Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Two
At Jason’s mischievous grin, Christina felt instantly foolish. Scrambling, she shouldered her purse free and quickly produced the roll of ticket tape for him to see.
Brandishing it defensively, she held it firmly in front of her person. “I came to return this.” Her body posture was stiff and expectant.
But Jason being Jason didn’t reach for it. Instead, he raised a questioning eyebrow. “What is it?”
“It’s from the baseball tournament. It’s for, I don’t know, raffles or something,” she told him primly. “I took it home on accident.”
He smothered back his amusement. “I see.”
She felt stupider by the moment. From her peripheral vision, she watched the last of the kids empty out onto the school grounds. At least no one would be around to watch her make an utter ass out of herself. She notched her chin up. “I thought you’d want it back.”
Walking further into the room, letting the door shut quietly behind him, Jason set his cup down on one of the empty school desks. “Yeah?” he drawled out slowly, reaching up to scratch the side of his jaw.
She raised a cool eyebrow. “Yeah.”
He laughed. “Well, thanks for rushing down here to get that back to us,” he mocked her. Finally, he reached out to take the roll out of her waiting hands. Gripping it loosely in his fist, he smiled. “’Course we have about a hundred spare boxes of these…”
Christina felt her teeth gnash together.
“But I suppose it was as good an excuse as any,” he continued.
Christina felt her shoulders pull back at the taunt. “Excuse me?” With a sort of strength he couldn’t be capable of knowing, she brought her eyes level to his.
He gave her a meaningful look. “You could have dropped these off with the school secretary, Christina. Hell, you could have pitched them into a garbage bin for all they’d be missed.”
“How should I have known that?” Her voice rose to an alarming squeak—a dead giveaway.
He dropped the ticket tape down beside his still untouched cup of coffee. Then he took a step toward her. In response, she took a step backward. “Nervous Christina?”
“I think I’ve earned that right,” she returned.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you? But I’m not the one playing hot and cold.”
“I’m not playing anything,” Christina insisted, her eyes widening at his words.
“No? Then why are you here? And what the hell was that the other night, at your apartment?”
She cleared her throat. “A misunderstanding.”
Holding out her hand palm up, she motioned for him to stop. “Look, I probably owe you an apology for the way I acted…”
“I’m not looking for an apology,” Jason assured her, his hands coming to rest lightly on his hips. His features contracted with what she supposed was consternation. Probably it was a look he’d perfected all these years with his young pupils. “I’m looking for an explanation.”
Christina’s eyes skimmed over the classroom helplessly. She was halfway to the whiteboard by now, her back pressing her ever nearer the wall with the projector. “An explanation?” She felt her defenses rising. “It was just a few kisses—”
“It was more than that.”
“Okay. Fine. Whatever,” she relented.
“That’s just it,” he argued, and to her sensitive ear, he sounded half-exasperated. “There was nothing whatever about it. You threw me for a hell of a loop.”
“Because I wanted to sleep with you?”
“Because you wanted me at all.”
“Wait.” Christina goggled at him. “You can’t honestly be telling me that right now.”
“Of course I can,” he sputtered.
He shook his head. “That was different.”
“Why because you started it?”
“Yeah, and you ended it,” he reminded her. He swore softly then, half under his breath. “But before that…. In all these years, you’ve never once hinted…” his hand made an arching motion, finishing his unspoken thought.
“Really?” Christina’s voice couldn’t be drier. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she recognized that she should be embarrassed, humiliated by his brutal honesty—but instead she felt a sort of powerfulness as his mask slipped and the vulnerable man peeked through his usual conceit.
His eyebrows furrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean? Really?”
She pursed her lips, almost enjoying herself. “The employee Christmas party? Just this last December?” Now it was her turn to pin her hands to her hips. “I presume you remember, after all, you were the only sober one between the two of us.”
To his credit, Jason looked dumbfounded for a moment, but all too soon his face cleared as the memory washed over them.
He’d driven her home from his father’s employee Christmas party. She’d had a little too much to drink and, though Christina had been almost desperately resentful at his instance that he chauffer her safely to her apartment, she’d gotten into his car with a minimum of fuss.
She should have fought him harder. Called a taxi cab. She should have never agreed to be driven anywhere with him. She had been too vulnerable that night. It had been too hard to hide, too dangerous.
