Jase followed my gaze. “We still on for dinner tomorrow?”
I glanced back at him. “I thought we were having lunch at Betty’s?”
He grinned. “Doesn’t mean we can’t have dinner.”
“True,” I laughed, but the sound died off as he pulled up to the sidewalk. I was reluctant to leave him. Today . . . today had been a great day. Jeep idling, he reached for the door handle. “You don’t have to walk me up.”
I silenced him with a kiss. If he came up, I wouldn’t want him to leave, and I needed to talk to Deb. “You don’t have to do it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He took his hand off the door. “Text me before you go to bed.”
My lips split into a wide grin. “Okay.”
Before I could pull away, he wrapped his hand around the nape of my neck and kissed me. At once, my mouth opened to his. He tasted me in a way that made it even harder to leave. “Night, Tess.”
I closed my eyes as I pulled back. “Night.”
Jase waited until I was inside before pulling away and I hopped along on my crutches, taking the elevator. Like I suspected, Deb was in the dorm.
She was sitting on the bed, cross-legged, hair pulled back and wearing an oversized hoodie. When she looked up, she smacked her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God.”
I stilled in the door, confused. “What?”
“Crutches!” She unfurled her legs but didn’t make it far. “I knew you would be on crutches, but I just . . . I don’t know.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “I’m so sorry.”
Placing the crutches against the wall, I carefully walked to my bed and sat down. I didn’t know how to start this conversation, but I knew I was going to tell her about my past. It just wasn’t easy to say, by the way, I dated a f**king loser who beat me. “Debbie—”
“I broke up with Erik.”
I blinked, thinking I hadn’t heard her right. And then hope sprang within me. “What?”
She got up and sat beside me. “I broke up with Erik earlier today.”
“That’s . . .” What did I say? Great? Fantastic? That seemed inappropriate because I think Deb really cared about him.
“It needed to be done. It had to be because . . .” She ducked her chin, hiding her gaze. “Because you were right on Sunday. Erik . . . he can be a really good guy, but . . .”
“But he hits you,” I said quietly, and for some damn reason, my chest began to squeeze.
She nodded slowly. “He didn’t hit me often. You know, it wasn’t all the time. Sometimes he would just grab me or yell at me. He always—always—seemed to regret it afterward. Or at least his apologies seemed believable, and I always forgave him.” She paused, drawing in a deep breath. “No one has ever said anything. Not until you did. I think it was partly because he’s been—uh, losing his cool a lot more lately, but everyone just looked away.”
“It’s hard to say something,” I said, tucking my left leg against my chest. “I didn’t want to make you mad.” Or embarrass her because that was the main emotion I had felt when my family discovered what I’d been hiding.
“I wasn’t mad. I was ashamed,” she said, confirming my thoughts. “Because why would I stay with him when it’s so obvious he doesn’t treat me right?”
“Because sometimes he treats you like a queen?” I fiddled with the frayed hem of my jeans. “And you hang on to those moments because you know he’s capable of being a good guy.”
I could feel her eyes on me. “You’ve been . . . ?”
Without saying anything, I nodded.
She let out a low breath. “And you broke up with him?”
“Not really.” I barked out a short laugh. “My mom and Cam saw the bruises and I finally told them the truth. I wanted to leave him before then, but I was scared and . . .”
“And you loved him?” she asked in a quiet voice that was laced with pain.
Tugging the little white strings on my jeans, I swallowed hard. “He was my first—first of everything. I thought I was in love with him. Looking back now, I know it was more about being afraid of being—”
“Alone?” she said, and I nodded. “We’re pretty stupid, huh? Being afraid of being single outweighs the fear of being hit.”
“You’re not stupid anymore,” I pointed out. “You broke up with him.”
“I did.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she blinked tightly.
The squeezing pressure moved up my throat. I was happy for her—thrilled to be exact, but I knew this had to be hard for her. The first night things were over between Jeremy and me had been the hardest. Because like with Erik, Jeremy had this almost magical ability of making me forget the bad moments. He excelled at that, so much so that it was also one of the reasons why I hadn’t left him. Now that I was older, I realized that was a hallmark of an abuser. They could be as charming as sin when required, and that made them as dangerous as a rattlesnake.
“How did Erik take it?” I asked.
A wobbly smile appeared. “Not very good.”
My stomach tumbled a little. “He didn’t—”
“No! He didn’t. It was the opposite.” She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hands. I put a hand on her arm and squeezed. “He apologized and cried and begged . . .” She shook her head. “He got angry at the end, but I left before it could go any further.”
She looked up, meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you on Sunday and for what happened when I came back with Erik. I do think it was accident, but it shouldn’t have happened because when he gets angry, he doesn’t think.”
“Is that what made you break up with him?”
“Yes. And no.” She cleared her throat. “When Jase confronted him Wednesday morning and I found out that your knee was completely blown—”
“Jase confronted him?” I cut in, feeling my eyes widen as I stared at her.
She nodded. “He showed up right before we were leaving for classes. I didn’t know he’d hurt you that badly.”
I waved that off, feeling my pulse pick up. “What did Jase say to him?”
“Not much really. Jase told him that if you ever ended up hurt again, that he’d pretty much put him in a grave. Erik was in a mood.” Reaching up, she tugged her ponytail down. “He mouthed off and called you . . . called you a nosy bitch who needed to stay away from me.”
I didn’t give two shits what Erik said about me, but my stomach fell out of my butt.
