* * *
“Thanks for offering me some berries.” As the skyline of Chicago comes into view, I break the silence again.
Jake turns down the country music. “What?”
“I said, thanks for offering me some berries.” I stare at the four empty pint containers between the seats.
“If you wanted berries, why didn’t you get some?”
“Because I had to deal with Swarley and the poop fiasco.”
“Then why didn’t you ask if you could have some of mine?” He shoots me a wide-eyed look with a tight smile.
“Because that’s not how it works. You don’t ask for something that’s not yours. You wait until someone with manners offers it to you.”
“You were going to ask Carley for her water.”
“Okay, okay … enough about the water. You act like I was going to take food from a starving child.”
“What are you doing?”
“You just took a picture of me?”
“Yup.” I caption the photo of Jake.
“Beware! Satan has good hair, but he’s still a snake.”
“You can’t upload photos of me without a photo release.”
“Well, I did. What are you going to do about it?”
Jake snatches my phone.
He tucks it under his leg.
“Not cool. Give it back.”
“No. Taking my picture without permission and posting it to Snapchat is what’s not cool.”
I cross my arms and stare out my window the rest of the way to Chicago.
“Where are we?”
“Grocery store. Go get what you need.” He unlocks the door.
“What I need?”
“Food, Avery. It’s a grocery store. Or do you have a personal shopper who gets your groceries?”
“No. My personal shopper—ex-personal shopper—mainly bought my clothes.”
“Christ …” He shakes his head.
“Aren’t you getting anything? Where are we going for lunch? Chicago has some great restaurants. Did you call ahead for reservations? Am I just getting snacks here or what?”
“Whatever you need to survive for the next forty-eight hours. I have a blender, and I’ll start a fire. You didn’t bring a cooler, but I might let you rent some space in mine.” He smiles. It’s much sweeter than his words. Satan—totally Satan.
“We’re in Chicago. Why would we camp in Chicago? There are hundreds of hotels.”
“Skip along, Princess. I don’t want to spend the whole day in this parking lot.”
“My phone.” I hold out my hand.
He slides it out from under his leg. I drop it in my purse, pausing to gather my emotions that have been all over the place.
“Avery Montgomery.” I hold out my hand.
Jake stares at it then at me.
“Let’s rewind and start over. I fear your first impression of me was inaccurate. I just came off a bad breakup. If my anti-male vibe rubbed you the wrong way and therefore caused you to act a little douchey toward me, I understand.”
He nods slowly, taking my proffered hand. “Jake Matthews.”
“Nice to meet you, Jake. Thank you for the ride. You are a lifesaver.”
A tiny line creases along the bridge of his nose, a residual sign of his unease. His distrust. I don’t let it phase me. This trip doesn’t have to be miserable for either one of us. I’ll show him every assumption he made about me is wrong.
I grin. It feels good to smile. It feels good to start again on the right foot. “I’ll be quick. Are you sure I can’t get you anything?”
“I’m good. Thank you.”
Shedding the weight of the world, I inhale the summer air, toss my hair over my shoulders, and make my way into the store.
Fifteen minutes later, I push my cart into the checkout line. The cashier scans my necessities, and I swipe my card.
My lips twist. I try the card again.
“I’m from out of town. I should have informed my credit card company.”
The cashier gives me a sympathetic smile.
I try another credit card.
“What is going on?” I try every credit card. They are all declined. I try my debit card. I know I have enough money in my bank account to cover seventy dollars in groceries.
The voices in my head give my emotions a pep talk.
Keep your shit together.
“Do you have cash?” the cashier asks with pity in her hushed words.
I have thirty dollars in cash. When we stopped for gas, I was planning on getting more cash from the ATM.
“I’ll just take the water.” Food is overrated. I can live for days with just water. It’s the perfect time for a cleanse. My skin will look almost as amazing as Jake’s.
“Just the water?”
I nod, blinking back the tears.
She calls someone from customer service to void the transaction and rings through just the water. I stop outside of the entrance, out of sight from Jake’s truck, and call Anthony.
“Avery,” he answers in a cold tone.
“What the hell have you done? None of my credit cards work and neither does my debit card!”
“Funny … I said those same words when I found my BMW trashed.”
“You fucked the cook, you asshole! You’re lucky I didn’t do to you what I did to your car. I have nothing. I’m traveling across the country with a complete stranger, my sister’s dog, and thirty dollars in my purse.”
Twenty and change after buying the water.
“How did you even get access to my account?”
“My brother is your banker. All I had to do was show him my car.”
“I’m going to sue his ass, Anthony! And yours too.”
“Baby, we can make this all go away. I want you back. You have a place in my life, all you have to do is say yes. I’ll get a driver to bring you and the mutt home. We’ll get all this silliness with your bank account straightened out. It will be like it never happened.”
I stare at the water spots on my leather sandal and the chips in my manicured nails. I think of camping with a stranger and chasing dangling turds. But then I think of what I saw on Anthony’s computer and his hidden love of chocolate, and I press End.
“Three bottles of water? You were in the store for that long and you got three bottles of water?”
I smile through the pain and my fading confidence. I smile through the humiliation. “I had other things, but then I got to the checkout and one of those magazines on the rack had a feature on cleansing, so I put everything but the water back. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
He eyes me with suspicion as I fasten my seat belt. “Occasional cleansing is good.”
I nod, unable to speak past the knot of emotion in my throat. Over the next hour to our destination, he continues to give me quick glances. I sense his confusion, a better feeling than pity, but I refuse to look at him.
“Whoa …” My face presses to the window. “You’re such a tease, Jake Matthews. We’re staying at a boutique hotel. It’s … incredible.”
He chuckles. “It’s a house. Not mine. We are camping on the property.”
I give him a scrunched-nose look. “I’m pretty sure friends let friends stay in the house, not offer them a ten-by-ten space for a pop-up tent. It’s unfortunate I have to break the news to you, but this dude is not your friend.”
He parks a few hundred yards from the house that sits atop a hill overlooking acres of rolling woods and a winding creek. “She is my friend. I choose to camp.”
“Is she home? I’d love to meet her … see the inside of the house … check out the guest bedrooms …”
“Not home.” He hops out and I do the same, letting Swarley out to roam.
“But you have a key to the house, right?”
“What if there’s a storm? A tornado?”
He smirks, opening the back of the truck. “We’ll kiss each other’s ass goodbye. Here.”
I shake my head and hold up my hand as he attempts to pass a large bag my way. “I can only carry light stuff. Doctor’s orders.”
“I see.” He frowns at my hand like it’s my fault I’m injured.
“Then take your suitcases.” He plops them on the ground.
“Dude! Those are Gucci. The wheels alone are probably five hundred dollars.” I inspect the two suitcases.
He tosses a few other things out of the back and jumps down, nearly knocking me over.
“Oh shit! You scared me.” I hold my hand over my chest.
“Don’t be scared.” He looks down on me like I’m dinner.
I never thought I’d say the words thank god he’s vegan, but seriously … thank god he’s vegan.
“We agreed. I won’t tie you up to kill you.” Another stupid wink.
It’s wrong for that shade of blue eyes to be wasted on a guy. I bet he can get any girl with just a wink. Good thing I’ve never been just any girl.