Jackson Alda was my boss. He was ridiculously intelligent, but somehow managed to do so without being socially inept. He had more money than me, but that's not really saying much. He was not particularly tall, and he was thin as a rail but he had a way of being imposing when necessary. His dark brown hair was well kept, super soft, and silky.
We hadn't started out as friends, but we'd gradually come to it after years of spending Friday nights in the same tired old bar together with the rest of our coworkers. One of those slightly drunken nights, we discovered that we both had a nearly unhealthy love for card games.
Eventually, we grew tired of waking up hung over and miserable every Saturday morning, so we gave up the bar with coworkers in favor of card games at his place. It was always just the two of us, and we liked it best that way. Traditionally, I grabbed takeout and beer on the way over. I liked it best when Jackson felt ambitious and cooked, though. He was a culinary genius.
Jackson was practically married to the small design firm he owned. No sane woman wants to date a man who cares more about project deadlines than her, so he didn't have a girlfriend or wife. He was, however, the type of man a woman should be happy to call husband and the father of her children.
I didn't date because I didn't want to. I was well aware that I wasn't getting any younger, and that my biological clock was ticking away. I certainly wasn't waiting for mister right to just bump into me on the street or something ridiculous like that. I simply didn't have much desire to be in a relationship. The most recent romantic mistake I'd made had cost me too many good years, and I wanted desperately to enjoy myself for a while.
Both Jackson and I tended to be rather reclusive individuals, so we kept our card nights private. Granted, that meant that there were a number of very good games we were left unable to play. However, we both felt that it was worth it.
As always, my order was ready when I arrived at the Chinese restaurant closest to Jackson's house. Pot stickers, Mongolian beef (extra spicy), and Singapore style chow mei fun (spicy) always came to $29.85. I only had to give my name when I called; they knew the order. We were, beyond a reasonable doubt, creatures of habit.
Jax, as I called him on occasion because I was just too damn lazy to pronounce two syllables, lived on May Court, a long and windy street off of Main. Most of the residents were growing families with young children, fathers who were often out of town on business, and mothers who had nothing better to do than spend their husband's money.
The evening air was still warm, I noticed as I stepped from my air conditioned Cavalier. The late July heat had been sweltering all day, but by eight the sun was low enough in the sky that Chagrin Falls was starting to cool down. The humidity was still overbearing, though, as was the standard for summers in Northeast Ohio.
After a year and a half, Jackson had gifted me with a key to the large and inconspicuous sandstone and brown sided home set far back from the road in a thicket of forest. That key rested next to the spare to his Honda Civic I'd received after he'd locked his keys inside one too many times. I had to set the case of Bud Light on the ground to open the door. There was no need to knock; he knew I was coming.
T.R., Jax's pet Burmese mountain dog affectionately named after his favorite president, came bounding and barking as I stepped into the foyer. The excited puppy nearly mauled me before Jackson had a chance to pull him back. I grinned and gave the puppy a pat on the head. "Hey there, Theodore. Nice to see you, too. You've almost grown into your paws, silly boy." I picked the case of beer back up and followed Jackson into the kitchen. The box went into the fridge short two bottles and we sat across from one another at the dining room table.
There were already plates and silverware set out. We generally avoided eating directly out of the cartons –it made us feel just a little more classy. Jax, as always, offered me some of his shrimp and chicken pasta. I smirked. "I still hate seafood," I stated.
He laughed. His voice was most definitely as sexy as George Clooney's. All women know that's saying something. George Clooney is only pretty much the sexiest man alive. "Remember that time I made you try crab legs?"
I winced and took a bite of pot sticker. "You made getting it out of the shell look so easy."
"Well, they're really good. They're also a whole lot of work if you don't know what you're doing. No one likes to have to work to be able to eat the food that's already in front of them."
"I suppose not."
"You looked like you'd just eaten a lemon afterwards," he was still chuckling.
I frowned at him. "It was wiggling!"
"It's not like it was alive. It'd been cooked through. Crab is very soft."
"Yes, Lynn, I suppose it's also wiggly." He was clearly patronizing me.
I sighed and refused to acknowledge that I'd even heard him. T.R. had apparently felt as though he was being ignored and seated himself right next to me. His large head rested on my lap. I grinned down at him and gave him a couple of scraps. I knew Jackson was frowning at me over it, but he didn't say anything on the matter. "It isn't very spicy this time," I stated bluntly.
His green eyes twinkled with amusement. "No, I suppose not. Perhaps we should complain about the consistency of the food's ability to scald our taste buds off our tongues."
