Jaden felt a little better after a shower, but he was still a bit somnolent. Kim picked a Caribbean-themed beach bar that sat directly on the Atlantic, and they sat sipping drinks with umbrellas in them.
“You’re quiet,” Kim said, coyly twisting a lock of her long blonde hair.
“A lot has happened in the last week. You’ve got reason to be tired.”
“Uh-huh . . . ” Jaden muttered. He gazed out over the waves. The sea was a bit rough today. The waves on the east coast were nothing like those back home on the west coast of Tamlando. After traveling thousands of miles, east coast waves seemed to tower and crash bombastically. The west coast waves coming off the Gulf mostly snuck onto shore.
“We miss you back at the Splitting Center,” Kim said. “It’s not the same without you.”
“It’ll always be home to me,” Jaden said.
“I haven’t had a decent game of Groundhog’s Day since you left.”
Jaden frowned. “It’s only been a few days,” he said.
Kim glanced down at her lap. “It seems like ages,” she almost whispered, “at least to me.” She looked back up, her expression filled with intense emotion. “I miss you, Jaden Emory.”
Jaden felt a twinge of discomfort at the way she said the words. He wasn’t sure why, but suddenly things felt really strange between them. “I, uh, I miss you, too,” he replied, his attention still drawn to the crashing waves behind Kim.
“Maybe I could come down once in a while, or you could come up. Would you like that?”
“Uh, yeah, sure Kim.”
Kim sipped her drink. “Because you’re not my employee anymore, so there’s nothing stopping us.”
“Uh-huh . . . ” Jaden said, mesmerized by the waves.
Suddenly Kim’s whole face lit up. “You feel the same way, I knew it!” she blurted out. “I knew that once you got promoted and that girl was out of the way, things could be different between us.”
Jaden blinked, the twinge morphing into a major knot in his gut. “Uh, wait, what are you talking about, Kim?”
“Nobody can object to us dating, now that you’re a ripper.”
“You and me?” Jaden gulped, his mind racing to process. Lately his life seemed to get more complicated by the second. “Uh, but Kim—you’re my boss!”
“Not anymore—that’s the whole point!”
“But, but still . . . isn’t there some sort of rule against it anyway?” Jaden winced at how lame and awkward his words sounded.
The disappointment in Kim’s perfectly made-up face was all too obvious, and Jaden realized he had some serious damage control to do. Dammit, why did Kim have to lay this on him when he was already dealing with more than he could handle?
Kim’s expression turned from vulnerability to anger. “Some thanks I get for getting you the job of your dreams,” she flung at him.
“Kim, that’s not fair. I got the job because of my skills.”
Kim laughed. “Is that what you think? If it makes you feel like a big man, then go ahead.”
“You’re saying I only got promoted because of you?”
“That was my job, to make sure you excelled.”
“So I should date you to compensate you for doing your job?” Jaden hoped she would see the foolishness of this argument and back down.
“I wouldn’t date you if you were the last man on earth!” No such luck, apparently.
“Hey, take it easy, Kim.” Jaden strove unsuccessfully to calm her down.
“I think you’re being a little unreasonable.”
“It’s just so onerous to go out with me, is it?”
Jaden took a deep breath. “I didn’t say that, it’s just—”
“There are lots of men who would find me attractive.”
“Kim, of course there are—you’re hot,” he began, figuring the best move now would be to find some way to placate her. “I just have too much respect for you is all.”
“After all I’ve done for you, Jaden Emory,” Kim said. “I can’t believe you’re treating me this way. What effrontery.” She had seen right through his ploy.
“I just want us to be friends,” Jaden pleaded. “Like we’ve been.”
“After all the time I put in on you, you just want to be friends?”
Jaden’s temper flared. “Hey, what am I—some broken-down clunker you renovated?”
“I thought of you more like a diamond in the rough—that with a little encouragement and assistance you might actually make something of your life and aspire to greatness.”
“I am, Kim. I’m a ripper now. I’m making the best life I can.”
“You used me,” she said vehemently.
“I used you? You just told me that you were only nice to me because you wanted to date me!”
“Actually, I remember saying just now that I wouldn’t date you if you were the last man on earth.”
“Kim, what’s happened to you? I don’t get this—this attitude.”
“Is that what you think I have? An attitude? You haven’t seen anything yet.”
As they rode in silence back to the fort, Jaden worried he’d made a grievous mistake in reacting to her proposition the way he had. He knew he didn’t feel that way about Kim, but he could have handled it better. If he could rescind every thoughtless word he’d uttered he would. He tried to tell her so when they got out of the car.
“Kim, I’m sorry. I didn’t think—”
Kim’s hard veneer returned. “No, you didn’t. Stay out of my way, Emory, if you know what’s good for you.”
He rested his hand on her shoulder. “Kim—”