He scrutinized my face slowly, the intense perusal missing nothing, chronicling what was most likely a nasty bruise that had the right side of my jaw swollen like an orange was shoved in my mouth. The corner of my right lip felt off, and the skin around my eye ached.
I bet I looked like I’d been on the losing side of a cage fight.
“Did he hurt you?” he asked, voice gruff with concern and thready with what sounded like fear. “Hurt you more than I can see?”
At first I didn’t understand what he meant and then I did. “No—God, no.”
Jase closed his eyes as a deep breath shuddered through him. “When I came through that door and saw him on you and you just—just lying there, I thought I was too late. I thought you were gone.”
“I thought I was going to die in that room with him. I really did, but you got there in time,” I assured him. “You saved my life. Thank you.” I forced every emotion I felt into those words. “Thank you.”
“That’s something I never wanted you to ever thank me for.” He leaned in, planting his left hand on the bed beside my shoulder, anchoring his weight. He said nothing as he bowed his head, and when he kissed the left corner of my lips, emotion swelled in my chest.
He stayed where he was as he spoke and with each word, his lips brushed mine, acting as a physical seal to what he said. “I have been nothing but a jackass these last couple of weeks, and I know right now is not the time to talk about this, but there is something I need to say. Okay?”
I took a deep breath. “All right.”
Jase placed the tips of his fingers against my left cheek. “I have had issues with getting close to any girl because of Kari and Jack, but you . . . you were different. You got under my skin and dug your way into my heart. Probably that first time we kissed, you got there and I thought I could handle this—handle these feelings, but when I realized how deep they ran, it scared the shit out of me. I didn’t want to get hurt again. I didn’t want to lose someone like I already did. But then I almost lost you today. For real. And that’s what I’ve been scared of. I would’ve lost you before I even had you. And the very thought of that kills me.”
He closed his eyes, resting his forehead against mine with the slightest pressure. “I wanted to talk to you. That’s why I texted you, because I f**king missed you and I thought . . .” He pulled away, shaking his head. There was a sheen to his eyes that caused my throat to constrict. “Anyway, we’ll talk more later because you don’t need this shit right now.”
I wanted to tell him that I was okay with this shit, with hearing more, because the rawness of his words was tearing me up and patching me together, filling me with hope and diminishing the events of today, but he reached over to the nightstand and picked up the pink box.
“I got this for you after music class and I wanted to give it to you when I came over to help with your dorm, so I’ve had it for a while. It might not be fresh.” The tips of his cheeks flushed pink as he opened the box. “It’s vanilla with strawberry icing. I, uh, know how much you like that kind of icing.”
My gaze followed the blush as it deepened. It was so rare to see him uncomfortable or unsure of what he was doing.
He peeked up at me through lowered lashes. “You probably don’t want anything to eat right now, so how about just the icing?”
My stomach grumbled, although the knots forming in my belly dampened my hunger, but he looked so hesitant that I couldn’t refuse him. “I’d like that.”
One side of his lips quirked up as he slashed his pinkie finger through the rich icing, scooping up quite a bit of the pink stuff. I wasn’t expecting this method of tasting as he lifted his finger to my lips.
His eyes met mine then, and a flutter took root in my stomach as I opened my mouth. There was no way I could look away as I took his finger into my mouth and got my first taste of the sugary sweetness. And he kept his eyes on mine as he repeated the motions until all the icing was gone and my face felt warm.
Jase sat the opened box aside and then bowed his head to mine. I gasped as his tongue flicked out, gliding across my lower lip. “You had some icing on your lip.”
“Oh.” I was beyond the point of forming comprehensive responses.
He drew back, eyes glimmering. “That might have been a lie.”
My lips tipped into a grin. “Might?”
“Okay.” He reached down, threading his fingers through mine carefully. He brushed his lips over the bruised, achy skin. “It was most definitely a lie.”
A small laugh broke free. “That’s the kind of lie I don’t mind.”
“It’s a tasty lie, huh?” When I nodded, the tension in his shoulders started to ease away, but then I yawned and he stiffened. “You need to sleep.”
Between the pain meds and everything, the allure of sleep was too strong to deny, but I didn’t want to say good-bye to him. I glanced down at our joined hands, to his pinkie that was slightly stained with pink. “Will . . . will you stay with me? As long as they let you?”
His eyes lightened to a silvery gray as his lips tipped up in a lopsided smile. “Baby, I’m all yours if you want me to be.”
Those words seemed to be heavy with meaning, and I felt my chest spasm. “I do.”
Bowing his head, he kissed the center of my hand and then let go. He stood with a fluid grace I envied and walked to the curtain. As he pulled it closed, he glanced over his shoulder and winked at me with a playful grin.
Jase helped me scoot over and then climbed in beside me, his long body barely fitting the bed. The two of us together made it crowded, but I didn’t care. He turned onto his side, so that his head was close to mine.
Like he was dealing with fragile china, he was careful when he laid his hand over my stomach. “Comfortable?”
Despite the dull aches and the fact I was lying in a hospital bed, I was more comfortable than I’d ever been. “Yes.”
“Good.” His eyes met mine and held them with warm intensity that felt a lot like love. “They’d have to pry me out of this damn bed. I’m not going anywhere.”
The doctors released me the following afternoon with a prescription of pain meds in case I got any headaches or if the pains became too much, but after sleeping almost the entire night curled up against Jase in the narrow bed, my body felt surprisingly better than the day before. Sure, there were some aches and I was moving at the speed of a three-legged turtle, but I was okay.
