“Duck!” Clay whispered fiercely in her ear as the teenagers a few rows ahead of them whipped around. He bent forward at the waist, dragging her down with her. A few seconds later, deciding the coast was clear, they sat back up.
“That’s it,” Keeley whispered back. An eight year old, she thought, grabbing the popcorn from him and smiling despite herself. I’m dating an eight year old. “I’m never coming to a movie with you again.”
Clay grinned and looked at her with puppy dog eyes. “Aw, admit it Keeley,” he said as he grabbed a handful. “You have always wanted to throw popcorn at those pre-teens sucking face during the previews. I just helped you cross something off your bucket list.”
Keeley snorted and rolled her eyes. “Maybe,” she conceded as she tried to get comfy in the hard theatre seat. Finally she moved the arm rest between his seat and hers and snuggled up to him. There, she thought as he put his arm around her. That’s it.
It’d been a while since she’d felt like this—comfortable and happy and infatuated with a guy. Even though it’d just been over a year since her divorce had been final, it’d been much longer than that since Keeley had fallen out of infatuation (and out of love) with her ex-husband. He’d changed so much from the carefree and fun guy she’d known to a hard, high-strung stranger who was hard to like, much less love. Brent always had his issues, a roving eye (and dick) being just one of many that she’d chalked up to a coy personality.
More like an insatiable personality, she thought wryly to herself.
But Clay…Clay was different so far. Everything about him was likeable—from his easygoing and charming personality to his good looks. He was fun, outgoing and affectionate, but in a way that was not mushy or overly romantic, but just right. Careful, she silently scolded herself as she glanced at Clay, eyes locked on the big screen and engrossed in the comic book movie—something about revenge? Avenge?—that they’d come to see. Clay may have outshined Brent in many areas of his life so far, it was true. But she was sure he had his downsides and the traits that marred his perfection, just like anyone else. She just had to find them first...
Suddenly she felt Clay nudging her side with his elbow, pulling her out of her thoughts. “Coming or do you want to stay for the next showing too?”
Keeley shook her head and poked him back, aiming for the armpit. “That Thor guy isn’t nearly cute enough for that.” She frowned. “Why aren’t you laughing?”
Clay cocked his head in confusion and grinned slightly. “Excuse me? I didn’t realize you’d made a joke,” he answered as they waited for the theatre to clear out.
“I didn’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But I did tickle you!”
He threw his head back in laughter and then shrugged. “I’m not ticklish.”
“Not ticklish?” Clay shook his head. Keeley poked him again for good measure; still no laughing. Well not from being tickled at least. “You’re missing out on one of life’s greatest joys.”
Clay’s smile disappeared and he nodded sadly, giving an exaggerated sigh as he pulled his chair closer and transferred over into it quickly. “I know.”
Keeley looked at him sitting in the chair and felt her stomach sink. He sounded so dejected. God, she hadn’t felt so tactless in a while. Shit. “Sorry.”
Clay stopped wheeling and turned to look at her in the lobby of the theatre. “Sorry?” he repeated.
“You know…for… um…calling attention to…making you feel…”
He finally stopped her blundering after what seemed like an eternity by holding up a hand. “Keeley,” he said, with a knowing look and twinkle in his eye. “It’s not like it’s a recent thing. I’ve never been ticklish, much to my sibling’s dismay while we were growing up.”
She flushed even redder. “Oh.”
Clay laughed and led the way out of the theatre and on towards the restaurant they were going to for dinner. Tonight, Keeley had done the picking, opting for a chic Thai place instead of a local dive. And it worked out because turned out (much to her surprise) Clay had never been there; she was excited to be the expert for once.
Basil, the restaurant, was in one of the older buildings downtown. Keeley loved this part of the city. The historic buildings transported her to too easily to another time and over the noise of the cars she could just barely hear the thundering of the waves as they crashed against the sand. But as they made their way down the street the restaurant was on, Keeley could see Clay looking around skeptically.
