Tumble (Page 9)

A swallow passes down his throat. I wait for his lopsided smile, but it doesn’t come. Instead, a guarded hesitation is written across his face like he’s afraid he’s the something.

“I do have something against this place,” I say, the lump in my throat evident. You. “My heart is in New York.”

His brows pull together, and I have to look away.

Lurching my cart forward, the wheels spinning as fast as my heart, I push to the dairy case. I don’t look over my shoulder to see if he’s following because I don’t have to. His energy wallops me from behind.

As I make the longest decision between almond and coconut milk in the history of dairy decisions, he stands behind me and waits.

“If you aren’t going to be around long, Matt and Penn would love to see you,” he offers finally, breaking the silence. “And Dad. A lot of people, Neely.”

The disappointment in his tone, the slight accusatory nature, like I don’t care for anyone anymore, p****s at my heart. “I’ve missed them, you know.”

“They’d appreciate knowing that.” He starts to laugh. “Just word it carefully around Penn . . .”

A giggle escapes my lips. “Is he still so ornery?”

“Time hasn’t done Penn any favors in the growing-up department. Or Matt either, for that matter.”

“Really? Neither have settled down? I figured Matt would have a wife and Penn . . . Well, I figured Penn would have ten kids.”

“By ten women?” Dane chuckles.

“I didn’t say that. But yeah,” I add, laughing.

“Matt was almost married a few years ago to this chick he met at a bar in Nashville, but surprise, surprise. It didn’t work out. And Penn . . .”

“Same Penn?”

“Same Penn,” he admits. “Sleeping with anything that will move.”

“That’s so gross.”

He holds his hands out like he’s told him the same thing. “They’ll be at Mucker’s tomorrow night. I’m seeing them this morning if you want me to pass anything along.”

I don’t know what to pass along because I don’t know them anymore. A “hello” seems pointless and a “call me sometime” ridiculous, and I just wish this weren’t so weird.

Imagining their faces—Matt’s huge smile and Penn’s wisecracking grin—makes me want to tell Dane I’ll swing by and see them. But as soon as the words are on my tongue, I consider how awkward it might be, and I chicken out.

My cart becomes super interesting as I flip my gaze to the random contents. The air between us moves as if on the precipice of something. Like it’s waiting for us to switch into the next phase of this conversation, one I can’t identify.

“Let them know I asked about them,” I say finally.

Dane seems disappointed. “Will do.”

I realize how much time I’ve spent walking the aisles for no reason, and if it were any other man standing with me, I’d pray to God he’d ask for my number. He is insanely attractive and remembers details about me and smells so good I want to attach myself to his chest and just breathe him in.

But it’s not. It’s Dane. And with all the comfortableness that comes with being around him, so do hope and worries and assumptions, and I find myself hating I ever turned around to see him today. Even more, I hate that I came home at all, because now I can’t just hate him. Now things are messy.

A part of me will never forgive him for what he did. I may have found the pieces of my broken heart, but they’ll never fit together the way they did before that Saturday morning when he destroyed it.

We can’t be friends. I can’t be a part of his life. I can’t have that time of my life thrown in my face every time I see him or think about him.

The longer I stay here and chitchat with him, however harmless it may seem, the harder it’s going to make forgetting him again. Because that’s how our story ends. With goodbye.

I feel his gaze on my cheek, and when I look up, he’s trying to see right through me. The greens swim with the yellows in his irises, and I could lose myself there so easily. So I look away.

“Neely . . .”

“I need to go,” I say, giving him the best smile I can. “Good to see you again.”

His exhale is hasty. He reaches for my cart but stops himself short.

My hand trembles against the red plastic cart handle, my palm sliding off and dropping to my side. I hate how his eyes make me want to reach out to him. I loathe that I will now remember this feeling tonight as I’m lying in bed and attempting to sleep. Wishing things could be different. Regretting that they can’t, that I wasn’t quite enough, and that he didn’t even want to fight for me. For us.

