That’s what she thought at least until she tried to move.
“Oh my God,” she gasped in pain as she tried to raise her arms and stretch. Yeah, that wasn’t happening.
From underneath the blankets, she heard Clay chuckle softly. “Sore, Dr. Burns?”
“You have no idea,” she replied.
Clay snorted. “Like hell I do. I’ve learned to ski before too.”
The tips of her ears turned red as she remembered Clay had once been an avid skier. Would she ever not put her foot in her mouth? She could go ahead and answer that – probably not.
Clay used his arms to push himself up to a sitting position in bed. Keeley remained in the position she’d woken up in. “You’re lucky it’s raining today. Gets you off the hook of giving it another go.”
“Thank you God for the rain,” Keeley put her hands together in prayer, the sudden motion making her wince. Clay laughed and kissed the top of her head gently.
“So,” he started. Keeley rolled her head over to look at him. Her favorite version of Clay was in the morning, after he’d just woken up. He didn’t look perfect and Adonis-esque; rather, his hair was disheveled and his eyes were bleary looking until his second cup of coffee. But he was always smiling and cheerful. And it radiated from the inside out.
“Why don’t you take some Advil and take it easy?” He continued. “I’ll take the bathroom first and do my routine stuff and by then maybe the drugs will have kicked in and you’ll be able to move?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” She watched as Clay threw the blankets back and reached out for his chair. He put one hand on the seat and kept one hand on the bed, and slowly levered himself down onto it. One by one he grabbed his legs and set them gently on the footplate. Then he unlocked the brakes and wheeled across the room and began digging in his bag. Keeley heard some rattling, a door open and water run, and then Clay was by her side, holding three Advil and a cup of water out to her.
“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “You’re like a Boy Scout, so prepared.”
Clay laughed darkly. “Five years of this has taught me to never leave home with Advil.”
Keeley gave him a small smile. “Thanks again.”
“Sure,” he kissed her cheek. He wheeled to the other side of the room and grabbed a small black fanny-pack thing. “Alright, I’m taking over the bathroom.”
“You’re such a girl!” she chuckled and shouted at his retreating back.
Clay pivoted and made a girly face, then continued into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Keeley continued to lay there, assessing her sore muscles and praying the rain didn't stop anytime soon. After about fifteen minutes had gone by, Keeley heard some muffled cursing and then the shower start running.
“Clay?” she questioned, hoping nothing was wrong. He didn’t answer, but after a minute she heard more shuffling, so she figured everything was okay. Not for the first time, she wondered what took Clay so long in the bathroom. She had an ideas, but nothing had been confirmed, mostly because she was too scared to cross the line and ask.
While he finished up, Keeley willed herself to get up and out of bed. The initial shock of how sore she was had worn off by now and the Advil had also started to kick in. With slow, deliberate movements she dug through her duffel bag and pulled out a long-sleeved USC football tee-shirt and some jeans, figuring that those would suffice for a cool, rainy spring day at the lake.
Not a second after she slipped the tee shirt over her head, she heard the bathroom door open.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Clay said in an incredulous voice.
She turned around. Clay had on the same exact USC-UGA 2004 gameday teeshirt. Keeley guffawed so hard she snorted. “So, we’ve turned into those people?”
“Looks like it,” he answered with a smile that made him seem not entirely unpleased. “Bathroom’s all yours, Keels.”
Keeley grabbed her toiletry bag and headed into the bathroom. She left the door open as she washed her face and brushed her teeth. In the mirror she could see Clay behind her, riffling through his bag looking for another sock. They’d been dating long enough and they’d had enough serious conversations in the past month that she felt it was okay to ask. Still, she had to work up her nerve for three minutes before she did it. “Clay?”
“Hmn?” He'd found the sock and was looking down, working on getting it on his slightly twitching foot.
She swallowed hard; she’d never really been one to pry. “Since we’re ‘those people’ now, can I ask you something?”
He laughed heartily in response. "Go ahead.”
“What exactly takes you so long in there?” The words came out in a jumbled rush.
