Falling for You
A chill slithers through me as I look out the window from my seat in row 23A. Our pilot circles the runway, waiting for the go-ahead from the control tower to launch us into the sky. Tonight’s flight is relatively short but it’s on an older plane, so there’s no movie.
To add to my bad luck, there’s no internet up in the clouds, which means the new books I wanted to read on my Kindle app are useless. I should have downloaded them before takeoff or bought a magazine at the kiosk, but because of my lack of planning I’m stuck on an almost two hour flight with nothing but my thoughts.
One thought in particular won’t leave me alone: Why am I going back?
It’s not the quietness of a small town or how the stars shine brighter away from the big city that draws me in. Nor is my return for the friends I left, because Hattie Reynolds is the only person to text me since I left.
What’s pulling me back is what’s kept me away for so long—Joshua Thomas—and it’s not a matter of if I’ll run into him, it's when, because Hattie’s boyfriend, Landon Waters, is one of Josh’s best friends.
I wrap my arms around my waist. As much as I’ve talked myself up to the possibility of running into Josh, I’m not ready to see him again.
Butterflies are throwing a party, dousing my insides with buckets of vomit that threaten to expel themselves into the tiny paper bag the airplane has provided for such occasions.
Do I love Josh?
I’m not sure.
Love is a fickle word with expectations and the possibility of a future attached to it. All I know is I’ve never felt a pull to be near someone like I do when I’m with him, and a part of me I didn’t know existed broke when I left.
So, that brings me back to my original question. Why come back? Why subject myself to the pain and the embarrassment of looking like an idiot to him and the people I thought were my friends?
The easy answer? Because I am a fool.
What was it Elvis said? Only fools fall in love? Or perhaps it’s that they rush in? I don’t know. However the saying goes, I did both—rushed into a relationship and fell too hard.
I slide the window shade up and notice our pilot circling the landing strip. I’ve done it again, gotten lost in my thoughts while time races away from me. I’ve been doing that a lot since moving back to Georgia. Losing time.
Fifteen minutes later, the plane touches down and I’m allowed to disembark. I grab my rolling carry-on bag and my backpack from the overhead compartment, then shuffle my way through the sea of bodies in the terminal.
After a quick chat with the car rental company, and a nerve-racking two hour drive, I finally make it to the yellow one-bedroom cottage that Hattie and Landon call home. No one pays me any attention as I cross the grassy knoll beside the house. A cruel reminder that these people were never really my friends.
I take a deep breath, hoping it will settle my nerves and head for the kitchen. Tonight isn’t a night I want to tackle sober.
The front door is open, so I let myself in. Dozens of empty bottles line the cabinet tops like trophies. It’s stupid, if you ask me, because I’d bet a hundred dollars he can’t remember anything about the parties he drank them at.
I open the fridge, unsurprised to see it filled with White Claw, beer, and Jello shots. I grab a plastic container, filled with what I’m hoping is watermelon flavored Jello. I swipe my tongue around the inside edge, loosening the gelatinous goo, and swallow. Without giving myself time to change my mind, I reach in and grab a beer. I’ve never liked White Claw, it always reminded me of flavored seltzer water, but Hattie loves the stuff.
“Ahhhhh!” a girl screams from behind me.
I know that high-pitched squeal, but recognizing the sound doesn’t stop me from jumping and hitting my head on the edge of the freezer door. I pop the top of my can, then rub the sore spot with my free hand while I take my first sip of the night. I don’t particularly like beer, but it hits faster than Jello.
Hattie runs into the kitchen, hands waving about like a madwoman, before throwing them around my neck. The sheer force of her embrace makes me stumble back against the fridge. I peel her blue tinged strands from my lipstick and force a laugh. While I’m happy to see Hattie, and for someone to be excited I’m here, I don’t feel gleeful. My skin is crawling, my stomach is twisting, and I need her to let me go before I hyperventilate. “Good to see you too, Hattie.”
“You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.” She releases me as the world begins to spin out of focus. Like almost everyone else here, Hattie is drunk. Unsurprising, considering how late it is.
I bite my lip, wondering if I should have waited until morning to come by. I could have blamed missing her nineteenth birthday on a delayed flight, or something. Too bad I know myself. If I didn’t come out tonight, I wouldn’t have showed up at all.
Hattie grabs my hand and takes a step backward. “Two months is too long.”
I allow her to lead me towards the living room. There are too many memories in the kitchen. Here. There. Everywhere. “How’d you know it was me?”
She plops onto the faded green cushion, one leg under her, the other off the side, and gives me a lopsided grin. “Please. I’d know that flat ass anywhere.”
I can’t help but laugh when she slaps me on the thigh. It feels good to be back, but it also feels different. Landon and Hattie’s place has always been more like a home to me than my own, but tonight the air is thick.
I look around the tiny room. Nothing has physically changed, everything is the same as it was a few weeks ago, but there’s still a shift.
Maybe it’s me.
Maybe I’m different.
