I begged and I stole and I bargained and I manipulated her so many times it became a full-time job to be around her. And whenever we were alone, when I finally had her to myself, I kept reminding her it wasn’t serious. That it was temporary. That I didn’t care.
Spoiler alert: I cared. A whole lot. That was a plot twist I hadn’t seen coming, and it made me stumble backward, my back pressing against Layla’s door (thank fuck she’d just headed out). I let out a frustrated growl.
Shit. I was in love with Mad.
Madison “Maddie” Goldbloom, of all the women in the universe. The girl who wore patterned, horrible clothes and had a short pixie haircut that had gone out of style in the nineties and was obsessed with pleasing people and flowers and weddings. I loved that she was sweet and kind and thoughtful but also sassy and quick witted and made her own money.
I was painfully in love with Mad, and I hadn’t even known it until it was a second too late.
“Mad.” I stumbled back to her door, plastering my forehead to it and closing my eyes. Jesus. Losing my father and the woman I loved in close succession was too much. What had I ever done to karma to deserve this lubeless ass fucking?
Never mind. There was a long list of whats.
“Chase,” I heard from behind the door. Her voice was soft, pleading. “There’s not much more to say. I feel humiliated. Nina has been bugging me all day at the office, and your family probably hates me, which I really don’t want to deal with, and the thing with Clemmy is straight out of a Ricki Lake episode.”
At least she hadn’t said Jerry Springer. Progress, right?
“Just open up. Please. I’ll explain; then I’ll go.”
“Not falling for that one.” I heard her smile bitterly behind the door. “That’s how you snuck your way back into my life in the first place.”
Knowing I couldn’t convince her, I turned around and slid my back across her door. Sitting. Waiting. She knew I was there. There was a pause.
“Are you sitting against my door?”
“I want you to see something. I’ll wait.”
And I did. I waited for an hour and a goddamn half. I heard Madison going about her evening. Cooking (pasta, basil, and olive oil—the scent was too much not to notice), feeding Daisy, and watching an episode of You I hadn’t seen yet (God dammit). Then, and only then, she came back to the door.
“Okay. I’m ready to hear what you have to say, but make it quick.”
The door was still shut. I turned around, glowering at it. Fine. We were going to do it her way.
“I’m not Booger Face’s father. Here. I took a paternity test this afternoon. As soon as Julian showed me his.” I slipped the paper through the door crack. I’d known I couldn’t be Clemmy’s father. The dates didn’t add up. Not unless I’d managed to impregnate Amber from Malta, if I’d done the math correctly (and I always did the math correctly).
My eyes were fixed on the edge of the paper sitting under the door. Mad picked it up from the other side. I let out a breath, closing my eyes in relief.
“I always knew I could never be Booger Face’s dad. That’s why I kept asking Amber for a paternity test when she banged on about it. You think I’d turn my back on a kid of mine?” I growled. “Fuck, I love her like my own kid, and she isn’t even mine. In fact, she was supposedly the very goddamn product of my fiancée and brother bumping uglies behind my back.”
Silence. Ouch. Okay. In all honesty, I’d seen it coming. There was much more to my shitty behavior than supposedly not telling her I was my ex-fiancée’s baby daddy.
“Who’s her biological father?” Mad asked through the door.
“Some dudebro from Wisconsin. I went to confront Amber after I took the paternity test.” I ran a hand through my hair. “After Amber and I broke up, she got hit with the finality of it and tried calling me, ghosting Julian, trying to make amends. By then, I was traveling and didn’t pick up. She went back home to nurse her broken whatever the fuck she has in her chest. Clemmy’s dad is an old high school flame. Amber said she’ll talk to him. We’re figuring it out so that Booger Face has the best childhood.”
“What a mess.” Mad sighed.
I sighed. “Yeah.”
I loved my niece to death, but she wasn’t what I’d come here to talk about.
“Anyway”—I cleared my throat—“my family doesn’t hate you. Just putting it out there. Mom thinks I’m a first-rate asshole, and Dad is probably taking me out of his will. But they still like you. If anything, once I explained you didn’t even ask for money or anything and just did it for Dad, you became even more heroic and perfect.”
I’d call her Martyr Maddie, but the truth was lately she hadn’t been that same meek, insecure girl I’d met all those months ago at all. She stood up for herself constantly and only did what she believed in.
And unfortunately, it made her stupidly irresistible.
The quiet from the other side of the door grated on my nerves. I dragged my forehead over the wood, squeezing my eyes shut.
“I don’t want this to be over.” The admission fell from my mouth on a whisper.
I wasn’t ready to tell her everything yet. I recognized it seemed like a highly convenient time for me to realize I was in love with her. But waking up tomorrow knowing there was no Mad on the agenda seemed like a prospect worth offing myself for.
“Please.” Her voice trembled. “Leave.”
I pressed my fingers to her door, then walked away, respecting her boundaries for the first time since I’d met her. They said doing the right thing made you feel good.
They were wrong.
It felt shitty to do the right thing. Downright stupid. When I was back on the street, I looked up at her window, ignoring the rain pounding on my face. I saw her face pop behind the glass. She was crying.
And as I got into my Uber and the drops kept running down my face, I thought maybe so was I.
I’d done it.
I stood up for myself.
Martyr Maddie no more. I went against Chase Black. Flat-out refused him. I cut things off with Ethan. I even sent Katie a message, explaining how okay I was with her dating my ex-something. I was taking a proactive stance in my life.