The Husband Checklist - Chapter One
My shoes squeak as I make my way up the porch steps, banging on the white door with the heel of my hand. “Come on, Ollie.”
The puddle at my feet grows as I wait. I want nothing more than to get out of my soaked clothes, jump under the hot shower, and curl up in bed.
After alternating between knocking and ringing the bell, the door finally opens, and I let out a sigh of relief as I look up.
But, holy moly. This is most definitely not my brother standing in front of me.
My vision is filled with none other than his best friend, Carter.
The same one I grew up with, at least once both he and my brother finally accepted I wasn’t going to leave them alone, even though I was two years younger.
“Jules? What the hell happened to you?” He gives me a once-over, his eyes going wide as he takes in my appearance and the suitcase behind me.
My stomach rolls, his question bringing back today's events. Events I'd rather not think about. Instead, I force the fresh memory back into a box in my mind, not planning on going there anytime soon.
“What are you doing here? Are you rooming with Ollie?” The second the words leave my mouth, I vaguely remember my brother mentioning something about it the last time we talked.
That’s what happens when you don’t pay enough attention.
Two words, and I’m pulled into all things Carter. So much easier to focus on him, letting him distract me from this shitshow my life has turned into.
The tepid temperatures of the rain have slowly turned my skin cold under my soaked clothes, but I’m not a hundred percent positive that’s the reason for the goose bumps that appeared out of nowhere. When I saw him a few months ago, he definitely didn’t greet me like this.
Suppressing a shiver, another question tumbles out of my mouth. “And why on earth are you half-naked? Do you usually open the door like this?”
He looks down his body as if it would answer for him, which doesn’t take very long given he only has a towel wrapped around his waist. Not that there isn’t a lot to check out with his well-over-six-foot frame. But that’s more for me, of course.
Despite the messy state I’m in—both physically and emotionally—I can’t help but roam over the fine contours of his upper body while he’s not looking.
I guess old habits die hard. It feels a little bad, like looking at him is taboo.
He’s the forbidden fruit, per my brother’s demand at least. But Ollie isn’t here, and since I’m newly single, it’s really no one’s business who or what I’m looking at.
Large parts of Carter’s upper body are covered in tattoos—chest, biceps—and if memory serves right, there are a few on his back too. Most of them are abstract—beautiful black drawings I wanted to trace a time or two when I was younger.
Carter clears his throat, and I snap out of my trance. No one can fault me for being fascinated by all those tattoos and muscles.
The embarrassment of getting caught still flames my cheeks, and I refrain from covering them with my hands. I only walked a few feet from my car to the front door in the rain, but I know it was enough for my mascara to run down my face. I’m probably only making it worse the more I try to wipe it away.
But I shouldn’t be ogling Carter so soon after my boyfriend broke up with me. Then again, Carter has always been hard to ignore—all male with wide shoulders, narrow hips, longish, messy dark-blond hair, a slight scruff on his face. Not to mention the most hypnotizing blue-gray eyes I’ve ever seen.
“I’d just turned off the shower when I heard the bell ringing. After the tenth ring—not to mention the incessant banging—I thought it might be urgent, so I didn’t waste any more time by putting on clothes.” He crosses his arms in front of his chest, and I close my eyes for a moment, hoping like hell his towel will stay put. I couldn’t live through that sort of mortification tonight, even though Carter would probably find it hilarious.
He’s never been shy.
Stepping to the side, his hand goes back to the door. “Are you planning on coming inside or what?”
Right. I mentally facepalm myself, probably looking like a total idiot.
Just when I’m about to step over the threshold, I’m reminded of my messy state. “Could you get me a towel first, please? I don’t want to drip all over the floor.”
“Sure thing.” But before he turns to walk away, a grin appears on his face. “Or do you want this towel, Jules?” He points at his hips, and I’m yet again happy for my zombie look.
This is the Carter I know. Carefree, goofy, flirtatious, and silly as heck.
Normally, I enjoy his lighthearted demeanor, but right now, it pushes all the wrong buttons. “Not now, Carter. I’ve had a shitty day and really don’t feel like jokes, okay?”