She stopped a few moments later in front of an olive green building with tall picture windows. Clay was stopped a little bit behind her, his nose wrinkled and a wry grin on his face. “Looks like a swanky place.”
Keeley nodded enthusiastically. “When I first moved here after college I thought I was going to die without a good Asian place around. Finally, weeks of searching brought me here.” Clay was still staring at the restaurant doors and she noticed him shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “Best Thai in town,” she added with what she hoped was a convincing smile.
“Well,” Clay said, drawing out the word. “I might have to take your word on for it unless they have an accessible entrance around back,” he said off-handedly, pointing at the ten or so stairs leading up to the door.
Keeley did a face palm. “Shit,” she muttered. “And this is why I’m an archaeologist and not an event planner.” Tacky move number two. Way to go Keels. Before another word could be said she took off up the stairs. A few minutes later she came back out, shaking her head.
Clay shrugged, the traces of annoyance that would have been on her face not appearing on his. He grabbed her hand, swinging it between them. “We could always get take-out and go back to my place.”
She nodded, still embarrassed that she’d picked a place Clay couldn’t get into because of his chair. It hadn’t been an issue before. Her house was open and airy, a beach cottage, and blessedly had no stairs; everywhere else they’d been in the past month and a half had been at Clay’s suggestion, ergo no problems there either.
“Don’t take it so hard.” He said noticing the look on her face and laughing lightly. “Damn historical preservation enthusiasts. Most of the old buildings around here have preservation codes keeping them from building ramps and stuff.”
“It’s just…I feel like a heel,” Keeley mumbled. “And an idiot.”
He grinned wickedly. “You should. I’m pissed you picked a place I couldn’t get into.” Keeley swatted his arm, and not playfully either.
“I was only joking!” he said, rubbing his arm. Then he winked. Literally Clay Whitlow, a grown man, winked at her. “It’s okay Keeley, I know you weren’t thinking dinner or the building it’d be served in. Just what comes after right?”
Keeley flushed bright red at the implication behind his words. “Nope,” she said coyly, giving him a quick once over; taking in the burgundy shirt that fit him just right and the way the little green pony on it made the green in his eyes pop.“It wasn’t dessert I was thinking of.”
Clay’s eyebrows shot up and a slow wolfish grin spread across his face. “In that case, screw take-out.”
Keeley grinned back and nodded in agreement, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. Maybe those aren’t butterflies, she thought as it grumbled loudly, to her embarrassment. She smiled sheepishly at Clay. “I’m just going to run inside and some Pad Thai. It’s quick.”
He smiled and rolled his eyes. He leaned back in his chair and dug in his jeans pocket for his wallet. Tossing it he said, “Make it two.”
Keeley laughed and nodded, running back inside. The maitre d’ looked at her disdainfully as she ordered their takeout. It only took about fifteen minutes to get the food; within twenty they were en route back to the truck.
Keeley was telling the latest ridiculous request from her office-mate and had just gotten to the funny part, when all of a sudden she heard Clay mutter, “Shit.”
Puzzled, Keeley stopped and looked around, wondering what was up. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to her. The parking lot was half full and a couple of people were milling around. She didn’t have to wonder much longer though because a few moments later a woman parked a few spaces down from them poked her head out the window and asked in a shrill voice, “Clay?”
Keeley heard Clay sigh heavily beside her as the woman hopped out and quickly came towards them. She was tall and lanky, sort of athletic looking; her hair fell in cascading waves around her shoulders. And even from far away Keeley was intimidated by the confidence she clearly exuded.
Keeley looked down at Clay. And as the woman approached, it hit her that although she’d talked about Brent before—hell, Clay had met the man—she’d never heard Clay utter a single word about an ex-girlfriend.
“Hey Brooke,” he said through gritted teeth as the woman stopped in front of them. Keeley had never seen him so tense and uncomfortable looking before.
Up close, she noticed that the woman—Brooke—didn’t seem as confident as she looked from afar. In fact, the look on her face suggested she wished she would’ve just kept her mouth shut and her head inside the car. Keeley sort of wished it too, because this was quickly turning awkward and ruining the light aura that had been surrounding them before.
