Previously on Tug of War:
During the Run-for-Diabetes, Mrs. Rush suggests inviting Jessa over for a family dinner and Aaron "freaks out" over it. This, in turn, causes Jessa to panic about what Aaron wants in a relationship.
After the run is over, Jessa and Aaron get into an argument and Aaron accuses Jessa of not being as committed to the relationship...
The hurt that I felt writhed in my rib cage, rendering me speechless. (How could he even suggest something like that?) To my surprise and horror, I felt tears pressing against the backs of my eyes and I turned away from him.
I didn't even wait to hear what I had to say. I just left. When I was far enough away from the park, that's when the tears started to fall down heavily over my flushed cheeks.
Perhaps the saddest part of all was the fact that he didn't run after me.
Three days later, my head rested languorously over my folded arms which rested over the counter top at Keith's diner. Ever muscle felt heavy, like my very bones were waterlogged, and my neck felt stiff. However, by now I had gotten used to it; it had been going on for the past three days ever since my fight with Aaron.
The thought had me burying my head further into the crook of my elbow and I groaned aloud. I heard Dakota sigh from above me before slamming the glass she was cleaning onto the counter. Jerking at the distinct thud of glass against wood, I openly glared at her as if to say, what?
"Jessa," she started, pinning me with a pointed look of her own.
"Yes?" I ground out, setting my cheek back down on my arm.
"It has been three days-"
"You can't just sit here-"
"Chill out Dakota, my homework is done-"
"That doesn't matter! Your a teenage girl, you should be doing something with your friends-!"
"They're my roommates, I see them all the time-"
"Go do something then!"
"I just came back from my last day of volunteering! Can't I have a little bit of a break?" I asked, my eyebrows constricting in annoyance.
At my words, Dakota paled and her eyes widened incredulously. "...Last day? But that means today is the dance. W-What are you still doing here? You should be getting ready! Thank god you still have two hours!"
Dakota was suddenly near me, hauling me to my feet before pushing me adamantly toward the exit of the diner. To my surprise, she still managed to shove me quite far in her pregnant state.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, who said I was even going to the dance?" I quipped, before prying Dakota's iron grip off of my biceps. Twisting around to face her, my mouth turned down at the corners, only to see her look astounded by my statement.
"You can't just not go. You've been volunteering there for ages! And aren't they announcing the winner of the charity competition? You have to go-"
"I just don't want to, okay?" I yelled back. Both of us were so stunned by my outburst that we stayed silent for a moment, just staring at each other in unease.
I looked away guiltily, my hands clenching and twisting together before muttering under my breath, "Not after what happened."
Unfortunately, Dakota caught my whispered afterthought and retorted, "You're not going just because of some guy?"
I whirled around, my heart pounding away at my throat, before choking out, "It's not just some guy, Dakota. It's Aaron."
"Yeah, and he's being an idiot," Dakota countered firmly, her voice taking on a protective tone. She had enough anger for the both of us, as if Aaron had broke her heart instead of mine. Her hips were cocked and her hands rested rigidly on her waist. Strands of hair unfurled from her braid to frame her oval face; her whole posture screamed aggressive.
I glanced at the ground, my hands curling around my waist as if I was hugging myself. "Yeah, I guess."
"And you're not going to date idiots," Dakota affirmed, her eyes blazing and posture taut.
I bit my lip.
"So," she continued, her voice raising to a confident decibel. "You're going to go back to your dorm and get ready. Wear that lavender dress; that's fancy enough for the Diabetes Dance, and it makes your tan look fabulous."
"Dakota," I sighed, my expression drooping at the thought of not getting to spend the night with Aaron. I didn't feel like acting fun and happy because I wasn't.
Dakota continued as if I hadn't protested, her voice carrying boldly over my obvious discomfort. "Then have a wonderful time at the dance, okay?"
She left no room for argument and her words ended with a clear, unspoken message. You don't need him.
I just nodded and headed for the exit, too upset out to even protest.
At the dance, I felt incredibly self conscious as I moved through the entry of Bennett Prep's gymnasium. However, due to the work of me and many volunteers, the doorway had been transformed completely.
Fairy lights criss-crossed across the top of the ceiling while paper lanterns dangled overhead. Star wall decals were plastered intermittently on the walls which matched the blue and white decor. Near the entrance, ribbons of crepe paper arched elegantly over the doorway before falling in loose curls.
