By the time my fingers had turned to blocks of ice, Jase had dropped his arm around my shoulders and steered me back into the house, into the warmth, and it was probably that very second that I had fallen for him.
So this simple gesture was most likely nothing to him.
But to me, my insides were twisted into little, complicated knots. Made worse when his arm caught the edges of my ponytail, tugging my head back and sending a shiver of fire across my scalp. My breath caught as my gaze flicked up, unexpectedly meeting his as we stopped in front of the blue-and-gold double doors.
His eyes were silvery, a deep and brilliant gray that stood out in stark contrast against the darkness of his pupils. The look in his gaze was unreadable to me, but there was something hot to it, something so intense that it drew me in. My lips parted.
Jase’s lashes swept down. His mouth worked around words, but the doors opened, and the cool air rushing out halted whatever he was about to say. That strange, secretive half smile appeared on his full lips as he looked away.
His arm slid off me as we entered the Den through the entrance where the food was ordered. Only then did he hand my bag over to me. Our fingers brushed as I took the strap, and heat flooded my cheeks.
He lowered his head, so dangerously close to grazing my cheek with his lips as he spoke. “There’s something about you that I’ve noticed.”
Standing as close as we were had my pulse pounding for two different reasons. My gaze immediately sought out the table where my brother usually sat. Fortunately, it was on the other side of the room, and I could see the top of Avery’s coppery head. Their backs were to us.
“What?” I asked, a bit breathless.
Jase didn’t respond immediately, and the fact that everything about this moment felt intimate and so public was nerve-racking. “You blush a lot more now.”
And that made my cheeks burn brighter.
The lopsided grin grew. “It really makes me curious about what you’re thinking.”
I’d die a thousand deaths before I shared the interworking of those thoughts. “I’m not thinking anything.”
“Uh-huh.” One finger trailed across my hot cheek as he drew back and straightened. Turning toward the line forming, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
Nodding slowly, I followed him to the back of line. I was starving, but not for food—for him. For him to touch me again, to kiss me, to look at me with that half smile that had such a strange effect on me, and I shouldn’t be thinking that way.
Especially when we were minutes from sitting down with my brother, who would not appreciate me drooling all over his best friend.
Using the time in line to get control of myself, I got a fried chicken salad, figuring the green stuff had to outweigh the crispy goodness. Jase ordered a basket of fries and the kind of hamburger that would go straight to my ass.
Plates in hand, we approached the table. Female heads turned and bowed together, whispering and giggling as we navigated the maze of white, square tables. I doubted he was unaware of it. Not when his lips curled up in a smug smirk.
My eyes narrowed on him.
“Hey!” Avery patted the empty seat to her left. Her face split into a wide, welcoming smile. The girl was gorgeous with her fiery hair and big eyes. “We were wondering where you guys were.”
I ignored the heady rush hearing “you guys” brought forth, like we came in a pair, as couples did. “Hey.”
Cam made a face at me as he leaned back, tangling his fingers in Avery’s hair. I was beginning to believe it was impossible for him to not be touching some part of her at any given time. “What up?”
“Most likely not your IQ.” Jase sat across from the seat I was heading to, flashing my brother a quick grin.
He rolled his eyes. “That was clever.”
“I like to think it was,” Jase replied.
Grinning, I sat beside Avery and gave a little wave at Brit and Jacob. I didn’t know those two well. They were usually at the table when I was here, and Brit’s penchant for mayo and fries turned my stomach. Today, thank God, the blonde was eating pizza. Beside her, Jacob was pouring over a thick textbook, his face scrunched up in confusion.
“Has it started raining yet?” Avery asked.
I shook my head as I unwrapped my plastic fork. “Looks like it’s going to happen soon.”
She sighed as she glanced over at Brit. “It’s going to pour the moment we have to walk over to west campus.”
“That’s our luck.” Brit elbowed Jacob. “Are you going to let me borrow your hat if it starts raining?”
He lifted his chin as he touched the top of his bowler hat. To me, he sort of looked like Bruno Mars. “Yeah, I cannot let my hair get wet. Sorry for your luck.”
Brit shoved a finger into his narrow side. “That is not gentlemanly at all.”
“Good thing I don’t profess to be one, huh?” His dark eyes glinted with humor as he turned his attention to me. “Honey, I really hope you pick better friends than this one beside me.”
“Hey!” Brit’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell? I am prime pickings for friendship. Just ask Avery.”
She nodded as her right hand disappeared under the table. “It’s true.”
I smiled as I stabbed a crispy slice of chicken. “I think Brit is good people.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling quite evilly at Jacob.
As I finished off the chicken in my salad, the conversation floated around the table, changing from Cam’s training for the spring soccer tryouts with United to the upcoming party this weekend.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a huge thing.” Jase had devoured the hamburger and now had moved on to the fries. “I know Erik and Brandon are supposed to be running it. You’re going, right?” he asked Cam.
Cam glanced at Avery first. Too cute. “Are we?”
She bit her lip and nodded. “I think so.”
I didn’t know a whole ton about Avery, but I knew going to a party was a big deal. She didn’t seem to be into those kinds of things.
Brit and Jacob planned on going, and I turned my attention to the salad, digging out the cucumbers. In high school, I didn’t get to go to a lot of parties because of dance, so I really had no idea what to expect from a college one. Not that it looked like I was going to find out anytime soon.
“You’re coming, right?” Jase asked, and I wondered who he was talking to. Then I felt his foot tap mine under the table, and I looked up. His brows rose. “Tess, you’re coming?”
