Elodie and Clark’s First Date
An On Dublin Street Christmas
Ever wondered what was going through Jake’s head after Brett’s death, during those awful days leading up to the break-up and then that fateful break-up itself?
Then read on for Jake’s perspective…
INDIANA, MARCH 2009
The crack on his ceiling appeared longer than it did … well, than it did for however long Jake had been lying on his bed staring at it. That could have been an hour, two, maybe even two days.
Staring at the crack did nothing to change it. As he lay there, it was going to splinter into more cracks.
Like he gave a shit about changing anything.
Nope. Still there.
As was the pressure. It was like he was weighed down at every angle by a piece of stone. He felt bruised. Tender.
But at least not dead.
How did it happen?
The question wouldn’t leave him alone. Nor the pleading in Brett Thomas’s eyes as he stared up into Charley’s face, dying.
Why did it happen?
Brett’s dad? Jake’s dad? One a bully, the other a reluctant pacifist. Because of whom? Jake’s mom. Was it her? Brett’s friends? Egging him on. Alex Roster? It was his house, his party, his alcohol. His kitchen knife.
New guy. Accelerant. Victim? Reluctant pacifist too. Stupid decision to go to the party.
I was the matador waving the red cape. He was the bull.
It was me.
I killed him.
Brett’s voice, ugly with childish bitterness, slithered into Jake’s ears. Yeah, you did. My blood. Your hands, Caplin.
Jake squeezed his eyes closed.
Go away. Go away. Go away.
Jake blinked. See? The crack grew.
Was it really me?
He tucked his hands under his head, the first movement he felt like he’d made in forever. Jake’s eyes narrowed on the purple uplighter. Jesus, I hate that thing.
You hate yourself.
Lifting his head, he pulled his right hand out and held it up to examine it. It was clean. He hadn’t even touched him. Not once.
He was taunting you for months. You should’ve stopped it then. He’d be alive.
Shoving his hand back under his head, Jake let the weight settle down all over him again. Hadn’t Logan Caplin raised him to be a man? A sensible man would have just walked away.
Jake’s chest shuddered on a sigh. He felt the nausea rise.
He wasn’t worth this. I should’ve walked away.
He glared at the uplighter again. He couldn’t make up his mind what he was guiltier of … not facing up to his bully, or giving his bully too much power. Or was that the same thing?
What power? Brett’s voice sneered at him. I’m the one who bled to death, bitch. What power did I ever have over you?
Movement caught his eye and he lowered his gaze from the ceiling. The sight of Charley standing in his doorway was a punch to the gut.
Music. He answered his own question. He was listening to crap shouty music in an attempt to shut out all the questions and he hadn’t heard her. Ha, the only questions the music was shutting out was everyone else’s.
Ignoring the spike in his pulse at the sight of her, Jake told her flatly, “I don’t want to talk to anyone.” The words felt weird, his tongue like sandpaper.
Disquiet moved through him as she shrugged out of her jacket, kicked off her shoes, and walked toward him like she could save him from the guilt slowly eating away at his insides.
She lay down beside him, not touching him, but close enough he could smell her perfume and feel the heat of her body trying to warm his.
“You don’t have to talk,” she shouted over the music.
Without a word, she invaded him.
Was it her? The insidious whisper pushed inside him before he could stop it.
How many times had Charley told him to ignore Brett? How many times had she stopped him from putting a halt to it once and for all?
A reluctant pacifist … because of her.
She was the reason Brett wouldn’t let up. She was the reason they were at Alex Roster’s party. She was the reason he hadn’t walked away when he should have.
She was the reason.
She’s the reason.
If I was the matador and Brett was the bull, was Charley the red cape?
My guilt. Her guilt.
He saw Charley bending over Brett, her hands covered in his blood as she pressed her jacket to his wound. He saw her calm surety as she told him to call 911. Her kindness as she sought to soothe Brett.
Her wet eyes as she turned to tell Alex that Brett was gone.
Her cool hand in his as they walked toward the patrol car. Her loving voice promising him she was there with him.
Jake felt his breath hitch but Charley didn’t move. She hadn’t heard it over the music.
How long had they been lying there? And she hadn’t pushed him to talk.
He couldn’t talk. How could he ever now?
He’d let himself blame her.
What kind of man was he turning into?
I told you. You never deserved her. Never.
Not. For. You.
Jake stiffened as he felt Charley’s warmth draw near. “I have to go,” she whispered, before pressing a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. As his mouth tingled, he didn’t dare look at her. “When you’re ready, I’m here. I love you, Jake.”
The words choked him.
For the first time … he couldn’t say them back.
No, correction. He wouldn’t say them back.
Someone died because of them.
Charley would die if she ever knew you were thinking this shit.
Jake waited for her to put on her shoes and jacket. He waited for her to walk out the door. He waited for her perfume to fade from his pillow.
In the dim light, he turned his head to stare at his empty doorway.
He was glad she was gone. He didn’t want her near while his fucked-up head played the blame game.
I never deserved you.
As the car pulled into the hospital parking lot, Jake’s foggy, jumbled thoughts were clear long enough to focus on one thing. A building rage … with himself. Brett’s friends, Damien and Jackson, had put their hands on Lukas to get to Jake. And Jake hadn’t been there to save Luke. No, once again Charley had done what he should be doing.