1 year earlier
A dark haired girl in a pair of faded skinny jeans and a floral crop-top leans against an older style red Nissan Altima, probably waiting for me. She pops her gum, not bothering to glance up from her phone as my rental car’s headlights paint her in yellow.
I park behind the Nissan and press the lock button on the keyfob out of habit. This neighborhood seems safe enough with its picket fences and solar powered street lights, but clicking the button again to unlock it is redundant.
The girl, I’m assuming to be Kelly Brewer, looks up, finally acknowledging my existence. “I take it you’re Layla?”
I smile and try to look excited for tonight. If I play my cards right, Kelly will think her mom and my aunt have set us up on a blind-friend-date because I’m visiting from Georgia, lame, and have no life. She doesn’t need to know that I’ve been sent as insurance. If Kelly stays out of trouble tonight, her mom has promised to donate to Aunt Tricia’s latest fundraiser.
My job is to make sure she doesn’t get arrested or pregnant, or do anything to jeopardize the twenty-thousand dollar check coming our way on Sunday. But hanging out with strangers for the night, doing god-knows-what, is one hundred percent out of my comfort zone. I’m an introvert at heart, only going out when absolutely necessary, and this is my personal hell.
“You must be Kelly.”
I extend my hand and let it hang in the air for a solid three seconds before dropping it back to my side. Kelly rolls her eyes and turns around while unlocking her car. “Let’s go.”
I pat my back pockets, double checking that I grabbed my phone. Satisfied that I have it, my driver’s license, and my debit card, I walk around to the passenger side of the Nissan.
Kelly’s door creaks as it opens. I force another smile, even though the woman has barely glanced at me, just in case she’s embarrassed. By the looks of the inside of her car, I doubt she cares about the sound her door makes. The front seat is disgusting, covered in receipts, fast food bags—that I hope are empty—and gas station Slupree cups. I push everything in the seat onto the floorboard, then buckle up.
I suck in a breath and grin again. If not for the darkness blanketing us, Kelly would for sure see my shaking hands. Going solely off what my Aunt Tricia told me about Kelly—that her parents think she parties too much and might need rehab—I’d say there’s a good chance we’re going to some kind of social gathering. I just hope tonight isn’t as much of a disaster as her car is.
Kelly turns her key in the ignition, then faces me, and wrinkles her nose. “Are you going to church?”
I tug the ends of the three-quarter sleeve pink sweater that covers my black tank top. I paired it with a pair of dark skinny jeans and ankle-high boots. I shake my head, thinking about how my parents would skin me alive if I went to Sunday service in something like this. “No.”
“Coulda fooled me,” Kelly scoffs, rolling her eyes again. She shifts the car into gear, but hesitates before pulling out of her driveway. “Just so we’re clear, if anyone asks, I don’t know you.”
I tuck my lips between my teeth and nod, slightly relieved. Judging by the leather miniskirt and neon orange tube top Kelly’s wearing, I’d say she’s the kind of girl who craves attention. I could be wrong, but we’ll see.
Me, I’m the blend into the background kind of girl. Pretending not to know Kelly, unless I’m in the confines of her car. “Sounds good to me.”
Three parties, one McDonald’s drive through run, a quick stop on the side of the road to pee, and we’re finally headed back to Kelly’s house.
I’m beyond ready. Back home, I’m not much of a partier. I go out every now and then when my parents force me to, but I don’t think I’ve ever stayed out this late.
“I take it you lost that last round of beer pong?” I ask when Kelly gives up singing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” to plant a wet one on my cheek.
“I haven’t won a game of beer pong since I was sixteen.” Kelly throws her head between her legs and tosses one empty McDonald’s cup after another behind her into the back seat. She sits up, her head finding the headrest with a thud. “I think I lost my phone.”
I press my lips onto a line and fight a scowl. Kelly is a train wreck of epic proportions. Her flip-flop broke two parties ago, she’s slept with three guys that I know of, and now she can’t remember where she tucked her phone.
Do I think she needs rehab?
No, but if you look up hot mess in the dictionary, you’ll find her picture.
“It’s in your bra.”
“Huh?” Kelly looks down, finally realizing the end of her bright pink iPhone case is visible between her massive chest and orange top. She squeals then laughs. “There it is!”
My aunt sure knows how to pick them.
“Hey, I know that truck!” Kelly pulls her phone from her shirt and squints at its backlight, somehow managing to find the number she’s looking for. “Hey, sexy thing. What are you doing?”
Her high-pitched voice falters when the mystery man on the other end talks. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I know what he wants. By the way Kelly is licking her lips, it seems like she’s ready for round four. She hangs up and says, “Turn there.”
“No. It’s like two in the morning. I need to get you home so I can drive back to Orlando and go to bed.”
“It’s too late to drive back to your aunt’s place. Just crash at my house tonight.” Kelly folds her hands, prayer style. “Please.”
Considering I have to go back to her house for my rental car anyway, staying with Kelly tonight doesn’t sound like the worst idea. At least there I can sleep in. Aunt Tricia insists the whole house be up at five a.m, no matter what day of the week it is. “Fine.”
