Read Giving It Up Online

Authors: Amber Lin

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotic Contemporary

Giving It Up (7 page)

He said nothing.

“I’m serious. I can’t believe you even did that much. This isn’t like the caveman days. Who does that? Crazy, violent people, that’s who. You could’ve really hurt him.” And then a thought hit me. “You could get in trouble. Even go to
jail
.”

“If I do get sent to jail, it won’t be for
that
.”

“What does
that
mean? What other things are you doing?”

He gave a quick shake of the head.
Don’t ask.

“I swear to God, Colin, do not make me play twenty questions. If you are up to something dangerous and you are bringing it here into my house with my daughter
,
then I have a right to know.”

Finally he looked ruffled, his cheeks pinking and his nostrils flaring slightly. “I’m not bringing anything into your house. No one will hurt you or your daughter, especially not if I’m seeing you.”

“Is this supposed to be comforting? Because it’s really not. What does that even mean? Who the hell are you? The mob?” I tried to laugh but choked on it when he shrugged.

“Nothing that organized.”

I stared at him, dumbstruck. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, that’s what had happened.

He sighed. “Can you please sit down?”

“I don’t want to sit down.”

“Allie. Sit.”

I sat.

“You know I own a restaurant. But before that I worked for my brother. I won’t lie and say everything was above the table, because it wasn’t. It wasn’t always legal and it wasn’t always…good.”

He looked at me resignedly, as if I would condemn him. I thought of Shelly, and I thought of Jacob. My own halo was much tarnished. No, I wouldn’t condemn Colin for his past, but that didn’t mean I had to accept it into my life. I had to think of Bailey.

“You aren’t involved in that stuff now, right? I mean, now that you run your restaurant.”

“Most of the time.” His words were slow, too carefully chosen to be comforting. “But sometimes he asks for my help, and I do it. That’s what I was doing at the club the night we met—meeting him.”

“What types of things do you do?”

“Whatever he needs done.”

“Violent things?”

“I never claimed to be perfect.” His eyes focused on mine, his voice steady.

A small laugh burst out of me, the sharp sound bouncing off the walls of my bare apartment. “No, you didn’t, but there’s a long way from not perfect to violent criminal, don’t you think?”

He said nothing.

“And if I asked you to stop doing those things, would you?” But I already knew the answer.

“He’s my brother.”

I wasn’t angry. Not angry for whatever slight deception there may have been not to tell me this up front. Not for his past, whatever illegal or violent things he had done. Not even angry for what he had done to the guy from the club.

I was afraid.

Afraid that somehow, that world would intersect with mine, when I’d worked so hard to isolate myself. Even my club nights were carefully orchestrated and contained, incidents that never spilled over into my real life. Until Colin.

I was afraid I’d misjudged him, that he wasn’t the nice guy I’d thought him to be. Just doing bad things in your life didn’t make you a bad person. I believed that firmly. But how could I tell the difference? I couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t even trust myself.

“You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you?” An undercurrent of steel in his voice was the only sign of his displeasure.

“It’s not like we’re going steady. We’ve had one date and two fucks. That does not make a relationship.”

“Don’t bullshit me. You and I both know it was different between us.”

I paused, then said more quietly, “Why me? You could go back to that club and pick up a girl who’s hotter than me, who doesn’t have issues, that’s for sure. I need to understand why you want me.”

He shook his head, though it wasn’t a refusal.

“It’s not just the sex. It’s…it’s this.” He waved his hand around my apartment.

Bare white walls, cheap ratty couch, strewn plastic toys. I just looked at him.

“I want you. I want
this
.” He gestured between us in frustration, maybe at me for asking the question, maybe at himself for not being able to answer.

“Oh, Colin.”

He hid behind a thicker skin than I could ever hope to breach. The only reason I was seeing this was because he’d let me in. I fell in love with him a little right then, as he sat, so large and competent yet so vulnerable. I wanted him for my own, and that wanting was like a chant in my head. A greedy, futile chant.

“Maybe there is something special between us,” I finally said, “but it’s just too hard. I’ve got so much baggage I could sink the Titanic, and you…well, you have your own baggage, don’t you?”

