“Oh knock it off already, man, with the ‘nobody knows the horrors I’ve seen’ routine. It’s getting really old,” Jase snaps.

I take a deep breath like I’m going to say something—what, I have no idea—but he continues before I can. “It’s not like you murdered newborns and drank their blood. You screwed up at prep school. Don’t overrate yourself.”

Tim’s eyebrows have shot to his hairline. Neither Tim nor I have ever seen Jase lose his temper.

“It’s not the moral dilemma of the century.” Jase runs his fingers through his hair. “It’s not whether to develop the atom bomb. It’s just whether you’re going to do a decent thing or keep doing shitty things. So choose. Just stop whining about it.”

Tim gives a little nod, an upward jerk of his chin, then turns his attention to the register as though the numbers and symbols on it are the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. His face has been so much more expressive lately than usual, but now he’s assumed that bland mask that I had come to think of as his real face. “I should go to the stockroom,” he mutters, and heads down the hallway.

Jase pours the last plastic bag full of nails into the plastic container. The clatter breaks the silence.

“That didn’t sound like you,” I offer quietly, still standing beside him.

Jase looks embarrassed. “Kinda just came out. It’s…it makes me feel…I get tired of…” His hand rubs the back of his neck, then slides all the way across his face to cover his eyes. “I like Tim. He’s a good guy…” He pulls his hand down to smile at me. “But I can’t say I wouldn’t appreciate a crack at all those choices—chances—Tim had. And when he acts like he’s under this curse or something…” He shakes his head, as though brushing the thought off, turns and looks at me, then nods at the clock. “I told Dad I’d stay late tonight and make out some reorder forms.” He reaches for a few strands of my hair, twining them around his finger. “You busy later?”

“I was supposed to go to a meet-and-greet in Fairport with Mom, but I told her I needed to study for SATs.”

“She believed this? It’s summer, Sam.”

“Nan’s got me signed up for this crazy prep simulation. And…I might have told Mom when she was a little distracted.”

“But not intentionally, of course.”

“Of course not,” I say.

“So if I were to come see you after eight, you’d be studying.”

“Absolutely. But I might want a…study buddy. Because I might be grappling with some really tough problems.”

“Grappling, huh?”

“Tussling with,” I say. “Wrestling. Handling.”

“Gotcha. Sounds like I should bring protective gear to study with you.” Jase grins at me.

“You’re pretty tough. You’ll be fine.”

Chapter Thirty-four

I’ve just gotten in the door when my cell phone starts up.

“So, because we have to get such an early start in the morning…The factory opens at five, can you imagine…really makes more sense…see you when you get back from school.” My cell gets perfect reception, but the tinny voice spilling out of it seems to come and go, as though I’m having problems tuning in to a certain radio frequency. Because this voice saying she’ll be gone all night because she has an early-morning meet-and-greet at a factory way up in the western corner of the state…this just can’t be Station Grace Reed. I must have tuned in to an alternative program. Or universe. But she concludes, “We’re halfway there already and it doesn’t make sense to drive all the way home. Clay’s found us a gorgeous hotel room. You’ll be fine, right?”

I’m so taken aback that I nod before remembering she can’t see me. “No problem, Mom. I’ll be fine. Enjoy the hotel.” I almost add that she could stay another night if she wanted before deciding that might sound suspiciously overeager.

She’ll be gone. All night. With Clay—and his confusing agenda—in a gorgeous hotel room. But I won’t think about that. What I do think about, what I immediately think about, is the all night part. Which is why I’m hitting Jase’s number on my cell instantly.

“Sam.” I can hear the smile in his voice. I just left the store ten minutes ago. “You having a study crisis already?”

“My mom won’t be home tonight. At all.”

There’s a pause, during which I feel flustered. Do I have to spell things out more? How do I even do that? “Want to have a sleepover?” We’re not six.

“Your mom won’t be home at all?” he repeats.

“That’s right.”

“So maybe you’d like company, since you’re grappling with all those study problems.”

“That’s what I’d like.”

“Door or window?” he asks.

“I’m unlocking the window right now.”

I pull my hair out of its braid, brush it loose. I’ve really got to cut it one of these days. It’s down to the small of my back now, takes forever to dry after a swim. Why am I even thinking about this now? I guess I’m a little nervous. I didn’t want to overthink, but unless we just pounce on each other in the heat of the moment—hard to do, logistically speaking, there has to be a little planning. A little time for overthinking. I hear a tapping and go over to the window to fit my hand against Jase’s before I nudge the glass open.

He’s brought a sleeping bag, one of those big green bulky L.L. Bean ones. I look at it questioningly.

Following my gaze, he turns red. “I told my parents I was going to help you study, then we might watch a movie, and if it got late enough, I’d crash on your living room floor.”

“And they said?”

“Mom said, ‘Have a nice time, dear.’ Dad just looked at me.”

“Embarrassing much?”

“Worth it.”

He walks slowly over, his eyes locked on mine, then puts his hands around my waist.

“Um. So…are we going to study?” My tone’s deliberately casual.

Jase slides his thumbs behind my ears, rubbing the hollow at their base. He’s only inches from my face, still looking into my eyes. “You bet. I’m studying you.” He scans over me, slowly, then returns to my eyes. “You have little flecks of gold in the middle of the blue.” He bends forward and touches his lips to one eyelid, then the other, then moves back. “And your eyelashes aren’t blond at all, they’re brown. And…” He steps back a little, smiling slowly at me. “You’re already blushing—here”—his lips touch the pulse at the hollow of my throat—“and probably here…” The thumb that brushes against my breast feels warm even through my T-shirt.