“I think my elbow is clean, babe,” he shares, mouth twisting into a full smile.
I blink, looking down at my hand that’s moving in lazy circles over his elbow and the lather spilling onto the tiled edge.
“So, what does the CJ stand for anyway?” I ask, playing off my distraction as I scoop the bubbles into the tub. I quickly wash his wrist and drag the loofah underneath his arm to his pec where I lather there, meeting his eyes when he doesn’t answer. “What? Is it that bad?” I wrinkle my nose. “Is it a girl’s name? Were you named after an aunt or something, Charlotte Jean Tully?”
Hmm. That's actually a really cute name.
A laugh shakes his chest. “I might actually prefer that,” he says before leaning back to rest against the tub, pulling me with him in the process.
My hand stills against his sternum. “Tell me,” I request, looking into his eyes. “Is it a secret? I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
The muscle in his jaw jumps. I watch his nostrils flare with the breath he inhales, and I wonder if the same words are whispering inside his head, the ones we both pleaded to each other and pressed against skin.
Tell me a secret.
I lift my eyes after he speaks. My brow furrows. Me first? “What do you mean?” I question.
“The only people who know the name I was born with are my family,” he shares. “I never went by it in school and got it legally changed to CJ when I was sixteen. Nobody calls me anything else anymore, except my mom, and she’s in Tennessee. Nobody here knows it. I wasn’t planning on anyone finding out either. I like going by CJ. I don’t want people calling me anything different. So if I’m going to share that with you, you gotta give me something.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Why were you with him?”
CJ doesn’t miss a beat, throwing his question out as if he can’t wait to get it off his tongue and hear my explanation and the reasoning I did with myself.
I sit up tall and drop my arm to my knee, letting the loofah hang over the edge of the tub. “Because I loved him,” I reply, nothing but truth in my voice.
“Yeah, babe, I know, and I’m going to be straight with you. I don’t get that,” he says, and CJ either hears his own harsh honesty or finds the need to explain himself after watching my face tighten. “Look, Riley,” he begins, voice softer now. “I know I didn’t see you two together aside from that one time, but from what I’ve been picking up on, I’m thinking he wasn’t all that good to you.”
“He was good to me.”
“Yeah? He tell you that you can kick some serious fucking ass in the kitchen or show any interest in what you’re working towards for a career? `Cause I did, and darlin', you lit up for me like you’d never heard those words before.”
I feel my shoulders sag.
He has a point. And CJ's right too—Richard didn’t show much interest in my schooling or throw out compliments over every meal I made him. Not because he didn’t think those things, I don’t believe, it just wasn’t him.
“He bought me that laptop when I first got accepted into the nursing program,” I defend, feeling myself grow taller and my muscles stiffen. “He didn’t need to do that, but he did. He cared about me. And I cared about him. I was with Richard because I wanted to be with him. It wasn’t like he was forcing me or anything.”
“I didn’t say that,” CJ replies.
“Well, it kinda feels like that’s what you’re saying, and it’s not true. I loved him.”
“I didn’t know there was different, okay?”
CJ blinks. His eyes soften and his lips press together. He looks regretful.