Authors: Brenda Novak,Jill Shalvis,Alison Kent
She looked back up, her heart wedged tightly at the base of her throat. It was a wonder she was able to speak. “Yes?”
“We’re going to have to talk about it.”
Speaking was nothing; swallowing was the problem now. She reached for her coffee mug anyway. “Talk about what?”
David’s eyes twinkled and flashed. The corners of his mouth wrapped like parentheses around his wide grin. “About the fact that I saved your life. And that you ruined mine.”
VERY’S COFFEE SLOSHED
from her mug to the table when she slammed it down. “You did not save my life.”
Yeah, she was probably right, David admitted, though he did take note that she hadn’t refuted his comment that she’d ruined his. She hadn’t, of course, which caused him to wonder why she didn’t stomp his claim to the ground. Or if this was another demonstration of her unhealthy tendency to hold too tightly to the past.
Still, they’d been circling this itchy thing between them now for ten months—if not for the fifteen years since the incident beneath the bleachers—and it was time to put it to bed.
“Maybe, maybe not.” He spread the melted butter on his croissant and spooned up a serving of peach jam. “I seem to remember a few months later at the Dairy Queen you telling me that I had.”
Avery pinched off first one end of her croissant then the other, no doubt imagining the bread to be his neck. “I was frightened the night it happened,
yes. Especially knowing what Johnny was capable of. But he wouldn’t have hurt me. I overreacted.”
David begged to differ; he’d seen the look in Johnny’s eyes when he’d pulled him off Avery and thrown him to the ground. “Another matter of opinion,” David offered with a shrug.
She paused, swallowed; her eyes darted to his, then away when he dared to hold her gaze. “You weren’t there for the whole thing.”
David huffed with more bitterness than he’d intended. He’d been there for way too much. “Yeah. I just saw the part where good ol’ Johnny Boyd ripped open the top of your cheerleading uniform.”
Avery sat back. Slowly she drew her hand along her collarbone, her fingers slipping beneath the V neckline of her dusky-blue sleeveless tunic. Her voice barely reached a whisper when she said, “He didn’t mean to hurt me.”
God, but she was wrong. So very wrong. Johnny Boyd had been all about getting into her pants whether she consented or not. Shoving half his croissant into his mouth kept David from demanding Avery admit her mistake.
Not that he thought she’d defend her position if he did. He was surprised she was talking at all, because even then, that night, all those years ago, she’d turned and run without saying a word.
Not even a halfhearted thanks.
He hadn’t wanted her thanks. He’d wanted her to see, to really
who he was, how he felt about her. How he’d always felt about her. But like everyone around her, all she’d seen was what he looked like, the clothes he wore, the way his mouth wouldn’t shut the hell up.
He’d been such a stupid freak to think she would pay him any attention when he’d been the school geek and she’d been queen of the prom. She sure as hell hadn’t wanted anything to do with him or the attention he’d received
the fight with Johnny Boyd beneath the bleachers.
He’d returned to school at the end of his suspension as the bad boy, the only kid in any of the four classes who’d taken on Johnny and won. It was the peer respect he’d always wanted, had foolishly wished his 4.0 grade average would earn.
But no. That sort of awe only came with pounding another kid’s head to a near pulp.
Hell, he was still a stupid freak even now for thinking back to a time that was over and done with and had no bearing on who the both of them were today. Except he wasn’t so sure of that truth. Which meant he had no business bad-mouthing Avery for not letting that night go.
It was that night beneath the bleachers and the look in Avery’s eyes, in fact, that had brought him back into her life. He’d moved on since high
school, had graduated university with honors. He was more than content with his circumstances, pleased by the enthusiasm of his students, fortunate to be part of a dedicated teaching staff.
No, he’d never planned to end up in Tatem. But neither had he ever been able to get Avery’s wounded-animal expression out of his mind. He’d wondered for years what that night had done to her, knowing exactly how it had changed him, turned him from freak to punk.
So when she reached a tentative hand across the table and wrapped her fingers over his, he didn’t even question why his pulse decided to race. He looked up from her hand, from her fingers so pale and delicate and, yeah, so really, really strong, and into her big baby blues.
