Glancing at her watch, Jen stood up. "Come on, I think you need a drink."
"It's really not that bad," I said, wishing we'd never started this conversation. I'd been doing so well—or so I'd thought. "Thanks for the offer, but I should stay here." I wiped my eyes and gestured towards my computer. "I should finish this. Rain check?"
Jen's brow furrowed, but then she gave me a reluctant smile. "I'm holding you to that. Next week?"
"Sure," I said, turning back to my computer screen and pretending to be lost in a column of numbers. "Have a good weekend."
"You too." Jen's footsteps padded away as she left my cubicle.
The minute she was gone, I closed my eyes and leaned back in my chair. My head throbbed.
Maybe Jen was right, and I should eat. Getting up, I headed into the break room to go forage for food in the breakroom. Maybe someone left a ramen packet in there for poor fools like me who had to work late.
I opened a cupboard, and my tired eyes scanned the contents. A stack of packaged ramen noodles stood in the corner, looking forlorn. Oh joy.
As I waited for the microwave to cook my unappetizing dinner, I sat down at the table. In the center stood two shakers, one salt, and one pepper.
Pepper. His stupid nickname for me.
My breath caught in my throat. I reached for the shaker and closed my eyes tight. It's like he's everywhere.
The ache in my heart suddenly hurt as fresh as the moment Jax wounded it. I tried to block the fleeting images, but they appeared in front of my eyes like they'd been burned into me permanently: Jax's rough hands caressing my body. His intense look of lust as he saw me naked for the first time. His hair, twisted around my fingers on the pillow in the morning sun.
A deep longing settled like a weight on my chest. Jax had been mine. I'd loved him, and having him for such a short time only made the hurt feel worse.
I curled my hand into a tight fist around the pepper shaker, digging my nails into the soft skin of my palms. But feeling this way wasn't something I could keep on doing. The truth was, Jax's problems had turned out to be more than our love for each other could handle.
I had to face the reality: I wasn't like Kristen. There was no perfect love waiting to sweep me off my feet, and believing there was had come close to costing me my job—or my life.
So I'd put my nose to the grindstone, get my work done. I'd find someone new. Somebody compatible and reasonable and perfectly suitable, not just someone who made my heart beat faster every time I saw him.
I took one last look at the pepper shaker before flinging it at the wall with enough force to make it bounce off the tile floor as I turned to leave the kitchen.
I'd never love anyone as much as I'd loved Jax.
But maybe it was better that way.
I slowly opened my eyes, then stared at the unfamiliar ceiling and closed them again with a sigh. This wasn't my bedroom.
After opening them again, I groaned and rolled myself to a seated position. Leather creaked beneath me as I moved. Couch. The couch on the bus. Not too bad. I must have passed out after a night out drinking.
As I took stock of my surroundings, I saw a nearly empty whiskey bottle sitting on the coffee table, practically taunting me.
So that was why I was feeling like such shit. My head spun. That was about right.
It had been two weeks in hell after Riley had left. The nightmares were gone, along with all the other shit that had been plaguing me from the PTSD. The doc had been right about Riley. She'd been the trigger.
But having her gone wasn't helping my music. The band was in the middle of a recording session, and every song I wrote sucked. I knew it. But there was nothing I could do.
Riley's face haunted me wherever I went, no matter what I was doing. So after our recording session inevitably broke up with everyone pissed off, I drank. Tried to forget. And failed, every damn time.
I rubbed my hands over my face, then grabbed the whiskey bottle off the table. If this doesn't kill me, her memory will anyway. Grimacing, I opened the bottle, craned my neck back, and took a slug. As I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, footsteps sounded on the stairs.
Sky emerged from her bedroom and came into the common area where I sat. Her eyes locked on mine. I set the whiskey bottle down, and she frowned.
"You look like you got hit by a truck," she said, dropping down on the couch next to me. Her eyes seemed serious as she studied my face.
I shrugged, avoiding her gaze. "Well, it's nothing you haven't seen before."
She exhaled. "No, this is different," she said. Leaning forward, she peered at me with an intense expression on her face. "You're different."
I drew my brows together. I didn't like where this was going. "Just need a little more hair of the dog," I replied, unable to keep the irritation out of my voice. "Then I'll be fine."
"No, Jax, you're not fine," she said, then hesitated for a moment, biting her lip. "I've been wanting to talk to you about it."
I groaned. "Can we have your episode of Intervention sometime when I'm not hungover?"
Her eyes were big and sad. "When do you think that'll be? When you're dead?"
Closing my eyes, I pressed a hand to my throbbing head. "I'll stop drinking when I don't need it any more. Promise."
"Do you need it because of Riley?" she asked, her voice soft, but persistent.
Fuck. My heart throbbed. I lay back down on the couch.
Sky continued, her voice gaining strength as she went on. "I'm not blind, Jax."
I exhaled. Sky sat on the couch with her arms folded, waiting for my answer. There was no avoiding her, and in my hungover state, it was too hard to even try.
"I haven't been myself lately," I said slowly. "I didn't want to hurt her any more than I already have."
"Did she tell you she's been hurt?" Sky asked.
"No, but I've hurt her already, and we can't be together or I'm going to hurt her more."
She exhaled with frustration. "Jax, what's this really about?"
I gave her an icy look. "It's none of your business."
She waited for more, and when nothing was forthcoming she sighed again. "Listen, I know things have been messed up with you for a while, but I thought Riley changed that for you. Am I wrong? Weren't things better with her?"
Her words shot a bolt of pain in my gut. "I don't have a choice, Sky!" I snapped, unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice. "Just leave it alone. Leave me alone."
"And what?" she spat back at me. "Watch until you drink yourself into a coma because you won't let anyone care about you?"