You ever have that moment where you watch the shit around you go from bad to worse? I don’t mean the “I’m running late and just spilled coffee on my shirt” type of bad. I mean nuclear bad, where you find yourself in a horrible trance as everything starts moving in slow motion. The type of moment when it doesn’t seem like there is anything you can do or say to make the situation better and there is no way things will be able to turn around.
That’s me right now. Staring slack jawed as I watch the terror rise in Kelsa’s eyes. You see, she just realized that I'm connected to the worst possible thing that has ever happened to her. And me? I just found out that not only did the girl I very well may be falling for date my lifelong friend for over six months, but also my entire family hates her—especially the girl who’s staring at us now. She really hates her. In her eyes, there isn’t a more heartless, selfish, mean-spirited woman on the planet. Even though we all know that it was William who pulled the trigger that night, Kelsa may as well have loaded the gun and put it in his hand.
Kelsa’s eyes are full of horror as she looks from me to Tara.
“What in the hell is she doing here?” Tara spits. She’s talking to me, but her eyes are still burning as she shoots daggers in Kesla’s direction.
“Tara?” Kelsa says, standing from her seat. “How do you know each other?” she asks, turning to me.
“She’s…” I start, but Tara yells over me.
“Why in the fuck is she here, Drex?” Tara asks.
My eyes shift from Tara’s glare to the hand she has placed on her pregnant belly. She’s barely showing but it’s definitely there.
The question in Kelsa’s eyes is obvious, but she doesn’t speak as her eyes move from Tara to my shocked expression. I can’t believe this is happening. I didn’t think Tara was going to come back, after the bomb she dropped on me earlier, and the way she left… I really thought we were done talking, at least for now.
“She’s here with me.” I say, giving the most obvious answer. I need a fucking minute.
“Out of all the dirty, evil little cunts in New York you decide that—”
“Tara, stop!” I say, cutting her off. “Don’t.”
“No.” Kesla says, rushing past Tara. “Let her continue, but I’m not sticking around to listen to her bullshit.” Kelsa snatches her coat off the rack and sticks her phone into her purse preparing to leave my apartment.
“Bullshit? You know what you did to him,” Tara booms.
Kelsa doesn’t respond. She only shakes her head as she slides into her coat.
“Kels, baby… don’t leave,” I say, walking toward her.
“Baby?” Tara scoffs. “You have got to be fucking kidding me!”
“Tara, enough! We will talk about this later.”
“No,” Kelsa says with tears in her eyes. “I can’t… I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I still have no idea what to say. All I know is I’m not letting her walk out of that door. I know exactly how she must be feeling because my family, well mainly Tara, did everything in their power to blame William’s girlfriend for what happened that night.
I make it to the door in a few quick strides, stopping Kelsa as she’s about to close it behind her. “Kels. Don’t you think we should at least talk about all of this?”
She turns to me and her mouth falls open, but before she can speak, Tara’s voice comes floating into the hall.
“You should just let the bitch leave before she ruins more lives.”
This causes Kelsa’s resolve to break. Her jaw ticks and, in a blink, she pushes past me and walks back into the apartment.
“I told you! I tried to help William. I begged him to go to the hospital, to stop drinking, he wouldn’t listen to me,” she yells.
“Is that why you wouldn’t talk to him? Why I had to keep picking him up from jail?” She scoffs. “He was grieving! We all were!”
“I begged… pleaded with him to get help,” Kelsa says as tears roll from her eyes.
“Yeah, sure. What type of woman dumps a guy when he’s at his lowest point, buried deep in depression? He had lost everything. You were all he had left. Who does that?” Tara says.
“Oh, and where in the hell were you, Tara? Where were you when William was too drunk to stand? When I’d find him passed out in the hall covered in piss and vomit because he was too drunk to unlock the door?” Kelsa huffs and quickly brushes the hair that has fallen toward her face behind her ears. “How did you help him, Tara?” she yells, as her tears flow endlessly and spit flies from her mouth.
“Bullshit!” Tara yells. “No! You are not going to place the blame on me. This is on you, and you know why!”
Kelsa’s mouth opens, but no words come out. Instead, she stares wordlessly at Tara and it looks as if she’s going to shatter into pieces.
I step between the girls and wrap my arms around Kelsa, pulling her to my chest.
“Listen, you two,” I start, but Tara’s paled expression immediately changes and she looks at me like I slapped her. “We all need to calm down and…”
“No. Screw that!” Tara interjects. “I only came back to give you this,” she says, pulling a folded piece of paper from her pocket and shoving it toward me. I take the paper from her hand and she turns and stalks toward the door. “Call me when you start making some fucking sense,” she says, and slams the door behind her.
Kelsa’s tears soak through my shirt as she sobs, fighting to catch her breath. “I tried, Drex, I really tried,” she says.
“I know,” I say, kissing her forehead. Suddenly, she stills and pulls away from me.
Her hazel eyes are bloodshot and that terror-ridden expression is back. “Drex. How do you know her?”
I move away from her, running my hand over my head. How in the fuck am I going to tell her this?
“She’s… I’ve known her all of my life.”
“How?” she says.
“Our mothers have been best friends since they were kids. I grew up with Tara and Liam,” I say.
Her eyes are wide with disbelief as she places a hand on her forehead and takes a seat on the couch. “Liam?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say as I exhale a deep breath and sit next to her. “We’ve always called William by his nickname, Liam. That’s why I didn’t put the pieces together until you said his last name.”
She takes a deep breath, but stays quiet, seemingly mulling over my words. I’m trying not to fucking lose it. This is not going to go over well with my family, but there is no way in hell I’m walking away from her. All this time we’ve had it wrong. William really needed help and found a way to hide it from everyone… everyone but her.
“So you knew about me and William? You had to,” she says.
“No… well, I knew what happened, of course. And about you, but I didn’t know who you were. After Liam’s dad died, we all knew he was grieving, but he always found a way to pull it together around us. It never seemed like he was depressed, or even drinking. Just sad… missing his father like we all were.”
“So that’s why Tara is convinced I drove him to it,” she says.
“Yes. From the outside, it looked like he was kicked while he was already down, and you were the straw that broke him,” I say. Kelsa’s eyes shift from mine and it looks like she’s trying to stop herself from crying again. “But everyone was blinded by grief. No one stopped to think about what you went through. I’m sorry for that.”
“Oh,” she says, quietly biting her lip.
“Tara harassed me for months,” she says, blowing out a shaky breath. “She forced me to leave the hospital that night only to leave me threatening emails and nasty voicemails. She hates me, all of you do.”
“You know I don’t hate you.”
“But everyone you love does. I know how close your family is, Drex.”
She’s right. We are close. I can not remember a time in my life when my mother didn’t have her best friend right beside her. My grandmother used to call them “double take” when they were kids and she still does to this day. Even though we aren’t technically related, I always considered to Liam and Tara’s mother to be like an aunt. With all the loss we've had to endure, first my brother Drew, then Mr. Benton, and finally Liam, our already tight-knit family became even tighter.
“Well, they are wrong.” I say. Her eyes fall to the floor. “I meant what I said earlier, Kels. I’m crazy about you and I’m not worried about this mess with my family.”
Kelsa’s quiet, too quiet, and it takes me a moment to realize how far she has inched away. Words get caught in my throat as I try to speak again. I want to smooth it over, find a way to make her feel comfortable, but the look in her eyes tell me her thoughts are far away.
“It was a nightmare,” she whispers, wrapping her arms around her body. I know it was and it’s making my heart feel heavy. During the time I’ve gotten to know Kelsa, it doesn’t seem like much could rock her. She has always been so confident, solid. Even when everyone in the office was worried about the merger, she always seemed steady. But this… this has her shaken. She’s terrified, and for a moment, I wonder if I’m doing more harm than good for wanting to be with her, asking her to face the one thing that will shift her foundation. Especially considering everything else I need to tell her. I look down at the piece of paper Tara gave me before she stormed out, still fisted in my hand. I slide it into my shirt pocket.
We sit in silence for a while. Longer than I realize. My mind is racing when she speaks again. It sounds extremely loud in the quiet space.
“I worked so hard to put it all past me. But this…” her gaze moves to mine. “This is… a lot.”
“Yeah.” I exhale a shaky breath. “You should sleep here tonight. It's getting late,” I say, knowing it's total bullshit. It's really not that late, but for some reason, I’m afraid that if she leaves, it will mark the end. I'm not ready for this to end, but I totally understand her hesitation to commit. Damn, what she and Liam went through would be enough to make anyone think twice before jumping into a relationship. Asking her to be with me would be like asking her to rip open a wound.
I don't know, am I being selfish?
Her eyes are glued to the floor and I stifle a groan as I run a hand down my face as a small crinkling sound reaches my ears.
My stomach immediately drops and I feel like the paper is burning a hole in my pocket. Maybe I am being selfish. Dealing with our jobs being on the line is bad enough, but now this. Plus, if this paper says what I think it does, everything will be that much harder for us.
“No. I… think I need time,” she says, breaking me out of my thoughts.
“Plus, I don't want the first night we spend together to be like… this,” she says. “Not including Miami, of course.”
I nod slightly as a brief wave of relief floods through me. I was beginning to think she wanted to get as far away from me as possible. The fact that she's still open to the possibility of us gives me hope, at least for now.
She lingers for a beat before she stands and grabs her purse and we head for the door. The air shifts between us, leaving a heaviness in its wake as we walk silently toward my car. The December air is frigid and I have to stop myself from wrapping my arm over her shoulder.
How in the fuck am I going to tell my family about Kelsa? Will they ever accept her? If they don't, will it be something she's willing to live with? Am I?
Kelsa stays quiet. She absentmindedly fingers her hair as we drive through the dark roads toward her apartment. Every time I open my mouth to speak, I choke on my words. I have no idea what to say and she barely makes eye contact with me during the trip. How did things go south so quickly?
What seems like an eternity of silence passes by and eventually I pull up to her building. She sighs and brings those hazels to meet my eyes for the first time since we left my apartment. My heart hollows.
“I hope you're not mad I didn't want to stay over,” she says, uncertainty dripping from her words.
“No.” I blow out a breath. “We probably need a minute to digest all of this.”
“Yeah,” she says softly, dropping her gaze again. I hate seeing her so shaken and feeling like there is nothing I can do about it.
We fall into another awkward silence as my car hums quietly. Her gaze slides from the door of her building down to her fingers. She's hesitating, we both are. There is so much to say but no way to start. The small folded paper is searing a hole through my pocket as I watch Kelsa reach for the door handle.
“What a night,” she says, forcing a smile.
“Yeah.” I smirk.
I hate to see her leave like this, but the only way to know if we have a chance is to find out what we are dealing with.
“I'll call you, ok?” she says.
“Have a good night, baby,” I tell her, and she walks away.
I watch as she disappears through the door of her building, and the moment she's out of sight, I snatch the paper from my pocket.
Ok, it was one time. One stupid fucking drunken mistake.
Slowly, I unfold the small square revealing an ultrasound. At first it all looks like a bunch of weird shadows and circles, until my eyes fall on the only thing that matters. The only thing that may make or break any chance I have with the girl I'm so wrapped up in I can barely think straight. The only thing that will change my life and the entire dynamic of my family.
Estimated date of conception.
I’m more than halfway to my apartment before I realize I don’t have my purse with me. Turning on my heels, I walk quickly back toward his car, praying he didn't already drive away. My hands slide into my pockets in search of my phone, but it too is missing.
Oh God, please don’t tell me I left it at his house.
My stomach hollows, not because of the phone, but because facing him again will mean… well, facing him again. Every time I look at his face, visions of William run through my mind so fast it becomes hard to see through it. I can’t think… I can’t breathe. I know Drex is Drex and William is William. I know what I feel for Drex doesn’t come close to what I felt for William in the short time I was with him. One touch, hell, one look from Drex and all feels right with the world… usually. That’s why it was so easy take a chance with him. No way in hell would I have ever dated a co-worker, especially with it putting my job on the line. But with Drex, it’s different. Everything is different. I didn’t think there was anything we couldn’t fight through, and now, barely being able to look at him is killing me.
Maybe a little time will fix things.
When I make it to Drex's car, he's staring down into his lap but straightens somewhat as he sees me approach. My heart drums in my chest and I watch as the car window slides down. Drex clears his throat, brings his eyes to mine, and I try to fall into his gaze as I have so many times before, but I'm met with frustration and something that feels a lot like fear. I look down to my purse as I stand at the passenger side door. Drex stares at me oddly and unmoving, then just as quickly shakes it off and unlocks the door.
“I’m sorry, my head is just…” he trails off and his eyes drop down to the paper on his lap, right before he folds it back into his pocket.
“It's ok,” I say. “I just forgot my purse and I'm praying my phone is in it.”
I can feel his gaze on me, but I don't look up as I search my bag. Relief floods through me the instant my fingers glide across the cool glass panel of the fingerprint scanner triggering the phone screen to light up. I exhale and allow my gaze to find Drex’s. He's still staring at me oddly.
“Are you ok?” I ask, standing from the car.
“Yes.” He clears his throat again. “I'm fine.”
I nod as a heaviness pulls at my chest.
My heart still rings for the guy. The problem is, everything feels overwhelming. Our relationship being brought to light at work, deciding whether to follow my heart and allow myself to fall in love with him, or to run in the opposite direction, it’s all too much. And now the idea of dealing with the mess of my past feels suffocating. I hesitate at the car door before I shut it… before I walk away from him.
"I'll see you at the wedding," he says, trying his best to sound normal, as if everything isn't crumbling around us.
"Sure," I say, sticking my head inside for a quick kiss, which ends up being just as awkward. Drex offers a small smile and I turn to walk back to my building. I had almost forgotten about Mila's wedding. But with all the crazy shit that has taken place today, I'm surprised I still remember my name. The tears that I've been fighting begin to well up in my eyes the closer I get to my front door. This is all getting too complicated and I don't know if I can do it. Doing this with him means everything will be re-lived… examined. His family will have questions about what happened the night William shot himself, questions that will force me to bring up thoughts and feelings I fought to put behind me. Worst of all, I'll have to deal with Tara, and I just… can't.
Fingering my house keys, I can hear the slight hum from the television, which means Cam is still awake. The moment he catches a whiff of my mood, he'll pounce. I love my twin, he's amazing, and even though he's not exactly the emotional type, with me he's locked on. I guess it's a twin thing. My hand swipes quickly beneath my eyes as I open the door. The inviting smell of home hugs my senses as Cameron comes into view. He's lounging on the couch with a blanket and bowl of popcorn in his lap.
Great, maybe I can sneak past him. Hopefully he won’t notice me because all I want to do is get into bed and get this night over with.
“Hey, Beanie,” he says, not looking up.
“Hey,” I say, clearing my throat.
Sounds of shots being fired bounce off the walls and Cam hoots at the TV. He loves action movies, and from the looks of it, he's watching an old favorite. Trying to avoid him as much as possible, I slide down the hall toward my room. Fortunately, Renee is asleep already. I know this because she's a “music sleeper” and soft jazz seeps from behind the door of her dark room as I swiftly enter my own across the hall. The moment my bedroom door latches, the first tears begin to fall, and after that they all come full force. I didn't think it was possible to cry so much. Can I do this? Am I strong enough to face this shit again?
My purse drops to the floor as I bring my hands to my mouth in an attempt to stifle the sound of my sobs. I thought the time I spent dealing with being stalked and harassed by William was the worst it could be. I thought… no, I knew when I ended things with him once and for all, it would be over. I never imagined he would hurt himself, much less that he would blame me for it. How can love, something that's supposed to be so pure and so amazing, cause those types of feelings?
Visions of Drex flood me as I attempt to make my way to the bed. I don't bother to take off my coat or boots, I just fall face first into my pillow and drown in tears. Drex is amazing, he's so fucking amazing. But can love do that to him? To me? Is this something that I'm ready for? My mind races toward the idea of walking away, being completely done with him, but my heart aches just thinking about it. I know it's not what I want. Still, terror rolls through me at the thought of facing my nightmares. I don't know how to do this.
A few minutes tick by before I'm able to pull myself together.
