When I was a kid, I found a starfish at the beach with my mother, and she told me that if you cut a starfish’s arm off, it would grow back. That doesn’t happen with people, obviously. Once your legs are gone, they will always be gone.
Even Lily gets out of bed before I do. I absolutely refuse to leave my room until Lily grabs me by the arm and insists that I come out to breakfast. “Noah is making pancakes!” she announces happily.
I’d rather eat mud. Which is a good thing, because I’m sure he’ll make sure my pancakes taste like mud.
I put on a pair of my running shorts and pad out to the dining area, where Noah is back on his feet again, fully dressed in jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and sneakers, standing at the stove. He glances up when I enter the room, and the look he gives me almost physically hurts. I bet he’s sorry he didn’t tell me to leave last night.
“Here you go, Lily,” Noah says as he sets a plate of food down in front of her.
It’s a large pancake that fills the entire plate. He’s taken a bunch of blueberries and formed them into eyes, a nose, and a smile. It’s a smiley face pancake. Theo would never make Lily a pancake that looks like that. Hell, I would never make Lily a pancake that looks like that. Lily actually gasps with delight at the sight of it.
“It’s a smiley face!” she announces happily.
Noah smiles. “Glad you like it, Lily.”
Lily chows down on her pancake, but every thirty seconds ago, she looks up at Noah and smiles adoringly. She’s so infatuated with him—it’s really cute. But that’s the way it’s always been with girls and Noah. Even my mother fell in love with him the first time she met him. She couldn’t stop talking about him for days afterwards. She told me I should “go for it with him,” while I assured her he was solidly out of my league.
But as it turned out, Noah was only one tragic act away from being mine.
Lily gobbles up her pancake while Noah gets to work on mine. I don’t know where my father and Gwen are, but it’s clear they’ve gone out. It’s just the three of us in the cabin. Just me, my daughter, and a guy who despises me.
A couple of minutes later, Noah lays down a plate in front of me that has three pancakes on it. They’re not burned or disgusting or anything like that. They look perfect and delicious. He probably put poison in them.
“I’m done, Mommy!” Lily announces, having gobbled up every bite of the smiley face pancake in record time. “Can I go play with my Barbie?”
I don’t want Lily to leave. I need her to be the buffer between me and Noah. But she’s already getting up and running for the living room, so there’s not a lot I can do. We don’t do formal dinners in our tiny apartment at home.
Noah sits down across from me at the table, glaring at me like he was just forced to cook pancakes for Hitler. When Lily is out of earshot, he hisses at me, “Ever hear of knocking?”
My cheeks grow warm. “The light was out. I didn’t think anyone was in there.”
“There’s a window in the bathroom,” he says. “I was using natural light.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” I say, for what feels like the millionth time during this trip.
Noah glances down at my untouched pancakes. “Are you going to eat those? Or did seeing me in the bathroom make you lose your appetite?”
“Noah…” I want to tell him it’s not true, because it’s most definitely not, but I know that my words will sound hollow. There’s too much bad blood between us. Really, I should just leave now. Except Lily is having such a great time.
Before I can say anything else, Noah stands up abruptly and leaves the room. He goes out on the patio and sits there, staring out at the lake in the distance, probably thinking about how much he hates me.
I hear a ringtone in the distance and realize that someone is calling me. I wonder if it’s my father. God, I hope he’s getting back soon. I can’t take too much more one-on-one time with Noah.
Except when I get to the bedroom, it turns out the caller is Theo. I see his name flashing on the display and consider letting it go to voicemail. It’s hard to recall even one positive interaction with Theo since our divorce. I don’t know if I can handle him right now.
My relationship with Theo was a direct reaction to my relationship with Noah. Theo was everything Noah was not. Theo was an artist while Noah was hardcore pre-med. Theo was scruffy and grungy, while Noah was relatively clean-cut. Theo was moody while Noah was even-tempered. Theo dropped out of college, while Noah graduated summa cum laude.
Theo was the sort of guy I’d always been attracted to before Noah. I met him when I was out with a friend at a bar where he was playing with his band. He had a great voice—raspy and deep. When he buried his face in the microphone, crooning an old Nirvana single, his stringy brown hair falling in his face, I felt something stirring in me that I thought was permanently dead. I came up to him after his set was over and told him how much I loved it. He asked me out, and soon after, we were dating regularly.
