Jase sat at the corner of the bed, elbows resting against his bent knees. His head was propped between his hands, his bare back hunched.
Concern chased away the lingering sleep. I sat up. “Are you okay?”
He jerked his head up, as if startled out of deep thought. In the low light, his eyes were dark and shadowed. “Yeah, I just . . . there’s something that I forgot to do.”
A little confused, I watched him stand and grab his jeans off the floor. He pulled them up and zipped them, leaving the button open as he turned to me. “I got to run to the frat. There’s some stuff I left there I need for class.”
“Okay.” My brows puckered. “We can leave early if you want and run by there, so you don’t—”
“It’s okay.” He bent quickly, swiping his lips across my cheek, and then he pulled back. “I’ll lock the door behind me so you don’t have to get up. You still have a couple of hours yet to sleep. I’ll pick you up around eight thirty.”
I nodded, feeling suddenly cold inside. “Sure.”
Jase backed away to the door, turned, and then stopped, glancing back at me. I could barely make out his features. “Tess . . .”
Air caught in my throat.
He seemed to lower his chin, and I heard the deep breath he took next. “Thank you for last night.”
Thank you for last night?
I was knocked so speechless that I’d heard the front door open and close before I was even able to open my mouth. He thanked me? Not that there was anything wrong with him thanking me, I guessed, but it seemed like a weird thing to say, especially when hours before he’d said he loved me.
My stomach dipped and then knotted itself right up.
Minutes turned into hours as I sat there in bed, until the pale blue light spread across the floor, chasing away the remnants of night. It’s okay, I told myself. I didn’t need to read anything into his abrupt departure. He said there was stuff he needed for class and that was all.
But he hadn’t said he loved me as he left.
I squeezed my eyes shut, desperately trying to ignore the hollow feeling opening up in my chest, quickly filling with insecurities and doubts.
Everything was okay after what we’d shared last night. I couldn’t allow myself to think anything else, because . . . I shook my head fiercely, sending a sharp pain down my neck.
Everything had to be okay.
Jase was quiet when he picked me up for classes a few hours later. So was I. I hadn’t fallen back asleep and had worked myself into a nervous mess by the time I got into his Jeep. He’d dropped me off in front of Whitehall, and I think we might’ve spoken about five words to each other.
Something was wrong.
But my worry over what was going on with Jase fell to the side by the time I stepped into Whitehall. People were staring. Not because I was on crutches. Groups of two or three would turn to one another. Some whispered. Some didn’t.
“She’s the one who found her.”
I heard that same statement about four times by the time I made it to history class an hour later.
Calla frowned as she saw me. “You look like crap.”
“Thanks,” I muttered.
Tucking a strand of blond hair back behind her ear, her frown deepened. “Sorry. That was a bitchy greeting. Are you okay?”
No. I wasn’t okay. For a f**k load of reasons. “Everyone is staring at me.”
She glanced around the room. A few students up front had been glancing over their shoulders from the moment I sat down. “No one is looking at you.”
I sent her a dry look, and she cringed. “Thanks for trying to make me feel better, but everyone is looking at me like I’m some kind of morbid fascination.”
Her eyes narrowed on the boys up front. Both hastily turned back away. “Ignore them,” she said. “And they’ll stop staring. Or you’ll stop caring. Trust me, I know.”
I nodded and put all my effort into ignoring the curious stares of classmates. One would think there’d be nothing exciting about what I had experienced, but it was like people who rubbernecked when they came upon a crash scene.
“So how’s the delish Jase doing today?” she asked as we headed out of history, branching into another subject I wasn’t wanting to delve into.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, adjusting my grips on the crutches. I wanted to toss these mothafuckas into oncoming traffic. “He was kind of moody and silent today.”
She rolled her eyes. “So typical of boys. They accuse us of PMSing, but they have more mood swings than a pregnant woman.”
We made it to the connecting spot where the bus would take us to west campus. I glanced around the crowded corner. No one was paying attention to us and I probably shouldn’t say anything, but I needed to tell someone. I kept my voice low. “But we had sex last night.”
Her lips formed a perfect O.
“It was our first time,” I added, feeling my cheeks burn. “And before you ask, yes, it was great. It was freaking outstanding, but I woke up this morning and he was just sitting there on the bed. He left after that, saying he had something he needed to get from his house and when I saw him this morning, he barely spoke to me.”
She snapped her mouth shut. “Okay. Did you guys get into an argument or anything?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Maybe he really just had to go get something from his house and he’s just tired this morning. Or just plain moody,” she said after a few moments. “Either way, just ask him if he’s okay. That’s better than standing here stressing yourself out about it. You have enough to be worrying about.”
She was right, but there was nothing about her words that looked like she even convinced herself, and my stomach twisted even further. I just needed to ask him. And I would the first chance I had. I’d ask him if he was okay and he’d tell me everything was fine and I’d just feel stupid afterward for making a big deal out of nothing.
Jase’s mood hadn’t improved much when he arrived to music. He’d said hi to Calla, smiled at me, and then stared straight ahead, like he was engrossed in what our professor was droning on about. Which was such BS, because I didn’t think one person in the entire class had any idea what was going on.
And that smile of his—it had been so tight and never reached his steely gaze. The smile was all wrong. It was fake. It reminded me of Dr. Morgan’s smile. It reminded me of the police officers’ as they’d ushered me out of their offices.
