“Why did I leave you in charge of the radio?”
Jess laughs, leaning in to change the station in my car once more. “Because I have great taste in music, that’s why.”
“That’s debatable,” I grumble.
“It’s too early for you to blare that hideous rock music you listen to half the time, and you know it. You’re just annoyed because we didn’t have time to get coffee this morning. I don’t know why we had to leave so early.”
“Because we want to have the best part of the day to set up camp.”
“Right,” Jess says. “Why don’t you pull up at the next petrol station and I’ll get you a coffee.”
“Nope. You’re not. For both of our sakes, you need coffee. Either that or you let me drive.”
“No way.” I touch the dashboard of my car lovingly. “No one drives LuAnne but me.”
“LuAnne? Really, Adam?”
She says it as though she’s disgusted, but I can hear the amusement in her voice. And when I look over at her, she looks happy. No, she looks freaking radiant. She’s happier than she has been since she got back from London.
I’d like to take full responsibility for that glow, but I can’t. Since Karen Malua called into my show and set things straight, everything has changed. The tabloids have gone from painting Jess as a man-eating shark to painting her as the victim of drugging and greed. It’s insane how much they’ve changed their tune. Of course, they haven’t made any apologies for their impact on her. They can’t be wrong, they’re the media.
With the media finally laying off Jess, I feel like my job is done. It had been her interview on our show that set off the avalanche of negative press. It’s a relief I’ve set things right. With considerable help from Dan. She was the one who had the hunch to lean on Malua for more information and asked her to listen in. I doubt Malua phoned in to help Jess, but the outcome for Jess is the same – she’s been cleared of all wrongdoings.
Now, Jess’ moods are lighter. Brighter, somehow. Watching her for too long is like looking at the Sun. I wouldn’t be surprised if I burned and combusted from lust. She’s back to her old self – the successful supermodel.
How long will it be until she gets a job offer that has her waltzing off and leaving me behind?
My gut sinks at the thought, my heart twisting inside my chest as I press harder on the accelerator.
“Can you slow down before you kill us?” Jess says, throwing me a curious glance. “Oh, look. There’s a 7-Eleven up ahead. Pull over so we can get coffee.”
Sighing and grumbling, I pull into car park. As soon as the car stops, Jess leaps out of the car and shoots me a quick smile before walking in to get us coffee. Today she’s wearing a pair of jeans, hiking boots, one of my thick warm camping jumpers, and a ridiculous pink beanie with a smiley face on it. I’ve never seen anything sexier than Jessica Skyler. But my feelings are so much more than plain lust. I don’t want her to leave. I don’t want her to go. She hasn’t been offered anything yet, but she will be. That fact is the only thing stopping me from falling for her. Because if she said she was staying, I know I’d be a goner.
She walks back to the car a minute later with two cups and passes me one when I lean over and open the door for her.
“It’s hot,” she warns.
“Just how I like it,” I flirt.
She grins and her green eyes are dark and smoky when they meet mine. “I’m really glad we’re sharing a tent.”
I nod, placing my coffee in the cupholder between us and pulling out of the carpark and onto the main road that will take us towards the mountains.
“So am I,” I tell her. “Especially since you need someone to keep an eye on you.”
“I do not.”
“Ah, yeah you do.”
The stuff she was trying to put in her bag for this trip was ridiculous. I had to remind her it will be freezing up there. Subsequently, she borrowed a few of my shirts and jumpers for the trip to go with her jeans and boots. She’s sexy all the time. But when she’s wearing my clothes? I can’t keep my hands off her.
I frown. “Jess, you know people are going to figure out we’re together.” Especially if she’s wearing my shit and I’m touching her all the time.
She sighs. “I know.”
“Are we really supposed to try and keep it from everybody for the whole weekend?”
We’re going to be away for three nights. I really don’t think I can keep my hands and mouth off her the whole time. Even if we are sharing a tent, I want to walk up to her and kiss her when I want.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” she murmurs. “Kristy already knows something is happening.”
