The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 29

Kat

“You have to go to class, Kat. You can’t keep blowing it off.”

“Why did I answer the door?” I complain, returning to my pillow and throw-blanket on the couch. Ever since Jared and I fought, and he hate-fucked me on my bed, I can’t sleep there. He should’ve just set it on fire before he left my apartment.

Dash snaps his fingers. “Come on. Up. Now.”

“I’m not feeling well,” I muffle into my pale-blue blanket.

“You’ve missed Monday and Tuesday nights’ classes. You have to make the rest of the week’s, or they could kick you out. You can still drive when you’re sick. Most sick people do. So, suck it up and get changed.”

“I don’t want to get my license anymore.”

“Kat, you’ve come so far. You cannot give up now.” I hear him moving closer, and I hold the blanket tighter. “How are you going to move to Virginia without a driver’s license?”

“As long as I can get down there, I can then take a bus to work.”

“Wait a minute. You’re throwing away all this time you’ve spent driving, so you can take a bus? How’s that make sense?”

“Just leave me alone, Dash.”

“Nope. After your class, I need your help at my mom’s shop. She has three funerals and a wedding this week. Seriously. Don’t make me do it alone. Please, save me from her best friend, who owns the shop with her. I will slit a throat. I’m just not sure whose yet.”

I push the blanket down from over my head. “You can handle it.”

He shrugs. “I guess drastic measures.” Dash lifts his shirt over his head, tossing it onto the floor, revealing surprisingly nice abs. When he goes for his fly, unbuttoning them and pulling down the zipper, I sit straight up.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Stripping. What? You’re not into it?”

“No!”

Grinning, Dash says, “I’m not shy, Merrick.” He pushes at his waistband, and I catch a glimpse of blond hair peeking from it. “You’d better hurry and get dressed if you don’t want to see the whole show.”

I run into my room as I hear him laughing. Damn kid of a stripper.

When I’m dressed, I return to the living room, unable to look him in the eye, although he’s dressed. Unfortunately, he finds my uneasiness amusing and grins, his entire face lighting up.

As I open the passenger door, he says, “Watch the glitter and tassels. I had a crazy night.”

Seeing my eyes pop from the other side of the car’s roof, Dash laughs as he disappears into the driver’s seat.

Climbing into his car, the smell of his cologne is strong, but it’s not the one that causes my heart to race and forces me to giddily smile, and it brings tears to my eyes.

Blinking them away, I put on my seatbelt and stare out the window. After several more minutes of silence, I swallow and ask, “How bad was your fight with him at the house?”

Dash hesitates, prompting me to look at him. He grabs a red sucker from his cup holder. “It wasn’t bad.” He shrugs as he balances the wheel with his arms to remove the wrapper. “We worked it out.”

“So, you’re still friends?”

He laughs. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t we be?”

When he puts the candy into his mouth, I say, “I was hoping you still were. I don’t want to cause a rift in your friendship.”

Giving me a quick look, Dash smiles around his sucker and jumbles, “You’re not, Merrick. Don’t worry about it.” When I turn back to the window, he more clearly asks, “Did you hear about the job yet?”

“A voicemail after I left the house yesterday. I got the job.”

“That’s great! Congratulations!”

“I haven’t called them back.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know if I want it anymore.”

“What are you going to do? Stay here?”

Looking at him, I sigh. “If I tell you something, it can’t leave this car.”

Dash’s expression is stoic. “It won’t. I promise.”

“I applied for a Pennsylvania teaching license.”

He nearly drops his sucker as he quickly looks from the road to me several times. “What? When?”

“The Sunday I came back from Philadelphia. I filled it out and mailed the application the next morning.”

“You spent money on two licenses? Why would you do that?” Dash pulls into a parking space at the school, waiting for my answer, but I go inside the building.

When I return to the car after class, Dash asks an expected, “How was class?”

Closing the door and snapping on my seatbelt, I answer, “I did zero to seventy in three seconds. Is that fast?”

He laughs as he backs out of the parking space. His icy-blond hair bounces. “Uh, yeah. But highly unlikely in that POS you have to drive.” Also, highly unlikely since I was told I have an aversion to the gas pedal.

I stare out the window, and Dash doesn’t ask more about my license applications, which I’m relieved. I shouldn’t have told him, putting him in an awkward position with his best friend. Fuck, after our huge fight and the horrible things he said to me, I still love Dash’s best friend more than I’ve loved anyone, even if he doesn’t return the sentiment.

I could easily escape to Virginia, avoiding him altogether, but I’m considering moving to Philadelphia just to be close to him, most likely carrying on our fucked-up relationship if he wanted to as much as I do.

Pitifully desperate doesn’t begin to describe me.

Dash says, “You’re quiet.” As he brings me back to the present, I shrug. “Hungry?”

