Authors: Sabrina Stark
Later that night, I was parked behind the restaurant where Chloe worked. Looking to keep a low profile, I was hunkered down in my basic black sedan, hoping like hell that Chloe didn't see me.
In spite of the risk, I was liking my odds. Her car was nowhere in sight, and unless her schedule had drastically changed, I still had a couple more hours before her normal shift began.
For once, that was a good thing. I wasn't waiting to see
I'd been sitting in my car for maybe a half-hour when my cell phone rang. I pulled it out and glanced at the display. It was Amber.
Bracing myself for another round of "Guess what Brittney's saying about me
," I answered with a half-hearted, "Yeah?"
"Fun news," she said. "We're having this thing for Thanksgiving."
"You know. A big get-together."
"Huh." I was still scanning the parking lot. "Sounds like fun."
be," she said. "You know how we normally go to the Hamptons? Well
year, we're going in December, so anyway, you wanna come?"
I was only half-listening. "To the Hamptons?"
"No. I mean, yeah, you could totally come there too. But I meant for Thanksgiving. I figured that maybe, you'd want to join us."
She figured wrong. I mean, it's not like I didn't appreciate the offer. But I'd been in a shitty mood for weeks now. And it wouldn't be improved by yucking it up over turkey with a bunch of people who weren't Chloe.
"Thanks for the offer," I said, "but I'd better pass."
"But why?" she asked. "You already told me you don't have plans."
That much was true. My sister was spending the holiday with her new boyfriend's family, and my brothers weren't exactly the turkey-baking types.
When I made no response, Amber said in a voice filled with concern, "You're still bummed about Chloe, aren't you?"
Bummed. It was a funny word for how I felt.
I had a hard time getting up in the morning, and an even harder time falling asleep. I spent my waking hours replaying all the stuff I should've said or done differently. And then, when I
fall asleep, I woke up, cold and empty, hours before my alarm, only to lie in bed, wondering what the hell I should do now.
I wasn't bummed. I was a fucking mess.
But all I said was, "I dunno."
"How about this?" Amber perked up. "Invite Chloe, too. Like a reunion thing. She likes turkey, right?"
If only it were that simple. "Thanks, but I'm pretty sure she has plans."
What those plans were, I had no idea. I just knew they didn't involve me.
Her voice grew softer. "Just think about it. Okay?"
From inside my car, I saw a pair of headlights turning into the lot. Under the headlight's glare, I couldn't tell the car's make or model, so I waited, keeping an eye out while Amber switched gears by saying, "Hey, you wanna hear the
thing Brittney's saying?"
"Sure. Hit me."
"Check this out." Her voice rose. "She's running around telling people that I screwed her boyfriend."
"She has a boyfriend?"
"No. And that's my whole point. It's a total lie, unless you count her new boss. And there's no way I'd hook up with
. Seriously. Ick."
Brittney's new boss happened to be Chloe's boss, too. It confirmed everything I'd been thinking. Not only had I caused that scene outside the restaurant, I'd also been the person who'd brought Brittney into Chloe's life, and as a result, into her workplace, too.
Now, because of all this, Chloe was about to get fired – except she wasn't. Not if I had anything to say about it.
I watched as the car pulled into a nearby spot and cut the lights, giving me a nice, clear view of the front end. I felt myself smile. Sure enough, it was a Lincoln Town Car, the same one that Brittney had crawled out of the other night, in this same parking lot.
"Sorry," I told Amber. "I've gotta run. Catch you later, alright?"
I disconnected the call and got out of my car. I strolled, nice and easy, taking the long way, toward the back of the Lincoln. When the driver's side door opened, there I was, waiting just a couple of feet away.
When the driver spotted me, he almost jumped out of his skin. Sure enough, it was Keith, Chloe's manager. And he looked scared shitless.
God, what a pussy.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," I said.
He straightened. "I know that." But then, he ruined the effect by glancing at his car, looking like he was about to make a break for it.
I stepped closer. "You wanna take off? Fine by me. I'll just come back tomorrow." I smiled. "Or, I could visit you at home."
He stuck out his chin. "You don't even know where I live."
As an answer, I rattled off his street address and waited.
After a long, tense moment, he said, "What do you want?"
I kept my tone friendly. "I want to make you an offer."
"Oh yeah?" He crossed his arms. "Like what?"
"Let's call it a carrot and a stick."
The carrot would be something nice. The stick, not so much.
His gaze narrowed. "What kind of carrot?"
Funny he wasn't asking about the stick. But eh, that would come later. "The carrot," I explained, "is this. I'm gonna give you a nice little bonus for something you should be doing anyway."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Not firing Chloe."
"Who says she's gonna be fired? I've got half the girls out with the flu. I can't be firing anyone." Under his breath, he added, "Not yet, anyway."
"Uh-huh," I said. "How about
they get better, and there's no more flu?"
He glanced away. "I dunno. I haven't thought that far."
Like I believed that. "Uh-huh," I said again.
"And Chloe," he said, "she's got a mouth on her."
Yeah, she did. A nice one. Her lips were soft and full. And she knew how to use that mouth, too. But what did that matter? The way it was looking now, I wouldn't be getting anywhere near Chloe, or that mouth of hers.
God, I was a losing it.
The way it looked, so was Keith, but not in the same way as me. Apparently, he'd gotten over his initial fear and was working himself up into a nice little hissy-fit. "Get this," he was saying. "One time, she comes into
office and tells me to fuck off." He snorted. "Me! And I'm her boss."
