Weeks later, I wondered if Cullen would ever cease driving me crazy. His moments of cockiness and undiluted ego still infuriated me, but they were becoming less and less frequent. The biggest change was in myself. I no longer found myself wanting to wrap my hands around his throat as often as I found myself wanting to wrap my legs around his waist. Sexual frustration be damned! I was determined that my resolve not crumble.

But there was more to it than that. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him—and not just because he was nice to look at and made a decent study partner. Everything I’d witnessed seemed to indicate he was also a decent human being. And as I watched him curled up with a book on my living-room floor, I found myself starting to wonder how much of what I’d heard about his promiscuity was actually true. He might have looked like he’d fallen out of a Gap ad, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a player. If anything, he looked as if he belonged there. Even crazier, I was starting to think he belonged with me. Then the phone rang, and all that was placed on hold.

“Hello?”

“You have a collect call from your mother, do you accept the charges?”

This couldn’t be good.

“Yes!” As soon as the line clicked over, I started talking. “Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I’m at Cooper visiting Pop-Pop,” she said. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, sweetheart, but he took a turn for the worse. The doctors don’t expect him to make it through the night.”

I wasn’t surprised as much as I was relieved. He’d fought Parkinson’s bravely; I was grateful he wouldn’t suffer any longer. Despite the fact I knew this was for the best, I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears. My face was wet for all of a second before Cullen was standing behind me, his calloused palms rubbing my shoulders.

“Visiting hours aren’t an issue,” Mom continued, “but you should get here as soon as possible. Is Margaret there with you?”

“She’s at school.”

“That should be easy enough for her to get to the hospital,” she said, sounding relieved. “She can take the train to Broadway and be here within the hour.”

“It won’t take me much longer; the El runs every ten minutes.”

“The El isn’t safe after dark, and you know it. Take a cab.”

“I can’t afford it. The El is fine, Mom.”

“Where are you trying to go?” Cullen whispered against my ear.

I covered the mouthpiece of the receiver with my hand. “My grandfather—you know, the one who has Parkinson’s?”

He nodded.

“He’s developed aspiration pneumonia, and he’s not expected to make it through the night. I want to see him before he dies, and my mom is giving me shit about taking SEPTA after dark.”

“Tell her I’ll drive you,” he said.

“How? What are you going to do, ride me on the handlebars of your ten-speed?”

“Trust me, Esme.” He pointed to the receiver and gestured for me to tell my mother.

Oh my god, he was fucking brilliant! How could I not have realized his offer was nothing more than a clever ruse to get my mom off my back about taking the El alone at night?

“Never mind,” I said into the receiver. “I have a friend who can drive me. I’ll be there as soon as possible. I love you, Mom.”

I hung up the phone and turned to Cullen. “You’re amazing I would never have thought to lie and say I had a ride.”

“It wasn’t a lie; I have every intention of driving you.”

“Since when do you have a car?” I asked.

“Uh, since I was sixteen,” he said. “Granted, the one I have now isn’t the same car I had then—I crashed that one. Now that I think about it, I crashed my second and third cars, too. Possibly my fourth, but I think I blamed that one on Wes. Does any of this matter? The point is, I can drive you wherever you need to go…” He wrinkled his forehead as he looked at me. “Where do you need to go?”

“Cooper Hospital in Camden.”

“Camden?” He took a step back and folded his arms across his chest. “Isn’t that the car-theft capital of the Western Hemisphere?”

“Since the odds seem to favor you totaling your car before we cross the Ben Franklin Bridge, do Camden’s crime stats even matter?”

“Probably not,” he said, putting on his coat. “I’ll meet you outside in twenty minutes.”

When Cullen pulled up outside our building, I didn’t recognize him right away. Then again, I never expected in a million years he’d show up driving that.

“Get in,” he said, pushing open the passenger-side door of a late-model, black Porsche.

“Have you lost you mind?”

“Why would you think that?”

“That car is so hot it’s smoking.”

