Page 10

 Jay Crownover

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I was secretly hopeful that he would do just that. I didn’t want to sit through an awkward dinner with a guy whom I had just told, in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t find him attractive. But Adam was a gentleman and his good manners just wouldn’t allow it.
“No. I already made the reservation and I would still like to take you. I don’t want to be alone on Valentine’s Day, especially not when I thought things were moving in a much more favorable direction with you.”
Man, he was even being nice about being dumped. I sighed and climbed up into the high vehicle. “All right. I really am sorry, Adam.”
He gave his head a rueful shake and slid his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “To be honest, Ayd, sometimes when we were together I felt like one minute you were there with me, and present, and then the next second it was like a stranger was staring back at me. You’re very difficult to get a handle on, but I really thought it was worth the effort to try.”
That made my eye twitch and I needed to get away from him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll pick you up at eight.” It was on the tip of my tongue to just tell him I would meet him at the restaurant, so I could go to the show right after without him having to drop me off, but I figured I had done enough damage for one day. His comment about me being two different people was still spinning in my head, so I just left.
I was surprised when I got to the house to see that Cora’s little Mini Cooper was parked in the driveway. She normally closed down the tattoo shop where she worked and did the bank deposit for the night. She was usually just getting home when I was leaving for my shift at the bar. I was also irritated and relieved to see that the Challenger was gone. Jet had been scarce lately, which in turn made me curious as to what he was up to and grateful I didn’t have to deal with his unpredictable moods as of late.
When I walked into the living room I was brought up short by the tiny figure curled up on the couch. Cora wasn’t the type to wrap up in a fluffy blanket and watch sad movies on Lifetime, so the fact that both those things were happening right now made me drop my bag on the floor and rush to her side. I was startled to see that both the brown and the blue-green eyes were glassy with tears, and that her normally cheerful smile was hidden under a quivering lip and flushed cheeks. Cora was a couple years older than me, but right then she looked all of five years old.
“What’s wrong?” I didn’t know what to do, so I patted her on her knee under the blanket.
She blew her nose into a Kleenex and swiped at her damp face with the back of her hand. She looked like a sad pixie.
“I just had a really bad day.”
I frowned and settled even more fully onto the couch. “I’ve known you awhile now and you’ve never even called in sick, not even when we all got food poisoning from that bad Thai food. What happened?”
She sighed and flopped over on her back. She tossed an arm over her swollen eyes and gritted out through clenched teeth, “My ex-fiancé is getting remarried at the end of the year. The asshole sent me a wedding announcement in the mail.”
I blinked in surprise because I didn’t even know she had ever been engaged and because I never would have figured her for the type to carry a torch for someone. “I’m sorry. That has to be rough.”
She let out a string of swear words that would have made Rule and the boys proud and shoved up into a sitting position so that she was hugging her knees. “It shouldn’t matter. He was a bastard and cheated on me the entire time we were together. He owned the shop I worked at in Brooklyn. I came back late one day because I forgot something, and walked in on him putting it to one of his clients in the back room. That wasn’t even the worst part. I thought we were family, that the shop was home, but everyone knew and no one ever said a thing. I looked like a fool.”
She ran her hands through her short hair and growled like an angry puppy. “He was the first guy I ever really loved, ya know? I was so sure that I was over it, but then I saw that stupid announcement and I felt like I was reliving it all over again. If Phil hadn’t pulled me out of the city when he did, I don’t know what I would have done. It just sucks that he’s moved on to some other unsuspecting girl, and I go day after day alone.”
I went to the kitchen to grab her a bottle of water and hand her a paper towel to wipe off her face.
“It’s not like you don’t have every opportunity to date and have a boyfriend. I’ve been out with you. You get hit on all the time.”
She rubbed her multitoned eyes and sighed. “I get hit on by the same kind of guy over and over again; tatted up, restless, and only looking for a good time. I work with guys like them, and some of my best friends are guys like that, Ayd. I know how they operate. I’ve had my heart stomped on, so even though I could probably hang out with one of them for a minute, in the long run I would still end up heartbroken and alone.”
“So date someone different.”
She looked at me from under spiky eyelashes and a hint of her old attitude started to surface.
“Says the girl who is dating a guy who looks like he should be smoking a pipe and reading Chaucer.”
Now it was my turn to sigh and flop on the couch. I crossed my arms over my stomach and looked at her out of the corner of my eye.
“I broke it off with him today.”
She lifted a pale eyebrow, the one with the pink stud in it at me. “Really? I thought you were planning a perfectly boring future of going to the cinema and breeding supergeniuses with tedious bouts of vanilla sex.”
“Yeah, well, I would actually have to want to have sex with him in order to breed anything and it just isn’t happening—vanilla or otherwise. I just couldn’t string him along anymore.”
