When I'm With You (Hope Town #3) - Harper Sloan

GRADUATION NIGHT

“I LOVE YOU,” I WHISPER, my voice coming out in a weak wheeze.

Holy crap, I can’t believe I just said that. It has to be the beer. Or as my best friend, Nikki, calls it—liquid courage.

I force my hands to stop twisting the bottom of my sundress and look up at the man before me. Not a boy, no … he is all man.

His green eyes, the ones that always make me think of sunrises and dew-covered grass, are wide with shock. The thick lips I’ve spent way too much time dreaming about are parted in shock.

In all the time I’ve put into thinking about this moment, I never thought that shock would be present. I’ve built this moment up to be perfect in my head. Nothing but innocent dreams and naïve wishes clouded this moment because of course shock is what I should have expected. But no, all I’ve longed to hear when it came to me admitting my feelings for him are much deeper than ‘just friends’ is him repeating those three words right back to me.

Oh, God … what have I done? He doesn’t feel the same. I mean I was so sure … so stupidly sure that he felt the same. That he saw me as more than a friend.

Thick panic fills me, and I know before my mouth even starts moving that I’m about to nervously ramble a string of verbal vomit that I’m powerless to stop. It never fails when I’m uncomfortable; the words come and come until I’m stopped or I slam a hand over my mouth.

Sure enough, the words rush past my dry lips as I silently scream inside my head for the earth to open up and swallow me whole. You know when the voice in your head takes over so loudly that you can’t even hear the crazy nonsense that is coming out of your mouth anymore.

“I mean … I’m in love with you. You know I love you, of course, you’re like one of my best friends, but I’m in love with you. I wasn’t going to say anything; in fact, maybe I shouldn’t have. I didn’t … I mean I don’t want this to mess things up between us. I would probably die if that happened. Well, not die, die … but I would probably feel close to death emotionally. I just wanted you … no, I needed you to know how I feel.” I finally get my mouth to stop moving long enough to take a deep breath. I feel my heart speed up and force myself to continue to hold his gaze. “Please say I didn’t just screw up big time?”

“Em,” he starts before clearing his throat. His voice is thick and deeper than normal. The plangent tones vibrating from his chest wrap around my senses, and I shiver. “Ember, where is this coming from?”

I blink. Actually, I’m pretty sure if there were such a thing as slow-motion blinking, I would be doing that right now.

How could I have been so wrong?

“It’s just … I’m making a huge mess of things, aren’t I? God, I’m so stupid.”

I’m not normally a crier. Then again, I’m also not normally a drinker. I’ve had a few mixed drinks with Nikki this past summer, but for some reason, I decided I needed to take up the art of drinking for courage. Of course, with my luck, I would end up being one of those people who get overemotional when drinking. My sister, Maddi, warned me about those annoying girls when she brought the beer over tonight.

My nose prickles with what feels like a thousand needles being pushed through the bridge. I can feel that thick bubble of emotion crawling and scraping up my throat, and I know I’m just seconds away from my eyes tearing up. I take a huge gulp of air, and it rushes out in a wobbled wave of emotion.

His normally carefree expression is nowhere to be seen. His eyes look troubled and his mouth pursed, making his lips look like two thin lines. When he moves from where he had been leaning against the porch railing, my gaze follows him closely as he takes a seat next to me on the swing. He lifts his arm and places it on my shoulders, pulling me into his stronghold. I go willingly, but I stiffen when my body encounters the heat of his.

The hardness of his muscles starts a slow burn in my gut. I couldn’t explain the