There’s no gusto in my voice, but the tone says it all. It’s thick and shaky, cracking near the end.
My finger is poised to poke his chest to make my point clear, but I pull it back when I remember all the naked skin in front of me.
The smile falls as quickly from his face as it appeared. “Shit. Sorry. I’ll get that towel. Be right back.”
Turning around, he walks off toward the bedrooms. I use that moment to take off my hoodie and let it drop to the ground, somehow managing to bump into my suitcase that tips over, landing on the welcome mat with a loud thud. I stare at it for a moment, briefly wondering if kicking it would make me feel better, before continuing with my task. I’m in the middle of taking off my sneakers when Carter reappears, this time dressed in tan cargo shorts and a black T-shirt.
After setting both shoes on the ground, I take the towel from his outstretched hand and rub it over my hair. “Thank you.”
“Why don’t you take a shower while I get your things?”
I nod absentmindedly and look back up at him to thank him once more, just to find him staring at my chest. This time I do poke him. “What are you staring at?”
“Sorry, but . . .” He doesn’t finish his sentence, pointing at my top instead. Following his gaze, I groan when I realize my black lace bra shows through my wet tank top, nipples on show and all.
Throwing my hands in the air, I probably give him an even better show. “Gosh, you’re twenty-five, not fifteen.”
“They’re boobs.” He shrugs, like that explanation clears up everything.
On second thought, it probably does for him. Or maybe every guy? I wouldn’t be surprised.
I sigh and push past him. “I’ll go take that shower now.”
The face that greets me in the mirror after my shower still looks a bit scary, but at least more human. I traded off the runny-mascara zombie face for red, puffy eyes.
My messy reflection is a true representation of today’s events. I walk out of the en-suite bathroom into the bedroom, wondering if Carter would ignore me if I just slipped into bed and pulled the blanket over my head to hide for a while. I’m not sure I can play pretend tonight. I’m too raw.
We’re no longer right for each other, Julia. Surely you understand why. No, it still makes very little sense at all. Much like why Carter is here and not Ollie.
So I put on my big girl pants and walk into the living room. Carter’s in the kitchen, facing away from me. The high ceilings of the open floor plan have always been one of my favorite things about my childhood home.
My brother has updated a few things over the years, giving the whole place a definite male touch, with lots of dark colors, leather, and chrome. I like it. The only thing he didn’t change is my old bedroom, the one my mom and I redid my senior year.
Carter looks over his shoulder, watching me approach the kitchen. Looking around the room, I admire Ollie’s great taste in furnishings.
“I made you some tea with honey. We don’t want you to get sick.” I turn toward Carter and wonder when he became so thoughtful.
“Thank you.” I take the steaming mug from him, noticing the words on it. Better late than ugly. I raise my eyebrows and look back at Carter, but he’s nonchalant as always. Things don’t shake Carter easily.
“It’s your brother’s, not mine.”
“Well, that explains a lot. Speaking of Ollie, is he still at work?”
He cocks his head to the side and studies me for a moment. “He didn’t tell you he went on a vacation with his girlfriend? Last-minute trip to Hawaii.”
“He did what and with who?” I move my hands without thinking, forgetting about the hot tea I’m holding.
The very hot tea.
“Dang it.” Some of the liquid spills over my hands, and I almost drop the mug.
Before I can react, Carter takes it from my hands while leading me to the kitchen sink. The faucet is on a second later, and he pushes my hands under the water before I can protest.
His hands are under the water with mine, gently rubbing my skin. “Are you okay?”
My eyes are trained on our hands, and my mind goes momentarily blank as I stare at our connected fingers. My skin tingles while my heart skips a beat, and I close my eyes to take a calming breath. It doesn’t happen every day that I pour hot tea over myself, which is the only reason I can come up with why my body is reacting like this.
A minute later, Carter turns off the water and gently dries my hands with a kitchen towel. His touch is careful, like he’s afraid to hurt me. My hands look so small in his considerably larger hands, and I watch with an odd fascination as he slowly turns them back and forth to examine them.
“Your skin’s a little red, but it looks okay. You good?” His voice is gentle, making me look at him.
