It was just before eight when a teenage girl knocked on Billie's bungalow door. I ducked down in my car and waited to see what would happen next. Thirty seconds later, Billie scampered out of her house, waving goodbye to a little boy and the girl that I assumed was his babysitter.
My mouth began to water. No, not at Billie, but at what she was carrying. The much-sought-after backpack.
It looked heavier than I'd remembered and I began to get a little nauseated as I considered the hideous, endless list of possibilities for what could be inside. Laundered money. Guns. Fake green cards. Body parts. Mary Kay products.
Billie climbed into a late-model Chevy Malibu and started down the street. I was hot on her tail, following her several cars back and singing to the song on the radio when my cell phone rang.
It was Russ.
"What's up?" I was bound and determined to make up for being such an asshole to him earlier.
"I lost her."
"What?" I roared, nearly steering myself into another car.
"A semi pulled between us on the 5 and right then she crossed two lanes and exited. I'm backtracking now but there's no way I'll find her. Wherever she was going, she was in a hurry."
"Goddammit, Russ, why didn't you call and tell me she was on the move?"
"I was going to call as soon as we got wherever she was going," he said, sounding contrite. "What do you want me to do now?"
I let out an unhappy breath. "You should go home to your wife and enjoy what's left of the baseball game, Russ."
"Belinda, I feel like a shithead. I can't believe I lost her. I trail ten cheating husbands a week and I haven't lost one in months."
Following someone on the California highway system wasn't as easy as the television shows made it appear. If Russ had gone months without losing someone, then he was a hell of a lot better at following by car than I was. "Don't worry about it."
"How come you're not mad at me? You should be mad at me!"
I rolled my eyes as I merged into the left lane, continuing my pursuit of Billie. "Would it make you feel better if I were?" In truth, I was more than a little miffed, but I trusted that Russ had done his best and there was no guarantee that I could have done any better. Keilana drove like a bat out of hell.
"Yes," he said bluntly. "It would make me feel way better."
"Fine. You're fired. And I'm not paying you for tonight either, you loser."
"Thanks, Belinda." I could hear the relief in his voice. "You're the best."
"God"—I laughed a little, despite my frustration—"we have a totally screwed up relationship."
"If that ain't the truth." There was a long pause before he said, "You know I love you, no matter what, right?"
I nearly hit another car. "What?" Quickly, I straightened the wheel. Russ didn't say things like that to me.
But the only sound in my ear was a dial tone.
I shook my head. The wiener did have a flare for the dramatic.
A few more turns and we were pulling into The Devil's Belly. Oh, yeah. I knew it. I knew Billie was Keilana's connection to this part of San Diego.
Billie pulled her Chevy Malibu into same small parking lot where Keilana had parked her BMW. I scanned the area, taking in the names of the dance clubs and bars that were already pulsing with life, their neon signs lighting up the night.
I didn't park in the same lot as Billie. Instead, I parked on the street about a hundred feet from the lot. I kept my eyes peeled for Keilana. Were she and Billie meeting? Or was it just a coincidence that Billie had spoken to Keilana on the phone not long before I left the cottage?
Russ always said there were no coincidences in our line of work. Of course, Russ also said "Pull my finger" quite often. So it's not like I was going to engrave any of his little ditties on stone tablets.
I hid in the shadows as Billie and that black backpack went to the front door of a club called "Bottom's Up." She flashed the doorman-slash-killer-bouncer a smile and he held open the door for her, a blast of music escaping as she hurried inside.
When I tried the same thing he stuck out his arm to block my way. "Ahem." He gave me a pointed look.
I stopped dead in my tracks. "Yes?"
"Fifteen dollars and"—he looked me over with a critical eye—"let's see some I.D."
"Gimme a break." I mumbled, "I'm older than you are, Jack Ass," as I dug through the pockets of my jeans.
"What was that?" he asked sharply, taking a small wad of cash from a couple of sailors who were dressed like Popeye, and letting them inside. I couldn't help but notice that he didn't ask for their I.D. even though they looked like they were in their teens.
"Just a minute." I tried to look around them as they entered to see if I could spot Billie. But the Incredible Hulk blocked my view with his enormous body. He crossed his bulky arms over his chest.
I smiled brightly. "Here's a twenty and my driver's license. Keep the change."
He grunted as he reviewed my license, giving me skeptical look.
Blue and red lights reflected off his shiny, bald head. "Next time you buy a fake, try getting one with an age somebody's gonna believe." But despite what he said, he stepped aside as he handed me back my license. I reached for the door but stopped with my hand on the handle. With my other hand, I dug out another twenty and held it under the bouncer's nose. "Does a woman named Billie work here? Tall, redhead."
He snatched the bill from my fingers so quickly that for a second I couldn't remember if I'd had one there at all.
I waited for more, but figured out pretty quickly that my twenty had only bought one word. Christ. Thank God I'd gone to the campus cash machine that morning. I peeled off another twenty.
"How about Hazel? Same description."
I shook my head. Only in California would someone use their real name to work in a bar on the edge of The Devil's Belly, but go by their fake name in everyday life.
"How about someone named Keilana?" I tried, hoping to make my money stretch.
He just stared at me.
I made a face and handed him another twenty, stuffing my few remaining bills back into my pocket along with my license.
"Never heard of him."
He clearly wasn't the sharpest tack in the box. "It's a her." I stepped aside as two young men and a women pretty enough to make me do a double take stepped up next to me, paid, and entered the club. Then I described Keilana in detail.
"She don't work here," he said finally. Unexpectedly, he winked and smiled, showing off several gold teeth. "But it sounds like she should."
What the hell did that mean? I frowned as I went inside.
The volume of the music on the outside of the club wasn't anything compared to what it was like on the inside. Deafening was putting it lightly. The large room was packed with people and smelled like a mixture of sweat, cologne, and alcohol. Yuck.
Near the door was a large sunken dance floor with what had to be two hundred sweating bodies pressed up against each other, writhing to the obnoxious music. Double yuck.
I caught sight of a waitress … well, actually I caught sight of her breasts. Which was incredible easy to do considering all that she had covering them were teensy pasties that made the girls at Hooters look positively Amish.
This was a titty bar? I glanced around again. This was, by far, the nicest titty bar I'd ever been in. Not that I'd been in many, mind you. It was relatively bright with lots of flashing lights illuminating a spattering of Halloween decorations that hung down from the ceiling. The place was clean too—my shoes weren't sticking to the floor with every step—and most of the patrons were dressed for a night on the town.
Have I ever mentioned how, on the right woman, a belly shirt is nothing short of a work of art? Yowsa.
The muted roar of applause drew my attention to the back of the enormous room. I waded my way through the mass of dancing bodies, my eardrums throbbing with every beat of the music. Just as I got far enough to see what was making the crowd cheer, the club went pitch black and the music came to an abrupt halt.
Muffled screams rippled through the place, and suddenly the air was electric with excitement. A velvety voice came over the loud speaker. "Gentlemen, and you very naughty ladies, are you ready to take a trip to the dark side ..."—his voice dropped to a whisper—"with Hazel?"
Oops. I guess Billie wasn't just a waitress.
The crowd went wild when they heard her name. I took a step forward, straining to see through the darkness, the dim exit lights in the corners of the club doing nothing to help me. I bumped into what I hoped was a chair, but said sorry just in case it was a really bony guy instead. I felt around for a second, really hoping it wasn't a guy, before gracelessly flopping down in the seat.
Just as my butt hit the wood, a spotlight lit a small stage and a hypnotic tune, all base and drums, filled the club. I looked around and realized I was in the middle of a section of the club filled with small tables. Almost every seat was taken, mostly by men, all with their eyes riveted on the wooden platform.
Okay, there was no pole on the stage. At least she wasn't a stripper. I was hoping for singer or comedian or something equally benign and unlikely.
People from the dance floor poured into the area where I was sitting, filling the small spaces between the tables, and leaving those who couldn't fit to dejectedly head back to the dance floor or to one of three bars around the perimeter. The music slowly got louder and louder and louder and, finally, when I thought it couldn't get any louder, it stopped altogether.
Then it started up again, much slower, the beat more sensual. Fog poured across the stage and out into the audience. It swirled around our tables and feet, making us part of whatever was going to happen. My belly tightened in anticipation of the unknown ...
Suddenly, as if by magic, a lone woman appeared out of the mist. She wore a glittering gold mask that covered only her eyes and nose and a full-length leather cape that was wrapped tightly around her and had a stiff collar that came up to her cheekbones. The only thing exposed other than her head was fishnet-covered ankles and black spike heels so high she looked like an Amazon.
I wasn't sure what exactly she was supposed to be dressed like, but whatever it was it did more than catch my eye. As soon as Billie moved, gas lamps along the edge of the stage exploded to life, providing a flickering, intimate light that replaced the flashing neon. More smoke flooded the stage, swirling around Billie's legs and giving the platform the appearance of a foggy London alleyway at midnight.
I was really starting to doubt that she was a comedian.
A hush fell over the crowd as we all waited with bated breath to see what would happen next. Patience is a cruel mistress, but, thankfully, we didn't have to wait long. The woman, who I was pretty sure was Billie, whipped open her cape to expose her flowing red hair and a body encased in a tight black bustier and a black thong so brief that it literally caused my mouth to drop open.
Oh, yeah, that was Billie and she was a stripper. The implications of that caused my stomach to fill with dread, but I had a hard time thinking of anything other than what was parading in front of me in barely nothing.
Billie's show did nothing if not command attention.
She snapped her cape closed, and there was a chorus of sighs, many of them female, as she strode to the end of the stage, her hips swaying dangerously with every step. When she got to the very edge of the stage she smiled a dangerous smile and began to dance for a man in the front row who was frantically waving a fistful of cash. I could see her body moving sensually beneath the cape and in perfect time with the music. The fact that I couldn't see exactly what she was doing only made it sexier.
She was good.
