“Stop smiling.” She scowled and glanced away.
I couldn’t help it. I chuckled, though it was cut short by another one of her icy glares. Sliding out of my car, I realized she had no idea how much that little glare of hers turned me on. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure which I preferred, the glare or the smile. I’d always dabbled in both when I had her. Had being the operative word there. I needed to remember that if this drive was going to go smoothly and I wanted any shot at seeing her again. Tessa’s the kind of woman you couldn’t jump to conclusions with. Years of platonic friendship taught me that.
We’d remained friendly enough after we ended things, especially before she left for college. I’d left a full year ahead of her and had come back for visits. We didn’t always catch up—sometimes she’d be away with her family or friends while I was in town and I wouldn’t see her. I hated those vacations. I started coming home less and less because of them. Home and Tessa were a package deal for me and on the occasions that she was absent, home seemed dull and uninviting. We called each other on birthdays, texted during holidays. Then, out of the blue, all of it stopped. I would’ve said it was just the way of life, people grow apart, but it wasn’t a coincidence that she started pretending we were complete strangers after my parents bought her family’s fabric company.
The handful of times I’d seen her after, she’d ignored me when I looked at her. If I walked into the same room, she’d pretend I wasn’t there. When I had managed to get her to talk to me, she hadn’t even looked me in the eyes. The only time she actually managed to meet my gaze was when she was glaring at me, which was ninety-nine percent of the time. None of that mattered. She was sitting with her back ramrod straight, her face tilted up slightly as she looked straight ahead. She had always been so beautiful. Beautiful, caring, and hardworking. With a heart of gold and a body that made a man think sinful, dirty thoughts. I swallowed those thoughts and started driving.
“When did you get back in town?” I’d been jogging by her house ever since I overheard my brother talking to her on the phone. I hadn’t asked about it. I just pretended I wasn’t listening as I followed him to the break room just to catch any information about her that I could. Unfortunately for me, I’d only managed to catch one laugh and one statement from him. And then I started jogging. As if I’d ever made jogging part of my workout in the past.
She glanced over briefly. “A couple of weeks ago.”
“How long will you be here this time?”
She gnawed on her bottom lip, looking at the road ahead. “A few weeks.”
“Hm. Leaving for good this time?” I was only half-joking. It was the one thing I’d clearly overheard my brother say on the phone.
“Actually, yes. For good this time.”
I smiled. Tessa was one of those girls who wanted to get out of her town in a blink but would come back and visit so often you’d never know she’d been gone at all. She loved her parents and siblings too much to just ghost.
“Do you still want to design dresses?”
“Maybe.” She shrugged.
“Where will you go?” I asked. “Did you get a job offer?”
Her face whipped in my direction. She had this wild look in those almond-shaped eyes of hers, as if she was unsure of what to do with everything I was asking. My chest squeezed as I waited.
“Why are you driving so slow? We should be there by now.”
She was right. I was driving slower than I’d ever driven before, trying to savor the little time I had her in my presence.
“You didn’t answer my questions.”
“Yeah, on purpose.”
Her words cut, but I didn’t let it show. I don’t bleed. It was something Dad drilled into us from a young age. Yes, people were all the same, we were all born and we would all die. The only thing really setting us apart was the way we chose to spend the short time we were alive. The difference between the Hawthorne’s and everyone else was that in times of trouble, we were to remain stoic. It was what was expected of us, after all. I hadn’t yet mastered my dad’s uncaring characteristics or the way mom upturned her nose to everything she didn’t approve of. Not sure if I ever would. As far as I knew, neither had my brother. I cleared my throat and turned my attention to Tessa. Kind, sweet, drop-dead-gorgeous-and-doesn’t-know-it Tessa.
“I just want to know how you’re doing.”
“I’m doing well. I’ll be better once I don’t have to see you running down my block every morning.”
A smile crept onto my lips. “I didn’t think you noticed. You never look.”
“You don’t need one more woman looking at you.”
“You’re right. I only need one woman looking at me.”
“Oh.” She stayed quiet for a beat, and I thought I finally had her, but then she lifted her fiery gaze to mine and added, “Did Camryn finally move here?”
