** Jocelyn **
“Arm porn” was a trendy term I wouldn’t mind getting rid of. It’d gotten a little out of hand if you asked me. Don’t get me wrong, I could, objectively at least, understand why you’d turn your head at a completely impossible angle to catch a glimpse of a nice bicep, the kind that looked like someone shoved a softball under a guy’s skin.
It was the double standard that irritated the shit out of me. Probably no woman in Green Valley has stronger arms than I did. Without breaking a sweat, I could probably crack a walnut with my forearms.
It was the happy by-product of:
1- Being confined to a wheelchair for the past seven years, thereby relying on my arms to power all my forward motion.
2- Discovering that baking was the second greatest love of my life after my dog, Nero.
Trust me, kneading bread was a better workout than just about anything.
But no one was waxing poetic about the rippling muscles in my forearms.
“Careful, the steam coming out of your ears might mess up your hair,” my best friend, Levi, said from behind my chair.
He sounded bored, which didn’t surprise me. He’d heard this rant a time or seven.
Immediately, my right hand came up to double-check that every blond curl was in the same place that it was when I left my house.
Whew. Not a corkscrew springing out anywhere. Very I’m ready to bake bread and muffins and cupcakes and cakes and all the delicious things. Or at least, that was how it felt when I studied my own reflection just before Levi picked me up.
“You see the issue, though, right? I’ve seen women practically wreck their cars when you roll up your sleeves.”
Levi laughed easily. He did everything easily, the asshole. His hand landed on my shoulder in a condescending pat that had me rolling my eyes. “Of course, I see the issue, my little feminist warrior princess.”
As he spoke, I aimed my wheelchair slightly to the right when a guy walking his dog refused to concede any space. He also refused to make eye contact.
I called those people The Blinders. For the most part, people’s reactions to someone in a wheelchair—especially a young someone with incredibly sexy arms—fell into two main camps.
The Blinders and The Pitiers.
The Blinders pretended they couldn’t see me, which I often attributed to the fact I made them uncomfortable. They could walk around just fine. Staring at a young woman stuck in a metal chair might force them to come to grips with their own mortality, their health … the things most people take for granted on a daily basis.
The man walking his dog might have looked at me if I was pre-TM Jocelyn. The fourteen-year-old me who could run like a freaking gazelle, who hopped, skipped, and jumped without a second thought until the day I couldn’t anymore. Maybe he would’ve seen me and wondered why my hair looked like I stuck my finger in a light socket. But maybe he wouldn’t have. Maybe he had blinders on for everyone around him. One of those people who did his thing, stayed in his lane, and didn’t care how his presence affected those sharing space with him.
But it was just as likely that the blinders were because I was in a chair. If I’d been at my full standing height (somewhere around five feet ten), he might have shifted to give me more room with a polite smile on his face. I would’ve smiled back because if I was at my full standing height, it meant I could stand, and I probably would’ve taken that for granted too.
“Dick,” Levi muttered, jogging forward so he could walk next to my chair instead of behind it.
“It’s not fine. He saw you. He could’ve moved his fat ass over six inches.”
Because I couldn’t reach his shoulders, given that his full standing height was around six feet one, I patted his leg condescendingly. “Aww, my little advocate warrior princess.”
Levi sighed heavily because it was also not the first time, or seventh time, he’d been called that by me. He hated The Blinders. For me, it was a toss-up which was worse, depending on the day.
The Pitiers got this look in their eye that I roughly equated to, “Oh, you poor thing.” They saw me in the chair and instantly made a lot of sweeping generalizations about what life must be like for me. When I took the time to think about what they saw when they looked at me, I imagined they saw a barren wasteland of not being able to have sex (false, not that anyone other than my vibrator knew that), never being able to have kids (also false, my doctor assured me), and always needing to ask for help to reach the top shelves at the grocery store (true, unfortunately).
Sometimes, The Pitiers spoke to me like I couldn’t understand them. Like the chair somehow reflected a cognitive impairment as well. Only occasionally would I mess with them.
I never claimed to be a saint. Losing the function of your legs did not automatically make you a virtuous person. In fact, I’d met some real assholes who spent their lives on two wheels. Personally, I found myself somewhere in the middle. I just … liked to keep some of my cynicism tightly wrapped unless I really trusted you.
He got the brunt of my opinions.
My mom probably would’ve listened if I unloaded them on her, but that never ended well.