I shake my head, wishing I were home, buried in my blanket on the couch, not having to drive, make conversation, or help with flowers.

Dash turns into the parking lot of a small, gray building, and I sigh. “Please, don’t make me stay here all night. I’m exhausted.”

Talking with his sucker in his mouth, he says, “From sleeping all day? Um, okay.”

“I haven’t been sleeping, Dash. I just want to get home.”

I hear the sucker clacking against his teeth when he replies, “An hour, tops, and I’ll take you home. It’ll be fun.”

I roll my eyes. “Doubtful.”

Dash crunches on his sucker as he yanks open the entrance door, sending the bells overhead tinkling. A thin, brunette man wearing a white T-shirt, a gray vest, and a gigantic smile, enthusiastically waves from behind the counter. “There’s my sweet Dashiell!”

“Hey, Victor,” Dash replies, kind of blandly.

Victor claps his hands together. “Who is this delicate rose?”

Dash waves his empty sucker stick at the too-cheerful man. “Kat, this is my mom’s best friend, Victor. Victor, this is my friend, Kat.”

He theatrically gasps. “Does my Dashiell have a girlfriend? Oh, Shell! Come look at our boy!”

Dash tosses his sucker stick into the trash can with a flourish. “No… Just friends. Chill out.”

Victor walks around the counter, asking, “What is your given name, honeysuckle?” I’m positive I’ve never been called honeysuckle before.

“Katriona.”

Grinning way too much, he eagerly nods. “Ahh. Much better. Katriona. More dignified.”

Dash retorts, “Says the man who line-dries his underwear on his front porch and collects ketchup packets for the homeless.”

“Absolutely. Let’s not be spendthrifts, Dashiell. Now, Katriona. Don’t tell me you only see Dashiell as a friend. Underneath the bitchiness, he’s a prize.” Dash? Bitchy? I see Victor hasn’t met Jared Beckett.

I glance at Dash and smile. “Uh… We’ve been friends for quite a while.”

Victor shrieks, “So slow, Dashiell! If I batted for your team, I would’ve married this young lady by now!”

Dash sighs. “Jesus, Victor.”

With his chin resting on his clasped hands, Victor asks, “Katriona, you do know Dashiell is straight?”

“Yes.”

“Show him your boobies already!”

As I gasp, Dash says, “And my best friend would knock out all my teeth with a crowbar, cut off my dick with a circular saw, and set me on fire.” What the fuck?

Victor says, “Make it a threesome.”

Dash laughs, his blond hair gleaming in the overhead light. “What do you think, Kat? You think he’d go for it?”

Adjusting my glasses, I clear my throat. “I wouldn’t go for it.”

Walking past the counter, Dash goes down a hallway, and I follow. He leads me into a room with a table and counters lining the walls. Cutting tools and pins clutter the surfaces while dead leaves and flowers litter the floor.

I pick up a pair of pliers, poking my finger with the tip. Dash yanks open a heavy door, and cold air spills into the room as he disappears inside. The rush of cool air is welcomed, despite the goosebumps prickling along my arms.

Dash returns with a large, white box. After he zips a knife through the tape, Dash glances up at me. “He’s still in town.”

“He is?” I look around the room as if he’s going to come through the door.

“Yeah. He leaves tomorrow. He has some meeting Friday afternoon for work.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, sugar bear.” We both turn to see a buxom woman with platinum-blonde hair pulled high up on her head, wearing heavy makeup, a low-cut top, and tight, dark blue jeans. She looks like the quintessential Barbie doll. The only stripper stereotypes missing are the high-heeled shoes, body glitter, and bikini. I do notice from which parent Dash got his dimples and smile, making her the female version of Dash.

Her smile is bright. “Oh, hello.”

Dash rolls his eyes when his mother kisses his cheek, which leaves a red lip print. “Mom, this is my friend Kat, who I told you about. Kat, this is Shelbie Atkinson, my mother.”

She smiles at me and holds out her hand. “Call me Shell.”

I smile back but suddenly feel very shy as I shake her hand. Her shiny, red nail polish catches the light, making my pastel pink nails look hideous. “Hi.”

Dash says, “Kat has volunteered her help.”

She offers another bleach-white smile. “Oh, really? Thank you so much! I’m shorthanded, so any help I can get is great!”

I shrug and toy with the pliers again. “It’s no problem.” I’m here against my will, anyway.

“Dash told me you’re a teacher. That’s awesome! What grade?”

I smile, which is genuine. “Third.”

Dash asks, “What grade will you be teaching in Virginia?”

“Fourth.”

