Chapter 11

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It had been a bad week. The shop had been busy and one of my staff had come down with the stomach flu so I’d had to pull three double-shifts. And to make things worse I had made a catastrophic mistake last Sunday before Holden had flown back to Jacksonville.

 

“Mer, what’s wrong with you?”

 

I groaned, too tired to sleep but wanting nothing more than the oblivion it offered. The weight of my actions was breaking me in half. The burden was nearly too much; I had to tell someone. For all her faults, Lena was a loyal friend; she could keep my secret.

 

If I was honest with myself I could admit that her keeping the secret wasn’t the issue. Since the humiliating display last Thursday Lena hadn’t been Holden’s biggest fan. But it tore me apart knowing that I would turn her more against him by confessing my sin.

 

“Are you sick or something?” she pressed when I didn’t immediately answer.

 

“No, I’m not sick.” At least not in the way she meant.

 

“Well, if you are you had better not be contagious. I have too many things to do that can’t happen if I’m puking my guts out.”

 

“I’m not contagious.” My friend had no chance of catching what ailed me.

 

“Then why have you been moping around all week and avoiding me like a leper?”

 

“Lena, I did a bad thing last weekend.”

 

“What?” She plopped beside me on my bed, immediately switching from a germ-a-phobe to caring-friend.

 

I took a deep breath to steel my nerves. “I looked at his phone.”

 

“Whose?”

 

“Holden’s.”

 

“Oh, no,” she whispered, realizing the ramifications of my actions.

 

“Oh, yes…”

 

“What did you see?”

 

“A lot of what I shouldn’t have,” I confessed. A fresh wave of misery settled into my bones.

 

“Like?”

 

“Well, he got a call from someone named Eileen.”

 

“Okay…” she waited for the scandalous part.

 

“And it was at one in the morning on Sunday. I asked who it was when his phone rang, and he told me it was Joel. Then after I saw who it really was I asked about her.”

 

The two of us had been up late watching a Will Ferrell marathon.

 

“Well, who is she?”

 

“He said she works with him, which was a lie. None of my employees call me that late unless it’s an emergency.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“We were watching Talladega Nights and he was texting her until three that morning, barely paying attention to me even though I was right beside him. Holden wouldn’t have noticed if I had left the room. If it was a problem with work he would have called her back, right?” I knew the answer; I just needed someone to agree with me. Justification went a long way in these situations.

 

“Right.”

 

“When he went to the bathroom I looked at their texts. This Eileen girl wanted to know when he would be home and when she would get to see him again.” And if he really worked with her she would obviously see him Monday morning.

 

There were other parts to the conversation, inappropriate words exchanged, that I could never share with Lena for fear of an unpredictable reaction.

 

“Mer, I’m so sorry,” she offered in a weak voice.

 

“What do I do?” And how was I supposed to get rid of the sickness churning in the pit of my stomach?

 

“You need to tell him what you saw and ask him what’s going on.”

 

“How can I?” I asked, more shrilly than I had intended. “He’s going to think I’m psychotic.”

 

“Maybe not. But you need to give him a chance to explain.”

 

“But—”

 

“It’s only going to get worse if you allow it to rot in your brain.”

 

The pity in her eyes was unbearably frustrating. I couldn’t use pity to make the situation any better; it only made me seem more pathetic and weak.

 

“Okay.” I knew all along that this would be the advice she would offer. What I had needed was a push. Otherwise the words written by that faceless girl would twist in my brain until I lost it completely.

 

“Call him now, before you loose your nerve.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Even as the phone rang I prayed it would go to his voicemail. If he didn’t answer then at least I could feel better about trying to clear the air between us.

 

Coward.

 

“Hello?”

 

My heart pounded, marking the silent seconds like a metronome. “Hi.”

 

“What’s up, Mer?” Holden said lightly. The buzz in the background meant he was in the shop at work.

 

It took every ounce of strength for me to keep from putting off this tough conversation until a more “convenient” time.

 

“I have a question.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

“Don’t get mad though.” The disclaimer really was pointless; he was going to get angry regardless. It just set the tone for the conversation so Holden was prepared for what was coming. He knew something was wrong immediately.

 

“Okay….”

 

“Promise?”

 

“Mer, what is it?”

 

“Well, this weekend I looked at your phone.”

 

A spot of silence punctuated my sentence.

 

“You did what?”

 

I straightened my spine and prepared for the impending argument. “I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway.”

 

“Why would you… How often do you do that?” Holden asked, his voice cold.

 

“This was the first and last time.” I couldn’t handle the knowledge.

 

“I can’t believe you would invade my privacy like that. I would never do that to you.”