Although the decorations were beautiful, my gaze was entirely focused on figuring out whether or not Aaron was at the dance or not. Some part of me was angered that I even paid this much attention to him, but another part of me knew that I couldn't help it; it was just an automatic reflex.
After not one, but two precursory glances, I determined that he wasn't coming. My mouth pursed and I ignored the ache in my chest as I turned to Angie and Nikki.
They both looked breathtaking this evening. Nikki was clad in a navy blue lace dress that cinched at the waist before flowing down to her knees. The edges of her dress were scalloped and the royal color accentuated the dark red of her hair.
Meanwhile, Angie was sporting an off the shoulder, baby pink dress. The dress was simple with a sequined waist that matched the delicate necklace resting at her collarbone. Tucker would be rightfully awestruck for the entire night once he saw her.
As if on cue, the sandy haired boy greeted us with a wide, toothy smile. And, just like I predicted, he was rendered speechless when he saw Angie.
"Uh," he blurted, his eyes wandering over her blushing figure.
I glanced away. Something like hurt and jealousy ached in my chest as I thought of a certain stubborn Bennett boy. Why couldn't we spend the night together like Tucker and Angie?
"You look stunning," Tucker finally whispered, his cheeks coloring as Angie smiled bashfully. As if realizing his audience, Tucker quickly shot Nikki and I a sheepish smile. "You girls look great too."
I smiled at his correction while smoothing my own dress out. Instead of following Dakota's stern order, I chose a strapless red dress that flared at the waist in soft chiffon fabric. And, despite my promise to forget about Aaron for the night, I couldn't help but remember the way he had whispered, "I always thought you looked good in red" when I saw the dress in the shadows of my closet. I bit my lip, angry that I had given his opinion so much importance when he wasn't even present.
"So...how are you girls doing tonight?" Tucker asked, his hand raising to rub at the back of his neck while avoiding eye contact with me. I narrowed my eyes at him when I noticed, but Nikki answered him before I could call him out on it.
"We're fine. Well...most of us. Anyway, I found out that I'm going to Mexico with my mom and my cousins for winter break, so that will be fun."
Nikki's words seemed to pass through me in a dazed filter since I didn't seem to register her words. Before I had time to figure out Tucker's weird behavior or Nikki's story, I was being dragged to the dance floor as the DJ started to play a catchier song.
"C'mon Jessa. Let's go dance! I think Angie and Tucker want some time to themselves," Nikki commented teasingly, while winking at Angie in an exaggerated fashion.
I laughed as I watch both Tucker and Angie sputter and blush; in fact, I was so distracted I didn't realize that Nikki was guiding me towards the middle of the dance floor without much protest from my end.
"Wait, Nikki, I don't think I want to-"
"Oh lighten up, Jessa. You've been so blue ever since the run," Nikki countered, her voice taking on an authoritative edge that I didn't feel like arguing.
I just shrugged obediently, and let myself fall into the beat of the music. Staying close to Nikki, I let myself sway and swell to the pulse of the music. It was a steady thrum that seem to seep into my bones, making my very nerves vibrate. Colored lights ricocheted off the walls, created a kaleidoscope effect all around me.
I tried not to think about how much I wanted Aaron to be there with me.
Instead, I focused on the sound of Nikki's laughter. Bright. Giddy.
It was almost delirious with the heavy bass rhythm. Bodies pressed up against me, almost suffocating in their proximity, but I just danced closer to Nikki, even going so far as to throw my hands up into the air when the chorus reverberated. And when I tipped my head back to sing along, I couldn't help but feel dizzy with some kind of emotion.
I wasn't sure if I was happier, or I was just happy to forget about Aaron for a bit. Some kind of reckless abandon surged within me, like a crescendo of sound, and I felt like I could somehow touch the delicate lights that dangled above me.
In the moving, fleeting light, they looked like stars. Glowing. Blazing. Dying.
Laughing along with Nikki, I twined my fingers with hers and we swung our hips to the cadence of the music. I felt my heart pulse in time with the guitar, and I felt like everything was going too fast, too much. But I didn't want it any other way.
An hour flew by and I had worked up a good sweat. Luckily by then the pace was already slowing down and settling into an intimate rhythm that had students pairing up. I scrunched my nose at the abrupt change, and tugged at Nikki's hand.
"What?" she asked, her eyes dazzling and smile wide.
"I-I just...it's a slow song," I replied off-handedly, glancing at my feet. For some reason I felt incredibly awkward under her intense stare. My body felt radiant with heat, and I desperately wanted to cool off. Not to mention I felt highly uncomfortable with the song choice.
