Authors: Amber Lin
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotic Contemporary
I left too, my mind blissfully blank as I drove through the sleepy Chicago streets. My apartment building loomed up ahead, its gray stucco walls and barred windows making it look more like a jail than a home. In Stone Park, that was an amenity.
Don’t bother breaking in,
You won’t find anything valuable.
Within the white walls of my apartment, I took a quick shower to rid myself of the smoky stench of the clubs and the musky smell of sex. I didn’t mind them, at least not tonight, but I didn’t allow any remnants of my monthly date nights to seep into my regular life. Colin included.
I changed into my standard uniform, sweatpants and a tee. My flip-flops slapped the concrete stairs as I ran up to the identical apartment above mine.
Shelly answered the door. Her hair and makeup were done, though she wore jeans and a tank top. She had an appointment after this.
“So. How was your date?” The lilt in her voice made everything sound ironic, though in this case, the word
I hummed in response as I followed her into the living room and flopped down beside her on the couch. I accepted the ice-cream pint and spoon she offered.
“Uh-oh,” she said. “What happened this time?”
“I didn’t say anything happened.” I took a bite. “This is chocolate. How can you eat chocolate this late? It’ll keep you up.”
“Don’t change the subject. Spill.”
I sighed and took another bite. “This guy. He wasn’t like the others.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, he was…gentle.”
“Oh,” she said, knowing. “You should let me hook you up.”
I shot her a dark look over the spoon.
“I’m just saying. If you’re only in it for the sex, you might as well get paid. You can even charge extra to get roughed up.”
“Right, so I can get put in jail for solicitation. No, thank you.”
She rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t happen. Hardly ever. And they’d totally go easy on you because of Bailey.”
“We’re not having this conversation.” I passed the carton of ice cream back to her. “Besides, it wasn’t exactly…”
It wasn’t exactly bad. It had been amazing.
my mind whispered. That was what real sex was supposed to be like. It had been anything but bad.
I looked up and found her watching me.
I smiled briefly. “Sorry. I’m a little distracted.”
“I can see that. Curiouser and curiouser.” Shelly liked to quote
Alice in Wonderland
to me. It was our secret joke, one I never quite appreciated.
“Don’t be dramatic. It wasn’t completely lame. That’s all.”
“I see.” The teasing light extinguished from her eyes. “Allison, we have to talk.”
Nothing good ever came from hearing my full name. “Bailey?”
“No, she’s fine. But…it’s related.”
A knot formed in my stomach, threatening to expel the churning mixture of chocolate ice cream and alcohol.
“He called me,” Shelly said. She was watching me, probably wondering how I would react. I wondered the same thing. I had the expected feelings: fear, revulsion. But maybe relief too, that the paralyzing wait had come to an end. “He said he just wanted to catch up. And…he asked about you. I told him I didn’t know where you were.”
“How did he find you?”
“Same number since high school.” She put up her hands.
“Changing numbers is not a good business move for me. Still, I think we may have taken the hiding-in-plain-sight idea a little too far.”
“I’m not hiding.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“I’m not doing it well,” I admitted. “He was the one who left.”
Shelly didn’t press me, thank God. We walked into her bedroom, where Bailey slept in the middle of the queen-size bed wrapped in fuzzy pajamas, her little fist against her mouth. I scooped my baby girl up, huffing a breath under the weight. Well, she’d be two years old in a few short months, not exactly a baby anymore.
Turning sideways through the bedroom doorway, I left Shelly’s place and carried Bailey down to our apartment, depositing her in her own secondhand princess bed. Already in her pajamas, she slept on as I tucked her in under the sheet. I gave her a kiss on the forehead and paused to breathe in her scent. That turned out to be a mistake, because she chose that moment to wake. I calmed her as she fussed, singing my small retinue of nursery rhymes until my voice had gone hoarse and her eyelids stopped fluttering.
I padded into my own bedroom, convinced I’d made the right choice in not seeing Colin again. Men had one use in my life, and that was what the club was for. I wasn’t in a good place for anything more than that, would probably never be.
