Blood & Rust (Lock & Key #4) (10 page)

BOOK: Blood & Rust (Lock & Key #4)

My hand seized the icy-cold glass, as if my life depended on it.

“You were saying what gets you hot for a guy now.” His lips tipped up. “What is it?”

I drank greedily, but the burn in my throat remained. “Depends on my mood, I guess.”

“Maybe a man bun turns you on today?”

“It’s been known to happen.”

“Your ex-husband have a man bun?”

“Yes, he does.”

“Trendy asshole.”

I laughed. “He is kind of a trendy asshole.”

Butler grinned. “That’s what I thought.”

I wiped at the edges of my mouth. “You know what I want?”

“Tell me.”

“Yes, being in love is beautiful—
blah, blah, blah
—and going wild is fun—
blah, blah, blah—
” I held up my hand as I crunched on ice.

He laughed. “I’m listening.”



“To be touched with intent. To be looked at. Really looked at it. For a man to see me, truly see
. That recognition, acknowledgment, that appreciation. That’s what I want. Where is that? Where did that go?”

“We let it go.”

My lungs squeezed in my chest. He knew.

“Over the years, I’d learned to steel myself against Kyle’s gruff manner, his flip way of talking to me, even the way he looked at me, which was not really looking at me. Put that in your man brain, by the way, because that truly sucks—when the person you’re supposed to be closest to doesn’t really see you anymore when he looks at you.”

Butler took in a quick breath. “Yeah, I know what that’s like.”

I rolled my napkin into a ball. “After years of that, I don’t think I’d know what the good stuff feels like anymore—if I ever do get to feel it again, that is.” I let out a dry laugh. “Jesus, if I did feel it, I’d probably combust or just cry.”

His brows drew together.

I snorted rather inelegantly. “There’s a word without much intent.”

“What word?”

. When I lived in Chicago, after I’d left Meager, I took acting classes.”

“Acting? Really?”

“It was fun. Anyway, my teacher once said that you couldn’t play a negative.
My character doesn’t want
, or,
She doesn’t need
, or,
I’m not this or that
. You can only play a positive and a specific action through and through. That’s what’s clear, active, powerful. The
I want, I need.

Butler nodded. “Makes sense.”

“He also said, you can’t play the word


“Think about it. What is that? Does it carry any significance in a sentence?”

“It can, but for the most part, it’s a nothing word.”

“Right. It’s like a useless extra pillow on your sofa. Does it make things easier to express, to hear, to swallow?”

His lips curled. “We’d like to think so.”

“Don’t we though? What a great filler word to soften the blow. But there is no
anything. Things either
, or they
are not

He grinned. “True.”

“My marriage was being played on a negative and being excused with a just. Over and over again.”

He slanted his head. “The sex must have been good then.”

My face heated.

“Did I embarrass you?” he asked.

“Not for the reason you think.”

Butler brought his head closer to mine. “What I meant was, if you two stuck it out so long even though things got mediocre, the sex was probably good. Right?”


“No what? The sex wasn’t good?”

“No. There wasn’t much sex the last few years.”


I sank in my seat. “Please don’t make me repeat it. I’ve never told anyone.”

“How could there not be—”

“Drop it, please.”

“Hold on. First off, why haven’t you told anyone, like your best girlfriend?”

“Because it’s humiliating. And I’m sure Grace has never had that problem.”

“You can’t be sure about that. We all go through shit times.”

“I just felt that—”


I chewed on my wobbly lower lip. “I felt that, if I told her, it would make that epic fail real.”

“It is real, Tania,” he said, his voice gentle.

“I know, but I didn’t want to admit it to anyone or deal with how bad it felt,” I breathed. My lip quivered, and I bit down hard on it, blinking away the water gathering in my eyes.

Don’t be even more pathetic. Don’t cry now. Not in front of Butler.

“Hey.” His legs trapped one of mine under the table and squeezed.

I swallowed past the messy goop of embarrassment and emotions and met his gaze.

“You don’t have to feel embarrassed with me. Trust me on that. I’m sure Grace has told you plenty of shit about how things were last year, and it’s all fucking true.”