I knew Chloe. If she told him to fuck off, he probably deserved it. What had the guy done to her? And who'd put him up to it? Brittney?
Remembering why I was here, I pulled out my wallet and started peeling off some bills.
He eyed the money. "You're serious?" He licked his lips. "I thought you were just saying that."
"You thought wrong."
He shook his head. "I don't get it. If it's a money thing, why don't you just pay
Because Chloe wanted nothing to do with me. That's why.
If I could, I'd make all her problems go away. I'd buy her a house. I'd buy her a car. I'd pay off her student loans and anything else she might owe. But I couldn’t. Because she'd know who did it. And she'd think I was buying her, like the prostitute I'd accused her of being.
But I wasn't here to explain myself to this idiot. So all I said was, "If I were paying
, I wouldn't be paying
Now would I?"
He was practically salivating now. "Good point," he said, reaching for the cash. A thousand bucks, all in hundreds. When he tried to tug the bills away, I didn't let go.
"First," I said, "let me tell you about the stick." I leaned closer. "If Chloe hears one word about this, and I mean one single word, whether from you or anyone else, I'm going to pay you a little visit." I smiled. "And your medical bills? Well, let's just say they'll cost a lot more than a thousand bucks."
In the end, he took the money. Then again, I hadn't expected anything else. And if he was smarter than he looked, he'd keep his mouth shut.
I was liking my odds. And not because of the carrot.
I spent the next few days trying like hell to push Chloe out of my mind. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t, because everywhere I looked, I saw her face – not for real, but in my mind.
On the home front, Bishop was starting to drive me crazy. He wasn't leaving. And instead of the annoying hard-ass, he was turning into some kind of nursemaid, giving me worried looks when I wasn't looking.
And the knives were still missing.
I didn't bother to replace them. Whatever. I wasn't spending a lot of time in the kitchen anyway. Without Chloe, even steak had lost its flavor.
Sometimes, I thought I was losing my mind. Who knows, maybe I was. But a couple days before Thanksgiving, I tried to shake it off by going for a run someplace different.
In the end, I didn't shake off anything, because I'd just rounded a bend in the nature trail when I stopped short at the sight of something that knocked the wind right out of me.
It was Chloe.
I stood, frozen in my tracks, as I drank in the sight of her. The way it looked, she hadn't yet spotted me. I took advantage of that fact, staring at her with a hunger that gnawed deep into my heart and made it hard to breathe.
Her eyes were on Chucky, and her mouth was upturned in a faint smile that looked more sad than happy. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part, as shitty as it was.
As for Chucky, he was doing what he did best, spazzing out at something in a nearby cluster of evergreens. Any other time, I might have smiled.
I loved that dog.
I loved the girl.
I recalled what she'd told me the last time we spoke, on that awful day when I'd accused her of having sex for money. In my mind, I could still hear her words.
"Don't write me. Don't email me. Don't text me. And, if you see me on the street, don't wave to me. Just leave me alone, alright?"
She'd been crying.
made her cry.
Standing on the path, I was still watching her. This wasn't the street, but did it matter? I recalled something else she'd told me that day. As long as I'd known her, she'd never asked me for a damn thing – except for that one promise, the promise to leave her alone.
And like an idiot, I'd given it. So now, in what felt like a giant kick to the teeth, I'd have to stand here and pretend this wasn't killing me. I'd have to stop myself from flat-out begging for another chance. I'd have to act like she didn't exist at all, as if she
the only thing that mattered in my whole fucked-up world.
Standing there, I knew the exact moment she spotted me. I could see it in her eyes and feel it across the distance, and not only from her. From Chucky, too.
What now? Should I leave? Stay? Finish my run like I hadn't seen her? In the end, it didn't matter, because I was powerless to move.
Chloe glanced over her shoulder toward the nearby parking area. From this angle, I couldn’t see her car, but the way it looked, she could. I held my breath, wondering if she'd hurry to her car and drive away.
But she didn't. Instead, as if facing a demon that had been tormenting her for too damn long, she squared her shoulders and continued on her original path.
In front of her, Chucky was going nuts, straining at his leash and whining like he always did when he wanted some attention. Watching him, I tried to smile. But I couldn’t quite pull it off, not even for him.
When he barreled into me a moment later, I wondered if Chloe would pull him away. But she didn't. Instead, she stood silently off to the side while I crouched down and ruffled Chucky's fur, feeling my heart melt as welcomed me like I was his second-favorite person in the entire world.
Funny, I still carried treats in my pocket. Suddenly, glad to have them, I pulled out the package and tore it open. I shook some onto my hand and let Chucky have as many as he wanted, which turned out to be all of them.
Through all of this, I was obscenely aware that Chloe was standing within arm's reach. I could talk to her. I could wrap her in my arms and wipe the worry from those suddenly sad eyes of hers.
No. I couldn’t.
Because I'd promised. And I was going to keep that promise if it killed me. Funny, it felt like it just might.
Gently, Chloe picked up her dog and cradled him tight against her body. She met my gaze one last time before continuing down the trail with Chucky whining in her arms and his leash dragging behind them.
I watched until she was out of sight. I said her name, so soft she would never hear it. And then, I drove home and got so fucking drunk that I forget my own name.
But I never forgot Chloe.