He gave her a cautious look, as though trying to read exactly what she was suggesting. She really didn’t know herself. To sit and dig up the past with him in public felt too revealing, and there was always a minor chance that someone might recognize him and make a big deal out of things. There were few options for where they could really be alone though, and she understood the consequences of opening her life to him again. Maybe he got that as well. “Well, I did fly across the country to see you, so catching up would be…lovely..”
“Lovely.” She wasn’t sure that was the word she’d use for it. But maybe there was potential. Or maybe she shouldn’t find forgiveness within herself. She didn’t even really know this man, just the segment of their histories that had overlapped. What she knew—what she thought she knew—was that there must be some piece of him that still loved her if he still wrote about her.
Outside, he began blindly walking down the sidewalk, and she had to grab his arm to steer him in the direction of her apartment. Maybe it was the dangerous choice to take him there, but she didn’t feel comfortable with anything else. There were enough rooms that she could keep doors closed and retain her privacy, she reasoned. They’d shared every intimate detail of their lives, so why should this be really difficult? She could always cast him out into the street. Wouldn’t be the first time.
“So, I read what you said about me in that article.” As he walked, he tucked his hands into his pockets. The jeans were a much tighter cut than he used to wear, and she could tell that he wasn’t used to the fashion by the way his fingers could barely wiggle their way in. “You were way too gracious, you know.”
“Why?” She watched him curiously, wondering if he was trying to get an explanation out of her. Surely he wouldn’t go so far out of his way just to pick her mind. That’s what phones were for. “I mean, the guy asked plenty of questions, but it’s not like I feel like airing that sort of business in public. My family liked you too much. I wasn’t going to tell the entire world that the song they dance to at weddings is about some bitch who couldn’t bother to give her boyfriend attention on Valentine’s Day.”
“You’re not that.” Even as he spoke, it was clear he knew that that was what had driven him to cheat. His Adam’s apple bobbed, but he found his words quicker than she expected. “You were right, you know. To leave me for what I did. It doesn’t matter what I thought you had or hadn’t done, it was still wrong of me to react like that.”
“Gordon. You don’t have to apologize now. It’s a bit late for that. It was a long time ago.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“That doesn’t make it relevant. You were the first man I ever loved, you know? And you broke my heart when you did that, but you taught me a lot about the world. That was when I had to land on my feet and support myself. I could thank you for doing it because I went straight from living with my parents to living with you. I never learned how to be on my own.”
“And then you went straight back to your parents?”
“For a while. Until I could afford to come back here and get my own place. I was used to working hard, so it didn’t take me very long to save up for that.” She smiled so he’d know that it wasn’t a go at him for relying on her money for so long. She fumbled through her purse so she could get a cigarette. It was best to have her hands and mouth as busy as possible so she wouldn’t focus so much on him. “Dad loves the song, by the way. Says I was crazy to leave you.”
A bit of color entered his cheeks. Good, she thought. Keeping him on his toes was all she had when he was used to wheeling and dealing. “What did you think of it though?”
“When I first heard it? I don’t know. It’s not like there’s anything in it that identifies a specific girl. And it’s been half a decade. Who knows how many women you could’ve been with in the meantime.” The dig was slight, but she couldn’t help jabbing at him just a little. It was a defense she was used to employing to keep herself from getting hurt these days. “I had my suspicions. You were always the sentimental sort, especially about things that you didn’t have anymore. It would be just like you to feel sorry enough for yourself to tell the entire world how contrite you were through a song.”
“It wasn’t about that. It was just about…” He trailed off and tugged at his ear. The nervous habit still drove her crazy, and she grabbed his hand to make him stop. If this was the way he was going to be through the conversation, then he’d be short a lobe before they made any progress at all. “It was about remembering the good times that we had together. I couldn’t give you a future, but I guess I could do something with the past.”
Her fingers were still around his wrist, and she remembered what it was like to have her palm to his, how safe she felt when his rough calluses closed around her smooth skin. “Did you think that maybe it would be a bit painful for me to hear that? Like you were guilting me after all those years had passed and I was just trying to move on with my life after you hurt me so badly?”
“No. I don’t really stop to think about songs being anything but therapeutic. Did it hurt you?”
“No. I thought it was sweet.” Seeing the panic rise up within him had been enough. He was all too wrapped around her fingers anymore. Was it his way of atoning, or was he just in love with the girl he thought had gotten away from him forever?
She briefly considered kissing him on the cheek in appreciation for the way he was behaving. This wasn’t the Gordon she remembered but one who had regressed even further back than his indiscretions, one who was a shy teenager again. At least one of them had gone through that phase.
But no. There was the front door to unlock, the apartment to think about, the bare cupboards to worry over in case he hadn’t bothered to eat before looking her up. Politely, he hovered behind her so she could lead the way up the stairs.
There was the jingle of another set of keys behind her. No doubt one of the younger tenants was impatient to get inside to dabble in some sort of drug use. She wasn’t entirely proud of where she lived, but it wasn’t with a roommate or with her parents, so she counted herself lucky. “Just keep it in your pants for five more seconds and we’ll be inside,” she grumbled.
She didn’t hear the blow, not really. One second she was trying to turn her key, and the next someone shoved her up against the front door. She couldn’t shout out because she was too confused, too surprised that her arm was suddenly twisted back. A cry of pain behind her, and she was knocked against the metal door again, this by a much heavier body.
Gordon was saying something as he tried to get up, but with the way he groaned and abandoned his sentence, she knew that he’d been kicked in the stomach. Fear shot through her body, but there was more to it than that. She had brought him here and was responsible for this, whatever was happening. If she were the only one to be attacked, then she might have been paralyzed by fear. With Gordon, guilt and protectiveness made her whirl around with her keys, lashing out at the first bit of skin she could find.
The metal slashed against a young man’s face. She pushed hard with the jagged edge and felt skin give, leaving a raw, angry cut upon the sunken cheek of the junkie. “You stupid cunt!” the man shouted, reaching for his pocket.
She was quicker as she dug into her purse. She knew she had mace–it was unreasonable to live alone in a neighborhood like this without it–but the first thing her fingers closed around was a travel can of hairspray. With shaking hands, she tore off the cap and pointed the nozzle at the stranger.
The mist blasted into the cut. The man howled in pain. He reached out for her, but she aimed for one eye, then the other. She didn’t know where this boldness came from. She just knew that if he touched her, he could hurt her in ways she couldn’t even imagine. She wasn’t about to let that happen. She wasn’t going to let this asshole ruin the life she’d built for herself. So maybe it wasn’t necessary to swing her heavy purse to hit him in the testicles, but well, she was angry.
The man slouched down to the ground, howling and cursing. She was thinking about the advantages of a well-placed kick from a stiletto when she felt a hand at her elbow. She was ready to land her next blow, but then Gordon’s grimace came into view. “Come on, we should call the police,” he told her. When he stepped back to the door, she noticed just how slowly he was moving.
She squeezed past him and stood in the front hall. He was barely in before she closed and locked the heavy door. “I’m just up on the second floor.” She started to hurry up the stairs, fueled by adrenaline and a fear that the man outside lived in the building and could get inside as soon as he recovered his wits. She was to the first landing when she noticed that Gordon wasn’t directly behind her.