Authors: Amber Lin
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotic Contemporary
His arms came around me in a bear hug. My face smashed against his chest. I drew in a Jacob-filled breath that soothed me. How could the sight of him terrify me but the smell of him comfort me? My body was as confused as my mind.
His embrace tightened to the point of pain. Abruptly he released me, then pushed past me to my car. I spun around, watching in horror as he peered into my backseat. He looked back at me. “This is yours.”
“Yes.” He knew my car, of course. He’d been in it before. He’d even helped me fix it up, back in the day.
“No, that.” He pointed through the window to the car seat. “You have a baby?” His voice was strained. The first crack in our shared facade.
“Jacob.” So many things in that single word:
don’t go there, I don’t want to tell you, you don’t want to know, why did you hurt me?
But he didn’t hear them, or didn’t care. “How old is it?”
“Please. Just go.”
“Answer the question.”
“It’s none of your business. There. How about that for an answer?”
“Don’t bullshit me. You were never good at it.”
“I’m not bullshitting you. That’s the truth. Bailey’s not your business.”
“Bailey.” He said it slowly, weighing the name. It made me angry. His eyes faded from anger into wonder. “A girl?”
“She’s mine. You have nothing to do with her.”
“Really? Is that true?” His tone called me a liar.
I said nothing, just narrowed my eyes at him in impotent rage and fear.
“Tell me who her father is, if not me? Is it Kyle, from third period? You went out once, right? Did you see him again? Or was it that guy where you work? Or are you hooking like Shelly, and you got knocked up? Whose is it, if it’s not mine?”
, the stinging warmth in my eyes. I blinked, but it only made it worse. Weak. Stupid girl, never learns.
“Let’s not fight.”
Jacob’s voice turned soft, a supplication I’d interpreted as affection back then. Now I wondered whether it had always been a front. Or was it sometimes true? Either way he couldn’t be trusted.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. We were friends once. I want to be your friend again. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. And now I find you, and we have a…a kid together. Jesus. It’s crazy. I mean, I’m in shock. But it’s good, right? You and me, it’s always been you and me.”
Somehow during his speech he’d moved forward, and I’d moved back until my back was against the wall. “No. I don’t want to be friends. I can’t do that.”
“I know that you’re…angry at me.” It was the closest he’d come to referencing what had happened that night. “But we can work through it. I know we can.”
“I don’t want to, don’t you get that? If you cared, you wouldn’t even ask me.”
“You’re wrong, Allie. It’s because I care about you that I’m here. I made a mistake when I left before. I should have stayed and fought for you, but I’ve always cared about you. You have to know that.”
“It’s not going to happen between us, not ever.”
“You can’t just throw this away. You can’t just ignore me because you’re angry.” His voice was rising now. I hoped Shelly would know to stay inside, to keep her and Bailey out of sight rather than check on me if she heard him. In this neighborhood, staying inside was the default thing to do.
I kept thinking that if I just told him no, in clear terms, that maybe he would walk away. But that was stupid. It hadn’t worked before. I tried a new tactic. “She’s not your kid. You’re right. I got knocked up by some guy I met at the bakery. So don’t worry.”
“I don’t believe you. I told you, you never lied good. She is my kid. I want to see her.”
“Just stop.” My voice came out so shrill that it shocked me into silence. I took a deep breath. “I swear to God, Jacob, you will not get to see her. I am her mother, and you are not her father. You did not make that baby in any way that counts, and I am not going to let you in our lives. Do you hear me?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I hear you.”
His words barely registered as I went on. “You will not touch her. You will not touch me, not ever again. Do you understand that? Are you hearing me? Are you listening to me tell you no, because goddammit, Jacob, I said it before and you didn’t listen. I need you to hear me now.”
He grabbed my wrist and twisted. My whole body followed. The wall stopped me, but I wished it hadn’t. I wanted to melt into it, to just fade away. All my hard-fought words of power, obliterated with the grip of his fist.
Where was the boy who’d chased me on the pier or filched my books, only to return them just as stealthily? I wanted to ask him that and so much more, but the cold brick muzzled me. “I do hear you,” he said behind my ear. “And I…I want to listen to you.”
