Carnival Lights, Chapter 28

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Eight

The next morning, on her hands and knees in the kitchen, a soapy sponge held tightly in her grip, Christina scrubbed the tiling on her floor. She’d already emptied out and reorganized every drawer and cupboard; she detailed the dining room table, as well, and even washed the blinds in the two large windows in her living room, both of which offered an utterly unremarkable view of the neighbor’s peeling siding.

It had been grueling, exhausting work but it hadn’t made one bite of difference. Even now, hours later, sweat dripping into the bandana she’d wrapped across her forehead, arms aching from the pressure, Christina’s stomach flopped and seized—

Anxiety swelled in her person as she relived again the evening before with Jason: sitting with her knees drawn up on those cold bleachers as the night had closed upon them. She doubted she’d ever forget the look in his eyes when she’d told him she’d go out with him again.

His lips had curled up oh-so-slowly into a heady mixture of conceit and anticipation.

“Only…”

At her one hesitant addendum, he’d paused, one eyebrow rising warily. “Only?”
“Next time I’d prefer to ditch the chaperones.”

“The what?” He’d looked genuinely bewildered for a second, until Christina had waved her arm around the stands pointedly.

“Isn’t that why you chose this place—so we couldn’t get into trouble?”

He’d pursed his lips, his eyes following the direction of her sweeping motion. “Hmmm…”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she’d assured him cutely. “I really enjoyed the game but—” She’d shrugged pointedly.

Jason had laughed. “Seducing me again, Ms. DeLuca?”
“When did I stop?” She’d countered with a saucy grin.

“Where do you want to go then?”

“Huh?”
“On our next date?” He’d flashed her a shameless grin. “Listen, I’m not leaving anything to chance. I don’t want to give you time to change your mind.”

Biting her lip, Christina had dropped her eyes. She’d rarely felt so painfully shy and gauche around any one man as she did with Jason. “I won’t change my mind.”

He considered that for a moment. “On Tuesdays, the university offers public admittance into the planetarium.”

Christina hadn’t quite been able to contain her surprise at this statement—and it’s rather abrupt inclusion into the conversation. As far as she knew, Jason wasn’t that into astronomy. She certainly wasn’t.

But before she could respond, he’d shrugged casually. “I know, I know…but I don’t want to wait until the weekend to see you again.”

And really, what girl didn’t want to hear that?

“And besides,” he’d added, reaching up to bop her gently on the nose with his finger. “It is dark in there.”

A throaty laugh had filtered out of her mouth at the words, at the teasing glint in his eyes when he’d looked down at her—a look of something more to come. It was so exhilarating, so pungently giddying.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

She’d smiled, her teeth razing over her bottom lip. “Yeah. Okay.”

Smiling even now at the memory, Christina felt her stomach pinch all over again with eagerness. Only a few days to go and she’d see him again. Her fingers squeezed against the sponge. And who knew, maybe this time she’d coax him inside…

She hadn’t even been given the chance last night. Leaving the lacrosse field soon afterward, Jason had driven her back home. It had been going on almost eight o’clock—which was hardly late, but he hadn’t so much as suggested a post-game drink, dessert, nothing. He’d just turned down the road back the way they’d come. She’d tried not to worry the issue and certainly, when he’d pulled up outside her house his next words were encouraging.

She’d just un-clicked her seatbelt when she’d turned to him, her mouth already forming the invitation when he’d shaken his head.

Holding up a hand, the action causing the words on her lips to tumble to a halt, Jason had clearly known what she’d been about to say. “Don’t ask me to come inside.” At her look of confused consternation, he’d elaborated: “It’s hard enough as it is. Don’t make it worse.”

“Worse?”

He’d pulled a grim face. “I like to think, maybe because I’m a teacher, that I read people pretty well.”

Christina had only stared at him. “What?”

“Listen, I’m not going to make the same mistakes as the last guy.”

Her eyes had grown wide. “The last guy…?” She’d sputtered.

“You don’t have to tell me about it. I don’t have to know. But, whoever he was, he hurt you and I think—” he’d sighed then, and it had sounded almost painful. “I think it would be a mistake to move too quickly.”

Hearing those words, she hadn’t known if she’d wanted to laugh or cry. Jason couldn’t possibly know just how far off the mark he was. He was absolutely nothing like Bill. He could never be. And yet, she knew he was right, too. Moving too quickly, being reckless, thoughtless—it was what had hurt her. It was what had broken her life apart. So now there she sat (or rather kneeled), on the floor of her apartment cleaning out her frustration and excitement and anxiety.

Of course, it didn’t help any that she was supposed to have dinner with the Gordman’s that evening, too. Just the thought sent her stomach rolling. Her fingers clenched around the poor, strangled sponge all the harder. She still hadn’t spoken to Mary, not since the afternoon of the baseball tournament. But Matthew had been right the other day, things couldn’t go on as they were. She missed Mary. Hell, she missed Matthew and she worked beside him five days out of the week—still, things had changed, morphed into something stiffer, more stilted.

And things between her and Jason had only gotten more…well, more involved. And what if things didn’t go well tonight with Mary and Matthew? What if they told her that, considering what they knew of her past, they weren’t entirely sure they could support a union between her and their beloved son? Or what if they decided they simply didn’t like her anymore—how would that work out if she and Jason started dating? And what if…

“No.” With a plop, Christina tossed her sponge up onto the kitchen counter. Scrambling to her feet, she brushed her hands together in finality. The kitchen—painted a light dove grey, practically winked back at her in cleanliness. “These are the kinds of thoughts that will get you into trouble,” she scolded herself. Turning on her heel, she headed through the livingroom and toward the small hallway leading off it to her bedroom.

“In fact,” she reminded herself as she threw open her wardrobe. “These are the exact thoughts which had led you to start cleaning in the first place.” Nothing like good old-fashioned exhaustion to keep the mind at bay.

Pulling out a white sundress with daisy prints and thin straps from within its oak frame, Christina quickly tossed the garment over one shoulder before moving on to the next drawer. Within moments, she was headed for the bathroom. Before she had time to consider her options, she took a shower, changed into her clothes, and applied a heavy dose of make-up to her anxiety-strained face. Then it was only left for her to leave.

Pulling up to the Gordman’s house some forty minutes later, she took a deep, slightly steadying breath before taking herself out of the car. She tried to compose her features into that of polite interest when she walked up to the front door and brought her finger out against the buzzer.

She didn’t have to wait long before the door swung open before her. Blinking in surprise, Christina saw none other than Mary herself standing on the other side of the entryway. In all the years she’d been coming to the Gordman’s, she’d never known the small woman to answer the door. That had always been Matthew’s job.

Christina took a deep breath. “Mary.” The word came out even, though a little unnatural.

Mary’s hand gripped the side of the door. She opened her mouth to speak.

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