I sit up, finally sliding out of my coat and boots.
The floor creaks slightly as I hear the sound of Cam approaching my bedroom door. Frantically, I begin wiping my face, hoping to hide all evidence of tears. The creaking stops short of my door, which means he stopped in the space between the bathroom and Renee's room. I hold my breath as I wait for the sound of the bathroom door closing. A few seconds go by before I hear anything, and I'm beginning to think I imagined the footsteps, until I hear a knock on my door.
“Just a moment.” I say, hopping off the bed and checking the mirror for hints of tears or puffy eyes. I don't know what I was hoping for, but I look a total mess. My eyes are bloodshot, my face is beet red, and my hair is in shambles. Blowing out a puff of air, I open my armoire and grab a tissue from the shelf.
“You can come in,” I call to Cam.
There's really no reason to try pretending with him because he'll know I'm upset the instant he steps inside the room, clean face or not.
“Any idea where Renee would have put my charger? She said it's—” he starts, but his words cut off when he sees me. “Aw hell, what's wrong Bean?”
“Nothing.” I sniff. “I'm fine now.” I keep my back to him as I wipe my face.
Cam doesn't speak. He holds a steady posture, and without a word, calls me on my bullshit. I turn to him after tossing the tissue in the trash. He raises a brow, crosses his arms over his chest, and bores through me with his hazel stare.
“Cam, I'm good. Sometimes a girl just needs a good cry,” I say.
He still doesn't move, just stares.
“Seriously.” I sigh, and flop down on the bed.
“A good cry, Bean? Are you forgetting who you're talking to?”
“I cry too, Cam.”
Cam's eyes narrow as he continues his challenge.
“Tell me,” he says.
“I don't want to talk about it.,” I say, looking away from his stare. It's intense, it's demanding, it's… annoying.
After a beat, I sigh audibly and look up at him. His stare is unwavering. With tightly crossed arms and a ticking jaw he waits me out.
Ugh. I should have pretended to be asleep, but I know he won't leave until I give him something.
“I've just been having a pretty shitty day.” I huff. “Looks like sneaking around with Drex no longer needs to be a thing because everyone will know on Monday.”
“How?” Cam asks, dropping his arms to his sides.
“This perv recorded us making out in the parking garage and he's going to show our bosses,” I say, running a frustrated hand through my hair. “We could get fired.”
“Shit…” he says. “They'd really fire you for that? How do they know it isn't something that just started?”
I pause. I guess I didn't really consider that. The rule is that active relationships need to be reported. Well, they have to start somewhere right?
“Good point,” I say, and a small sense of relief floods through me. “There’s no way the guy can prove we'd been sleeping together for months. Hell, for all he knows, that could have been our first kiss.”
We fall silent and I nod, releasing a head clearing breath, but Cam still studies me curiously.
“What else is going on?” he asks, narrowing his gaze again.
I don't speak this time.
“You wouldn’t cry over something like this. Panic for a bit, maybe, but eventually you would have analyzed the shit out of it. Keep talking.”
I huff as I curse myself again for not pretending to be asleep.
“It’s Drex… things are looking bad.” I say, dropping my gaze and fiddling with my fingers. Cam takes a seat on my bed facing me.
“Is he being a dick?” His brow creases. “Because I'll handle him.”
“No. He's amazing. I can't stop thinking about him. He's sweet, funny and the sex…holy shit.” I bring my eyes to meet Cam's, but his face is all sorts of twisted.
“Bean, I love you, but I don't need to hear about how good some guy is at fucking my sister. Come on!”
“I'm sorry.” I chuckle. “But things are starting to get complicated between us. I'm not sure if I can handle it.”
Cam nods. “Well, I don't like knowing you’re sitting around crying over a guy. If this situation is so bad that it makes you cry more than it makes you smile, then maybe it's not worth it.” He finishes and throws an arm around me.
“Yeah,” I say, leaning against him. “Thanks, Bum.”
“Of course,” he says.
We fall silent and I think about all of the times when my brother and I have been in this position. Him threatening to “handle” some kid for not asking me out in middle school, or when we got older and things flipped, he started threatening the guys for asking me out. It’s hard to believe that I’m the older twin, even if it is by only a few minutes.
“I can’t believe you still get all squirrely when I talk about sex,” I say, nudging his ribs with my elbow. “How old will we have to be before you get over it? Thirty?”
He frowns. “It won’t matter how old we are, the conversation will never happen!”
“No fair. You always talk sex with Chris, and he’s two years younger than we are!”
“Well, for one, he’s a guy. Two, he’s my younger brother. I had to make sure ‘sexy boy’ was doing the family name proud, you know what I mean?” He grins.
I roll my eyes.
“Just saying.” He laughs.
We sit and talk for a while longer before we head to bed.
The morning comes too soon. My night was restless. Cam and I stayed up a little longer than planned. I guess I needed to talk more than I thought. He already knows about what happened with William and despises how his sister treated me. I considered telling him about how Drex is connected to it all, but I knew he wouldn't hear anything past the fact that Drex is like family to William and Tara. He won't believe Drex would choose me if it came down to it, no matter how much he claims he wants to be with me. Family always comes first.
But. Would Cam be right?
Drex seems sure that we are worth it. He doesn’t want to worry about his family, but that's easier said than done. What if, once we are living it, he realizes our relationship isn’t worth the fight, even if he doesn't agree with the way his family views me.
Hell, I don't even know what I think anymore.
I hear Renee's bedroom door open and it snaps me out of my worried thoughts. I stand from my bed and begin pulling out my clothes for Mila's wedding. Cam agreed to go with me, and Renee is going solo, so we will all ride together to the ceremony.
My feet slide heavily on the floor as I head down the hall. It's going to be a cold day and I make a mental note to remember to stick my gloves in my purse. Sounds of Renee singing from behind the bathroom door catch my ears. She is going to be a ball of freaking sunshine today. She absolutely loves weddings because it gives her a chance to be in her element and get ideas for dress designs. I'm happy for Mila and can't wait to be there for her big day, but I won't lie, I'm a little nervous about seeing Drex. Well… I guess the more accurate statement would be that I'm nervous about how I will feel when I see him.
"Good morning," Cam says as I walk into the kitchen "Feeling any better?" he asks before he takes a sip from his coffee mug.
"Yeah," I say. "Thank you for last night."
"Anytime, Bean." He smiles.
I slide my cold hands around my own mug feeling the soothing heat seep through the porcelain. Winter is my favorite season, but I absolutely hate waking up to a cold morning. Our little apartment is in an old building so we get to enjoy the cold creaking floors and drafty windows. Fortunately, with this new position and increased salary, I can afford my own place. But Renee and I haven't talked much about when we plan to move. Well… that is, if I still have a job after Monday. I take a few sips of my coffee and watch as Cam fiddles with his phone. He's already dressed for the wedding and I smile as I survey his clothes. I love it when he cleans up, and I have to admit, baby brother does it well. He’s wearing a white collared shirt with a tie, jacket, a black suit jacket and black pants. Cam has always dressed more casual by nature, but I guess that bleeds from the artistic side of him. Jeans, button ups, sweaters. With a trimmed beard and short hair… that’s Cam, but now that we are all grown up and he’s a businessman, his wardrobe has done a complete 180.
"Well, don’t you look like a bridesmaid's dream?" I say.
He looks up at me and winks.
I finish my coffee and head back toward my room just as Renee is leaving the bathroom. "Hey, babe," she says, before she wraps her arms around her body, pulling her fluffy robe even tighter against her. "God, it's cold out here."
"Morning," I say, as I notice that it feels even colder than it did when I came out of my room. "I'll have Cam check to see if the heater is on the fritz again."
"Ok." She nods and slides past me into her room, shutting her door.
It better not be on the fritz again, that will be the third time this winter.
About an hour later, the three of us are in Cam's car, a navy blue Chevy SUV, headed across town. Mila's ballroom wedding is about a forty-minute drive from our apartment and the closer we get the more excited I am. Renee has been grinning since the moment we got in the car; she looks amazing in her tutu style dress. The top portion is nude, short sleeved, and high-waisted with a gather on each side that flows perfectly into a puffy skirt. She paired it with black stiletto heels and a black purse. I can’t believe how great it turned out. She worked on this design from time to time over the last few months and I wasn’t sure what to expect but she looks gorgeous. My dress is black, fitted and backless, with long lacy sleeves and is about calf length. It straddles the sexy/classy line pretty well and feels amazing on.
We eventually make it to the building, where we are directed to a large parking garage, and have to drive past dozens of cars before we find a spot. This wedding guest list must be massive. Cam adjusts his tie as we make our way down the elevator toward the lobby of the building.
"You look great, Cam," Renee says out of nowhere.
"Thank you. It's just this stupid tie that keeps sliding," he says, re-adjusting his collar and tie in the chrome reflection of the elevator. He fumbles a bit because the reflection is horrible and, just as I am about to help him, Renee steps forward.
"Ugh…come here," she says. Her hands move lightly over his collar and tie as she slides it into place.
He looks down at her as she fixes it and smiles.
“Thank you, beautiful.”
Renee bites back a blush, and with a step backward, sarcastically mutters, “Yeah, yeah.” Before anyone else can speak, the elevator door dings, announcing our arrival, and we prepare to exit.
The warmth of the hall is welcoming and the sounds of our footsteps echo against the marble flooring. About twenty feet from the elevator is a large door that leads to the ballroom, and fragments of conversation can be heard from the space. The three of us make our way into the room.
It’s decorated in soft purple and gold with a large chandelier in the center of the room. Hundreds of chairs are lined up in short rows on both sides of the room, with a long white runner dividing it in half, creating the aisle. Golden candles are placed on the floor at the end of each row of chairs and a flower covered archway stands at the front of the room near a grand piano. A few people notice us as we walk in and point to a few chairs near a back row. We aren’t late, the wedding doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes, but it seems like most of the seats are already filled. The three of us slide into an empty row and quietly take our seats. Not five minutes goes by and another small crowd enters the ballroom, Drex entering behind them. I release a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding once I see that none of the women who entered ahead of him are his date. He smiles when he sees me and heads in our direction.
I know all this just happened, but this has been the longest fucking twelve hours of my life.
My heart pounds out of my chest as I approach Kelsa. She’s sitting in the middle seat of a small row with two people I don’t recognize. There’s a woman with long brown hair that falls in waves over her shoulders, and a man who… well, the more I look at him, looks a lot like Kelsa. He shares her large smile, facial structure, and hazel eyes. This must be Cameron, which means the woman sitting between the two of them must be Renee. As I’m about to take my seat, a tall woman holding an infant steps in behind me, placing claim on the final seat in the short row.
“Hi,” Kelsa says, as I settle in next to her. She smiles, but there is a hint of something unfamiliar in her eyes. Something dark, unsettling. As I smile and return her greeting, the same darkness that lingers in her eyes settles in my stomach.
“This is my brother, Cameron Preston, and my best friend, Renee Espaza,” she says, gesturing to the duo. “Guys, this is Drexel Adams.”
I hold out my hand to greet them, but notice immediately that I’m facing opposite expressions. Renee's eyes are alight with curiosity as she greets me with a bright smile, whereas the curiosity in Cameron's eyes is a little darker. His handshake is firm. He's polite and even smirks, but I can't help noticing how his gaze moves from me to Kelsa as if he doesn't trust me.
I wonder if he knows.
Shit, of course he does. Until I met Kelsa, Tara and William were the only set of twins I knew. If Cameron and Kelsa are even half as close as Tara and William were then I'm sure Cameron knows everything, and I can understand why he wouldn't trust me.
The four of us fall silent as the seats around us begin to fill. My mind races with what and how much to say to Kelsa. What's appropriate, what's inappropriate, if I should touch her or give her space.
“So, Drexel, are you friends with Mila too or are you just work associates?” Renee asks, breaking the silence.
“She's a friend. She and Kelsa are definitely closer, but I've gotten to know her well over the last year.”
The four of us spend the next forty or so minutes attempting to carry on this polite conversation. I learn about Renee's budding career in fashion and Cameron's equally impressive career in photography. Kelsa is pretty quiet as we talk, not much more than short phrases and forced smiles leave her lips. I know she's struggling with this. She's struggling, and I'm struggling, and all this shit has only just begun to unfold. I want nothing more than to pull her against me, kiss her, tell her that we will get through this and it will all work out.
But I don't.
I can't, and it's making my heart feel heavy. It's not because the wrong person may see it; seriously, fuck them all at this point. That's the absolute last thing I care about right now. It's also not because I’m worried she will resist me. She wouldn't… well at least I don't think she would. The only reason I'm not saying those things to her right now is because I don't know if any of it is true.
I don't know if it will all work out.
The room falls into a hush as everyone watches with excitement as Rick, the groom, and the officiate take their positions at the front.
My eyes fall to Kelsa's face. She gives me a short glance and a smirk just as she has been this whole time. I fucking hate that she will barely look at me.
The service starts and we watch as the largest wedding party I've ever seen walk down the aisle and into place preceding the bride's arrival. At least fifteen women dressed in gold flowing gowns stand in a long line to the right of the groom holding purple and gold bouquets. The groomsmen, dressed in matching black tuxedos with gold vests, stand to his left.
Kelsa is tense as she watches and I can't help but touch her, ease her frustration in some way. My fingers find her wrist and slide down to her hand. She remains stiff momentarily, but I can feel her body shift as she releases a deep breath and slowly laces her fingers between mine. A brief sense of relief rolls through my body.
Maybe we will be ok, just maybe.
But then, it's like the world wants to remind me of my reality, because the baby being held by the lady sitting next to me begins to cry. My hand tightens on Kelsa's and she keeps her gaze forward, watching two young men roll a long runner down the aisle in preparation for the bride. The woman beside me does her best to soothe the baby, bouncing and shushing him until he eventually falls silent again. I wonder what Kelsa will say once she learns the truth. My fucking, possibly deal breaking, truth. I wonder if she’s falling in love with me, I wonder if this will make her stop. I watch her as my thoughts overflow and I'm filled with a fucked up sense of dread and longing that I can't describe. I have no choice but to talk to her, put all this shit on the table and see where we go. It hurts too much not to know. At least if she knows everything she can process it all and decide from there. Right? I suck in a deep breath, continue to hold her hand, and watch as Mila makes her way toward her groom. Ooohs and Ahhs echo through the room as cameras seem to flash from every direction. Her hair hangs in long curly tendrils and her white dress flows in waves behind her. She looks like she's floating.
Pure elation lights up Rick's face as Mila receives a kiss from her father and takes her place next to him.
After the bride has been kissed and the rice has been thrown, we watch as Mila and Rick make their way back down the aisle as Mr. and Mrs. Costello. The bridal party follows behind, but before the guests begin to leave, Mila’s mother takes her place at the front of the room. She announces that the wedding party will be going to take pictures and will be joining us all very soon. Holding a hand out, she gestures to the wall behind her as she continues to address the crowd. The walls are hung with a decorative purple and gold fabric, but as she speaks the lights dim and the fabric covering the wall behind her falls, revealing another room. Gasps echo from every direction as we all look into the reception hall. It's huge, with at least fifty expertly decorated tables all adorned with large gold and purple centerpieces. The lighting is low, with lit candles on every table, and a dance floor in front of the long table where I’m assuming the bridal party will sit.
“So beautiful,” Kelsa breathes.
It is. I can't deny. Weddings aren't really my thing, but whoever designed this one did an amazing job. The eyes of every woman within ten feet of me are lit with awe as we gaze into the room before us.
Slowly, we all make our way to the reception hall. Kelsa, Renee, Cameron, and I are all seated at a table together with another couple. They are an older couple, and if I remember correctly from their greeting, they are friends of Rick's family.
Kelsa stands to remove the thin jacket she had been wearing during the ceremony, revealing the same sexy black dress she had shown Mila when we were all at lunch a few weeks ago.
“That's the dress,” I say to her in a hushed tone as she slides back into her seat.
“Yeah.” She blushes, no doubt remembering the conversation we had about it last week as well as the dirty sex that immediately followed.
“You still like it?” she asks.