“Who’s training you?” Levi asked as we passed the entrance of the lodge. I could see the striped awning of Donner Bakery across the parking lot. Afternoon guests sat at the wrought-iron tables and chairs in front of the building, drinking sweet tea and eating whatever confections had been whipped up that day.
“I think it’s Jennifer Winston, but I don’t know for sure,” I told him. My hands gripped the metal ring mounted just outside my wheels as I pushed down harder than necessary. He cut me a sideways look when I sped up, which I ignored because if he asked me if I was nervous, I’d ram his shins.
Hopefully, they had some cream puffs left over because ever since Levi brought me the last lemon lavender cream puff, I’d been trying desperately to recreate it at home to no avail.
“Jennifer Donner Winston,” he corrected. “Can’t forget that middle name. It’s important around here.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Hey, it’s a woman’s right to have as many names as she wants.”
“I know, I know.” I knew what her name was; Levi just liked to rub it in my face that I was, as he called it, Green Valley Lite. I knew people. Sort of. But even after five years of living here, I didn’t know everyone by name. I didn’t know their family trees or who lost their dog last week or who got pulled over after a jam session or whose daddy was in the Iron Wraiths.
“And the kitchen is fully accessible?” he asked.
“She told me it was. That’s why I’m working at this location and not the one downtown.”
He scoffed. “And what does she know about accessible kitchens?”
“Oh, probably nothing,” I drawled.
“Right?” Levi shook his head. “Because unless those openings have at least thirty-six inches of clearance, she’s gonna have issues.”
Now it was my turn to cut him a look. “You gonna bring your ruler in?”
“Maybe.” He patted the front of his jeans and gave me an unapologetic grin. His stupid dimples popped on either side of his perpetually smiling mouth.
Really, we were a ridiculous pair.
Made all the more apparent when a tall, skinny brunette with a giant rack almost tripped over her espadrilles at the sight of a smiling Levi. He nodded at her, and she blushed prettily.
“Oh, for the love of,” I mumbled, pushing harder again just so I didn’t have to watch. If he wanted to sleep with half the population of Tennessee, I didn’t care, but that didn’t mean I wanted to witness it either.
Witnessing it was my own fault, honestly. It would’ve been easy enough to turn down his offer to accompany me, but since he’d finished his master’s, he got bored too frequently between job searches, and I couldn’t stand the thought of him moping around his apartment.
Now I wish I’d made his ass stay home.
I could be wheeling around naked, and I wouldn’t get the same number of looks from the opposite sex as Levi did just by breathing.
“Wait up.” He laughed.
I stopped the chair and pivoted the wheels in his direction. His hands braced on the armrests when I folded my hands in my lap. Levi narrowed his eyes as he peered down at me. With the sun facing him, they didn’t look the normal greenish hazel. They were like amber, bright and streaked with yellow. It was fitting for him. The sun always seemed to shine bright on Levi Buchanan.
Good thing I loved him so damn much. Not like love love. Brotherly love. Annoying, want to punch him in the balls from time to time, I never worry about wearing a bra around him, makeup is wasted in his presence, I don’t care that I’ve bawled my eyes out watching Old Yeller, or that I got rip-roaring drunk on the fourth anniversary of getting sick, then puked all over his bathroom in front of him kind of love.
I’m telling you I could not have stopped the eye roll if there had been a gun to my head. “Yes. Terribly.” I tried to pull my chair back, but his grip tightened. “Buchanan, if you make me late for my first shift, I’ll never forgive you.”
“Relax. You still have ten minutes.” There was something in those sun-changed amber eyes that made me twitchy. He was about to ask me something I didn’t want to be asked. “Why are you taking this job again? Didn’t Sylvia say her friend would be back in like four months?”
“My classes are done for the summer, and as much as I adore you,” I said, reaching up to pat his face harder than necessary, “I can’t just hang out in your man cave every day. I’ll go insane.”
How could I explain to him that the more free time I found myself with, the more I searched for something to do. I didn’t do boredom well.
Hence, the reason I started baking in the first place.
When all you did was sit (because no matter how many exercises you did or sports you participated in, you’re still sitting), all you could do was sit and it got really freaking old after a while. I loved working out, something Levi and I had in common, and I was starting with a new physical therapist to continue working on my leg strength so I could have intermittent use of a walker or arm braces. Intermittent being the key word.
I’d still always spend most of my time with my ass firmly planted in the chair.
