“So why were you so angry, Jaiven?” And suddenly her emptiness was filled; her tiredness swept aside as tears stung her eyes. She blinked rapidly. “Why did you want to…humiliate me?” Her throat thickened and she blinked again.
“I didn’t… I wasn’t thinking clearly. That’s not an excuse, it’s not meant to be an excuse, but I didn’t come to your place intending…” He closed his eyes. “I know you won’t believe this, but I came over to tell you something else.”
“That I…” He shook his head, his expression turning grimly resolute. “It doesn’t matter now. But when you called it off with no warning…as you know, I was angry. I wasn’t ready to—”
“Oh, so your ego was a little bruised, was it?” Louise cut him off, her voice hardening. Anger was so much better, so much stronger, than hurt or shame. “Couldn’t take a woman being the one to walk away? For once you were the who got loved and left.” She shook her head in disgust. “You’re such an ass.” She rose, filled with fury, and Jaiven reached over to grab her wrist. She glared at him, her body ramrod straight, and when she spoke her voice was icy.
“Get your hands off me.”
“Please, Louise. Just hear me out. This wasn’t just about who walked away first. Not for me.”
She just glared at him, her body nearly vibrating with tension, and after a second Jaiven released her wrist and sat back in his chair, palms up, reminding Louise of the way you’d back away from a wild animal.
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. And sat down again. “Fine. What was it about then, Jaiven?” She folded her arms and stared at him.
Jaiven stared back, his expression resolute. “It was about starting to care. About you.” Louise’s mind reeled. He cared about her? Or was he just feeding her a line, trying to justify his pathetic actions?
You’ve been here before, Louise. You’ve been here before and it’s not pretty.
Wearily she shook her head. “You don’t even know me, Jaiven. Not really. And if that’s the way you treat people you care about…” She gave a hollow laugh, letting the sentence remain unfinished.
“I know more than you think. More than I even realized. The sex was just supposed to be sex but somehow it got to me. And I started knowing you through it, if that makes any sense.”
And amazingly, it did, because she’d started feeling the same way. Even if she hadn’t wanted to. “So why didn’t you tell me that the other night?”
“Not very hard.”
“You ended it before I could say anything—”
“You were pissed off before I said anything,” Louise snapped. “You were angry about something before I even got back home, Jaiven. I could feel it.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then he let out a long, weary sigh of acknowledgment. “You’re right. Because I didn’t want to care about someone again, and I knew that I did.”
Louise’s heart seemed to still. “Again?”
Jaiven shrugged dismissively. “Who hasn’t had their heart broken?” Louise didn’t answer and he raked a hand through his hair. “I’m not claiming I’ve cornered the market on broken hearts. Just about anyone could give the same kind of sob story. It’s no big deal, and it doesn’t excuse what I did. Nothing does.”
“Okay,” Louise said after a moment. She was still trying to absorb everything Jaiven had just told her. She’d never, ever expected this kind of emotion from him. This intimate, soul-baring honesty.
“What I’m trying to explain,” he continued, his teeth gritted because this soul-baring honesty clearly wasn’t easy, “is that I fell into feeling something I hadn’t expected, and it took me by surprise. I was working up the courage to say something to you when you called it off, and…” He shrugged. “I didn’t take that so well. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Louise repeated. She stared at him, searching his face, wondering just what he wasn’t saying, because she knew instinctively there was something. This wasn’t just about some broken relationship. She knew Jaiven enough—well, maybe—to feel that something more was going on behind his bleak expression. She just had no idea what it was.
He drained his coffee cup before pushing it away. “I acted like a complete asshole and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” He gave her a bleak smile. “I won’t bother you again.”
Louise’s throat tightened and she stared down at her coffee. And while part of her wanted to accept his apology and walk away, another part knew she couldn’t leave it there. It wasn’t fair to either of them, and it wouldn’t be the whole truth. “You’re not the only one saddled with some sad history, Jaiven,” she said quietly. “That night brought up some ghosts from my past, too.” She took a deep breath. “Which is why I was so upset.”
He didn’t speak for a moment and she couldn’t look at him. “You want to tell me about it?” he asked eventually.
She shook her head. “Not particularly. You spared me your details and so I’ll spare you mine. It was a bad relationship, through and through, and I’m not proud of the way I acted. The way I let him treat me.” And that was all she’d ever say about that. She had no intention of telling Jaiven about Jack, or how she’d been with Jack. She never wanted to admit to so much humiliation.
“Then I’m sorrier than ever,” Jaiven said after a moment, “if I brought back bad memories by what I did.”
Louise just nodded jerkily; she didn’t trust herself to speak just then. She was afraid if she so much as blinked she’d start to cry. She’d tell Jaiven all sorts of things she couldn’t bear for him to know.
Jaiven leaned forward, his expression turning fierce. “Tell me,” he asked in a low, ragged voice, “how I can make it better. Make it right. I still care about you, Louise. I know I messed up but if you gave me a second chance, I’d take it. I wouldn’t blow it this time, I swear.”
He touched her hand, the weight of his own solid and comforting. She wanted to lean into that hand, into that body, and have him envelop her in his strength. And she wanted more than that; she wanted to learn more about this man and find out what could happen between them. She wanted it terribly and yet she knew too much had already happened. Too much sordid history. Too much pain.
She couldn’t go back to what they’d had, and there was no way forward.
So instead she blinked. A tear fell and tracked its way down her cheek as she slowly shook her head. “You can’t, Jaiven. I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
WHY DID DOING the right thing feel so awful, Louise wondered as she slung a week’s worth of washing into the machine in her basement. She swiped her card and leaned against the machine, exhausted since she hadn’t slept much in the week since she’d last seen Jaiven. Seen the desolation and remorse on his face when she’d told him he couldn’t fix it. Watched him walk away, that one tear still snaking its way down her cheek.
Felt her heart break. Again.
She shouldn’t care this much, she told herself over and over again. She barely knew the man. All right, the sex had been incredible, but that’s all it had been. Sex.
Liar. It was more for Jaiven and it was more for you, too.
A truth she couldn’t escape. A truth that tormented her because even though she was filled with both longing and regret she knew she’d meant what she’d said. Jaiven couldn’t make this right. There were some things you couldn’t go back from. And with her history, she couldn’t be with a man who had made her feel as sickened and humiliated as Jaiven had in that moment. Couldn’t move past it, couldn’t risk ever feeling it again. It was, unfortunately, as simple as that.
She just wished it were more complicated.
Her cell buzzed in the back pocket of her jeans, and she fished it out, half hoping and half dreading it was Jaiven. She shouldn’t want him to call, and he had no reason to call. She’d sent him away and Jaiven didn’t seem like the type to keep coming back for more.
In any case, as she glanced at the screen of her phone, she saw it was Chelsea.
“Hi, can you meet me?”
“Yes, if possible. I’m at my place. How about we meet at the park, Ninety-Sixth Street entrance?”
It was Saturday morning, and Louise had no more plans than filling her fridge and doing her laundry. “Okay.” Trepidation fluttered inside her. “Have you found out something about Harlow?”
“Something,” Chelsea answered, and she sounded somber. “But not much. Meet me in an hour, okay?”
With her wash still spinning Louise headed back upstairs to her apartment. She took a copy of Harlow’s thesis from a file folder and started reading it yet again.