“Maybe,” I said, biting my lip. “But I think I ignored some warning signs.”
“We all make mistakes. We’ve just got to learn from them.” She brushed my hair from my forehead. “If this thing with Quinn goes anywhere, I have a feeling you’ll let him know exactly what you want. You won’t stand for this again. We’ve all been naïve at one time or another.”
I lay back against my pillow, resisting the urge to curl into the fetal position. “But what about your whole living-in-the-gray thing with Quinn?”
“That’s different. That’s having fun without any expectations,” she said. “From there, if you decide you want to move into more serious territory, I’d hope you and Quinn agree on a few things. Like what that means for both of you.”
I turned onto my side and hugged my stomach. “After what you just told me about Joel, living in the gray sounds more doable right about now.”
Avery kissed the top of my head before leaving me to my own thoughts.
I wasn’t sure if I could trust my own judgment anymore.
Who was I kidding—I needed to start listening to my gut. Really listening.
I hadn’t seen Ella since our kiss in the park, but since that day spent with her family, I could think of little else. She was in my thoughts every night before bed and at the very moment I awoke each morning.
The business and psychology buildings were on opposite ends of campus so I hadn’t even caught any glimpses of her in between classes. I was hoping she was still into me as much as I was into her.
But even through text conversations these past couple of days, Ella seemed different. More quiet, standoffish even. Like she had stuff on her mind. So I didn’t want to push her.
Except I was going out of my fucking skull. It felt like it was a constant push and pull between us. I was finally feeling free, hopeful, and ready to take the next steps with a beautiful girl. And now she was the one who seemed to be putting on the brakes.
Possibly because I’d been talking out of two sides of my ass. At first, I’d told her that I couldn’t be with anybody. And then I’d gone and kissed her—who was I kidding, practically mauled her—beneath the pine trees at the park.
And damn if that girl didn’t turn me on in ways I never would have imagined. I mean, the way she was kissing me. Those lips, that body, the sexy noises. Fuck.
I was probably confusing the hell out of her, so I didn’t know how to proceed. I figured baby steps were the smart way to go. So I’d finally broken down and asked her to do something. I was nearly desperate to see her. I didn’t know what I’d do if she declined. Show up on her doorstep and beg her to see me or something.
Me: Just leaving practice. Can you meet for pizza at Luigia’s in Eaton Center?
Ella: Um . . . sure. Just finished studying for my psychopharmacology test at the library. I’m a block away, so I’ll walk. See you in a few.
Me: Psycho what? ;-) See you soon.
I was so relieved that she agreed to meet me. We were close enough to campus that we might be seen by friends but maybe at this point it was time to figure out what we were doing.
If she still wanted to do anything with me.
I parked in the restaurant’s back lot, far enough away from any cars that might nick my paint job, and then waited for her at the entrance. She walked up wearing a short denim skirt, some sort of flowy top, and sexy sandals that showed off her painted red toes. She had a brown leather messenger bag slung across her shoulder and she nearly stole my breath away. Her hair hung in delicate waves past her shoulders, unruly locks curling against her neckline, and she looked hot as fuck.
“Hi.” Her voice sounded small and shy.
“Hi,” I said. My hungry gaze wandered on its own accord over the curves of her cheekbones, to her distinct jawline, and down to the exposed skin in the scoop of her blouse.
As red flooded her cheeks, her eyes darted away from mine. I considered pulling her against me for a kiss. But I wasn’t sure what was going on between us, especially since she’d been pulling back. So I’d decided to just follow her lead.
“Where’d you park Fury?” Concentration edged her brow as she looked around the parking lot. “In an open field somewhere, so no one could dent her?”
It took me a second to recall what in the hell Fury was until I remembered that she’d named my cars. Damn, she was cute.
“Not a bad idea, actually,” I said with a laugh. “But no, just around back.”
Her mouth lifted at the corners. “In the farthest space in the lot?”
I angled my head to the side. “Maybe.”
When I opened the door to the pizza joint I couldn’t help placing my fingers on the small of her back as she stepped inside. I could tell she didn’t mind because she shivered against my touch. Plus, the air felt charged the moment our bodies were in close proximity. There was no denying that.
We sank down in the booth and my knees brushed against hers as I tried to stretch out my legs in the squashed space. But she didn’t move away, so I was feeling even more certain that she still felt the same way about me.
“You got enough room, Tall Boy?” she asked, her cheeks glowing with a pretty rose hue.
“Tall Boy?” I smirked. “That’s a new one.”
I thought about how I’d had to bend down to reach her mouth and how seductive she’d looked when I’d arched her head up to connect with mine.
Now she was chewing her lip while studying the menu and I wanted to yank her over the top of the table to sit on my side of the booth. To hold her, feed her, kiss her. Wipe that worry off her face.
But I didn’t want her to think I only wanted something physical. I really enjoyed her company, too. She was funny, smart, and passionate. I’d never felt this for someone in my life—a girl I could truly talk to and feel comfortable with, regardless of our crazy chemistry.
I still felt exposed under her scrutiny, even though she didn’t know about my past and what I’d done. Maybe I’d finally bridge that gap and tell her all of it—my secrets, my wants and needs—everything that was real. Share which parts of me were the fake things I made up to please other people.
The thought still terrified me, so I needed to ease into it slowly. I figured if I kept her talking about herself tonight maybe she wouldn’t ask me too many question. At least not yet.
I wanted to know Ella, to see everything inside of her, to somehow become a part of her life. That terrified the shit out of me, but maybe she was also scared. Maybe we could overcome our fears together.
“So this crazy test you mentioned studying for?” I asked, playing with the salt and pepper shakers. It was a bad habit I had picked up, dining alone more times than I was willing to admit. Ella seemed mesmerized by the clear glass containers twisting in my fingers, leaving a smattering of salt crystals in their wake.
