I lifted the door that was blocking the entrance to the gated area and moved it out of the way. Ashlyn lowered the book that was held to her chest and we stepped into the area.
“What did Henry want?” she wondered out loud.
I hesitated to tell her. I didn’t want to say the words, because if I did, that would mean that California was actually a choice.
“You um…” Shit. “You applied to a school in California?” I posed as a question.
Her eyes widened and she turned quickly away from me. Jittery, her body shook. “University of Southern California. Gabby made me apply. I didn’t think I would get in.” She whipped back around, her long blond hair flying across her face. “I got in?”
I saw it—the look of pure joy in her face. Her jade eyes smiled so deep.
Gabby might have had Ashlyn apply, but it was her dream.
“They need one more letter of recommendation,” I choked out. Her expression shifted to disappointment. “Ashlyn, that’s amazing. They’re interested!” I wanted her to be happy about it again. I liked it best when she was smiling. “This is huge!”
Her lips turned up. She was unable to hold her joy. “It is huge, isn’t it? So what do you have to do with this?”
“He wants me to write it.”
“And you’ll do that?” she questioned nervously.
“Of course I will.”
“Don’t do it because of…this…” She gestured between her and me. “Don’t do it because of whatever this is. Only do it if you think I deserve it.”
I crossed my arms and shook my head back and forth. “All feelings aside, our situation out of the picture…you deserve it. You work hard, and you’re beyond gifted. You deserve it.”
Her face dropped. “What’s going on with you, Daniel? With us?”
She deserved an answer to that, yet I wasn’t sure I had a good one. “After I found out that you were my student…my mind went crazy.” I sighed. “Then my brother Jace showed up and f**ked up my world…and now I see you with other guys and it kills me, Ashlyn. It kills me that you’ve been through so much and I can’t comfort you, can’t hold you. It kills me that there are other people who can comfort you and hold you.”
She listened calmly as she placed her backpack and her book on the ground. She walked over to me and took my hands into hers. My arms wrapped around her small body and I pulled her close, breathing in her smells, her strawberry shampoo, her perfume. Her.
“I’m so mad at you,” she whispered against my chest.
I smiled slightly. “I know. I’m mad at me, too.”
Her head rose and she looked up at me, shaking her head. “No, I’m only mad at you because I know you’re trying to protect me from something. But I don’t need your protection.”
“I don’t know what to do, Ash. Everything’s a mess.”
“Talk to me about it. Let me in.”
I sighed, holding her against me. “You deserve so much more than hiding out in high school basements. You don’t deserve to be someone’s secret, Ashlyn. You deserve to be the chorus to a person’s favorite song. You deserve to be the dedication in their favorite book. And right now? Right now, I can’t offer you that. You deserve a shot at a normal senior year. I’m just complicating things.”
She pushed herself away from me, frowning. “Stop it, okay?” She looked up with tears in her eyes. “Stop telling me what I deserve. What’s good for me. What’s right for our situation. I don’t care about that stuff.” The tears rolled down her cheeks. “There’s nothing normal about my life. I have a dead twin. My mother disowned me. Hell, I find Hemingway freaking therapeutic.
“And you—you’re in a freaking band that bases their songs off of Shakespeare! Your mother was murdered and you were playing a concert seven days after your father died. We. Are. Not. Normal. I don’t want a normal senior year. I want you.
“If I learned anything these past few months, it’s that life sucks, Daniel. It sucks. It’s mean, it’s vicious, and it’s unapologetic. It’s dark and cruel. But then, sometimes, it’s so beautiful that it knocks all of that darkness out of your system with the light.
“I was so alone…” She paused and rapidly tapped her fingertips against her bottom lip. “I was so alone before I arrived at Joe’s bar. And then you sat on that stage and sang to me. You brought me the light on my darkest days. But you never open up to me. You never let me in.”
I moved over to her and brushed my thumbs underneath her eyes. “I was traveling back from Chicago when I first saw you. I went to spend a few days with my grandmother, making sure she was okay after my father’s death. I sat on that train, seconds away from falling apart. Then I looked up and saw those green eyes and I knew somehow, someway, things would be okay.” When she tilted her head up toward me, my lips glazed over hers. “You didn’t bring me the light, Ashlyn. You are the light.”
She smiled that perfect smile and laughed lightly. “Normal is overrated anyway. Bring on the freaks and weirdos.” She paused. “I don’t have to go to California. I can stay here with you after school is out. I can go to a community college and we can build up your house. We can be together.”
My head fell to the ground. I cleared my throat. What am I doing? I knew I was sending out the wrong signals to her, I knew I was confusing her. But I didn’t bring her down to the basement to reunite. My mind thought of the note Gabby had given me and the threats Jace had made. And now she was considering giving up her dream for me.