Impotent anger, the frustration of injustice, of being made to feel a victim, consumed Jake as he followed his concerned mom through the hospital.
He felt Charley before he saw her.
She chipped at his focus, her eyes burning his skin as he walked into the hospital room where she was standing by his brother’s bedside.
Jake took in the sight of his brother sitting on the end of the bed, his eye swollen shut, and he felt his fingers curl into fists.
That’s it. He was done.
“Don’t even think about doing anything stupid,” his dad warned in a voice that was not to be disobeyed. “Charley saw to it that those boys will pay for attacking your brother. Don’t make your situation worse by demanding your own retribution.”
“They can’t get away with this, Dad. They should leave us alone.” Why won’t they? What did we ever fucking do to these people?
“They won’t get away with this,” Logan reiterated firmly. “I told you Charley saw to it.”
Jake almost winced at the reminder.
Luke somehow managed to grin, even with half his face mashed. “She was awesome. She jumped in front of me and told them that if they wanted me, they had to go through her. If it hadn’t been so emasculating, it would’ve been hot.”
Charley smirked at Luke as Jake’s brain grew fuzzy with renewed anger. She said something to Luke and he replied, but Jake didn’t hear it.
She’d put herself in danger to save his brother? “You were going to take a beating?” he choked out, unable to shake loose the vision of her beautiful face bloodied and bruised. Was she insane?
“I knew they wouldn’t hit me,” she replied stubbornly. Jake had the sudden urge to grab her arms and shake her hard until some sense slammed into her.
“Uh, I don’t know. I think Damien definitely would’ve swung for you if Alex hadn’t stopped him,” Luke disagreed.
Jake couldn’t look at her.
As the doctor bustled around with discharge instructions, Jake stewed in thick silence. Was he mad at Charley because she put herself in harm’s way or mad at her for doing what he hadn’t? Again. Something like resentment built within.
She was the kind of girl you became a better man for, not a worse one.
He couldn’t live up to it.
He couldn’t live with it. Any of it. He had to get out of there before he lost his mind.
She followed him and his family into the parking lot. Jake could feel her. He didn’t want to. Not then. Just for a little while, he didn’t want the burden of being the kind of guy she deserved. For now, he had to focus on being the kind of guy he could live with.
And who he was right now was scaring him.
He looked at his parents. “Can you guys wait in the car? I need to talk to Charley.”
Jake was barely aware of them moving away as he turned to face her.
Memories tried to press at him. Precious, joyous, exciting, fucking beautiful memories. A lifetime of wonder crammed into just a few short months.
He blocked them out with guilt and blood and anger and fear.
Jake didn’t see how much he loved her. He didn’t see the anxiety in her eyes. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Just. Not. Now.
“I know you’re mad at me,” she began in her clear, strong voice. “But—”
Jake couldn’t hear it. “Just be quiet, Charley.”
“Jake, I know you’re going through a lot but I would appreciate it if you’d not speak to me like that. And stop shutting me out.”
Always so strong.
Yeah, she’s strong. She can handle this. She can handle anything.
His family couldn’t. They’d been through enough. And the truth was that they probably would have left town already if it wasn’t for …
If it wasn’t for how he felt about her.
Numbness settled over Jake.
It really was all his fault.
“Our front window got smashed in yesterday,” he answered flatly. “Our phone keeps ringing and then callers hang up. Trenton and his goons are getting restless.”
“Jake, I’m sorry. But it’s just Trenton. Everyone else knows you didn’t attack Brett. They know it was an accident.”
An accident. An unfortunate incident that happens unintentionally or unexpectedly, typically resulting in damage or injury.
No. It wasn’t an accident. It was months of pent-up resentment of a boy likely under the influence of mental, emotional, and possibly physical abuse on the part of his dickwad father, all of that fury aimed at the wrong guy. Everyone had seen it coming. It wasn’t unintentional and it wasn’t unexpected.
And the result was pretty fucking fatal.
“I should’ve walked away, called his bluff. He died because I wasn’t smart enough to walk away from a drunk. I didn’t put the knife in him but I’ve still got blood on my hands.”
Charley tried to tell him otherwise. He had to give it to her—he thought she might really mean it too. He watched her warm, small hand curl around his and for the life of him he couldn’t feel it. “We’ll get through this,” she promised.
Jake stared at her. As long as he felt this numb, he could do this. He could look at her and he could do this.
“I have to get through this on my own.” Her mouth moved but Jake kept talking. “I can’t do it with you around me.”
“… breaking up with me?”
Jake wondered for a moment why he could barely hear her and then it shocked him to realize his heart was racing and pounding so hard, the blood whooshing in his ears deafened him.
The panic in Charley’s eyes threatened to destroy all the numb. He looked away. “Yeah. I’m breaking up with you.”
The unevenness of her breathing punched right through the numbness. “And everything between us … everything you promised.” She sounded so small, so damn small. “That’s just gone?”
He felt sick. He was going to throw up. Right there. Cast up the guilt all over her. “I’m not sticking around to listen to this.”
“Don’t walk away from me!” she yelled. “You owe me!”
Didn’t she think he knew that? Didn’t she think he knew he was scum, worthless, not for her? He was responsible for a guy’s death and he couldn’t deal. Charley was calm, in control, trying to save people. To save his brother being beat up. Trying save him! Didn’t she know? Didn’t she see?
