“You voted him out of the band?” I ask, dread churning in my stomach.
Joel nods, pushing my thick chocolate hair behind my shoulder.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” I hate that the band is now going to suffer because I was too stupid to know better than to play games I couldn’t win.
“Why? You’ll never have to see him again . . .”
God, he just doesn’t get it. “Maybe I wanted to see him again!” I shout, needing him to know how upset I am but not wanting to explain why. If I was pouring my heart out, I’d tell him how stupid I am, how crazy he made me, how many regrets I have. But instead, I add more regrets to the list by shouting things I don’t mean.
Joel drops his hand from my shoulder like I just slapped him in the face. “Are you serious right now?”
“Who knows!” I snap, throwing my hands in the air. “Maybe I would’ve fucked around with him the next time you were busy fucking one of those girls from the grocery store!” His face falls, and I point an angry finger at him. “You know what, I don’t need to explain myself to you. You never cared about me before, why the fuck are you pretending to now?”
“No one’s pretending!” he shouts back at me, making me flinch. “I do fucking care about you, Dee, or I wouldn’t be here! The only one pretending right now is you.”
My humorless chuckle cuts the space between us. “Okay, Joel. Since you apparently think you know me all of a sudden, what am I pretending?”
“You’re pretending to be okay.”
The truth of his words pierce my heart, and I throw my defenses up, praying they don’t let me down. “I’m always okay. I don’t need you to be my knight in shining fucking armor.”
“Good, because I’m not your Prince fucking Charming. I’m just a guy who fucking cares about you, and I’m going to keep caring about you whether you want me to or not.” He turns away from me and tosses a dismissive hand in the air before swinging open the door to my apartment and slamming it behind him.
I’m left standing stunned in my living room, trying to make sense of his words through the haze of frustration in my head. He cares about me? Since fucking when?
Furious, I sprint to the door and swing it open, emerging into the hall and yelling at the back of his spiky head. “Where the hell are you going?”
“What do you care?” he shouts back without bothering to slow down.
His shoulders tense before he whirls around and shouts back, “To get shit to fix your stupid door! Is that a problem?”
When he walks away from me again, I chase after him. A million questions are warring for priority on my tongue, but the one I shout at him is, “Why?! Why do you care all of a sudden, Joel? You never cared about me before!”
In a second, his body spins and pushes me against the wall. His eyes blaze the color of butane flame, and my chin tilts high to hold their heated gaze. His bandaged hands lift from my shoulders to cradle my cheeks, and then he says in a voice so serious it gives me chills, “Because I saw what he did to you and I almost fucking killed him, Dee.”
The fire in his eyes steals the oxygen from my lungs as he searches my face for a fleeting moment. I want to kiss him. I want to rise on my toes and kiss him for doing everything I just yelled at him for, but before I can, his lips smash against mine.
My fingers claw over the thin fabric covering Joel’s hard shoulders, which flex under my touch when he wraps his uninjured arm behind my back and lifts me off my feet. Using that single arm, he carries me back to my apartment, and I cling to him the entire way. We tumble onto the couch, our need for each other desperate and consuming, a blur of kissing and touching that overwhelms me until I’m launching myself off his lap.
Out of breath, I toss a hand up when he begins rising to his feet to reclaim me. I want to tell him I’m not ready. I’m not ready to give him or anyone else what Cody wanted from me. And I’m especially not ready to give it to Joel when something has obviously changed between us, and whatever that is feels terrifying.
He sits back down, waiting for me to explain. When I don’t, he simply reaches out to take my fingers in his, gently coaxing me forward until I crawl sideways onto his lap. I tuck my cheek against his chest, and he holds me tight against his heartbeat.
“I’ve always cared about you, Dee.”
“Stop saying that,” I demand, but my heart isn’t in it.
Because you don’t mean it. Because I need someone to mean it. Because I hate that I need that. “Just stop.”
Frustrated, I pull away from him and slide to the opposite end of the couch. “You can’t really care about someone you don’t even know, Joel.”
He glares at me and says, “I’m willing to bet you know my favorite color, food, and band.”
Green, mozzarella sticks, and the Dropkick Murphys. I bristle and say, “So what? That would only prove I know you, not the other way around.”
“Purple, ice cream, and Paramore,” he says, and my anger bubbles to the surface when he gives all the right answers.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I nod my chin at him defiantly and say, “Big deal. You act like any of that shit means anything.”
Joel shifts to face off with me. “What it means is that we’ve spent enough time with each other to know those things, Dee. How are you going to sit there and seriously act like we don’t know each other? We spent Valentine’s Day together, for God’s sake.”