ANTHONY WAS SITTING AT THE BAR TALKING to Trichelle.
She braced her hand on his shoulder as she leaned into him, laughing at whatever he said.
His face was bright with amusement and interest as he watched her.
She didn’t remove her hand when her laughter stopped, but leaned in to say something in his ear.
I watched this exchange as I cleaned up my section, my shift over.
Trichelle had to stay for the later crowd. At the moment there were only a few scattered customers at the bar, allowing her plenty of time to flirt.
The agitation I felt wasn’t jealousy, but something else, confusion. What was he doing with me? He obviously could get other girls, ones that would fit into his world better. I couldn’t figure out why he was still around, why he still showed up.
I recorded my tips and had to give Louisa a portion to tip out the supporting staff. And unfortunately, she was at the bar.
Anthony straightened up, pulling away from Trichelle as I approached. She looked confused at his sudden shift but continued talking.
After I closed out with Louisa, I walked past the two, waving in farewell.
The sun was beginning to set; if I hurried I could make it to the motel before dark. The evening air was unseasonably warm, so I didn’t mind waiting for the bus.
“Regan, what are you doing?” Anthony stopped me before I crossed the street.
I shrugged. “Letting you try your game with someone else.”
He shook his head, a half smile on his face. “What? That in there? She was flirting with me. I’m here for you.”
I sighed, pushing hair out of my face. “You shouldn’t be. Go back in there.” I lifted my chin in the direction of the restaurant. “She likes you, you might get somewhere.”
Disbelief was evident in his face and posture, his smile tightened. “What’s going on? Are you jealous?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh Please. You can go do whatever you want. I don’t care. That’s--”
“Damn you,” He interrupted me, anger morphing his pretty face as he grabbed my arm. “What the hell, Regan? I know we’re not serious, but can you at least pretend to care? Even just a little.”
I couldn’t contain my amusement. “Wow. You really don’t get it. We are not anything.”
I looked around at the few people walking by. The crosswalk symbol changed back to walk. “I have to go. I’m gonna miss the bus.”
“Stop. I’ll drive you.”
I turned back to him, stunned. He was still sticking around, even after this? My curiosity got the best of me. “Okay.”
“I’ll take you to those apartments, but can we get dinner first.”
His determination left me dumbfounded. “Why are you being so nice to me, especially since I’m being a bitch right now?” I didn’t feel bad about laying out the truth, but I could have been nicer about it.
He turned the key in the ignition and gave me a shy smile. “I don’t know; you’ve been pretty nice to me.”
I pressed back into the seat with a dry laugh. “Is that really what this is all about for you?”
He swallowed, the muscles in his neck moving with the force, and nodded. “That’s all you’ll let it be, right?”
I searched his eyes, trying to understand. The engine was on, but we still hadn’t pulled out of the parking spot.
I nodded in return, just as slow as he had. “That’s all I can offer. But I need you to understand that’s all it will ever be. You seem like a good guy, I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I need to be clear. This will never be anything more than what it is now, don’t expect differently.”
He looked away for a moment, when he turned back to me his smile returned. “So does that mean we can go to dinner?”
I laughed, letting go of the serious conversation. He had been warned, if he didn’t listen that wasn't my fault. Then I remembered my situation and sucked in a breath for confidence.
“Before we go, I have a favor to ask.”
His smile grew. “Sure, shoot.”
I pressed my lips together, thinking of how to word this without taking back everything I just said. “I need-- I don’t have--” I sighed and he grabbed my hand, trying to encourage me, but it only made me feel worse. “I am not staying at those apartments anymore.”
“Why? What happened?”
I shook my head. “I just can’t stay there anymore. I don’t really have a place to stay yet. But next week, next Saturday, I should have enough to get my own place, if I can save my money till then.” And if I win that fight, I couldn’t think of the alternative.
His eyes were sharpening as I spoke. I think he knew what was coming next, but he didn’t drop my hand.
“I can stay in a hotel, but I don’t want to spend money if I don’t have to. And you’ve been wanting me to spend the night." I shrugged, uncomfortable with the request. "I’m not asking to move in; just maybe we could work out what nights I can stay, so I don’t pay for a hotel room if I don’t have to. I could also--”
“Alright.” He cut off my rambling. “When I’m home you can stay. I have to work nights sometimes, so you’ll have to arrange something else then, but I can help with that too. We can work this out till you have your own place.”
He really was too nice for me, too good. I felt miserable.
“Let’s discuss it over dinner. There’s a really good Italian restaurant down the road. Do you like Italian?”
I wasn’t in the position to say no. So I nodded and pasted on a smile. “Sure.”
His schedule was confusing, rotating shifts. Two day shifts, a day off, two night shifts, a day off, and repeat. So I had to find a place for Thursday and Friday, but could stay with him until Wednesday next week. And hopefully I would be in my own place after that.
