As an introvert, living in Texas was hell. Over the last couple of months of staying here, I’d found perfect strangers would strike up conversations out of the blue. From my waxer telling me about her no-good, lazy boyfriend while she worked on my lady bits to a grocer’s clerk at the checkout line asking what I was making for dinner and then trying to write down her mama’s favorite chicken recipe—It was a lot to handle for someone like me, who tended to prefer my own company.
At least at the gym it was acceptable to wear earphones to block out the masses. To work out and get my sweat on gave me a nice break from the pressure of engaging with others.
But this morning as I was finishing up, I walked by the front desk and couldn’t help overhearing an irate female railing at the poor gym desk clerk about his refusal to let her in. I told myself not to get involved, but it turned out I couldn’t walk away, not from someone berating another person. Call it a personal quirk. I worked as assistant to a high-powered, workaholic business investor. Trust me when I say he was demanding, but at least he treated me with respect. Unlike others in this world who thought me being an assistant meant they could treat me like I was beneath them.
The poor kid at the desk, who was probably all of eighteen, turned beet red and looked around, probably hoping his manager would come save him.
Definitely been there, kid. As I approached the desk, I couldn’t hear exactly what the angry woman had said, but I did hear his response.
“Ma’am, I do apologize, but I can’t let you in on a guest pass unless the member is present with you.”
“But as I told you—and you’re clearly not listening—he is here. Somewhere. Just go get him, and he can sign me in. He has brown hair, is six foot two, and is probably wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt.”
Jesus, she’d described about half the men in here. With two floors and hundreds of people working out here on a busy weekend, it certainly wouldn’t be easy to find him.
Although I’d only been here a couple of months, I’d come to think that in Texas, of all places, people had manners. It was definitely different from New York, where I’d lived most of my adult years, or London, where I spent a childhood I’d rather forget about.
The desk clerk responded politely with his soft Texan accent. “Ma’am, I paged him, but he hasn’t come up here.”
“He probably has headphones in. If you’ll just let me go and find him, I’ll bring him back. Or better yet, get your manager, so at least I can talk to someone who’ll actually help.”
I wasn’t a fan of getting involved in other people’s shit, let alone that of a stranger, but I’d heard enough to trigger me into action. I marched up to the desk where I glanced at the clerk’s nametag. “Hi, Jeremy. How about I sign her in as my guest for today?”
“Are you sure?” He glanced from me to her as if wondering why on earth I’d want to help her out.
Ms. Thing, with her perfect figure encased in expensive workout gear, her blond hair tied back, and big blue eyes fully made up as if she was going out to a fancy restaurant instead of the gym, gave him a triumphant smile before turning towards me. “Thank you. I mean I can’t believe it’s such an ordeal—”
I cut her off. “Oh, don’t go thanking me. Because I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for Jeremy here. That way he doesn’t have to listen to a mega-bitch at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning while he tries to follow the rules and not get fired. You may get off on belittling teenagers like him, and he may be unable to tell you to bugger off, but I, for one, am not listening to a minute more of your abuse. So, go get your little sweat on, but if I hear of you so much as glaring at another staff member here, I’ll personally throw your arse out.”
I wasn’t up on all of the American laws, but considering the State of Texas had people armed with guns going anywhere they chose, I doubted the authorities would care if I physically escorted a bitchy female out the door of a gym.
Her eyes widened, and she sucked in a breath. Then, much to my shock, she burst into tears, running for the women’s locker room a few feet away.
Huh. Didn’t see that coming.
“What’s going on here? Why did Avery go running into the locker room crying?”
I turned around to look at the owner of the big, masculine voice. It apparently belonged to a six foot two, muscular, all-American man fitting her initial description. He was dressed in a long-sleeved workout shirt and shorts. He might be hot, but he wasn’t winning any points, neither with his squeaky clean-cut looks nor his taste in women.
“Your girlfriend was yelling at the front desk clerk because he wouldn’t let her in on your guest pass if you weren’t here to sign for her.”
