Ready Or Not

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Hot Dogs Or Nachos

It was knocking on the front door that woke her from her peaceful slumber. Groaning, Jessamine pushed back her covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, grabbing her nearest oversized hoodie to cover the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra before padding towards the door to find Cassie emerging from her room looking sleepy and confused as well.

“Are you expecting someone?” Jessamine asked, zipping up her hoodie.

“No,” Cassie yawned. “Ty knows way better than to wake me up this early.”

Partially intrigued and partially annoyed, Jessamine pulled open the door to find Gage on the other side, looking much too perky considering the ungodly hour. “Hi?”

“I’ve got it,” he smiled brightly, speaking without any pretense. Truth be told, he was already excited, and seeing her, looking all rumpled and sleepy and adorable only fed his energy.

Jessamine blinked in confusion, wondering if he’d purposefully worn a t-shirt the exact same shade of blue as his eyes. “Got what?”

“I’ve figured out how to loosen you up,” he explained, as though it were completely obvious.

She managed to refrain from rolling her eyes. “I don’t recall asking you to do that.”

“I know,” he smiled innocently, thoroughly enjoying annoying the shit of her. She was super cute when she was all riled up. Which was why he added, “But that’s what friends are for.”

Her gaze narrowed and he smiled wider.

“You guys are friends?” Cassie piped up from behind Jessamine, not entirely sure what was happening, but appreciating the spectacle nonetheless.

Jessamine kept her glare pinned on Gage. “Not really.”

“Ouch,” he feigned offense, the amusement in his eyes never leaving.

Realizing that the longer they engaged in this game, the more Cassie was going to think something far from completely innocent was going on, Jessamine sighed and gestured to the unfairly scrumptious human in the doorway. “Cassie, this is our neighbor, Gage.”

“Oh,” Cassie nodded, unable to keep from stretching her lips into a shit eating grin as she recalled her conversation with her roommate from the week before and holding in a laugh when Jessamine’s glare turned to her. “That makes sense.”

“Am I missing something?” Gage furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. The roommates seemed to be having some sort of silent with their eyes.

“Nope,” Jessamine responded, quickly changing the topic before Gage could make any sort of inferences about Jessamine and Cassie talking about him previously. “I’m sorry, explain to me again why you’ve woken us up at this ungodly hour?”

His grin returned as his gaze settled back on Jessamine. “You and I are going on an adventure.”

“Are we now?” She was just the tiniest bit intrigued, but mostly she was annoyed. Because who the hell woke someone up on a weekend for a spontaneous adventure? Apparently Gage, the hottie next door.

Parting her lips, she prepared to tell him that she already had plans to go back to sleep, but was interrupted by Cassie’s soft voice saying, “You should definitely go Jessa.”

It wasn’t often that Jessamine found herself annoyed with her roommate, so the twisting in the pit of her stomach was a new sensation as she turned to Cassie and said, “Cass, can I talk to you for a minute?” Once they were successfully out of Gage’s hearing range, she hissed, “Why are you encouraging this?”

“I’m not sure,” Cassie shrugged. “But you said you were blocked. Maybe spending some time outside of your comfort zone will help.”

The truth was that Cassie sensed a spark between Jessamine and Gage. One that she hadn’t seen Jessamine have with any other human ever. So Cassie was a little more than intrigued to see how their relationship played out.

Jessamine, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced. Exhaling slowly, she allowed her muscles to loosen from their agitated state and replied, “I highly doubt it.”

“Oh, come on,” Cassie laughed, knowing that her best friend wasn’t nearly as immune to Gage’s charms as she was pretending to be, “You’ve known him for like a week and he’s already getting emotions out of you.”

“Yeah, mostly frustration and irritation,” Jessamine muttered, determined not admit that Cassie was right. It had been a long time since she had felt this kind of pulse pounding, heart stuttering emotion. And it pissed her off that the source of such emotion was a guy she really didn’t have time for.

“At least it’s something,” Cassie replied, seeing the silver lining of the situation, as usual. “If you don’t want to be alone with him, maybe Tyler and I can come with?”

“So that it can feel like the world’s most awkward double date?” Jessamine scrunched up her nose at the thought. The last thing she needed was for Gage to think that spending time together was in any way romantic. She had too much on her plate at the moment to care about a boy. “No thanks.”

Cassie shrugged. “It’s your choice.”

Realistically, Jessamine knew that if she wanted Gage to disappear, Cassie would undoubtedly support any excuse she made up for why she couldn’t go anywhere with him today. Because Cassie was an amazing friend that way. But because Cassie was an amazing friend, Jessamine also knew that she was right. Jessamine was stuck. And maybe going out of her comfort zone was exactly what she needed to get unstuck.