My eyes trail down her body…well, the parts I can see anyway. I don’t need to see it all to appreciate how amazing she looks in it. My gaze lingers on the backless portion of the dress and how it’s cut low, stopping just above the sexiest ass in the room.
It takes effort to tear my eyes away, but I have to remind myself that not only are we in public, we are also currently being eyed by her brother.
“More than you need to know right now.”
She gives a small smirk. This space is home for us, trading dirty talk until we end up driving each other crazy, and more recently, fucking like horny teenagers. Her lack of response reminds me that all isn't right with us and I hate it. I have never had a woman affect me the way she does. I mean, flirting is flirting, sex is sex, but with Kelsa, I’m insatiable. I am falling way too hard for her and it's killing me that it could end as fast as it started. If it was something one of us did to cause this strain, then it would be understandable. The shit that's rocking us now is about everyone but us, Harold Tanner’s blackmail, our jobs at Edging Direct Global Marketing, Tara… Liam. It’s frustrating.
The reception moves on smoothly, the wedding party returns, and we all applaud as the new couple takes their seats in the middle of the bridal table. Conversations are light, food is served, and everyone seems to be having a good time. I, on the other hand, am only focused on one thing. Kelsa. She’s quiet, and tension lives between us, even though we've done a great job of acting “normal” since we've been here. I know this isn't the place or time to talk about our shit, but it's taking everything in me not to carry her out of here.
Shortly after Mila and Rick have their first dance, most of the room, including Cameron and Renee, head to the dance floor. I don't feel like dancing, and it appears Kels doesn't either. As the celebrations distance themselves from us, it awards us some alone time. I came here with the full intention of giving us time to figure our shit out, but after I saw that uncertainty in her eyes, I knew we would be finding some sort of neutral ground before the day was over.
She smiles as she watches Mila and Rick dance among the crowd of guests. Cameron and Renee seem really into each other. He holds her close as they dance, and based on the look she's giving him, it's obvious she's into him. I can't help but wonder if they are already sleeping together. Sure as hell seems like it, but I think Kelsa would have mentioned it as much as she talks about them.
“Dance with me, gorgeous,” I finally ask.
Her eyes drag slowly to mine and I prepare for her to make an excuse and shut me down. “Someone will see.” Or “I need more time.”
Instead she holds my gaze longer than she has all day.
I may as well be holding my fucking breath because it just became that much harder to breathe. Something in her eyes softens. She drops the napkin she had been holding and says “yes.”
Moments later, we are melting into the crowd in a seductive slow dance. She's still pretty quiet, but whatever it was that was stopping her from looking at me is gone. Once we locked eyes at the table, her gaze didn’t falter. Fear and uncertainty are still at home inside her, but so is something else.
Is it hope?
I hope like fuck it is.
The smooth melody of the music plays through the ballroom and, even though we are on a crowded dance floor, she is all I see.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“For everything. I hate where we are right now.”
“It isn't your fault,” she says, looking away from me for the first time since we started dancing.
“I know. But I want us to be ok. I know we have a lot to talk about, but I hate the idea that this could end.”
Her gaze drops to my chest and she holds it there for a while. My heart is racing again. I have no idea what she's thinking… what she will say. My worry makes my words spill from me.
“This shit is a lot and we have a lot of obstacles to face, but… I've never felt this certain of my feelings for anyone. If you feel the same, I think it's worth a try.”
I want to tell her about Tara and the ultrasound, but this moment seems wrong for it. Hell, if she's unwilling to work through the other stuff then she sure as hell will run away from that.
My mouth goes all but dry as I watch her search my face. She moves her hands from my shoulders and slides her arms around my neck causing me to lean into her.
“I want to try,” she finally says, and I swear to God I almost kiss her.
A chime from my phone sounds as I’m opening my car door. It was about 2:50pm when I said goodbye to Kelsa in the ballroom. I didn’t want to leave her, but this conversation with Tara needs to happen, and soon. I still fully intend to lay everything out for Kelsa, but I need to get all the information first.
“Hello?” I answer without looking at the caller’s name. I already know it’s her.
“I’m headed to your apartment,” Tara says, voice laced with annoyance.
Great… this ought to be fun.
“Are you already home or should I just use the spare key?”
“Let yourself in, Tara, I’m on the way.”
Without another word, she ends the call.
I let out a groan of frustration as I stick the key in the ignition and start the car. Tara is pissed about Kelsa and I understand, but fuck if I feel like dealing with her attitude. I still can’t believe this shit is happening… well, might be happening. August thirteenth marked the third anniversary of my brother, Drew’s, death. Tara’s family and mine meet for dinner most Wednesday evenings, but since the anniversary fell on Saturday, we met then instead. I had been having a pretty fucked up week. I was just getting over the flu, Mr. Martin had just announced the merger, and it wasn’t looking like many of us would be keeping our jobs. By the time Saturday rolled around, I was frustrated, sad and running on about sixty-percent mental clarity. The dinner for my brother went as it normally does. We shared stories and celebrated his life. Afterward, Tara invited me out for drinks. She had just broken up with Aaron, a guy she was dating, and was still pretty upset about it.
We were drunk.
We were grieving
We weren’t thinking clearly.
We ended up back at my place. Somehow a hug goodbye between two lifelong friends ended with a kiss. A kiss that was clouded in pain, drenched in alcohol, and things quickly got out of hand. After that night, we avoided each other. It was pretty hard though, with how close our families are, so eventually we had no choice but to talk. We agreed it was a mistake, one that we would keep between us, and hopefully forget ever happened. Fortunately, the amount of alcohol we consumed helped with forgetting what happened and made moving on a tad easier… that is until she knocked on my door yesterday evening. She’s almost four months pregnant and she has no idea if the baby belongs to me or her ex.
A lovely fucked up way to learn that you may be a father.
Really, fuck my life.
Pulling up to my place, I park my car in its usual spot and head inside. Tara is sitting on the couch when I walk into my living room. She’s leaning back with her feet propped up on the coffee table while petting my dog, Lucy. Lucy’s ears perk to attention when she hears me come through the door. She lets out an excited whine as she meets me in the doorway. I reach down and pet her, but my gaze falls back to Tara who is already shooting me daggers.
“Hey,” I say, ignoring the look in her eyes. I pull my coat off, hang it on the rack, and drop my keys and phone on the side table.
“Please tell me you aren’t seeing her anymore, Drex. Tell me you’ve ended it,” she bellows. I can hear her approaching quickly, but I don’t turn around right away.
“No.” I sigh, running a hand down my face. “Of course I didn’t end it,” I say, turning to her. “There’s a lot you don’t understand about what happened that night, Tara.”
“Understand?” She scoffs. “I know all I need to know about her. There is nothing more I need to understand.”
“That’s just it. You don’t know everything.” I walk away from the coat rack and toward her. It’s at that point I notice that Tara has a hand placed on her lower back and I wonder if it’s because she’s in pain. “Just sit down.” I gesture to the sofa.
She’s fuming, but makes her way back to the couch and slowly sits in the spot she was just in.
With just as much venom, but a lot less enthusiasm, she starts up again. “Drex, what you don’t realize about Kelsa is—”
“Look.” I cut her off. “I know we have a lot to figure out. The Kelsa and Liam thing is just one. I know how my parents and your mother will react, but I’m sure once they meet her, they will begin to see things a little differently.
“What about Liam, huh? How do you think he’d feel? Someone that drove him to suicide, really?”
I wipe my hands up and over my head as I let out a frustrated huff. “I don't think—”
“No! I don’t want that bitch near me or this baby!”
My chest tightens at the mention of the baby.
I’m no longer looking at her face, but her stomach. The way she’s sitting highlights the roundness of her belly, of her baby… which could be my baby.
I begin to hear my heart beating through my ears, causing Tara’s words to sound like whispers.
“Tar…” I choke, she’s still talking as I clear my throat. “Tara,” I say, cutting her off. “I don’t want to argue about Kelsa anymore. Let’s talk about what’s happening… the baby.”
Her face softens as embarrassment takes over.
She doesn't speak right away and I hold her gaze. It’s her turn to choke on words.
“I don't know. The conception date is still too close.”
Since I first opened the ultrasound I have looked at it no less than twenty times.
Estimated Date of Conception: August 14th
That's the day after that… night.
The night the condom broke.
This kid could totally be mine.
Tara sighs. “I was hoping the date would have shown a week before because that would rule you out, but these estimates could be up to seven days off. I could have already been pregnant by Aaron and didn't know it.” She drops her gaze to the floor. “I'm sorry, Drex.”
The air leaves my lungs and I just stare at her as I try to force my brain to form a coherent thought, just one.
She brings a hand to her belly and rubs it gently. “I have an appointment next week. I'll request a paternity test, but I'll need you to come with me.”
I nod. “The ultrasound you gave me dates to almost two months ago. Why did you wait to tell me?” I ask.
“I was hoping that somehow they would measure the baby’s size and realize the date was wrong. But mostly, I was scared.”
I get it. I totally fucking get it.
“You know I'll be there, Tara, especially if that's my kid.”
“Our mothers will lose their shit,” she says. “But it can't be any worse than when they find out you’re dating that horrible woman.”
I sigh audibly. “I'm not doing this with you,” I say in a stern tone as I stand from the couch.
She pulls her feet from the coffee table and sits forward.
“I still can't believe you are considering bringing that—”
“Enough! Tara. What I decide to do with Kelsa is between me and Kelsa! You have no fucking opinion in the matter.”
Her mouth falls open and her face turns sour.
Before she can speak, I continue. “Now, do you need me to help you to your car?” I don't know if it's a dick move to ask the woman who may be carrying your child to leave, but my patience has completely run dry.
“No. I don't.”
She snatches her coat from the rack, grabs her purse, and walks out the front door.
Weddings. A day dedicated to displayed love and heavy promises. Words like “forever,” “soul mate,” and “for better or for worse” float around the room like they are trivial. How can anyone promise something so strong, and so final? Plot twists are a thing of life and you never know where you will land. I've never been against the idea of love and marriage, I totally get it. If there was ever a need for a poster couple to show the world what true love is, my parents, Myra and Chet Preston, would be in every advertisement. There is no doubt in my mind that true and uncomplicated love can exist between two people, but no one tells you what it takes to get there. Everyone makes it look so easy and it's hard to know which obstacles are worth the fight and which are red flags that are telling you to run like hell.
I'm sure there were red flags with William, even before he started acting like a psycho. Back when the dates were simple moments at a coffee shop or dinners at a restaurant. Maybe he was crazy then too, maybe I wasn't paying attention. The truth of the matter is the entire relationship with him was neglected. We were both so busy with our lives and maybe I couldn't see the signs because we weren't together enough for me to see them. The little bit of time we dated before it started feeling like less of a choice and more of an obligation, was stale. That’s why I have no idea how or when he supposedly fell in love with me. But I don’t know, maybe that in itself was the biggest red flag of all.
Cameron, Renee, and I left Mila's wedding not long after Drex. Renee started grilling me on why I was acting so weird with him and I took that moment to fill her in on how we are facing the cutting block at work for breaking company policy. We got into this long talk about love and marriage. Which, of course, wasn't surprising.
“You need to stop trying to control everything, Kels, love isn't something you can turn on and off or analyze,” she said.
I just smiled and told her she was right, which surprised the hell out of her. I can't say that I understand why I'm not running like hell right now. Everything about this situation has said run. The entire time I spent with Drex at Mila's wedding I kept asking myself why I couldn't just walk away, chalk it up to an amazing fling that's run its course and be logical. It wasn't until I watched Mila and Rick have their first dance that I got my answer. They seemed so happy and so in love. The way they looked at each other, touched each other, made it clear as to why they would take such a risk. One look at them and it was easy to see that any amount of hurdles they would have to jump over or barriers they would have to break through was worth it to them.
Watching them made me realize that I want that kind of love. That love and all of its terrifying bliss. So I knew Renee was right because I know that trying to control what I’m feeling for Drex isn’t possible. I also know that jumping head first into this thing with him won’t work either, so all I can do is take it in stride, day by day, moment by moment. Can I do it? Will it work? Will I ever be able to look at Drex and not think of William? I don't know. But what I do know is… my heart won't let me walk away from this guy, no matter how terrified I am of love. To quote my crazy brother, if it ends up making me cry more than it makes me smile, then I’ll know the situation is more than I can deal with. I’ll know it’s time to walk away.
Renee, Cam, and I walk silently to the door of our apartment and enter. I’m so lost in thought that I feel like I’m floating as I walk down the hall to my room. I overhear Renee as she asks Cam to take a look at the thermostat. Was the hallway still cold?
I change out of my dress into comfortable clothes and lie across the bed trying to decide if I want to call Drex or not. I have no idea what to say, or why I want to call. I just know I agree with what he said earlier. I hate how messed up everything is between us right now. I don’t know how much time has gone by, but when Renee enters my bedroom, she’s in a pair of sweatpants and a NYU sweatshirt.
“Me and a few co-workers are thinking about catching a movie. Want to come?”
I tell her yes at first, but change my mind just as fast. Instead, I decide I want to spend the rest of the evening in a hot bath, listening to soft music and getting my shit together… and that's exactly what I do.
The snow still has not returned to New York City, but the cold lingers, and along with it an icy breeze that promises more snow to come. I tighten the belt of my trench coat as I begin my two block walk to the subway station. The streets are alight with holiday cheer as everyone prepares for Christmas next week. Various doors and windows are framed with blinking holiday lights throughout the streets. A “Merry Christmas” sign hangs neatly in the center of a wreath on the door of a coffee shop, and everyone seems to be a little lighter on their feet. Renee and I are a little late this year with finishing our decorations and I feel a slight pang of embarrassment as I imagine the lonely red bow that hangs on our front door. I continue my steady pace toward the subway station passing by various people moving throughout the streets. Cameron always offers to drive me to work, and technically, I could drive myself. I have a driver's license. But after Renee and I graduated college and moved into the apartment, I decided to sell my car. Finding and paying for parking with all the internships I had right out of college was more of a hassle than it was worth. Plus I’ve always enjoyed riding the subway. It was something we didn’t have where I grew up and ended up being a lot cheaper than parking. Now that I’m pretty stable in my career at EDG, I may consider buying another car. Well, that is, if I’m still stable at EDG. Today is Monday, the day Harold Tanner plans to try and ruin my career. Nervousness bubbles to the surface as I descend the two flights of stairs leading to the subway platform. Shit. I really hope Cam and Drex are right and the issue becomes a non-factor.
The musty damp smell of the subway begins to surround me the closer I get to the bottom of the stairs. Sounds of whooshing air, hurried footsteps, and muted conversations echo through the platform as I scan the waiting area for a place to stand. My gaze immediately falls on the small area to the left of the staircase that houses four small benches sitting opposite each other. I expect to see Mrs. Teller sitting in her usual spot on the bench amongst the waiting passengers. Her last name couldn’t be more fitting because “tell” she does. That sweet old lady will talk you to death. Usually I don’t mind the chit chat. We have actually grown quite close over the years, yet I'm a little relieved to see her seat is empty today. I don't really feel like being bothered, I just want to get this day over with. A few minutes go by before the train comes and I spend the entire ride to work with my heart in my throat worried about what’s to come.
As I'm entering EDG, I see Drex standing off to the side of the lobby talking to Phillip, our co-worker from Martin's. At least, it looks like Phillip, they have their backs turned, but I'd recognize Drex anywhere. He's wearing my favorite black suit, the one that shows off his broad shoulders and perfect ass. My insides are at war as I approach. The part of me that missed him all night battles with the part of me that can barely look at him, and I already feel as if I'm choking on my words. The closer I get to Phillip and Drex, the clearer it is to see that it isn’t Phillip after all, but someone else. Someone I don't recognize. The hushed sounds of angry words begin to reach my ears, but before I'm able to make anything out, the Phillip imposter hisses something inaudible at Drex and brushes past him angrily. His eyes lock onto mine as he heads right toward me. Drex has his back turned and my eyes slide back and forth between them. Drex stands with his hands folded behind his head, clearly angry and trying to keep his composure while the other guy keeps a hardened gaze on me as he strides my way.
