I stared at the screen of my phone until the MOM flashing across it finally bleeped out, replaced by MISSED CALL.
Not a single bit of me felt guilty for letting her call go to voicemail. Not one single freaking little bit. I’d call her back. Eventually. I was too tired after my run.
“Darlin’, you want somethin’ to eat?” Zac’s voice piped up unexpectedly from his spot across the kitchen.
I hadn’t even realized I’d zoned out so completely when my phone started buzzing. I raised my eyes to find my roommate with one hip against the counter, a spatula in his other hand. But it was the crutch he had shoved under his armpit that caught my gaze. I didn’t need to look around to know he’d left his other crutch propped up by the refrigerator. I’d found it there at least ten other times over the course of the last two weeks.
Yeah, crutches. The first time I’d seen them was when he and Aiden’s friends had showed up to the house, after spending hours at the emergency room thanks to a hairline fracture in his foot. Every time I saw them, they made me want to cry. Not because he’d broken some bones, which was terrible in itself, but because of what it reminded me of.
They reminded me of Diana’s face when Aiden and I picked her up.
Aiden had driven me to the hospital the minute I got myself together enough to explain what happened. How Diana had gone out with her coworkers and stayed out late. How her boyfriend had showed up to her apartment in the middle of the night, angry that she’d stayed out so late. Had she cheated on him? How many dicks had she sucked? Why hadn’t she invited him? She told me about how he’d then hit her and kept hitting her before storming out, enough so that she knocked on her neighbor’s door and had him drive her to the hospital. How she filed a police report against him.
I’d spent the next two days at her apartment so she wouldn’t be alone, listening to her tell me how wrong things had gone. How embarrassed she was. How stupid she felt.
I couldn’t remember much after that. I felt like I was in a dream. The guilt I felt for not making her tell me something was going on was suffocating, debilitating. Why hadn’t I said more? Done more? This was my best friend. I knew better. Hadn’t I lived with the lies of what was secretly going on at home for half my life?
Her black eye, busted lip and the bruises I saw all over her wrists and neck when I sat in the bathroom with her while she showered were seared into my eyelids. I wasn’t surprised at all when, on the second day, she said she wanted to go stay with her parents in San Antonio for a while. She wasn’t sure how long, she just knew she wanted to go be with them. I helped her pack two suitcases.
I knew Aiden’s friends were gone by the time the taxi dropped me off at home; there weren’t any cars other than mine in the driveway or street. Aiden had been in the nook when I first came inside. He’d walked up to me and hugged me without a word, letting me bury myself into that great big chest.
I’d been helpless countless times in my life—too many times really—and once more, as an adult, was nearly too much to bear. Because there was nothing you could do when someone you care about had something like that happen.
And the anger and the regrets ate you up.
In the days that followed, I couldn’t shake off the guilt or the disappointment in myself for not doing something or making Rodrigo, Diana’s brother, confront her. When I went to Aiden’s bed that night, and every night afterward because being with him made me feel better, he welcomed me without a word or expression of complaint. I didn’t feel like talking, and I’d gone to the only person in the world who would understand better than anyone what had happened to someone I loved.
Then the day came that he was set to leave for Colorado. He’d stood in front of me in his room, given me a hug, kissed my cheek, kissed my mouth gently, slipped something over my head and he left.
My friend was gone. My puppy with him.
I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.
It wasn’t until he was out of the house that I looked down and saw what he had left me with. His medallion. The St. Luke’s medallion his grandfather had given him. It made me cry.
Zac, who I didn’t think knew how to handle the mood I was wrapped in, didn’t do much more than make sure I ate, and checked on me from time to time.
But nothing changed the biggest truth resting on my soul in the aftermath of Diana leaving: I missed the hell out of the big guy. Missed the shit out of him.
Good things in life were precious, and I’d been too much of a coward to do anything about the gift I’d been given, and it seemed like I was reminded of it every day.
From the moment he’d landed in Durango, Aiden had begun texting me. First with:
Then he’d attached a picture of Leo sitting on the floor of the rental car he had for the next two months. Then a picture of him running through the snow at the house in Colorado.
A week passed in the blink of an eye. He sent me at least four text messages a day. Two of which were always of Leo, and the other two were usually something random.
Took your entire Dragonballs collection in case you’re wondering where it is, he’d let me know. I hadn’t even noticed the DVDs were missing.
Leo ate the toe of my runner while I was showering.
How’s your knee?
He sent me bits and pieces every day that tugged at me, only making me miss him more through the haze of sorrow surrounding my thoughts and heart.
After a couple of days of missing just about everyone I loved, I accidentally found the toy I’d bought from Rodrigo’s kids months ago. The small plastic clown had been hidden beneath a stack of papers I’d put in my nightstand. I’d bought it with the intention of putting it in Aiden’s shower as a joke, but I’d forgotten all about it.
