Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Four

Though she wouldn’t dream of admitting to anything so frivolous, Christina felt those words to the very soles of her feet, right through those layers of icy cynicism to the romantic young girl she’d been, once upon a time. Still, though she wanted him to do just that—to really get to know her, and to like her despite it all—years of sarcasm wouldn’t be turned off at the drop of a few delightful minutes.

“God,” she moaned as Jason went to open her door. She rolled her eyes so hard over the word, she almost winced. “You are so corny sometimes, Jason.”

“Ah,” he laughed, holding the door open for her as she eased herself down into the seat. “So you’ve got me all figured out, then?”

“I don’t think I said that…” she cautioned, her eyes furrowing as he quickly closed her door and rounded the front of the vehicle before getting in on his side.

“Buckle up,” he said, giving her a quick sideways glance.

“Oh.” Flustered, and annoyed with herself for being so obvious about it, Christina reached behind her. No sooner had she clicked her belt into place than Jason was backing out of his spot. She was trying to work up something to say as he turned left out of the parking lot, driving quickly past the school grounds and out past the small set of lights hinting at the hustle of city life just out of sight—a gas station and a small ice-cream booth beside a yellow-brick pizzeria halfway down one block, followed on the other side by the black patio table umbrellas of some local brewery. Jason didn’t even slow down as these sites, instead, he just kept driving straight North.

“So…where are we going?” Christina asked. As far as conversation starters went, it was far from original, and hardly meaty in substance, but she figured it was a starting place. And, irritatingly contrary creature that he was, Jason hadn’t seemed to be in any rush to break into speech. For a guy who wanted to get to know her, he didn’t seem in any great hurry.

He shrugged his wide shoulders good-naturedly, flicking her an easy glance. “Honestly,” he laughed, “I have no idea.”

She nodded, but she wasn’t sure what she was acknowledging.

“Do you live near here?” She tried again and immediately could have bitten her tongue off. At the merriment she saw illuminating Jason’s eyes, she rushed on to explain: “Not that, um, not that I was expecting you to take me to your—” she cleared her throat, “—I was only asking for the commute. And I suppose, whether or not you even knew where you’re going.”

“Relax Christina,” he said, but he was laughing at her as he said it. “I knew you weren’t asking for an invitation to my house.”

She could have smacked that winning little grin right off his face.

“But, to answer your question, no I don’t live in town. At least, I’m about fifteen minutes from here, just outside Apple Valley.”

“Oh.”

Jason smiled earnestly. “And to answer your sort-of second question, no, I don’t really know where we’re going. Does it matter?”

“No, no…” she blustered hotly.

He rubbed a hand against his chin. “Are you sure? You seem oddly preoccupied with it.”

She sat up a little taller, a quick reflex she was hardly aware of doing. “Only because—”

“Because you don’t know what to say?” He asked her then, turning to throw her a devilish little grin.

Christina felt her neck muscles stiffen as she drew her back straight, her arms zipping across her stomach tightly. “You know, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in getting to know you better…”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” Shifting to give her another quick glance, he smiled gamely. Her countenance, however, did not change. His tone sobered immediately. “Hey. I was just teasing…I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She felt her lips pout just the tiniest bit. “I know. It’s just, you’re right. I don’t know what to say to you.”

“Why not?” At least the question sounded genuine. “I’ve always thought I was a pretty easy-going guy.”

“Maybe.”

He laughed again.

“It’s just, things are different now.”

“You mean since you stopped giving me the cold shoulder?”

She shot him a dark look but Jason, being so very Jason-like, only grinned in response.

“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Enjoying what?”

“Having my feelings at your mercy?”

“Oh, come on. Not this again…”

“Don’t get conceited,” she hissed, and her arms were back around her stomach again.

“No ma’am, not me,” Jason assured her as he slowed down to a four-way stop where he decided to turn left onto a small patch of road. Staring out at the scenery, Christina felt her legs, pressed close together, trembling with a kind of untold excitement…or anticipation. Even slightly annoyed with him, she felt an unknown kind of thrill at being there, in that car, alone, with him. Where anything could happen.

“Fact is,” Jason said then, and there was a different note in his voice as the car rumbled down the quiet side street that didn’t look to be very populated. “Mom frequently used you as a carrot to get me over to the house.”

“What?” Christina turned her head slowly, suspiciously toward him.

Jason stared straight ahead, seemingly unfazed by this admission—his hands light on the steering wheel, his features relaxed as he watched the road ahead. “Yeah. I mean, she never said as much,” Jason admitted. “That would have hardly been her style.”

“Your mom knew…?”

“How I felt about you?” For a moment, Jason seemed to consider this. “No. I don’t think so. But she knew I’d come if you were there.”

Christina thought about admitting that Mary had all but come to the same conclusion about Christina’s feelings for Jason, but at the last minute, she decided to keep that her secret. Trust came hard.

“Why did you think my parents wouldn’t approve of the two of us?” The question was as starkly put as it was abruptly spoken.

Christina’s body jerked a little in reaction. Her fingers fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know…”

“Yes, you do.”

“I told you—”

“You told me a bunch of silly excuses,” Jason informed her. “My family isn’t snobs; I’m not also an employee of my father’s, nor an employer of yours; and clichéd or otherwise, no one would have thought much of a romance between us.”

“Your family is rich,” Christina muttered.

Jason’s eyes widened so much so that Christina was oddly comforted by his sheer incredulity. “And you were afraid people would peg you as a, what, gold digger?”

She shrugged a little uncomfortably. Truthfully, she’d only just thought if it then. She’d never once entertained the notion beforehand. But sometimes subterfuge was a necessary evil. “Well…”

“God, am I so ugly that my own charms wouldn’t even come into play?” Jason teased her.

“Oh shut up,” Christina muttered.

“You may want to take your own council on that,” Jason retorted.

Christina felt an almost uncontrollable, and yes she was aware it was also uncalled for, frustration build up inside her person. He had no idea what he was talking about. He had absolutely no idea what kind of person he’d uncover in her if he kept poking his head into things.

And so maybe that’s why she said it. So she could be the one in control. If he never spoke to her again, at least it would have been on her terms. “You’re right,” she told him, her voice cold in the stillness of the car’s interior. Her lips twitched in pure self-contempt. “Everything I’ve said up to now is bullshit.” Well, most everything she’d said was bullshit.

It was perhaps at this time that Jason realized that something wasn’t right, that something had changed in the very atmosphere between them. It was perhaps that this time that he realized he’d pushed her too far…

“Christina…”

But it was too late. “I didn’t want you to know because, well, because I knew it wouldn’t work out.”

“What?” Jason’s voice was tentative now, quiet.

Christina laughed. “Fool me once, and all that jazz.”

“Fool you—?”

But she wasn’t listening to him. “I wasn’t lying when I told you I have this weird affliction, wanting men I can’t, or shouldn’t want.”

“And why can’t, or shouldn’t you want me?” Jason challenged her.

“Besides the obvious conflict of interest for your father?”

“Yes,” he answered her drily. “Besides that.”

“Because your mom and dad…they’re all I have for family.” She tucked her chin a little lower in her chest as she said these next words.

“I don’t…”

“My parents won’t speak to me. Not after what happened—”

“The affair, you mean?” Jason asked quietly. It was a shot in the dark, but then, he’d always been good at math.

Christina’s eyes fly up to his face. “Your mom told you?!”

“No. But I knew there’d been a man in your past and the way this story was unraveling, it wasn’t such a difficult guess.”

 

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