It was when I was in the brightly lit lobby that I realized I’d left my cupcake and my heart out there. I twisted at the waist, burning to hobble outside and to just forget about everything, but like Jase had promised, he’d waited until I made it inside.
The Jeep was gone.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I headed to the elevator. Regret burned like food that didn’t set right in the stomach, but him leaving was probably a good thing. I needed to sort my head out.
I still didn’t know what to think or how to feel, but how could I stay mad? And should I? All I wanted to do was sleep. Tomorrow I would know what to say to him.
When I flipped on the light, it flickered once and then went out, pitching the room back into darkness.
“Fudge pucker,” I muttered as I hobbled around the coffee table, knocking the edges of the crutches into it. I found the little lamp and flipped it on. The energy-saving bulb only cast enough light that I wouldn’t break my neck getting around the room. I propped my crutches in the corner and turned.
I groaned. “Are you f**king kidding me?”
A pink scarf dangled from the cracked open door. Deb had broken up with the jerk! And they were in there screwing? Anger whirled through me, spitting fire into my blood. I was going to beat both of them with my crutches. And that would be great, because then I couldn’t be mad at Jase for hitting Erik. At least knocking them upside their heads would solve one of my problems.
I limped toward the door. Pain flared up my leg as I felt my knee start to slide in the brace, but I stormed forward and pushed the door open. The room was pitch-black and surprisingly quiet. No grunts or moans or bedsprings squeaking as someone tried to cover themselves.
Tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose. “Debbie?” My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness as I reached for the light switch. “Are you . . . ?”
The light didn’t turn on.
I tried it again, hearing the switch flick, but there was nothing . . . nothing but a strange creaking sound. Almost like a loose floorboard.
A chill snaked down my spine as I swallowed hard. “Deb?”
There was no response. Just the creak . . . creak . . . creak.
Instinct screamed for me to turn and run away. Fear sunk its icy claws deep inside me as I stepped farther into the room, blinking my eyes. I tried calling her name out again, but no words formed. They were frozen inside me.
The darkness started to loosen its grip on the room. Shadows took on deeper forms, more solid, more substance—
I bounced into something, something that shouldn’t be there in the middle of the room, shouldn’t be swaying back and forth, making that creaking sound.
Air hitched in my throat as I lifted my head, my sight slowly returning to me.
Two bare legs—pale, bare legs.
A dark sleep shirt.
Two arms hanging limply at the sides.
The air punched out of my lungs as realization set in, but—oh God—I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t. There was no way. A cry worked its way up.
It wasn’t her.
It wasn’t her brown hair shielding half of her face. It wasn’t her mouth gaping open. It wasn’t Debbie hanging from the light fixture in our dorm room. It couldn’t be her.
A terrible sound filled the suite, hurting my ears. The sound didn’t stop, but kept coming and coming. There were voices in the background, shouts of alarm, hands gripped my shoulders as my legs went out from underneath me, but the screams were louder than everything.
It was me screaming, I realized dumbly. I couldn’t stop. I’d never stop.
Debbie had hung herself.
Things happened in a continuous blur that I was detached from. Eventually I stopped screaming, only because my voice gave out. The hands that had tried to stop me from falling belonged to the most unlikely person ever. Our suitemate.
And our suitemate turned out to be the half-naked chick from Jase’s room—Steph. Any other time I would’ve laughed at the irony. That the MIA suitemate was her of all people. I almost did laugh, but I stopped it before it could bubble up, because I knew if I started laughing, I’d never stop.
Beautiful Steph, with her raven-colored hair pulled in a high ponytail and wearing sleep shorts that were shorter than the chicks at Hooters wore, had tried to talk to me once I was in the too-bright lobby, sitting on one of the uncomfortable chairs with its hard cushions. She’d given up when all I could do was stare at her blankly.
Debbie was dead.
A shudder rocked through me, followed by a series of less powerful shivers.
The lobby was full of people huddled in corners, some whispering and others crying. People were hugging one another. Others looked shell-shocked by the knowledge that a few floors above us, someone was dead.
Steph returned to my side with a blanket and draped it over my shoulders. I murmured a barely audible “Thank you.” She nodded as she sat beside me. Another girl, someone I knew I recognized but couldn’t place, approached us.
“Not now,” Steph snapped, causing me to jump.
The girl stopped, her bare toes curling on the lobby floor. “But—”
“But I don’t care,” she interrupted. “Leave her alone.”
I blinked dumbly as the girl wheeled around and disappeared back into a huddle. A few minutes later a guy started toward us, and Steph sent him off, too. She was like a watchdog.
Red and blue lights from outside the dorm cast strange flashes across the lobby, and I squeezed my eyes shut.
Debbie had hung herself.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t even begin to understand why she had done it. Last night she had made such a big decision and this morning she’d been okay as she talked about going to her parents and now . . .
She was dead.
The campus police finally came down to talk to me; one of the younger officers crouched down and in low, even tones, asked me to recount how I came to find her. When they asked if Debbie had been acting strange in the last couple of days, I sucked in a shuddering breath.
“No. But she broke up with her boyfriend,” I said, my voice hoarse and flat. “She was in a good mood when I last talked to her. I thought she’d left to tell her folks about the breakup.”
The police exchanged looks, like the fact that Deb had broken up with her boyfriend explained everything, but it didn’t. If anything, it made this whole situation even more confusing. Why would she do it when she said she had so much to look forward to?
