Authors: Ava Claire
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Anthologies, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Collections & Anthologies
Melissa's lips twisted in confusion. I didn't blame her. I had been just as confused when Elizabeth had uttered a name I hadn't heard in years: Regina Mason.
"It wasn't hard to find my mother. It was no coincidence that we were living in the same city." I put my glass back on the counter as hurt coursed through me like venom. "She tried kindness and remorse first. When I had no interest in either, the claws came out."
Her words were carved into my chest, a wound that never truly healed. I knew the only way to find peace was to yank the skeleton from my closet and shine light into the darkness, but I didn't say them out loud. Not to Melissa, the one person that proved my mother’s prophecy wrong.
That baby kept me silent. Delilah James had proved her right.
"Yes, I used Beth to get close to you so I could use you. You came by that emptiness honestly, boy. That same hole inside of you is inside of me. We're no good, you and me. And let me tell you something that no one will say now that you have all that money in your wallet. No one will ever want you for you ever again."
Melissa pushed away from the counter in horror, her voice just as unsteady as the steps she took. “I am so sorry, Logan.”
The look in her eyes, the pity, was almost more than I could stand.
I didn't back away from the challenge. I'd found a strength in myself the day I faced my mother that had served me well over the years. I looked down the barrel of destiny and decided that I could find success and happiness. I embraced my need to dominate and my place as a force in the business world.
But Melissa's touch, her empathy as she stood in front of me, tears glittering in her eyes, made that iron fence in me shudder. It creaked, my strength waning. The doubt that I'd ever find what I found in Melissa was back, scratching at the back of my mind.
She loves you. She's not using you. Just look into her eyes.
But I couldn't.
I brought her to my chest, her sobs rattling my foundation. Melissa told me that I was a good person, that I was worthy and deserving of love. Her words flowed into my ears—and right back out.
Everything I built was in jeopardy, and it was all because of Delilah.
She would pay dearly for this.
tacia: Meet me at Cafe De La Fleur.
I pulled myself up from the tangle of covers, casting a look over at Logan. His handsome face was far from serene and rested, even though he was fast asleep. He didn't stir, even when I hopped from the bed, my feet creaking on the hardwood floor. I moved to his side of the bed, my fingers gliding through the dark waves that crashed across his forehead. I pressed a silent kiss on his skin before I turned back to the text emblazoned across my screen.
There was no room for misinterpretation. Even though there were only words, I saw the hand on her hips and her narrowed gaze. She sounded out every syllable with angry precision.
I knew she had every right to be pissed, considering I'd been avoiding her texts over the past few days, but I still plunked out something lighthearted. With extra emoticons.
Me: Well hello to you too ;) :P
Her answer was swift and missing any winks or smiles.
Stacia: Cafe De La Fleur. As close to now as you can manage. Unless you're too busy with your billionaire boyfriend?
My stomach dropped. Stacia was my best friend. She was there for me when Jason broke my heart, and I was there for her when her ex broke hers. We didn't have any secrets, especially when it came to the men in our lives. I'd been trying to figure of the right way to tell her about Logan, hiding out until the right words came to me. And now it was too late...and I was left with the uncomfortable reality where I was a terrible friend who pushed away one of the people that cared about me most. I wanted to pour my heart out, tell her I was sorry for the way things played out, but she deserved to hear those words in person.
I took the fastest shower known to man and pulled on a T-shirt and leggings, then my boots. I scribbled a note for Logan, grabbed my blazer, and took the elevator down. My car was sitting in a visitor's spot a few stalls down from his sports car, but I was in no mood to battle San Francisco traffic on top of everything else.
I faded into the crowd. The melting pot of people from all walks of life—students, tourists, bankers, fashionistas, the homeless—I could smell the life, the urban sprawl, the salt of the city. There was a distinct aroma that was uniquely San Francisco.
And then a shiver raced down my spine, the hairs on the back of my neck shocked to attention.
Someone was following me.
Every suspense and thriller movie I’d seen told me that the best course of action wasn't to alert the person shadowing me that I was onto them, but I wasn't an actress. There was no one standing off camera, ready to call ‘Cut!’ so I could take a breath and gather my wits about me.
