Authors: Amber Lin
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotic Contemporary
“I’m sorry,” I said to Shelly. “I’m a dumb-ass.”
Colin came to stand next to me, bringing the glass of water Rose poured for me and his own drink. I almost dropped the heavy crystal cup, surprised by its weight, but dug my fingertips into the carved grooves just in time. Even water was different here.
Shelly gave me a covert sympathetic look that said she understood my nervousness. I wondered if that meant Shelly and Philip had talked about me too. I didn’t doubt Shelly’s loyalty to me, even if she did have to listen to him talk bad about me or even agree with him. It was just odd to think of my best friend and the person who hated me together that way. Me and Colin, Shelly and Philip. This had to be the weirdest double date ever.
Except it wasn’t, because Rose was here, and just then Philip and Laramie entered the room. I hadn’t expected Laramie to be here, but I supposed he was a friend. It made sense, since he was exposed to the inner workings of Philip’s business. And it made me feel a little better that Colin had entrusted this man with our situation. He wasn’t just a hired guy, but someone who attended a family dinner. Then again, I was here, and Shelly, Philip’s prostitute, was as well, so maybe it didn’t take much.
“Ah, Allie.” Laramie spoke to me first. “It’s good to meet you again.” He lowered his voice as he shook my hand in both of his. “And congratulations, young lady.”
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling shy.
Laramie released my hand, and I was left face-to-face with Philip. “Ms. Winters,” he said distinctly.
“Please,” I said. “Call me Allie.”
“Allie.” He grimaced, though I thought it was meant to be a smile. “You made it.”
Then he turned away and resumed his conversation with Laramie. Damn, that was cold. I noticed he didn’t say he was glad to see me, or that he was happy I could make it. He’d just stated the obvious—I was here. I shifted my gaze to Shelly, who rolled hers.
“Ignore him,” she said. “That’s what I do.”
I didn’t think that was true, not at all, but I was reassured that she seemed so blasé about Philip.
I’d been worried about her, locked up here in a tower like some damsel in distress. I worried that Philip was hurting her, that he was cruel to her, but she didn’t seem hurt or scared, not in the least. She sparkled. She could have been faking it, but I liked to think I knew her well enough to see through that. She seemed at ease here. Not happy, necessarily—had I ever seen her happy?—but content.
The idea that I could snoop here, that I could
here, seemed laughable. This place was huge, and the information well secured. They’d given me a glass of water, not the combination to the vault, but I had to try.
I wasn’t sure whether I would help that asshole cop. I thought not, actually, but knowledge was power, or so said my third-grade teacher. If I at least had the information, I could bargain if it came to that. And there was no doubt in my mind that if it was between me and Philip, or even Colin and Philip, that I’d sell Philip out. I wanted to ingratiate myself with Philip, just for Colin, but not so much that I’d let him endanger my family.
“Sorry.” I interrupted Philip. Oops. “Bailey made a mess. Could you point me to the bathroom?”
“Down there.” Rose pointed back where we’d come from. “Third door on the right.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Shelly, can you come help me a sec?”
Shelly slipped off the bar chair and grabbed the diaper bag. She wasn’t even surprised, probably expecting some sort of scoop. Well, she’d get it and then some.
I’d thought we could slip into one of the other rooms to talk, but it turned out my request for her to join us wasn’t as ridiculous as I’d thought. This bathroom didn’t have a bathtub or shower. Instead it had several sinks spread across a long counter, a love seat, and a door opening to a toilet. It was like the bathroom at the swanky mall, before it had gotten ghetto.
“What’s up?” she asked.
I sat Bailey on the love seat and handed her the tube of diaper rash cream to occupy her while I told Shelly what the cop had said. I left out the part about the groping, but Shelly was a smart girl. She’d put together his visit with my breakdown yesterday. She still may not know why exactly, but it probably wouldn’t take her long to connect it back to that time in the hospital either.
Shelly shook her head. “You’re crazy, sweetheart.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But I have to do something. Colin doesn’t keep anything around the house.” I knew that, not from snooping but just from trying to do a kick-ass job at cleaning. There weren’t any papers in the study. The computer was password protected, and I wasn’t so skilled a spy that I could break into that. Besides, I felt oddly better about poking around in Philip’s home than in Colin’s. Even though Colin might see it as the same thing, it sort of wasn’t. I wouldn’t let my actions harm Colin.
