He squinted at me and picked the remote back up. "I’m . . . glad the story had a happy ending?" he offered.
"I’m glad, too," I said, my voice stronger now. "When Gonzo bit me, we shouldn’t have asked why he was being mean. We should have asked what was wrong. It would have saved us all a lot of pain."
Jax stiffened, and his head turned toward me slowly. Looking straight into my eyes, he asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
I met his gaze. He’d helped me talk about Connor—now it was my turn to help Jax. "Because you weren’t acting like yourself earlier. And because I don’t want to wait for it to boil over again for us to talk about it."
"Don’t worry about it," he said. "It’s just something I need to deal with."
"It’s . . . not about the band, and it’s not about you."
"Then what is it about?"
His glance went back to his hands, which were fidgeting in his lap. I’d never seen him looking so nervous. "I’ve never talked to anyone about it," he said. "And I’m not starting today."
I couldn’t take that as an answer—if I pretended to let it go, I knew it would just gnaw at me the way Connor’s secrets had. "Jax, if we’re going to be together, I can’t deal with you hiding your feelings any time the going gets tough," I said, keeping my voice as gentle as I could. "I—I told you about Connor. I told you what that relationship did to me."
His body tensed. "And you think I’m just like him."
"No, I know you’re not," I said softly, reaching out a reassuring hand. "But you’re keeping secrets from me, and that hurts. Maybe if I’d never met Connor, it wouldn’t hurt so much. But I can’t help how I feel now."
"And I can’t help being the person I am," he said, folding his arms across his chest.
My vision blurred with tears, but I didn’t let them spill over. "Please, Jax?" I asked. "I just . . . I don’t want to have to go back to therapy. I don’t want my life to be all about secrets and lies."
"I’m not keeping secrets," he said brusquely. "I just don’t tell my whole life story to people I’ve only just met."
I recoiled, and felt one of the tears I’d been trying to hold back roll down my face. "Fine," I said, trying to keep the hurt out of my voice. "I guess that’s how it is."
"Shit," he said, looking suddenly ashamed. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that."
"You’re right. You shouldn’t have." I wiped the tear away with my sleeve.
"I just—I never do this kind of thing."
He sighed and shrugged, shaking his head. "Talk about myself."
I clasped my hand around his and looked into his dark eyes. "Jax, tell me straight up. Do I mean anything to you? Or am I just a novel alternative to your regularly scheduled groupie programming?"
He closed his eyes. "You shouldn’t have to ask that. You mean a lot to me, Riley. More than you know."
Frustrated and confused, I blurted, "Then why can’t you talk about it? Don’t you trust me?"
"I trust you more than," he paused, then squeezed my hand, "more than anyone. And more than I should. It’s not that."
I felt myself crumpling inward. "What changed between us, Jax? I feel like you were open with me before and now you’re not."
His voice rose aggressively. "It’s got nothing to do with you! Why don’t you get that?"
"Then what’s it all about?" I asked, practically pleading. "Help me understand."
A tortured half-smile twisted his mouth. "Help you understand?" he asked, his words punctuated by a sad, staccato laugh. "Riley, you’re never going to be able to understand."
His condescending tone made my cheeks hot with anger. "Stop talking to me like I’m a child," I said sharply. "Dammit, Jax, stop pushing me away!"
His scarred eyebrow raised almost imperceptibly, and he took a deep breath. "Riley, what did you do for your fourteenth birthday?"
I tried to remember. Was this Jax’s way of giving me a story back in exchange for the one I’d told about Gonzo? "We went to Applebees," I said, then corrected myself. "No, wait. That was the year of the disastrous sleepover. Mina gave Chloe a haircut so bad she actually cried."
His eyes closed softly and he nodded. "For my fourteenth birthday I . . . woke up on a park bench," he said. "I’d been saving cans for days, hoping to have enough to get twenty, thirty, maybe even forty bucks from the recycling center. I wanted a real meal, at a real restaurant."
My eyes were wide, but I couldn’t say anything. Jax had been homeless at fourteen?
"When I woke up, I found out someone had stolen the whole bag I’d saved," he said, his body starting to rock back and forth gently. "The sky was grey. My stomach was growling. And all I could do was . . . scream."
I realized the tears had started falling down my cheeks again. Jax opened his eyes back up and looked at me. "I know you want to understand what I’ve been through," he said, reaching up a hand to dry the tears. "But our pasts are different worlds. Some things . . . you can’t understand. And you don’t want to. You’re lucky."
He was right. There was no way I could understand how he’d grown up. I’d never been out on the streets before. I’d never even been close. "I’m really sorry, Jax," I said. "I didn’t know."
"Well, now you do."
I looked uncomfortably at my lap as a full minute passed by quietly. "I . . . one thing I don’t get," I said, breaking the silence. "What did your fourteenth birthday have to do with Kev and ice cream?"
His expression darkened. "Riley, didn’t I tell you not to ask about it?"
"Look, Jax, we have different pasts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk now. I’m right here."
"You don’t get to win this one, Riley. Drop it." His expression was flat, unreadable, and he turned away.
Frustrated, I rolled over in the bed. I wanted to be a good girlfriend—I wanted to help Jax get past his fears instead of hiding from them. But no matter how hard I tried, he wouldn’t budge.