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Page 28

Okay, not totally, it didn’t.

  I thought about him week after week as I filed the same exact piece of paper a f**king butt-trillion times, answered the same exact phone call a f**king butt-trillion times. I thought about him in the shower, and I even touched myself thinking about him. My fingers couldn’t possibly live up to my physical memory of Valentine’s fingers inside me, making me shake and shiver and come apart in mere moments. I was never an avid masturbator, and Roth had even ruined that for me.

  Layla let me make my own way through it. She never pushed me one way or another. I didn’t ask her what she thought I should do, or what she would do if she were in my shoes, and she didn’t offer to tell me. We were once again two single girls making our way through life together, roommates, best friends, and each other’s only constant companion. We got drunk on Friday nights, and reinstituted our policy of chick flick Saturdays, which required a minimum of three bottles of cheap red wine, a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream, and a bag of Ruffles potato chips.

  And I never heard a peep from Roth.

  After being back in Detroit for about six weeks, I found myself at the Delta ticketing counter of the Oakland County International Airport, about to ask for a one-way ticket to La Guardia.

  I chickened out, and went home.

  I didn’t know where his building was, for one thing. I didn’t have a phone number, an address, anything.

  I tried to forget. Tried to stop thinking about it. I couldn’t come to a decision, couldn’t figure it out. No matter how hard I tried, I was at a stalemate. Couldn’t go back to the way things were, couldn’t have him, couldn’t figure out how to live without him.

  On a Friday evening, two months after my return from New York, I got a speeding ticket. Two points and $175. The following Monday I went in to the courthouse to pay it. I handed the clerk my copy of the ticket and my debit card. The clerk, an overweight, middle-aged woman with dishwater-blonde hair, stared at the ticket, typed in the number, and then looked up at me with a blank expression.

  “You’re all set,” she said.

  “What?” I frowned at her. “What do you mean, all set?”

  “It’s been paid already. ” She seemed ready to dismiss me.

  “By whom?”

  She shrugged. “I dunno, dear. All my system tells me is that it’s paid. ” She peered around behind me. “NEXT!”

  So I left the courthouse and went home. I couldn’t claim to be mystified, because it was obvious who was behind it. There was nothing in the mail, however, and no other hints of Roth after that.

  At least, not until the beginning of the next month.

  Layla was sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, sorting through bills. I walked in from a late night class, and she looked up at me. “Hey. Thanks for taking care of the rent, by the way. ”

  I set my purse down slowly. “What?”

  She didn’t look up from the check she was writing for the electric company. “The rent. You paid the rent again. ”

  “No, I didn’t. ”

  That got her attention. “You didn’t?”


  “Well, I didn’t. ”


  She blinked at me owlishly. “Valentine?”

  I nodded. “Valentine. I got a speeding ticket last month, and he paid that, too. ”

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  “Has he contacted you?”

  I shook my head. “Not a word. ” I went into the kitchen and grabbed two beers and the box of leftover pizza from the night before, and took a seat on the floor beside Layla. “Before he told me what happened, he told me, and I quote, ‘You will always be mine. And I take care of what is mine. So if you do walk away, you will have no worries. Never again, no matter what. ’” I twisted the top off my beer and took a swig. “So I guess this is his way of reminding me of that. ” I frowned as I realized something. “Wait. You said, ‘again. ’”

  Layla grabbed her beer and a slice of cold Little Caesar’s. “Yeah. Last month and this month. ”

  I sighed. “Not me either time. I was planning on helping out this month, though. ”

  A few moments later Layla peered at me with a curious expression. “What about your mom and Cal?”

  I picked a pepperoni off my slice and ate it. “He was there, too. I checked on Mom the other day, and they said there was a ‘sizable donation’ to my account, meaning she’s set for…basically forever. What that means, I think, is that he bought the nursing home and is writing off her care. Cal’s tuition has been paid, too. All of it, up front. He doesn’t know, though. I wouldn’t even know how to start telling Cal about any of this. ”

  “So he’s basically taking care of you. And me. And your mom and brother. ”

  “Yep. ” I dabbed at my mouth. “And Grandma and Grandpa. ”

  “But he hasn’t called you, texted you, written you, nothing. Even though, if we’re to believe him, what happened was an accident. And you walked away from him. ”

  “Yep. ”

  “After he flat-out told you he’d fallen for you. ”

  “Yep. ”

  Layla stared at me with a flat expression. “And you, clearly, are still in love with him. ”

  “Why clearly?”

  She shrugged. “Because it’s obvious. You’re moping. ”

  “I’m not moping!”

  She gave me an are you kidding me? glare. “Yes. You are. I’ve stood by for the last three months and let you have this your way. But now it’s affecting me. ” She set her bottle down, which meant she was serious. She never put her bottle down until it was empty. “I don’t like being in debt to someone. And now he’s paying my rent. ”

  “I didn’t know he’d do that. ”

  “I know that. ” She clutched my fingers. “You need to figure your shit out, babe. ”

  “I’m trying. ”

  She shook her head. “No, you’re not. You’re trying to think it through, trying to make sense of it. The thing is, though, it doesn’t make sense. It never will. You can’t equal it out. What he did and how you feel for him may never…wash, I guess. You just have to make a decision and stick to it. Right now, you’re basically just burying your head in the sand and hoping it goes away. ” She emptied her bottle and then stood up. “And from what you told me about Roth, a man like him doesn’t just go away. ”

  I scrubbed my face with one hand. “You’re right. I know you’re right. But I still don’t know what the right thing is. ”

  “Sometimes…I think sometimes, Key, there is no right thing. There’s just…the best thing. The only thing. I’m not saying I know what that is for you, but I think you do. You’re just…avoiding it. ”

  Goddamn Layla. That was why she was my best friend: She was willing to say the shit that I didn’t want to hear. She kissed the top of my head in a very rare display of affection, then went into her bedroom, leaving me alone in the living room, my thoughts whirling and skirling, desire and fear and anger and confusion duking it out in my skull.

  I was torn in three parts, you see.

  One part, my head, was a confused mess, a boiling cesspool of turmoil and memory. I missed my father, missed how my mother had been before her breakdown. Missed being an innocent girl with no worries except my grades. Yet I also desperately missed Roth. I hated that he was responsible for Daddy’s death, but I also understood that it was an accident rather than malicious homicide. Yet again, if Roth hadn’t been so underhanded in his tactics…and around and around it went.

  My heart was less complicated. I was in love with Roth, and desperately wanted to go to him, to leave a note for Harris to find, to do anything I could to get Roth back in my life. My heart didn’t care about what had happened. I’d come to a kind of peace with Daddy’s death long before I’d met Roth. I mean, I don’t think you’re ever truly over the loss of a parent, not when they’re taken so suddenly, and especially not when, in my c