That earned me a big grin. “I don’t hate you, William. Not at all. Not in the least,” she said, her pretty blue eyes locked straight on mine as she spoke.

I knew she meant it earnestly, but I couldn’t resist teasing her. I steepled my fingers together. “Thank you so much for not hating me.”

“You know it’s not just not hate.” Her voice was gentle, sweet even.

“All the double negatives are confusing me. Why don’t you just spell it out?”

“You’re fun to hang out with,” she muttered, as if she were pretending it cost her something.

“I knew I could wear you down,” I said, and picked up a French fry, dragged it through some ketchup, and happily ate it. She looked at the French fry with longing, blinking her eyes once then tearing her gaze away. In that moment, I understood her. Throwing away the ice cream on the beach, turning down my offer for pizza, eating only air-popped popcorn—they weren’t part of her hard edge. They were real struggles. Food wasn’t a struggle I knew personally, but being in Southern California for even a short while had taught me that body image was a battle for many men and women, guys and girls.

“Jess,” I asked carefully. “You know you’re beautiful, don’t you?”

“Thank you, but that’s not it.”

“What is it?”

She shook her head, as if voicing her concerns would pain her. She took a deep breath then spoke. “French fries are my downfall. They’re more dangerous than you. I haven’t thrown up food I’ve eaten in more than two years, so I’m just trying to stay on the healthy-eating wagon.”

“I didn’t realize it was hard for you,” I said, reaching across the table and lacing my fingers through hers.

She let me, her fingers curling around mine. “I don’t usually talk about it. It was a while ago anyway.”

“You don’t talk about it because you try so hard to be so tough. But that’s a tough thing, dealing with an eating disorder. And that’s a huge thing to be able to move beyond it.”

“The last time I did it,” she said in a small voice, “it was over French fries.” Then she stopped talking, dropped her face into her hands. “Ugh. I can’t believe I’m talking about barfing while you’re eating.” For one of the first times, Jess was fragile. All that armor she wore cracked with a small fissure, and in those tiny breaks, she was letting parts of herself be shown.

I joined her on the other side of the booth, wrapping an arm around her. “Hey, it’s totally okay. I swear you can’t gross me out about food or anything. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad by suggesting you eat a fry,” I said, squeezing her shoulder gently.

“You didn’t make me feel bad,” she whispered in a barren voice, her face still covered with her fingers. She wasn’t crying. Rather, she was embarrassed and I hated that she felt that way.

“I never should have said anything about the French fry,” I said, rubbing her shoulder now with my palm.

She snorted, and it was a self-deprecating sound. Lifting her fingers from her face and raising her head, she composed herself. “You know what? It’s fine. It’s just a French fry. I can handle it. I’m not going to be a big baby about a French fry,” she said and reached across the table to my plate to grab a fry. She bit into it as if to prove she could do it. Then she finished it, and held her arms out wide.

“There. Did it,” she said, clearly mocking the momentousness of eating something that had once been far too tempting.

“And it didn’t even bite back,” I said, and she laughed, then looked at me.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “For not mocking me.”

“For being human? Never,” I said, then turned serious again. “How long were you bulimic?”

“Through most of high school. I never told anyone, but Anaka figured it out and was pretty supportive. She even took me to a support group, and that helped me to really deal with it. It was never about food. It was always about control, and I felt so out of control starting in high school when my dad’s company went under and my college fund went kaput. So, controlling food felt like the only thing I could manage. But then I stopped, and I was pretty good until I relapsed my second year of college.”

“What happened that made you relapse?”

She squeezed her eyes shut momentarily and her face flushed for the first time. I’d never seen her ashamed before, and it made me want to hold her close.

“I was going out with this guy, and the whole relationship was so distracting that my grades suffered. When I saw my progress report, I wanted to die. We broke up pretty quickly, but it just felt like everything was unraveling, and I fell off the wagon for a week or so. Anaka, once again, was the one who helped me. I wouldn’t have been able to change without her,” she said softly. She stared at the jukebox, and her jaw twitched, then seemed to harden as she turned her focus back to me. “But then I got it all sorted out, and I’ve been fine ever since.”

Tags: Lauren Blakely Stars In Their Eyes Romance