Page 18

He swallowed, keeping his eyes locked on mine, gulping down everything I was giving him until the bottle was empty.

I had to look away, because I couldn’t look into those eyes any longer. The gray had drained out of them, leaving nothing but black behind.

“Better?” I asked, tossing the bottle to the side and handing him the next.

He nodded, looking like he was about to pull me to him.

“Good,” I said, lifting my hand and slapping him across the cheek. I hadn’t realized I was going to do it, but it felt damn good.

At least it felt good until his eyes flinched closed as a red hand blossomed over his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” I said, leaning towards him and inspecting his face.

I’d just hit Jude. Hard. And I hadn’t even known I was about to do it.

Hang on because this roller coaster had reached the summit and was about to race straight down.

“Jude, god,” I said, fussing over his face. I’d been reduced to an emotional, instinctual monster. “I’m sorry.”

“Do it again,” he whispered, his eyes still closed.

“What?” I said, hoping I’d heard him wrong or was mistaking what he meant. “No.”

“Do it”‌—‌opening his eyes, they locked onto mine‌—‌”again.”

This roller coaster was going down. All the way down. “No,” I said again, wondering if my slap had knocked something loose.

“Damn it it, Luce,” he hollered, grabbing my wrist as I tried to scoot away, “hit me again!”

“No!” I was shouting now too. “Let me go, Jude!”

“Hit me!” he yelled, raising my hand above him and pounding it down against his face. “Again!” Grabbing my other hand, he flattened it and drove it into his other cheek.

“Stop!” I cried, trying to pull my wrists free of his grasp. His hands formed liked vices over mine, not letting me go. He drove the other palm into his face, and then the other. “Stop,” I whimpered, my throat contracting around my sobs.

He didn’t. Hit after hit, Jude slapped my hands against his face until they were tingling.

“Jude, stop,” I cried, my sobs rocking me. His cheeks were red, capillaries broken on the surface. “Please.”

Then, as suddenly as he’d started, he freed my hands, letting them fall back into my lap. They stung, like hundreds of needles were poking at the surface, but what I felt inside hurt the worst.

I loved the broken man kneeling in front of me‌—‌loved him like I never would another. But I couldn’t be with him. For plenty of reasons, this latest episode the most recent.

“You feel better?” he said, falling back, using my bed as a backrest.

“No,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my coat, looking down into my open hands like I couldn’t believe what they were capable of.

“Me neither,” he said, rubbing his hands over his face.

His breathing had grown shorter, and the parts of his face that weren’t red were white and clammy. I’d never seen Jude so frail‌—‌never imagined he could ever be so.

“Here,” I said, tossing the chocolate bar at him. “Eat that.”

“I thought you didn’t care,” he said, turning the bar over in his hand, inspecting it.

“I don’t,” I lied, settling into a more comfortable position on the floor. “Just eat it. I don’t want you passing out because it would take a half dozen guys to move you.”

One corner of his mouth lifted as he unwrapped the bar. Breaking a chunk off, he tossed it at me. “You look like you need sustenance as much as I do,” he said, breaking off another piece. “I’ll eat if you eat.”

I sighed, knowing he was right, as much as I didn’t want him to be.

“Fine.” Taking a bite, I let the chocolate melt in my mouth.

Lifting his piece at me, he stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. He chewed it, staring at me as if he was contemplating his next move. “I didn’t screw Adriana, Luce.”

I almost choked on the bit of chocolate still melting in my mouth. He wasn’t going to ease our way into this conversation. He was charging the red flag like a bull.

“Sure you didn’t,” I said, sliding my shoes off and tossing them across the room. “She just needed to borrow your shower. While you snoozed nak*d on the bed. With an empty bottle of tequila in hand.”

The muscles of his neck tightened, his jaw following. “I didn’t screw her, Luce,” he repeated.

I laughed one clipped note. “You were drunk, Jude. Shit faced drunk,” I said, trying not to visualize the whole scene in my mind again. “How the hell would you know?”

I was insulted that he’d led with the whole denial act. Jude knew I wasn’t a gullible girl and the fact that he was treating me like one now was just downright insulting.

“How the hell would I know?” he repeated, his face screwed into disbelief. “How the hell would I know, Luce?” Okay, now he was looking insulted. “I know because even if I drank every last drop of alcohol in every seedy bar in this town, there’s only one girl I’d want to crawl into bed with. There’d only be one girl I could even fantasize about going to bed with.”

“Let me guess,” I mused, tapping my temple. “Adriana Vix?”

Jude pounded the floor with his fist. “Would you stop being so damn difficult?”

“Would you stop screwing manipulative bitches behind my back?” Low blow, but that’s where I felt like hitting right now.

