The floor seemed to swell underneath me. Every muscle in my body locked up, and I was seconds from being thrown into the past, into stumbling into something so horrifying it had taken years to erase those images.
“Anyway,” Shaw said, giving a little shake of his head. “Don’t forget what I said. If you need anything, don’t hesitate.”
I nodded slowly as he walked down the hall, disappearing around the corner. Closing my eyes, I swore under my breath. The good news was that those ghastly images from almost four years ago didn’t resurface, but the ball of acidic emotions did curl around those knots.
That was the last thing I needed to think about.
I inhaled deeply and pushed open the door, ready to do anything to get my mind off the past . . . and the present.
I came to a complete stop, the air whooshing out of me as the door swung shut behind me.
Holy mountain roads take me home . . .
There was a half-naked dude in front of me. His back was to the door and the intricate play of muscles that rippled and flexed across his shoulders and back were fascinating to watch as he lowered a punching bag to the floor, next to where a gray shirt rested in a heap. His dark blue nylon pants hung low on his hips, showing of a taut band of lower back muscles. But it wasn’t just any half-naked dude, and suddenly the blue truck outside made sense.
Oh dear God, it was him.
As he turned sideways, looking over to where I stood, I felt like I needed to go sit down on one of the metal chairs. I got an eyeful of rock hard abs, a little bit of dusky brown male nipple, and then he was bent over, swiping his shirt off the floor.
One side of his mouth curved up. “I was wondering when you were going to get here.”
A healthy dose of intelligence escaped me as I stared at him. “I’m in the wrong room.”
He chuckled under his breath, straightening and facing me fully. Beautiful eyes, the color of the morning sky, met mine. “You’re in the right room, Ella.”
My heart kicked against my ribs and my brain raced to come up with a different alternative to what—or who—was staring me right in the face, but there were no other answers.
He’s extremely willing to help out, Ms. Reed had claimed, but she must’ve been toking off the crack pipe or something, because she had sent me to meet with Jensen Carver.
I had no idea how I was standing in front of him. “You teach self-defense?”
Jensen strolled over to me, taking long, purposeful strides, and lordy-lord, he so needed to put that shirt on because I was having a hard time keeping my eyes trained on his face. “I’ve helped the instructor a time or two during his classes, so I know what I’m doing.”
My gaze dropped to those indents on either side of his hips. He so knew what he was doing. “I don’t understand. Shouldn’t you be at football practice?”
Jensen stopped a few feet in front of me, casually fixing his shirt so it wasn’t inside out. “I’m not playing football this year.”
“Why?” I demanded like I had a right to know. “I mean, I heard you were going to start as quarterback. You tried out for the team last spring. You made it.” My cheeks heated as he cocked a brow at me, and I realized it might be a little odd that I knew that since I hadn’t spoken to him when he’d showed up halfway through my junior year. “I mean, everyone was talking about it.”
He looked up at me through thick lower lashes as he tugged the sleeves out. The density of those lashes should be illegal. “I’m trying to get a scholarship to UM. Football isn’t going to pay my way there, so I decided that focusing on my classes was a smarter idea.”
How had I not heard that he wasn’t playing football this year? Then again, since he had returned, we weren’t running in the same crowds, not anymore. I just assumed that he’d changed. That he was like Brock and Mason, only caring about chasing balls and girls. Okay, that was judgy. Jensen was not one-dimensional. The guy was super smart. I just didn’t know him anymore.
Watching him pull the shirt over his head, I now didn’t know if I should be happy or disappointed he was covering up the kind of body fantasies were built upon.
“So,” he said, letting the shirt slide down his abs. “You want to learn self-defense?”
I was stunned. “Did you know it was me when Ms. Reed asked you?”
His eyes glinted in the bright fluorescent lights. “Yes.”
“And you agreed to do it?”
He laughed under his breath, like something was funny. “Yes.”
“I don’t get it.”
Jensen ran his fingers through his hair as he titled his head to the side, eyeing me with a look of barely restrained exasperation. “Okay. Did you ask Ms. Reed to help you find someone who can teach you self-defense?”
“And that’s what she did. She caught me before lunch and asked if I would teach you a few things. I said yes.” He lowered his hand. “And here we are. That’s not too hard to figure out.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m not stupid. I can follow along with the chain of events.”
“I know you’re not. You’re the opposite of stupid.”
“But I don’t know why you’d agree to help me. You don’t . . .”
Now his eyes tapered into thin slits as he took a step forward, his arms at his sides. “I don’t what?”
Every instinct demanded that I take a step back, but I held my ground. “You don’t like me.”
The lopsided grin spread. “I’ve never in my entire life ever said I didn’t like you, Ella.”
The way he said my name brought a flush of heat to my cheeks. He had never said my name like that before. Suddenly, he was right in front of me, standing so close that his sneakers were brushing my toes like they had been this morning. Before today and before Saturday, the last time we’d been this close was when . . .
Jensen had been my first kiss.
My heart jumped as the memory tugged at it. We were kids, and neither of us had any idea what we were doing, but that kiss had been better than all the kisses that had come afterward. A flutter started between my ribs, like a little hummingbird trying to beat its way out. And I hadn’t ever felt that with Gavin or anyone else.
“I think it’s obvious,” I managed to say.
One eyebrow lifted. “How so?”
“You haven’t talked to me in four years.”
“Ella, I moved away.”
Anger flashed through me, bright like the sun. “Um, the last time I checked, there’s a nifty invention called the telephone and the Internet.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that, but . . . you know, there was some shit going on. More than you think, but you know what else? I’m pretty sure the whole communication thing goes both ways. You didn’t try to contact me either,” he added before I could question the whole ‘more than you think’ comment. He shifted just the slightest, keeping his eyes trained on mine with an intensity that had always been his. “And if I remember correctly, I did try to talk to you when I came back to Martinsburg. At school my very first day here, and you told me to stay away from you. That was the second time you’ve told me that.”
He had a point with that and I wanted to ignore it. “I think this was—”
Jensen moved so quickly I didn’t have the chance to do anything. He grabbed my upper arms and whirled me around. My grip tightened on my keys and phone, but they were of little use as his arms came down around me, clamping my arms to my sides.
Air whooshed out of my lungs as he jerked me back against his chest. Momentarily stunned, I was torn between being wholly aware of the feel of him pressed against me, and the memory of the last time I was snared in such a grip.
“What are you doing?” I shrieked.
His chin grazed my cheek as he lowered his head. “Starting your first lesson. Probably the most important.”
My eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head. This was a bad idea, the height of all my bad ideas combined into one giant stupid idea. “My first lesson?”
“You know, the whole self-defense thing?” Amusement clung to his tone.