So she let out a reluctant sigh and said, “Fine.”

“Yay!” Cassie smiled brightly, glancing up to where Gage was still waiting patiently in the doorway. “I can call you like an hour in if it’s going horribly wrong so that you can make up an excuse to leave.”

“Sounds good,” Jessamine agreed, relieved to have an escape plan. At least this way, she knew that if things got unbearably uncomfortable, she could walk away somewhat unscathed. Stretching her lips into her sunniest smile, she turned back towards Gage and called out, “Give me like a half hour to get ready and I’ll come find you.”

Gage instantly grinned, relief surging through his muscles. For a few minutes there, he was certain she was going to flat out refuse him. It was good to know that she was at least somewhat curious as to what being around him would be like. “Can’t wait.”

Nodding, Jessamine turned towards her door, cycling through every outfit she owned as she made her way towards her closet. True to her word, she and Gage were walking down a sidewalk beside their apartment complex exactly thirty-six minutes later. Because of the time constraint, she’d forgone doing anything fancy with her hair and makeup and settled for a yellow spaghetti strapped sundress and a few swipes of mascara.

“So, Jessamine,” Gage said casually, his fingers stuck into the front pocket of his jeans as they strolled at a leisurely pace, “tell me about yourself.”

She was thrown slightly off guard by the vagueness of the question and she didn’t know how to answer. “What do you want to know?”

“Last name?” He decided to start with something easy. It was kind of tragic that he’d probably cut out his own heart for her yet he wouldn’t know how to address a package to her.

“Starting off with the tough questions, huh?” She laughed, slightly relieved that it wasn’t something deeper. Surface questions she could handle. But she had a feeling if she let Gage under her skin, he’d stay there forever.

He lifted one side of his mouth into a smile. “Humor me.”

She rolled her eyes. “Copeland.”

“Family?”

“Got one of those,” she nodded. To be honest, she was kind of relieved that he hadn’t made the connection to her father yet. Not that she’d ever automatically expect someone to know her father was famous, especially seeing as her parents had done their best to keep both her and Tyler out of the public eye as they grew up, but more often than not, people put two and two together.

But apparently Gage was completely oblivious, because he nudged her lightly with his shoulder and said, “Come on, give me something.”

He honestly didn’t care if she told him everything she ate for lunch in the past week. He just wanted to know something, anything about her. So it intrigued him when she sighed and said, “It’s a little complicated.”

“I’ll try and keep up,” he assured her.

She wasn’t sure where to start. If he’d just asked her to name her passions, it would have been easy. She would have said fashion, sketching, crime dramas, and her family. But her family was such an intrinsic part of her personality and included more than just the people she was related to by blood that it was hard to break down her relationship with them in just a few sentences.

“Okay,” she said slowly, trying to figure out the best way to go about explaining her family’s unique dynamic, “so there’s the basics. Mom, Dad, and I have a little brother, Tyler.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” he smiled, watching her fingers in fascination a she absentmindedly braided her waist length hair over her shoulder.

“Oh, but there’s more,” she added, before he could settle into thinking it was that simple. “I just don’t really know how to explain it without it sounding like I’m bragging, but I guess I should start off by saying that my dad’s in a band.”

“Really?” he lifted an eyebrow, thinking it was nice that she was surprising him at every turn. “Which one?”

“Vertical Limit.”

“Jessamine Copeland…,” he said slowly, her family background finally clicking into place, “as in you’re Justin Copeland’s daughter.”

He’d been a fan of the band for ages, but not to the point where he knew anything about the band members’ personal lives. Of course, he knew they all had children. He just never in a million years thought he’d actually meet one of them.

“Yeah,” she nodded, continuing on quickly, “Okay, so now that we got that out of the way, things get easier to explain. So, my dad and his bandmates have been friends since they were kids and are super tight, which means that all of the band kids are super tight as well. So when I talk about my family, I’m not just talking about the people I’m related to by blood.”

He paused for a moment, placing his hand at the small of her back as he guided her across the street to their destination. “I get that.”

“You do?” She replied slightly breathlessly, enjoying the heat from his palm against the thin material of her dress.

“Yeah,” he nodded, reluctantly removing his hand from her back when they were on the sidewalk again.

“So what about you?” she asked, figuring she shouldn’t be doing all the talking. “Family?”

He shook his head, but he didn’t look her in the eyes when he said, “It’s just me,” because he was pretty sure she’d be able to see right through him if he did.