My palms were sweaty, causing the grip on my pen to slip. I’d scribbled maybe two or three lines during the entire class. After saying good-bye to Calla, I crutched my way to where Jase had parked. He’d taken my bag as usual, putting it on the floor by my feet to make it easier for me to grab.
Not seeing a familiar pink box, I bit down on my lip as I watched him make his way around the front of the Jeep. With the gray toboggan hat pulled low, only the ends of his hair peeked out from underneath it. He hoisted himself up, closing the door behind him. The hard set of his jaw caused my stomach to flop.
My mouth was dry as he backed out and hit the main road leading to east campus. Riddled with anxiety and uncertainty, I used the entire time while he searched for a parking spot near the Byrd Center to work up the nerve to speak.
Hands clasped tightly together, I swallowed hard. “Is everything okay?”
Jase turned off the engine and pulled the keys out. Sitting back, he lifted his free hand and smoothed it over the toboggan. My muscles seized up as the seconds ticked by in tense silence.
“No,” he said finally, voice so low I thought I heard him incorrectly. “Everything is not okay.”
I opened my mouth, but anything I was about to say died on the tip of my tongue when he looked at me. Oh, this was going to be bad. Very bad. I seized up, muscles rigid.
“I don’t know how to say this.” He pressed his lips together while a burn picked up in the back of my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” I croaked out. Because he couldn’t be sorry for what happened between us. Absolutely no way.
He looked away, tilting his head to the side. “This is just too much.”
I blinked slowly, feeling like I missed the beginning half of this conversation. “What is?”
“This,” he stated with force, raising his hands. “All of this is too much—you and me.”
My nails were leaving little indents in my palms from how tightly I was clenching my hands. “I . . . I don’t understand.” Those words sounded weak and pathetic to my own ears, and the blood drained from my face. “What’s going on?”
“It’s too much.” He closed his eyes, features pinched and strained. “It’s too much too soon.”
“What? Us? We’re moving too fast?” He thought so because we’d had sex? That seemed wildly out of character for someone with his reputation. I got that he wanted to do things right, and last night had been right. “We can slow down if that’s what you think we need—”
“I can’t do this,” he interrupted, opening his eyes. “It’s too serious and I thought I was ready for that, but I’m not.”
He thought he wasn’t ready? What in the hell was holding him back? I knew about Jack and how it would impact a future with—it occurred to me then as I took my next breath. This wasn’t about Jack or us. This was about Jack’s mother.
“This is about her, isn’t it? You’re—”
“I’m not talking about her,” he snapped, and something cracked in my chest, a deep fissure that spread throughout, cleaving me in two as he spoke. “I don’t want anything serious. Not with Jack being so young, and I need to focus on graduating, getting a job, and helping raise Jack.”
“And none of that includes me?”
His clouded gaze met mine for an instant. “It doesn’t. It can’t. Because I can’t go through . . .” His jaw locked down as he gave a quick jerk of his head. “I’m sorry. Please know I never meant to hurt you. That’s the last thing I ever wanted. You have to believe that.”
My chest rose sharply, and it felt like he’d reached inside me and crushed my lungs into a crumbled-up wad of paper. The burn in my chest increased, building behind my eyes. I tried to calm down, but that hurting was raw and real.
“And I know I’ve hurt you and I’m so f**king sorry for that.” He glanced at me quickly, and he tensed. The crack deepened. “I’ll still pick you up for school and get you to your classes,” he rushed on as I stared at him. “So I don’t want you to worry about that.”
I reared back, pressing against the door as what he was saying finally sunk through the shock. The seat—the floor—dropped out from underneath me. I blinked back hot, stinging tears. “Just to make sure I understand this. You don’t want to be my boyfriend, but you want to be my chauffeur?”
Jase’s brows furrowed together. “I want to be your friend, Tess. Not your chauffeur.”
Sucking in a shallow breath, I turned my attention to the front of the car. My thoughts raced as my stomach continued to do gymnastics. My skin tingled and felt tight.
“Stop saying that!” A tear rolled down my cheek, and I roughly wiped it away. “Just stop apologizing, because that makes this so much worse.”
He said nothing as he nodded his acquisition.
My hands shook as I reached for my bag. Numbly, I picked up my bag and reached for the door. He didn’t try to stop me as I slid out awkwardly, but he looked like he was about to get out to hand over the crutches.
“Don’t,” I said, voice hoarse. “I don’t want your help.”
Jase stilled in his seat, nostrils flared. “But I want to help you, Tess. I want us to—”
“To be friends?” I choked on my laugh. “Are you serious?”
He looked completely serious.
And that made this so much more screwed up to even think about, and it summed up just how shallow the depth of his feelings was for me. “We can’t be friends. I can’t be friends with you, because I love you, and you’ve hurt me.”
He flinched, and I got no satisfaction out of it. I tugged my crutches free, the motion unsettling me and I stumbled back, dropping my book bag.
“Tess!” He opened the door. “Goddamnit, let me help you.”
Cursing under my breath and through a sheen of tears, I picked it up and slugged it over my shoulder. He was standing in front of me by then, holding my crutches.
I snatched them away from him, shaking. “I wish you had decided that this was too much for you before we told my brother we were together.” My voice gave out to a strangled sob as I backed away. “I wish you would’ve figured this out before we made love.”