“Has he contacted you?”
I shook my head. “Not a word.” I went into the kitchen and grabbed two beers and the box of leftover pizza from the night before, and took a seat on the floor beside Layla. “Before he told me what happened, he told me, and I quote, ‘You will always be mine. And I take care of what is mine. So if you do walk away, you will have no worries. Never again, no matter what.’” I twisted the top off my beer and took a swig. “So I guess this is his way of reminding me of that.” I frowned as I realized something. “Wait. You said, ‘again.’”
Layla grabbed her beer and a slice of cold Little Caesar’s. “Yeah. Last month and this month.”
I sighed. “Not me either time. I was planning on helping out this month, though.”
A few moments later Layla peered at me with a curious expression. “What about your mom and Cal?”
I picked a pepperoni off my slice and ate it. “He was there, too. I checked on Mom the other day, and they said there was a ‘sizable donation’ to my account, meaning she’s set for…basically forever. What that means, I think, is that he bought the nursing home and is writing off her care. Cal’s tuition has been paid, too. All of it, up front. He doesn’t know, though. I wouldn’t even know how to start telling Cal about any of this.”
“So he’s basically taking care of you. And me. And your mom and brother.”
“Yep.” I dabbed at my mouth. “And Grandma and Grandpa.”
“But he hasn’t called you, texted you, written you, nothing. Even though, if we’re to believe him, what happened was an accident. And you walked away from him.”
“After he flat-out told you he’d fallen for you.”
Layla stared at me with a flat expression. “And you, clearly, are still in love with him.”
She shrugged. “Because it’s obvious. You’re moping.”
“I’m not moping!”
She gave me an are you kidding me? glare. “Yes. You are. I’ve stood by for the last three months and let you have this your way. But now it’s affecting me.” She set her bottle down, which meant she was serious. She never put her bottle down until it was empty. “I don’t like being in debt to someone. And now he’s paying my rent.”
“I didn’t know he’d do that.”
“I know that.” She clutched my fingers. “You need to figure your shit out, babe.”
She shook her head. “No, you’re not. You’re trying to think it through, trying to make sense of it. The thing is, though, it doesn’t make sense. It never will. You can’t equal it out. What he did and how you feel for him may never…wash, I guess. You just have to make a decision and stick to it. Right now, you’re basically just burying your head in the sand and hoping it goes away.” She emptied her bottle and then stood up. “And from what you told me about Roth, a man like him doesn’t just go away.”
I scrubbed my face with one hand. “You’re right. I know you’re right. But I still don’t know what the right thing is.”
“Sometimes…I think sometimes, Key, there is no right thing. There’s just…the best thing. The only thing. I’m not saying I know what that is for you, but I think you do. You’re just…avoiding it.”
Goddamn Layla. That was why she was my best friend: She was willing to say the shit that I didn’t want to hear. She kissed the top of my head in a very rare display of affection, then went into her bedroom, leaving me alone in the living room, my thoughts whirling and skirling, desire and fear and anger and confusion duking it out in my skull.
I was torn in three parts, you see.
One part, my head, was a confused mess, a boiling cesspool of turmoil and memory. I missed my father, missed how my mother had been before her breakdown. Missed being an innocent girl with no worries except my grades. Yet I also desperately missed Roth. I hated that he was responsible for Daddy’s death, but I also understood that it was an accident rather than malicious homicide. Yet again, if Roth hadn’t been so underhanded in his tactics…and around and around it went.
My heart was less complicated. I was in love with Roth, and desperately wanted to go to him, to leave a note for Harris to find, to do anything I could to get Roth back in my life. My heart didn’t care about what had happened. I’d come to a kind of peace with Daddy’s death long before I’d met Roth. I mean, I don’t think you’re ever truly over the loss of a parent, not when they’re taken so suddenly, and especially not when, in my case, he was taken so violently and mysteriously. So I missed him, but he was gone. I had good memories of him. I knew he’d loved me. And nothing Roth did or said could change that.
And then there was my body. There was no question at all in that department. I was lonely and horny and frustrated. I wanted Roth. I wanted his mouth on me. I wanted his c**k inside me. I wanted his hands, and his muscles and his tongue and his eyes and his words and that spicy cologne he wore.
The problem was reconciling head, heart, and body into one decision that would affect the rest of my life. Contact Roth, and tell him to leave me alone, let me live my life and pay my own bills? Contact Roth, and go back to him? Ignore him, and try to move on? I thought one thing, then the other, in rotating cycles moment by moment. The thought of picking one and just going with it terrified me into paralysis. What if I chose the wrong thing? What if I eradicated him from my life and couldn’t ever get over him, never stopped wanting and loving and missing him? What if I went back to him and had misjudged him, or misconstrued my feelings for him, or what if he’d moved on and didn’t want me anymore? Or what if I tried to ignore him and hope he went away, but he never did and I never got over him and never moved forward, and just lived my life in a confused spiral of going-nowhere misery?
Imagine my trepidation, then, when, at the end of three months, I found an Envelope. Roth’s unmistakable handwriting. My name.
I slumped to my butt, sitting on the stairs just inside the foyer of our apartment building. I slid a shaky finger under the flap of the envelope, managing to give myself a paper cut in the process.
No check this time.
A letter. Written in his clear, firm, masculine hand.