“How did she take it?” I asked, because it seemed like something I should do.
“Quite well, seeing as she did the dumping.”
“Crap,” I offered. “Sorry.”
Obviously, I was an excellent friend, with great, valuable input.
“Don’t you think it’s ironic? Layla dumped me because I wanted to get serious. You tried to scare Maddie away because she was serious. Things would have worked perfectly if only Madison and I had met before you and she did. Then she could have set you up with Layla.”
“You and Mad?” I bit out. “No chance. She’s too weird, and you’re too . . . you.”
“Is that so?” Grant asked in amusement. He was goading me.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you could make a good couple. Doesn’t matter. Bro code determines you can’t touch her with a ten-foot pole because I touched her first.” I paused. “And I touched her everywhere.”
“I don’t think it works like that.” Grant laughed, and I felt my body stiffening. I wanted to race him up the hill just so I could roll him down it, hoping he’d break a goddamn hip. “We’re not in high school anymore. You don’t even like her very much. According to you, anyway.”
“What the fuck are you insinuating, Grant?” I stopped running, scowling at my friend. Grant kept running in place. I’d always thought running in place was the international sign of being a pretentious dick. Hadn’t Ethan done it just the other day? Suddenly, I couldn’t stand the sight of my best friend.
“Don’t be so upset. Even if I ever decided to make a move on Maddie, she will never date me. Bro code may not be a thing, but sister code is real, and Maddie is a good apple. She’d never do it to Layla.”
I knew he was right. I continued jogging, ignoring him chuckling beside me. It wasn’t that funny. So what if I didn’t want my best friend to sleep with my ex? That didn’t mean I was in love with her.
“As for what I was insinuating,” he said through a wide smile, “I believe the term I was looking for is you, my friend, are royally, crucially, and officially fucked.”
Almost a whole Ethan-free week had passed since our amicable, grown-up breakup.
It rolled like a holiday collage. Photoshopped family dinners at the Blacks’, exchanging acute opinions about the royal family’s best fashionistas with Lori, whispering like a schoolgirl with Katie, and braiding Clemmy’s hair as I taught her how to make ready-made cupcakes. I talked to Ronan as much as I could without monopolizing his time. I had firsthand experience when it came to dealing with a sick relative. People often preferred to avoid the sick. To converse with other family members. Those who were easier to look at, I guessed.
I learned how to ignore Amber and Julian without popping blood vessels whenever they addressed me like I was a servant. It wasn’t that difficult, actually. Amber was usually drinking herself to oblivion for social-lubrication purposes and was easy to outwit. Julian was still a snake but spent much of his time either trying to sneak meetings with Ronan or locking himself with Chase in the library, where the octaves reached a few Broadway-worthy highs, even with the doors closed.
I didn’t ask Chase about his meetings with Julian. It wasn’t my business. I knew Julian was privy to my kiss with Ethan but guessed Chase had taken care of that. I didn’t want to get involved. The more I knew, the more I got attached, and I was desperately trying to cling onto the remainder of my senses and keep my heart out of this arrangement.
My body, however, was a keen participant. Chase and I had sex like it was a competitive sport. And we were winning. In my bed and his, in the shower, in his bathtub, on the kitchen counter (his—I was no rookie), against his floor-to-ceiling windows, and on my washing machine (a personal fantasy of mine).
I kept waking up every morning telling myself that Chase Black was a temporary fix. Like a Band-Aid or SlimFast. Something to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the real thing to come. I refused to go to events with him, and when Chase mentioned something about a double date with Grant and a colleague of his (Really? That fast?), I flat-out told him there was no way I’d be seen with him in public. Those were the safety measures I was careful to take, even if the three-times-a-week sleepover rule had gone out the window.
Then a message from Ethan came. It was on the one morning I spent without Chase. At some point yesterday, I’d physically pushed him out of my apartment to ensure some me time.
Ethan sent me my azaleas back. What was left of them, anyway. The flowers were wilted, the leaves curling in gray and black at the edges, shriveling into themselves. The pot in which he kept it was coated with tar-like sand, clustered together. I held it in my arms and looked up to my windowsill, where my flowers thrived, then back to the dead azaleas again, something red and hot and angry sizzling behind my rib cage. There was a note. I plucked it out.
So sorry. Was busy keeping people alive, forgot about plant. Maybe you can save it?
Thank you for the gift, though.
I thought about the dead azaleas the entire portion of the first half of my day while working on my Dream Wedding Dress. I stabbed at the sketch pad with my pencil, tearing it several times.
“What happened? Did one of your kids die?” Nina taunted from her corner of the studio once Sven was out of earshot, referring to the wilted plant. “Bad mommy, Maddie.”
I ducked my head down and continued working.
“Maddie.” Sven appeared behind my shoulder. I jumped, gasping.
“How are you?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but he cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Never mind, I’m not here for small talk. Is the sketch ready?”
“Almost.” I held it to my chest protectively. I’d grown very attached to this sketch. It meant a lot to me. I’d designed it seeing myself wearing the dress.
“Let’s see it.” He dragged a stool from someone else’s station and sat in front of me.
“Now?” I looked around, buying time.
“No better time than the present.” He pried the clipboard with my sketch from between my fingers. I sucked in a breath, feeling the walls of the studio closing in on me. My lungs were scorching, I was so nervous.
“Oh,” was all Sven said, after a full minute of silence. Oh couldn’t be good. He didn’t even drag out the h. Ohhhhh. Nope. Just the Oh. I was feeling nauseous.