“Thank you, David. I don’t think I ever said that.” One side of her mouth turned up. “I thought it.” She gave a quiet laugh. “I’ve thought it now for fifteen years.” Finally her expression grew solemn. “You suffered for my sins, and I never even expressed my gratitude.”
Gratitude. Right. That was exactly what he wanted. He pulled his hand free and reached for his mug, scraping his chair around and squaring an ankle over a knee so he no longer faced her. And then he got back to eating his breakfast. Food he could deal with. Fixing clogged drains, simple stuff.
Not having Avery try to make nice when he wasn’t in the mood for forgiveness.
And then she huffed.
Avery huffed and snorted. “Oh, now you don’t want to talk about it, is that it? You want to rub my face in the fact that you rescued me, but the minute I offer you the thanks I should have given you years ago, you’re done talking.”
Here we go.
“It’s not about thanking me, Avery.” He tried not to glare, and wasn’t sure he’d succeeded. “It’s about you always being so blind to people.”
“Blind? Me? What are you talking about?”
As much as this was about how she’d never seen him for who he really was, it was more. About how she was unaware of her own fixation on the past. About how her own mother had moved on. “Johnny Boyd, for one.”
“I’ve already admitted I made a mistake following him under the bleachers, all right? I kicked myself a thousand times over after that night.” She threaded her fingers through the handle on her mug and held it tight. “What else do you want me to say?”
He looked at her then, unsure if her naiveté was real or if she was still deceiving herself all these years later. He thought for a moment. “Did you tell your parents what had happened?”
She had the grace to drop her gaze, her face coloring slightly as she shook her head. “They heard what everyone else heard.”
“That we were suspended for fighting,” he offered before she reminded him of all the other rumors that had taken off and raged like a rampant wildfire upon his and Johnny’s return to school.
She nodded, used the tip of her knife to push around the torn ends of her croissant. “I thought if I stayed quiet, if I didn’t tell anyone what Johnny had been trying to do, then he wouldn’t—” she shrugged “—you know, make things bad for you when y’all came back to school.”
He didn’t want to talk about his return to school. He wanted to talk about her. The weariness, the sadness, hell, the guilt he saw in her expression now hit him harder than Johnny Boyd’s fists had. Why couldn’t she let it go?
He pictured her getting to her feet that night in what had felt like a movie set when he’d first walked up, a dark city underbelly ripe for breeding crime. The bright yellow top of her uniform gaped where it hung torn from the neckline to just above her waist, the flap of material exposing one breast covered in a plain-Jane bra.
He’d pictured her like that for years, dusting gravel from her bottom and the backs of her thighs, digging stubborn grit from the palms of her hands.
She wore little makeup then, but her mascara had run in dotted lines down her cheeks as she silently cried.
The fact that Johnny Boyd had six inches and sixty pounds on David hadn’t deterred him a bit. He’d done his damnedest to keep the inevitable from happening.
And he had, surprising Johnny and suffering in the process, but gaining a world of brutal experience to replace his innocence lost. An innocence that had kept him believing he had a chance to win Avery’s heart. Pathetic.
One heartbeat, two, three and David pushed out of his chair. He headed for the coffeemaker, realizing too late Avery had left the pot on the table. Hell, he didn’t want another cup anyway. He only wanted the distraction and the distance.
“Avery, look. I need to finish up your mom’s sink,” he said, turning to find her standing there beside him, the coffeepot in her hand.
He didn’t know what else to do so he held out his mug and she poured, setting the carafe on the coffeemaker while he made his way back to the table for sugar and cream and, hell, why not, another croissant.
Avery, however, stayed where she was, leaning against the countertop, crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s not the end, David, and you know it as
well as I do,” she said softly. “We’re stuck with this connection neither of us seems to want.”
He poured cream into his coffee, added sugar, stalling as he weighed his response. Truth-or-dare time. Put up or shut up. She’d given him the perfect opening. And he’d be a damned fool not to take it.
He’d been a damned fool for this woman too long already.
“Answer me this, then. How come it’s taken us ten months to have this conversation? We could’ve gotten this out of the way last summer, and you wouldn’t have spent all this time avoiding me.”
“Avoiding you?” Her eyes went wide. “You think I’ve been avoiding you?”
“I know you have.” He shrugged, glad to see he’d struck a nerve. “I’ve seen you turn around on the staircase when I’ve been on my way up.”
