I pressed my lips together and clamped down with my teeth. I’d been doing so well staying away from him. It would only be cruel to admit the truth.
“What?” he said with a half-smile. “Say it.”
“Don’t be a pussy, Ellison. Say it,” he repeated.
He scanned my face, a new light in his eyes.
I closed my eyes. “I think about you all the time … mostly wondering why you put up with so much of my shit.”
I looked away, trying to find something that warranted my attention so Tyler wouldn’t see the hurt in my eyes.
“But, when I’m around you, Ellie … it doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter what you did to piss me off or push me away. I can’t explain it. I can’t shake it. Some days I wish I could. I come from a family of proud men, but I’m not the first to falter when it comes to the one woman he can’t walk away from.”
“You should … walk away from me.”
He chuckled. “You think I don’t know that? You’re the female version of me.”
I glanced up at him, pleased with his confession. “When you showed up tonight, I was happier than I’ve been in a long time.”
He didn’t hesitate, taking my cheeks in his hands. He leaned in, but I pulled back.
He furrowed his brow. “Then what? What do I have to do?”
My eyes burned as I clutched the mid-section of his shirt with both fists. “I’ve already told you. I’ve told you a hundred times. I’m fucked up. I’m drinking again. I’m taking spiked coffee to work.”
There was that word again. We. It didn’t sound so foreign anymore, and that scared the hell out of me. “It’s not that simple. I’m not in any shape to try to manage a relationship.”
Tyler looked into my eyes, and then yanked his shirt from my grip and walked away with his hands on his head, breathing hard.
“I know I’m a dick,” I said. “You don’t deserve this. But I tried to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?” he yelled, holding his hands in front of him. “That it feels amazing to be with you? That it’d be incredible to watch you give up everything and fight your ass off just on the hope your sister will notice from half a world away? Or maybe you warned me that you’d make me laugh like an idiot?”
I used my sleeve to wipe away an escaped tear. “You could find that with any nice, normal girl.”
“I don’t want a normal girl, Ellie. I want you,” he snapped.
A laugh tumbled from my lips, but my smile quickly faded. “I warned you that I would make you feel like shit. I warned you that you were too nice to get involved with someone like me.”
“Someone like you?” he said, both frustrated and desperate. “You should have warned me that I’d smile every time I think about you—which is all the damn time! You should have warned me about that, too. You should have warned me that you’re beautiful in the morning, in the moonlight, just out of the shower, or with ten days of dirt on your face.”
“No! It’s not! Goddamn it, Ellie, I’m standing here saying I wanna be with you and you want it, too. I know you do. Your reasons don’t even make sense.”
“They don’t have to make sense to you.”
He breathed out a laugh. “All this time I thought you were a masochist. You’re a fucking sadist.”
“You didn’t warn me that I’d fucking fall in love with you!” Tyler’s veins bulged in his neck, and he put his hands on his hips, catching his breath.
“You heard me,” he growled. Immediately the anger extinguished from his eyes, replaced with remorse.
“I’ve been trying to stay away from you, Tyler. I really have. I don’t want to drag you down with me.”
“Too late!” he yelled. He rubbed his forehead. “I didn’t come here to fight,” he said, exasperated. “I’m so tired of trying to hate you.”
His words cut deep, the pain settling in my bones. I could barely form the words. “Then why did you come?”
“To see you,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I had to see you.”
I reached for him again, this time slower, testing the waters. Tyler kept his hands on his hips, his gaze bouncing everywhere but on me. I pulled him close, sliding my hands under his arms, hugging his middle, and then pressing my cheek against his chest. His body heat radiated off him like a fever, a thin sheen of sweat dampening his skin. I breathed him in, knowing if I just gave in we might be just a little less wounded, a little less broken, but I was stuck between being too selfish to let him go and too contrite to let it go too far.
The door to Turk’s was opening and closing in a steady rhythm. People were walking by, quiet and curious. Until that instant, I hadn’t noticed we’d gained a small audience. Tyler acted as if we were the only two people in that alley.
He’d been frozen since I first grabbed him, his arms held stiffly at his sides. After a few seconds, he hugged me back. “Are you sure about that?”
His chest rose and fell as he inhaled and then breathed out, letting go of whatever he was holding on to. “Your friend.”
“I know. I know it’s so fucking selfish,” I said, closing my eyes.
“I guess I’ll take what I can get.” I couldn’t see his face, but he sounded crushed.
He touched the back of my hair, and then kissed the crown of my head. “No. No, I don’t promise. Fuck this, Ellie. I don’t want to be just friends.”
I took a step back, fidgeting. “Yeah. I get it. I mean … of course. Who would after…? It was a stupid thing to say.”
“I told myself I wasn’t going to push it, and I pushed it. I know you’re fucked up. I’m fucked up, too. I have no clue how to navigate this, and you … goddamn, you make this a thousand times harder than it has to be. But I’m not going anywhere. I can’t. I don’t want anyone else.”
“Too fucking bad. We can figure it out later when you’re ready. I’ll back off, but we’re not just friends, Ellie. We never were.”
He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, hope glistening in his eyes. “I’ve seen what you’re capable of when you wanna be. I think you will be.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked in disbelief. “I’m a lost cause!”
I covered my eyes, trying not to cry. “It’s like talking to a fucking wall! You’re not hearing me, and I’m not that good of a person to pretend I don’t want you in my life. I’m trying to do you a favor, Tyler. You have to go away. You have to be the one to do it. I’ve tried. I can’t.”
“I’ve already told you,” he said. “I’m in love with you. That’s not going away.” He cleared his throat. “Are you going to Wick’s for Thanksgiving?”