“Oh, so no siblings either?” It was obvious that talking about his family was a sore subject and normally she wouldn’t be insensitive enough to push the issue, but she was genuinely curious. Up until this point, his eyes had been filled with light and his smile had been unbound and she was desperate to know why there was a sudden change in his demeanor.

“Nope.”

He had replied quickly and matter of factly, but there was something about the way his shoulders tensed slightly and his eyes darkened that told her there was more to the story. Maybe he needed to trust her more before he fully let go. In the meantime, she’d have to settle for vaguer questions. “Tell me something.”

“Fine,” he laughed, relaxing slightly, grateful that she hadn’t pressed further into his family issues. “My name’s Gage Dresden. I’m 25 and a Leo. I’ve worked at South Street Ink since I was eighteen and I’m currently going to night school to get my degree in accounting because I’m hoping that one day, my boss will let me take over the shop.”

“Very cool,” she smiled, feeling all of her muscles relax now that he was no longer tense. “Wait, South Street Ink is where I got my tattoos done.”

“Tattoos?” He lifted an eyebrow in surprise, glancing down at the back of her shoulder. Beside the thin straps of her dress were three rows of three letters each, inked in simple block letters. “You have multiple?”

“Just two.” She also had a black gecko tattooed on her ribcage.

He quickly scanned her arms and legs for any other visible ink before asking, “Where’s the other one?”

Pressing her lips together to keep from smirking, she lifted one eyebrow at him and said, “We don’t know each other well enough for me to show you that.”

“Fair enough,” he grinned, excited for the day when that was no longer true. Removing his hand from his pocket, he reached out to lightly run his fingertips over the letters on her shoulder, relishing in the feel of her skin beneath his fingers. He wasn’t surprised at all that he instantly felt more alive after touching her. “These initials for your family?”

“Yep, my parents and Tyler,” she gulped, her words coming out slightly breathy because for some reason, having him touch her bare skin was sending zings of awareness throughout her whole body. Deciding not to think about what that meant, she steered the conversation back to him. “How did you start working at the shop?”

“I went to get my first tattoo out of typical teenage rebellion,” he replied when they stopped at a local café to grab homemade donuts and to-go cups of coffee before continuing on, “but while I was there, I just became fascinated by how it all worked, so when I came back for my second one, I asked, Kyle, the owner if I could just watch as he did someone else’s and he said yes. I was around so much that eventually he started to teach me and that was it, I was hooked.”

The entire process sounded fascinating to Jessamine, it also slightly terrified her. “Does it ever freak you out? The permanence? I mean, if I screw up a sketch, I can just start over. You don’t have that luxury.”

One of her greatest fears had always been making a mistake that couldn’t be reversed. The good thing was that when it came to fashion design, there was never a mistake that couldn’t be fixed.

“I mean, we draw everything out on stencils beforehand, so it’s not like I’m ever free handing it,” Gage explained, “And I don’t know, I think the permanence is kind of cool. It’s art that’s going to be with them their entire lives and even if they don’t remember me, I think it’s amazing that for those few hours, they trust me enough to let me be a part of it.”

His life was a constant stream of people he might never see again, so it was cool to think that over the course of a few hours, he would impact them so permanently. That they would spend the rest of their lives looking at those tattoos and maybe, if only for a few seconds, remember that it was Gage who put it there.

Jessamine watched in awe at the way his eyes lit and his entire body hummed with excitement as he explained his job and silently vowed to make that gorgeous smile cross his face as often as possible.

“You really love it,” she whispered, knowing she was stating the obvious.

He grinned wider, the smile making his features stunning as he turned to face her. “I do.”

Her breath caught in her throat and she felt her heart rate spike and she didn’t want to think about why she was having any sort of reaction to a guy that she barely knew and mostly annoyed her, so she changed the subject. “So where exactly are we going?”

He’d led her to the local fair grounds. Her parents would bring her and her brother here every few months as a child, but she had yet to come during her adult life. Pausing, he nodded to the big wheel ride at the edge of the fair grounds. “Up there.”

“The top of the Ferris wheel?” she tilted her head to the side, studying the wheel’s slow movements and dampening down her nervousness.

“Yep,” he glanced at her, noticing the way her muscles seemed to be tight. “You scared of heights?”

“Nope,” she shook her head. It wasn’t the height that had her pulse racing: it was the knowledge that she’d be alone with Gage in a confined space. Which was ridiculous. She’d been alone with guys before and they’d never elicited this kind of response. Jessamine Copeland was the epitome of calm, cool, and collected in every situation. Or apparently until Gage Dresden gets involved. It irritated the shit out of her that he seemed to be an exception to her rules. But she wouldn’t show weakness, so she smiled at him reassuringly. “Let’s do this.”