He looked between me and the kid, who apologized.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I was only trying to follow the rules. I had you paged and everything.”
Tall, hot and handsome sighed. “No, no, you don’t have to apologize. I had my earphones in, so I couldn’t hear the page. I wasn’t aware she’d be coming; otherwise, I would’ve informed you.” He turned back towards me, vivid blue irises focusing fully on mine. “And she’s not my girlfriend.”
I rolled my eyes. How many times did a woman need to hear that line? “Really? Does she know that?”
He chuckled, the deep, Southern-accented baritone flooding my senses. He might not be my type, but my body wasn’t listening to my brain trying to tell it that.
“I would hope so since she’s my younger sister.”
Huh. Didn’t see that coming, either. “Yes, well, your sister was quite rude to Jeremy, and when I informed her as much, she burst out crying.”
He raked a hand through his short hair, cursing under his breath. “I’m sorry, Jeremy, and you…”
“Ms. Brown.” Because giving him my first name seemed too personal.
As if he sensed the boundary, his lips twitched.
“Please, call me Trevor. And I do apologize to both you and Jeremy for my sister’s manners. Not to excuse her behavior, but she normally isn’t so rude. She found out a couple days ago that her fiancé cheated on her with her best friend. It has her—well, let’s just say out of sorts and out of character.”
Not that I had a sibling, but if I did, I’d shoot him for spilling personal details of the sort Trevor had just told me. But, damn. Those details would have to hit my weak spot: women dealing with the heartache caused by a cheating man.
Jeremy spoke up. “I can have one of the female trainers go into the locker room and check on her?”
Trevor shook his head. “No, no. I suppose I’ll wait her out. Unless Ms. Brown might be kind enough to go in and come out with an update for me.”
The nerve. “I’m not apologizing.”
This time he grinned, and it would have been panty melting if, you know, I found his type appealing.
“No, ma’am, you shouldn’t. If anything, I thank you for stepping in. But I thought perhaps you could tell me if she’s bawling her head off or merely taking a moment. Might give me an indication if I have a while to wait.”
I did have to go into the locker room anyhow to get my gym bag and sweatshirt. Bollocks. “Fine. I’ll give you an update.”
Not because I felt guilty. She’d deserved the little talk down I’d given her. Wasn’t as though I could’ve known she’d been betrayed or could have felt sympathetic that she’d not only lost her fiancé, but also her best friend. That bloody sucked.
Upon entering the locker room, I followed the sounds of sniffles to the last stall in the row in the bathroom. I’d given up years ago calling it the loo since most Americans didn’t have a clue what it meant.
What was her name again? Oh, right. “Avery, your brother is outside at the desk waiting for you.”
“Did you, uh, tell him about what I did?”
A wracked sob permeated the air, causing me to wince.
“He did tell us you had some, uh, mitigating circumstances.”
“That’s so humiliating. And you don’t need to apologize. I deserved what you said.”
“I’m not apologizing. But it sounds like you’ve had a shitty last couple of days and weren’t acting yourself.” For all I knew, she was a bitch all the time.
She came out of the stall, mascara smudged, big innocent eyes now red from crying. “I wasn’t. God, my momma would roll over in her grave if she knew how I was talking to the front desk clerk. It was rude, and I’ll apologize.”
I gave her a small nod. “Brilliant. You do that.”
Intending to grab my things and get home to take a shower and get on with the rest of my Sunday, I was unprepared when she stuck out her hand.
“Can we start over? My name is Avery. Actually, my real name is Elizabeth, but my brother always called me by my middle name when we were kids, and it turned out I preferred it.”
Why? Why would I care about this mundane shit? Ah, right. Because rolling my eyes would put me on the level of bitch she had been. “Hello, not-Elizabeth-but-Avery. Lovely to meet you.” I took her hand and shook it slightly.
“But what’s your name?”
I smiled tightly. “It’s Emma.”
“Obviously, you’re not from here. I mean this is Texas, and you’re British.”
