I watch with my jaw in my lap as he whips off his glasses and tosses them out the car window. “What in the Clark Kent is going on here?”
There’s no humor in his laugh. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
We’ve been driving in tense silence for over an hour when we pull up in front of a cabin. Ryan cuts the car engine and I sit forward. I have no idea where we are, but it’s beautiful.
Sunlight filters in through leafy green trees and through their thick trunks, I can spy water in the distance, shimmering green and blue. Most of all, the gentle wind is alluring and calming, because there’s nothing else. It’s so quiet and unlike anything I’m used to. My childhood was loud and scary. Life in Philadelphia is a rush of sound at all times, whether it’s car motors or horns or voices. This is peaceful—and despite my harrowing morning, I’m immediately lulled by my surroundings.
I’m so enraptured, it takes me a moment to realize Ryan is studying me closely, as if memorizing my reaction. “What is this place?”
“I own it,” he says, after a brief silence. “Bought it after I sold my parents’ house.”
“That was five years ago, Ryan. You own a cabin and never said anything?”
He touches his tongue to the corner of his mouth. “I guess we both have our secrets.”
Stop looking at his tongue. “I’m keeping mine.”
Ryan pushes out of the car before I have a chance to respond and I’m more than a little thrown off as I climb out after him. What happened to my steady, soft-spoken, trusty best friend? This man is Ryan 2.0. He’s irritable, capable, owns random cabins and has muscular forearms. What gives?
I need to stop being so curious about this change in him. So…fascinated. My mother is back in Philadelphia in need of her medication. She runs out in a couple of days. On top of that, she needs groceries and cigarettes. I really shouldn’t want to go exploring—the cabin and the man. What do I know about exploring men, anyway? I touch no one and no one touches me.
That’s how I like it.
“Let’s get inside. We’ll need to burn these clothes.”
Ryan takes out his own set of keys and shoves one into the lock, reaching a hand in through the opening to flip on a light before stepping inside. I glance back at the rental car and have a brief and unrealistic fantasy about hot-wiring it, since Ryan has confiscated my keys, but my curiosity gets the better of me and I follow him inside.
When I step over the threshold, I get my next surprise of the day.
There are deflated balloons, unlit candles and dead flowers…everywhere.
I toe the first dead balloon inside the door, revealing the words Happy Valentine’s Day.
The jealousy lands on me like hot asphalt. I can barely get oxygen into my lungs, it’s so heavy, weighing down my chest cavity. I’ve never experienced the emotion before and it’s awful. It’s sickening. And I’m definitely not supposed to feel this way over my best friend. “D-did…did you bring a girl here on Valentine’s Day last year?”
He turns to me with an eyebrow raised. “What?”
I fan my face vigorously. “I don’t feel good, Ryan. I think I’m going to pass out.”
He’s across the room in three strides, scooping me up in his arms. And I desperately need the support, but I’m angry at him now for some reason? So I push at his shoulders and give him my meanest frown. “Is this what you meant by having secrets?” I whisper shakily. “You have a sex cabin where you romance girls and…and—”
“It’s decorated for you, Jessie. Goddammit,” he rasps. “This is years’ worth of shit.”
My jealousy runs into a brick wall, not unlike my best friend’s chest. Seriously. What is happening underneath his clothes? “This is for me?” I ask, dumbfounded. “But I hate Valentine’s Day.”
“Believe me, I know. That’s why I keep letting it rot.” A beat passes, then he mutters, “I just can’t let the day pass without doing something special for you, Jessie, even if you aren’t aware of it.”
The pulse pumping in my ears is almost deafening. “Ryan…what are you saying?”
He sighs. “This is not how I wanted to do this.”
“Do it anyway.”
“I’ve been in love with you since we were thirteen,” he says in a firm, resonant tone, closing his eyes. “And I’m not talking love between children or something light and fluffy. I’m talking about knowing you’ve got forty-nine freckles on your nose. Knowing you secretly watch Lifetime when I’m at work, hate parties, sand in your shoes and the words paper cut make you shiver. But you love cannoli, peach ice cream, Arrested Development memes and fancy office supplies. You only have one bra that you actually like and I can tell when you’re not wearing it, because you’re grumpy, but still so fucking cute. You use my razors to shave your legs. You get halfway through self-help books and stop reading, hide them in your closet. You steal my socks in the winter and return them smelling like sugar. I love all of that. I love all of you.”