He looked at me, laughing. “You think I stole it?”

“Didn’t you?”

“No.”

“Good answer,” I said, settling myself into the passenger seat. “That way if we get pulled over, the cops won’t consider me your accomplice.”

We were halfway over the bridge before he spoke again. “Esme, are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Cullen, if I couldn’t handle being around death, I wouldn’t be in medical school.”

“That isn’t what I meant. If I were to get a similar phone call, I wouldn’t feel compelled to rush anywhere. The relative in question would already be dead, and whomever was left with the task of notifying me would actually be relaying the message that my attendance was required at the services. I’m aware I haven’t known you very long, but I had the impression your family wasn’t like that.”

“We’re not.”

“Then why are you so…calm?”

“Because what’s happening tonight…it’s merciful, and it’s for the best.” I sighed, trying to think of how I could make him understand. “As far back as I can remember, there was a sparkle in my grandfather’s eyes whenever he’d see Maggie or me. Even after there was no medical reason to believe he had any idea who I was, he’d take one look at me and I’d know he was still with us. When that went away—when we could no longer look in his eyes and know he loved us—that was when we knew we lost him. His passing means he’s at peace, that he’s joined my grandmother in heaven. That has to be better than wasting away in a nursing home.” Feeling his stare, I turned my head to look at him. “What?”

“I never realized you were religious.”

“I don’t know that I’d call myself religious, but I am a practicing Catholic.” I reached for the crucifix I wear around my neck and held it up. “Unlike Maggie, I don’t wear one of these because Madonna does.”

“I never thought you did,” he said, laughing.

The next thing I knew, I was laughing, too. When the car was silent again, I reached across the gear-shift and rested my hand on his knee.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Somehow, I didn’t think he was playing me anymore.

When we pulled up in front of the hospital, Maggie was standing outside smoking. Her look of shock as I climbed out of the Porsche turned to one of amusement when she saw who was driving it.

“Nice car, Carlisle,” she said, waving the hand that held her lit Parliament. “Sorry about your dick.”

I rolled my eyes. “Maggie!”

“Like you weren’t thinking the same thing!”

“Actually, I wasn’t.”

“Wait, do you have evidence to the contrary?”

Though I said nothing, I felt my face heat up. I didn’t need a mirror to know it was the color of my hair.




A few hours later, it was over. I told Cullen he didn’t have to stay, that I could crash at my parents’ house and take the train back into town in the morning, but he wouldn’t hear of it. The next thing I knew, he was sitting at the round formica table in the kitchen of my childhood home. In less than five minutes, my father managed to wrestle more information from Cullen than I had in the past five months.

It turned out Cullen’s family was from Connecticut. His father worked in construction, and his mother stayed home. Cullen claimed he wasn’t as close to his brother as he’d like and admitted he didn’t know it was possible for siblings to be friends until he met Maggie and me. Through the entire exchange, I said nothing. Seeing him in my parents’ kitchen like that—all cleft chin and stubble—he should have seemed out of place, but he didn’t. Despite the bizarreness of the situation, he appeared to be completely at ease. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he wanted to be there—not only with my family, but with me. Even crazier was the realization I wanted to be with him—not because he was gorgeous and cocky and overconfident, but because he challenged me. I loved how I felt when I was with him.

Then it hit me—I was falling for him.

We drove back to University City in silence. Though his arm was around me as we walked from he parked the car back to our building, when I unlocked the door to my apartment he didn’t come inside with me.

“That’s right,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. “Since Maggie stayed at home with our parents, you can sleep in your own bed for a change. You must miss it.”

“Not really. I just didn’t want to presume that you wanted me–”

“I do…” I took a deep breath. “…want you.”

“In your bed or in your life?”

“Everywhere.” I knew if I looked at him, I’d lose my nerve. When I spoke again, my eyes were closed. “I think I’m falling in love with you.”

“What?”

“I love you, Carlisle, and I want you to spend the night with me.”

The next thing I knew, his arms were around me. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”





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