He opened his mouth, but Jase shook his head. “Walk away, brother.”
For a second I didn’t think Erik was going to, but he nodded curtly. Shaking off Jase’s hand, he spun away without looking back at me, pushing through the crowd of his frat brothers. None of them went after him that I could see. If anything, they looked disgusted with his behavior.
Jase cupped my elbow as he lowered his head toward mine. “Where are your crutches?” he demanded.
I shot him a pissy look, which he ignored. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I tossed them in the garbage.”
He stared at me. “You threw them in the garbage?”
“Yeah, I did.” A little slow on the uptake, anger from what Erik had said to me flooded my system. Unfortunately for Jase, he was the one there. “And I don’t need you getting involved there. I had it under control.”
“Totally looked that way.” He started walking, and with his hand firmly around my arm, it left me little choice but to walk with him. “I’m taking you home.”
“Calla is going to take me home.”
“Text her and tell her you have a ride.” When I didn’t respond, he shot me a look. His eyes were a deep, thunderous shade of gray. “Please don’t argue with me, Tess. I just want to get you home. Okay? I just want to make sure you’re not standing around alone waiting for Calla to come get you.”
Part of me wanted to dig my heels in, but I was being stupid. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out in the cold waiting for her while Erik was slinking around, ready to point a finger at me for something I had absolutely nothing to do with.
“Okay,” I said finally, pulling out my cell. “You don’t need to hold my arm, though.”
His eyes flared in color. “What if I want to?”
I stopped, forcing him to come to a standstill. Our gazes locked. “You don’t have the right to touch me, Jase.”
He dropped his hand immediately. “Sorry.”
As we started to his Jeep, I sent Calla a quick text letting her know I had a ride. When we got inside his car, he asked again about the crutches.
“What?” I yanked the seat belt with all my power and clicked myself in. “I don’t need them forever.”
“The doctor said—”
“I needed them for a few days or a week, depending on if I was relying on them.” I hated remembering that he’d been there that day—had been there for me only to crush my heart a few days later, no matter how tragic the why behind his reasoning was. “I don’t need them.”
“You limped the whole way to the gravesite and to the car.”
“You were watching me?”
“Yeah, I was.” His gaze flicked over my face and then settled straight ahead. “I kept an eye on you almost the whole time. You didn’t seem to notice.”
I didn’t know what to think about that. “I didn’t see you.”
“I was standing in the back, by the door. I bowed out before people started walking out,” he explained. “Anyway, did Erik hurt you? He turned you around pretty quickly.”
I shook my head and then realized he wasn’t looking at me. “No.”
“I would’ve gotten there quicker, so I’m sorry about that.” He finally turned the engine on and cool air blasted out of the vent. Neither of us spoke until we were on Route 45 heading back to Shepherdstown. “He needs to stay away from you. I’m going to make sure he does—hey, I’m not going to beat on him or anything crazy, okay? He just needs to not pull any shit like that again.” He cut me a sharp look. “That was the first time he said anything to you?”
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you even care, Jase, what he says to me?”
Another razor-edged look was cast in my direction. “That’s a stupid question.”
“No, it’s not. We aren’t friends. We were two people who were a little more than friends for a very short period of time and we had sex.” My heart turned over from my own words. “That’s all we were.”
Jase clenched the steering wheel. “Is that what you think of us?”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
He didn’t answer immediately, and when he did, it was so low I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “No.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “No?”
“That’s not what I wanted from us. God, Tess, not at all.” He propped his left arm on the driver’s window and pressed his cheek into his fist. “But I’m just . . . I told you before you didn’t want to get with me.”
A burn encompassed my chest and throat as I stared at his profile. “I know,” I whispered, and I hoped he didn’t get too upset with Cam. “I know about Kari.”
His jaw clamped down so fast and hard I wouldn’t have been surprised if he cracked his molars. A mile passed before he spoke. “I don’t even have to ask how you know.”
“Please don’t be mad at him. He thought I already knew, because I knew about Jack. You can’t get mad at him.”
“I’m not.” He sighed heavily. “So you know the whole sordid tale then.”
“I . . . I didn’t think it was sordid.” I bit my lip. I knew what Jase had said about not wanting Jack at first and now his guilt made even more sense, because what if Kari had wanted Jack down the road? “It was just sad.”
“Oh, I must not have told him everything.” He coughed out a laugh. “When Kari got pregnant, I wasn’t there for her when she told her parents. I should’ve been. I knew they would be hard on her and when they said they were going to send her to her grandparents down in southern West Virginia, I was kind of relieved, because it was like if she wasn’t there, I didn’t have to think about the fact that she was pregnant.”
He laughed again, but it was such a sad sound. “I was never there for her. You know, I was just a kid, but still . . .”
“But you were—what? Sixteen?”
He nodded. “When my parents stepped in and adopted Jack, and Kari came back, she talked about a future with all three of us. Scared the shit out of me. We got into an argument. She drove off and she died. End of story right there.”
Oh my God . . .
“You don’t blame yourself. Please tell me you don’t.”
“I did for a long time, but I know I didn’t cause the accident. We’d sort of made out before she left, but you know, the last conversation you have with someone, you don’t want it filled with shit like that.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I know that’s not a lot, but I’m sorry.”
