents coming and going. He didn’t hide the unhurried top-to-bottom scan that left parts of me molten and longing for him to touch me like he had in my room.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I reminded myself of his deception in a failing attempt to douse the desire spreading through me like lava—slow-moving, heavy and hot. My trepidation about his motorcycle helped cool it to some degree. I’d never been on one before, and couldn’t say I’d ever intended to change that fact. When I walked up to him, he held out an extra helmet.

“I guess this is the reason for the hair guidelines,” I said, taking the helmet and examining it hesitantly.

“You can take it back down when we get to my place, if you want. I didn’t figure you’d want to stuff it under the helmet… or leave it loose and let it get all tangled on the ride.”

I shook my head, wondering if I needed to undo the straps completely or just loosen them.

“Never been on a bike before?”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Rona and Olivia exit the building behind a group of boys. Both girls stopped and stared at Lucas, and then me, while I pretended not to notice them. “Um. No…”

“Let me help you with that, then.”

After I put my bag’s strap over my head and settled it crosswise over my chest, he took the helmet and placed it on my head, securing the straps under my chin.

I felt like a bobblehead figurine.

Once we were both helmeted and on the bike, I reached my arms around him and clasped my hands over his abdomen, marveling at how firm it was.

“Hold on,” he said, shoving the kickstand back. His suggestion was unnecessary as the engine roared to life—I had a death grip on his torso, my entire front pressed securely against his back, my chin tucked and my eyes squeezed shut. I tried to imagine I was on a roller coaster—perfectly safe and attached to a track instead of hurtling through the streets on a flimsy five hundred pounds or so of metal and rubber, hoping some drunk in an SUV wouldn’t run a red light and flatten us.

The ride to his place—an apartment over a detached garage—took less than ten minutes. My hands were numb from the combination of the grasp each had on the other and the chilled November air rushing over them. As I stood rubbing them together, he parked the bike on a paved section between the garage and the open steps before turning and taking my hands in his, one at a time, and massaging warmth into them. “I should have reminded you to wear gloves.”

I pulled my hand from his and pointed to the house not more than fifty feet away. “Do your parents live there?”

“No.” He turned to walk up the wooden stairway and I followed. “I rent the apartment.”

He unlocked the door to a huge studio with a wall, but no door, defining what I assumed was the bedroom in the far right corner. A small open kitchen was on the left; a bathroom between the two. On the sofa, a huge orange tabby cat regarded me with characteristic feline apathy before hopping down and stalking to the door.

“This is Francis.” Lucas opened the door and the tom wandered lazily outside, stopping on the landing to clean a paw.

I laughed, moving to the center of the room. “Francis? He looks more like a… Max. Or maybe a King.”

He shut and locked the door, his ghost smile turning his mouth up on one side. “Trust me, he’s superior enough without a macho name to back it up.”

He shrugged his jacket off as he crossed the room to me, and I stared up at him, starting to unbutton my coat. “Names are important,” I said.

He nodded, dropping his eyes to my fingers. “Yes.” I pushed the oversized buttons through the slits slowly, top to bottom, as though there was nothing beneath. Sliding his thumbs inside the lapels, he dragged the coat from my shoulders, his thumbs brushing down the arms of my sweater. “Soft.”

“It’s cashmere.” My voice was nearly breathless, and though I wanted to follow up on my statement about names, wanted to press him to tell me why he was misleading me, I couldn’t jar the words from my throat.

The coat fell past my fingertips and he turned aside, tossed it on top of his jacket. “I had an ulterior motive for bringing you here.”

I blinked. “You did?”

Grimacing, he took my hands. “I want to show you something, but I don’t want to freak you out.” He breathed a sigh. “This morning—that last thing—the ground defense…” He watched me closely, and I tried to look away, anywhere but his eyes, because my face was burning, humiliated, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from his. “I know you don’t believe it would work. I want to show you it will.”

“What do you mean, show me?”

His hands tightened on mine. “I want to teach you exactly how to execute it. Here. With no one else watching.”

