A tired voice came through the speaker, threaded with static.
“I’m here to see Reese Stratton. I’m her boyfriend. Is she home?”
No answer. But the door beeped after a second and Leo went, pushing inside the building and punching the call button for the elevator, relieved when it opened right away. Was he imagining her scent lingering in the air? The sweet familiarity of it twisted something inside of him until he could barely walk straight off the elevator.
When he stepped out, there was a woman waiting in the hallway with her arms crossed. “She is not here.”
“What?” Cold coated his skin. “I don’t…why did you buzz me up?”
“Your girlfriend. She left all of her shit behind. I don’t want to deal with it.” She jabbed a finger in his direction, disappearing into the apartment. “You will deal with it. Come.”
Body chilled, head on fire, Leo had no choice but to follow the woman inside. If Reese wasn’t there, where was she? Was she safe? Jesus, why did he leave her like that?
The apartment was well furnished, a nice view of the avenue via a balcony. But he didn’t see anything right off the bat that called Reese to mind. These drab antiques couldn’t have been further from her style. Reese was fresh, optimistic, creative, provocative, nostalgic. None of those things were represented here…and the dread inside of him multiplied.
“Come,” the French woman said briskly. “Her room is this way.”
Room. Okay, she was renting a room. Not unusual in this city. Also, a good explanation for not inviting him upstairs after their date. Still, wouldn’t the lack of privacy have been a good reason to spend the night at his place? She’d never stayed. Not once. Always holding that final piece of herself back. Out of guilt for lying? Or self-preservation, knowing he’d condemn her when the truth came out?
Leo’s pulse pounded at the base of his neck as he advanced into the room indicated by the landlady, his brain taking a moment to process what it was seeing. “This is not it,” he croaked, taking in the discarded dance shoes, forgotten in the corner. “Tell me this is not where she’s been sleeping. On a…a beanbag chair? You can’t even fit a bed in here.”
“I slept in worse when I came to New York City years ago. It’s safe and clean. That is the important thing. Dancers are resilient. The girl was resilient.” LaRue paused, seeming to view the closet through fresh eyes. “It surprised me that she left.”
Leo could barely hear over the rushing in his ears, his horror only allowing him to kneel down and pick up her shoes, turning them over in his hands, wincing over the blood stains in the heels of each one of them. To his right, there was a stack of magazines, newspaper and printouts from the Internet, open calls circled, crossed out. Dozens of them.
This girl had been killing herself.
Absolutely running herself ragged, living in this depression closet, and she’d still shown up to see him every day with a smile, with hope in her eyes. She’d opted for this instead of using him. Instead of asking him for help.
That spoke to her character a lot more than her lying, didn’t it?
Who wouldn’t lie about being this desperate to someone they liked?
Why wouldn’t she feel compelled to keep her rejections to herself? How hard that must have been, day in and day out. And to come back to this…?
Christ, he needed to find her. Hold her.
Why did she leave her dance shoes there? Was she giving up?
No. No, fuck that. Not on his watch.
Leo surged to his feet. “You said she left this stuff behind. Where did she go?”
“She’s Wisconsin-bound, Bexley,” said a voice behind Leo. He turned to find a vaguely familiar girl coming through a door on the other side of the hallway, rubbing her eyes sleepily. “She was going to catch the next bus at Port Authority.” She craned her neck. “Are any of those shoes a size six?”
Leo tore out of the apartment with his heart in his mouth, forgoing the elevator for the stairs, already pulling the phone out of his pocket and calling Reese. Straight to voicemail.
No. No no no, she couldn’t be gone.
She couldn’t have just left.
There were solutions to their problem. He’d had them the whole goddamn time. She’d never asked. She was never planning to, was she? She was just going to try until she couldn’t afford it anymore? But two weeks wasn’t enough time to make a career happen. Not for the majority of dancers, let alone people aspiring to any profession. Didn’t she know that?
Leo hailed another yellow, burying his head in his hands in the backseat, his organs seized up inside of him. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. He tried calling her again, got her voicemail again and almost smashed a fist through the window. Thankfully, at this time of the morning, traffic wasn’t gridlocked yet and they made it to Port Authority in five minutes. This time, Leo threw cash at the driver and booked it, searching through gritty eyes for an information booth. Anything.
“Where would I find a bus to Wisconsin?” he asked a woman in a red vest. “Cedarburg.”
“Follow the signs for the departure terminal,” the person replied, pointing. “What bus line are you looking for? Greyhound or…”
“I don’t know,” he said hoarsely, plowing his fingers through his hair.
The woman seemed to pick up on his distress. “I’m pretty sure there’s a group down there now waiting to depart. Terminal nine. It would be going to Philly first—”
Leo was already running, dodging people with suitcases to propel himself down the escalator, sweeping the massive lower floor for Reese. There was no group actively waiting to board a bus. Was he in the right place?
He would never be sure what caused him to turn around and move the opposite direction, past the escalator blocking his view. Maybe it was sense of Reese being close. Whatever the reason, through the glass, he spotted her. Waiting in a line outside to board a bus, purple coat pulled tightly around her body, suitcase in hand.
Relief almost capsized him.
“Reese!” Leo shouted her name and forced his unsteady limbs to move, to go to her, throwing himself out the door into the dark, windy underpass. “Reese.”
She whipped around, her expression astonished. “Leo?”
“You’re still here. Thank God, you’re still here.” Pulse going a thousand miles an hour, he took the suitcase out of her hand and set it away, out of her reach. “Enough of this. You’re coming home with me.”