It reminded me too much of-
"Okay...well, I'm going to dance. Do you mind?" Nikki asked in concern, her eyebrows tilting towards the middle. Her hair was tousled with sweat, but she still looked stunning to me.
Immediately, I shook my head and urged her to go dance with a waiting Bennett boy.
"Don't worry, I'll be fine," I assured when she shot me a skeptical look.
With one last smile in her direction, I turned and dropped my facade. My stomach clenched, and I decided to head over to the snack table for a drink. Now that I was left alone, I realized that I didn't want to stay any longer. I couldn't fathom sitting out every slow dance, and I didn't want to either. All I really wanted to do was go back to my dorm, snuggle into my warmest pair of pajamas and watch Netflix until I collapsed from exhaustion.
My mouth formed into a small frown as I got a small Dixie cup of water; perhaps I should just leave while Angie and Nikki were dancing. That way I wouldn't even have to convince them that I was okay.
Suddenly, my eyes caught and snagged with his; my whole body froze as I saw him standing across the room. My lips parted and I exhaled. He was clad in a handsome blue dress shirt and black slacks; my body seemed to tremble at the sight of him. Why did he show up now?
Meanwhile, his blazing eyes held my stare before traveling over my figure. His gaze was so intense and prodding it was as if his fingertips were tracing over me instead of his eyes. A small thrill of excitement burned in my abdomen, causing my heart to skip and then double in beat.
But then a much larger part of me, the part that was acutely disappointed in his behavior, caused me to frown and clench my cup tighter, forcing a bit of juice to spill over my knuckles.
With a sense of determination, I turned completely away from him and strode away, hurling my dixie cup into the trash with more force than necessary. Then I proceeded to wait out the slow song in the bathroom.
After freshening up, I realized that Principal Mantle and Dean Carter had walked up to the stage to make the big announcement. Fortunately, that meant holding off whatever argument I'd have with Aaron for just a bit longer.
Unfortunately, Aaron chose a seat at our table, next to Tucker, which meant he was still quite close to me. I noticed Nikki shooting both of us unsubtle glances every few seconds―concern etched into the furrow of her brow. Angie and Tucker were too busy staring at each other to even notice the increased tension at our poor little table.
"Ahem. May I have everyone's attention," Principal Mantle―Mental according to Grace girls―called, her voice stern even in the light of celebration. Even her countenance was stiff with authority. Her hair was still tied in her severe bun and she was clad in her traditional pantsuit.
At her words, the din quieted down to absolute silence and we gave her our full attention.
"Welcome to the Diabetes dance! I'm so happy to see students from both Bennett Prepatory and Grace Worthington working together to help the American Diabetes Association. Both schools have astounded me with their dedication and..."
I tuned out briefly while Principal Mental prattled on about how happy she was about our school's work ethic and collaboration as a community. Somewhere in between her praise I felt my gaze drawn toward Aaron.
His head was angled to our principal, and, from here, I could see the hard slant of his jawline and the broad slope of his shoulders. Even in the dim light of the gymnasium I could not keep my eyes off of him.
As if sensing the heavy weight of my stare, Aaron turned toward me. A small, wistful smile ghosted over his lips before I whipped my head back to the front, a faint, betraying blush spreading over my cheeks. God. His presence was magnetizing.
The sound of applause had me tuning back into the speech as Dean Carter stepped up to the podium, holding a white envelope that contained the district winner. Unlike Principal Mental, she was dressed a little more festively in a plum colored dress with cap sleeves and an a-line frame.
"Students! The time has come to announce the winner of the statewide charity competition. Before we announce the winning district, I'd like to say that even if we don't win, the faculty of both Bennett Prepatory and Grace Worthington are extremely proud of you!"
The audience grew restless as she announced, "Finally, the winner of the statewide competition is...drum roll, please!"
With an almost exasperated, collective groan we all pounded our feet against the floor. With a small, self-indulgent smile Dean Carter ripped open the envelope.
We all waited with bated breaths before she revealed, "The Kanesburgh school district!"
Several shouts of disapproval echoed in the gym while Dean Carter tried to control the noise level. I just slumped back in my seat, slightly irked that we didn't win. But, then again, the real competition had always been between Bennett Prep and Grace Worthington. I didn't mind that we wouldn't be getting new library computers as the prize.
I noticed that most of my friends were in similar states of vague annoyance; however, Aaron looked as if he was in a completely different world.
Ignoring him, I turned back to Dean Carter who had a genuine smile on her face.