The restaurant was small, but nice, dimly lit and tables spaced far enough apart to offer privacy.
We sat in a rounded corner booth and I was able to show Anthony my gratitude, with my hand, under the table. He wanted wild, I was making sure I delivered on my end, because he was more than keeping up his side of the deal.
Pulling in front of the gym, Anthony stopped me from climbing down from the truck. His hand gripped my waist, stilling me as he leaned in for a kiss.
“I like having you in my bed.” He murmured into my hair as his lips moved to my neck. “I’m going to miss you these next two nights.” He pulled back, still gripping my waist. “But I’ll see you on Saturday? I’ll pick you up after you get off work?”
I nodded, uneasy with his affection, and slid out of the truck.
“You have your hotel key, right?” He yelled out the window.
I rolled my eyes, understanding a bit more what teenagers with doting parents must feel like.
“Yes.” I pulled it out of my pocket to show him.
His smile widened. “Good.” And he pulled away.
He had gone with me to a hotel near my work and signed for the room, since I wasn’t old enough to. I paid for it, and it was more than I made these past days at Johnny’s, but hoped to make it up on my shifts this weekend. The snow was nearly gone and the warmer weather was sticking around. Perhaps the sunshine would bring back customers.
I rolled silver wear, my mind wandering to places it shouldn’t. But Gage hadn’t been at the Gym again today. It made training easier, but I didn’t want to be the reason he wasn’t there. Silas hadn’t mentioned him to me, but he wouldn’t. He preferred me to stay away from Gage, and I had to agree that was probably the best tactic.
“Have you decided about tomorrow?” Trichelle popped up next to my arm.
I turned to her exasperated. “Do you ever have a day off?”
“I picked up some extra shifts. But I’m off Saturday. Which make Friday night a great night to go out. I have to work first, but should be off early enough. You could meet me here and we could get ready together.” Her eyes brightened with the idea and she gripped my forearm as she bounced with enthusiasm. “Oh, you could spend the night, it could be fun. We can split the cab, so we can both drink.”
I had been ready to say no and dismiss her, but I paused considering. It would be fun to hang out with Dexter, and with the relief of my living situation worked out for now I was ready to let off some steam. Plus, if I stayed with Trichelle, I could save a few dollars on the room, but I had to cancel now. The only thing keeping me from agreeing was Gage.
She froze, and then began shaking slightly. “Really! Eeeeee. Oh you have to go. I don’t want to go alone. They're your friends. Please. Please. Please. I’ll clean your section today. Please.”
I shook my head and threw my hands up, blocking her excited attack. “Alright, let me work out the details with Dex. Just don’t ever squeal like that again.”
She nodded and ran her fingers across her lips, zipper like, before skipping away.
Trichelle rolled her eyes at me as her mother pulled the van up to the curb of Corner Pocket Bar and Billiard.
"You girls be safe. No alcohol," she continued, as we climbed out of the van. "Oh, look at that cute guy there. You should go talk to him Trich! It was nice to meet you Regan. Have fun, but remember no S.E.X before--"
Trichelle slid the door closed on her mother's ramblings, and linked her arm through mine. "Gah, I am sorry about that. She can be..."
I smiled, tight lipped. "She's cute; I don't mind." She seemed like a great mom. She'd even driven us here so we didn't have to pay cab fare.
It was past eleven and the sidewalks were packed with people bar hopping. We weaved through the crowd into Corner Pocket. I flashed my state ID at the man guarding the door and he let me in, but I didn't get the stamp that Trichelle got.
She put her fake ID in her purse with a smug smile.
Arms encircled me and I knew it was Dexter. I braced myself for the tight bear squeeze.
"Finally you two made it. We're over here." He hugged a thrilled Trichelle, then led the way to where everyone else was.
Gage was the first thing I noticed, he was leaning over the pool table to take a shot.
"You said he wasn't coming," I spoke low to Dexter.
"What?" he yelled above the noise of the crowd and balls breaking, then his eyes followed mine, and he nodded with understanding. "He changed his mind." He threw an arm around me. "He's spontaneous like that sometimes. But don't worry, or get your hopes up, or whatever it is you're doing, he brought them."
I followed the direction Dexter pointed and saw two girls sitting together. One was Becka, from the gym last weekend. She wore a bold, skintight dress with a pink and orange pattern. Her friend was similarly styled and they pulled off the playboy bunny look perfectly.
The bar had several pool tables horseshoed around a dance floor. High tables and chairs lined the outside of it all.
Walking to where the group was seated at, I introduced Trichelle around. There were some new faces in the crowd though, Leona and Aliya had their roommate Zoe with them, and Jase had brought other friends.
"Who would have thought Rea had a body under all those sweaters?" Danny waggled his eyebrows. His flushed face made it obvious they had been drinking for a while.
