- Secrets Vol. 4
"Cole's not going to chase after me, Daddy." I stare at my hands as I say it, knowing it's true. The look in Cole's eyes said it all. Every wall I managed to knock down was erect and stronger than ever. Cole shut me out.
"I'm not talking about him, sweets. I'm talking about you."
Blinking, I look up at him. My brow pinches together. "What about me?"
"Life isn't filled with do-overs. How many shots you think you're gonna get at love? Most people are lucky if it comes their way once. Are you seriously telling me that you're going to let him walk away?"
I smile at Daddy, like he doesn't understand. "I don't have a choice. I went to Cole. I told him the truth, and it didn't matter. Lies are easier to believe."
Daddy smiles back like he knows better. "That's true, but you know what? Anything that's worth having is worth fighting for. Love is a strange thing. It shows up when you least expect it and defies expectation.
"Ya know, I actually dumped your Ma? I told her that she'd be happier marrying some rich guy, that he could take care of her in a way that I'd never be able to. I said I didn't want to see her anymore. Your Granny even sent me a thank you card with a bunch of cash inside to stay away." He smirks. "I sent the card back, wrote REFUSED on it in a big red marker. I didn't walk away for money. I walked away because I thought your Ma would be happy. Two days later, your Ma shows up, suitcase in hand, and that letter. I saw the red marker, and knew what she was holding.
"Money's like poison, Anna. Too much of it kills anything that's worth having. Too much dough makes you paranoid, always wondering who - if anybody - loves you, and who's just trying to get a piece of you. Truth be told, no one loved your Ma, not even Granny.
"The ones we love are worth fighting for. Me and you are fighters, Anna. We don't let things slip between our fingers, unless we want them to." He stands and looks down at me, arching a dark brow. It seems like a challenge, like he's saying I'm made of thicker stuff - that I shouldn't slink away if I want Cole - but I have no idea how to fix something that's so broken.
Before sunrise, I'm back on the parkway, headed toward my apartment. I need to stop there, ditch the bike, and put on clothes for Sottero's. My internship only has a few days remaining. My heart pounds harder as the clock ticks closer to eight. I hate her. I don't want to see Sottero, but I feel like there's something I should do.
I walk into my room with a towel wrapped around my body and another one in my hair. As I walk to the closet I feel a line of goose bumps break out across my back. Shivering, I clutch the towel and turn around expecting to see someone behind me, but the room is empty. I glance at the window, and see people moving below. I blink a few times, wondering if someone had been watching me. If so, they're gone now. Just in case I have a peeping tom, I dress quickly, making sure the closet door blocks my naked body.
As I walk toward the front door, I see Em in the kitchen. She says, "Are you seriously going in?"
I nod, "What am I supposed to do?"
"Kick her in the balls, because she must have huge cojones to use you like that." Emma's eyes narrow as she shakes her head, like she's disappointed. "What are you going to do?"
"I honestly don't know. Part of me wants to confront her, but that won't change anything. And I need to graduate."
"Do you?" Em plants a seed in my mind and it takes root immediately, twisting and turning, asking questions that I don't want the answers to. She continues, "I mean, do you really need a graduate degree to run a photography studio?"
Why did I choose this path? Why did I get two degrees to do a skilled job? Why did I have plans to get a doctorate? Because that was pretty much what Sottero did, because I had idolized her and was following in her footsteps. My head turns slowly, as my eyes widen. I didn't realize it, but I based my entire future on this horrible woman.
"Oh, shit." Em mutters, "I broke your brain." She rushes out of the kitchen, dressed in a nice suit - which is weird - and wraps her arms around me. "Ignore me. I'm being stupid. I didn't mean to imply anything. Finish what you started." She smiles at me, holding my shoulders, knowing that nothing is getting through because of that dazed look on my face. "That's what you always say, 'finish what you start.' It's classic Anna. Do that."
My eyes come into focus and I look at Em's blue eyes, and a smile spills across my face. Nodding slowly, I say, "That's exactly what I'm going to do. I'll finish what I started."
Emma is calling after me as I bound down the front steps. I changed out my heels for my sparkle yellow Chucks and take off for Sottero's. I know exactly what I'm going to do.
My thigh highs pull at the scab on my leg as I walk in determined strides toward Sottero's shooting room. She's in there getting ready for a bride that should arrive any second. I grab her cup of coffee along the way. The light brown liquid swishes as I walk, and gets close to the brim, but it doesn't spill.
Determination floods me. I'm not letting this woman ruin my life. I'll take the rubble and rebuild from the ashes. I'll be better for it. The only way I can fail is if I don't get up again, and I have no plans of staying down. Screw that.
Sophia turns when I enter the room. Her slender arms fold across her chest and her head cocks to the side. Her gaze falls on my shoes. "I am not amused, Anna dear." Anna, idiot. "Remove those before the client arrives."
I smile at her and continue to walk towards her, like I'm going to hand her the coffee. When I stop I say, "I had an interesting day off. How about you?" Sophia remains rigid, with her arms folded. When she doesn't speak, I sip her coffee and say, "Did you know that Cole Stevens raped me? That was totally news to me, because I don't remember having sex with him or anyone else recently."