Only her gloved arms emerged from her cape as she moved in time with music that seemed to pulse with the beat of my heart. With agonizing slowness, she peeled off one elbow-length glove and my eyes got a little wider as she used it to stroke the man's cheek. He looked like he was about ready to pass out from the sheer ecstasy of Billie's touch, and his buddy had to reach out and grab him by the belt to keep him from crawling up on stage and mounting her.
She was better than good.
Somehow, in the middle of all that, Billy never missed a beat. She took his money, caressed his face with the tips of her long fingernails, then she drew her hand back and used her butter-soft leather glove to slap the man hard in the face.
A loud crack sounded as she hit him and I flinched.
More than a few members of the audience swooned.
There was mixture of shouts and groans from the crowd. But the young man groaned as though getting bitch-slapped by a stripper was the greatest thing that had ever happened in his short life and threw his entire wad of bills on the stage. Smiling like a Cheshire cat, Billie turned her back to the crowd. She flipped her cape up off her bottom, locked her knees, and bent deeply to pick up the bills, giving her derriere a provocative little thrust then shake.
I saw ... well, everything. I didn't know a person could bend so deeply. By the way, Billie is a natural redhead.
I held in a nervous giggle as the name of the club came floating back to me. At least it was appropriate.
God only knew where Billie put the money she had collected. It disappeared in the blink of an eye and was nowhere to be seen. She straightened and spun around in one graceful move, flipping the cape over her shoulders and bringing her hands up to caress her chest as she strutted to the other side of the stage, her large breasts bobbing up and down with every step.
I felt a twinge of guilt at the wetness collecting between my legs. After all, I had good reason to hate Billie. But, God, I was only human!
She had a body to die for and when she had a "wardrobe malfunction" of her own, exposing a firm breast to the hot air of the club, and grabbed and twisted her own nipple, I gasped right along with the porky guy sitting next to me.
A waitress came by my table and gently inclined her head. The cocoa-colored skin covering her torso and hefty breasts was flawless, but I did my best to look her in the eye as I spoke. I held up another twenty-dollar bill. "A beer and a question?"
She nodded. "Make it quick."
"Does a women name Keilana work here? Young, five feet eight, long dark hair, amazing blue eyes." My gaze strayed to Billie who was now bare to the waist, her hips moving in a slow grind against her hand. Holy shit.
"Sorry. Never heard of her."
My head snapped back to the waitress. "Huh?"
"Never heard of her," she repeated tolerantly, a tiny smile shaping her mouth. She set my twenty on her tray. "Bud okay? It's what's on tap."
"Yeah," I said absently, dizzy with relief over her news. Maybe Keilana had only been picking up Billie from work the night Russ and I had tracked them down.
Oops. There went Billie's cape.
Yeah, maybe Keilana was just Billie's ride. I loved that thought, and like any person trying with all their might to delude themselves, I eagerly embraced it. I just began to smile when two more women joined Billie on stage.
The crowd cheered as the masked women, each clad in a slightly shorter version of Billie's cape, crawled across the stage like vixen pussycats, their backs arched high.
Billie turned only her head to look at them and commanded their movements with a bare flick of her hand or toss of her flaming hair.
I blinked. They were her slaves. Then I glanced around. So was the audience.
After stripping down to deep purple, satin panties, the slaves bookended Billie and began to slid sensuously against her. She dug a hand into each of the women's hair and guided them together until they kissed each other. Hard.
God, I love my job.
The new zoning laws that the city council managed to get passed for this redevelopment area were something else! Was there anything that the performers couldn't do? I hoped not. Sometimes I'm such a pervert.
I swallowed dryly and squirmed a little in my seat, wishing that beer would hurry up already.
Billie placed a single finger under the platinum blonde's chin and lifted her face. The woman purred, reveling in complete control.
Have I mentioned that Billie was good at her job?
Then Billie kissed her slave softly, and with as much tenderness as I'd ever seen. The tip of her tongue appeared and she traced the woman's lips, pulling back just a little so the audience could see the thin line of glistening salvia that still connected them, only to be broken by a smoldering kiss where Billie dominated her minion completely, forcing her to lean way back as she devoured her.
A light sweat broke out across my forehead and I couldn't tear my eyes from the stage.
A shower of bills poured onto the stage from an enthusiastic patron who looked like a soccer mom out for the evening.
A fourth woman appeared out of the mist. Her cape was blood red and hooded and gleamed in the mysterious light. Her mask was a shimmering gold and Billie and her slaves recoiled at the sight of her.
I got lost in the show, holding my breath as the woman in red stormed over to Billie, her movements oozing with sensuality. Ooo … she was already my favorite. The slaves cowered, but Billie faced her foe, standing tall and proud, though her chest heaved with fear.
Brazenly, the woman in red caressed Billie's throat, but Billie broke away. Billie danced around the woman, wantonly teasing her with her body, stripping as she went. In just a few minutes she wore nothing but garters and shoes.
The woman in red tried to fight it, but eventually it was Billie who was stronger, and who put her under her iniquitous spell.
Billie's slaves danced in delight, exposing more and more of their bodies as they moved to the edge of the stage and mercilessly worked the crowd, stuffing bills in their G-strings and capes.
Billie threw her head back and laughed wickedly, white teeth flashing. She hissed and tore back the woman's hood, causing a shock of dark hair to tumble forward.
A sense of foreboding hit me right in the gut.
More smoke flowed across the stage as she tore off the woman's cape, exposing a spectacular pale body covered in scanty crimson bra and panties. I couldn't help but notice the woman's belly button was pierced.
And my stomach fell through the floor.
The spotlight focused on the woman in red as Billie's hand hovered over her breast, intent on ripping off a bra that fit so tight it was like a second skin.
My heart leapt into my throat.
The masked woman groaned in anguish, trying one last time to break Billie's sensual spell. They moved forward around the stage dancing and writhing. They finally came to an abrupt halt. Even the music stopped. And for one dramatic second they stood stock-still, until the women in red tore her gaze from Billie's and looked out into the crowd.
Right at me.
With incredible blue eyes.
My heart stopped beating and I flew to my feet. "Keilana?" I screamed, my voice rising above the throbbing beat of the music that had begun to play again.
Billie and the woman in red froze, then both their jaws dropped. It was her!
I don't remember everything that happened next. All I knew was that Keilana did not belong up there in front of hundreds of prying eyes. And I was going to do everything in my power to get her off that stage.
Like a woman possessed, I rushed forward, forcing my way between the tables, and ignoring the outraged shouts of the patrons I shoved aside. I couldn't get on stage from where I was because the slave girls were dancing in the front and a group of guys had clustered around them to stuff dollar bills in their panties.
I bolted for the side of the stage, seeing another dancer holding a video recorder and taping the entire performance out of my peripheral vision. Jesus, they were making a "Lezzy Stripper Gone Wild" video too? Could this be much worse?
I really should avoid asking that question in the future.
Just as I put my hands on the stage a beefy bouncer grabbed me by the collar. I whirled around and shoved him with all my might, sending him into a table of cheering college-aged men. He smashed into their drinks, sending several glasses to the ground.
During the commotion, the men tried to help the bouncer off their tiny table, and I turned, using my hands to push myself on stage. "Keilana?" I had barely gotten to my feet when two more bouncers tackled me. The wind rushed out of me and for a few seconds everything went black as they covered me.
"Keilana!" I gasped again when I was yanked up into the air, but she was gone and Billie and her slaves were dancing their hearts out on the other side of the stage, drawing attention away from me.
"Get off me!" Out of sheer instinct I began to kick and shout as I was whisked to a side door. I hated to be touched by strangers and not only were these gorillas rough about it, but one of them even copped a feel. Suddenly there was blast of cool air as the door to the alleyway was opened and I was unceremoniously tossed outside.
I smashed against a garbage can, seeing stars for a few seconds. Or was that neon? "Shit." It had rained while I was inside and I was sitting in a puddle again.
The man holding the door pointed an angry finger at me. "I don't feel like calling the cops this early in the night. Consider yourself lucky, bitch."
"I don't feel very lucky," I stupidly said, rubbing my head with a shaky hand.
He sneered at me. "Don't come back here again. Ever."
Then he slammed the door shut.
I sat there in the wet alleyway, stunned, the scent of rain and rotting garbage all around me. So my sort-of-girlfriend was a stripper? Great. Just great!
I was beside myself and, with a little effort, I was pretty sure I could chew through the metal door that separated me from her and steal her away from this skuzzy place. I know I thought it was sort of nice inside before. But that was before. Now it just seemed seedy and nasty and ... well, anything else bad I could think of.
I wanted to burn the place down.
There was no doubt that I was losing my mind. With a little grunt, I quickly pushed myself to my feet, wincing at my sore knees and wobbly legs. My jeans were torn at both knees and I felt the warm, sticky sensation of blood dripping from a couple of nasty scrapes.
Straightening my back, I brushed off my hands. I gasped at the sharp stinging sensation and turned them over to try and look at my palms. It was pretty dark back here, but I could tell by the pain and the rough feel of the skin that they were scratched up, tiny bits of rocks and broken glass still embedded. After another ruthless brushing against my torn jeans, they still hurt, but they no longer felt like they were on fire.
I gritted my teeth, drew in a deep breath, and ran as fast as I could for the front of the club. The bouncers had to wade through that crowd inside to the make it to the front and let the guy there know not to let me back in. If I was lucky, I could beat them there.
There was only one guy in front of me and I had my money ready when I got to the front of line. The bald bouncer looked at me a few seconds. He recognized me, but he was having trouble placing me.
"I was here last night," I lied, doing my best to smile. He didn't ask for I.D. this time, instead he just gave me a noncommittal grunt, took my money, and stepped aside. Maybe I look older when I'm wet, disheveled, and smell like garbage?
Once inside I headed straight for the ladies' room. I looked like crap. One of my eyes was already starting to poof up. I'd gotten a pretty good jostling when I was tossed out of the club—I touched the tender skin—but I didn't remember getting smacked in the eye. I didn't want to draw any more unwanted attention to myself so I used a few paper towels to clean off my knees and hands. Then I went back out in search of Keilana.
