“I don’t want to live on campus, especially now that I know how it feels to live on my own.”
He nods and starts pouring. “True, once you get a taste of freedom, you can’t go back.”
“So true. If Hardin went to Seattle . . .” I stop myself. “Never mind.”
“So were you guys planning on trying the long-distance thing?”
“No, it would never work,” I say, feeling an ache rise in my chest. “The short-distance thing barely even works for us.” I need to change the subject before I end up a blubbering mess. “Blubbering,” what a strange word.
“Blubbering,” I say while pinching my lips between my thumb and index finger.
“Entertaining yourself?” Robert smiles and places a full cup of wine before me. I nod, still laughing. “I have to say, this is the most fun I’ve had at work in a while.”
“Me, too,” I agree. “Well, if I worked here.” I’m making no sense at all. “I don’t drink often—well, more now than I ever did before—but not enough to have built a tolerance, so I get drunk pret-ty fast,” I sing, lifting my cup in front of my face.
“I’m the same. I’m not much of a drinker, but when a beautiful girl is having a bad night, I make an exception,” he says bravely, but then flushes terribly. “I just meant . . . ahh . . .” He covers his face with his hands. “I don’t seem to have a filter around you.”
I reach across the table and lower his hands from his face; he flinches slightly, and when he looks up at me his blue eyes are so clear.
“It’s like I can tell what you’re thinking,” I say aloud, without a thought.
“Maybe you can,” he whispers in response, and his tongue darts out to wet his lips.
I know he wants to kiss me; I can read it on his face. I can see it in his honest eyes. Hardin’s eyes are so guarded all the time I have to struggle to be able to read him, and even then I’ve never been able to read him the way I want to, the way I need to. I lean closer to Robert, the small table still between us as he leans forward, too.
“If I didn’t love him so much, I’d kiss you,” I quietly say, not pulling back but not moving any closer. As drunk as I am, and as angry as I am at Hardin, I can’t do it. I can’t kiss this other guy. I want to, but I can’t.
The left corner of his mouth lifts into a crooked smile. “And if I didn’t know how much you love him, I’d let you.”
“Okay . . .” I’m not sure what else to say, and I’m drunk and awkward, and I don’t know how to act around anyone other than Hardin and Zed, but in a way those two are similar. Robert isn’t like anyone I’ve ever met. Except Landon. Landon is sweet and kind, and my mind is racing from the almost-kiss with someone who is not Hardin.
“I’m sorry.” I sit back down on the chair, and he does the same.
“Don’t be. I’d much rather you not kiss me than kiss me and regret it.”
“You’re strange,” I tell him. I wish I’d chosen a different word, but it’s too late now. “In a good way,” I correct myself.
“So are you.” He chuckles. “When I first saw you in that dress, I thought you were going to be some snobby rich girl with no personality at all.”
“Well, sorry. I’m surely not rich.” I laugh.
“Or snobby,” he adds.
“My personality isn’t too bad.” I shrug.
“It will do,” he teases with a smile.
“You’re awfully nice.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know.” I start poking at my cup. “Sorry, I know I sound like an idiot.”
He looks puzzled for a moment, then says, “You don’t sound like an idiot. And you don’t have to keep apologizing.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. I’m vaguely aware that I have now picked apart the rim of the Styrofoam cup; small pieces of white litter the table in front of me.
“You keep apologizing for everything you say. You’ve said ‘sorry’ at least ten times in the last hour. You haven’t done anything wrong, so you don’t have anything to apologize for.”
I’m embarrassed by his words, but his eyes are so kind and his voice doesn’t hold even a sliver of annoyance or judgment. “I’m sorry . . .” I say again reflexively. “See! I don’t know why I do that.” I smooth a loose lock of hair behind my ear.
“I can guess, but I won’t. Just know that you shouldn’t have to,” he states simply.
I take a deep breath and let it out. It’s relaxing to have a conversation with someone without worrying about upsetting them the entire time.
“Anyway, tell me more about your new job in Seattle,” he says, and I’m thankful for the subject change.
Where do you think I’m going?” I yell up the walk at Karen, tossing my hands in the air out of frustration.
She walks partway back down the porch steps, then says, “I don’t mean to butt in, Hardin, but don’t you think you should leave her be . . . for once? I really don’t want to upset you, but I don’t think anything good will come out of you going down there and causing a scene. I know you want to see her, but—”
“You don’t know anything,” I snap, and my father’s wife pulls her head back a little.
“I’m sorry, Hardin, but I think you need to leave her be for tonight,” she says, like she’s my mother.