Maybe I was being mean, I thought, as I watched his defenses tighten up again right in front of my eyes. Sometimes mean was good. Sometimes mean was the difference between survival and going under.

“Don’t put this on me, Allie. I’m not the one too scared to give this a shot.”

“No, you’re just the one who’s part of a violent, tiny mob family who goes around beating people up for fun.” We had both raised our voices, angry that this wasn’t going to work and yet unable to fix it.

“I can’t believe you’re mad about that. That guy was an asshole who hurt you. He deserved what he got.”

“That’s not the point. It’s not up to you. Did you ever think of what would happen if he got angry with me and tried to hurt me back? I was at the clinic with Bailey when I saw him.”

“I made it clear he wasn’t to touch you ever again. Besides, you should have called me if you needed to go to the clinic.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please. I’ll just call you whenever I need anything at all.”

“I would have come with you.”

“Yeah, unless you were doing something for your brother.”

His nostrils flared, but he didn’t respond.

“It seems to me like you’re the one who’s stuck in the past. If you want to be with me and Bailey, fine. Then stop doing dangerous things that could come back on us.”

“You can’t ask me to give up my family.”

“I’m not asking for that. You can see him all you want, just don’t do anything illegal for him, anything violent.”

“It’s the same thing.”

“Then what kind of family is that? He just wants you for what you can do for him.”

He stepped toward me. “Yeah. That’s right. And you think you’re better than him? We all pay for what we want, me included. You’re not giving me anything for free, so don’t play the martyr. You’ll fuck me to get what you want, and who the fuck cares what I want?”

I stared at him in shock.

He lowered his voice, still breathing hard. “Everyone has a price, Allie. And I’m not paying yours.”

Colin turned and left the apartment, the door latching quietly behind him.

Chapter Four

“The ants are back!” In my frustration I let my voice ring out through the bakery. It was closed at this early hour anyway.

“Jesus Christ,” Rick swore from the bathroom.

With a sigh, I wiped away the ants and rolled out my dough.

A few minutes later, Rick came out. “You didn’t have to scream at me. Missed the toilet.”

“Well, I hope you cleaned it up, because I’m not touching your piss.” I waved my flour-covered fingers at him.

He narrowed his eyes at me but returned to the bathroom. A minute later he came out.

“Did you wash your hands?”

“Yes,” he snapped but then turned back to the bathroom. I heard the water run for a minute before he came out again.

He leaned against the wall by the phone. “What’s up your ass?”

“It’s not unreasonable to expect you to wash your hands. Clean working environment. Food preparation. Health code violations. Any of this ring a bell?” Working being a relative term for Rick, but between him and the bugs, this place was getting gross.

He shrugged. “It’s not that. You’ve been bitchy lately.”

“This is just how I am.”

His expression turned mulish. “Maybe, but it’s been really bad for a few weeks now.”

“PMS.” I gave him my best feral smile.
Drop it.

“See?” He grinned. “Bitchy.”

“Yeah, well, do me a favor and fire me.” Not that he would, and not that I really wanted him to. The job sucked, but it kept Bailey in diapers and that was the important thing.

“Mmm, no thank you. Maybe if you don’t get that custom cupcake order done by the end of your shift.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

He went into his office, probably afraid he’d actually annoy me enough to bail. I was the only person he trusted enough to do the large, expensive orders. And none of the others even did fondant. If only I could use my leverage for something useful, like a raise.

Bitchy. I snorted. Hell, yes, I was bitchy.

I had literally no idea where my electricity payment was coming from. No, scratch that. I did know. Shelly. She’d offer it, and Bailey couldn’t very well live in an apartment with no lights, so I’d accept. Shelly earned that money on her back. If anyone had to turn tricks to support Bailey, it should be me.

As if I wasn’t feeling guilty enough, it looked as if Shelly had a crazy client obsessed with her. The same black car parked on the street at odd hours. One bright day I caught the glare from a camera lens aimed at our apartment building. I ran inside with Bailey, and the car drove away. I considered calling the cops, but we knew they wouldn’t do anything. Besides, both Shelly and I had an aversion to cops, though for a slightly different reason.

