Pat—midfifties now, kind eyes, and deep wrinkles from years of sun exposure—was the same delivery guy they’d had for nearly a decade. He averted his gaze as soon as he registered the way Jess was hiding her lower half behind the door, and Jess handed him the envelope with signed contracts for Kenneth Marshall. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “Let’s pretend this never happened.”
“Deal.” He turned and made his way down the path to the gate.
“Maybe being away from Twiggs isn’t so bad for my writing mojo,” Fizzy said when Jess returned to the table. “That might be the best start to a story I’ve had in a couple weeks. Maybe I’ll finally be able to write something other than sex scenes that transition into aggressive and intentional penile injury.”
“Please don’t write a romance starring me and UPS Pat.”
“Do you know that penises can be fractured and strangled?” Fizzy paused. “But don’t Google it.”
“Fizzy, I swear to Go—”
If possible, Jess startled even harder when the second knock came. Did I forget to tape the label on? Defeated, she called out, “Pat, hold on, I need to go put on pants.”
A low, quiet voice resonated down her spine. “Who’s Pat?”
Jess’s eyes went wide, and she turned to gape at Fizzy on the screen.
“What?” Fizz whispered, angling as if she could see through her screen to the door, moving so close that her nose and mouth loomed. “Who is it?”
“River!” Jess whisper-yelled.
Fizzy leaned back and made a shooing motion with her hand, whispering, “Go!”
“What do I say?” Jess hissed.
“Make him do the talking!” She shadowboxed in her chair and forgot to whisper the rest: “Fuck him! Tell him I said so!”
River cleared his throat and offered a dry “Hi, Fizzy” through the screen door.
“Oh, great.” Growling at her, Jess stood, stomped over to the door, and jerked it open.
River stared at her face and then dropped his eyes before immediately looking back up. A hot blush crawled up his neck. Right. Pants. And as they stood facing each other, River made a valiant effort to not let his eyes drop below her shoulders again.
Or … maybe it wasn’t valiant. Maybe it wasn’t hard at all. Maybe for him, turning off feelings was like flicking the switch off at the end of an experiment.
Score over ninety: interest on.
Score unknown: interest off.
“Hi,” Jess said. Well, even if he could shut off his feelings, the same was certainly not true for her. If anything, her love for River had somehow solidified into a brick in her chest: If she wasn’t truly in love with him, then why did she cry herself to sleep every night? Why was he the first person she’d wanted to hold when she finally got home from dropping Jamie off the other night?
But at the sight of him—how Jess could immediately tell he’d gotten a haircut recently, how he was still the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen, even with the dark circles under his eyes, and how being this close to him still made a cord of longing pull tight from her throat to her stomach—the sadness melted away and she was angry. More than angry, Jess was livid. It had been eight days. Eight days of complete silence from someone who’d told her he hadn’t felt like he’d been home in forever until he met her. Who’d kissed her like he needed her to breathe. Who said “I love you” out of the blue and didn’t try to take it back. And then he left.
“What are you doing here?”
His jaw clenched and he closed his eyes, swallowing with effort. “Do you … want to go put on pants?”
Jess stared at him, mute with shock. This was the first thing he said to her? Go get dressed? Honestly, being confronted with the uppity, asshole version of River made it so much easier to dial down the love and crank up the hate.
“No.” Jess waited for him to look at her face again and then put a hand on her hip, deliberately ignoring when her shirt rose up. “What are you doing here?”
River exhaled shakily, blinking to the side and then looking back to her. “Do you mind if I come in?”
Her first instinct was to tell him that she did mind. She minded very much, in fact, because having him in her space would remind her that he’d started treating it like his space, too. She’d thrown out the deodorant he’d left in her bathroom, the socks she’d fished out of the laundry basket, the oat milk he’d kept in her fridge. But she knew they needed to have this conversation. They had to break up, officially.
Stepping to the side, Jess let him in and then turned and stalked down the hall, calling out, “Stay there.”
When she returned, she had pants on, but her mood, if anything, had darkened. Walking past Juno’s room was like pouring lemon juice on a cut. River hadn’t just vanished from Jess’s life; he’d vanished from her kid’s, too. Her little girl who’d never been left before had lost two people in a week. Would it be hitting below the belt to tell him that Juno had asked to see River no fewer than four times? Jess berated herself for telling Juno about their relationship at all.
Jess found him perched on the edge of the couch cushion, hands pinned between his knees. He looked up at her and seemed to relax the smallest bit, shoulders slumping.
“Why are you here, River?”
“I was hoping we could talk.” He said it like it was obvious, but was he kidding?
Her jaw dropped. “What do you think I was trying to do when I called you last week? When I texted? You never replied.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I wasn’t ready.”
“Oh?” she said in quiet shock. “I was here totally losing my mind thinking we were over. I was heartsick, River. Am I supposed to feel better hearing that you didn’t call because you weren’t ready to have a relatively simple conversation?”
“Jess, come on. You said it was a lot to digest, too. I was neck-deep in data. And when you didn’t call again, I—I wasn’t sure whether you needed space.”
“Do not make me the bad guy here.” She immediately pointed her finger at him. “I get that this threw you—”
His eyes flashed as he cut in. “Do you?”
“Of course I do. It threw me, too!”
“It isn’t the same,” he said, voice sharp.
“Maybe not, but you had no right to dump me the way you did.”
“What?” His eyes went wide. “I didn’t dump you.”
“Reality check: When someone goes completely silent for eight days, it isn’t because they’re off planning an elaborate grand gesture.” Crossing her arms, Jess leaned against the wall. “And you know that, River. I realize that I’m easy to leave, but I was hoping you were better than that.”
He looked like he’d been punched. “You aren’t ‘easy to leave.’ None of this has been about my feelings for you. I was a total fucking wreck about work, worrying we would have to disclose the tampering, worrying my entire company would go under.”
Jess looked away, clenching her jaw while she struggled not to cry. Was she being unfair? His entire world had come apart, but she could only focus on all the shrapnel he left in her. “I understand that, but it doesn’t make my feelings any less valid,” she said, careful to keep her voice from trembling, “I had a really shitty week. I needed you. Even if you were going through it, too, I needed you. And you don’t get to do that, you know? Just vanish? Remember this for the next time, with the next woman. If you say feelings like ‘love,’ you owe her more than what you gave me this week.”