“Jase didn’t take to that well,” she continued. “Neither did Erik’s face when it was all said and done.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I fought for breath as I flashed hot and cold. Images of Jase’s knuckles rushed through my head. He’d gone after Erik. Just like Cam had gone after Jeremy. In a way, history had totally repeated itself. Anger and disappointment and something else I didn’t want to acknowledge crashed together inside me.
“You okay?” Deb asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Things are going to be so much better now for you.” My voice was hoarse as I focused on what was important right now, which was Debbie, and not what Jase had done. “I really do mean that.”
“I know.” She hugged me tightly, and when she pulled away, the tears had dried. “My life starts over now, and I only have good things to look forward to.”
Debbie and I had stayed up late talking. At first it had been hard to hear about how Jase had confronted Jeremy the morning I believed he’d been with Jack. Maybe he’d done both. Not that it mattered, because it didn’t change anything. But eventually I told Debbie everything about Jeremy. I watered down Cam’s reaction, but it still felt so, so damn good to get it off my shoulders. To share what it had been like with someone who could truly understand. And Deb told me about the good times, the bad times, and the downright horrifying moments. There were moments when I could sense that Deb was having doubts and that was natural. They’d been together for years and sometimes it was hard to let someone go, even if he was a sociopath. People who hadn’t been in a situation like we’d been in just wouldn’t understand. They’d think we were stupid and weak, but the smartest and strongest girl could fall prey to a poison-tongued charmer.
And there had been tears—cleansing tears. The kind that renewed instead of hurt.
I ended up sleeping late on Friday; when I was up, Deb told me she was going to visit her parents and break the news. I wished her luck—luck that I needed.
I’d ended up canceling the lunch date, Debbie had left the dorm, and Jase was now minutes away from picking me up for dinner—for our first real honest-to-goodness date—and all I could think about as I waited outside, holding my crutches, was that he’d done nearly the same thing my brother had done.
I still hadn’t worked out how I felt about what he did, if I should be as angry as I felt or if I should be angrier? Jase knew the kind of guilt I carried around because of what Cam had done.
When Jase pulled up to the curb, he hopped out and came around the front of the Jeep. He was wearing jeans and a dark V-neck sweater that somehow made me feel underdressed in my jeans and cardigan. No matter what he wore, he looked damn good, like he was ready to step off the pages of GQ. Not like every other guy around; they all looked like they belonged in a Sears catalog.
He helped me in, taking the crutches and then holding my arm as I climbed up. Waiting for me on the dashboard was a square pink box. I picked it up and glanced at him.
“For dessert,” he said, grinning.
I didn’t want to pop the lid, but the light brown frosting looked tasty. “What flavor?”
“Boring,” he said, easing away from the curb. “It’s peanut butter icing and filling.”
“Oh.” Momentarily distracted by the awesomeness that was peanut butter and chocolate, I was tempted to crack the bad boy open and devour it.
“You’re more than welcome to eat it now. Fuck dinner rules, right? Dessert can come first.”
Another small smile appeared. I don’t know what it was about the cupcakes that seemed to affect me. Besides the fact that they tasted delicious ninety-nine percent of the time, they’d become something I looked forward to.
“Where do you get them?” I said, surprised that this was the first time I even thought to ask. “At the bakery in town?”
My gaze dropped to his knuckles as I waited for a more detailed explanation. The skin wasn’t nearly as raw, but still pink and ruddy. My stomach tightened.
“My mom’s sister—her daughter Jen makes them.”
“Wow. These taste like something you’d get in a gourmet bakery. She should really start her own business.”
“That’s what we’ve been telling her.” He glanced over at me and a lopsided grin appeared. “Jen’s been asking about the girl she keeps making extraspecial cupcakes for. I told her I was going to have to bring her over one day.”
My stare started to wander to his hands, but I jerked my gaze to him. “I’d . . . I’d like that.”
“Me too.” He reached over and threaded his fingers through mine and squeezed.
There was a soft flutter in my chest that moved into my belly as I ended up studying his knuckles. His skin had split Erik’s. He’d gone after the boy for something that may or may not have been an accident. This was the perfect chance for me to bring everything up, but I wasn’t ready.
“Does Jen know about Jack?” I asked, changing the subject.
He nodded. “Family knows. No one talks about it though. It’s kind of like the worst well-kept secret.”
After that, I fell silent. My mind was occupied. The ride to Frederick didn’t take very long and the food was served quickly at Bonefish Grill. I could’ve eaten an entire meal of bang bang shrimp. Jase kept the conversation going, talking about Jack and then moving on to my brother.
“So tomorrow’s the big deal, right?” he said, spearing a scallop on my plate and stealing it. “You think he’s going to go through with it?”
I hadn’t considered that he wouldn’t. “You don’t think he’ll do it?”
“He’s really nervous.” Jase laughed as he settled back in the booth. “Hell, I’ve never seen your brother like that.”
“Me neither. I hope he does do it. They’re perfect together.”
Jase ran his finger along the rim of his glass as he watched me from beneath lowered lashes. “We need to tell Cam as soon as he gets back.”
My breath caught and I nodded. “We do.”
The waitress appeared with the check and as Jase leaned forward to pull out his wallet, he pressed a quick kiss against the corner of my lips. The silvery light in his eyes as he pulled back caused my chest to lurch.
“Debbie broke up with Erik,” I blurted out.
He paused for just a second and then pulled cash out of his wallet. “That’s good news, right? I mean, he’s always been a dick to the girl. No one could figure out why she stayed with him.”
I watched him as he laid the money near the check. My heart beat faster. “He . . . hit her.”
Jase froze again, but this time he’d been in the process of leaning back. His thick lashes lifted. “What?”