Dumping my food, I headed out the entrance we came in, purposefully avoiding the side where I’d seen Erik and Debbie. Thick, ominous clouds had rolled in and the scent of rain was strong, but it hadn’t started yet.
A knot had crawled into my throat as I stepped onto the sidewalk. Jacob hadn’t meant anything by what he said. I got that, but the truth in his words still stung. It was more than just the embarrassment. I didn’t want to think about Jeremy—ever again. Except he kept popping up like a damn cold sore. If I could have my time with him scrubbed from my memory, I would.
Maybe you’re not quite over what he did, whispered a snotty, annoying inner voice that I immediately told to shut up.
Halfway up the hill, I stopped and turned as my heart did the same thing it did every time I heard his voice. It didn’t matter that I’d just spent a good two hours with him, or the fact that my less than perfect past had just exploded all over our lunch table. I was hopeless.
There was a slight smile on his face as he came to me. Gently taking my arm, he steered me off the sidewalk, out of the path of the moving crowd. Coming to stand under a tree, I tightened my grip on my bag.
“You ran off quickly,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you something.”
He was still holding my arm, his hand warm and strong against my skin. “What?”
Jase looked at me as if Jacob had never said anything, and like I hadn’t just run off with my tail between my legs. Instead, he smiled as he slid his hand down my arm, circling his long fingers around my wrist.
Dear God in heaven, if Cam stepped outside right now and saw this . . .
“What are you doing after class tomorrow?” he asked.
My eyes widened and holy moly, it was like a million run-on sentences invaded my brain all at once. Was he? Did he? Is he? I had to literally stop and force my head to work right. “Um . . . I get out of class at one, but I don’t have anything planned.”
I waited for more of an explanation, but there wasn’t one. “Good?”
“Yep.” He stepped in, so close his shoes brushed my toes. “Because you have plans now.”
Calla stood in the doorway, holding a Twizzler. “So you have no idea what you’re doing today?”
“No.” I tugged on the hem of my tank top. “All Jase said was to dress to be outside. This is good enough, right?”
Her gaze swept over my jeans and sneakers. “It’s still a little warm outside, buddy. Might want to rethink the jeans.”
I gazed longingly at the tiny closet and the pair of lonely shorts that resided in there, but I really didn’t want to spend whatever we were doing worrying about him staring at my scar. Not that I should care about that, but I obviously did. And it wasn’t that warm, not like it had been a month ago. “I’ll keep the jeans.”
She studied me as she twisted the edge of her ponytail between her fingers. “It’s not that noticeable, you know. Just saying. Anyway,” she went on before I could say a word, “where’s Debbie?”
I glanced at the empty, unslept-in in bed. “I don’t know.” I hadn’t seen her since sometime yesterday, and she’d only been in the room for seconds before rushing off.
“And your suitemates?”
“Good question.” I dragged my gaze from the bed. “I have yet to see them.”
“Weird,” she whispered, turning around. She crept toward their door. “I want to knock.”
My phone chirped and my heart jumped. Snatching it off the bed, I quickly read the message. “He’s outside waiting for me.”
Calla grinned. “Oh! Let’s go then.”
Grabbing my purse, I dropped my phone in it after sending him a quick message. We headed out of the suite and past the open doors to rooms where people obviously had normal suitemates.
“So this is a date?” Calla asked as she went for the elevator, forcing me away from the stairs. “Right?”
She arched a brow at me as the doors slid shut. “I think he likes you.”
For a moment, I entertained the thought that this might be a date and that he might like me. I’m happy that you did. A giggle bubbled its way up my chest. Okay, thinking this was a date was not a good thing. I shook my head. “I’ve told you. I’ve known him for a while. He’s best friends with—”
“Cam,” she interrupted. “I know. But he’s not with Cam. He’s with you. And I doubt he’s taking you out on this little outing because of your brother.”
I opened my mouth, but having not considered that he could be doing this because of his friendship with my brother, I snapped my jaw tight. What if that was the reason? I placed a hand against my belly. I didn’t want his pity or whatever. Worse yet, what if he was doing this because he thought of me as a sister?
Well, I could probably rule out the sister thing.
“Ah, the look on your face is kind of scary.”
I worked at relaxing my expression.
She laughed as the elevator stopped and the doors eased open. “Better.”
“Really?” When she nodded, I smoothed my hands through my hair and then dropped my arms as we stepped out. The lobby was crowded. Half of the people were sprawled across the couches and chairs. I stopped at the door, spying his Jeep idling in the no parking zone.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked as we stepped outside.
My heart was already pounding. “Sure.”
A slow grin stretched across her pretty face, diminishing the faint line of the scar. “I just have to say this, okay? That boy . . .”
“What?” I asked, stopping a few feet from the Jeep. Calla was from this area. She was younger than Jase, like me, but she might know things I didn’t. Not that it mattered. It couldn’t matter. We were friends.
And I was beginning to sound like a broken record.
Calla sighed as she started to back away from me. “That boy is freaking unbelievably hot. That is all.”
A smile formed on my lips and I laughed, muscles tightening and then relaxing. “Yeah, I’d have to agree with that.”
She glanced over at the Jeep and grinned as she wiggled her fingers. “Have fun.”
Waving good-bye, I took a deep breath and made my way over to where he waited. He leaned over, opening the passenger door from the inside. Several locks of rich brown hair fell forward, brushing the tips of his lashes. Luke Bryan crooned from the radio.