Billie was on stage again, dressed in a totally different outfit, and dancing to music with a sexy Latin beat. She was up there alone, so where was Keilana?
King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, aka the bouncers that kicked me out, were flanking the stage, making sure none of the customers wandered back where the strippers were. And that wouldn't do. I hated to do this, but ...
I scanned the crowd standing around the bar and found a middle-aged man with his shirt unbuttoned to his belly, a cheesy "Hair Club for Men" toupee, and several gold chains around his neck. His jeans were three sizes too small and I could smell his cologne from here. Perfect.
I stood next to him and waited a few seconds until the crowd around us contained a couple more women, which wasn't easy in this mostly male audience. I waited until my first victim was close and then I discreetly gave her a hard pinch on the ass.
At the same time I pinched the second woman just as hard on the derriere then yelled myself, grabbing my butt in the process. Indignant, I pointed at the man next to us and screeched, "You pervert! I can't believe you did that. You pawed my ass!"
"Mine too!" the woman next to me immediately followed. She shoved the man hard. "Sick bastard!"
The man's jaw sagged and he blinked stupidly. "I ... didn't ... I—"
"You sicko!" the second woman exclaimed, taking the guy's own martini out of his hand and dumping it over his head. Good thing those Hair Club infomercials always show guys swimming and water skiing and such. "My girlfriend, Dusty, is going to kick"—she poked him in the chest with her finger—"your"—another poke—"ass!"
Uh-oh, time to go. I disappeared into the crowd just as the bouncers appeared and began peeling someone I figured was Dusty off the Hair Club guy. Sorry, man. I headed backstage as quickly as I could.
I'd never been backstage anything before and it was quieter than I expected. There were a few dancers milling around, but none of them were Keilana. "Keilana," I whispered loudly. "Keilana?" I came to a closed door on one side of the short hallway and just as I reached out to open it, a long arm appeared from nowhere and yanked me inside a tiny room on the opposite side of the hall.
I was whisked inside, and before I knew it, Keilana was locking the door. She whirled around and faced me, her eyes burning with anger. "Are you trying to get the shit beat out of you?"
I blinked. "I—I didn't ... I—" Jesus, I sounded like the Hair Club guy.
"If the bouncers catch you back here after kicking you out there's no telling what they'll do." She ran her hands down my arms, checking me for injuries. When she saw my knees, she sighed. "I looked for you in the alleyway but you were already gone. I thought you might have come to your senses and gone home." Her eyes narrowed. "That reminds me. What the hell are you doing here?"
I pointed at myself with my thumb. "What am I doing here? What about you? Since when are you a Goddamned stripper!" I yelled, my emotions churning to the surface with surprising ease. "There is no way—!"
Keilana clamped her hand over my mouth. "Shut up," she said bluntly. "We can talk later. Thanks to you I've been asked to leave for the night."
I wrenched my head from her hand. "Tonight only?"
She nodded. "I'll be back."
The words tied my guts into a solid knot.
"And next time you won't come and make trouble for me, got it?"
God, she'd certainly been pissed at me before, but now she practically had smoke coming out of her ears. I grabbed her biceps. I had to get through to her somehow. She wasn't going to come back here and strip if I had to chain myself to her. This wasn't about jealously or snobbery. Keilana was more than a pair of tits and a firm ass.
"You don't have to be a stripper," I said in a rush. I cast around for something to say that wouldn't insult her or her friend Billie, but I didn't have much luck. "Have you lost your mind?" I began to gesture wildly. "I don't care how deep into trouble you think you are or whether or not your parents will help you out of it. I'll help you. I'll do whatever it takes. You don't need to do this for the money."
Her back stiffened. "Cadie—"
"Let me finish!" The music was deafening back here and I had to raise my voice even when I would have rather not.
I waited until her mouth snapped closed before I continued. "You're too smart to waste yourself here. This is what you do when you can't do anything else. This is what you do when you're desperate. You don't need this. Don't you get it? You're special!"
She lifted a single eyebrow. "Can I say something yet?"
"I guess." I braced myself. This is where she told me her horrible secret. That she was a sex addict or that she had thirteen illegitimate children she was trying to support on the side. Or that she was the madam in a prostitution ring that worked out of this club. How many years in jail had Heidi Fleiss gotten?
"I'm not in trouble."
I let go of her arms, stung to the core over her lie, and only barely stopped myself from shaking her. I closed my eyes in a bid for self-control. There was such a fine line between loving Keilana and wanting to kill her. "That can't be true or you wouldn't be selling peeks at your naked body to a bunch of perverts!"
"You were in the audience."
"My point exactly. Christ, before I knew it was you in the red cape, I was hoping you'd dance closer to the front so I could get a good look at your nipples!"
"Are you saying you don't want to see my nipples now?"
"No! Yes! No! Ah!" I covered my face with my hands.
"I'm not a stripper, Cadie."
"I saw you on stage. I saw you dancing!" I didn't add that she'd been awesome.
She put her hands on her hips. "I gathered that when you rushed the stage, screaming like a madwoman."
I shook my head, and unable to do a better job of articulating what I was feeling or thinking, I blurted, "You can't be a stripper. You just can't."
Her gaze sharpened and her voice dropped to a dangerous purr. "Says who?"
"Says me! Me! Me! Me!" I don't spaz out often, but when I do I rarely go only halfway.
She pushed to her feet, using her slight height advantage as she glared down at me. "And who are you to tell me how to live my life?" She didn't seem like a twenty-one-year-old college student at that moment. She was a self-assured woman who knew exactly what she wanted. "Remember our game? Call this one of my questions, but I want the truth."
I took a step backward, needing a second to think. That really was the question, wasn't it? Who was I? "You know who I am. I—I'm your roommate."
"Try again," she demanded, stepping forward and giving me no relief.
I swallowed hard. "I'm your friend who doesn't want to see you debase yourself for a few dollars."
She shook her head. "Not good enough, not for how insane you're acting."
My eyes dropped to the floor and my hands shaped impotent fists. I looked up when I felt a warm hand come to rest on the side of my face.
Keilana's gaze softened. "I think you're someone who is in love with me, Cadie. Are you ever going to say it or are you going to make me wait forever?"
The music stopped and suddenly I could hear the pounding of my own heart thudding loudly in my ears. Astonished, I gaped at her. "You-you knew?" I finally spluttered.
"It's not like you hide it very well." She smiled cautiously. "So is it true? Even after seeing me on stage?" She gestured around the small room. "And here?"
I surged forward and kissed her with all my might.
She kissed me back like she wanted me more than anything on the planet and my knees went weak at the feeling.
When we finally separated there was a loud popping noise as the suction between our lips was broken. I felt a little dazed. "It's true," I whispered emotionally, thrilled to the core to finally be saying it. "Anyplace. Doesn't matter where."
And with that I knew this game had to end. I did love her and there would end the lies, even if that meant she'd never speak to me again. My nostrils flared with fear. "And how do you feel about me?"
She smiled a beautiful smile and took one of my hands in hers and cradled it softly. "You are the nosiest person I've ever met"—she laughed when the tips of my ears turned red—"but I'm falling in love with you anyway, Cadie. I have been since almost the beginning. I know I can trust you and to me that's the most important thing."
"It is?" My heart twisted in my chest.
"I don't just want to get you into bed. Well, I do," she said grinning, "but I want more than that too." A tiny bit of insecurity peeked through. "I want everything, I mean, if you do."
A lump grew in my throat and tears pooled in my eyes. My heart was soaring but at the same time I felt like I was going down in flames. She'd said everything I'd ever wanted to hear, well, I could have lived without the nosy part. But the rest was what I'd secretly longed for, even dreamt about. And yet it was all wrong.
She needed to fall in love with Belinda, not Cadie.
Then I noticed something near her feet. The damned black backpack! I hated that fucking thing the way I hated myself for betraying her trust.
She followed my gaze. "It's not a mouse, is it?" She began dancing around, looking at the floor. "I hate mice!"
"No mouse. What's inside that backpack?" My mouth was suddenly dry and I did my best to lick my lips. I knew in my heart that I'd forgive her damn near anything ... and that I'd help her out of whatever mess she was in. But I still had to know.
For me and no one else.
Her brows furrowed at my question and she bent to pick up the pack. "See for yourself."
I looked her right in the eyes and swore to myself that I wouldn't go crazy when she confirmed my suspicions. "It's where you keep your costumes for stripping, right?"
Puzzled, she just looked at me for a few seconds. "Weren't you listening?" She rolled her eyes. "I told you, I'm not a stripper."
I gritted my teeth. "Then what are you, Keilana? Because I know what I damn well saw!"
The sound of running footsteps pitter-patted down the hall.
"Shh!" Worriedly, she glanced at the door. "Keep your voice down. You're not supposed to be back here. I'm already going to be in trouble with the manager after your little freak attack out there."
I sighed. "Sorry."
She passed over the backpack. It was a little bigger and heavier than it had appeared at a distance and I held my breath as I grasped the zipper. It was cool to the touch and my hand froze. Was I ready for this?
"Is the zipper stuck?" Keilana started to reach for the pack, frowning. "I need a new bag."
"No, it's okay." I drew in a deep breath. Please, God, don't let there be body parts stored in Tupperware in here. As I unzipped the zipper and blindly stuck my hand inside, a flash of going to a nature center as a kid and reaching into a small hole in a wooden box to feel some sort of surprise, tore through my mind. It was always fur or antlers, by the way. Somehow I doubted that would be the case here.
I blinked. "Electronic equipment?" I flipped open the bag, exposing the mystery to the light. It was jammed with cameras, tiny video recorders, cords, a mini tape recorder, the smallest laptop I'd ever seen, and some loose batteries. What the hell was this? "You're making porn out of this pack?"
"No!" She looked at me like I was crazy. Which I'm not. I think. "Jesus Christ, Cadie, do you always imagine the most horrible situation possible and then put me in it?"
Of course. "Maybe," I said a touch defensively.