“I can’t stop what I never started,” he said, popping his neck, attempting to diffuse the ticking time bomb from going off again.

“So you’re telling me a nak*d, freshly showered Adriana Vix just magically appeared in your bedroom?” I hoped it sounded as preposterous as it was.

“Would you believed me if I told you what happened?” he asked, keeping his words slow, his muscles relaxed.

“No,” I snapped, “but I’m sure it will be highly entertaining and quite imaginative, so please, tell away.”

He took in another breath, really trying not to react to me baiting him.

“After I left the restaurant, I drove back to my house. I was pissed and angry at myself for ruining the day, so I grabbed myself a bottle of tequila and went upstairs and sulked in my bedroom until I was drunk.”

“Shit faced drunk,” I clarified.

“Luce,” he dropped his gaze at me, “you and I both know it would take a hell of a lot more than a bottle to get me shit faced.”

So what if the man could hold his liquor? Not on that day. Not on an empty stomach. Not after he’d left his girlfriend in the middle of a snowy street.

“I was buzzing for sure, but when I crawled into bed that night, I was alone. And I at least had a pair of boxers on.”

“So Adriana slipped into your room, stripped you, positioned you, and hopped into the shower?”

“Maybe.”

“And I have ‘dumb’ tattooed to my face where?” I asked, glaring over at him.

“I’ve never once treated like you were some dumb broad, Luce, so don’t go there now,” he said, almost shouting. “I’m telling you what I know happened, I’m admitting what I don’t know, but I swear to you, on your brother’s grave, that I did not take Adriana Vix to bed with me that night.”

I recoiled from the words, scooting farther from him. “Don’t you bring my brother into this,” I warned, lifting my finger at him. “Don’t you swear on his grave, you lying bastard!”

“All right,” Jude said, exhaling through his nose. “I won’t swear on anyone’s grave. I’ll just give you my word. I didn’t do it, Luce. I love you. I’ll only ever love you.” The pain flashed through his eyes again. “I need you to believe me.”

I laughed. “Too damn bad.”

Dropping the half eaten chocolate bar to the side, he exhaled. He was tired and drained, maybe even more than I was.

“Then I need you to trust me, Luce.” Looking up, he met my eyes and I didn’t need words to read his meaning.

Trust. What I hadn’t given him months ago. What I’d paid for for not giving it to him. What I’d promised him he’d always have.

And this was Jude’s low blow. Asking me to trust him, knowing I couldn’t deny him this when I had before. I knew what I’d seen, so I couldn’t believe him. But I knew him, and because of that‌—‌no matter how preposterous this whole denial thing was‌—‌I made up my mind to trust him.

“Fine,” I breathed, realizing trust was as painful as love.

The breath he’d been holding fell out of his mouth, the lines ironing from his face. His whole body relaxed. “So we’re good?” he asked so softly it was like he was afraid of the answer. “We’re going to be able to make it past this?”

My hands were shaking because this was it. The end.

“I trust you, Jude,” I began, focusing on my trembling hands because I couldn’t watch his face break again, “but I can’t do this right now. I need a break.”

I had to pause to collect myself before I could go on. “I can’t keep doing this up and down, never knowing what’s going to be around the corner thing. I need some time to get myself right. To figure out what I want and how and if we fit into that picture. I need to focus on school and dance and what I want out of my future. I need… time.”

He’d stayed silent, unmoving, the entire time, letting me get out what I needed to.

“Luce,” he said after a minute of silence, “are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

His voice almost made me break down into sobs again. “Yeah,” I said, turning my hands over. “I think so.”

He sucked in a breath, his head falling back against my mattress.

“I just need some time right now, Jude,” I rushed, wanting to give him a scrap of hope I knew wasn’t there to give. “I need a break from the tornado you and I create everywhere we go.”

“How much time?” His voice was a whisper, his own gaze focused on where my hands shook in my lap.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “A month. Maybe more.”

“A month?” he gasped, punching the floor again.

“I don’t know, Jude. I just don’t damn well know right now,” I said, hanging from the verge of losing it again. “I’m sorry.”

And I was. Despite whatever had or hadn’t happened in Jude’s bedroom Thursday night into Friday morning, I didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for the pain in his voice or the agony on his face.

He studied me, silently watched me. For what felt like five minutes. His eyes didn’t miss one detail.

Crawling across the floor to me, his hands folded over mine in my lap, where they still shook.

“Okay,” he said, his voice tight. “Take your time. Take as much time as you need.” Sucking in a breath, he let it out slowly. “I’ll be here when you’re ready. No matter how long it takes. I’ll always be here, Luce. I’m yours,” he breathed, squeezing my hands, “forever.”

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