I sit on the couch in the lounge room, leaning forward, drumming my fingers against the coffee table. The music program I flicked on hasn’t grabbed my attention once since I turned the TV on. Jess’ whereabouts is the only thing I’m interested in. Her note said she went out for coffee, but we have plenty of it here. And she doesn’t even drink the stuff as far as I know. She prefers tea.
The clock on the wall ticks away loudly, adding to my agitation. I expected to wake up next to Jess this morning. I expected to pick up where we left off. Conceited it might sound, but women generally don’t leave my bed until I do. They always want more.
I should have known Jessica Skyler would be a completely different kettle of fish.
When I hear her car in the driveway, I expect to feel relief. Instead, I stand up and start pacing to let off some steam. Am I angry? No, I’m not angry, but…last night was incredible. I’ve never felt anything like it. I thought it was good for Jess. I thought I’d left my mark on her, quite literally. No man likes to think they’ll be forgotten so quickly. Insecurity plagues me and I hate it.
She walks through the front door and into the lounge, carrying one cup of takeaway coffee. “Hey.”
She’s smiling, but I’m a pro at spotting the real and genuine Jess now. And that smile she’s wearing? It’s unconvincing at best, and deeply unsettling on all other levels. It’s for show, just like the first ones she used to give me. Does she regret last night?
My stomach sinks as I wonder just how bad this morning is going to get for me.
“I brought you coffee,” she passes me the container.
“Thanks.” I motion to her empty hands. “I assumed you’d bring back coffee for yourself.”
“I had some there.”
I bring the container to my lips and sip.
“Is it hot enough? I hoped it would still be hot by the time I got here, but traffic was surprisingly heavy for a Saturday morning.”
It isn’t hot at all. Luke warm barely covers it. I put the cup on the coffee table in front of me and sit down on the couch. “Where did you get it from?”
“Caranbie?” I scan her face. “That’s twenty minutes from here.”
Her gaze only meets mine fleetingly. “I met Naomi there.”
“I had to push you for ages to ask her for help. Now you’re meeting up with her on a Saturday morning when you saw her last night?”
“I needed to talk,” she says.
I watch her, waiting for her to meet my eyes. When she finally raises her gaze to mine, the unidentifiable emotions there leave me just as anxious and confused as her disappearance did. My chest is tight as I imagine what she’s going to say. It can’t be anything good, can it? I was sure sleeping with Jess wouldn’t work out that well for us, and I take no pleasure in being right.
“You were talking to her about us?” I ask. “About what happened last night?”
That’s the only explanation I can come up with. Kristy has always been Jess’ first port of call. But that was before the article came out about her and Logan. Last night, my mate made it freaking obvious that he didn’t want Jess and me together. If I know Jess the way I think I do, she’d do anything to avoid dragging Kristy into the middle of things, which is why she sought out Naomi.
“Don’t you think you could have waited and had that conversation with me before you left to get coffee?”
Normally I don’t give a crap what a woman does after we sleep together, but I do care what Jess does. And I’m angry and a little hurt that she spoke to Naomi about us before she spoke to me.
“I…” she looks uncertain and vulnerable as she comes to sit next to me on the couch. “You were asleep and I needed to clear my head and get a handle on some stuff.”
“And did you? Get a handle on it?”
My heart has been hammering against my ribs since she walked through the door looking every bit as gorgeous as she did last night. Even with her tired eyes, faded blue jeans and knit top, she’s stunning. I wish I could say she’s no different to the girls before her who have been in my bed, but I’d be lying. I feel things when I’m with her that I haven’t felt with anyone else. The emotions are foreign and uncomfortable, bubbling and pushing up under my skin, like they don’t fit inside me right.
“It was helpful talking about it, yes.” She looks at me as if there’s something that she wants to say, but she looks away at the last minute. “I remembered some stuff, after we…slept together.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Stuff about the night I supposedly slept with Grant. I think I remember a man carrying me at the hotel. I hadn’t seen the man at the venue before then. Not that I can be totally sure, but I’m starting to believe you were right about me being setup.”
“That’s great news, Jess.”
“I thought I’d blacked out everything, but it turns out some of my memories might be accessible. I just need to feel mindless and relaxed.”
“Are you telling me last night did that for you?” I ask, a smile tugging up my lips despite myself.
She smiles back at me, her green eyes shining for a moment before her smile fades away. “Yes. It’s…been a while for me. It definitely…cleared things up.”
Was that all I was? A convenient fuck because she hadn’t had one in a while?
I know I must be frowning. Jess fidgets as she stares back at me. I can tell she wants to bite her fingernails, but she’s resisting the urge.
“We should talk about last night,” she says.
Her discomfort and nervousness can only mean this conversation is going to be painful for both of us. I want to get it over with.
She’s stalling and nervous, and tension overtakes my shoulders and body. I know I should stay silent and give her the time to get it out, but I can’t. “What, Jess?”
“I know you said you don’t want a relationship, but I don’t know if that’s still true, after last night?”
