Chapter 23

Cover 1

“I wish you could have come with me!”

“Come with you where?”

“To the mall,” Lena whined.

“For the last time, Lena, I don’t need any more clothes!” At this point they would just be more stuff to pack up and move.

“No, no, not to shop.  Well, not to shop for you but for me! You have honest, invaluable opinions and voice them on demand.”

“We were just there two days ago, what could you have possibly forgotten to buy?”  The entirety of the mall’s summer wardrobe had been in my trunk.

“You’d be surprised.”

A muffled voice came over the speaker, too close to be considered the background chatter of a busy store.

“Who was that?”  It had sounded like a man’s voice.

“I made a huge mistake, Mer.”

“No!  Lena, you couldn’t.  Oh, I really like Alec.”  And I had mistakenly thought that she had liked him more.

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped.

“What?”

“That was Alec.  The mistake I made was bringing him to the mall with me.  He was fine at first then I realized all he was doing was telling me I looked good in everything and agreeing with me so that I would shut up.  All he’s been doing for the last two hours is complaining.  It’s driving me insane!”

Poor Alec.  “How long have you two been shopping?”

“Give it back—” Lena’s voice faded.

“She’s the one driving me insane.  How do you stand her for—” Alec’s words trailed off as my friend stole back the phone.

“Since eleven.”

“Lena!  It’s almost three thirty!”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.  He’s gotten to spend an entire day with me, real quality time.  He’s the luckiest man in the world.”  A peal of masculine laughter erupted from the background.  “Anyway, Mer.  I need you to help me.  Well, to help Alec.”

“Oh, well if it’s for Alec then I’ll do it,” I said with a smile in my voice.

“Hey, Mer.”

“Oh!  Hello again, Alec.”

“I need you to do me a favor,” he said.

So Lena hadn’t been lying—a first.  “Sure. What is it?”

“I have class at four so I won’t have time to drop Lena home beforehand—which is her fault by the way. ‘It’s only going to be a quick trip,’ she promised.  ‘We’ll be back long before your class,’” Alec said, mimicking Lena’s high pitch.    “I was ready to leave days ago.  Ouch!  She’s turning violent, never a good sign.  Anyway, she’s having a fit about waiting the hour for me to get back from class.  Is there any way you can meet us at the house to get her away from me?”

I tensed.  Alec’s house was also Remington’s house.

Alec didn’t miss the awkward silence.  “I’d ask Remington to drop her home but he won’t be there because he has class until five.  There’s a key under the flowerpot so you can just wait inside if you want.”

“Flowerpot?”  Straight men weren’t supposed to have flowerpots.

“Yeah, don’t say a word.  Lena’s already given me crap about it.  It was Remington’s idea to get a landscaper—long story.  Just go in and make yourself at home.  We’ll be there as soon as I can drag her away from the sales—dead or alive.”

“Good luck,” I agreed, less enthusiastic than I had been initially.  “If you take away the source of her power she will have to stop.”

“What’s that?”

“The Visa.”

Alec’s hysterical laugh vibrated the phone.  “I wish I would have known that three hours ago.  See ya.”

“Wait!  Where do you live?”

“Grant Street, near Collegiate Flats.  There’s a two-story brick house with black shutters on the left.  That’s us.”

I knew the house well; it was one of the nicest ones in such close proximity to campus—too nice for a student residence.  “Okay.”

“I don’t care what Lena says about you.  You’re a saint!” he announced just before the line went dead.

“Yeah, I know,” I muttered to the empty room.

For some unknown reason I decided to change from my black-on-black salon gear into something that didn’t reek of ammonia and perms.  It took me ten frustrating minutes to find an outfit appropriate for the errand.  I was only going to collect Lena, I reminded myself.  Nothing more.

The drive took me another ten minutes due to Frostburg’s evening traffic and numerous red lights getting in my way.  When I pulled into Alec’s driveway my mouth fell open.  The house was larger than I had remembered.  How had Alec and Remington landed this deal?  They had to be paying a small fortune in rent.  Our townhouse was nice and clean, but this place was extravagant.

I sat in my Sentra for a few minutes, studying the daunting structure.  The clean lines of classical architecture and organic framing by professional landscapers weren’t what had been intimidating.  It was the home’s residents that made me nervous, unsure of myself.

I hadn’t planned on going inside but my curiosity got the better of me.  Somehow I couldn’t stop myself from lifting the ceramic flowerpot at the edge of the concrete slab and unlocking the glass-paned door with the key I had found beneath.

The inside of the foyer was what I would have been expecting from this nice of a house but not from a residence with male students.  Typically, college houses with male tenants were littered with beer bottles, movie posters, and random sweat-stained garments.  The inside of Alec’s house looked like something out of Southern Living.

“Hey, Alec!  You’re really late.  Do you know where my…  What are you doing here?” Remington accused as if I was committing some heinous crime by being here.  I suppose breaking-and-entering was illegal.

My face was on fire as I watched his lithe frame freeze mid-step.  He nearly fell over the railing, stopping his decent with a death-grip on the banister.

“I was just leaving.”  Lena could find her own way home.

“No.  I don’t… I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” he amended quickly.

“You could have fooled me,” I said, reaching for the door.

“It was rude.”

“Since when does that matter?”  It never had before.

“Meredith, wait.  Please?”

The quiet plea stopped me.  My hand was inches from the knob; all I needed to do was turn it and make my escape.