Jake turned back, spewing his fury all over her, and it came out all wrong. He said all the wrong things. He accused her.
But at least he spewed out one right thing. He was fucked up. So fucked up.
“All I want is to help you,” he heard her say. “I don’t understand why this is my fault?”
“I told you we shouldn’t have gone to that party.”
Now she’d know that he let himself blame her. It was just a second of thought. But a second was long enough.
The color bled from her features. “So you blame me?”
Feeling as if he was going to come out of his skin, Jake needed this to end now. “No,” he managed quietly. “I’m just done.”
But she wouldn’t let him go.
She held onto him, her hand burning through his shirt, her warm eyes hot with fury and pain and every ugly, dark thing Jake had only ever wanted to protect her from. But he couldn’t do it now. He didn’t have it in him to save them both. And he couldn’t let her save him. He would lose what little shred of self-respect he might have left.
Charley Redford had power over him. The whole town did.
For now … Jake knew that if he was going to get through this, he needed that power, that control, back.
He stared through her as she began to make her way through the five stages of grief. First there’d been denial. Then anger. Now she was bargaining with him.
“I’m standing here, ready to help you work it all out. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“No,” Jake bit out. “I can’t be here, in this town with these fucking people. And you’re one of them. When I look at you, that’s all I see.”
At his words, Charley looked broken. Jake felt like someone had rammed a spike down his throat. He struggled to breathe through the agony as he turned away from her.
She’s strong. She can handle this.
Brett’s voice was suddenly in his head again. Yeah, he snorted, she really looks like she’s handling it.
“You’re just as big an asshole as they are,” she said, the bite dissipating as she continued, sounding desolate. “I can’t believe I gave you everything.”
Jake knew nothing could change his mind in that moment. He was desperate to leave behind Lanton and everything it had taken from him.
Desperation could make people do things they’d never imagine.
Like cutting someone open just so he could end the conversation and get away as quickly as possible.
Like turning to the best person he’d ever met and ripping apart all their seriously fucking beautiful moments together with, “Yeah, well, we all do stupid shit sometimes.”
Jake walked away from her.
Left her there with those ugly parting words.
Brett sneered in his head, Still holding onto that little shred of self-respect, are you?
Go away. Jake fought for numbness. Go away.
In her freshman and sophomore years at Purdue we know Charley was determinedly moving on from Jake with Alex, Claudia and their friends. Have you ever wondered what was going on with Jake… and his inevitable jump into a new relationship with Melissa?
Read on for Jake’s perspective…
Chicago, April 2012
“Party tonight!” Beck’s voice hit Jake’s ears at the same time his dorm room door crashed against the wall.
Jake looked up from his laptop. “Have you heard of knocking? I could’ve been doing anything.”
“And yet instead of doing something base and immoral such as fucking Heather Denton, who so desperately wants in your pants, or hell, giving Little Jake a stress reliever, you’re alone in your room … studying.”
“Funny.” Jake pushed away from his desk. “I thought that’s what college was all about. And don’t call my dick ‘Little Jake.’ It’s a disservice.”
Beck snorted but shut the door so there was no possibility of one of their suite mates overhearing. “Seriously, man, it wasn’t that long ago you were all about the parties and the women. I don’t care about the change, I just … I mean, you’re okay, right?” He frowned. “Is this about Melissa? Something going on there?”
“Nah.” Jake rubbed a hand over his recently cut hair. “You know I can’t go there with her.”
His friend was quiet a moment. “Because of Charley?”
Jake’s heart no longer banged against his chest at the mere mention of his ex-girlfriend. It had stopped doing that a while ago. Still, an ache remained, a specter of what was possible, and of what he was sure he’d never have again. “You know I’m over it,” he said. They both knew he lied, but Beck never called him on it. “I just can’t go there again. Melissa is one of my best friends. I won’t mess that up by sleeping with her. She’ll want more and I can’t give her more.”
“Wasn’t she dating that frat guy for a while?”
“A few dates,” Jake said.
“I know you want her. Doesn’t that piss you off?”
Honestly, he was jealous but he just wanted her to be happy. “As long as she’s happy … whatever.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but Mel isn’t going to be happy until you two are neck deep in a relationship.”
Jake was afraid that might be true. Whenever Melissa hinted about it, Jake carefully avoided the subject. She had to know after everything he’d been through that he wasn’t capable of giving her what she wanted. As much as he wished he could.
“I fear an uncomfortable conversation in the future,” Beck said. “Speaking of which, you’ve got to come to this party, save me from Cheryl. I don’t know how to communicate any clearer that what we had was a beautiful thing, but it was one night of a beautiful thing.”
“You’re an asshole,” Jake groaned, standing up and reaching for his hoodie. “I told you not to go there with her.”
“I take it this sudden mobility is your acquiescence?”
Jake shrugged. “I’m bored.”
“You’re bored a lot lately.”
This was true. Jake felt restless. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sick of having a different girl in my bed every week, I’m sick of the parties, of the drinking, of the weed …”
Beck squinted at him. “I’m confused. You’re sick of it but you’re not sick enough of it not to want to settle into something with Melissa?”
It was a catch-22. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Right now, you’re coming with me to Bobb. Denver, Matt, and Lowe are already there.”
Deciding it was better to be restless in company than alone, Jake followed Beck out of Kemper and turned left toward Bobb-McCulloch Hall. They lived on the north campus of Northwestern, so it wasn’t exactly difficult to find a party. Not that it was ever difficult to find a party when you were best friends with a rock band.