She hesitated for just a second, then let out a little breath, apparently having come to her decision. Her eyes blazed with sudden determination. "I want to be a documentarian and I'm making my first film. It's about strippers and Billie is pretty much my prime interview, though there are several other women in it too."
She scrunched up her face. "They were from some really seedy clubs down the road. The filming played havoc with my school schedule and nearly killed me. Thank God I finished it just before summer. Things here this semester have been a piece of cake in comparison."
"A filmmaker? That can't be true!" I shook my head wildly, unable to accept what she was saying.
"Shh! The manager lets me shoot back here, but at his discretion ... and after I bribe him on a regular basis. If he cuts me off this close to the end of production I'm screwed."
"But you were on stage. You weren't just filming. You were the woman in red!" My mind drifted back to Keilana appearing out the mist. "The sizzling hot woman in red that I would still love to eat alive," I added, hoping that didn't sound as lecherous out loud as it had in my head.
This time it was her turn to blush. "Hold that thought, okay?"
I leaned forward and kissed her softly. She smelled incredible and I was still so keyed up from the show that I was about ready to explode. I don't know where I found the willpower to break that kiss. "Don't worry, I won't forget."
I held up the bag to remind Keilana I was still waiting for more of an explanation.
She quirked a grin and shook her finger at me. "Don't kiss me like that if you expect me to be able to think."
This time it was me that smiled. "Deal."
"Billie's been after me for months to learn one of the routines and perform so I'd really know what it feels like to be up on stage. I've been gathering my nerve and practicing the dancing. Tonight a couple of girls called off work so the club really needed someone to fill in. I umm ..." She paused to let out a shaky breath. "I wasn't going to get totally naked up there but my top was supposed to come off right at the end of the show."
I closed my eyes, half aroused by what she was telling me, the other half blessedly relieved that I stopped her in time. Keilana was too smart not to later regret something so stupid. I wanted to throttle Billie for even suggesting it.
"I got a taste of what Billie does up there everyday and I gotta tell you, it's a lot different being up on than stage than it is watching."
I squeezed her hand, wincing at the mild sting from my scraps. "And?"
"And it was a lot scary and a little intoxicating and something I don't want to do again. It was a stupid idea that I should have never agreed to in the first place."
She crossed slender arms over her chest and lifted her chin. "You don't have to be so smug about it."
"How would you feel if I got up on that stage and did that same dance with Billie?"
The tiny, but instant, growl that exploded from her throat surprised me, but it wasn't an unhappy surprise. "Eww ... Okay, so I see your point."
I zipped the bag closed and handed it back to her, careful not to drop it. I'd have to sell a kidney to replace even one those cameras.
I didn't know what to think about everything that had happened. I'd been expecting something horrible for so long that now that it hadn't happened, I wasn't sure how to act or how to feel.
"Are you okay?" she asked me, clearly concerned.
I blew my hair out of my eyes. "Yeah. I ... It's just been a long day."
I still felt uneasy. "Why didn't you tell me what you were doing? There's nothing wrong with making a documentary. I still don't understand why you'd hide it?"
Dismayed, she trained her gaze on my dirty shoes. "My parents, Cadie, they aren't like most people's parents. They're control freaks. I mean real control freaks."
That was, unfortunately, completely true. I was living proof. "What does that have to do with me?"
My eyes went round. "You told them about this movie project?"
She gave me a lopsided grin. "Get real, okay? I told them I wanted to go to film school, and they said no. I told them I wanted to make documentaries. They said no. I told my mother I wouldn't marry Mr. Right, who they've had picked out for me since I was three years old, and they ignored me. They're selectively deaf! I wasn't far from graduating so I figured I'd do my best to get through school on their dime and then do whatever it is I want afterward."
"I still don't—"
She placed two fingers over my lips. "I'm still talking."
Contrite, I nodded.
"Last year my grades started to slip. I was out all hours of the night and some of the girls I was filming, well, let's just say they lived a little wilder life than I could keep up with." She smiled sheepishly. "Though for a while I gave it the good old college try. I kept what I was doing from my parents and used my allowance to finance my project. One day while I was on the phone with my mother, she let slip that she knew I was spending a lot of time in San Diego."
Uh-oh. "How did she know that?"
"That's a very good question. And the only answer that makes sense is that she paid some parasite to spy on me."
I felt like taking a bath in lye.
"I know it sounds crazy, but it's true! One day I realized that I was being followed."
All the blood drained from my face. "You were?" I managed weakly.
"Yeah, by some guy. Ever since then I've kept what I'm doing a total secret. My life at school and my work here never cross paths. I can't let them and hope to be able to keep doing what I'm doing.
I know it's stupid, especially since I was one of the parasites, but I still felt hurt that she didn't tell me what she was up to. She spoke with such passion about her project, this was something important to her, and so it was important to me too.
She caught my expression and gentled her voice, "Cadie, I've thought about telling you a dozen times, but you don't know my parents. If they wanted information out of you or believed you could be of some use to them, they'd make your life a living hell until they got it."
I forced a snort. "You make them sound like the mafia." Oh, crap. Please don't let them be the Hawaiian mob.
"They aren't the mafia," she said grimly. "They just get what they want, no matter who they hurt in the process."
They wouldn't get what they wanted this time. My knees started to shake. "Keilana, there's something I have to tell you."
"Keilana!" Billie began to bang on the door. "Are you in there?"
"Just a minute" Keilana called out. "Hide!" she said to me, and began pushing me toward the closet. "Billie's already jealous of you and she went out on a limb to get me on stage. If she sees you in here she's gonna go crazy and call the goons."
I dug in my heels. "So? They'll just tell me to go, no big deal." Okay, they'd probably toss me on my head this time, but that didn't mean I was going to give in.
"So I'll have to re-shoot weeks of film if she pulls out of this project," she hissed. "In the closet with you."
She grasped my face and kissed me with purpose. It was short but smoking hot and I actually whimpered when she stopped. "That seems to be the best way to shut you up." Her grin took the sting from the words.
"You have a way to get home right?" she asked quickly. "And then you can tell me why you're hanging out in strip clubs. If you're in love with me shouldn't you be home knitting me dinner or something?"
A tiny laugh exploded from me, but my smile soon faded. "I promise to explain absolutely everything at home."
A crease appeared on her forehead and she touched my face with aching tenderness. "What's the matter?"
Billie was banging on the door again but I had Keilana's full attention. I could hardly keep from crying. "I always keep my promises."
She shook her head. "I don't understand."
Billie's banging grew even louder. "Keilana, c'mon. I need those gloves I lent you for my next number!"
"It's nothing," I said valiantly, doing my best to look like I wasn't dying inside.
"Okay, I gotta go start filming." She grabbed Billie's gloves from the small dressing room table. "I know they told me to go home, but Billie's trying a new G-string tonight."
My eyebrows jumped.
"Don't ask." She rolled her eyes. "Just be careful sneaking out of here, okay?" She smiled at me and my heart melted. Then she kissed her fingers and pressed them to the tip of my nose. "Until tonight."
I'd never hated my job so much.
Sneaking out wasn't as easy as I thought it'd be. In fact, it was nearly two hours before I could get out of that damn dressing room. One of the strippers decided to have a meltdown right outside the door and I was trapped there like the rat that I am. I didn't bother to drive back to my apartment and trade cars. Tonight I would tell Keilana everything and my days of driving around in snazzy Jaguars would be over.
It was nearly midnight by the time I made it back to campus. I pulled into the spot next to Keilana's BMW. She probably was wondering where I was. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to hurry. I leaned forward and rested my head on the steering wheel. The cool metal of the cross bars felt surprisingly good against my forehead, but did nothing to ease my nervous stomach.
What could I tell her that would keep her from hating me? I already hated myself so badly I could barely stand it.
For a moment I toyed with the idea of just not telling her at all. It's not too late, my evil side urged. But deep down I knew I couldn't do that. Besides, things were different now. I wanted to be with her and she wanted to be with me. A goofy grin interrupted my self-loathing. She was in love with me!
I felt fantastic and horrible all at the same time. Okay, she might have said she was falling in love with me. But I could work with that. She might not realize it now, but when I'm not being a disgusting, traitorous spy, I'm really a loyal, downright lovable person.
If she truly cared for me, surely I could convince her to forgive me, right? I was willing to accept her as a prostitute or druggie or whatever trouble she'd gotten herself into. If I could do that, this wouldn't be an impossible leap for her.
I nodded once, screwing up my courage as I exited the car and stood on Jell-O legs.
"Okay, Belinda, please don't fuck this up," I murmured into the breeze.
Slowly, very slowly, I headed up the path toward our cottage. Most of the other residences were dark, but there was a golden light coming from the living room window. She'd waited up for me. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or to turn around and run.
Since when had my feet grown so heavy? It felt as though I was slogging through a mud pit. Uphill.
I let out few shaky breaths as I inserted my key into the lock, a little surprised to find that it wasn't locked.
"I'm home," I said quietly as I took a tentative step inside. I didn't turn on the lights in case she was asleep on the sofa and I had been granted a temporary reprieve. There were worse ways to spend a night than watching someone as special as Keilana sleep.
But my roomie was not only awake, she was sitting across the room on the sofa, holding something in her hands. Her head was down and the wan light cast long shadows across her face. Something was wrong. "Hi, Kei—"
She glanced up at me and I saw a glistening streak trail down her cheek. My stomach lurched.
"Hello, Belinda," she said softly, chilling me to the bone. "Or should I say Ms. Blaisdell?"
I felt as though I'd been shot in the chest. In her hands she held my case notebook.
"Oh my God." A cold sweat broke out across my body, causing me to tremble. "You weren't supposed to find ... That's private." I hadn't left my notebook out! How had she found it?
From behind Keilana and out the shadows stepped her mountain of a mother. "I think you should go, Ms. Blaisdell." It wasn't a request. It was an order.
Incredulous, I blurted, "You just ... what are you doing here?"