 

No, he wouldn’t. But I would never give him cause for concern that would drive him to go to such measures. And if he ever did he wouldn’t find anything even remotely inappropriate from some random guy. I did not make a habit of giving out my number to people who didn’t absolutely need it.

 

“I know. But that doesn’t change the fact that I did it. Anyway, I read some pretty suggestive text messages from your ‘co-worker.’” It was important for him to hear the quotation marks in my voice.

 

“Which one? If Jerry said anything you can just disregard—”

 

“It wasn’t Jerry.” And he knew it.

 

“Then who?”

 

“Eileen.” It was hard to keep an even tone as I said her name. Angry tears blinded me. Thankfully we were having this conversation over the phone. I couldn’t face him in my current state.

 

“Oh come on, Mer. We were just joking around.”

 

Joking around? Seriously? “It was inappropriate, Holden.”

 

“No, you looking at my private stuff was inappropriate.”

 

“I would never say those things to someone who wasn’t my boyfriend,” I pointed out. And even then I wouldn’t have used that type of language. “You humiliated me.” Again. This time it had been a less public embarrassment, but the result had been the same.

 

He heaved a sigh. “She was the one who was inappropriate, not me. Tell me one thing I said that was out of line.”

 

Even though the electronic conversation had played in my mind over and over this week I couldn’t think of the specifics right now. Besides, specifics didn’t matter. “The whole conversation shouldn’t have happened.”

 

“Come on. You took what was said out of context. If you ever go through my things again this is over. How can I trust you when you are constantly going behind my back?”

 

Constantly?”

 

“Once is too many times.”

 

“I don’t know,” I whispered, more humiliated at being “that girl”—the one who examines her boyfriend’s phone and questions his every word.

 

“Well, let me know when you figure it out.”

 

When I put the phone down Lena came back into the room and sat at my cluttered desk; she had probably eavesdropped on the entire exchange from the safety of the dark hallway.

 

“How did it go?” she asked unnecessarily. Her voice was just a bit too shrill to be unaware.

 

“Not so good,” I said miserably.

 

“What did he say?”

 

“He said I misread the meanings, took the messages out of context.”

 

Lena’s face turned the same shade of red as the Alabama T-shirt she wore. “They shouldn’t have been there in the first place!”

 

“That’s what I said.”

 

She groaned. “Then what?”

 

“Then he asked how he was supposed to trust me when I did something like this.”

 

“When you did… Mer, he’s turning this around on you!”

 

“Yeah, I know.” But I was willing to take some of the blame. After all, I did invade his privacy.

 

“I’ve never known you to allow someone to do that to you.”

 

Once again, Meredith Westbrook was a spineless pushover. “I shouldn’t have looked.”

 

“But you needed to, don’t you see that?”

 

“No. If I hadn’t looked then…” I could still be blissfully unaware.

 

“This could have been going on the whole time and you would never have known.”

 

“What could have been going on?” I asked angrily. “If he read some of our messages he could take them the wrong way too.”

 

She got up and walked to the door. Just before she left she turned to me. “You know that if you have to justify his behavior then it’s not right. If you feel the need to look there’s usually something more going on.”

 

The pity was back again.

 

“I know,” I whispered to the empty room.

 

***

 

“Ugh! I have nothing to wear tonight!” The shout blaring from Lena’s room cut through my haze of despair.

 

My eyes rolled at the distress in her voice. “Nothing” consisted of a closet that could fit no more hangers, drawers that wouldn’t close, and two plastic bins filled to capacity beneath her bed. A person risked her life every time she entered the confines of the time bomb lovingly referred to as Lena’s lair.

 

“I thought you went shopping Tuesday and bought an outfit specifically for tonight.”

 

Although I wasn’t sure where she had stored her purchase. Pretty soon she would be asking me if she could rent some space in my own bare closet.

 

“I did?”

 

“Yes, you did. You asked me to go and then refused to speak to me after I told you I didn’t want to.”

 

“Oh, yeah. What did I buy again?”

 

“That purple thing.” She had called it a dress, but I was still skeptical.

 

“Oh, yeah. Now I remember.”

 

“Why don’t you wear that?”

 

“Because there’s a department-store conspiracy.”

 

Nothing was ever simple with Lena. “Sure there is.”

 

The stomping grew progressively louder until she appeared at my doorway. “Seriously, Mer. They do something with the lighting and mirrors and some hocus pocus with aroma therapy to get you high. Then, when you try on the overpriced garments, you think they make you look like Heidi Klum.”

