“What?” she sputtered. “No. I’m not. I’m going home. My home.”
“This is your home,” he growled, taking her by the arms, aching so deeply he could barely get a breath. “I’m your home, Reese. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for last night. I was an asshole.”
“No.” Her disbelief was obvious. “No, you weren’t. You were right.”
Trying to stave off the mounting dread, Leo pulled her closer. “You’ve been sleeping in that tiny room, working yourself to the bone. Bleeding for this. All so you wouldn’t have to ask me for a favor, Reese. I can forgive the lying, all right? I understand why you felt you needed to. Just don’t get on that bus. Please.”
Tears rushed into her eyes, filling them so completely that a single blink sent moisture coursing down her cheeks. “I wasn’t good enough. I really tried, Leo. I wanted to stay here. Not just to dance, but for us. I gave it everything and it wasn’t enough.”
What this poor girl had been through. All alone. He wanted to wrap her up in his arms and rock her, protect her from the world. From pain and rejection. He might have been given that opportunity last night if he’d heard her out. But it couldn’t be too late. It couldn’t be. “Reese, listen to me. You’re bringing your things to my place. You’ve belonged there all along—we know that. Two weeks isn’t enough for anyone. You can have as much time as you want this way. All the time in the world.”
“Leo.” She laughed without humor. “No. I’m not letting you move some broke, unemployed girl into your apartment.”
“Some broke, unemployed girl?” He echoed in disbelief. “Don’t you dare talk about yourself like that, Reese. You’re a hell of a lot more. You’re the girl I love. I love you. You want an audition with my father? Done. I’ll make it happen today. This is nothing like what happened with Tate. I was so damn wrong to say that. You’re the opposite, sweetheart. You’re the exception to every fucking rule, okay?”
Reese didn’t seem to take a breath for long moments, eventually sucking in a quick one. “I love you, too.” She swiped at her eyes, probably unaware that she’d just sent his heart into a fit of jumping jacks. “But I had to do this on my own. It had to be my talent that got me chosen. Nothing else. I’d never really feel like I earned it. And you’d always question my intentions—”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Oh God, he’d fucked up so badly. Been careless and hurtful with his words. Now her belief in him was unstable. “That’s bullshit, Reese. Listen to me—”
She cut him off with a kiss, flooding his senses with her beloved taste and feel. “I’m sorry. I’m going home,” she whispered against his lips. “I couldn’t make it on my own. And I refuse to rely on your help. I’m not even sure I’d have it in me to try again.”
And he could see that. Could see how utterly deflated she was. It knifed him through the sternum to see her like that. So unlike her usual positive self. He’d ruined his chance to help her through it and now…she’d become unreachable. Buried under the snow bank of disappointment, a lot of which he’d caused. “So we love each other and you’re still leaving.” A spike embedded itself in his gut. “I don’t accept that.”
A honk sounded behind Reese, echoing through the underpass.
They turned around to find the bus driver waving her on impatiently. “I have to go.”
“No, you don’t,” he said raggedly, catching her wrist in mid-air when she reached for her suitcase. “You can believe me when I say living with you would make me the happiest man alive, Reese. It’s what I’ve wanted all along. You there, never leaving. You can come home with me and let me make this better.”
“I’m the only one who can do that,” she whispered, going up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “And I’m out of fuel. I’m sorry.”
There was nothing he could do. That sick realization paralyzed Leo. All he could do was stand there and watch Reese place her baggage in the bus compartment and climb on, pausing to look back at him one last time. Then disappearing from his life in a cloud of exhaust.
Reese sat in the driver’s seat of her mother’s car in the driveway, hands in her lap, heat blasting out from the vents. “For You Too” by Yo La Tengo was playing for the third time since she’d left Cedar-Boogie. She couldn’t blame the cold for the numbness stealing through her fingertips. They’d been like this for the three weeks since she’d left New York.
She’d taken over half of her mother’s class load at the school and enrolled in night school at the local community college for the upcoming spring semester—and those things, those irons she’d stuck into the fire of her new existence, had stolen the meager energy she had left. Every movement, every thought and response, required acting skills. Pretending she felt normal when she felt anything but, her heart still beating on the floor of a bus terminal back in Manhattan.
Sending the command to her hand to move, she turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car, holding her coat tight to her neck to beat the last dregs of winter. Walked to the house, opened the door and went inside, the scent of her mother’s chicken tortilla soup causing her to half smile despite the constant pain she was living with.
She was desperately in love with a man and he was a thousand miles away.
She’d lost track of the number of times Leo had called her, starting as soon as she was on the bus ride. Not once had she picked up, as much as it hurt. There were no answers to give him. No satisfying ones, anyway. And the functioning part of Reese’s brain knew she was punishing them both because her dreams had been snuffed out, but that was pride for you. That was pride and she had only a little of it left, so she needed to hang on to it.
Her pride didn’t make it any easier to think of what could have been. If she’d just stayed. If she’d let Leo take her home, soothe her wounds and carry her. It probably would have been so easy, because he would have made it that way. But one person relying on the other is no way to have a relationship. They’d already started off on the wrong foot and she couldn’t do them that disservice. No matter how tempting.