Okay, so the response to the first chapter really blew me away. Seriously, the reviews, favoriting and alerting…I'm stunned…and more than a little intimidated. But I'll try not to overthink it and just post.
A little background- I started writing this as soon as I finished Faking It last August. Then justaskalice approached me about a collaboration and I got lost in 1950's Paris for a while and this just sort of hung out on the back burner. I kept picking it up and putting it back down. I finally got serious about it again last month and wound up completely rewriting the beginning and I continue to re-work what's already there. And I have fourteen chapters written, so there's a lot to re-work. Anyway, if I seem anxious and uncertain about it sometimes, that's why.
But thank you all for the overwhelming initial interest and I hope it doesn't disappoint! Thanks, as always, to WriteOnTime for beta'ing. On to chapter two…
Oh! And to clear something up, the fratboy in the baseball cap was not Edward. Just some random dude. He's dead to us now. Moving on.
Stephenie Meyer owns any Twilight characters that may appear in this story. The remainder is my original work. No copying or reproduction of this work is permitted without my express written authorization.
Close your eyes and let it all go.
I tried to tell myself that. I let my head tip back on the seat and my mind clear of the day's mundane little trials as the music from my iPod filled my ears. But it wasn't working. I could shake off the stupid drudgeries from work easily enough. It wasn't hard to forget about my job, the incomprehensible technobabble from the engineers which I had to turn into blandly-worded manuals that the average third-grader could understand. It was so easy to leave that behind when I shut my computer down every day. And I could just as easily leave behind my petty, small-minded co-workers and their daily internal squabbles and turf wars.
But as soon as my bus reached my stop, I'd still have to face Jay, and that was becoming a whole new kind of misery.
I hoped he might not be home yet, but that was probably a fruitless wish. The paper had cut his hours back, so he was almost always there when I got home, sprawled on the couch, well into his second beer, staring with unseeing eyes at the nightly news. At least I would be busy tonight, packing. That would keep me out of his way. And of course tomorrow morning I was leaving for Chicago and Alice's wedding for four whole days.
My bus shuddered to a stop and I made my way to the front, chastising myself internally for looking forward to escaping from Jay so much. I was supposed to miss him, I was supposed to be sorry that he wasn't coming with me. Instead, I was pathetically excited about this trip and his absence from it. I couldn't wait to get on that plane tomorrow and fly away from him.
I wanted to drag out my short walk from the bus stop, but the weather was raw and wet and I just wanted to be inside even if it meant I'd also be closed in with Jay's oppressive presence. I let myself into our tiny rental house quietly, dropping my bag on the table inside the front door. I took just a minute to sort the mail and hang my keys on their hook, all the little tasks to keep me busy and distracted.
Finally I made my way down the hall to the living room. Jay was there on the couch, exactly where I expected him to be, bathed in the flickering blue light of the television. He was lying on the couch, beer balanced on his chest with one hand. I never could understand how he spent so much time on that couch. It was black leather, hard and uncomfortable. But then again, he picked it out, I guess for a reason. He must have liked it.
"Hey," I said tentatively.
"Hey, B," he mumbled, never taking his eyes from the television.
"How was your day?"
He made a face. "Same shit. Eleazar is talking about me behind my back again."
"I'm sure you're imagining that, Jay. Why would he…"
"You're not there, B, you haven't seen how it is. I'm telling you, the bastard is out to get me."
I held up my hands to ease him off. He was so touchy these days. I never knew what would set him off.
"Sorry, sorry. Look, I'm going to get changed and make us some dinner."
Jay waved a hand absently towards the kitchen. "I grabbed a pizza on the way home."
"Oh…okay. Well, I'm going to go start packing, then."
"Alice's wedding, Jay. I'm leaving tomorrow morning, remember?"
He groaned, "Why are you leaving me, B?"
