If i could stay, p.9

If I Could Stay, page 9

 

If I Could Stay
 



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  He sighed, closing his eyes.

  “Forget about it. I don’t want to talk anymore.” I turned away, suddenly afraid he would ask me about what had happened and realizing just how much I didn’t want to relate that story to him. The story of my first boyfriend, my first kiss. The first deceitful creep who had infiltrated my life. It was the first time Dad’s enemies had confronted me directly, but it certainly wasn’t the first time they had torn my life apart. That distinction belonged to a night when I was nine years old. “Maybe we should go back to the truck. I’m sure Adeline has a statuette that needs to be rearranged.”

  He reluctantly turned back the way we’d come. I wasn’t able to appreciate my surroundings anymore. All I wanted was to get away from him. I wanted to be anywhere but here as the memories of the night my world shattered washed over me.

  Renee had been babysitting me that night. We were still living in the Hamptons, but Mom had agreed to meet Dad for dinner and she was going to be back late. Renee was mad that my mother was going to see him at all and had made me go to bed before she got home. I woke up to the sound of my sister’s hysterical screaming. “Leave me alone! I hate you! This is your fault! You did this! You did this!”

  I ran down the hall to see what was wrong. Peering around the corner, I saw my sister, red-faced, tears streaming down her cheeks as she screamed at my father while two police officers stood by the door. It didn’t make sense that he was there.

  I’d never seen my father looking so disheveled. Instead of the man of authority and power that I was used to seeing, the father who stood in the living room looked deflated, like there were weights tied to his wrists, his shoulders, even his face. He sagged even as he stood, his expression slack, his eyes lifeless as Renee continued to rage. There were several cuts on his face, and a dark red stain marred the front of his formerly crisp white shirt.

  Renee stormed to her room, slamming the door and locking herself in. Eventually, my father’s haunted eyes found me where I stood, small and alone, halfway hidden by the door frame. His eyes pinched shut and the weights seemed to get heavier. He sank onto the couch, beckoning with a gesture that looked defeated. “Come here, Leila.”

  His voice was gentle, which was almost as frightening in its unfamiliarity as it was welcoming. I walked over and he sat me beside him, wrapping me in his arms and resting his chin on my head. “Leila, your mother died tonight.”

  I climbed silently into Jack’s truck as that night played in my head. The sound of my sister’s wailing coming from her room. The smell of cigars on my father’s clothes. The way the police officers’ gun belts creaked when they shifted from one foot to the other.

  It had taken me years to realize that those officers must have been working for my father. They had been there for him, not for me or Renee.

  I was usually good at putting the memories away in their own little box, but Jack’s plea to let him help, to let him in, dredged up all my carefully hidden needs—my need for a person I could trust, my need for the family I had lost.

  Jack gave me a full twenty minutes before breaking the silence. “I don’t understand you” was his blunt opener.

  He could join the club, because I didn’t understand me sometimes either.

  “You need help.” He cut his eyes over to me then back to the road. “You want help. And I’m pretty sure we qualify as friends. Most people would consider that a good thing because I’m in a unique position to give you the help you need.” His voice rose, his frustration evident in the way he kept looking over at me and throwing his hands around. “I’m the guy you ask for help, Angel. That is literally my job.”

  “It’s not that simple,” I said, trying to be patient.

  “It IS that simple!”

  “It’s not!” I shouted back. “You live in a world of black and white. That’s great for you. You’re a cop; you need to be able to identify the line between the good and the bad. I get that. But I have lived my entire life surrounded by gray. My life, my family, and my circumstances are not simple. And they can’t be fixed with good intentions.”

  “You think that’s all I have? Good intentions?”

  “Yes, because you don’t know enough!”

  “Then tell me.”

  “No!” The way I said it didn’t leave much room for argument. It had come out as a defiant snarl, coated in anger.

