My mind flashes back to the tapas bar. Salvatore’s steely, livid face. His hands all over me. My shameless moans and the shudders that racked my body. The shocking moment he’d deprived me and walked out.
I almost cringe in front of Cade. “It wasn’t supposed to take as long as it did. I completely understand why you left.”
“Honestly? I thought you left me first. I tried checking the restrooms, but some weird security guy with wiry glasses told me to scram. That you had snuck out.”
“I was disappointed. I thought our date was going well…”
“It was. I had a great time.”
“How about we give it another try? Second date, the cinema on Tenth and Walnut I keep telling you about. There’s a showing ofSunset Boulevardtomorrow night.”
The same guilt I’d felt the night of our first date returns. Heavy as lead, it presses down on me.
Hope lives on Cade’s face as he awaits my answer. He’s genuinely interested in another date. Another chance for us to see if we’re compatible.
I can’t bring myself to agree. Cade is an easy-going and likable guy. He’s anormalguy. How can I possibly drag him into the mess that’s my life?
Even if from the outside it appears perfect…
“I’m sorry, I would love to… but I can’t.”
“I just… I can’t. It’s best if we don’t go out anymore.”
The disappointment creeps into his expression before he stamps it out and gives a nod. “Okay, say no more. I won’t ask again. Enjoy your afternoon, ADA.”
He walks out and I’m on the verge of calling him back. I don’t let myself.
The guilt weighs enough to keep me rooted where I am, watching him go. I inhale an uneven breath and try to stay calm.
I’ve made my mess. I’ve let my life spiral out of control. I have no one to blame but myself when I fail to do better at every turn.
At this point, I’m no longer the woman I always strived to be. I’m someone else altogether.
You’re as fucked up as I am, Phi. That’s why we’re drawn to each other. The difference is you like to pretend.
Salvatore sees me for who I am. In the past I found comfort in that fact—now it only spawns bitterness. My hard work has been for nothing. The moment we’re around each other, my perfect mask slips away. No amount of pretending fools him.
He and NorthamNeptune123 share that in common—both claiming to know me in a way others don’t.
NorthamNeptune says he knows my dark secret. He could possibly use it against me.
I return to my desk and click open the internet browser. The news articles on the page are the typical collection of current events. Some political. Others lifestyle-oriented.
One particular headline jumps out to me.
“Terrence Harding, oil tycoon and philanthropist, checks himself into rehab,” I read out loud. A chill passes over me as I click on the article and read more of the details.
The damning confirmation that NorthamNeptune might not be bluffing after all…
* * *
Our family hasn’t been the same since Mom passed away. It fractured us in a way we’re still healing from. My older brother Marcel moved farther away, putting several states between us; aside from the rare text or phone call, he only checks in on holidays and special occasions. Dad wallowed in retirement life at first before he took up hobbies like golf.
I did what I always do—I became fixated on my lifelong goal.