A pink flush dotted her cheeks. “That’s because the staircase isn’t designed for two people.”
“Sure it is. We fit just fine,” he said, thinking that the way they fit together would be a whole lot of fun to explore further.
“Maybe your idea of fine,” she muttered, but not so low that he couldn’t hear.
“It bothers you, then. When we’re that close.” She didn’t say a word. She unscrewed the top to check the level of coffee in the carafe instead. “Avery?”
“No, David. It doesn’t bother me.” She hesitated; he waited. “It’s just a personal-space issue.”
“Uh-huh,” was all he said, getting back to his breakfast and waiting for her to come around.
“Fine. Don’t believe me.” She huffed again.
“I don’t.” She may have hung around the Dairy Queen when he’d been working, but even then she’d kept her distance.
She’d been keeping her distance since she’d backed away and left the scrawny beanpole he was to face down the one kid in Tatem High’s student body of seventy-five no one was ballsy enough to call down for being a thug.
She stewed for a long moment, finally coming back with, “Why?”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
She nodded. “You have no reason not to.”
“No.” She shook her head. Too vigorously. “It’s a space issue, like I said. It’s nothing personal at all.”
And, at that, he laughed. He had to. His frustration was off the charts, and he was digging himself an early grave chasing this circle of a conversation into the ground.
So he laughed. Then he got up, pushing away from the table and to his feet. A button of his chambray shirt caught on the table’s loose aluminum
flashing and rolled across the floor to Avery’s feet. To the toe of one sandal. To her nails painted a soft frosty blue. Blue. Her toenails were blue.
He bent. She bent. She picked up the button. He hesitated, then ran his thumb over the tips of her blue-painted toes. She caught her breath but didn’t pull her foot away. He smiled to himself, straightened and stepped as close as he could, waiting for her to bolt as he invaded the very space she claimed to value so highly.
She didn’t bolt. She remained exactly where she was. He could see the flutter of her straight blond hair where air from the vent above the kitchen sink blew down. He could see the half-moon shadows of her lashes above her cheeks. He could see the girl who’d been frightened all those years ago in the face of the woman frightened now.
The last thing he wanted to do was scare her, to make her nervous or uncomfortable. He only wanted some sort of peace so that passing on the staircase would be a normal course of daily affairs. One they both could live with.
Yeah. That was all he wanted. He lifted a hand and tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear, his hand lingering as he asked, “What are you afraid of, Avery?”
Her chin came up; her blue-eyed gaze met his undauntedly. He saw the things she wanted to say,
watched them flash brightly then fade, the retreat into the safe harbor that he instinctively knew she’d been making for years.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m…worried. About my mother. I assumed she made a quick trip to the market and would be home by now.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” And he was. Suzannah had looked like a million bucks, like she hadn’t a care in the world but for her clogged sink. He knew the truth about what was going on with her, but he wasn’t going to share it with her daughter per Suzannah’s request. Her private life was hers to keep secret or to share in her own time.
“I know,” Avery was saying. “It’s just that she’s always home on Saturday mornings. And anytime she plans to be out, she lets me know.” And, as she said it, she continued to stare into his eyes.
David swore the room’s heat descended from the ceiling and entered his pores. He drew his hand down the strand of hair he still held and moved his palm to her shoulder. He squeezed, his fingertips slipping beneath the edge of the shirt’s armhole so that he grazed the strap of her bra.
Her tongue darted out to wet her lips, as if she knew his intent was to kiss her when even he hadn’t yet made that decision. It was what he wanted. God, but it was what he wanted. Yet he hadn’t quite figured how to slide into the crack between what she
said with her eyes and what she told him with her mouth.
Right now, he was listening to her mouth. Not spoken words, but the dampness of her lower lip that appeared to quiver as he lowered his head. He moved his other hand to cup her neck, his thumb beneath her chin to lift her head. Her breath was warm where it brushed his cheek. Her mouth was even warmer when he settled his lips over hers.
He kissed her softly, sweetly, nothing but a light brush of contact when he could easily have taken more. For a moment she remained still, simply letting him have his way. Then he felt her hands move, and she settled them at his hips, beneath the loose tails of his shirt, hooking her fingers through his belt loops as if to keep him near.