"Once again, thank you for doing your part to help the community of Hutcherson Oaks. Although we didn't win the competition, I think this experience taught us all valuable lessons. I'm so proud of all of you! Have a wonderful rest of the night!"
With her parting words, the music started up again and students made their way to the dance floor. I was suddenly seized by the fact that there was no way I could hide from Aaron any longer.
Peeking at him from the corner of my eye, I noticed that he was approaching me. My skin prickled unpleasantly, and I forced myself to look away.
"Hey," he greeted once he reached me. His voice was small and weak and vulnerable. "Do you want to dance with me?"
I was so surprised by his request that I could only nod numbly at him. Without a moment's hesitation, his fingers twined with mine and pulled me gently to the dance floor.
Nearby, Tucker was winding his arms around Angie. They both looked adorable, with Angie tucked underneath his chin, and Tucker looking at her like she was the most precious thing in the world. Something in my gut tightened at their peaceful, content expressions.
Meanwhile, Aaron stared intently at me. It wasn't a slow song, but he still cupped my waist and pulled me into his warmth like it was. My heart slammed up into my throat as I familiarized myself with the breadth of his chest, and the fresh, minty smell of his aftershave.
God, even though it has only been three days I had missed him terribly.
My hands wound around his neck, and I vaguely remembered the first time we slow danced together. At the time we were so awkward and cautious with our movements. But now, in his arms, I felt like I was coming home.
I felt Aaron's breath exhale against the side of my neck, and I leaned forward until my cheek rested on his shoulder. I think he shuddered when I did that. Or was that me?
"You look beautiful," he murmured, his lips skimming the shell of my ear. I quivered in his hold, and tried to ignore the way his arms tightened around my waist. I couldn't help the blush that overtook my face; however, I didn't want to turn into a shivering mess at his words. I was still angry at him, dang it.
"Thank you," I whispered back, turning my head into the juncture between his neck and shoulder before shying away from him completely. "But I can't do this if you're not― if we're not―"
His hands moved to the small of my back before he dragged me towards him, our chests flush and noses nearly touching. The tempo of my heart seemed to match the ringing dubstep music, but I couldn't be sure since all I could focus on was the way Aaron was looking at me.
"Look, Jess, I was being stupid," he sighed, his voice hoarse and cautious.
"It took you three days to figure that out?" I blurted out in frustration. I moved to step out of his old but he just held me tighter. While we hashed all of this out, it was like our bodies were speaking a different language. His fingers cupped the edge of my rib cage while mine moved to play with the collar of his dress shirt. Our careful touches contradicted the harsh edge of our words.
"No. No, of course not. I told you I was being stupid. I didn't think you'd want to see me," he replied, giving me a pointed look when I made a move to interrupt. "A-And...well I was scared that if I did talk to you, I'd mess it up, and then I'd lose you forever."
My eyes widened, my fingers skimming the skin and soft curls at the nape of his neck. "Lose me?"
His voice was soft when he answered, "Yeah. I-I'd never want that no matter how selfish I acted during the run."
For once in my life, I was rendered completely speechless by what he said. He seemed just as stunned by my shocked face, and he tilted forward until his forehead leaned against mine and eyes closed.
"Look, I'm sorry Jess. Okay? I'm really really sorry. I screwed up. I didn't mean to suggest that you didn't care, or that―"
My eyes focused on the bow tie at the base of his throat, sitting just beneath his bobbing Adam's apple. "Just for the record, I have never liked a guy more than I've liked―I like―you Aaron. And I thought you knew that. That was the one thing that you never had to question―"
"I know, I know. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry―"
"You're so stupid," I interrupted, my tongue darting out to lick my lips while my eyes slowly panned up to his jawline. I could almost feel him freeze beneath my fingertips. "And I can't believe you almost didn't come―"
"Well I did have to hold up my end of the dare. How could I not show up when I knew you were waiting for me?" The way he phrased that, and the serious undertone of his words had me glancing up at his intense, blazing brown eyes. It felt like he was stripping me down to the core right then and there.
"Waiting for you?" I protested, my eyebrows narrowing at his choice of words. As if I was some sort of princess waiting for her prince charming.
At my haughty question, his mouth quirked up into his signature smirked and something inside of me ached.
"I heard you always complete your dares," Aaron countered, his eyebrow quirking up while that stupid smirk was still on his face. Something about the teasing lilt to his voice had my heart pounding in double time.
"Is that so?" I questioned loftily, my head unconsciously tipping back to meet his provoking gaze.