“Just a fancy name for the study of psych meds,” she said, ripping off a piece of bread from the basket loaf and slathering it with butter.
As the server approached, Ella rested her fingers atop my hands and the shakers to still me and then proceeded to place our order for a half-pepperoni, half-mushroom pizza.
“For someone who takes such meticulous care of his car, you sure are messy in other areas,” she said motioning to my salt-and-pepper mess.
“Nervous habit, I guess.” I shrugged. I wouldn’t razz her about how she’d just cleaned up my mess at the table in ten seconds flat with a napkin. “You must be a neat freak.”
“Pretty much.” She shoved the balled-up napkin onto her plate.
“Maybe that’s why you’re so good at it. Your field of study, I mean,” I said. Cleaning up people’s messy lives seemed complicated. Perfect for someone more organized. Someone who had their shit together. “Have you always wanted to be a psychologist?”
I was afraid this line of questioning would’ve been too close of a reminder of her brother again and I didn’t want to upset her. She took her time answering while I sipped my beer.
“Maybe.” She dipped her chin in a way that showed her vulnerability and it was so appealing. “I’ve always been a helper sort of person.”
“I could totally see that,” I said. She had this soothing way about her, but she took charge, too. Like you could’ve gutted yourself right in front of her and she’d have taken the time to clean your wounds and stitch you back together.
“In high school, Avery joked that I must’ve had a sign on my forehead that read the doctor is in.” When she laughed it was like I could see straight inside her soul. Like in that singular moment I knew her better than anyone else, even though I knew how wrong I was. But, damn, I wanted to know her. “Everybody seemed to come to me with their boyfriend troubles or whatever.”
“So you were like one of those Peanuts cartoons?”
“Lucy, you mean? How she sets up her table and chair?” She twisted her lip, as if picturing it. “Yeah, pretty much. Too bad I can’t take my own advice on relationships.”
There was so much emotion behind those words I wondered exactly who she was referring to. If it ran deeper than just her last asshole boyfriend.
“Did you know about Joel, too?” she asked, the words bursting forth with no warning. She bowed her head as pink crept up her cheeks. “That he was with other girls?”
And suddenly I understood why she’d been pulling away from me. Maybe she didn’t trust herself anymore—or anyone else, for that matter. I hoped I could help her change that. I wanted her to trust me. For us to trust our feelings for each other.
Because I wouldn’t hurt her. If anything, I’d be the one wounded, damaged, abandoned—but maybe that was the chance I was willing to take.
“I . . . had my suspicions,” I said, working to keep my lips in a straight line. I wanted to keep my head. I didn’t want her to see how entirely pissed off I was at Joel for making her feel that way. “Damn it. I’m sorry, Ella.”
“Is that why it seemed like you wanted to pound him all the time?” she asked, taking a sip of her soda. A hint of frustration flitted through her eyes. Guess she knew after all.
“Pretty much,” I said. “He’s an asshole, Ella. You deserved better.”
“I’m not sure if I know what better is anymore,” she said, her mouth turning down in a frown. “So I’m just it taking one day at a time.”
I nodded and took a bite of my bread, even though it seemed to lodge in the back of my throat. That was Ella’s way of telling me that she wasn’t sure about me or even about us. So I needed to ask myself if I was up for the challenge. Was I finally ready to let somebody in? Even if it meant she might not want to stick around?
“So, how about you?” she asked suddenly, changing the subject. “Have you always played baseball?”
“I’ve played for a long time,” I said, careful with how much I revealed, because a large portion of my baseball life involved Sebastian. “Started in Little League and then moved up from there.”
“So, your parents come to games to cheer you on?” She looked away as if her question wasn’t a loaded one. But I understood her curiosity. Maybe stuff I’d said at her family dinner didn’t sit well with her. My family was different from hers and she wanted to know more. To understand.
“Sometimes. More my mom than my dad,” I said. I didn’t tell her that my dad never really came, and that my mom was more of a chauffeur in my younger years. But my aunt and uncle came and Sebastian’s parents always encouraged me and cheered me on.
“My best friend and I would practice throwing a tennis ball for hours sometimes—against the brick wall at the park so it would bounce back into our baseball gloves. Or even across our backyards,” I said before I realized it had slipped out. It was hard not to associate baseball with Sebastian.
Her eyebrows quirked up. “Does your best friend play for TSU, too?”
“No, he doesn’t,” I said.
And then I was saved by the server delivering our pizza to the table. I dug right in and kept my mouth full so I didn’t have to answer anymore Sebastian questions.
Quinn was as closed off as ever about his family and his past. He looked so uncomfortable whenever I asked him simple questions. He was holding on to something so tightly that seeing him struggle was a bit unsettling.
So we stuck to less threatening topics, like school, movies, music, and of course, video games. That was the place where we could find our middle ground. It centered us, in a way. Made us feel connected despite it all being make-believe.
What wasn’t make-believe, however, was our attraction to each other. Every time he shifted beneath the table, goose bumps whispered a trail straight to my epicenter.
After we finished eating and Quinn walked me outside, he said, “Can I drive you back to your car?” I was parked in the library lot, but it was still light out, so I could easily walk back by myself.
When he saw my hesitation he said, “Or I could walk you back.”
He looked so young and vulnerable right then that there was no way I could resist him. Besides, I knew that I wasn’t ready to let him go just yet.
After I’d learned about Joel’s cheating, I’d definitely taken two steps back. I’d decided that living in the gray was better than living with the knowledge that you were only a joke to your boyfriend and to maybe everyone else around him. I obviously wasn’t a good judge of character, so I’d just play along and get some of my physical needs met in the process.