“You're going to wish you’d quit!” He spits in my direction as he stomps by. Drex turns when he hears his voice, notices me, and immediately begins walking after him. I can tell this is about to go south quickly so I step in front of Drex, stopping him in his tracks. His fists are tight, his jaw is set, and his eyes are burning through the back of the guy’s head as he makes his way toward the elevators.
“What the fuck did he say to you?” Drex asks through gritted teeth.
“Was that Tanner?” I ask.
“What did he say, Kelsa?” His eyes are fixed on the guy with so much fire that it startles me, I've never seen him so angry, and I don't like it.
“Hey,” I say, placing a hand on his chest. “Look at me. That asshole isn't worth it. Ok?”
Drex hesitantly looks away from the guy, then at me. His eyes soften a bit and he swallows hard.
“Yes. That's Tanner,” he says, blowing out a large breath. “I told him to go fuck himself… that neither of us would be quitting, and if he knew what was best for him, he'd stay as far away from you as possible.”
“He said that I'm going to wish I'd quit.” I turn to look at the asshole just as he disappears into the elevator. Drex is still fuming as he stares at the closed doors through the nearly empty lobby. My eyes drag through the space, pass the large Christmas tree, and focus on the expertly decorated room with poinsettias, large glittery Christmas bows, and holiday lights. Only me, Drex, and the receptionist remain in the lobby. She’s totally unaware of the altercation and smiles at us as we stand in place in our corner of the lobby.
“What do you think he's going to do?” I ask.
“Try not to get his ass kicked,” Drex says.
I sigh as another group of EDG employees enters through the front doors.
“We should go,” I say, meeting his eyes.
“Yeah,” he huffs, and we make our way toward the group waiting by the elevators.
My nerves are a total mess as I walk into my office five minutes later. Everything is the same as I left it Friday, and I can’t help but worry a little. My partner, Shane, gets in an hour before I do. He likes to get an early start and there hasn’t been one morning since I got this job that he hasn't left some type of file or packet on my desk to review for the day.
Have I already been fired? Did Harold already make his move?
Before I can spiral too deep into my panic, my office door flies open and Shane comes into view.
“Morning, Kelsa. I’m running a little late today.” He smiles, walking toward me with a large manila envelope. My words don’t come to me right away and I stare at him like a deer caught in headlights.
“Are you ok?” he asks, the smile falling from his lips.
“Yeah…” I say, forcing out a breath. “Yes, I’m fine.” He looks at me curiously as I quickly pull off my coat and reach for the envelope.
“Ok. Good.” He says as he sits down in the seat at my desk. “How was your weekend?”
“It was ok. Went to a wedding, nothing much.” I shrug. “What’s this?”
His eyes fall to the envelope that I’m now opening.
“That’s some updated information on Delon’s, the Paris client,” he says, his smile returning.
“Oh, wow. Shane, thank you for being so cool with me going in your place. You are amazing.”
“It’s nothing,” he says. “You will benefit from the learning experience. We get clients from all over the world, so you better get used to traveling.” He winks.
“Yeah. Marsh has executives flying out of here all throughout the month. Usually it’s just one per client, but with the bigger clients, like this one, he’ll send two of the senior executives to close the deal.”
“Two?” I say with a furrowed brow. “So, who’s going with us?”
“Fullerman and your buddy from Martin’s.” He grins.
Anxiety fills my chest and I stare at him unblinking, waiting for him to say something more, Mention the email, or video. Am I being paranoid?
Shane only looks at me oddly again.
“What?” he finally says. “Is that a problem? I thought you guys were friends, and that you’d be happy you both get a chance at such an amazing client going in your portfolio.”
I silently release a breath.
I have got to get a fucking grip.
“No.” I shake my head. “I am…sorry. It’s just been a weird morning.” I say.
He nods and I pull out the contents of the envelope. We spend the next twenty minutes going over our schedule for the week as I try my damnedest to keep the paranoia at bay.
By lunchtime, I have chewed off most of my nails and gotten absolutely zero work done. I’ve had to force myself not to call Drex and ask him if he’s heard anything. I know for a fact that he’d let me know if anything happened and I’d only be wasting my time asking. The elevator slows to a stop at the floor of the lobby and I exit with the two other passengers, head across the lobby, and out the door. I’m meeting Drex, Phillip, and Lisa at the diner across the street for lunch, and once inside, I find them sitting in a corner booth by the window.
“Hey,” Lisa says. Phillip offers an identical greeting.
“Hey guys,” I say sliding in next to Drex.
“You all right?” he asks quietly.
“Yeah.” I nod, slipping out of my coat.
We have a pretty typical lunch. Phillip tells stories and Lisa talks about her incompetent coworkers. I have had to fight hard not to ask Lisa about Harold Tanner. I know he works on her team, but I’m sure if she knew anything, she would have mentioned it by now.
God, this sucks.
We are about done with lunch and are gathering our things when Lisa randomly speaks up.
“So, how long have you two been… ya know?” Lisa asks, wiggling a brow. Drex and I snap a look at her.
“What?” I ask. Not meaning to play dumb, but out of genuine surprise.
Drex looks from her to me as a smile spreads across her face.
“I saw you two at the wedding dancing… and that didn’t seem like an innocent dance between friends,” she says. Phillip’s eyes widen as he now peers up from his phone at the three of us.
My words evaporate on my tongue and I find Drex’s eyes briefly. He looks away from me, clears his throat and says, “Sometimes a dance is just a dance.”
Lisa’s eyes narrow untrustingly as she looks back and forth at us.
I clear my throat and repeat Drex’s words.
“Yeah. Sometimes a dance is just a dance.”
Lisa purses her lips, but then gives up, shrugs, and we head back across the street.
I can tell Drex wants to say something, hell I want to say something. It didn’t feel good denying my feelings for him in front of them, but we still haven’t decided what we are going to do… or I haven’t decided. There’s this job thing, William, his family… still so many unanswered questions.
The four of us stand at the elevator continuing our small talk about Mila’s wedding, and gushing about how much fun she must be having on her honeymoon. The elevator rises and we make our way upstairs, but before we arrive at our floors, everyone’s phone goes off at the same time. I fumble as I grab for mine in my purse. Our momentum slows as we reach Lisa and Phillip's floor and I say goodbye, still fumbling in my purse. When I notice neither of them step off I look up to see both Philip and Lisa looking back and forth from me to Drex with widened eyes.
“What?” Drex asks.
Phillip turns his phone toward us. It’s the company's email host.
Subject: Thought everyone should know
The only thing in the comment section is a video… our video, sent to everyone in the company.
The four of us stand like statues in the elevator as the doors slide back to a close. No one speaks right away. I snatch my phone from my pocket and open the email.
The video starts as the elevator begins climbing.
“I can't believe he'd do that,” Lisa says to no one in particular.
The video shows the moment right after Kelsa kissed me in the parking garage. Her hands are in my hair, mine slowly wrapping around her body. There's a brief exchange of words after I pull away, which the video was unable to pick up due to the distance of Tanner's phone. I cringe as I watch myself look around the garage, saying a silent prayer that this is where the video stops because I know what comes next. Kelsa’s eyes move to mine briefly with a pained expression.
I swallow hard as the elevator slows to a stop at our floor.
Phillip and Lisa are lost for words as they stare at us, and the moment the elevator opens, I grab Kelsa's hand and pull her directly toward my office.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she repeats, and begins pacing the moment the door shuts behind us. “Please tell me he ended it there.”
I'm pissed and it's taking everything I have not to go find this guy. I focus on my breathing and steady myself as I watch Kelsa slowly unravel.
Fuck this guy, seriously.
“Babe. It's going to be fine.” I hear myself say.
She stares at me hard. “Let’s finish it.”
I grit my teeth and hit play. The video shows Kelsa speaking right before I move around her, backing her against the car. My mouth crashes against hers as her hands crawl up my back. The kiss is intense, it's heated. My hands slide from her hair to her breasts, where I cup them and then continue down her body. Her head falls back against the car and my lips travel down her neck. Her hands are stroking my dick through my pants, and by the time my lips find hers again, her legs are wrapped around my waist and I'm pressing against her. We continue like this on the brink of losing control against the car in the middle of the damn parking garage. It’s clear that this isn't a first kiss moment, or a moment between a couple who are new at this. This is a moment between lovers, one of passion, of familiarity and heat. There is no way anyone would believe we haven't been hiding this. By time the video gets to the part where my cellphone rings and I pull away, I can already feel the tension radiating from Kelsa.
“Oh fuck,” she says. “Oh fuck!” Her eyes are wide, her hands are in her hair. My eyes move from her as I stare back at my phone.
“Everyone saw that! Our bosses, Mr. Marsh?” she exclaims.
I'm at a total loss for words, but not due to panic, it's anger. I can't find the words to console her because all I can think about is finding this prick and beating the shit out of him. I’m staring past Kelsa now, my eyes fixed on the door, and the best I can do is to pull her against me and hold her. I do that until she calms, then I kiss her forehead and tell her I'll be right back.
I fucking can't with this guy. It's one thing to try to take my job, but it's another thing to embarrass Kelsa. Now I know why he told her she'd wish she'd quit. He's trying to make her seem easy, like a whore. Women have it hard in marketing and this guy just fucked with the wrong one.
I'm already out the door by the time Kelsa realizes where I'm headed.
She calls my name, but I stalk down the hall toward the elevator. A woman and Shane are standing at the door of Kelsa's office, no doubt having just watched the video and now looking for her. I stare silently as I pass them. My hand slaps the elevator call button and it lights up.
“Drex, wait!” Kelsa says, appearing at my side. I don't speak, I just press the button a few more times willing the damn door to open, then remember the stairs and head for the door. I take them two at a time until I reach his floor and I push open the door. Their floor is identical to ours in style and in general layout. All of the office doors line the perimeter of the space, but, where we have a large meeting room in the middle of our floor, they have cubicles.
“Tanner's cube,” I say to the first person I see. An older woman, well into her fifties. The moment she lays eyes on me, recognition floods her expression.
“Over there,” she points toward the opposite end of the room.
I back out of the woman's cube and bump into Kelsa, who's been on my heels since I left the office.
“I want to kick this guy's ass myself, but he's not worth it,” she says.
“He's not,” I say, as I pace in the direction the woman pointed. “But this asshole is going to face me. This shit was cold and calculated. He knows exactly what he's doing. Shit won't fly.” My eyes fall on another worker sitting in a cubicle towards the end of the row. “Tanner's cube,” I say again.
The young guy looks from me to Kelsa and back, our video displayed on his laptop. I reach over, slamming the top down, and the kid nearly jumps out of his skin. I repeat my question. “Tanner's cube?”
The kid fumbles, dropping the pin he was holding. “Um. Three cubes up.”
I make it to Tanner's workspace in only a few steps. “Harold Tanner” is displayed on the aisle side of the partition. I step inside and turn the seat around, only to find it empty.
I want to punch the fucking thing I'm so frustrated. Instead, I step out the cube to face Kelsa. Multiple people are peering over the walls of their cubicles at this point.
“Asshole,” she says under her breath.
I take a deep breath, scan all the waiting faces, and look at Kelsa.
“Let's go,” I say, and we head toward the elevator.
I really need some air, need a fucking walk, but I won't leave her here to deal with this shit alone. I have no idea what we are about to face, but I don't want to be too far in case she needs me. She doesn't speak during the elevator ride back up to our floor, and I'm not sure what she wants me to do once we step off. We pause in front of her office and I'm about to ask if she wants me to come in so we can talk, but she speaks up before I do.
“I need to call Shane… and probably Amber. Maybe we can meet for dinner later?” she says, meeting my eyes in only short glances as she looks around the empty hall.
“Ok,” I say, releasing a breath I didn't realize I was holding. “That sounds good. Call me if you need me. Ronald has me working in the office today so I'll be around.”
“Ok,” she says, brushing her hair behind her ears. Leaving so much unsaid, she hesitates briefly before turning and walking into her office.
My steps feel heavy as I make my way down the hall. I'm almost to my office when my phone chimes.
Ronald: We need to talk. I'm in your office.
I suck in a deep breath and take the final step to my door. Ronald is peering out the window looking down at New York City as he adjusts the cuffs of his Armani suit. The money this old guy makes is insane. He was one of the company's first employees back when it started in the late eighties. I stand quietly for a beat, looking past him at the skyline as I prepare myself for this conversation. What I would give to be out in the fresh air right now. Fortunately, I have calmed down a bit since leaving Tanner's cubicle, but I'm itching to release this frustration.
“Hey,” I say, finally stepping toward my desk.
A few seconds go by before he speaks. “So, I'm sure by now you've been made aware of the video,” Ronald says, keeping his back to me. “The one that shows you blatantly breaking company policy with Ms. Preston.”
“Yes sir,” I respond. He turns to me and I take this moment to try to explain myself.
“Ron. I'm sorry about all of this. It should never have happened here. It was misguided and unprofessional and I'm sorry everyone had to see it. That Tanner guy is a pissed off employee who tried to blackmail us into quitting, and when we didn’t, he sent that email. He’s trying to shame us in front of the whole company, all because we got the job he wanted.”
Ronald exhales and begins walking toward me shaking his head. I have no idea what he's about to say. I hope he isn't pissed that I only apologized for getting caught and not for the fact that it happened at all. Because I'm not, I wouldn't take it back. I can never apologize for touching her. If anything, I’m pissed that there’s a need to. Ron and I have gotten pretty close since I started working as his assistant. He knows about Kelsa, well sort of. A few weeks ago, Ronald and I met a client for dinner in Manhattan. He was a scotch man so we had a few bottles ordered and poured freely. After all the business talk was over, we started talking about women. I never said her name, but I told him about Kelsa. How the way I felt with her was driving me crazy, that things were complicated and I had no idea where it was going.
“Listen, son.” He places a hand on my shoulder. “I get it. You're young, and probably in love with this woman, assuming this is the young lady you were telling me about.”
I sigh. “It is.”
“You have an amazing career ahead of you in this industry, Drexel, you're talented. It's why I chose you as my assistant. But I'm the best, the best of the best, and you have a great opportunity here. I don't want to see you mess it up.”
I hold his gaze as I nod. I want him to know I understand, that I appreciate his compliment and this opportunity, but I'm not willing to walk away from Kelsa…not if she's willing to try.
“Thank you.” I say. “And I don't plan to mess it up. I will get all of this figured out with her soon.”
“But, what happens now… with EDG?” I ask.
Ronald holds me under a steely gaze, but then his expression changes as if he just remembered something. “Shit, we have Paris in a few weeks,” he says.
“Headly’s, Marsh is sending us along with Amber Clery to land the furniture deal, it's a huge account.”
I nod as the information resonates.
Kelsa's trip. This indiscretion may be a problem for her.
He sighs. “I’m going to take the information about the blackmail into consideration and talk it over with Marsh. Until then, get your shit together,” he says, right before he leaves my office.
The rest of the day seemed to move by in a blur. After my conversation with Ronald, I felt anxious. There was no point in sitting around twiddling my thumbs though, and I hadn't heard anything from Kelsa, so I got to work. I wasn't fired until I was fired, right? All of the client’s documents were dropped into my email, so I spent the afternoon going over the pitches Kelsa and Amber had been working on.
By 5:45, Kelsa and I were walking into my apartment still reeling from the day. We decided not to leave together until we figured everything out at work, so I grabbed some takeout, met her at her apartment, and brought her here.
She still looks stressed and hasn't said much. I fucking hate it.
“Did you talk to Amber?” I sit the bags of food on the counter and watch as she hangs her coat.
“Briefly. She wants me to meet her in the morning.” She turns to me with worry lining her face.
“I'm sorry this shit played out the way it did, babe.”
“You sure you're ok?”
She looks at me and nods, which tells me all I need to know.
I've been trying to give her space, but I just want to pull her against me, kiss her, and tell her that we will get through this and everything else. Even with all the shit stacking against us, I still want to believe that. The stacks, all the hurdles we are facing, won’t overcome us, not without a fight. She leans against the counter as I'm pulling down plates and cups from the cabinet.