When Jake’s parents had returned to Oak Park, he met Beck. Beck was originally from Chicago but when his mom married his stepdad, they’d moved to Seattle for his job. He was some fancy-ass CFO in some fancy-ass division of some fancy-ass conglomerate that dealt in cars, media, and whatever else. He was a pompous, selfish asshole who didn’t understand Beck and really didn’t want to. Beck’s mom was so scared of losing the money and the lifestyle, she pretty much sided with the stepdad no matter what the issue. Beck had alluded to the fact his stepdad didn’t mind raising his hand against him. It didn’t happen now because Beck wouldn’t take it, but as much as he tried to hide it, such treatment had left scars.
Just when Jake had left Chicago for Lanton, Beck’s stepdad moved them back to Chicago, into a big house in Glencoe.
Upon returning to Chicago, Jake met Beck at a party of a mutual friend where they’d bonded over their religious love for Pearl Jam. Since Beck’s real dad lived in Oak Park, he and Jake hung out whenever Beck came around, which was a lot. Not only did he feel the need to escape his life with parents he couldn’t stand to be around, but his dad was an alcoholic and he worried about him. Beck’s dad used to write jingles for advertisements and he’d written a pretty famous Christmas jingle that was replayed more times than anyone liked to count. He lived off the royalties in a house he already owned. Jake had only visited once and he hadn’t known what to say. Beck’s dad was a mess.
It was a relief to Beck to move out of his mom and stepdad’s and into freshman dorms at Northwestern. He and Jake applied to be roommates and their neighbors turned out to be Lowe and Matt. Upon discovering fellow musicians among them, Beck started the band. They met Denver at a party and welcomed him on board as their bassist. The Stolen was formed. People always asked Jake why he wasn’t a part of the band, but the truth was, despite his love of music, he couldn’t play. He’d tried to learn guitar years ago and it just wasn’t for him. He couldn’t sing for shit, and the thought of playing the piano or the drums bored him to death. Jake would always love music but he was practical by nature.
He was a mathematician, a problem solver, and industrial engineering was a better fit. It was all about optimizing how something worked, whether a process or an actual organization. Jake loved the challenge. At the end of the day he felt like he’d accomplished something, and as he got older, he realized that was a feeling he needed to be happy in life. When he’d chosen industrial engineering, his dad had been proud. It was a degree that could take him places in the real world.
That’s why it was so surprising that Beck and Lowe had chosen the same degree. They didn’t live in the real world. They wanted to be musicians. Engineering was just a back-up plan.
“Are you going to be this quiet all night?” Beck asked, eyebrows raised in question.
Jake eyed him. “Does it bother you?”
“Nope.” Beck shrugged. “I just feel like you’re stealing my thunder with the whole brooding thing. Women love the strong, silent type but we can’t both be the strong, silent type.”
Jake stared at him.
Beck sighed. “Fine. You’re better at it tonight anyway. I’ll be the charmer.”
Eyeing the front of Bobb, Jake shook his head. “I’m not going in there to get laid, so you can be whatever the fuck you want to be.”
Beck smacked Jake hard on the back. “Dude, at least let’s get you drunk or high. We have to pull you out of this funk.”
“I’m not in—”
They turned to see Melissa hurrying toward over. Her girlfriends strolled at a distance behind her, smirking. Beck had slept with at least two of them. Jake had been smart enough not to mess around with Mel’s friends.
Jake smiled as Melissa bounced to a stop in front of him. Just like always, he felt attraction zing through him. Melissa was at once beautiful and adorable. Dark hair, tall, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Not to mention she was sweet and compassionate and a great friend.
She threw her arms around him and Jake automatically hugged her close.
She smelled amazing. She felt good against him.
“Beck,” she said, smirking at his friend as she pulled back from the embrace. “Trolling tonight?”
“I think you’re thinking of Matt,” Beck said. “I don’t troll.”
“In other words, they just flock to you?”
He shrugged in a way that clearly said yes. “Jake, man, I’ll see you in there.”
Jake nodded, knowing Beck was making his escape from the past conquests who had suddenly reached them.
Melissa looked at her friends. “You guys go in.”
Her friend Belinda frowned at Jake. “You sure you want that?”
And what exactly does that mean?
“Just go in.” Mel shooed her away. As soon as the girls were through the door, she looked into Jake’s eyes. “Can we maybe go back to your dorm? I really need to talk to you.”
Jake felt a prickle of sweat. Nerves. “Um … what about?”
“Not here.” She pleaded with her gorgeous eyes.
After all the hours he’d spent talking her ear off, he couldn’t exactly say no. Jake nodded and turned toward his dorm, not saying anything as Melissa looped her arm through his and walked beside him, pressing her body into his.
He had a feeling he knew what she wanted to talk about. Not only would he have to call on his willpower if she came onto him, but he was worried that what he had to say would send her running. The thought didn’t sit well with him at all. He really cared about her. She was a friend he didn’t want to lose.
They’d met five months ago at the Study Abroad Fair. That meant Melissa had known about Charley almost from the very beginning of their friendship—Charley was the reason he was at the fair.
