“You need to get your head examined,” Jasper muttered as he stalked out of the room, breezing by her on the way.
She glared at Ian for a moment as he watched her, and then she shook her head. She followed Jasper’s lead, walking quickly from the room. She had no idea if she was trying to catch up to him or if she was just plain fleeing, and she was leaving it entirely up to whether he was still in the parking lot when she reached it. Her heels clicked on the pavement as she started quickly down the aisle, and then she stopped walking altogether.
He was there. Not even attempting to leave—just leaning up against the hood of his car, watching her as though he’d been waiting for her to find him. She slowed her gait as she closed the space between them, and he studied every step she took.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here either.” She wasn’t really sure what else to say.
“That was quite clear given the expression on your face. I’m sorry.” His ankles were crossed as he leaned casually against the hood of his car, but however casual his posture might be, his intense eyes were boring holes into her skull and sending an invisible shudder through her body.
“Jas … I’m really sorry about what I said to you last week after you left my place.” She swallowed painfully as he watched her.
He shook his head. “Don’t be. I respect your need to put some space between us. You were right to do that—especially after my behavior when I was at your loft. You didn’t do anything wrong.” He was studying her eyes closely. “In fact, I owe you an apology for that little outburst of mine.” He smirked.
She nodded slowly for a moment. “Well regardless, I’ve regretted those words from the moment they came out of my mouth. They felt wrong.”
When she managed to glance back at him, his jaw was tight and rigid, and his nostrils were flaring as he inhaled slowly.
“You know…” He glanced away for a moment. “…beyond the completely inappropriate things I admitted to you the other night, I actually do just like hanging out with you. I think I was more upset that I couldn’t do that anymore than anything else. But I do understand. And I don’t want you to feel guilty about putting barriers in place between us.”
She nodded. “I like hanging out with you too.” She looked down at the ground between them. “And I don’t need barriers.”
He watched her for a moment. “Okay,” he said quietly. “You hungry?”
She smiled. “Yeah, actually.”
He pushed off the car then, offering her his arm. “Shall we go deal with your ridiculous boyfriend?”
She laughed and took his arm. “He’s your best friend.”
“Yes.” He looked down at her as they walked slowly back toward the restaurant. “You look nice. I like this dress, and I like your hair down.”
She thanked him as warmth settled into her cheeks, and she avoided looking at him lest it intensify into a full on blush. When they reached the front door of the restaurant, his hand met her lower back—not low enough to be inappropriate, but not high enough to be completely platonic, and he didn’t remove it until they were walking back into the private dining room.
Ian was sitting at the table patiently with his fingers steepled against his chin. He’d moved to the side of the table, so he was facing the door now, and as they entered, he smirked. “Glad I won’t be eating alone,” he commented.
She took the spot Ian had abandoned, and Jasper scooted her chair in before he rounded the table and took the place across from her.
Jasper’s focus settled on Ian. “You owe us both an apology.”
Ian glanced between the two of them for a moment, and then he rolled his eyes. “Okay.” He studied them some more, and then he cleared his throat. “You are both beyond fortunate to have me in your lives.” He paused smirking at them.
Jas looked at her, shaking his head in amusement. “Is this supposed to be an apology?”
She laughed shaking her own head too.
“Yes. Now shut up. As I was saying, however fortunate you both are, I do realize that, on occasion, I get…” He shrugged his shoulders. “…well, what I would consider a pretty damn good idea.”
Jas rolled his eyes, studying her some more.
“But!” Ian stuck his finger up in the air, standing from his chair. “The world apparently doesn’t revolve around me and my notions. Can’t imagine why not,” he muttered. “What I’m trying to say—”
“Yes. Get on with it already!” Jas cried as she laughed.
“I’m sorry.” Ian looked between the two of them. His expression was sincere without the slightest hint of his normal sarcasm or smirk. “My suggestion… Well it put you both in an awkward position, and that was wrong. And I’m sorry.” He sat down then as the waiter entered with a couple bottles of red wine. Ian glanced at her. “I know it’s red, but I couldn’t remember what—”
“Malbec you dick,” Jasper commented, but his eyes were on her, and she smiled.
“Well, fuck both of you. You’re both going to have to live with a Cab and a Pinot.”
