Beauty Becomes You (Beauty 4) - Page 16

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They weren’t sure what her mother would be up for eating, so Blake grabbed five different options, along with full meals for Erin and himself. All of it balanced precariously on the two-foot cafeteria tray. He stood in line behind a heavyset woman with short grey hair. When the person in front had finished paying, they both shuffled forward. The grey-haired woman set her salad bowl down beside her plastic container of pudding and a bottle of water. She fumbled in her coin purse as the young, bored-looking lady at the cash register rang up the total to just over eight bucks.

More fumbling. “I forgot…ah, something on my salad. I just need to—”

As if realizing her excuses were falling on deaf ears, she quickly piled her items back into her arms and stepped away from the cash register. The lady at the cash register gave him an expectant look. Wordlessly, Blake slid forward and began to lay out his items for the lady to ring up, but he kept an eye on the grey-haired woman. She did return to the salad bar and added a spoonful of ham, as if committed to the lie now. It was clear to the cash register lady and to himself that she hadn’t had the right amount of money. She surreptitiously returned the water bottle and the pudding to their proper places before returning to the end of the line.

He leaned forward and spoke to the cashier in low tones. “I’d like to leave money for the bill behind me.”

Understanding lit the young woman’s eyes. “I can do that.”

“And if you could…” He grimaced, trying to think of a way to make it less like charity. He didn’t care; he wished he could leave more, but he suspected the grey-haired woman would mind. “If you could say it was a chain, all morning, people had done it, one after the other.”

The corner of her lip tipped up. “That’s sweet.”

He shook his head but didn’t answer. It wasn’t sweet or special to give away what he had in spades. It was a trust fund. Even what little he had earned as a soldier and his short stint as temporary professor was built on the back of a wealthy upbringing and no student debt. He understood his privilege, and though he enjoyed the finer things in life—like brandy and a game of pool, for example—he wouldn’t make a mockery of it.

Piling the bags and drinks in his arms, he passed the gift shop. Balloons. Damn it. Or flowers, at least. He always forgot. He was no good at this hospital stuff. His body had broken out in a cold sweat when he’d arrived in the parking lot, and a vice had clamped his throat when he’d walked inside. Still, his step hadn’t even slowed. He’d known Erin was inside. He would walk through the halls of hell for her, and he figured a hospital qualified as such. Gritting his teeth, he took the elevator up to the seventh floor.

It had been a relief to leave for a little while. He’d driven Erin to her mother’s apartment so she could shower and pick up a few necessities. The apartment was small, modest. Erin’s room still held swaths of pink reminiscent of a happy and hopeful teenage girl. It was the kitchen that had struck him most of all. His own kitchen was ridiculously large with an island and a wine fridge. This kitchen had been barely able to hold two people standing side by side. The small wedge of a countertop was covered with mail and keys and pens. There was no microwave. Whether in his family’s expensive home or in the bachelor pads of his Army buddies, there was always a microwave. Here there was simply no room for one. No TV dinners. He imagined a teenaged Erin cooking something small and light on the stovetop—soup or noodles. Not a bad life, but it was a splash of cold water on his face.

In the hallway, the ceiling was weighted down by something unknown, turned yellow and black. The toilet in the bathroom actually tilted at an angle. The whole apartment was falling down, in shambles, but his thoughts kept returning to that kitchen. An old magnetic picture frame held a picture of a childhood Erin with a huge grin and no front teeth. He imagined her pride in her home, her mother. He imagined someone ridiculing her, finding that weakness and using it to twist the knife.

He understood better why Erin had doubted them as a couple, what she’d doubted in him—and herself. She might judge you, she’d said about her mother, but what she’d really meant was that she herself had judged him. Ironically, his biggest fear, his face, had been nothing to her. Not even a hurdle. She’d been worried about status, about money, and he couldn’t care less. He’d rather give it away, give it to her, than let it stand between them. The barriers keeping her from him were crumbling now, slipping under their own weight—already gone.

After she’d had a chance to shower and change, they’d returned to the hospital, where she had rushed upstairs and he’d lingered downstairs to grab lunch. His footsteps slowed as he approached the hospital room. Nervous about something? he mocked himself. It appeared no matter how old he got, meeting the parents would always hold uncertainty. And, he had to admit, these were hardly ideal circumstances.

Knocking shortly on the door, he pushed inside. Erin’s mother, Sophia, was struggling with her pillow, sitting up in the hospital bed. E

rin was nowhere to be seen. After a moment’s hesitation, he set the food down and went to help her. Making a small soothing sound, he tucked the pillow behind her and helped her lean back. She calmed under his slight touch, and he withdrew quickly. Not quickly enough.

“I remember you,” she said without opening her eyes. Her hair was darker than Erin’s, her face more weathered, but he could see the resemblance in the shape of her nose and the set of her mouth.

“We met earlier. I’m Blake.” Erin had insisted on introducing him this morning, but her mother had been too drowsy to register much.

“You’re her boyfriend. The one she didn’t tell me about. Why didn’t she tell me?”

Oh, he had plenty of guesses and none that he would say out loud. “We haven’t been seeing each other that long.”

“Long enough. I saw the way you looked at her. You love her.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t ma’am me. You’re too old for that, and I’m not old enough.”

He allowed a small smile. “Sorry.”

She peeked an eye open at him. “What’s wrong with you that you’re so bad? And don’t tell me your scars. I wouldn’t even have known if she’d mentioned you over the phone.”

He cleared his throat. “I think she was worried you’d have a problem with my financial state.”

“Are you unemployed?”

Technically, he had been. Not anymore. Neither of those had been the problem. “My family is wealthy.”

Silence. Then, “I see.”

“That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“I hope you don’t think you’re going to throw your money around and get what you want.”

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