Clay abruptly stopped what he was doing and looked up at her with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “Keels…”
Courage now gathered, she wasn’t backing down. She pointed her toothbrush at him in the mirror. "You don't have to be embarassed. It's just me, Clay.”
He sighed heavily. “This goes beyond embarrassment Keeley, it’s un-dignifying,” he mumbled lowly. “It uh, it just takes me a little while to get set up in the shower. I have to have a seat to sit on and getting in and out is a little…precarious. Especially here, because I have to set up a makeshift seat in that damn claw-foot bathtub that my parents won’t put in a different bathroom, even though I’ve asked fifteen hundred times.”
Keeley nodded. She could tell that bathroom was a point of contention and for a moment, she was sorry she asked. But curiosity overtook remorse. “What else?”
Clay shook his head unbelievingly. Keeley tried to affect an apologetic expression.
“Also, I…well,” he rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “I…I can’t just…” His face contorted with failed words and he eventually trailed off. For a moment he looked around the room at everywhere but her. Finally, he grabbed the fanny-pack he’d carried into the bathroom earlier. “I have to use these to help me.”
He pulled a plastic package out of the fanny-pack and held it up to her. She couldn’t really see the contents through the cloudy packaging, but it looked like a tube of some sort. “It’s called a catheter and it goes—”
“—I know what it is and where it goes,” she hastily interrupted him. She’d Googled before in preparation for this conversation. Of course, that didn’t save either of them any embarrassment. Clay’s face was flushed and his expression was one of unease, more so than she’d ever seen it, and she was sure her own reflected his. So what she’d read online had been true. That was okay. I didn’t change anything between them, only alleviated her burning curiosity. “It’s okay, Clay.”
He shook his head. “I don’t believe that for a second, Keels.”
Keeley put her toothbrush down and walked over to him. He looked deflated and defeated. Without asking, she sat down on his lap. That perked him up and made him look pleasantly surprised. He slipped his arms around her, securing her on his lap. Keeley pushed his damp hair out of his face and leaned her forehead against his.
“What I’m more concerned about,” she breathed, “is the fact that you keep those things in a fanny-pack. Talk about damaging to your dignity! Only eighty-year old tourists and my dentist’s wife wear those!”
Clay visibly relaxed and chortled softly. “Keels, I can’t piss on my own, the fanny-pack actually makes me laugh every time I pick it up because it’s so ridiculous. Let me have my laughs where I can get them.”
She joined in the laughter too. Clay pulled her closer to his body and lifted her hair off the nape of her neck. Gently, he kissed her. “I know the mechanics of life with me aren’t exactly sexy.”
“Stop it,” she said as she returned his kiss. It broke her heart when he said things like that. She pulled away from him and took his cheeks in between her hands. “Everything about you is sexy.”
He lit up from the inside when she said that. With a wicked grin he instructed, “Get on the bed. Now.”
Amazed at the direction the conversation had gone, Keeley jumped off his lap and onto the bed, momentarily forgetting how sore she was. Her body protested at the quick movements, but she didn’t care. Clay followed, slowly and deliberately transferring onto the bed beside her.
As he transferred she slipped her tee-shirt over her head again and quickly slid out of her jeans. After Clay was positioned she reached for his shirt, he laughed, and took it off, haphazardly throwing it across the room. Swiftly, he maneuvered himself so that he hovered above her, looking down at her longingly. He began to kiss her and gently caress her as best he could while still supporting himself. It always surprised Keeley how soft Clay’s lips were, fiercely contrasting with the rest of his hard and muscled upper body. As he kissed her mouth once more and she tasted the mint of his toothpaste, it occurred to her that she had used her toothbrush to point and gesture at him that morning, but not to actually brush her teeth. She tried to push that nasty thought out of her head.
Slowly, he worked his way down her body, not ceasing his bombardment of her senses for several minutes, utilizing mouth, tongue, and sometimes hands in an effort to cloud her thoughts. Suddenly, Keeley found herself gasping for breath; so was Clay.
Finally, after too much teasing, she felt him slip his fingers inside her. Every coherent though slipped out of her head as he worked his way in and out, gently flicking and seeming to know better than she did exactly where to apply pressure and how much. While he worked, he continued tenderly kissing the area around her hips and stomach.
