Ashlyn climbed from the front seat back toward me and we huddled together. I was suddenly freezing and shaking, and I realized she was crying, but I didn’t know why. We were okay. Aiden was okay. What was wrong?
That was when I saw it.
Cohen was dragging the body of a woman from inside the overturned car. He lay her down on the road, and shouted something to Aiden, who was standing beside him. Aiden nodded and darted back towards us. He opened the driver’s door and reached in with shaking hands to pop open the trunk. “Aiden, is she okay?” Ashlyn demanded.
“Stay here,” he warned, then disappeared from sight around the back of the car. He returned to Cohen’s side a few seconds later carrying a beach blanket.
Cohen draped it across the woman, covering her from head to toe, then crawled back to the car where he appeared to be talking to someone. Was there someone still alive in that car? It didn’t seem possible.
My eyes focused for a moment on the contrast of Ashlyn’s brightly colored tangerine and pink beach blanket being used to cover the body of a woman I was pretty sure was dead. I had just lounged on that blanket yesterday, basking in the sun without a care in the world, and was instantly reminded of the harsh lesson life had taught me once before. Everything you held dear could be taken from you in the blink of an eye.
Cohen lay on his belly and reached into the smashed up car, and pulled out a little girl who looked to be probably three or four years old. She was crying and blood oozed from a gash to her forehead, darkening the blonde hair at her scalp. Cohen carried her away from the vehicle, cradling her in his arms as she cried and screamed for her mother.
He brought her to the side of the road and set her down on the grass and bent to speak to her before returning to the car once again. A couple of concerned bystanders appeared with blankets, doing their best to calm the hysterical child.
Suddenly I needed air. I needed out of this cramped backseat and I lunged for the door. Ashlyn tried feebly to stop me, but when she saw the look on my face, she released me and fell from the open door onto the gravel, my feet not even able to support my weight. I crawled away from the car on my hands and knees and vomited into the grass. After spitting a few times to clear my mouth, I sat down on the ground, unable to move, unable to think and shaking violently.
The sirens grew louder and several police cars and an ambulance skidded to a stop on the highway. I watched as a stream of uniformed officers and paramedics jogged toward the scene. Cohen met them, and began shouting things and pointing. His face was a hardened mask of concentration, until he scanned the scene and met my eyes. I was sure I looked completely pathetic, sitting in the grass, crying and shaking, but I couldn’t even pretend to be strong right now.
He returned to my side and helped me stand, holding my weight up by securing his arm around my waist. He walked me over to Aiden and said something I couldn’t hear. Aiden picked me up and carried me back to the car, laying me down on the front seat and covering me with a blanket. I closed my eyes and curled onto my side and bawled. The pain of losing Paul rushed up inside me and overwhelmed everything else. I was transported back five years, the memory of the crushing heartbreak as painful now as it had been then.
Listening to the sounds of horror and grief taking place outside of the car, I knew I could never let myself love Cohen. My throat tightened and I struggled for air. I curled into a ball and wrapped my arms around myself. There was no way I would survive another crushing tragedy, and I renewed the promise I made to myself the night of Paul’s death. I had to guard my heart. It was the only way.
When we finally got home, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. Our journey back from the lake felt more like we’d gone to hell and back. The accident had added a few hours onto our trip, both with Cohen helping to respond at the scene, as well as the resulting traffic backup. The mood in the car had been subdued and quiet, with no one wanting to talk. That had been fine with me.
Aiden and Ashlyn dropped us off, and Cohen insisted on carrying my bags inside. I tried to lift my suitcase from the trunk and found I had lost all muscle strength. Cohen’s hands darted in past mine and he easily lifted the bag, hauling it inside for me. I collapsed onto the couch while he heated a mug of water in the microwave and made me a cup of tea, mumbling something about it calming my stomach.
The blissful weekend had taken a violent turn in the blink of an eye. It now seemed a lifetime ago that I’d relaxed in Cohen’s arms, that we’d shared some intimate moments. Almost as though they’d never even happened.
Cohen set the mug on the coffee table in front of me, and sat down beside me on the sofa. He rubbed his hands against his knees, lost in thought.
