Hate to love you, p.24
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       Hate to Love You, p.24
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           Tijan

  “Hey!”

  I got out, yanked the hood up and over my face, and put the glasses on. “I’ll call you later to pick me up?”

  “That, or he can drop you off.”

  “Got it.”

  I hunched forward, my hands in the sweatshirt’s pockets, and I didn’t look at Shay as I went right past him. He turned to follow. “Hello?”

  “Can we do this upstairs?” I was reaching for the door, and I opened it as Shay got behind me. We weren’t the only ones at the intersection. Linde was in the stairway, leaving the main floor. He was pulling the door closed behind him and automatically issued a, “Oh, excuse me . . .” The word died in his throat when he looked from me, to Shay, then back, and his eyes narrowed, lingering on me.

  A soft, “Clarke?” came from him. He had a bowl of oatmeal in his hands, and it almost dropped. He tightened his hold quick, cleared his throat, and stepped all the way into the stairs. The door shut with a click behind him. He looked from me to Shay again. “Uh . . .” He blinked a few times before coughing once again. “I . . . sorry. I’m at a loss. That is you, Clarke, right?”

  “Yeah.” My throat got stomped on. The husky sound that came out hadn’t bothered me until that moment. I cringed. “Can we not, uh, do this here?”

  Linde moved aside, and I hurried up the stairs.

  Turning down the hallway, both were following me, but I didn’t want to do this with Linde. Not right then. I wanted to talk to Shay and then regroup. I’d feel more centered if that was done and out of the way first.

  Stopping outside Shay’s room, I said over my shoulder, “Can I talk to Shay first? I . . . can we do this another day, Linde? I’m sorry. I . . . just—”

  “No. No.” He went to a different door. “Talk. It’s good to see you up and walking.” He cracked a grin, tapping the side of his head. “The mind does weird tricks on a person. You never know.” He indicated me with the bowl. “It’s real good to see you. Miss you in class.”

  I was reaching for the doorknob but paused at those words.

  I looked back up. “Thank yo—” He was in his room already.

  Had I been a bitch there? Was that wrong to do?

  I was rooted in place, but Shay moved me and opened the door. He ran a hand down my side, curved it around my waist, and rested it on the small of my back. For a second, one second, I didn’t move. He opened the door, but neither of us moved. Feeling his heat, his strength, I closed my eyes and rested my forehead to his chest.

  He remained like that, and after another second, I felt him rest his head against the top of mine, but with the barest of touches. No. Those were his lips. He grazed a soft kiss there, and feeling the tears falling, I went inside.

  We didn’t move far.

  Shay shut the door, and I whirled around. He didn’t even move, I just pressed myself against him, and his arms wrapped around me. My hood was still in place. Gage’s sunglasses on. He held me, and I soaked it up. He ran his hand up and down my arm and dipped his head to rest his chin on my good shoulder. He kissed my cheek before lying his own cheek next to it. He let out a deep breath, and it was as if he were breathing for both of us.

  So much of the tension, anxiety, and fear left me. There was so much else still in there, but my chest was considerably lighter.

  I stepped back after another few minutes and murmured hoarsely, “Thank you.”

  His hand came to the glasses. He started to touch them. “Can I?”

  No! Fear slammed back in me, but I forced myself to nod. Then I waited. My heart against my chest cavity.

  He pulled them off. There was no change in his eyes. He took them, folded them, and put them on his dresser. Slowly, so agonizingly slowly, he reached back up and gently pushed the hood back from my head. When I felt completely bare, he gazed at me.

  I couldn’t look, not at first. I focused on his chest, but when he didn’t make a motion, or a sound, I looked up.

  So much warmth was there that my lungs were empty for a moment.

  He murmured, “You’re still as beautiful as you were the first day in class.”

  Oh, God.

  Another teardrop formed and hung off my eyelid. “You’re lying.”

  “I’m not.” He reached up, another tender touch, and he raised his thumbs to clear the tears from my eyes. Wiping them away, he caught a tendril of my hair and tucked it behind my ear. His hand lingered there, and he stared at the bruising.

  I choked up. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”

  I made a movement toward the door, but his hand touched my wrist, gentle, but still firm. “No.” He stepped in front, blocking the door fully. “I just got you.”

  Those words—I laughed, shaking my head. “Smooth operator.”

  “Or a truthful one.”