Colin seemed like a nice guy, not like my usual dates. But I’d been wrong before, hadn’t I? So I’d made the right choice. Almost definitely.
When I lay down in bed, though, I thought back to the way he’d been with me, the way he had touched me. The way he had
Most kids loved getting presents, but I hated it. After every present people would look at me expectantly, waiting for the gasp of surprise, the exclamation of how much I adored it, and the obligatory hugs all around. I worked at these happy displays, and if it wasn’t up to par, I suffered the disappointment. It got to where receiving presents was associated with letting people down.
If a man gave me oral sex, I felt pressure to come quickly. Then it would be like I owed it to him to be properly grateful afterward. Even if I could get off, the stress wasn’t worth it. And sometimes I couldn’t even come. How could I relax with a stranger’s teeth at my most vulnerable place? It wasn’t a common problem for me, though, because picking up random guys at bars isn’t usually conducive to finding generous lovers.
Colin had licked me, though, and it had been amazing. I had the oddest thought that I wanted him to do it again. That wouldn’t happen, of course. But I slipped my fingers into my panties and dreamed.
I started looking over my shoulder in parking lots, bundled into my thick jacket as if it were armor. Slowing down as I approached alleyways as if something might jump out at me.
Bailey wasn’t excused from my insanity either. I crept into her room multiple times a night, making sure she was there and breathing. I even gave in a few times to sleeping on the floor near her bed, sharing the dim comfort of the night-light.
Colin was to blame, of course.
Shelly said it was Jacob—the call from him—but I didn’t want to think he could still affect me like this. After all, we were safe from him. As safe as a woman and a baby could ever be from a man who wouldn’t wish them well.
I told myself this was something far more basic. More base.
It had been a little over a month since I’d met Colin—since I’d fucked him. I had told Colin what I needed, how I needed it, and he had refused. He hadn’t misunderstood—the brief display of force he’d shown when he flipped me over had disproved that possibility. There was no doubt he was strong enough, but he’d been gentle, kind, almost…loving.
That’s not what sex was about for me. Not anymore.
As Bailey and I entered Shelly’s apartment, Shelly glanced at me with that blank expression she usually reserved for her johns and then peered back out her blinds. The boarded-up street front was hardly a pretty view. Besides, in our neighborhood, it was best to stay away from the windows.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“That car,” she said. “I don’t suppose you recognize it.”
I sat Bailey in the middle of the room, where it’d take her at least a full minute to get up to any trouble, and peeked between the slats. A dark car, probably black, sat out on the street that formed a T with ours, facing our apartment building. I squinted. Between the distance and the glare on the glass, I couldn’t tell whether those shapes were passengers or merely seats.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“I saw it there last night. Kind of odd. When I got back from the store this morning, it wasn’t there. Now it’s back.”
It could be anything out on the street. I wasn’t sure why this particular car spooked her, except that it did look rather shiny—as in clean—for this area. And though I couldn’t quite tell from the shape of it, it seemed somewhat new. Nice cars in a bad neighborhood spelled trouble.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said. “Or the neighbor in 6A. He’s got shifty eyes.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Probably nothing.”
It looked like I’d rubbed off on even Shelly. I didn’t like seeing her shaken—that wasn’t her—so I went for distraction. “Bailey has a new trick.”
“Oh?” she asked, some of the scary flatness fading from her eyes.
“Bailey, catch.” I gently tossed the large, soft ball to her. She pounced on the ball as it hit the floor, accurately guessing the arc if not quite catching it midair yet.
“Yay!” Shelly clapped. “Who’s my good girl?”
Bailey giggled. Previously we had only played roll, so this was a whole new world for her. I left them to their new game so I could change and get to work.
* * * *
The bakery was a study in facades, the front of the shopping-strip building all brick, with fancy porticos and signage. Back in the employee parking lot, the cement was exposed, shorter than the brick wall. The contrast reminded me of a movie-set prop.
The inside was split too. The front room, where the customers came in, was spacious and tiled and clean. The back rooms were unfinished, the innards of the building exposed and cramped. Between the two, it was fitting that I was in the back. It wasn’t pleasant, just where I belonged.