 

In her matching Body by Victoria undergarments Lena did look like the supermodel so I couldn’t see what the problem was. I had never felt like Heidi Klum in any of the stores I had ever been in; maybe I wasn’t shopping with her enough.

 

“Little do you know, when you get back and actually plan on wearing the dress, you’ve gained twenty pounds during the car ride home and have lost the tan you’ve paid for religiously.”

 

“So you think it looks bad today? Is that what you’re saying?” I had a hard time believing that.

 

“Bad?” she sneered. “That does not even come close to the disaster I charged on my MasterCard Tuesday.”

 

“The mall doesn’t close for another couple of hours. Just return it and get something else.” Sometimes she couldn’t see the obvious solutions. That was what I was for: obvious solutions.

 

“I took off the tags.”

 

“Why would you do that without trying it on?”

 

“I tried it on! Haven’t you been listening to me?”

 

“Again,” I countered. “Why didn’t you try it on again?”

 

“Because it was flawless two days ago.”

 

I lifted my eyes to heaven, praying for patience. More than likely the dress was still just as flawless. “Go put it on and let me see.”

 

And just like a petulant two-year-old, Lena crossed her arms and jutted out her chin. “No,” she pouted.

 

“I could always come in there and make you if you want to do this the hard way,” I threatened.

 

Just as I was about to make good on my promise my phone rang. It was Holden. We had only exchanged a handful of tense words in the days since I had confessed my gravest sin.

 

“Hello?” I hated how weak and unsure my voice sounded. After five years together I shouldn’t have been unsure.

 

“Hey. How are you?”

 

“Fine.” I said hesitantly, gauging his mood.

 

“I’m sorry about this past weekend.”

 

“You… you are?” Where had this change of attitude come from?

 

“Yeah, and I want to make it up to you.”

 

What was happening? Usually I was the one who caved and ended up offering the apology even when it wasn’t my fault. As a matter of fact, I had been planning on calling him tomorrow. This was a pleasant, astounding change.

 

“Okay…”

 

“I’m coming home Saturday!” he said, excited.

 

“You are?” My tone matched his.

 

“Yep. I’ll be in Frostburg by four.”

 

“Couldn’t you get a flight tomorrow?” The sooner I could see Holden the better I would feel about the entire situation. I needed to watch his face and gauge his sincerity. Words were too easy to say and emotions were too easy to mimic over the phone.

 

“No, I have to work late Friday so I can leave Saturday.” The frustration broke his voice.

 

“That’s okay. It’s great news. I’m excited to see you.”

 

“Me too. I’ve gotta get back to work now though. Love ya, Mer.”

 

“I love you too.”

 

And just like that we crossed from the murky waters of relationship limbo into the calm, open sea of confidence.

 

“So, what’s the deal?” Lena asked from the hallway.

 

“Holden will be home Saturday.”

 

“Just like that?”

 

Her flippant tone rankled. “Just like what?”

 

“You forgive him.”

 

I shrugged. “That’s what you do when you love someone.”

 

Lena stuck out her tongue but allowed a smile. “Does this mean we’re going out tonight?”

 

“What does this situation have to do with me going out?”

 

“We can celebrate?” She offered.

 

I had been miserable all week but now felt oddly buoyant. I had to work in the morning but suddenly the energy that had eluded me during the past four days found me with full force. Sleeping was now the last thing on my mind.

 

“Okay,” I agreed with a grin.

 

“Oh, come on, Mer,” Lena whined.

 

“Lena, did you hear me?”

 

“Hear you what?”

 

“I’m coming.”

 

An hour later Lena and I were back at Bowery Street Pub. All the hype from the week earlier had died down. The majority of students had returned to their standard haunts. When we got to the bar our normal table in the corner was empty. The sight should have thrilled me. Most of the time no one bothered me at that table. But there was usually one other person enjoying invisibility with me.

 

Lena’s shoulders slumped slightly when she didn’t see Alec—or his best friend.

 

One of the men who had been holding up the corner of the bar approached us.

 

“Hey, Lena,” he said, smiling at her and ignoring me.

 

This was the first week since I had met Alec that he hadn’t been where we were before we knew we were going there. Come to think of it, Lena’s phone had been suspiciously silent all week.

 

Had I been too preoccupied with my own unsteady relationship to see that she may have needed me? Were she and Alec still together? He seemed to make her happy; that was all that mattered to Lena. Well, that and the fact that he hadn’t bored her yet.

 

Lena turned to the intruder and flashed her beautiful grin, effectively concealing her disappointment. “Hey Garrett,” she welcomed.

 

I felt even less like making polite conversation than usual—not that I was going to be included in the exchange. So I slinked to my corner spot to people-watch.