Sitting around, no pun intended, made me want to gouge my eyes out.
I barely tolerated watching TV, and only the occasional movie held my interest. Audiobooks were about the only reading I could handle.
Even now, sitting still while he searched my face for an answer made my fingers tangle together, just to give them something to do.
“I need more in my life than what I have,” was all I was willing to concede at the moment. “Plus, I make a kick-ass cheesecake. I might as well make some extra cash doing it.”
His soon-to-be sister-in-law was the one who told me about the opening at Donner Bakery. A friend of hers was taking an extended maternity leave, and they needed an extra set of hands.
That was something I could provide. Yes, I came with a set of wheels too, but that hadn’t been an issue in my interview. Once the manager tasted my strawberry lemonade cupcake, the job was mine.
His grin was slow, but I could tell he believed me. After five years, we could read each other pretty damn well. Occasionally, it was annoying, but it was also one of the constants in my life that I genuinely didn’t think I could live without.
“Fair enough.” Levi released my chair, and I spun to face the bakery. His hands landed on my shoulders and squeezed before he released me. “Go get ’em.”
I took a deep breath.
“And be friendly, Sonic. It won’t kill ya,” he added.
My hands lifted and dropped in an exasperated heap. “Now why the hell did you have to say that? I’m friendly.”
His eyebrow raised slowly.
“I’m sort of friendly,” I muttered. Then I pointed an accusatory finger at him. “This is why I prefer to bring Nero with me instead of you. People love dogs, and they’re less likely to notice when I don’t smile at them.”
His chin tilted skyward as he burst out laughing. “That dog looks like he’d rip your face off on a good day. You take him places so people won’t talk to you.”
At that, I grinned a little. My four-year-old Doberman did look like he would rip someone’s face off, which was why Levi told me I had to complete one full shift without him waiting for me outside the bakery.
“Sonic,” he said quietly.
“I hate that nickname.”
“No, you don’t. There’s nothing more appropriate for you than a prickly little hedgehog who wheels around like a bat out of hell.”
Pointedly, I glanced at my watch.
“You’re not going to be late.” Levi shoved at my shoulder. “Smile at them. Ask questions. Don’t assume the worst, okay?”
My tummy knotted up. His smile was softer, more understanding.
My best friend didn’t have to ask me why I was so nervous. This was the thing I hated most in the world. Maybe not as much as like terrorism or global warming or patriarchal infrastructures that inherently protected sexual predators, but I hated it a lot.
It was why I was Green Valley Lite
Why I completed high school online and slid right onto college in the same way. Because of moments like this right here.
The moment when I went from Jocelyn Abernathy, the new employee showing up for her first shift, to Jocelyn Abernathy, the girl in the wheelchair. I just had to hope that whoever was waiting for me inside Donner Bakery wasn’t one of The Blinders or The Pitiers. Hopefully, they’d be like Levi. Be one of those people who met me and simply saw me.
Those were The Unicorns.
Once I cleared the door, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was the kind of warm and sweet and comforting smell that demanded you stop, close your eyes, and let it fill your lungs. It was cinnamon bread and banana cake, Jennifer’s specialty. But it was also coffee and cupcakes and warm bread and sugary confections that made my fingers curl up with excitement to get started.
A few customers looked at me from where they sat at circular tables. Their facial expressions didn’t even register, which said something about how nervous I was. I moved forward, glancing behind the large glass case next to the register for any sign of Jennifer’s brown hair.
A short brunette crouched behind the register, pulling a lemon-blueberry cake from the bottom row of the massive glass case with her tongue stuck between her teeth in concentration. Her cheeks were covered with freckles, and her eyes were huge in her face as she set the cake down inside a bright pink box without incident. Just as I reached the counter, I heard her let out a huge breath.
When she saw me, her face split into a massive, white-toothed, cheek-lifting smile.
“You must be Jocelyn! Oh, I’m just tickled to meet you.”
There was actual giggling as she hustled around the counter toward me. Oh sweet merciful Lord, if she tried to hug me, this whole part-time job thing might not be worth it.
Thankfully, she stuck her hand out, and pumped mine with almost violent intensity.
“Jennifer said you’d be in at two, so I’ve just been counting down the minutes until you got here.”
My mouth opened. Closed. Then opened again. “Am … am I late?”
Her eyebrows, thick and dark over her equally dark eyes, bent down in a confused V. “Course not, I’m just so excited. You’re the first person I’ve been able to train. We’re going to be friends, Jocelyn. I can already tell.”