"Belinda." My head snapped sideways to see Russ standing in the kitchen. I could hardly breathe. "What the hell are you doing here?" My gaze flickered around the tiny cottage. Who else was going to pop out of nowhere? Was I the last person to be let in on some sick joke?
"C'mere. We need to talk." He cast uneasy eyes on Keilana and her mother and then took a few steps forward to reach out for me. "They need a few minutes to themselves."
Keilana had a vacant look in her eyes and Mrs. Poppenhouse laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Yes, we need another moment."
"No!" I jerked my arm away. "I'll deal with you later, Russ. I need to talk to Keilana now." I turned back toward her only to have Russ lift me off my feet and bodily haul me into the kitchen like I was a sack of potatoes. That was the second time that had happened tonight and this time pissed me off even more than the first. "Let the fuck go of me!" I screeched, elbowing him hard in the back to hear the air rush out of his lungs. "Dammit Russ! Let me go!"
"No," he grunted, sitting me down hard on the kitchen cabinet and out of sight of Keilana and her mother. "Did you need to hit me?" Scowling, he reached for his back. "Jesus! I have to tell you something before you go in there."
"Didn't you hear what I said?" I snapped angrily. "I can't talk to you now." I needed to go to her.
"Listen to me!" He grabbed both of my hands and held them hard.
I bared my teeth. Who did he think he was? First nosing incessantly in my business and now telling me what to do? He was pushing his luck even as my best friend. "Say what you have to say fast and then get out."
Hesitantly, he let go of my hands. "Just listen for a minute. Mrs. Poppenhouse showed up out of the blue tonight."
"Why were you here anyway?" I was instantly sorry that I'd ask the question. I didn't care nor have time to hear his answer. "Never mind. Tell me later." I could see the perspiration beading on his upper lip and felt my dread grow exponentially.
"I was in the house when she came through the front door. I didn't know she was coming," he said, rubbing his forehead, something he only did when he was very upset. "If I had I would have tried to stop her or warn you or something. I swear to God." The words were flying out of his mouth so quickly that I could barely understand him.
"You came in the house after you lost Keilana? I thought you were going home?"
He blew out a nervous breath and lifted his hand only to let it limply fall. "You don't understand. I never followed Keilana tonight. I was happy to have her out of the house so that it would be easier to break in. You guys hardly ever leave this place. You have no life!"
My mouth worked ineffectually for a few confused seconds as I tried desperately to put things together. "You lied to me and then broke into our house?"
Russ's voice was trembling. "Oh, Jesus, Belinda, I don't know how else to do this, so I'll just say it. I've been working for Mrs. Poppenhouse for weeks."
I gave him a part bewildered, part angry look. "They brought in a second P.I.?" Why hadn't he just told me? I was mad, but Russ was the least of my concerns at the moment. "You've been watching Keilana too and didn't bother to tell me? You suck, Russ. But I have to talk to her now. Go home."
His gaze dropped to the countertop. "No." He swallowed hard. "I've been watching you."
I just stared at him, knowing he couldn't have said what I thought he said. A painful silence thundered between us and he squirmed under the weight of my stare. "What ... what did you just say?"
He closed his eyes.
"Russ?" the urgency in my voice grew.
"Your reports to the Poppenhouses started to change after a couple of weeks. I saw them, Belinda. You all but told Mr. and Mrs. Poppenhouse to go to hell for being bad parents. And then you went on and on about what potential Keilana had and how she was such a good person. Mrs. Poppenhouse got worried and called me." He winced. "She thought you might be trying to take advantage of Keilana's vulnerable state."
"Take advantage?" Had everyone lost their mind? Wasn't I already taking advantage of our friendship to pump her for information? Did they think I was a rapist too? "What vulnerable state?"
He shrugged. "I dunno, but she was worried you two might become ..."—he lowered his voice as though this part was somehow worse than the rest—"involved with each other. Mr. Poppenhouse doesn't have a clue that his daughter is into girls and Mrs. Poppenhouse wants to keep it that way."
"What are you talking about!" I roared. My best friend was spying on me? None of this made any sense. I shook my head wildly, unable to process what he was saying. "Forget it. I don't give a shit right now." I jumped down off the counter. I couldn't think about him now anyway. I had to talk to Keilana. I had to explain things to her so she could move past this and forgive me.
"Please wait." He blocked my path. "There's more," he said quickly. "Your casebook. Or journal or whatever. I'm sorry, Belinda, I've been breaking in and making copies of the entries for Mrs. Poppenhouse since last month."
My feet froze and my mouth fell open.
Seeing the look on my face, he began to panic. "I didn't want to, but you mentioned the notebook in one your reports and she insisted on seeing it! I tried to warn you not to get hooked on Keilana. I tried!" He threw his hands in the air. "I had no idea you'd put how you felt about her on paper. It was mixed in with everything else. I couldn't even erase the damn stuff." He grabbed his head as though it might somehow fly off his neck. "What were you thinking?"
"You son of a bitch," I hissed, the sour taste of betrayal erupting from my belly and making me ill. I looked him square in the eye, my breath coming in harsh pants. "You're supposed to be my best friend!"
My hurt and rage felt like a liquid heat, invading every pore of my body, and seeping into my blood with every furious beat of my heart. My voice was so deep and calm, that I didn't even recognize it. "Get out of my way right this fucking second, Russ. Or so help me, God"—I was shaking—"I will tear right through you."
I was deadly serious and his back straightened as my words registered. "Belinda, I'm sorry." He spread his hands out in entreaty. "I just need to explain. Please—"
I took a menacing step forward and his hands flew up to guard himself.
The desire to strangle him was growing into something more than I could bear. "Do you even know what you've done to me ... to Keilana?"
He looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. "But it's just a case," he said weakly. "Just a crush on a pretty girl." When I didn't answer, he paled. "Isn't it?"
"Where's my fucking dog?"
He started at my wild change in subjects. "Why do you want ... I mean, he's in the car. I took him with me tonight because he chewed a hole our carpet and Sarah—"
"Bring him back!" I demanded, taking a fistful of his shirt and then using it to shove him as far away as I could. "And then get as far away from me as you can!"
He stumbled back a few steps, looking stricken. "Just let me talk. Please." Stupidly, he moved back in front of me. "I can explain. There's more—"
I covered my ears with my hands and bent at the waist as I yelled, "I don't want to hear anymore!" Then I barreled into him with my strength, my shoulder impacting his mid-section with stunning force. We flew into the kitchen wall and his head hit hard, breaking an enormous hole in the plaster that our falling bodies made even bigger.
Stunned by the impact of the fall and what he'd just revealed, I scrambled off him and stumbled into the living room. Keilana was still sitting lifelessly on the sofa. She glanced up and then looked at me as though I were a stranger.
"You have to listen to me." I tried not to think about how Russ had just said the same thing and how I would just as soon kill him as comply. "You only think you don't know me." I dropped to my knees in front of her, ignoring Mrs. Poppenhouse, who was looking down at me in fear and shock. "But you do know me," I swore fervently. "Everything I said tonight was true. I do love you."
Keilana's mother audibly groaned.
"I promise I do," I continued desperately. Carefully, I took my case notebook out of Keilana's hands and held it up before her. "You know how I feel about you. You know how hard this has been. It's all in here. I started this to help the Poppenhouses ..." It was time for the brutal truth. "And for the money. But it hasn't been about getting paid in a long time."
Disgusted, Keilana looked away.
I'd never felt so small. "I thought you might need my help. It's all in here." Gently, I sat the notebook back in her lap.
Vaguely, I heard the front door open, then slam shut as Russ left.
"Cadie or—" she stopped and swallowed a few times. She was barely holding it together. "Or whoever you are."
That was a knife in my heart.
"I didn't read this." She picked up the notebook and threw it across the room in a fit of rage. "I couldn't read it and not go insane! When I came home tonight my wonderful mother," she said the last word as though it were a curse, "and her other little spy filled me in on who you really are. I already know more than enough, thank you."
My eyes jerked upward to Mrs. Poppenhouse. "Tell her why you hired me."
She just stared down at me with dark, wide eyes.
"Tell her!" I demanded when she didn't answer quickly enough.
"I told her," Mrs. Poppenhouse finally said. She shifted uncomfortably, looking as though she wanted to step farther away from me.
Was she actually afraid of me? Good.
"Your father and I were worried about you, Keilana. We couldn't just do nothing while you failed out of school and did God only knows what else."
Keilana shot to her feet, knocking me backward in the process. "Stop making excuses." Furious, she pointed at me. "You hired her so you could control my life just like always! How I act. Where I work. Who I marry. Who I sleep with. Where I live. You want to pick it all!"
Good for her. I was proud of her for sticking up to her mother. This was a good sign. Her anger was something I could deal with, something I deserved, and at least she was still talking.
"That's not true, Keilana," Mrs. Poppenhouse insisted, her face reddening with barely suppressed anger. "Despite what you think, you are still a child. And you don't always know what's best for you."
"What makes you"—blazing blue eyes swung down and bore into me with frightening intensity—"or you, think you know what's best for me? I won't be controlled or manipulated anymore." She fixed her stare on her mother. "It's my life and you can't have it."
"I'm your mother," Mrs. Poppenhouse said simply, as though that explained everything. "I'm staying at the Westgate Hotel. We'll talk tomorrow when you're able to be more reasonable and respectful."
Then she glanced down at me like I was a piece of garbage. "Kale needn't know about ..."—she gestured vaguely between Keilana and me—"the two of you."
Gee, how nice of her, seeing as how she's all about family unity and support.
Mrs. Poppenhouse's eyes narrowed. "Don't think that you'll be getting paid for your services after what you've done."
Happy to finally be saying it, I snarled, "You can keep every penny of your stinking money and kiss my sweet ass."
Keilana snorted derisively. "Looks like next time you hire a lap dog, Mother, you'd better find a more obedient one."
Mrs. Poppenhouse puffed out her enormous chest. Luckily I was still sitting on my butt, reducing my chances at being blinded. "Give Keilana the keys to the cottage and the Jaguar and have your things out of here in the next half hour or I'll have the campus police arrest you." Then she marched out of our cottage as though she owned the place.