I frowned at him. "Stop making fun of me."
Jackson laughed, and T.R. decided that the other side of the table might mean more food for him. My thigh felt slightly cold with the loss of heat from the puppy's head which had been acting as a blanket. "When you throw a softball, I can't just not hit it." He looked down at his dog and frowned. "Go lay down, boy," he ordered sternly. The dog gave him a dejected look so pathetic and adorable that I had no idea how Jax didn't relent. T.R. walked slowly away with his tail between his legs and plopped down within clear view of the table.
I finished off my first beer and headed to the kitchen for another pair, knowing that Jackson would be done with his by the time I returned. I opened both and sat back down, handing his over. "Slowpoke," I teased.
He shook his head and drank the last bit of his old drink in one gulp. "If I drink more slowly than you, I don't have to get up for more because you always bring me one."
I frowned. "Then you can get the next ones. It's not nice to mooch."
"But you don't want to wait for me…"
"Oh, I will." I finished off the last of what I intended to eat and packed up the leftovers. They went into the fridge as well. "Please tell me you made cookies," I demanded loudly as I scrubbed our plates. My back was to the door to the kitchen, and with the water running I didn't hear him come in.
"I'm right here, there's no need to wake up the whole neighborhood," he whispered in my ear. I was so startled by his sudden closeness that I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I told myself that the hair was standing up on the back of my neck because I'd been startled. I did not want to admit to myself that the reason was the close proximity of the person who had done the startling. "Yes, because your socialite neighbors are sawing logs at nine thirty on a Friday night in the middle of the summer, Jax," I bit back sarcastically.
The only response he offered was a chocolate chip cookie being shoved in my mouth as I dried the dishes. Never one to refuse desert, I chewed and swallowed obediently. Jackson had not moved from his place behind me. His breath was warm on my neck. Were I more intoxicated, I'd have considered turning and kissing his face off. Instead, I spun around and raised an eyebrow at him. He smirked. My heart skipped a beat, but I forced myself to squeeze past him and toward the door of the kitchen. "Let's sit outside tonight," I suggested. My voice didn't sound even to me, but Jackson didn't seem to catch it.
"Sure, let me grab some candles to keep the bugs away." He left the room for a moment and came back shortly with so many Off brand candles that it seemed like overkill. Another thing we had in common was our love for summer nights and dislike for the bugs that came along with them.
We turned out the lights inside, packed the beer in a cooler, and grabbed the plate of cookies. The candles and lanterns produced a copious amount of light. There was no need to use electricity to see.
At first, we played Texas Hold 'Em. I was never really a fan of poker, but Jax seemed quite fond of it. "Why don't we ever make bets, Lynn?" he asked after a few hands.
I shrugged. "Because I'm broke and you're not." He nodded and said no more on the subject. The night was quiet; the only noise came from the crickets singing and the indigenous nocturnal creatures going about their lives. I couldn't keep the smile off my face. It was so much more peaceful than the noisy city I lived in.
"What're you grinning about?"
I blinked at him and flipped over my hand to show a pair of tens. He won with pocket aces. I sighed. "I like it here."
Jackson was grinning mischievously. I wasn't sure whether it was the beer in me or not, but he looked stunning at that moment. The flickering light highlighted his face wonderfully. "Is that so?"
I was thankful for the dim light. It hid my blush. "Sure. Cleveland Heights is nowhere near this calm and peaceful at night."
If anything, his grin got bigger. "No, I wouldn't guess that it is."
"What's so funny?" I asked, my voice guarded.
"You." He finished off what had to be his fifth beer and opened two more, handing one to me.
I sipped on mine and frowned at him. "I wasn't making a joke."
"You're kind of cute when you blush," he told me. His voice was serious, and not at all shy.
"I'm short all the time, Jax," I murmured quietly. My blush was certainly not a product of my drunkenness now, and to my dismay he was as aware of it as I was. "Rummy," I said quickly. "I'm tired of poker."
To his credit, Jackson did not question me further on the matter of my blushing. He instead shuffled the cards. I stared as he did. I'd never learned any fancy tricks when it came to shuffling cards, but Jax sure had. When he'd finished, he dealt each of us seven cards and flipped over one for the taking.
Rummy was my favorite game, and I was generally pretty good at it. He was better. There was no doubt in my mind of that. After he won the first round, I shuffled the cards. As I was dealing, he spoke. "Let's make a wager," he offered before he picked up his hand.
"Loser has to get up and let T.R. out." He pointed at the sliding glass door. The poor puppy was looking sadly out at us. There were nose prints all over the door.
