A/N: First of all, I want to apologize to all of you for taking so long to update this. I'm really struggling to find the 'right' way to end this novel. I originally said there's only going to be two more chapters left, but I think I am going to extend that into three. Anyway, here is chapter 23, and I really hope you all like it. I'd love any and all feedback from all of you!!!!! XD
I follow Jessie up the stairs to Brad's apartment, checking my cell phone when we reach his door. I see it's already going on eight at night and sigh with fatigue. I feel like I haven't gotten any sleep in the last forty-eight hours. But maybe that's just because the last few days have been more emotionally draining than I'd realized.
I slide my arm across Jessie's shoulder and her tear-stricken, hazel eyes look up at me.
"Thank you," she says with a slow smile, "for staying by my side."
I lean forward and place a soft kiss against her temple.
"Don't thank me," I murmur, brushing away a strand of hair from the side of her face. "I was happy to do it."
The door to Brad's apartment flings open, forcing my eyes away from Jessie's face. His expression brightens when he sees the two of us and ushers us inside.
"I thought I heard you two lovelies whispering out here. I was waiting for ya'll to knock but then I thought - hell, I could be waiting all night!" Brad says with a laugh.
I glance around Brad's spacious apartment, cringing at all the feminine touches he's added. A black leather couch sits in his living room, a leopard printed throw rug on the floor in front of it. Modern paintings hang from the living room walls, all of them depicting half-naked men.
"You like the artwork, dollface?" Brad says, narrowing his eyes on me. "I painted them all by hand."
My nose scrunches at the thought. "All these men posed nude for you?"
Brad winks at me and then waggles his eyebrows. "Oh yes they did… and I charged them for it too. If you're asking me to paint you nude, dollface, all you have to do is ask. I'd even cut the cost down for you since you're dating my girl."
I scoff at his suggestion, vigorously shaking my head back and forth. Jessie and Brad both start laughing at my reaction, and I grunt when I realize they're teasing me. Brad shows me around his 'humble abode,' occasionally stopping to tell me a random story.
Eventually he leads us back to the kitchen and the three of us take a seat around the table. He's made dinner for us and I have to admit, it smells pretty damn good. Brad scoops a helping of homemade lasagna and garlic bread onto a plate for Jessie and I before getting one for himself.
"Alright, kids, dig in!" Brad chirps with a smile.
I glance over at Jessie and can actually see the tension seeping from her body. Even though Brad is a bit much to take, I have a strong feeling that he and I are going to end up being good friends. Because seeing Jessie happy and relaxed like this is what makes me happy.
By the time I look down at my cell phone again, it's already past midnight. Jessie and Brad are both on their third drink. Jessie's hazel eyes are slightly glossy and Brad's cheeks are a bright shade of pink. The two of them are huddled together, whispering and laughing like a couple of twelve year-old-girls.
I just smile and shake my head. "Hey, Jess," I say in between their bouts of giggles, "I have to stop by Claws. You want to come with me? Or I can just pick you up when I get done? Or…are you staying the night here?"
Brad rolls his eyes at the question, waving a dismissive hand in my direction.
"Oh pu-leaseeeee dollface," he guffaws loudly. "After all this time, you think that Jessie will turn down the chance at being with you?"
I can't stop the smile stretching across my lips and Brad winks when he sees how happy his comment has made me. Jessie leans forward and hugs Brad, placing a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
"Ok, I'm just going to stop at the bathroom first," Jessie slurs as she gets up from her chair. "Just gimme two minutes."
I wait until Jessie has left the room before I turn my attention back to Brad.
"Thanks for having us over," I say and give Brad a pat on the shoulder. "I had a lot of fun."
Brad nods his head and finishes the remaining few sips of his drink.
"My pleasure dollface. You two are welcome….. anytime."
Once we get to Claws, I settle Jessie at a table near the back and then head to the kitchen to make her something to eat. I fry up a few hamburgers and throw them on a plate, adding 'just ketchup' to hers. I pull off my apron and hang it back on the hook, wiping my grease-covered hands down the length of my pants.
When I push open the kitchen door, my eyes immediately seek out Jessie. I smile when my eyes catch on her lovely face, but then I notice a man talking with her and my smile instantly fades. I narrow my eyes on the unwanted visitor and my jaw clenches of its own accord. It's Kevin. I try to reign in my anger as I carry our hamburgers to the table. The two of them hear me approaching and turn in my direction, and Jessie gives me a pleading look.
