And there had been tears—cleansing tears. The kind that renewed instead of hurt.
I ended up sleeping late on Friday; when I was up, Deb told me she was going to visit her parents and break the news. I wished her luck—luck that I needed.
I’d ended up canceling the lunch date, Debbie had left the dorm, and Jase was now minutes away from picking me up for dinner—for our first real honest-to-goodness date—and all I could think about as I waited outside, holding my crutches, was that he’d done nearly the same thing my brother had done.
I still hadn’t worked out how I felt about what he did, if I should be as angry as I felt or if I should be angrier? Jase knew the kind of guilt I carried around because of what Cam had done.
When Jase pulled up to the curb, he hopped out and came around the front of the Jeep. He was wearing jeans and a dark V-neck sweater that somehow made me feel underdressed in my jeans and cardigan. No matter what he wore, he looked damn good, like he was ready to step off the pages of GQ. Not like every other guy around; they all looked like they belonged in a Sears catalog.
He helped me in, taking the crutches and then holding my arm as I climbed up. Waiting for me on the dashboard was a square pink box. I picked it up and glanced at him.
“For dessert,” he said, grinning.
I didn’t want to pop the lid, but the light brown frosting looked tasty. “What flavor?”
“Boring,” he said, easing away from the curb. “It’s peanut butter icing and filling.”
“Oh.” Momentarily distracted by the awesomeness that was peanut butter and chocolate, I was tempted to crack the bad boy open and devour it.
“You’re more than welcome to eat it now. Fuck dinner rules, right? Dessert can come first.”
Another small smile appeared. I don’t know what it was about the cupcakes that seemed to affect me. Besides the fact that they tasted delicious ninety-nine percent of the time, they’d become something I looked forward to.
“Where do you get them?” I said, surprised that this was the first time I even thought to ask. “At the bakery in town?”
My gaze dropped to his knuckles as I waited for a more detailed explanation. The skin wasn’t nearly as raw, but still pink and ruddy. My stomach tightened.
“My mom’s sister—her daughter Jen makes them.”
“Wow. These taste like something you’d get in a gourmet bakery. She should really start her own business.”
“That’s what we’ve been telling her.” He glanced over at me and a lopsided grin appeared. “Jen’s been asking about the girl she keeps making extraspecial cupcakes for. I told her I was going to have to bring her over one day.”
My stare started to wander to his hands, but I jerked my gaze to him. “I’d . . . I’d like that.”
“Me too.” He reached over and threaded his fingers through mine and squeezed.
There was a soft flutter in my chest that moved into my belly as I ended up studying his knuckles. His skin had split Erik’s. He’d gone after the boy for something that may or may not have been an accident. This was the perfect chance for me to bring everything up, but I wasn’t ready.
“Does Jen know about Jack?” I asked, changing the subject.
He nodded. “Family knows. No one talks about it though. It’s kind of like the worst well-kept secret.”
After that, I fell silent. My mind was occupied. The ride to Frederick didn’t take very long and the food was served quickly at Bonefish Grill. I could’ve eaten an entire meal of bang bang shrimp. Jase kept the conversation going, talking about Jack and then moving on to my brother.
“So tomorrow’s the big deal, right?” he said, spearing a scallop on my plate and stealing it. “You think he’s going to go through with it?”
I hadn’t considered that he wouldn’t. “You don’t think he’ll do it?”
“He’s really nervous.” Jase laughed as he settled back in the booth. “Hell, I’ve never seen your brother like that.”
“Me neither. I hope he does do it. They’re perfect together.”
Jase ran his finger along the rim of his glass as he watched me from beneath lowered lashes. “We need to tell Cam as soon as he gets back.”
My breath caught and I nodded. “We do.”
The waitress appeared with the check and as Jase leaned forward to pull out his wallet, he pressed a quick kiss against the corner of my lips. The silvery light in his eyes as he pulled back caused my chest to lurch.
“Debbie broke up with Erik,” I blurted out.
He paused for just a second and then pulled cash out of his wallet. “That’s good news, right? I mean, he’s always been a dick to the girl. No one could figure out why she stayed with him.”
I watched him as he laid the money near the check. My heart beat faster. “He . . . hit her.”
Jase froze again, but this time he’d been in the process of leaning back. His thick lashes lifted. “What?”
Nothing about his expression told me he was hiding something from me, but I knew he was. “He hit her. Like Jeremy had hit me.”
The line of his jaw tightened, and then he pursed his lips, letting out a low whistle as he looked away. “I don’t know what to say, Tess.”
“Maybe that you’re now double glad that you beat him up?”
His eyes locked with mine, the color a startling shade of silver. He opened his mouth and then seemed to rethink what he was about to say. His broad shoulders tensed.
“I know,” I whispered. “Deb told me last night.”
“Last night,” he repeated dumbly. “And you’re just now saying something?” He laughed as a muscle thumped in his jaw. “You know, I knew something was up with you. You’ve been too quiet. You didn’t eat the cupcake immediately. I thought maybe your knee was bothering you.”
I tucked my hair back behind my ears. “You didn’t tell me.”
He drew in a deep breath and then slid out of the booth, rising as he grabbed my crutches. “Let’s take this conversation outside.”
