Operation First Date Chapter 5
HE’S BROKEN, BUT SO IS SHE. TIME TO BRING THEM TOGETHER.
This short story featuring Bitsy and Jim sequence is actually a novella based off of Hear Me Roar in the Health and Happiness Society.
If you haven't read chapter 1, check it out right here!
Click here to read the other chapters!
Jim’s screen groaned that evening as I pulled it open and rapped on
his door. The heavenly scent of fresh brownies wafted from the
disposable plate in my hands.
Foolproof warming-up plan.
As if any man was capable of denying free, fresh, homemade chocolate.
“Jim, it’s Bitsy," I called. "As if you didn’t know and weren’t probably canvassing my porch somehow. Look, I’m not scared of you. I will outlast you. You think you can stay in there forever? You can’t. In the meantime, I’ll leave these fresh, delicious, gooey, frosting-covered brownies on your porch. If you don’t eat all of them within 72 hours, I will be personally offended and send Lana over with a head full of snarled hair in the morning.” My voice dropped. “You think you’ve seen war? You’ve seen nothing until you’ve had to deal with her and a hairbrush in the morning.”
With that, I plunked the brownies on the porch, shut the screen, and
walked away without looking back.
Phase one executed.
“So, Bitsy, how was the date?”
Rachelle stared at me in eager expectations, eyebrows high. Oh, she definitely didn’t want to do this sugar fast. But she was going to do it because I had won this one. The date had happened.
. . . sort of.
“Shocking,” I said.
Mira’s head lifted. “What?” she cried. “There has been a date? And you didn't tell me? Elizabeth!”
“Well, if you could call it that. Which I am!” I quickly added, one finger
held up to Rachelle. “Let’s just say it wasn’t the typical date. And I knew you were coming over. I wanted to tell you in person. It was . . . it was just surprising, is all.”
Megan and Lexie didn't attend via computer this time, because this
wasn’t our weekly meeting. Simply an intermediary lunch meet-up that occurred every other Monday. To give me something happy to start the week, Rachelle had said when she announced the idea.
A waiter set a glass of water with a wedge of lemon in it in front of me
and I thanked them with a smile. Rachelle planted her elbows on the table and leaned forward.
“Out with it, mamacita. Tell, tell.”
Mira leaned in as I relayed the story. I ignored her happy squeal when I
confirmed her obvious suspicion about the date being Jim. By the end, Rachelle had slumped back in her chair. Mira’s mouth hung open.
“First, I still can’t get over the fact that you’re on a first-name basis with Stephanie James,” Rachelle said. “But we can just set that aside for now.
Secondly, I’m sad for Jim. What a sucky thing to happen on a date he’s clearly wanted for a while. Third, dang. I now have to sugar-fast.”
I sent her a wicked smile. She half-heartedly rolled her eyes in
response. At least she’d accepted it.
“Think he knew he might have a hard time?” Mira asked, stirring her
Pepsi with a straw. “Think that’s why it took him so long to ask you out?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. It’s pointless to speculate.”
“Why did you leave the brownies?” Mira asked. “Why not get him to
open the door so you could give them to him.”
“Time,” Rachelle said before I could. “You were trying to disarm him a
bit, weren’t you? Let him know you weren't upset.”
“Yes. If he’s embarrassed, it’ll take a while for him to come out of his turtle shell. Mostly, I wanted him to see I wasn’t bothered by what
happened and to give him space. He . . . he's been through a lot.”
"No kidding," Mira muttered.
Rachelle let out a long breath. “Well, this is not how I was expecting this lunch to go, but I accept the inevitable. We’re doing a sugar fast. Also, keep me updated on how things go. Waiter? Dessert menu, please.”
Outside of giving Jim space, I realized I needed space. Space to think
through how I could help both him and Cora.
What should I say?
Was it even my place?
Had I wormed myself mentally into a relationship with Jim that didn’t
exist? Maybe I had big ideas of what he thought of me if I thought he’d actually talk things out. These thoughts stayed my hand for the rest of the day. I sent Cora a text with a promise to draw him out the next day.
In the meantime, my mind churned.
Tuesday evening after I put the girls down, and while I psyched myself
up to go over there, a rap came on my door. My heart fluttered a little with it. With a deep breath for courage, I pulled it open.
Jim stared at me, swathed in shadows from behind, like a mythical
grump emerging from his life-long silence in a cave. My blood turned to slush in my veins for half a second before he looked at me.
I eyed him carefully, my natural defenses calming. He seemed fine. Hazel eyes in check. No bruises. No worse for wear.
"Sorry it's so late," he said.
A new kind of tension came into his expression, his eyes. Even in the
subdued light, nervousness lingered in the corners. Could it be fear?
The idea of Jim being afraid of anything seemed ludicrous.
"It's fine. The girls just went to bed. Let's talk out here."
I gestured to the porch steps and we both lowered onto them. For
several moments, silence filled the space between us.
"I'm sorry, Bitsy."
"For not responding. For ignoring you. For walking out on our date." He rubbed a hand over his short-cropped hair with a frown. "You deserve better."
I put a hand on his arm. The muscles tensed, then eased. His skin was
surprisingly warm against my palm, and I didn't want to pull away.
"You have nothing to apologize for," I said, and let the touch slip away.
