I rap lightly on Jess’ front door before walking into her house. The door is never locked in the mornings anymore; she knows I’m coming. The interview is over, but we keep hanging out in the mornings. I can tell myself that’s because Logan and Kristy asked me to keep an eye on Jess after the interview, but the truth is she seems to have become part of my life and my routines, and I’m part of hers.
“Jess?” I call out.
Jess walks out of her room wearing a pair of tracksuit pants and a t-shirt. It’s the most casual clothing I’ve seen her wearing, but that’s not what makes me shake my head and groan inwardly with anger and frustration. The pants don’t fit her properly, as in they’re too baggy; I doubt they belong to her.
“Are you low on clean washing or something?”
She looks down at herself before looking back at me. “No, I took them from Kristy. They looked comfortable, and she didn’t mind.”
Right. Kristy is at least two sizes bigger than Jess is. Now, I understand stretchy clothing makes for comfortable work-out gear, but Jess isn’t working out, and she doesn’t care about comfort. She’s got her reasons for dressing the way she is, and I haven’t called her on them yet. I’m not far off it, though.
“We’re going out this morning,” I say, more determined to make her leave the house than I was before I walked in here.
Her eyes light up. “To the coffee shop?”
“Nope, somewhere different.”
“Oh.” Her face falls. “You know, I’m not so sure I feel up to going out this morning. Why don’t we stay in instead? I got Kristy to pick up some of that coffee you like so much.”
Jesus, this situation is getting worse, not better. Usually, we go walking, or we go for coffee. Whatever we do, Jess is in disguise – often in a floppy hat, glasses and nondescript clothing. And she refuses to go any place where too many people will recognise her. Now she’s buying my coffee and asking me to stay in with her, and effectively still trying to hide from the world. I’ve tolerated it for the past week, after the shock of the interview, but it’s time to push her out of her comfort zone again.
“Later, maybe. I have to go out, and I want you to come with me. Coffee can wait until we get back.”
She sits down on the couch and looks up at me. “I…I don’t know, Adam.”
“It’s not going to be a long trip.”
“What if someone recognises me?”
“What if they do? What is it you think will happen?” I watch her mull over all the possible reactions her appearance might elicit from the public. “You know you have to face people again at some point, Jess. It might as well be today. Get it over and done with.”
And if I’m with her, I can support her and make sure nothing goes too drastically wrong.
She twists her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, Adam. I just don’t think I’m ready.”
“Okay.” I sigh, ready to play hardball. “Well, I need to get this thing done this morning, so maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She’s off the couch before I’ve even had time to turn around. “Okay, I guess I’ll come with you.”
Something warm creeps through my chest and squeezes it gently at the thought I was right; she’d rather face her fear and go out in public with me than not spend the morning with me. When I’d asked her why my opinion mattered so much to her, she didn’t really have an answer. The fact she seems to give my opinion so much weight scares the absolute shit out of me, but while I can use it to help her, I will.
“Good, because this is an important outing.” She opens her mouth to say something, but I shake my head. “Go get changed.”
“Why? I’m comfortable in this.”
“Jess.” I take a couple of steps towards her, staring down into warm green eyes I’d once thought cold and heartless. “You’re changing into clothes that you own, and that fit you.”
“But I don’t have anything that…”
“That what?” I ask.
I see the exact moment it dawns on her that I know what she’s doing.
Her gaze drops to the floor, and I wait for her eyes to meet mine again before I speak. “You think that if you don’t put any effort into your appearance, Kristy will be less worried about you living here with her and Logan.”
“Don’t lie to me. And don’t lie to yourself. You’re better than that.”
She blanches, and I feel like a dick, but she needs to hear this.
“I know you think if you don’t try to look attractive, people won’t recognise you, or at the very least, they won’t assume you’re after their boyfriends.”
Which is delusional. Jess doesn’t realise that she’s never going to look average or mediocre. She doesn’t understand she’s just as gorgeous without makeup as she is with it. No, she’s more beautiful.
“But I’m not going to let you keep doing that with me, Jess. You put your clothes on and come out with me. I’ll be waiting in the car for you.”
I open the front door and walk over to my car before she has time to argue with me, hoping my tough-love approach works.
Minutes later, I hear her front door shut, and I turn to study what she’s wearing. Designer jeans that fit her like a glove, and a soft pink cashmere sweater. That’s the Jess I’m used to seeing – well, it’s the way she used to dress before the first articles came out about her, anyway. She’s wearing her long slightly wavy blonde hair down, and even though she’s still wearing her floppy hat and glasses, she looks so beautiful that my heart speeds up, banging hard against my ribcage.