His eyebrows furrow, pulling together tightly across his forehead.
Carter and I haven’t had a lot of contact over the last few years, only occasionally seeing each other in passing and mostly sticking to small talk. Nothing significant happened to make us spend less time together, even though I think it was my fault, at least partially. I’ve always written it off as being a part of growing up, as going after different things.
When he looks up from my hands and our gazes meet, there are a million questions in his eyes. So, now I wonder. Just in the last few hours alone, I’ve come to realize that I like to live in denial, apparently not seeing what’s right in front of me, or rather brushing it under the rug like it doesn’t exist. I’m not sure I’m ready to face all the reasons for that yet. My brain is too muddled to think clearly, and to be honest, I don’t want to think about anything anymore tonight.
I just want to forget.
If there was ever a moment for Carter to have one of his carefree, everything-is-so-much-fun moments to cheer me up, this would be it.
Instead, the worried look in his eyes does the opposite. After all the crying—first at my boyfriend’s apartment, or rather ex-boyfriend now, and then on the way to my brother’s—I promised myself to not shed another tear, at least not today. Yet here I am, my eyes all hot again as they get ready for what I expect to be a long night of wallowing and self-pity.
“Come here.” Carter pulls me in for a hug before I have a chance to say anything, the big lump in my throat blocking anything to get by.
Being in his arms feels good. The familiarity returns like it was never gone, this moment giving me more comfort than I could have hoped for, especially with my brother not here.
After a few minutes of tears and sobbing—so much about my plan to not shed another tear—I finally feel like I might be able to speak. I take a deep breath, trying to calm my still shaky insides. Carter stays silent, continuously rubbing my back in soothing circles.
I force the next words up my throat as fast as I can, somehow wanting to get them out in the open. “I’m homeless. Nate broke up with me.”
Carter pushes me back in one swift move, looking at me wide-eyed. His grip on my arms tightens for a fraction of a second before he lets go. “He did what? Weren’t you supposed to move in with him?”
“Yup. He had a last-minute change of heart.” I sniffle, trying my best to wipe away any remaining evidence of my meltdown, the word diarrhea in full progress now. “Apparently, he had a moment when I was on my way over to him with all my stuff and realized we shouldn't take this next step but should break up instead. He said I’ve put on too many pounds, have an embarrassing job, and my personality is lacking. So generally speaking, I guess I . . . just suck.”
He stares at me with his mouth hanging slightly open, his nostrils flaring, just as the doorbell rings.
When Carter doesn’t move, and the doorbell rings again, I jab my thumb in the general vicinity of the front door. “Are you expecting someone?”
“Crap. I totally forgot.” He snaps out of his trance, looking back and forth between the door and me in a frenzy before holding up a finger. “One sec. Let me take care of this quick.”
“I didn’t mean to ruin your night. Sorry.” And I do feel bad. As much as I like having Carter around, I know he wasn’t sitting here waiting for me tonight.
His posture stiffens. “What? No. I mean, yes, it’s my date, but no, you’re not ruining anything. Let me tell her we won’t hang out tonight. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
I stare at him, suddenly having the strong sense to shake him while also wanting to hug him. I think my feelings are already in Crazytown. “Why would you do that?”
He scratches his forehead, his voice louder than before. “Because of you, obviously. Why else?”
“Me?” I point my index finger at my chest, my voice suddenly an octave or two higher, and maybe slightly shrill too. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine. Totally fine. You hang out with your . . . friend, and I’ll see you later or tomorrow.”
His eyes roam over my face, but I keep what I hope is a believable smile plastered on it. It’s so big, it hurts a little.
“Are you sure? I’ll take her out for dinner instead.”
I nod almost manically, surely matching my crazy smile. “Yes, absolutely. I’m sure I can find something sugary in the kitchen that will help me smother my sorrows.”
What I really want to yell is “No, please stay” and get another reassuring hug, but I won’t invade his life like this. Instead, I give him a push toward the door.
He still looks unsure but nods slowly. “All right. But call me if you need anything, okay? My number’s still the same.”
“Yes, Dad. Now go.”
A moment later my fake smile slips as I lock the door behind him before sinking to the floor, refusing to let the tears fall down my cheeks.