  I went to the bed but didn’t sit. Hugging myself, I turned back around, raising a hand so I could bite at my nail. My mother would’ve been yelling at me, but I didn’t care. My anxiety was back and off the charts. It was, but it wasn’t. This was a different form of anxiety. This wasn’t the kind where I felt the walls closing in on me. This was the kind where I was worried the guy who used to laugh with me, poke at me until he got a reaction, or made me gasp in bed wouldn’t want to do any of those anymore. It was that kind of anxiety.

  Maybe it was the tears welling up. They never stopped anymore, or maybe because I was half through my nail, but whatever he saw, he came forward. He cupped the good side of my face and sighed. “Everything will be okay.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “Carruthers will never hurt you again.”

  It wasn’t about Carruthers. It wasn’t about his friend. “Casey was raped. I was attacked. There’ll be others.”

  Agony flared in his eyes. “Not for you. I won’t let it.”

  “You can’t know.”

  “I do. This time, I do.” He raised his head up in a challenge. “No one will hurt you again.”

  I whispered, my voice cracking, “I want to believe you.”

  He whispered back, inching closer until we were touching. His other hand was on my neck, and I was literally in the palm of his hands. He was gazing down. I was looking up, and he said again, “You can.”

  He touched his lips to mine, a tender whisper of a touch, and I did.

  I called my mom, telling her I was staying with Shay. She tried to get me to change my mind, but all I wanted to do was lie in bed with Shay that night, so I did. We held hands. I was in his arms, and he rubbed my back as I told him everything.

  The day felt weird.

  I was confused after I left him, but enjoyed being a nobody again.

  The library.

  How I embraced my inner geekdom.

  The sidewalk afterward.

  The two shadows.

  The bat.

  When I was hit.

  The ambulance.

  Waking up in the hospital room.

  The medical staff, and how great they were.

  How crazy my mother was.

  How great my brothers were, and how I enjoyed having Blake here.

  My mother’s tearful worry before I went to his place.

  When I was done, he continued to stroke my back. “But how are you doing?”

  I shook my head. “I can’t answer that.” I lifted my head to peer at him. I didn’t want to lie, so I didn’t. “I’m broken now.”

  His eyes clouded over, and he shook his head. They were brimming with fierce emotion, but everything about him was gentle. So were his words. “You’re not. It’s like a sports injury. It can bench you, or you can rest, go to rehab, and do everything in your power to heal it.”

  “Being attacked isn’t like a sports injury.”

  He shifted to sit up, but he pulled me back against his chest. He ran a hand down my hair instead, circling around my arm and raising to repeat. “Maybe like cancer. You can’t deny it. You deal with it, and if you get the right treatment, maybe you’ll come out in one piece. I believe in that, Kennedy.
He stopped his hand and held me. I felt his head resting against mine and a quiet, “I have to,” left him.

  We kissed a few times that night, nothing heavy. But he held me, and it was what I needed.

  The next morning I was going to stay in the room until Blake could pick me up since Gage had classes. But Shay said everyone knew I was there, and the word was that I was his girlfriend. I went down with him after he got back from his morning run and we ate breakfast before getting ready for classes.

  The guys were respectful.

  A few stared at my face, but no one acted like my being at the table was weird.

  Shay was on one side, and Linde was on the other. He asked for a hug, and I murmured before he pulled away, “Thank you for being a good friend.”

  He was wiping at his eyes and excused himself afterward.

  He came back after a few minutes, his smile reinforced, and as the guys left for campus, Shay took me to the hotel. He sat back in his seat, the engine idling. “Do you want me to come up with you?”

  I laughed. “Are you kidding? My mom won’t let you leave.”

  “I can stop by tonight.”

  “Or, you can pick me up, and we’ll repeat last night.” Unless he had plans? Unless he didn’t want to? Unless . . . my mind wouldn’t stop. “If you want, I mean.”

  “Of course, I do.” His eyebrows dipped close before smoothing back out. Those ice-blue eyes were questioning, but genuine. The concern rested on the bottom, lining it with a smidge shadow of darkness. “Is that okay with you? I mean, you’re the one who was adamant we weren’t dating.” The side of his mouth lifted in a half-grin, but I saw how serious those eyes were. He wasn’t joking.

  “I said all that so I wouldn’t get hurt.”

  “You’re saying it now?”

  I tried to smile. “I’m beyond hurt now. A little heartache on top of this is nothing.” I failed.

  His eyes darkened, and he leaned over the seat for me. His lips were on mine before he cursed and pulled back. “Did that hurt?”

  I shook my head. “Only when you stopped. They hit my head, not my vagina.”

