“So, tell me about this condition of yours. You said it’s Crohn’s, right?” I mentally ducked knowing this was sensitive ground, but I wanted to understand.
A deep-edged frown chased any hint of that earlier smile from his face and he looked… frankly, pissed. Good.
“Why?” He glared, all those prickly defences locking into position, and I could almost feel the chill settle between us.
I shrugged. “If I’m gonna be shafted because of some disease, I think I at least deserve to know what I’m up against.”
He laughed derisively. “No, you really don’t want to know, and I mean really don’t.”
It was my turn to get pissy. “Why? Think I can’t handle it?”
He snorted and pushed his chair back, eyes black with annoyance.
Oops. Too far.
He side-eyed me with annoyance. “I knew this was a bad idea. Not everything is about you, Caleb. It’s not about what you can handle or not. To be honest, what you can or can’t handle means fuck all to me, and there’s nothing between us that says I have to hang out all my private health shit for you to peruse and pass judgement on, thank you very much.” He made a grab for his jacket.
Shit, shit, shit. Way to screw that up completely. “Whoa. Hey, I’m sorry.” I stood and almost placed a hand on his arm before an icy glare warned me off. I raised both hands instead. “Just don’t storm off, okay. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Okay, I deserved that, but we’ve already established I’m an arsehole, right? So maybe a little leeway while I learn to not be such a fucking tool? Please?”
He didn’t immediately leave, but standing there staring at me with a “Why should I even fucking bother with you?” look in his eye, wasn’t precisely a win in my books either. But exactly how much I cared about what his answer was gonna be was an eye-opener. Carmen’s smirk made an unwelcome appearance in my thoughts, and yeah, I wasn’t going to be in a hurry to share this little nugget with her.
Having drawn enough curious looks from café patrons, twitching their beards in curiosity, I chose to sit and wait Drake out, pushing his chair toward him with my foot in some kind of silent offering. He stared at it for a minute, huffed, and then dropped back down with a little more force than I felt was strictly warranted. Not that I was gonna say anything. I’m stupid, not suicidal.
“It was a dick thing to say,” I said.
Drake raised a brow. “Which part?”
I grinned. “All of it, I’m guessing?”
He snorted and shifted his gaze out the window. “It’s a sensitive subject, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
No kidding. “I can see that. In my defence, I wasn’t just being nosey.”
He glanced back, clearly unconvinced, but took his kombucha in hand once again, which I hoped meant I had a minute or two at least to convince him.
“I wasn’t. Look, it’s no secret that I like you. And I think maybe, just maybe, you like me too.”
His expression remained impassive. “And you think this, why?”
“Well for starters we’re here, aren’t we? Surprised the shit out of me. I mean, let’s face it. You’re a bit… ah, spiky…”
He cocked an amused brow. “Spiky?”
Nah, I wasn’t gonna touch that. “… and you could’ve apologised over the phone. You didn’t have to do the whole coffee thing.” I waited, but he just sat there looking flinty and gorgeous. Fucker. He was gonna make me do this the hard way. Well, okay, then. “Just don’t hit me for a minute, okay?”
“No promises.” He took a mouthful of his drink.
“You say you don’t date much,” I continued. “And then you tack on ‘obviously’ like I should just understand that. Well, I don’t. I get that you have this—” I waved my hand around. “—condition? That you need to be up close and personal with bathrooms on a regular basis….”
An almost grin cracked his face before he swallowed it quickly, but I’d seen the chink.
I continued. “I genuinely want to understand.” The simple truth of that surprised even me. “If you don’t want to explain, then fine, we’ll go our separate ways, though I personally think that’d be a shame. Why not educate me? I promise to keep my dickheadishness to a minimum.”
This time I did get a smile and I felt like I’d won the fucking lottery.
He pushed his coffee cup aside, leaned back in his chair, and eyeballed me. “You’re an odd one, Caleb Ashton.”
I grinned. “That has to be a step up from a dickhead, right?”
My grin widened. “A smidgeon, huh? I’ll take that.”
He laughed and ran his gaze slowly over my face. My cheeks heated under the scrutiny, but I didn’t move a muscle.
He leaned forward to rest on his elbows. “First you tell me what you know about Crohn’s disease.” There was a decided edge to his voice. “You must have looked it up… if you’re as interested as you say you are.” He leaned back again, arms crossed.
If I wasn’t being tested, I’d eat my fucking hat.
“Wow. Tough crowd,” I half joked. “Did I look it up? Yes. But when I started reading, I realised I’d prefer you told me. It read like it’s different things to different people and the websites mostly just give worst-case scenarios.”
“How do you know that’s not me? A worst-case scenario?”
I held his eye. “I don’t. But I figure I’d rather hear that from the horse’s mouth so to speak. It didn’t put me off, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m here, aren’t I?”
He considered that for a minute. “But you read something. So, CliffsNotes?”
“Is this a quiz?” I tried to joke.
He didn’t answer.
I sighed. “Fine. Crohn’s disease. Cause, unknown for certain but there are the usual suspects: genetics, autoimmune responses going haywire, and environmental stuff like infections and such.” I paused.
He nodded. “Go on.”
Really? I thought that was a pretty good effort from memory, and I was about done jumping through his hoops to be honest. “It fucks with your bowel and you have to shit a lot. Satisfied?” I sat back and threw my hands up in the air.
For a second he just stared at me, and I thought for sure I’d blown it. “Shall I just leave now and save you the bother of dropping my arse?”
Butterflies rallied in my stomach as Drake seemed to give the option genuine consideration for more than a few seconds. Then his face cracked into a wide grin and he laughed, loudly. It was the sweetest goddamn sound, and I couldn’t help but join in. After a minute he drew breath and wiped his sleeve across his eyes.
“Well, fuck me, Caleb.” He was still chuckling.
I cleared my throat and took a moment. Go big or go home, right? “If I were ever lucky enough to have that opportunity—” I eyed him pointedly. “—I do understand that it may not be as straightforward as I might be used to.”