Fucking Camryn. The jab bothered me more than it should have. Tessa had every right to throw that in my face, and with the rumblings that were happening in regard to Hawthorne Industries, I wouldn’t be surprised if Camryn took her claws out of the hedge fund manager she’d been fucking in New York and came back around to try to stake her claim on my last name again. It was what I would do if I were her. That was the thing about Camryn. Underneath everything, I saw pieces of myself in her loneliness. She wasn’t like Tessa. Not the Tessa I knew, anyway.
I didn’t feel like I knew this version of her. This mean, snappy woman who looked at me as if I were mud beneath her feet. Though, I had to admit, I did like the idea that she was a little jealous. Maybe I had a chance to right this after all.
She’s leaving soon.
The thought crashed through me like a ten-foot wave. It was the same wave that crashed through me when I was set to leave for college and had broken things off with her because I didn’t want her to think this had any chance of turning into a long-distance relationship. Later, I’d changed my mind about it and she’d waved the idea away. That was when the possibility that she’d never actually be mine hit me, and I selfishly started to hate myself for breaking things off to begin with.
After pulling into the parking lot much sooner than I would have liked, I threw the car into park and went to climb out, but she put her hand on my arm.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to help.”
I willed my heart not to pound the way it was. I do not bleed. Damn it. “Sam’s waiting for me. He’ll help me get this stuff inside and take me home when I’m done. I’m sure you’re dying to shower.”
Her cheeks flamed when she said that, and she looked away to open the door. I would’ve reveled in it, but my jaw clenched at the mention of my brother’s name. Before I had time to say anything smart, he was jogging outside, smiling at her as if she were the only person in the universe. My hands gripped the steering wheel. My brother was a good guy, the kind of guy you want your daughter taking home—hardworking and caring.
I considered myself a good guy, but I was selfish where he wasn’t. I was driven where he was just okay with the position he’d been working in for years. He didn’t even take Dad up on the offer of moving up in the company. I watched as Tessa got out of the car and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. Was it a friendly hug? Was it more than that? In spite of everything I’d once shared with my brother, in that moment, I hated him.
I knew I held no claim on her, but I hated Samson for having any part of her. Even when we were all just friends, they had understood each other on a level I hadn’t quite been able to reach. It still bothered me. I would have killed to have just one tiny sliver of her affection still. Tessa did that to people. She was a light in this dark, ugly world, and with the power to turn your bad days around with a simple smile. I let that slip away. I agreed with that. I just didn’t know why. I wanted to curse the day my parents bought her family’s factory, but my self-importance wouldn’t even let me do that. Regardless of that, I missed her.
“Hey, Ro. You coming inside?” Sam asked as he dipped into my back seat and gathered the fabrics.
“I’ll be back in an hour.”
Tessa opened the passenger door again and grabbed her bag. “Thanks for the ride,” she said in a low, sweet voice I hadn’t heard directed at me in ages. My eyes snapped to hers.
“I can go by and figure out what to do with the truck,” I offered.
“No need. I’ll have a tow truck go by there or have Sam go get it for me.”
Sam. Fucking Sam. My own brother. “You getting cozy with my brother now?”
She shrugged as if to say they were together but not serious and then glanced away. I didn’t like the way the burn of that shrug curled inside me, so I took a deep breath and let it out. I did not bleed. I shouldn’t have even cared who she was with. Surely, she’d probably dated other guys in the last five years, but still, something about seeing it made it different. Maybe it was because it was my brother and dating each other’s exes was supposed to be off the table.
“Well, thanks again.” She pushed back and closed the door.
I lowered the window. “Tessa! Maybe we can have dinner sometime.”
She pursed her lips. My heart raced. At least she was thinking about it. I felt a slow smile creep on my face and watched as she flushed.
“I’m not sure your girlfriend would appreciate that.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m single then.”
She looked at me for a moment longer, chewing her bottom lip as she mulled over whatever it was she wanted to say. “I’ll think about it.”
I let out a breath and smiled. Thinking about it was better than flat out no.