Authors: Amber Lin
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotic Contemporary
Some preternatural sense told me to stay. Not to protect her from the men who hit her—as if I could—but instead from the monsters that haunted her. Or maybe just to protect her from herself.
Downstairs seemed too far, too risky, when her hand clutched the pillow so tightly. So I tucked Bailey into the bed right in the middle and watched over them. There was a peace in the dark, in the quiet, where even my thoughts could still.
I didn’t want to be like the alley cats, terrified of everything. They’d rather live wretchedly than take a chance. A leap of faith.
I slipped from the bed and called Colin. Then I tucked myself back in beside Bailey and went to sleep.
* * * *
The only fanfare for my grand dive into trust was a soft knock on Shelly’s door. I opened it and gave him a half smile, uncertain how to treat him.
“Hey,” I said softly.
“Hello,” he said, and I was struck by the formality until Shelly answered from behind me.
“Colin—nice to meet you,” she said.
Bailey burbled a greeting.
“I brought boxes,” Colin said, nodding to the parking lot.
“Boxes?” Shelly asked with a lilt of accusation.
“Yes, well.” I cleared my throat. “Colin asked me to move in with him, and…I agreed.”
I held my breath. If she hated me, if I’d hurt her, I’d never forgive myself.
Shelly smiled. Not the perfect, blinding, fake one she got paid for, but a real, lopsided grin that made her a million times prettier. “That’s great.”
I smiled back, relieved. “You’re not upset?”
She patted my hand. “About time we got out of this rat’s nest.”
Of course. She only lived in this dump because it was all I could afford. She deserved better, and that alone was enough to convince me that I was making the right choice. It felt like giving up control—my apartment, my job, my fight with Jacob—but I’d been treading water on my own for too long. If I could make this better for Bailey, for Shelly, then it was worth the risk.
“Now go on,” she said. “You pack. I’ll watch Bailey.”
Relieved, I gave her a peck on the cheek, which she accepted with the forbearance of a queen. I practically skipped down the steps with Colin at my heels. We each grabbed a handful of flattened boxes from the back of his truck before going to my apartment door.
As I put the key to the lock, the door swung open an inch. The lock itself cocked, exposing the circular hole it occupied in the door. I stood there blankly until Colin shook me.
“Go upstairs,” he said. “Now.”
It registered then—my apartment had been broken into. I ran upstairs and back into Shelly’s place, where I snatched Bailey up. She was safe. She squirmed, but I held her even tighter. Shelly questioned me, and I must have said something. What if Bailey had been there?
Shelly opened the door to Colin.
“They’re gone,” he said.
“Who could have…?” Shelly trailed off. It was better unfinished.
“Pack quickly,” Colin said.
I went cautiously back downstairs, as if I were going to survey the aftermath of a hurricane. But there was no disaster, not outwardly. Nothing had been taken—not that I had anything valuable—and nothing had been destroyed. Just the lock on the door, broken by some faceless person.
A violation. I should be used to them by now.
It was probably just a prank. Or a robbery that ended in disappointment when all they found were dolls and toys.
This place was crappy, but it had been home—mine. It shouldn’t matter because we were going to a place that was so much better—Colin’s. I tried to focus my thoughts on the practical, like throwing clothes into trash bags.
Colin loaded the crib and high chair and other furniture into his truck. That meant leaving behind my bed, my dishes, my dinette. Colin said he would come back later and take whatever was left to Goodwill. We filled up his truck and my car trunk, and I realized just how few material possessions I had.
Shelly brought Bailey down when we were finished.
She paused for another hug as she handed Bailey over. I glanced at Colin. He was strapping down the stuff in his truck.
“The lock—” I started.
“Don’t think about it,” she said.
She was right of course, but… “Am I making a mistake?”
“Of course not.” Her face was perfectly smooth, gaze clear, completely giving herself away, the faker.
“You’re a horrible liar.”
She raised two perfectly groomed eyebrows. “I have a buttload of clients who say otherwise.”
“Yeah, well, I know you too well.” I lowered my voice. “I’m scared.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” she said.
We both laughed. She always knew how to cheer me up.