Come to think of it, she might.
In just a few seconds Keilana and I were alone.
I didn't know where to start, I only knew this might be last chance and I couldn't waste it. Her breathing sounded abnormally loud and then I realized it was my own.
"Keilana," I began tentatively, wanting with all my heart to pull her into a hug and make every bit of the mess I'd caused vanish. "I made a mistake. A horrible mistake. I didn't know you when I took this job. I didn't do it to hurt you. I did it to help us both. I'm so, so sorry I wasn't honest with you. I-I don't know what else to say! Forgive me. Please."
Keilana laughed callously and it was like an Arctic blast rolling through the room. "Forgive you?" This close to her I could see how bloodshot and glassy her eyes were. She'd been crying. A lot. "You lied to me again and again. You used me!"
I wished with every ounce of my being that I could deny that. But I couldn't. "I know I did. I don't have an excuse. I got in so deep that there was no good way out. I was going to tell you everything tonight. I couldn't stand having this between us anymore." I searched for something else to say, for a way to redeem myself, but there wasn't one.
I studied Keilana for a long moment. Oh, God, she wasn't going to forgive me. I could see it in her eyes and I felt like throwing up. "I'm not a bad person. Please believe me. I'm so, so sorry." I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to the ward off the pain that was making it hard to breathe or think or ...
"You betrayed me." She started to cry again and I felt like I wanted to die. "I trusted you."
The cries turned into sobs. "I believed you were my friend. I t-told you things. I confided in you and you tr-tricked me!"
Oh, Jesus, I really was going to be sick. I swallowed hard, then remembered my case notebook. Frantically, I crawled over to it and picked it up. "I know you don't believe anything I'm saying to you now. And I don't blame you." I held it up. "But I never thought you'd see this. It was locked away and meant for my eyes only. You have to believe this if nothing else! I wasn't lying to myself. Read it and you'll know everything."
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I already told you that I know enough."
Stunned and sick, I sat back on my heels. "Things don't have to end like this for us." Now I was crying too. "You can decide to forgive me."
Just then the front door opened and Smelly shot over to me like a bullet, flying into my arms. I hugged him tightly against me, letting him lick my salty face and drawing comfort from the only friend I had left. "You have to believe me."
She sniffed a few times and whispered, "Don't you get it? I do believe you." She smiled sadly and looked away. "I just can't trust you." She paused. "So what's the point?"
"We would be the point!"
"There is no we or us, Cad— Belinda." She let out an unsteady, but resolved breath, and looked at me with heartsick eyes. "There's only lies."
I blinked stupidly. This couldn't just be the end, could it?
She stood up and slowly walked to the bathroom. "Leave your keys on the table."
It was a chilly Sunday afternoon in November when I taped shut the last cardboard box and glumly looked around my office. It hadn't been impressive before, but I'd done my best to make it appear inviting and professional. Now, with everything packed up and its white walls naked, it looked downright depressing.
True to my word, I'd returned the Poppenhouses first couple of paychecks. I'd even paid them back for their expensive haircut and the designer clothes I hated. True to what Mrs. Poppenhouse had said, they hadn't paid me for my final couple weeks of work. That meant I couldn't make October or November's office rent.
So, with no jobs looming on the immediate horizon, Blaisdell Investigations was moving. Where? I still wasn't sure.
I sat down and dug a screwdriver out of my toolbox so that I could pry my nameplate from the placard outside the front door when someone came knocking. I'd glanced up and felt a sense of familiarity wash over me. I'd seen that shadowy silhouette through the privacy glass hundreds of times. But this was the first time it wasn't welcome.
"I know you're in there," Russ called out, rapping loudly. "Let me in, will ya?"
"Fuck off," I yelled back.
It had been weeks since I'd said more than that to him and I saw no reason to spoil my perfect streak now. My anger had cooled, but the hurt was still there. Keilana wouldn't talk to me and I wouldn't talk to Russ. All the rotten bastards I knew were getting just what they deserved.
Russ rapped sharply on the glass. So hard, in fact, I figured it would shatter at any moment. "I'm not the tenant anymore, Russ. You can break the glass for all I care."
"Belinda," he groaned, "enough with this horse shit. Just let me in. Please?"
I don't know what compelled me to open the door. I didn't want to talk to him. I didn't want to see him. I didn't want to have anything to do with the two-faced traitor. And yet, I found myself at my door, flicking open the deadbolt.
"Finally!" He rushed inside and wrapped me in tight hug before I could move away. I bit my lower lip as I forced my arms to stay at my sides. I'm not one of those people who holds a grudge forever. My anger burns hot and then when I can think straight, I can usually forgive. But I wasn't ready to return Russ's hug.
He released me with a frustrated, slightly wounded look.
"Why are you here, Russ?"
He tilted his head to the side. "Why am I here? Why do you think? I want us to be friends again. I want us to hang out and surf and laugh and for you to come over to my house for dinner. I want you to forgive me."
"How can you say that? How can you stand there and be so unyielding when I'm asking less from you than you are from Keilana. I don't even want lesbian sex!" He gave me a sheepish grin. "Well, okay, I do, but I can live without it if I have to."
I didn't want to smile. I didn't.
"Aha! I saw that!" Beaming, he pointed at my face. "I saw that. You smiled."
I scowled. "You saw nothing."
"Did too." He let out a relieved breath. "You smiled. You're forgiving me even though you don't want to. I'm wearing you down with my groveling and charm."
I walked over and sat down on my desk, pulling my knees to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. "Just because I smiled, doesn't mean we're friends anymore. We're not. Friends, I mean."
He sat down next to me. "You're wrong," he said softly.
I blinked. "Are you saying I don't know who my own friends are?"
"Yeah." He nodded and shrugged broad shoulders. "Pretty much."
My eyes turned to slits. "I hate you."
"And sometimes I hate you. That's how it is with us. Doesn't mean we aren't friends. It just means we're twisted."
I socked him in the arm. Hard.
"Ow!" He made as face as he rubbed his bicep. "That hurt!"
"You spied on a friend! On me. How can I trust you after that? You screwed me for money!"
He looked stricken. "I didn't think I was screwing you. I thought it was an easy job and that I would be able to get you to see that what I'd done wasn't such a big deal. I thought that right now we'd be planning a trip to Australia to catch the perfect wave. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"And you say I'm wrong a lot?" I gestured crazily. "You're ... you're ... wronger than me!"
"Eat shit and die, Russ."
He turned to face me and gazed at me with puppy dog eyes, the soft sweet ones that I couldn't resist all those years ago. "See how much fun we're having?" he said. "Tell me you can live without this."
I had missed him. And I didn't want to live without our friendship. But still ... he'd invaded my privacy and made a bad situation ten times worse. "Stop cracking jokes. This is serious."
"I know it's serious. But if I don't laugh, then I'll cry, and you'll call me a girly man again!" His gaze turned beseeching. "I'm desperate here, Belinda."
He did look on the verge of tears. And I would have called him a girly man.
"Just give me another chance not to screw up, okay?"
I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. "I don't think I can."
"You want Keilana to forgive you but you can't forgive me? Why is this so different?"
"I guess doing the forgiving is a helluva lot harder than asking for it. And this isn't like what happened with Keilana and me! You and I have been friends since I first started as a P.I. You weren't trying to help me by spying on me, you were trying to help yourself. You screwed a friend, not a stranger!"
"Fine." He held his hands up in a placating gesture. "I was trying to help myself. I know it sounds crazy, but I didn't think this was that big of a deal when I agreed to do it. It seemed more like harmless snooping for an obscene amount of money." He ran his hands through his short hair. "I'm sorry and I was wrong."
"I hope whatever you bought with the money breaks."
"I was trying to help you too."
My eyes widened. "Oh, sure you were," I said sarcastically. "How are you going to help me next? Shoot me in head?"
Russ began counting his fingers. "I was helping you keep your job, smartass. I was doing my best to keep Mrs. Poppenhouse off your back. I was trying to be there to remind you what a bad idea it would be to get involved with Keilana so you wouldn't get yourself into a mess you couldn't get out of. I—"
"You read my case notes! You knew I was in love with her."
"I didn't." He let out an exasperated groan. "I tried to tell you all this that night, but you were so hell-bent on talking to Keilana that you wouldn't give me a chance. I checked out your notes the first time I copied them and then not again until the night Mrs. Poppenhouse showed up. The first time I looked at them one or two personal comments and that's it. It was no big deal and all businesslike. I didn't think you were going to add some sort of weird running narrative!"
I rested my head against my knees. "Looks like you were wrong again."
"I think we covered that."
"Not enough, Russ."
He scrubbed his face and sighed. "I messed up bad. I hurt you. I'm sorry. I love you and don't want to lose you." All traces of teasing were gone. "You can trust me."
"You can! I know what I did was wrong and it won't ever happen again. I've learned my lesson. Being without my best friend sucks."
I studied him intently, and despite not wanting to, I found myself believing his words. Russ wasn't a complicated guy and even though he had horrible judgment at times, he tried his best to be honest. "It's going to take some time, Russ. No promises."
His face lit up like a Christmas tree. "I understand. And I'm going to work to make things up to you. Thanks."
"Don't thank me yet. I'm still pissed."
He tried to smile. "I know." He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a white envelope. "But I'm going to earn back your trust and make things right. And this is how I want to start." He handed it over. "Here."
I looked at the envelope, and then back at him. "What's this?"
"Two things. First, inside is a receipt for three months' rent for this place. You're paid through New Year's." He glanced around. "Sorry I didn't catch you before you took down your pictures."
"Russ!" I started to jump off the desk but he held me back.
"Don't bother saying you can't accept it, because it's already done and I can't get the money back now anyway. The place is yours."
Dumbfounded, I just stared at what was in my hands. "You can't afford to help me." Three months' rent was close to ten thousand dollars. My office was small but the location was choice and brought in business all on its own. "You're saving for a house."