"Yeah, and I have one last dare for you," he replied, his voice low and searching. I trembled at the intensity of his stare, and my heart was hammering a tattoo against the inside of my sternum. My eyes darted down to his full bottom lip, and I felt my heart lurch in anticipation. But, at the same time, I was sick of this back and forth game― this constant tug of war― we played. All I wanted to do was the drop the rope holding us apart and be with him.
"What's that?" I whispered, my lips barely moving while my eyes peered up at him through my eyelashes. He pulled me imperceptibly closer while my fingers clenched around his soft brown hair.
"Kiss me," he breathed, his eyes smoldering and half-lidded. We were centimeters apart; when we exhaled I could feel his breath on my lips.
My breath snagged and held before I mumbled, "I hate you."
And then I was leaning up and tugging his head down to meet mine. Our lips collided softly, just on the cusp of ease and desperation; my heart was speeding up at an alarming rate while Aaron cupped the curve of my waist and the back of my head. It was like we were both pouring everything―every unsaid apology and hurried promise―into the kiss.
My hands fumbled and trembled as they tried to figure out where I ended and he began, before sliding over the planes of his chest and linking together at the back of his waist. This kiss was slow and sensuous, like a languid kind of ecstasy that made my mind go fuzzy at the edges. Heat crept in to my cheeks swiftly as I breathed him in and out, running my hands over his butterfly shoulders. The way his mouth slanted over mine was like velvet and sunlight.
He was so gentle with me―like he wanted to commit every stroke of my lips to memory. It was as if he was kissing assurances and vows with every massage of his lips. Like he was still trying to convince me to forgive him. My tongue darted out to taste him, and I nearly groaned when I felt him suck on my full bottom lip. It made my very toes curl.
My back arched up into him while my hands kneaded and pulled at his hair. Something like euphoria bubbled in the base of my throat and my kiss became sloppy as I tried to repress a smile. Teeth knocked briefly into mine, before we continued deliriously. He shivered in my hold, and I heard him whisper my name fleetingly (like a prayer) before he pressed one last soft kiss to my lips.
Our foreheads found one another again as we caught our breath, grinning widely at the feel of being in each other's arms.
"You don't really hate me, do you?" Aaron mumbled, his chest pressed up against mine, and his voice faintly tentative.
"Pull something like that again and I might," I retorted. I tried to keep a straight face, but I just couldn't after being kissed like that. My reassuring grin seemed to please Aaron, and his smile stretched from ear to ear. I hid my grin in his shoulder because I felt embarrassed by how wide my smile was.
"I won't. I promise," he replied contently, rubbing slow, lazy circles into my back. "By the way, did I mention how gorgeous you look in red?"
I giggled quietly at his words, my hands fidgeting with his collar. "No. No you didn't."
"Well you do."
"Thanks, Aaron. You're not looking too bad yourself," I replied, my toothy grin still unnaturally wide. He seemed to chuckle into my hair, and I felt warmth stir at the pit of my stomach.
"By the way, are you free next Friday?" He asked, his hand reaching out to tenderly tuck a strand of hair behind my ear.
I pulled away from his shoulder to look at him fully. "Probably. Why?"
He glanced away before turning to me with a small smile. "I want you to have dinner with my family then."
If possible my smile got even larger. "Yes! Of course. I'd love that!"
He eyes softened at my genuine enthusiasm. "Okay."
For a moment we were silent as we continued to rock slowly to the beat. My eyes scanned the dancing crowd while I enjoyed the feel of Aaron holding me.
"You know," I started, glancing around at the other cross-country couples dancing together, "we make a good team."
I glanced up at him, and he was wearing an unreadable expression. His body tightened around me, and when he replied his voice was soft.
"Yeah, I know."
His hands smoothed up to fit around my waist, and I leaned my head on his shoulder. For the rest of the night, we danced in content silence.
I smiled, glad to be nowhere else but in his arms.
A/N: Please please please review! I really want to know what you thought of this chapter!
Review Challenge: Are you excited about the start of school, why or why not? Favorite dessert? Describe your favorite cousin. Epilogue coming out on August 1st! Stay tuned until then. (That's when you'll get a long A/N which is why I'm keeping this fairly short!)
Love you all and thank you a thousand times for your support,
P.S Special thank you to Ben Howard's music for keeping me sane and motivated while I fight sleep deprivation and procrastination. Ya'll should check him out if you're not already a fan! Also Happy Birthday to Harry and Jo! Both of you have been so important to the start of my writing journey.