“Well,” Shelly said. “Philip doesn’t leave stuff around either. He’s kind of paranoid. If there’s anything important, it’ll be in his study. And there wouldn’t be much online either. From what I’ve seen, he’s real old-fashioned. Likes to do things by paper. No chance of backups or hackers or anything.”
“Paper?” I asked. “Isn’t that less secure? I’d expect a fancy dude like him to have high-tech security and shit.”
“Oh, he does,” she said. “The whole house is rigged to burn if the security gets tripped. No paper trail, just ashes.”
Great, we were having dinner in a matchbox. Paranoid was right. “So what do I have to do to make sure we don’t all fry?”
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” I said.
“All right.” She reached between her breasts and pulled out a key.
I accepted the key, still warm from her body, and gave her a wry look. “Really?”
“I make it work,” she said airily. I didn’t even want to know how she had this key. Even if Philip trusted her, why would she need it? She wouldn’t. I narrowed my eyes. She gave me her best “I’m a dumb blonde” smile. Not that I bought it for a second, but I also knew when I was beat. And running out of time.
“Okay,” I said. “You go back to the group. I need to freshen up.”
“Sure thing,” she said, playing along. “I’ll take Bailey. She doesn’t get enough time with Aunt Shelly.”
She trooped out the bathroom door with the diaper bag and Bailey. I used the bathroom. Well, I had to pee. And I was already nervous enough to piss myself as it was. I washed up and then peeked out the door. No one.
Feeling very suave and very terrified, I slipped into the hallway and down to the double doors that I recognized from the study.
What if he was in there? Or someone else could be. I rapped lightly. Nothing.
The lock was a monster of a dead bolt, but the key slid in and turned easily. I pushed the door open just a crack, waiting for flames. Then I laughed at myself. It would be a fitting way to go for my sins.
After I slipped inside, I left the door ajar to listen for anyone approaching. The thin band of light from the hall illuminated the deep leather armchairs we’d sat in last time. The desk waited for me in the dark side of the room. I crossed to it and flipped on a small lamp. I sifted through a few papers right on top: documents, maps, schematics.
In a side drawer I found a leather binder so thick my hand could barely grasp it. The smell of ink wafted up from the pages when I opened the flap. It was a ledger of some sort. Thin green lines demarcated entries that provided a long space for description, an amount, a few columns for balance adjustments from different accounts. The descriptions varied from initials to long scrawls, followed by symbols and letters. This wasn’t what I needed. I returned it to the drawer.
Atop the desk, underneath the scattered papers, I hit the jackpot. It was one of those desk calendars, the kind a secretary might use to schedule meetings. In thick black lettering, an address and time were written into two days from now. There were a few other notes made, but that one was the most conspicuous. It had to be what the cop was looking for. I scribbled it onto a blank scrap of paper I found. I stared at it for a second, then tucked it into my bra. Time to go.
I paused on a whim. What might be in that ledger? Something about Rick, maybe. I could find out whether there’d been any truth to his words before confronting Colin, but that was greedy. I really needed to get back. I flipped off the lamp, slipped back out the door, and locked it. I shoved the key down next to the slip of paper. The paper was itchy, the key cold against my skin.
I glanced both ways as if crossing the street. Which way?
I went down the hallway. Hmm.
This was ridiculous. The house wasn’t
Okay. It was.
I saw the tall archway that had led into the large room from earlier. Thank God. I rushed in and froze. This was not the right room.
Rose and Laramie sprang apart. Laramie cleared his throat. Rose looked down and smoothed her dress out.
“I was wondering,” I said, “which way led back to the group.”
A red-faced Rose gestured through the room to another large archway. “In there.”
I started to walk through, averting my eyes, when Laramie cleared his throat again. “Allie, I—”
“I never saw a thing,” I said without turning.
“Thank you,” he said behind me.
I sailed through the archway and stumbled into the room, this time from the other side, so that I was right next to the bar.
“Ah, there you are,” Philip said. “I feared we’d lost you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just…got a bit lost.” Fuck, that sounded ridiculous, but it was true.