Internally, I whimpered. Then I heard Levi’s voice in my head. Smile. Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions.
“What’s your name? I didn’t catch it.”
Her hands clapped to either side of her round cheeks, rosy pink from the warmth in the bakery. “Heavens, I’m a mess, aren’t I? I’m Joy.”
“Joy,” I said, the smile coming naturally in light of her comically appropriate moniker. “Nice to meet you.”
That made her blush happily, turning her cheeks an even deeper shade of rose. “Let me grab someone for the register, and I’ll show you the kitchen. We need to grab some more large boxes and the cinnamon roll cupcakes. We’re almost out.” She started back behind the counter, then stopped so fast I almost rammed into her. When she turned, she said, “Now, don’t worry about your being in that wheelchair. We’re all real accepting here. No one will bother you about it, and Jennifer told us we’re not to make a fuss over you because you’re perfectly capable of handling things on your own.”
Her voice was so sincere, her eyes wide and serious, that I wanted to grab her hand and tell her to chill the hell out.
“I won’t worry, Joy. But thank you for saying so anyway.” I cleared my throat when she didn’t start walking again. “They assured me the kitchen is fully accessible, so I should be just fine.”
Joy nodded so vigorously, a chunk of hair slipped out of her ponytail. “Oh, it is, I promise. Her husband, Cletus, I’m sure you know Cletus Winston? Of course you do.” I shook my head, but she just kept on talking like I did. “He tore the whole thing apart and redid it a few years back when Jennifer needed to be in a wheelchair for a while. He knew she’d hate to be out of work.” She sighed, a look so dreamy covering her face that I wanted to snap my fingers in front of her just to keep this show moving. “Isn’t that so romantic? He just … fixed all of it for her. Because he knows baking makes her happy.”
I chose my words carefully. “She sounds like a very lucky woman.”
More nodding. More hair spilled around her face. “She is. You’ll probably meet her later. She said she’d try to stop in to meet you.”
“Great.” I pointed behind the counter. “Should we?”
“Oh, gracious, yes! Listen to me chattering away.” Motioning me to follow her, we went behind the glass case, and I smiled at the crisply lined display of confections and squinted at the beautifully done chalkboard sign with the menu as we passed it.
“Joy, does that say dill pickle cupcakes?”
She giggled, glancing over her shoulder at me. “Sure does. We made them a couple of months back as a special request for someone’s baby shower, and they were so good, we couldn’t believe it. We only make them about once a month, but we usually sell out before noon on the days we have them in stock. I’m surprised there are any left.”
My eyebrows popped up in surprise. “Okay then.”
“They’re delicious,” she assured me. “The secret is the bourbon in the frosting.”
“Huh.” The opening into the kitchen was, indeed, wide enough for me, and I watched as a couple of apron-clad bakers worked efficiently around the long stainless island. They both sent me friendly smiles when Joy introduced me, no violent hand shaking this time as they were elbow deep in cupcake batter, which suited me just fine. “Will I get to do some baking today?”
Joy grinned. “Course you will. But we know you already know how to do that. We heard all about those cupcakes you brought in. We’ll start you on the register for a bit, then we’ll rotate back here to make one of our recipes.”
My face must have been frozen into some horrible expression because Joy bent closer, concern practically oozing from her pores. “Are you okay?”
The words felt like acid coming out of my mouth. “I just … I hope I do okay working at the register.” My face flushed hot. “I’m not, I’m not always great with strangers.”
Joy waved away my admission. “Hush, you’ll do just fine. Most of them are only strangers once or twice. Soon, you’ll know everyone who comes in here.”
In her mind, that was that, and we started around the kitchen. She showed me where the staff kept their things, and the bins of flour, sugar, and brown sugar underneath the main island. I saw the stainless racks where all the finished items went to wait on trays, and the ovens that were pumping out lots of heat and even more delicious smells.
I smiled when she showed me the design elements and sent up a prayer to the bakery gods that I’d be able to get my hands on them soon.
The first hour flew by with little necessary from me other than to listen to Joy’s happy chattering and overwhelming overshare of every square inch of the kitchen.
And this is the mixer, we got that one about two years ago. It’s a lot nicer than the one we had before.
Oh, this here is the counter you can pull right out for your own workstation. Jennifer used it all the time. Isn’t it amazing that Cletus made it for her? So romantic.
