Authors: Tabatha Vargo
Still, his friend cussed me and pulled at my clothes ripping my shirt and pissing me off even more. Every time he touched me, it was like throwing fuel on the fire. I reared back to hit him again, but his friend caught my arm, and the blaze inside me grew hotter.
I shook him off, not even bothering to turn and face him, but as I shook him from my arm, the back of my hand caught something soft and warm—sucking me from my fire burning haze and bringing me back to reality.
I turned around, realizing it wasn’t his friend I’d hit, and when I did, I saw Nicole sitting on the asphalt behind me cupping her cheek. Her eyes were wide and full of pain—her mouth open in shock.
I’d hit her.
Everything shut down, and devastation swooped in squeezing my heart until I felt like it would pop. I rushed to her side, leaving the asshole and his friend, and tried to move her hand to see if I’d left any damage. She turned away, not allowing me to see the side of her face.
Forgetting my rule to never touch Nicole, I scooped her into my arms and carried her across the parking lot to my car. She leaned into my chest; her touch made my skin ache yet brought relief at the same time.
My body was tense, but I breathed her in, the scent of her shampoo invading my senses. She smelled amazing, and I hated myself for even thinking those kinds of things when there was no telling what kind of damage I’d done to her cheek.
I set her on the hood of my car and turned her to face me. Moving between her legs, I brushed at her hands to get them away from her face, but she refused to move her hand. Still, the air was punched from my lungs when I saw the reddened skin of her cheek between her slender fingers.
“Nicole, I …” The words broke on top of my tongue, and when I opened my mouth to try again, only a squeak sounded.
I couldn’t even speak. Nothing I could say would make what I’d done better. I’d never in my life put my hands on a woman, and the thought of hurting Nicole physically made me sick to my stomach.
“Don’t worry about it, Tyson. It’s fine. Don’t freak out or anything. It was an accident.”
And then she moved her hand, and I saw the red splotch of skin on her cheek where the back of my hand had struck her. My stomach bottomed out. Without even thinking, I took her cheeks in my palms to examine the damage in better lighting, tilting her head toward the parking lot lights. I’d always hated myself and everything I stood for, but seeing what I’d done to her delicate flesh made me despise myself even more.
Her eyes moved over my face, gauging my reaction once more.
“Seriously, Tyson. Just forget about it. Let’s go home. Mom’s probably freaking out since we’ve been gone so long.”
She turned away like it was no big deal, but it was a big fucking deal to me. No man should ever put his hands on a woman, and while I didn’t know it was Nicole touching me, that was no excuse.
Running my thumb over her fragile cheek, I winced when I felt the tiny knot forming just under her skin.
“Nicole, you know I’d never …” I swallowed, the words clogging my throat. “I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”
When I’d promised myself I’d never put my hands on Nicole, I thought it would be under much different circumstances. Never in my wildest nightmares did I think I’d ever physically harm her. And while she was making it out to be no big deal, I couldn’t help but feel like my tainted soul was slowly clashing with all of her perfection.
TYSON HAD NEVER
touched me so sweetly.
That’s not true.
Once, when I was fourteen, I sprained my ankle doing cartwheels in the front yard with Amber. He was super caring and sweet as he carried me in the house so Dad could check my ankle. I’d felt like a princess as held me close to his heart, and I’d taken that time to breathe him in since I’d never been that close to him before.
That was different, though. Back then, he wasn’t caressing my cheeks and gazing into my eyes. Back then, he wasn’t standing between my thighs rubbing against my center every time he leaned in to take a closer look at my cheek. I felt like I was about to combust.
He had to know what he was doing to me. My body was responding to his touches in a way that it never had before. My heartbeat was throbbing between my legs, and if he didn’t back away and take me home, I knew it wasn’t going to be long before I was embarrassing myself and throwing myself at him again.
“Really, it’s fine,” I repeated.
And it was.
Sure, it hurt like hell. Tyson had large, solid hands. But if there was one thing I knew about Tyson, it was that he’d die before he ever hurt a hair on my head. It was my fault for jumping in the middle of three men fighting. I should’ve known better, but the last thing I wanted was for Tyson to get arrested for fighting on Thanksgiving.
The way he was looking at me. I wasn’t sure if I loved it or hated it, but his black eyes moved over my face, taking in my cheeks, nose, and lips, before connecting with my eyes.
His thumb skimmed my cheek, the pad rough against my skin, and I couldn’t help myself; I closed my eyes and enjoyed his touch.
He moved into me, his narrow hips pushing against my inner thighs, and I slid forward on the hood of his car to get closer. Opening my eyes, I scanned his face for his reaction. He licked his thick lips, and his eyes dipped down to my mouth like he wanted to kiss me.