I rolled my eyes and my shoulders sagged. "I'm not leaving you, Jay. I'm Alice's Maid of Honor. I'll be back on Sunday. You know this. And you could have come, you know. You were invited."
He just scoffed and shook his head, his eyes staring blankly at the screen.
Every time the subject of Alice's wedding came up the excuse was different. They were my friends, not his. Alice didn't like him (that was sort of true). Things were too uncertain at his job for him to get the time off. He was afraid the plane would crash. Yes, he really said that to me. Eventually I quit even asking him, and found myself feeling grateful that he was staying home instead.
I sighed and turned towards the bedroom, ready to be done with this conversation. Something needed to change. This tense limbo was killing him. He used to be sweet and funny and charming. Yes, he'd always been prone to these self-pitying funks, but never like this, and never for so long. Sometimes, I actually found myself hoping he'd just lose his job once and for all, because then at least he'd know and he could move on. But I had a bad feeling that it wouldn't be so easy for Jay.
I spent half an hour digging hopelessly through my closet looking for suitable things to wear for the weekend. This wedding, true to everything I'd ever known about Alice, was shaping up to be one for the ages. She hadn't distributed my official itinerary yet, although I didn't doubt for a second that one existed, but there were certainly going to be a lot more events than just the wedding itself.
The problem was that my wardrobe just didn't really provide a lot of options for dressy occasions. I had almost no call for clothes like that in my life anymore. I didn't want to bring the black sheath dress I wore to the Inquirer's holiday party a few weeks ago. That was a bad night full of unpleasant memories and the dress seemed permanently tied to them now. But I didn't have a lot of other options, so the black dress went into the suitcase. Staring at my dismal closet looking for better choices was depressing me, though, so I moved on to the bathroom.
As I packed up my toiletries, I could hear Jay in the office on his laptop. He was typing furiously, muttering to himself. I had no idea what he was up to, but I was glad that he'd apparently found some outlet for his unhappiness. At least he was sitting upright and functioning and leaving me out of it.
My cell rang and I scrambled to fish it out of my bag, where I'd left it. Alice.
"Ally!" I sang out as I walked back to the bedroom.
"How are you holding up, doll?"
Alice gave a huge, exhausted sigh. "Oh my God, B. You have no idea. It's insane. Tell me again why we didn't just elope to Hawaii?"
"Because you've been planning this day since you were five."
"Hmm, you're right. Although I'm glad I eventually re-thought that unicorn ice sculpture."
I laughed out loud at that. She wasn't kidding. There had been plans, carefully drawn out in crayon on construction paper…with glitter. "No, really. How's it all coming together?"
"Oh, it's good. Complicated and disaster-prone, but I'll make it happen by sheer force of will. I just can't wait for you to get here! I need you, B!"
"Soon, doll. This time tomorrow I'll be there, at your service. Your Maid of Honor slave."
"Mmmm, my maiden slave, huh? I love the sound of that!"
I heard a low male voice murmuring in the background and Alice shrieked, her voice reverberating into my cell.
"What the hell is Jasper saying?"
Alice came back on the line laughing, "He said if he'd realized that maiden slaves were part of the deal, he'd have bought into this wedding racket years ago."
"Well, I have news for him. He only gets one maiden slave and that's you. But he should know that the maiden ship sailed for you years ago."
"Hey, woman! I resemble that remark!"
I laughed hard and it felt…so good. "Oh, Ally, I can't tell you how excited I am to see you."
"Ah, B, me too. It's so unfair that you live so far away."
"Okay...okay!" she said in a high, pinched, little voice. She was totally crying.
"I'll be there tomorrow and we'll have four whole days together. Whenever I can drag you away from the wedding madness, anyway."
"I know. It sucks that I'll be so busy. But Angela will be here!"
"I know! I'm so excited to see her again." Angela had gone to DePaul for grad school and ended up settling in Chicago as well, so Alice saw quite a bit of her. I envied them so much sometimes.
