“He started last semester in the spring, but he’s older than me.” The hollows of her cheeks flushed. Calla was twenty, so I tried to figure out how that worked. She answered before I could ask. “He was deployed overseas for a couple of years. I think he’s an education major, which is strange. He’s too hot to become a teacher. “
“Hey,” I said, elbowing her. “I’m going to be a teacher.”
“But I don’t want to make beautiful babies with you. With him,” she said, and sighed dreamily. “That’s a different story—oh, here he comes.”
And he was. Hopping up on the curb, he crossed the pavilion. No more than a couple of feet from us, he glanced over to where we stood. Right off the bat, I noticed he had bright green eyes, something I hadn’t been close enough to him to see before. That brilliant gaze moved over Calla, then to me before drifting back to the blonde.
Calla gave a short wave as her cheeks bloomed as red as her nail polish. “Hey.”
“Hi.” His voice was nice and deep. He glanced over his shoulder and then cut over to where we stood. “Traffic is a nightmare. I hope you aren’t planning to leave campus anytime soon.”
A second passed, and then Calla shook her head. “Not for the next couple of hours. Are you?”
She knew damn well I wasn’t going anywhere, but I played along. “No. I’m guessing I’m walking over to east campus.” Which already seemed weird after days of hitching a ride. Like the weather, everything changed in a heartbeat. I shook that thought out of my head.
Brandon nodded as he rapped the edge of his notebook off his thigh. “You look familiar,” he said, eyes squinting until only a thin slit of emerald showed. “Do we have classes together?”
If we did, I’d probably be more interested in that class. As the sun passed behind an endless stream of clouds, I popped my sunglasses up on my head, pushing the shorter strands of hair back.
“I do?” He returned his attention to her.
“Yes.” She angled her face in a way that only her profile—the unscarred cheek—was visible to him. “She’s Cameron Hamilton’s sister.”
“No shit.” His lips formed a genuine smile, and I wondered if there was anywhere in the world where I wouldn’t be recognized as Cam’s sister. “I see it—yeah, the eyes.”
“Anyway, he’s a good guy.” Brandon shifted his weight. “He’s not a part of that one frat, right? The one with Jase Winstead?”
Goddamnit, I seriously could not escape that guy. “No, but he’s good friends with Jase and a couple of them and he goes to a lot of the parties.”
“Like the one this weekend?” he asked. When I nodded, he glanced at an abnormally silent Calla. “Are you going?”
Calla cleared her throat. “Nah, got to work.”
Interest flickered across his otherwise stoic expression. “Where do you work?”
Man, this conversation was about as awkward as two monkeys trying to screw a football. But it was cute, the way Calla kept stealing looks at Brandon. As she answered his question, I looked over and took a startled step back. A way too familiar black-and-gray Jeep pulled around a truck, stopping at the curb. The window rolled down just as my mouth dropped open.
Jase was behind the wheel, a dark blue baseball cap on backward. Tufts of rich brown hair curled out from under the band.
Oh, I had a soft spot for guys in hats.
Apparently I had a soft spot for guys who were dads in hats.
His steel-colored gaze moved from me to Brandon. The dark look that crossed his face caused my chest to drop into my stomach. “Hey, Shriver, what’s up?”
Brandon grinned. “Nothing, man; what are you up to?”
“I’m here to pick up Tess.” A tight smile appeared on his face. “You ready?”
What in the holy hell? My brows shot up. He was here to pick me up, after yesterday? After skipping music class? After kissing me and then apologizing for doing so and then dropping the daddy bomb and then insulting me? Did he live in an alternate universe where these things were acceptable?
“Tess?” he called, impatience ringing like a dinner bell in his tone.
Anger sunk its claws into me and I was more than tempted to turn and stalk off, but Brandon and Calla were staring at me with dual curious looks. Although I wanted to shove my middle finger so far in his face, the last thing I was going to do was cause a scene smack-dab in the middle of the quad. Pitching a fit would draw too much attention and the only kind of attention I’d ever been okay with had been when I was onstage. Probably had a lot to do with all the scenes Jeremy had caused in my past.
Squeezing the strap on my bag, I turned to Calla and Brandon. “See you guys later.”
Brandon looked a little surprised as he waved good-bye. Calla grinned like I just said yes to a marriage proposal. Ugh. Skin stretching tight, I crossed the pavilion and yanked open the passenger door and slammed it shut behind me. A pink box rested in his lap and if he handed it over to me, I’d be likely to throw the cupcake in his face.
The hue of his eyes deepened as he watched me buckle myself in. A beat passed and then he said, “Brandon Shriver?”
I pursed my lips as I leaned back against the seat. “I think I’m missing the beginning part of this conversation because I have no idea why you’re saying his name.”
His jaw tightened. “You were talking to him.”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “So was Calla. I really don’t even know him.”
Shifting the Jeep into drive, he focused ahead. “Didn’t seem that way to me. You do know he’s older than I am, right? Too old for you—”
My spine straightened as I gaped at him. “Are you f**king serious?”
He blinked once and then narrowed his eyes. “You don’t need to cuss.”
“I’ll f**king cuss if I want to f**king cuss,” I snapped. “Fucker.”
His lips twitched, and my anger swelled. “But seriously, Brandon is . . . well, he’s been through a lot and you don’t need to get up close and personal with that kind of shit.”
“Well, thanks for the advice, Dad.” He shot me a look, and I returned it. “But I didn’t ask for any. And the last time I checked, I can talk to whoever I damn—wait.” The stupid yet necessary muscle in my chest turned over. “Are you jealous?”
