“He was waiting for me one night when I got back—just to talk. I don’t know why, to be honest. He likes me as a gnat—his words, not mine.” I held a hand up to halt anything incoming from them. “And it’s not romantic at all. He was in the fishing cabin and almost puked from the smell.” I gave Owen and Hadley an apologetic look. “You guys aired it out to the best you could, but the smell’s come back. He made me sleep in his cabin that night. He’s offered to demand that Keith find me somewhere else to sleep, but you all know he’ll just put me in the janitor’s closet downstairs. He doesn’t give a shit about health codes for staff. So yeah, I’ve been sleeping in his cabin, but that’s all. I swear.”
Hadley’s mouth had closed, and she rotated right back to Grant. “Happy now?” She looked over her shoulder to me. “And for the record, if I were you and I was single, I’d be sleeping with him by now.” She moved past Grant with a harrumph. “And no one would be making me feel guilty about it. We’re all too old for that.”
Owen found my eyes. “We have a guest room you can use, if you want.”
“That house is for you and your family. You can’t be offering that room up for staff every time it’s needed. That’s your home.”
“Offer’s open anytime you need it, and we don’t need to tell Keith either.” He gave Grant a meaningful look before leaving, following Hadley because the last of the dishes were done.
They went to his office, and I heard the door open a second later as they left. Staff had the rest of the day off.
Grant was still silent.
Sophia cleared her throat. “I think Grant knows my thoughts on Keith, and I have a feeling he knows I stand with Hadley’s thoughts on this matter as well.” She spoke to me, with her eyes on her fiancé’s back. “He’ll realize he had no right to accuse you the way he did. And it’s none of his business because you’re not under contract like we are, and again, nothing illegal is going on.”
Grant turned to her.
She shook her head. “It’s not even unethical, Grant. Don’t go there. They’re adults. Both of them. That’s it. And now, having said that…” She smiled at me. “We’re having a group of people to the house tomorrow night to watch their game, if you’d like to come.”
Grant said stiffly, “I was going to invite her.”
“After the third degree? Really?” Her voice was dry. “I’m sure she would’ve felt so welcome.” She looked back at me. “Please come. Grant will have his head out of his ass by then.” She nodded, turned, and went back out the way she’d come.
Grant waited until the cafeteria door closed behind her, and his gaze swung back to me.
There was no apology in his eyes, though. He just seemed haunted, with an edge of anger, and his tone reflected both. “With all due respect to their opinions, they don’t know you like I do.”
Fuck. I looked away. I knew in that second that this was going to hurt. He wasn’t coming at me in a disapproving way for my ethics. He was taking a personal angle.
Shit, shit, shit.
It had killed me to expose myself as much as I did with Reese the night before, and now here? With Grant? I wasn’t sure I had the strength to hear this out, whatever he was going to send my way. Though, maybe I did deserve it?
He started low, quiet. “You were my best friend. Like, the bestest friend I’ve ever had. And yeah, I knew that kiss was a mistake. I knew it was going to scare you away, but I had to still try. I backed off after. I did.”
I frowned. Why was he bringing this up? “The kiss?”
“Why are you…” I trailed off.
He jumped in, more insistent, “I knew I scared you away with that kiss. I don’t want it to happen again, where you get with a guy, he hurts you, and we lose you all over again. I did it with our kiss, and then we completely lost you for years to Damian. And now I know things ended with you two, and you were still too scared to come to me. I…” He ground to a halt.
My eyes were wide. I could barely breathe. “Are you serious?”
His eyebrows bunched together. “I scared you away. It’s because of me that you even started dating Damian.”
He blamed—what? No. He couldn’t, but he did. I saw it then.
He blamed himself for Damian, and for...I wasn’t even sure what else.
I shook my head. “No. No! You didn’t scare me away. That’s not what happened.”
His frown deepened. “It’s not?”
“No! Not at all.”
Oh boy. I would have to slide that door open once more and feel the Damian effects again. It was going to crush me, but he needed it. This wasn’t my coworker in front of me, but a best friend I’d abandoned, and it was on me to make this right.
“For what?” he asked.