  He grimaced, scratching behind his ear. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

  “I know, but I just wanted to remind you.” I pointed to my face. “They hurt this.” My hand went between my legs. “Not this. They didn’t hurt this. They didn’t touch this.”

  His eyes darkened again, anger flaring. He growled, “If they had, I’d probably be in jail.”

  I reached for his hand, hooking my finger around his and letting it rest on the console between us. “I know I’m going to be messed up by this attack, but I don’t want them to take all the normal stuff from my life. I know we can’t, not yet, but I want to have sex with you. I want to feel like a normal girl again, like a,” I hesitated, “normal girl being with her boyfriend.”

  Some of that anger faded, and he smiled. “I was wondering if you were going to bring that up.”

  “Yeah.”

  I wanted to go back to picking at my nail.

  “Do you want to be? Or do you want me to tell everyone we’re not dating?”

  I let out a laugh. “How’d that make me look?”

  “Fuck how you look. Fuck everyone else. What do you want?” He nodded to me with his chin. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m in. I beat up two guys for you. I think that says enough. I’m all in, Kenz.”

  My heart swelled. It was the first time he used my nickname.

  I was blinking back more tears as I was smiling widely. “I’m all in, too.”

  “Thank God,” he said under his breath, leaning over for another kiss. He was still gentle.

  I could’ve stayed there forever, but the doorman began pacing back and forth. I saw him from the corner of my eye once, and I pulled back. “You have class.”

  “I do.”

  “Later tonight?”

  “Later tonight,” he agreed.

  That became the routine for a while.

  I’d spend the days with my family, and nights with Shay.

  After a week, Blake flew home. He couldn’t take any more time off from work, but my mom stayed. The hotel became too expensive, so she moved into the spare room that Gage and his roommates created for her. Two of the guys agreed to share a room, and she was elated. Gage offered to have one of the guys move in with him. They lived in a four-bedroom apartment, but the two who shared said it made sense. One had night classes, and the other had day classes, along with a day job. It was like they still had their own room, and my mother unofficially adopted Gage and his three roommates.

  It was another two weeks before I met Kristina for coffee.

  Missy packed some of my stuff up and helped my mom grab anything I needed. She was being sweet and helpful. So was everyone. Casey. Laura. Sarah. Everyone.

  As for college, the administration said I could take time off.

  I was seeing a counselor, and she said the same thing, but I hadn’t wanted to do that. We reached an agreement. I would keep with my studies, but off-campus. The professors had someone tape their courses, and those were put online for me. It was a project already in the works. They sped their timetable up for me. I went to campus one time, but it was into one of the higher administration buildings so not many saw me, and I was put into a small office where I took all my midterms.

  I was able to do my papers at home, emailing them in. The only thing I couldn’t partake in was the group presentations, but I still participated. I sent in the work that the groups needed for my two other classes. I didn’t have to do a presentation for my third class, and I fully participated with the political science one.

  Aby and Becca came to Shay and Linde’s house, and I was there for that segment, but I wouldn’t be when they stood in front of the class. All of them agreed I shouldn’t be penalized for that, but I still helped with everything else.

  Aby and Becca weren’t catty when I saw them for researching.

  The bruises had long ago faded, and I was back to my old physical self. What was different was my relationship with Shay. It was out in the open, and while we weren’t a public display of affection couple, there was the random back rub or hand graze, or how I just liked to stand by him and lean into his side.

  I forgot how noticeable those were until the two girls openly stared.

  I grew more aware afterward, but neither sniped at me. Both were quiet, and each even gave me a hug the last time our group met.

  My mom, Gage, Kristina, and the rest of the other girls helped to pack up all my stuff. I was going to move into a new room with Kristina and Casey. I explained to the committee that I’d feel safer with them. My roommate was barely in her room, except for when she slept, and I was closer to Kristina and Casey anyway.

  After finals, I met Casey, Laura, and Sarah out for dinner.

  Kristina came, too, but she was a few minutes late. Everything was almost normal. Almost. I enjoyed listening to them gossip and using last names of people I didn’t know. But then the conversation changed. The feeling grew more somber.

  I didn’t know why until Casey said, “I’d cry.” She snapped her fingers. “At the drop of a hat, or if someone wanted to watch something I didn’t. I never knew what would set it off, but man, they’d just flow. It was annoying.”

  She glanced over to meet my gaze.

  We both were knocked down. We were both standing.

  Or I was still trying to.

  Hiding was holding me back, and I knew it. A shared look passed between us. I knew Casey knew it, too. I had to step out of the shadows, but my first semester was done except for one more event.

  Shay’s last football game.

 
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