It made me cry, these deep, belly tears that had me on the floor with my back to the bed. I cried for Diana who had looked beyond devastated at her boyfriend’s betrayal. I cried for my mom who I couldn’t find it in me to call back. And I cried because I loved someone who might not love me back no matter how badly I might want him to.
At the end of it, I got up to my feet, set that clown on the corner of my desk, and resolved myself to keep going. Because doing otherwise was not an option.
I dug into work with a vengeance; I got back to training even though my motivation had hitched a ride to a different continent. I’d retreated into myself more with this hole left in my heart, focusing on these things to distract me as I waited for the people I loved the most to come back to me.
Unfortunately in the process, I hadn’t been a good friend to Zac. I knew he’d been worried about me; it would have been the same if our shoes had been on opposite feet. I realized he still was worried about me.
Zoning out in the kitchen didn’t help anything, and I really had to dig in to manage to smile for him. “I’m not hungry yet, but thanks, Zac.”
He nodded a little reluctantly but didn’t press the issue as he faced the stove again. “What’d you do today? Eight miles?”
Planting my elbows on the table, I eyeballed his cast. “Yeah, and I did three at marathon pace,” I bragged. He’d run with me enough and cussed alongside me when we’d started adding marathon pacing to our runs. Zac knew it was hell.
As selfish as it made me, my disappointment had reached a level I didn’t know what to do with; the reality harsh and bitter. After everything that Zac and I had been through together, all the times we’d taken turns throwing up after we’d started hitting the seventeen-mile-long, slow, distance runs, the times one of us had had to help partially carry the other once we’d run out of steam thanks to training five days a week, all the aches and pains we’d shared… I was going to have to go on this journey on my own, without my closest companion.
The guy who had lost his favorite thing in the world and had let me force him into training for a marathon.
If that wasn’t friendship, I don’t know what was. It just made me feel more terrible about disappearing on him, even if it had just been because I didn’t want to drag him into the pit I’d fallen into, when now he had something else to contend with on his road to recovery and the rest of his career.
From the choppy sigh that came out of him, I already knew what he was going to say before it actually came out of his mouth.
“I’m so sorry, Vanny.”
And just like the other time he’d apologized for slipping off an icy curb by accident, I said the same thing. “It’s okay. I promise.” Was I slightly brokenhearted? More than slightly. Would I ever tell him that? No.
“It was stupid.”
The urge to rub right between my breasts was overwhelming. “It was an accident. I’m not upset with you.” My voice cracked and I had to swallow. “It’s just been everything. I’m fine, I promise.”
The expression on his face when he turned around said what his mouth didn’t: You’re not okay.
Was anyone ever totally okay though?
I found myself lowering my head to rub the back of my still sweaty neck. “You know you don’t have to stay here with me if you’d rather go back home, right?”
The original plan had been for him to go home right after the marathon, spend some time with his family, and then begin working out with his old college coach. Now? Well, I wasn’t positive, but I did know he was supposed to be moving out and he hadn’t yet.
Zac slanted me a look.
“I’m not leavin’ until you do your damn marathon, all right?” he insisted.
“But you don’t have to, okay? I promise you have nothing to feel sorry for. If you change your mind and you want to go—”
Since when did we have three stubborn asses living at the house?
“But if you do—”
“I’m not. PawPaw can wait a week. He’ll probably outlive me,” Zac argued.
“If you want to stay, stay, but if you don’t want to, it’s all right. Okay?” I insisted too, trying my best to give him a reassuring smile.
He simply shook his head.
Just as he opened his mouth to say something, the doorbell rang and we shot each other a frown. “Did you order pizza?”
I’d ordered a couple of my books that had gone to print a few days ago, but chose the free shipping option, so there was no way it was them. I shrugged at him and got up, walking slowly toward the door, trying to get myself to relax. When I glanced through the peephole, I took a step back and stared at the door blankly.
“Who is it?” Zac called out.
“What did you just say?”
“It’s Trevor,” I answered coolly, knowing he was already screwed by yelling. “Have you been ignoring his calls?”
That was a yes.
“I just won’t open the door then,” I said before there was a loud knock on the door.
“I can hear you!” Trevor bellowed.
I didn’t feel like dealing with this, now or a decade from now. “What do you want me to do?” I ignored the man on the other side of the door, all of a sudden not caring if he’d heard us or not.
Zac cursed from the kitchen and a moment later, his crutches hit the tile as he hobbled his way toward the front door. With a resigned sigh, he said, “I can get the door.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, even if inside I was kissing his feet for not making me have to put up with Trevor.
I took a step away. “Do you want me to stay down here?”
He hesitated for a moment before nodding. “I’ll take him into the living room so you can eat something.”
