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Cut Free (The Sublime Book 4) by Julia Wolf (1)

One

What was that saying? “Live your best life”? Yeah, I definitely wasn’t doing that.

I was in survival mode. I had been for the last six months. The only way I stayed somewhat sane was through order, lists, and routine. Every day was the same: out of bed at six a.m., run, piano, work, in bed by ten at night.

Today, my routine was thrown out of whack from the second I opened my eyes. For no reason at all, my alarm didn’t go off, so I woke up twenty minutes late. Then, the shoelace on my sneaker broke, so I had to wear an old, beat-up pair. When I finally made it out the door to start my run, thunder boomed. I ignored it, though. A little rain wasn’t going to scare me from getting my run in.

I jogged down the hilly historic Main Street I lived on. It was deserted this early in the morning, but soon, it would come alive with business owners opening their antique shops and art galleries and shoppers going in and out of each store. Our town, Tiber City, was small, but I wouldn’t call it a small town. We were a short ride from Baltimore, and most of the business owners commuted from the city, bringing with them hip, artistic, open minds.

I turned down a narrow side street leading to the paved trail I always ran on. Here, there were finally other people. I saw a lot of the same faces every day and liked to imagine some of them were like me: recovering from a major upheaval by taking control of their lives through order and routine.

I picked up my pace when there was another crash of thunder. Today’s goal had been ten miles, but I mentally cut it down to seven due to my late start. I was a much nicer person after a really long run, but seven miles would have to do today.

I’d been running since I was a teenager, but I had never become one of those people who loved it. To me, running was necessary. So even though my legs burned and my lungs strained behind the walls of my chest, I pushed past it all. As much as it hurt, my body and my mind craved it. I could shut out the maelstrom of thoughts and worries that churned in my brain the rest of the day.

By the time I circled back to Main Street again, it started raining, so even though my legs were telling me they were done, I sprinted up the hill to my building and ran up the metal steps to my door. Once I was inside, I dripped on my welcome mat for a few seconds before sliding into my bathroom to take a shower. If I hurried, I could get back on schedule and have my full hour to play piano at Abe’s Music Shop.

My shoulder-length hair was poker straight, so I only bothered to dry it halfway. No matter how much I styled it, it always ended up looking the same anyway. When I blinked, my heavy bangs tangled in my eyelashes, reminding me once again it was time for a trim—and had been for the past two weeks.

I dressed in my uniform of all black: loafers, cigarette pants, and a ruffle tie-neck blouse with subtle polka dots. Every day, I dressed in some variation of the same theme: professional and streamlined, but always all black.

After lining my eyes in—surprise!—black, I swiped on nude lip gloss, gathered my umbrella and bag full of sheet music, then walked through the rain back down Main Street to begin my favorite part of the day.

I let myself into the shop and inhaled deeply. The distinct smell of old wood, lemon polish, and vintage sheet music filled the air. I met Abe six years ago when I opened Salon 410 on Main Street, and six months ago, when I moved to my apartment, he gave me a key, urging me to come in and play whenever I liked.

Before moving unexpectedly, I had my own piano, so I only stopped by Abe’s shop when I had free time during the day. But I hadn’t been able to take my piano with me—not that I would have been able to cram it into my tiny apartment.

I sat down at the baby grand piano in an alcove near the window. He had several other pianos to choose from, but this was my favorite. The sound produced by this beautiful instrument was so clear and lovely, I’d gotten spoiled playing it every day. It would be hard to go back to a plain old upright.

I pulled out a new sheet of music from my bag. After the frantic morning I’d had, I wanted to play something fun. I’d grown up playing strictly classical, something my mother insisted upon, but over the last year, I’d been experimenting with learning popular music and teaching myself songs I heard on the radio. I felt almost edgy the first time I tried out a Coldplay song, which even I could admit was ridiculous. But it was so far outside my comfort zone, there was something rebellious about it. I’d latched onto that feeling and my catalogue of pop songs began constantly growing. Now, I found I much preferred to play P!nk over Pachelbel.

After practicing my latest Top 40 pop song, I let myself get lost in “Hallelujah.” I closed my eyes and quietly sang along as I played. It was a slow song, and I’d practiced it enough that I didn’t need to look at music or the keys. My fingers knew where to move from sense memory.

“What the hell are you doing in here?”

I jumped at least a foot off the bench and smashed my hands down on the keys, making a horrible, discordant noise. That was not Abe’s voice, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I turned around slowly and frowned at the man standing just inside the door.

He raised his eyebrows when I faced him. “Ah, I know you.”

My cheeks heated. I knew him too. I had only met him once, but our encounter had been beyond humiliating.

“Hi, Charlie,” I said quietly.

He walked into the shop, closer to where I was sitting.

“So, are you going to answer my question, Miss Eliza?”

I grabbed my sheet music and stood, holding it in front of my chest. “I should ask you the same. Why are you in Abe’s shop? I know I locked the door behind me.”

He stepped closer. “Interesting…”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No, it isn’t. But then, you haven’t answered me, and I asked first,” he said.

He was too close and too attractive. I couldn’t think. “I was playing the piano,” I managed to get out.

“And you have a key to the shop?”

I nodded.

He looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “Are you always this easy to talk to?”

I nodded again, and this time, he laughed.

“Okay, here’s the deal. Yesterday evening, I bought this business from Abraham.”

I gasped. “What?”

“I’m sure you knew it was for sale, right?”

Abe had listed his business, along with the rest of the building, for sale months ago, because at seventy-five, he was more than ready to retire. But since it had been on the market for so long, I hadn’t let myself worry about what would happen when someone actually bought it.

“Yes, but Abe never mentioned anyone was interested.” I sat back down on the bench and looked up at him. “You really bought it?”

“I did.” He tucked his hands in the pockets of his worn jeans and rocked back on his heels as though he had not a single care in the world. Charlie was so outlandishly handsome, it was hard to look at him. With his full sleeves of tattoos and sleek black hair, he looked like he belonged on stage at a rock concert instead of standing in the middle of a dusty, small-town music shop.

I moved around the bench and gathered my things. “I’m sorry for the intrusion then. Abe let me play his pianos before he opened the shop each day, but I understand I won’t be able to do that anymore.” I held the key out to him, but Charlie just stared down at it.

“You didn’t intrude, Eliza. I was just surprised to see you here.”

I stepped closer to him. “Just take it. I wouldn’t feel right coming here.”

He pushed my hand away, and the instant his skin touched mine, my knees went weak. But that was silly. It had just been way too long since a man had touched me in any way, so my body would have responded to practically anyone of the male variety.

“Keep it,” he said.

I shook my head. “I can’t.”

He groaned. “You’re a frustrating woman. Not what I wanted to deal with this morning.”

I straightened my back and raised my chin. “I’m sorry you had to deal with me this morning. It won’t happen again.” I quickly moved around him and placed the key on the ledge next to the door.

“That’s not what I meant!” he called after me, but I was already walking out the door.

Unfortunately, my salon was a mere diagonal trip across the cobblestone street from the music shop, so when I went inside and glanced out the large picture window, I could still see Charlie watching me. I turned away and went into the back room to hide.

And just like that, the routine keeping me sane all these months had been blown to smithereens.