The summer after his senior year, Jake borrowed his dad’s car and he and Beck drove to Lanton. It became clear that despite wanting to see Charley, wanting to apologize, wanting closure, Jake did not want to see Lanton. He’d broken out in cold chills as they pulled into town. Beck had made him pull over and trade seats so Jake could sit in the passenger side, hiding behind sunglasses. He directed Beck to Charley’s house, feeling sick the whole time.
They sat down the street from her house for fifteen minutes while Jake tried to gather the courage to knock on the door.
And then a car pulled up to the drive and Lois, the girl they’d hung out with at the party that fateful night, got out. The front door opened before she could even knock and suddenly, Charley was right there.
It was like staring at a dream.
She didn’t seem real.
And she was smiling, looking beautiful and happy and relaxed, and Jake knew that if he got out of that car, Charley wouldn’t be happy anymore.
So he let her drive away with Lois and he let Beck drive him back to Chicago.
That was the day Jake decided to move on.
Freshman year was a blur of school, partying, and girls. It was easy to get lost. Jake was convinced that though it felt empty to move from one girl to the next, it had helped him deal with the fact that his life would never have Charley in it again.
That didn’t mean, however, that he was over her.
It was something Melissa knew. She knew because after they discovered they were going to the University of Edinburgh at the same time, Jake found himself telling her the truth behind why he was going.
Because Charley might be there, and this time he might not be such a pussy. This time he might have the courage to get out of the fucking car and tell her he was sorry.
He’d told Melissa everything—from meeting Charley, falling in love, all the crap that went down with Trenton Thomas and Logan Caplin, Brett Thomas’s animosity, the party, the knife, the death, Jake’s issues … and how he broke Charley’s heart and his own in the bargain.
Besides Beck, Melissa was the one friend he had who knew he wouldn’t get serious with another girl when he still had Charley’s ghost hanging over him.
Once inside his dorm, Jake watched Melissa as she moved through his space. She smiled at him as she flopped down on the bed.
“I want to be with you,” she said abruptly.
Jake was surprised and also impressed. Melissa had never crossed him as the most confident girl when it came to men, so the fact that she was putting it out there blew him away. It was brave.
He’d always admired brave.
Even if it did put him in an uncomfortable position. “Melissa …” He slumped down in his chair, his eyes locking with her hopeful ones. “You know I care about you, a lot, and if it could be anyone, it would be you. But you know I can’t.”
She sighed. “Because of Charley.”
“I’ve never felt about any girl the way I felt about her. I can’t promise you I ever will and that’s selfish. I can’t get into anything with you. Not to sound like an arrogant ass, but what if you fall for me and I can’t fall back? Not to mention that we’re going to Edinburgh in six months and she might be there. That could get awkward.”
“Jake,” she breathed his name, the sound somehow compassionate, “I know she meant the world to you.” She leaned closer, her silky hair falling across her shoulder. “But even if she’s in Edinburgh, there’s a huge possibility that she won’t want to even talk to you. Believe me. I wouldn’t want to talk to Damon.”
Melissa’s ex. They’d dated for four years in high school and then one day in their senior year, Mel had caught him having sex with another girl. It had devastated her. Like Jake, she’d assumed her high school sweetheart was the one.
“And I will be there for you through that,” she continued. “If Charley’s there, and it’s difficult, I’ll be there. Just give me a chance.”
Jake eyed her carefully. “Mel, why would you want to be with a guy who’s messed up? I’m messed up when it comes to this stuff and I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“Jake, I already love you.”
He jerked back.
His body was suddenly at war. He wanted to run from the words and yet at the same time, they created a warmth inside him that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Melissa nudged his knees apart, insinuating herself between his legs as she curled her fingers into his hair. Jake stared up at her, feeling a surprising amount of longing.
“I’ll love you enough for the both of us. I’m not asking for more. I’m just asking for a chance to make us happy.”
He said quietly, “It’s a risk.”
“I’m willing to take it for you.”
Hands shaking, Jake reached for her, pulling her down onto his lap, bringing their faces close. “This is selfish of me.”
“No, it’s not. I know what I’m getting into.”
“Then okay,” he whispered.
Melissa smiled, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Really?”
“I want you,” he told her honestly. “I want to try this with you.”
And as he kissed her for the first time, Jake swore he had no idea why he felt so guilty.
Chicago, June 2012
Feeling all good kinds of exhausted, Jake caressed Melissa’s naked hip and said, “Hmm?” without opening his eyes.
Her hair slid across his chest and he felt the pressure of her weight as she pushed herself up. “Jake?”
Finally registering the serious tone in her voice, Jake pried his eyes open, a satisfied smile curling his lips as he took her in, in all her naked glory. Jesus, she was gorgeous. They’d been dating for the past few months and Jake had to admit, it was the first time in a long time he felt any sense of contentment. It wasn’t that he still didn’t feel restless. Sometimes he wanted nothing more than to jump in a car and drive and keep going until he felt his insides settle down. But since that didn’t seem to be happening any time soon, he took these moments with his girlfriend and held onto them for dear life.
Melissa was completely drama-free. She came from a good family, she had good friends, she didn’t like confrontation, and she was laid-back. They never argued, got jealous or possessive, or felt like they were coming out of their skin with the intensity of what they felt for one another. It was soothing.
Or it was until this very moment.
Jake watched, worried, as she stared at him, chewing her lower lip nervously.
“Hey,” he said, cupping his hand around her nape, drawing her closer. “What’s wrong?”
