Debbie’s wobbly smile faltered. “Text me if you want . . . or need anything.”
Erik grumbled something under his breath, and then they were gone. And I was sitting there, with my leg propped up on the coffee table, staring at the door, but my thoughts had skipped back a couple of years.
“You know I’m f**king hungry,” Jeremy said, leaning over and grabbing my upper arm. He squeezed until I cried out. The car suddenly felt entirely too small. There wasn’t enough air. “What were you doing that took so long? Talking on the phone?”
“No!” I knew to remain still, to not pull away, because that only made him madder. “I was only talking to Cam.”
He relaxed, his fingers loosening their hold. “He’s home?”
I shook my head. “I was talking to him—”
“On the phone?” In a second, his features turned from cute to monstrous. I winced as his fingers dug in through my sweater. “I thought you weren’t on the phone?”
I shook myself out of the memory, happy to discover that all I felt was the residual anger. For the longest time, I would get sick to my stomach even thinking about him, but those days had long since passed.
Jeremy had been an abuser, but I was no longer a victim.
I was over what he’d done to me. Over. Over. Over.
Pulling my gaze away from the door, I squeezed the pillow until my arms ached. I didn’t have proof that Erik was hurting Debbie, more like a sixth sense about it, and I knew that most bruises wouldn’t be visible. Not if Erik was smart, like Jeremy had been.
I spent the rest of the evening eating out of the vending machine from down the hall and thumbing through my history text before crashing early. As I lay there, floating in the la-la land of almost sleep, I felt pretty damn lame. Here I was, a few months shy from turning nineteen, it was a Saturday night, and I was almost asleep before ten.
Rolling onto my side, facing the wall, I drifted off to sleep wondering if Jase’s rejection would’ve hurt so badly if I hadn’t ruined my leg.
The ding from my cell phone sounded far away when it woke me some time later. I blinked my eyes open, confused. Green light from the clock on the nightstand flashed a quarter after one in the morning. The ding came again.
Smacking around until I reached my cell, I picked it up and squinted at the message. I read it once. Thought I was still dreaming. Read it twice. Thought I forgot how to read. Then I sat up, blinking the sleep from my eyes. The dark room came into focus enough for me to see that the bed on the other side of the room was empty. I looked down at the phone again.
I need to talk to u
It was from Jase.
The second text read I’m outside, and my heart sped up.
I had to be dreaming.
At least that was how it felt as I found my flip-flops, slipped them on, and then grabbed my key card. For a brief moment I considered ignoring his text, but my body seemed to have a mind of its own.
I was definitely going to want to karate-chop myself in the morning for this.
As I left my suite, I began to fear that this was some kind of joke because how did Jase know which dorm I was in? Even if he knew it was in West Woods, there were six buildings that made up the complex. I doubted he’d asked Cam.
My stomach dipped and twisted into complicated little knots as I walked down the stairs, clutching the railing. Darkness seeped in from the windows on the landing. Maybe I was really dreaming and this would become a nightmare. The railing would turn into a snake—God, I hated snakes—total Beetlejuice style.
Cringing, I pulled my hand away from the smooth metal of the railing and limped my way to the first floor. The lobby was silent with the exception of the soft hum and whirl of a dryer located in laundry services.
As I stepped into the night, tiny bumps spread over my flesh. I wished I’d had the foresight to grab a cardigan. There was a surprising chill to the night air.
I stopped on the porch, clutching the key card until it left little indents in my hand as I scanned the walkway and trees lining the path. All the benches were empty. There was no one out here. Besides the chirps of crickets, the only sound was distant laughter and faint music, punctuated every so many seconds with a happy shout.
My heart turned over heavily as I stepped off the porch, pushing my hair out of my face with my free hand. This was a joke. Or maybe he meant to text someone else and was waiting outside of her dorm. My skin prickled at the thought of him texting any other girl at one in the morning, which was stupid.
I shuffled several feet down the walkway, peering between the trees and thick hedges. The hollows of my cheeks started to burn as I stopped in the middle of the pathway. I shifted my weight from my aching leg to the other. What was I doing out here? I didn’t even bring my phone with me. It had to be a mistake or a joke or a—
A thick shadow broke free from under the trees, moving between the hedges. The form was tall and solid and as it stepped into the pillar of light cast from the lamppost, my mouth dropped open. It was Jase, but what was he doing back there? As he turned toward me, his hands left the zipper area of his jeans. Oh my God.
“Jase?” I hissed, hurrying the rest of the way toward him.
His chin lifted at the sound of my voice. “There you are.” He said it like he’d been waiting forever and a day for me. One side of his lips kicked up. “You’re here.”
There was a flutter in my chest at the sight of his half smile. Recalling what he had said to me earlier helped me ignore the dumbass butterfly in my chest. “Were you just peeing?”
The half grin spread. “I had to use the bathroom.”
My lips twitched as I stared up at him. The unruly mop of hair fell across his forehead, brushing the edges of his eyes. The old, vintage style T-shirt he wore stretched across his broad shoulders and chest. As he lifted his hand to push his hair back, he revealed a slice of skin between his low-hanging jeans and his shirt. Rock-hard abs peeked out.
I averted my gaze because that was the last thing I needed to be staring at. “You’re drunk.”
“Ah . . .” He swayed to the left like there was some kind of invisible gravitational pull I was unaware of. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am drunk. Maybe a little buzzing.”
I arched a brow as he wavered to the right. That’s when I noticed the little pink box on the bench. “Is that yours?”
He followed my gaze and then grinned. “Shit. I forgot about it. Brought you a present.”
My brows shot up as he leaned over, nearly falling on his face before catching himself at the last moment, and picked up the box. “What is it?”
He handed it over. “Something as yummy as me.”