He didn’t even try.

“Want to meet up for drinks or something?” he asks, playing with a slice along the thigh of his jeans. “Just to catch up.”

I pause, ignoring the burning sensation over the bridge of my nose and gathering myself before answering. “What do we have to talk about, Dane?”

He searches my face before speaking again.

“We don’t have anything to talk about,” he admits. “It’s just been a hell of a long time since I’ve seen you, and I’d like to know how you are. Who you are.”

It would be so easy to succumb to this. A bigger part of me than I want to admit wants to. His arms are the only ones I’ve ever felt safe in. His stories the only ones I’ve ever wanted to hear over and over. His scent is the one I think I smell on random streets in the city and find myself stopping, even now, to see where it’s coming from.

But as I feel myself break, I remind myself I’m not eighteen anymore, and he doesn’t deserve to know me. And I don’t want to know him and all that his life entails.

“I’m just somebody you used to know that’s home visiting her mom.”

He scowls, unamused by my response. “It’s that simple, huh?”

No. “Yeah. It’s that simple.” My heart drops to my sneakers, panic filling the void. I need air. I need space. I need a lobotomy for even talking to him. “It was good to see you. Take care, all right?”

We exchange a tentative smile, one that neither of us truly believes.

With a nod his direction, I flip my cart in a one-eighty and finally head to the cashier. He doesn’t follow.

By the time I pull the oddball items I don’t need from my cart and place them on the conveyor, the knot in my stomach has grown. I can’t even remember why I came to the grocery store to start with.

My subconscious seems to be scanning the area on high alert for Dane’s presence. I chastise myself again as I swipe my credit card.

It’s that simple.

Yeah, right.

It’s never that simple.

CHAPTER SIX

NEELY

There you are!”

Aerial’s dark ponytail swishes as she propels herself across the gym. If the bright overhead halogens weren’t enough to light up the room, her smile would do it.

Banners from competitions hang on the opposite wall, stretching the expanse of the room. They’re visual proof of the excellent teaching staff. The other walls display motivational quotes, pictures of students in their glory, and a rack of trophies in all shapes and sizes. Couple all that with the faint smell of sweat and bleach, and it’s like coming home.

“Get over here and give me a hug,” Aerial insists, coming at me with arms wide open.

“How are you?” I ask as she pulls me in.

“I was at Mucker’s last night and heard you were in town.” She releases me but holds my hands in between us as she steps back. “I was going to swing by your mama’s tonight and rail at you for not coming to see me.”

“I’ve just needed a couple of days to myself,” I say, curling my nose. It’s a simple gesture, an automatic one, but it gives enough away for Aerial to pick up on it.

“Things not so hot in New York?” When I don’t reply, just slump my shoulders for her benefit, she drops my hands. “Does this mean you’re home for good?”

She starts along the edge of the mats toward her office, motioning me to follow. A few younger girls are stretching on the far side of the gym and wave in my direction. I lift my hand and move it back and forth, earning a giggle from the group.

There’s a lightness in my steps as I follow Aerial. I’ve padded across these mats more times than I’ve ever walked anything in my life. They’ve caught my tears, heard my cheers, listened to my frustrations, and absorbed my perspiration. No matter what was happening in my life, what I was worried about or scared of, the gym was my sanctuary.

Aerial’s office is a small, purple space that fits her to a T. She sits at her desk, and I slide into a chair across from her.

“Want to talk about it?” she asks.

“What? New York or the show?” I tilt my head toward a folder with SUMMER SHOW stamped across the front. “I heard you’re in the throes of the best one ever.”

“It’s going to be great,” she says, eyes twinkling. “The backdrops are overboard and totally too much in the best way. We somehow roped a band from Nashville to play after the final performance on Saturday, and someone from the mayor’s office—Trudy, you won’t remember her, she got here after you left—helped with the carnival. It’s going to be incredible.”

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