“I have to tell you something.”
Fuck, was she pregnant?
Jake’s heart hammered in his chest. “Okay?” He braced himself.
“I … I love you.”
His heart almost stopped. She hadn’t said that since the first time a few months ago.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she rushed to assure him. “I know what you said before, but I just needed to say it again.”
“Mel …” He sighed, feeling his heart start beating at a normal rate again. As he stared into her eyes, tenderness washed over him. He did truly care about her. They had it good, they had it easy, the sex was great, and there was definite affection there.
If something ever happened to her …
An ache cut across Jake’s chest.
“I love you too,” he found himself whispering.
A beautiful smile lit up her whole face. Jake felt like a jerk for not saying it sooner. “Really?”
“Really.” He drew her close, kissing her deep. If this were to be his life, at least it would be sweet. Jake pushed her back. “You still deserve more. You get that, right?”
Melissa shook her head, still smiling. “I told you, Jake Caplin, I will take whatever you’re willing to give. I love you that much.”
“Then I’m a lucky bastard.”
“Don’t you forget it.” She kissed him again before curling back into his side.
Ignoring an old, familiar pain near his heart, Jake said quietly, “Maybe we should cancel Edinburgh. If she’s there … I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“No,” Melissa shook her head, her hair tickling his chest. “We’re going. You need closure. We need you to get closure.”
Jake still thought it was a bad idea but he wanted to do right by her. “If that’s what you want.”
A while later as Melissa snored lightly beside him, Jake got out of bed and reached for his wallet. Inside was a picture of his family. Jake pulled out the picture he’d hidden behind it.
He stared at her image, her cocky come-hither smile. His fingers shook a little.
He was moving on.
Dropping his wallet, Jake hovered over the trash can, the picture suspended above between his fingers.
And suddenly he heard her.
“Do you promise to take care of me for the rest of forever …?”
Jake’s breath hitched, his hands trembling.
“We’re never going to lose this, Charley. I promise. Now tell me you love me.”
“I love you, Jacob Caplin.”
Heart pounding, Jake stumbled back over to his wallet and hurriedly slipped the photo back in behind the family picture. He braced his hands on the desk, taking deep, even breaths.
He didn’t know her anymore, so how could he still love her? He may not be willing to fall for someone like he had back then, but that didn’t mean he was over Charley. Jake shook his head adamantly. It was the just guilt. It was haunting him.
Glancing at his sleeping girlfriend, Jake rubbed a shaky hand over his short hair and decided Mel was right. They needed to go to Edinburgh so he could apologize and find some closure.
Once and for all.
Edinburgh, September 2012
It had been over a week since he’d last seen Charley.
She was an addiction he was craving.
Just as she’d promised when they’d hung out at Milk over a week ago, Charley had been civil to him. However, it’d been one very uncomfortable night. Jake had soaked in the precious moments in her company, hating the jealousy he felt as she flirted with Lowe, and exulting in the connection between them when Jake’s eyes met hers. Under the guilt that seemed to be a constant in his life, Jake felt that stirring of hope again.
Charley would never be his girl again, but maybe she would be his friend.
The chance to push the subject with her hadn’t come up since that night. Melissa had done a one eighty from insecure girlfriend to pretending like none of it was happening. He guessed he should be glad, but it gave him the strangest sense of foreboding. Jake didn’t want to disrupt the peace in their usually easy relationship, so he pretended that Charley didn’t enter his mind at least every half hour.
That fateful day, for once Jake’s mind wasn’t on his ex but rather on school. He searched the shelves in the reserve section for an article he needed for one of his minor classes.
The sight of pale hair caught his attention. He glanced in its direction, pulse racing.
She frowned as she scoured the shelves.
Jake grinned. It was not an opportunity he could pass up. Moth to the flame, he strode over to her. “Hey, Charley.”
Startled was understating her reaction. She jumped, her arm flailing out toward him as she turned.
Jake jerked back to avoid it. “Jesus,” he said, taken aback by her surprise.
Charley glared at him, resting her hand on her chest as she tried to catch her breath. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know the words, ‘Hey, Charley’ were considered lethal.”
“They are if you sneak up behind me and practically whisper them in my ear. It’s creepy. Creepiness often precedes death.”
God, he forgot how adorable she was. How much she made him laugh. He tried to contain his amusement since she seemed pretty annoyed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You do that.”
Jake studied her as she turned to look back to the shelf. Attraction flared in his gut as he took in her delicate profile, an attraction he tried to squash but instead leaned into. “Whatcha looking for?’ he asked, dipping his head close to hers.
Her perfume was different than before, but it suited her.
She flicked him an unamused look. “The equation for time travel. Some guy just gave me permanent heart failure and I’d like to go back in time and change today so I’m lying on a beach in Guam being waited on by a hottie named Han with heavy footsteps and an aversion to whispering.”
And suddenly he was sixteen again, falling for a girl by the light of a bonfire. Jake laughed, shoving the intensity of those emotions deep down inside him, somewhere he hoped they’d get lost. Pretending indifference, he observed, “Still a smart-ass, I see.”
She had a retort. She always had a retort. Jake missed that too.
To his delight, Charley agreed to have coffee with him. From there they fell into banter, just like they’d always been able to. Jake knew it wasn’t the same. She was guarded and even he was guarded, but the ability to just be with one another was still there. Like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together.
