Until We're More(7)

By: Cindi Madsen

Everything inside me froze for a couple seconds. If she moved back, it would be amazing, but it also meant she’d have to deal with her family, as well as other complications, and I’d never wanted to celebrate and scream no so much at the same time.

“I wanted to surprise you. So”—she made a swiping motion with her arms, hands spread as wide as the toothy grin she pulled—“surprise!” Again, she studied me, and I had a feeling I was failing the Right Reaction Test, something I often failed no matter who I was talking to. Although Chelsea used to be the exception.

Her attention dropped to her lap, and she picked at a spot of sugary glaze on her yoga pants. “Anyway, we have six weeks to get things up and running. Not long enough to find a place of my own and a bit long and expensive for a hotel. I figured I’d save some money and stay with my mom and Jesse.”

My fingers curled around her knee as I bit back the harsh words I wanted to say about her so-called family. Family took care of one another, and hers was more of a one-way street where they ran Chelsea into the ground. I’d made my opinion on the matter clear many times before, but it always caused a fight, so I had to tread carefully. “Won’t that cause you extra stress?”

She shrugged. “I can deal.”

I didn’t want her to have to deal. Getting her away from her family was the entire reason I’d pushed her to go for that job. The fact that it fit so well with her career goals and that she hadn’t received the offers she’d hoped for here added to it, but I knew she couldn’t stay at that house without getting sucked into the destructive cycle that always left her questioning her strength and self-worth.

“Or you could stay with me.” It came out before I fully thought it through, but the more I considered it, the more the idea appealed to me. Sure, I was beyond busy running the gym, coaching, and keeping up with my own training, but that was only more reason for her to crash at my place. Otherwise I’d hardly get the chance to see her, and being around her calmed me in a way nothing else did. Plus, it’d help us get things back to normal faster, and I wanted that. Needed it, really. And she could use someone looking out for her instead of looking for ways to use her. “I have an extra room.”

She bit her lip, and I wasn’t sure if it was nerves or attraction that quickened my pulse. “What about George?”

Who the fuck is George? Even more troubling, why did I want to kill him for simply existing? “George?” Let it be a testament to my iron control that I managed to sound so civil when I said the guy’s name.

“My cat. Don’t you remember? I got him from the shelter a couple months ago?”

The storm brewing inside me calmed. Her cat. “Right.” I did remember she’d adopted a cat but hadn’t recalled the name, just that it wasn’t your typical pet name. I should probably examine why I was so relieved it belonged to a feline and not a dude, but I’d rather ignore that and do whatever it took to convince her to stay with me instead. “Mi casa is George’s casa.”

She wrapped her arm around the back of my chair and twisted to fully face me. “You say that, but I don’t think you understand how literally George will take your offer. He thinks everything is his. He’s…persnickety.”

“I don’t mind persnickety,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t think I do. I might need a dictionary first.” I ran my gaze over her. “Where do I type in words to get a definition again?” I placed them over her thigh like it was a keyboard. In high school, I’d often called her my walking dictionary. She’d saved my ass in my English and literature classes—math, where the answer was always the answer and not open to interpretation, was more my thing. “P-E-R-snickety.”

Her lips quivered as she fought back a smile. “Fussy, particular. Often grumpy. Basically, George is the cat version of you.”

My jaw dropped, and I gave her knee a light shove. “I don’t remember asking for sass with my definition.” Her smug smile only made me want to wrap my arms around her. I’d hit my hug quota for the year today, and yet I wanted more. This felt like us, the effortless friendship that’d gotten me through a lot of ups and downs through the years, and I liked to think I’d done the same for her. “I can deal with a grumpy cat if it means more time with you.”

“You’re saying it could be like that one weekend both of our parents were out of town and we watched movies and ate junk food for two days straight, but for, like, six whole weeks?”