Time for step one of my solo recovery phase: sugar treatment.
The Husband Checklist - Chapter Two
I lasted less than an hour with Jody. After making up a lame-ass excuse halfway through dinner, I hurried back to the house.
As soon as I open the door and step inside, I realize even an hour was probably too long.
“Carter, you’re back,” Julia yells across the room, a happy smile on her face.
At least this one’s real, not like the fake one she gave me before I left. I knew she was putting on a show for me, and I let her. I thought she might need some alone time, but I should have listened to my gut and stayed with her.
“Why are you standing there? Come join me. Now the party can really start.” She still hollers, most of her words a slurry mess.
A quick scan of the coffee table in front of her confirms my suspicions that Julia was busy while I was gone. Not only has she found every imaginable sugar source that could possibly be in this house, but she also found the wine stash. Looks like she almost made it through a whole bottle.
Despite the situation, I have to laugh, making her smile even wider.
“What are you doing, Jules?” I walk over to the couch and sit next to her.
I try to take away the sizeable wine glass in her hand, but it doesn’t go unnoticed, and she snags it right back, giving my hand a soft slap.
“Get your own glass, Carter.” She sticks out her tongue, and I roll my eyes. She’s so damn cute like this.
Most of our time growing up, the three of us—Ollie, Jules, and I—were a tight-knit group, which made it easy to keep watch over her alcohol consumption at parties in her teenage years.
I guess I have a drunken Julia for tonight, which is okay since she’s usually a happy drunk. A bit silly sometimes and too impulsive but in a good mood.
“Have you talked to your brother?” I hope the change of subject might sober her up some, or at least make her put down the glass.
She nods and her whole body moves with the simple gesture. Wine sloshes dangerously close to the edge of the glass, but of course, Miss Tipsy doesn’t notice. She might make an even bigger mess by dumping the whole glass on herself.
“Yup. He told me all about his awesome girlfriend and their last-minute trip. Apparently, he was going to call me tomorrow to update me on everything. I explained my sudden homeless situation to him and that I’d be staying here for a while. I think he said something about calling you soon about it too. Not sure what you have to do with any of it, but yeah.” She finally takes a breath, but her mouth opens again a second later.
“So how was your date?”
I’m still stuck on the part where Ollie is about to call me to talk about his sister staying here. It will undoubtedly be all about taking good care of his sister and making sure her stupid ex doesn’t come anywhere near her while also keeping my hands off her. It’s been a while since we’ve had that conversation.
Ollie used to give the keep-your-hands-off-my-sister speech all the time to our friends. I never told him, but so did I, imitating his big-brother persona. In hindsight, I wonder if there was more to it than I thought back then.
Not that I really know why he feels the need to remind me of that every so often.
“Carter, you keep zoning out.” Julia punches me in the arm, successfully spilling half her wine on both of us in the process. “Oops. Sorry,” she mutters to herself while putting the glass on the table.
Nope. I take that back. Looks like she put it down so she can take off her wet shirt.
Oh, for the love of . . .
That leaves her in a thin tank top and nothing else.
Nothing, as in no bra.
Shit. Where the hell is her bra? And when have I ever wondered that about a girl?
Before I stare at her boobs again like a moron, I quickly get up to walk to my room. “Let me get new shirts.” After switching my own shirt, I go back to the living room with an extra T-shirt for my new roommate.
My roommate. How things have changed in the matter of a few hours.
My childhood-bestie-turned-total-hottie—drunk off her ass, apparently not caring that I can see the outline of her hardened nipples—is now my new roommate, in her brother’s place, who also happens to be my best friend and business partner. That about sums it up.
I want to turn around so I can shove my fist in my mouth and bite on it to relieve some tension, but I hand her the shirt instead.
Of course, she shakes her head at my outstretched hand.
“I’m fine. I’m already wearing a shirt, see.” She pulls the top away from her body, exposing even more skin in the process.
Somebody, please save me.
“Jules, that’s barely a shirt.” I give her a pointed look, hoping to convey a whole lot of things I don’t want to say out loud. She does not need to know that I think she’s hot as hell, even while sloppy drunk and sad. Nope.