“She hasn’t. She can be a real lady when she wants to protect the people she cares about.”

“This? What you’re feeling? You’ve been burying it deep for years, and it’s eating at you,” he said. “It’s raw. On top of that, you must be horny as hell.”

I stomped on his foot.

He cocked an eyebrow in response. “These boots are way too thick for that shit, babe.”

I really liked Butler’s frankness, but oh, how the truth stung.

“I’m sure you’ve never had a no-sex problem or a boring sex problem,” I said.

“Highs and lows of life, Tania. We all go through them.”

“True, but over time, it’s easy to lose that sense of awe with your partner. You let it go like a helium balloon you watch waft away from you, higher and higher toward the sky. You start saying to yourself,
Tomorrow, I’ll make an effort. Next week, we’ll go out to dinner, and I’ll get dressed up. Next summer, we’ll go on that vacation.

“Tania, I was married once, and it was plenty good. It isn’t about dinners out and vacations. That shit’s real nice if you can swing it, but either you stay connected, or you don’t. It’s either important to you, that giving to your partner, and essential to you, like breathing, or it isn’t.”


A swell of ugly emotions rose up inside me, and I averted my gaze as I hacked them up and shoved the jagged pieces down.

Why did what he said make me so sad?

Because I wasn’t, nor had I ever been, anyone’s essential anything.

Butler had had that though. The man I’d once thought was nothing but a shallow, self-indulgent playboy had lived it; he knew.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“You’re right. Absolutely right.” I gulped down more soda. “Kyle would get mean a lot of the time, too, and then laugh it off, like he was only teasing. He’d never apologize. Saying
I’m sorry
was a sign of weakness, I guess. God forbid I talk to him like that though. He’d carry on about how rude I was and that I made it hard for us to communicate.”

My heavy gaze fell on the elderly couple next to us who shared a plate of French fries, dipping into the same puddle of ketchup. “I couldn’t sweep all those bad feelings under the carpet and open my legs for him at the end of the day. I couldn’t.” I expelled a deep breath. “I wanted something more out of marriage.”

“That’s good.” His voice was low, quiet.

My gaze found his warm one. “What’s good?”

“That you’ve taken a stand for what you want, what you need.”

I rested my head on my hand. “I must not be good at relationships or marriage. Maybe Kyle was right, and I’m selfish. Even you, the reformed reckless bad boy, know what a committed relationship should look like, smell like, feel like.” I raised my glass. “Here’s to you!”

“You think I don’t know about pushing shit away? Caitlyn died over five years ago, and I haven’t been able to have anything real with another woman since. I’ve fucked everything in sight—which fed the need, as you said—but it didn’t do much for me at the end of the day.

“When Grace came back, I convinced myself that she was my second chance. I saw her again after all those years, after all our pain—hers and mine—had subsided, and it was like I saw a light flickering in the dark, and I wanted its heat.” His brow furrowed. “Would’ve been so damn easy. We knew each other. The attraction was still there. But it wasn’t easy. It isn’t about easy, Tania.”

“Attraction and chemistry should be easy.”

“Definitely. But the rest of it—emotions, interests, the sharing—that shit takes commitment on a certain level. I’d figured, with Grace, it’d be real simple to coast through it all. She was my shortcut to having something real in my life again. I felt real good about landing the easy way.” He rubbed a hand across his mouth. “I latched on to her for dear fucking life. What a jackass.”

“Yeah, but you wanted it though, didn’t you? You thought you were ready, so you were willing, and you reached out. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

His eyes bored into mine. “It was an illusion I was more than willing to believe.”

“You were reaching out for a lifeline, despite yourself.”

His jaw stiffened and released. “Anyway, back to you.” He swirled the tiny ice cubes remaining in the bottom of his soda glass.

I sank back in my chair. “Not much more to tell. After a while, my and Kyle’s personalities clashed, and we both let any sense of intimacy take a backseat. He was never into PDA anyhow, but without even hand-holding, casual hugs, a touch here or there—without that as some sort of happy glue—it all deteriorated fast.”

“No kids?”