We store the bags of flour and sugar here. You can lift a fifty-pound bag, right? Of course, you can; just don’t pay attention to a word I’m saying.
By the time we made our way back to the register, I was ready for a nap. Of course, about half of that could’ve been because I really, really didn’t feel ready to put on my happy, friendly, non-Jocelyn customer service face. Maybe I could leach some of Joy’s joy by osmosis. I kept my chair just behind her so she could show me how to work the register, and that was when her curiosity finally got the best of her.
I’d learned pretty quickly when someone was trying to figure out how to ask me about my chair, or whether the thing about to come out of their mouth was going to be completely inappropriate.
“So, how did you …” Her voice trailed off, and she glanced quickly, guiltily down at my legs. “How did it happen?”
If Joy had been anything but sweet and sincere with me, I might have considered messing with her a little bit.
Instead, I gave her a quick smile. “I had an infection that caused inflammation in my spinal cord. The paralysis used to go higher up, past my waist, when I first got sick, but it settled lower with some steroids.”
She placed a hand on her chest and gave me a sad smile. Then her eyes glossed over, and panic made my whole body freeze up like a popsicle. If she cried, right here in the middle of the bakery, I might wheel my ass out and not come back.
“And you can’t feel anything at all? Like if I dropped something on your poor little feet, you wouldn’t even know?” she asked, voice all whispery and trembling with emotion.
I bit down on my lip so I didn’t laugh. “I’d be able to tell. Mainly because my eyes work just fine.”
She blinked a few times.
“Right, sorry, I’ll pull back on the inappropriate humor.” I cleared my throat awkwardly.
Houston, we’re losing her.
Joy sniffed, and I gave her a look.
“Joy, you promised not to make a fuss.”
She blinked again, but this time, I saw her visibly pull herself together. “Right, okay. Sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize.” I sighed.
She nodded in answer, then waved her hands in front of her to stem the emotions literally spilling over her face. “Okay. Sorry.”
I smiled. So did she.
Joy stepped back and motioned to the register. “Why don’t you try the next one?”
I groaned, wheeling myself closer. “Okay, fine.”
The sound of someone clearing their throat had Joy and me glancing up in tandem.
And I don’t know about her, but I felt my mouth drop open a little bit.
In front of the counter, with his hands tucked into dark jeans and ridiculous ropey-muscled forearms on full display—I would’ve sworn it on a stack of Bibles—was the love child of Brad Pitt from Legends of the Fall and Chris Pratt from Jurassic World. And he was smiling at us like we weren’t staring awkwardly.
“Afternoon,” he said, voice deep and warm and caramel chocolate lava cake gooey delicious.
A sound came out of my mouth that might have been hi, but all he did was widen his smile a little bit.
Joy snapped out of her stupor first. “Afternoon. What can we get for you today?”
“You’re new,” he said to me.
Like directly to me. While holding eye contact and aiming words in my direction.
Joy elbowed me in my shoulder, and I swallowed. “First day, actually.”
He nodded, glancing at the menu and studying it carefully. “So you won’t be able to help me much with what your top recommendation is, huh?”
Joy’s eyes widened at me, and I wanted to smack her. “Umm, I haven’t been able to try everything just yet, no.” I lifted my chin and felt really frickin’ proud of myself for holding his piercing—piercing!—gaze. Why were his eyes so green? Why was I noticing? I never noticed this stuff. “But I hear the dill pickle cupcakes are out of this world.”
He laughed, and Joy sighed dreamily.
Brad/Chris scratched the side of his face, which drew my eyes to the hard cut of his jaw. “If that’s what the lady recommends, then I’ll take two of those, please.”
Joy nudged me again, and I clumsily punched the required buttons on the register while she pulled the cupcakes from the top shelf of the case and boxed them up for him.
“Five dollars is your total,” I told him.
He handed me a ten, our fingers brushing as I reached over the counter to take it from him.
When Joy slid the box toward him, he opened it instead of taking the change I pulled out of the drawer.
“Is that a potato chip garnish?” he asked.
Joy nodded. “It is.”
Brad/Chris took one cupcake out and held it up, examining it seriously. His change sat on the counter unnoticed. Then he pushed the pink box back toward me.
I stared at it, then back up at him. “You’re supposed to take that with you.”
Smooth, Abernathy. So very, very smooth.
He grinned, holding up his cupcake. “No, this is mine. That one is for you. I’d hate to be the only one trying this for the first time today.” Then he dipped his chin. “Good luck on the rest of your first day.”
