I clear my throat to rid it of the gravel lodged there. “I didn’t want you to know me this way. I came to Briar to be better, and for a while I thought I’d escaped my past.” I swallow. “I did such a good job convincing myself I’d made a clean getaway that I stopped looking over my shoulder. Hell, I even started to believe I was a different person. Somewhere along the way I think I forgot why I kept people at a distance. And then you happened. I mean, Taylor, I never saw you coming. It was shit timing for us, but I can’t regret trying.”
“What happened?” she asks.
“Tonight,” she clarifies. “You took the money and left me at your house. Then what?” Taylor crosses her arms, watching me.
It’s difficult to completely make out her expression, because it’s dark in her apartment. She turned on the hall light when we walked in, but not the lamp in the living room. It’s almost like we were both afraid to look at ourselves we needed to retreat into the shadows.
Orange lines cut across her tight black dress from the streetlights prying through the blinds. I concentrate on these lines while I lay it out for her. How I turned into a shivering sack of nerves on the side of the road, how I broke the news to Kai and took the money back to Hunter.
“And after I left Hunter’s, I called my mom,” I confess. “I had her put Max on the phone too. Which didn’t go over great considering they’re three hours behind us, so Mom thought I was in the hospital or something.”
Taylor leans against the opposite wall from me. “How’d that go?”
“I told them everything. I said I was sorry, that I’d fucked up and should have come clean a long time ago but I was afraid and ashamed. We left it at that. Mom was obviously shocked and disappointed. Max didn’t say a lot.” I bite the inside of my cheek. “There will be fallout, for sure. But for now I think they’re processing.”
I don’t mention the possibility that Max might stop paying my tuition or that Mom might yank me back to California. Hell, if Briar’s dean knew I orchestrated a B&E of my own house, I’d probably be expelled. All this pain and suffering, and there are still a dozen ways I could lose Taylor, my family, my team, and everything I’ve worked for. Which would be no less than I deserve. I wouldn’t be the first person to suffer from a malignant lack of consequences. I’m due.
“I have serious reservations about the fact that you lied for so long about something so big,” Taylor says, and there’s still an entire room between us.
“And it still hurts that you were willing to put me through so much pain to cover for your mistake.”
“But I believe in partial credit.” She approaches me, slow, tentative.
She’s a fucking vision in that curve-hugging dress, her sultry makeup, blonde hair perfectly done. It breaks my heart she went through so much trouble for tonight, and I robbed her of possibilities.
“You made a dozen wrong choices to get here. But you eventually made the right one. That counts for something.”
“So where does that leave me?” I ask, growing more nervous for the answer.
“I’d say a solid C minus.”
“So…” A hopeful smirk pulls at my mouth, and I smother that shit real quick. “Still passing?”
Taylor holds up her thumb and index finger to show me the thin slice of light between them.
“I’ll take it.”
She finally reaches me, sliding her hands down the satin lapels of my tuxedo jacket. “You seemed a little jealous back there at the gala.”
“I will break that dude’s hand if he touched you,” I tell her with no hesitation.
“We were broken up,” she reminds me. Every time those words leave her lips, it cuts a little deeper.
“I’m a dickhead,” I admit. “But he’s suicidal if he thought he’d try to hit that.”
She cracks a smile, which melts the tension that’s been coiled in my shoulders for days. If I can still make her laugh, maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Pensive, she tips her head slightly. “It was kind of hot.”
“Was it?” This is sounding less like a rejection.
“Oh, for sure. I’m not one of those super-mature people who thinks jealousy is a character flaw. I fucking eat that shit up.”
My grin springs free. “I’ll remember that.”
“Yeah, you know, Abigail’s boyfriend is constantly drooling over my tits, so if later you want to do donuts on his frat’s lawn, I’m all about that petty life.”
“Fuck, I love you.” This girl makes me laugh like no one else, even when things are heavy. And especially when they’re awkward. She finds the joy in the deepest suck.
“About that,” she starts, toying with the buttons on my shirt. Hesitation creases her forehead for a moment.
“I mean it. With all my heart. I wouldn’t fuck with someone like that.”
“You love me.”
I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement, but I treat it like the former. “I love you, T. I don’t even know when I figured it out. Maybe when I pulled the car over, or on the drive back. Or when my fingers were shaking so much I could barely tie this stupid bow tie. All I could think about was getting to you and how every minute you were out there thinking I didn’t give a shit was fucking killing me. I just knew.”
She peers up at me under thick sooty lashes. “Show me.”
“I will. If you give me the chance to—”
“No.” Her fingers splay across my chest, push my jacket off my shoulders and let it fall to the floor. “Show me.”
I need no more encouragement than her teeth pulling at her bottom lip.
Lifting her into my arms, I bring my mouth to hers and kiss her. We may have faltered as a couple, but this part still feels right. When we kiss, I can make sense of things. With her in my arms, I can see the way ahead for what we could become.
Taylor locks her legs around my waist as I walk us to her bedroom and sit on the end of her bed. She settles in my lap, her delicate fingers tangled in my hair. Her nails gently scratch at the back of my neck and set every nerve on fire.
I’m hard as granite as she grinds on my dick. All I want to do is tear her out of this dress, but I know I have to go slow or I’ll push her away. Instead I slide my hands up the outside of her thighs, pushing fabric out of my way. She shifts, encouraging me, until I find the bare skin of her ass and feel the delicate lace of her underwear. She had plans, all right.
“I missed you,” I tell her. It’s been too long since I really looked at her. I think a part of me was using Kai and the fear of confessing to Taylor as a crutch to not acknowledge the depth of my feelings for her. Because if they weren’t real, I had nothing to lose. If she left me, I didn’t have to figure out how to be good enough for her.
“I missed us.” Taylor tugs my shirt out of my waistband. She starts unbuttoning it, undoing my tie. I let her discard layers until she’s skimming her fingers across my bare chest. “God, you’re pretty.”
My muscles twitch under her touch. “You’re beautiful,” I tell her earnestly.