“Cohen, you can go. I’ll be fine.”
His eyes met mine and were full of skepticism. “What can I do to help? Can I run you a bath?”
A bath sounded heavenly, but something in me rebelled, reminding me not to get too close. “I can manage on my own. I think you should go.”
Getting this comfortable with him so quickly had been a mistake. I was glad we hadn’t gone any farther over the weekend. I didn’t want him getting confused about my feelings for him. I had tried to convince myself otherwise, but I knew deep down that sex with him would never be emotionless and uncomplicated. I couldn’t explain how I knew. I just did. And I couldn’t let myself go there with him.
Cohen hadn’t yet moved from the couch and was staring intently at the steam rising from the coffee mug.
I stood and dragged my suitcase over to the laundry room off the kitchen, as if to prove to him that I was capable, and I started the washing machine. I was stuffing clothes into the washer without regard for color or fabric when Cohen came up behind me and gripped my upper arms, spinning me to face him. “What is this? Why do I feel like you’re breaking up with me when we’re not even dating?”
“Cohen… Please. I just can’t. Not with you. Not with anyone,” I mumbled, staring down at my feet.
He tilted my chin up to look at me, and I closed my eyes. I knew it was childish, but if I met his blue eyes, I might crumble. And I couldn’t allow that to happen. His hand remained on my cheek, cradling my face and rubbing a slow circle with his thumb near my ear.
When he spoke again, his voice was just a whisper. “What happened to you, Eliza?”
I waited several seconds before responding. Then I took a deep breath and practiced saying the words in my head before repeating them out loud. “I lost someone I loved in a car accident.” I didn’t tell him the rest. I didn’t explain that we were engaged, that I was pregnant when he passed away, that it was my fault that he was driving three hours to see me in Des Moines that night when he fell asleep behind the wheel. I didn’t tell him that Paul had also called me Eliza.
“I’m sorry. How long ago?” Cohen asked, his voice still soft, still gentle.
His hand dropped from my face, and he leaned in to press a kiss to my forehead. “I’m sorry you had to see that today. I should have stayed with you, I didn’t know.”
My eyes flicked to his. “No, you were right to help. It was just… hard. Being at that scene brought up feelings I never want to experience again.”
He nodded, and pulled me in for a hug. I let my body mold to his, my arms hanging limply at my sides.
Cohen finished adding my clothes to the washer, added some soap and then steered me back to the couch. “Get some rest, babe. I’ll call later to check on you.”
When he walked away, my brain knew putting some distance between us was the right thing to do, but my body instantly ached for his warmth. I curled onto my side, dragging the throw blanket over me and fell into a restless sleep.
When Cohen called later and woke me up, I didn’t answer my phone. And when he followed it up with a text to see if I was coming up to stay the night, I responded with an excuse about wanting to stick around for my cats. Not that they even noticed if I was there. As long as food appeared in their bowls, and the sun continued to provide warm spots for them to lounge in, they were content.
Several days passed and I did my best to avoid seeing Cohen. I’d seen him out for an early morning run with Bob a few times, where we’d waved hello, but not spoken. He’d texted me late one night, just a brief line to ask how I was, but it went unanswered and he didn’t text again. I don’t know if I expected him to put in more effort, but I couldn’t help the surprise I felt at how easily and quickly he’d slipped from my life.
And then last Sunday, when I was out for a run, I’d seen him with that mousy church girl Maggie. They were walking back from the diner on the corner. He’d met my eyes and smiled, and when he did, I felt a pang of jealousy stab at my chest.
It was strange how protective I was over his virginity. I wasn’t prepared to take it myself, but it made me furious to think of any other woman doing the job instead. I’d stormed inside the house and forced my drapes closed.
Several more days passed by before I saw Cohen again. The accident and the woman’s death continued to weigh heavily on my mind, and I still barely slept at night. But I didn’t allow myself to go to Cohen’s bed like I wanted to. I knew I needed to stay strong. Seeing the horrific scene at the accident had slapped some much needed sense into me, and reminded me of the need to distance myself from the pain of losing someone. I couldn’t go through that again. I wouldn’t survive it for a second time.