Shell sighs. “Dash was so awkward at that age, but so damn cute.” She brushes the hair off his forehead, saying, “That was the year you were in that food groups play.” She turns to me and laughs. “My poor ear of corn tripped over his shoelaces and fell headfirst off the stage. Wouldn’t return to the play and cried all the way home.”

Dash mutters, “Lies.”

Shell pushes on his cheek. “Hardly.”

Dash jokingly frowns at her and says to me, “Jericho was a carrot if you need ammunition.”

Shell asks, “You know Jared Beckett?” I nod, looking to Dash for help, but he stays silent. Shell smiles. “He was a cutie, too. Always sticking up for Dash. Jared has a lot of heart but pretends to be a hardass.”

Dash laughs. “Sometimes.”

Shell tilts her head, looking at me. “Dash said you two went to high school together?”

“I was a year behind him.”

“Then, you probably heard about the time my son slammed a kid into a locker and punched him?”

“No…” I look from Shell to a red-faced Dash, who feigns interest in the box in front of him.

Shell says, “Shit. I had to give that assistant principal tickets to my show to get Dash out of trouble.” She turns to Dash. “Did you ever tell Jared about that?”

Dash frowns, looking back to the box. “Uh...”

Shell scoffs, “Your best friend, whose honor you were defending, doesn’t even know you were beating the shit out of that kid for him?”

“I think there’s a stripper pole that needs polishing,” Dash grumbles.

Shell slaps his arm, and I laugh. “Dashiell Paris Calder, behave.” I never knew his middle name. Totally suits him.

Dash rolls his eyes at his mother. “The guy said something, so I threw him into a locker. He mouthed off some more, so I introduced him to my fist.”

“You broke the locker door.”

“I didn’t break his face.”

I ask, “What did he say about Jared?”

“Daryl Santo ran his mouth about some plays Jericho fumbled. He said Jericho needed to be benched or his legs broken.” Dash shrugs. “I contested that.”

“Holy shit, Dash.”

Shell says, “Jared was the firecracker, but I never thought Dash would be the one in trouble. He had to spend three days in the principal’s office, despite me giving that lowlife tickets. Ass.”

Victor yells from the front, and Shell shakes her head. “I wonder what the drama queen wants. Just unload the boxes, and I’ll mock them up later. Thank you again, Kat, for being here.”

“Sure.” When she leaves the room, I laugh. “What the hell, Mike Tyson?”

Dash grimaces as he lifts the box flaps. “It’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t know you had it in you to get into a fight.”

“Nobody does. Jericho thinks I’m a wuss. When I was in fifth grade, my mom got mugged outside the club after a show. She started taking self-defense classes and kickboxing, dragging me with her, and I often got to be the instructor’s assistant. She went for years to kickboxing. I picked up a thing or two. I can hold my own.”

“Again. Holy shit, Dash. How does Jared not know about this fight?”

Dash shuffles around in the box. “I didn’t talk to him much our senior year. He was always… busy.”

“Busy? Football?”

“Yeah.” He glances up from the box. “And you.”

I shake my head, confused. “We were just friends.”

Dash rolls his eyes. “You two need that put on T-shirts.”

He pulls out some black roses from the box, and I narrow my eyes at them. He grins. “Funeral.”

“For Morticia Addams?”

“I want black roses for mine. These rock.”

I laugh. “That’s totally unexpected.”

“Keeps you guessing, doesn’t it?” He unloads more roses, grinning. “It all makes sense now. Jericho was friends with you during that time. Even if he wasn’t with you, he still was with you. That’s why he kept to himself. He didn’t want anyone seeing his feelings for you.”

I inhale, staring at the black rose petals. “Um, okay, Dash.”

“And it also makes sense why he wasn’t focusing.”

I glance up at him, shocked by what I think he’s insinuating. “Are you saying he was screwing up at his games because of me?”

He shrugs, twirling a rose. “Maybe.”

“I didn’t have that kind of effect on him.”

Laughing, Dash sets down the rose. “He’s not the only one sailing on the river of denial.”

“I… I can’t talk about him like this anymore.” I grab onto the table to keep myself steady.

Seeing how tense I am, he sighs. “Let’s get this shit done, and I’ll take you home.”

As I slide into the passenger seat, Dash asks, “How was class?”

“It was class. I’m not sure what else I need to report to you.”

“Okay... Do you want to play with flowers again?”

I nod as I gaze at the dashboard. “Yeah.”

“No argument?”

I glance at him. “It was nice. I didn’t mind it.”

He grins and looks over his shoulder as he shifts into reverse. “More lies.”

When we arrive, Dash and I walk past Victor, who cheerfully says, “Good evening, Dashiell and Katriona.”

I weakly smile. “Hello, Victor.”

His face falls. “Oh, my lovely Katriona. You look so sad.”

Ignoring the comment, Dash asks, “Where’s Mom?”

