Beach Read

Page 40

“I’m not,” I insisted, voice shaking dangerously. “I’m not mad at you. We’re not even close enough for that. I’m just your casual acquaintance. It’s not like we’re friends.”

Twin grooves rose from the insides of his eyebrows and his crooked mouth twisted. “Please,” he said, almost out of breath. “Don’t do this.”

“Do what?” I demanded.

He threw his arms out to his sides. “I don’t know!” he said. “Whatever this is.”

“How stupid do you think I am?”

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you don’t tell me anything,” I said. “It’s not like you respect me or my opinions.”

“Of course I respect you.”

“I know you were married,” I blurted. “I know you were married and that you split up on your birthday, and not only did you not tell me any of that, but you listened to me spill my guts about why I do what I do and what it all means to me, and—and talk about my dad and what he did—and you sat there, on your smug little high horse—”

Gus gave an exasperated laugh. “‘Little high horse’?”

“—thinking I was stupid or naive—”

“Of course I don’t—”

“—keeping your own failed marriage a secret, just like everything else in your life, so you can look down on all the cliché people like me who still believe—”

“Stop,” he snapped.

“—while you—”

“Stop.” He jerked back from me, walked down the length of the car, then turned back, face angry. “You don’t know me, January.”

I laughed humorlessly. “I’m aware.”

“No.” He shook his head, stormed back toward me, and stopped no more than six inches away. “You think my marriage is a joke to me? I was married two years. Two years before my wife left me for the best man at our wedding. How’s that for cliché? I know goldfish that lived longer than that. I didn’t even want the divorce. I would’ve stayed with her, even after the affair, but guess what, January? Happy endings don’t happen to everyone. There’s nothing you can do to make someone keep loving you.

“Believe it or not, I don’t just sit through hours of conversations with you silently judging you. And if it takes me a while to tell you things like ‘Hey, my wife left me for my college roommate,’ maybe it has nothing to do with you, okay? Maybe it’s because I don’t like saying that sentence aloud. I mean, your mom didn’t leave when your dad cheated on her, and my mom didn’t leave my dad when he broke my fucking arm, and yet I couldn’t do anything to make my wife stay.”

My stomach bottomed out. My throat clenched. Pain stabbed through my chest. It all made sense at once: the hesitancy and deflection, the mistrust of people, the fear of commitment.

No one had chosen Gus. From the time he was a kid, no one had chosen him, and he was embarrassed by that, like it meant something about him. I wanted to tell him it didn’t. That it wasn’t because he was broken, but because everyone else was. But I couldn’t get any words out. I couldn’t do anything but stare at him—standing there, out of steam, his chest rising and falling with heavy breaths—and ache for him and hate the world a little for chewing him up.

Right then, I honestly didn’t care why he’d disappeared or where he’d gone.

The hard glint had left his eyes and his chin dropped as he rubbed at his forehead.

There were millions of things I wanted to say to him, but what came out was, “Parker?”

He looked up again, eyes wide and mouth ajar. “What?”

“Your college roommate,” I murmured. “Do you mean Parker?”

Gus’s mouth closed, the muscles along his jaw leaping. “Yeah,” he barely said. “Parker.”

Parker, the art student with the eccentric clothes. Parker, who’d picked most of his left eyebrow away. He’d had pretty blue eyes and a certain zaniness that my friends and I had always imagined translated to a golden-retriever-esque excitability when it came to sex. Which we were all fairly sure he was getting a lot of.

Gus wasn’t looking at me. He was rubbing his forehead again, looking as broken and embarrassed as I’d felt thirty seconds ago.

“On your birthday. What an asshole.”

I didn’t realize I’d said it aloud until he responded: “I mean, that wasn’t her plan.” He looked away, staring vaguely through the parking lot. “I sort of dragged it out of her. I could tell something was wrong and … anyway.”

Still an asshole, I thought. I shook my head. I had no idea what else to say. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around him, pressing my face into his neck, feeling his deep breaths push against me. After a moment, his arms lifted around me and we stood there, just out of reach of the parking lot’s lone floodlight, holding on to each other.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered into his skin. “She should have picked you.” And I meant it, even if I wasn’t sure exactly which she I was talking about.

His arms tightened around my back. His mouth and nose pressed against the crown of my head, and inside, a mournful Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover picked up, guitar twanging like its strings were crying. Gus rocked me side to side. “I want to know you,” I told him.

“I want that,” he murmured into my hair. We stood there for another moment before he spoke again. “It’s late. We should grab some coffee inside so we can get home.”

I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to pull away from Gus. “Sure.”

He eased back from me and his hand ran down my throat, resting on the crook between my neck and shoulder, his rough thumb catching the edge of my collarbone. He shook his head once. “I’ve never thought you were stupid.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure what to say, and even if I had been, I wasn’t sure if my voice would come out thick and heavy, like my blood felt, or shaky and high, like my stomach did.

Gus’s eyes dipped to my mouth, then rose to my eyes. “I thought—think it’s brave to believe in love. I mean, the lasting kind. To try for that, even knowing it can hurt you.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?” he murmured.

I needed to clear my throat but I didn’t. It would be too obvious, what I was thinking, how I was feeling. “You don’t think you ever will again?”

Gus stepped back, shoes crackling against the gravel. “It doesn’t matter if I believe it can work or not,” he said. “Not believing in something doesn’t stop you from wanting it. If you’re not careful.”

His gaze sent heat unfurling over me, the cold snapping painfully back into place against my skin when he finally turned back toward the bar. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get that coffee.”

Careful. Caution was something I had little of when it came to Gus Everett.

Case in point: my hangover the next morning.

I awoke to my first text from him.

It said only Ow.


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