  Jack stared me down for several seconds before turning his attention back to the road. He didn’t say anything after that. I wasn’t surprised. He had no way of knowing that my anger wasn’t for him.

  Jack was a great guy. He was probably a good cop. But he lived and worked in a small town and could in no way be prepared to deal with a situation like mine. Telling him would put me at risk, yes. But more importantly, it would put him at risk.

  I pulled my feet up onto the seat and faced my window. His silence was chilly. He was angry at me. That was fine. If he gave me the silent treatment, that meant he couldn’t ask me all the questions I couldn’t answer.

  As soon as we pulled up to Adeline’s house, I shoved my door open and got out, slamming it behind me.

  “Angel,” he called after me.

  I whirled around, spitting out, “My name is Celeste!”

  “No, it’s not!” he yelled back in exasperation.

  I ignored him and went into the house.

  It wasn’t until Adeline asked about her dolls that I realized I had left them in Jack’s truck.

  8

  ADELINE TSKED IN sympathy over the fact that I’d gotten into an argument with “that fine young man,” then told me to walk down to his house and get the dolls. Apparently her sympathy only went so far. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing them all day. You don’t mind, do you?”

  I did mind, but this was my job, so I pulled my coat on yet again and walked three houses down to Jack’s, nervously scanning the streets the whole way. I did that less when I was with someone else, but walking around on my own, especially in this town where everyone knew I was a stranger, made all my defensive habits come out.

  Despite the paranoia, I took my time walking. I was stalling. My anger toward him was just another defense mechanism—a safety net—keeping him from getting too close. Keeping him from discovering my secrets. I didn’t want to let that anger go, but I knew all too well that it wasn’t meant for him. He wasn’t the problem. I was. Or my dad was. Or Russo was. Take your pick.

  It was Russo who’d killed her. Not Russo himself, but my mother had been killed on his orders. Before that night, he had just been an annoyance—a young upstart that my father continued to bat away.

  My father hadn’t realized what Russo was capable of. I doubt anyone had.

  Suddenly, my father’s business wasn’t just about making money and accumulating power. Overnight he went from being a money-grubbing criminal to being a bloodthirsty widower hell-bent on the destruction of his enemy.

  I had only ever seen Russo one time. He showed up at my mother’s funeral. I didn’t know who he was; in fact, he’d seemed nice.

  My father had arranged for the funeral to take place in a giant cathedral. It was huge and echoey. Stained glass and polished wood. I was sitting on a chair within sight of my father as he received handshakes and people talked to him really quietly. I wanted to be with Renee, but she wouldn’t leave her spot beside my mother’s casket, and my feet hurt too much to keep standing. My shoes were new and shiny, but they were too tight on the tops of my feet.

  I was staring at the round toes of my shoes as I kicked my feet back and forth when someone big sat beside me. I stopped kicking, waiting to see if the grown-up would tell me not to fidget. The man didn’t say anything, so I ignored him and went back to staring at my feet.

  A few moments passed before he spoke up. “My name is Marcus.”

  My feet stilled and I cut my eyes over to look at his hand which rested on his black pant leg. I didn’t know if I should respond or not. Living with Dad was different. He had rules about who I could
talk to and when. I didn’t understand them.

  “Is your name Leila?” he tried again.

  I nodded, still staring down.

  “Do you miss your mother?”

  My eyes stung and I pinched my lips, angry that he would ask me that. Of course I missed my mother. Did he just want to see me cry? I was trying to blink away the tears when my father’s voice rang out from above me. “Get away from my daughter.” His voice held the hardness that I associated with being in trouble.

  I looked up to see my father almost shaking with fury as he glared at the man. He was angrier than I had ever seen him before. The man slowly stood, a hard expression on his face that didn’t match the gentle tone of voice he had used with me. He had black hair and big shoulders and I had to crane my neck to look up at him from where I sat.

  “You dare to show up here after what you did to my wife?”