Because, well, the worst was pretty bad, but then we’d both been through bad. What Shelly meant was that bad things happen, but we couldn’t let them rule us. Living was a choice.
Colin slammed the tailgate shut and turned to me.
He raised his eyebrow.
You still in?
, I answered silently.
* * * *
Bailey dug through my box of clothes while I hung them up in the closet. The room had two closets, so this one had been empty when we got here. Still, it was already stocked with hangers, and that had to count for something.
Colin stepped in. “I’ve got the last of it downstairs.”
“Thanks.” I wiped my palms on my jeans.
Christ, how awkward. Why had no one ever given me lessons on how to handle moving in with a guy I barely knew? Suddenly that seemed like a vital life skill.
“So.” I took one of my high heels out of Bailey’s hands and replaced it with an innocuous sweater. “It’s official.”
“Yeah.” He had an almost cautious expression, as if I was freaking out.
Was I freaking out? Possibly a little. “We’re cool, right?”
Humor glinted in his eyes, turning them from glacial to just chilly. “We’re good. But listen, I’ve got to head out.”
Alarm streaked through me. “You’re leaving?”
He frowned, just a crease of his forehead, but I didn’t think it was directed at me. “It just came up.” He shook his head as if to negate the importance. “I’ll be back by dinner.”
He gave me a speculative look. I strove for casual and failed. With a grimace I took as an attempted smile, he left the room. A few minutes later I heard his truck bump out of the driveway.
“Bye-bye,” Bailey said.
“That’s right!” I winced as my feigned cheerfulness came out louder than anticipated. “He’s gone bye-bye. But he’ll be back soon, promise!”
Back by dinner, apparently. Should I make dinner? I made dinner for Bailey and myself every day, of course, but I wouldn’t feel right serving Colin spaghetti from a can. He probably thought I could cook, seeing as I baked, but it wasn’t the same. Give me flour and sugar over turmeric any day.
I quickly finished up with the clothes; then Bailey and I forged into the kitchen. I expected a barren refrigerator, save for lumpy milk and beer. There’d be stale chips in the cupboard for sure. Instead what I found was a chef’s paradise. A fully stocked fridge with vegetables. A pantry with buckets of grains I couldn’t even name.
own a restaurant. I was so fucked.
But I didn’t have a choice. Most likely he did expect dinner, and besides, it seemed fair and right. Even with my income from the bakery, I couldn’t cover a fraction of the costs of this place. Of course I should contribute this way.
I rummaged through the fridge, past fancy cheeses and free-range eggs and vegetables that just reeked of organic, when I heard the crash behind me. Bailey had helped herself to the pantry, her chubby arm jammed in a box of whole wheat graham crackers. She fished out a still-wrapped plastic package and held it up triumphantly.
“Crackers,” she said with a baby chuckle.
“Glad one of us is already at home.”
She fussed at the plastic until I pulled it open for her. That pantry would need reorganization—namely, the entire bottom shelf should be empty—but that would wait for another day.
I foraged for something easy, like pasta, and came up empty until I found the lasagna slices. Sure enough, there was marinara among the sauces, ricotta among the cheeses, and grass-fed ground beef in the freezer. Hell, I’d eaten lasagna before. Mostly frozen, but it was self-explanatory, what with those layers.
I even got fancy, sautéing onions and chopping parsley, while Bailey built a sand castle on the once-gleaming kitchen floor. I did a double take. Yes, she had crumbled what was probably an entire box of graham crackers into some sort of sandlike state. She sat in the middle, gleefully trailing her grubby fingers through the layer like it was her personal zen garden.
“Oh, Bailey,” I groaned.
She sucked on her crumb-coated fingers, but I couldn’t even be upset about the mess when the state of the entire kitchen smacked me like a frying pan. It was a disaster. The counters were piled with food in varying states of cooked.
I laid the layers of lasagna and stuck it in the oven, then set about cleaning. First I put away all the produce and ingredients. Then I grabbed the pan to wash it and burned my hand in the process.
Leave it to some fancy brand of cookware to actually have fewer features than a cheapo knockoff, like say, plastic handles for safety. Probably they were expecting rich people not to be idiots and spring for pot holders. Fair enough.