“But you won’t.” My shoulders slumped against the wall like a cold embrace.
“It was a mistake to walk away before,” he said. “And it was a mistake…what happened. I want to make it right with you. And now, with her. It’s a lot to take in, but I feel like I owe her something. And I already know I owe you.”
“Why don’t you start by letting me go?”
He released me. I rolled against the wall to face him but still leaned against it. It was so blessedly vertical.
“I don’t think I can walk away this time,” he said.
I was too tired to fight, and I already knew I’d lose. He’d proven that handily. “You wanted to leave, so you left. You want to stay, so you will.”
You wanted to fuck me, so you did,
but I didn’t say that. “What about what I want?”
“Tell me what you want. Tell me how I can help you.”
He didn’t get it. He could help me by leaving. But he wouldn’t go.
I shook my head. “Go away, Jacob. Go away, or I’ll call the cops and they’ll make you.” It was risky, to bring up the cops. Jacob wouldn’t want them involved, would think he might get in trouble if they were called. He didn’t know the cops didn’t care, but he didn’t call my bluff.
“I’ll go,” he said. “But I’m staying in town. I’m going to give you some time to cool down, think things through. Then we’ll talk again. We’re going to work this out, whether you believe that right now or not.”
Once his car was out of sight, I ran up the steps. Shelly took one look at my face, said, “Shit,” and pulled me inside. “What happened?”
I walked past her to Bailey, who saw me and held out her arms for me to pick her up. Squeezing her close to me, I buried my face in her downy hair. She gurgled a protest and squirmed.
“You’re scaring me,” Shelly said. “Tell me what happened. Is it Rick?”
“What? Why would it be Rick?”
“I thought maybe…I don’t know. You’re just not giving me much to go on. You come back late from work, and now you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m sorry I was late.” I set Bailey down, and she immediately went back to her toys.
I sat down on Shelly’s couch. My fingers stroked the soft leather. It was so out of place in this crappy apartment, but I knew why she was here. It was for me. For Bailey. Oh God, what would I do? She reached for my hands, and I jerked back without thinking.
“Jesus, Allie. Tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s Jacob.” I waved my hand. “He was here.”
“Where? In Chicago?”
. At our apartment. Just outside. I watched him drive away, but he said he’ll be back. He’s coming back.”
“And he saw Bailey’s car seat. He knows about her. I need to go. I need to take her and leave.”
“That’s crazy. Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll track down my dad. Ride in his truck for a while.” It was mostly a joke. My dad may not have been a stellar example of fatherhood, but he’d help me if I were in trouble. Still, riding around in the cab of a semitruck with a baby wasn’t a realistic plan.
But what could I do other than run? The law wouldn’t be on my side. I’d found that out two years ago.
It would only take a DNA test to confirm what Jacob already suspected. He was the biological father of Bailey. And if he pursued it, he could be her father legally too. At one time I would’ve thought those were the only ways that counted, but not now.
I didn’t think of him as Bailey’s father. I couldn’t. She was mine.
If I stayed, he could compel me to let him near Bailey. Hell, to let him near
. The court system, the authorities, they would support him.
But if I ran, what kind of life would that be for Bailey? When would it end? I had trouble enough keeping her stocked in diapers and secondhand plastic toys even with a reasonably steady job at the bakery. On the run, even that would be in jeopardy, and who would watch Bailey when I worked? I wasn’t sure I could hold up without Shelly.
“Hey, there,” she said. “I know this is bad, but we’ll work it out. You’re not in this alone.”
“Ah, God.” I put my head in my hands. “I’m not trying to be a whiny bitch here, but sometimes it feels like the cards are stacked against us, you know?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know. Do you think…?”
“You know the police won’t help. And I don’t have money for a lawyer, much less a good one.”
“I wasn’t going to say that.” At her pause I looked up to see Shelly tracing her fingernails in the woodlike grooves of the plastic coffee table. “What about that guy?”
I blinked. “Colin? What about him?”
“Don’t say you haven’t thought of it.”
I hadn’t thought of it, but I was now. To send Colin like he was some goon to shake Jacob up. To fuck him up. After all, Colin had already shown a willingness to protect me in the physical capacity. “You’re crazy.”