I set the hamburger on the table, moving in front of Jessie and crossing my arms across my chest.
"Can I help you with something, Kevin?"
I keep my voice level but my eyes are deadly serious. Kevin glances at Jessie before finally looking at me. I see a faint line of stitches under his eye and feel a twinge of guilt in remembrance of the way I beat the crap out of him.
"Just came here to pay for my last month of rent," Kevin says, a steely edge to his voice.
He then moves past me and turns his attention to Jessie.
"I'll be out of the condo by Friday. Now that you're with him, I didn't know when you'd be stopping by the condo again."
My jaw tightens at the way Kevin snarls the word 'him,' as if I'm some poisonous creature stealing Jessie away from the 'pure' world.
Watch it, Kevin. You're two nasty comments away from getting another beating.
I snatch the envelope out of his hand and then stuff it in my back pocket. A second later, I feel Jessie pulling it out and a small shiver shakes my torso. Just feeling her hand so close to me makes my heart quicken with desire.
I point my finger toward the exit. "You did what you came to do. I don't think I need to show you the way out."
Kevin laughs under his breath and shakes his head. "My pleasure. You two have fun together."
Neither Jessie nor I say another word as Kevin saunters out of my bar. I don't know why I have so much rage for that guy, but just seeing him makes me vision blur with fury. I take a calming breath and pull out the seat across from Jessie.
"Thanks for stepping in," she murmurs with a smile. "I hate being around him."
I nod while she opens the envelope. She folds up the check and stuffs it in her purse before letting out a loud sigh. We're both quiet for a moment, and in our silence I realize how much she's lost over these past few months. The condo of her dreams? Gone. Her relationship with Elliot? Broken. Her best friend, Kelly? Passed away. Rex's memory? On hiatus.
My hand seeks hers from across the table. The softness of her fingers makes me shudder as they weave around mine. My thumb traces small circles across her skin and she smiles softly.
"I know it's been a shitty day," I say under my breath. "Hell. It's been a shitty few months. I'm sorry about everything, Jessie. Really I am."
Jessie studies me for a moment, her liquid green eyes melting into pools of shimmery emerald. She scoots her chair around the table, nestling herself closer to me and tugging my arm around her shoulders.
"It's just been a bad summer," Jessie says, her voice fighting down her sadness. "But honestly, Hunter, you did nothing wrong. If anything, I should be apologizing to you. I'm the reason you and your brother are fighting now. And - "
I put a finger up to her mouth, effectively silencing her words.
"Jessie, I'm fully aware that we went about 'us' the completely wrong way. I could sit here and say I didn't know any better since I've never really had a girlfriend….but that'd be a lie. I'm a big boy. I knew what I was doing. And even though I regret hurting my brother, I can't say I regret taking a chance. Because now I have you."
Jessie's cheeks ignite with a beautiful pink and my ego smiles at the effect I have on her.
"Was it all worthwhile though?" I ask suddenly, the words leaving my lips before I have a chance to stop them.
"Was what worthwhile?"
Now I'm the one blushing. I rub the back of my neck with the palm of my hand before shrugging my shoulders and making a sweeping gesture towards myself.
"Getting me in the end," I say sheepishly. "Don't get me wrong - I know everything with Elliot was like Hell for you. But…was it worth going through all that with him….to get me?"
Oh God Jessie, please tell me yes. Please tell me I'm worth all of this.
Jessie smiles and leans toward me, her feminine, sweet scent intoxicating my senses. She taps her first finger on the tip of her chin, making it seem like this is somewhat of a debate for her
"Hmmm…well Hunter, after much deliberation I have concluded one thing for certain. You are now mine and mine alone…."
Jessie leans even closer and murmurs into my ear. "And that, Hunter? Oh yes, that makes it all worthwhile."
Her words send shivers down my spine and when I look up into her hazel eyes, all I want to do is take her back to my apartment, strip her down, and show her the other parts of me that are now 'all hers.' She must be thinking the same thing, because when her eyes look me over with desire, a small grin plays across her lips.
"Well, Hunter," Jessie says slowly. "Now that I'm all yours, what do you plan on doing with me?"
I chuckle softly. "I have a lot in store for you ma'am. Just you wait and see."