Free Me (Page 11)

Free Me (The Found Duet #1)(11)
Author: Laurelin Paige

Her focus went to her own sandwich where she picked at the crust, and this time I was sure she was using the food as an excuse. “He doesn’t want us there.”

“Nah. That’s not true.” Then I thought about it a second. “Did he say that?”

“He doesn’t have to. I can tell.” Her voice was tight. Much like me, Norma rarely showed her emotions, and I never knew how to react when she let a bit of sorrow or disappointment slip past her stoic front.

“No, you can’t tell.” Maybe she actually could. She talked to Ben a lot more often than I did by email and by phone. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to him, but Norma was the mother figure in his life.

Still, he and I were close. There was no reason I knew of that he wouldn’t want to see either of us.

Was there?

A possible reason popped into my head, and I blurted it out. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with the past. Does he? Including us. That’s why he’s pulling away.”

She shrugged. Then she thought better of it and shook her head. “I don’t know. Don’t listen to me. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Her body language said that she didn’t think she was wrong. And now that I’d had the epiphany, I realized she was probably very right. I picked at a hangnail on my thumb, mostly so I wouldn’t have to look Norma in the eye any longer, but also because the tiny sting of pain comforted me. “We aren’t Dad, though,” I mumbled. “We aren’t the bad guys.”

“No. But we remind Ben of him. I can understand that he doesn’t want to be here. It’s easier to forget about it all without constant reminders.”

I wondered if that’s what she thought of me as—a constant reminder. Did I make her remember our childhood? Did I make her miss our mother? Norma was twelve when she died. She remembered Mom better than I did. We both looked like her, but I was the one who had her fair coloring—her blonde hair, her blue eyes. Did Norma see her when she looked at me?

Or worse, did I make her think of Dad?

Even if I did remind her—even if we reminded Ben—I wished it wasn’t an excuse to break the three of us siblings apart. I wanted us all together. I wanted to protect the little family I had. Wanted to stay close and bonded.

If I couldn’t have that, I at least wanted to make sure we were all safe. “If Ben wants to be in San Francisco, then I support that. But I worry about him. Especially when we don’t hear from him or when I don’t know that he’s engaging in his life. He pulled away before, remember? Before he—”

“I know.” She cut me off, not wanting to hear me finish the sentence as much as I didn’t want to say it. “I know, Gwen. I worry too.”

She gathered her brown hair off her back into a ponytail, held it for a second, and then dropped it again. “I’ll call him, okay? Let me call him.”

And because Norma was the one who always dealt with Ben, I’d let her. “Okay.”

***

Eighty-Eighth was busier than usual that night. Apparently MLK Jr. Day was something people had decided to celebrate this year. I wasn’t complaining—I liked to be busy.

The club closed at four-thirty, and because Matt and I were so fast when we shut down together, I was done with my reports a little after five. I left him in the office to finish up his work while I checked on the floors.

I did my normal walk-through, checking the restrooms for stragglers before crossing the main dance floor to the bar by the kitchen. The place was quiet, but there was a single figure sitting on a stool at the end, his back toward me. I looked around for Alyssa or Greg—the closing staff for that floor—but didn’t see them anywhere. They were usually quick at cleanup, so I suspected they were already in the employee room, punching out.

But that made the lone figure more puzzling. “Excuse me,” I called, as I got closer. “The club is closed.”

The man turned, and my pulse tripped. “Oh. It’s you.”

JC seemed less surprised to see me, which made sense since it was my work, and I was expected to be there. Still, I didn’t have to like it. That he again had the balance and I again was thrown.

His lip ticked up, and I imagined he was pleased to have me off-kilter. “Hey. Nice to see you.”

As they always did, his eyes raked down my body, slowly. His pupils dilated as he took in each part of me—my chunky heeled black sandals, my bare shins, my black flared Jersey skirt, my white V-neck ballet sweater, the curve of my generous breasts.

Above that, his stare lingered at my throat, then at my lips.

The back of my neck grew warm, even with my hair pinned up. My mouth watered, my skin felt on fire from just one simple sweep of his gaze. It made me forget the question I should have been asking—why was he here?

Finally he met my eyes. “You look good, Gwen.”

The compliment knocked me. Not because he’d given it—men rained compliments on women in my work environment. But because he’d actually looked before saying it. And because it was absent of the sleazy undertone that usually accompanied such words. There were still hints of desire, yes, just it felt less about trying to get laid and more about actual appreciation.

I’d have rather had the lewd ogle. That, I knew how to deal with. This, I didn’t. It confused me as it begged me to consider that maybe JC wasn’t that horrible of a person, and that wasn’t something I was willing to acknowledge.

So I put up my guard and returned his sincerity with Class A bitch. “I thought you said the next move was mine.” I wasn’t making a move, but, dammit, I didn’t want him around tempting me.

“It is.” He cocked his head. “Are you ready to make it?”

“Uh, not a chance.”

He turned away from me. “Then pretend I’m not here. I didn’t come for you.”

It wasn’t until he’d said that he wasn’t there for me that I realized how much I wanted him to be there for just that very reason. Stupid. Because I thought I didn’t want him there at all. If I wasn’t careful, he was going to accuse me of giving mixed signals. I certainly was giving them to myself.

Just walk away, I told myself. Do your work. Ignore him.

I couldn’t ignore him. “I guess you probably don’t have to leave with the rest of the customers, do you? Another part of your informal deal? It’s not Tuesday.” Even to myself I sounded childish and snotty. It did nothing to calm the butterflies in my stomach.