Sophia's lips part, but she hides her shock quickly, "I saw the story in the paper. Accusations can be damning, my dear, but they aren't enough to win lawsuits."
"So, why'd you tattle to the dean? Did it bother you that I was sleeping in Cole's bed?" Sophia's grip on her arm tightens. It's the only movement she makes. The motion makes her ring catch the light and for the first time, I really look at the ring. My jaw drops. Sophia's gaze drifts to the ring and slowly meets me gaze. "The woman in the paintings was you!"
That makes her move. Sophia grabs my arms and hauls me to the back of the room. We stand in front of a bank of windows by the supply closet. "You listen here, you little bitch. You have no idea who you're playing with."
I rip my arm out of her grasp. Everything clicks together in my mind. Sophia and Cole were a couple. She was his muse, his inspiration, until something went wrong. Staring at her, I know exactly what made her hate Cole, what caused her to throw the Tiffany's ring back in his face. "Likewise, Ms. Sottero. I'm not the moron you think I am. I know he proposed to you, and that you declined when he told you that he was broke. You're a money-grubbing bastard, and when you found out Cole was disowned, you turned on him like the heinous bitch you are.
"But that wasn't good enough, was it? Breaking his heart and telling him you thought he was worthless didn't make you feel better? It didn't make up for all that time you invested with him, so you concocted this rape story. Exactly when was that supposed to take place? Before or after he proposed to you?"
Sophia's eyes widen as I speak. Her ruby red lips part and I swear to God, she has a forked tongue when she replies. It slithers out of her mouth like Satan is talking. "You conniving little whore! How dare you walk in here and - "
I raise my hand and hold it in front of her mouth like a stop sign. I'm right. I know I'm right, but what I have no clue about is why Cole didn't fight the charge. Sophia's story is full of holes. "I'm done working here, and I'm done wanting to be like you." I laugh hollowly, "You know, I actually wanted to be like you? I idolized you and the way you did business. I actually believed all the shit I heard about you, about how you make each bride feel beautiful. The part everyone left out was how you talk trash when the bride's back is turned and make faces - you frickin' made faces at them, like a nine-year-old - as if they were beyond rank. Well, you're the one who's rank and if I never see you again, it'll be too soon.
"Have a nice life, Sophia. I quit." I smirk and turn on my heel.
A crowd of people have been standing behind me, including the bride who was about to have her photo shoot. Two older women stand with the young bride, flanking her. Their eyes shoot daggers at Sophia, hating everything they heard. The employees stand there slack-jawed, their eyes trained on Sophia, who doesn't move. She stands there, shell-shocked.
I'm about to walk out when I see the cup of cold coffee in my hands. I turn back to Sophia and say, "Oh, don't forget your coffee." I thrust the mug at her chest. Her hands fly up to grab the cup, but I push too hard. The contents slosh out and leak down the front of her blouse. I press my fingers to my lips before I say, "I'm so sorry that happened, dear."
I walk away with a smile on my face. Sophia doesn't talk, but I feel her eyes burning a hole into my back. I push through the front doors of the building and into the early morning air. I spin around once, laughing like a lunatic, with my arms extended. I can't help it. It was perfect. The look on her face alone was beyond awesome. I've never felt so good in my life.
However, life caught up to me when a short balding guy asks, "Anna Lamore?"
I stop spinning and look at him, nodding. "Yes?" I have no idea who he is or what he wants. The guy doesn't even look vaguely familiar. He's short, balding, with dark skin and a big fat envelope in his hands.
He looks at me sternly, and slaps the envelope into my hand. "You've been served." The man turns away as I look down at the package.
I don't know what this is, "Hey!" I shout, running after him. "What the hell is this?"
He won't look at me. He continues to walk briskly, like his main reason for doing so is to put space between us. "Read it, kid. Just show up on the date and time it says."
I stop and look at the envelope again. I break the seal and unfold the contents, watching the short man walk away as fast as he can out of the corner of my eye. People bump into me, but I'm in mental a bubble. The letters on the top of the page mean nothing. I'm staring at the court case SOTTERO vs. STEVENS. I've been summoned to appear before a committee concerning the lawsuit. Great.
It never fails. When something finally goes right, something else goes wrong.
When I get home, the apartment is empty. Emma is at her internship/ new job at Newsday. I wonder if I'm a moron while I stand in the shower, getting pelted with insanely hot water. My mind doesn't want to think about what I just did, quitting an internship days before it's over. No, my mind wants to wander back to Cole. The crushing sensation still weighs heavily on my chest. Whenever there's a space between thoughts, Cole's face appears, his blue eyes blazing with his barbed words, I thought so.
Life keeps throwing things at me that I don't expect. I didn't expect to enjoy working at Le Femme. I didn't expect to fall in love with Cole Stevens. And I certainly didn't expect Sottero to be a ravenous bitch. Out of everything that's happened, I'm not sure what I could have done differently, what I could have done to prevent it. When I questioned Sottero, when I said I was sleeping in Cole's bed, she obviously had no clue. That meant she didn't snitch to the dean or contact the papers about that little story. Someone else did. I scour my arm with a loofa as I think, covering my skin in white bubbles until I'm beat red.