“Well, that was dramatic,” Chad said, pushing himself into the back of the booth. I wanted to take my drink and pour it on his lap for the third time in ten minutes.
Seeing the look on Theo’s face made me want to run after him, but instead, I stayed unmoving across the table from Chad and continued on with what I came here to do. In true Chad fashion, he wasn’t taking no for an answer, but what he didn’t realize was that he didn’t have power over me any longer.
No one did.
I was growing impatient, even more so with Theo ripping out of the parking lot with thoughts going through his head that weren’t accurate at all. I cleared my throat and raised my eyebrows at my ex.
“You were saying that your parents called.”
Chad took his glasses off and slipped them into the front pocket of his polo. I grabbed my glass of soda and took a mouthful, preparing myself for what was to come.
“They told me that your mother resigned.”
“I am aware,” I countered.
His eyebrows edged upward in surprise. “Did you have something to do with it?”
I shook my head because I didn’t have anything to do with it—not necessarily. “I didn’t tell her to quit, but I did inform her of our situation.”
Chad glanced away nervously. “Our situation?”
My mother surprised me. When I showed up at home, she was just getting in from cleaning Mr. Yates’s estate. Her hair was in a messy bundle on top of her head, and her cheeks were shimmering with dried sweat. She paused in the doorway and dropped her cleaning supplies before pulling me in for a familiar hug, only to drop her arms a few seconds later when she realized something was wrong.
I’d started off with Chad, explaining everything that had happened at the start of the semester. Part of me was fearful she’d tell me to suck it up because it was obvious that my mother wanted a life of wealth for me, but instead, she was appalled, and it didn’t take longer than a second for her to snatch her phone, call Chad’s mother, and immediately tell her that her son was a misogynistic, unfaithful asshole and that her daughter deserved better. She also informed her that she would no longer be cleaning their house, and she was more than welcome to spread rumors to her wealthy friends and ruin my mother’s complete clientele. I couldn’t contain my laughter when she added in the part where she told her that Chad must have learned such repulsive behavior from her husband, considering she had found used condoms in their guest house that he often frequented.
My mother tossed her phone to the side, and we both laughed for several minutes, but the laughter slowly faded when I eased into the next conversation, knowing it was something that wasn’t even remotely funny. I wasn’t sure what I expected to come out of her mouth when I told her that Tom had found me, but what I had hoped for, though, was that there was a more logical reason for her decision to completely cut him out of my life. I needed there to be a reason that wasn’t vindictive or unforgiving.
And thankfully, there was. My mother wasn’t a saint, and she was well aware of the hurt that she likely caused my father by taking me, but her reasoning wasn’t all that hard to understand. Her eyes welled up when she walked me through her decision of leaving, and it was the first time in my entire life that I heard her speak of my father with regret instead of anger. It all came down to self-preservation. She said he was understanding of her concerns that she wouldn’t be able to provide and take care of the both of us, and so when he accepted her decision, she knew that if she didn’t completely remove herself from his life, she wouldn’t have the willpower to give me all that I deserved—a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and the possibility to have a semi-normal life with an even better future.
Things were wonky right now, but they were at least out in the open.
“Claire,” Chad snapped, pulling me back to reality. “What do you mean, ‘our situation’?”
“Chad…” I grabbed a hold of his hand and gave it the smallest squeeze, even though I didn’t necessarily want to touch him. “I don’t love you.”
At first, I saw the anger, but then I saw the fear. His hand quickly came out from below mine, and he put both of his on top, caging my palm against the table. “Yes, you do, and I love you. Look, I’m sorry for…” He sighed. “I’m sorry for cheating on you. And I’m sorry for everything after. Seeing you with him made me realize what you must have felt when you saw me, and I hate myself for it.”
I shook my head in denial because Chad was wrong. Was it a knock to my confidence when I found him cheating? Absolutely. Was I drowning in betrayal and doubting nearly every person I came into contact with because of his actions? Of course. But that wasn’t love. What Chad had felt for me wasn’t love, and my heart didn’t break in the way that it did when I saw the look of hurt on Theo’s face last weekend when I told him we were never supposed to last.
“You don’t love me.”
Chad began to panic as he leaned in closer to me and dropped his voice to argue. “Yes, I do.”
“Love isn’t forcing someone to give up their wants and dreams for your own, and love isn’t trying to change someone to be what you want. Love isn’t blackmailing either.”
“Okay, fine. I won’t try to change you. I like you the way you are.”
I stood up in annoyance and peered down at him. I didn’t have to sit here and listen to him. I didn’t have to worry about my mother and her bills because, for the first time in her life, she opted to grow up.
“Chad, one day you’ll find someone that you won’t want to change. You’ll find someone that you’re willing to give up every last dream and hope for, even when they tell you not to.” I tapped the top of his hand. “That’s love, Chad. Not this.”
He said my name a few times before I made it to the door to The Bex, but I kept heading to my car, fumbling with my keys to get to the dorm to be with the one person who taught me that sacrificing your hopes and dreams only meant something when no one expected it.