When I went inside, my coworker and slacker supreme lounged against the counter. I forced myself to smile at him as I clocked in. “Hey, Jeremy.”
He glanced at me—my mouth, not my eyes—and then away. “Hi, Allie.”
“So…what have you got for me?”
“Two wedding cakes in the freezer. Cupcakes on a timer. Rick took an order for tomorrow.”
“Shit, tomorrow? What for?”
“Don’t know,” he mumbled, staring intently at the refrigerator beside me.
I managed a weak smile. “All right. I’d better get started.”
He shrugged and went into the bathroom. His shift was up when I got in, so it’d be on me to make whatever order Rick had agreed to.
After washing my hands and checking on the cupcakes, I went in search of Rick. He looked up from his paperwork. Not bothering with his customer smile, he said, “We got an order for a birthday cake. Fifty people. Over-the-hill theme. Tomorrow.”
“Don’t start with me. This is business.” Yes, business. The business where I cooked the cake using my recipes, decorated using my ideas, and took home a barely legal hourly wage. I wasn’t too bitter about that, but I didn’t want to work overtime on top of it. Not when Bailey was home with Shelly, and Shelly needed me back so she could go to work and make much more money selling her body.
Meanwhile the Sweet Spot was billed as an authentic family bakery with an eye on modern trends. No, Rick wasn’t my family. And judging by the covert looks he’d steal when he thought I wasn’t looking, he didn’t think of me that way either. But he didn’t touch me, and that made this better than Shelly’s job. Maybe.
“Fine,” I said. “Is that all they said?”
“She wants it classy.” He rolled his eyes.
I smiled slightly, commiserating. “Right. Over-the-hill, fifty people, classy. Got it.”
The back was empty, bathroom door open, so Jeremy had already left. I got to work on the cake batter. In reality the decorating was the easy part. The painful part would be all the waiting that would happen while baking, then cooling, then the first coat, then the full-on decorating. I’d have to work past my shift today to get it done, for sure. Most likely I’d stay up late tonight, rolling out fondant pieces on my counter at home so I could apply them to the finished cake tomorrow.
I barely heard Rick’s yell over the whir of the electric mixer. I flipped it off and listened.
Only Shelly had this number; only Shelly would care to call. Well, I had to talk to her anyways, ask her if she could watch Bailey late today. Wiping my hands on my apron, I grabbed the plastic receiver.
I looked at the phone, then put it to my ear. Still nothing. I hung up. Poking my head out onto the floor, I called to Rick, “Nobody there.”
He looked up. “What?”
“There was nobody on the phone. Was it Shelly?”
“It was a guy.” Rick shrugged and looked back down at his work. “Asked for you by name.”
“Huh.” Weird. My dad? Not likely.
My heart still beat too fast, thumping erratically as if my body couldn’t make up its mind whether to squeal like a teenage girl or to worry like the woman it had become.
I called Shelly just to check. It hadn’t been her, but she agreed to watch Bailey late tonight. Only after I hung up did I think about using Call Return to call the guy back. Not that it was a big deal. Guys weren’t exactly standing in line to talk to me.
That’s what I kept telling myself. At least until I dropped the entire tray of frosted cupcakes on the floor.
Count backward from ten. Everything will be fine.
* * * *
By that night I was practically climbing out of my skin. I needed the release that my monthly date nights provided. They were rough, dirty, and more than a little unsafe—but they were on my terms. Without my fix I felt panicked and jumpy.
It must have showed, because Shelly took one look at me and told me to drop Bailey back off before her bedtime. I said no and took Bailey to the park, then to the library, anything to distract us both from the anxiety that threatened to tear me apart. In the end I gave in, tucking Bailey into Shelly’s bed and singing her to sleep before heading out to the club.
As I entered the building, the stench of stale alcohol and sweat hit me. I took a deep breath, a drag. Unsteady on my heels, I wove through the crowd toward the bar. Without planning it, I ended up where Colin had sat last time, and I felt an irrational pang of disappointment to find the bar stool empty. I sat there instead, my ass where his had been, nostalgic over some dirty, cracked plastic.