And when she opens the passenger side door and slides in, and her flowery scent wraps around me, heat settles low in my belly. I can’t see her as a selfish ice princess anymore. Not now that the blindfold of prejudice has been yanked away from me. But she’s as untouchable as ever. The definition of hell? Spending time with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met and knowing I can’t touch her because she’s vulnerable, her world is upside down, and I’m a friend. Not to mention, she isn’t interested.
Despite reminding myself of this constantly over the past few days, Jess is creeping into my dreams, into my fantasies. I’ve imagined us in hundreds of different positions lately, her legs wrapped around my waist and my body pumping into hers. My favourite fantasy, though? It involves her riding my face. Even when we’re not spending time together, I imagine what she tastes like, how she sounds when she’s coming.
I open the car window, letting the cold air whip over me. Not exactly a cold shower, but it’s all I’ve got to work with right now. I drop my hat in my lap to cover up the evidence of the need clawing at me. Jess has finally let her guard down with me. Life has dealt her a blow, and she’s still dealing with it. She needs my friendship, not my dick.
“You look better in your clothes,” I tell her.
She shrugs. “I don’t feel better.”
“Have you put any more thought into helping me investigate what happened that night?” I start the engine.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.”
“I’m still thinking about it.”
Reversing out of the driveway, I focus over my shoulder. “What about moving in?”
“I’m still thinking about that, too.”
“What’s stopping you from agreeing?”
She’ll be more comfortable living at my house, a place where she doesn’t feel as though she has to make herself look as unattractive as possible because she’s worried about disturbing her best friend’s peace of mind. Jess and I spend every morning together. We clearly get along well now that I’ve moved past the prejudice I felt. Outside of Kristy, she’s probably the closest female friend I have. I don’t see the problem. Sure, I can’t seem to stop imagining her naked, but I don’t have to act on it. I have plenty of one night stands ahead of me that won’t ruin the friendship I’m building with Jess. I could call the brunette I met at the bar last week, for example.
“You’re a single guy. It’s just…I don’t know how it would work.”
My eyes stay focused on the road, but I can feel myself frowning. “What do you mean? It would work the same way it does with you and Kristy. We’d talk over any problems, split the cleaning and cooking, and stuff, and sort everything else out. And if it doesn’t work, one of us will just move out.”
“But…don’t you want your space?”
I can’t help but feel there’s more holding her back than this idea she’s going to get in my way.
“I told you I don’t need space and you’re not going to cramp my style, so quit thinking like that. I was planning to look at your stuff later and work out whether we need a van to move it, or whether Logan and I will be able to carry it over by ourselves. And I thought you could take a look at the two spare rooms in the house and see which one you want.”
“So, you’ve just decided I’m moving in then? Whether I want to or not?”
I detect a hint of anger in her tone, and even though I’m not trying to piss her off, I can’t deny it’s good to hear a bit of bite in her reply. For the past two weeks, she hasn’t pushed me back at all. Yes, the two of us are getting along a lot better than we ever have, but she doesn’t react to half the stuff I say when she should. Even when I drop a swear word, she doesn’t flinch or say anything. She’s lost herself after everything that’s happened. I don’t like it.
“Well, I just don’t understand why you don’t want to. You’ll have the place to yourself while I’m at work, and your friends will still be next door when you need company. Besides, I thought you wanted to give Kristy and Logan space.”
Her voice is so quiet that I stop to look at her when I get to a red traffic light. “Then what are you waiting for? If you have doubts about living together, share them, and we’ll sort them out.”
“I’ve never lived with anyone other than Kristy, except for Alfie, and even that was only for a short time.”
“You don’t have to move in for the long term, Jess. Just until things settle down and you know which direction you want to head in. I’m used to living alone, too, but the house is big enough that we’re not going to be bumping into each other all the time.”
“It’s green,” Jess says.
I’m so busy studying her that it takes me a moment to realise she’s talking about the traffic lights.
She glances at me briefly before turning her attention back to the road. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”
An obvious change of subject if ever I’ve seen one. Interesting. Why is Jess resisting this move so much? It’s the logical thing to do. I might have made the offer impulsively, but it was a damn good idea.
I press down on the accelerator. “Ray’s Outdoors, and then Anaconda.”
The frown on her face when I steal a look at her makes me smile. “Aren’t they…camping stores?”
“Yup. Kristy’s birthday is coming up, and I thought you might want to grab some stuff for the trip. Thought you might have forgotten it was creeping up.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “I had. God, it’s only a couple of weeks away, isn’t it?”
“I figured you might need some help picking out the gear you need.”
“Yes. Thank you.” She pauses for a moment. “But…this wasn’t the thing you were talking about when said you had to go out this morning, was it?”
