Page 19 of Stinger

I didn't feel that way about him though, as much as I hurt. I knew what he did, but he was more to me than that. If he weren't, it would have been easy to walk away. I might have even run. And therein lay the problem. An impossible problem.

I lay there for a little while longer, lost in my thoughts when I got a very, very bad idea. I wrestled with it for a few minutes before I stood up and grabbed my laptop off my desk. I powered it up and sat cross-legged on my bed, my hands shaking as I typed his name into Google search. The first site on the list was a website called ArtLove.com and against my better judgment, I clicked on it. I knew this was a bad idea and yet it was like I was possessed. I was powerless to stop myself.

"Grace?" Abby called, as I heard the front door shut.

"In here," I called back, reducing the screen before it had fully loaded.

I heard her footsteps and looked up from the computer when she appeared in my doorway in her school uniform, black pants and a white chef's coat.

"What are you doing?" she asked, taking her hair out of the ponytail it was in and massaging her scalp.

"Um, looking up porn," I said, half-grimacing, half-smiling.

Abby's hand froze in her hair. "Uh, okay. You do have a lock on your door, you know?"

I rolled my eyes. "I'm looking up Carson, Abby," I said.

She stared at me for a minute. "Honey, is that such a good idea?" she asked gently.

"Probably not, but it's like I have to see it. I have to know the reality of it. I have to move on." I looked at her sadly.

She hesitated, but then came and sat down on the bed next to me. "All right then, doll, I'm gonna hold your hand."

"Thanks, Abs," I said as I clicked on the reduced screen to bring it up. I gasped.

I had never looked at p**n before and so I had no idea what to expect. My eyes grew large as I saw na**d people engaged in all-manner of sex acts. "Oh my God," I breathed.

I looked over at Abby and her head was tilted and a small smile was on her face. "This is the site he works for?" she asked.

I nodded. "He said he has a two-year contract. It must be with this site. Why?"

She looked at me. "Have you ever seen porn, honey?"

I shook my head.

"Well, compared to what's out there, this is actually very… artistic."

I looked back at the screen. I could see what she meant. Most of the scenes were on beautiful beaches or in opulent looking homes or patios. The people were all good-looking. I scrolled down, looking more closely. Seriously, the women looked like they could be supermodels. Why did they do this? Same reason Carson did, I guess? Didn't it cause real relationship problems for them too? Both now and later? I shook my head, attempting to clear it. This would never make sense to me.

When I tried to click on one of the videos, a pop up box came up saying that if I wanted to watch the full video, I would need to become a member, and spelling out the different membership options.

I glanced at Abby and then typed Carson's name into the site search bar. Immediately, a page loaded and I let out a tiny gasp. There were stills of Carson actively ha**g s*x with different women in multiple screen shots. My brain couldn't keep up with my eyes as I let out a small, choked sob and Abby squeezed my hand, saying "Let's turn this off, honey…"

"No, not yet," I said, my voice sounding very far away to my own ears. I needed to see this. I needed to see the truth of what he did.

"Gracie, these are things he did before he even met you," she said quietly.

"These ones are, Abby, but if I come back here and look next month, there will be a new one, maybe two," I said miserably.

Abby squeezed my hand. "You won't do that though right, hon?"

I shook my head. "No, just this once. I just need to remind myself why I can't contact him. Why I have to let him go."

She shook her head sadly and we both looked at the photos in silence for a minute.

"Holy hell, sweetie, you were right, he's hot."

I looked at her, my brows snapping down.

"Sorry, not helpful," she muttered, looking back at the screen.

As I too looked back at the photos, feeling simultaneously empty and sickened, it registered that the look on his face was… wrong. It was… it was the same look I had seen on his face in the lobby of the Bellagio when we first met and then again at the bar. It wasn't the look that had been on his face when he was with me in bed. He had his mask on in these pictures. But it was little comfort. I felt the vomit rise up my throat, and I stumbled off the bed and ran to the bathroom just in time to lose my lunch.

**********

Carson

Shit, this was gonna suck. I took a deep breath and pulled the door open. Irene, Courtney's elderly receptionist looked up from her computer screen. "Hey, Carson." She smiled. I smiled back warily. Well, at least her reaction to me wasn't calling security like I thought it might be.

"Hey Irene. Courtney in?" I leaned on her desk and she batted her lashes up at me. I usually flirted with her when I came in. I just didn't have it in me this time.

Irene furrowed her brow. "She is, hon. Do you have an appointment with her?" She started flipping through her book. "I don't see–"

"No, Irene, I don't. I'm actually–"

"Carson."

I looked up and Courtney was standing in the doorway of her office, in a gray skirt and a light pink blouse, her black hair hanging straight and long down her back, her face expressionless. Shit.

"Courtney, hi." I walked toward her. "I'm sorry, I haven't called you and I didn't make an appointment, I just–"

"Carson, come on into my office."

I followed along behind her, like a kid who had been called to the principal's office, a kid who knew he was guilty and deserved exactly what he was about to get. After the way things had gone with Tim, I was not hopeful that this meeting would go well. Again, this was gonna suck.

Courtney sat down behind her desk and I took the chair in front of it. As I opened my mouth to speak, Irene's voice said behind me, "Can I get some coffee? Tea?"

Courtney raised her eyebrows at me. "No, not for me," I answered her silent question.

"No, Irene, we're good, thanks," Courtney said and I heard the door close quietly behind us.

Courtney leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers and studying me quietly. "What happened, Carson?" she asked.

I let out a breath. "I'm done, Courtney. I'm sorry. I know it wasn't the professional way to do it. You've been good to me and I really do hate that I'm ending things this way between us."

She was silent for a minute. "You cost me a lot of money that day, Carson."