“You’re so beautiful.” He whispered so low I almost didn’t hear him.
That was a first—a first that made my heart beat so fast I got dizzy. Tyson never commented on my looks. He’d never even told me I was pretty. Once, when we were younger, he said I looked nice before a performance, but that was it.
Tyson thought I was beautiful.
Reaching up, I hesitantly twisted my fingers is his thick locks of hair. It was soft and had grown out a bit since the last time I’d seen him. I took my time, shifting my fingers through his soft waves as I waited for him to tense up and move away from me, but he never did. He stayed, his eyes devouring my face as a confused expression transformed his features.
“You’re the beautiful one.”
And he was.
He was perfection inside and out, and he had no idea … he never did.
At my words, he pulled away as if I’d broken our strange trance. As usual, he ran his fingers through his hair in aggravation.
“No,” he said adamantly. “I’m not.”
I reached for him, hoping to bring him back to our moment, but again, he pulled away from me.
“I keep fucking this up,” he gritted. “Why am I such a fuck-up?”
I shook my head. “You’re not a fuck-up. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Again, his eyes connected with mine, and he swallowed hard. Finally, his face cleared, and I knew he’d solidified his decision to walk away from me once again.
“Let’s get you home,” he said, backing away from me and allowing the cold fall air to settle between us.
He turned away and started toward the driver’s side of his car, but I followed behind him once again, gripping my fingers into his shirt to stop him.
“Don’t do this again, Tyson. Let’s just talk about this.”
He pulled at my fingers, releasing his shirt from my grip. “There’s nothing to talk about. I hurt you. I’ll just keep hurting you.”
hurting me!” I yelled in aggravation, making him freeze. “But not the way you think. You hurt me every time you pull away from me like this.”
He shook his head, pulling the car door open with a loud creak.
“That’s not me hurting you. That’s me protecting you.”
“Protecting me? From what? I don’t need protection from you, Tyson. You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”
I moved closer to him, his body going tense and his eyes glittering down at me.
“Goddamnit, Nicole, just stop!” he growled, making me jump. “It’s never going to happen. Let it go.”
Like before, my heart dipped, and pain lanced through me like a hundred hot knives.
Just let it go
, he’d said.
Fine, I’d give him exactly what he wanted. I’d thought I was done before leaving for school, but I was serious this time. I was done. I couldn’t do this anymore. I wouldn’t keep chasing him.
“I can’t do this anymore. I won’t do it. This is the last time I throw myself at you. Whatever this is,” I said, motioning between the two of us, “it’s over. Done.”
He nodded in agreement, his dark eyes scanning my face once more before he moved to get into his car.
“Let’s get you home.”
And then he slammed his car door and waited for me to get in. Once I got inside the car, he turned the radio up again. He made it impossible for us to talk, but I didn’t care. I was done talking. I was done with Tyson and everything I thought I ever wanted from him.
Tyson didn’t get out of the car when we got home. Instead, he handed me the bag with the aluminum foil and paper towels.
“Tell them I said thanks for dinner,” he said without even looking at me.
And then he took off, his engine roaring loudly when he pulled away from the stop sign at the end of the street.
I didn’t even realize until he was turning out of the neighborhood that I’d left the bag with my tampons in it on the sidewalk outside the store. I’d gone back for them since I didn’t want to buy them in front of him, and with all the crazy going on, I hadn’t even realized I’d dropped them.
I took Dad’s car back to the store, taking the long way to have a little alone time.
Emotionally, I was hurt. My heart was broken, and my mind wouldn’t stop running.
Physically, I was hurt. My face throbbed where Tyson had accidentally hit me.
Bruising formed around the ache, marking me and reminding me of the way he’d touched me after the accident. I had to lie to my parents about where the bruise came from, making up an elaborate story about walking into the wall. I’m sure they knew it was bull, but they didn’t press.
As for Tyson, I couldn’t think about that situation anymore. I had to focus on school and life. I needed to think about the things that really mattered, and an imaginary connection with a man who obviously wanted nothing to do with me wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t see Tyson again before it was time to head back to New York, and for the first time ever, that was fine by me. Seeing him again would’ve only made it worse. So I said my goodbyes to my family at the airport and got on the plane without looking back.
Whatever was going on with Tyson was no more, and for the first time in a long while, I felt good about it.
THE MONTH OF
December brought two things: tons of choreography for our winter production and my first date with Russell Landry, a second-year student who couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off me.
I actually met him at the Starbucks close to the school and had no idea that he attended Juilliard, as well, until midway through our conversation over pumpkin spice lattes. He paid for both, which I thought was way decent of him.
He was a nice guy … Tyson’s opposite in every way. Maybe that was the attraction. Maybe after being hurt by Tyson, I wanted nothing to do with his type ever again. It made sense considering.
