In the background, something shattered. Maybe it was the last of my oxygen-deprived cells. I didn’t know what, but Erik’s dark eyes latched onto mine, and I was sure that this was it. My lashes drifted shut. He was going to be the last thing I saw, just like Debbie. And it wasn’t fair. I hadn’t even begun to live life, to embrace this new future or to get Jase, because if I’d survived this, I wouldn’t let him walk away. Not anymore. But . . . but it didn’t matter now. My hearing dwindled until there was only a fine point, a roaring of blood.
Suddenly the unbearable pressure was off my throat and air rushed in as a pained grunt filled the room. Something broke—snapped like old, dry twigs and it sounded far away, like it was outside.
Hands pressed against my cheeks and then arms lifted me. My head felt too heavy, floppy. Like there was something wrong with my neck. “Oh God, open your eyes. Come on baby, open your eyes.” There was a pause, and his large body shuddered. “I’m sorry. Fuck. Open your eyes. Please.”
It felt like my lids had been glued shut, but I pried them open. All I saw was Jase’s deep gray eyes, darker than I’d ever seen them.
“There you are,” he said, cradling me closer. “Stay with me. Tess! Oh God, don’t leave me. Please. I . . .”
His lips were moving, but the words didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. There was nothing but darkness.
The steady sound of beeping slowly, insistently drilled through the layers of haze and sleep until I felt my chest rise with a deep, shuddering breath.
“Teresa.” What I was lying on shifted as weight settled beside me. A hand pressed against my cheek, cool and comforting. “Are you there?”
Was I? I thought so. My surroundings slowly came into play. I was in a stiff bed, and it was my brother’s voice I was hearing. My head felt weighted down, though, like I was glued to the mattress.
I slowly blinked my eyes open and winced at the bright overhead lights. Once my vision cleared, it was obvious I was in a hospital room. The white walls, mounted TV, and pea green curtain were a dead giveaway.
“Hey,” Cam said gently. “How are you feeling?”
Turning my head to him slightly, I ran my tongue over my the roof of my mouth. “I feel . . . strange.” My voice was hoarse, and my jaw ached from speaking those three words.
“You’ve been sleeping for a little while, long enough for the parents to get down here and then some.” Cam smiled wearily as he reached for a pitcher and poured water into a small, plastic cup. “Mom and Dad are down the hall talking to the police.”
The police? I stared at him dumbly as he played Mr. Nurse, carefully reaching around to the back of my neck and helping me take a drink. The cool water was like jumping into a pool on a hot, sweltering day.
He placed the cup on the bedside table. A sudden look of understanding crept across his face. “You don’t remember, do you?”
I shook my head and then grimaced as a sharp pain arced between my temples. Cam glanced at the door as if he wanted to run out and get someone, but he placed his hand over mine, drawing my gaze to my knuckles.
They were red, scratched, and swollen.
I jerked up halfway, muscles and skin protesting the unexpected movement as the fog cleared from my head. “Oh my God . . .”
Concern flared in Cam’s eyes “You remember?”
“I know. We all know. You don’t have to worry about him anymore,” Cam said, gently pressing his hand down on my shoulder so I was lying down. “You need to stay still. You have a concussion—a minor one but you can’t be moving around a lot. Okay?”
My heart was pounding as I took in the IV hooked to the center of my arm, pumping clear fluids in. That horrible snapping sound came back to me, reminding me of bones breaking. “Is he dead?”
“Fuck. I wish.” Anger stormed across his face. “Jase broke his jaw and knocked him into next week, but the f**ker’s alive. He’s going to jail, though. He woke up when the police and EMTs got there, blabbering what he did to Debbie to anyone who’d listen. He kept saying it was . . .” He trailed off, his mouth pressing down in a hard line.
“He said it was my fault,” I finished for him, closing my eyes as the memories of Erik’s rage and flat-out madness resurfaced, but a different worry took hold. “Where . . . where is Jase?”
Cam looked away when I opened my eyes. “The last I saw him he was with the police.”
“What?” I started to sit up again, but he stopped me. “What do you mean?”
“He’s not in trouble. He had to talk to them, like I’m sure you’ll have to now that they know you’re awake.” He paused. “They needed a statement.”
“How long ago was that?”
Cam shifted like he was uncomfortable. “They held him back when they took you to the hospital. I haven’t seen him. I came straight here when I found out.”
He hadn’t seen Jase at all? Meaning he hadn’t checked on me? I closed my eyes and smacked at the useless emotions. Jase said he’d wanted to talk. He’d come and he’d saved my life. Just because he wasn’t here didn’t mean I needed to throw a fit. Besides, I had bigger things to deal with.
When I opened my eyes, Cam was staring at me. Several seconds passed. “You’re really in love with him, aren’t you?”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
He shifted and then cursed under his breath. “I know you didn’t want to hear this before, but you’re going to listen now. The f**ker is stupid, but the f**ker loves you.”
I opened my mouth.
“Yeah, I know he pushed you away or whatever, but he’s a guy and he’s stupid. Hey, I can admit that. We do stupid shit.” Cam leaned over, lowering his voice. “He sort of reminds me of Shortcake—of Avery—you know? She was like that in the beginning. For different reasons, but she . . . she had her own issues she had to work through. And I think that’s what he was doing. I don’t know. I’m not him, but Jase has got some baggage.”
“I know,” I said quietly, blinking back tears. Everything about Jase was complicated. It always had been, and I wasn’t sure that the only thing he needed to do was to work through his issues. Some things people just couldn’t get past.