I blinked tightly as surprise washed over me. “Yeah,” I croaked, and then cleared my throat. “Yes. I can go.”
“Wait. What?” Cam dropped his arm from Avery. Holy shit. Hold the presses. He wasn’t touching her. He leaned forward, eyeing me with identical blue eyes. “You are eighteen—”
“I’m almost nineteen,” I interrupted, deciding that made a big difference. After all, my birthday was November the second, and we were less than a month away.
“Yeah, still, you’re not legal.” Cam glanced over at Jase. “You seriously just invited her to a frat party?”
Oh my God, I was going to kill my brother.
“Awkward,” Jacob murmured, closing his textbook.
Jase popped a fry in his mouth. “You’re taking your girlfriend to a frat party.”
“That’s different,” he replied.
I sighed. “Cam, can you shut—”
“I don’t like the idea of you hanging out at a frat house. Those guys there—”
“Like me,” Jase interrupted, winking at me.
My cheeks heated.
“Exactly,” Cam all but growled. “Enough said.”
Brit giggled. “Cam, when did you start going to frat parties?”
“And don’t say it’s different,” I jumped in, stabbing a piece of lettuce. “Because you were partying when you were fifteen.”
Cam sat back, and that’s when I saw that Avery’s hand had been on his thigh this whole time. False alarm. They had not stopped touching. “It is different,” he insisted. “I’m a guy.”
“Holy shit, you serious?” Jase’s eyes widened, and I grinned. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“I’m not the one who needs a haircut.” Cam picked up his bottle of water. “I’m half tempted to start braiding it.”
“I’d be down for that.” Jacob piped up, smiling. “I’m really good with braiding.”
Jase sucked in his bottom lip. “I think I’ll pass on that, but thanks.”
He sighed. “Story of my life.”
Avery tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. “You should really come and hang out with us. Cam—” She shot him a look that shut him up in a second. “Cam will be okay with it. We’ll actually give you a ride.”
My brother opened his mouth again, but this time it was Jase who swooped in. “And if Cam doesn’t want to give you a ride, I will. Either way, you’re going. It’s official.”
“Or I can,” Brit offered. “Then again, I’m not the best driver, so—”
“I’ll give her a ride.” Cam sighed. “Whatever.”
My smile spread as Cam was universally defeated. Excitement swelled in me, and I felt sort of lame, but it was my first college party. My gaze drifted across from me. I needed to find something cute to wear. A sexy new shirt would be nice. Maybe I could convince Avery to go shopping with me.
Jacob shook his head as his gaze centered on something behind us. “Man, there they go again.”
Cringing, Brit ducked her chin and smacked her hand over her eyes. “I can’t even watch. I’m serious. I get secondhand embarrassment.”
Twisting halfway in my seat, I immediately saw what they were talking about. My stomach sunk as I watched Debbie and Erik standing at the end of the tables, in front of the ram painted on the wall. Erik’s mouth was running a mile a minute and her cheeks were pale.
“Isn’t that your roommate?” Jase asked quietly.
I nodded, watching them over my shoulder. “Yeah. Her boyfriend . . . he’s . . .”
“He’s a dick,” Jase replied, and I twisted back around in surprise. He picked up a fry. “He’s like a grade A f**king dick.”
“It’s the truth.” Cam turned toward Avery, wrapping his arms around her waist. He rested his chin on her shoulder, closing his eyes. “I mean, he can be cool, but he doesn’t know how to act right.” Pausing, he kissed the side of her neck. “I, on the other hand, do.”
“Don’t hate,” Cam murmured.
My gaze met Jase’s for a second, and I couldn’t help myself. I glanced over my shoulder again. Erik had ahold of Debbie’s arms, and now her lips were moving fast. Whatever they were saying was gaining the attention of the table in front of them.
I wanted to get up and rip Erik’s hands away. Actually, I wanted to get up and kick him in the balls. As I forced myself to turn back around, words bubbled up in my throat—words that were suspicions.
Jacob shook his head as he raised his arms, stretching. “Girls are stupid. No offense or anything.”
Brit made a face. “Of course.”
“Care to explain?” Avery leaned back into Cam’s embrace, and those two were the picture of how couples in love should look like.
“Come on, I don’t care what he’s packing in his jeans, how smart he is, or how cool.” Jacob sat back, eyeing where Debbie and Erik had moved to stand just outside the open doors, still arguing. Debbie looked close to tears. “Any girl who puts up with that shit is f**king stupid.”
I stiffened, my fork halfway to my mouth. The piece of lettuce dangled there. Brit, like Jacob, was basically unaffected by the statement. Both of them had no idea that I had been one of those f**king stupid girls. And while I would never actively be that girl again, wouldn’t I always be that girl?
Cold fingers drifted down my spine as I lowered my hand. My appetite was officially slaughtered. Avery had fallen silent; so had Jase and my brother. Of course, they knew. I hadn’t told Avery, but I knew Cam had told her, because I had, in some ways, f**ked up his life this many years later.
Because I didn’t have the courage or the common sense or the whatever necessary to tell the truth, or to simply leave Jeremy, my silence had kick-started a chain of events that had almost destroyed my brother.
“I’m going to go ahead and head to class.” Picking up my backpack, I slung it over my shoulder as I stood. “I don’t want to get caught in the rain.”
“Teresa,” Cam said, his voice level. “You—”
“I’ll see you guys later.” I kept my gaze on my salad as I picked it up, not daring to look at anyone.