Since it wasn’t a dinner type of conversation, I waited until we were in the Jeep before pushing the subject. “You went after him.”
“I didn’t go after him, Tess. It wasn’t like with Cam. I know that’s what you’re getting at. That wasn’t my intention. I ran into him at the frat house when I came back from my parents’ place. He was sitting on the couch like he hadn’t a f**king care in the world.”
Holding my breath, I watched him as he leaned forward and turned the key. The engine roared to life and he didn’t speak again until he was out on the main road, cruising toward Interstate 70. “And all I could think was that he f**king ended your dreams. He took that from you and I didn’t give a f**k if it was an accident or not. He did that.”
Erik had. “Jase—”
“After everything you’ve been through, I had to say something. I had to,” he went on, his profile stark in the shadows of the car’s interior. “I told him that he needed to stay away from you and no more accidents better happen. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say to him, and, yeah, I might not have said it that nicely, but I wanted to get my point across.”
What he was saying was the same as Deb had said, so his next words didn’t surprise me.
“But then he said some shit, Tess. Stuff that no one should ever say about you, and I made sure he didn’t say anything else.”
There wasn’t pride in his voice. Maybe the smugness of a man who knew he’d put another man—and I used the term man for Erik loosely—in his place. “You hit him.”
He glanced at me, expression hard. “I did.”
“And that’s all you have to say about that?”
Turning his gaze back to the dark road, he ran one hand through his messy hair. “I don’t regret it.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “Neither did Cam.”
“This isn’t the same. I didn’t beat the shit out of Erik. I didn’t end up in jail or put a boy in a hospital,” he spat out, and I flinched. “Shit, Tess. That’s not what I mean—”
“You know how I feel about what Cam did and how guilty it made me feel. Cam nearly ruined his life because of my—”
“And that wasn’t your fault! What he did wasn’t your fault. What I did wasn’t your fault. Erik ran his mouth and I hit him. Okay. I hit him two times.”
Blood pounded through my veins as I struggled to make sense of what I was feeling. Most of the confusion came from the fact that there was a little, teeny tiny part of me that was glad he’d given Erik a taste of his own medicine. And I’d felt that way when I first heard what Cam had done.
And I didn’t know what that said about me.
I stared at the dark blurs of the trees lining the interstate. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I . . .” He swore again. “I knew you’d get upset. I was hoping Debbie wouldn’t say anything.”
My hands curled in my lap. “Did you really think she wouldn’t?”
“Would you want people to know your boyfriend got owned? No. I thought she wouldn’t say anything. I know that’s wrong. I’m sorry. But I would rather you hadn’t known.”
The unapologetic nature of his response made his apology hard to swallow. It wasn’t that he was being a jerk about it, just that he hadn’t regretted it. “You promised me you wouldn’t say anything.”
“I promised to not say anything to Cam, which I haven’t. And trust me. Eric isn’t going to say shit to him, because then he’d have to tell your brother why I gave him a black eye, which is all I did.” The hand with the busted knuckles curled around the steering wheel. “Shit, you didn’t enjoy yourself tonight, did you? This is supposed to be our first—I don’t know. Fuck. Our first date and this whole time you were pissed off.”
I sat in silence, rigidly still. Tonight was our first real date, except it hadn’t felt like that. Not because I didn’t want to be with him, but because of what had been lingering over my head and his.
“I should’ve told you Wednesday. I shouldn’t have tried to keep it from you. That’s where I f**ked up.” There was a beat of silence. “Tess, say something.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I slowly unclenched my hands. What could I say? It wasn’t just him who’d ruined this night—ruined what was supposed to be this monumental step in our current closet relationship. I could’ve said something the moment I saw him. Or when he’d texted me earlier in the day or when I sent him a text before I went to bed. And I didn’t. We could’ve cleared the air and then enjoyed ourselves. Hopefully.
“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted finally.
Jase didn’t respond, and that was that for the thirty minutes or so the car ride back to my dorm took. Maybe I was overreacting. He hadn’t done what Cam had done, but he still had lied, and in the end, he took things to a physical level in retribution.
But Erik had provoked Jase.
My brain hurt by the time the Jeep idled up to the curb. Like the night before, he went to turn off the engine, but I stopped him. I needed to get my head straight.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment and then nodded. “Let me get your crutches at least.”
Easing out of the Jeep, I put my weight down on my good leg and waited until he pulled my crutches out of the backseat and handed them to me. I had the distinct feeling that as I met his steely gaze, he was more upset with this than I probably understood.
I started to invite him up, but he cupped my cheeks gently, leaned down, pressed his lips to mine, and kissed me so softly I was acutely reminded of the inherent tenderness inside of Jase. “Are we okay?” he asked, and I felt the ground drop out from under my feet.
The idea of us not being good before we even had a chance to do something with this relationship was a cold smack in the face. The words burst from me, surprising me. “It’s not just that it reminded me of what Cam did. It reminded me of him—of everything I felt while I was with him and everything I felt afterward.”
Jase closed his eyes briefly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
He didn’t look like he believed me. “You sure?”
I nodded because I was unable to speak. His fingers slipped away, and he jerked his chin toward the entrance.
“I’ll wait until you get inside.”
Emotion clogged my throat. “Good night, Jase.”
“Night,” he murmured.