So I whirled around, my heart rocketing to my throat.
Choking me as I locked eyes with my tail.
The guy was in one of those button-down, short-sleeved shirts that made me think about bowling alleys and liquid nacho cheese. Paired with shorts and flip flops despite the cold wind that whipped my scarf around my neck, I almost relaxed, thinking he was just another tourist—but his camera was bulky and professional looking.
His surprise melted into a predatory smile as he pointed the camera in my direction. "Melissa, how does it feel to be the biggest slut in America?"
His question screeched in my ears like he'd cupped his hands around his smug mouth and pushed the words straight from his diaphragm to every ear in the Bay Area.
His camera was flashing, capturing my horror in every frame. There was nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run. I could feel the interest buzzing around me, building like the terror in the pit of my stomach.
Just turn around. Keep walking. Don't say a word.
But my legs weren't working.
The flow of movement staggered, phones hovering in my direction.
“Who is she?”
“The girl dating that billionaire.”
“She stole him from Delilah James!”
“That pregnant actress?”
I finally found my voice, the words haunting my vocal chords as I fought to catch my breath. “It’s not like that.” The sentence was a feeble whisper that was consumed as the paparazzo asked another question, saying the name that the curious onlookers would know instantly unless they lived under a rock.
“How does it feel to be the slut that stole Delilah James’ boyfriend? Do you even care about the baby? How about your rich boyfriend?”
Tears stabbed my eyeballs like a hundred tiny needles. It didn’t compare to the shame. The agony burned me from the inside out.
“I’m right here, Melissa.”
The familiar, rich voice flooded me with relief. My tears were streaks of joy when I saw Stacia. She looped her arm in mine, wasting no time pulling me through the crowd that had gathered around me and the photographer.
We were only a few blocks away from the cafe, but I didn’t dare let go of her arm or look anywhere but the light at the end of the tunnel.
No more questions. No more eyes. No more judgment. No more carrying the brutal truth that no, I didn’t care about the baby. No more fighting the urge to tell the world that the baby wasn’t even Logan’s.
Stacia cleared her throat as we stopped by the entrance.
I gaped at her obtusely, then realized she probably needed her arm back.
I followed her inside, snapping out of the lull of my run-in with the photog. I came to the realization that whether she saved me or not, my best friend still had a bone to pick with me.
I’d never been out of the States, but visiting Paris was on my list. The Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe – just sitting at a cafe with a coffee, drinking it all in. I always made it a point to stop into Cafe De La Fleur when I was in the city. It was always an experience; what I imagined Paris would be like, alive with sounds and smells and conversations.
We walked past the bar area and a wall lined with magazines and books down the stairs to a room filled with booths and cafe tables. Our host guided us to our table, leaving us with our menus. Even though I already knew I wanted, I stared at the menu, pretending the words weren’t swimming before my eyes. Now that I was still, the confrontation rushed over me like a runaway train. I balled my fists in my lap, ignoring Stacia’s glare. I couldn’t talk about that photographer or the reason he wanted to take pictures of me in the first place.
“So you’re going to make me pry it out of you?”
“Pry what out of me?” I said innocently.
“Put the menu down. I know you, Melissa. You’re a creature of habit—you’re not trying anything new.”
“Sure I will.” I picked a menu item I hadn’t tried. “I’ll do the smoked salmon benedict.”
“Or maybe I don’t know you,” she said darkly, completely disregarding my attempt to prove her wrong. “The Melissa I know doesn’t dash off to San Francisco, saying to hell with her job and friends. The Melissa I know doesn’t freeze me out for days.”
I lowered the menu and let my eyes follow suit. “Stacia—”
“The Melissa I know would be able to look me in the eye and tell me what’s going on, without me having to pull teeth. Because we’re friends. Best friends, I thought.”
“Best friends?” I snorted, raising an eyebrow. “Are we in the third grade?” I meant it as a joke, but it fell flat. I winced, backpedaling as fast as I could. “I didn’t mean that.”