Shelly coughed and did this little shimmy that dragged his attention away from me. Really, thank God for boobs. I stood next to Colin, who’d been speaking in low tones with Philip. When I got to his side, though, he stopped talking and pulled me close. Rose entered a few minutes later, looking no worse for wear. A few minutes after that, Laramie came in and joined Philip.
A woman in a white shirt and black slacks entered and announced dinner was ready. En masse we stood and migrated over. As I walked by the woman, she looked right past me as if I were invisible. I thought that if things had happened differently, if I’d happened to hear about her job, I could be her coworker. I could be the one calling the fancy people in to a fancy dinner, but it was her and I was the outsider now.
The table was set with white dishes with gold-plated trim. That couldn’t be real gold, could it? Bowls were set upon plates, which sat upon chargers, making me wonder exactly how much food would be served. Little placards assigned the seats, but the high chair made it obvious where Bailey was to sit.
“Oh, thank you,” I said. “I was thinking I’d just hold her, but this is better.”
“It’s no problem,” Rose assured me.
“Do you have a baby?” I asked and then cringed at myself.
“No.” Rose laughed. “We rented that. The caterer had them.”
Oh, a caterer. Well, now I knew why Colin had laughed when I’d told him I’d bring dessert.
I cringed again at the thought of my rustic cobbler dish. I should have made something better. Something more upscale. Fancy desserts raced through my head. The chocolate tart, sure, but other things too. Things with French names that I could barely pronounce but I could
. Too late. Damn.
I set Bailey up in the high chair and sat down at the seat labeled “Allie.”
Soup was brought out, and servers ladled it into our bowls. No one spoke, the only sound the rush of edible liquid. Everyone, even Shelly, watched their bowls, like it was some sort of prayer ritual. That thought surprised me. Maybe it was. Like a moment of silence. Wasn’t that a thing? No, that was for observing dead people. Shit, I didn’t belong here.
When the servers left the room, we all reached for our spoons. The soft clangs of those spoons against the table or against the bowl filled the air, and then quiet slurps of soup.
I took a sip of my own. It was some sort of seafood dish. It tasted kind of like this chowder they served down the street from my old apartment. Damn, that had been some good gumbo. This one was smooth, like one of Bailey’s baby food purees, and had sprigs of green, but it was basically the same. I tried to entice Bailey with the fruit I’d brought her, but she squirmed for the soup. I brought the spoon to her lips.
She took a sip. Then another. Then—
—she spit it out.
“Yucky,” she said.
My face burned. I turned to face Rose, an apology on my lips, but she was biting her lips against a smile.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Honestly.”
“I’m sorry,” I said anyway. “I really like it.”
I looked around and noticed Colin looking down and Shelly covering her mouth. Okay, amusement would be had at my expense tonight. I chanced a glance at Philip, but even his expression seemed to have softened under Bailey’s spell.
Until he spoke. “Allie,” he said. “I heard you’re working in Colin’s restaurant.”
I glanced at Colin. I could tell from the way his eyes had clouded over that he’d caught the edge to Philip’s tone, but I wasn’t sure what he thought about it. Colin didn’t meet my eyes.
“Not working there, exactly,” I said. “Just sending over a couple of cakes or pies every few days.”
“I see.” Philip’s tone said he found that doubtful, though I didn’t see why.
“I like to bake, so it’s just a little extra. And you know, or maybe you don’t, but I did that before.” I caught Shelly’s eye as she sipped from her spoon, and that bolstered me some. I took a deep breath.
Philip took a drink and over the rim said, “Mmm-hmm.” He set the glass down with a thud. “I imagine you’re very busy”—he nodded toward Bailey—“taking care of your daughter.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “We stay busy. I mean, not too busy, but we get along fine, between that, and…the baking.”
Jesus, why couldn’t I shut up? It was like watching a train wreck, but I was on the train.
Philip looked at me expectantly. Hadn’t I answered the question? What was the fucking question?
Maybe this was about Colin taking time off. Did Philip think he’d had to do that to watch Bailey for me? “I mean, I take care of her, if that’s what you mean. Colin doesn’t have to—”