Brooke made a move towards Clay, as if to give him a hug but stopped, seeming to think better of it, not knowing how she’d be received.
Judging by the death grip Clay had on the push rims of his chair, not very well.
“Basil,” Brooke said, taking a step back and gesturing at the bags in his lap. “Great place. Best Thai in town.”
Clay nodded. “That’s what Keeley says.”
Brooke turned to Keeley at the mention of her name, surprise on her face, as if noticing her for the first time. She extended her hand. “Hi, Brooke Owners.”
“Keeley Burns,” Keeley replied as she grasped the other woman’s hand. The handshake was like a freaking death grip. She could feel Brooke sizing her up so she squeezed back.
“Well,” Brooke said after a few awkward moments of silence. She ran her hand through her hair and Keeley noticed a large diamond sparkling on her fourth finger. “I guess I better go. I’m meeting Dave in a few minutes. We’re going to see The Avengers.”
That’s what it was called!Keeley thought to herself. She almost said it aloud to lighten the tense mood, but didn’t. Clay looked up at Brooke with a strange expression on his face. After a moment he shook his head, “We should go too. Our food’s getting cold.”
“Oh. Yeah,” she said, a mixture of emotions crossing her face. Keeley easily identified relief and discomfort, along with what could have possibly been regret too. “Well…it was good seeing you. You look great Clay.”
“Likewise,” he said nodding curtly. He nodded towards her hand, “Tell Dave I said congrats.”
And with that he spun quickly and took off towards the truck. “Um,” Keeley started, at a loss for words. “Enjoy the movie. Nice meeting you.”
Brooke looked at her disdainfully, the nice girl façade gone now that Clay wasn’t there. Before she could reply though, her phone rang and she answered. Keeley took that as an out and quickly half-ran, half-walked to the truck where Clay was inside waiting.
As soon as she was buckled, he jerked it out of park and into drive. They drove in silence for a while. She wanted to make a joke about the woman as Clay had the first time he’d met Brent. Finally Keeley settled on reaching out and patting his arm in what she hopped was a comforting gesture. Clay didn’t say anything, just kept driving, but she saw his jaw unclench.
Keeley didn’t say anything, just patted his arm again. But then, she didn’t need to. She understood exactly.
They pulled into the driveway of Clay’s house about twenty minutes later. Keeley grabbed the food and quickly hopped out. She followed Clay up the ramp to his door and inside, depositing her purse on the table littered with mail by the door.
“There’s some beer in the fridge,” Clay said abruptly as wheeled towards his room. “You remember where the plates and stuff are?”
“Yah,” Keeley lied as she eyeballed the cabinets, all lower than the standard height. The moment she’d stepped in Clay’s house the first time, she’d immediately fallen in love with it. It had a homey feel with its hardwood floors and old mismatched furniture and drawings and blueprints strewn about all over the place. Currently, the foyer was housing a unstrung hunting bow.
What she had immediately detested was his organizational methods. Or lack thereof, rather.
Now, Keeley wasn’t in the position to put down anyone’s housekeeping skills, and she realized that. But at least she did put all the cups in one cupboard and all the bowls in another, instead of throwing it all haphazardly into one. “Good grief,” she said aloud as a coffee cup slid out and onto the floor.
“Try the one next to the dishwasher,” she heard Clay stage-whisper behind her. Keeley whipped around to see him smirking at her.
Well, he seems to be better, she thought as she complied and found some plates. “I would have found them eventually.”
“Yeah,” Clay said with a small laugh as he grabbed the food and a couple of Corona’s and headed to the living room. “After you broke all my coffee cups.”
Keeley followed stuck her tongue out at his back as she followed him to the living room. Clay put the food and drinks on the coffee table, grabbed the remote and turned on a baseball game. Then locked the brakes on his chair. He placed one hand on the arm of the couch and the other on the seat, using his arms to move his body from the wheelchair to the couch. Normally it was smooth and swift maneuver, but Keeley noticed he shook a little and seemed self-conscious for once as he quickly adjusted his legs and pushed the chair to the other side of the couch, out of sight.