"You needed some space, you took it. I'm glad you did. If you didn't finish the brownies? Then we'll talk about apologies."
He snorted, but not without amusement.
"Can I do anything for you?" I asked and harnessed all the other questions by biting my tongue. Did I want him to know how much I wanted to go out with him? Not really.
At least . . . not yet.
“You still want a date?” he asked.
“You might have to woo me with dessert.”
“Would you eat it?”
“If it was delicious enough.”
Jim stared at me for a moment before he said, "It's PTSD, Bitsy, as I'm sure you already guessed. Nothing new. Nothing exciting. Just plain old PTSD from my time in the military."
The corners of my lips twitched. "Why don't you just give it to me straight, Jim, instead of beating around the bush like that?"
He smirked, knocking me in the shoulder with his. "Right. Yeah. Facetiousness is my thing, I guess."
"I figured it was PTSD."
He shrugged. "You're a smart woman. I knew you'd connect the dots."
"I probably should have brought brownies sooner."
"Yeah. And you probably should have brought a chocolate cake with you. What kind of a neighbor do you think you are, anyway?"
"I'll mow your lawn for you. How about that?"
He snorted. "No way. You'd mess it all up. I have a system, and it works perfectly. Just look at that grass. It's practically a carpet."
I almost laughed. I'd seen Jim's system. He mowed the lawn in every
direction, ending it with a horizontal pattern that really did look close to perfection. If he could have floated instead of walking behind the lawnmower, I was convinced he would have. He always muttered about leaving footprints in the grass.
The quirky man.
We continued in a comfortable silence for several minutes. The breeze seemed cooler. Sweeter. My muscles unwound, and I closed my eyes, luxuriating in the feel of the wind on my face.
My eyes opened. I glanced over to him. He stared out into the yard, his jaw tense, but body relaxed. His elongated muscles that curved along his back looked sharp and strong. "Thirteen months?" I asked.
"I've been in therapy dealing with the PTSD."
"Has it worked?"
"Yep. Haven't had a flashback, or almost had one, in over six months. Apparently, dating you is dangerous for my health."
He nudged me again. "Kidding. I'm not violent. I don't freak out and start screaming. You don't have to be afraid of me."
"I've never been afraid of you, Jim," I said quietly.
His gaze darkened, dropped to my lips, and then away. "It's just . . . it's something that crops up from time to time, and I take care of it. I called Cora when I got home, let her know, then spoke with my psychologist. Over time, it works out."
"I'm proud of you."
"You think I'm crazy?"
"Oh, you're definitely crazy."
He grinned. A real, fully-fledged smile made the corners of his eyes crinkled. My heart pattered an uneven rhythm.
"You should do that more," I said quietly. "You're so handsome when you smile."
"You know what I want to do more of?"
Had I imagined him a breath away? His warm shoulders so close to mine?
"What?" I whispered.
His lips closed over mine with the freshness of sweet mint. His fingers
dug into my hair as I leaned into him, deepening his kiss. Into the pull that drew me closer. Into the gravity of his touch. The way he pulled me into him sent my heart into my throat.
Jim kissed me breathless.
He pulled away with a gentle move of his hand, then stared at me. His hard, inscrutable expression pierced mine as we sat there, tangled together.
"That," he whispered.
I smiled, forehead pressed to his.
"What kind of neighbor are you?" I whispered, grinning. "Geez, Jim."
He ran his fingers through my hair with an actual laugh. A jubilant sound that seemed so at odds with the severe man that glared at everything. When he pulled away to more clearly see me, I felt a moment of disappointment.
"Listen," he murmured, "I want to try again."
"You can do that anytime, as far as I'm concerned," I murmured.
He chuckled. "The date, Bitsy. Focus."
I forced myself to lean back, out of the heady circle of his masculine smell. "Perhaps a different restaurant this time?"
"That place was far too fancy, anyway. What I didn't tell you was that I
faked the whole thing just to get out of there, you know?"
I laughed. "Well played, sir. The date doesn't really matter, Jim. You know that, right? I think this was all I really wanted from it anyway."
"You. Being honest. Being . . . with me."
For another bold, thrilling moment, his palm found the side of my face.
His thumb brushed my cheekbone as he studied me, so close in the dim light. We sat there, scrutinizing each other. As if we could take full measure in mere seconds. Something clicked in those moments. It sparked, brighter than the stashed away hope. Hotter than the fire in my chest.
Faster than my restless breath.
"I'm pretty messed up, Bitsy," he said. " There are more skeletons in my closet than just PTSD."
"I'm not great at talking."
"I definitely know that."
"And I'm not going to be perfect."
I pressed a finger to his lips and leaned closer. "You already are, Jim."
An anguished expression filled his eyes for half a second before disappearing. "But I want to be something to you," he said. "I want to try this out. Can we . . . do this? This dating thing? You and me?"
A laugh bubbled up in me, but I bit it back.
"And you already know I love those girls. I would never hurt them."
"I know. I trust you."
He put a hand on the back of my neck and pulled me into another soul-searing kiss. This time, when he pulled away, I sat there for a few seconds to regather my scattered thoughts. When my eyes opened, he smiled softly at me.
There wasn't a thing I wouldn't do to see that again.
He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and hauled me into his side. I tucked myself there, feeling a flood of memories that swept through me as we stared into the night, his chin on top of my head.
His hand in mine.