“Logan pretty much does, too.”
“And Naomi,” she adds.
I glance at her before turning my attention back to the road. “Naomi knows?”
“Well, yeah. I mean she knows about…yeah.”
I frown, wondering what it was she was going to say before she trailed off. “So, then that just leaves Jamie, Gemma and Kyle, right?” I ask.
“Do you really want to keep it from them? I know you’re still worried about Logan shooting his mouth off, but he’s backed off, hasn’t he?”
Since we had that conversation a week or two back, Logan hasn’t said anything to me or Jess about us hooking up. As far of I’m aware of, anyway.
“He has,” she agrees before looking out the window. “It’s clear he’s still not happy about it, but he has backed off.”
“So, do we have to pretend we aren’t intimately acquainted?”
She looks at me and smiles, but this time it’s a little forced “Of course not.”
I can’t help but wonder if she wants to keep things on the down-low because she’s planning on leaving soon.
There goes my stomach knotting again. “Has Naomi had any job offers come through yet?”
“You asked me that yesterday, Adam. I haven’t heard anything since then. I’ll tell you the moment something comes through, okay?”
She sounds hurt, and I know she’s made a few comments about not leaving – about wanting to stick around and work here permanently instead of travelling overseas for work. I know she’s looking for some kind of reaction and response from me. Every time she brings it up, I want to plead with her to do just that – to stay, but I don’t want to influence her decision. I don’t want to be the reason she stays because if things don’t work I don’t want her to resent me.
All my parents had left at the end of their marriage was resentment. I don’t want it to be that way between Jess and me. When this is over between us, I want us to continue being friends.
“Jess. It’s not that I’m trying to get rid of you.”
“Feels like it sometimes,” she says, still sounding hurt as she looks out her passenger window instead of at me.
“I’m not. I just thought you’d be excited to get you career back on track.”
“Well, I’m not,” she says, shocking me.
“What are you talking about?”
She looks at me. “I don’t think I want to go back to modelling.”
“I don’t know if I want to spend my days in front of the camera anymore, selling products and looking pretty. I’m not always pretty. Sometimes I’m ugly. Sometimes I can have ugly thoughts. I don’t…I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not anymore.”
“Are you kidding me? I thought you’d gotten over this thing about being ugly. There’s nothing ugly about you, Jess.”
“Not in the way you first meant it, but I am human,” she says. “And I’ve spent all these years to pretending to be something I’m not, pretending I’m the ideal – perfection – with almost everyone but you. With you I’m natural. I’m real. I’m tired of pretending. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“So you really think you might stay and find something closer to home?”
“Yes, if I can. That’s what I want to do.”
The way she’s looking at me now…it’s as though she’s looking for approval – like my opinion is the thing that might hold her back…or make her leave.
I nod, my heart pounding. “Of course, it would be great if you stayed.”
It would be better than great, but I don’t want to say just how much I want her to stay in case she changes her mind. I swore I wouldn’t be one more guy to lose my head over this girl. I’m in danger of it, though.
“Would you be happy? If I stayed?” she asks softly.
“Of course, I would be.”
I can’t look at her, in case I give away just how much I’ve come to care about her and this doesn’t work out. Am I going to be forced to see her walking around with someone new if she stays? Someone more in her league? Because that would be awkward as shit for me. Turning up to something at Logan and Kristy’s while Jess is there with her newest fling would definitely screw with my head. It would almost be easier for me if she did leave. It would give me time to get my head back together before she comes back. Give me time to start thinking about other women – something I’ve done none of since I started hanging out with Jess.
“Good. That’s good then,” she says as though not sure it is. Or maybe she’s not sure about my answer because she quietens and listens to the radio, barely saying anything the rest of the way to the Grampians.
When we pull up at the campsite, everyone is there already; Kristy, Logan, Naomi, Jamie, Gemma and Kyle. I climb out of the car, and Jess follows suit. She’s tense as I put my arm around her and we walk up to the group.