My mouth dropped open as he swiped the five-dollar bill off the counter. Joy’s mouth did the same thing as he tucked it into the tip jar next to the register.
“Ladies,” he said and walked away whistling.
“What the f—” I said, only catching myself when I remembered that I was supposed to be a professional now. “What was that?”
Joy squealed quietly, doing a little shimmy. “He was flirting with you!”
“He was not.”
Holy shit, he was. What the hell else would you call it when a man bought you a pickle cupcake?
She laughed when I pressed my hands to my hot, hot cheeks.
Men didn’t flirt with me. Basically ever. Like at all. And trying to explain that to Joy felt too much like stripping back my skin so she could see what was underneath.
“Come on,” she cajoled. “Aren’t you at least going to eat the cupcake?”
Since we had no customers at the moment, thank the Lord, I pulled the box toward me and considered it carefully before I lifted the lid. “Maybe later.”
She sighed again but didn’t push me.
“That was so romantic.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, let’s just … go bake some cookies or something.”
When she let me change the subject, I decided she wasn’t all that bad.
** Levi **
From the moment I met Joss outside of Donner Bakery at the end of her shift, her dog in the truck with his scary-ass head hanging out the window, she hadn’t stopped talking.
Her arms waved around and her face scrunched up as she mimicked her trainer for the day, which was all fine and good. But as she transferred herself into the passenger seat so I could put her wheelchair in the back of my truck, it was the look in her eyes that had me staring unabashedly. It was something I didn’t let myself do often.
Those eyes were happy. They were excited.
Feathers on an Indigo Bunting blue.
I saw one feeding from the large feeder in the backyard at my parents’ house, and the first thing the color of that little bird made me think of was Jocelyn’s eyes.
“Joy sounds like a real character,” I said when she finally took a breath.
Joss leaned her head back on the seat and grinned. “She is. Even sitting in my chair, she’s barely four inches taller than me.”
As I turned onto the road that would take us back to my place, I glanced over at her so I could drink in that grin.
That was when I noticed her clutching a pink bakery box in her lap.
Her fingers tightened around the edges, and she stared down at it. “A cupcake.”
“Well, what the frick, Abernathy. Be nice and share.” Nero shoved his big old head between us and sniffed at the curve of her neck. She smiled and scratched under his chin. He groaned, and I had a moment of trust me, buddy, I’d groan too if she scratched my neck. “Besides, this is my best friend perk. Shouldn’t I get perks in baked goods?”
She cut me a look. “You’ve been getting those perks for two years, Buchanan. Don’t even pretend you didn’t put on a solid ten pounds that first year I started baking.” Quite pointedly, she looked at my stomach, which we both knew was covered in muscle.
“That’s rude,” I mumbled under my breath. I flexed my bicep. Nero licked my elbow since it was right in front of him. “Yeah, ten pounds in my left arm maybe.”
The noise she made roughly translated to you are ridiculous. She made that sound at me a lot.
Of course, the sad truth of the matter was that I was ridiculous.
Not once in the past five years had my feelings lessened for her. I had just learned to live with them. In my junior year of undergrad, I was taking a class on brain pathology in injuries, and a man came to talk to us about how he learned to live without his right arm after it was amputated.
He told us about how, even years after he lost his arm, his brain still triggered sensations to the limb that was no longer there. The adult brain, in particular, struggled to reorganize after the loss of a limb, and given that four out of five amputees suffer from phantom pain symptoms, some of which were incredibly debilitating, it was a lesson that stuck with me.
I wasn’t fool enough to think that me loving Jocelyn was on par with a man who’d lost his arm, but something about the way he talked plucked at a chord inside me. Sometimes my brain struggled to remember that we were just friends. She’d never dated, never even hinted that she wanted to. She’d never given me a longing glance. Never stared at my mouth like she wondered what it tasted like.
But my hands never, not once, stopped wanting to reach for hers.
My fingers always, always itched to dig into her crazy hair and see what the curve of her scalp felt like.
My brain knew what this relationship was, but sometimes, the signals it sent to the rest of my body didn’t always match up with the truth of our situation.
We worked out together a lot, Joss and I, and when she got frustrated with the limitations of her body, I always wanted to wrap my arms around her. I wanted to pull her into the curve of my body, absorb her dissatisfaction into my skin, and carry it for her.
