I stare at Pax.
Even though he's gorgeous, he looks rough, like he had one hell of a night. He's got two-day stubble now and he's wearing the same clothing that he was wearing yesterday. His eyes are rimmed in red, like he didn't sleep much. Or he had way too much to drink. Or maybe he even did too much of something else.
I narrow my eyes.
"What do you need to apologize for now?" I ask hesitantly. I'm not sure if I want to know. And he looks like he's not sure that he wants to tell me. I back away a few steps. It can't be worse than getting a blow job from Jill, can it?
He holds his hand up. "Wait, Mila. Just listen."
He stares at me.
I stare back.
"Yes?" I ask and even I can hear the trepidation in my tone. I swallow. He dips his head, then returns my stare.
"I think we might be onto something good here and I don't want to fuck it up by starting it out with lies."
I'm confused now. Lies? He's lied to me already? As if he can hear my thoughts, Pax shakes his head.
"I haven't lied to you yet," he explains. "But if I don't tell you what I did last night, then you won't understand what kind of person that I am. And that would be the biggest lie of all."
"What kind of person are you?" I whisper. "Did you try something with me last night?" The morning breeze blows my hair into my face and impatiently, I shove it behind my ears. I need to hear this, even if it isn't pretty.
Pax is hesitant now, unsure. The look on his face drops a big iron weight upon my heart because I know that whatever he wants to tell me isn't good. Maybe coming out here was a bad idea. I should have known. I want to back away, but I resist the urge and plant my feet firmly in the sand.
Pax catches my gaze and lifts his chin, sighing heavily.
"I'm the kind of person who gets pissed and then goes off and does stupid shit to try and block out my anger. Or my hurt. I don't deal with things in a healthy way. I deal with them in shitty ways, like drugs or women. Or whiskey. Last night, I chose whiskey and a woman. Although the woman wasn't you. I didn't try and take advantage of you."
He stares at me and the breath is caught in my throat. And I sort of feel like he kicked me in the stomach. I tortured myself all day yesterday and he had slept with someone else? When he didn't even want me enough to try something with me when I had been in his bed last night?
I am stunned and so I do the only thing any self-respecting woman in this situation can do.
I walk away.
"I'm out of here," I mutter.
One foot in front of the other, I retreat down the beach, my feet sinking into the sand. My heart feels like it is sinking too, more and more with each step, and I focus on the ground in front of me, trying to ignore the piercing pain coming from my heart. I know it's illogical to be upset that he hadn't tried to take advantage of me. But under the circumstances, it is a bit hurtful. And it wouldn't have been a violation because I want him.
And that's why the whole thing is so hurtful.
"Mila, wait!" Pax calls from behind me. I hear his steps right behind me and I stop when he grabs my arm. "Please, just wait. I need to explain something. And then, if you still want to, you can go."
I turn slowly, staring at him in the face. His is so anxious, his mouth tightly drawn. I nod.
"I can leave right now, if I wanted. I don't need your permission. But I'll hear what you have to say."
His lip twitches, almost as if he finds my little show of independence funny. I don't see the humor. I press my lips together, my hands on my hips as I wait.
It looks like Pax is trying not to laugh again.
"Well, obviously you can leave right now. But you'd have to walk, unless you want to wait until I drive you. Your car is still at the bar."
I feel my face fall. So much for being feisty. I'm at his mercy right now.
He stares at me, all traces of amusement gone from his face.
"I need you to know something," he says patiently. "Can you come back and sit?"
I glance at the beach chairs where he had apparently spent the night and nod again, curtly, following him back. I settle into one and instead of sitting in the one next to me, he sits on mine, beside my legs. I wait.
It is a moment before he begins.
"I've never talked about this with anyone, so it's difficult to know where to begin," he tells me with a wry smile. "Bear with me, okay?"
I nod yet again, silent as I wait for him to just spit it out.
"I'm fucked up," he says bluntly and I can't help but smile a little.
"Well, that's one way to start," I tell him. He smiles a little too, but it's a sad smile, and my heart twinges a bit.
"I know. But I want to be completely honest with you. I'm seriously fucked up. I have never had a real relationship. All I've ever dealt with are bar whores, pardon the term, and I don't really know how to be in a real relationship with a normal woman. Yesterday, when you said that we weren't a good idea, it hurt. I don't take rejection well. And then I had to drive to Chicago for some business with my father and overall, it was just a shitty day. I stopped by a little bar in the city and I ended up having sex with a woman there. Because that's what I do. I block out any kind of hurt or anger that I feel with drugs or women."
He pauses and I'm numb as I stare at him.
"You didn't even know her?" I whisper.
Pax shakes his head.
"No. I didn't even know her. But the strange part is that I couldn't bring myself to finish. All I could see in my head was you. And all of a sudden, the dingy little bar closed in on me and I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I thought about you the entire drive home. Then, when I saw you in the Bear's Den, I almost couldn't breathe. But you were there with someone else, and you had already said that you didn't want me.