“I’m sorry.”

What was going on?  First the magic word and now what sounded like a sincere apology?

“It’s fine,” I dismissed.  After all, it should have been fine.  The snappy tone and harsh words shouldn’t have mattered.  This was Remington I was dealing with.  I turned slowly to face him, unsure of how he would react to my dismissal of the entire incident.  He looked confused, like he was warring with himself over some vital argument.

“What I meant was: why are you here?”  His words hadn’t changed very much yet the tone was inquisitive, genuine.

“I’m waiting for Lena and Alec.”  And cursing both of them because they had put me in an awkward situation.  Alec had said that Remington wouldn’t be home.  “You weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Sorry about that.  My professor canceled class today so I got out an hour earlier than usual.  Where is Alec?”

“He and Lena went to the mall for some big sale.  I told her that I’d meet her here to bring her home since Alec has class.”

“Alec. Went. Shopping?” Remington choked.  His blue eyes bulged.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The man in front of me, the one who rarely smiled, broke into a fit of… giggles.  That was the only word to describe the high-pitched noise coming from his shaking frame.

“You don’t understand,” he forced between chuckles.  “Alec hates shopping.  He must be in deeper than I had thought.”

What kind of warped world had I unlocked when I opened the door to this house?  At first Remington had been himself—rude.  Then his typical demeanor had vanished as if that Remington had been a façade, a character he had been playing for everyone else’s benefit.   This new Remington was laughing , at ease with himself—and with me.

I waited warily for Lena to arrive and save me from this fourth dimension, to take me back to reality, but the door behind me remained closed.

“Since you aren’t carrying around an empty bottle I suppose I should ask if you would like a drink,” he offered, composed.

“Um…”  My body decided to make the decision for me.  Remington smiled an open, friendly smile and my mouth went dry.  “Sure,” I croaked.

He turned and disappeared down the darkened hallway.  I had a debate with myself on whether to follow or escape; the battle was lost before it had begun.  I raced after him.

“We have water, coke, or beer.  Your choice.”

I should ask for a beer.  Maybe the alcohol would help to calm my nerves, zinging with the electricity of uncertainty.

“Water is fine.”

He nodded once, pulled two glasses from a cabinet, and poured one for each of us.  When he walked toward me every muscle in my body tensed.  Remington cleared his throat, and I realized belatedly that he had been offering me the drink.  My hand shook so violently that I nearly spilled the entire thing on his tiled floor.  I watched him watch me as he took a deep draught, and waited for me to do the same.  What I really wanted to do was put the condensation forming on the outside of the glass against my sweaty forehead.

“You don’t have to stand around and wait.”

“Okay,” I sighed like some insipid, infatuated twelve-year-old.  The syllables sounded more like, “Whatever you say, sexy.”

His brows drew together as we both questioned my mental stability.  “Would you like to wait in the living room?”

This time I agreed with more backbone.  “Okay.”

I followed him woodenly; my joints ached with every step.  I collapsed on the corner of his plush sectional with relief.

“Where are you going?” I asked, my voice too shrill to feign indifference.

Remington frowned, and I felt more at ease with the situation.  When he wasn’t grouchy and miserable I didn’t know how to react to him.

“To get the remote?”  The inflection in his voice asked for my permission.

“Okay.”

He grabbed the device and sat as far from me as possible without being on the arm of the couch.  “Do you want to watch anything in particular?”

I was saved from answering by the creak of worn hinges and a draft from the open door.  I stood up so quickly that I spilled the water all over my leg.

“Hey, Remington, Meredith,” Alec greeted, toting Lena and a handful of bags behind him.

“Aren’t we all cozy in here?” Lena asked with a giggle.

From the corner of my eye I saw Remington scowl.  Everything was back to the way it was supposed to be.

“What are you doing back so early?” Alec asked his silent roommate.  “I promised Meredith that she wouldn’t have to put up with your sour mood until tomorrow.”

“Class was canceled,” Remington ground out.  All traces of the kind host had evaporated.

“I’m sorry, Meredith.  I owe you one.”

“It’s fine, Alec.”  I didn’t mind.  It was different seeing Remington in a setting other than the stale confines of a bar.  I’d never admit it aloud, but the change had been nice.

“Did you buy yourself anything from the mall?” Remington drawled meanly.  “A pair of balls, perhaps?”

“Some for you, is it?” Alec challenged.

“Mer, I think it’s time to go.  We can let these boys duke it out without an audience.” Lena interrupted, gripping my hand and pulling me out the door.  I handed my nearly-empty glass to Alec as we swept past.  “Thanks for watching her, Remington,” Lena added like some grateful mother to the babysitter.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Alec said with a wistful smile.

I wanted to gag aloud.

Just before the door slammed shut, I stole one final look at Remington.  He wasn’t smiling but he looked like he wanted to say something to us—to me.

“Thanks so much, Mer.  You’re a life saver,” Lena said.

“I know.”

“There was no way we were going to make it back in time for his class if you wouldn’t have met us here.  Then I would never have lived down the shopping trip.”

“It’s no big deal,” I muttered.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

Lena rolled her eyes as we hopped into my car.  “What happened?”

“What do you mean?  Nothing happened.”  Remington had surprised me, offered me some water—which I had spilled on myself, and I had left.

She pursed her lips.

If I were to guess I would have said that she looked disappointed. 

 * * *
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