That was the irony when she made noises like that. She had absolutely no clue how ridiculous I really was.
The driveway at my parents’ house was empty, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. I didn’t really feel like sharing her, and my entire family was as in love with Joss as I was.
Well, not really, but it felt like it sometimes.
There was no other explanation as to why my mom and dad didn’t blink when I asked them to renovate the single stall garage at the back curve of the driveway into an apartment for me. It was hard for Joss to hang out in my old bedroom because it was upstairs, and she hated for me to carry her.
Now I had a freestanding living space with absolutely nothing to impede her coming and going because, in true Buchanan-curse fashion, I’d done all the research on making it fully accessible for her.
After parking my truck, I held the door open so Nero could hop out and run into the woods lining the property while I got Joss’s chair out of the back.
“Want me to take that?” I asked as I watched her struggle a little to grip the box while transferring into her chair.
“No way, you’ll eat it before I’m even fully seated.”
I considered that. “Depends on what’s in there.”
That was when her face did something weird. She blushed. All along the tops of her high, perfect cheekbones, her skin turned a delicate color I’d never witnessed.
The peonies in my mom’s garden pink.
As soon as she’d settled her feet, she pivoted and wheeled toward my place. “It’s a dill pickle cupcake, and it’s mine.”
“Gross,” I breathed, jogging to catch up to her so I could open the door.
“Right?” she said on a laugh. “But I can’t not try it.”
“Sure, you can. You can realize it’s a dill pickle cupcake and that you like your taste buds better than to subject them to that.”
Joss was still laughing when she wheeled inside. Over her shoulder, she gave a short whistle. Nero came bounding toward us, his pink tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. All ninety pounds of him skirted around us so he could hop up on the edge of the couch he always claimed as his.
My apartment had a small kitchenette lining one wall, which I pretty much only used to make coffee in the mornings, a light gray L-shaped couch facing the TV I’d mounted on the far wall, and my king-size bed hidden behind a half wall partition that gave me the illusion of privacy. Past that was the bathroom.
I’d chosen to forgo a table in the kitchenette because it was one more obstacle for Joss to get around, and we always ate on the couch anyway.
“You’re the cleanest twenty-three-year-old man I’ve ever met,” she said as she lifted herself out of the chair and onto the couch. Bracing her weight on her arms, she scooted back until she could pull the handle that lifted the reclining footrest. Nero stretched out, shoving his head against her thigh.
It wasn’t necessary for me to look around because I knew nothing was on the floor. No piles of clothes and no shoes tossed in the general area of where I slept.
I opened my mouth to make a flippant comment, but I took a second to watch her face first. Joss probably said it without expecting a reply, so she wasn’t even really looking at me. I must have been quiet long enough that she noticed. Her eyes lifted to my face.
“I’d never do anything that makes it hard for you to be here,” I said.
Joss blinked in surprise.
My face felt like it was heating, so I cleared my throat and walked to the fridge. “Need anything to drink?”
“Uhh, sure. What do you have?”
Surveying the contents of the fridge, I grimaced. “Water, purple Gatorade, and a beer.”
Before she could answer, her phone rang. “It’s Sylvia,” she said before picking it up.
Mentally, I waved goodbye to my time alone with her. If Sylvia was calling, she and my brother were probably at the house, saw my car, and my brother was kind enough to not barge in on us, allowing his fiancée to call and give us a heads-up.
He knew what Joss was to me. So did my parents. I finally admitted it after I turned twenty, and they were giving me shit about how, without my cousin Grady from California still holding out as well, I’d be the first to prove five generations of Buchanan men wrong. Grady’s twin, Grace, was single too, but considering she was the first Buchanan woman born in those five generations, none of us were quite sure if it worked the same.
“Hey,” Joss said into the phone. She smiled and jerked her head toward the main house. I rolled my eyes, which made her smile even more. “Yeah, we’re out here. I just got done at work.”
On the other end of the line, Sylvia said something, then Joss hung up and tossed the phone onto the empty cushion next to her. “They’re coming out.”
“Of course they are,” I mumbled.
“Don’t be an ass. I like Sylvia.” She pointed a finger at me when I flopped onto the couch on the other side of Nero. He lifted his head and looked over at me before stretching his back legs out into my space.
“I like Sylvia too,” I told her, smoothing my hand over his sleekly muscled flank. He pushed his paw into my leg, his way of asking for more.
“Good, as she’s about to become your sister-in-law.”