"Mila, when that guy had you against his car, I saw red. For the first time in a long time, I cared about something other than myself. It didn't matter to me if you wanted me or not, but I couldn't let that guy hurt you. That tells me a lot about myself. And you. It tells me that you are good for me, that trying to be with you is something that is worth my time and worth any kind of wait that it might entail, until you're ready to be with me, too."
He pauses now, his eyes frozen upon my face. He's waiting...for a response, for an answer, for another possible rejection.
My heart is beating frozenly, as though the numbness of my emotions has spread to my chest. I can see the broken little boy in his eyes again, the one that screams that he has been hurt, and once again, I long to fix it. To fix him.
Even though he just had sex with someone else last night in some dirty bar.
Shit. He just had sex with someone else last night in a dirty bar.
I gulp hard at that ugly fact and stare at him. What he did might have been ugly, but he's absolutely beautiful right now with his fragility shining in his eyes. My gut twists.
Against my deepest misgivings, I somehow believe him. I believe that it didn't mean anything to him. I don't know if that makes me as twisted as he is or what. The whole thing is crazy and I don't know what to say. All I know is what I feel.
I want to take a chance.
My heart feels like it might stop beating if I don't.
"Did you at least use protection?" I ask hesitantly. "With the girl, I mean."
Pax nods. "Of course."
"I'm probably crazy. We aren't even dating and you've cheated on me already. But I have this insane attraction to you," I tell him. "When I'm not with you, I'm thinking about you. I've never been attracted to someone like this before. It has to mean something, right? So, maybe we should see where this goes. But I need your word that you won't be with anyone else while you're with me. I can't tolerate that. You're going to have to find some other way to deal with your issues. I'm really afraid, Pax. You've got issues that I don't know what to do with."
Pax stares at me, his hazel eyes more gold than green in the morning light. He nods slowly.
"I will try very hard not to hurt you," he says. "I'm fucked up. So I can't promise that I won't. But I promise that I will try."
"Okay," I whisper. "But try very hard."
Pax chuckles, low and husky and my belly twinges with warmth from the sound of it. "And I did not cheat on you. We weren't together. You rejected me, remember?"
He dips his head and kisses me again. This time, it is a kiss with promise. Of things to come, of things that might be. It fills me up with hope and I realize with a start that this is the first time I've felt truly hopeful in quite some time. It's quite a feeling and for just a second, I think that I might not be crazy after all, because it feels right.
As Pax pulls away, he holds onto me, looking down at me and I see warmth in his eyes. So there really was warmth there the other day. I hadn't been imagining it.
"I remember," I tell him. "But it was because I was trying to listen to my head, not my heart. My head is usually the smarter of the two. For once, though, I'm going to do the crazy thing."
Pax grins. "I've done the crazy thing more times than I can count, usually to my detriment. Trust me, I know crazy, and this isn't it. This is... just nature. A man and a woman who are attracted to each other when they logically shouldn't be because they're opposites. But opposites always attract, you know, so it makes total sense."
He says this knowingly, as if he's an expert and I laugh.
"Okay, Dr. Phil. We'll just pretend that it makes total sense and then just go from there."
"Where exactly do we go from there, though? How do we go about a real relationship?" he asks wryly. "Because I truly don't know."
I can see that he doesn't. He looks at a loss and he's not even trying to hide it. I find that refreshing, so I don't make fun of him.
Instead, I simply say, "Well, we start with a first date. Then a second and a third. We'll take it slow. I'm not going to jump into your bed tonight, Pax. I meant it when I said that I'm afraid to trust you to not break my heart. I'm going to need some time for you to prove that you won't."
"I'm okay with that," he tells me, amusement in his voice. "I think you'll be worth the wait."
I smile, then lean into his arm and we watch the lake, at how the foamy lip slides onto the beach and then sucks back away. The sun glistens on the surface like a million prisms of light and I look up at him.
"I bet this is the earliest you've been up in a while."
He laughs. "Maybe. I'm not admitting to anything, though. I will tell you that I need a shower. Desperately. So I'm going to drive you to your car, then take one. When can I see you again?"
When can he see me again?
The way he words that question causes my heart to twinge a bit once again. It seems so vulnerable and tender, like him. Like somewhere, deep down, behind his tough-looking exterior, he's fragile. But I don't say it because I'm sure that he wouldn't appreciate being described with that particular word.
Instead, I reply, "I have to work a shift at The Hill, my family's restaurant. My sister runs it. I'm helping out during the slow winter months. But if you want to come over around the end of my shift, we can have our first date. Do you like Italian food?"
Pax smiles. "I love it. And it's a date."
He walks me to his car and then kisses me again, leaning me against the cool metal door as he wraps his tongue with mine until I feel weak-kneed from his nearness. But I finally pull away like a rational human being and watch him walk around to his side. I can't help but notice the way the muscles in his back flex as he moves. I sigh.