“Shane was pretty pissed,” she says. “He knows Tanner and was shocked that he shared the video.” She pushes a few strands of hair behind her ears and lifts herself to sit on the counter. “I don't know what Amber's going to say. She didn't seem upset when I talked to her, but she's pretty hard to read.”
I nod, setting the plates down next to her, and hold her gaze.
“I still think we'll be fine,” I say, feeling the need to be positive.
There's heaviness in her eyes and it reminds me of all the shit we need to sort through. I swallow hard as I'm about to bring up our stacks, but notice her eyes now sparkle with mischief and I'm surprised to see a small smirk playing on her lips.
“I can't deny, that video was kind of hot,” she says.
I think back on the video and how great her body felt, her lips.
God her fucking body.
“It was… maybe we should make a better one.”
She purses her lips. “Why? Think you may forget? That you’ll need video as a reminder?
“Forget?” I chuckle as I move between her legs. “That’s impossible.”
She smiles and heat lingers in her hazel eyes as my hands slide up her thighs and around her back.
She pulls her bottom lip into her mouth as my hands travel up her spine. I lean forward, placing my forehead against hers, breathing her in.
The stacks, the fucking stacks start running through my brain.
Job, William… baby.
My stomach drops.
I squeeze my eyes tighter and I suck in a large breath. The feel of Kelsa's hands pulling me closer clears my thoughts and suddenly she becomes everything, everywhere. The feel of her breath against my lips, the pulse beating through her, and the sound my own heart makes as it syncs with hers… and then, I kiss her. The stacks don't matter, the stress doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is this. Her. Us.
My lips press against hers and my hands crawl up her body. Desire, need, and heat all rolls through me, causing my gentle kiss to turn hungry. She's right there with me as if she needs this… this connection, this escape just as much as I do. A moment with no thinking, no sorting, just bliss. I feel her start to unbutton my shirt as I undo hers. My lips never move from hers as she slides out of her blouse and mine hits the floor.
Her hands are everywhere and her moans are soft, but it's not enough.
My hand travels back to her legs and I slide her skirt down her thighs. She breaks our kiss, letting out a shaky breath before she starts nibbling on my ear. I get two handfuls of her perfect ass and then slide her panties off. I kiss her again before I lean her back on the counter. I watch the steady rise and fall of her chest as she smiles, totally exposed for me.
My dick presses hard against my pants. She's incredible, every part of her, and I have to bite my lip to keep control. Running a hand down her body, I cup her breast, using my thumb to caress her hard nipple. “Mmm,” she moans, holding me with her gaze. I don't look away as my hand continues further down her body, landing between her legs. My fingers slide over her clit with ease. She's already so wet, just like I like her. This girl drives me crazy. My dick throbs hard in my pants just begging to slide into her. But I don't, I'm enjoying this damn show way too much. She moans and grinds against my hand and I finger her. She keeps her eyes locked on mine until she can't any longer. Her back arches, her eyes close, and her moans turn to pants as she tells me she's so close, and begs me to let her cum. My fingers slide away and I pull her body forward and kiss her. She's starved and I've had all I can take. I step out of my pants and carry her into my bedroom and we spend the rest of the night not worrying about the stacks of shit coming our way.
My alarm blares at six-thirty a.m., putting an end to the best sleep I've had in days. Kelsa and I lay naked in bed, her head snug against my chest, her body curled around me. It feels incredible. It's been a long time since I've woken with a woman in my bed. Hell, it's been a long time since I've woken with a woman period, if you don't count the night Kels and I spent in Miami a few months ago. I don't usually do the “sticking around thing” after sex. Not in an asshole type of way, of course, but no sleepovers. It's too intimate, and it’s a lot more than I've wanted from the women I've been with recently. Kelsa is the first woman in a long time to get under my skin, and the only one I can't imagine letting go of.
I'm surprised she's here this morning. I was convinced that she'd want to leave after dinner. She’s been so adamant about not spending our first night together after Miami under anything less than perfect circumstances. But after we ate, we picked right up where we left off… sort of.
We eventually made it back to my bedroom and she decided to stay the night despite everything we have going on. Maybe we needed a night together. It sure put shit into perspective, reminding us of the insane chemistry that brought us together as we get ready to fight a battle I pray we’ll win.
I disable my phone alarm just as Kelsa begins to wake, lifting her head from my chest.
“Good morning, gorgeous,” I say.
She smiles and runs a hand through her untamed hair, pushing it from her face.
“Good morning,” she says. Her eyes sweep down my face, to my bare chest and to my very happy to see her morning wood.
Her eyes linger on my dick and she pulls her bottom lip into her mouth. “I sure could get used to waking up to that.”
I laugh and move toward her until she's flat on her back and I'm crawling between her legs.
“And I…” I say, cupping both of her breasts, kissing them. “Could get use to waking up to these.” I let them go and rub my face on them, causing her to laugh.
I smile and kiss her lips. She responds without hesitation, trailing her hands up my back and pulling me closer. I'm clearly hard as fuck, she's already naked, and leaving this bed is the last thing I want to do.
“Let's stay here today, skip work,” she says as if she was reading my mind. I groan and allow my body to press against hers, surrounded by her warmth. My lips find hers again as she wraps her legs around my waist, tempting me to slide into her.
“We can't skip work,” I say, but I don't make any effort to move away. Instead, I run a hand down her hip, grabbing her ass and pulling her knee up a little higher, opening her more. My mouth falls to the crook of her neck, where I nibble and kiss, causing her to moan. Her hands trail up my spine and through my hair as her hips wriggle beneath me, seeking. If I don't pull away now, I won't be able to stop myself from fucking her, and it won't be the quick version. My dick slides against her pussy and I can already feel how wet she's getting.
“Mmmm,” she moans. “Drex.”
Maybe we can skip work… lie in bed all day in another fuck bubble and ignore the stacks.
“Damn it, I've got that meeting with Amber this morning,” she says, bringing a hand to her eyes as if she's trying to wipe away the sleep and desire that lingers in them.
Right after she says that, my phone chimes with an incoming text message. I groan as I climb off of her. It's odd. The only person who would be texting me in the morning is Ronald, but never this early.
The bed rises as Kelsa stands. I grab my phone and notice it's not Ronald, but instead, Tara.
I watch Kelsa as she moves around the room, still totally naked and in no way ashamed about it. She smiles when she sees me staring.
“Maybe we should sneak off during lunch?”
“Maybe so,” I say, as she disappears into my bathroom.
Tara: My appointment is today at 1:30 p.m. Meet me there?
I type out a quick response and fall back into bed. I have to stop myself from following Kelsa into the shower, twice. But I know my will power and it's pretty close to zero with this girl. If I follow her, there’s no doubt in my mind that our plan to hold off on sex would be vetoed. I stay away, and thirty minutes later, we are headed to her house so she can dress for work.
Though we had been making an effort to arrive and depart work separately, there was no way in hell I was going to drop her off to ride the train.
“Shouldn’t we be lying low for a few days?” she asks peering at me in her mirror. She is adding the final touches to her makeup and sliding into a pair of fuck me pumps that I know I'll have a hard time not picturing her in naked for the rest of the day.
“Drex, I’ll be fine, seriously. I ride the same train every day.”
“The whole damn company just watched us dirty make out in the parking garage. How much more damage can we really do by walking in together?” I challenge.
She holds my gaze in the mirror for a beat, then her eyes soften.
Anxiety plagues me the entire drive to work. It was like Kelsa and I switched positions; she moved into a calmer headspace, whereas I can't seem to get my shit together. Maybe last night really did put shit into perspective, because I have no doubt of how afraid I am of losing her.
I'll be leaving early to meet Tara for her appointment today and I've been wracking my brain trying to find a way to tell Kelsa about the baby. I can't decide if I should tell her now or wait until I find out if the baby is actually mine.
It doesn’t matter, though. I realize I’ll be walking into a pile of shit no matter which step I take.
Tell her now and overload our already stressed as fuck situation, or tell her later and if it’s revealed that the baby is mine, I’ll be the dick that hid a pregnancy from her. My heart beats through my ears as I make the final turn into the company's parking garage. If I don't pull my shit together and soon, I'm going to fuck up and tell her in a panic. This shit needs to be done right.
We walk into the EDG lobby together with no hesitation. The five or so people waiting by the elevator quiet when they see us approach.
My eyes sweep over the small crowd, waiting to see if anyone is going to say anything about the video. Pat Henderson, a woman who works on the third floor, gives Kelsa a quick glance and then her eyes fall on me.
“Good Morning, Drexel,” she says, batting her lashes and giving me a sexy grin. At least, I think it's supposed to be sexy. This woman is old enough to be my grandmother and her flirting with me is disturbing as fuck. The makeup she's wearing is caked in the wrinkles around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. I literally can feel my skin crawl as I watch as her gaze sweeps down my chest.
I've fucking seen everything now.
I return Pat’s greeting, then look away, but can’t help noticing how she continues to throw me flirty glances. I focus my attention on the arriving elevator and soon we all step on.
No one actually says anything, but their curious looks annoy the hell out of me. I don't know why. I expected the attention and I can’t even say I’m annoyed at how it’s affecting Kelsa because she doesn't seem bothered at all. She actually hasn’t mentioned much about the video being leaked past being nervous about what Amber has to say about it.
The crowd in the elevator gets smaller as people exit on their floors. Kelsa makes small talk with the lady next to her, as I avoid looking at Old Lady Pat, who’s still smiling at me. I take a deep breath as my gaze falls back to Kelsa.
The woman she's talking to lets out a hearty laugh just as she and Pat prepare to exit on their floor, leaving Kelsa and me alone.
“You ready for this?” I ask as I wrap my arms around her from behind.
“Yeah.” She smiles, leaning into me, allowing her head to fall back onto my shoulder.
“We got this,” I say, and kiss the side of her head. The elevator slows and I step away right as it opens at our floor.
I enter my office moments later, but before I can get settled, my cell rings.
“Drex.” Tara’s voice echoes through the receiver.
“I have a problem.” She sighs. “I have to have my car towed to the shop. It won't be ready before my appointment. Would it be all right if we ride together?”
“Sure,” I say, noticing how strained my voice sounds. “I'll be there at twelve-thirty.”
Dread fills my chest. I end the call with her and sit at my desk lost in thought. Is this how life is going to be? Besides my irritation with her for trying to force me to leave Kelsa, I don't have any issues with Tara. I've known her all of my life. Holiday dinners, her dance recitals, my high school football games. Every graduation, every award ceremony, the best moments of my life and the worst… she's always been there. But she was there as a friend, a buddy, not someone who I was raising a child with. Not someone who may be the reason Kelsa leaves me. Because If Kelsa loves me, and I think she does, I don't think she would leave me because of the baby. She would leave because of the baby's mother.
I take a few deep breaths, massaging my temples in slow circles, trying to ward off the headache that's brewing. A few minutes go by before my phone rings with a call from Ronald, pulling me out of my thoughts.
He informs me of a preliminary meeting with Amber’s team to get us up to speed with what they are planning for Paris next week.
The meeting is right before lunch, so I push the panic about the baby and Tara from my head and spend the remainder of the morning reviewing files. As time ticks by, I can't shake the dread that's lingering over me about this meeting. Shit, this whole day is turning into a ball of stress. I should have stuck with my first thought today, to skip work and stay in. This meeting will be awkward and tense. Ron is still pissed at me and who knows how Amber feels. Kelsa did text to let me know that her meeting with Amber went better than she expected, but what does that even mean?
When I walk into the conference room a few hours later, everyone is already waiting. Kelsa, Shane, Amber, and Ronald are seated at a small round table in front of a blank projector screen.
“Good morning everyone,” I say as I enter. I pause at the doorway as I wait for the tension and awkwardness to hit me. Everyone greets me evenly, minus Kelsa who smiles, and I have to stop myself from looking at her for longer than is appropriate.
Nothing sets this apart from any other business meeting I've had with them. I expected Amber to be scowling, Shane to be curious, and Ron… I don't know… disappointed. Instead, we fall into the business meeting as usual. Kelsa presents her pitch for an exclusive showcase of the line. Shane and Amber go over the ideas for additional advertising and media marketing, then we have a brainstorming session.
It goes off without a hitch and I'm shocked. But maybe the lack of tension is a good sign. As we are ending the meeting, Ron pulls me aside to tell me that Marsh is expected to return to the office tomorrow and we all will meet with him around noon.
“Holy shit you guys,” Lisa says as Kelsa and I take our seats at the lunch table an hour later. I’m grabbing lunch to go since I’ll be meeting Tara soon. “I knew something was going on between you two, why didn't you tell us?”
“You did?” Phillip says, looking at Lisa. “I had no fucking idea.”
“Seriously, how long has this been going on? I feel like I don't even know you guys,” Lisa adds.
“A couple months,” Kelsa says, looking at me.
“Yeah. Miami,” I add.
Lisa's eyes widen, whereas Phillip’s narrow and he nods slowly as if he's connecting some invisible dots.
“So are you together?”
I take a deep breath and flag the waiter down. We tell Philip and Lisa that our relationship is complicated but they still continue throwing questions at us from every direction.
As soon as the waiter arrives, I place my order and turn back to my friends with gritted teeth. I'm annoyed that we're having this conversation and I'm trying not be pissed at their curiosity. Kelsa humors them though and answers most of their questions. I guess I get it. I know it came as a shock, especially to them. I also know the real reason I'm grumpy has nothing to do with them, it's Tara. I'll be meeting her in twenty minutes and I'm worried what this appointment will reveal, what it will mean. If I'm about to be a father, then it's something I'll get used to. I like kids and I've always planned to have them. But if the kid is mine and Kelsa doesn't get on board, my heart will tear apart. Because I'll have to put my kid first. I just pray it doesn't come to that. Maybe that's why I've hated talking to our friends about us. It makes it more real, and in a way, I'm already mourning the ending. It's fucking awful.
I check my watch for the third time before I see the waiter coming with my sandwich.
“Haha, so what do you do? Wait to have dirty sex in the boardroom after meetings?” That was Phillip, and I guess we've made it to the joke portion of the twenty questions game.
I pull up to Tara’s building fifteen minutes later and I text her to come out. I really hope she doesn't pick another fight about Kelsa. I'm over today already and I'm only halfway through it. Fortunately when she gets in the car, she doesn't say much and it gives me time to sort out my thoughts. The doctor's office is on the bottom floor of a large high-rise, but finding parking was surprisingly easy for this time of day.
“In a few weeks I'll find out the sex of the baby. I'm really hoping for a girl,” Tara says as we step into the building. Her gaze falls to mine and her expression tightens. “This is weird, right?”
“It is. But if it's happening, it's happening. We'll just have to figure it out.”
She takes a deep breath, nods, and we enter the lobby.
The sound of breaking glass cuts through the air as Darla, the bartender at Lou's, knocks into the wine shelf for the second time in the last hour. Lou's is a local steak house not far from where Tara lives. Louis Dover, the owner, is a retired Army solider and he decorated some of the interior to pay homage to our military. The wall by the front door displays dozens of 8x10 framed photos of our area’s local veterans, including one of my brother Drew before he was killed in battle. Liam, Tara, and I used to come here a lot before Liam died and it still feels weird being here without him. The appointment was a lot longer than I expected so I decided to take the afternoon off, it would have been well after 3p.m. by the time I made it back to the office. After taking Tara to grab a bite to eat, she asked me to drop her off at Lou’s so she could meet Aaron, her ex and the other “baby daddy” candidate, to tell him the news. Clearly I wasn't the only one who she kept the pregnancy from. She still doesn't have her car and asked me to stay until he came. I felt wrong for leaving her without knowing he was already here and going to take her home. Well, that was an hour and two drinks ago.
The doctor’s appointment went well. Everything looks good with the baby. I asked him a ton of questions about the likelihood of me being the father and he confirmed what we already knew.
I could be.
Unfortunately, he wouldn't agree to do the paternity test. He said it came with a risk of miscarriage, and unless there were other medical reasons for him to test the baby's DNA, he didn't feel comfortable doing it before delivery. We, of course, agreed it wasn't worth risking, but it doesn’t make my situation with Kelsa any easier.