"And the rest of the wedding party is great, Bella. Jasper has great friends. I think this weekend will be really fun for you."
"I'm looking forward to it, Ally," I sighed heavily and let my head fall back on the bed. "You have no idea how much I'm looking forward to it."
"So…" she began with that false-casual tone of voice I knew so well, "Is Jay still staying home?"
"Yeah. He just can't get away from work right now. He's really sorry to be missing it."
I thought she snorted dismissively, but I let it go. I knew she didn't really like him, it was no big secret. But we had an unspoken agreement to not discuss it unless absolutely necessary.
"Well, Ally, you know how I am. I leave in eight hours and I've only just started packing."
"Go, go, go! Although you know I'm taking you out for new stuff when you get here."
"Stop, Bridezilla! I don't want to hear it! I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Yes! Oh, God! Tomorrow! B, I'm so excited!"
"Me, too, honey. I love you."
"Love you, too. Be safe!"
I disconnected the call and just lay back on the bed for a minute, clutching my cell like a lifeline. Sometimes it physically hurt to hang up the phone with Alice. It seemed impossible that she lived so far away from me. She was supposed to be in my life every day, not just relegated to a phone call or two a week. It felt like there was a permanent hole in me where my daily Alice used to be.
I exhaled heavily and plugged my phone in to charge for the night before heading in to the bathroom to get ready for bed. Jay still hadn't emerged from the office, which was fine with me. I had to get up early for my flight the next day, and I really just wanted to crawl into bed and count down the hours until I was on the plane flying towards Alice.
But when Jay heard me getting ready for bed, he shut down his computer and came to bed, too. He barely spoke, the tension evident on his face. As I turned out the light and settled on my pillow, his arm came down across my waist, his fingers beginning to massage my hip. He buried his face in my neck.
"B, I'm going to miss you so much."
I wasn't really into doing this tonight. In fact, it was probably the last thing on earth that I felt like doing. But he needed me and the comfort of our relationship. And I was leaving him at his lowest, which was making me feel really guilty. So I reached up and ran a hand through his hair. It was cropped short now, not long like it had been when we first met. He pushed my oversized t-shirt up my ribcage and his hand found my breast. I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut and tried to get into it. Jay thrust his hips against my thigh and I could feel that he was already plenty into it. He was breathing hard against my shoulder, kneading my breast.
Jay reached down and pushed my panties off my hips and I helped him the rest of the way. He ground himself into my hip and groaned.
"B, you feel so good, baby."
I mumbled something incomprehensible in response and tried not to think of Jay's hands stroking me. Instead I tried to just imagine hands, anyone's hands, making me feel good. By the time Jay shifted over me, I was marginally into it, thinking if I could keep going, maybe I could come and that would make me feel better about everything going on with us. He moaned against my skin, his arms wrapped so tightly around me that I could barely breathe, and then all too soon I felt him gasp and stiffen and he was done. So much for me.
"That was great, B," he mumbled as he rolled off of me, already drowsy. His eyes closed and within moments, his breathing evened out and I knew he'd fallen asleep.
I lay there for a moment, staring at him. His short, tousled blonde hair fell across his forehead, not quite reaching to his prominent brow bone. His eyebrows were nearly permanently furrowed, and it always made him look a little angry. I took in his short, perfectly straight nose, his high cheekbones, the hollows beneath them that had become more pronounced as he got older, his slightly full, pouty lower lip. When I first met him, I thought he looked a little fierce and intense; good-looking in his way. He was still good-looking; I could see that, objectively. But I was startled to realize that I couldn't remember the last time I looked at him and felt a jolt of attraction.
Jay loves me.
Scolding myself didn't help. I still lay there and looked at his face and felt…nothing. I was freaking myself out, so I slid out of bed and padded to the bathroom to clean up. What a lousy fucking girlfriend I was.