“Making a delivery and then picking up Faith at the airport.”

“We’ll be in the back.”

Victor wags his finger at Dash. “No hanky-panky back there, young man. It’ll make me jealous.”

Dash rolls his eyes. “Yes. A refrigerator is a perfect place for that.”

Victor looks away from us, biting on an ink pen. “I’ll have to say that it is not.”

Dash walks to the hallway entrance, and I follow him as he mutters, “And that’s saying way too much.”

Walking into the back room, I casually say, “Your mom is very beautiful.”

Dash shrugs. “I guess.”

“Is Faith her girlfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your dad’s name?”

“Dave. Why?”

I laugh. “Oh. That’s precious.”

He looks at me like I just announced that I’m in love with Victor. “That his name is Dave?”

I giggle more. “Your name. It comes from both of theirs. Dave and Shelbie.”

“Flippin’ cute, isn’t it? What’s your dad’s name, and what’s he do?”

“Clayton. He’s a pharmacist.”

He grins as he heads for the refrigerator. “Street pharmacist? Illegal drugs?”

“You know it.” When Dash returns with a box, I say, “I need to stop at the liquor store on the way home.”

He frowns as he grabs the box cutter. Sighing, he shakes his head, sliding out the blade. “You shouldn’t drink alone.”

“It’s either that or take me to Oceanic. Pete’s there tonight. He’ll give me free booze. Please, Dash. I can’t think about him.”

“You don’t have to be alone. I’ll drink with you.”

“You have to drive.”

“I’ll crash on your couch.”

I shake my head. “You can sleep in my bed.”

He drops the knife and glares at me. “Oh, wait. No, no, no. Hell no. I’m not doing that to—”

“I don’t sleep there. I sleep on the couch.”

He sighs, obviously relieved. “Don’t be drinking to numb the pain, Kat. You’ll start needing to do it all the time.”

“I don’t care. I can barely function as it is. He’s in my mind, my heart, and my soul. I can smell him everywhere I go. It’s driving me crazy.”

He cuts the box open and sets down the knife. “Go talk to him.”

“I can’t.”

“Kat.”

I shake my head at the wall. “He’s gone.”

“He’ll be back.”

“He’s really gone. Oh, God.” I lean back onto the table, but my legs can’t hold me up, and I sink to the floor.

“Kat!” He rushes around the table and kneels in front of me. “Shit! Are you okay?”

Putting my face onto my balled hands, I mournfully whisper, “Fuck, this hurts. I love him, Dash.”

“I know you do.”

“When I told him I’m in love with him, he called me a bitch and a liar.”

“Jesus. I didn’t know that.”

Sniffing, I peer up at him. “So, please, Dash. I need to forget how I feel and how he doesn’t. If you don’t help me, then I’ll find another way.”

His blue eyes examine my sadness. “Okay, Kat. Let’s finish this box, and I’ll take you to get what you need.”

He couldn’t possibly get me what I need because that’s on his way to Philadelphia.

As promised, after stopping at Dash’s apartment for a change of clothes, he took me to the liquor store, where I grabbed two bottles of flavored vodka, needing to get drunk fast.

Pouring Sunkist into two glasses, I add the whipped cream vodka for an easy Creamsicle drink, handing one to Dash and then taking a seat on the couch.

From the chair next to me, he sets down his glass, and I look from him to the glass several times. “Aren’t you drinking it?”

“I just took a sip. It’s good. I’m pacing myself.”

“Not me.” I down half of my drink instantly feeling a buzz but needing more.

I finish the rest of my drink in three more gulps, and Dash says, “Slow down. Shit.”

“Nope.” I go into the kitchen while he looks at his phone. I grab the bottle of vodka, sipping straight from the bottle.

When I return to the living room, feeling less pain, Dash is still playing with his phone. I ask, “Is it… him?”

He shakes his blond head. “My mother.”

“Oh. Did we do a good job, unpacking?”

Dash looks up, smiling. “Yeah. Stellar.” I roll my eyes, and he sets his phone on the end table. “What will your mom think when she sees my car in your driveway overnight?”

Pushing back the curtain but not seeing any lights on at her apartment, I shrug. “I guess I’ll have to do damage control tomorrow.”

“She’ll probably think I’m some kind of rebound.”

I prop my feet up on the coffee table and mutter into my glass, “Whatever.”

Dash picks up the remote from the table. “Let’s find a movie.”

“A comedy.”

“Definitely.”

Observing his still-full glass, I order, “Drink.”

Reaching for his glass, he takes a sip and promptly returns it to the table. “There. Delicious.”

“You have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I’ll get there.”

“Not at my rate.”

“Uh, no. That’s true.”

“Drink all of it, Dash.”

“I will, but—”

“Do it!”