My “date nights” had gone to shit. And the man who’d done it, well, I’d broken up with him. Or maybe he’d broken up with me. Had we ever been dating? The more time passed, the hazier it became. But I did know that I needed to get fucked.

I could go to the club, but after the last trip I was gun-shy. Some slut I was—amateur.

I’d had a rough couple of weeks. Bitchy was the least I could do.

The detailed construction of gum paste calla lilies distracted me. Rick called out from his office, “Hey, get out of here, kid.”

I glanced up—it was fifteen minutes past the end of my shift.

“One sec.” I stroked my brush from the inner curl to the tip, leaving a striated peach coloration. Tomorrow I’d paint light pink blush onto the tips. Perfect for the wedding cupcakes they’d adorn. Once the paint dried enough to set it down, I laid the flower on the tray with the others.

The sky had darkened to dusk by the time Rick came out of his office. “What are you still doing here?”

“Just cleaning up.”

“Hey.” His hand stopped mine on a package of food coloring. His eyes were missing their usual playful glint. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

I sighed. “Would it be possible for me to get a raise?” He didn’t respond right away. “Or maybe just get some extra shifts?”

“Are things that bad?”

“It’s just that Bailey had an ER trip a couple of weeks ago, and things are a little tight.”

He ran his hand through his hair.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll work it out.”

“No, you deserve a raise, but you know things have been slow around here. We’re already short on staff just to stay open. But I’ll take a look at the books, okay? I’ll see what I can do.” Maybe the bakery wasn’t as busy as it once was, but I’d honestly thought he was just being cheap before. Now I felt greedy, asking more if the bakery was truly struggling. Even if he did find me an extra fifty cents an hour, it wasn’t going to solve my cash-flow problems.

“Thanks, Rick. You’re a good guy.” I was relieved to see the creases ease from his face. Worry didn’t look good on him. On a whim I kissed his cheek. He caught my arm as I pulled back.

“You smell like sugar,” he murmured. My breath caught. What the hell was he doing?

I tried to laugh. “Everything here smells like sugar.”

“I’m glad you told me what the problem was. I’ll do what I can, but I wish it was more.”
I wish it was enough
was what I heard in his voice. And sadness.

I wasn’t sure I could handle the cause of it. Aiming for casual, I leaned back, and he loosened his grip on my arm.

“You do plenty,” I said. “Where would I be without this job?”

“Not seeing my sorry ass every day, that’s for sure.” He turned and went back into his office. His words were light enough but without any real good humor.

Rick could be a jerk sometimes, but mostly he was decent. And happy. After all, a guy who owned a bakery but didn’t bake, that was right out of one of Bailey’s Dr. Seuss books. But money was tight, and maybe the bakery was in trouble. Colin was right—everyone had problems.

Outside the back door of the bakery, I checked left and right along the alleyway. Empty as usual. I walked along the brick wall, skirting away from the smelly Dumpsters until I reached the employee parking lot. I got in my car and breathed in some air. It was musty but safe.

I drove home on autopilot, shedding the tension of work and worry in anticipation of seeing Bailey. When I got out of the car and headed for the stairs, I had almost forgotten to check my surroundings. Out of habit, I turned my head. And froze.

“Hey, Allie.” Jacob leaned against the wall.

That carefree smile. Those sparkling blue eyes. The face that was as known to me as my own. The one I saw hints of in my daughter, who was right upstairs.

My body, ever the traitor, wanted to turn and run. Get away, it shouted. As if in exclamation, chills rippled through my skin.

But I had to stay and act normal. This was the path I had chosen a very long time ago, faking it. I wasn’t even sure what would happen if I ever decided to stray from it. What would honesty in this look like?

“Allie?”

“Jacob.” Thank God my voice worked. It had been a crap shoot, really. “What are you doing here?”

“Just visiting an old friend.”

My mind formulated insane escape routes more appropriate for an action flick than real life. “Oh, yeah?”

He pushed off from the wall. We were completely out in the open. Sure, no one was actually around, and yes, this neighborhood was shady. But nothing bad was happening. Nothing bad
would
happen. But my body didn’t seem to believe that. It was shivering and sweating and clenching like a spastic marionette.

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