A ball of ice formed in my stomach. “Yeah, you do, but you just don’t want to say it. You know about her, and he’s still in love with her, isn’t he? That’s why you didn’t want us to be together. She is—”
“Was,” he correctly quietly. “Her name was Kari and I’m sure Jase loved her, loved her in a way that any sixteen-or-so-year-old guy could love his girlfriend.”
My brain got hung up on the past tense. Not the loved part being in the past but the reference to her. “What do you mean by ‘was,’ Cam?”
He blew out a long breath. “I’ve never told another soul any of this, Teresa. I don’t know if Jase even realizes that he told me all about her. We were drunk one night and got to talking, you know, back when I was on house arrest. He never brought her up again. He’ll talk to me about Jack, but not her.”
The ball of ice was starting to spread for a different reason. “Cam . . .”
“She’s dead, sis. She died shortly after Jack was born, in a car accident.”
I smacked my hand over my throat as I stared at my brother. “Oh, my God . . .”
“I don’t know a lot about her parents, but I think they were kind of like Avery’s—very concerned about perception and shit. I got the impression that they sent her away when she got pregnant and had wanted her to give Jack up, but Jase’s parents stepped in. I know Jase and Kari were together since they were thirteen or so. And I do know that he cared very deeply for her and as long as I’ve known Jase, he’s never been serious about another girl.”
My chest ached as it all started to click together. The girl . . . Jack’s mother was dead? That had never crossed my mind. At all. But it made sense. Holy crap, what was worse than having someone break your heart? Having your heart broken because someone died.
“The fact that Jase even told you about Jack blows my mind. No one but his family knows the truth, and her family, I don’t think, lives around here anymore,” he explained. “Once I realized he’d told you, I backed off, because I knew he was for real if he told you. At least, I hoped he was, but . . .”
“But he hasn’t gotten over her, has he?” I said, hurting for him, because I could not imagine what it must be like to lose someone I loved to something so final. “That’s why. Oh, my God . . .”
“I don’t know, Teresa. I’m not sure he’s still in love with her. I mean, I’m sure he does in a way, but I think . . . God, he’ll kill me for this, but I think he’s scared of caring for someone else and then losing them.”
“Look at it this way. He didn’t have a normal situation. They were young and she got pregnant. Her parents sent her away and then his folks step in and adopt the kid. So both of them—Jase and Kari—saw Jack afterward, knowing that’s their son, but no one else does. It was their secret and who knows what they planned for the future.”
I knew what Jase had said about not wanting Jack at first, but that had changed afterward. And it could’ve changed while Kari was still around.
“And then she dies, completely unexpectedly and young. Those kinds of situations, wrapped all together, have got to mess with someone. So I don’t think he’s still in love with her. I think he’s scared of loving someone else.”
“Then that would have to mean that he loves me, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
He smiled a little. “He risked my wrath to get with you and he told you about Jack. I’m telling you what, Teresa. He has to have—”
“It doesn’t matter,” I cut him off, because I didn’t need to hear that Jase potentially loved me. It would just fill my head with fairy tales and my chest with hope. What Jase had said to me after ha**g s*x was nothing more than a product of an orgasm. “I can’t compete with Kari. No one can.”
“I don’t want you saying anything to him,” I insisted. “I’m serious, Cam. I know you want to thump him upside the head or something, but please let it go, because . . .” Because I truly felt bad for him. Knowing about Kari made this different. Didn’t mean I wasn’t upset with him, because he had hurt me, but he had been hurt in one of the worst ways. “Because it doesn’t matter and I’m okay.”
I glanced down at the tentlike quilt. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” He patted in the general vicinity of my good knee. “I’m just worried about you. You’ve been through a lot.”
“I’m okay, but you’ve got to promise you won’t say anything to him. Just leave it alone. Please, Cam.”
He sighed. “Okay. I won’t say anything. You were right earlier when you said it’s not any of my business, but seeing how upset you are and not slamming my—”
“I get it,” I said, smiling slightly. “You can’t always take care of things for me, you know?”
Shaking my head, I settled back. Having a little more background on what made Jase tick helped, but it didn’t make the heartache any better. Kind of made it all the more sad.
At the sound of a knock on the door, Cam rose. “That’s probably going to be Avery. You up for some girl time?”
He made a face. “Whatever. You want her in?”
“Sure.” Hanging out with someone was better than sitting here alone feeling sorry for myself.
If Avery knew what was going on, she wisely chatted about everything and anything else while she coaxed me off the couch and helped me straighten the apartment. The place was a mess. Partly not my fault. Cam had vacuumed and dusted around the time the president was last inaugurated.
“I’ve heard that Debbie’s funeral is next Tuesday,” she said, tying her coppery hair up in a messy ponytail. “Are you okay?”
I nodded as I tossed the rag I’d used to dust off the nightstand into the little waste bin. “Calla’s dropping me off, and she’s gonna pick me up when it’s done. She doesn’t do funerals.”
“Neither do I.” She bent over, picking up a bag resting on the closet floor. “I don’t think Cam’s going, but if you want him there, I’m sure he’ll go.”
I knew he would, but I wasn’t going to force him to go to a funeral he wasn’t planning on attending.
Avery suddenly stood ramrod straight as she opened up the department store bag. Over her shoulder I saw it was full of shoes I hadn’t gotten around to unloading yet, which reminded me there was still a lot of stuff I needed to get out of the dorm.
