I Am Me by Kai Strand
Despite—or perhaps because of—her fancy car, private school education, and life of privilege, Lola Renaldi has become a volunteer junkie. Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the elderly—if it’s a good cause, she’s done it.
Lola’s favorite stint, building affordable houses, puts her directly in the path of Rodney. He refuses to discuss why he’s doing community service, but it’s clear he’s hiding something dark about his past. As their friendship grows, Lola begins to question the true reasons for her obsessive volunteerism and her view of those she has pledged to help.
She is only beginning to understand how lucky she truly is when her life falls apart. After losing friends, her boyfriend, even Rodney, Lola finally recognizes which parts of her life she wants to hang on to and what specifically she wants to go after. But with all she’s been through, will she be able to hang onto who she wants to be? Or will she lose all that defines her?
With slight trepidation, I exit the restroom. Rome took off his jacket shortly after we started to dance. I bite my bottom lip at the striking image he makes in his black tuxedo slacks and the all white upper half. The perfect fit of the vest shows off his long lean body. I feel like a hypocrite for ogling him but expecting him to keep control of himself. I chose this dress for a reason, but now that it has been so successful, I wonder what my true expectations were.
What was I thinking? He’s in college. He doesn’t live at home. He can have sex whenever he wants. Doesn’t that mean he’ll expect it from me? Have I already given him the wrong idea by wearing a sexy dress?
He spots me in his peripheral vision and walks forward to meet me, holding a bottled water in front of him. My mouth waters again. From the drink, I think.
“Thought you ditched me.”
“I would never!”
He chuckles. “I’m kidding.”
I feel him watching as I chug half the contents of the bottle and I wonder what he’s thinking or if I’d want to know what he’s thinking. Probably not.
I stop drinking so fast, some water sloshes onto the carpet. “Look, Rome. I hope I haven’t given you the wrong idea.”
His brow furrows. “About what?”
I swallow, wishing I hadn’t just blurted that out loud, but thinking it’s best to just clear the air. “I don’t sleep with guys. I’m not…” I was going to say like Cyn, but I stop myself. “I just don’t.”
He stares at me, his expression surprisingly blank. Finally, he smirks. “I can respect that.” He lets out a breath that sounds sort of frustrated or sad maybe. “I hope you didn’t think I expected it. I mean just because…”
Now he’s blushing and looking around like he wants to make sure we’re alone. “Just because I think you’re sexy as hell, doesn’t mean I expect you to sleep with me.”
I want to feel relief, but I’m mostly embarrassed and nervous to be having this discussion. And I’m the one who started it.
He leans forward and makes sure I’m looking at him. “You know that, right? That I would never expect it.”
Finally, the relief I wanted floods into me and I smile. I nod, well, it’s more like I’m nodding and shaking my head at the same time. “Thanks, Rome. I just…suddenly…well, thanks.”
He leans forward and kisses my forehead. “God. You are so adorable.”
I roll my eyes, because I really hate being called cute. “I can’t be sexy and adorable.”
He steps back like I’ve shocked him. “Who says?”
“Well, I do. Sexy is, I don’t know, vixen-like, I guess. Adorable is cute. Vixen’s are never cute.”
“Oh, Lola. You are so very wrong about that.”
Jay’s smile falters, but he turns to leave. “Thanks for introducing me to this, Lola.”
“Sure thing.” I hope not walking out with him lets him know I’m not interested. It’s so frustrating to suddenly have to consider all of my actions and reactions around him.
My arms are overflowing with wads of wrapping material when I walk out of the bedroom and directly into Rod. My burden erupts like a volcano before cascading to the floor. Rod grabs my arms to keep me from falling.
“This is a bad habit of ours,” he says.
I’m hyper aware of his long fingers wrapped around my arms. His touch is gentle, yet it pulses with heat. “What habit?”
“Running into each other.” At my confused look he clarifies. “At my school that day. In the hall.”
The mere mention of that day’s brush of a touch resurrects the ghost of it and goosebumps erupt down the back of my arm. “Oh, yeah.”
“Sure. Fine.” Unless you consider my rapid pulse a problem.
Rod scoops up most of the paper. It doesn’t look nearly as cumbersome wrapped by his long arms.
“Are you all done in there? Tess wants to lock up.”
“Talia’s collecting tools.”
As we pass Tess, Rod tells her, “You’ve got one more back there.”
“Okay. Thanks for your hard work today, you guys.”
Rod and I toss our trash in the dumpster and then walk over to the storage container together.
“So, is Jay the guy?” Rod asks.
“The one you’ve liked since elementary school. The one you aren’t sure you’ve got something going on with?”
“Oh. No.” I’m embarrassed to hear my words repeated. They make me feel flighty. Indecisive.
“’Cause, he’s definitely into you. He didn’t stop talking about you all day.”
We enter the storage container and I’m glad for the darkness. I groan. “Really? I was afraid of that.”
“You don’t like him?” Rod returns his tools and tool belt while he’s talking.
“No. Well, I’ve always liked him as a friend. I only recently wondered if maybe he likes me…more.” I sigh and hand the clipboard with the sign-out sheet to him. “What do I do? I don’t want to encourage him, but I also don’t want to alienate him.”
He enters the time onto the sheet and then reaches behind me to hang it back up again. Suddenly I realize how close we’re standing and my breath catches. He looks down and I can see it dawn on him too, but instead of stepping back he becomes unnaturally still. His eyes explore mine, his expression equal parts hunger and calm. Some latent animal instinct wants me to reach for him. Pull him to me. Consume him. I’m shocked with myself. I’ve never experienced such a physical need before, but the hunger in his eyes has somehow stoked my own appetite.
Then his expression clears. He drops his arm back to his side and turns to leave the container as if nothing passed between us. I walk alongside him, surprised I can seem so unaffected when my entire being feels altered.
“You tell him,” Rod says. “You say you think you’ve noticed that he seems different around you and that you hope he understands that the two of you are friends.”
I open my mouth to reject the idea, but I spot Dave across the yard, watching us. “Yeah. Maybe you’re right.”
“See ya, Lola.”
I slow my pace, while Rod jogs over to Stretch Armstrong. Seeing the man reminds me of how much I don’t know about Rod. At first, I didn’t want to ask what he was doing his community service for because it seemed rude. But now? If it’s really bad will it change how I see him? How I feel about him?
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About the author:
When her children were young and the electricity winked out, Kai Strand gathered her family around the fireplace and they told stories, one sentence at a time. Her boys were rather fond of the ending, “And then everybody died. The end.” Now an award winning children’s author, Kai crafts fiction for kids and teens to provide an escape hatch from their reality. With a selection of novels for young adult and middle grade readers Kai entertains children of all ages, and their adults. Learn more about Kai and her books on her website, www.kaistrand.com.
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Author of the Landry's True Colors Series, the Star Series, Dating the It Guy, & Can Dreams Come True