  “Julien—”

  “You are the reason she lies in that casket, and I will never forget that.” I could tell he was trying to speak quietly, but his voice kept getting out of control, rising along with the color in his face. “Brace yourself, Russo. I am coming for you.”

  I shrunk into myself, terrified by the danger in my father’s voice.

  “Well then, you’re behind, Julien.” The man’s voice was quieter but even scarier than my dad’s. “Because I’ve been coming for you for a long time.”

  I wanted to scoot away from this Russo person, but I was too scared to move. He had killed my mother.

  It felt like hours but was probably only a few seconds before the man walked away and the tears that had been gathering in my eyes finally fell.

  Dad shot instructions at his men to make sure Russo left, and then he sat down by me and pulled my head into his chest. He held me so tightly that it hurt. “I’ll never let him get to you.” He whispered the vow into my hair. “I promise you that.”

  Then he let go and walked away as abruptly as he’d sat down, and I went back to staring at my shoes through blurry eyes.

  That was the day my fear of Russo had buried itself deep in my gut. It had only grown since then, and as I climbed the steps onto Jack’s porch, the warm winter sun did nothing to chase away the chill or loosen the black knot that memories of Russo always conjured. My shoulders remained hunched against the cold, against the fear, as I planted my feet in front of his door and forced myself to knock.

  Jack opened the door wearing gray lounge pants and a white undershirt that hugged his torso. His normally orderly hair looked like he’d run his hands through it several times. My brain short-circuited for the second time in one day.

  He finally raised an eyebrow at me. “Hi?”

  “Adeline’s dolls are in your truck.” I cheered internally for having said something coherent.

  He nodded his head toward the living room. “You want to come in?”

  Into the cop cave? No. “I’m fine out here.”

  He sighed. “I can’t leave you standing out in the cold, and leaving the door open will let all my heat escape. Just come in.” He waved me inside, exasperated. I seemed to have that effect on him.

  I gritted my teeth against the warning bells that were sounding alongside my yummy-man radar and stepped inside. I slid to the left of the door and stood there like a soldier. This was as far as I would go inside. No further.

  He closed the door and gave me a tentative smile.

  I knew I should say something, but I was too distracted by his very casual ensemble. “You look comfy.”

  “I worked the night shift, so it’s my bedtime,” he said with a half smile.

  I blinked in confusion. “Why did you drive me to Jamesport if you hadn’t slept last night?”

  “Because Adeline asked me to.”

  “Do you do everything Adeline asks?”

  “Hardly.” He smirked.

  “Then why…”

  He shrugged one shoulder. “Because I wanted to.”

  I looked away and pressed my lips together, refusing to let the next why past my lips, no matter how much my curiosity pushed for it.

  He walked down the hall. “Make yourself at home. I’ll grab the dolls.”

  I kept my feet firmly planted but let my eyes wander. When I had been here for coffee the other day, I’d been too cold to notice much. There was a big opening on the right-hand wall through which I could see a couch and a lounge chair. It looked totally clean and I wondered for a second if Jack was a neat freak.

  Jack came back through it a minute later, the bag from the Amish store hanging from his hand. He gave me a look like he was disappointed. “You really didn’t want to sit down?”

  I managed to scoot back about an inch before the heels of my boots hit the wall behind me. “I just came for the dolls.”

  His shoulders fell and his eyes looked as tired as I would expect from someone who hadn’t slept last night. Funny that he hadn’t seemed tired when we were together earlier. “Look, I’m sorry, okay?” he said in a half-sorry, half-angry tone. “I shouldn’t have bugged you about your dad.”

  I shook my head, this situation and his frustration with me making me jumpy. “It’s fine. I don’t blame you for being curious.” I was muttering. I did that when I felt backed into a corner.

  “You just blame me for my profession?”

  “No, I don’t.” Not really. At least, not anymore.