He's gorgeous, and flawed and sexy. And I have no idea what I'm getting into.
I had forgotten how tiring waiting tables truly is. I've only been here for five hours and it feels like a million. I pause tiredly by the kitchen door to rub my ankle after banging it on a table leg.
"Tired already?" Maddy asks with a grin as she passes by. She pauses next to me, a tray of food in her hands. "Don't worry. The night is almost over."
I roll my eyes. "Yet the blisters will last all week. Oh, the things I do for you, big sister."
She giggles and delivers her food while it is still steaming, balancing the loaded tray expertly. Even though she has been here every bit as long as me today, she still looks flawless. Her blonde ponytail is still perky, her makeup is still perfect. She doesn't look for even a minute like she is hung-over. I don't know how she does it. It's annoying.
I sink into a nearby chair to rest my weary legs.
"Is this seat taken?"
Before I even look, my heart knows that the husky voice belongs to Pax.
I turn and find Pax behind me, freshly showered and dressed in slacks and a button-up. Holy Hell. He looks amazing. I hadn't been expecting him to dress up and I instantly feel at a distinct disadvantage. I'm grimy and smell like garlic. Why can't I look perfect at all times like Madison?
"Hi," I tell him softly. "You clean up really well."
He smiles, bright and brilliant. "Thanks. Am I early?"
"Only a bit. Why don't you come sit at the bar and get a drink while I finish up?"
He nods and I lead him to the bar, introducing him to our lion-haired bartender. Tony's thick black hair stands up in an uproarious mess all over his head.
"Pax, this is Tony. He's been with us for years, back when my parents were still alive. Tony, this is Pax. Can you keep him company while I finish up my shift?"
Tony, a forty-year old true Italian, looks interested in this venture. As I walk away, I hear him begin interrogating Pax.
I turn around. "I'm sorry," I call to Pax. "I won't be long."
Pax rolls his eyes good-naturedly and returns his attention to Tony's inquisition. I turn back around, only to bump directly into Maddy.
"What are you doing, little sis?" she asks sternly. "What's he doing here?"
I eye her. She's got her sternest big-sister expression on and I sigh.
"He's here for a date. He saved my ass last night. And if you'd like to come with me while I change clothes, we can talk about it."
"Oh, you bet I will."
Madison calls out to another waitress to watch things in the dining room, and then she accompanies me down the long back hall to her office, where I'd stashed my bag.
As I take off my garlicky restaurant shirt and apply fresh deodorant, Maddy starts firing questions at me. With each word that leaves her mouth, I sympathize even more with Pax, who I know is answering just as many questions in the other room.
As I pull on a soft white long-sleeved shirt and jeans and spray perfume on my neck, I look at my sister.
"Look. I know you're concerned about me. And I don't honestly know if I should be taking this chance with Pax. But what I do know is that he makes me feel things I've never felt before. He makes me feel alive and hopeful that life truly can turn out amazing, if I only try hard enough. And last night, he saved me from Jared's drunk ass. So please. Just give me some space to try and figure this out and see where it goes. It's just a freaking date. We're not eloping or anything."
Madison sighs, loud and long. "I think you're insane. The guy has a drug problem. Among many other problems, probably. I don't think you should be giving him the time of day, much less a few hours for a date."
I glare at her.
"Maddy, you shouldn't judge someone that you don't even know. I don't think he actually has a drug problem. I think he uses, and of course I hope he stops. He made a mistake the other night by using too much. And again, I hope he stops and that never happens again. But there's something in him that seems so real and genuine, I can't help but want to get to know him better. There must be something good in him. He saved me last night. He didn't have to."
I stare at her and Maddy sighs heavily once again as she strums her red nails on her desk nervously.
"There's something I should remind you of - something our mother always said. You can't change a person, Mila. Not ever. A person will always be what they are. So don't go into this thinking that you can change Pax, and that his good qualities will overtake his bad. Things don't work that way. You don't even know him."
I'm quiet as I brush my hair and pull it into a low ponytail.
"No, I don't," I finally say as I turn to face her. "But you don't either. I'm going to get to know him because I'm an adult and it's my decision. Can we please drop this now?"
We have a stare down, me into her blue eyes and her into my green. Finally, she sighs and looks away. I smile at her concession.
"Thank you," I tell her as I bend to kiss her cheek. "Just be polite to him, okay? I'm not asking you to be best friends."
Maddy scowls at me, but I pay her no mind as I hurry out to the bar to save Pax from Tony. As I approach, I see that he doesn't appear to need saving. Tony is chuckling at something that Pax said, and Pax seems to be perfectly at ease.
That is, until Pax turns in his seat and smiles at me. He's got a cleft in his chin that I somehow didn't notice before and his golden eyes are sparkling.
The world tilts on its axis and my heart slams a crazy cadence against my ribcage. I'm probably in way over my head, but for the moment, I don't care.