One year later, I found myself pregnant with Lily. Theo asked me to marry him, and despite growing reservations, I said yes. At the time, I figured it was better than being a single mother.
I figured wrong.
Theo was great in theory. He was sexy and a true artist and great in bed. But in practice, he was a mess. His band was a failure—they could barely book non-paying gigs and there was constant inner turmoil among the band members. They kept on their coke-snorting drummer way too long, even though he’d routinely not show up for their sets. But Theo wouldn’t consider any other career aside from the one he’d always dreamed of, so he took side gigs waiting tables or bartending to pay the bills. That was fine in his early twenties, but not when he was in his thirties and had a wife and child to support.
Also, the long hair was much less sexy when his hairline started to recede. I told him he should consider shaving his head completely, and he blew up at me so violently that I never mentioned his hair again.
I could have lived with all of that though. I could have dealt with the poverty, the moodiness, the bad hair—all of it. But what I couldn’t deal with was the other women. When he’d come home sweaty after a gig, smelling like another woman’s perfume, that was too much for me to tolerate. Worst of all, he was blatantly unapologetic about it, claiming I’d tied him down too early with a child. As if that broken condom was my fault.
I stare down at the phone now, wondering what Theo wants from me. Of course, now that Noah has been reaming me out, my feelings toward Theo are warmer than usual. Theo may be a deadbeat, but at least he doesn’t outright despise me. He’d move right back in if I’d let him.
I grab the phone just before it goes to voicemail. “Theo? What’s going on?”
“Hey, Bailey.” The anger that had been in Theo’s voice during our last conversation is gone. Thank God. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about yesterday.”
“Oh.” It’s a rare moment when Theo apologizes for something. I should relish it. “That’s okay.”
“You’ve never taken Lily anywhere out of the state before,” he points out. “I just freaked out.”
He was worried, and I can’t entirely blame him. If he had taken Lily on a big trip without telling me about it, I would have gone ballistic. Just because he sometimes blows Lily off, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her. He’s her father, after all.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have told you.”
“Where are you, anyway?” Theo asks.
I tell him the approximate location of the cabin, best I can. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where we are. And I’m not about to ask Noah.
“And you’ll be back in a week?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Lily has school next week so we’ll be back for that.”
“When you get back,” Theo says, “maybe I can take Lily someplace really special. What do you think she’d like?”
“Maybe the Bronx Zoo?” I suggest. Then I regret it, because I know the admission fee is more than Theo can afford. “Or Coney Island maybe?”
“Sure,” he says. He’s quiet for a second. “And maybe you could come along too?”
I grit my teeth. This is a typical Theo move. He begged me not to kick him out, even though he could never promise to be faithful. Every once in a while, he makes a play to get me back. But I’m too smart for that. “Maybe,” I say, just to put him off.
“No pressure,” Theo says.
“Listen, I should go,” I say. “But… we’ll coordinate things when I get back.”
“Sure. Have a great trip.”
I hang up the phone, feeling a modicum better. Even if Noah is being a jerk to me, at least Theo was nice for a change. I don’t think I could handle being attacked by both of them.
I go back to the dining table to finish my cold pancakes. Noah is back in the living room and he’s talking to Lily. She’s listening to him intently, her little heart-shaped face beaming with happiness. God, she’s got one hell of a crush.
“Mommy!” Lily shrieks when she sees me. She’s waving her hands to get my attention even though she’s right in front of me. “Mommy, Noah is going to take me to see his boat and then we’re going to go get some crabs at the lake!”
“Wonderful.” I take a bite of my pancake. Even cold, it’s pretty tasty.
“And then, Mommy,” Lily continues, “he’s going to cook the crabs for our dinner!”
I look at her in amazement. “You’re going to eat crabs?” Lily subsists primarily on a diet of frozen chicken nuggets and hot dogs with a side of macaroni and cheese. And the chicken nuggets must be shaped like dinosaurs. Or else.
“Noah says he makes them taste really good,” she says.
Wow, she really loves him.
I look up at Noah sitting in the living room, remembering when I felt the same way.
14 YEARS EARLIER
I’m on a date.
It’s my first date of college. Even though my crush on Noah Walsh is still very much present, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that our relationship will consist mostly of waving hello when we pass each other on campus, or maybe some small talk in the hallway. Noah isn’t really my type anyway—I’ve always preferred more artistic guys than straight-edge, athletic, pre-meds.