He sighs, giving me that weird look again before picking up his glass. He easily downs his drink. Tilting his head to the side, he asks, “Better?”

I sloppily grin. “It’s a start. Why don’t you tell me who you want to be with? Jared says you want—”

“There’s no one. Don’t believe everything your brother says.” He frowns, and the pain is evident on his face, even if he doesn’t want me to see it. I guess we all have our own heartbreaks. It must be hard, forever loving his best friend’s unavailable sister.

Dash looks away, and I get up for refills, taking his glass with me. I focus on pouring the drinks, which seems to be harder to do, but I’m glad that it is.

When I come back to the living room, Dash nods to the couch. “So, what’s with the arrangement here? Your bed too lumpy?”

My hands shake, so I put my glass on the table as I sit. “Our fight. That’s where I blabbed I’m in love with him, and then he called me…”

“You were in your room during your fight?”

I glance over at him with tears and booze making him fuzzy. “We were fucking when I told him.”

“Jesus,” he mutters, probably horrified that I’m so forthcoming, but the alcohol does somewhat dull my senses, just not enough yet. He clears his throat. “Sounds like some fight. I thought you two weren’t having sex anymore?”

“We never stopped, really. And with our fight, it just happened. One minute we were yelling at each other. The next, we were kissing.”

Dash stares, maybe stunned, and I drop my gaze to the floor. “I told him, but I shouldn’t have. He was so angry. He called me a bitch and a liar, saying we had been together all this time, but I didn’t notice, and we were over. He said I can’t be trusted because I’ve been in love and married before.” My lips quiver and I purse them, but it only makes me jittery everywhere else. “I told him he’s my only love.” I glance at Dash. “No one compares to Jared. I’ve always compared them to him.”

Dash looks at me with the sympathy I wanted to avoid from my mother.

I dry my cheeks. “He’s apologized for saying those things, but I messed up. I thought I was helping him see and feel things with me, yet I was the one who needed schooled. He said I wrecked us. I didn’t know us existed.” I shake as I give in to the sorrow I feel through the alcohol haze.

Dash moves over to the couch, putting his arm around me. “I’m sorry, Kat.”

“I miss him, Dash. I don’t want to be without him. These years have been rough, and then he was delivered right to my mom’s new house as if destiny stepped in to fix a terrible wrong.”

Dash squeezes me to him. “You know what I’ve told you.”

I shake my head, my hair brushing his chin. “I can’t imagine being without him again, but if I give up everything and move to Philadelphia, what will happen? Would we have a relationship again, or would I see him with other women? Even if it’s a huge city, I can’t bear that thought.” I sniff, and he rubs my shoulder.

“I don’t know, Kat. I wish I knew.”

I lean my head on his shoulder, and he holds me as I sob. I thought the alcohol would numb me, but it has only achieved the opposite effect.

I pick up my glass and down the alcohol, hoping it finally makes me forget about Jared until I have to start all over again.

As Dash starts the car, I squint my eyes from the early evening sun and move down the visor. He says, “I’d ask how class was, but I can only guess.”

“It was fabulous,” I dryly state.

He turns onto the main road and looks over at me. “I’m hungry. How about we get some takeout and go somewhere?”

I peer at the dark sky through the side window. “It’s going to rain.”

“It’ll be dry. What do you want to eat? We could get Arby’s, Wendy’s, Boston Market—”

“Not Wendy’s. Subway works.”

He smiles. “Okay.”

“You didn’t even get drunk last night. I shouldn’t be hanging around you. Deserter.”

“I said I’d drink with you. I had a drink.”

I roll my eyes. Unlike him, I drank until I didn’t remember. Dash said I eventually passed out on the couch, which I discovered this morning when I awoke with the blanket over me. I slept heavily. No dreams. No nightmares. No crying. No pain.

Pulling into the lot and parking, Dash asks, “What kind of sandwich you want?”

I shrug. “Chicken with mustard and pickles.”

“Anything else?”

“Nope.”

When he leaves, I check my phone, but nothing. No messages or missed calls. Is Jared even thinking about me? Missing me? Or has he already moved on? I know I never will. I never have.

After eons of staring at my dark phone, the car door opens, jarring me. Dash climbs in and hands me the tray with our drinks while setting the plastic bag with our sandwiches on the console between us. I ask, “Where’re we going?”

“Somewhere that might make you smile.”

“Not your mom’s shop, is it?”

He laughs. “If that’s your happy place, I guess.”

I shake my head. “No more flowers.”

“I concur, Merrick.”

I slyly continue to stare at my phone, waiting for it to light up with Ball and Chain, having not changed his name. Its dark silence only depresses me more.

When we slow and take a sharp turn, I finally look up to see the familiar parking lot. I whisk my head to Dash. “Why are we here?”