Where Tyson was tall and muscled, Russell was shorter and had the slender muscles of a male dancer. He was funny and easygoing, which was a nice change. And after two days of innocent flirting, he asked me on our first date.
I agreed, feeling a bit nervous since I hadn’t dated much over the years, but once we were seated at the table and he started to make me laugh, I began to loosen up.
Russell wasn’t dark and brooding like Tyson. He was fair-skinned and blond. His green eyes had permanent premature wrinkles around them, which I knew were from the many smiles he handed out. Honestly, he was perfect for me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel extreme guilt when he dropped me at my room door and kissed me sweetly on the lips.
“I had fun tonight,” he said.
I nodded. “Me too.”
“We should do it again. And again. And again.”
I laughed and gripped at my sore stomach. I hadn’t laughed so much and so hard in a long time. Not since the last time I’d hung out with Amber before leaving for school.
“My stomach hurts from laughing so much. Thank you for that. I really needed to get out and let my hair down for the night.”
“Well, you look amazing with your hair down. I definitely think you should continue this look.” He grinned.
I felt my skin blush when a heated rush filled my cheeks. I wasn’t used to the kind of attention Russell gave me. There were guys growing up, but it was different. I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not.
“Can I text you later?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’d like that.”
And then he leaned in once more and placed yet another soft kiss on my lips. We said our good nights and then he was gone, leaving me to make my way inside my room.
From that point on, we talked every day. And when we got a few seconds of free time, we were at the café close to the school eating things we shouldn’t and laughing about something ridiculous. It was nice to have someone there who I felt comfortable with since Amber’s schedule clashed with mine and we could never get away.
It didn’t hurt that Russell kept me from thinking about Tyson, which I never thought would happen. He had amazing timing. Whenever I’d find my mind dancing around the subject of anything to do with Tyson, I’d get a text message from Russell with a funny meme attached.
It worked, and whatever worked was best. He was my friend—a friend I kissed occasionally—and that was a good starting point.
“So tell me about him,” Amber said, taking a bite of her chicken.
We’d met up for lunch at a restaurant at our halfway point. She looked amazing—tired, but absolutely stunning. She was really coming into her own in New York, and I found myself jealous.
She never even mentioned home, while it was all I could think about. I felt like a child. There she was, spreading her wings the way we’d planned, and all I could think about was going home to see my mom and dad for winter recess.
“He’s nice,” I said, trying to hold back my smile.
“Uh-huh, I see that big, goofy grin.” She laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day when you were smiling like that over a guy who wasn’t Tyson, but I’m glad. I hated to see you dwell over Ty. It was making you crazy.”
She was right.
It was still making me crazy, even if I didn’t want to admit it.
“I know. It’s different.”
I didn’t know if it was different good or different bad, but I was going to go with the flow and hope for the best.
“You going home for Christmas?” I asked, changing the subject.
She shook her head. “Nope. We’re going to Aunt Loretta’s house in Virginia. Save me now.” She rolled her eyes before sticking a forkful of salad into her mouth.
“You could always come home with me. You know Mom and Dad would love that.”
She smiled. “I know. I miss them. They’re more like parents than my own parents, but I already agreed. I figured it was the least I could do since I haven’t had time to call home much. My schedule’s ridiculous.”
I already knew that, but I didn’t say anything. Amber was doing well for herself. I wasn’t about to slow her down by complaining that she was too busy for me. I wouldn’t do that to her. I understood pre-med made for a rigorous schedule.
After lunch, we hugged it out on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and went our separate ways. I’d told her about the winter production, but unfortunately, she couldn’t make it. It sucked, but I totally understood.
Instead of taking a cab back to school, I walked and took in the city life. I hadn’t done that enough, and I needed something to take my mind off the crazy surrounding me. By the time I got back to school, I was freezing and exhausted. And as soon as I got to my room, I crashed and slept through the rest of the afternoon and night.
THE WINTER PRODUCTION
was kind of a kickoff to the winter holidays. It wasn’t a big production. Instead, it was a small performance by the first-year students for families, faculty, and students only. Somehow, I’d managed to get the lead.
Russell practiced with me every chance we got, which meant a lot of touching on his part since there were several lifts involved. He didn’t seem to mind, and I surely appreciated his help. I’d been working on the choreography for weeks, but somehow, going through the motions with Russell made the performance seem easier.
I was excited to be on the stage and to see my family again. After the performance, everyone was supposed to leave with their families for winter recess, which I was even more excited about. My schedule was intense, and taking a break was exactly what I needed—that, and some time with my family.
Being away was getting easier, and New York was slowly starting to feel normal to me, but I still missed my parents like crazy. I missed their guidance and security. It was hard making decisions about things without my dad’s opinion. Many times, I’d text or call just to get his input.