Suddenly, Keeley’s body responded. Her hips arched and she bit her lip to keep the deep guttural noise threatening to slip between her lips, inside. Her entire body – from her scalp to her toes – relaxed as Clay kissed her one more time. She shivered in pleasure at the release.
God, had she even known an orgasm before she met Clay Whitlow?
“Your turn,” she whispered after a moment as she began to sit up. But Clay was already preparing to transfer back into his chair.
“Wait,” she practically cried, wrapping her arms around his damp, bare shoulders. “Where’re you going?”
Clay grinned mischievously. “I’m guessing you didn’t hear my mom knock and announce breakfast was ready as you came, huh?”
Oh God. She had heard something banging, but she’d chalked it up to the two of them wildly thrashing in the throes of passion. Guess not. Her eyes grew so big that she was sure they were going to bug out of her head. “I almost answered that I was already working on breakfast—”
“—You did not!”
Clay gripped the edge of the bed to keep his balance as Keeley shoved him. Then he threw his head back in laughter. “No, I didn’t,” he grinned and threw her tee-shirt at her. “But I did think it.”
“You’re incorrigible,” she muttered as she quickly got dressed. But she couldn’t help smiling after what had just happened. Today might shape up to be a good day after all.
Outside, the rain didn't seem to be letting up. Rather, with each passing hour it seemed as if were only coming down in heavier and heavier droves. By early evening the gentle showers that had chased them away from the lake earlier that morning, had escalated into full-scale storms with crashing thunder and near constant flashes of lightning.
As another clap of thunder boomed loud enough to shake the thin walls of Keeley's cottage, she pulled the covers up tighter around her, grateful to finally be inside and not on the road anymore. The rain had followed them the entire three hours down I-26 and back into Charleston. The trip should only have taken a little over an hour, but Clay, she'd discovered, was about as comfortable driving in the rain as a cat was taking a bath. About twenty minutes into the trip home, he'd turned his flashers on and commenced to crawling down the interstate at a snails pace. At the rate of thirty miles per hour, Keeley had estimated that even though they'd left the lake at 11:00, they probably wouldn't be back home until around 1:00.
And then the front left tire had blown out.
"Fantastic," Clay said as he carefully steered them to the shoulder. "Fan-fucking-tastic."
"At least your flashers are already on," Keeley deadpanned.
Despite himself, Clay had smiled. He cut the engine and looked despondently out the window. It was still coming down in sheets. "I hate changing tires," he sighed more to himself than to Keeley.
Keeley nodded in agreement. "I'm not the biggest fan either."
He at least had the decency to pretend he wasn't surprised, but he couldn't keep it out of his voice. "You know how to change a tire?"
"Yes!" she responded indignantly. "Me and every single one of my college girlfriends. We've all been through the John Burns School of Driving. It's a grueling course involving tire changing, Winnebago driving, and small engine removal."
"You know how to replace a small engine?"
"I do," Keeley answered, secretly pleased by the look of shock on Clay's face. What she didn't tell him was that it took her three days and a lot of ugly arguing with her dad to change the engine in her little Jetta. But why quibble over the small details? "What? What are you laughing at Clay Whitlow?"
Clay was chuckling, almost to the point of full out laughter. "You just never cease to surprise me, Keeley Burns. You never cease to surprise me."
Keeley grinned. Clay looked out the window one more time, sighed again, and then opened the door and started to assemble his chair.
"You stay in there, Keels," he yelled over the howl of the wind. "But would you hand me the toolbox and poncho that are under your seat?"
She nodded and handed it over. There wasn't a person on the planet that didn't look stupid in a poncho and Clay Whitlow was no exception. She couldn't suppress her laughter. Clay just gave her look that clearly said he'd pull her out of the truck and have her change the tire if she kept it up, but she didn't care.
Clay shut the door and started to slowly wheel around to the back of the truck. Keeley scooted over to the drivers seat and cracked the window a bit. "You look like Big Bird."
"I don't need any comments from the peanut gallery," he yelled back, his voice a bit muffled from the road noise and rain. Even so, she could hear the smile behind his words.