“Hey there, pretty lady.”
“Hey.” I hoisted myself up and closed the door, overly pleased with his greeting. And I figured that wasn’t very healthy. Reaching for the seat belt, I looked over at him again and tried not to gawk.
Jase possibly—and I was willing to bet money I didn’t have on it—had the most perfectly formed body. Even sitting down, his abs were defined and appeared rock hard to touch. My gaze traveled over the ropy muscle of his forearm, visually tracing the intricate knotting of his tattoo.
“Got it?” he asked, giving me a lopsided grin.
Having no idea what he was talking about, I simply stared at him. He laughed softly as he reached over and took the seat belt from my hand. As he drew the strap across me, the back of his fingers brushed my chest.
I sucked in a soft gasp as raw sensation skittered through my veins.
The seat belt clicked into place as he lifted his chin. His eyes flashed silver. “Good?”
Still grinning, he returned to his seat and picked up the pink box I only noticed then. God, I wasn’t observant at all.
He handed it over to me. “I already ate half. Couldn’t wait.”
Smiling, I popped open the box and took a bite. I looked forward to the whole cupcake thing. There was something simply exciting about not knowing what I was about to taste.
One bite and I moaned. “Oh my God, is that Reese’s Pieces in this thing?”
He nodded. “Yep. That’s good shit right there, huh?”
“I want to marry it.”
Jase laughed deeply as he eased the Jeep away from the curb. I didn’t trust myself to speak until I finished off the cupcake and the thrill of his brief, and most likely accidental, touch had stopped racing from my veins, and by that time, we were on the main road, heading toward Martinsburg.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise.” He slid me a sideways glance. “Though you might end up regretting the jeans. Weatherman was saying it was going to get up to the mideighties this afternoon.”
Which was unseasonably warm for early October, but whatever. “I’m fine.”
That one-sided grin tipped up. “That you are.”
Staring at him, a laugh burst free. “Did you . . . ? That was really . . .”
I shook my head, grinning like a complete fool. “That was pretty bad.”
He chuckled as he reached over, flipping the station to a blues channel. “I thought it was smooth.”
My mouth opened to ask why he was trying to be smooth, but luckily I stopped myself. That question would probably end up making me look like an idiot by the time it was answered.
Forcing my gaze to the window, I clasped my hands in my lap. “So . . . how are your classes going?”
I cringed at how lame the question sounded, but Jase didn’t appear to notice. “They’re going good. As long as I can get into the rest of my classes next semester, I’ll be graduating in the spring.”
“That’s great.” I smiled broadly, maybe a little too widely. I had no idea what Jase planned to do once he graduated, but I doubted he was going to stay around here. It shouldn’t even be a concern of mine. “Where are you going once you graduate?”
Jase shifted in the driver’s seat, keeping one hand on the steering wheel and the other resting on his leg. “Well, with a degree in environmental studies, I really could go anywhere, but I’ll stay here or commute into D.C. if I can get on with the Department of Interior or WVU. You know they’ve got an agricultural research center outside of Kearneysville.”
“You’re not leaving?” My question came fast.
“I can’t,” he said, and added quickly, “I mean, I like it here.”
I didn’t miss the sudden tensing of his shoulders. Nibbling my lower lip, I peeked at him again. “You can’t?”
He didn’t say anything as he reached forward, turning the station back to country music. Someone started singing about a tear in their beer, but I was hardly paying attention. What could he have meant by him not being able to leave? Nothing was holding him here. He seriously could go anywhere, especially if he did get in with the Department of Interior.
Running a hand through his messy mop of hair, he glanced over at me. “What about you?”
“Me?” He was so trying to change the subject.
“Yeah. You. Are you going to stay around here?” The derision in his voice caused me to stiffen. “Teaching?”
Indignation rose at his tone. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He laughed, but for some reason, it sounded dry and harsh. “Come on, Tess, teaching a bunch of elementary-school kids? Seriously?”
Twisting toward him, I crossed my arms. “Okay. I don’t get it. You acted like teaching was a good idea and I—”
“It is a good idea, but it’s not . . .”
“What?” I demanded, getting all kinds of defensive. “It’s not what?”
“You.” He glanced at me as he turned right onto Queen Street. “It’s not you.”
I stared at him and then barked out a laugh. “That’s dumb. How do you know what’s me and what’s not?” Anger flared in me, and I didn’t dare look too closely at why. “You barely know me, Jase.”
“I know you.”
I scoffed. “No, you don’t.”
That infuriating half grin appeared. “Oh, Tess . . .”
“Don’t ‘oh, Tess’ me. I want to know why you’re so convinced that I’d make a horrible teacher.”
“I didn’t say you’d make a horrible teacher.” Amusement danced over his face, and I wanted to know what the hell was so funny. “You’d make a great teacher. Kids would probably love you and maybe you’ll be happy with that, but that’s not what you want.”
“In fact, I like being around kids. Back at the studio, I volunteered to help out with the younger classes.” Staring out the window, I watched the shopping centers and apartments quickly give way to trees and then open fields. “So whatever.”
“Okay. You’re not getting what I’m saying.”
“Obviously not,” I replied tartly.
He sighed. “You’d make a great teacher, Tess, but you’re a . . . you’re a performer. That’s what you’ve always wanted.”