THE DAY WAS PERFECT.
Sunny but with a cool breeze that reminded you winter had finally arrived in Southern California, even if the surroundings didn’t exactly scream winter wonderland. How could it when every plant that surrounded us was a lush green and full of life?
So damn full of life and beauty I wanted to cry.
It was a perfect winter day, yet I couldn’t get myself to fully enjoy it.
No matter what I did to try and shake off the bubbling nerves that lay beneath my heart, worry and anxiety still crept up, putting a hamper on the day.
His phone beeped, and I looked toward him. Regardless of everything I was feeling, he still took my breath away.
His solid, strong body held itself like a stone. Still and poised with complete grace. Six months after we had started this thing between us, he still gave me butterflies. He looked upward, tearing his eyes off his phone to stare right into my eyes, and gave me a soft, sweet smile that somehow made his light blue eyes even lighter. The knot in my belly tightened.
The end was near.
I could sense it.
He was going to break things off, and there was nothing I could do about it. Instead of asking the question burning in the back of my throat, I tore my eyes away from him and looked down at my shoes. I ignored the way the sun was probably burning the top of my nose before glancing up at him. He was maybe two feet away, but it might as well be a continent.
Yup. It was definitely the end. I was convinced of it.
The entire trip, to the Wild Animal Park of all places, had been his idea.
I had never understood men who broke up with a woman after a fancy dinner and gifting them a piece of jewelry as something to remember them by. But right then and there, I wished it had been the route he had taken.
A nice piece of jewelry I could hock at a pawn shop, so I could spoil myself on a little online shopping spree as I cried into my Ben & Jerry’s. But nope, that was not going to happen. As I looked at him, he was staring back at me, and it surprised me. He hadn’t been looking at me lately, yet right then and there he was.
Maybe he wouldn’t wait till we got home?
Would he break up publicly?
“You okay, babe?” he asked. tilting his head slightly, obviously studying me, and all I could do was look right at him.
His six-foot-two frame was lean but with toned muscles and definition. In a white tee shirt and faded jeans with a gray beanie thrown on his head all while wearing flip flops, he was the epitome of a born and raised California boy turned grown man. Relaxed and casual could have been his middle names. The sun shone perfectly on his trimmed beard, bringing attention to the soft gray hairs hidden in the mostly dark brown facial hair. He was so damn great to look at, that even if he had a slight hipster vibe to him, the natural swagger he had helped him completely pull it off.
“Yeah.” I smiled tightly and looked away.
We had just moved in together two months ago, and I now understood my mom’s warnings. I’d made a colossal mistake. Moving in together had been an utterly bad idea.
I wasn’t even sure how it had happened.
One day, I was venting to him about my lease coming up and how the rent on my townhome was increasing. The next thing I knew, his eyes met mine and he suggested, out of the blue, to move in with him.
Roland Baxter asked me to move in with him. The man who didn’t have a spontaneous bone in his body, the man who didn’t ‘do’ commitment, had asked me to move in with him after only four months of dating. The man didn’t like labels or living to others’ standards. The man who had told me from the get-go that he didn’t believe in marriage asked me to move in, and I’d stupidly said yes.
I should have made him take back his words and really think about what he was offering.
He was thirty-seven and divorced for a reason.
He enjoyed his space and was set in his ways. My sister had warned me how you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. I knew that. I’d known from the first night we had hooked up.
I couldn’t think those words without flinching. Maybe we were a one-night stand that hadn’t known when to call it quits? Maybe we had tried to make it more than its shelf life was supposed to be?
As I looked at him, his gaze far away into the distance, watching the people pass us by as we waited for the hot air balloon, a horrible thought crossed my mind. What if he was going to end it up on the balloon as we overlooked the entire park?
The beautiful park filled with amazing, gorgeous creatures.
Jesus. He was going to ruin animal prints for me. I wouldn’t be able to look at leopard print shoes without thinking about him. Damn him.
“Rolls,” I called out without thinking, and his azure eyes met mine.
To anyone looking at him, they would have thought he was super laidback. And he was. But he was more distant lately. Shoving his hands into the front pockets of his jeans instead of holding me like he usually had. Not that he had ever been touchy-feely, in your face with public displays of affection.
Not even that night in the bar.
But something was different.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew. And I was a thirty-two-year-old woman who had learned a long time ago to trust my gut.
“Can we go home?” I asked without thinking, knowing I had to be the one to just say screw it and end things.
Maybe do it before we got to his place? I would have to do it quickly, like yanking off a Band-Aid with one swift pull. After ending it, I could ask if he could call me when he wasn’t home, walk gracefully to my car in the parking lot, and go to a hotel.
“I don’t want to go on the balloon. Can we go home?”
“Why not?” His right brow lifted in his sexy manly way, but I shrugged, trying to push away his effect on me. “I thought this was on your bucket list?” he questioned, and I kind of wanted to cry.
It really, really was.
I wanted to get on a hot air balloon. Not just any balloon but the one over the Wild Animal Park in San Diego before I died. And I loved that he knew that.
Loved how he remembered the small conversation we had shared after intense love making that first night together. If things were okay between us, I would have been on cloud nine over this entire trip, but especially the hot air balloon.
Now was just the time to face facts.
A month into living together, something happened.
I wasn’t sure how or what, but it had, and I hated not knowing what the hell his problem was.
From the moment we had met at a bar, we had been hot and heavy. He was normally a quiet man, not one to overly talk, but from the very beginning, his friends seemed to be impressed with how open he was around me. They had teased I brought him out of his shell.