“How late are we?” I ask.
“Not too late. Though I’m not sure I want to ask you what the hold-up was,” Jamie says, looking at my arm around Jess.
“Coffee,” Jess says with a smile at Jamie. “He gets grumpy without it.”
“Jess,” Kyle says, greeting her by giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
I don’t miss the question in his eyes as he glances at me briefly.
“Hi Kyle,” Jess says before making the rounds and greeting everyone, and leaving me to do the same.
“We were waiting for you guys to get here before we start setting up,” Logan says, looking nonplussed. “You have the second largest tent, so it makes sense we should put up Jamie’s, then yours, then mine. Kyle has his swag and Naomi borrowed my two man tent.”
I take in the campsite. “We’ll put ours over there,” I say, pointing to a flat part, clear of the trees, but a little way out from the camp. “Jamie and Gemma’s would be best over there. You and Kristy should camp here. Kyle’s swag and Naomi’s two-man can go over there.”
“How convenient, your tent seems to be the farthest away,” Logan says. “I think I should have that part of the site.”
“Your tent isn’t as big as mine.”
“What’s the problem?” Jess asks as she stands at my side once more.
“The problem, Jess,” Logan says, “is that sound travels out here and Adam wants the area farthest away.”
It takes her a moment to work out what Logan is trying to say, and when she finally does, she blinks a couple of times then looks at me. “It’s Kristy’s birthday. Let them camp where they want to.”
I wonder if she’s giving in to Logan because she wants to avoid conflict, or whether she actually doesn’t mind. She has no idea that you can hear everything out here in the bush.
“Don’t worry about where our tent goes,” she says, looking over her shoulder at me as she starts towards my car. “I can be quiet when I need to be.”
“Bullshit,” I say, but I’m laughing at her saucy comment, and I’m already horny as hell and desperate to see if what she says is true. She’s always been quite vocal and into it in the bedroom. More than into it. I can’t get enough of her when she’s coming in my arms and screaming my name.
When I turn back to my friends, all of them are looking at me with a mixture of different expressions on their face. Jamie looks amused. Gemma looks worried. Logan looks annoyed. Kristy and Naomi both look as if Christmas has come, and Kyle is just shaking his head.
“How long has this been going on between you two?” Kyle asks.
“A couple of weeks, I guess.”
“You are in a relationship?” Jamie asks.
I shrug. “Yeah. But we’re keeping things light. Casual.”
The moment the words pass my lips, I feel like a liar. What I’m doing with Jess doesn’t feel casual or light.
“Casual,” Kyle says, shaking his head once more. “That’s going to work out for everyone.”
“It’ll work out fine,” Kristy says, nodding. Naomi murmurs her agreement. It’s almost as if they know something I don’t.
“Let’s get these tents up, shall we?” Kristy asks before I can give it any further consideration.
The night is perfectly still as we sit around the campfire after a bushwalk. Jess is sitting beside me on one of the fold-out chairs we brought with us, sipping a cup of tea. She had wine earlier with the girls, but you can’t keep her away from her tea. Firelight flickers across her face, highlighting her stunning face. I wish we were alone right now so I could pull onto my lap and lose myself in her for the rest of the evening.
Kyle is ranting about the latest political news. Jess, who just months ago would have nodded and appeared interested while not giving a crap, is actually sitting on the edge of her seat, listening closely. When Kyle asks her what she thinks, I’m blown away when she disagrees with him on several points he’s just made. What did she say earlier about being done pretending? Now she’s giving her opinion even if it’s not popular with Kyle.
“That’s crap,” Kyle says. “The Liberals promised…”
And he’s off, going on and on and on. But Jess’s rebuttal seems to have affected everyone, and soon we have a full-on political debate on our hands with all kind of arguments thrown into the ring.
“There’s a saying, you know?” Gemma says after some time, standing up and stretching. “Never discuss politics or religion with friends.”
