Falling into You Read online

Page 14

“No,” I agree. “But that doesn’t matter once you start singing. ‘Sides, keep playing, keep practicing, you’ll get better. ”

  She rolls her eyes, much like I did, and starts hitting chords. I don’t recognize the tune at first. It takes me into the first chorus to figure out what song it is. It’s a low, haunting tune, a rolling, sad melody. The lyrics are…archaic, but I understand them. They’re sweet and longing. She’s singing “My Funny Valentine” by Ella Fitzgerald. At least, that’s the version I know. I’ve heard a dozen versions of it, but I think she was the one who made it famous.

  The way Nell sings it…her voice is a little high for how low the song is written, but the strain to hit the lower notes only makes it full of that much more longing. As if the desire was a palpable thing, so thick inside her she couldn’t hit the notes right.

  She trails off at the end of the song, but I roll my hand in a circle, so she plucks a few strings, thinking, silent, then strikes another slow, bluesy rhythm. Oh, god, so perfect. She sings “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Louis Armstrong and Ella. God I love that song. I doubt she realizes this. I surprise the shit out of her by coming in right on cue with Louis’s part. She smiles broad and happy and keeps singing, and holy shit we sound good together.

  I would never have thought of covering jazz numbers in a folksy style. It’s so hot, so fresh. I know the song, so I can weave in some fancy picking, over and around her strumming.

  We finish the song, and I never want to stop making music with her. I take a risk and start up “Stormy Blues” by Billie Holiday. It’s a slow song, and Nell’s crystalline voice and my gravelly one make it into a ballad. I can hear Billie’s voice as I’m singing, though. I hear it coming out of the open window from the building next to the shop, back when I first bought it. Mrs. Henkel had a thing for jazz. She was old and lonely, and jazz made her think of long-dead Mr. Henkel, so she’d crack all the windows and play Billie and Ella and Count Basie and Benny, and she’d dance and remember. I’d help her bring her groceries up, and she’d pinch my ass and threaten me with sex, if only she was half a century younger. She’d make me tea and spike it with whiskey, and we’d listen to jazz.

  I found her in her bed, eyes closed, a photo of Mr. Henkel on her ample chest, a smile on her face. I went to her funeral, which shocked the shit out of her rich, ass**le grandson.

  My eyes must give away some of my thoughts, because Nell asks me what I’m thinking. So I tell her about Mrs. Henkel. About the long conversations I’d have with her, slowly getting drunk on spiked Earl Grey. How she was always clucking about my tats and my baggy pants. When I went straight and stopped thugging it up, she was over the moon at my tighter jeans.

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  What I don’t say is that my spending time with Mrs. Henkel was typical selfish Colt. I was lonely. I’d walked away from all my boys from the hood, all of them except Split, and I was lonely. Mrs. Henkel was a friend, a chance to be around someone who was good influence on me. She’d probably have shit her Depends if she knew half the shit I’d done, and I think she knew that, since she never asked.

  Finally, I go silent, the subject of dead Mrs. Henkel exhausted.

  “Explain what you meant,” she says.

  “About what?” I know exactly what she meant, but I couldn’t let on.

  “Why aren’t you any good? Why would it be taking advantage of me?”

  I set the guitar on its side and take a pull off the bottle, hand it to her. “I’m…fucked up, Nell. ”

  “So am I. ”

  “But it’s different. I’m not good. I mean, I’m not evil, I have some redeeming qualities, but…” I shake my head, unable to put it into the right words. “I’ve done bad things. I’m trying to stay out of trouble these days, but that doesn’t erase what I’ve done. ”

  “I think you’re a good person. ” She says it quietly, not looking at me.

  “You saw what I did to dickhead Dan. ”

  She snorts. “Dickhead Dan. Fitting. Yeah, I saw, and yeah, it scared me. But you were protecting me. Defending me. And you stopped. ”

  “Didn’t want to, though. ”

  “But you did. ” She yawns behind her hand. “You’re selling yourself short, Colton. And you’re not giving me enough credit to know what I want. ”

  “What do you mean?” I know what she means, but I want to hear her say it.

  “I kissed you back. It’s crazy, messed up, and it confuses me. But I did it eyes wide. Knowing. I wasn’t drunk. ” She looks at me past long, dark lashes, eyes saying a thousand things her mouth wasn’t.

  My mouth goes dry. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. ”

  “But you did. ”

  “Yeah. I’m an ass**le like that. I just can’t help it, around you. ”

  “I don’t think you’re an ass**le. I think you’re sweet. Gentle. ” She says it with a little smile.

  I shake my head. “Nah. It’s just you. You bring that tender shit out of me. I’m a thug, Nell. Straight up. ”

  “Ex-thug,” she counters.

  I laugh. “Once a thug, always a thug. I may not run the streets anymore, but it’s still part of who I am. ”

  “And I like who you are. ”

  I stand up, uncomfortable with where this is going. “It’s late. We should sleep. ”

  She glances at the sun, which is peeking between a couple high-rises across the street. “It’s early, but yeah. I’m exhausted. ”

  I take her guitar and hold her hand as she steps onto the stairs. I like how her hand feels in mine. I don’t want to let go, so I don’t. Neither does she. Nell stops at the bathroom, and I change into running shorts. Finally, I let myself feel the pain from the fight with Dan. I stretch, feeling my ribs twinge, and I probe my loose tooth with my tongue, wince at the dull ache. At that moment, Nell appears beside me with a washcloth. I eye her warily, then pull away when she reaches for my face.

  “I’m fine,” I growl.

  “Shut up and hold still. ”

  I roll my eyes and bring my face back within reach. Her touch is far too gentle for a rough bastard like me. She touches my chin, turns me to the side, brushes the cuts and bruises as if frightened to hurt me further. I stop breathing from her proximity, from the drunk-making wonder of her scent, shampoo and lemons and whiskey and woman. She turns my head again, wipes the other side of my face, eyes narrowed as she focuses on wiping away the crusted blood. I’d cleaned up a bit while she was in the shower at her place, but apparently not well enough. She wipes my upper lip, my chin, my forehead, my cheekbones. Then she lowers the washcloth and runs her fingers over my face, touching each cut gently, exploring.

  I hold still and let her touch me. It scares me. She’s looking at me as if seeing me for the first time, as if trying to memorize how I look. Her gaze is intense, needy. Her thumbs end up brushing over my lips, and I bite one of her thumbs, a little hard.

  Her eyes widen and her nostrils flare, and she sucks in a fast breath as I run my tongue over the pad of her thumb.

  What the f**k am I doing? But I can’t stop.

  This time, she leans in. Pulls her thumb from my mouth and replaces it with her lips. Her tongue. This is so crazy. I shouldn’t let it happen.

  But I do. My god, I do. I kiss her back with all the hunger inside me. We’re in my room, just inside the doorway, inches from the bed. It would be so easy to spin her around and lay her down, peel her clothes off, and…

  I pull away. She sighs as I do, and it’s a disappointed sound.

  “You keep stopping,” she says.

  I slip back out of her arms, reluctantly. I’m confused, messed up. I want her, but some vague voice in my head tells me it’s wrong to have her. Part of me says we belong together, tells me to cradle her close and never let go. She seems to want me, and I want her…but I know—I know—I’m not good enough for her.

  “We need to sleep,” I say. “You can have the