“What?” He snorted as he neared the parking lot in front of the dorms. “I’m not jealous or anything. Honestly, emotion has nothing to do with what I’m telling you. Brandon’s a good guy, but—”
“You are f**king unbelievable!” I bounced in my seat, causing my bag to slip out of my lap. “Why are we even talking about Brandon?”
There was a pause. “There was an accident on Route 45 and I was coming from the farm, so there was no way I was going to make it to class,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Here’s the cupcake. It’s got Snickers in it—”
“Fuck the cupcake!” I stared at him and he stared back like I suggested we should kick a baby into a street. My thoughts raced. “What in the hell does that have to do with any of this?”
“I didn’t skip class on purpose. I don’t want you to think that.” Which was exactly what I thought, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit that now. He smoothed his hand over his cap, tugging it down farther. “So that’s why I wasn’t there and that’s why I’m here now. And it worked out, because you were waiting for me—”
“I was not waiting for you.”
He glanced at me, lashes lowered. “Then you were talking to Brandon.”
“Oh my God.” I threw my hands up. “This is a stupid conversation and not what we need to be talking about.”
“What do we need to be talking about, Tess?” he asked as he pulled out onto the road, coming to a complete stop. Traffic was backed up from the four-way stop.
“You know exactly what we need to be talking about. Yesterday—”
“Yesterday was yesterday.” He leaned back, rubbing a hand along his jaw. “Things got out of hand. It happens.”
My brows flew up. “It happens? Often? Do you just walk around and happen to end up kissing girls? Do you slip and fall on girls’ mouths? If so, that’s got to be an awkward life to live.”
“Well . . .” The quirk to his lips was mischievous and teasing, but I was so not having it. He sighed. “Tess, you’re a beautiful girl and I’m a guy and—”
“Don’t even finish what will most likely be the lamest sentence in the history of lame sentences. You’re attracted to me.”
“I haven’t said that I wasn’t.” Traffic hadn’t moved an inch, but the muscle in his jaw was ticking like a speedometer.
“And that’s the problem, right? You are attracted to me. You do want me, but you’re going to deny it because of Jack?” Anger had my heart pounding and my mouth running, but the words that were forming deep inside me needed to be said. “Oh, that’s right. It’s because I’m only interested in getting laid.”
He smacked both hands onto the steering wheel. Seething with frustration and about half a million other emotions, I unclicked my seat belt. He stiffened. “Tess—”
“Be quiet. Seriously. This isn’t cool. You don’t kiss me and then apologize. Twice now. That’s insulting. Nor do you get so drunk that you conveniently don’t remember what you say to me. ” I bent over, grabbing my backpack. I needed to get away from him before I knocked him upside the head or cried. Both would be equally mortifying and oddly satisfying. “You know I like you. You’ve known that for how long? Hell, you’ve even thrown that in my face. But you wanted to be friends and I get that you’re not a normal dude. You have a kid.”
“You’re still a father!” I shouted and when he leaned back, I worked to cool my temper. “Look, I’m trying to be cool with everything. But you can’t kiss me if we’re friends. You can’t say shit when I talk to other guys if we’re friends.”
A stupid burn encased my throat. His agreement was the wrong thing to say. I don’t know why because it should’ve been right and it would be easier. Jase came with a crap load of baggage, but that burn was working its way up. I reached for the door handle. The thing called pride made it too hard to sit in that car and listen to what he had to say. “See you later.”
“Tess!” He reached for me, but I was already out of the Jeep, in the middle of the congested street. “Come on, don’t do this. We need—”
“We don’t need anything. Peace out.” I slammed the door shut and walked away. The heaviness in my chest threatened to move up my throat and, if it did, it would get messy. And ugly. Like watching-The-Notebook kind of ugly.
But I kept walking, hurrying between the lanes. When I heard him call out my name, I ignored it. The god-awful stone in my stomach weighed me down, but I gathered the shredded tatters of my dignity together.
Jase and his kisses and his horseback riding and his everything could go play in traffic. He was always the one walking away. It was now my turn.
Thankfully, Debbie was out with Erik, so there was no witness to my sob fest. What I had said to Jase needed to be said. If we were going to attempt to at least be friends or social with each other, the kissing and all the other stuff had to stop, because while it might feel oh so right when it was happening, it wasn’t when it was all said and done. Yes, he was physically attracted to me. Yes, he cared for me. Yes, I wanted him. Yes, he had a son and a baby mama somewhere out in the world. But whatever he felt for me, it wasn’t enough to overcome any of the misgivings he had or this invisible line he’d drawn between us.
Knowing all this didn’t change the fact that it cut deeply.
And truth be told, I doubted we really could be friends. I was honest enough with myself to admit that I couldn’t separate his kindness from how I felt about him, and I’d always be attaching meanings where there were none. And he acted on his physical attraction at the drop of a hat. Hell, we hadn’t been around each other that much, but the moment we were alone, something happened.
Something would always happen.
That made the hurt worse, because I knew if I just let it all go and rode the wave of hormones, I probably would get a piece of Jase. Eventually. But I wouldn’t get enough and considering how I felt for him now, I didn’t need that kind of hurting.
And it would only confirm what he thought I wanted from him.
My temples throbbed and it wasn’t even nine in the morning when Debbie showed up with Erik right behind her.
“Hey.” Erik plopped down on my bed and stretched out his long legs. “What’s up?”
I stared at him a moment and then looked at Debbie. An apologetic look crossed her face. “Nothing much. Just trying to get some studying done.” I nodded at my bio text. “That’s about it.”
Erik leaned back on his elbows. “It’s Saturday morning and you’re studying?” He laughed, and I pictured myself kicking him off the bed. “Wow. You must not have anything better to do.”