“That’s around the dinner table,” Jamie reminds her.
“Whatever, I think I’m ready for bed.” She yawns, before winking at him.
Predictably, Jamie follows her. One guess what they’re about to get up to. Minutes later, it’s impossible not to hear the sounds of two people enjoying each other. Inspired by their friend’s noises, Kristy and Logan also head to bed.
A few minutes later, everyone else insists they’re tired, leaving Jess and me around the campfire.
“Yo, Granger, don’t forget to put the fire out,” Kyle tells me needlessly. Then he turns to Jess. “This guy used to think that pouring gasoline on a fire was a great idea. He nearly burnt down all our tents one time, the idiot.”
I shake my head, embarrassed by my stupidity in my late teens. “That was years ago.”
“Whatever. Don’t let us burn to death in our sleep.”
I flip him off, and after he walks away, I see Jess smiling at me.
“What?” I ask.
She turns her chair around so that instead of facing the fire, she’s facing me. “I realise I still don’t know all that much about you – about what you were like when you were younger. Or of how you came to be friends with Logan, Jamie and Kyle. I mean, I know it was in high school, but I don’t know what year, or how it happened.”
A feeling of dread washes over me, leaving me cold, even with the fire still roaring in front of me.
She frowns. “You know so much about me. I’ve told you all about my childhood and my parents, but I really don’t know that much about yours.”
“I told you my parents used to fight all the time.”
“Yes,” she admits. “You did tell me that.”
I shake my head. “I had a pretty shit childhood, followed by shittier teen years. When I was sixteen, I transferred to the same school as Logan, Jamie and Kyle. They took me under their wing and my life got a lot better. I moved out of home as soon as I could. I barely talk to my folks now, even though they finally got their act together and separated once I moved out. I went to Uni and studied broadcasting and journalism, after which I ended up at Mercury FM. That’s my life story right there.”
Jess nods, smiling a small, sad smile, and I know she’s disappointed. I’ve let her down by not sharing more about myself. For the first time in my life, I’m tempted to go into more detail about some things, but there are moments in my past that are so embarrassing and humiliating…Is it wrong that I don’t want my girl to see me weak and pathetic? She knows nearly as much about me as my other friends do without hearing about the worst time of my life.
“Do you want me to point out some of the constellations?” I ask her.
When she says yes, I go through the signs in the sky. Afterwards, I put my arm around her, and she moves her chair closer to mine, laying her head on my chest. We both stare at the fire, hypnotised, taking in the night. Unfortunately, the night isn’t as silent as it should be. Over the crackle of the fire, we can hear our friends getting busy with each other. Jess and I stifle our laughter as we listen to the cacophony of sex noises.
“This is not how I imagined camping,” Jess says.
I pull her closer to me. “There’s definitely something to be said for camping without…that. We’ll have to go by ourselves some time.”
She turns and looks up at me. “Who would have thought we’d be saying that two months ago?”
I smile down at her, thinking the same thing. Everything has changed so much in two months. Including the fact that I’m in serious danger of falling for this girl.
“Not me,” I admit.
“You hated me back then.”
“I hated the person you reminded me of,” I say since she seems to have forgotten.
“What was her name? What was she like?”
I stare at Jess, my heart pounding as I contemplate telling her about what happened all those years ago. No one knows the ins and outs. Not even my mates. But I’ve never taken such a dislike to anyone the way I did to Jess, and Tamara is the reason that happened. Maybe Jess is the one person who deserves to hear it. At the very least, she deserves to have her questions answered.
I glance around, checking we’re still alone and everyone is still in bed.
“Her name was Tamara. Tamara Cutter.”
“You said she was beautiful and popular and friendly,” Jess says, reminding me of the one conversation we’ve had about Tamara already.
“She was.” I agree. “Everyone wanted to date her or be her. Even the teachers thought she was…well, she was their favourite student. She was gorgeous and everyone thought she was the sweetest person. Me, on the other hand? I was never all that popular. I was bullied by the guys in our year and the years above and ignored by the girls. Tamara though, she never joined in their laughing or teasing. I thought she was perfect.”
