“Adorable lanky guy wearing glasses and a tailored suit? Yeah, he’s pretty easy to spot around here.”
I wait for more, but it’s like maneuvering a boulder up a hill with these assholes. “Where did you see him?”
She swallows another sip. “Grocery store.”
Their silence is the stony judgment of Mount Rushmore, and their faces are the expression equivalent of whistling innocently. I have no trouble at all imagining James doing his grocery shopping in a suit.
My pulse picks up, heavy and annoyed in my throat. “Why would I invite him?” I ask.
Peyton and Annabeth exchange a look with Kurt, who just shrugs and tilts his beer to his lips. I want to punch him for the first time since I was thirteen.
“Seriously, tell me why I should have invited him.”
“Because you like him.” Kurt’s voice echoes inside the bottle.
“I liked him, yeah.” I look between the three of them. “But did y’all miss the part where he—”
“Where he fucked up and tried to explain to you what happened, and you wouldn’t answer his calls?” Kurt asks, meeting my eyes.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say sharply, “is my newfound self-preservation making you uncomfortable?”
He looks immediately remorseful. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean you gave Melly a decade of bad behavior, and I hear you talking to her almost every day, but James doesn’t even get a text message?”
This feels like a shove, and I know he can tell because his face does that pinched thing he does when he’s trying to look casual, like he’s squinting out to the horizon, but the horizon here is the bare living room wall five feet away, and there’s nothing there to study.
“You think I should have invited James?” I ask quietly.
I get three Yeahs in unison.
I feel a little like the way I used to when I’d dump out a bin full of Lincoln Logs, both overwhelmed and excited—except this is my life, with all these pieces to choose from, and I’m not sure what shape I even want to build.
“Okay, well, I didn’t.” I turn back from the window and point to the spread of food on the other side of the room. “Eat something and stop judging me.”
This party already sucks and it just started. Maybe some music will help.
My stereo sits in the dining room on a low, plain coffee table I found at a yard sale. I’ve taken two steps toward it when the doorbell rings.
“Someone go let Mike in,” I say. “I’m gonna put on some music.”
“I’ll pick the music,” Annabeth says, jogging over. “You go get the door.”
I stare at her for a beat, on the verge of asking what the hell is up with all of them, but Kurt raises his beer across the room, eyebrows up like, Go.
“It’s Mike, Kurt. He can let himself in.”
He throws the next words at me with a grin. “Or, maybe it’s James.”
“Why on earth would it be—”
“Because Peyton invited him,” Annabeth says, and chases this bombshell with an evil giggle.
My stomach falls, and I look over at Peyton. “You didn’t.”
This makes my jerk friend laugh. “No, you didn’t.” She lifts her chin to the door. “But I sure as hell did.”
My feet are bricks. It takes me a week to get to the door, and another two days to open it.
The sun is behind him, casting his long shadow across the tiles of my entryway. Because he’s backlit, I can’t see his face. But then he shifts, blocking the sun from my face, and comes into focus. Glasses. No dress shirt here; a T-shirt stretches across his chest. Jeans hang low on his hips. My eyes sink lower. Sneakers.
“Hi,” he says, and I realize how long I just spent taking him in.
“Hi,” I say.
He blinks, looking at my mouth for only a second, but the movement is obvious enough to give me the idea, too. And then I’m staring—at that full bottom lip, the one I want to pull into my own mouth and suck on like candy.
“Your place is really nice,” the mouth says. “At least from the outside.”
I pull my attention back to his eyes. “Do you want to come in?”
He’s holding a bouquet of irises. “Sure.”
I stand back, letting him walk in ahead of me. Conveniently, everyone else has disappeared into the kitchen. I’m sure James can hear their excited whispering, too.
“Wow,” he says, taking it all in, but only for a few seconds before his eyes are back on me. “These are for you.”
He presses the flowers into my palm, and then holds on for a couple of seconds, squeezing. He’s so warm. His hand falls back to his side, and he looks around again. Good thing, too, because it means he won’t see the goose bumps all down my arms.
“You actually bought a house,” he says, eyebrows raised.
“It was a weird day,” I admit. “I jogged past it, called the Realtor, and then just made an offer on the spot.”
