“Hey, Kensey!” Henry shouted as I was trying to yet again teach Reed how to make coffee. “Yo mama’s so poor, she does drive by shootings on a bus!”
I smiled. “Yo mama’s so old, when she lifted up her boob a pilgrim fell out!”
Lazy laughs rang throughout the bar, none of which were louder than Henry’s own throaty guffaws.
“What the fucking fuck is she doing here?”
At Sarah’s words, I whirled. And barely bit back a hiss. “Laurel,” I muttered under my breath, watching as her gaze swept over the bar.
Reed leaned into me and whispered, “Why are you snarling?”
“I’m not,” I said quietly.
“You’re not now, but you were.”
Whatever. At that moment, Laurel spotted me and then came my way with a cautious smile. “Hello, Kensey.”
“Laurel,” I said simply. Was it possible to look at your boyfriend’s stepmother, who’d tried several times to seduce him, and not want to slap her? Probably not.
“This place is nice.” She seemed to mean it. “I heard from Emma that you make fabulous coffee. Do you do vanilla lattes?”
“I do. You want it to drink in or take out?”
Damn. As I prepared the latte, I did my best to smother my anger. I had enough crap going on, I didn’t need to cause drama for myself by starting shit with Blake’s stepmother, even if she was wacked.
“Thank you,” she said as I handed her the latte and she put the cash on the bar. “Would you sit with me for just a minute?”
It was a struggle not to curl back my upper lip. “All right.” I couldn’t have sounded less enthusiastic if I’d tried, but she didn’t comment on it. Instead, she headed to a corner table. I sat opposite her and waited, hands clasped in my lap.
She licked her lower lip. “Emma mentioned that things were serious between you and Blake. And, well, I was hoping we could talk.”
“Okay,” I said simply, going for cool and casual. I clearly hadn’t pulled it off, because she winced and her shoulders hunched.
“He told you.”
“He told me.”
“I can imagine what you must think of me.”
No, I doubted she could truly imagine just how little I thought of her. I fucking despised her for what she’d done to a person who’d already been hurt and used enough. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want Blake to hate me.” She inhaled deeply. “I met someone recently. It’s been a long time since I was with a man who was close to my own age.” Her face split into a dreamy smile that reminded me of Clear when she talked of Michael. “Ben’s so good to me.”
Twiddling her fingers, she looked down. “I felt I wasn’t worthy of that kind of affection, so I told him how I’d tried to seduce my stepson. I thought he’d turn away from me. He should have done. But he said we all make mistakes; we all do bad things for what seem like a good reason at the time. Sex is the only type of comfort I know, Kensey. I’m not saying I didn’t know it crossed a line to offer that sort of comfort to Blake, but it didn’t seem such a big deal until I got out from under my cloud and was able to put it all into perspective.
“Ben’s helping me with that. He said I needed to make amends. I have tried to apologize to Blake before. Many times. But he thinks I’m just slyly trying to get close to him so that I can pounce. I genuinely just want to apologize.”
“And, what, you’re hoping I’ll run interference for you?” Because that wasn’t going to happen. She’d made her mess; she needed to be the one to fix it. It would be a struggle, sure, but nothing like that deserved to be forgiven so easily.
“Not run interference. I would like you and I to get along, though. When Emma met Adam, they were very young. Teenagers. I made the mistake of thinking it wouldn’t last, so I was very … dismissive and rude to him, thinking he’d be a passing fancy. I had nothing against Adam, I just didn’t like seeing my little girl with boys. Anyway, that bad first impression left a strain on the relationship I now have with him. I don’t want to make that mistake with you. I’d like us to be friends.”
I sighed. “Here’s the thing, Laurel. I’m not sure I can do ‘friends.’ I care about Blake. A lot. I hate what happened to him. Hate that he was betrayed and abused by his teacher. The last thing he needed was yet another older woman hoping to use him that way. Like her, you were someone he should have been able to trust. You weren’t. I can’t forgive that. I doubt I could ever consider you a friend. The best I can offer you is civility. I’m not being mean here, I’m being honest.”
She swallowed hard. “I appreciate your honesty. Blake needed care and understanding, I know. I tried to give it to him. He wouldn’t take it. Even when he was a child, I couldn’t get close to him. Emma did, which I was glad of. But he just never warmed to me. When his father died, I was the only parent he had. And that scared me. I didn’t know how to care for him, but I didn’t want him to be lonely.” She sighed in annoyance. “I’m not explaining it well. It sounded so much better when Ben put it into words. He understands me.”
“The other men were never really interested in me, my life, or my family. Ben is. We talk for hours and hours, in bed and out of it. It’s like he finds every little detail of my life fascinating. I’ve never had that. Not even with Blake’s dad.”
The hairs on my nape stood on end. If I’d had spidey senses, they would have been tingling. I leaned forward. “Tell me more about Ben.”
Later that day, I relayed my conversation with Laurel to Blake as he and I ate our dinner on the balcony. Blake was pissed to hear she’d gone to the bar, and he got increasingly pissed with each word I spoke.
Then he froze, blinking, and the swirly pasta slipped from his fork. “Say that again.”
I took a deep breath. “I think Laurel’s new boyfriend might just be Noah Linton.”
He stared at me, brow pinched. “You’re serious.”
“She said he’s always asking questions about her life and her family.”
“It’s not unusual that Ben would be curious about his woman.”
“He asks a lot of questions about you. Even me.”
That made him stiffen. “You?”
“To get an idea of whether I can help build a bridge between you and Laurel or not.” I forked some pasta. “He asked for her perception of me. If I’m possessive of you. If I seem the jealous type. If our living arrangement is temporary or permanent. If I’ve taken you to meet my stepfather in prison. Apparently, he recognized my name—said he reads a lot of true crime books.”
“Linton’s trying to build a profile of our relationship,” Blake mused.
“I think so. He finds it fascinating that I’m with you, remember? It wasn’t until I asked questions about him that Laurel seemed to realize how little information about himself he’d given her in return.”
“Laurel’s so happy to talk about herself that she wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.”
I chewed some pasta before I continued. “She only knows his name, some basic info about his family, and that he’s a therapist. None of which is true, if Ben is in fact Linton. And from the brief physical description of him that she gave me, I’m pretty sure he is. I didn’t tell her about my suspicions, because she might confront him. If it is Noah, I don’t want him to know we’re onto him.”