Sexy Stranger - Page 29

Clicking open the first message, I listened as my mother’s voice poured through the speaker. “Charlotte, sweetie, you missed your appointment with the doctor yesterday. You do know it’s very hard to get appointments like those at such short notice. I’ll reschedule, but you should know what an awful imposition this is.” The message clicked off.

No “I love you,” no “I hope you’re safe.” Again, no question about where I was. For them, it was all about damage control.

Well, I was sick of being a liability. With shaking fingers, I dialed my mother’s number and waited until her bored, upper-crust tones filled the line.

“Charlotte, finally.”

“Hello, Mother.”

“What day will work well for the doctor? I assume you got my message?”

“I’m not going to any doctor.” My voice was more resolute than I’d ever heard it, and I straightened my shoulders to project even more.

“What on earth do you mean?” my mother cried. “You’ve had a nervous breakdown. You have to see a doctor to set you right.”

“Nothing is wrong with me.” I pulled my black credit card from my purse and gripped the scissors I’d found in Valentina’s kitchen in one shaky hand. “Look, I was calling to let you know that I’m safe. Also, you should contact American Express and take my name off the account. I cut up my card.”

“You did what?” she gasped.

“I’ve been thinking, and I want to earn what I get. Maybe Dad was right—about marketing and everything. I shouldn’t walk into a job, but I also shouldn’t walk into a car and a credit card either just because of who I was born to.”

Holding the phone pinched between my cheek and shoulder, I snipped the card in half, then let out a satisfied sigh, feeling the strings of my puppeteer falling away. “I have enough to get by for a while. In the meantime, I’ll find a new job, but I can’t take any more of your money.”

Silence reigned on the line for a long moment. When my mother spoke again, it was slowly and carefully, as if she were speaking to a deranged person. “Honey, is this some sort of Walden thing? Are you trying to—I don’t know—only keep what brings you joy? Because I’ve read that book, and—”

“This isn’t anything I got from a book. This is something I feel deep down inside,” I said. “I just wanted to let you know.”

“We only wanted to help you.”

“I appreciate that, Mother. But I need to help myself now.”

I didn’t say all the rest burning in my throat. That everything I’d been given came with strings, and that I’d suddenly never felt freer. That their help was just a form of control. What would the point be? It would only hurt her. She loved me the best she knew how, and I’d been a willing participant, happy to take what they gave until now. No point in beating it to death. We’d all made mistakes. The key was to move forward as a better me, and hope that didn’t destroy my relationship with my parents.

I ended the call despite her renewed cries for me to see a therapist anyway.

When I emerged from the bedroom, Valentina gave me a smile so big and wide that for the first time since I’d left Luke, I almost felt happy.

“We’ll start looking for jobs for you next week,” Valentina cried, “but for tonight? We’re going to celebrate.”

She popped the cork of a bottle of champagne. Foam sprayed the living room but she didn’t care, she only let out a whoop of celebration. I joined her, laughing as the suds dripped onto the floor.

“Okay,” I said. “It’s time to get our party on.”

We raided Valentina’s closet and downed the champagne, then took an Uber to a nearby club. It should have been freeing—a perfect night of dancing and celebrating the way I’d always loved to do in New York.

But now? Now I could only look around and picture that going-away party at the little bar, how everyone knew each other, and how I was now surrounded by strangers who didn’t know me any more than they cared about me—which was to say not at all.

An hour into the festivities, I tapped Valentina on the shoulder. “I think I’d like to head out. You can stay if you want.”

She frowned. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I lied. “Just still tired from the trip.”

She insisted on leaving with me, but she didn’t press for answers. I felt nothing but relief as I climbed into bed and pulled the covers over my head a half hour later.

I’d taken a huge step with my parents, and that had felt amazing. But once the euphoria had faded, I realized I still had a gaping hole in my heart.

And the only person who could fill it was more than a thousand miles away.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Luke

Another few days passed and I worked even harder, throwing myself into the distillery with everything I had. Business was booming, and the regular order from the bar had doubled in the span of a week. Occasionally, Duke or Molly would stop by to see what was going on—and to talk to me yet again about Charlotte—but for the most part, this was my baby. My big chance to make a difference.

Still, every night I pulled out my phone and did what was quickly becoming a ritual. I opened Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, searching for any mention of Charlotte, but Molly was right. Charlotte hadn’t posted anything since the day before she left.

The only way to know she was okay would be to call her.

To ask how she was doing.

To beg her to come back.

I took a deep breath. For days, this decision had been looming over me. I thought again about my mother, trapped in a marriage that didn’t work. I thought about Sarah, who, despite all her positive qualities, hadn’t come to Shady Grove for the right reasons. I’d begged them both to stay when they’d already made up their minds to leave, and Charlotte . . .

Wasn’t she the one who’d wanted me to ask her to stay? Wasn’t her asking me an indication that she needed my validation—some proof that I really, truly wanted her here?

And I did.

More than anything, I wanted her here with me.

So, what the fuck are you doing moping around here, you idiot?

I whipped out my phone, and before I could let my own fears convince me to change my mind, booked myself a ticket to Los Angeles. It might never work out, but goddamn it, I was going to try.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Charlotte

City life wasn’t how I remembered it.

Within the first week of arriving in Los Angeles, I’d gotten myself a job as a barista and had made a couple of new friends who liked to party. But as much as I tried to fit in, something still stuck out like a sore thumb . . . and I was beginning to think that something was me.

My mother had called a few more times, trying to ensure I’d go see a doctor. My father had even called and insisted that if I’d only come back, I could work for his company after all.

But now that I’d had my awakening, their attempts didn’t affect me the way they’d hoped. Instead, I listened to their concerns, considered everything they said, and hung up feeling even better about my decision than I had before.

And every single time, I’d wonder with a bittersweet pang if Luke would be proud of me.

Of course, that thought often led me down a dark and dangerous path. Even looking at my phone nowadays had me scrolling through my contacts and double-checking my texts, just in case I’d missed a message.

But I knew I hadn’t.

Luke hadn’t posted on Facebook or Twitter, and he didn’t have an Instagram account. I’d started a few posts of my own, talking about the wonderful sun and sand of California, but then deleted them and put away my phone. I wasn’t going to lie to the world when I was already lying to myself.

California was beautiful and sunny and sandy, yes. But it was lonely, and the traffic sucked. All the buildings felt like big industrial blocks with no charm or character, nothing like the cute little shops along the main street of Shady Grove.

If Luke came to Los Angeles, all he would see was the thing he hated most—the ridiculous city-slicker nonsense that made him stay so firmly in Shady Grove to begin with. I was having a hard time admitting it, but I missed the warmth and charm of that little speck on the map.

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