Dinner was great, the conversation was even better. They laughed and joked around, and she listened intently as they rehashed their youth for her. Ian was clearly a latchkey kid with little supervision, and that didn’t surprise her in the least. Jas was the outsider who most kids were more fearful of than genuinely interested in knowing, and even though that came with a number of amusing stories related to school pranks and fights, it was still sad to hear in a way. But she soaked it up.
“You remember that day your dad showed up at school and pulled you out in the middle of football practice?” Ian glanced at Jas, but Jas remained silent, nodding subtly. “He rolls up in this old Ford Mustang. It was rough, but it was so cool.” Ian chuckled. “He was a big man, your dad. Comes strolling up with that cool-cat swagger of his, and you just took off with him.”
Jasper’s eyes met hers, but he looked away quickly. She wasn’t sure what to make of his disposition at the moment.
“We took bets whether we’d ever see you again.” Ian was silent then.
She looked between them, feeling more tension than anything else. Jasper was staring at the table, but it wasn’t irritation. He just seemed to be somewhere else.
“Well, clearly he came back,” she tried for no other reason than to cut through the thick air that hung around them.
Ian glanced at her. “Yeah, he did. A week later, black eye, scuffs all over his face and limping. He looked cool as hell actually.”
Her eyes snapped to Jas as he looked up to her. His brow flinched, and all she could seem to manage was to stare wide eyed back at him.
“We didn’t get along so well that week,” Jasper commented with little inflection.
Ian chimed in quickly though. “You were a big kid. I bet you left him looking just as bad.” In Ian’s own way, he was trying to support his friend.
Jasper shook his head subtly. “No.” He said nothing else, and he stared at the table for a moment before blowing out a deep breath of air. When he looked back up to Ian, he smirked. “Way to suck the life out of the party, Ian.” He clapped his hand on Ian’s shoulder, smiling and laughing, and then his focus shifted to Gray, and he studied her for a moment as she took a drink of wine.
“How about you, Gray?” Jasper lifted his own glass to his lips.
She shrugged. “I danced. Not much more to say.” She knew she sounded lame.
“There’s always more to say,” he responded.
“No, in her case there really isn’t,” Ian tossed out. “If you can believe it, I’m only the second man she’s ever slept with. Still can’t believe all the shit she’s let me do to her,” he commented as an aside.
Jasper’s eyes remained on her, but she glanced down at the table, feeling the hot tendrils of embarrassment coursing through her.
“To take a note from Gray’s book, I’m sure she would have told me that herself if she’d wanted me to know.” Jasper’s voice was warm, and when she glanced up, he was looking directly at her rather than Ian. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s more to say. So spill it, Gray.” He demanded with a gentle smile.
She smiled. “Okay. I came from a great family with loving parents who supported me perfectly. I started dance when I was young, and … I was good at it.” She thought about what she wanted to say then. “It was all I did. I knew early on that I wanted to make a career of it, and you don’t do that without giving yourself over to it completely. It was my life. I didn’t go out, have fun, do all those normal kid things. I was in a studio practicing.” She shrugged. Yeah, it was more than lame.
“Nothing wrong with being disciplined,” Jas offered.
“No…” She thought about that for a moment. “But I missed out on life. While other people were out having adventures—”
“And fucking,” Ian threw out.
She rolled her eyes. “I was keeping a strict rehearsal schedule.” Her lips pursed, and her brow flinched as she stared at the table.
But Jaspers warm voice pulled her back to him. “You’re young. You have plenty of time for adventures.”
She glanced at him. “Do I?”
Ian was looking between the two of them but not interrupting.
“I don’t know,” she mused. “Even at my age I feel like I’ve lost part of my life to my career. It’s funny how life feels like it slips away from you without you even knowing it sometimes.” She watched Jasper’s eyes as she spoke.
“Yeah.” He nodded focusing on her intently.
The waiter suddenly appeared in the doorway with their check in his hand. Ian took it, and as the waiter left, it was silent. No one said a word, and her brain swam with a sea of possibilities that were so much bigger than her small little boring world. It was a heady feeling, and she took a deep breath, soaking in the intoxication of it. And then she said it. It wasn’t her desire nor her intention when she walked in, but… She said it.
“I’ve changed my mind.”