Derek Malone is more my type of guy.
He’s in my Visual Studies course, and he’s an art major like me. Long hair, ink-stained fingertips, a goatee. And I like him just as much after our dinner out at an Italian restaurant. We talked about our common class, although less about our visual relationship to nature and culture than we did about how our professor has the strangest, unidentifiable accent. Derek guessed he was French—I thought Russian. It was quite a debate.
As Derek walks me back to my dorm, I wonder if he’s going to kiss me good night. It will be my first kiss of college—something surely memorable. I wonder if Derek’s goatee will feel scratchy against my chin. I wonder if he’ll try to slip me some tongue. Or if I’ll let him.
“May I walk you upstairs?” Derek asks me as we approach the door to my dorm. The wind is blowing his long, brown hair into his face, and he looks very much the artist. If he were a musician, this could be his album cover.
I smile. “Of course you may.”
We make it up to my front door and that’s where our date will come to an end. Derek turns to face me, a tiny smile playing on his lips. “I had a great time, Bailey.”
“So did I,” I reply honestly.
We stare at each other for a minute while my heart pounds in my chest. Is he going to kiss me? I want him to kiss me. If he doesn’t kiss me, I’ll spend the next week wondering what I did wrong.
But I don’t have to worry much longer. Derek leans forward and presses his lips against mine. Derek’s tongue probes my mouth just a little more than I would have wanted, but I forgive him for that. It’s hard for guys to know the exact right amount of tongue. And bonus points for pulling back at exactly the right moment.
This is the perfect end to this date. All I can think about is when we’re going to have our next one.
Except then Derek leans forward and kisses me again. This kiss is more aggressive than the first one, his tongue more probing and insistent. I feel his body pressing me against the door to my room, getting closer than I’d want him to on a first date. Not that I’m a prude, but…
“How about we go inside?” he breathes in my ear.
I shake my head. “Not tonight.”
“Come on,” he whines. “Just for a little while.”
Before I can answer, he kisses me again. This time, I don’t allow my tongue to respond to him at all. This kiss is most certainly unwelcome. Especially the way he’s pressing his body against me so firmly that I can hardly move or breathe. Derek is thin but wiry.
“I’m just sort of tired,” I say when he pulls away for air. “I think I’d like to go home.”
“But we’re having such a great time,” he points out. “And it’s still early.”
“I think my roommate might be home,” I mumble, even though it’s eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, which means there’s no way in hell Carla’s home. She calls me pathetic when she comes home at three in the morning to find me already asleep in bed.
“Why don’t you check?”
I swallow. My perfect date is completely ruined. Why is Derek being so goddamn pushy?
“Listen,” I say, “like I said, I’m tired, so…”
“But I bought you dinner,” he says.
I frown at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that maybe you should stop being a cocktease.”
I stare at Derek. I can’t believe the guy I was just thinking was so romantic only minutes earlier is turning into the biggest jerk I’ve ever met. All I want is for him to leave.
But Derek isn’t taking the cue. He pushes me against the door again, kissing me more roughly. That’s when I notice that nobody whatsoever is in the hallway. It’s Saturday night, and every single person is out with friends or at a party or just gone. I’m all alone here with Derek.
I try to shove him off me, but his fingers grab my wrists and further pin me against the door. He’s kissing my face and my neck and his body is pressed against me so hard that I can feel his erection. I try to struggle against him, but I can’t budge. He’s so goddamn strong—at least compared to me.
Shit, what am I supposed to do in this situation? Why didn’t I take that campus self-defense course when I had a chance?
I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping he’ll get sick of it when he sees I’m not responding, but he doesn’t. He’s kissing me more roughly while I squirm helplessly under his grip. “Please stop,” I beg him.
“Oh, cut it out, Bailey,” he says. “You know you want this.”
Tears are forming in my eyes. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe Derek is going to assault me right in the hallway outside my dorm room.
Except before the tears can escape, I feel the weight of Derek’s body being lifted off me. At first I think that Derek realized I didn’t want his advances and decided to leave me alone. Then I open my eyes and see none other than Noah Walsh throwing Derek against the wall, so roughly that his body makes a resounding thump on impact. Derek tries to make a run for it, but Noah grabs him by the collar and shoves him backwards, pinning him against the wall.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing to her?” Noah practically spits in his face. I can see the anger in his blue eyes—if it were directed at me, I would have been terrified.