“You needed to get out of the house, Jess. I didn’t want to go out for coffee or just walk. It’s been a week since the interview, and I thought you were up to visiting a camping store.”
She’s staring at me. I can feel it. “So you told me you had to go out? What if I’d said no to coming? What then?”
“I’m not sure. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“You were that sure I’d come with you?”
I wish I could see her expression, but some idiot cuts me off, and I’m forced to keep my eyes on what’s happening in front of me. “I hoped you would. You know you need to start getting out and work out what to do with your life.”
“It’s not like I don’t spend the majority of my days thinking about it. The only time I’m not thinking about how messed up everything is and how uncertain I feel is…”
“Is when I’m with you,” she murmurs.
The same warmth I felt earlier rolls through me, filling every part of me, seeping into every cell and fibre of my body, until the affection I feel for her is nearly too much to contain.
I swallow and clear my throat. “I’m glad you feel relaxed around me these days, Jess, but I don’t like seeing you lock yourself away. You were so brave a week ago, when you did that interview, but now you need to keep being brave and facing your fears. Staying home every day isn’t good for anyone.”
“I know. I need a job.”
“Have you spoken with your agent?”
“She’s not optimistic about me getting work anytime soon. She flat out warned me I may never have the kind of campaigns I used to get now that my reputation is…what it is.”
“If you weren’t going to model anymore, what would you want to do?”
“I’m not sure. I have a degree in media and international communication, but I never really saw myself using it.”
“Then why go through with it?”
“Back up, I suppose. And I didn’t want to be a dumb blonde.”
“There’s nothing dumb about you. Not to mention that’s a stupid stereotype.”
I pull into to the carpark of the large centre which has all the retail outlets we’ll need, parking the car in the first spot I find. Once I’ve shut the engine off, I look at her. “Would you go back to modelling if you could?”
“It’s what I’ve always known. It’s been the way I’ve always made money. I’m not sure which profession to even start looking at now if I can’t model anymore.”
“Have you thought about talking to Naomi to see if she can do anything for your publicity?”
“No. She’s called a couple of times, but I haven’t….”
“You haven’t gotten back to her?” I stare at Jess, unimpressed she’s blowing off her friends, no matter how bad she feels.
“I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know what to say to any of the people who call me these days. And Naomi, she’s always been more Kristy’s friend than mine.”
“Jess.” I run my hand through my hair, then put my cap back on. “You have to deal with this. And you can’t keep the people who care about you at a distance.”
Instead of responding to my comment, she opens the door and slides out of the car. This conversation isn’t over, but I’m not going to hammer her about it anymore this morning.
“So, what do I need for a camping trip?” she asks.
“If you’re starting from scratch, you need everything.”
“What are you waiting for then?” she taunts, looking in at me through the open car window. “Let’s get a wriggle on.”
I can’t help chuckling as I get out of the car and follow her into the first store.
Two hours later, we’ve made a few trips to the car with all her purchases. The only thing I told her not to get is a tent. It makes sense for her to share mine, something she quickly agreed to when she saw the prices of the ones she was looking at.
“I definitely need a job after spending all that money,” she says when we get back in the car and start heading for home.
“The first time you go camping is always the most expensive. Obviously, you’re never going to need to buy that stuff again.”
“I might never go again.”
“So you sell it on eBay. Or, you might decide you love it and come with us every time we go camping.”
“Do you go a lot?”
“We used to. Me and the guys, I mean. We haven’t been since Logan bought his place and started dating Kristy, but before that we went every chance we had. Just to get away from it all. There’s something about being surrounded by nature that helps you relax and unwind.”
“How are things between you and Dan?” Jess asks. “Are they not going well, still? Is it stressful trying to work together now?”
It isn’t the first time Jess has asked. I don’t want her to feel like she’s responsible for things going badly because she’s not.
“Dan and I are…fine. I’m still looking forward to the camping trip, though. Getting away from work and suburbia always gives me a new perspective on things. And a bonus is being away with friends.”
“Do you want to drop by the café on our way home? Have coffee and say hi to Kristy?”
She looks pleased by the idea, so I head in that direction. When we get there, however, Kristy is nowhere to be seen, and we have to put in our order for coffee, tea and muffins with Michaela, who I’ve met on numerous occasions. Michaela is friendly enough to me, but she’s cold towards Jess – her behaviour nearly bordering on rude – and Jess is pale and withdrawn as we walk towards a table.
“Don’t let her get to you,” I say, sitting down.
She sits down opposite me. “I should get used to this treatment.”
I don’t want her to get used to it. She deserves better. I have to clear her name. Then everyone who looks at her the way Michaela just did can eat shit and feel bad for judging. If they’re capable of self-reflection and remorse, anyway.