They talked a while about their families, catching up on each other’s lives until Jake couldn’t help but ask if she was seeing someone. He hadn’t thought he wanted to know until just then. He knew he couldn’t have her. Didn’t mean he wasn’t curious to know if there was a guy who did, and if he was worthier than Jake had been.
When she said no, Jake ignored his relief, a relief quickly blown to smithereens by her info-bomb that she’d been in a relationship with some guy in college for ten months. Ten months was longer than they’d had together.
That hurt like a motherfucker.
By the end of their conversation, Jake had rediscovered Charley’s humor, her kindness, her ability to try. He knew as she agreed to hang out with him at the gym that she was going to try to forgive him.
That was all he could ever hope for.
Edinburgh, Halloween 2012
The last few weeks had been filled with self-inflicted torture for Jake. Being with Charley and not having her, and knowing that despite their friendly banter, she was never going to forgive him. Yet still, he couldn’t help the way he felt about her, and feeling that way about her while he was with Melissa was wrong. He knew it. Melissa knew it.
The connection between him and his girlfriend was strained. They were constantly on the verge of arguing, and Jake felt like he was about to come out of his skin all the time.
But tonight … surely tonight was the final straw.
With deep, gnawing jealousy and anger burning in his gut over the wrong girl, Jake was lost.
Melissa stood silently at his side, hurt and pissed off and making him feel angry and guilty all at the same time. She never wanted to talk about what was going on, she didn’t want to see, and he’d been too fucked up to make things right.
But no more.
He slammed his beer bottle on the counter next to him, eyeing the idiot on the couch who’d just had his hands all over Charley.
Not only did she have to turn up at Milk tonight dressed in the sexiest fucking costume he’d ever seen his life, he’d walked into the party to find her on the couch, making out with the party’s host, Aaron.
Jake saw red.
And it was pretty damn hard to get a hold on it.
Charley had promptly disappeared with Beck but now Beck was back, making out with some random girl, and Charley was … fuck. Charley was walking toward them. Jake barely looked at her, afraid if he did, she’d see everything he felt for her.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Matt grab her into a bear hug and put her down beside him.
“Having fun, Supergirl?” Matt’s eyes raked over her. The way Jake was feeling, even that pissed him off.
“I will be once you get me a beer,” she flirted back, and something about the way she swayed annoyed Jake.
Charley was drunk. And he was worried that if she got any drunker, she’d do something stupid, like sleep with Aaron.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” he found himself snapping at her.
She sneered at him. “No, Dad, I don’t.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed as Aaron came up behind and put his arms around her waist, drawing her back against him.
“I need to steal Supergirl away for a bit,” he said in his posh English accent. It pissed Jake off even more. “She needs to rescue me from a dire, dire situation …”
Charley laughed and let him drag her away, while Jake stood there helplessly. His hands hung at his sides in tight fists as he brooded after them.
“Are you kidding me?” Melissa shoved him.
Jake eyed her warily. “Don’t, Mel.”
“Don’t Mel me,” she clipped out, not caring they had witnesses. “You can’t even hide it. You’re jealous!”
“Oh, so now you want to talk?” Jake said. “Not here.”
Uncertainty entered her eyes but she nodded. “Let’s go back to your place, then.”
But knowing how this was going to end, Jake shook his head. “No, let’s go back to yours.”
The walk back to her apartment was long and silent, the tension thick between them.
They could hear the chatter of her roommates in the kitchen, but Melissa walked past the door, heading for her bedroom.
She stood across the room from him, beautiful and in love with him, and it no longer affected him how it should. Instead of feeling grateful for it, it exhausted him. Almost resentful, the guilt it piled on top of him. That wasn’t fair to either of them.
He drew in a shuddering breath. “I think maybe we should take a break.”
Melissa made a face. “Like I didn’t know that was coming.”
“No, don’t.” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Are you insane, Jake?”
“I know you care about her.” She took a step toward him. “I’m not blind, or stupid, and I know that you’re a good person so you feel guilty for feeling that way about her.”
He gave her a look, telling her without words that she’d nailed it.
“Jake … I know you’re a good person and I know Charley must be a good person because she has been big enough to put the past behind her and try to be friends.” The sympathy in Melissa’s eyes was a warning. “But Jake, you need to move on. Not for me. For you. I’m a woman and I know women and I’m telling you that as much as Charley’s being cool with you, she will never forgive you long enough to take you back. She’s over you, Jake. Everyone can see that. Right now … she’s having sex with someone else.” She reached for him, cupping his face in her hands. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to stop you from making a huge mistake.” She kissed him softly. “Don’t you remember how good we were before all this?”
Jake felt himself clutch onto her, like she was a life raft. “Yeah,” he whispered.
“Don’t throw it away on something that’ll never happen.”
Chicago, December 2012
Standing at the taxi rank with Melissa, the smell of winter and exhaust fumes and Chicago all around them, Jake was reeling.
For the past few weeks, he’d attempted over and over again to choke his feelings for Charley, doing everything in his power to take his mind off her. There were times it worked. Like the times Melissa subtly reminded him that Charley would never see him in a romantic light again. He’d even analyzed the way Charley talked to him, acted around him, and decided Melissa was right. She never touched him casually unless he initiated it, her smiles were guarded, her laughter not as carefree, and he rarely caught her looking at him. This convinced him Melissa was right. Even with Beck’s offhand comment a few weeks ago—the suggestion that Charley wasn’t over him. Even with Lowe pulling him aside to berate him that night they’d gone to Frankenstein’s for the pub quiz, demanding he stop playing with Charley’s head.