So instead I focused on getting through each day. Class…studying…feeding my cats…trying to make myself eat something…and then falling into a restless sleep alone in my bed. But my thoughts betrayed me and constantly drifted to Cohen. His soft kisses, his silly nicknames, and even that damn dog Bob.
That was why when Stu called me, I had no reason to say no and was hoping that clocking some action between the sheets would force Cohen from my mind once and for all. But of course, that hadn’t been the case. I hadn’t been able to go through with it, worrying about if Cohen was home to hear us. At least that’s what I told myself, I didn’t want to think that my feelings for Cohen were what was really effecting my decision.
Twenty minutes later, I walked out a very unsatisfied Stu, anxious to get rid of him.
Stu clicked the keyless entry for his car, flashing the lights on his Lexus just as Cohen came walking up. I wasn’t sure where he’d been, as he was coming from the opposite direction of campus, but I reminded myself that his comings and goings weren’t supposed to be my business. His eyes fell on me first, his flirty smile kicking up a notch, but when he noticed Stu—aka Professor Gibson—standing on my porch, his smirk faltered and he looked from us to the house as if he was working out in his mind what had just happened in there.
Shit. My stomach twisted into a knot. Why did I feel so bad? I wanted to blurt out that nothing had happened, that he was jumping to conclusions, but I pressed my lips together. I could have whomever I wanted over at my house, for whatever reason. Right?
I wondered if he’d storm past us to his apartment, but he surprised me by fixing a smile on his face and stopping to say hello. “Professor.” He nodded to Stu.
Stu straightened his jacket and offered his hand. God, could he be any more awkward?
Observing Cohen next to Stu made for a ridiculous comparison. Cohen looked young and relaxed in dark-washed jeans that fit low on his hips, a soft, worn T-shirt that hugged his biceps and a rugged pair of vintage-style navy-blue tennis shoes. He was fucking hot, in a casual and understated way. He wasn’t trying, he was just delicious, like the sexy boy-next-door. Whereas Stu, well…he was Stu. He gave off a distinct dad vibe that signaled his divorced status and professional job. He was someone I wasn’t even remotely at risk of falling for. Which had been part of the whole attraction in the beginning, but now I knew that that was wrong.
I couldn’t help but continue to draw a comparison between fun-loving, playful Cohen and buttoned-up, tassel-loafered Stu. Stu’s down-to-business approach to sex hadn’t bothered me before, but I realized Cohen made me want something more. That giddy, butterfly feeling that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in so long, I thought I’d forgotten how.
I smiled, knowing I hadn’t completely lost it. I thought I’d lost it all when Paul died, but maybe I hadn’t. That thought both comforted and terrified me.
But I reminded myself that Stu was safe. Boring, practical and lackluster in bed, but safe. End of story. If it was possible, that thought made me feel worse.
Stu was saying something to Cohen about the midterm, but Cohen looked unconcerned and bored by the whole interaction.
“All right, I guess I’m off. Eliza.” Cohen tipped his head to me.
I dared a look in his direction, just as he passed by me. Anger, sadness, and…something else…was reflected in his eyes. It was that spark, that flame…whatever it was that burned between us.
I swallowed and said goodbye to Stu. That was the other good thing about his visits—no goodbye kiss was needed. I headed back inside, feeling worse than I did before Stu’s visit, which had been designed to relieve tension, not cause it.
I walked home from campus on Friday evening, thankful that the weekend had finally arrived. I had nothing on the agenda but spending some quality time with my couch, bundled up in my comfy pjs with a nice glass of wine. I hoisted my bag up higher on my aching shoulder and mentally reminded myself I was overdue for a massage. And would need another waxing appointment soon. Not that anyone would notice right now. I obviously hadn’t seen Cohen and since that awkward night I’d let all of Stu’s calls go unanswered.
When I reached the front walk, I couldn’t keep myself from glancing up at Cohen’s window. His apartment was dark. He was probably out tonight, doing whatever it was undergrads did on a Friday night.