Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirteen

Sitting crouched on the floor beside her trunk, knees drawn up tightly to her chest, Christina stared numbly at the bottle in her hands. Across the room from her sat the television, but she hadn’t bothered to turn it on. Hell, she hadn’t bothered to walk the three feet separating her liquor chest to her white leather couch.

Her finger traced the paper label on the side of her whiskey bottle absently, as she forced her mind to a quiet place. She’d somehow managed to thrust thoughts of Bill and her mother, those terrible moments before her life had changed uncertainly, to a hidden place in the back of her mind all these years.

But now that she’d opened that room, she couldn’t seem to get it closed shut again. Bringing the bottle back up to her lips, Christina took another long swallow.

It was at that precise moment that she heard the knock coming from her front door.

“What the—?” she wondered aloud, sitting the bottle down carefully on her carpeted floor, her fingers working the cap absently as she scrambled to her feet.

But she actually had a pretty good idea who it might be knocking at her door in the middle of the workday. Bracing herself for the look on his face, Christina took herself quickly back to her small entryway, her fingers already reaching for the doorknob as she spied the tall silhouette shadowed against the plain linen curtains pulled across the half-pane window there.

But when she swung the door open, Christina found she’d been wrong. It wasn’t Mr. Gordman standing on the other side of the threshold, coming to check in on her, with that knowing, concerned look on his face that clearly said he hadn’t bought her flimsy sick leave excuse.

At least, it wasn’t that Mr. Gordman.

“Jason?” Christina’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. She looked somewhat desperately over his shoulder, but he appeared to have come alone. “What the hell are you doing here?”

His lips made a grim line. “You left work.”

“Ever the observant one.” Positioning herself more firmly in the doorway, she deliberately blocked his entrance. Gripping one hand tight to the side of the doorway, Christina stared him down.

“I wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

She raised an eloquent eyebrow.

“But judging by the smell of liquor on your breath, I’d guess not.”

Her fingers tightened their hold on the doorknob. But for all that, she only sighed. “Jason, go home. Or better yet, go back to work.”

He grinned unrepentantly. “It’s spring break. School’s out for the week.”

She nodded slowly. “And?”

With a quick, uncharacteristically conscious movement, Jason ran a hand through his hair. “Look, if you left today because of what happened the other night—”

“God, you really are too much,” she insisted hotly. Shaking her head, she went to move back, her arm closing the door behind her. But before she succeeded in shutting the damn thing in his face, Jason’s hand shot out, catching hold of it fast.

“He knows.”

Christina stilled at the words, her fingers letting go of their hold on the door. “What?”

With a slight push of his hand, Jason took control of the door, swinging it open wide. His face was somber, gentle almost as he repeated himself: “He knows. About us.”

Her teeth snapped at the words, her body springing stiffly erect. “There is no us,” she hissed.

“Well hell,” he replied, throwing his hand through his hair yet again. “You know what I mean.” And for once he didn’t sound amused.

Christina blanched. “What? How?”

He held up a hand. “I didn’t tell him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

She stared at him dumbly.

With a meaningful look over his shoulder, taking in the empty porch and side street behind him, Jason turned back to Christina. “Listen, can I come in?”

It took her a little too long to answer, but finally Christina nodded. With a slightly less than gracious move, she took a step back, waving him inside. “Why not?” She tossed out over one shoulder. “The damage has already been done, right?”

Without waiting for him, Christina turned back to her living room, only this time she settled for a seat on the couch. Sitting primly on the edge of the farthest cushion, she watched him enter.

With a barely perceptible glance at the bottle of whiskey still leaning up against one wall, Jason followed Christina’s lead, nabbing the small accent chair just to her right. Leaning forward, each arm braced across the top of his thighs, Jason gave her a direct look.

“If it’s any consolation, I’m the one he’s mad at.”

Christina picked at a loose nail. She wasn’t sure that it was, actually. Finally, she screwed up the courage to face him. “What happened, Jason?”

He shrugged. “Hell if I know. One minute we were ordering salads off the menu and the next he was asking me—” pausing, Jason shook his head. “He’d figured it out on his own. I mean, he didn’t know the detail or anything, but he’d seen enough to know something was up.”

She nodded once, distracted. She supposed it explained one thing—why Mr. Gordman had deliberately excluded Christina from their lunch.

Jason pursed his lips amusedly. “And if he hadn’t known already, your abrupt departure this afternoon would have surely tipped him off.”

Though she wanted to defend herself, tell him to go straight to hell, Christina swallowed the instinct. Instead, throwing her hair back over her shoulder, she pinned him with an expectant stare. “What did you tell him? I mean, about that night.”

Jason shrugged. “What could I tell him? The truth.”

Closing her eyes painfully on the words, Christina felt her body sink dejectedly into the leather upholstery. Dammit.

“…I told him that I made a pass at you, and that you politely but firmly rejected me,” Jason continued softly. At the words, Christina’s eyes popped back open.

Her brown eyes clashed with his hazel ones. “You wha—”

Jason’s hands were steepled together now, his chin resting on top of them as though he were deep in thought. “I told him that you were quite clear that nothing could happen, that you weren’t interested in pursuing something that could potentially affect your working relationship with my dad.”

Christina’s eyes widened. “What else did you say?” The words came out as mere whispers, her fingers clenching together tightly as she waited for the ball to drop.

He half-grinned. “Nothing. What else was there to say? That was that, and I told him so.”

She felt her eyes narrow in consideration, her chin titling a little to one side. “You know as well as I do that that’s not exactly—”

Christina wasn’t allowed to finish her thought. Jason cut her a sideways glance, a devilish gleam of delight entering those green eyes. “Do I look like a stupid man to you?”

Christina gave him a look.

“If I’d told him anymore than that, you’d have killed me.”

Smiling despite herself, Christina gave him a nod. “Quite possibly.”

“And besides, I’m not vindictive. What you said,” he shrugged nonchalantly as though this were a normal, everyday conversation. “That was private, just between us.”

Christina sucked in her lips to hide the small smile desperately trying to play out across her face. “Thank you.”

“Jesus Christina,” he said, sounding snubbed. “I know I may tease you from time to time—”

“From time to time?” Christina echoed incredulously. “Try all the time.”

He grinned. “Well, okay. But still…”

She pursed her lips, letting her hair spill over the side of one shoulder. She watched, amusedly, as his eyes instinctively followed the movement. “You’re a man of honor?”

He stared across the small space separating them. His eyes held an intensity she wasn’t often allowed to view. “Yeah. I like to think so.” Then he smiled.

She laughed. It had a husky note to it. Oddly, she found she didn’t care. That, in fact, she liked the immediate reaction she got from it. “Oh yeah? What happened to forewarned is forearmed?”

His face flushed with the memory those words stirred, his eyes narrowing speculatively, gauging her expression. “I thought you wanted me to forget about that night.”

She shrugged artlessly. “And I thought you were going to convince me otherwise.”

Jason’s mouth moved, but for a moment no words came out. The conversation had changed tacks so drastically, so quickly… “What is this, Christina?” He sounded guarded, uncertain. Still something darkened in his gaze.

She took her time answering, as if in consideration. In truth, she knew exactly what it was she wanted. A distraction from the past. “Something private. Just between us.”

She curved her lips upward in a practiced move of seduction. She’d learned a lot, having an affair with a married man. She’d learned how to be desirable.

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