“Wow,” he says again, and I can’t really blame him because I’m not sure what else he can say, other than Have you completely lost your mind? My answer would be Maybe. But having him here gives me the sense of my feet gently hitting the ground.
“It’s empty,” I say self-consciously.
“Still figuring it out?”
“Yeah.” I hear how emotion pushes its way into the single word, making it wobble. His was a simple question, but filled with enormous understanding. Classic James. “Taking some time.”
He nods and sinks one of those perfect teeth into his lip, biting back a smile.
“Actually,” I say, “I made a list.”
“A list?” James leaves the rest unsaid: After working for Melly, how can you ever want to see a list again?
“I made it in therapy. It’s for me. It’s a good list.”
And his expression clears in understanding. He knows I’ve been seeing Debbie for a while now, but I wonder how the reminder feels here, knowing that I’ve been talking it all out with someone else while he’s gotten nothing but silence. “It’s a list of the things I want my life to have.”
His eyebrows remain raised in interest, so I barrel on. “A house, believe it or not, seemed the easiest to obtain.”
I can tell he doesn’t like this answer. “What else was on it?”
I dodge this one. “What are you up to?”
He shrugs, sliding a hand into the front pocket of his jeans. The waistband dips, exposing a brief flash of skin, and it makes my mouth water. “Rusty got me connected to a few guys down at city hall.”
“In civic engineering?”
He nods again, blinks to my mouth, and quickly looks away.
I want to feel the sweet warmth of his hands on me. I want to admit to him that at the top of my list was a relationship that felt like the perfect combination of safe haven and dirty fun.
“Do you like it?” I ask when he seems unable to produce words on his own.
“It’s okay. It’s not the most exciting job, but I guess I’m still figuring things out, too.” A beat of quiet and then, “I wasn’t ready to leave town yet.”
“Jackson is growing on you, then?” I grin.
“I guess.” He pauses, taking a deep, shaky breath. “I think it’s more that I love you, and I don’t want to be far away from where you are.”
The floor falls away. Voices in the kitchen peter out to nothing.
It takes enormous effort to swallow before asking, “What?”
James shifts on his feet, unsure. “Do you need me to say it again, or are you just surprised?”
“Both,” I croak.
This makes him smile. “Okay, well, I’ll say it again then: I wasn’t ready to give up on this. When it came to finding another job, I wanted something local. Rusty helped.” He takes a step closer. “Is that okay?”
I’m staring at his mouth again. I nod, stunned by how fast this is happening, how easy it still is.
Slowly, he bends, and his smile comes closer to mine. “You don’t mind that I’m still in Jackson?”
I shake my head. “The other thing you said, though …”
He laughs, and his warm breath touches my mouth. “Oh, the ‘I love you’ part?”
“Yeah. That part.”
“You like that part?”
A wave of longing fills me, so gigantic that I feel dizzy again. “Yes.”
The smile disappears and his lips part, mesmerizing. “Carey?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the deal I had with Ted.”
I blink back into focus, remembering that, no matter how edible his lips look, this issue is still a barricade to tasting them. It is moving too fast. “Yeah, that wasn’t great.”
Kurt was right: I did forgive Melly over and over. But I’m trying to take better care of myself now.
James straightens. “It sounds like an excuse, but I do want you to know that I’d always planned to tell you. I advocated for you with him, too.”
“But how weird is that?” I ask. “That I’m there for a decade, you’re there for two months and can put in a good word for me with Ted? It doesn’t just feel sexist and classist, it reminds me how small Melly kept me all those years. And you went and did the same thing.”
I see the impact of my words, because his shoulders pitch forward, chest shifts back, like he’s been physically pushed. “Yeah. I know.” He takes a few deep breaths to put himself together and finally takes another determined step closer. He’s only inches away from me again. Kissing distance. When he reaches down, the warmth of his hand engulfs mine.
“It’s no excuse, but I was desperate and caught off guard when he called,” he says. “You’d disappeared from my bed, then essentially told me we were over. I know we were both in self-preservation mode—the whole situation was a mess.” He absently massages my fingers when he feels them begin to cramp. “But I regret how I handled it. And, for what it’s worth, I think you’re brilliant. I don’t care if you want to stay in this town the rest of your life. I don’t care what you decide you want to do. The only thing that matters to me is that I have a chance with you.”