“That’s a pretty big pedestal to fall off.”
I flick a glance towards Jess before looking at the fire – finding the dancing flames far less intense and interested than Jess at the moment.
“Yeah. Anyway, we ended up being partners in a project. It was the best day of my life – or so I thought at the time – because it meant we were going to spend an entire term working on something. At least twice a week, I’d get to sit with Tamara and talk to her. It was every guy in that class’s dream and it was happening to me. Things at home were particularly bad at that time, but that one little thing made my life better.”
Jess angles her chair so that she faces me with her back is to the fire, and when she puts her hands on my knees, I take them in mine and squeeze them.
“It was a really big deal to you,” she says. “Something to take your mind off what was going off at home.”
“Yeah. We seemed to get along well and she laughed at my jokes.”
“You’re a funny guy.”
“After a few weeks, I thought we were sort of becoming friends, even though she never did more than wave at me or say hi when we passed each other in the halls. I started to feel like I could talk to her. I told her about my parents and how they argued all the time and how much I hated them. She seemed so sympathetic.”
“You thought she was your friend.”
“Something like that. When she broke up with her boyfriend, Jimmy Hawksburn, I worked up the courage to ask her out.”
“She said no?” Jess wonders.
“No, she said yes.”
If anything, that answer appears to make Jess more nervous. “You went out with her?”
“I walked on air for that entire week. I looked forward to seeing her every class. We arranged to go to the movies on Friday night, and when the night came…I was high on life. Probably a first for me. I raided my savings and begged my mum to drop us at the movies. We laughed and joked through the whole romantic comedy, then we walked down to the ice cream parlour and had ice cream.”
“Sounds like the perfect night.”
“It was. And when the night was over, we took a taxi home. I got the guy to wait for me as I walked her to her door. When she let me kiss her goodnight, I thought I was the luckiest guy on the planet. I got back in the taxi, went home thinking everything was awesome, but when I turned up at school on Monday, it was the beginning of hell. Things had already been bad at school, but Monday it got ten times worse.”
Jess swallows audibly in the dark. She’s there, squeezing my hands, but I can’t bear to look at her. I feel like I have to rip myself open just to get the words out.
“When I walked up to her on Monday morning, thinking Friday night meant something to her, she looked at me like I was crazy for even approaching her. She was talking to Jimmy Hawksburn. Now, I realise she was trying to get back together with him. At the time, however, I thought she was with me. God, one kiss and I thought she was my girlfriend, Jess.”
She squeezes my hands again. “She pretended Friday night never happened, didn’t she?”
I find the courage to look at her. “I wish. She told Jimmy I took her out on Friday and that I tried to rape her.”
It was eleven years ago, but it feels like it was yesterday. My heart had felt like it had shattered apart when she said those words. In hindsight, I realise she was using Jimmy’s protective alpha personality to get them back together, but it had been the cruellest twist of fate in my mind. Like a nightmare, but ten times worse.
“When I tried to touch her and talk to her, she pulled away from me and Jimmy beat the shit out of me.”
“Oh my God,” Jess says, horrified.
“But it didn’t end there,” I tell her with a twisted smile. “It was around the whole school in no time.”
“Everyone labelled you a rapist.”
“The police were called. My parents were called. Can you actually believe they thought I did it?”
I never got over that. My mum thought I was the same womanising jerk my father was, and my father thought I was the weak and pathetic son he’d always assumed I was – the kind who had to rape a girl to get her have sex with him. It wasn’t until proof came along that I hadn’t that they finally stopped looking at me like I was a criminal.
“No,” she whispers, sounding heartbroken. When I look at her, the sadness in her expression makes me want to end this entire conversation. I never wanted to talk about this. I never wanted her pity or for her to know the weak and pathetic kid I was back in those days. “I can’t believe that.”