Tara and Aaron are sitting at a table not far from my seat at the bar. He was thirty minutes late and I was sure he wasn't going to show.
“Hey, man. You all right?” Kevin says. Kevin Gibbs is my best friend and has been since college. We usually meet up on Tuesdays to grab a drink and catch up, but since I was stuck here, I told him to stop by.
“I'm good.” I say, finishing the last of my drink.
He watches me curiously as he hangs his coat and suit jacket on the back of his chair. Kevin know everything; the situation with Kelsa, my issues at work, even about the baby. He's a great friend, almost like a brother, and I can usually count on him for sound advice on how not to fuck shit up.
I catch a glimpse of Aaron jumping to his feet out of the corner of my eye. He and Tara are arguing and he looks pissed. Kevin follows my gaze over to their table.
“Fuck, man, what happened? How'd the appointment go?” he asks as he waves over with bartender.
“We won't be able to do a paternity test until after the baby is born. She's telling him now.”
I glance back over at Aaron. He's sitting again, but still clearly pissed as he glares across the table at Tara.
“So, what are you going to do about Kelsa?”
I blow out a large breath and look down at my empty glass. “I don't know.” I shrug. “But right now, I drink.”
After that I intentionally changed the subject. We talk about his wife, Stephanie, how things are going with house hunting, any fucking thing to stop my mind from rattling over the stacks. Kevin is in the middle of describing a two-story colonial style home he and Stephanie are bidding on in New Jersey when Aaron storms out of the restaurant. Both Kevin and I see it and we look over at Tara who is now sobbing.
She grabs a napkin from the table and cries into it. A mixture of annoyance and anger rushes through me. What the fuck? I get that he's pissed. The situation is fucked up and Tara is impossible to deal with sometimes, but she could be the mother of his child. I leave Kevin and walk over to her table.
“What happened?” I ask. But she's so distraught that it takes her a few minutes to speak.
“He called me a slut. Said I let you take advantage of me.” She sniffles. “He's such an asshole.”
“He’ll get over it, Tara. He'll have no choice.”
She looks up at me with red-rimmed eyes, then excuses herself to the restroom. I sigh and fall heavily into her chair.
I know what needs to be done and there is never going to be a good time to do it.
Taking a deep breath, I pull my phone from my pocket.
Stack One, trip over three stacks and you’re done.
My body feels hot and my heart races as I type out the text message. I blow out a shaky breath, look to the hall Tara just disappeared down, and I hit send.
“You've been pretty upbeat today,” Shane says, with concern clouding his eyes. We’re standing in my office, preparing to leave for the day. “I just knew for sure that you’d be a wreck.”
“Would you have you blamed me?”
“No. Heck, I'd still be a mess. That video was pretty… personal.”
I sigh, pausing for a beat as I slide into my coat. “I guess what bothered me the most is that I could lose my job.” I shrug. “Maybe the fact that my superiors saw me acting inappropriately, but the video itself… he could have caught us doing worse,” I say as visions of the things Drex and I did in the empty conference room upstairs come to mind. Him going down on me, sex on the table, all the forbidden things we did in that room after our dirty games got the best of us.
“I guess that's true,” he says. We step into the hall and head toward the elevator.
“There's nothing I can do about it now, I guess. Just pray I don't lose my job. I’m taking the fact that Amber didn't immediately remove me from the Headly’s job as a good sign. Hopefully it will all go well with Marsh tomorrow.”
“I hope so too. She hasn't said anything to me about going in your place, so yeah, maybe it is a good sign.”
I nod, offering a small smirk as we step into the elevator. I'm trying to stay optimistic, but Marsh is just as strict as Amber, so I don't want to get my hopes up too high. We fall silent as we make our way down to the lobby. I wonder if Shane knows more or if he's seen this sort of thing happen before at EDG. He's worked here for four years. Coworkers sneaking around isn't exactly unheard of. For some people, I'm sure it's the thrill of breaking the rules or the idea of getting caught that makes it so hot. For me, it was just Drex, and how I can't seem to let him go.
“See you tomorrow.” I wave to Shane as I walk past the receptionist and exit the building.
The moment I step outside, the frigid air chills me to the core. Christmas is just a few days away and the already busy New York streets are even busier, if that's possible. Lines of cars stretch in each direction as people rush to do last minute shopping. I won't lie, I miss driving sometimes, but it's moments like this that remind me why I chose to ride the train. Drivers are frustrated, parking is nonexistent. I shake my head as I make my way down the subway stairs.
Cam's studio is a good twenty minute train ride from my job. He has lived here for a few weeks now and I’ve been promising to take him to my favorite southern food restaurant, Patty South. With all that has been going on recently, we haven’t found time to go, but with my decision not to allow stress to ruin me completely, I think a dinner out with Cam may be needed.
His studio looks just like I remember it. The dirty deeds couch is still in the lobby, the walls display many of the same photos as before, and my eyes are immediately drawn back to the one of the girl lying seductively by the window. It really is a beautiful shot.
The door that leads from the lobby to the studio space is closed this time though, so I use the key code he gave me to open the door.
“Cam?” I yell as I walk further into the studio. He doesn’t respond, so I grab my cell and call his phone. A buzzing sound echoes near where cameras are set up on the far end of the large space. He’s never without his phone and I can’t help but recognize how a trickle of fear tickles my stomach.
I didn’t notice how creepy it was in here before. He intentionally had the studio designed to be dark and seductive, but right now, I wish I could find a light switch.
My footsteps echo off the hardwood floors and bounce around the space as I walk toward his cameras.
“Cam?” I call again.
As I get closer to the cameras I start to see a full photo shoot set up, but it looks wrong. His light boxes shine brightly at a wooden chair that’s been toppled over. A small table that sits close to the cameras has also been knocked down. Various props, along with Cam’s cellphone, lie on the floor. The fear that was tickling my stomach turns to panic. I immediately begin looking around, but he keeps it so dark in here that anyone could be hiding in the corners. As I’m considering running across the room back to the lobby, I remember the landline in his office connects directly to the building's security team. My eyes dart around as I inch toward door.
“He’s fine. He’s fine.” I breathe as I bring a shaky hand to the door knob and twist. As the door inches open, I hear a noise that almost makes me yell, but then I see Cam. He’s sitting in the chair at his desk with his head thrown back. He looks like he’s in pain. I begin to inch closer, his name getting caught in my throat as I’m about to call to him. The pounding in my chest intensifies. I clear my throat preparing to speak, but then he groans.
“Good girl,” he says, eyes falling down toward his lap. “Now stand up and bend over my desk.” A woman appears from behind the desk, naked and bound at the wrists. It takes me a second to understand what I’m seeing and during that brief moment, both Cam and the woman notice me standing there.
“Oh my God!” I yell, backing toward the door. The woman screams and drops back behind the desk.
“Bean?” I hear Cam say, right as I run out of the room slamming the door behind me. Cam comes out of the office seconds later, his shirt unbuttoned and belt undone.
“Bean. What are you doing here?” he says.
“Dinner.” It’s all I’m able to say as I gesture wildly with my hands. I can’t believe what I just saw… or almost saw. I make a note to never investigate my brother’s murder ever again.
“I thought that was on Tuesday.”
“It is Tuesday!” I bring a frustrated hand to my forehead. “I thought something had happened to you.” I sigh. “The chair and table is flipped over, your phone is on the floor. What the hell?”
He smiles. “What can I say, that little bird likes it rough.” He nods toward his office. I grimace as I look over the messy studio in a different light.
“Ew,” I say. He laughs. “So, is she coming out or should I just come back?”
“Trust me, she’s not coming out here. Plus she won't move unless I tell her.”
My brows rise as I nod slowly. “Right. Well. I will see you at home then.” I look away from him to the exit. “You handle… your bird.”
I’ve begun taking steps toward the doorway of the lobby, but then Cam’s voice echoes.
“Just… give me a few minutes. We actually finished the shoot and she has somewhere to be soon.” He’s backing away as he speaks. “Let me talk to her and then we’ll go get dinner.”
“Ok. But I’m waiting out here!”
Cam and I leave about fifteen minutes later. I'm trying hard to erase the last twenty minutes of my life. I don't think about my brother’s sex life, ever. But I know him, and he isn't the type of guy to stay lonely for too long. Since he's moved in, I have noticed he hasn't brought any women over, so I should have known it was happening somewhere. I just hate that I walked in on it. Cam grins when he notices me frowning.
“Haha, come on Kels. Just be happy you didn’t walk in ten minutes later.” He winks right before he shifts the car into drive.
“Oh! Thank God!” I exclaim. This causes him to laugh harder.
I can't seem to keep the question from my eyes, despite me really not wanting to know the answers.
“What?” he asks.
I shake my head and look away, only to be betrayed by my disgusting curiosity. I find his gaze again.
He blows out a breath. “No, Bean, I don't use my studio as a sex pad, that was just a one time thing. And yes… I'm a little rough with my women, but only the ones who ask for it. Denise loves that shit, and I don't hate it, I won't lie.”
“What do you mean 'ask for it’?”
“Sex is like life. It can be stale if you’re not truly living. I like things to stay exciting, intense.”
“Intense? What…no, I don't want to know.”
“It’s not anything hardcore, but I like being in control.”
My brows furrow as I shake my head. This conversation just took a turn I wasn't expecting. My discomfort must speak volumes because Cam nudges me.
“Payback’s a bitch, right? I guess this is what you get for talking to me about sex with your guy,” he says. “How are things going with work and all?”
I roll my eyes. “I'll probably have a better answer for you tomorrow,” I say.
He nods. “Have you decided what you're going to do with him? Drexel, I mean.”
I sigh, staring at the crossing traffic as we wait at the stop light. I've been thinking about this question a lot. But logic and fear play tug of war in my brain every time I try to decide.
“I really like him, Cam,” I breathe.
“I know,” he says.
“And I know tomorrow, if I'm not fired immediately, there will be questions asked about the status of our relationship.”
“I don't know if it will work out with Drex, and I'm terrified to dive into this thing with him. But the idea of walking away sounds miserable.” I hear myself say these things and I know they are true, but the more I speak the more confident I feel. I was a complete wreck yesterday, but one night with Drex and… I don't know, not even the worst thing imaginable, like my boss watching me feel up my co-worker through his pants, mattered. Hanging out in that bubble with him made me see what every day could be like if we can just make it over these hurdles. I know what my heart wants, and maybe it really is time to jump in blindly. “I think I'm going for it,” I say, looking at Cam. My chest begins to feel full as my adrenaline comes into play. “I'll tell Drex how I feel tonight, and that if he’s ready, we can tell our bosses we are together. I’ll sign whatever documents they need.”
The overwhelming fear I expected to slam into my chest doesn't come and I'm surprised to feel relief in its place.
“You sure?” he asks, glancing over at me. “You're not just forcing yourself to define it because of work, are you?”
I don't respond right away. I know this decision will make the issue at work go away, but is it influencing my decision to commit to him?
“No,” I finally say. “This has nothing to do with work. It's Drex and maybe it's time to try it his way.”
“Ok. Good,” Cam says.
We fall silent and I unlock my phone to call Drex to tell him to meet me later. Then I remember he said he had a doctor's appointment this afternoon and would call me afterwards. I tuck my phone back into my purse.
I'll wait till he calls and see if he wants to meet then.
This job situation is only the first of two huge issues we have been facing and I'm nowhere near ready to start thinking about how we're going to handle the next. But at least I feel ok with trying, and that's a lot for me.
Cam and I continue the few blocks to the restaurant in silence. I'm stuck in this bubble of wonder, excitement, and nervousness when we pull up minutes later.
“So this place will remind me of home, huh?”
“Yes. Just wait til you see the menu,” I say.
Right as we are about to enter, I see a familiar car pulling up to the steak house across the street. It's Drex's car. I pause at the door as I watch him exit the car with a woman. My heart completely stops, but once Tara's face comes into view, I feel a little better.
Ok. Maybe he's meeting with her to talk about everything that went on Friday night. I shake it off, and just as I'm about to turn and head into the restaurant, Tara locks eyes with me. The look on her face is smug, as if she's happy that I'm seeing them together. It's weird, and enough to make me pause. Drex said they grew up together, so… even though I'd never want to have to deal with her on a regular basis, them being together isn't something that would be weird. But the way she's looking at me is saying otherwise. I break eye contact with her and follow Cam into the restaurant.
It's packed in here and I'm distracted when the host finally seats us.
I can't shake the thought that something isn't right. Cam gushes over the menu as he finds many of our hometown favorites. Everything from southern fried chicken to gravy biscuits and fat back displayed proudly for order. Cam looks like he's in heaven.
“I can't believe you've been hiding this place from me for all these weeks,” he says.
“I knew you'd love it,” I say half-heartedly.
He goes back to ogling the menu and I get lost in my thoughts again.
The only thing that's odd about Drex being with Tara right now is that he said he had a doctor's appointment that was running late. It wasn’t too long ago that he texted me about it. Why would Tara go with him to his doctor's appointment?
“Oh shit, Bean, they serve slaw dogs.”
“Yep,” I say, not looking up from my menu.
It's possible that it was her doctor's appointment he went to, but why would he make it seem like it was his? Why would he hide that he was going with her?
My heart drops into my stomach as I play back the events of Friday night. How he was expecting someone else when he answered the door, how he tripped over his words when explaining to me how they knew each other, how she said she only came back to give him a paper. My head starts to swim and suddenly I'm sweating.
There's no way!
It's not… he's not… they didn't.
“Are you all right, Kels?”
My eyes are wide when I look up at Cam. My mouth falls open, but my words don't come. I swallow hard, but before I can speak, my phone chimes on the table.
DREX: Gorgeous, I need to talk to you.
I stare at my phone as I wait for a response to materialize from Kelsa.
This is it.
I'm just going to tell her.
The sooner the better, I guess. I've been resting on the fact that we could unload the stacks one by one, but that's impossible now. We can't define our relationship status at work without recognizing why she's hesitant to commit. We can't deal with her hesitation to commit without unearthing her past with Liam. I can't tell her about the baby after I find out if it’s mine because that will be months from now. And we can't deal with the fact that I might be about to have a baby without dealing with the fact that Tara is the mother. It's a big circle of fucked up.
My fingers grip my phone tightly. I close my eyes and take a head clearing breath. I hear everything. Darla clinking glasses, laughter a few tables away, the hum of the TV by the bar.
“Hey man,” Kevin says, appearing at my side. “You think she's going to be all right?”
My eyes fall back to the direction Tara went before I look back at him. “I hope so,” I say.
Kevin and I are walking back to the bar when my cell phone chimes with a response from Kelsa.
ME: I can meet you in 10 minutes. Are you home?
KELSA: No I'm with Cam, I'll have him bring me to your apartment after we eat.
ME: Ok. See you there.
I slide into my seat and order a cup of water. Tara emerges from the hall moments later. Her makeup is smudged and her eyes are bloodshot. That Aaron guy is a dick. It's insane for him to be angry about what happened between me and Tara after this long. Disappointed, maybe. But to storm off, especially considering the baby in the scenario, is a bit odd. Tara walks directly to her table, passing me and Kevin.
“Something is up with her,” Kevin says, eyeing Tara.
“Yeah, she's pregnant and her ex-boyfriend is an asshole.” I shrug.
“True.” He laughs. “Something just isn't adding up. If I ever felt like a guy took advantage of my girl, I'd have a few words with him… at the very least. But that guy yelled at her and walked out without looking your way once.” He brings his glass to his lips and pauses before drinking. “It just seems off, if you ask me.”
I turn in my seat to watch Tara as she smirks at the waitress, paying for her bill. Could she be hiding something? But why? It wouldn't make any sense. Kevin has a point, though. Aaron never gave me so much as a glance.
“So you think she's lying about something?”
“I don't know, man,” Kevin says. “Keep your eye on it though.”
I nod and glance back over to Tara as she walks in our direction carrying a takeout tray.
“Can you take me home?” she asks. I look over at Kevin.
