Ali blinked. No. No, he wouldn’t be with someone else…in his office…
“Oh, babe, yeah, just like that…”
It was Teddy’s sex voice, and Ali got really cold, and then really warm, and she realized she had far bigger problems than finding a ride home.
Ali woke the next morning, alone. A sympathetic Russell had driven her home. In the dark, she’d paced the big house for a while, steam coming out her ears.
When Teddy hadn’t shown up, she’d called her very soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, twice, but there hadn’t been a return call. She did, however, now have a waiting text:
Babe, this isn’t working. It’s not you. It’s all me. I just need to be alone right now. FYI, our lease ended on 5/31. So no worries, you’re free to leave right away.
Ali stared at the words in shock. She hadn’t had caffeine yet so her brain wasn’t exactly kicking in, but she was pretty sure he’d just broken up with her—by text—and that he’d also rendered her homeless.
Ali pulled up the calendar app on her phone. Yep. Yesterday had been May thirty-first. Flopping back on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, trying to sort her tumbling emotions.
He’d beaten her to the break up, and after last night, hearing him in the throes and calling someone else “babe,” she’d really needed to be the dumper not the dumpee. “Damn,” she whispered, and sat up.
You’re free to leave right away.
Magnanimous of him. And also a vivid reminder. Men came and went. That was the way of it for the Winters women. She’d nearly forgotten that it was a lifetime goal of hers to not perpetuate this pattern, that she needed to be more careful.
She’d remember now. And while she’d like to lie around and plot Teddy’s slow, painful death, and maybe wallow with a day in front of the TV and a huge bag of popcorn, she had work to do. She had to get back to Town Hall and take down the floral designs and collect whatever ceramics hadn’t sold at the silent auction.
Then she apparently needed to figure out her living situation.
Still stunned, she showered and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt for loading up boxes and then headed out. The rental house she’d shared with Teddy was high on the cliffs on the far north face of the harbor. It was isolated and not easy to get to, but she didn’t mind the narrow road or being off the beaten path. The house itself was old and more than a little creaky, but full of character. Ali loved it and loved the view, and after a childhood of city noises, she loved sleeping to the sound of the waves hitting the rocks.
Normally, early mornings were her favorite part of living in Lucky Harbor. Cool and crisp, the sun was just peeking over the rugged mountains, casting the ocean in a glorious kaleidoscope of light. Beyond the surf, the water was still, a sheet of glass, perfectly reflecting the sky above. A brand new beginning. Every single morning.
Never more so than this morning…
She parked in front of the Town Hall. The place was locked, but Gus the janitor let her in. Mumbling something about getting back to his work, he vanished, and Ali began lugging the heavy floral arrangements out of the building, down the steps, and into her truck by herself. Then she carefully packed up the pottery that hadn’t been sold and took that out as well. With every pass she made, she had to walk by Teddy’s office, and each time her emotions—mostly anger—coiled tighter and tighter. Her mom and sister had the quick fuses in the family. Ali had always been more of a slow burn, but today she’d gone straight to red-hot ticked off.
When she was finally finished, she searched out Gus again, finding him indeed very busy—kicking back in the staff room watching a ball game on his phone. In his thirties, six feet four and big as a tank, Gus hadn’t shaved since sometime last year. He looked like a tough mountain man who belonged on a History Channel show hauling logs—except for the tiny kitten in his big palm.
“Aw,” Ali said, softening. “So cute.”
At her voice, Gus startled, and with a little girl–like squeal, fell right out of the chair. Still carefully cradling the unharmed kitten, he glared at Ali. “Christ Almighty, woman, make some noise next time. You scared Sweetheart here half to death.”
Sweetheart had her eyes half closed in ecstasy. “Yes, I can see that,” Ali said wryly, reaching out to pet the adorable gray ball of fluff. “I can also see how very hard the two of you are working back here.”
She couldn’t tell if Gus blushed behind the thick, black beard, but he did have the good grace to at least look a little bit abashed as he lumbered to his feet. “I wanted to help you,” he said, “but I had Sweetheart in my pocket, and the boss told me twice already not to bring her here. But she howls when I leave her home, and my roommate said if I didn’t take her with me today, she was going to be his Doberman’s afternoon snack.”
“Sweetheart’s secret is safe with me,” Ali said. “I just need to get into Teddy’s office for a minute.”