“I was under the impression that we were both adults, but sneaking off is something children do,” she fired back.
“Touché,” I muttered, shoulders slumping. Our waitress took our order. I got the same thing I always ordered. Stacia ordered the salmon.
“I’ll let you have a bite of it,” she offered.
I met her eyes and saw the spark of warmth I had no right to. I fanned it nonetheless. “Thanks, Stacia.”
She took an angry swig of her mimosa. “Don’t mistake my generosity for forgiveness.”
I chewed my bottom lip, then took a slow and sobering gulp of espresso before finally facing the firing squad. I’d been so caught up and eager for escape that I didn’t even look at Stacia. But face-to-face, eyes wide open, I saw her. She wore a crisp black blazer with a charcoal gray blouse beneath. Her dark hair was pulled into its usual bun at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless, brown eyes fierce and lips blood red, ready for battle. None of it should have been jarring; she was a lawyer, suited up, and no frills was her uniform. The only time she let her hair down was the rare occasion when she wasn’t entrenched in a case. But the last time I saw her, she was miles away from the woman in front of me. The bright colors she’d worn seemed painfully so in the face of the monochrome ones she was currently in. The light in her eyes had darkened, the happiness I’d seen back in Sacramento so distant that I wondered if I’d imagined it.
Something had happened to my friend...and I wasn’t there for her.
“Is it your ex?” I hung my head, ready for her judgment. “I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry.” She sat up taller, her face so closed off that I could almost make out the snarled barbed wire and the sign that read ‘KEEP OUT’. “And I didn’t come all this way to talk about me. I came here to talk about Logan Mason.”
I polished off my espresso, the bitterness of it coating my tongue. “Where do you want me to start?’
“The beginning is just fine.”
I drummed out a nervous beat on the table, memories piling on top of each other. The weight of it made me want to the change the subject like a coward. Talk about the view. About her work. Hell, my work. Or maybe talk about the subject she was clearing avoiding herself—but that just reminded me that I’d been a bad friend, and that’s why I was in this predicament in the first place.
One of those calls and texts she sent may have been at a pivotal moment when she felt like her whole world was crashing down. I’d declined every one, focusing on Logan. Love (and the other L word) were no excuse, and she deserved to hear that.
“Remember the trip to Santa Cruz? The rental at Pleasure Point?” I leaned back against the cushion of the booth, wishing it would swallow me whole because she was about to rip me a new one. “Logan owns the property. That’s how we met.”
“WHAT?!” she bellowed. An elderly woman beside us cleared her throat pointedly, but she cowered when Stacia whipped her head in her direction. She reserved the brunt of her anger for me. “You
him in Santa Cruz.” Her emphasis on ‘met’ wasn’t so much shook hands and said hello. More like, our naked bits got acquainted. “But that can’t be true, because you told me nothing happened besides a gnarly sunburn.”
I squeezed my thighs together, but it was too late. My core was throbbing at the memory of Logan’s hands gliding over my skin; the bite of the sunburn and the cool of the cream. I relived the aching need when he kissed me, and all I wanted, all I
“I wasn’t being completely honest.” I peered around us and when I was relatively sure no one was listening, I continued. “We were together, Stacia. And it was-” I gulped, knowing full well whatever word I came up with wouldn’t do it justice. “Amazing.”
Her face softened, the faintest smile fluttering across her lips. “I knew some vacation dick was just what you needed.”
“Stacia!” I gasped. Her voice wasn’t remotely lowered or discreet.
“Let’s call a spade a spade.” She crossed her arms, tracing her bottom lip thoughtfully. “But it was more than sex. That’s why you didn’t tell me.”
“I wasn’t ready to face what it was,” I answered truthfully. “And by the time there was no running from it, when I was in so deep that I...” I meandered as our waitress slid up to the table. Even though I doubted this was another situation where the waiter was really a reporter, I still waited for her to walk away before I picked up where I left off. “He sees me, Stacia. With Jason, I felt like it was so much work trying to be perfect. Trying to be everything he needed. But with Logan, it’s effortless. I’m not losing pieces or hiding parts of myself. He sees it all. And he loves it all.”