"I can't afford not to do this," he said seriously. "Besides, even though I messed up, I do know the right thing to do when I see it. And this is it. You're like a sister to me, Belinda. Family sticks together when it rains shit."
My back stiffened as a nasty thought crossed my mind. "I won't take the money the Poppenhouses paid you." My eyes glinted dangerously.
The corner of his mouth shot upward. "Stubborn to the end, eh? This isn't their money. I know how you'd feel about that."
My jaw worked. Russ knew how much my business meant to me. He also knew that my brother was just scraping by and that my parents were retired and living on a very modest fixed income. I didn't have anywhere else to turn. "What does Sarah think about this?" I turned the envelope over in my hands. "This is a lot of money."
"It was her idea." He waggled a finger at me. "But I get credit for being married to her and having the sense to agree with her."
I snorted. "She called me last week and begged me to take you back." I smiled a little. "Apparently you're spending way too much time at home on the weekends and in the evenings, and she's about ready to drink poison."
"The women in my life are all evil," he muttered, rolling his eyes.
"I dunno, Russ. I'm not even sure I should be speaking to you, much less taking your money."
"If the positions were reversed would you do it for me?"
"You know I would. But—"
He took my hand in his and squeezed. "Please don't be too proud or angry to accept my help. You'll always be my best friend, even if I'm not always as good a friend as you deserve."
I didn't know what to say so I settled on a hoarse, "Thanks." I cleared my throat a little and focused on the envelope. "You said there were two things in here? Is the other a pony? 'Cause I've always wanted a pony."
"Go on." He nudged my foot with his. "Open it."
I did, blinking slowly when I saw what was inside. "A plane ticket?"
"Uh-huh. To Hawaii."
My heart lurched. Keilana.
"She's there visiting her grandmother while she's on Thanksgiving break."
I shot him a look and he braced himself as though I might take a swing at him.
"Don't go crazy, Jesus! I'm not spying on her or anything. I went to Madonna Del Mar and knocked on her door like a regular person. She's got a new roommate, by the way, ugliest girl I've ever seen, and that's who told me where she was."
I closed my eyes. "She won't talk to me, Russ." I wanted to cry, something I hadn't done in what? Hours? "I've tried a dozen times. I've emailed, I've called, and I've shown up at her door only to have it slammed in my face again and again. The campus police know my car and towed it last time!"
He looked surprised and just a little disappointed. "So you're giving up on her then?"
My expression sobered. "No way. I'm just ... just ..."
He bumped my shoulder with his and looked straight ahead to give me a little privacy as my eyes teared up. "Regrouping?"
"Floundering!" God, it felt good to be talking to him again. It would take some time, but we'd be okay. We always were. "I'm miserable without her."
"So don't be without her."
I blew out an annoyed breath. "It's not that easy. You know that."
"Of course it's not. But it's not getting any easier with you here and her hundreds of miles away." He paused.
I could tell he wanted to say something but was holding back. I would probably be sorry I asked, but as usual, I couldn't help myself. "What?"
"Is she the one?"
He didn't have to say more for me to know exactly what he meant. Sarah was the one for him. Anyone who knew him could see that that was true. They fought like cats and dogs, but in a way that most people really couldn't understand, they completed each other.
Was Keilana Poppenhouse, that willful, guarded, intelligent, witty, kind young woman the one for me? I thought about the sort of person she was deep down inside and the way I felt just being near her. I turned to look at Russ. "I think she might be, but I never got the chance to find out."
"Well, then." He jumped down from my desk and brushed his hands off on his jeans. "What are you waiting for?"
A warm, fragrant breeze blew off the water and ruffled my hair as I approached Keilana's grandmother's house. It had taken me two plane trips and a short boat trip to get to this tiny island, whose name I'd already forgotten. The boat driver had given me simple directions to stop at the first house I found, and I was finally here.
The house itself was at least seventy years old and the grounds were lush and beautiful. They overflowed with colorful flowers and plants that were a dozen shades of green. It wasn't as opulent as I'd expected though. There were no gates or servants manning the driveway or guard dogs. It was just a charming old house that was clearly well-maintained and loved.
To be honest, I hadn't expected this level of moderation from anyone in the Poppenhouse family, even Keilana.
I held my breath as I knocked at the door. I hadn't eaten anything since the day before because I was so nervous I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep it down. Now, however, I was a little lightheaded and hadn't even seen her yet!
The door opened and I found myself looking at a white-haired woman with weathered dark skin and lively eyes as black as coal. She was old but it was impossible to tell just how old. "Hello," she said.
She couldn't have been more than five feet tall! "How in the world did you have a baby that huge?" I exclaimed. Then I froze, mortified that my thoughts tumbled from my brain to my mouth with no stops in between. I felt my face heat and I clamped my hand over my mouth before I could humiliate myself again. "Oh, God," I said through my fingers. Carefully, I peeled away my hand. "I'm so sorry. I—"
But to my relief, she just laughed. "I guess you've met my son Kale. And, yes, it wasn't easy, he was nearly eleven pounds!" She smiled at me, warm but cautious. "You must be Ms. Blaisdell."
I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the next. "You know about me?" I glanced behind her in case I was wrong about the guard dogs and I was about to become breakfast.
"I do indeed." She stepped aside. "Keilana mentioned that she had a falling out with her roommate."
Whew. "Yes, that's what's happened." I hesitated even though I desperately wanted to talk to Keilana. I knew my unannounced visit was rude. "I apologize for coming by so early."
"Nonsense. Besides, you've already been sitting at the foot of my driveway for three hours. I was starting to wonder if you'd ever come up."
I wanted to crawl under a rock.
"You two must have had some argument. Especially if it brought you all the way to my tiny island."
"That's an understatement." She was being so polite and understanding and so unlike Kale Poppenhouse or his wife. Maybe she was adopted too?
I set my small travel bag on the porch and stepped just inside the doorway. The house smelled like coffee and toast. Yum. "Mrs. Poppenhouse—"
"You can call me Malipeloku."
My eyes went a little wide with panic. "Umm ... I don't think I can!"
She laughed heartily. "Keilana said you were funny."
I licked my lips, covertly glancing around. "Speaking of Keilana, is she here? I'd like to speak with her, please."
She gave me a thorough once over before deciding what to tell me. "She's reading on the beach. Would you like to have some coffee and bring Keilana hers? I just made a fresh pot and was about to walk it down the beach myself."
Relief washed over me. "Yes. I'd be glad to bring her some coffee."
I followed Mrs. Poppenhouse into the kitchen and sat down at a small breakfast bar while she carefully took three large cups from the cupboard. She filled them in silence and passed two of them over to me.
I took the cups, hoping my hands weren't twitching as badly as I feared. "Which way do I go?"
She opened the kitchen door, allowing the bright sunlight to pour over me. "Turn left and keep walking until you see her."
Gingerly, I took a sip of my hot coffee so I'd have less chance of spilling it down my shirt as I stepped out onto the sand.
I turned back and raised my eyebrows in question.
"Don't blow it."
Our eyes met and I got the distinct impression that she was holding out on me. "I won't."
The beach was deserted and I began to think that when Keilana's grandmother had said "my" island, she'd really meant it. The fresh air felt nice against my bare legs and arms and the wind fluttered my T-shirt. I pushed off my shoes after a few hundred feet, wanting the comforting feeling of the sand between my toes.
It was at least fifteen minutes before I saw her, sitting under a short palm tree on a soft blanket in the sand. She was beautiful and I drank in the sight of her, my heart racing with fear and anticipation. I guess it wasn't broken after all. I'd known I was missing her. How could I not? But it wasn't until that very moment that I realized just how much.
I got within twenty feet of her before she glanced up at me. She did a double take, and startled, she dropped her book.
"Hi," I said softly, joining her on her blanket without waiting for an invitation.
"Cad— I mean, Ms., I mean Belin ... ugh." Confused, she finally gave up stumbling over my name. "What are you doing here? How did you find me?"
"I didn't do anything shady." I nearly tacked on "I promise" but I suspected my promises wouldn't mean much to her at the moment. "Your roommate told my friend where you'd gone for Thanksgiving break and then he told me. But it was your Granny who gave me directions to this spot on the beach, if that's what you mean."
I took in our surroundings, giving her few minutes to adjust to my presence. She still looked shocked. "This is beautiful."
When I turned back to her, I caught her staring right at me and she quickly looked away. "You're growing out your hair. It looks pretty," she murmured, a little embarrassed.
A kernel of hope ignited inside me. "Thanks. This is for you." I held up her cup that was now lukewarm at best, the aroma of the beans mingling with the fresh scent of the ocean.
Gingerly, she took it, still unwilling to look me in the eye. "Thanks." She took a sip and then set it back down on the sand next to mine, the glass clinking gently.
Well, at least she hadn't told me to go to hell yet. That was an improvement over the first dozen times I'd tried to talk to her since that night.
She gazed out at the water and I couldn't help but think of our trip to the beach at Del Mar and how close I'd felt to her that day, and how awkward things felt now. I had more regrets than I knew what to do with.
"When are you going to give up?" she asked, unconsciously wringing long fingers.
I examined her profile, strong and angry. She looked tired, the dark circles under her eyes more prominent than I'd ever seen them. "Never," I said simply. "I'm never going to give up."
Her forehead creased. "Nobody means that when they say it. Not really."
"That's exactly what I mean." I longed to touch her and had to sit on my hands to keep from reaching out. "I understand that if you're going to trust me again—and I pray that you are—that it's going to take some time. I'll wait as long as I have to."
"What it if never happens?"
"Then I guess I've got a long wait ahead of me." She wanted me to say that I'd bail on her when I didn't get what I wanted fast enough, but I wouldn't do it. I wanted to be in this for the long haul, if she'd only let me.
She swallowed a few times and looked like she might actually start to talk to me.
I leaned forward in anticipation.
Then, abruptly, she picked up her book and started searching for the spot she'd stopped reading. "You're wasting your time. Go home and back to your slimeball spying."