“Believe it,” I say roughly.
“What happened, Adam? Surely they found out it was a lie.”
But by that time my life at school was completely fucked up. “Eventually. In the meantime, Jimmy and all his mates took me when I was walking into school. They beat me, stripped me naked and taped me to the school flag pole with the sign rapist over my head. Everyone who walked in saw me there and took photos and threw shit at me.”
It wasn’t something I’d been able to live down.
“And I was the one who was suspended because of her lies.”
“When did everyone learn the truth?”
“The guidance counsellor got involved. She believed my story – she was the only one who did. She believed I was innocent. She made a few calls and got a hold of the taxi driver who backed up my story about how I dropped Tamara home, kissed her – a kiss she returned, remember – before I went home. Eventually, the authorities realised I wasn’t the rapist they thought I was.”
“But it was too late.”
“No one would come near me. All the guys I’d been friendly with didn’t want anything to do with me. Being seen with me was social suicide. Tamara actively ignored me.”
Rapist had been a label that had lingered for far too long.
“What happened to her? Surely she didn’t get away with it.”
“What happened to her?” I laugh. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Everyone looked the other way. The teachers made excuses for her, the girls still wanted to be her and win favour with her, and the guys all saw me as the weak and pathetic kid I was.”
“You weren’t weak or pathetic, Adam. You were fifteen, with shitty parents and shittier friends.”
“Don’t sugar coat it, Jess. If I hadn’t been so weak, they never would have been able to do what they did to me, and Tamara would never have lied.”
“You don’t know that for sure. She still might have lied to get what she wanted. She sounds like a piece of work.”
“Yeah.” A piece of work who did my head in and ruined my life without any remorse at the time.
She sent me a Facebook message a couple of years back, telling me she was sorry for what happened. I didn’t bother responding.
“How did you end up changing schools?”
“The guidance counsellor pushed my parents to do it. They were fucking oblivious to the hell I was in – the hell I’d always been in. The counsellor realised I was skating pretty close to the edge.”
Those days were dark. The darkest of my life.
“How close?” Jess asks softly.
“Every day for at least a month, I thought about hanging myself from the ceiling of my room.”
“God, Adam. If she was here right now, I’d kill her. I swear I would.”
For some reason, the thought of Jess going to bat for me, tackling Tamara and beating the shit out of her makes me smile.
She shakes her head. “I’m so glad you didn’t end it. I can’t imagine you not being around.”
My smile grows. “I’m pretty glad I hung around, too. My life changed after that. Changing schools, meeting the guys and working out with them.”
Mercury FM, and now Jess. Things look good. I swore to myself I’d never be that geeky kid who had the shit kicked out of him ever again.
Jess cups my face in her hands before leaning in and giving me a soft kiss that grows in intensity with every moment that passes. When she pulls away we’re both breathless.
“I think you’re pretty impressive. What you’ve achieved…you’re amazing. You didn’t let it keep you down. You went on to succeed.”
“Maybe because of it,” I admit. “Sometimes, I think I we are the way we are because of the grief and trauma in our lives.”
She smiles at me, an honest-to-god genuine smile that makes me think she absolutely understands. “I think you’re right.”
I brush the backs of my fingers down her face, feeling a well of tenderness so deep for this woman that it shocks me. I just bared my soul to her and it was hard, and I hated every moment of it, but at least she knows who I am now, and where I’ve come from. She says she can be real with me. Right now, I’m being real with her. I’ve always thought I have been, but keeping my past hidden – maybe I haven’t always been as real as I could have been.
“I think it’s time for bed,” I say.
She doesn’t say anything, just stands up and gives me her hand. I take it without hesitation, and as we walk towards the tent, I hope everyone else has finally gone to sleep. Because I need to make this woman mine again tonight, and I don’t know if I can be quiet about it.
We’re about to enter the tent when she points back at the fire. “What about that?”
“I’ll take care of it later.” Right now, I just need her.