I was standing at the sink, washing my hands as I glanced up at my own reflection in the mirror. It was some sort of flash of clarity or something, a brief parting of the clouds that let me see myself, really see myself, for what felt like the first time in ages. What had happened to me? I was only twenty-six, but I looked older and so tired. Like the life had been sucked clean out of me. I was always pale, but my skin looked positively ghostly. My dark eyes were flat and dead. I was a shadow of myself. Where did I go? I knew I wasn't always this person, this half-dead girl I was looking at. What made me like this?
As I stood there in my bathroom at midnight, staring into my own eyes in the mirror, my mind whispered the answer to me.
I don't love him anymore.
It broke over me with a startling, undeniable clarity, leaving me breathless.
I have to leave him.
The thought shook me so thoroughly that I had to sit down with a thud on the edge of the bathtub. My hands were shaking, and a cold sweat broke out across the back of my neck. I clenched my hands into my hair and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to hold it together and not cry.
I didn't love him and I hadn't for a long time. How had this happened? How had I allowed myself to slip into this stifling, dead-end relationship with him? I was dying here; this relationship was slowly killing me. I needed air, I needed out, and I needed it now.
Then I felt guilty, miserably, overwhelmingly guilty. Jay was so unhappy, he was at his lowest, and all I could do was think about how unhappy I was. He needed me and dammit, I owed him my support.
After all, it was Jay who'd been there for me when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, even though he and I had only just started dating and we weren't even that serious about each other. It was Jay who'd helped me do the research and make the phone calls. He was the one who helped me arrange doctors' appointments and in-home nursing. And when Charlie died just six short months after diagnosis, it was Jay who helped me plan the funeral and pack up and sell the house. And it was Jay who cajoled me back to Seattle, encouraging me to try to finish school even when all my classmates and friends had graduated and moved on, even Alice. He even moved me in to his apartment so I wouldn't have anything to worry about. He'd been amazing, my rock, the center of my world.
And I was going to leave him.
The thought made my stomach twist with anxiety and misery. How could I do this to him? But how could I stay? Jay loved me, but he was suffocating me, killing my soul, killing me, a little bit more every day. I couldn't believe I had stayed so long, but I knew why I did. I was afraid. I had no one anymore, except for Alice, and she lived halfway across the country, and my mother, who was no support at all. I wasn't even sure where she was right now. There was only me here with Jay. Me, working in a job I hated, living with a man I didn't love. I felt trapped.
I let myself ponder the logistics of it for just a minute as I tried to get my breathing back under control. I had a little money from Charlie's pension and life insurance that was in my name alone. Everything else I owned, Jay owned, too. It was terrifying and daunting. I didn't know where to go, where to start. My eyes stung with tears again.
Not now. I couldn't have this freak-out now when Jay was sleeping in the next room. And there was absolutely nothing I could do tonight anyway. I was leaving tomorrow for Chicago, and with any luck, I could grab Alice to talk it through with me and help me to make a plan. That thought was comforting. Just the idea of being with Alice again was comforting.
With one more bracing breath, I stood up and pushed my hair off my face, preparing to go back in to bed. Something had crossed over in me. Even though on the outside, everything was just the same as it had been half an hour ago, I already felt distant and disconnected from Jay. And what we'd just done…the sex…it felt all wrong. I couldn't bear to touch him again.
I crawled back into bed and curled on my side, as far away from him as I could get without falling out, but I didn't need to worry; he was dead to the world.
I laid awake for an age, staring at the wall, trying to figure out how I'd gotten myself into this hopeless position, but there were no easy answers. There was no magic moment when I should have left, no tipping point moment when it all went wrong. It had started off good, and slowly, over time, it just twisted and transformed, a little at a time, until I was left with what it was now, something I no longer recognized. I stared at the ceiling and thought about the dead-end my life had become until sleep finally claimed me in the early hours of the morning.