Gus scratched his beard. “I’m not supposed to let anyone into the offices.”
“I know,” Ali said, “and I wouldn’t ask, except I left something in there.” She’d made Teddy a ceramic pot. It was a knotty pine tree trunk that held pens and pencils, and she’d signed it with her initials inside a heart. There was no way she was leaving it in his possession. He didn’t deserve it. “Please, Gus? I’ll only be a minute.”
He sighed. “Okay, but only because you guys are always real nice to me. Teddy knows about Sweetheart, and he didn’t rat me out.” He set the sweet little kitten on his shoulder, where she happily perched, and then led the way to Teddy’s office. There he pulled out a key ring that was bigger around than Ali’s head, located the correct key by some mysterious system, and opened the office door. “Lock up behind you.”
“Will do,” Ali said, and as Gus left her, she went straight to Teddy’s desk.
No knotty pine pot with the little heart she’d cut into the bottom. She turned in a slow circle. The office was masculine and projected success, and the few times she’d been here, she’d always felt such pride for Teddy.
That’s not what she was feeling now. In fact, she sneezed twice in a row at some unseen dust, annoying herself as she looked for the pot. She finally located it in the credenza behind the desk, shoved in the very bottom beneath a bunch of crap. It was the shape of a Silver Pine tree trunk, every last detail lovingly recreated down to the knots and rings around the base. For a minute, Ali stared at the pot she’d been so proud of, shame and embarrassment clogging her throat. Swallowing both, she grabbed it, locked the door as she’d promised, found and thanked Gus, and left.
In her truck, she drew in a deep breath and drove off. It was a Winters’s gift, the ability to shove the bad stuff down deep and keep moving. Teddy wasn’t even a five on the bad stuff meter, she told herself.
As always in Lucky Harbor, traffic was light. At night, strings of white lights would make the place look like something straight from a postcard, but now, in the early light, each storefront’s windows glinted in the bright sunlight.
Things stayed the same here, could be counted on here. She thought maybe it was that—the sense of stability, security, and safety—that drew her the most.
Her three S’s.
At least until last night…
She put in her shift at the flower shop, worrying about how light business was. She brought it up to Russell at lunch, gently, that she felt she really had something to offer here, the very least of which was a website. But Russell, equally as gently, rebuked her. Like his sister Mindy before him, he was a technophobe. Hell, even the books were still done by hand, despite their bookkeeper’s urging to update their system. Grace Scott, a local bookkeeper, had given up on changing Russell’s mind, but Ali was going to bash her head up against his stubbornness, convinced they would make a great partnership.
On her break she used her smartphone to fill out as many online applications for apartments as she could find. By six o’clock, she was back at the beach house, hoping not to run into Teddy. She didn’t, which was good for his life expectancy. Even better, the front door key still worked. Bonus. She had a roof over her head for at least one more night.
In the kitchen, she tossed her keys into the little bowl she’d set by the back door to collect Teddy’s pocket crap. Out of curiosity, she poked through the stuff there: a button, some change, and…two ticket stubs, dated a week ago for a show in Seattle.
A show she hadn’t gone to.
She stared at the stubs, then set them down and walked away. Something else niggled at her as she headed into her bedroom, but she couldn’t concentrate on that, because she was realizing that Teddy had been working 24/7 for weeks. And before that, he’d been sick and had slept in a spare bedroom. They hadn’t actually slept together in…she couldn’t even remember.
Which meant that Ali had been very late to her own break up.
At this, her heart squeezed a little bit. Not in regret. She tried really hard not to do regrets. It wasn’t mourning either, not for Teddy, not after hearing him cheat on her. It was the realization that she’d really loved the idea of what they’d had more than the actual reality of it.
She stripped down to her panties and bra before it occurred to her what the niggling feeling from before was. Reversing her tracks, she ran barefoot back to the large living room.
The house had come fully furnished, but Ted had always made the place his own, thanks to the messy, disorganized way he had of leaving everything spread around. Running shoes hastily kicked off by the front door. Suit jacket slung over the back of the couch. Tie hanging askance from a lamp. His laptop, e-reader, tablet, smartphone, and other toys had always been plugged into electrical outlets, and when they weren’t, the cords hung lifeless, waiting to be needed.
Not now. Now it was all gone, even his fancy, highfalutin microbrews from the fridge. Everything was gone, including her iPod.