I laughed and munched on a cookie. "Fine. That seems reasonable." I took another swig of beer and we played through the hand. Jax did not look happy as he got up to let the dog out.
He looked less happy as I gave the goofy creature a cookie when he bounded over to greet me. "Chocolate is bad for dogs."
"It's just a little bit," I protested.
He sighed. "Loser of this hand has to clean up the mess Teddy made on the window?" He knew he'd never win the argument of whether or not I got to feed junk food to his dog.
Feeling lucky, I grinned and nodded. "I hope you know how to wash windows, Mr. Alda."
He groaned when he lost once again. "Damn. You're on fire tonight, Lynnie. I guess I'll have to wash my own windows later."
I chuckled and excused myself to use the rest room. As I walked back, I realized I was stumbling. T.R. had stolen my seat, and it was a pain to get him off the bench. Once I sat, I noticed Jackson staring at me. "What?" I asked innocently.
"You're not driving home."
I bit my lip and glanced at him. "I suppose I shouldn't."
He was grinning and handed me another beer. When I had gone inside, I'd noticed that it was nearly one in the morning. No one in their right mind drives home that late if they've had even one. The area cops were notorious for ticketing the impaired, almost impaired, and the kids who had eaten a piece of Grandma's famous rum cake. "Don't worry, I don't bite too hard."
I bit my lip and blushed deeply, but said nothing. He dealt another hand. My winning streak seemed to be gone. I lost so many hands that I was forced to go grab his jacket because he was cold, make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because he was hungry, and wear the jacket because I was clearly more cold than he was. I owed him lunch three times over and had to bathe T.R.
"Loser makes breakfast?" he questioned. When I shook my head, he pleaded with me to take the bet. Afterward, I was certain that he'd let me win. He claimed that he'd simply had too many beers to be any good anymore, but I certainly didn't believe it. He was staring at me again. I shivered. "Let's go inside," he suggested.
I was growing tired and didn't feel like arguing with him. I picked up the nearly empty cooler and he gathered everything else. T.R., ever energetic and ready to play, ran in and out multiple times before we managed to get everything inside. He seemed to think running circles around his drunken master and friend was a game.
We kicked off our socks and shoes at the door. The plush red carpet felt nice under my tired feet as we walked through the house to sit across from one another on opposing couches with a coffee table between us. "I can't think straight enough to play rummy anymore, Jax," I confessed.
"Perhaps a good, old fashioned game of Go Fish is in order?"
I beamed at him. I knew that was a game I could manage to play, regardless of how drunk I was. "A great idea, good sir!" I giggled, knowing I sounded positively ridiculous.
He smiled and dealt our hands, leaving the rest to sit on the coffee table. "Do you have the Queen of spades?" he asked with a sly grin. I cursed and handed it to him. "Five of diamonds?"
"Go fish!" I shouted happily. After he'd drawn a card, I smirked at him. "Find what you were looking for?"
He stared at me for so long that I began to feel uncomfortable. "I can't tell you that."
I glanced at my hand. Seeing that I had the five of spades and hearts, and he needed diamonds, I requested his five of clubs. Our fingers touched as he handed it over. I smiled shyly at him and requested the king of hearts. He did not have it.
The game lasted long into the night. It took much more time than any game I'd ever played before. This was, of course, all the alcohol's fault. It was the reason for our terrible memories and poor deductive reasoning skills.
The beer, and the pile to fish from, had been gone for a long time before there was an end in sight. "Hey, Lynn?" I heard Jackson ask.
I'd started out sitting upright with perfect posture. After what seemed like forever, I ended up laying down. My eyes happened to be closed when he spoke to me. "Yeah?" I muttered back. I opened one eye to see him standing over me and staring down. "Hey! You can't look at my hand! That's cheating!"
"This is ridiculous. Let's go to sleep."
I nodded. "Okay." I leaned over and reached around him to place my hand face down on the table before reclining back on the couch once more. "What?" I asked incredulously when I realized he was smirking at me.
"What are you doing?"
I frowned. "Well, I was going to sleep, but I can't really do that if you're staring at me. Creepy and all," I slurred. Upon glancing out the window, I noticed that the sky was beginning to turn that grayish pre-dawn color.
He chuckled and scooped me up off the couch. I squeaked and T.R. came running and barking. "I don't bite any harder than you'd like," he whispered huskily into my ear. I shivered and bit my lip. It simply was not fair for him to be that sexy. The dog was jumping all over the place. He apparently had some serious problems with people carrying one another.