She popped me on the shoulder with her tiny fist and gave me a huge grin. “Good. Now you can stop pretending that you don’t want to get all kinds of naked and horizontal with Jet.”
I snapped my head around and stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “You’re the second person today who has told me I should just go ahead and sleep with him.”
She shrugged and tossed the blanket to the floor. “Shaw and I talk about it all the time. Jet is sexy, like it-hurts-to-look-at-him sexy, so we totally get it. What we don’t get is why you so obviously struggle to keep him at arm’s length. I see you stare at him day in and day out, and when he’s onstage, Ayd, you should see the way you look at him.”
I fidgeted nervously, again unaware that I was being so transparent about what he did to me and the struggle I had with myself to keep my hands off.
“Everyone watches him like that when he’s onstage. He’s amazing and talented.”
She got to her feet and stretched her arms above her head. She patted me on top of my head with the tattooed arm on her way out of the room, calling over her shoulder, “Yeah, that’s true, but you’re the only one he ever looks into the crowd for. You’re the only one he makes sure is watching if he knows you’re there.”
That made my breath catch in my throat and my pulse slip and slide. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that Jet and I shared a pretty potent amount of attraction, but I was also smart enough to know that after turning me down last winter, he hadn’t had an empty bed or a serious relationship since.
A relationship needed more than fire and flames to make it work. Plus, he didn’t know the real me, and the me he did know, he had deemed too clean to mess up. Having someone else tell me that he might be looking at me, realizing all the forbidden things I wanted to do to him and seeing through the perfect image I tried to project, really made me nervous. I struggled around him now, and if he had an inkling as to what I really wanted, I didn’t know that I would be able to keep my hands to myself and out of his pants any longer .
Grumbling to myself I picked my stuff up off the floor and wandered back to my room. I scowled at his closed door and settled in to do some homework and brood. I didn’t want to go to dinner with Adam, and now with Cora’s startling revelation, I didn’t really want to go to the show afterward, either. Maybe when I packed up and left Kentucky, I should have looked into becoming a nun. Right now, that seemed like it would be a whole lot easier to handle.
With my dark hair and odd-colored eyes I looked good in red and since it was Valentine’s Day, I thought that my dress with its flared skirt and off-the-shoulder boatneck in lipstick red was a perfect choice. My hair was too short to do much with so I curled it around the front of my face, and pinned the long bangs back with a bobby pin that had a big rhinestone heart on it. I had been to enough of Jet’s shows to know that heels weren’t exactly the best choice in footwear, but I didn’t have anything else that would fit with the dress, so I settled on a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes.
When I looked in the mirror I had to acknowledge that I looked way too good to simply be having dinner with my ex-sorta-boyfriend, and that I was dressing for someone else entirely. And that wasn’t smart, but I didn’t care or change my outfit.
Adam arrived right on time in his very sensible Subaru, and drove us downtown. The conversation in the car was stiff and strained, even though he told me I looked lovely and was being perfectly polite. We devolved into talking about school and chemistry. By the time we got seated at the restaurant, it was all I could do not to check my phone every five minutes to see the time. I was antsy and still a little concerned about his comment that he felt like I was two different people. That was something I battled with on a regular basis and had thought I’d figured out how to keep the old me totally locked down tight.
I would be the first to admit that I was probably the worst Valentine’s date in the history of the holiday. When he ordered a bottle of wine to have with dinner, I wanted to groan because that just seemed too datelike, but I owed it to him to at least try to be pleasant. I let him pour me a glass and forced a smile.
“Thanks, Adam.”
“I’m glad you came. I really wish you would reconsider and think about trying to work this out between us. I really do like you, Ayden. You’re smart, funny, and beautiful. Plus, we have so much in common.”
What was wrong with me? This guy was nice, cute, and clearly thought I was awesome. He was like the dream guy most girls wanted, but for some reason, the more he extolled all my virtues, the more turned off I got. I pushed the glass of wine away and picked up a glass of water.
“Adam, I don’t think you really know me. For instance, I hate wine. I usually drink tequila, a lot of it, and then hate myself in the morning. We have our chemistry majors and school in common, but beyond that, not much. I really don’t like the ballet or the opera, and I’m more of a line dancing, rodeo kind of girl. I thought that it would do me some good to try to date a guy like you, because you’re just so thoughtful and nice, but all it did was show me that trying to force something to happen just won’t work.”
He cleared his throat and set his wine down as well. “You could have told me all of that months ago, Ayd. You never even gave me a chance to get to know you. You already decided, before we even began, which version of you that I was going to date, without considering that I might like both of them enough to stick around. Maybe I like to line dance as well.”