 

Ten uninteresting minutes later I was bored out of my mind. The faces surrounding me were vaguely familiar; everyone tended to revolve around the same spots from week to week like assigned seating in a classroom.

 

Each time the door opened to admit another guest my heart quickened. I tried not to think of why that was. After all, my boyfriend was in Jacksonville working until Saturday.

 

Another young man waited by the bar, leaning casually toward me. I looked up and our eyes connected unintentionally—at least on my part. My face flushed. The stranger looked pointedly at the empty table in front of me then turned back to the bar, his intentions clear.

 

I prayed Lena would come over and save me from a pointless conversation with the guy. But my friend was still by the door, waiting patiently for Garrett to finish whatever titillating story he was telling her.

 

The door opened again, and my heart stopped. Remington stomped in, drawing the gazes of everyone in the bar. He ran his hands through his dark hair to dislodge the wet flakes. Lena twisted to smile at the newcomer, and a pang of jealousy settled into my gut.

 

Wait. Jealousy? No, that couldn’t have been it.

 

Remington nodded to her then saw me sitting at our table.

 

Our table? Why did my subconscious categorized Remington and me as a unit?

 

He left Lena to her conversation and came to take his customary seat beside me just as he had the first time we had met.

 

When Alec didn’t follow through the entrance, I eyed Remington suspiciously. “How did you know we were going to be here?” The question slipped out as an accusation.

 

He leaned back in his seat, surprised that I had initiated a conversation this early in the evening. “I didn’t,” he confessed.

 

“Liar.”

 

“Can’t we show up at the same bar without having one another be the reason for our presence?”

 

“You tell me. You’re the one who sought me out,” I pointed out.

 

“Sought you out?” he repeated. “Is that what you’ve been doing when you’ve joined me at my table the past few weeks?”

 

“That’s not what I meant.” Definitely not.

 

“What did you mean, Meredith?”

 

What had I meant? My head spun as I tried to remember what my purpose had been. “We were just here first.”

 

He arched his eyebrows in confusion. “And that means I’m expected to avoid the place? I was here before you last week and I didn’t try to run you off.”

 

Last week was not a topic I wanted to discuss.

 

“Fine. You can stay.” Not that I had possessed the authority to make him leave in the first place.

 

“Thanks,” he drolled.

 

“But it’s a big bar…” I looked meaningfully at each empty table around us then turned toward him, my eyebrow raised in silent command.

 

He scowled, knowing exactly what I had meant. “I don’t know anyone else here.”

 

“Where’s Alec?”

 

Remington shrugged. “He’s not coming out tonight.”

 

As if that explained anything. “Well, you’re not going to meet anyone new when you’re shutting yourself off in a corner.”

 

He gave me an odd look, his expression unreadable. I turned away before he did.

 

“Weren’t you telling me just a few weeks ago that a bar was not a good place to meet people?”

 

Had I said that? My brain was a bit too muddled to remember. “I didn’t expect you to listen.”

 

“Oh, well. I don’t feel very sociable anyway.”

 

A bubble of laughter escaped before I could rein it in. Remington never felt sociable. “So, you came to a bar on the busiest night of the week, sought me out, and are not feeling sociable? You’re talking to me.”

 

“Something I should probably not be doing,” he confessed to the table.

 

“No?”

 

He looked at me; a wrinkle formed between his eyebrows. “No,” he said harshly.

 

Instead of explaining, Remington got up and escaped through the back door.

 

“What did you say to him this time?” Lena suddenly asked from beside me.

 

“I have no idea.” Maybe there was something about my face that offended him from week to week.

 

“But he just got here.”

 

“Yeah, I know.” He hadn’t even bought a drink.

 

“What do you two even talk about?” she asked, ignoring the fact that I hadn’t turned to look at her.

 

The wide back door pulsed with tension. What had just happened? He had left, but this time there had been something different behind his exit.

 

“Nothing. That’s just it,” I said, frustrated. “Our conversations start out civil then, inevitably, just when I feel like he’s going to say something nice, he just walks away.”

 

“Without a word?” Lena scoffed.

 

“Yes!” Without a word or a second thought. “You can’t imagine how frustrating it is. He’s so condescending most of the time.”

 

“I know you complained about him before but you whine about everything.”

 

My arms crossed protectively over my chest. “I do not.”

 

She chewed on her lip. “Alec warned that Remington was difficult and stubborn most days. Next time he comes to talk to you, do you want me to save you?” she asked seriously.

 

Did I want that? No. That was easy—a little too easy. “No.”

__________________________________________________________________

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