Bailey watched me curiously as I ran my hand under the cold water, and I realized I’d been making monkeylike sounds in my pain.
A smile slid across my face. “Mommy silly?”
In response she puffed up proudly and presented her hand, covered in crumbs. “Cracker!”
My shoulders slumped. “Right.”
Although I had plenty left to do cleaning my own mess, I figured I’d fix the floor first. For all I knew, he’d take one look at the nuclear wasteland that was his kitchen and order us out into the street. Okay, probably not that drastic, but it wouldn’t be good.
He wasn’t used to living with a kid. Even if he was, graham cracker snowfall was not an everyday occurrence. So I cleaned like a woman possessed. I would not even mention that regular graham crackers did not crumble on touching them. It was probably the grains, being whole as they were, but he wouldn’t hear that from me.
Possibly I was becoming unhinged. A hysterical laugh bubbled up, but I ruthlessly forced it down. I was going to make this work. Everything was going to be fine, and if it wasn’t…well. Well.
I swept up the crumbs, though the wet ones got caught in the broom’s bristles and had to be washed out. Then I went back over the floor with paper towels, but the particles had wormed their way into the grout, as if it could camouflage itself with cement. I scrubbed until my hand was tired, but this called for stronger stuff.
I ducked my head into the cabinet under the sink, rummaging for some harsh chemical shit to wipe those suckers out.
In a knee-jerk reaction, I banged my head into the wood above me. A cry escaped me as tears sprang to my eyes. A sense of utter failure assailed me, and I contemplated just how long I could keep my head buried in the cupboard before it got weird. Not very long, it turned out, because Colin dragged me off the floor and into a kitchen chair with such horribly insensitive commentary as “Jesus” and “Are you okay?”
“I made a mess,” I said flatly.
In acknowledgment he gently pressed an ice pack to my head.
I flinched, then let him hold me steady. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey.” That was all he said, his chiding tone tempered with concern.
The tears fell in streams then, making my voice all high and wavery as I tried to explain. “I’m sorry. I know you said dinner, and I tried to make it, but I just didn’t… I didn’t have
, you know? Or the ability to cook, either. I’m so sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” he cut in.
“No, listen. I didn’t mean you’d have to cook. I can cook, or we can go out. Don’t stress out.”
“I am so beyond stressed,” I said, watery.
“Let’s order a pizza.”
The consideration and utter simplicity of the gesture touched me. “Really?”
He handed the ice pack off to me and pulled out his cell phone. “Ordering now. What do you want?”
“But the organic,” I said. “And the grass feeding. I know you don’t just order pizza.”
“Pepperoni with extra chemicals? Got it,” he said to me before he turned to the phone to place a real order.
I swiped at the tears, but they didn’t want to stop. While relief flooded me, I toyed with the empty box of lasagna noodles on the kitchen table. Idly I read the fine print.
“Hell,” I said. “You’re supposed to boil these first?”
“Silly mommy,” Bailey said.
* * * *
If I thought I’d made a mess in Colin’s kitchen, it was nothing compared to the bakery.
Cabinet doors were open, pans littered the countertops, and a fine layer of flour coated the entire room. It hadn’t even been this messy that time a hailstorm had knocked in the front windows.
I stepped inside, my mouth open. No one was in the back. The restroom was dark. I peeked into the storefront. Empty.
That left Rick’s office. The door was shut, and I was almost afraid to knock. The place looked like a crime scene. First-degree baking by an idiot, maybe. I couldn’t muster up the proper seriousness when the place looked like a supersized snow globe.
A deep breath. Knowing Rick, this was going to get strange. Well, stranger than usual.
I knocked. “Rick?”
Scuffling sounds from within. Then Rick poked his head out the door. “Allie. What are you doing here?”
“It’s my shift. What happened?”
“What happened?” he repeated.
I closed my eyes tight, prayed for patience, then opened them. “Here. In the kitchen. It’s like a flour bomb went off.”
“Oh, right.” He glanced past me as if just noticing the mess.
I narrowed my eyes. “Seriously, what happened?”
“Nothing. No work today. Bakery’s closed. Go home.” And he shut the door in my face.