I startle at the sound and the vibrating warmth of him so close to me before standing to let him in. At his question, Mia looks up, following his attention to where Luke stands, and she goes pale. I can’t remember the last time she saw Luke, but I know it’s still hard for her, still weird how much things have changed. He’s barely the same person anymore.
“Um . . . it’s Luke,” I say, and Ansel’s body goes rigid at my words. “Mia’s ex.”
I realize I don’t know how much he knows about Luke, whether he knows they were inseparable from the age of eleven, how we all just assumed Luke and Mia were forever. Has Mia told Ansel about the worst fight they had? The one where Luke whispered, in tears, that it felt like Mia died under the truck that had pinned her to the street?
Over the past few years, Luke has been nothing like the guy I used to know, but I’ll always adore him even if on the surface he seems like such a cocky douche bag. The accident ruined two dreams—hers of dancing, his of having Mia forever. He got over it the only way he seemed to know how: by sleeping with anyone, and everyone.
I look back to Ansel and Mia, and I’ve never seen this before—anger on Ansel’s face—but I recognize it immediately. His gently ruddy cheeks turn red, his eyes harden. Mia slides her hand down his arm, whispering something in his ear, cupping his face and urging him to look at her. At first he resists, glaring over at Luke, and then he nods, closing his eyes and finally turning to her waiting mouth, claiming it deeply.
“Je t’aime,” he whispers. “I love you so wildly I sometimes forget you aren’t so fragile.”
Finally, I look away, giving them privacy. When I locate Luke across the room, I can see his jaw twitch as he watches them kiss, but then his easy smile is back and he turns away, flirting with a couple of women near the bar.
“So this is Luke,” Oliver begins, so close to my ear. Goose bumps break out along my arms. “The one who would drive you to concerts.”
I nod, nearly wanting to cry over the effort he’s making to talk to me. “He and Mia were together in high school, and for a bit . . . after.”
“After . . . you mean, after the accident?” he asks quietly.
“Yeah. It wasn’t a good time for Mia, and Luke was pretty heartbroken that she never really came back the same as before.”
I look over at Oliver, meeting his eyes full on—and so close—for the first time all night. Whatever I’ve been keeping enclosed in bubble wrap threatens to break free at the way he’s managed to compose himself. I want to launch myself at him and alternately shake and kiss him. I can see the pain as a tiny ripple in his blue eyes, but otherwise he’s just Oliver: the same steady, placid Oliver I’ve known for months now. And I hate it, because I knew the other Oliver, too—the one who gave me pleasure so intense I saw stars—and I want some reassurance that I’ll see him again. That he’ll let me see that side again.
“I do like him,” I say. “He said some shitty things, and has screwed up more times than I can count, but he’s a good guy.”
I earn a wry eyebrow twitch for this, but before Oliver can respond aloud, Ansel pipes up: “Well, it has been lovely, friends, but I feel the need to take my wife home and impregnate her with seventeen of my robust male offspring.”
Oliver grabs his wallet from the table and his body tilts closer to me as he slips it in his back pocket.
“You’re leaving, too?” I ask. “I just got here.”
He nods. “I know. Sorry. This has been a great experiment, but I’d rather go home and clean the bathrooms.”
I laugh at this, even though I’m really not ready for him to leave yet. “I think I know what you mean.”
When I climb out and he follows me, on impulse I keep him from immediately leaving by wrapping my hand around his arm. He looks down in surprise, but follows me without resisting when I lead him a little ways from the table, into the shadows.
I let go of his arm, moving a step back and taking a couple of deep breaths. I didn’t plan to talk to him about this tonight. I’m not good on the fly like this, but I can’t let him out of my sight without saying something, without giving something more.
“Okay, so,” I say, voice a little wobbly as he remains silent. “Tonight sucked.”
“A bit,” he agrees blandly, and I don’t miss the way his eyes briefly slide down my face to my lips.
I want, I want, I want.
“I’m really sorry,” I say. “I know this is hard. . . .”
Oliver shrugs, and then nods once. I groan inwardly. God, this is painful. I’m trying to find a way to articulate that I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I want to try to balance being his lover, having him as a sounding board, and keeping pace with everything I have to do. It feels impossible to get this all out, especially when I’m standing so close to him and can’t even seem to find words past my need to touch him.
Finally, I manage, “I came to the store to see you last night.”
“Did you go out with Allison?”
He rubs his jaw, seeming unsurprised that I’ve asked this. “Yeah.”
The panel shows a girl-shaped puddle on the floor.
Heat burns in my eyes. “Was it . . .” Goddamnit. I look to the side, feeling like I’m unraveling, vibrating. “Was it a date?”