Once I was done talking to the campus police, the county and state officials showed up, asking the same questions.
“She’s already answered those questions,” Steph spat when a deputy asked what I was doing before I returned to the apartment.
The deputy nodded. “I understand, but—”
“But don’t you think she’s, like, I don’t know, a bit traumatized by everything right now? That you could give her some breathing room? Maybe a few minutes to deal with everything?”
The deputy’s eyes widened a bit, but before he could respond, Steph stood suddenly and stepped around the deputy. “Thank God, you’re here. It took you long enough.”
I didn’t get a chance to look up to see who she was talking to. The deputy sidestepped as a tall shadow fell over me, and the next second, arms went around my shoulders. I inhaled deeply, recognizing the faint trace of cologne that belonged to him—to Jase. Shuddering, I turned into his embrace, burying my face against his chest.
“I was back at the farm when you called,” he said to Steph. She called him? What the what? “I came as fast as I could.” His hand slid up my back, tangling in my hair. “Oh, baby, I am so sorry.”
I couldn’t speak as I burrowed closer and gripped his sides until I was bunching up the same sweater he’d worn on our date earlier. I wasn’t close enough. I was so cold that I wanted to get inside him.
“I wish I’d come inside with you. Damnit, I wish you didn’t have to see that.” He dropped his head to mine as he tightened his hold, keeping the blanket from slipping away. “I’m so sorry, baby.”
The deputy must’ve given up, because he wasn’t asking questions I didn’t want to think about anymore. God, I didn’t want to think at all.
“Thank you,” I heard Jase say, and then there were the soft footsteps of Steph walking away from us.
I wanted to tell Jase how she’d stayed by my side, but my lips were pressed together too tightly. He held me, whispering words in my ear that didn’t make much sense to me, but somehow had this calming effect.
A sudden hush descended on the lobby, and Jase’s body tensed against mine. Suddenly, someone cried out and some residents’ sobbing grew louder. A sickening feeling pooled in my stomach and I started to pull free, to look because I had to look.
“No.” His hand clamped down on the back of my head, holding me in place. “You do not need to look right now, baby. I’m not going to let you see this.”
I gripped his sweater until my knuckles ached. I knew without looking what was happening. They were taking Debbie out. Another shudder coursed through me.
Minutes ticked by, and then we were approached again by the police. They wanted to take a formal statement.
“Can this wait?” Jase asked. “Please? I can bring her to the office tomorrow, but I really just want to get her out of here for right now.”
There was a pause and then the officer relented. “We have enough information for tonight, but here’s my card. She needs to come by the office tomorrow.”
Jase shifted as he took the card. “Thank you.”
The officer cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for this, Miss Hamilton. Try to get some rest and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
Try to get some rest? I almost laughed.
“We’re going to get out of here, but I need to get your crutches, okay?” Jase said as he pulled back, cupping my face. My eyes locked with his. Concern tightened the lines around his mouth, thinning his lips. He looked as pale as I felt. “You going to be okay while I go get them?”
I hadn’t realized that I’d come down here without them. Closing my eyes, I took several deep breaths as I tried to pull myself together. “Okay. I’ll . . . I’ll be fine.”
When I nodded, he started to get up, but I gripped his wrists. “Where are we going?”
“We can go back to the house up here or my parents—”
I didn’t want to be around people and I especially didn’t want to run into Erik. “I have a key to Cam’s apartment. It’s . . . it’s in my purse. Can we go there?”
“Yeah, baby, we can go anywhere you want.” He glanced over my shoulder. “I’ll be—”
My grip on his wrists tightened. “Don’t tell Cam. Please. If you do, he’ll come home and it will ruin the trip. Please don’t tell him.”
“I won’t tell him,” he promised, kissing my cheek. “And don’t worry about that. Okay? Just don’t worry about anything.”
Relieved that this wouldn’t interfere with Cam’s plans, I relaxed a little. Jase left to find one of the officers so he could go upstairs and get my stuff. As I waited for him, I kept my gaze trained on the scuffed tile. I could feel the stares on me, and I wanted to shrink into the blanket and disappear.
When Jase returned, it wasn’t soon enough. Holding my purse, he helped me up and guided me outside. I barely felt the cool air as we made our way past the police cruisers that were parked along the curb and into the parking lot.
The ride to University Heights was silent. Jase held my hand, but I barely felt his grip. I was numb inside and out, and I wondered when I’d start feeling things again. Immediately after I’d injured my knee the first time, it had been like this. Empty. In a daze. The out-of-it feeling had lasted for days, but this was on such a deep, different level.
Cam’s apartment was dark when we stepped inside. Jase stepped around me, easily finding the switch to the overhead light. I imagined the apartment was like a third home to him.
He stopped a few feet from me and turned, thrusting both of his hands through his hair. “Tess, baby . . .” He shook his head, as if he had no idea what to say. And what does one say in a situation like this?
I took a deep breath, feeling weak in my knees. “I’ve . . . I’ve never seen a dead person before.”
He closed his eyes briefly.
“And she was dead.” I stopped, swallowing. That was a stupid, unnecessary clarification, but I needed to say it out loud. “She killed herself. Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know.” He started toward me, a look of pain clouding his eyes.
The back of my throat burned. “She told me last night that she was happy that she broke up with Erik. That she had her whole life to look forward to.” I drew in a breath that got caught. “She was okay today. I don’t understand.”