Curious about what she was staring at, I hobbled around her. “What’s up?”
Wordlessly, she reached inside and pulled out my old pair of ballet shoes. “I haven’t held a pair of these in forever.”
Seeing them sent a pang through me. I turned and sat on the bed. “Well, we’re about the same shoe size. Probably have roughly the same fit. You can have them if you want.”
“Don’t you want to keep them?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. You can borrow them. How about that?”
She glanced down at the satiny slippers and sighed a little. A wistful look crossed her face and my curiosity grew. “What don’t you dance anymore, Avery?”
Her gaze lifted and her cheeks reddened. “It’s just a long story that’s not really important right now. It doesn’t matter. I probably couldn’t even lift my leg now, let alone do a simple ballet move.”
“I bet you could,” I said instead of pushing her for more details.
She laughed it off, but her eyes lit up with something akin to excitement, like maybe she wanted to try. “I’d probably pull a muscle.”
“No you won’t.” My knee started to stiffen so I gingerly stretched it out. “Try it.”
The slippers dangled from her fingertips. “I’ll look like an idiot.”
“It’s only me here and I haven’t even showered today. Also, I can’t walk without a limp, so I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry about impressing me.”
She hesitated and then crossed the room, placing the slippers on the bed beside me. “If you laugh, I might cry.”
“I won’t laugh!” But I did smile. “Come on. Just do it.”
Stepping back, Avery looked around the room, checking out the space as she toed off her shoes. She took a deep breath as she kicked a leg up. Closing her eyes, she planted her sock-clad foot on the inside of her thigh and twirled once and then twice, extending her leg out elegantly. Even on carpet, in jeans and out of commission for years, the girl had a natural-born talent that every studio-taught dancer envied.
When she completed the turn, I clapped loudly. “That was perfect!”
Her face was flushed as she straightened out her shirt. “It wasn’t. My leg—”
“Oh my God, you haven’t danced in years and you did the turn better than most of the people who haven’t stopped.” I picked up the ballet shoes. “You have to get on a stage. Even if it’s just with me at the Learning Arts Center. Just once.”
“You have to!” I wiggled the shoes, and her gaze followed them like I was dangling something shiny in her face. I don’t know how I knew this, but I did know that getting her to dance again was important. “You need to. So I can live vicariously through you. Just once before spring semester. Please.”
Avery took a deep breath as she eyed me. “What’s in it for me?”
Her lips pursed. “I want two things. First being you help me find a gift for Cam for Christmas, because I suck at that kind of stuff.”
I chuckled. “All right, that’s totally doable. What’s the second thing?”
“You have to babysit Michelangelo and Raphael this weekend.”
She grinned as she nodded. “We’re getting this one large habitat, so, you know, they can . . . I don’t know, head bob at each other and Cam wanted to go to this movie, but I’m afraid they’re going to kill each other.”
“So you want me to be like a turtle bouncer? Break them up if one of them gets out of hand?”
I laughed. “Okay. Deal.” I wiggled the shoes at her.
She snatched them up. “Oh, and I’m pretty sure Michelangelo is a girl, so try to stop them if they happen to look like they’re getting it on. Cam and I aren’t ready to be parents to a bunch of baby turtles.”
The sun was out, shining brightly, but it didn’t chase away the chill in the air the morning of Debbie’s funeral.
As Calla had promised, she’d dropped me at the start of the service, and once the graveside part was done, I’d text her. She’d taken me to class last week, but Cam started taking me to class this week and hadn’t taken no for an answer.
I really needed to get a car.
It helped as I stood back from the gravesite to focus on stupid, mundane things. I’d never been good at funerals. When my grandpappy passed away, I’d been too wigged out to get near the coffin. Not much had changed. The coffin hadn’t been opened, but I’d sat at the back of the packed church at the cemetery grounds.
My knee ached from the walk to the gravesite, but whatever pain was worth it. I felt like I needed to be here for Debbie, and if I hadn’t been, I would’ve regretted it.
Her parents looked like they were in a daze, huddled together along with a younger boy who looked like he’d just entered high school. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through or what they could be thinking.
Off to their right was Erik Dobbs, and he was surrounded by what appeared to be every member of his fraternity. I didn’t know if Jase was among them; the crowd of guys dressed in wrinkled suits was too thick.
It wasn’t hard to tell apart the students from the family members. We were the ones dressed in something—anything—black. I’d pulled on leggings this morning and a dark blue sweater dress. It didn’t seem like the best thing to wear to a funeral, but it was all I had handy.
As the graveside service drew to a close, I was surprised to find my lashes damp. I’d been doing so well, keeping my face relatively dry through the whole service, even when they played that one country song that was always played during sad moments. I hastily wiped at my cheeks with chilled hands as I turned.
A hand clamped down on my shoulder, spinning me around. I almost put my weight on my bad leg, but corrected myself at the last minute. Heart pounding in surprise, I lifted my gaze.
Erik stood there, his dark eyes fastened on mine. “What are you doing here?”
I shook his grip off my shoulder or at least tried to. His hand tightened for a second and then he let go, but he didn’t back up. “Don’t touch me ever again,” I said, voice low.
Something dark and ugly flashed across his face. “You shouldn’t be here. She’s dead and in that coffin because of you.”
“She’s dead because you filled her head with bullshit.” His voice rose, drawing the attention of those standing nearby. “If you had just minded your own business instead of trying to stir up drama, she’d be alive right now.”