I sat perched on the edge of our hard, black sofa, knees together, feet bouncing slightly as I waited in semi-darkness for my cab to show up. Jay never stirred when my alarm went off at an ungodly hour, and I didn't wake him. I showered and dressed and threw the last items into my suitcase as quickly as possible before heading out to the living room to wait on the cab.
I left a short note on my pillow, telling him I'd call when I got to Chicago.
The living room was sparsely furnished and modern. I didn't really like it, but it was all in Jay's place when I moved in with him and it just sort of stuck. There was actually very little of "me" in this house, now that I looked around and thought about it. My collection of heavy wooden Pacific Northwest tribal carvings that Charlie had given me over the years were on display; but Jay said they gave him the creeps, so they'd been relegated to the topmost of the glass shelves along one wall. I hated those shelves. I was forever walking into the corners and giving myself terrible bruises. Jay picked out the shelves; he loved them. He also picked out the sofa that I usually avoided sitting on, because it was so hard and uncomfortable. And then there was the sisal rug that was scratchy and awful to walk on in bare feet, also Jay's choice. There were the framed black and white photographs of some generic outdoor scenes on the walls. Jay's, not mine.
No, there wasn't much to show I even lived here. I had a flash of what I wanted in my own place, everything old and exotic and full of character, before the reality of "my own place" descended on me, making me feel sick. I heard the cab driver tap his horn out front, saving me before I panicked again. As I stood at the front door, I took one more glance around the house, wishing with everything in me that I was leaving for good and I would never have to come back and face the mess my life had become. Then I shut and locked the door behind me and headed for the cab.
O'Hare was massive. So much bigger than Sea-Tac. There were maps everywhere, but I still felt completely turned around. All I could do was follow each sign for Baggage Claim as I stumbled across them and trust that I'd get there eventually. Alice's father was picking me up, and I hoped beyond hope that he was already there.
I adored Alice's parents. With my mother out of the picture since I was six, and my father working long hours at the police station, they'd played a huge part in my childhood, standing in as parents when I otherwise would have been alone. They moved to Florida two years ago, though, so like everyone else I loved, I almost never saw them. Four days with them as well. It made me almost giddy.
Alice's dad wasn't at baggage claim when I got there, so I joined the huge crowd waiting at the dormant baggage carousel. People were so pushy, shoving up to the front when there weren't even any bags there yet. I let them shove past me and fell back to the rear of the crowd where it was a little saner. My ride wasn't here yet anyway, so what was the rush? I had Alice's dad's cell number scrawled on a little slip of paper, but in all the jostling, I realized I'd dropped it.
Scanning the floor frantically, I spotted it several feet away and lunged for it before it wound up stuck to somebody's foot. As I crouched down to get it, I thought I saw someone's face turn towards me in my peripheral vision. I thought maybe it was Alice's dad so when I straightened back up, I took a look. Someone was looking at me, alright. Not Alice's father. Someone amazing.
I swear I couldn't look away for what felt like several endless seconds. Cheekbones and tousled hair and intense eyes and unbelievable lips. The man made my head spin a little bit just from looking at him. He was beautiful and tall and…oh, my God, he was still looking at me like I was a crazy woman because I was standing there with my mouth open and nearly drooling on myself. He was scowling a little now, his heavy brows pulled together. Ugh…I was an embarrassment. They shouldn't let me out with ordinary people. Poor man, being visually accosted by me while he waited for his bags.
I closed my eyes to clear my head and shoved my way forward into the baggage claim crowd, pretending like I hadn't been just shamelessly ogling a handsome man at the airport. What the hell had just come over me? Whatever it was, it was past now. I'd just keep my eyes down until I got my bag and found Alice's dad, and hopefully I wouldn't see him again.
I hated O'Hare. Whenever possible, I avoided it completely. And if the world were fair, I'd have bypassed it today, too. But when my earlier flight into Midway was cancelled, this was the best the airline could do and still guarantee my arrival in time for the beginning of the wedding festivities. I was still bemoaning the cancellation of that flight.
