I don’t know what it was exactly that did it. Could’ve been the last year or so of my life and all the changes I’d gone through. From believing I only had one life ahead of me, to finally accepting there was more out there than dancing. Maybe it was seeing Jase and experiencing every up and down with him. It could’ve been Debbie and what her loss symbolized. It might have been Erik and the horror of that time in the dorm room and what it reminded me of.
And maybe . . . just maybe it had to do with Jeremy and the abusive relationship I’d been a part of, that was a part of me, and I finally fully understood that it would always be there with me, but it didn’t make me who I was today. It shaped me, but it wasn’t me. Before I knew it, my cheeks were damp.
Jase lifted his head. “Tess? Baby?” He cupped my cheek, smoothing the tears away with his thumb. “What’s wrong?”
I wasn’t sure how to put it into words and when I didn’t answer, his face paled. “Did I hurt? I should’ve waited. This could’ve—”
“No,” I croaked out. I tried to smile through the haze of tears. “It’s not you. It’s just . . . everything and it’s been a lot to wrap my head around.”
He ran his thumb under my good eye again. “It has been a lot, Tess. And you’ve been handling everything. You’re so strong—the strongest person I know.”
I choked out a laugh, and then the tears fell harder. Jase made a deep sound in the back of his throat, and then he gathered me up, tucking me against his chest as he held me close.
“I’ll never forget what it was like to be with him,” I said, and somehow Jase knew who I was talking about. “And that’s okay, isn’t it? That doesn’t make me weak or a victim.”
“No.” He dropped a kiss to the top of my head. “You are neither of those things.”
“It’s not who I am now, but it’s a part of me and . . . and I’m okay with that.” A shudder worked its way through me, and between the tears, we talked about Jeremy and we talked about Debbie and Erik. We talked about dancing and we talked about teaching, and he wrapped himself around me, holding me until there were no tears left, until the burdens I knew I’d carried and the ones I hadn’t really realized I’d been shouldering all this time lifted and faded away.
A buckass nak*d Jase making soup for me so I wouldn’t irritate my bruised jaw literally had to be one of the top five things in life I wanted to see in person. Even coming ahead of watching the San Francisco Ballet perform onstage.
Good God, he had the most perfect ass I’d ever seen.
We sat on my bed, the sheet tucked under my arms as we shared the large bowl of vegetable soup. One spoon and two mouths made for an interesting in-bed experience. A bit of broth escaped down my chin, and Jase caught it with his tongue. “Hmm, how about you lie back and let me eat the rest of the soup like this?”
I laughed, feeling lighter—feeling better in spite of the fact that I was stuffy from all the tears. “That would get a bit messy.”
“But it would be fun.” He swirled the spoon around, catching the tender chunks of veggies. “More?”
Being fed seemed stupid. Unless it was a nak*d Jase feeding you. Then it was incredibly hot. I opened up, swallowing the broth and chewing what I could. “Thank you.”
He shrugged a tan shoulder and lifted the spoon to his own mouth. Chewing thoughtfully for a few moments, he chased after a piece of meat. “You know, I really planned on talking to you first before I got you nak*d.”
“But you did plan on getting me nak*d?” I couldn’t resist teasing him.
“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.”
He looked contrite. “Tess—”
“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.”
“I believe 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?”
“Of course.” He sounded distracted.
“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.
“You are so bad.”
His hands circled my hips. “And you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Chapter Chapter Thirty-two
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.
“You okay?” I asked.
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.