“It’s one of your favorite places, and it’s a dreary day. You said you and I should come back here.” Dash bobs his head from side to side. “We’re here.”

When he parks, and before I can protest, he grabs the bag of sandwiches and gets out of the car. Damn it.

Growling to myself, I diffidently take the drinks and follow him to the walking path, hating he didn’t run this by me first. Looking around, the lot is nearly empty, apart from a couple of other cars. I sigh and trail behind him to the large gazebo.

Crossing over the footbridge, I glower at the place where Jared and I had lain in the grass, gazing at the clouds. This used to be my favorite place.

Dash stops, giving me a concerned look. “What’s wrong? This is a happy place for you, I thought. It’s all The Sound of Music and everything, especially if it rains.” Jared was my reluctant Rolfe.

Moping, I walk ahead of Dash and up the stairs to the empty gazebo. Thank God we’re not inundated with a bunch of people. At least they have the good sense to stay away from my bad mood.

As Dash comes up the stairs behind me, I hear the plastic bag rustling with him while I carry the drinks over to a bench along the back of the gazebo. Setting them down, I sigh. The heaviness of being here weighs too much on me. The cloud watching, the bench-walking, the kiss I wanted to give him, and his erection I noticed, causing me to fight every urge.

I close my eyes. “I can’t be here.”

“I’ll take you home.”

Holy fuck.

I whirl around to see Jared standing at the top of the stairs, and my breathing ceases. I’m a statue, seeing him, especially wearing a light green, long-sleeved dress shirt with a gray-and-black-swirled tie, and gray pants. Another moment I feel so inadequate.

Blinking several times, I cross my arms over my faded Ocean City shirt while looking around for Dash. When he’s nowhere to be seen, I huskily say, “Dash. Where’s Dash?”

Jared’s concerned gaze pins me to the spot. “He didn’t leave.”

I want to run to Jared. I want to slap him. I want to kiss him. I want to hate him. I want to love him.

“I didn’t see your car.”

He nods to the left. “It’s at the pavilion.”

“Oh.” I nervously shift and look at the grounds nearby, searching for Dash. Turning back to Jared, my heart lurches. “Why’re you even here?”

“I’d say trick-or-treat, but it’s a little early for that.” His smile is trifling while his eyes are uncertain as they sweep over me.

I strive to remain unaffected by his presence. “If you’re here to fight with me, I’m not doing it.”

“I’m not. I promise.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

He nods and sweeps his hand through his shorter hair. “I know, but I had to take the chance.”

My eyes widen. “So, Dash was only pretending to help me just so you could show up here to… To what?” I swallow, pushing down the sobs.

“Last night, I told Dash I needed to talk to you. He said only if he were present. I negotiated that. He’s here, but I told him to keep his distance.”

Despite my efforts, tears well, and I bite my lip to rid them. When they somewhat subside, I whisper, “I can’t fight anymore. I have nothing left for you to break.” He probably could find the thread from which I’m dangling and cut that.

Jared slowly walks to me. “I’m not here to hurt you. Dash is still around, and if I say the wrong things, he’ll yank you out of here so fast.”

I uncross my arms to rub my nose with my hand. “Just get it over with.”

“What over with?”

I look to his arms, the ones I loved having around me, and I squeeze my fingers until my nails dig into my hands, causing me pain for a needed diversion. “What you want to say. An apology or an excuse. Goodbye or fuck off. Whatever.”

Stopping in front of me, he says, “I’m sorry, Kat.”

Crossing my arms again, I laugh, but it only makes the tears fall. Staring at his tie, I ask, “Does it make you feel better?”

He faintly shakes his head. “No.”

Looking up at his lips, my heart hurts. “Then why’re you here?” I ask my unanswered question again.

“Because I missed you.”

An involuntary sob bursts through my mouth, and I cover my lips with my hand, asking a stifled, “Why?”

Why did I miss you?” I nod into my hand. “Because I did.”

Expecting that answer, I drop my hand and laugh, which only causes more tears. “That’s deep.”

Jared sighs as he thrusts his right hand into his pocket to pull out a metallic object. The sunlight flashes off the metal. “I wanted to give you this when we were in Philly, but I couldn’t find it.”

“What is it?” He hands it to me, and I see it’s a large key on a keychain.

Looking up at him, he explains, “I bought that for you in high school, for when you got your driver’s license. After your accident, I couldn’t give it to you. It didn’t feel right, so I held onto it.”

I turn the key around in my hand, studying it. It’s a simple, silver skeleton key, but the thought he put into it, especially all those years ago, is astounding.

I peer up to his worried expression, and I surprise myself by smiling. “Thank you. That’s… so sweet of you. Why’d you keep it all these years?”