“For leaving you—for leaving everyone, to be honest. I knew I’d hurt people. I just didn’t know how much. I’m getting it now.” And gah, that kiss. He blamed himself. “Grant, when you and I kissed, I knew there was nothing there.”
His entire face twisted. “Nice.”
“We were young, and I was a coward. I should’ve told you straight up right then and there, but you never pushed, and I didn’t realize what you were going to think. You never scared me. I was okay. We kissed, and it was what it was. You were my best friend, and in a way, I think you still are, but I didn’t run to Damian because of you. When we left the swing and I drove away, I decided to just let it lie. I was waiting to see if you pushed for something, and if you did, I was going to tell you then that there was nothing romantic between us. You and me kissing had no bearing on me falling in love with Damian. At all.”
“It didn’t? I didn’t?”
We’d been so young, and I heard it in his voice again. That guy was in front of me, the one I’d thrown away.
“I am so sorry. When I fell for Damian, it was a whirlwind. He consumed everything in me, and I fell hard. I fell fast. We were—I could think something, and he knew it just by a look, or a twitch, or somehow he could feel it in the air. I don’t know. It was unsettling at first, but I’ve never had someone know me the way he knew me and so fast.” Pain sliced me right down the middle, my guts falling out. “He was my soulmate, and what happened with us—it wasn’t a case of him cheating on me or abusing me. It wasn’t like that, but it was tragic, and it was hard to walk away from. But I had to.”
“A year, Charlie.” He picked at the counter beside him. “You’ve been away from him and hurting for a full year. Why didn’t you—I mean, you could’ve called. You could’ve emailed. Anything. I would’ve been there for you. What happened with you two? You’re half the size you were back then. You were healthy and glowing, and you’re like a shallow reflection of yourself. He did that to you. I don’t care what you say. He did that to you.”
“Yes! Stop defending him—”
“He has dementia!”
Oh—I bent over on a dry heave. I hadn’t intended to say it out loud, not for a long time. But those words were out. I couldn’t take them back.
How could I explain? The pitying looks, the confusion. Grant wouldn’t understand. He would judge me—about leaving Damian, about not being humane and staying, no matter what. Ride or die. I cut and run instead.
Grant’s words were soft, but still seething. The anger was still there.
I braced myself, because I knew it was coming at me.
“I can’t,” I choked out. “I can’t do this. Excuse me.”
I was empty.
I walked past Grant, tuning him out. He was saying something, but I was gone.
Suddenly I wasn’t so grateful for a day off.
I rolled over the next morning and turned my phone on.
It had taken almost the whole day for me to get the Damian shame out of me. I’d gone to Reese’s empty cabin and stayed most the day. Since the athletes were gone, we had no meals scheduled, so I’d heated some leftovers from the staff fridge. I hadn’t seen anyone else when I walked back to the village, and since it was still nice out, I’d kept going. I’d walked the trails for another hour before returning to Reese’s cabin, and then I did something I never thought I’d do.
I’d opened my laptop.
Gasp. Shock. Yes, I actually did what my therapist suggested. I turned it on, brought up my music, plugged in my headphones, and I typed. Judah & the Lion were crooning in my ear. I didn’t know what I’d typed—half the stuff was in red squiggles from being misspelled, but I felt better at the end. Enough that I saved the document, shoved the laptop aside, and curled up on Reese’s bed to sleep the rest of the night.
It was still cold in the cabin, so it wasn’t that late, but I was too lazy to get up and check the clock in the main area. I waited till my phone flashed on to check the time, but the buzzing started, and it kept going.
I got it.
I hit silence on my phone, but still watched the alerts come through.
Where are you?
Holy fuck, gnat.
Why do I care? I care. Fuck’s sake. Answer me.
There was a whole list of them, all from the same number, and I had a feeling I now knew Reese’s phone number.
I pulled up the last one and texted back.
Me: I’m here. Turned phone off last night.
My phone rang, vibrating alive in my hand within seconds.
“Don’t tell me you were concerned about me?” I said in greeting. “How’d you get my number?”
He snorted. “Snagged it one night and I was bored. You’re supposed to entertain me. You’re slacking, Direction Girl.”