“Are you sure you don’t mind me bailing and leaving you here?” Jake asks as we stand outside of Hooligans.
I look through the windows at the crowded pub and feel my stomach fill with nerves before looking back at him. Honestly? I wish he was coming in with me, and I hate the fact we’re cutting our date short, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking I should be out celebrating with Adam tonight, sharing his joy and his good news. Even when Adam didn’t answer my texts about where he was heading, and I had to message Kristy to find out, I convinced myself I should be with him
Now, however, I’m not sure this was the right decision. “I should be asking you that.” I smile at Jake. “I feel bad. Did you want to come in for a bit, and then we can go to the party?”
He shoves his hands in the pockets of his dark jeans and rocks back on his heels. “I would, but I don’t want you to cut out on your friend’s celebration so we can go to a party. And I promised the guys I’d be there now.” His grin is lopsided. “I was really hoping you’d be there for me to show you off.”
I laugh lightly as his lust-filled gaze drops down my body. I went all out tonight for the first time in a long time. Every day I used to put this much effort into looking good, but since my career went down the toilet, and I’ve been laying low, I haven’t cared too much about looking like the fashionista. Tonight, however, I look like the old me. Which is funny, because I don’t feel like the old me at all. I’m trying to put myself back together – the parts I used to like about myself, and the person I want to be.
I’ve always liked dressing up, and I discovered that’s something which hasn’t changed about me as I got ready today.
I went in my little black dress, the flirty hem ending above my knees at the front and just below them at the back. My bronze and black shoes complement the bronze belt and jewellery I’m wearing. And my expensive fake tan and bronze makeup complete the look. It’s certainly had had the desired effect on Jake. He hasn’t been able to keep his eyes off me all night. After the rejection my heart took when Adam told me he didn’t want to be anything more than friends, Jake’s attention is like a balm to the soul. The problem is, as attractive as I find Jake, I’m just not sure we’ll ever be more than friends
“We’ll continue this another time, right?” Jake asks.
“Yes,” I say, not ready yet to tell him for certain that the two of us can’t be more.
One night isn’t really enough to give things a chance between us. Tonight I went out with the intention of being as real and honest with Jake as possible. I had a good time and I laughed a lot, but he doesn’t make me feel. Not the way Adam does. Adam makes me feel everything – good and bad.
Jake leans in and presses his lips to mine, and I kiss him back, hoping to feel the passion I felt with Adam. I want my heart to beat out of control and the emotions to overwhelm me, but my heart doesn’t race. The kiss is nice. Very nice, but the earth hasn’t shifted off its axis the way it did when Adam kissed me. I feel…unchanged.
Jake pulls back and he clearly isn’t thinking the same thing I am. He looks like he’s ready to take things further. “I’ll call you,” he says huskily.
“Thank you for a lovely evening. Dinner was wonderful.”
“Are you sure you’ll be right to get yourself home?”
I nod. “I’ll catch a taxi.”
He salutes me before climbing into his car and driving away. And I stand there for a moment, feeling like I’m in transition, leaving one identity – the one I used to wear – for a different one – the one I’m still trying to figure out.
Once Jake’s car is out of sight, I take a deep breath and turn around to face the pub. I don’t know why I feel so nervous, but I do. I convinced myself that Adam would want me here, but what if I’m wrong? Adam, Kristy, Logan and the rest of Adam’s friends are here with him already. I probably didn’t need to come.
But you wanted to because he’s important to you.
So much more important than he wants to be.
I push down the hurt that rips through me every time I remember that conversation where I put it all on the line, only to have him tell me he doesn’t want anything more than friendship with me. I’ve never been turned down before like that. I’m used to taking what I want. Where did that confident girl go?
Is she gone completely?
Taking a deep breath and looking down at my outfit, I try and take some confidence from how good I look, before I swing open the door of the pub and search for anyone I know.
Adrenaline rushes through me, teasing my nerve endings as I scan the crowd. The pub is small, so they can’t be too hard to find.
It’s Adam I see first. He’s standing at the bar, dressed in a white and blue pinstripe shirt, his longish dark hair is styled so that it’s not sitting on his forehead, and he’s laughing at something the pretty blonde next to him is saying.
He’s not alone.
“Just let me know when the big day is and I’ll make myself scarce. You can have privacy and I can go out and get what I need.”
It was a terrible mistake to come, I realise. He doesn’t need me here. He’s busy and…and I don’t want to watch him flirt with some other woman all night. I don’t think I can handle that.
Why on earth did I cut my date short? Why did I tell Jake to go? I should have begged him to come in with me, or I should have gone to the party with him and his bandmates. I might have felt guilty about not celebrating with him, but I wouldn’t be standing here, hurting like I am now and feeling ridiculously close to tears.
I take my phone out of my black purse, ready to call Jake and ask if he’ll come back and get me because I’ve changed my mind, but before I can there’s a girl standing in front of me waving her hand in front of my face as though she’s not sure I’m paying any attention to her.