Trichelle beamed with pride. She had leant me her top, a black, boat neck, long sleeve shirt, that I paired with my dark skinny jeans.
"If you would've seen her in the ring you would've known," Jase added.
I ignored them, uncomfortable with that type of attention, and signaled a server over.
"I'll have an ice tea." I pointed to Trichelle who ordered a margarita, and everyone else took the opening to order more drinks.
Trichelle pulled on my arm and whispered low in my ear, "Who is that guy?" She pointed to Gage.
I took a moment to drink him in. He was standing arms crossed, watching the other guy line up a shot. He wore dark jeans and some button up top I barely noticed; He stood out, not the clothes. He had a power that radiated from him and forced others to take attention. When his eyes met mine, I looked away, flustered at being caught staring.
"He's trouble. Stay away." I wasn't even sure why I gave her that warning.
After we got our drinks, most of the party went off to dance. I watched them moving on the dance floor, taking the last sip of my tea before joining them.
"Where's your cop?" Gage asked, suddenly appearing in front of me, his clear blue eyes shining with amusement.
I shook off his question, deciding it best to just walk away. His bunnies bounced over to him anyways, saving me the trouble of responding.
"You dance like a white girl. Come on Rea, use those hips," Leona instructed, shaking her own in example.
My dancing was limited to bouncing in my own contained area; these girls moved, dancing in circles with smooth, fluid, rolls of their body. They all tried to get me to mimic their moves, with varied results.
Dexter grabbed Leona from behind, eyes scanning our laughing group. "You ladies having fun?" At Leona's nod he continued, "Did you ask her?"
I paused when Dexter nodded to me, but Zoe brightened. "They were waiting on me to decide, but she seems cool and we're in a bind, so why not?"
Leona's smile widened, and she broke free of Dexter, grabbing my hand. "Come with us, we need to talk."
We left Trichelle on the dance floor with Jase, and sat around a high top table.
"Our fourth roommate just found out she's pregnant and is moving out at the end of the month. We're looking for a renter and Dexter said you were looking?" Leona explained.
I was stunned. "Oh. Yeah I am. Where and how much?"
"It's on University Boulevard, right near campus. We," Aliya spun her finger encompassing me, Leona, and her, "pay three fifty a month and split utilities. Never more than five hundred total. Zoe gets the basement to herself so she pays the rest."
"Now this is just to see if you're interested, not official yet. But you can come by and check it out. We all get along really well, we want to make sure you would fit in," Zoe added.
Leona rolled her eyes, "Zoe's the cautious one. We all have our own label in the group. I'm the fun and nice one." She stood up tall, taking pride in her title.
Aliya stood up, affronted. "Hey, I thought I was the fun one?"
Leona and Zoe laughed, and then Zoe said, "No, you're the slutty one."
Aliya's lip twitched. "Same difference. I'm just open and a forward thinker. Who needs restrictions on sex?"
"Obviously Roxy did." Leona turned to me, "She was known as..." They all looked at each other and broke into drunken giggles. "The Mom. We should have never given her that name, look how it backfired."
I took in all the silliness. Could I handle living with them? Yes. They might become slightly annoying but I could handle it. Plus, the rent was half what I would pay if I got my own place.
Dexter leaned into the table, looking around. "So it's all worked out then? Are you going to be the new fourth, Rea?"
I shrugged, downplaying my excitement. "Yeah, I'm interested. I'll come by and see what we can work out." I nodded to Zoe, the one who seemed to hold the control of the situation.
Danny nudged Dexter as he bounced on his toes. "Dex, check it out. I told you it was good to invite him."
We all looked to where Danny was gawking, and my stomach turned.
Gage was sitting back in a chair while Becka and her friend leaned over him to make out with one another. Both girls had one hand braced on his leg, the other hand running through each other’s hair as they pressed their bodies together, tongues tangling with their kiss.
From my angle, I couldn't make out Gage's face, but every other guy was glued to the show. Well that's one way to get attention. I had to turn away as Becka’s hand moved up his leg and to his torso.
But what I saw in the opposite direction was even worse.
Adrenaline and shock pumped through my veins, and my mouth went instantly dry, making the air hard to breathe.
Nan met my eyes, noticing me at the same time, and stood up. Damien's hand reached for hers, and she leaned over to whisper something to him. Her lips were close to his ear, practically touching, and I wanted to rip his hand off her back.
But I stood frozen for a moment, watching it all unfold, unable to comprehend.
It had only been a week. One week since I last saw her. But it must have been a rough one for her. She looked like she hadn't slept in days and her eyes were void of their typical spark.
Damien looked past her as she continued to speak in his ear. He scanned the area till he spotted me, a sick smile spreading on his face. His eyebrows rose as he pulled Nan in for a kiss, but his eyes continued to drill into mine.
When he released her, she walked to where I was. From behind her, Damien nodded and crooked his finger, calling me over.