Free Me (Page 6)

Free Me (The Found Duet #1)(6)
Author: Laurelin Paige

He bent in farther, his breath tickling my ear and stirring my blood as he said, “Tell me you don’t want to be her.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t. I don’t even like regular dancing.”

“Not Natalie, Gwen. That’s not who you want to be. You want to be Lena. You want to be that free.”

My breath caught as unexpected tears pricked my eyes.

I wanted to turn and slap JC. He was cocky and arrogant to think he knew anything about me. He didn’t. He was guessing, trying to get in my pants most likely, and with his guesses he’d struck a nerve. Struck it hard enough that, if I were the free person that he clearly stated I wasn’t, I would have slapped him. Hard.

But I wasn’t upset because he was guessing or even because of why he was guessing. I was upset because his guesses were right. I did want to be free. I was a tight-ass. I was boxed in. I existed on routine and missed a whole helluva lot of pleasure.

What he didn’t know—he couldn’t know—was that I’d chosen to be that way for a reason. It didn’t matter what I wanted, this was how I knew how to survive. Fuck him for trying to insinuate that I’d made the wrong decision. He wasn’t me. He didn’t know.

I didn’t slap him. And I didn’t say anything. I simply spun around and left the Viper, pulling the door shut behind me. But beyond that slight outburst, I refused to let JC get to me. I refused to think about the choices I’d made and the character I’d taken upon myself. I refused to let myself wonder if there really was any other way I could be.

The rest of my shift went by without me returning to the room upstairs. I convinced myself I could forget about the whole experience. That meant I wouldn’t tell Matt I knew about his informal deal.

And I sure as hell wasn’t working another shift on Tuesday as long as I could help it.

Chapter Two

“Did I catch you before work?” Norma’s voice sounded muffled through my coat collar as I tried to balance the phone on my shoulder and unlock the doors to the club at the same time.

It was cold, and with my gloves on, I’d only just managed to hit the TALK button before my phone stopped ringing. “Barely. I’m walking in now.”

It was a Thursday, and like many other weeknights, Norma had worked late so I hadn’t gotten to see her before leaving for my eight o’clock shift. “Did you get dinner? There’s leftover takeout in the fridge if you didn’t.”

“Yeah, I ate.” She sounded distracted. “I’m sorry. I meant to call you earlier, but I was tied up with…meetings.”

I pushed through the employee entrance into the kitchen. “No problem. What’s up?”

“I heard from Dad’s lawyer today.”

Dad. One simple word, and I was frozen in my tracks. “And?”

Relax, I told myself. He’s probably just contacting you to wish you an early Happy Birthday.

Yeah, right. He’d surprised us every now and then with remembering the special events in our lives. But not recently. Not since he’d landed in jail.

“And…” Norma hesitated, which alerted me to how bad her news was going to be. “And he’s coming home earlier than we thought.”

“Jesus Christ, no.” I could barely speak past the ball in my throat. “When?”

“June.”

“June?” I repeated it again in my head a few times before I was able to comprehend it. “That’s six whole months early! I thought he couldn’t get out before December.” Dad’s sentence had been issued without parole. December would be ten years. It was coming up fast, but at least then I still had a whole cycle of seasons to get through before I had to deal with it. With him.

Now there was only spring between his cell and his freedom. I felt like I might throw up.

“He wasn’t supposed to be able to get out early, no. But there’s crowding and…it’s complicated. They’re putting him in a half-way house to finish his term.” Norma sounded weary so I didn’t make her explain any more. I trusted my sister to tell me what I needed to hear and keep the rest away. She was one of the only people I trusted, actually. “We could try to fight it, but we’d probably not get anywhere. It wouldn’t be worth the time or money.”

Frustrated, I ran a hand through my hair before remembering I was wearing gloves. The gesture wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I wanted it to be, the weird smoothness of it actually irritating me more. I tugged the glove off with my mouth and then asked the most important question. “Have you told Ben?”

As much as Norma and I dreaded our father’s release, it was our little brother who would take the news the worst. Which was reasonable. He’d been the most affected by the darkness of our past.

“Not yet. I’ll call him. Soon.” Norma cleared her throat, and I suspected she might have the same ball of apprehension that I did. “But not tonight. I need to think about how I’m going to tell him.”

“Let me know if you need any help.” Not that I could do much. Norma was the one who’d always had the soothing touch. My approach was always to say ouch and move on.

Really, it was more like say ouch and shove it deep inside the black hole that I half-seriously believed existed in place of my heart. What else would explain why I was so vastly void of any lasting emotion? The darkness ate any real feeling that threatened to take hold of me. Anger and anxiety probably snuck in more than anything else. But even the panic about my father was subsiding already, turning into a dull buzz of irritation. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest way to go through life, yet it had been the way that I’d survived.

Ben wasn’t like me, though. Ben would take this hard.

“Man, this really sucks.” I started through the kitchen, bracing the phone on my shoulder again as I took off my other glove and stuffed it in my coat pocket.

Bethany looked up from her prep work and stopped me just as Norma started to say something.

“Hold on a sec, Norma.” I put my hand over the receiver and nodded to Bethany to talk.

“That JC guy—”

I rolled my eyes and cut her off. “Say no more.”

JC was the last person I needed to think about at the moment. He was the last person I needed to think about period. He was arrogant and crass. Ridiculous and entitled.

And every time he crossed my mind, my heart did a flip-flop.

I hadn’t seen him since that night a month ago when I’d met him in the Viper, but now that I was aware of his existence, it felt like he was everywhere. I heard him casually mentioned by the staff a few times. Once I saw a phone message from him for Matt. His initials were even on a calendar in the office—how had I never noticed any of that before?