“I get it, Shiloh,” Jude said with a sigh. “You’ve been through too much shit. You’ve seen everything there is to see and been fed every line in the book. You have absolutely no reason to want to be involved here.”
“You’ve got that right,” I muttered.
He stopped then, kneeling down so he was eye level with me. Tangling his fingers in my hair, he took a deep breath. I waited, taking a moment to consider how we’d even gotten to this place; how far we’d come in so little time.
My history teacher had saved my life – literally. I knew for certain, without a doubt, that if he’d never come in my life I wouldn’t be here. I probably would have found myself in a body bag, given my penchant for making sarcastic remarks to my father. He thought I was out with Carmine now; Carmine thought I was at the library.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” I said to him, finally meeting his gaze.
He scrunched his forehead, confused by my sudden change of mood. I was still mad, but I needed him to know that I was thankful, too. Sometimes I hated being a girl. My moods were all over the map. Jude was a saint, though, and never complained about it. He kept his eyes trained on me, waiting for me to finish my thought.
“Let’s face it, the night my dad hit me was the best night of our lives,” I said. “You took me in. I fell for you because I’d never been on the receiving end of genuine love and affection. It’s my fault, Jude, and I accept it. I just wish you could have told me before I had gotten in this deep.”
“It’s not like that, Shy—”
I placed my fingers on his lips, silencing him. “I’m still talking. I think you owe me this much, Jude.”
He nodded, untangling his fingers from my hair then. I clasped our hands together then, holding tightly to this final moment of togetherness. I knew once we were done talking he’d leave. I’d see him in class, sure, but aside from turning in my papers and my class participation, this was it.
“I fell for you, Jude,” I said. “And that’s the truth. I fell for you because you were the only person who got me, in spite of the fact that my walls were up. You stuck with me when things got difficult. You’ve shown me that my life can be so much more than taking over the business when I graduate.”
I sighed, allowing my words to sink in. He waited still, knowing I only had a bit more to say. I was struck then by how well he knew me. He knew me and yet he’d rejected me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. As I said, he was my history teacher. We’d crossed a line, and obviously he knew that it was better to retreat than to keep going and risk damaging his career.
“Thank you,” I said. “I guess that’s all I really can say. Thank you, Jude. You’ve done so much for me. I wish we could be together, I do; I wish we could just run off and not worry about fathers and boyfriends and betrothals. But I get it. I’m not good for you, and you need to look out for yourself. So… I guess all I’m going to say is thank you.”
I released his hands from mine and stood up, willing myself not to cry. It had been a rough three and a half months. I’d made it, though, and this newfound strength was something that I knew would carry me forward beyond high school; beyond Jude.
I made my way to his door, hoping to get out of his apartment as quickly as possible. Tears started streaming down my face at that point. It had taken a lot out of me, finally admitting my feelings for this man; but it was a step in the right direction for me. It was a step that I needed to take.
I stopped at the sound of his voice and hurriedly wiped away my tears. I turned to face him. The look on his face nearly broke my heart.
“Please,” he said. “Wait.”
He walked quickly toward me, grabbing me and pulling me toward him. He tangled his fingers in my hair once more. He was saying good-bye. This was his way of letting me go, and I would indulge him because it allowed me one more time to be close to him.
“Don’t leave,” he whispered. “Don’t leave and take my whole world with you.”
I opened my eyes to meet his. I knew he could tell how confused I was. He smiled, resting his forehead against mine. He clasped our hands together, giving mine a gentle squeeze.
“I can feed you every line in the book,” he said. “I can tell you that you complete me and that you’re my whole world – which I’ve already done. You aren’t going to believe me. And I get that. But don’t think for one second that I’m not in this, Shiloh.”
I gasped. “But—”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to just quit my job so we can be together, but that would require me finding work elsewhere,” he continued. “And I can’t leave you, Shiloh. I can’t leave you because I’m in this. You’ve got me under your spell, and I’m freely admitting that I’m trapped.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” I told him. “You’ve seen how easily I get jealous and how quickly I convince myself that this isn’t worth the hurt. I walk away because I can’t risk getting hurt again, Jude.”
“I don’t care, Shiloh,” he replied. “I’m in this. And if you think for one minute that I haven’t been attached to you, you’re severely mistaken. I’m attached. I’m here; and an army couldn’t drive me away from you. Please… stay.”
I smiled at him, at his words that he was now freely admitting. It felt like I was floating. He’d finally come clean – finally told me what I’d been waiting three months to hear. I threw my arms around his neck, allowing him to hold me close.
We knew the consequences of our actions wouldn’t be pretty if and when my father found out.
I didn’t care, though. I allowed myself to fall deeper, right there and then, because for whatever reason, this man wanted me. And this moment, right here in his arms, was the most whole I’d felt in years.
“I’ll stay,” I whispered to him.
And I decided at that moment that come hell, high water, armies, fathers, school boards, or boyfriends, I’d stay. No matter how rough it got, I would stay. He was the calm – the eye. No matter how the storm raged, I knew if I had him, we could weather it together.