“He has a daughter from his first marriage, Celia, and he wasn’t in a rush to have any more kids. We’d both decided to put off having them for a few years. We never had a big enough apartment anyhow. Then, a few years became ten years, and then there was a miscarriage along the way. I stayed busy with getting my business off the ground, and then I wasn’t willing so much anymore. Didn’t seem too important to him either.”

“Did he say that?”

“No.” I slid my wet glass along the smooth surface of the table. “Another thing that got swept under the proverbial rug.”

“You regret not having kids?”

“I always figured I’d do it, that it was a part of life, but I don’t feel terribly disappointed by not having done it. Living with Becca and Jill has been great though. And my sister, Penny has two boys, Nate and Carter. I love being their aunt. I enjoy it a lot.”

“That’s good then.”

My fingertips shoved at the edge of my dish. “You want to hear something really pathetic?”

“I’ve got plenty of pathetic stashed in here.” He tapped on his chest. “Lay it on me.”

“A couple of years ago, I was shopping online on my favorite drugstore website, and they had a huge sale on condoms. I bought five or six mega boxes. I like a good sale. I’d just gone off the pill, so I thought I’d be prepared in case we got inspired one night. And I figured it’d make Kyle laugh when he saw it. Approach the situation with humor. Spur on some action.”

“Did he laugh?”

“Yeah, he laughed. I put them away and kept a few at the bedside table. We used maybe four or five.”

“Out of all of them?”

“Yes. Then, a couple of years after that, when I was switching our summer and winter clothes in our closets, reorganizing everything, I came across the stash. All those square boxes still sealed, and they’d expired the month before.
. That was when I felt it, like an actual punch in the fucking gut—the humiliation. It was ridiculous. Couldn’t go on. And I’m not only talking about not getting laid by my husband.”

“That is a huge problem. Could he not get it up?”

“That was part of it. He’d been stressed out about being unemployed for a while, traveling all over on job interviews. He got good offers in California and Texas, but he didn’t want to go too far away because of Celia. He was frustrated. His life and career were flashing in front of his eyes.”

“That shit affects a man down deep. His dick took a hit.”

“I get that. But he was never willing to talk about it.”

“You women always want to talk about everything.”

“Why not? Instead, I felt alone and unattractive and—”

“You are not unattractive. At all.”

My toes curled in my boots. “Thank you.” I let out a small breath. “But that’s how I felt. Rejected. Kyle behaved like I was being demanding and over the top.”

“Were you?”

I shrugged. “He was protesting so much, putting it off, pushing me away, and I got the hint after a while. So, I turned my back on him, too. Then, he got a new job, a really good job, and he relaxed but not much changed. Anyhow, I was choking. A lot of time had gone by, and I was letting it go by. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

“Life’s too short,” he said.

“No, you’re wrong. That’s wrong.”

He jerked his head back at my hard tone. “How’s that wrong?”

“Life can be long, Butler. Way too long. And if you’re not happy—really happy with who you are and whom you’re with and what you’re doing, fucking happy deep down in your soul, in your bones—then life is interminable. Life drags you along with it, shredding little pieces of you on its infinite winding, rocky road through time.”

He was perfectly still, his eyes locked on mine.

“Standing in that closet that day,” I continued, “piles of sweaters and T-shirts on the floor all around me, I couldn’t breathe anymore. I knew it had to stop right then, or I’d be in the same exact place when I turned fifty one day, then sixty, then seventy. Then, I’d be dead.

“No. No way. No fucking way.

“God gave me a life to live, and I want to live it.
it, not endure it. I can make choices. I can change it. Sure, it would’ve been more exciting to have taken off for Bali or Paris or New York and not crawled back home to South Dakota, but that’s okay. My mom needs me now, and so do Jill and Grace.”

“You like that, don’t you?”

I raised my head at the sudden softness in his usually gruff voice. “What’s that? Signs from the universe?”

“No, Tania.” His eyes flickered at me. “Helping. Making a difference in the lives of the people you love.”

My heart skipped a beat. We’d only spent several hours together today, yet he’d figured out what was important to me, what made me truly happy.

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