If I'd made that one, it would have landed three hours ago, and by now I'd be securely ensconced in my hotel room, drinking a beer, maybe catching up with Emmett. Instead, I was here, packed in with all these rude people waiting to claim my bag. And it was late enough now that I'd probably spend an hour or more stuck in traffic getting in to the Loop.
None of it was improving my mood, which was already a little sour at the prospect of spending four freaking days wrapped up in Jasper's wedding. How could it possibly take four days to get married? It could when you were Alice Brandon, I suppose. I didn't know her well, just a few dinners on my infrequent trips home to visit Chicago. But that girl was crazy. A real sweetheart and hopelessly in love with Jasper, but still crazy.
When Jasper first asked me to be in the wedding, I had stupidly thought that I could mix in a little personal recreation on this trip. I even got as far as sending out a few messages that I'd be in town to old high school friends on Facebook. A few girls from back then made it abundantly clear that they'd be delighted to see me again while I was home. But that was before Alice decided that my parents' house was too far away to suit her needs. Now I was staying at the Regis with everybody else, under her thumb and at her beck and call for the whole four days. No ghosts-of-girlfriends-past for me. And my parents were out of town this weekend anyway, so I suppose in the end it didn't really matter.
The baggage carousel for my flight beeped and started to move and I began to say a silent prayer that my suitcase had made it to Chicago with me. This weekend would suck even harder if my luggage went missing. I inhaled deeply, dragged a hand through my hair and started to shove my way to the front of the crowd.
A flash of movement to my left drew my attention. A girl was darting towards me. No, not towards me. Just in my direction. She stopped short of me and crouched to pick something up off the floor. Pretty. Her silky dark hair swung forward over her shoulders. Really pretty. I watched for a little bit longer. She wasn't looking in my direction anyway, so it didn't matter. She had amazing skin, pale and creamy, with the ghost of a blush across her cheekbones.
She stood up and her head turned towards me in one quick motion. Her face stopped me in my tracks. Beyond pretty. I felt like I'd just been punched in the stomach. Delicate little features, wide, dark eyes, and her mouth…
I took a deep breath, momentarily thrown by my unexpected and intense reaction, and in that instant, she turned around and was gone, swallowed up by the crowd. I craned to look over the heads of the people, but there wasn't any sign of her. Damn.
Ah, hell, it wasn't like I could do anything about it anyway. Wedding. For four days. I groaned out loud.
It took a solid ten minutes of shoving, but I did finally retrieve my bag and I headed across the terminal to go find the line for cabs. As I neared the exit, I caught sight of the girl again, this time running away from me and flinging herself into the arms of a tall, dark-haired older man. He rocked her so her feet swung back and forth, the way you would with a little girl, and she shrieked with laughter. The sound and the scene made me smile. She looked ridiculously happy. Must be her father.
Where do girls like that hang out, I wondered. Certainly not in the bars I frequented. I snorted derisively at the thought of a girl like her hanging off the bar next to the chicks trolling for doctors at Mulligan's.
I paused just inside the automatic doors to wrap my scarf around my neck and button up my coat, and shot one last look at the pretty girl with her father. He was bent over, getting her carry-on bag secured to the top of her rolling suitcase. She was looking down at him, laughing at something he said to her. Then she straightened and pivoted as she flicked her hair back over her shoulder and just like that, we were staring at each other again. Alright, she was with her dad and I was about to spend four days in wedding hell, so it was pointless, but there was no way I was leaving this airport without letting her know that I saw her and thought she was lovely.
I smiled at her slowly and raised two fingers to my forehead in a little sort-of salute. She stared back, her eyes growing wider. Then, very slowly, she smiled her glorious smile in return. Her cheeks flushed with a beautiful shade of pink, and her eyelids fluttered down. That's when her father said something to her again and she turned to answer. The spell was broken. I sighed heavily and braced myself for the bitter Chicago cold outside.