“It's cool, I told Stephanie I wouldn't be out long,” he says, downing the last of his drink. A few minutes later, we all leave the restaurant.
I can't shake my curiosity about Tara and Aaron's conversation, so I bring it up during the short ride to her building.
“What exactly did you say to Aaron?”
Tara has been quietly staring out the window, but the sound of my voice knocks her out of her trance.
“What do you mean?” She clears her throat.
“It's a pretty straightforward question, Tara,” I say as I slow to a stop at a red light a block from her house.
“He called me a heartless slut and told me not to call him again until I knew it was his for sure.”
“And he thinks I took advantage of you? He really said that?”
“Yes,” she says. “Why? You don't believe me?”
“I didn't say that.” My voice comes out more stern than I had intended.
The car goes silent for a beat and thoughts roll through my head as I weave in and out of the traffic on her street.
“Then why are you asking me again?”
I blow out a large breath as I pull up in front of her building. “I'm sorry, ok? I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around this shit.”
She nods quietly, but doesn’t make any effort to leave the car.
Tara has no reason to manipulate me, right? Maybe all this is just me hoping for a way out.
“You mind walking me inside?” The puffiness is still present in her eyes from earlier and I kind of feel bad for just dropping her off.
“Sure. But I'll have to get going pretty soon.” She nods and I kill the engine. Her apartment is on the bottom floor of a large brownstone on the Lower East Side. She has her own outside entrance and the small gate creeks loudly as she pushes it open, clearing a path to the five steps that leads down to her doorway.
“I hate that Aaron reacted that way,” she says, as she unlocks the door. “It really hurt.”
“He seems like a dick, but maybe he's just a little stunned.”
“Yeah.” She sighs.
It’s been a while since I was inside her house, but she has kept it decorated the same way for years. The living room set her father bought her before he died sits proudly in the middle of the space. Her curtains, artwork, and other decor looks exactly like it does at her mother's house. The only difference is the slew of framed portraits she has added to her mantle and the large one of William and Mr. Benton that's sitting on a table by the door.
“Wow. This is new,” I say, walking over to the mantle.
“Yeah.” She sighs. “The pictures make me feel better. I hate being alone in here sometimes.”
“Well, in few more months, that will be the least of your problems.” The thumping sound of her kicking out of her boots echoes in the small living room. My hands slide over the multitude of portraits she has on the mantle. Our entire life together, our mothers as maids of honor in each other's weddings, them pregnant together. Photos of us all as babies. A large one of my brother, Drew, in his military uniform. Christmas portraits, birthdays, school dances, everything is here.
“Where'd you get all these?”
“From my mother's house.”
I'm staring at the portrait of my brother and Liam and at my college championship football game. They both wear large smiles with gold and blue painted stripes across their cheeks.
Damn. That one hurts. Everything about this place is almost sad, as if the whole house is mourning.
“You should come over more often,” she says, her voice sounding closer. I don’t mean to be rude, but the photo of Liam and Drew got me a little and it's taking me a minute to swallow back the deep sense of loss that's rattling in my chest. “Maybe things would be different between us. Less… tense.”
Finally getting my shit together, I notice the tone of her voice changing. It's less abrasive, softer, almost like… I snap around to face her. She's standing so close I can almost feel the warmth radiating from her body. Her blouse is totally unbuttoned and she’s grinning as she slides it off of her shoulders revealing the fact that she isn’t wearing a bra.
“Whoa. What are you doing?” I exclaim.
“Drex,” she says in the same soft tone she was using earlier. “We may be parents. Mom and Dad to a beautiful little baby. Doesn't it make sense for us to try to be together?”
My gaze is plastered to the ceiling. “Put your damn clothes on, Tara!” I order.
“Come on. We had fun that night, right?” Her fingers roam my chest and I snatch them away, gripping her tiny wrist in one of my hands.
“No. We didn't. We were drunk, we were stupid. What the fuck?” I say, meeting her eyes.
She gives me a cold stare then slowly grabs her blouse, covering herself.
“You can't be serious right now,” she says. She almost looks hurt, and if it was anyone else I'd feel bad, but this is Tara. Tara is calculated, Tara is sneaky, the last thing she is… is in love with me. “You just can't see past her, huh?” she huffs.
“Look, I don't know what you're up to, but I don't have time for this shit,” I say, running a hand down my face. “I've got somewhere to be.”
“Oh. Somewhere, huh? Why don't you just say you're meeting Kelsa?” she purses her lips.
“Ok. I'm meeting Kelsa,” I deadpan.
Here we go with this shit.
“So I ask you for comfort and literally throw myself at you and you're still leaving me to be with her? Really?” She mock laughs.
“Why does every conversation we have always end up about Kelsa? We could be having a kid together. There's a bunch of other shit we should be talking about,” I say. “But you're like fucking obsessed with my—my—”
“Your what? Your girlfriend? Don't you see how fucking ridiculous that sounds? She is a slimy little selfish liar that—”
“And I'm in love with her! Ok? I am ridiculously in love with her. So, I don't want to hear another word from you about her. You're done! You need to wrap your head around the fact that she isn't going anywhere.”
Tara stares at me wordlessly.
“So you just don't give a fuck about Liam?” she says, with a hurtful expression.
“This has nothing to do with Liam.” I groan, holding her gaze as she stares daggers at me. I don't care. I really don't. I'm too pissed right now to deal with Tara's delusional grudge. This is the first time I've admitted to myself how I feel for Kelsa and I hate that it was Tara I told first. Especially after the shit she's been pulling. She continues to stare at me wordlessly.
“You know what. You're right, I am done! You will see for yourself just how truly heartless she is. And when you do, just remember I tried to warn you,” she says before she snatches open her front door gesturing me to leave. “She's poison and you fell right into her trap,” she spits. Gritting my teeth, I stalk directly to the open doorway and don't say a word after she slams it behind me.
Uneasiness is still rolling through my muscles when I walk toward my apartment door twenty minutes later.
Tara has lost her fucking mind. Did that shit just happen?
Deciding to chalk it up as pregnancy hormones, I push into my apartment and close the door. Kelsa could be here any minute and I need to get my shit together. I pace my living room a few times before I force myself to sit. This has to be done now. She needs to know about the kid before shit gets any weirder. Plus, if it isn't done now, I'll only convince myself that later is better.
I've been acting like a pussy since I found out about the baby. As much as I tried not to label my feelings for Kelsa, I knew exactly when things started to change. It was about a month after Miami, when we started up again. The sex, though just as incredible, started to feel secondary… like a bonus. That's a big fucking problem when the relationship is only supposed to be sexual. But I noticed and tried to ignore it, saying when the time came for us to end it, I'd man up and walk away. Weeks went by and I tried desperately not to fall for her, ignoring the need I had to kiss her regardless of who was around, ignoring how it felt every time I'd have to leave her. Ignoring the fact that she was not only turning into my best friend, but into my everything. I tried hard not to fall for her… and I failed.
This girl is bringing out a side of me that I've never seen before and I know why the stacks terrify me. It's because I'm not ready for one to topple us. I'm not ready to have to let her go. I've only ever been in love once before her, and that's if you can even count my high school girlfriend. Everything about what I feel for Kelsa is one hundred percent different and a lot more intense.
I've been staring at a blank TV screen for the last ten minutes. Unable to sit still any longer, I get up and do something my mother will be very proud of… I clean.
I scrub the counters, wipe down the sink, and even mop the floor. I'm on my knees rearranging the cabinet when a knock finally comes at the door.
“Fuck. Here goes,” I say as I pull myself to my feet and walk to the living room to answer the door.
Kelsa is wearing a white blouse and a tight blue skirt. Her hair is hanging long over her shoulders. It's the same look she wore at work today and she's just as beautiful now after running around all day.
“Hi,” she says. Her tone is soft. I smile as I move backward letting her inside. She steps in and pulls out of her coat. Every ounce of courage I've been working up begins to seep out of me. I want to kiss her… kiss her and keep kissing her and ignore the stacks.
Get your shit together.
I'm in a haze watching as she moves around my apartment. Hanging her coat, walking to the kitchen, pouring a glass of water, and now… staring at me oddly.
“What's wrong?” she says as she sits at the counter. Her eyes fall on the bucket of soap and scrub brushes I left in the sink. “Have you been cleaning?”
I blow out a large breath. “Yes… I have.” I say, looking around the kitchen.
“Since when?” She chuckles, bringing the glass to her lips.
“I'm not that bad, am I?” I smirk.
“No… you're not that bad.” She smiles. “I've just never known you to scrub anything.”
I nod, looking down at the floor. “I clean when I'm nervous.” I peer up at her.
Get your shit together.
She looks away from me and takes a long drink from her glass “Is this about Tara?”
My muscles tighten.
How in the fuck would she know that?
The question must be written all over my face because she speaks again before I can.
“I saw you two go into the steakhouse. The way she looked at me… it just seemed like.” She sighs. “I don't know.”
My heart rate picks up with every step I take toward her. She doesn't have to say it, I can tell. She thinks I'm sleeping with Tara
“Wait. You don't think I—”
“You guys have known each other for a while,” she says, cutting me off. “You and I were supposed to be a fun thing. I get it.” She looks away, using her finger to circle the rim of her glass. “Now it seems like you may have… bigger priorities.”
My chest tightens. She knows. She fucking knows. What did Tara do now?
“Baby. What do you think is going on with me and Tara?” My brows furrow as I grab her hands, turning her stool toward me. She's hesitant to look me in the eyes, but, when she does, I only see one thing. Pain.
“There's clearly something going on. The look she gave me was that of a woman who had won, as if we were in competition. Then I started putting the pieces together. The night she came over… the doctor’s appointment.”
She swallows hard as she holds my gaze.
“You've got it wrong. I'm not fucking her. We aren't sneaking around, everything I told you about her being a close friend of the family is one hundred percent true.”
“And the baby?” she asks.
My words… all of them, they leave me and I hold her gaze trying to figure out how to start. She waits a beat for me to speak as her eyes plead for the answer we both wish was true. Slowly, her hands slide from mine and she begins to turn away.
“I thought so,” she whispers.
“It was just one time,” I say, regret dripping from each word. “A drunken mistake we made months before you and I even had our first kiss. Kelsa, you've got to believe that.” She stares over the counter into the room, but I know she's not really seeing any of it. “She's not sure if the baby is mine or her ex boyfriend’s. We went to the doctor today to see if they would do a paternity test… but they wouldn't. We won't find out anything until the kid is born.”
My heart is still hammering in my chest. Every second that goes by and she doesn't speak, I have to fight the panic. I wish I knew what she was thinking. If she doesn't want me because she doesn't want to deal with a guy with a baby I'll have to respect that, but if it's Tara…
“Oh,” she eventually says. I have no fucking idea what to do with that, so I press her.
“What do you think of all this? Is this something you can deal with?”
She slowly drags her gaze to mine. “I don't know,” she whispers. “It's hard enough trying to imagine what it would be like to be with you fully with everything that happened with William.”
“I know,” I say.
Her brows crease and she frowns. “There's too much guilt, too much pain.” Her watery gaze finds mine. “I'm just not strong enough.”
“You are! We are strong enough to beat the stacks, all of them.”
“Stacks?” She's crying now.
“The baby, our job, the past… the stacks of shit piling on us, but none of that is worth walking away from this.”
“I don't know if I can do it, Drex. It's all too much.”
We are quiet for a beat as I digest her words. She continues to look at me with an expression that guts me, one of sadness and yearning.
“What do you mean ‘too much guilt’?” I finally ask. “You know it isn't your fault that Liam shot himself. You know that, right?”
She doesn't speak and the tears continue to fall from her lids and slide down her face.
“It's not just about William.” She looks away.
“Is it the baby you're having an issue with, or is it Tara? What exactly happened with you two?” I say, turning her to face me. “Explain exactly what the issue is with her so we can figure out how to fix it, Kels.”
With a clenched jaw, she looks away again, shaking her head.
“You know the story and she has every right to hate me.”
Now I'm really confused. “You went to break things off with Liam and he shot himself. She doesn't know about how he tormented you, so no, she has no right to hate you for wanting to leave him.”
The look in her eyes changes from hurt to shock as if the realization of something so painful and heartbreaking slams into her.
“I need to go,” she says, shooting to her feet.
“Baby.” I'm on her heels as she walks over and grabs her coat. My eyes are locked on her as she ignores my questions. “Seriously? What the fuck happened?”
She stalks toward the door without saying another word. She's hurt, still crying, but I can tell she's choking back a sob. I follow her to the door.
“Whatever it is. It can't be that bad. It can't be worth losing this. Fuck what Tara thinks, you are not to blame.”
She's halfway out the door but stops suddenly at my last words.
“But I am, Drex! I am to blame for what happened to William. That's why I can't be around her.”
Her words stun me and, before I can move, she's out the door and disappearing down the hall.
He doesn't know.
I swallow back my sob when I really want to scream… to run.
How could I be so stupid?
It all makes total sense now. It's exactly why he's probably the only one in his family who doesn't hate me. I was praying that somehow he forgave me once he learned how horrible William was toward the end. Now, though, once he learns the rest of the story, I doubt he'll be so forgiving right away.
God, I can't do this.
After that night with William, it took six months of antidepressants and thirteen months of therapy to start feeling like myself again. Not only would digging up all that shit really hurt, but imagining Drex looking at me with the hate that Tara does will gut me. I'll be ruined.
No. I fucking can't.
My tears stop long enough for me to flag down a taxi once I hit the street. Drex isn't far behind me, but he's too late. I make eye contact with him just as the car door closes. His expression is unreadable and he holds my gaze as he stands in the doorway of his apartment building.
My heart breaks as I ride away, and it takes me a second to tell the driver my address. Drex calls me a total of three times before I make it to my front door. I don't answer. I don't know what to say. The sound of Renee’s laughter bleeds through from the other side of the door and I do my best to straighten myself before I walk in.
“Hey Kels,” Renee says. She's sitting at the counter watching something on her phone. The delicious smell of baked apples and sugar is thick in the air and I notice two apple pies cooling on a cookie sheet. Christmas garland, bulbs, and a large wad of tangled holiday lights lay at her feet and spill out of a large tote. Our artificial Christmas tree, naked and only half assembled, is not too far from where she sits.
“Sorry, I started without you,” she says, not looking up. “I can't believe Christmas is only a few days away and we haven't even gotten the tree up.”
“Yeah, we are behind this year.”
She nods and laughs again. “You have got to check out this YouTube channel, it's all about ruining classic songs in the most hilarious ways.” She smiles and holds up her phone. I move closer and watch as two people reinvent “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in a way that would undoubtedly get them on the naughty list.
“Funny.” I force a chuckle.
Renee's brows crease as she notices my lack of enthusiasm. “What's wrong?”
I sigh as I flop down in the seat next to her. “Drex might be having a baby,” I start. Her eyes widen and the look of surprise turns to utter shock when I tell her Tara is the mother.
“Oh no,” she says. “So he lied to you? He's really seeing her?”
“No, apparently it was a one night thing months ago. Too many drinks… whatever.” A heaviness creeps into my chest.
“Damn. I'm sorry, honey” she says.
“Oh and to make matters worse…” I watch pain appear so plainly on her face when I tell her that Drex has no idea what happened that night with me and Tara. Pain she feels for me.
She takes a deep breath, and with the patented Renee optimism, says, “Well, maybe he'll see it differently, more clear headed since some time has passed.” But the frown on her face tells me the truth.
“It's ok,” I say. “He's going to hate me.” I swallow hard as my heart sinks further.
“He's not…” Renee starts
“He is and there's no way around it.”
“Babe. He'll hear you out. Even if it's not right away, I know he’ll want to hear your side,” she says. The best response I can give right now is a nod as I clench my jaw and fight my tears.
“Maybe that's why you should just tell him.”
“It's better to hear it from you than to hear it from her, right?”
I stare at her with a blank expression and don't respond. I'm too tired, too disappointed. Maybe she's right though. If Tara tells him, and I'm surprised she hasn't yet, it would be a warped version. But if I tell him, maybe I can get ahead of it. Just maybe he won't hate me for what happened. I look into Renee's brown eyes and wish I could believe that. With my luck, he’ll probably freak out once he hears the truth, and I'll be front and center for the moment I become the worst person in the world to him.
