“Hell yeah I did.” He grinned and then popped the meat into his mouth. Lowering his lashes, he scooped up more broth. “Actually, I hoped it ended with wild, animalistic sex.” He tipped the spoon to my lips, making sure I didn’t miss a drop. “But I messed up so bad and I was expecting you to tell me to get the hell out.”
I cocked my head to the side as I wiggled closer. “Really?”
He nodded. “I know I’m damn charming, but I f**ked up and I—”
Leaning over the bowl, I pressed my lips to his. With my busted lip, it didn’t make for that hot of a kiss, but he stilled like I’d reached around the bowl and grabbed a different kind of meat. “You messed up,” I said, as I rocked back. “I know. You really did, you jackass. And you hurt my feelings.”
“But I’m not going to sit here and hold it over your head forever. Not when I thought there was a damn good chance I was going to die yesterday. As cliché as this sounds, life is too short. I want you,” I said passionately. “Baggage and all, Jase. And I know it’s not going to be easy. I was prepared for that when I came back to you. Jack is your son, whether he realizes it or not. And it doesn’t matter if you ever tell him, he will always be your son. And if one day you decide to tell him the truth, I’ll support you in any way.”
His gaze dropped to the bowl. “Are you seriously ready for that? What if I tell him when I graduate next semester?”
My stomach dipped a little at the prospect, but that was expected. “You come with responsibility that I’m willing to be a part of. I don’t know how good I’ll be at anything that has to do with him, but I’ll try hard.”
Jase lifted his gaze, eyes wide. “You’d be perfect, Tess. He already likes you a lot and he . . . well, one day, you’d make a great mom.”
I flushed, and instead of being skeeved out by the idea of motherhood, I warmed with the compliment. “Thank you.” I took a deep breath. “And you’re really ready for this?”
“I’ve done a lot of thinking, Tess, and I am. I think I’ve been ready but didn’t want to acknowledge it. What I feel for you, it blew my mind. At first I thought it was wrong because of Cam, but when I realized that wasn’t it, that I was afraid of losing you, I knew I needed to work through it all.” He thrust a hand through the mess of hair. “And you were right. I hadn’t fully moved on. I know I need to visit her grave. I wanted to. That was what I was going to tell you.”
“When you texted me that you wanted to talk?”
He nodded again. “That wasn’t the only thing, but it was a part of it. I think by doing that, it’s like closing the door, you know? Not forgetting, but truly moving on.”
I tried not to show my shock. That was a huge step for him. Maybe not to some people, but for Jase it was a big deal. “I think that’s a great idea and if you need me there with you, I’ll be there.”
He smiled a little as shook his head. “You . . . you are amazing, Tess.”
“No, I’m not. I just love you, Jase.”
It appeared that he stopped breathing for a moment, and then he leaned around me, sitting the bowl on the nightstand. As he settled back, he touched the bruise on my jaw lightly. “I’m not sure I deserve you.”
I closed my eyes. “I don’t like hearing you say that.”
“And I don’t like thinking it, but I can’t help feeling it.” The touch of his lips was butterfly soft. “Though I’m going to do everything to change it.” Placing his hand on my shoulder, he gently guided me down until my head rested on the pillows. He settled beside me, lying on his side as he propped his cheek up on his elbow. “I promise that.”
A soft smile appeared on his lips as he trailed his finger over my shoulder. Several quiet moments passed. “When are your parents going back home?”
“Tomorrow, I think. They wanted me to go home with them, but I’m not.” I shivered as his finger danced over my collarbone.
“What about Christmas? I know it’s a week or so away, but what’ve you got planned?”
I closed my eyes, blindly seeking the featherlight touch. “I’ll go up with Cam as planned. He leaves on Christmas Eve or the day before.”
“Christmas is a big deal at my house too.” His finger dipped, following the line of the sheet. “Jack still believes in Santa, so I need to be there with him in the morning, but I want to see you. Maybe you can spend Christmas Eve with me and then I can come up to your house on Christmas? I’d drive you up later that morning. I mean, if you want me there, that is and your parents are cool with it.”
My eyes popped open. “I’d love for you to come up.” A big, goofy smile crossed my face at the thought of spending Christmas Eve with his family and then Christmas night with mine. “But I don’t want you to make an unnecessary trip.”
“You can always stay the night with me.” He tugged the sheet down, exposing the length of me. “If that’s cool with your parents and you.”
“It’s cool with me and they’ll be okay with it because it’s what I want.” I bit my cheek as his gaze left mine and traveled down. A muscle flexed in his jaw. “Do you think your mom and dad will be okay with it?”
“It’s our first.” I giggled, flushing as I let my head fall back against the pillow. “That sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”
“It doesn’t.” He rolled on top of me, and I felt his hardness nudging me as he settled between my thighs. “And it won’t be our last.”
My breath caught as I arched, clutching his hair. “This or spending Christmas together?”
He chuckled as reached between us, wrapping his hand around his thick base. “Both.”
“Oh.” My ability to form comprehensive sentences had flown out the window. He slid into me in one deep roll of his hips. “Jase.”
He groaned as he gathered me close and then shifted onto his back, staying inside me. Astride him, I braced myself with my hands flat against his chest. “Yes?” he said, grinning.
His hands circled my hips. “And you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Tiny flakes of snow had begun to fall that moment we’d left Shepherdstown. It was in the late afternoon, and the chilly air seemed to seep through every crevice in Jase’s Jeep and no matter how high he had the heater cranked, it didn’t get warm enough.
Jase held my hand as we drove in silence. My knuckles were still swollen from when I hit Erik, but the rest of the scrapes and bruises had healed for the most part.