Curious as to how a man in a wheelchair was going to change a tire, but thankful she wasn’t going to have to do it, Keeley rolled the window down a bit more and stuck her head out so she could watch. First he chalked the back right tire. She watched as he let the tailgate down and slowly levered the spare tire onto the ground. He must keep it close to the tailgate for instances like these, she decided.
Keeley wondered how he was going to roll it to the front, and for a moment she considered offering to help. But then she watched as he stood the tire upright and placed it between his legs. He knocked his knees inward towards each other, effectively using them to hold the tire in front of his chair and then wheeled towards the front of the truck to where the flat was. The tire started to slip a few times, but each time Clay managed to catch it before it go away.
When he got to the front he laid the tire down and then loosened the lug nuts. In her head she could hear her dad telling her to always change her own tires because garages used tools to tighten the lug nuts and they always put them on too tight. Clay must’ve followed the same advice because within minutes the lug nuts were loose and a second later the truck was jacked up.
“Want me to hold those?” she offered as he just tossed the lug nuts on the ground, precariously close to a deep puddle. Again, she heard John Burns in her head telling her to never let the nuts and bolts out of her sight.
“Nope,” he answered back, grunting as he lifted the spare into place. New tire in place, he started to put the lug nuts back on. It seemed like he’d gotten about three in place and then he paused.
“Shit,” he muttered as he looked for the last two lug nuts. Keeley opened the door to help look, but shut it again quickly when she saw the look on Clay’s face. He did not want her stepping out of the truck.
And she did not like being looked at that way.
Twenty minutes later he opened the door and transferred back inside, almost slipping because of the rain as he hoisted himself inside. “Well,” he said, disassembling his chair and passing it to Keeley to put in the back. “We’ll be driving with a donut and two lug nuts less than we should, but I think we’ll make it back.”
“If you’d just let me hold them, they would be in the tire and not in the road,” Keeley muttered snidely as she placed the soaking wet cushion in the backseat.
“I was trying to be gentlemanly and not make you have to get wet!” Clay exclaimed, sounding exasperated. He turned the heat on full blast and then leaned back in the seat. He closed his eyes. In a much softer voice he added, “After this weekend especially, I just wanted to show you that even though I can’t do a lot of things, I still could take care of you.”
Heat rose to Keeley’s cheeks. He had only been trying to be noble, not chauvinistic or controlling. “I know that.”
“Then why won’t you let me?”
“Because Clay,” she paused as she searched for the right words. “I don’t need you to take care of me! I know how to do that.”
“I know that! I know that you’re capable. You’ve gone through a divorce, a Ph.D., and practically rebuilt that cottage. I know you can take care of yourself—but why won’t you just let me help? Even if it’s just letting me in and talking to me about things that bother you? That’s what a partner is for.”
“Because that’s not what I need, Clay—”
“—For example, you never talk to me about your divorce or your family, but you know everything about me—!”
“—I need you to be faithful, supportive, not abusive—loving, but I don’t need you coddling me!”
“Damnit, Keeley!” Clay banged the steering wheel out of frustration. For a moment, Keeley wondered how they’d so abruptly gone from the tender moments of the day before and ended up here— yelling at each other on the side of I-26.
They’d sat there in silence for God knows how long until finally Clay jerked the truck into gear and pulled back out onto the interstate.
The rest of the ride home had been bumpy, quiet, and long. When they’d arrived back at her place, she and Clay had parted without so much as two words.
Needless to say, the day hadn’t shaped up to be a good one.
And so, here she was. Snuggled up alone on the couch with some old quilts and a steaming cup of coffee. The TV was off and her old, worn-out copy of The Princess Bride sat shut on the table. She could hear the rain beating steadily against her roof and looking out the window, she could just barely see the waves crashing and breaking violently.
Outside, she heard a truck rumble as it drove down her street. She listened, for a brief second hoping it would stop outside her house and that she’d hear a knock on the door and that when she opened it Clay would be sitting there.
But the truck didn’t stop. And the only knocks on her door came from the rain beating against it.