We were a few feet from Gavin’s car. It wasn’t fancy, just an old Honda, but Gavin loved that baby, practically bathing it more times than he did his dog. Spray painted across the hood, the windshield, and the trunk was one word in blood red paint.
MY STOMACH MUSCLES were killing me.
Jensen hadn’t been kidding when he said he was going to work my ass today. I’d lost count of how many kicks and punches he made me do, working with the punching bag. Right now, I wasn’t doing much of anything other than watching him slam his wrapped fists into the bag.
His shirt was off.
I was officially distracted.
The ropey muscles of his back tensed and rippled as he swung. His skin glistened with a fine sheen of sweat, and under the rim of his backwards baseball cap his hair was damp.
My mouth dried.
The dips. The knee jabs. The punches. He was absolutely stunning as he moved around the bag, working it like I imagined a pro boxer would.
Jensen backed off, lowering his arms as he glanced over his shoulder at where I stood. His pale blue eyes glimmered, and that was the only warning I got. He spun and rushed right at where I stood in the center of the mats. I knew in the back of my head this was a test of sorts—practicing self-defense moves when an attacker was coming at me from the front, but there was something about having a six foot and then some dude rushing your ass that made you take a moment to react.
I kicked back a leg, bracing myself, and I raised my hands, picturing the “punch and run” points—what Jensen had dubbed them. Throat. Eye. Solar plexus. Groin. Other ouchie parts. I was going to go for the solar plexus with my knee since I had more strength in my legs.
I brought my knee up, but Jensen easily avoided the direct hit. His arms went around mine, clamping them to my sides, and I slammed the heel of my foot down on his, a little harder than I attended, but he shifted at the last second, and my foot hit the mat.
Cursing under my breath, I went for the groin. Obviously foreseeing my next move, he rolled his weight, and I went down, thrown off balance and cussing like a cracked-out sailor.
Jensen shifted, taking the brunt of the fall, but the air still wheezed out of my lungs when I landed on top of him. Laughing, he rolled me onto my back and leaned over me, his hands planted into the mat on either side of my head. He was sweaty and gross, but I didn’t care.
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” he asked.
“I kiss you with it.”
“True.” He dipped his head, brushing his lips over mine as he spoke. “And I kind of like it when you talk like that.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Nothing about me should surprise you.” He shifted his weight to one arm, scooping up a loose strand of hair that had escaped my ponytail. He brushed it back. “You almost got me.”
I scrunched up my nose. “Almost doesn’t quite count.”
“It doesn’t.” Jensen settled his hips between my legs. His hand got distracted, sliding down my face, to my neck, and then to the curve of my shoulder. “But it’s close. I’ve had years of practicing. You’ve had a month tops.”
“How did you get so many years of experience doing this?” I asked, biting down on my lip as his fingers traced the curve of my collarbone.
“I didn’t tell you?”
“No.” My breath caught as he abandoned my collarbone and went for the V-neck of my shirt. We’d touched and kissed a lot since we made this relationship official, but we hadn’t yet had a repeat of the first morning. I think we were kind of starting over, taking things . . . slower.
Slow was torturous in a really fun way.
“I started at the end of eighth grade, during the summer.” His gaze veered away from mine, to what he was doing with his finger. “I had a lot of . . . anger in me.”
His finger dipped under the hem of my shirt, causing muscles deep inside me to clench. Even though we were at the warehouse, I knew no one would come into the rooms. At least no one had yet. So I wasn’t too worried about getting caught.
“Yeah. You know, with everything that happened with Penn. I never thought it was our fault.” He lifted his chin and the clarity of his eyes held me. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel anything. I was pissed at him, at myself, at a lot of things that had nothing to do with him.”
I figured the ‘a lot of things’ had to do with his brother. I never knew any of this, so I watched him quietly as his gaze went back to his hand. He was silent for a long moment.
“One night I ran into Shaw. I was mouthing off, and instead of knocking me into next week, he got me involved in Krav Maga, and long story short, here I am.”
“God, that has to suck for Shaw—the whole Gavin seeing Vee thing and people thinking the worst.” I smoothed my hand over his jaw. “So you’ve known Shaw that long?”
He turned his head, kissing the center of my palm. “Yeah, he came around a few times after . . . Penn. I think it’s because he isn’t close to Gavin, so he was helping me when he probably wanted to help Gavin. And he did help me, you know, center some of that anger.”
I smiled. “I’m happy to hear that. I didn’t know that you were having problems.”
“I know you think I didn’t feel anything just because I don’t think of it the way you do, but that shit with Penn tore me up for a while.” His gaze moved back to mine. “I know you don’t like to talk about Penn, but you’ve got to understand, we didn’t do that to him.” He caught my chin as I started to look away, forcing my eyes to his. “I’m not saying we were completely devoid of responsibility. We weren’t. But we were just kids. We made a stupid decision, and Penn . . . God, as much as I miss him, he was sick. You know he was, Ella. It went beyond what was happening at school.”
I drew in a deep breath, causing my chest to press against his. Penn did have problems, bouts of extreme hyper happiness and then long stretches of sullen moods. The crap at school and his parents fighting hadn’t been the catalyst for his behavior switches. Sometimes it would happen when he was with us and nothing had gone wrong. Dr. Oliver once told me that he believed Penn might’ve suffered from a disorder—a sickness aggravated from outside influences—and that if he’d gotten help, things most likely would’ve been different. I’d never really took those words to heart, thinking someone that young couldn’t suffer that way, but that was dumb of me. Depression could strike at any age really, but Penn always seemed to bounce back from whatever was plaguing him. Not a day went by without him smiling.
“I know,” I whispered.
“We were the icing on the cake, you know? That’s all we were. I’m not saying if he had gotten help or if we had seen the signs, it wouldn’t have turned out differently, but we didn’t put the rope around his neck,” he said in a quiet, serious tone. “We didn’t bully him. We made a stupid call. And I do hate that we were the icing, but we were not at fault for what he did.”
I thought about what Jensen said, really thought about it. That he and I were the icing on a fucked up cake, nothing more and nothing less. The decision we made had been wrong, but Jensen was right—so was Dr. Oliver and my mom and dad. We didn’t put that rope around his neck.
Then I thought of the psycho—the monster, the whatever—that was stalking our town. Whoever was behind that horrific mask was also solely responsible for his own actions. Not me when he tried to grab me. Not Vee. And not Monica or Wendy. Tears crept up my throat.
I blinked away the wetness. “I don’t know if I’ll ever not feel guilty, but you’re right. We didn’t do it. We made a shitty choice, but we didn’t do it.”
“We didn’t,” he repeated softly.
It wasn’t like an angel suddenly appeared, harking and glowing and whatever it was that angels did. There was no big realization. Just a little bit of the pressure I carried with me since Penn’s death eased off. Not a lot, but some. I guess it was a start.
It was something.
“You were distracted earlier,” he said, trailing a finger over the bridge of my nose.