Jase didn’t say anything again until we reached the apartment buildings. “I haven’t even visited her grave.”
I pulled myself out of my own thoughts. “Not once?”
He shook his head. “I just . . . I don’t know. I’ve moved on, but . . .”
“You haven’t moved on, Jase. If you haven’t been able to visit her grave, you haven’t moved on.”
We pulled into a parking spot in the middle of the lot. He turned off the engine and looked at me. His gaze dropped to my lips, and he seemed unable to drag his attention from them. The hand on the steering wheel tightened.
“Do you still love her?” I whispered.
Jase didn’t answer for a long moment. “I will always love Kari. She was a great person. I don’t know where we’d be right now if she had lived, but I will always care for her.” His chest rose slowly. He looked like he was about to say more, but changed his mind.
I recalled what Cam had said about him being scared. Maybe that really was it. Maybe he did love me, but it wouldn’t be enough. Some wounds, festered by silence, ran too deep. And there would be nothing I could do to change him and how he saw relationships. He had to find that in himself and he had to want to. And I hoped he did. Not just for my sake, but because, even though the wound he’d left on my heart was fresh and bleeding, he was a good man.
He just needed to sort himself out.
As I watched him work through what to say, I did what was probably the most mature thing I’d ever done in my almost nineteen years. Like earn-a-medal-or-a-box-of-cookies type of mature, because I was still hurting so badly when it came to him.
I leaned across the seat and pressed my lips against his cool cheek. Jase sucked in a sharp breath and turned a wild gaze on me as I pulled back. “I’m sorry for everything you’ve had to go through and I . . . I still love you, so I hope one day you’re able to move on, because you deserve that, Jase Winstead.”
Living in Cam’s apartment should’ve made life better. It did in a lot of ways. Staying there made it easier to avoid fixating on Debbie’s death or living somewhere that creeped the bejesus out of me. It helped with steering clear of crazy-sauce Erik. I caught rides to campus with either Avery or my brother, and since my knee rarely hurt as badly as it did in the beginning, the trek from music over to east campus wasn’t a big deal.
Not that I was eating lunch with Cam and everyone anymore. I didn’t know if Jase was. I doubted it since I was sure my brother had gone off on his friend once he realized we weren’t together any longer. But I couldn’t deal with it and pretend everything was dandy if Jase was there, so I stayed far away from the Den.
It was bad enough seeing him three times a week in music and then every so often around campus. He never spoke to me. Never once approached me to see how I was doing after the funeral. And it was stupid and pointless to allow this ache to fester and spread. Kari was a ghost. She was in the past, but Jase had loved her. They had brought a child into this world and ghost or not, I could not rid myself of the pain.
But it was more than just Jase. It seemed like it finally had sunk in—that my dream of being a professional dancer was truly over and that school was my future, which meant I had a lot of catching up on the taking-school-seriously thing, which stressed me out.
I was drained like an overeager blood donor by the time finals rolled around.
Dark shadows had bloomed under my eyes. Some days they were swollen, because late at night, when I’d wake up and there was nothing but silence, the tears would come. It was embarrassing knowing that Cam and Avery knew I’d been crying. I looked like crap. Wasn’t like I could hide it.
Over Thanksgiving, when Cam and Avery left to visit our parents, I’d gone with them to just get away. The trip had been good for me and Mom had loaded us up with baked goodies—the first apple pie of the season, two pumpkin rolls, and fresh bread. Cam had looked like he’d won the lottery, and I had checked out my ever-expanding ass and sighed. But when it had come time to return to Shepherdstown, the reprieve ended.
I hadn’t wanted to go back, because it felt like there was nothing there but sadness for me now.
Right before we’d left, I’d gone upstairs to my bedroom to grab a couple of sweaters I hadn’t taken with me in August. I’d gotten lost in staring at all the trophies lining my bookshelves, the ribbons hanging from the walls, and the sparkling crowns that had been given out during some competitions.
I’d picked up almost every trophy and tried to remember what it had felt like when my name had been called for first place or best overall, but the emotions had seemed cut off from me—a well I couldn’t access.
I’d put a trophy back in its place and turned at the sound of Mom’s voice. I nodded as I wiped the tears off my cheeks with the back of my hands. When I’d started crying, I didn’t know.
A sad, sympathetic smile appeared on her lips as she’d crossed the room. Her bright blue eyes were shining in a way that made me want to cry harder. Cupping my cheeks, she’d brushed away a few tears that had lingered. “It will get easier, baby. I promise you.”
“Which part?” I’d mumbled. She’d known about Debbie, of course, and I’d told her about Jase—everything about Jase. We’d decided to keep that part from Dad if Jase ever decided to visit home with Cam. That wasn’t likely, but if Dad had known that his little princess’s heart was broken, he probably would’ve taken Jase out for hunting and had an “accident” during it.
“Everything—it will get better. I know that’s hard to believe now,” she’d said. “But eventually you’ll find something else to be passionate about and you’ll find someone who will love you like you deserve.”
“Jase deserves to love me. I mean, he’s not a bad guy,” I’d said, sniffling. “At least, I thought he did.”
Mom had pulled me into her arms and she’d smelled of pumpkin and spice, making it even harder to leave. I wanted to be that little girl again, the one who didn’t have to pull up her big girl panties and deal with the shit sandwich that was life.