Oh God, I don’t look like a stranger tonight and now someone has recognised me.
“It’s me, Dani Jones.”
I blink again as I take in the brunette in front of me. The long brown hair hanging in waves around her face and the pretty brown eyes and made up face might be the same person, but she looks a lot different to the tomboy I met when I did the interview with her.
“Dani,” I say, forcing a smile to my face.
The last time I met her, she did her best to make me look like the biggest slut in Australia. Her eyes are kind right now and her smile seems warm, but I don’t trust her.
As though she senses what I’m thinking, she frowns. “Adam invited me to come out with his friends to help him celebrate. We’re both celebrating actually.”
“What are you celebrating?” I came here to celebrate with Adam, but I don’t even know what we’re supposed to be celebrating, and I’m not sure I’m going to stick around long enough to talk to him.
Dani smiles at me. “We got the promotion we wanted.”
I nod, happy for Adam. “Congratulations.”
“I should be the one saying thank you.” Dani’s smile slips. “It’s the interview you did with us that put us over the edge. Even though that must have been…difficult. So, thank you, Jessica Skyler. Are you going to come in and have a drink with us? Say congratulations to Adam, personally?”
“Ah…” My gaze drifts to where Adam stands with the blonde at the bar, laughing and flirting, and my heart squeezes painfully. “I’m not sure. I was going to come in and congratulate him, but…that can probably wait until later.” When he’s not so busy.
“No, you can’t leave yet. You need to congratulate Adam and talk to me. I want to get to know you better.”
“Why?” I can’t quite forget the way her eyes lit up as she watched me squirm in that interview.
Dani looks back at Adam and then at me. “He says you’re a really good person. And if he’s right – which knowing Adam, he probably is – then I was a huge bitch to you and I’d like to make it up to you.”
“He told you I’m a good person?” Despite how uncomfortable I feel having this conversation with Dani, I can’t deny her words have made me feel happy.
Dani nods, her smile now well and truly back in place. She takes my hand and drags me towards the back of the pub before I can tell her I’m still not sure I want to stay. We get to a few tables that have been pushed together. Kyle, Jamie, Gemma, Kristy, Logan and Naomi are at them, and they all look up when Dani and I come to a standstill. The last time I saw Kyle, Jamie and Gemma, I told them I was a homewrecker, and since then Alfie’s “tell all” interview about my feelings for Logan has come out, so needless to say I’m nervous about how they’ll react to my presence. They’re Adam’s friends, and Kristy’s, and I care about both of those people so much. It will make it horribly difficult to spend time with this group if they feel the same way the rest of the world does about me right now.
“Jess!” Kristy squeals, hopping up and coming around the moment she sees me.
At least I never have to worry about her reaction to me. I hug her back as she wraps her arms around me. “Hey, K.”
“It’s been too long, Stranger.”
“Not that long,” Logan says, coming to stand beside me. “It’s probably been less than a day.”
When I break away from Kristy, I see Logan is smiling. And when he hugs me, I smile too. I can’t deny it feels good to hug him. This is the way he used to greet me. It feels normal.
As soon as Logan is done, Naomi is there, hugging me, too. She’s smiling when we break apart and I return it happily. Dinner last week changed things between us, and I’m happy about the shift. We’ve spoken a few times over the past few days. I’ve told her about my dealings with my agency and my attempt to get out of the contract, and she’s told me about the feelers she’s putting out on my behalf. I appreciate all of it.
“I thought you were on a hot date with Jake tonight,” she says excitedly.
I can’t help but laugh at her expression. “Yes, we had a date.”
“Jake Cantrell, right?” Kyle asks, standing up and walking towards me. “The guy from the Ripped Tees?”
“That’s the one.”
“Adam mentioned it. Did he tell you how much he loves that band? Has he asked you to introduce him yet?”
“More importantly, has he begged you to ask Jake to make an appearance on his show,” Jamie chimes in.
Kyle leans in and we give each other a kiss on the cheek. “No, he never mentioned he likes them that much.”
“Trust me,” Jamie says, getting up and giving me a kiss on the cheek. “He’s a fan. How are you doing, Jess?”
I look from Kyle to Jamie, their expressions both concerned and interested, and I feel a little bit of the tension I felt when I saw them ease.
“It’s been a rough few weeks, but I’m getting there. Adam is helping.”
A look passes between Logan, Kyle and Jamie, but I don’t know them well enough to know what that look means. And they don’t know me well enough to know who I am with all the information that has come out about me. I’ve been polite and social with these people, but not as real and genuine as I could have been. Yet they aren’t treating me as though I’m the horrible person. Gemma, Jamie’s girlfriend, hasn’t gotten up from the table, but she does smile and wave when I look over at her.
I wave back. “Hi, Gemma.”