I took a deep breath. "Yeah, I know. That's part of the reason why I'm here." I reached into my pocket and removed my wallet and took the check out of the billfold. "I sold my car. I had them make out a cashier's check and I signed it over to you. I don't know if it's enough to cover all the expenses of the shoot, and I know it's not enough to cover what you would have made off of the video itself, but I hope it's a start, and I can make payments for the–"

Courtney sighed. "First, tell me what happened to spur you running out of that suite half-dressed?"

I looked down at the check in my hands and set it on the edge of her desk.

I looked away for a minute, finally making a half-laughing/half-choking sound in my throat, and ending it on a sigh. I liked Courtney. She'd always been good to me, always been someone I felt like I could trust in a business full of untrustworthy people. "I met someone, Court," I said softly.

She studied me, her expression softening. "Ah, you fell in love. Well, that'll sometimes do it."

"No, not exactly. I only spent a weekend with her, but–"

"Carson, you fell in love. I see it in your eyes."

I shook my head. "No, really, two and a half days, Courtney. I've just never felt that way about anyone. We–"

She studied me again and I could practically see the wheels turning in her head. She let out a deep breath. "Love doesn't always make sense. And that's the great beauty of it, the great mystery–the thing cynics who scoff at so-called 'insta-love' would bottle if they could. But you can't manufacture mystery, honey. Believe me, I know."

I stared at Courtney, taking in her words, letting them swirl around in my head. "I don't have anything to offer her."

She shook her head slowly. "So change that."

I nodded, looking down at my hands, Grace's face so clear in my mind.

"I think we might have a few things in common, Carson. Can I tell you?"

I looked up at Courtney and she was steepling her fingers again. I nodded.

"My mom was in the business too. I never said anything about it to you, because I know I never liked people bringing it up to me when I wasn't prepared to talk about it. I only know about your situation because I make it my business to know about the people working for me. Also, my mom's story ended a little differently than yours did. My mom overdosed on heroine when I was fifteen. She was a runaway who got into the business when she was sixteen. She lied about her age and started making films. I can't really say that I watched her decline, because I never really knew her when she was anything other than a shell of a person. She could be fun and vivacious when she wanted to be, but those times became few and far between as I became a teenager. Thankfully, my dad was a decent guy who stepped into my life fully when she died. They had had a three-month affair and although he could have tried to deny me based on what my mom did for a living, when she told him she was pregnant with me, he never tried to play that card. I think he had truly and honestly tried to take care of her, but she just wasn't in a place to let him do that. But he took me in and he gave me the stability I had never had. He was a good man… he passed away two years ago from lung cancer."

I couldn't even utter a word. I was so shocked by Courtney opening up to me like this.

"Anyway," she went on, "you can probably put two and two together about why I started this website. A lot of undignified, soul-stealing stuff goes on in this business. And this is a business that attracts people who are the least likely to be able to deal with that kind of thing to begin with." She studied me for a minute. "I started my site because I wanted to inject some heart into a business that's sorely lacking in that. True, the people in my videos are virtual strangers. But I think that showing sex as a natural expression of our physical selves, while also showing that it doesn't have to be degrading to either party is the best I can hope to accomplish here. If p**n is always going to exist, and I believe it will, then I want to be responsible for doing it in a way that respects the fact that none of us is only our body–all of us have a heart and a soul, and they can't be separated." She smiled big. I was still trying to keep up.

"What I'm trying to say, is that I'm a fan of love." She laughed softly and rifled through some papers on her desk, choosing one from the pile.

"Now, Carson, from what I recall, we made a change to your contract that amended it to be six months instead of two years. You remember initialing that change, right?" She looked pointedly at me.

"Uh, yeah, I do?" Courtney lowered her chin and looked up at me through her dark lashes. "Yeah, I do," I said more confidently.

"Good. Then according to my calendar," she flipped her desktop calendar back a couple pages, "your contract ran out last week. Good luck in your next endeavor, Carson Stinger. It's been real."

I stared at her. She stared back. I stood up and rubbed my palms on my jean-clad thighs. "Courtney, I don't know how to–"

"Take care of yourself, Carson," she said, not rising from her seat. "And take your cashier's check. If you don't, I'll tear it up."

Right. I picked up the check and stuck it in my pocket. "Courtney. Thank you. You take care of yourself too."

"Oh, I intend to." She smiled at me.

I nodded my head and moved slowly to her door. I looked back once as I put my hand on the handle but she sat unmoving. I nodded at her and opened the door and left.

CHAPTER 15

Two months later, August

Grace

I pulled up in front of my childhood home and smiled to myself. I was tired from having made the eight-hour drive from D.C. to Ohio, but seeing the house gave me a burst of energy. I already knew exactly where my dad was sitting inside that brick Cape Cod–in his ratty, brown recliner in front of the TV, the one he would never give up no matter how much my sisters and I begged him to upgrade. One year, when my sister Audrey was eleven and taking sewing classes, she sewed a slipcover for it with little yellow daisies all over it. My dad looked like he was going to blow a gasket when he saw it, but then he glanced at my sister looking about ready to burst with pride over the perfect fit she had accomplished, and he sat down in it and said, "Well Audrey Bug, I didn't know anything could make this chair more comfortable, but I think you've done it." Then he made a big show of adjusting himself just right and laying his head back with a satisfied smile. Yeah, my dad was a good guy.

"Dad?" I yelled, unlocking the door and walking inside.

He came out of the living room smiling. "Well, look at you Gracie." He kissed me on the cheek. "Law school must be agreeing with you. You look good."

"Thanks, Dad. It is." I smiled.

"How was the drive?"

"Not bad. I listened to a couple books on tape so it went by quickly."

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