I was better than okay. I was alive.
Mom and Dad looked like they wanted to cart me off home as I stepped out into the cold, but I wasn’t going home with them when they left their hotel room later in the week. I was going back to my apartment.
Jase waited patiently by his Jeep, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans as he leaned against the door.
“Honey, I really don’t want to leave you right now.”
I turned to Mom, giving her a hug. “I’m okay. Really. I just want to go back to my place and chill out.”
“With him?” Dad grumbled, eyeing the guy that he’d always welcomed into his home without a single thought.
I sighed. “Yes, with him.”
“Is he your boyfriend now or something?” he asked, and I had no idea how to answer that question, because I wasn’t sure where we were, which did not go unnoticed by my father. A thoughtful look crept across his face. The kind of look bad things sprouted from. “Maybe I need to talk to him again.”
“No,” I said quickly. “You do not need to talk to him. At all.”
Dad looked like he was about to disagree, but Mom placed her hand on his back. “Call us later, okay? Just to check in.”
“I will.” I figured I’d probably only have a couple of hours at the apartment before Cam swung by to check in. I would be facing a lot of impromptu check-ins for a while.
After another round of hugs and tears, they let me go and I joined Jase. He pushed off the Jeep and opened the door for me. “I think your father looks like he wants to take me hunting.” He took hold of my elbow, hoisting me up. “Like a special, scary hunting trip where I’m the game.”
I giggled. “You know, you’re probably not too far off with that assessment.”
“Great.” He closed the door and jogged around the front. Climbing in, he shot me a look. “Your dad used to love me.”
That much was true. “That’s before he suspected there was something between us.”
“Something between us?” he murmured thoughtfully, and I tensed. He didn’t speak again until he pulled out of the hospital parking lot. “There’s definitely something between us.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, because what I wanted between us was something he’d been unwilling to deal with a few weeks ago, but then there was yesterday and what he’d said before he climbed into bed with me.
Jase reached over, taking my hand, and we didn’t speak on the way back to the apartment. There was something soothing in the silence, and I took the time to gather my thoughts.
He found a parking spot close to the entrance in University Heights, limiting the time in the brisk, cold air since I was sorely underdressed. Cam’s truck was in the lot and as we reached the landing to our level, I could hear Avery’s laughter coming from inside her apartment.
“Do you think he’ll propose soon?” I whispered.
Jase nodded as I unlocked the door. “I bet he’ll do it over Christmas.”
That would be perfect, but I also had a feeling that he’d just spring it on her instead of trying to plan it again. Either way, I knew she’d say yes and they would have a happily ever after.
My happily ever after? I was still praying that it was possible, that it was about to happen.
I stopped just inside Cam’s apartment. Correction. Our apartment. I’d probably never get used to thinking of it that way. Looking away, I soaked in the familiar worn couch, the big-screen TV that my brother had splurged on. The game system and half the stack of games was gone, relocated to Avery’s apartment. Emotion clogged my throat when I glanced into the narrow kitchen and saw the baking sheets sitting on top of the stove. I limped slowly forward, feeling heavy and weighed down by what had happened.
Jase closed the door behind us and placed his hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I nodded for extra emphasis. More like I needed to hear myself say it. “It’s just I didn’t know if I’d ever see this place again.”
He turned me so I faced him as he cupped my uninjured cheek. His features were sharp with unspoken emotions. Fear. Adrenaline. Relief. Our gazes locked, and I knew in that moment he was feeling what I was. A future had almost been lost and we were on the cusp of a second chance, and the realization was shattering.
“I need you.” His voice was guttural with the depth of what he admitted. “I need you right now.”
There was no doubt in my mind with what he wanted. I needed the same. “Yes.”
Jase’s hand shook as he pressed a kiss to the corner of my lip and then to the hollow of my cheek. His lips met the skin below my ear, causing me to shiver. A hot, wet path trailed down my neck and then back up. A strangled cry escaped me when he nipped on my earlobe. A throbbing ache between my thighs caused desire to blossom inside me, but it was love that was swelling, fueling the fire licking over my skin.
“I want this,” he said, sliding his hands down my sides. He gripped my hips. “I want you always.”
I looped my arms around his neck. “I want you.”
Jase made a deep sound in the back of his throat. “I could almost live on hearing those words.”
“Almost? What could you live—?”
He lifted me up, his broad hands cupping my ass as he walked me backward. Whatever I was about to say was lost as he pressed my back against the wall beside the couch and ground his h*ps into mine as he kissed my throat. I wrapped my legs around his waist, the position allowing him to wedge himself between my thighs.
My eyes drifted shut as I craned my neck, giving him access. And he took it, nipping and licking as his h*ps thrust into mine, driving me insane with the rising anticipation.
Jase lifted his head, kissing my chin and my mouth, avoiding the area that was tender to touch. I moaned as he pushed my cardigan off my shoulders and cupped my breast through my shirt. My nipple immediately pearled, sensitive and pulsing. A spark of acute pleasure darted from the tips of my breast to my core. His h*ps rolled into mine, hitting a sweet spot that had me crying out.
“I’m sorry,” he growled against my mouth. “If this is too rough, if this hurts, you’ve—”
“It doesn’t,” I assured him, digging my fingers into his shoulders. My body was sore, but the needful ache to be with him was far stronger. “I won’t break.”