Thanks for pointing that out. I sighed, thinking she was probably in her early twenties. Which begged the question: why get married so young? None of my business. “You’re right. I’m not from here.” Nor did I wish to stay here in Texas. But that was a serious conversation with my boss I’d been avoiding. “Your brother is waiting on you. Wanted me to check to ensure you were okay, and now that I did, well, I’ll be leaving.”
“But wait. At least let me buy you a drink or something while I’m in town, so I can thank you properly.”
I put my hand up in a defensive measure, not wanting her to hug me or anything crazy like that. What was with Americans and hugging? No touchy, please. “That’s not necessary. Look, we all have bad days.”
Damn. I had to go and open my mouth because she instantly welled up with tears again. “Did you ever have someone betray you?”
It was tempting to say no and move the hell on, but looking at her big blue eyes swimming with tears, I nodded. “Once upon a time when I was younger. Yes.”
She lit up like she’d just found her best friend for life. Oh, bugger.
“And what did you do? I mean how did you get past it? Are you married now with kids, so you can say it was all worth it?”
Since when did a happy ending have to include those things to qualify? But rather than get into a life-choices debate, I told her the facts bluntly. “No, but when he begged me to be with him again, I was able to tell him to fuck off, and nothing, absolutely nothing, feels better than that. So, you keep that in mind if you ever entertain the idea of forgiving him. Because I guarantee being the one who got away feels a hell of a lot better than being the girl who gives him a second chance.”
She perked up and then sighed. “I wish I was like you.”
I swallowed hard. If she knew the darkness inside of me, that would be the very last thing she’d wish for. “No, you don’t,” I murmured, ready for this conversation to be over. “Now, go out there and talk to your brother. Give yourself some time to get over your fiancé, but not too much.”
“What’s the best way? To get over him.”
“You truly want to know?” Because I had a feeling I was about to shock the princess.
“Get over him by getting under someone else.”
But instead of being shocked, she burst out laughing. “We so need to be friends.”
No. No. No. I backed away slowly, silently willing this situation and Miss Beauty Pageant to stay away. “No offense, but I don’t really do that.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Friends? You don’t have friends?”
Sure, I did. I had two. Simon, my boss, and his girlfriend, Peyton. And that was plenty of people to care about in my life. The less people who got in, the less likely I’d have to deal with being disappointed when they let me down.
Her face fell. “It’s okay. I realize my first impression was horrible, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to be my friend. I wouldn’t want to be, either. I mean what do you get out of the deal except a blubbering girl who takes out her frustrations on a poor front desk clerk.”
Bollocks, she’d already twisted it into self-deprecation. I knew she was in a fragile state and sympathized despite my better judgement. Rejecting her would be like kicking a puppy. Even I wasn’t that cold.
I went to my locker, pulled out my duffle bag, and took a card out of the side, which I handed over. “Here. This is my business card with my email address. Notice I said email as opposed to phone number because I can’t have you ringing me on my job. However, if ever you want to vent or need advice, you email me. Normally, I’ll respond within a day, as long as I’m not traveling.”
Not that I’d been doing much travel over the last couple of months. I missed the excitement of a new place every few weeks. My life was meant to be spent in a busy metropolis with late nights, where fashion didn’t include boots unless they were up to the knee and paired with skinny jeans.
She took my card, clutching it to her chest as though it was a golden ticket for Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. “Thank you so much. I’ll email you. I’m so glad I met you, Emma. My other friends would simply tell me to eat a pint of ice cream or to forgive Edward because I’ve got so much time already invested in him, but you’ll keep me strong.”
I smiled, telling her I needed to go. Especially before we did any more inadvertent girl bonding. But as I stepped out of the locker room door, I realized I’d forgotten about her brother. Her very handsome—if I was into guys who were pretty—brother.
“Is she okay?” he inquired, his concern looking genuine.
“Yep. Just ducky. She’ll be out in a moment. Gotta go.”
But like his sister, he wasn’t so easily swayed. “At least let me treat you to dinner as a token of appreciation.”
“Thanks, but no, thanks.” I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.