“You don’t deserve to have people treat you like you’re a lesser human being because you made a mistake. Everyone fucks up, Jess.”
I smile when I see Kristy walk out of the kitchen, but she doesn’t return it. My stomach sinks when I take in the way she’s frowning at Jess and me sitting at the table.
She comes over right away. “Didn’t expect to see you two here today.”
I can see her trying to smile, but she’s failing to pull it off, and I’m worried. “Just took Jess on an outing to grab some camping stuff for your birthday trip.”
Jess groans, “I spent a fortune.”
Kristy’s smile is genuine now, but it doesn’t last long, and Jess knows something is wrong the moment Kristy stops smiling. “What is it, K?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but you’re in the paper today. And…”
She turns around and looks at Michaela before looking back at us. “My co-worker pointed it out. You’re in the Melbourne Sun. There’s a picture of you, a caricature. It’s of you…”
Kristy breaks off, looking more uncomfortable than I’ve seen her before. She looks at me, silently asking me for help. What am I meant to do, exactly?
“What is it, K?” Jess prompts.
“You’re…” she shakes her head, clearly unable to say it. “Perhaps it’s better if I just show you.”
I’m not sure that’s a great idea, but Kristy walks away and grabs the paper sitting on top of one of the empty tables before I can say anything.
“Here,” she says, flipping it open to the page in question.
“Australia’s very own man-eater,” Jess reads aloud.
The picture, from what I can see, is horrible. It’s a cartoon of Jess as a giant, wearing a bikini, and she’s holding a small man in her hand, looking ready to devour him while she smiles down at him ferociously.
“Only in the Melbourne Sun,” I say, disgusted.
It hardly constitutes news. I’d expect that headline from the tabloid magazines.
“It’s in the entertainment pages,” Kristy says, reading my mind.
Jess isn’t listening to either of us. She’s reading the article, and as she does, her face turns ashen, her breathing slows. And when she pushes it away and turns to Kristy, she’s trembling. “Have you read it?”
“No, I just saw the picture.”
“You need to read it. God, Kristy, Logan’s going to…I feel sick.”
There’s something in the way she says it that makes me reach for the paper before Kristy can. I skim through the first few paragraphs until I see the name of the model Jess was engaged to. Alfredo Tasconeli. What Casey said was bad, but Alfredo’s words are just as damning. Maybe more so. Not only does he slam Jess for being cold and uncaring when he was willing to move his whole life here for her, but he also references Jess’ interest in Logan Jacobs. He even names him as Jess’ best friend’s boyfriend, and it makes Jess sound like a man-hungry, manipulative snake.
“I didn’t realise he knew about your feelings for Logan,” I say.
“Neither did I,” she whispers. “I guess you weren’t the only one who noticed.”
Kristy picks it up and reads it, then folds the paper and puts it back on the other table. “This is bad.”
Bad? I don’t think it could get much worse.
Michaela brings over a tray with my coffee, Jess’s tea and our muffins, and places everything on the table, putting mine in front of me with a smile and Jess’ teapot down with enough force to spill the tea.
“Sorry,” Michaela says, sounding anything but.
The doorbell of the café chimes and several customers walk in. “Kristy, can you give me a hand behind the counter?” Michaela says.
Kristy shoots us an apologetic look. “I have to get back to work. We’ll talk about this later, okay?”
I nod. Jess just sits there.
“How do you live with that woman waltzing around Logan all the time?” Michaela asks loudly as the two women walk away together. “Don’t you worry she’s going to try and devour him the moment you turn your back?”
Worried that Jess is going to bolt, I put my hand on hers, stroking her soft skin with my thumb to calm her. “Ignore her.”
“Tell that to Kristy,” she says, sounding so torn up I feel her pain reverberate through me.
“I don’t need to. Kristy knows you’re not a threat.”
“And Logan? What’s he going to say?”
“Nothing. He’ll know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s what every person wants to explain to their best friend’s boyfriend. Hey, I had a crush on you, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
“At least it’s all out in the open.” It’s the only positive angle I can see.
She sips her tea and nibbles at her muffin, but I can tell she’s not that hungry. For the first time in history, I don’t have much appetite for Kristy’s baking, either.
“Okay,” Jess says, pushing her plate away.
“I’ll move in with you. If it’s still okay with you, I’ll take you up on your offer.”
This isn’t how I wanted Jess to agree to move in with me, and I don’t want her to feel bullied out of her home by the opinions of others, but I can’t help but think that moving in with me is the best thing for Jess, so I nod. “Of course, it’s still okay. Let’s move you in on the weekend.”