It’s the last question I expect from her. She’s stunned me into silence. I’ve got no idea how to reply.
Last night was incredible, and I’ve come to care about this woman a great deal as a friend, but neither of us are good at relationships. My parents’ marriage was too screwed up for me to pretend relationships aren’t hard work. And I’m not sure Jess’ view on relationships is an improvement on mine.
“Is that really what you want?” I ask. “A relationship.”
She swallows but holds my gaze. “Yes.”
I nod, trying to process her answer as quickly as possible.
Is she talking about a relationship like Kristy and Logan have? Or one of her standard arrangements?
If it’s the former, I don’t know how wise it is to dive headfirst into something we both might regret later. Her life is unstable right now. Who knows what the future holds for her. Now that she’s starting to believe she was set up, we should be able to get to the bottom of things quickly. Especially now that Dani is also onboard. Once Jess has her career back, she’ll jet out of here. She’ll travel, work overseas, and meet male models she probably shares more in common with than me.
And yet I’m desperate for a repeat of last night. Jess is undeniably the sweetest woman I’ve ever tasted; she’s turned me into an addict already. I haven’t even touched her or kissed her this morning, but I’m turned on by the mere thought there’s a bed close enough to be in within seconds.
Last night has left its mark on me; Jess has left her mark on me. She leaves her mark on every man. Even Glendon pursued her from the get-go, knowing it could cost him his marriage.
In a few months’ time, she’ll likely be living out of the country again. Meanwhile, I’ll be here pining away for her, still needing her desperately.
No, no way. I refuse to lose my head over this woman. The only type of relationship to have with this woman is one where we keep things light and easy. And maybe if we both play our cards right, neither of us will be hurt when it ends.
“Okay then. If that’s what you want, I guess I’m…amenable,” I joke.
Her eyes cloud over and I grin to let her know I’m just playing. “Let’s do it.”
She doesn’t look convinced. In fact, she looks shocked I’ve agreed.
“Was I supposed to say no?” I ask.
“I’m sorry. I just…” she smiles, and it’s so big and genuine, I feel like the sun has just come out after the rain. “I really didn’t know what you’d say. I was worried it would be no.”
“Why? I definitely want a repeat of last night.”
Her smile grows and she nods. “Me, too.”
“But it’s probably best to keep things pretty casual, right? That way we’ll have a chance of staying friends when we’re hanging out with Kristy and Logan and seeing other people. It doesn’t make sense to be anything else when your career will be back on track and you’ll be modelling again in no time.”
Every part of her freezes except for her eyes. There’s a flicker of emotion in them that cuts right through me before she glances away.
“Of course.” She swallows and then that forced smile is back in place, though it looks brittle and in danger of breaking. “You’re right. Casual is better. That way we can still be friends afterwards.”
She’s saying one thing, but the expression on her face…she looks positively tortured by the idea. I’d have to be an idiot to not know something is wrong. My heart starts racing once again at the thought she might want the other kind of relationship – something more permanent.
“Were you hoping this conversation would go differently?” I ask, my heart beating faster.
“No. This is what I wanted. Casual. It’s for the best, of course. I won’t be here forever.”
No, she won’t be. Grief at the thought wraps around my heart and squeezes. Once she gets a new job, she’ll be gone. No more Jess. I don’t need to become more attached to the woman or I’ll be begging her stay. I’m not going to beg.
Besides, I don’t I want to be tied down yet anyway, do I? I don’t even believe happy endings are possible.
Unless they involve a massage and loads and loads of massage oil.
Now it’s my smile that feels forced. “Great.”
She stands up, her brittle smile still in place. “I need a cup of tea.”
On the surface, we’re in complete agreement about things, but underneath everything feels wrong as she walks away from me.
I’m about to follow her into the kitchen where I can try and work out why everything suddenly feels so screwed up between us, but before I can there’s a knock on the door.
Great, it’s Logan. Jess mustn’t have locked the door behind her, and my mate has just decided to walk in. Any other time, I couldn’t give a crap, but today…
And…Kristy is with him.
Damn it, my conversation with Jess will have to wait because we currently have a bigger problem than a miscommunication right now.
“In here,” I call out to them from the lounge room.
As soon as the couple appear, I stand up. “Take a seat. Jess is making tea. Do you want one, Kristy?”
“Yes, absolutely. I’ll go help Jess.”
Kristy starts walking towards the kitchen, but I put an arm out to stop her. “That’s okay. I’ll go. You stay here.”
Kristy frowns. “Okay.”
I see the look that passes between Logan and Kristy. The two of them are clearly here to suss things out between Jess and me. I should have figured they’d show up today. There was no way Logan was going to let the idea of me and Jess go after last night. Irritation slides through me as I walk into the kitchen.
“Hey,” I say to Jess when I walk in. “Logan and Kristy are here.”
“I know. I heard them come in.”
