paintball

Tracy is falling hard. She doesn’t want to, but she is. So rather than face her feelings, something she’s never done, she chooses the path she’s always chosen with Brendan – mess things up. She tells him that someone else has asked her out, and that she might say ‘yes’. . .

Did he really not care if she went out with someone else?

Last night, he’d been angry; very angry, she was certain of that. He didn’t kiss her on the mouth when they were having sex, didn’t wait for her to finish, didn’t even seem to want her to, which was not just unlike him, it was downright cruel. She wasn’t even sure what had gotten into her bringing up Jason’s dinner invitation. Maybe a perverse need to cut through the thickness of her growing feelings for him, to dilute it a little bit, maybe even to self-sabotage. A part of her wondered when she brought it up if he would dump her. If he did, it would be easier, because she wasn’t sure anymore whether she would be able to walk away from him when the time came. And the time was coming, she was sure of it.

But this morning when she woke up and he was gone, without a word, or an attempt to wake her first, she felt a stab of hurt. That was not the kind of thing Brendan did, ever. He was almost scarily attuned to her moods, and could predict her reactions with such precision, she almost resented it.

Tracy recalled a Thursday evening a month earlier when she’d come in from work stressed and bitchy, and Brendan told her to get dressed so they could go out. As usual, he told her nothing about where they were going.

She’d come out wearing three-hundred dollar Chloe jeans and some similarly pricey top with wedge heels and he’d gotten a dubious look on his face. Tracy remembered her exasperation.

It’s all I’ve got, she snapped at him. So we either go with me wearing this, or we stay in.

No, Brendan said after a moment’s consideration. I think we definitely need to go.

And then he’d taken her to Queens to an enormous warehouse. For paintballing. She’d been livid enough to refuse to get out of the car for twenty minutes while he cajoled, teased and finally coaxed her into it. There were goggles and smocks to wear over your street clothes but by the time they were done, her jeans were still ruined, as was her pedicure because she’d had to remove her wedges and play barefoot, which was against the regulations, but Brendan made her do it anyway.

Tracy had laughed and squealed and ran like a kid, and Brendan had been merciless about hunting her down, as they’d hooked up with another group, and he joined the guys and she the women. When he ambushed her, just as she expected him to blast her with a pellet, he’d instead pulled her against him and kissed the living daylights out of her.

Traitor, she’d murmured against his lips.

Best date ever. It was precisely the kind of thing she needed, without even knowing it. The wild and reckless energy she’d expended paintballing had snapped her completely out of her funk. Back at the apartment, Brendan had washed paint out of her hair in the shower and even humored her when she asked him to help her blow dry it so that it was perfectly pin-straight afterwards; she always had trouble with the back near her nape.

The next day at work, when the receptionist told her she had a delivery, she’d expected flowers, but Brendan was never that obvious. He’d sent over a gift-wrapped pair of brand new Chloe jeans, identical to the ones she’d ruined the evening before. That he’d looked at her jeans and taken note of both the size and style had her staggered. But who cared about getting new jeans when the stained ones would always remind her of that night and of his kiss, behind the bales of hay, that took her breath away.

“What d’you feel like eating?” Brendan asked.

He walked out of the bathroom completely nude, and Tracy’s mind went blank as she took the sight of him in. Long and lean, with that tapered waist and his . . .

Brendan snapped his fingers in front of her face. “Chicken and waffles?”

That revived her. “Brendan, you know I hate that kind of heavy food.”

“Just checking for signs of life,” he said.

He seemed to be back to his old playful self she noticed; which would have been great but for the fact that now she was the one feeling unsettled. After his initial reaction to her dating, he’d let it go, like water gliding off a duck’s back.

Was he really willing to leave for a month and let her date someone else while he was away?

Tracy brooded on that question the entire time she was in the shower and still hadn’t made her peace with it by the time they got to the diner around the corner for brunch. The waitress who served them was named Pam, and had served them many, many times before. She had the rolling hips of a woman who was slightly larger than the fashion magazine ideal but so completely comfortable with her body that Tracy almost envied her. When she walked away to put in their order, it was almost impossible not to watch the rhythmic sway of her gait. But this time, it annoyed Tracy to no end that Pam seemed to be flirting and that Brendan was having fun with it.

No surprise there. He was the kind of man women flirted with because his appreciation of their gender was so genuine, frank and non-threatening. While most men wanted to sleep with any woman they found attractive, not all of them liked women at their core. Brendan did, and somehow they knew it, and appreciated him back because of it. Some of that mutual appreciation was a little too apparent for Tracy’s taste.

But she was hardly in a position to complain. She was the one who had announced that she was about to date.

The entire meal was nothing short of painful; not because it was awkward and filled with silences but because it was not. Brendan was himself again, as though liberated by some new realization; or maybe just liberated. With the last of her coffee, Tracy swallowed the fear that in telling Brendan she might go out with someone else, maybe she’d made the hugest mistake of her life.

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