I felt almost shaky with relief. He was finally going to tell me about his demons. I squeezed his hand. Whatever he said, I was going to be ready.
"Let’s go back to the bus," he said, his tone louder and less intimate, as if we were in public. I was suddenly confused. Had someone come in? But as I looked around, it was just the two of us.
Then again, Jax knew better than most that dressing room privacy could be interrupted at any time. "You’re right. This is a bad place to talk about personal stuff."
He looked taken aback, and his brow arched skeptically. "Talk? I thought we were done talking about it," he scoffed. "I told you, I’ve got myself under control. I’m not going to blow up again. You can take my word for it."
"What?" I asked, feeling like I’d just gotten whiplash. "Jax, I thought you meant you could handle talking to me about what happened."
His body tensed, veins popping from his taut muscles. "No. And that’s not going to happen. Let’s just go back, Riley."
I stood my ground. "I’m not going back until you promise me we can talk about this. I don't know if we can be together if you refuse to even talk when you're so clearly upset!"
He looked into my eyes. "Then I guess the bus leaves without you. Listen, Riley." He reached toward my face, tender even as his words pricked my heart like needles. "I don’t do threats, and I don’t do ultimatums. You’ve got a spot waiting for you on the bus whenever you want it. But you don’t get to tell me what I have to talk about."
I felt trapped—not wanting to push too far, but unwilling to let his secrets stay between us. Wasn’t there a compromise? Wasn’t there a way we could both get what we wanted? "I—you’re right, Jax," I said as he laced up his boots. "I’m sorry I tried to push you. I don’t need you to open up at once, but for god’s sake, I need something . . ."
His dark eyes pierced through my soul as he stood there, looking at me. For a moment, a strange expression flickered over his face. Maybe I got through to him after all. Then, before I knew it, the strange look went away.
When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse. "I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you needed, Riley." Slinging his guitar strap over his shoulder, he left the dressing room.
I thought my heart would break into a thousand pieces.
Breathe. Riley, just breathe.
I walked toward the bus, determined. My eyes were still dry and red from crying, but I’d cleaned myself up as much as I could in the dressing room mirror.
Jax didn’t want to open up, no matter what. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me, losing him was not an option. I wasn’t about to give up the best thing that had ever happened to me because of a few bad mood swings.
That meant I’d have to tell him I was sorry for pushing too far. The words of the apology turned over in my head, forming as the bus door opened.
I set my purse down as soon as I got inside and walked toward the bathroom for one last red-eye check. As I opened the bathroom door, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. My stomach churned with anxiety as I saw Jax’s boots at the top of the stairs. Shit. I wanted to talk to him alone, not out in the public areas of the bus.
"Oh," I said, trying to keep my cool as he stepped onto the first floor. "I was just coming up to—"
With a shake of his head, Jax let out a sad sigh. His eyes were stormy, unreadable, but he extended a hand toward mine. "Riley, we . . . we need to talk. Take a ride with me."
My fingers turned to ice as his clasped around them. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I knew we need to talk never meant anything good. "Okay," I breathed, trying to keep myself from shaking. Had I pushed him over the edge? Was it already too late for us?
Wordlessly, Jax led me off the bus and got his motorcycle off the trailer. I followed behind him, in agony.
"I’m really sorry," I said as I watched him untie the bike. "I didn’t mean what I said before—what I said about not being able to be with you."
His eyes scanned over the bike once before he threw his leg over the seat. "I know." His voice was quiet, and he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I got on the bike behind him, feeling almost limp, exhausted. Jax tried to start the engine but it sputtered, stalling. After he gave it another kick it roared to life and we started on our way.
By the time we’d ridden a few miles in the warm summer air, I was clinging tight, hoping to remember every detail of the ride. This could be the last time. The shopping centers and bright lights of the city were flying by us, and I held onto Jax tighter as we wove through luxury cars—a Ferrari, a Lambo, two identical Bugattis driving side by side.
The warmth of his body in my arms felt bittersweet. In a lot of ways, I’d never fit with someone the way I fit with Jax. I’d certainly never fallen for someone so fast. But it looked more and more like this clear southern California night was the night it would all fall apart.
I knew I should try to hold on to the moment. But all I could do was think about when it would end.
As I watched the landscape around us for a clue as to where we were headed, I saw the expensive, designer brands give way to middle-class neighborhoods and malls. Then, after a few miles on the freeway, my hair whipping in the wind, we got off at an exit that looked nothing like the places we’d come from.
Broken beer bottles littered the off-ramp, and as we came to a stop, I noticed that the stop sign was riddled with bullet holes. My heart skipped a beat as I looked around, but I didn’t see anyone—no cars, no pedestrians, not even a stray cat or dog.
This neighborhood looked nothing like the places we’d been to during the tour so far. Ramshackle trailers and tiny, run-down single-story houses crowded against one another. In the distance, dogs barked, and the grass grew long and unkempt in yards where concrete blocks held up the rusting remains of old trucks.
Jax rounded a corner and narrowly avoided a burned-out wreck of a car. It didn’t look like it had burned recently. Why had no one cleaned it up or removed it?
Why was he taking me somewhere so desolate? We were totally alone, and no one knew where we were going. My pulse pounded in my ears as he slowed the bike down.
"What the hell?" I said, feeling the panic start to rise at the back of my throat. "Jax, does anyone even live around here?"
"People live here. It’s just too dangerous to go out on the street unless you have business to do." He kept his eyes on the road, never looking back toward me.