His gaze falls on the key. “I always hoped to give it to you, and if I couldn’t, I wanted to hold onto it as a reminder of what I had.” Jared returns his gaze to mine. “Or didn’t have and lost, anyway.”

I swallow, unable to keep up my defenses or stop my tears. “Jared, I’ve missed you. I’m sorry for being so horrible.”

Shoving his hands into his pockets, Jared shakes his head, his spicy brown hair catching the sunlight. “You haven’t been. I was the one who said some terrible things to you. I should’ve been honest with you from the start. I thought I had been, but it turns out, I’ve never been honest with myself.”

I nod and study his handsome face, from the fresh stubble to the slightly shorter hair on his head. “Same here. I screwed up so much.”

He faintly smiles. “We both saw the things we wanted to see. Not what was really there.” Clearing his throat, he lifts his gaze to the interior of the gazebo. “My best friend is getting married here.”

Shocked again in such a short amount of time, I’m rocked by that bit of news. “Rio and Liberty got engaged? I had no idea! She didn’t even tell me!” I shake my head in surprise but smile as I peer around the gazebo. “It’s the perfect place.”

“It is.”

When I look back to Jared, he licks his lip. “I learned a lot in this past week that I should’ve known earlier. I tell you everything, and you know more about me than anyone. It ruined me to live without you, and when we found each other again, I thought it was a miracle. I just was afraid to acknowledge that.”

“Jared, I—” He doesn’t let me finish my confession about Pennsylvania.

“And I know it’s taken me forever to figure out how I felt about you, but I know it now.”

My heart races, flipping over hurdles, waiting for him to shove me or love me. Now, I’m afraid of why he kept Dash here.

I nearly slur over my words. “How do you feel about me?”

Jared narrows his eyes. “You haven’t noticed? Everyone says it’s obvious.”

Petrified, I whisper, “What is?”

His hands go to the sides of my head, digging into my hair, and his greenish-brown eyes anxiously flicker as they search mine. “I’m fucking in love with you, Kit Kat.”

Winded, I try to speak. “You said… You called me a… I can’t believe…” I shake my head and his arms along with it. “How can you say that now? When I told you I loved you, you flipped out, Jared. You didn’t believe me since I was married before.” I shakily wipe the tears from my face.

“When you said those words, it was like you slapped me across the face again, only harder. I thought I had felt… that way… about you but wasn’t sure. At my apartment, when we were in bed, I said that you mean so much to me. I was telling you then without saying the words. I realized I had fallen for you, and I panicked. Not just present tense. But I couldn’t say the words yet. I wanted you to feel it. I begged you to stay with me, even after I leave Annapolis. When you said we still couldn’t be together, I thought what I felt wasn’t it after all. And it devastated me because I wanted it with you so fucking much.”

I stare at him, absorbing everything he just said, but he still goes on. “Over the years, I had endlessly tried to bury my feelings for you, but they kept haunting me. When we found each other again, they became even more powerful. So, after you told me you were leaving Annapolis, I finally snapped. I said those things to you. Some were out of rage, but most were out of fear. I didn’t want to feel the pain or lose… the love.”

“Oh, my God, Jared. I…” I’m again at a loss for what to say, and I blankly stare at him, awestruck by what he just confessed to me.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but the fear became too much.”

“What were you afraid of?”

“You rejecting me again.”

“Again?”

He frowns. “You didn’t want me in high school.”

“Yes, I did. I was in love with you, Jared. I wanted to be with you, but I thought you were dating that girl, and I—”

“I wasn’t. She was a decoy, Kat. She let me use her to make you jealous. I wanted you to fight for me, but you didn’t.”

“W-what? Please say you’re kidding.” As he looks at me, unsmiling, his gaze quickly falls to the floor. I laugh but not because it’s funny. “Instead of us going on a date, like you kept asking, and possibly many after that, you never called me. Never followed through. We were stuck that way for two years. And when I thought you gave up on me and moved onto someone else, you were playing a game?”

He nods at the floor, and I step back from him. “Jesus Christ, Jared! We could’ve been together all this time? Maybe since fucking high school! After you left, I slept with the first guy who paid attention to me—gave him my virginity—wishing it was you and crying afterward for months because it wasn’t! I went on to marry a guy who I thought could fill the void, but he couldn’t even come close to you! Then, when I said I love you, you threw all this shit back in my face! I did it all because of the pain I felt for losing you! I’d rather be put back on life support, instead of dying another painful death over you!”

His eyes huge, he’s now the one taken aback. “Kat. Jesus. I didn’t… Fuck, I—” Jared’s phone buzzes, and he slightly jumps before looking around us as he pulls it from his pocket.

I peer around us, as well, catching my breath and asking, “Dash?”

Jared nods as he sends a text. “I told you he’s here.” He looks up from the phone. “I didn’t lie to you, and I didn’t murder him. Yet.”