“No,” I say, softer this time. “Maybe…” she watches me with bated breath. “Look. I can't think about this right now. Let's talk about something else… anything else.”
Renee doesn't hesitate, allowing me to dodge the subject, for once. Maybe it's because she knows it's a losing battle.
“So, I'm going out with Mitchell tonight.” She grins.
“Really?” My eyebrows rise. The night he met us for drinks went well. I expected Renee to be awkward, still healing from Tom and all, but she was surprisingly at ease around him. I actually ended up being the awkward one because of how much they clicked. I quickly turned into the third wheel.
“Yeah, and I finally went to see Tom,” she says, and I cringe. “I told him I wasn't interested in starting over and he seemed pretty wrecked.”
“Really? But he was the one who cheated.” I purse my lips. “He doesn’t deserve any sympathy.”
“You’re right. He kept telling me how sorry he was and how much he still loved me.” She shakes her head. “I told him if that was true then he needed to evaluate his definition of love because true love wouldn’t have allowed him to do something so cruel and hurtful.”
I nod, agreeing with her totally. “He fumbled over his words a bit after that and apologized like fifty more times, but… I’m ok. I’m healed from it, and who knows, maybe I dodged a bullet,” she says.
“Yeah.” I nod again. “Well, I’m happy you found your closure.”
“Me too,” she says.
“So is this an official date?” I ask. “With Mitchell?”
“I don't know.” She blushes. “Maybe.”
“He's so nice.” I smile. “Y'all would make the perfect little couple.”
“Haha. I didn't say all that.” She laughs.
“Come on, can't you see it? White picket fence, matching Christmas sweaters, happy and well mannered children… all impeccably dressed, of course.”
“Shut up.” Renee laughs, throwing a piece of red garland at me. “Christmas sweaters, really?”
I’m still laughing as Cam walks in the front door.
“Hey ladies,” he says. We both greet him and Renee watches as he peels out of his winter layers and heads down the hall.
“Shower,” he says, just as the bathroom door closes behind him. She’s still looking down the hall, clearly deep in thought.
“Eww. Why are you staring at him like that?” My brow furrows. “You don’t… you’re not interested in him are you?”
“No!” She chuckles. “God, no. He’s so… Cam.” She shrugs.
“Good.” I shudder at the thought of my best friend and my brother being anything more than friends. Cam is definitely not the nice guy type that Renee usually goes for. There’s no secret to how much he adores Renee. He always flirts with her, but Cam flirts with everybody. Plus, there’s all that “taking control” mess he does with his girls. Renee’s sweet persona would not mesh well at all. They’d break up and ruin our entire dynamic, plus it’s gross. Renee fingers a strand of silver Christmas beads. Her thoughts seem to have gone back in the clouds.
“Well, I guess we should finish up so you can start getting ready for your date.”
She nods and we start sorting through the box of decorations.
The next morning is slow going. I didn't sleep very well. There is so much to feel. Too much worry about this meeting, stress about my career, everything with Drex. The warmth of the shower soothes me as I mentally prepare myself for the day.
Marsh will give us another chance, I know he will. And Drex…
Drex is where my thoughts keep freezing. Everything gets lost in an endless pit of so much fear and excitement that I can’t grasp hold of a decision. A direction. The constant bouncing back and forth is fucking exhausting.
Is it because of love? Am I in love with him?
The pipes creak as I turn the water off and step out of the shower wrapping my hair in a towel. Watching my reflection in the mirror, I try to think through the fear, through the pounding of my heart. I end up feeling more terrified. Jumping in blindly with Drex and thinking past all the emotion was something I was finally comfortable with. But now I know it could end badly, not only because of the past, but also because of how everything played out that night after William pulled the trigger. In love, out of love… no. Him loving me only to end up hating me would be more heartbreaking than forcing myself to stay away from him. Pain dances in my eyes as I dry my face and turn away from the mirror.
The chances you take in life are much like games. Win or lose, it’s up to you to know which games are worth playing. My mother told me that the day I graduated college. I have stuck to that advice wholeheartedly, and I'm not sure if it's worth playing this game.
By the time I make it to the subway, I’m so deep in thought that it takes me a second to acknowledge Ms. Teller.
“Well hello there,” Ms. Teller says.
“Hey. How are you today?”
She rakes a hand over her winter hat that has begun to slide from her head of silky gray hair, securing it in place back over her ears. “I'm ok, sweetheart. How have you been?”
I met Ms. Teller for the first time a few weeks after that night with William. I was still in shock, totally depressed, and just trying to hang on to my sanity. The train was a few minutes early that day, and with everything I had on my mind, I was running later than usual. As I sat on a bench in the middle of the platform, crying and completely overwhelmed as my train pulled away, Ms. Teller sat next to me and just started talking.
“My rock fell and the world crumbled, but earth has a way of making new rocks and remembering the missed ones… even the trains.”
It was the most random thing I had ever heard. I thought she was crazy. But I learned after talking to her a while that she isn't crazy at all, just a quirky old lady. Her randomness was enough to distract me from my pain that day. Her wisdom and charm made her easy to talk to, and I opened up about my situation and depression as time went on. It helped a lot and she played a large part in the reason I got help.
Ms. Teller smiles as she tells me about her family gathering for the holiday and how she’s looking forward to having a talk with her adult grandkids.
“Maybe one of those knuckleheads can get laid so I can meet at least one great grandchild before I leave this earth.”
“Is that what you're going to tell them?” I laugh.
“I sure am. They have degrees and stable careers. I think it's time to get down to business.”
I'm still laughing as her train arrives. “Well, let me know how it goes.” She nods and waves goodbye as she boards the train. Air whooshes around me as her train moves from the platform, leaving behind the smell of the damp subway and a slight ringing in my ears. I slide onto a bench and check the time, noticing my train is running a few minutes late. Five minutes go by and I’m mulling over what I’m going to say to Drex and Mr. Marsh when a familiar voice reaches my ears.
“Kels,” Drex says, appearing in front of me. The surprise of seeing him causes the words to get caught in my throat at first.
“Dre… Drex.” I stand. “What are you doing here?”
“Taking you to work,” he says. “We need to talk.”
He grabs my hand and begins walking toward the stairs. “But what if I'm not ready to talk about this? What If I need time?” I say, pulling my hand away right as he takes the first step up the staircase.
“We’re talking, Kels. This running off shit won’t fly. We have a lot to figure out and not talking about it won’t get us anywhere.” He huffs. “Marsh is meeting with us in a few hours and this conversation between us needs to happen.” He stares at me sternly as frustration fills my chest.
“Fine.” I say, and begin walking up the stairs.
We are quiet as we make our way toward his car. My mind bounces between telling him the rest of the story and not telling him, and it isn't long before we are in the car and pulling out of his parking spot.
“So talk,” he demands. “What is this shit with Tara?” He shoots me a steely glare.
“How is it that you don't know all of this already?” I huff. “You and Tara are close.”
“I wasn't in the country when it happened. After Mr. Benton died…” He sighs, swiping a hand over his head. “I left. It was too much. I was in Europe when I got the call about Liam, and by the time I got home, it was over. Our families started fighting because of the grief. We couldn't figure out how we all missed the signs. Everything was a mess and everyone was trying to find an answer or someone to blame. After awhile we decided not to talk about it anymore and focus on happy memories of Liam instead.”
“Oh.” I breathe. “I know that had to be hard for everyone, especially just months after losing his father.”
“Yeah. It was. We were just figuring out how to see straight again having just lost my brother a few years before,” he says. “Then with Liam, and all the drama with the police being involved… Tara kept going on about you being to blame.” He sighs, and my body shifts as he comes to a stop at a light a few blocks from EDG. “I didn't need to know the details. The only thing that mattered was that Liam was gone and my family was falling apart.”
My heart aches for him, for his family. Everyone was changed forever and I hope it’s for the better after so much suffering. Learning to listen a little harder, to take a second look at the people closest to us, because sometimes they hide their pain the best.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. He bites his lip. “I'm sorry for the part I played in it.”
Tension rolls through him, but he only nods. “So, what do we do now?”
My heartbeat picks up as a million questions run through my head on hyper-speed. Is opening these wounds worth it? Will his family be thrown into turmoil again because of my existence in Drex's life? Is this truly a losing battle?
“You know how much I care for you, Drex.” I say. “But… with all the pain surrounding us, do you think it's worth it? Don't you think we'd just end up resenting each other?”
“Why would we resent each other?”
“My mere presence in your life would cause a divide in your family. Every time they saw me they would be reminded of something so awful that I'd never be accepted.”
And you'll probably hate me too once you find out why.
I clench my jaw as I feel the heaviness pull at my heart. “Not to mention Tara and the baby. It would be easier to stop things now before we get to that point.”
We pull into the parking garage at EDG in silence. Every nerve in my body tingles as I wait for him to respond. It isn't until we are parked and the car is turned off that he speaks.
“You’re running,” he says.
I scoff. “I'm making the hard decision.”
He turns to me and holds me with his gaze in a way that makes me want to erase everything I just said.
“Is it the baby, or is it Tara? Because if you're apprehensive about the baby, then I'll accept that, but I’m not letting you run for any other reason.”
“I'm not running,” I say.
At that moment, a few of our co-workers, Matthew and Shane, pull into the garage and park near Drex's car.
“Which is it, Kels?”
I close my eyes briefly and exhale. Before I can say anything, Shane makes eye contact with me as he's walking by.
“I should probably go. People shouldn't keep seeing us together until we take care of this thing with Marsh. I'll see you at the meeting, ok?”
Drex groans in frustration as he watches me leave to catch up with Shane. My thoughts are far away as I get out of the car and I can't grasp hold of a single one.
The mood in the office is stale. Shane and I have our normal morning meeting, but it's pointless until we get the final verdict about my job. At first, I was hoping the meeting would be later in the day so I could prepare myself, but now I really just want it over with. I'm unfocused, dropping things, I've asked Shane to repeat himself at least four time since he got here.
“I'm sorry,” I say, running my hands through my hair.
“It's fine. I'm going to head to my office. Try to breathe, Kelsa. Come see me after the meeting,” he says, giving me a hopeful smile.
I nod. “Thank you.”
I spend the next forty-two minutes and thirty-three seconds trying, and failing, at not staring at my phone. Any minute Amber will call me and I can't stop obsessing over it. I wonder what Drex is doing. I know he's pissed at the way I left him again, but I said what needed to be said. It fucking hurt, but it's probably best it happens now instead of later.
When the call finally comes, it's from Marsh's assistant, Julie, telling me to come to his office. My steps are heavy as I make my way to his floor.
“Just breathe. Either this will happen or it won't, right? You knew what you were getting into. If the worst happens, you are smart and talented enough to pick up the pieces and keep going,” I whisper in the elevator. Right as I'm about to step out on the floor, my phone chimes with a text from Drex. It's the same question he asked me in the car.
DREX: Is it the baby or is it Tara?
I don't respond. Of course it's Tara, but if I tell him that, then I'll have to tell him why and none of that will make this any easier. Steadying myself with a few deep breaths, I walk to Marsh's open office door and knock lightly on the trim.
“Ms. Preston, please join us,” Marsh says, gesturing to a seating area that hosts a few leather couches and matching chairs. Amber and Ronald are already seated on one of the couches across from Marsh. They both hold unwavering expressions as they listen intently to whatever Marsh is saying. It feels like my heart is about to freaking explode with how hard it's beating. I wonder if they can tell how freaked out I am. Hopefully I don't look as scared as I feel. “Have you seen Mr. Adams?” Ronald asks. I pause at that. Is this a trick question?
“No, I haven't.” I clear my throat and take a seat on an empty couch.
“Oh, he's running…” Ronald starts to say, but Drex appears in the doorway before he can finish. “Good, here he is.”
It's hard to describe what I'm feeling as I watch Drex approach. It's a flood of emotions—pain, longing, fear, hope. Too confusing and too fucked up to pinpoint. He gives me a small nod, greets everyone, and sits next to me on the couch.
My body is burning, but I don't know if it's because I want to be closer to him or farther away.
“Now that we are all here…” Marsh says. “We can get started.” My eyes move from his unreadable expression to that of Amber’s and Ronald’s. “I have a meeting to attend, so this won't take long.” We all nod. Drex looks steady, not nervous at all, and it both annoys and fascinates me.
“It's been brought to my attention, as well as everyone else's, that you two have been engaging in an undocumented interoffice relationship.” His eyes move back and forth between Drex and I.
“Yes sir,” I respond.
“Were you made aware of our strict no fraternization policy?”
“Yes,” Drex says. I nod.
“As well as the proper way to go about reporting a change in relationship status to HR?”
“We were,” Drex answers.
“Were either of you aware of this relationship?” he asks Amber and Ronald.
“We weren't,” Ronald says.
“The relationship was never reported,” Amber says.
Marsh’s eyes narrow and I brace myself for the worst. “What do you two think of this?” he asks Ronald and Amber.
“Well,” Ronald says, “I'm not exactly impressed with the way this situation played out. Drexel represents me and this looks bad on the both of us.” He gives Drex a hard stare. “That being said…” He sighs. “He's a great assistant, truly talented in this business. I'd hate to lose him from the team.”
Marsh nods and we all look at Amber, who's glaring at me. “When exactly did this start?” she asks me.
“It hasn't been long,” I say, finding my voice. “Rest assured that if this was something we were sure of at the time, the proper procedures would have been followed,” I say. Amber holds me with her glare a beat longer, then focuses her attention to Marsh.
“One shot,” she says. “She's proven her worth to the team, and in regards to this matter, I'd be ok with giving her one more shot at keeping her job.”
“Ok.” Marsh nods. “We also have legal issues to consider,” he says.
“Legal issues?” I say.
“There are legal entanglements regarding the blackmail that can cause negative media attention.” he says. “It is your full right to press charges on Mr. Tanner, and before I ask, I want you to know that your answer, or lack thereof, will not affect any decision on my part. Will you two be pressing charges?” he asks.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” I say, and Drex agrees.
“Ok. So that you're aware, Tanner was dismissed from the company the moment I saw the video. That type of behavior will not be tolerated here. You two on the other hand…” he pauses. “You get a pass only because of the circumstances surrounding the indiscretion as well as the stellar performance you both have shown.” My heart nearly leaps from my chest and I have to force myself not to hug Drex. “But this is a one time exception… is that understood?”
“Yes sir,” we both say, and promptly apologize for the unprofessionalism.
“Is this all right with the two of you? Do you feel demotion is needed?” he asks Amber and Ronald. I hold my breath until they both finally answer, “No.”
“Great. So, officially, do you have a relationship to report?” His blue eyes burrow through us and I almost forgot how to breathe. I let my eyes find Drex's for the first time since he walked in the room. I'm sure the tension is obvious to everyone I can feel it so plainly between us. My heart hammers as I look at Drex and my emotions tangle. The fear, the yearning, the unknown.
“Well…” Drex starts.
“No,” I breathe.
Marsh, Amber, and Ronald stare at us for a beat. Drex’s brows rise, but only slightly, and I feel like total shit.
“Ok,” Marsh says, hesitating at first. “Well that's all I need from you right now. I will see you both again at the meeting when you return from Paris.”
We both stand and shake his hand, thanking him again for the opportunity before we leave.
My feet feel heavier than before as Drex and I walk towards the elevator. I expected him to be angry, frustrated… something. But, instead, he's smiling, laughing actually. I wait patiently for the elevator to arrive, holding my questions until we are out if earshot of Marsh's assistant.
“Why are you laughing?” I ask the moment the door closes.
He turns to me with an intensity in his eyes that's I've never seen before. The elevator starts its descent and he moves closer, backing me against the wall. My breath hitches as he slides a hand up my hip and around my waist.
“Because you just started a brand new game.” He smiles. “And it's going to be so much fun watching you lose.”
I hold his gaze as I try to gather my words. The doors slide open and he walks away, leaving me breathless as the doors slide closed behind him.