She pressed her lips together and refused to look me in the eye.
I shook my head. “No. Freaking. Way.”
“Okay, okay,” she conceded. “I wasn’t saying it was a great plan. Listen, do you want me to talk to him?” And the way she said the word “talk” made it clear what she really meant. Persuade him. Maybe even whore herself out for me.
“Shelly,” I said; then I couldn’t get any more words past the lump in my throat. I couldn’t let her do that. But God, that she would even do something like that for me. For Bailey. She was my daughter. I should be able to protect her, but I couldn’t even protect myself.
“Come here, sweetie.” She folded me in her arms. Between the two of us, I was the mother. I was responsible for Bailey and myself. And I felt responsible for Shelly too. She was only a few months younger than I, and prettier and probably smarter than me as well. But somehow she’d always trailed after me through middle and high school. I’d always suspected she’d had a crush on Jacob. But when he’d fucked me over, both literally and otherwise, she’d been there to help me. She’d continued to help me all this time, even now offering her body in exchange for what? For friendship? For this pale imitation of a family?
I didn’t deserve her loyalty.
Straightening my back, I pulled away from her warmth. “Thanks, Shelly. Don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything crazy. He said he’d give me some time, so I’ll think of something. Everything will be fine.”
Of course she didn’t believe it. I didn’t either, but she let me go.
I carried Bailey down to our apartment and put her in her high chair. I set down a jar of sweet peas and let Bailey go to town with a plastic spoon. It felt weird to do something as mundane as mealtime when my world was being ripped apart. But that’s the thing about kids—they make you practical.
A stronger mom, a better mom, would probably have chastised her for the mess. But it was easier to let her make a mess and then clean it up after. Green mush sprayed across the linoleum floor wiped clean in a single swipe.
If only all my problems could be cleared with such ease.
After Bailey ate, I peeled off her clothes and diaper and carried a pea-spattered baby to the tub. After washing her, I let her sit for a few minutes in the warm water while she splashed around with some foam alphabet letters. To say she was my everything wasn’t giving her enough credit. I didn’t know how I would have gotten through those dark months back then without her inside me. Even now my composure had all the sturdiness of a house of cards. I’d just as soon lie down and let Jacob have his way with me than fight him again. And Colin. Well, Colin. But always there was Bailey to consider, and so I had to be strong.
Bailey was rough to put down to bed that night, probably feeding off my nervous energy. I sang her all the lullabies in my arsenal three times before her eyes drifted shut.
I took a shower and slipped on a ratty T-shirt. Then paced. I couldn’t go anywhere, for obvious reasons, and besides, there was nowhere to go. I considered watching TV, reading a book, but nothing could hold my focus.
My mind ran like a hamster on a wheel.
What a relief it must be for a rape victim to hate her rapist. But even if I hated Jacob, I also loved him. Not the way he’d wanted me to. I loved him as a friend, a brother. It may have been chaste, but it was real. Maybe the most I’d ever loved anyone, at least before Bailey.
And that old love was still inside me like a cancer.
Maybe if I could believe what I’d told myself all those nights at the club, that I didn’t really have the right to say no, that all guys were assholes, I could find some kind of peace. Then, at least, what Jacob had done would make sense.
I had thought I was over it. It wasn’t even rape, right? Sure I’d said no, but men didn’t listen. Now, though, with Colin waiting in the wings, tempting me and respecting my refusal, I had to wonder if I’d just been fooling myself.
And that begged the question—what would it take to truly get over it? Was it even possible? The thought of being broken forever was a scarier thought than anything Jacob could do to my body.
It wasn’t the first night I’d baked in lieu of sleep. The methodical measuring of ingredients and the steady rhythm of mixing never failed to soothe me. During the day I played with recipes, taking delight in creating something new. But night baking was about comfort. All I had to do was follow the formula, and everything would turn out okay. Better than okay, considering double chocolate brownies came out of the chasm.
The drive only took twenty minutes, as loitering teens and half-empty strip malls gave way to artistic cafés and pocketed neighborhoods. My would-be Prince Charming’s castle turned out to be a white, bungalow-style house with a front porch. It was small compared to some of the others, but still much too big for a bachelor. Too domestic.