The car ride back to her duplex had been relatively uneventful. They’d talked generalities, or just not talked at all through the twenty-minute commute. She could still remember sitting in that passenger seat, the length of her cocktail dress riding unnervingly high on her thigh, her fingers almost obsessively trying to tug it back down to a more demure length; not that it would have mattered, it had been dark by the time they’d left and the inside of Jason’s car, besides the pale yellow and blue lights on the dashboard and instruments panel, had been illuminated by only the soft glow of passing streetlights. Besides, his eyes had been focused straight ahead. The smell of his aftershave had infused the car with a sort of sophisticated manliness. It had been heady and romantic and she’d almost burned her nostrils trying to memorize the scent.
Then he’d parked the car outside her house. Without thought, he’d rounded to the passenger side of the vehicle where Christina was still struggling to her feet. Though she’d protested his help, Christina had felt the fingers of one hand sliding around her arm, while the others splayed against the small of her back as he propelled her forward.
“My hero,” she’d muttered when they’d gained the small porch outside her apartment. She’d forgotten to turn on her exterior light when she’d left so her outside lock had been shrouded in shadows.
“Here, let me,” he’d offered when she’d struggled to get the key inserted in the lock. When his fingers had brushed against hers, she’d felt her world rock. In all the years she’d known Jason she was pretty sure they’d never been so, well, so alone together.
It was intoxicating.
Drunk, standing half-hidden in the shadows of her small covered porch, Christina had felt a sort of reckless seize her person. At least that’s what she told herself the next day. It was the only thing that explained what happened next. While he was fiddling with the key, she’d reached up on her tiptoes and whispered into his ear: “I hate these parties. Everyone gets a bit tipsy and soon I find myself on the receiving end of a bunch of horny men who want to ravish me.”
Jerking in surprise at her sudden nearness, Jason’s head turned to look down at her. The movement brought them almost nose to nose. “What?” He’d more or less breathed the word into her pouting mouth.
Christina didn’t answer him. Instead, she giggled softly. “And it’s so ironic because here I stand, with the one man who’s never tried it, and all I want is to be ravished.” Her eyes had the bravery of too much alcohol, her smile loose with her feelings. “So what do you say?”
She remembered his wide hazel eyes widening with disbelief. When he spoke, his words came out slowly, questioningly: “You want—”
“I want you. Ravish me, Jason?” she asked, nodding helpfully. Dizzily, she leaned back against the side of her house, her head tilting almost bonelessly in invitation.
Turning back to the door, with a flick of his wrist, Jason managed to turn the key in the lock. He didn’t look at Christina as he quietly pushed the door open. His voice, when he did finally speak, was hoarse, low. “Christina….”
Even through her intoxication, she’d heard the rejection forming in that one long word. Springing clumsily back to her feet, she’d held up a hand as she shimmied around him for the door. “Don’t. Never mind.”
Jason had laughed at her. But softly, nicely. She’d hated him for that. “I would never disrespect you in that way, Christina.”
She’d hated him a little less. “God save me from decent men,” she joked badly.
“Save yourself from lecherous tools who’d actually take you up on that incredibly tempting offer,” Jason had returned with his usual humor.
She’d laughed because it was that or cry. “Tempting?”
“You have no idea.”
“Well good,” she’d pouted. “At least I won’t be the only person miserably alone.”
And then, with as much pride as she could, which wasn’t much by that point, Christina had entered her apartment and quietly closed the door behind her.
Watching Jason relive that night now, Christina can’t keep a sort of contempt out of her voice. “Don’t tell me you’d forgotten.”
Jason whistled. “Not likely.”
“So really, blow it out your ear,” she returned coolly. “You knew exactly how I felt.”
She stared at him hard.
“Christina, you were lousy drunk the night of the party. And clearly lonely.” Jason made another empty gesture with his hands as he spared her pride nothing. “I didn’t put any stock into what you said.”
“No?” She scoffed.
“Not even on Easter, when you were supposedly testing out your little theory?”
He cocked his head a little to one side. “Wait. Is that why you think I kissed you?”
“Well, why else?”
His face flinched. “You’ve got a bad image of men, don’t you? Who did that to you?”