Feeling somewhat calmer, having Dash nearby, I abruptly smile as Jared’s phone buzzes again with a response. Looking at me, he rolls his eyes, returning his phone to his pocket.

My phone takes its turn vibrating, but I don’t answer it. Lowering my voice, I say, “I thought you were taken, Jared. You were dating her, or so I thought. I didn’t compare to her. She was so pretty. I didn’t have a prayer.”

“You’re wrong. I only wanted you.” He sighs. “Please, Kat, don’t be upset. It’s in the past. I’m—”

“In the past? My past has become my present. I can’t believe this.”

“I thought it’d work. For you to flirt with me more, pay more attention to me. For you to tell me you wanted me. I was shy with you, believe it or not. Shy in the sense that I didn’t want you to reject me, so I fucked around, instead of being honest and going for it. I was such a pussy, and I didn’t want you to notice.”

I sweep hair and tears off my face and cross my arms again, striving to comprehend his mindset at the time. “You tried to look unavailable, so I’d want you?”

“But I wasn’t available. I’ve been yours since we met in class.” He steps closer to me. “Thinking back, the day you bumped into me in the school parking lot is when I fell in love with you, and I’ve been in love with you ever since.”

Jared takes ahold of my hand as I hold tightly to the keychain with my other, treasuring it. Without forethought, I blurt, “I applied for a Pennsylvania teaching license.”

His fingers tighten between mine. “Why’d you do that?”

“I want to be with you. I’ll move to Philadelphia.”

He lets go of my hand as he resolutely shakes his head. “No. I don’t want you doing that.”

Confusion hovers over me like one of the clouds we had observed here. “Why not? This is me fighting for you.”

His jaw twitches as he puts his hands on his hips. “Because you’re not moving to Philly.”

“I thought you had wanted me to? In my mom’s kitchen, you even said you didn’t want me dating anyone else because I’m dating you. Do you want me to be your girlfriend or not?”

He exudes determination. “I’m not doing that shit again, Kat.”

“Oh,” I say as my gaze falls to the floor. “How stupid could I’ve been? Jesus.” I rub the tears from my eyes, jingling the key in my hand.

Jared shoves his hands into his pockets. “You’re not. You already said Philly isn’t for you. I don’t want you living there.” He looks over the interior of the gazebo before returning to me. “Look, I promised I wouldn’t fight with you.”

I clear my throat. “I’m not trying to fight with you. I’m trying to understand you.”

He sighs. “Believe me. I’m trying to understand myself, too.” Crossing my arms, seeking some sort of comfort, I avoid looking into his eyes, but I can feel his on me as he asks, “What do we do now?”

I shrug. “I honestly don’t know. You don’t want to be with me.”

“I did not say that.”

My stomach tightens, and my body trembles, bracing for what he’ll say next. Looking at the trees outside the gazebo, I hesitantly ask, “What are you saying, Jared?”

“For starters, I wanted to cordially invite you to the wedding here.”

I immediately look at him, confused. “Why? I mean, that’s up to them if they want to invite me. I’m hoping they will, but isn’t the guest list up to the bride and groom?”

Jared nods. “Yeah, it is. And as the groom, I’m inviting you.”

“What?” My eyes strain as they widen, and my heart stops for a second time. Holy shit. No. He couldn’t have moved on that fast.

Or changed his mind.

“Inviting me?”

He smiles. “To be my bride, Kit Kat.”

I stare at his grin because I know I didn’t hear him right and because I can no longer move.

Suddenly, Jared plummets, kneeling in front of me, the setting sunlight a halo around his hair. Dazedly, I watch him take my left arm away from my body with his right hand while balancing a gray box in his left. He pries the lid of the box with his fingers, and it squeaks open, showing me a simple, square diamond with tiny diamonds on the gold band. But it all blurs as the reality dawns on me.

“I like the square because our journey hasn’t been an easy circle. We’ve had sharp corners, but we still made it back to each other.” When he sniffs, I look back to his face as he peers up at me with sodden eyes. “You are my best friend. You’re the only one I want by my side. To not only be my permanent driving partner but my life partner. I may not say it all the time or be good at it, but I love you, Kit Kat. It took me a while to realize it, but I’ll spend my life making it up to you.” As the tears begin to streak his face, he whispers, “I just hope you can still love me back.”

My right hand, holding the keychain, goes to my face, and I wipe the tears. Jared says, “Let’s cut the bullshit.” He smiles, but his apprehension suddenly returns. “I’ve loved you for half my life, baby. Please, let me love you for the rest of it. Make me yours for eternity.”

Taking a deep breath and blinking away his tears, Jared Beckett asks, “Katriona Elyse Merrick, will you marry me?”

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