“Does it hurt at all?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Not really.” The truth was, my throat, like my cheek and ribs, ached every so often. Nothing major. Could be worse kind of thing.
“It looks like it does.” His thumb moved in a slow, small circle along the inside of my elbow. “You came so close to . . .” He trailed off as he let go of my arm, his fingers trailing downward as he leaned back. “You know what I was thinking today?”
Swallowing a breath, I shook my head again. The contact had left me a bit frazzled. “What?”
“When I saw the bird on the table at lunch?” He looked away, a muscle thrumming along his jaw. “I thought about . . . I thought about Penn.”
I jerked back as if I’d been slapped. I didn’t know what to say. My tongue tied into a knot, like the one forming in my stomach.
His gaze slid back to mine. “Remember how he loved birds?”
My pulse kicked up and it took a few moments to speak. “Yeah, I do.”
“Cardinals were his favorite,” he said quietly, watching me intently. “So were bluebirds, but the cardinals . . .”
An ache pierced my chest, like it always did whenever I thought about Penn, which was something I tried not to do often. But I missed him something fierce. “He liked their mohawks and the black mask. Thought they looked badass.”
“Yeah.” His lips curved up slightly. A few moments passed and he cleared his throat. “Anyway, it was a weird thing to think, right?”
“I don’t think so. I thought it, too,” I admitted, nervously toying with the hem of my shirt. If anything, that had haunted me more.
“He used to—”
“I don’t want to talk about him,” I interrupted, unable to help myself. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to.”
Jensen studied me. “Okay. So what about lessons? You still down for them?”
He lowered his hand, tapping his fingers off my arm. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
“Why?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
He cocked his head to the side. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to help me?” The moment the question came out, an entire buttload of things I shouldn’t say spilled forth. “I mean, I don’t get it. I know you said yesterday that you didn’t hate me, but we haven’t talked in years and neither of us have taken the opportunity to do so, but you’re here now, and I . . . I just don’t understand why, after all this time, you’re here again.”
He rubbed his palm along his smooth jaw. “You want to know the truth?”
“What? Ms. Reed is paying you to help me?”
Jensen gave me a long look. “Uh. No. That’s not the truth.”
“Well, that’s good,” I murmured, leaning back against the cushions.
“Okay. I’m going to be real with you.” Jensen leaned forward and the distance between us evaporated like water on a hot summer day. He was right there, eye level with me, and my heart did a little cartwheel. “There have been many times I’ve wanted to talk to you. That I thought about picking up the phone and calling you. Or seeing if your email address was still the same. And when I came back? Every time I drove past your house, I wanted to stop and talk to you. Every. Single. Time.”
Now my heart did a backflip—a perfect one.
“But I never did. I don’t know why.” His eyes deepened to that darker blue, almost cobalt. “Maybe it’s because I never knew what to really say. Or maybe it had to do with the fact I knew you were with Gavin, because yeah, I looked at your Facebook.”
My eyes widened. I’d totally Facebook stalked him. Or at least tried. His profile was private and his tweets protected.
“And you were still with him when I came back here. Didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. I get that. I just . . . don’t know. I wish I could tell you why, but I can’t. And I’m sorry, and I know that doesn’t change anything, but after Saturday . . .” Jensen closed his eyes briefly, and I stilled until the only thing moving was my pounding heart. “After what happened Saturday, it seemed stupid to continue the way we were, because what if my headlights hadn’t turned on? What if I wasn’t walking to my truck at that very moment?”
I shivered, knowing the answer.
“And when Ms. Reed called me into her office, she practically handed me a way of weaseling back into your life on a silver platter. I took it and that’s why I’m here. Because we were . . . God.” He laughed sadly. “We were best friends, Ella, and I screwed that up. I know I did, but we were friends and I want to be friends again.”
Jensen dipped his chin, staring up at me through impossibly long lashes. “And after being with you for an hour yesterday, I realized just how much I’ve missed you.”
Friends—he wanted to be friends again, and while I wasn’t sure how I could really be just a friend to him, my breath caught. And since he put it out there, I was going to put it out there, too. It was only fair. “I’ve . . . I’ve missed you, too. A lot.”
He was still for a moment, and I wasn’t even sure he was breathing, but then he smiled—a real smile, and it reached his eyes, transforming his coolly handsome face into something breathtaking. “That’s good,” he said in a low voice. “That’s a start.”
A start to what?
But the question floated away as he leaned in, pressing his forehead against mine. It was so not-a-friend move that I was left speechless. My eyes drifted shut as his warm breath danced over my lips, and even though I knew he wouldn’t kiss me, because who kissed a girl after asking to be friends, my imagination went there. I could almost feel his lips, and I could almost taste the mint on his breath. Muscles throughout my body and in some very, very interesting places clenched.
“So,” he murmured. “Friends?”
I sucked in a breath as he tilted his head just the slightest. “Friends.”
“Good.” There was a pause. “About those self-defense lessons . . . ?”
“What about them?” I wanted him to touch me—to put his arms around me. Friends did that, right? I mean, really close friends did. Totally.
As if he knew what I was thinking, what I wanted, he shifted his body, drawing his leg up until it pressed against mine. He still hadn’t pulled back. “I can do whenever.”
The very tips of his fingers brushed the curve of my jaw, and that was decidedly not friendly, but I didn’t care. “Then tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” he said, our mouths so close that we were sharing the same breath. “Cool for you?”
I nodded, causing our noses to brush, and Jensen sucked in a deep breath. His fingers trailed up my jaw, reaching the tiny pieces of hair that had escaped my ponytail. Something was about to happen. I could feel the shift in him and a spark of nervousness rose within me, but there was more. A yearning—a sweet, fiery anticipation that overshadowed common sense. It washed away our past. I wanted nothing—
The doorbell rang, thrusting us apart. Breathing heavily, my eyes fluttered open, and I saw that Jensen was watching me, the pupils of his eyes dilated.
Had we been seconds away from kissing?
The doorbell rang again, jarring in the silence.
One side of his mouth quirked up. “You gonna get that?”
“Yeah. Yeah,” I repeated, pushing to my feet. I moved through the living room in a daze, thinking that it better be Santa Claus on the other side of the damn door.
It wasn’t Santa.
Or his elves.
It was Gavin.
“Hey,” I said, proving I was the queen of greetings.
He smiled. “Can I come in?” Before I could say a word, he strolled through the door. “I thought I’d keep you company until your mom got home. I figured you probably didn’t want to be sitting around . . .”
Gavin trailed off as he entered the living room and realized that I wasn’t alone. He stopped right in front of me, and I bounced off his back.