Nodding, I walked pretty damn quickly into the kitchen and busied myself pulling things out of the fridge to eat, despite still not being hungry, as Zac opened the door. I really tried to ignore them, but it was hard. Bits and pieces of conversation floated from the living room to the kitchen way too easily.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“What’s going on with you?”
“What am I supposed to do with you when there’s shit floating around the Internet about you falling outside of a club and breaking your foot?”
“You think anyone’s going to want to take you now?”
Now that comment had me taking a step away from the stove and toward the hallway that led into the living room, ready to tell Trevor he needed to shut the hell up. But Zac didn’t need me defending him. He’d been avoiding Trevor for a long time anyway, and even if he knew what he wanted to do, and I knew, he needed someone else in his corner.
I just didn’t necessarily want it to be Trevor the douche, but it was his career, not mine.
Almost an hour later, the sound of someone clearing their throat had me looking up from where I was sitting at the breakfast table with my feet propped up on one chair, a movie playing on my propped up phone, and a plate I’d just finished scraping the last bit of rice off of.
“I’m surprised you didn’t go with Aiden to Colorado,” the manager commented from his spot leaning against the framing between the hallway and the kitchen.
I raised my tired gaze to his and shook my head. “I couldn’t. I have something I have to do here in a couple of days,” I explained, purposely leaving out what happened to Diana and my run. He didn’t need to know, and what would he do anyway? Give me some half-assed apology I didn’t believe? “There’s no point in my flying back and forth,” my dry, monotone voice added on. Plus, it wasn’t like Aiden had invited me. He’d barely wanted to talk about it each time I’d brought it up.
The snicker that came out of him made me straightening my back. “He could afford it.”
And there it was. I blinked at him. “I make my own money, and I’m not going to waste mine or his.”
“You sure about that?” He had the nerve to raise an eyebrow.
Could he not tell this was the last thing I wanted to do? “Yes, I’m sure. You want to check my bank account?” I’d already had to send in copies of my bank account information to the government to prove I could support Aiden and me—in a much less lavish lifestyle, but I could if push came to shove, at least the government thought so.
Trevor made a small noise in the back of his throat that had me leveling my gaze at him.
I didn’t want to talk to him; now he was just downright pissing me off. “Is that what this is about? Do you think I’m here to blow all of Aiden’s money? Did you think I was trying to win him over or something?” I asked slowly, carefully trying to finally understand what it might be about my personality that had made him so hostile from the moment I’d started working for him.
From the way he pulled at his ear, in that nervous tick I’d picked up on years ago when he was frustrated, I’d hit the nail perfectly on the head.
“Really? You interviewed and hired me. I didn’t even know who he was until you told me.” Yeah, I was getting just as defensive as I thought I sounded. “You could have fired me if you had that much of a problem with it.”
“Fired you?” His hand went to the back of his trimmed, salt-and-pepper head. “I tried firing you at least four times.”
Trevor’s lip snarled. “You didn’t know?”
“When?” I coughed out.
“Does it matter?”
It shouldn’t but… “It does to me.”
The angry, bitter man simply gazed at me like I was dumb. “He wouldn’t let me.”
You know nothing, Vanessa Mazur.
I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand at all.
“The last time I suggested we find him someone else, he said the first person that would go between the two of us would be me. Me.”
Some things just sort of clicked together. Why Trevor had always been such an asshole to me—prima ballerinas didn’t like dancing in anyone else’s limelight. Why he had fought so much to try to keep me from quitting—to save his own hide. Why he’d been so on edge since we got married and didn’t tell him—because it seemed like we were ganging up on him, which was a partial truth.
But the news made me reel.
It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my feet.
He’d liked me. Aiden had fucking liked me. He hadn’t been joking so many months ago.
The way Trevor cleared his throat was rough, catching, like he was trying to compose himself after losing his shit. “Anyway, tell Aiden I’ll be calling him soon. You two might be packing your bags and moving to colder pastures,” he noted. “See you.”
I didn’t say another word to him. What the hell else was there to say?
With shaking hands, I picked up my phone and typed out a message to the big guy.
Me: I didn’t know Trevor wanted to fire me.
An hour later, I got my response.
Aiden: Did he go by the house?
He wasn’t even trying to bullshit me.
Aiden: Yes, he wanted to get rid of you. I didn’t let him.
Was he on crack?
Me: You didn’t say anything when I left. I just thought… you didn’t care.
Aiden: I wasn’t going to force you to stay if you wanted to go.
Me: But you could have said something. I would have stayed longer if you’d just asked.
I’d barely typed that out when I realized how stupid of an argument that was. If he’d asked. Aiden was like me, he wouldn’t have asked. Ever.
Aiden: I got you for longer, didn’t I?