We have a silent staring contest, and just when I’m about to say something, her expression turns grim and she snatches the T-shirt out of my hand, roughly pulling it over her head. “Right. Too much skin. Especially this body.” She points to herself with disdain. “Nothing like the girls I’ve seen you with.”
What the hell?
Before I can react, she grabs the wine glass and chugs down the content in one big gulp.
Why do I feel like I just did something wrong?
I sit back down and rub the back of my neck while Jules silently finishes the rest of the wine bottle before focusing her attention on the goodies on the table. I’m not sure where she found all that food, but it looks like half the candy aisle puked all over the coffee table.
Drawing in a breath and releasing it, I look at her out of the corner of my eye, wondering if she’s still mad. “So, what are we watching?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “Not sure. Looks like some reality show.”
“Ah.” I look at the TV, the muted TV. “You don’t like listening to it, though?”
I look at her when I feel her gaze on me, or more so her glare.
One thing’s for sure: she’s got that down pat. It’s mean, and my balls might have just shriveled a little.
Retreat, Carter. Retreat. We’re in the middle of a damn minefield.
After a few more minutes of staring at the silent TV—watching a couple fight at the grocery store—I turn to the side when I hear quiet sniffles.
“Oh, Jules.” I sigh. “Please don’t cry.”
“Why did he say those awful things, Carter?” Her voice breaks, and my chest aches for her.
Her stare is distant, tear after tear spilling over the rim of her lower eyelids. It’s probably the saddest I’ve ever seen her, and it makes me want to hunt down Nate right now.
“Because he’s a fucking moron, that’s why.” I shake my head in disgust and open my arms. “Come here.”
Julia leaps into them, and I cradle her on my lap, slowly smoothing my hand over her hair and down her back until the loud sobs finally subside. I absolutely loathe seeing her like this.
I wish I could take away her pain. Julia is one of the sweetest, funniest girls I know, and she shouldn’t believe the lies that asswipe said to her. How does she not know that?
We stay like this for a long time, and I know I’m probably enjoying her nearness more than I should. Oliver would kill me if he found us like this.
“It’s going to be okay.” I’ve repeated the same words so many times, they’re almost like a mantra. “He doesn’t deserve you, never did and never will.”
Her fingers brush over her face, probably trying to wipe away the remnants of her little meltdown. Somehow, I expect her to move away, but instead, she snuggles closer into my chest, pulling her knees up to her body, forming a little ball.
Maybe I should be the one pulling away, but I can’t bring myself to do so. A few minutes later, her breathing steadies.
It’s as though the only place she feels safe is in my arms, and I’m sitting here smiling like an idiot.
Clearly, there’s something wrong with me.
I sigh, keeping my voice down. “Oh, Jules.”
When I stand up with her in my arms, careful not to jostle her too much, I’m reminded of when I was ten. She was eight and fell out of a tree, and since there was no one else around that day, I had to carry her back to the house. Back then, to my scrawny little self, it felt like she weighed a million pounds. Now, she feels light and tiny in my arms, definitely not like a burden. It’s like she belongs there, and I like that.
I walk to her room she’s already managed to make a mess of and gently put her down on the bed. “Things will be better in the morning.”
After covering her with the blanket, I look at her for a few moments. Just as I’m about to turn and leave, she grabs my arm and pulls on it.
“Please don’t leave me alone, Freddy.”
My body freezes instantly at her pleading words. She hasn’t called me that in a very long time. She gave me the silly nickname forever ago when we had our little Scooby Doo obsession. It was our thing since Oliver refused to be named after the characters.
Hearing the name leave her lips does weird things to my stomach.
Maybe I ate something wrong earlier.
“Don’t worry, Daphne. I’m right here.” I’m not even sure she can hear my whispered reply, but I don’t care. I climb into bed and lie down beside her.
After a minute, her breathing evens out again, her hand still holding my arm tightly.
Maybe I should leave. If I was worried about Oliver seeing her on my lap, this would be way, way worse.
Despite that, I relax next to her and close my eyes, because, quite frankly, this feels incredibly right.