I start to walk away. AJ stops me.
“I’ll go get the limo,” he says.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll call for a car.”
“Please, just let me take you home. It’s the least I can do.”
The worry on his face is disarming. I nod. “All right. Thank you.”
We thank the photographer and say goodnight to Carson before leaving. The thought of being alone with AJ in the limo makes me nervous. But so does not being with him at all. My head is more confused than ever.8AJI want to buy into the fantasy of us so much, but I know it’s not real. Still, as we sit inside the limo, I can’t help but think about my hands on her hips, my lips on her neck, the ring sparkling on her finger … and the look she’d given me in those photos. They looked so real. That was the face of love. Even Carson continues to text me, warning me that she may actually be falling in love with me and that I should be careful. Little does he know. He has no idea that I’ve always loved her, that I’ve compared every woman I’ve been with over the years to her and they’d just never measured up. He doesn’t know the reason I called off my previous engagement was because I couldn’t marry a woman when I still had lingering feelings for another. I tried so hard to push those deep down. They always resurfaced. I couldn’t ever really move on.
I’ve always thought Claire was the one who couldn’t be swayed into feeling anything. But those pictures we took together are giving me pause. I still can’t get that look she gave me out of my head. And it wasn’t just lust. Yes, there was that too, but it wasn’t everything. There was more.
Claire stares out the window on our way back to the Hope Center.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She bows her head, and I know she understands what I’m talking about.
“I know,” she says.
“I built the Hope Center with you in mind.” She slowly turns her head toward me. There’s just enough light for me to see her eyes, wide with curiosity. “But I would have opened it even if you hadn’t come to work for me. The project was important to me. That’s why I wanted you to run it. I knew there was no one else more dedicated. There was no one else I could trust. As creepy as it might sound, I’ve kept track of your career over the years. I knew you were the best of the best.”
I hear a barely stifled laugh from her. “What?” I ask.
“Doesn’t sound too creepy, I guess. I’ve kept track of your career as well. Only it was probably easier for me given that you live in the spotlight.”
“You’re such a stalker,” I say.
She laughs and I see those walls around her crumble if only for a small moment.
“Why me?” she says. “There are plenty of other qualified doctors.”
“That night at the frat party, after you and I were together and that guy started choking … you saved his life. You were so calm about it. No hesitation, no fear. It was as if you’d done it a million times. Your instinct kicked in and you did what needed to be done. He would have died right there in front of me, but you brought him back. That changed me. You were the one who inspired me to make a difference. If it weren’t for you I might have taken the fortune I earned and spent it on cars and exotic vacations. But you are the reason I felt as though there was more to life. That night, even though you broke my heart, you gave me purpose. So when I got the chance to build the Hope Center, I wanted the woman who changed my life to be a part of it.
“Recommending you to the clinic board was all innocent at first, I promise. I had no intention of sleeping with you or starting anything … but when I saw you at the ribbon cutting ceremony, all of those feelings that started freshman year in college came rushing back.”
“Freshman?” she says. Her face is hidden in shadow, but I imagine the confused look she must have. “We slept together our junior year.”
“My slight obsession with you happened freshman year when I first saw you moving into the dorms. I was helping a friend move in. I tried to talk to you on occasion, but you didn’t seem interested in talking to anyone except pre-med students.”
She laughs. The passing light of a well-lit street shows her chagrin. “Trust me, I remember. I thought a guy like you, some popular jock surrounded by cheerleaders tripping all over you could never want someone like me. I thought if I ever allowed myself to feel anything, I was just asking for heartbreak.”