  “Then is there some other reason you’re acting like I’m a pariah right now?” he asked, the bag with the dolls in them hanging from his side, taunting me because I couldn’t leave without them. “Because it feels like you still hate me for being a cop.”

  “Jack,” I said, allowing a glint of steel to harden my voice. I caught and held his gaze. “I don’t confide in anyone. No one. No friend, no boss, no roommate has ever been privy to any of the important facts of my life.” I let that sink in. “Do you want to know how many people know that I’m running from my father?” I held up one lone finger, my hand shaking. “One. You.”

  He looked slightly shell-shocked at that revelation, but it didn’t keep him from pushing. “Then why not let me help you?”

  “I am letting you help! You saved my life, Jack. You got me a place to live. I am letting you help in every way that I can. I’m staying here instead of running like I should be doing.” Didn’t he realize how giving in even that much was tying my stomach in knots, how I had to fight the need to run all the time?

  His dark eyes swirled with sadness as they caressed my face. “You’re going to be running, alone, for your whole life if you never decide to trust someone.”

  I took three steps forward and tugged on the bag he held until he let it go. Then I looked up at him again. “I know” was all I said before turning and letting myself out.

  I practically ran back to Adeline’s house, my hands clenching and flexing as I tried to shake off the tension that had built between us. I had a nagging feeling that I had just ruined something good.

  ***

  I really did know that what he’d said was true. I hadn’t said it just to be obstinate. Being alone was the price I paid for the small portion of freedom I had stolen. Until now I had always been fine with that. But now the idea that I could confide in someone, maybe have a genuine relationship, kept pounding on my brain, forcing me to consider it.

  I just hoped that Jack would be willing to give me the time to decide.

  I didn’t see him on Thursday. Not that I was supposed to, but apparently I had a crush on him, which meant that I was always kind of hoping that he would appear.

  So when Adeline answered her phone on Friday and said it was for me, I ended up stumbling over the pile of files that I was sorting through in my eagerness to get to it.

  After all, there was literally one person who would be calling me.

  “Hello?” I answered.

  “Hey, Angel,” his voice floated over the line, sounding not at all exasperated or angry.

  I smiled in spite of myself. “It’s Celeste,” I correct
ed, more out of habit than anything.

  “No, it’s not,” he said, and this time his voice was just plain sexy. How was that even possible? And since when did I start thinking anyone’s voice was sexy?

  He was flirting with me, and I wished that I had the social know-how to flirt back, but I had only ever flirted with people in my father’s circle. I’d flirted at parties while wearing thousand-dollar dresses and doing that stupid touchy-flirty thing that I was so good at. How was I supposed to flirt over the phone, especially when I had avoided any and all flirting for the past several years?

  Luckily, Jack let me off the hook and jumped into the conversation. “If I promise not to say anything that might turn into an argument, would you still be willing to watch Star Trek with me?”

  “Okay,” I said, clutching Adeline’s old-school landline phone to my ear with two hands.

  “Is tomorrow night okay? I’m working Sunday evening.”

  “I have a pretty busy social calendar, but I think I can squeeze it in.”

  “Has Adeline conned you into movie nights with any other guys?” I was surprised by how serious this question sounded.

  I chuckled, horrified by that idea. Hopefully Adeline would never betray me like that again. “Thankfully, no.”

  “Good. I’ll come get you around eight.”

  “I’ll see you then,” I said, trying to hide the fact that I was freaking out over the idea of going to the cop cave for a date.

  We hung up and I turned to see Adeline looking like the cat who’d caught the canary. “What?” I asked as I climbed back into the circle of files I had created for myself.

  “Just waiting for you to say thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For pushing you two together, that’s what.” She slowly lowered herself into her recliner then started looking for one of her many pairs of reading glasses. “You were desperate for some man attention, and he kept sniffing around, trying to spend time with you. It was bound to work out with my help.”

  I probably should have been insulted that she’d called me desperate, but she was right. I was glad that she’d thrown us together.

 

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