“Meow,” cackles Jules, who’s standing a few feet away and overheard me.
At her, I snap, “Shut up, Jules,” and then brush past her and Abigail’s douchey Sigma boyfriend, leaving their wide eyes in my wake.
Sasha catches up to me just as I’m throwing open one of the double doors at the entrance.
“Taylor,” she orders. “Stop.”
I force myself to stop. “What is it?” I ask.
Worry playing on her face, she touches my arm and gives it a soft squeeze. “No guy is worth losing your self-respect over, okay? Just remember that. And wear a seatbelt.”
Conor’s Jeep is in the driveway when I get to his townhouse. Foster answers the door, donning a big dumb grin when he sees me. He lets me in without a question, saying Con’s upstairs in his room. For a moment it crosses my mind to interrogate Foster. If any one of the roommates were to crack, spill the tea for a glimpse of some cleavage, it’d be Foster. Right now, though, I just want to nail Conor to a wall.
I barge into his room to find him totally alone. I guess part of me expected there to be a skinny naked woman in his bed, but instead, it’s just him, dressed like he’s going somewhere and about to leave.
He doesn’t even look surprised to see me. Disappointed, maybe. “I can’t talk right now, T,” he says with a sigh.
“Well, you’re gonna have to.”
He tries to open the bedroom door behind me, but I stand in his way. “Taylor, please. I don’t have time for this. I need to go.” His voice is cold, indifferent. He won’t look at me. I think I wanted him to be angry, annoyed. This is worse.
“You owe me some kind of explanation. Blowing off dinner plans is one thing, but the Spring Gala was important to me.” My eyes are hot and stinging. I swallow hard. “Now you’re bailing on me hours before the event? That’s cold, even for you lately.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“I’m sick of sorry. I feel like we broke up only you forgot to tell me. Dammit, Con, if this”—I gesture between us—“is over, just tell me. I think I deserve that much.”
He turns away from me, raking his hands through his hair and mumbling something under his breath.
“What? Just spit out,” I order. “I’m right here.”
“It has nothing to do with you, okay?”
“Then what? Just tell me why.” Exasperation washes over me. I don’t understand what he possibly has to gain from all this subterfuge, if not to drive me crazy. “What’s so important that you’re ditching me tonight?”
“There’s just something I have to do.” Frustration builds in his voice. The lines deepen across his face, and his shoulders hold more tension than I’ve ever seen. “I wish I didn’t, but it is what it is.”
“That’s not an answer!” I say in frustration.
“It’s the only one you’re getting.” He stalks past me and reaches for the jacket draped over his desk chair. “I’ve gotta go. You need to leave.”
As he grabs the jacket, it catches on the armrest and a thick white envelope about the size of a brick tumbles out of one of the pockets. From the envelope, several bound straps of twenty-dollar bills splay on the floor.
We both stare in silence at the money until Conor swipes it up off the floor and starts shoving it back in the envelope.
“What are you doing with all that money?” I ask warily.
“It’s not important,” he mutters, shoving the envelope into his jacket pocket. “I have to go.”
“No.” I shove the door closed and plaster myself against it. “No one walks around with that kind of money unless they’re up to no good. I’m not letting you walk out this door until you tell me what’s wrong. If you’re in some kind of trouble, let me help you.”
“You don’t understand,” he says. “Please, just get out of my way.”
“I can’t. Not until you tell me the truth.”
“Fuck,” he grits out, yanking at his hair. “Just let me go. I don’t want you involved, T. Why are you making this so difficult?”
His mask has finally failed. Gone is the aloof, indifferent face he’s held in place all week while he’s done his best to hide the anguish inside. Now all I see is pain, desperation. This thing has been eating him up and he looks exhausted.
“Don’t you get it?” I say. “I care about you. What other reason is there?”
Conor deflates. He collapses on the edge of his bed and drops his head in his hands. He’s quiet for so long I think he’s given up.
But then he finally speaks.
“Last May, back home in California, Kai comes to me one day—I hadn’t seen him in weeks—and says he needs money. Like a lot of money. He got in bad with a drug dealer and had to pay him back or the guy would fuck him up. I told him I don’t have that kind of cash. So he says, you know, ask Max for money.” Conor raises his eyes, as if checking to see whether I remember what he’s told me about his relationship with his stepfather.
I nod slowly.
“Right, so I said hell no, I can’t do that. Kai gets pissed, like, fuck you, I thought we were friends, all that crap, but he doesn’t push it. He just says he’ll find another way and leaves. At the time I thought he was exaggerating about the trouble he was in, that maybe he just wanted a new phone or some dumb shit and thought I could waltz into a giant gold vault and take whatever I wanted.”
Conor takes a breath and rubs at his face. As if he’s gathering energy.
“So then maybe a couple weeks later, Max and I got into some stupid argument. I hadn’t declared a major yet and he was getting on my case about figuring out what I’m going to do with my life. So of course I get defensive because what he really means is that I’m a loser who’s never going to amount to anything if I don’t become just like him. It turns into a full-on shouting match and then I get pissed off and leave. I end up at Kai’s place, tell him what happened, and he says, hey, you know, we can totally get back at him. Just say the word.”
I approach the bed with timid steps and sit down, keeping several feet of space between us. “And what did you say?”
“I said fuck it. Let’s do it.”
He shakes his head, letting out a deep sigh. I can feel the anxiety wafting off him, how hard it is to admit all of this. How far he has to reach into himself to find the courage.
“I gave Kai the alarm code and told him Max always keeps three grand in cash in his desk drawer for emergencies. I said I didn’t want to know when it’s gonna happen. It’d be months before Max would even notice it was missing, and besides, that kind of money is nothing to the man. He’d spend that in a week on dinner and wine. Nobody gets hurt.”
Conor looks at me. Finally. For the first time in a week, he really looks at me.
“So one weekend we all go to Tahoe. I wanted to stay behind but Mom gave me a guilt trip about spending quality time together. So the house is empty for a few days, and Kai makes his move. He was probably high or wasted on some shit—the kid never had a fucking dimmer switch, you know? He slips in quiet enough, but then he trashes the place. He grabs one of Max’s golf clubs from the garage and smashes up Max’s office and the living room. We came home a couple days later and it’s obvious the place has been robbed. The messed up part is, Max blamed himself. Figured he must have forgotten to set the alarm. But whatever, no big thing, he says. Insurance will cover the damage.”