He reached for her hand and laced their fingers together as though it was the most natural course of action in the world and despite the fact that she barely knew him, she found she liked the way her fingers felt against his, so she didn’t question it as he tugged her towards the line.

Their hands remained linked as they stood in line and the entire journey to the top of the wheel and by the time they reached the ride’s peak, she was so accustomed to the feeling of her hand in his that it was like they were always meant to be that way. It was such a comfortable situation that she even ignored Cassie’s fake emergency call and one hand texted her roommate that everything was fine.

“So, what do you think?” Gage asked once their little swinging seat slowed at the top of the wheel.

Jessamine breathed in deep, allowing the cool air and Gage’s lemon and cedar scent to fill her lungs as she slowly swept her eyes over the landscape. Below them, the city was shining under the bright sunlight, backed by the turquoise waters of the ocean beyond.

“It’s beautiful up here,” she breathed out, relaxing into Gage’s side.

Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to be closer to her, Gage shifted towards her in his seat and squeezed her hand lightly. “A little better perspective than the rooftop?”

“A little,” she grinned, keeping her gaze outward, but remaining utterly aware of his warm, comforting presence beside her, “I always thought it was fascinating that you can think about things more objectively when you take a step back, because technically speaking, things should be clearer when you’re up close, shouldn’t they?”

That was true. But there were so many wonders of life that couldn’t be explained. Like how he could possibly be so irrevocably in love with her after knowing her for such a short period of time. Still, he decided not to question his good fortune. He had a feeling he was the luckiest bastard on the planet for having the good luck to meet Jessamine Copeland in the first place and he didn’t want to jinx his luck by reading too much into the situation, so he just said, “I guess that’s just another mystery of the universe.”

She turned to face him, amused and trying not convey how the closeness of his lips to hers was making her entire body hum. “You’re just full of wisdom, huh?”

“Yep,” he smiled innocently, enjoying the brightness of her smile and the sound of her melodic laugh. Once they were on the ground once more, he still didn’t remove his hand from hers, tugging her towards the nearest food stall. “Come on, I should feed you and get you back before Cassie gets worried.”

They bought hot dogs and sodas from the concession stand before finding an empty picnic table to eat at, the conversation flowing effortlessly. Gage told her about the strangest tattoos he’d ever given and the even stranger places he’d had to put said tattoos. Jessamine told him about the designs she was working on and her dreams to one day own her own boutique. They didn’t hold hands on the way back, which left Jessamine feeling slightly colder and emptier, but by the time they had returned to their apartment complex and were standing outside Jessamine’s door, Jessamine felt an overwhelming sense of contentment.

“Hey, Gage?” she said quietly, fiddling with her keychain. “Thanks for today. You’re right, I needed it.”

“I’m glad you had a good time,” Gage replied, letting out a sigh of relief. Despite his seemingly confident nature, the truth was that he’d been concerned that she wasn’t actually enjoying herself and was only playing along to be polite. “Same time next weekend?”

Her eyebrows shot upwards. “What?”

“Oh, come on, Jessa,” he laughed, “you didn’t really think this was a onetime deal, did you? I have so much more wisdom to impart.”

Now that he knew she wasn’t averse to spending time in his presence, he wanted to make sure that they didn’t go back to just being neighbors who only said hi to each other in the hallways out of politeness.

She rolled her eyes, but her lips twitched in amusement nonetheless. “I’ll bet you do.”

“So?” he asked hopefully, widening his grin.

The truth was, she didn’t want to say no. She’d had fun with him today; more fun than she’d had with anyone outside her family in a long time. And that meant something. Maybe today had just started with Jessamine wanting to walk outside her comfort zone, but it had ended with her realizing that Gage fit pretty comfortably into her life. And that terrified the hell out of her.

But she had learned a long time ago that when something scared her, it was because it was worth doing, so she nodded and smiled softly and said, “Fine. Same time next weekend.”

He felt as though every wish he’d ever made had just come true and he didn’t even care that he was smiling like an idiot. “You won’t regret it.”

“I already do,” she shot back, not wanting him to think that their day together had made her soft.

“Don’t worry, Jessa,” he teased, “you’re gonna be in love with me in no time.”

Or, at least, that’s what he hoped.

She rolled her eyes again, turning to unlock her door and push it open before lifting a hand in a wave. “Goodbye, Gage.”

Wide grin still stretching his lips, he dug his keys out of his pocket to unlock his own apartment and mentally catalogued today as being the best day of his life so far. In the apartment next door, Jessamine couldn’t stop smiling.

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