Then, two weeks ago, the man I knew went into hiding and someone else appeared. The guy they all seemed to hint at came back.
Deep in his thoughts.
Not to mention the way he had changed sexually.
Running a hand through my hair, I swallowed down the tears. It has to be someone else, I thought to myself. That was the only thing I could reason.
Why else had he changed? Why wouldn’t he take me the way he had from the moment we met? He wasn’t into labels, but Roland Baxter definitely had a manner about him. Something that came out of him like second nature when we were together. A very domineering manner. One I fed off and loved giving in to.
He was kinky and demanding, with a filthy mouth to go along with an eight-inch dick that filled me in a way I had never thought possible.
He was perfect.
But I had obviously jumped the gun.
Not only with stupidly moving in with a man who didn’t believe in marriage and labels, but for letting myself fall hard and deeply for a man who had somehow, for whatever reason, realized I was not it for him. Ugh. I had handed him my heart with my eyes wide open.
Too bad he was probably going to toss it in the trash by the time we got home.
She was so beautiful it made my chest ache.
I clenched my hands at my sides to stop myself from grabbing her and pulling her into me.
“You want to go home?”
“Rolly—“ No one else could call me that.
No one but Veronica.
From the moment I met her, she had shaken up my life and stirred shit up inside of me. Shit I thought was done and dead. I’d sworn it would be nothing but a bachelor’s life for me, but she had brought me back to life with a smile and her bright laughter.
“You not feeling well?” I asked, studying her beautiful face.
Jesus, the woman was flawless.
With her porcelain-like skin and a peaches-and-cream complexion, you would never guess at her Latin heritage. The apples of her cheeks were flushed, but I had guessed it was from the sun.
“Something like that,” she muttered, turning her eyes away from mine. I frowned. Her long, curly dark brown hair was up in a messy bun, her hoop earrings swayed slightly, and I took in the profile of her face. Flawless perfection.
Jesus, I was in love with her.
I wasn’t sure how the hell it had happened or when I had stupidly taken the plunge, but I knew it was solely her fault.
Veronica Ramirez had put some kind of spell on me.
The first night together might have been fueled by beer and tequila and unadulterated lust. But in the sobriety of morning, it was the way her rich brown eyes had looked at me and the way her body felt in my arms that had made it impossible for me to stay away.
Did you hang up the stars just for me, Mr. Baxter? she had drunkenly asked that night we met, but that first morning, the way she looked at me, like she really believed I could have, made me want to be that man. The man who would do something outrageously romantic for a woman. Though not just any woman. It was her. I was the man who had long ago buried that part of me. Hell, it had been over a decade since I had even thought I’d be the type to want to stake claim to a woman of his own.
Looking at her, I wanted to be him and didn’t, all at the same time. It was fucking frustrating.
I was a grown-ass man, for goodness sakes. I shouldn’t have such a hard time coming up with the right words to share with her, but I was. I had been more than struggling for the last couple of weeks, and acting like I wasn’t sure as hell wasn’t my strong suit.
“Okay. Come on.” I stuffed my hands into my pockets, the need to touch her too great to handle. One touch, and I would be a mad man. I’d be on her like white on rice, and if she wasn’t feeling well, she really didn’t need that. Fuck, I am a mess.
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure she was following me, but she wasn’t. I stopped in my tracks and stared, wondering what was going on with her.
I blinked. Once. Twice.
Silently asking her to follow me, but instead she turned around and walked the opposite direction. I watched her, wondering where the hell she was going.
Ungluing my feet, I ran after her. My hands caught her shoulders when I reached her. She turned. Tears were running down her face, and my heart stopped.
“Jesus H. Christ, what the hell?”
“I Ubered a ride home,” she shared like she wasn’t clearly upset.
“We’re done,” she said. It took time for her words to register and make sense in my head. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever I did that made you not want to even hold my hand to walk with you when I’m not feeling well. Or whatever I did to make you shut me out completely. I get it. I did something,” she choked out. “I didn’t put the lid back on the toothpaste one too many times, or I left my shoes at the doorway—”
“Babe—” I tried to interrupt and process everything she had said.
“Whatever it is, I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“But I get it. It’s over, and I get it.”
“I don’t,” I blurted out, wondering what the fuck she was going on about.
“You don’t have to act stupid anymore, Rolly—” She shook her head. “Roland. I get it. Okay? Just… just shoot me a text when you won’t be home, and I’ll go over to get my shit.”
“Get your shit?” I found myself repeating like a fucking idiot. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“Oh, please,” she exclaimed, pushing me away while wiping the tears rolling from her beautiful eyes. “Like you didn’t see this coming? Like this wasn’t exactly what you have been trying to do these last couple of weeks? Really, Roland, that’s how you are going to play this? Seriously?” She didn’t call my Rolly, and I realized how much I didn’t like her calling me Roland.
“I’m done. Okay? Just… just let me go,” she pleaded. My hand fell from her waist, and I silently watched, completely stunned, as the woman I envisioned being the mother of my children walk away.
I had fucked up a long time ago, but with her, with Veronica, everything was different. I wanted more. I wanted everything with her. Who did she think she was walking away and ending shit before we got started?
I got my head out of my ass and followed her. She didn’t look back as she took the long way around the park, obviously lost. It only made me love her more. She could get lost, going in circles; while I was the opposite. She was made for me because if I was going to be lost, she was the only person I wanted to do it with.
And fuck me, I was lost in love with her.