She’s not facing me, but I can hear the emotion in her voice. Something in my gut twists and my chest tightens as I realise she’s upset.
“Jess?” I walk up to her and put a hand on her shoulder, wanting her to turn around so I can see her.
When she turns around, I see emotion swimming in her eyes. I see misery and the grief. “Tell me what’s wrong.” My own voice is laced with emotion.
She shakes her head, as though annoyed with herself. “I lied before.”
“I know. Why?”
“It was easier to lie than tell you the truth. I chickened out.”
“What’s the truth?”
Her eyes hold mine. “I want more. I want more than just some casual thing between us. I want it to be real between us.”
Her words tear through me, prying my chest apart and embedding themselves there.
“Keeping it casual is far more logical,” she says. “I understand that, and that’s the way it’s always been for me before. I’ve always put my career first, but with you…it’s different.”
Maybe she feels that way now, but her career isn’t a factor this very second. Once her life is back on track, how does she know she’ll feel the same way? Once she has her old life back, she may regret being tied down. She’ll have more of an idea of what she wants when her life is no longer upside down. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to make decisions before that time comes.
And, yeah, maybe that makes me a jerk, but I don’t want to be screwed around when she suddenly realises she wants to leave.
“How about we take it one step at a time then?” I suggest.
She raises an eyebrow in question. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s take it slow and see where it goes.”
I put my hands on her shoulders and draw her closer to me. “Casual now, and if it evolves into something else, then so be it. I’m glad you told me how you feel, but it’s early days. I don’t want to rush into anything.”
She nods, still looking a little sad, but at least the grief and misery are gone. “That’s…more than reasonable.”
Is it? It should be. We still really haven’t known each other all that long. We have mutual friends, and we live together. Taking it slow and seeing how things work out between us seems like the best course of action. A serious, intense and committed relationship isn’t something I thought I wanted before now. With Jess, I’d be willing to think about it. But not right now.
Not until things are more settled.
I bring her closer to me, dip my head and kiss her, breathing her in and tasting her. “So sweet,” I can’t help murmuring.
She pulls away from me as we hear footsteps draw closer to the kitchen. “That’s probably Kristy checking to see what’s taking so long,” I warn her. “She said she wants a cup of tea.”
Jess nods as I step away from her.
I give her arm a gentle squeeze. “I’d better go get this over with. Logan is clearly here to grill me.”
“Adam,” she says, putting her hand on my arm. “Can we…can we keep what happened – what’s happening – between us for now?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I walk out of the kitchen, nearly bumping into Kristy in the process. No doubt she’s come to the kitchen to talk to Jess one-on-one, while Logan quizzes me about the same stuff.
With the way Logan feels about Jess right now, I understand why Jess wants to keep our relationship from him. At the same time, I don’t like the idea of hiding what we’re doing or keeping it a secret. It’s not like I have to tell my mate everything, but if I’m going to do this then I’m not going to be embarrassed about it.
I know what Logan said to Jess really got to her, so I’ll respect her wishes, but frankly I’d be happy declaring my intention to spend more time with Jess and get to know her better. She’s become a good friend and she means a lot to me. I’m not embarrassed to be seen with her or date her.
Something tells me that her request wasn’t just her trying to protect herself here – she’s worried about how her reputation will affect me.
I need to tell her it isn’t an issue for me.
“You don’t want a drink?” I ask Logan as I walk back into the lounge.
“Actually, I asked Kristy if she’d grab me a coffee. That’s why she went to the kitchen.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, letting my disbelief show. “So you’re not here to suss out what happened last night or tell me I shouldn’t date Jess?”
A flicker of guilt crosses Logan’s face and I shake my head, standing there, instead of sitting on the couch with him.
“L.J, we’re good friends and you’ve always been a good mate to me. You know how much you and the guys mean to me. It was a dark place you pulled me out of all those years ago, and I know you’re only here because you’re worried, but I mean it when I say I can handle myself.” I grin. “I’m a big boy.”
Logan just stares at me. “I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t tell you I think that you’re making a big mistake by getting involved with Jess.”
“Who said we’re involved?”
His expression is mocking. “Come on. You couldn’t have been any more clearly into her last night. And the way you two left…it was obvious why you two were leaving and what you were planning to do. Not to mention Kristy is sure she heard you guys at one point.”
“Were the two of you listening out? Kristy was probably imagining it.”
“Really?” He stands up. “You’re seriously going to bullshit me.”
“As I said, you’re a mate. A good one. A great one. But this isn’t, and will never be, your business. And the way you warned off Jess…don’t get in her face about me again, or we’re going to have a problem.”
He shakes his head. “Whatever. I tried. If you’re hell-bent on doing something, I can’t stop you.”
“Good. Glad you see it my way. Now, do you want to watch the car racing on Ten or the footy recap on Seven?”
We both sit down on the couch, and when I crack a joke and he laughs, the tension is broken. He might not agree with what I’m doing, but as long as he doesn’t get in my face about it, or Jess’s, he’s still my mate.