T.R. stopped short of Jax's bedroom door, which was promptly closed in his face. If I weren't so tired, I'd have said something about how mean it was. Instead, I allowed Jackson to drop me on his bed. I was slightly surprised when he offered me a black button down shirt to sleep in. My jeans and blouse came off and were quickly replaced by the garment. Despite the fact that he was incredibly thin, I was still swimming in Jackson's shirt.
He looked good in nothing but the boxers he wore. The man was much more muscular than I expected, and I was hard pressed to keep from staring. The wolfish grin he wore didn't help my situation much. "Looks better on you than it does me, that's for sure," he let me know.
I blushed and concentrated on rolling up the sleeves to my wrists. He climbed into bed and motioned for me to do the same. The mattress was very comfortable, and the sheets were nice and cool. The blankets were big and puffy, but managed to keep from being too warm for summer.
The blinds were drawn shut, so once Jackson turned off the bedside lamp it was black as pitch in the room. He'd left a window or two open. The cool night air smelled glorious, and the early birds singing were a welcome lullaby. I was slightly surprised when I felt an arm snake around my waist and pull my back snugly against his chest. The gentle kisses placed on my neck and earlobe were more surprising, and they made my heart race. "Good night, darling," he whispered. Jax's warm breath evened out quickly, letting me know that he was asleep.
I was left to listen to the birds and rapid beating of my heart for a long time after. I wondered if he actually meant his recent actions, or if it were simply the alcohol talking. More than a small part of me hoped that he really meant it. Sleep came in the form of a tidal wave crashing over me. One moment I was awake and thinking diligently about the night's events, and the next everything was dark and very foggy.
When I finally woke up, I knew it must be late. The blackout blinds were still drawn and the windows were still open. At some point in my sleep, the blankets had become far to hot and heavy. I'd kicked them off. Hot and muggy as the air felt, I knew it must be mid-afternoon. My head didn't hurt. I smiled to myself as I rolled out of bed. I'd slept through the hangover.
Jackson's shirt covered down to my mid-thigh. I didn't bother putting pants on before sauntering downstairs. Jackson, who had been watching television, looked up at me from his place on the couch. "Good morning, sunshine." He said with a grin.
I yawned and scratched my head. "What time is it?"
I blushed. "You should have woken me up."
He shrugged. "You looked comfortable."
"It's possible that you turn into some sort of holy terror when your sleep is disturbed."
I shook my head. "No, just really confused."
"I see." He glanced back at the television for a moment. "Hungry?"
I shrugged. "I'll grab something on the way home."
"What? You don't want to cuddle after we sleep with each other?"
I blinked at him. "We… didn't… did we?"
He laughed. "Sleep in the technical sense, Lynn." He motioned at the fact that I was still as clothed as I was when we went to bed. Jackson stood and walked toward me, a sly grin on his face. I briefly wondered when he became so sexy. I'd never seen him look so confident, at the very least. "I owe you breakfast."
I bit my lip and stared at him. "It's a little late for that, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I guess so." As we spoke, I realized that the temperature had been dropping rapidly. "Storm warning, though. You want to drive home in that?"
"A thunder storm? Why not?"
"Because they're more fun to watch than to drive through."
I considered what he was saying for a moment. "Are you asking me to stay, Jax?"
He was smirking. "Sure seems that way, doesn't it?"
Unsure how to handle this new, more forward side of Jackson, I slid past him and opened the glass doors to the patio we'd been sitting on the night before. The rush of cool air felt nice on my skin. The wind blew more strongly than the typical summer afternoon breeze, a sure sign of the storm to come. I smiled to myself and stepped outside.
The dark wood was warm on my bare feet. Jackson's back yard was very private, much like everything else about him. No one would see me. I wouldn't mind if they did, though. Being referred to as Jax's girlfriend was not a concept to which I was opposed.
A big, ugly looking shelf cloud moved overhead quickly. The clouds were a dark grey, and day instantly seemed to turn to dusk. As the storm rolled in, the air itself took on a strange hue. It seemed as though I was looking through a green-tinted film at the world before me. There was a low rumble of thunder off in the distance.
At the noise, T.R. came running out to stand beside me. I rested my hand gently on the dog's head and scratched his ears absently. Lightning flashed in the clouds and more thunder growled at us. I sighed and smiled contentedly at the oncoming storm. T.R.'s tail thudded softly on the wood.
"Lynn, come back inside! It looks like it's going to be bad."