I grabbed the book and tossed it over her head before she could use it as a prop in her latest production of Let's Ignore Belinda.
"Hey! Give it back!" she said through clenched teeth, her eyes sparking.
"No." I gentled my voice, which was threatening to rise. "We need to talk."
"You've got some nerve!" She looked like she wanted to scream. "I already have enough people in my life who don't care what I think and who want to control me. I don't need you joining the party."
"Stop it." My anger flared. "Stop being such a Goddamn baby. I don't want to control you and I sure as hell care what you think or I wouldn't be here at all. You might not ever love me. You might not even ever like me again or come close to accepting my apology, but at least listen to it! I've been crafting it for weeks and have come twenty-five hundred miles to give it."
She ground her teeth together but I could see that she was teetering on the edge.
"Will you just listen to me? Please, Keilana." I wasn't above begging. "Please?"
Reluctantly, she nodded.
I could feel my heart pounding painfully and I drew in a nervous breath. Failure wasn't an option. Okay, I told myself, here goes everything. No pressure or anything. "My name is Belinda Blaisdell."
She blinked a few times and I could tell she was surprised by how I'd started, but that was okay. At least she was listening. Besides, I was more concerned that we ended up in the same place than whether we agreed on the road we took to get there.
"My middle name is Cadie. My mom used to call me that when I was teensy tiny, but my dad didn't like it much and so she stopped after a while. I'd forgotten that I liked it until you started using it. You can call me Belinda, like everyone else does, but you aren't like everyone else to me. So you can call me Cadie if you want."
Bewildered, she slowly said, "Okay," and I guessed that she was wondering why she'd have to use my name at all if she decided never to speak to me again.
I had to admit, she had a point.
"You'll want to have a name to use when you curse me at least, right?" I ventured, hoping I'd guessed right.
She sighed, both sadness and frustration leaking into the sound. "I don't want to curse you. Well, actually I do. But I'm trying to get over wanting that and ..." her voice dropped to a whisper, "a lot more."
I struggled not to fall into those beautiful eyes that had somehow grown more intense in the weeks we'd been apart. "So long as you don't get over me," I said in a rush, my anxiety rising. "At least not until I'm done talking. Promise?"
Her eyes flashed. "I can't promise you any—"
"Promise?" I asked frantically. "Or I swear to God I'll do something horrible like ... like ... I'll start singing a wretched love song at the top of my lungs, humiliating myself, and scaring the birds, and sickening you in the process. I'm not bluffing, I'll really do it! I will!"
Somehow, a tiny smile cracked through her stony veneer. "In that case, and because I've heard you sing in the shower, I promise."
That was better. I took a calming breath. "Okay, you already know that I'm a private investigator." I got up and sat down in front of her so that she didn't have to turn her head to look at me. That put me off the blanket and onto the damp sand. My butt was wet again, but I was actually getting used to that. "I have my own tiny business that was doing okay up until a few months ago, but I'll be back on my feet again soon."
She tried not to look concerned. "The job my parents hired you for ruined your business?"
"No. I ruined my business. But that doesn't matter now."
"I'm a California native, a college drop-out, and Russ, you remember him, the other slimeball spy? He's my best friend. I haven't forgiven him for his part in this, but we're talking again and I'm trying my best not to hold a grudge or want to kill him every second."
She was looking at me funny. "What?" I asked, allowing her expression to derail me.
"I don't understand what you're doing. Why are you telling me these things?"
"I'm telling you about myself." I swallowed hard. "Keilana, there are a thousand lies between us and I can't take them all back or change what I've done. You deserved the whole truth. And so you're getting it now." I smiled bravely. This didn't sound near so cheesy when I was rehearsing it on the airplane. "Even though it's long overdue."
I let out a little groan. "I messed up already, I think. Because I should have started off by telling you that I love you."
Her nostrils flared.
"You haven't gotten to hear me say nearly as much as you should have, but that doesn't mean it's not true. I also need to tell you that from the very bottom of my heart, I'm so, so sorry that I deceived you." My eyes begged her to believe me.
Her chin began to quiver.
"Oh, God, please don't cry," I said helplessly. "I can't stand to see you cry. It'll make me cry and then I'll never get through this." I didn't think I had any tears left, but I'd been wrong every one of the twenty-one days I'd thought that for the past three weeks.
She nodded and I could see she was struggling with her composure. I wanted to help her, but I couldn't force her to open her heart to me or to forgive. All I could do is ask her to take a chance on me. On us.
"What I felt for you ... what I still feel, is real. No matter what, you have to know that." My chest still felt like a fat guy was sitting on it and I let out a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry. I'll do my best to be honest with you from now on if you'll give me the chance."
She opened her mouth but I didn't give her an opportunity to contradict me. If I did, and she told me to get lost again, then what would I do? I had no ideas left! "What else should you know about me?" I was babbling but I didn't care. "Oh, right, there is one thing that I was faking the entire time we lived together."
"That you speak French?
Her voice startled me a little. Then I realized what she said and my eyes narrowed for a split second. "Okay, there were two things I was faking the entire time we lived together."
Her expression filled with dread and her entire body tensed. "What?"
"I'm not neat. I'm a messy pig who was only pretending to be neat so that you wouldn't be repulsed by me."
She gasped. "That was you being neat?"
I nodded gravely. "My neatest. Oh, and I have a dog named Smelly and instead of being twenty-one I just turned thirty-three years old."
"Shut up!" Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. "That can't be true!"
"I know, I know. Cats are way less work."
This time the smile stretched her cheeks, even if it was brief. I was getting to her, I could tell. She wanted to hate me the way I wanted to hate Russ, but hating someone you really cared about did nothing but suck out every bit of your energy and make you miserable. It was hard, horrible work and I hoped, in the end, Keilana would risk happiness instead.
"You said before that all we had between us was lies." Unable to stop myself, I reached out and stroked her cheek with my hand. Her skin was smooth and warm from the morning sun and I was thrilled when she closed her eyes and leaned into my touch. "You were so wrong. Everything I said about you, and how special you are, was true. Everything I felt was true. Everything you felt between us, the attraction, the affection ... it was all real, Keilana. Every bit of it."
Dismayed, she peeled my hand from her face but held it in hers as she looked into my eyes all the way down to the bottom of my soul. "How can I believe you after you tricked and used me?"
Nothing hurts like the bitter truth. Nothing. "I don't know," I said with brutal honesty. "What I did was unforgivable. But I'm asking ... I'm begging you to forgive me anyway."
She bit her lower lip, and didn't say anything else, leaving me to wonder what she was thinking and feeling. I wasn't sure which I'd do first, pass out, or go insane. Keilana was still so much of a mystery to me, maddening and fascinating at the same time.
My worry was somewhere in the stratosphere by the time she finally started to speak. "I've missed you. I've missed cooking dinner with you and talking with you after we've both gone to bed. I've missed playing with you. I've even missed arguing with you." She licked her lips. "I've missed my friend."
"Oh, Keilana," I had to clear my throat to be able to speak. "I've missed you too."
She wiped at her teary eyes. "Umm ... After you left, I read your notebook. It was hard to see what you really thought of me at the beginning, but harder to read how you kept up your lies even after you knew how it would hurt me when I found out the truth."
Looking at Keilana's pain-filled face, I wasn't sure whether it was possible to hate yourself more than I did at that moment. I was relieved that things were all the way out in the open now, but it made me feel vulnerable too, like I was stripped to the bone.
She knew everything, even the ugliest, most unflattering details of my deception. She knew about my self-doubts, indecision, and endless mistakes when it came to her. My empty stomach twisted. How can you ever apologize enough for shattering a fragile trust?
"Keilana,"—I lifted a handful of sand and let it trickle through my fingers, willing something brilliant to come to mind and help save me from myself. It didn't of course; all I had was the inadequate truth—"I didn't know how to put an end to things and not hurt you. Once I took that damn job and started to care about you, there was no good way out."
I glanced up at her and our gazes locked. "I couldn't stop myself from falling in love with you no matter how hard I tried. I didn't mean for it to happen. And to be honest, I'm not sorry that it did, I'm just sorry that I disappointed and hurt you."
Her chest jerked and she started to cry in earnest. "I couldn't have stopped myself either," she said miserably.
Fuck it. I pulled her into a hug, unwilling to clamp down on my urge to comfort her any longer. We both needed it desperately and if we could help each other, even for just a few seconds, it would be worth the pain that would surely follow when she pushed me away.
But she didn't push me away. She held me closer.
"Forgive me," I whispered emotionally, my cheek pressed tightly against hers. "You won't be sorry. I think we can make each other happy, if you'll just give us a chance. If you'll just be brave and crazy and stick your heart out on the line one more time. I'll guard it with everything I have."
She felt so good in my arms, her heart thudding against my chest, her soft skin melded to mine, that I never wanted to let her go.
She sniffed a few times and let out a long breath that brought us even closer together. "No more lies?" she said directly into my ear, her lips tickling the sensitive skin.
I felt lightheaded. "Never. I swear."
She pulled back from me and wiped her cheeks with shaky fingers. Her eyes were brimming with something I hadn't seen since that night at the strip club. Hope. And I knew mine reflected the same thing.
I threaded my fingers with hers. "Can we have a do-over?"
She smiled and I was sure she was remembering when she'd asked me that same thing weeks ago. At the time, her request had seemed unrealistic and childish. Now, I clung to the words, to the hope for a second chance, like a lifeline.
She sighed. "I don't think I have a choice about the do-over. I want to be with you more than I want to stay angry or afraid." She smiled a determined smile and her bravery took my breath away. "Even though you make me crazy, the chance to be together is worth the risk. I don't want to walk away from what we could have."
"Thank God!" I flopped back on the sand, grinning like an idiot.
Keilana laughed gently, sweet and low, and the weight of the world tumbled off my shoulders and into the sea. Then a soft pair of lips covered mine, and I was in heaven.
Go here for: Undercover Tales
Feedback is welcome. Blayne Cooper
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