“Listen, this is none of your business,” Derek says weakly. “Bailey and I were out on a date.”
“Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?” Noah releases Derek for a second, then buries his fist in Derek’s stomach. Derek doubles over, gasping with pain. Derek might have been able to overpower me, but Noah’s both taller and stronger than he is.
“You listen to me, you little shit,” Noah hisses at Derek. “If I ever see or hear about you laying a finger on Bailey ever again, I will personally break every bone in your puny little body. You don’t touch her, you don’t speak to her, you don’t even breathe on her. You got me, asshole?”
Derek nods, still hunched over and clutching his stomach.
“Now get the fuck out of here,” Noah growls at him.
Derek doesn’t need to be told twice. He limps off in the direction of the staircase, still holding his belly. He doesn’t look back.
Noah turns to me, breathing hard. The fire has left his eyes and he furrows his brow. “Are you okay, Bailey?”
My legs have given way underneath me, and I crouch against the door, trembling. I manage to nod, wiping my eyes self-consciously.
“I just…” He glances at his own room. “I was out at a party and came back to grab a bottle of vodka I had in my room, and I saw…”
I don’t say anything. Part of me feels like I might never speak again.
He looks down at his right hand, as if in amazement. “I never hit anyone before,” he breathes.
His blue eyes meet mine, and they are so kind that the tears I’d been holding back all this time spill over. I wipe them self-consciously, as Noah crouches down beside me. This isn’t the most comfortable place to be sitting, but he stays there with me while I cry it out. At some point, he fishes a crumpled tissue out of his jacket pocket and hands it to me.
“Do you have your room key?” he asks gently.
I nod and fish around in my purse until I find it. I pass it over to him, and he gets to his feet. He holds his hand out to me to help me stand up—his hand is big and warm and safe. He opens the door for me and leads me inside.
“Go lie down, okay?” he tells me.
“Okay,” I murmur.
Noah closes the door behind him while I settle down on my bed. I’ve never been a stuffed animal kind of girl, but now I wish I were. I want something to cuddle to feel safe.
“You’re going to be fine,” Noah says gently, kneeling down by my bed.
“What if he comes back?” I manage to say.
Noah thinks for a moment. “I’ll stay. As long as you want. Keep guard.”
“What about your party?”
He shrugs. “So what? There are a million parties.”
“Aren’t they waiting for the vodka?”
He shakes his head and laughs. “So they’ll just have to make the supplies last a little longer. It’s fine.”
I look at Noah sitting cross-legged on the ground, leaning best he can against my desk. It looks incredibly uncomfortable. He’s watching me intently, an unreadable look in his eyes. I feel a sudden and almost overpowering rush of affection toward him, something far deeper than my Freshman Crush.
“Thanks for saving me tonight,” I whisper.
“No problem,” he whispers back, his eyes never leaving mine.
The truth is, I can’t stop looking at him either.
“You look uncomfortable on the floor,” I observe.
He waves his hand and smiles crookedly. “I’m fine.”
“You can lie next to me,” I say softly. “If you want.”
His eyes widen. “Uh… I don’t… I mean, you don’t need to feel like you have to…”
“I’d feel safer if you were next to me,” I say. I’m not sure if that’s true. I feel safe with Noah on the floor. But I still want him next to me.
He doesn’t have to be told again. He gets up off the floor, slips off his sneakers, and climbs into my bed next to me. His body feels warm and large next to mine. I scoot over to get closer to him, but I can tell he’s not entirely sure what to do. Which is weird, considering he hasn’t had any shortage of girls accompanying him to his room this year.
I slide into the crook of his arm, feeling safe and comforted by the heat of his body. I rest my arm on his chest, feeling the muscles of his abdomen under my hand. He puts his own arm around my shoulder, gently pulling me closer.
I look up at his face. God, he’s sexy. He lowers his head slightly, but I’m the one who bridges the gap. I kiss him first, and despite what nearly happened with Derek, I realize I want this. I want Noah desperately, and I can’t hold back another second. It feels so right to be here in Noah’s arms. I’ve never been kissed like this before.
And as he kisses me, the fleeting thought goes through my head that this is the boy I’m going to marry someday.
To be continues...