Confused, Jake had turned to Mel, who in turn had told her Lowe was seeing things through the eyes of a guy with his own issues, a guy who was projecting those issues onto them.
He had been convinced.
Until fifteen minutes ago when Charley’s dad, Jim Redford (a guy Jake had always respected) had looked at him with such contempt, it floored Jake. After all this time, when Charley was supposed to have been over him for years, her dad hated him.
Which could only mean that Charley hadn’t gotten over him as easily as he’d thought.
Beck’s and Lowe’s comments came back to haunt him.
“You’re quiet,” Melissa observed, her voice a little shaky.
Jake stared at her blankly.
“Jake?” she sighed. “You’re still upset about Charley’s dad?”
His eyes washed over her beautiful face and Jake felt that same awful emotion he’d been feeling for weeks—resentment. More than that, suspicion niggled at him. This whole time she’d advised him to move on from Charley because she could tell Charley wasn’t interested in him. Jake had trusted Mel because she’d also been betrayed by the boy she’d loved in the past, and Jake thought she had real insight into the whole situation. But now Jake couldn’t help but question Melissa’s motives. And it occurred to him how stupid he was for not questioning them in the first place. She wanted to be with him. Would she say anything to make that happen?
He felt like a shit for even thinking it, but he wasn’t a big enough dick to say it out loud. Even if she had led him astray from the truth, he’d let her. He was still to blame.
Jake knew, as he stood there with her, he was tired of feeling like an imposter in his own life.
“This isn’t working,” he whispered, hating to hurt her.
Melissa didn’t look surprised. Just angry. “Because of Charley’s dad. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“This isn’t about Charley.”
“The hell it’s not,” she snapped.
Before Jake could reply, a cab pulled up to the rank. The cheery driver got out to help Jake put their luggage in the trunk.
“Where are we going?” the cabbie asked as they settled in the backseat, “White Christmas” playing on his radio.
Wishing he were anywhere but stuck in a confined space with Melissa, Jake managed to politely answer, “Northbrook first. Then Oak Park.”
“You got it.”
The radio was the only sound in the cab as they pulled away. Jake watched the driver give the two of them a curious look in the rearview mirror. The guy opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but Melissa beat him to it.
“Are you breaking up with me?”
Jake blanched, watching the driver’s brows snap together, his gaze instantly darting away, as if that would somehow give his passengers privacy.
Looking at her, stomach twisting in knots, Jake sighed. “We can’t do this here.”
She glared at him, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I’m not going home just for you to call and break up with me.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
She huffed. “Spare me, Jake.”
Anguished, Jake tried to make her see where he was coming from. “I’m not breaking up with you for Charley. I’m doing this for us. For you. You deserve more, Mel. You deserve a guy who’ll love you as much as you love him. You deserve a guy who you can’t live without, and I think we both know that’s not me. If I was the one, you’d demand I love you back the same way. You wouldn’t be able to settle for loving me ‘enough for the both of us.’”
The tears slid down her cheeks fast and Jake reached for her, pulling her into his arms. Despite everything, she clung to him. “Don’t tell me what I feel.”
“Melissa,” he tightened his hold on her, his voice thick with emotion, “I never wanted to hurt you. I should’ve walked away.”
She sobbed in his arms for a while, only quieting as they drew close to her neighborhood. Jake gave the cab driver her address and when they pulled up to the house, Jake helped with her luggage. For a moment they stood on the sidewalk, staring at one another.
Jake didn’t know what else to say.
Finally, Melissa glanced up at her house, and dread filled her eyes, as if she’d come to some sudden realization. That’s when she shot Jake a disgusted look, turned on her heel, and walked away without saying goodbye.
Not that Jake felt he deserved one.
Trembling, he got back into the cab. The driver pulled away and Jake decided it was best not to look back.
“So …” the driver winced at him in the rear mirror, “merry fucking Christmas, huh?”
Jake exhaled wearily. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts until he found the one he was looking for.
“Hey, man,” Beck answered on the second ring, “I just got into Dad’s. I still don’t understand why we didn’t share a cab. You and Melissa fighting or something?”
“Actually, that’s why I called.”
“Uh-oh. What happened?”
“I broke up with her.”
Beck was silent for a moment and then he said quietly, “It was about time, Jake.”
“How you feeling?”
Guilt punched him in the gut, but he answered honestly. “Relieved.”
“Need a beer?”
Jake nodded gratefully, even though his friend couldn’t see him. “Definitely. I’ll drop my stuff off at my folks, say hello, and then I’ll come around to your dad’s.”
“See you soon,” Beck said. “And Jake?”
“Try not to beat yourself up too much. I’ve never known a guy so emotionally black and blue.”
“Hey, those would be great song lyrics!” a rough voice shouted cheerily in the background.
Jake frowned. “Was that your dad?”
“Uh-huh. He started the party early. Like always.”
Jesus. He was calling his friend with girl problems and Beck had actual problems. “Dude, I’m sorry. I’ll be there soon.”
They hung up and Jake flicked down a contact. Charley’s name taunted him. They needed to talk.
It was time for some answers.
It was time to move on … one way or the other.