I slipped past the first floor and ran up the stairs, determined to tell Theo that what he just saw at The Bex wasn’t at all what he thought it was. The last thing I said to Theo was that he and I were never supposed to last, but I realized pretty quickly that what we shared had nothing to do with how it started and only how it ended.
I ran my hands down the front of my jeans and wiped the sweat off, noticing how eerily quiet the hallway was. No one was loitering around, and everyone’s doors were shut. It was quiet. So quiet I could hear my labored breathing and thrumming pulse.
As soon as my hand reached out to our door handle, though, I felt my heart slip to the floor. There was a lump the size of a boulder sitting in my throat, cutting off my breathing at the sight of my favorite light-purple scrunchie hanging loosely on the doorknob. I blinked back the tears, but instead of turning around and running like I usually did when a problem presented itself, I pulled the scrunchie off and flew inside the door, preparing myself for the sight.
“Are you serio—’ I stopped in my tracks as Theo flew up from the floor with nothing but a pair of black athletic shorts on. His muscular chest glistened with sweat, and his brown hair stuck to his forehead before he wiped it with the back of his hand, showing off his splotchy cheeks and furrowed brow.
I stood in the doorway and flung my attention to every corner of the room, looking for whatever girl he’d brought home. When I came up empty handed, I let my shoulders deflate, and we both looked down at the scrunchie in my hand before I let it fall to the floor.
“I put it on there so you wouldn’t come in here.”
I hated the sound of his voice because it sounded so discouraging, and I noticed the way he kept pulling away, like he couldn’t stand to look at me. My lip trembled, but I clenched my teeth and took a step farther inside our room, keeping the door open in case I needed to bolt.
“Why?” I asked.
Theo stayed in the exact spot I found him in, and my hand stayed on the doorknob, my grip tightening with dread. “I wasn’t sure I could take seeing you after you were with him. Why do you think I’m in here, doing push-ups, after already tiring out my body on the ice?”
I managed to force a swallow through my tight throat as Theo took a step toward me, finally keeping his sights set on me.
“I wanted to rip you out of the booth so fucking bad I couldn’t see straight. I wanted to take you back to our room and kiss you until you fully understood how I felt about you, but instead, I got inside my car and forced myself to drive away so I didn’t turn back around and pummel his smug face because goddamnit, Claire. He doesn’t deserve you! You deserve better.”
A tear slipped down my cheek, and I quickly moved to brush it away, but Theo erased the rest of the space between us and beat me to it, keeping his hand on my face.
“Can’t you see your worth? He sure can’t. You deserve someone who will do anything to make you happy. Not someone who likes to watch you hurt for their own sick games. You need someone who—’
I stopped him mid-sentence. “Someone who refuses to join their dream team in the NHL because he thinks the owner of the team hurt his fake girlfriend?”
Theo didn’t linger long on what I’d said, because he continued to rant with his hand tightening on my cheek like he was afraid to let me go. “You have never just been my fake girlfriend, and you know it.”
“You’re not giving up your dream for me, Theo. That’s ludicrous.”
He scoffed, his hand shaking against my face. “You don’t know me at all if you think I’m going to play for someone who hurt you.”
I shook my head. “Stop.” My heart began to pulse something hot through my body, and the thought of letting him stand here, thinking that I didn’t care for him in the way he cared for me, made me want to double over.
“No, I’m not gonna stop,” he urged. “You don’t have to be mine, but I’m yours, and you’re just gonna have to deal with it. My dreams and goals mean absolutely nothing if you leave this room thinking I wouldn’t give up every last one to show you your worth.”
A tight sob climbed up my throat, and my shoulders caved as I stood, peering up at the absolute purest, most worthy person I had ever known.
“Please don’t cry. You don’t understand what it does to me.” His face was a mix of worry and confusion.
I shook my head before letting a breath fly from my mouth. “Am I included in your future?”
Theo’s other hand cupped my cheek, and he had me in a hold so tight I couldn’t move even if I had wanted to. “Haven’t I proven that? I’d do anything for you, and I’d do anything to get you to stop crying, even if that means letting you walk out that door and into someone else’s arms. If you’re happier with him, go.”
“I was sitting at The Bex with Chad to tell him that whatever he thought he felt for me wasn’t love. It wasn’t love when I stayed with him to secure my mother’s job, and it wasn’t love when he threatened me into allowing him to go off with other girls until the end of the school year because of the money my mom owed his family. But I’m so thankful he did, because now I know what love is.”
Theo’s eyes shifted back and forth between mine before he dropped his hand to my hips and pulled me farther into the room. The door almost shut behind me, but Theo bent down at the last second and swiped the purple scrunchie off the floor with a quick jab of his hand and hung it on the doorknob before turning around and sending me a fiery look that promised a future with him that I never expected.
“Tell me you’re mine, Bryant. Tell me you trust me, and tell me that you can feel how much I love you just from the way I look at you.”
“I’m yours, Theo. I always was.”
Theo swooped me up and threw me onto his bed before pinning my arms above my head. “And by the way”—he brushed his lips over mine—“we were always meant to last, Bryant.”
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