“It’s hot. He’s probably just tired.” Jake gives me a quick sidelong glance.
“It’s buffalo and honey, his favorite. He always scarfs it down. I’m worried something is wrong with him.”
“Well, I can call a friend of mine. She’s a vet, moved from L.A. to Flagstaff two years ago.”
Why am I tripping over that? I don’t want to be that girl. Not with Jake. Yet … I’m that girl. Gah!
“That would be great. I can’t kill Swarley. My sister will never forgive me.”
Jake chuckles. “Killing someone’s dog is pretty unforgivable. So is poisoning them.”
“So is depriving someone of a proper shower.”
“Poisoning and shower deprivation. Yeah, those are on the same level.”
“Don’t be bitter.” I slide off my sandals and prop my feet up on the dash for two seconds before my gnarly, un-manicured feet frighten me into dropping them back to the floor.
“Don’t be self-conscious.” He hands me another quick look with a knowing smirk.
I want to go home, and yet I don’t. Everything will change when we get to L.A. How can it not? I live there. Jake lives in Milwaukee. That’s a lot of miles to solve.
“Your mom. Is she why you eat the way you do? Is she why you take such good care of your body?” I grunt a laugh. “That’s actually odd if the answer is yes because you were a fighter. You let people beat the shit out of you. That’s the opposite of taking care of your body. Right?”
“I was the guy beating the shit out of other fighters. But thanks, Ave, for assuming I suck.” He grabs my knee and squeezes it until I jump.
Why does Jake the fighter turn me on? I’m not a violent person nor have I ever been into watching any sort of fighting. I don’t even care for action movies. Yet the idea of Jake winning fights makes me squirm in my seat, well, that and the memories of the laundromat.
“Why? Was it for the money?” I grab his hand on my knee and bring it to my lips, kissing his knuckles one at a time.
“The money was good. But no, that’s not why I started fighting. My uncle was a fighter. When he saw me spiraling out of control after my mom died, he trained me, put me in the ring, and told me to fight the demons. I did. I fought my father, the memories of my mother losing herself, the kids who made fun of her right in front of me. Everything … I just kept knocking everything down. I was never going to use food the way my mom did. I was never going to take another snide remark from my father. I wanted—I needed—total control of my life.”
“And vegans are in control?”
He laughs. “Sure. And that explains why you’re such a hot mess. You consume too many angry animals’ spirits. They’re pissed off about being slaughtered and having their udders pumped to the point of bleeding.”
“Ew … too far.”
Jake laughs more. “Sorry. Probably a tad too far.”
“Can you love me even if I eat said slaughtered animals?” I slap my hand over my mouth.
Oh my god.
“That was …” I shake my head, mumbling through my cupped hand. “Not what I meant to say.”
“Your life, Ave. Not mine. Your journey. Your conscience. Your beliefs. Not mine.”
He fails to acknowledge the L-word I just flung in his direction. I don’t know if I should feel relieved or terrified.
I twist around when Swarley makes a noise. “Oh my gosh!”
He vomits on the seat.
“Jake! He’s sick.” I unfasten my seat belt and wedge my body behind the console to flip up his blanket so the vomit doesn’t run down behind the seats.
“Okay. Calm down. I’m pulling over.” Jake veers onto the shoulder. Thankfully, we’re not on a main road with heavy traffic. He hops out and opens the back door.
Swarley struggles to get out, so Jake helps him.
“Oh no!” I cover my mouth as Swarley retches again, but very little comes out.
“He probably got into something that’s upset his stomach.” Jake squats next to him and strokes his back.
“Call your friend. Call her now.” My stomach clenches like an angry fist as panic sends my heart sprinting to keep up with the fear that something is not right. Swarley is not a young dog anymore.
“Grab my phone.” He stays next to Swarley.
I get it and push the voice command button.
“Call Megan,” Jake says as I hold it close to his mouth.
Megan. I now have a name for the irrational jealousy that’s on my horizon. It rings on speaker three times before she picks up.