“Good to see you, Jess.”
“Let’s sit down,” Dani says beside me. “You can sit in Adam’s seat since he probably isn’t going to need it anytime soon.”
She sounds a little miffed about it, and my gaze flits over to Adam once more at the bar. I expect him to still be focused on the blonde with him at the bar, but instead, he’s looking straight at me.
And the way he’s looking at me…
His eyes drop to what I’m wearing before his gaze finds my face once more. The heat in his eyes and the dark hunger swirling in them take my breath away. I can’t move or look away as he starts walking towards me, my heart hammering against my ribcage.
“What are you doing here?” he says, when he gets to me.
I’m aware of the fact he doesn’t touch me – doesn’t hug me or lean in to give me a kiss on the cheek like his friends did, and yet I still feel tingles. Those navy eyes of his are a little bit glazed, and I think he might be a little bit drunk, but he also looks happy to see me. For the first time since I stepped in here, I’m glad I came.
“I thought you were supposed to be on a date with Jake tonight,” he says.
Everyone leaves us to sit down in their seats, and I’m glad for the small amount of privacy it affords us.
“I was. I cut it short.”
“You didn’t have to do that.” His eyes drop to what I’m wearing before meeting my eyes again. “You look….fucking hot.”
My nipples tighten and my belly clenches at the blatant lust in his eyes and the huskiness of his voice. I tell myself he’s a little bit drunk, and I shouldn’t take any notice of the things he’s saying, but the way he’s looking at me, and his voice…they’re having an effect on me. More than an effect.
I’ve been pushing down the desire I feel for him constantly, but I want him. His body on top of mine as he makes me feel all these things I know I could become addicted to – things I’m starting to crave. I’ve never been with someone I care about as much as I care about Adam. I want to know what it’s like to be with him – wrapped up in his arms as he moves inside of me. Just the thought makes my legs so weak I have to grab the back of the chair next to me.
“I know I didn’t have to, but I wanted to be here with you,” I say, aware of how drugged and affected I sound. “You’re celebrating, and it didn’t feel right not to come.”
He nods, his eyes intense on mine before he turns around to look at the bar – to the blonde who is clearly waiting for him to come, her eyes filled with the same unmistakable lust I know I feel when I look at him. When he looks back at me, he looks uncomfortable, and I realise that as happy as he is to see me, he came here to celebrate and maybe to get laid, and now he’s probably worried about me interfering with that, or maybe he’s worried about hurting my feelings. He might not know just how much I’ve come to care about him, but he has to know that I want more than what we have.
No wonder he never got back to me when I sent him a text asking him where he was heading. He probably asked me to come so I didn’t hear about this from Kristy and feel bad, or something like that.
“It’s fine,” I tell him, feeling hurt beyond words, as well as angry with myself for cutting my date short – for thinking Adam wanted me here or needed me. He has everyone he wants here already, including Kristy and Naomi. I’m not part of it. Adam and I might be friends, but I’m not part of his close-knit group.
“You know, I’m going to go,” I say, praying my voice doesn’t crack from the emotion in it. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your evening. I just wanted to come to congratulate you. So, congratulations on your promotion. You deserve it.”
The way my heart is twisting in my chest is so painful, it’s a miracle I’m still standing.
“Go?” He looks shocked, then outraged. I’d laugh if I wasn’t in danger of falling to pieces right now. “You can’t go. You just got here.”
“I said what I came here to say. I don’t need to stay, especially when you’re busy.” I look at the blonde who looks equal parts confused and unhappy as she stands there watching with me and Adam.
When my gaze returns to Adam, his expression is soft and knowing. Yup, he must know exactly how I feel and why. Always, I feel naked and exposed with Adam. I’ve spent so much time in the past eight years, protecting myself from others by wearing a mask and cutting myself off emotionally, but I’ve never been able to do that with him. He doesn’t let me. It’s more terrifying than I can put into words, yet there’s so much liberation in it, too.
“Sit down,” he instructs. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“But…” I look at the woman waiting for him at the bar and then back at him.
“Jess,” he says, taking my hand, his eyes genuine and full of something I can’t quite pick out. “You cut your date short to be here, and I’m happy you did. I’m happy you’re here, so you can’t go home. I’ve been waiting to share this news with you. Hell, you were the first person I wanted to tell.”
My heart feels as if it’s going to burst out of my chest with joy. “Really?”
“You were the first person I messaged. I’ll be back as soon I’ve got you a drink, so sit down.”
How can I argue with that? I don’t. Instead, I sit down in the seat next to Dani and try to avoid Logan’s intense gaze. Adam’s friend is studying me a little too closely, and I can hear those words he said to me, clear as a bell right now.
“Adam is a really good guy. One of the best. Don’t lead him on like you did with Alfie.”
He doesn’t understand. It wouldn’t be leading Adam on to be with him. It might be the truest and most real thing I’ve done in my life.