“You never know. Connor has six weeks to change his mind. Maybe he’ll back out.”
Our eyes met, and she started laughing. We both knew that would never happen. I had to swallow roughly for a second because, at times like this, I felt like I was keeping a huge secret from Joss. I’d never told her about the Buchanan curse. Because if I told her that …
There was a knock on the door before Connor walked in, trailed by his fiancée.
Nero lifted his head, and his tall, stick-straight ears and bright amber eyes trained in their direction made Connor pause. “Why does your dog always look like he wants to eat me?”
Joss scratched under Nero’s chin. “This little marshmallow?”
Connor grimaced. Sylvia rolled her eyes, tucking her arm around my brother’s waist.
Because it was impossible not to mess with him, I patted Nero’s rump. “Smile, Nero.”
He bared his big, sharp, white teeth in a terrifying doggy grin, and Connor blanched.
Joss stifled a laugh, leaning down to drop a kiss on the end of Nero’s shiny black nose.
Edging around the couch like Nero might lunge at him, Connor took a seat in the recliner opposite the couch and patted his lap for Sylvia to join him. She settled in, tossing her legs over his lap and giving him a quick kiss before facing us again.
“So it went well today?” Sylvia asked Joss.
She nodded. “Yeah. My co-worker was a little … extroverted, but she was nice. Customers were fine. I got to try one of their recipes. I’m more excited about that part than the people-ing.”
We all laughed.
“My grumpy little introvert,” I teased. “We’re so fortunate you don’t hate people-ing around us.”
Joss glared at me, but it wasn’t serious. “People-ing only counts as people-ing when it’s someone new, or you’re trying to impress them, or they’re trying to get to know you or something.”
We all knew what she meant. Joss was comfortable with us. We weren’t strangers who were going to approach her and ask her right off the bat why she was in a wheelchair—which happened all the time—or force her into small talk that I knew was painful for her.
But what made me swallow around the sticky sand in my throat was the tossed-out reminder that she lumped me into the same category as my brother and his fiancée.
“I get it,” Sylvia said, unaware that behind her, Connor gave me a sympathetic smile because he knew. I kept my eyes away from him. “This will be a big week for you then. Don’t you start with your new PT tomorrow?”
My head snapped in her direction. “You’re starting with a new therapist?”
She had the decency to grimace. “Did I not mention that?”
“How come? What happened to Denise?”
Joss sighed, and I felt a momentary twinge of guilt for making it sound like an inquisition.
“They have this new guy starting, and I guess working with people like me, it’s kind of his specialty.”
I nodded slowly. “You’re still favoring your left when you’re in the walker, aren’t you?”
“Ugh, yes. I’ve been using my chair more than normal.” She rubbed at her right thigh, like she could magically heal the decaying muscles there. Joss’s arms and core were toned and strong, and even so many years later, I knew she still struggled with looking down at her thin legs.
“Want me to come with you to your appointment?” I asked.
From my peripheral, I could feel my brother’s eyes boring a hole in my head.
“It’s okay,” Joss said. “You’ll just glare at them if they’re not doing the exercises you think I should be doing, Mr. I have a master’s in sports medicine.”
“I didn’t glare at her,” I muttered. I’d absolutely glared at her. “Denise just didn’t push you hard enough. You can do so much more than she asked of you.”
Joss gave me a tiny smile.
“You guys.” Sylvia sighed. “You’re so cute.”
My eyes snapped in her direction.
Joss scoffed. “We’re friends, Sylvia.”
My future sister-in-law rolled her eyes. “I know, I know, so you’ve said. At least tell me you’ll go to our wedding with Levi. That way you get to sit at the head table and will be in all our pictures, instead of some rando girl.”
Connor was trying to pinch Sylvia’s side, but she swatted his hand away. Clearly, they’d had this discussion already.
Joss glanced over at me and laughed. “Yeah, right. Levi probably already has some co-ed on the hook who’ll show up in a little black dress that barely covers her hooha.”
“Hey,” I said, only slightly affronted. “That only happened one time, and I had no idea she would flash the entire restaurant. You can’t blame me for a blind date’s inappropriate dress choice.”
Connor and Sylvia laughed. Joss grinned in my direction, and I gave her a tiny wink.
I had no intention of taking anyone to that wedding, not unless it was her.
I just had to figure out how to ask her in a way so she knew exactly what it would mean to have her there by my side.
** END SNEAK PEEK **
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