It was the replication of the position itself, but also the thought of him watching that had been so unnerving this morning, but he couldn’t know that.

“Trust me, Jacqueline. It works. Will you let me show you?”

I nodded.

He led me to the center of the floor space, pulled me down to my knees next to him. “Lie flat. On your stomach.” Heart pounding, I obeyed. “The majority of men have no martial arts training whatsoever, so they won’t be able to counter the moves correctly. And even those who do won’t be expecting what you’re going to do. Remember what Ralph said—the key is to get away.”

I nodded, my cheek on the carpet, my heart slamming against the floor.

“Do you remember the moves?”

I shook my head, shutting my eyes.

“It’s okay. I could tell you were freaking out in class. Your friend did the right thing, not forcing you. I don’t want to force you, either. I just want to help you feel more in control.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“If you find yourself in this position, you want to do these moves automatically, without wasting time or energy trying to buck him off.”

I stiffened as his inadvertent use of Buck’s name.

“What?”

“That’s his name. Buck.”

I heard him inhale through his nose, like he was trying to maintain control. “I will remember that.” He was silent for a moment. “The first move seems counterproductive because it provides no leverage. But that’s the thing—you’re taking his leverage away. Choose the side you want to roll onto, and put that arm straight up and out, like you’re standing and reaching for the ceiling.”

I put my left arm up as he described.

“Good. Now, with your opposite arm, you give yourself leverage, and you remove his already precarious balance. Palm flat on the ground, elbow up. Shove down and roll to your side, throwing him off.”

I followed his instructions—easy to do, with no weight on top of me.

“Can we try it? I’m going to push your shoulders down and use my weight to hold you there. If you have a problem, just say so and I’m off. Okay?”

I fought my panic. “Okay.”

His gentleness as he knelt over me, holding my shoulders to the floor, was so contrary to Buck’s violence that I almost cried. He lay over me, his breath in my ear. “Arm straight up.” I obeyed. “Palm flat, and push off, hard, and roll onto your side.”

I did as he said, and he tumbled off. “Perfect. Let’s try it again.”

We went through the moves again, and again, and again, and each time he was more forceful and harder to displace, but still, I threw him off, every time. Until I mistakenly pushed up with my hips, trying to rise.

He exhaled harshly. “That won’t work, Jacqueline—though it’s the natural response to something unwanted on top of you. The only sure way to dislodge a man in this position is rolling to the side. I’m too strong for you to move me by pressing up. You have to fight that inclination.”

Finally, we tried it more for real than any other time. He shoved me down, and my arm shot up and out, but I had a difficult time getting my hand free for leverage. Finally, I switched arms and got the opposite palm to the floor, shoved and rolled, throwing him off and to the side. “Shit!” he laughed, facing me as we lay on the floor. “You swapped sides on me!”

I smiled at his praise, and his gaze flicked to my lips.

“This is the part where you’d get up and run like hell.” His voice was gravelly.

“But won’t he chase me?” We lay on our sides, two feet of carpet between us, neither making a move to sit up.

He nodded. “He might. But most of these guys don’t want challenging prey. Only a handful will go after you, if you run away screaming.”

“Ah.”

He reached out, took my hand. “I was supposed to show you your portrait, I think.”

“So it won’t seem like you brought me here under completely false pretenses?”

His eyes flared and my breath caught. “I do want you to see the charcoal, but I admit that was secondary to what we just did. Do you feel more confident now, that it’ll work?”

“Yes.”

He leaned up on his elbow, closing the distance between us, pushing his hand into my hair and moving it to cup my face. “I did have one other concealed motive for bringing you here.” Leaning down slowly, his lips met mine and the fire that had been embers since he left my room over a week ago flamed. I opened my mouth and his tongue pressed inside, stroked mine and withdrew. Turning his head, he moved his mouth over mine, sucking my lower lip into his mouth, caressing it with his tongue and releasing it to pay attention to the upper. His tongue ran over the sensitive space above my top teeth and I gasped.