He dug in the bag and handed Keeley a box and kept the other for himself. They dug in, eating in silence, watching the Nationals destroy the Braves.
Grabbing the bull by the horns was not something Keeley was good at. Rather, she was an expert at ignoring the elephant in the room. She often wondered if maybe she would have confronted Brent about his affair with Kelli, if it wouldn’t have all blown up in her face and ended like it did.
Granted, Clay wasn’t having an affair, true. But something was bothering him and making things awkward between them all of a sudden—and she didn’t like it. Mustering up her gumption she muted the T.V. as the Nationals scored yet another run and turned to Clay.
He was staring at the T.V. but his eyes were glossed over and she could tell he hadn’t been paying attention for a while. “Clay—”
“She told me she wished I’d died.”
Keeley felt her jaw drop as his words registered. He shrugged. “I fell off her roof, crushed a vertebrae in my spinal cord, and my girlfriend essentially told me I was better off dead in her in eyes than paralyzed to my face,” he cut his eyes towards Keeley and laughed, a bitter sound that she didn’t like. “It was a hell of a week.”
She grabbed the takeout carton that was still in hands and placed it gently on the coffee table. Then she snuggled up close next to him. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly staring at her shoes underneath the coffee table. The pieces were starting to fall into place.
Keeley felt Clay shrug. “I’m just still a little pissed.”
“Just a little?” Keeley in said with a small smile looking up at him.
“Just a little,” he repeated, the familiar cocky and charming grin returning to his face. He shrugged and smirked. “I might be a little bit of grudge holder.”
Keeley smiled and nodded, sensing there was more to the story than he was telling, but not pressing the issue. Instead, she reached up and lightly kissed his collarbone and trailed a finger down his chest. “Well, in this girlfriend’s eyes, you’re very alive.”
He smiled and in his eyes Keeley saw something…gratitude? relief? She couldn’t be sure but as he dipped his head to place a light kiss on her check, she figured it was a good thing.
“Oh really?” he challenged as he kissed her again, on the neck this time, and suddenly the Clay that she’d come to know and like in the past few weeks was back.
“Really,” she said, instinctively reaching up to cup his cheek, slowly urging his lips harder against hers; it was as if suddenly, every ounce of her wanted his lips on hers, wanted his hands to explore the contours of her body yet again. Keeley felt the heat that had been between them outside of Basil returning, radiating. “Clay—” she breathed.
She was cut off by the shrill ring of his house phone. Clay groaned and fell back against the couch as it kept ringing, the sweat on his brow shining in the light. “Can’t catch a fucking break tonight,” he muttered.
“Poor choice of words,” Keeley giggled, unable to help herself as the phone started ringing again. “You know, you can answer that.”
“And miss out on this?” he questioned as he dipped down to kiss her again, running one hand slowly through her hair, sort of tangling it at the same time. The phone was still ringing in the background.
“You’re right,” she said between breaths. “Forget the damn phone.”
A dull un-ignorable humming pulled them out of their make-out induced ecstasy. Clay pushed himself into a sitting position and grabbed his cell off the coffee table where it was vibrating in a circle. “What,” he growled into the receiver.
Keeley heard a hearty chuckle on the other end. She grabbed the empty take-out cartons and beer bottles and tossed them in the trash, leaving Clay to talk on the phone with whoever was calling him at—12:47 in the morning she realized looking at his oven—to talk in private. She grabbed another couple beers out of the fridge and went back to the living room.
She found Clay still sitting on the couch, in a much better disposition than she’d left him. He was laughing with his head thrown back. Yep, the Clay she was falling for was definitely back.
Keeley caught snippets of the conversation as she curled up next to him again. Words and phrases like “tent” “get your ass up here” and “mountains” piqued her curiosity.
Finally, after a few more minutes Clay hung up the phone. As he threw his arm around her causally, he started grinning like a little boy, all melancholy gone. With a crooked grin he asked, “Keeley, how do you feel about camping?”