The first couple of nights after Erik had snapped had been the hardest. Thank God Jase had attached himself to my hip, being there when I’d awoken from a nightmare and staying up when I was too antsy to fall back asleep. He’d put those wee hours in the middle of the night to good use, distracting me from the dark memories that lingered from those hours spent with Erik.
I glanced over at him, and my heart did a little flip. He loved me. He was in love with me. My brain still whirled with all the possibilities of what that meant in the long term for us.
Squeezing his hand, I smiled reassuringly when he glanced over. Worry deepened his eyes to a steel gray. When he’d woken up this morning and asked if I’d do this with him before we went over to his parents for Christmas Eve, I’d been shocked but glad that he was taking such a huge step.
Locks of brown hair flipped out from the gray knit toboggan. “It feels weird that you’re the one asking me that.”
“True.” From the knee injury to Debbie’s death and Erik’s breakdown, all his concern had been focused on me. “But I’m asking you.”
“I’m . . . I don’t know.” He paused as he turned right, cutting through a gas station. “I’m sad. Confused. Weirdly happy, like I’m proud of myself, and that sounds stupid.”
“It’s not stupid. You should be proud of yourself.”
A quick smile appeared and then vanished. “I guess I’m just feeling everything.”
Which was understandable. It had been years since Kari’s death, but this was a first for him. I squeezed his hand again.
By the time we arrived at the cemetery, a light dusting of snow blanketed the grounds. Based on his parents’ directions, he turned right into the cemetery and followed the curve until the large, bare oak tree came into view.
Kari’s gravesite would be near the tree—five gravesides over to be exact.
He parked on the shoulder. Only then did he pull his hand free to turn off the engine, but he made no move to exit the vehicle. Instead, he stared over, toward the tree. Branches swayed in the gentle wind.
A knot formed in my chest. “You really ready to do this? Because we can do it another time.”
“I’m ready,” he replied quietly after a few moments. “I need to do this.”
I agreed. Jase had moved on, but he hadn’t fully let go. All these years he’d treated Kari’s death like she’d broken up with him. That she was out there somewhere, living a life, and maybe that had helped him get over her loss, but he hadn’t completely come to terms with it. It was why he’d pushed me away after admitting that he’d loved me. I got all that now. It was the fear he’d carried for years of loving someone and losing them.
Several minutes passed and then he nodded. “Okay.”
He opened the car door and a blast of cold air rushed in. I did the same, pulling my gloves out of my pocket as he grabbed the poinsettias we’d picked up at the nearby grocery store on the way to the cemetery.
My boots crunched over the frozen grass and light snow as I joined him on the other side of the Jeep. He stopped and glanced down at me. The uncertainty and vulnerability in his expression tore at my heart. With his free hand, unprotected from the elements, he reached between us. I immediately gave him my gloved hand. Through the wool, the weight of our joined hands seemed to give him strength to move forward.
We were silent as we passed the stones, and I tried not to think of Debbie’s funeral and how Erik had blamed me for her death in front of the entire procession, but it was hard. She was buried here too, but on the other side of the main road.
Cemeteries were supposed to be peaceful, but the stillness—the utter lack of life—always gave me the creeps. Today was different though. As we got near the great oak, I wasn’t thinking of the Night of the Living Dead or the fact there were a whole bunch of bodies under our feet.
I was only thinking about Jase and how hard this was for him.
When Jase suddenly stopped, I knew we were at Kari’s grave. Following his gaze, I drew in a shallow breath.
The gravestone was made of polished, gray marble and the head was shaped in a heart. An angel praying had been engraved in the stone, and below the kneeling figure was the name Kari Ann Tinsmen, and the birth and death dates were unfairly close.
This was her. No face. No body. Her whole life was summed up in the calligraphy below the dates, Loving sister, daughter, and mother, asleep with the angels.
A knot formed in my throat. Kari never really had a chance to be a mother. Hell, she really hadn’t the chance to be any of those things.
Jase shook his head slowly as he stared at the gravesite. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he was thinking. Probably a little of everything as he stood there, going through their short life together.
A lot of things Jase had said in the past made sense now. How he’d sworn that beautiful things could come from tragedy. He’d known that firsthand. An unexpected pregnancy had given him Jack, and a tragic death had pushed him in the right direction.
The same could be said about losing the ability to dance. I hoped that through teaching, I could actually make a difference in the world and wasn’t that why people became teachers? Sure as hell wasn’t for the money. The reasoning was deeper than that, more substantial. Teachers molded the future. Dancers entertained. And it wasn’t like I would never be a part of that world again. I had my goal of getting Avery back in the studio and could help out with the really young dancers if I wanted to.
That’s the thing about death that makes it useful. Death was always a reminder to the living to live—to live in the present and to look forward to the future.
“She was a really . . . good girl,” he said finally, breaking the silence.
My smile felt watery. “I’m sure she was.”
He stared at the tombstone for a stretch. In his hand, the red poinsettias petals trembled. I doubted it was from the bitter cold. “She loved winter and the snow.” He paused, throat working as he looked up. Flakes of the white stuff fell in heavier patches. His words were thick as he spoke again. “This is kind of fitting, I think.”
I watched a rather large snowflake come to rest on the curve of the marble stone.
Jase drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “I think Jack gets that from her. You know, the love of winter. It’s his favorite season. Might be because of Christmas, but I like to think it’s because of her.”
One side of his lips moved up. “I’m a summer kind of guy.” He eased his fingers free from mine and stepped forward. Kneeling down, he placed the pretty red flowers at the base of her headstone.