Yeah. I hate her. After she fixes Swarley, I will kill her to eliminate my competition. Friend … Addy is his friend. He had sex with Addy. Doesn’t he have any male friends? Look at him … of course all his friends are women who willingly sleep with him. And they stay friends. Will we be friends when whatever this is ends in L.A.?
“Hey, Meg. Are you home today?”
“Depends. Are you coming to visit me?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m thirty minutes away. But I need a favor.”
“Is it sexual?”
I raise my brows, returning a tight smile as Jake tosses me a grimace.
“Uh … funny. No.”
“Am I laughing? Come on, throw me a bone or boner.” Now she laughs.
It’s a terrible laugh, and I’m not being catty or biased. Really.
“Totally kidding, Jake. But single life sucks. I never should have gotten married. The asshole just sucked all the good years out of me, and now I’m used goods.”
“I don’t have time to feed your ego, Meg. I need a favor.”
“You sound serious.”
Swarley retches again, but nothing comes out except tons of drool dangling from his lips.
“I’m traveling with someone. She has her sister’s dog with her, and she’s worried he might be sick or something. He’s vomiting and drooling excessively. He probably ate something he should not have. Would you be willing to check him out?”
“Of course. What breed of dog?”
“I’ll text you my clinic address and meet you there. I’m at home right now.”
“Thanks, Meg. You’re the best. See you soon.” He ends the call.
“Wow …” I shake my head while removing the soiled blanket from the backseat, retching a few times myself because it smells so bad. “I get to meet two of your friends slash past lovers on this trip. Yay me.”
Jake grabs a few towels from the back of the truck and lays them across the backseats. “Meg and I are friends. That’s it. We met at a fight years ago. Her husband made a lot of money betting on me. They both followed me to countless fights. We all became friends … until he cheated on her. They’ve been divorced now for two years. That’s when she moved to Flagstaff. Meg and I just stayed in touch. No big deal.”
I frown while he helps Swarley into the truck. “He has to be okay. Sydney will kill me if anything happens to him.”
“He’ll be fine. Dogs get sick just like humans.” Jake shuts the back door and turns to me, pulling me into his broad chest. “Okay?”
This space he makes for me feels like it’s mine—his arms, the crook of his neck, the bold, woodsy soap scent clinging to his skin. This is my spot. I don’t want to lose my spot.
As soon as we pull out onto the road, I flip down the visor and check my hair and naked face.
“You’ve had your dick in me three times today. I’m worried you’re not really seeing me clearly through your post-coital goggles.” I frown at my reflection. “Ten bucks says she’s wearing makeup and has at least one hair product in her hair.”
“We stayed at a motel last night. You had a mirror and light this morning. Why didn’t you put on makeup?”
“You guilt me into ignoring my appearance. If I even check for an eyelash in my eye, you give me a look like I’m obsessing over my appearance.”
“Why do you care what I think?”
I start to speak but snap my mouth shut. Jake baits me into knee-jerk reactions. He pushes me. Sometimes he challenges me in ways I need to be challenged. But right now, I’m out of my comfort zone with a man I’ve known all of two seconds, and my sister’s beloved dog is sick on my watch. This isn’t the right time to speak my mind.
* * *
Our silence breaks as Jake parks outside a tiny, dark wood building. “Oh Jesus …” I gasp at the excessive drool coming from Swarley’s mouth, and I think something is oozing from his nose too.
Jake shuts off the engine and opens the back door. “Come on, buddy.”
Swarley lifts his head an inch then rests it back on the seat.
I turn to the long-haired brunette in skinny jeans and a fitted gray tee. Yep. She’s wearing makeup and her hair is not naturally this perfect. No way.
It’s so wrong of me to envy her hair when Swarley is in bad shape, but it’s a natural reaction. Maybe I am a terrible person.
Jake hugs her. It knocks the wind out of me for a few seconds. She’s in my spot.