Cam lowered his gaze and then took a deep breath. “You know, he told me a while back that you feel guilty about what I did to Jeremy.”
Surprised, my eyes widened as I stared at him.
“You shouldn’t.” His head rose and he looked straight at me. “I did that to Jeremy, and I’d do it again. It was never your fault. Okay? It doesn’t matter that you kept quiet. Trust me, I know how people keep shit to themselves, storing it away until the silence f**king destroys. You were a kid basically, and I knew what I was doing. And the only thing I regret is that you feel guilty for something I chose to do.”
I don’t know what it was that did it. A little bit of the weight had lifted after Jase had talked to me, but the massive gorilla with an overeating problem finally got the hell off my chest. Pure, sweet relief crashed through me, and it was like being tossed in the middle of a storm. Tears crawled up my throat and built behind my eyes.
“Teresa, don’t cry.” Cam frowned. “I didn’t—”
“I won’t.” I sniffed a couple of times, forcing the waterworks to stop. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me.”
I didn’t say anything, because he didn’t need to hear it but I knew it. Cam saying those words was equal to being tossed a lifeline. I grabbed it and held it close. “I love you like I love cupcakes.”
A wide and real smile raced across his face. “You dork, I love you too.”
It wasn’t long before Mom and Dad arrived in the room. Dad looked murderous. So did Mom, but she hid it better. They all but pushed Cam out of the way and clucked over me until the police showed and I gave them my statement. Retelling the time spent in that room with Erik wasn’t easy. I liked to think I was a strong person, but a fine series of quakes had taken hold of me when I got to the part of him admitting that he’d killed Debbie and staged it as a suicide. The shudders increased as I told them how he hadn’t planned on walking out of the room.
Erik had planned to kill me and then himself. He’d said her death was my fault, but he had to have felt guilt if he planned to off himself. He might have buried it deep, but it was there. It had to be. I refused to believe that he’d live the rest of his life feeling completely guiltless.
Dad picked up my uninjured hand, tucking it under his chin as a young deputy closed a small notebook. “That’s all we’ll need for right now,” he said, backing away from the bed. “Get some rest and we’ll call you if we have any more questions.”
“You’ll call me if you have any more questions.” Dad straightened, eyeing the officer as he slipped into lawyers-are-the-devil mode.
The deputy nodded and left, quickly replaced by a doctor and a nurse who looked younger than me. I was poked and prodded and endured a bright light in my eyeballs. Light pain meds were pumped through the IV, and by the time they’d kicked in, my tummy grumbled and I was feeling sort of normal as Mom tucked the thin blanket around my chest. “You’ll be out of here tomorrow, and your father and I were thinking it would be best for you to come home with us instead of waiting on Cam.”
Sitting in the corner, Cam made a face at me.
“We would feel more comfortable,” Dad added, squeezing my hand. “We really would.”
“You’d feel more comfortable if she dropped out of school and lived with you for the rest of her life,” Cam said.
Mom cast him a sharp look over her shoulder. “After what just happened? Yes. I want her under my roof for the next three decades.”
“Only three?” I murmured.
She pressed her lips together. “There is no reason for her to stay down here until you come up on Christmas Eve.”
There was a huge part of me that wanted to let my parents gather me up and take me home. It had been easier there when I’d visited, and I could seriously hole up in my room until Christmas Eve. It sounded really nice, but I knew if I went home with them now, there’d be a good chance I wouldn’t come back to Shepherdstown. I’d want to stay where it was safe and things were familiar in a good way, but I had a life here now—college, the possibility of a career that I would enjoy. I had a future and I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I couldn’t rely on my parents to swoop in and coddle me whenever something bad happened. As much as this sucked to think about, they wouldn’t always be there for me.
“I don’t know, Mom. Let me think about it,” I said finally, knowing that would be better than telling them no flat-out. Neither she nor Dad looked happy about it, but then Cam suddenly stood.
My gaze followed his just as my dad turned, and I swore my heart might’ve stopped right then, if only for a second.
Jase stood in the doorway, his russet waves going in every direction and his bronze skin paler than normal. The dark blue V-neck sweater he wore was askew, showing more of the white shirt underneath than it hid. Everything about him was wrinkled, but in my eyes, he was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen.
In his hands was a square, pink box.
Our gazes locked from across the room, and he stopped midstep, as if he was frozen. His eyes were a fierce silver as relief and something else, something I couldn’t name, etched its way onto his striking features.
Air leaked out of my lungs as my mom stood and gently cleared her throat. “Well, she’s got some company, so let’s get out of their hair.”
Dad arched a brow as he looked from Jase to me and then back to Mom. “Maybe we—”
“We’ll come back tomorrow morning, fresh and early.” Mom shot Dad a look before she bent over and kissed my cheek. “I love you, honey.”
“I love you, too.”
Dad kissed my other cheek and reluctantly relinquished his claim to the side of my bed. As he passed Jase, he leaned in and said something that Jase nodded to. God only knew what had just come out of my dad’s mouth.
Cam patted Jase’s back at he strolled past, surprising me with the fact that he didn’t do something immature like fist bump him or knock his shoulders.
Shit was serious when Cam was acting his age.
Jase didn’t move until my parents and brother disappeared, and then two long-legged quick strides brought him to the side of my bed. Heavy silence crept into the room as he sat the box beside the pitcher of water and sat down, his hip resting again mine. My heart jumped into a racing staccato as he carefully brushed his fingers across the ridge of my cheekbone and tucked my hair back behind my ear.