The sound of Jackson's voice snapped me from my trance. I spun and grinned at him. "It'll be fun!" I retorted gleefully.
He was standing at the doorway still, looking upon his pet and me disapprovingly. "Yeah, until you get struck by lightning."
I cocked my head to the side. "Well, that's a rather silly thing to be afraid of. There are plenty of trees, houses, and all sorts of things which are taller and more likely to be hit than us. You worry too much, Jax." I beckoned to him playfully. "Come on out."
He looked hesitant for a moment, but his ego would not take a blow so severe sitting down. It only took a few strides for him to be standing in front of me. He'd stopped incredibly close. I could smell the mint on his breath from the tea he'd been drinking. Involuntarily, I shivered.
Jackson's arms were wrapped around me almost instantly. He stared down at me with such intensity that I felt paralyzed. Part of me wanted to bolt away from the situation. I was terrified, though I wasn't sure why. All I could do was stare back.
I felt something rough and wet on the palm of my hand. Confused, I looked down. Apparently, Theodore was displeased that I'd stopped petting him. He gazed up at me expectantly. I patted the top of his head twice and watched his tail wag. The tension in the air was so thick I could feel it weighing down heavily on my skin. I told myself it was my anticipation for the storm.
The rain came over us in a wave. It didn't start to drizzle gently in warning before the torrential downpour. The droplets were big and cold. The weight of them nearly hurt as they hit my skin. Within seconds, the three of us were soaked. T.R., much more reasonable than me about where he liked to watch storms from, ran back inside.
The lightning was flashing closer and the thunder came n loud claps. The rain fell faster, and in smaller drops. I grinned widely, closed my eyes, and tilted my head back to bask in all the glory the late afternoon storm had to offer. My hair clung to my neck and face. I felt soaked to the bone, but like I was glowing with happiness.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when Jax's gentle fingers reached up to brush the hair away from my forehead and cheeks. A deep blush crept upon my face. My eyes remained closed so the falling water didn't blind me while I tried to sneak a peek at the man who had managed to keep me on my toes all night and day. I bit my lip and sighed happily when his fingers trailed softly to my neck. It tickled, but I managed to suppress a giggle.
"You look radiant," he whispered huskily in my ear. I shivered again. It had nothing to do with the cold. Jax's left arm was wrapped tightly around my waist, holding me to him. His right hand traced gentle patterns on the side of my throat.
"Thanks," I offered awkwardly, not sure what to say. Even with my eyes closed, I knew his lips were hovering just above mine. I wasn't sure whether he was teasing or daring me to take a leap of faith and just kiss him. It was driving me crazy. We stood like that for what felt like an eternity. I could feel him staring intently at me the whole time.
"Are you afraid?" he asked suddenly. It was the first time since I could remember that I'd ever heard Jackson Alda sound unsure of himself.
I nodded slowly, my lips parted slightly. "Yes," I breathed quietly. I couldn't lie to him. He was so wonderful that he deserved the whole truth, regardless of how embarrassing it was for me.
"Me, too," he whispered back. Then his lips were upon mine. They were every bit as soft as I'd imagined, and extraordinarily gentle.
I reacted the only way I could think of at the time: I wrapped my arms snugly around his neck and kissed him with all I had. My mother didn't raise a fool. If a man as wonderful as Jax wanted to take a chance on me, I sure as hell wasn't going to turn him down.
We stood there and kissed while the storm raged, indifferent to the fearsome wind and harsh rain. Through my closed eyelids, I saw lightning flashing almost constantly in what had to be a most excellent display. The thunder sounded almost like one very large and angry clap.
I'd never kissed someone while standing in the rain before. Maybe it was just Jackson, but it seemed much better than any book or movie could ever describe. We finally broke away when the storm began to let up. I grinned happily up at him as the rain slowed to a drizzle. "Wow," I whispered.
"Yeah, wow." He smirked devilishly at me and I felt my heart do flip-flops. "Perhaps you were correct about the entertainment value of a storm."
I frowned at him. "You're mocking me again."
"I don't like it," I pouted.
"But you look so adorable like that. I simply can't resist." He kissed me again and I stopped caring that I was soon to be a subject of public ridicule.
"Let's finish last night's game," I suggested.
He smirked. "You lost already."
"I most certainly did not."
"Oh. I could have sworn…"
I stood on my toes and cut him off with a kiss. "Go fish," I whispered and sprinted back through the door.
He caught me easily and spun me back to face him. His eyes were serious, despite the goofy grin on his face. "Found what I was looking for," he murmured before kissing me again and dragging me back to the couch.