I turned and headed for the bar, my path to hell lined with neon signs and temptation, all in the form of Lee.
“Layana.” Jillian looked up from her desk, raised eyebrows pointed in the direction of her admin, a male who positively quaked next to me. “What a… surprise.”
I stepped forward, perched on the edge of the closest chair; any further time spent standing would have felt too similar to my time in the headmistress’s office. “I’d like to speak to you about something.”
She stood, spreading her hands. “Absolutely. I’m always happy to see you. Chad, please leave us, and hold any interruptions.”
I heard the flee of steps, her hard eyes returning to mine. “What is it?”
“Thank you for not making a scene last night.”
She nodded stiffly. “I didn’t really have an option.”
“I do a lot for Brant. For you. For BSX.”
She pursed her lips. “You keep a secret. Don’t blow it into a monumental feat, dear.”
“I need something in return. From you.”
“And that is?” She moved to an antique desk, set along the right wall of her office, and began the process of pouring a cup of coffee. She didn’t offer me any, and I smiled at the petty snub.
“I need to know how many men…” I glanced at the door. “How many men Brant has…” I tried to find the right word to use in this public setting. “…been in contact with. If Lee is the only one. What the possibilities are for more.”
Her forehead creased and she motioned for me to close the door. “Do you plan on collecting more boyfriends, Layana? Juggling a handful of men at once?” She stirred a spoonful of sugar into the black liquid. “You’re not intelligent enough for that. Trust me on that. No one is.”
“Just answer the question, please.” I couldn’t shed the manners; they lay on my skin like grease that only smeared when attempts were made to wash it off.
She set down her spoon. “Lee is it. There were some other boys in the past, but they have all left. That’s why I tried to warn you before. This part of Brant’s life… you need to forget it. Focus on building, on strengthening your relationship with him, and forget about anything or anyone else.”
“How long did the others last? The other boys?” I swallowed, suddenly scared of the answer.
She shrugged. “It’s hard to say. They don’t exactly speak to me. I would guess two to three years on average, some as long as five. And Layana?”
I met her eyes.
“Lee is the weakest of them. A couple of them have been… ugly. Violent. You can’t save them all. You snagged Lee, congratulations. Don’t get cocky and think that the next boy will be the same. The next boy is just as likely to bend you over and rape your ass.”
I felt sick, the crude words rolling off her tongue as jarring as the image that accompanied them. I imagined all of the possibilities, all of the unthinkable things I had never considered, my life too clean to know true depravity.
“It’d probably be best, at this time, for you to either walk away or put your big girl panties on. You need to make a decision. You either love Brant despite this, or you don’t. How much do you love him?”
The room refocused on her words, her challenge. I closed my eyes and pictured Brant’s face. The man behind the brilliance. The man who I loved in a way I didn’t think was possible. The man who I would fight for, would lie and cheat and steal for. The man, who, in some way, shape, or form was savable. I knew he was. He had to be. I opened my eyes and met Jillian’s. How much do you love him? “Enough. More than enough.”
She sighed. Set down her coffee cup. “I certainly hope so.”
1 YEAR, 2 MONTHS AGO
Lee was drunk. When he stepped he stumbled. When he leaned on the bar his arm slid. I glared at the bartender, the same ass**le from ten months ago, and asked for a bottled water. I got a dirty glass and a nod toward the bathroom. Fuck it. I slid the glass back.
I sat on the closest stool. Moved close enough to break his fall if he fell over. “What happened?” I pulled at his chin, his face moving enough for me to see what looked like a busted lip and swollen jaw.
“Asshole homeowner. Said I left last week with only half the grass cut.”
“Did you?” The sharp look he gave me answered the question. I raised my hands. “Sorry.” I glanced at the bartender. “Could I get some ice?” That, the man provided, a few handfuls dumped in the bottom of a garbage bag. I twisted up the package and pressed it gently against his mouth. “How did that lead to this?”
“The dickhead threatened to tell the rest of the neighborhood.” He shrugged. “So I punched him.”
I blinked, the intelligence level behind this story staggering in its immaturity. “Why didn’t you just walk away?”
He pushed away the ice, worked his jaw from side to side while glaring at me through watery eyes. “I need work. Need cash.” He tried to reach for a beer that was no longer there. “From someone who’s never worked a day in her life, I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Never worked a day in her life. It’s true. I moved from Stanford to a part-time job to the life of a pampered retiree. My full-time job being Brant and now Lee. Lee’s finish to the sentence came with a side of disgust, as if my lack of a day job made me less of a person. It was something Brant had never mentioned, and I suddenly wondered if it was something he thought. Emotions and feelings often got hidden. Pushed down until they found another outlet to creep back up into.
I moved the ice to his lip, his eyes flaring as the cold compress hit the open cut.
“Shut up,” I whispered. “Take it like a man.”
He leaned into my hand, the smell of alcohol and grass and dirt and man invading my senses.
“Mind giving up that seat princess?”
Lee’s eyes flicked back open as I broke contact, turned to see a man behind me, his tattooed arm wrapped around a woman I’d politely describe as hard. The stranger’s other hand gripped the edge of my stool, as if he was contemplating giving it one firm yank that would flip me onto the germ-infested floor. My eyes took in the bar, bodies filling the small space, the landscape unbroken by the rough man before me. I was the only break in this scene, in my linen pants and Jimmy Choos. The bag on my arm that cost more than half the vehicles in the parking lot. It was stupid for me to come here, on a Friday night at midnight. Stupid of me to walk into an atmosphere of alcohol and rough men and expect to not be noticed, pushed around. Put in my place.