Kelly shrieks and points at an upcoming streetlight. “There! Turn there!”
After more wrong turns than right, we eventually make it to an empty church parking lot, seconds before a truck pulls in. Kelly jumps out of the passenger seat before it can shift into park.
I watch her wait like a kid on Christmas for her newest conquest: a lanky blonde that is attractive, but not my type.
The guy holds his arms out and Kelly runs into them, jumping and latching her legs around his waist. He fuses his mouth to hers, carries her back to his truck, and lowers the tailgate.
I lean the seat of the Nissan back and close my eyes. The last thing I want to see is someone’s white ass in the air, or any other body parts.
The car door opens again and I squeeze my lids tighter, casting out the overhead light’s brightness. I sense a body next to me, but it doesn’t smell like Kelly. It smells like whiskey, spices, and wood.
Peeling one eye open, I squint at the intruder. A black cowboy hat shadows most of the face that is looking at me, but the parts of him I can see are attractive. Strong arms. A tight button down shirt. And a pair of jeans that don’t leave much to the imagination. I open both eyes and lift my head off the seat. The guy tips the front of his hat at me. I blush, not because I’m flattered, but because people don’t do things like that where I’m from.
“Hey there.” He has a thick, southern accent, too strong for a Florida boy. I fight a smile as I sit my seat up. The passenger door closes and the overhead light goes out almost immediately, but the glow of the streetlamp is bright enough that I can somewhat make out his face. He leans forward, turns the music down, and says, “You’re pretty.”
I can’t tell if the over annunciation is from that southern twang or if it’s alcohol-induced. Either way, this guy’s accent is sexy. I feel his eyes on me, waiting for the acknowledgement I refuse to give. I watch Mr. Cowboy shift from the corner of my eye. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together.
What is he doing?
He sits up straight and leans closer until his warm whiskey breath tickles my cheeks. Heat climbs my neck at the thought of him kissing me. Not because I’m interested—I’m not—but I’ve only kissed one man. My ex, Ashley.
“I’m a bull rider.”
I laugh and the guy’s head cocks to the side. He didn’t honestly expect that line to work. Did he? What tiny butterflies I may have felt about Mr. Cowboy maybe kissing me disappear. Kelly needs to hurry up and finish, because I need to get as far away from this loser as possible.
Kelly is on Sam like white on rice before I can make it around the front of my truck. Sam would have fucked her right there in the parking lot, but that’s not cool. Kelly may be easy, but she still deserves some semblance of privacy.
“Y’all wanna use my—”
They climb into the back before I can finish getting the words out. Shaking my head, I make my way over to Kelly’s car. Knowing her, she left it unlocked and running for a quick get-in-get-out kind of thing.
Opening the passenger door, I have every intention of laying the seat back and closing my eyes. This ain’t my first rodeo with those two; this little sexcapade could last a while.
The overhead light clicks on when the door opens and my breath catches in my chest. The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen is sleeping in the driver’s seat. Something inside of me shifts. The need to talk to this girl and make a good impression consumes me. She opens one eye and looks up. Realizing the light must have woken her, I tip my hat and slip in the passenger seat so the light can click off.
“Hey there.” Fucking, hell. What am I, sixty? Who talks like this? Why can’t I be normal and just say hi.
The girl doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t smile, but her gaze darts over to me a few times. Maybe I can save this. “You’re pretty.”
“Thanks.” She looks out the window towards my truck.
I stare at her, waiting for her to look at me again. One second. Two seconds. Four seconds. Shit.
There’s no other choice. I have to pull out my go-to line. It’s a hook, line, and sinker everytime. “I’m a bull rider.”
It all starts with her eyes. They find me first, and then her head turns. A fraction of a second later, the corners of her mouth lift into a small but noticeable smirk.
There’s a sweet satisfaction knowing that I’ve broken through her façade, but all I want is to taste those lips. I’d probably be useless for anything else tonight. Gotta love Jack Daniels.
I lean closer and her scent makes my head swim. Flashing my best smile, I say again, “I’m a bull rider.”
The girl laughs and shakes her head. If I hadn’t drank a fifth of whiskey, I might be offended, but I find her resistance endearing. Most of the girls around here throw themselves at me, but not this one. The fact that she doesn’t want me makes me want her even more. One way or another, I will win her over.
She turns her head, bringing her gaze to mine. It’s too dark to tell what color her eyes are but I bet they’re beautiful. “I have a boyfriend.”
“I don’t see him here tonight.” I reach my hand out and touch her cheek. I stare at her lips, unable to think about anything else. Most of the girls I screw around with taste like beer. I’d put money on it that this one doesn’t. I’m guessing she’ll taste like cherry because of the Chapstick in the center console.
The overhead light clicks on, blinding me. My eyes are slow to adjust but when they do, I open the passenger door, stand, and watch this chick cross the parking lot.
She pounds her fist against the side of my truck, a move that would have gotten her face beaten if she were a dude. “I swear to god, Kelly, if you aren’t in your car in one minute, I’m leaving without you.”