My dad always answered whether he was at work or at home, and I loved that about him. I wasn’t sure what I’d do without my parents. It had only been a few weeks since I’d last seen them, but it felt like a lifetime.
If it hadn’t been for Russell occupying my time over the last couple of weeks, I probably would’ve been more homesick than I was. Especially on the nights when all my work was done and all I had to do was sit in the common area of the residential hall and watch re-runs.
I hadn’t made many friends other than Russell and a few girls from my classes, and while most students went out and took New York by storm, I usually stayed around the residential hall and read a book or watched TV.
Before long, it was performance night. I didn’t usually get nervous before a show. I’d been dancing since I could walk, and being on the stage was one of my favorite places in the world. But once I found out Tyson was coming to New York with Mom, Dad, and Brian, the nerves surfaced and never went away.
I didn’t see them before the performance. At first, I looked for them in the crowd while I danced, but I never found them among the many faces. After a while, I kept my eyes pinned on Russell in the front row—his big smile kept me calm and forced me to keep a smile on my own lips.
The choreography wasn’t too difficult, at least not for me, but I went through it like a professional. I tried not to overthink each step, since Russell said that slowed me down. The strangest part was that even though I couldn’t see him in the blurred faces of the crowd, I could feel Tyson’s eyes all over me.
The set was an hour long, and I was in about ninety percent of the production. By the time the show was over and we were bowing out and the curtain was dropping, I was exhausted and amped up at the same time. My blood was pumping through my veins, giving me the high that I’d always loved after a show.
Backstage was chaos—the students running around in excitement from their first official performance and the instructors critiquing each person as they passed. Muscles were being stretched to relieve tension, and laughter filled the space. I loved the ride and excitement after a performance almost as much as I loved dancing.
I used a towel to wipe away the sweat from my skin and peeled the white and ice blue costume from my body. After I had undressed, I put on my regular clothes and washed away the wintery makeup from my face. I smiled as I passed other students, and thanked those who praised my performance as I made my way from the backstage area and prepared to greet my family.
As soon as I stepped into the auditorium seating area, Russell greeted me instead of my family.
“You were amazing,” he said with a smile before leaning in and surprising me with a soft kiss on the lips. “Seriously, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in all my life.”
I blushed, my cheeks filling from his compliments, and I couldn’t help myself; I leaned up on my toes and kissed him once more. I felt alive and rejuvenated for some reason. As if I could take the dance world by storm. I saw Broadway shows and more in my future, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
“Well, well.” My dad’s voice broke through the chaos.
I pulled away from Russell quickly as if I were fifteen being caught kissing a boy. Turning, I was met with my family standing there smiling back at me. All except Tyson, who looked as if he was seconds from exploding.
His eyes scrutinized Russell, taking him in and sizing him up before connecting with mine. Emotion filled his expression, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He didn’t look angry or hurt; his expression was something different from anything I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“And who do we have here?” my mom asked, nodding toward Russell.
Before I could introduce him, Russell stepped forward, shaking my dad’s hand with confidence and a smile.
“It’s great to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. I’m Russell Landry. I’ve been dating your daughter for about two weeks.”
My eyes went wide at his words. I was going to tell them we were friends, at least until things got more serious—
things got more serious—but Russell just went for it. Sure, technically, we were kind of dating, but then again, we were kind of just hanging out too. Nothing was set in stone, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about him meeting my parents just weeks after I’d met him.
I didn’t have time to think about it with everything going on around me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about it with the way Tyson was looking at me. He looked at me like I’d kicked three puppies and drowned an entire litter of kittens, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it just then. Things were moving too quickly.
“Well, it’s certainly nice to meet you, Russell.” My mom smiled her forced smile—the one she gave preachers and teachers. “Are you headed home for Christmas to be with your family?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m leaving in two days.”
“Oh well, that’s lovely. I’m sure your parents will be thrilled to have you home.”
The rest of their conversation melted into a blur of noises around me.
Braving his expression, I let myself look at Tyson. His jaw was tight, the muscles popping out, as he stood silently behind my parents. My lips shifted, and I attempted to smile at him, but I was only met with steely disregard. He turned away, his eyes skimming the auditorium, and I knew I’d been given the cut.
Brian was clueless to everything around him since he was glued to his phone. He had some form of technology attached to his hand these days while he played app after app and ignored the world around him. At that moment, I wished I could do the same.
Once my family had met Russell and we’d said our goodbyes, I showered and collected my bags from my room while they waited downstairs. Our flight wasn’t due out for hours, so we stopped at a nice restaurant two blocks over from the school. It wasn’t long until we were catching our flight out of New York and headed home for Christmas.