I sighed. “Believe me when I say you truly don’t understand what I’m going through.”
“The only thing I don’t understand is why you can’t admit that you have feelings for me. Why do you keep fighting this?”
I couldn’t give him an easy answer to that.
“I’m not so blind that I can’t see what I do to you.” He ran his thumb across my cheek lightly.
“Maybe you’re overestimating your effect on women,” I lied. He had an effect on me. I had no idea why. Since I’d met Blake, other men didn’t come onto my radar, but James was right in front of me, impossible to ignore.
He laughed softly. “You flush whenever we’re close like this, like you need to catch your breath around me.” His thumb came down along my jaw and brushed over my lower lip. “And the way you part your lips when you do…it’s all I can do not to kiss you right now. Because somewhere underneath it all, I know you want me to.”
My breath rushed out of me. The second my eyes flashed to his, his mouth was on me, kissing me with soft and tender strokes that stole my breath. I tensed, waiting for the voice in my head to start screaming at me, but she didn’t. Maybe she was as tired of fighting as I was. Something inside me let go. Through all the doubts, I gave myself permission to want James in this moment, for as long as this moment lasted. When he tightened his embrace, I arched into him and slipped my arms around his neck.
“James.” I whispered his name, letting the sound of it settle over me. I tried not to think about all the ways he felt different from Blake. The way he smelled, the way his body felt against my own.
“I’ll make you forget all about him. Just let me in, Erica,” he whispered between kisses. His hands were everywhere, soft, tentative touches, but instead of fire, they left a chill across my skin. I shivered as I played his words over in my mind. Just let me in.
No. The little voice had just enough energy to speak up. James’s lips tried in vain to coax me back, but whatever I’d felt in the heat of the moment had passed. The fire that had swept through me and overtaken my senses so quickly had faded just as fast.
And that’s when I knew. Blake was the only one I’d ever let in. Somehow he’d rooted himself in my soul, and no amount of lusty chance encounters with James would change that.
I shook my head. “I can’t do this.”
“What do I have to do? Please, just tell me.”
“You don’t want to be with someone like me. God knows, I don’t even want to be with myself most days.” I straightened and took a step back, trying to gain some distance between us.
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
“There’s nothing you can do, James. I can’t be what you want me to be. This… This isn’t fair to you.”
“Will you stop? Don’t push me away because you’re scared of what you’re making me feel. I can watch out for my own feelings.”
“Maybe I’m scared for myself then. You’re right. I am attracted to you. I can’t deny that, but you need to understand that I can’t love you.” The truth of the words struck me as I spoke them. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone else right now, or possibly ever, no matter how great of a person he might be.
“I’m not asking you to love me. I’m asking for you to give us a chance. You have no idea what we could be because you won’t even let us start.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. For weeks I’d been holding myself together with the emotional equivalent of duct tape. All I wanted was someone to help put me back together again, but James wasn’t that person.
“You want him. You’re going to go running to him.” He stared at me a long time, his expression pinched with the frustration that seemed to bubble just below the surface.
“I’m not running to him.”
“It’s pathetic to watch you doing this,” he snapped. “Chasing after him when I’m standing right here. I want you. I’m losing my mind wanting you, and all you can think about is getting another chance with him.”
Anger surged through me at his assumption. “I’m not chasing him, James. I left him. I left him. Okay? I broke my own heart. This is all my doing and you don’t understand the first thing about it. So stay out of my head and my heart, and keep your fucking judgments to yourself.”
I wrung my fingers in an attempt to slow the tremble that hummed through me now.
He seemed to relax, his shoulders sagging slightly. His expression softened. “I can’t understand why you’d hold a candle for someone who hit you.”
“What?” I frowned. Had I heard him right?
“My dad had a heavy-hand too. I know it when I see it, trust me. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why you’d tolerate it, no matter how much you cared about him.”
“I—oh my God. James, that day… Oh, shit.”
I let my head fall into my hands. I’d been so wrapped up in dealing with my own feelings that I’d never once thought about what he might think to see me like that. No wonder he hated Blake so much.
I took a step closer and put my hands on his chest. I didn’t want to fight with him like this, and he needed to believe me. “Blake has never hit me. I promise you. Please trust me when I say this whole situation is more complicated than you’ll ever realize.”
My proclamation didn’t have its desired effect. He stepped away, and my hands dropped down with his movement.
“Whatever you say, Erica.”
The defeated look on his face added an impossible guilt to my already shattered emotional state.
He turned and disappeared down the hallway and back into the office.
I had no idea what I would say if Blake happened to be at his office. He’d get an earful of everything I was thinking and feeling, one way or the other.
I marched through the bullpen with enough speed and focus that heads turned, my heels clicking as I went. I stormed through his office door, ignoring Cady’s greeting, and slammed it behind me as soon as I found him at his desk. He swiveled in his chair.
“Erica, I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
“Fuck you.” I walked up to the side of his desk, ready to give him a piece of my mind.
He rose gracefully and faced me. “I thought you took fucking off the table when you broke up with me. If you’ve changed your mind about that, I’ll admit I’m still interested.”