“Are you asking me out, Asa Dashen? Is this your roundabout way of asking me on a date?”
My heart falls into my stomach. She’s always been so direct, and I wonder if I’m crossing the line between our friendship and Nurse Langdon, my rehab specialist.
“If you’d say yes, then yes, I am. If you’d say no because it would ruin our professional relationship, then it’s just Asa telling Callie to wear whatever she wants to work.”
“No guts, no glory, Dashen. But I think you know that better than anyone now.”
“Will you have dinner with me outside of work?” I spit it out so fast, I sound like a robot. Guts aren’t a problem; my worries lie in the fact that my brain no longer interprets anything right. I toss my towel over my shoulder and squeeze water from my bottle into my mouth.
I’m in great shape, and I know it. Callie’s eyes roam over my body as she jots down numbers on her ever-present clipboard.
“Deal, as long as you take me someplace nice.”
Callie is never inhibited, and that’s what I like about her. She’s never once treated me like something broken that needs fixing—she treats me like a challenge. A challenge she’s all too eager to conquer.
He’s been quiet, and my instinct tells me it isn’t about the physical or emotional struggle of recovery. It isn’t his father either, although Jim’s decline is hitting us all hard. Asa’s mood has a lot to do with Weston and Crosby. It’s like we’ve paired off into two teams, and Weston’s shifting loyalty has left Asa angered and confused. He has always been insanely protective of his little sister, and seeing Crosby with West is an upsetting trigger to him. He can’t stop it, so he’s brooding. He can’t even really criticize it because there’s nothing wrong with their love.
I rub him down with a sore muscle liniment after a particularly brutal boxing session at the gym. His psychologist okayed it to help him deal with the suppressed anger and aggression. I’m just worried about him getting his head slammed, so I hover like a coach in his corner.
When I pull off his gloves, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and then spits the mouthguard into a towel. I throw another one at him to deal with the sweat. Touching Asa, his muscles hot and quivering after a fight, sends me into a state of near delirium, imagining my hands roving with different intentions.
“I’ve got a mind to fuck him up,” he says. Asa wipes the sweat from his eyes. The boxing loosens the anger, and he often talks crazy after a bout.
“Nothing ever happened when we were kids. She’s in love with him, so good luck beating up your best friend, cowboy. And he loves her too—they both only have the very best intentions.”
We went on one date. It was both awkward and sweet. I felt as nervous as a kid again and appreciated all the gentlemanly efforts he made, like pulling out my chair and opening doors for me. It was one date in what I hope becomes more. But we connect more in the gym than we did over any meal in a restaurant.
Asa runs the towel over his perfectly defined abdominal muscles. I grind my teeth to keep from groaning out loud. “Did we what?”
“Did you and I ever hook up when we were kids, or is that just my imagination?”
“Come on, up you go. Let’s hit the showers. Define ‘hook up,’ and I’ll tell you. The answer is no.”
My nerve endings sting with the weight of my want. Desire has my underwear becoming slick at the thought of Asa naked under the steaming hot shower. Letting my fingertips trail over every hard ridge and bulging muscles.
Lost in my fantasy, I veer off toward the women’s locker room. I’ve never touched myself in public before, but right now, my thoughts are focused on just how private the bathroom stalls might be. Asa grabs my bicep from behind and spins me around to face him. He’s still high from the match, pupils dilated, nostrils flared, gaze demanding. His grip is too tight as he squeezes my flesh, and there’s nowhere for me to go except to face forward and confront his big, bad mood. He backs me into the brick wall of the gym, and for a moment, I feel like he’s about to press his full weight into me.
“Not in the forest? You didn’t promise something to me when we were kids?”
His chest still rises and falls with exertion, like he’s run a race instead of just beating the shit out of another man with aggression to spare.
I feel color rise and spread out over my chest like a fan. It creeps up my face like ivy, turning me a bright shade of red. Shame is what comes over me, but then compassion quickly replaces the unwanted emotion because Asa looks doubtful. He’s asking the question with great sincerity. He doesn’t remember, or at least, he doesn’t trust his own memory.