I snorted out a very attractive laugh as I looked down. Through the clear plastic top I could make out a huge, oversized cupcake. I glanced at Jase.
One shoulder went up in a shrug. “Cupcakes are good. Thought I’d be good and share with you.”
“Thank you.” I pried open the box and dipped my pinkie in the icing. Tasting it, I nearly moaned at the sweet richness.
Jase swallowed as he looked away. “I think I’ll sit down. You should too . . . you know, because of your leg.”
Like I somehow forgot that.
Jase watched me as I eased down, finding my knee stiffer than normal. “Is your leg bothering you?”
I opened my mouth, but he rushed on. “I didn’t even think about that. You probably shouldn’t be on your leg so much and—”
“I’m okay.” I took a quick bite of the cupcake. It was like a sugary orgasm in my mouth. “Want some?”
I broke the cupcake in half and handed him his half. Within five seconds, he’d devoured it. I finished mine off pretty quickly and after tossing the box in a nearby trash can, I took a deep breath. “You didn’t come here just to give me a cupcake, right?”
“What . . . what are you doing here, Jase?”
He didn’t answer immediately, but when his gray gaze settled on me, his eyes were surprisingly sharp. “I want to talk to you.”
“That much I got, but I think you said everything you wanted to say already, and you showing up here is the last thing I expected.” I felt like a bitch for throwing it out there like that, but it was true. And he sort of deserved it. I was no one’s doormat.
Jase looked away as his shoulders tensed, then he came forward and sat down beside me. The smell of alcohol was faint as he looked at me. Without saying a word, he reached over and plucked up my free hand. My eyes widened as he lifted my hand, turned it over, and placed a kiss against my palm.
And my skin tingled from where his lips had met, like an electrical jolt. Speechless, I watched him lower my hand back to my lap.
“I shouldn’t have said the shit that I said to you earlier. It wasn’t right and I was lying.” He took a deep breath, shifting his gaze to the empty bench across from us. “I wasn’t drunk that night. I was far from it.”
My heart had begun pounding from the moment he kissed my hand and went up a degree as he spoke, and my voice was barely above a whisper. “I know.”
“And I really didn’t think you’d assume it meant anything because you had a crush on me or whatever.” One side of his lips tipped up again, but he had been right on that aspect. The kiss had meant everything to me. “I just . . . I shouldn’t have kissed you that night—touched you. Not because it was gross or any of that shit, but because you’re Cam’s little sister. You’re untouchable.”
As I stared at him, the butterfly moved from my chest to my stomach. Was that Jase’s problem? He felt bad because Cam was his friend. Seriously? Part of me wanted to smack him upside the head. The other part of me wanted to crawl into his lap, because if that was his big hang-up, we could work with that. Couldn’t we? Or did it matter?
But I just sat there, staring at him like I had all those times he’d come to visit Cam. If I started giggling, I was going to punch myself in the face.
“The moment . . . it had gotten away from me that night, Tess. You . . . you are a beautiful girl. Always have been and, goddamnit, that hasn’t changed.”
He thought I was beautiful—wait. The moment had gotten away from him? Torn between being elated and insulted, I shook my head.
“Anyway, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” He glanced over at me, half of his face shadowed. “And if you think I’m the biggest jackass out there, I completely understand.”
What he had said earlier still stung like I’d kicked a nest full of hornets, but what he was saying now soothed a little of the burn. “I don’t think that.”
Jase stilled for a moment and then he twisted toward me, his head cocking to the side again. Our eyes locked, and I found that I couldn’t look away. “You’re still so . . . sweet.”
Sweet? I resisted the urge to spit on the ground. Of course Jase thought I was sweet and nice and as innocent and cuddly as an old, raggedy teddy bear. Not exactly how I wanted him to see me.
He broke eye contact first, and the air leaked out of my lungs. Wetting my lips, I ran the edge of my key card over the soft flannel of my jammie bottoms. “So you decided to come over in the middle of the night to tell me this?”
“It’s not exactly the middle of the night,” he said, smiling slightly. “More like early late night.”
“If you drank half of an eighteen-pack, it just might.”
I pursed my lips, remembering he was more than just a little buzzed. “Why didn’t you just wait until, I don’t know, you were sober and the sun was out to have this conversation?”
“I couldn’t wait,” he said without a moment of hesitation, so quickly that there was no doubting how important it was to him. “And the party sucked.”
“It did?” For some reason, I couldn’t picture the big luau sucking that much.
Jase nodded and his brows lowered, furrowing together. “This . . . this has been banging around in my head. Tried to drink it out. Didn’t work. Decided I needed to tell you before I developed a mean case of alcohol poisoning.”
So the party hadn’t really sucked, but more of a case of him feeling guilty enough to seek me out. I didn’t know what to think about that or any of this. I’d obsessed over him and was convinced at one point that I was madly, deeply in love with him. And the night when he’d kissed me, I thought . . . well, I thought a lot of stupid things. That he would wake up the next morning and profess his undying love and devotion to me in front of baby Jesus and my entire family. And everyone would be thrilled by the prospect, even Cam. That somehow a relationship between a senior in high school and a college junior could work. Jase would visit me instead of my brother every weekend and he would come to my dance recitals and visit me in New York City when I left for the ballet school and . . .
And none of that happened.
Jase and Cam had left that next morning before I even woke up, and I hadn’t seen him up until I started school at Shepherd. At some point during that last year, I’d thought I’d come to terms with Jase, chalked it up to stupid, naive fantasies, and even dated a time or two, but I’d been really off about all this. I hadn’t come to terms. Obviously. And seeing Jase, being near him, made me remember everything that had drawn me to him—his kindness, humor, intelligence. And even if some of those qualities weren’t so apparent now, I knew they were still there. The fact that it was after one in the morning and he hunted me down to apologize was proof of that.