I don’t say anything else as we walk back to my Range Rover. But as we pass one of those electronic signs that flash the date and time, along with the store’s specials of the day, there’s a part of me that freezes as I see today’s date up there in bright red lettering. November 18, 2013. November 18. November 18. November 18.
The knowledge explodes through me, nearly rips me to pieces. Not the date, not even what the date stands for—what it will always stand for. No, that’s not what shreds me completely. It’s the fact that for the last couple of hours, while I ate ice cream and had the mother of all snowball fights, I’d forgotten. Forgotten what had happened to them. And forgotten my own culpability in it.
As if I had that right.
I stumble, nearly go to my knees as it all slams right back into me. The guilt and pain and pressure of it. The blame and the agony of it, so heavy that only years of practice—years of holding that shit way down deep—keeps me on my feet and moving forward.
When we get to my car, Ash suggests hitting up one of the parties I mentioned earlier, but I just shake my head. I’d only suggested the parties because I wanted to spend more time with Ophelia, and now just the thought of squeezing into one of those crowded, smoke-filled houses makes me crazy. The pressure’s so bad I can barely think, can barely breathe. The last thing I need is to be trapped in the middle of a crush of bodies.
In the end, I drop Cam, Luc, and Ash back at their respective homes, then head to my dad’s place. My place, really, since the great tech genius himself hasn’t been back here in three and a half years. Not since my high school graduation, and even then it was just an overnight trip. A quick in-and-out to attend the ceremony and tell me he was proud of me. I might even have believed him—if he’d been able to look me in the eye when he said it.
An old Red Hot Chili Peppers song comes on the radio, and I reach over and turn it up until the beat is so loud that I can’t think through it. Then I just coast, every part of me on automatic pilot as I make my way through the softly falling snow, with no plans other than to go home and get high.
At least until I turn onto Red Maple, heading toward Park. Because there, all bundled up in a bright red jacket and sitting on a bus stop bench at the side of the road, is the girl I’d walked to her car nearly an hour ago.
This time I don’t bother to look up when the car pulls to a stop in front of me. I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes waiting for my connecting bus, and this is the fourth car that’s stopped. I don’t think I look like a hooker sitting here all zipped up—and it is obviously a bus stop, after all—but given all the idiot guys who’ve stopped to offer me a ride, you’d think I was wearing a sign that read No One Refused.
Which is so not the case.
“Hey!” one of the morons in this newest car calls to me, but I don’t even turn my head. If I completely ignore them, maybe these idiots looking to get lucky will finally go away.
This time I do turn, at the urgent tone and the sound of my name. Shit. Not a stranger then, but Z, who looks confused and more than a little pissed off.
I wave to him, then go back to what I was doing before he pulled up. Which isn’t much, really. Just staring down the road and trying to keep my teeth from chattering.
I hear him curse, then the sound of the Range Rover turning off and a car door slamming. Which means I’m not getting rid of him as easily as I’d hoped.
“What are you doing here?” he demands, coming around the front of the car to crouch down in front of me. “I thought you had a car.”
“I do.” But it’s not the blue Honda outside the clinic. No, my car is safe in the parking lot outside the employee housing provided by the lodge—in the same spot it’s been in since I arrived here twelve days ago.
“Then why aren’t you driving it?” He looks at me like I’m insane. And maybe I am. Either way, it’s none of his business.
Which is why I shrug. “I’m still new to Park City, don’t know my way around very well. I took the bus today because I was worried about getting lost and being late to my appointment.” Not a lie, I tell myself. Just not the whole truth, either.
But Z doesn’t look like he’s buying it. Big surprise. After all, it takes a con artist to know one.
“Isn’t that what GPS is for?” he asks.
“What’s the big deal?” I demand, going on the offensive because the defensive obviously isn’t working. “Why does it matter if I didn’t want to drive today?”
“It doesn’t matter. Except you lied to me. And now you’re sitting out here at the bus stop, alone, in the dark and the cold, waiting for a bus that doesn’t look like it’s coming anytime soon.”
“It’s coming. It’ll be here in seven minutes.”
“Great. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you won’t be a Popsicle by then. Or a rape victim.” He stands up, reaches for my hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”
I yank my hand back, glare at him. “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He rolls his eyes. “Relax, princess. You’ve been safe with me all night. I’m not going to suddenly attack you. I just want to take you back to the lodge.”
“I’m fine. The bus is almost here.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” He gestures toward the nearly empty street. Currently the only car on it, besides his, is stopped at the light a few yards away. The two guys in the front look about our age, maybe a little older, and seem intensely interested in what’s going on between us. “You don’t actually think I’m going to leave you here alone, do you? With assholes like that around? It’s practically the middle of the night.”
“It’s not even eleven o’clock yet.”
“Still. Come on. Get in the car and I’ll take you home. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is you’re wasting your time. I’m not going to sleep with you.”
His eyebrows shoot up to his forehead. “Who asked you to?”
I almost blurt out that I know about the bet, but I don’t want him to get mad at Cam for tipping me off. “Give me a break. I know when a guy wants to sleep with me.”
“Well. Aren’t you the egotistical one?” He tugs on my hand, pulls me to my feet. This time I don’t fight him, though I’m not sure why. “Are you sure you aren’t projecting?”
“Meaning maybe you’re the one who wants to sleep with me.”
His hand is on my lower back now, and he’s guiding me toward his Range Rover. I should stop him, I know I should. But his hand—warm and firm and steady—feels so good that I’m hard-pressed not to just sink into him. Already my teeth have stopped chattering as his warmth slowly seeps through the layers of my clothing and into me.
“That was weak,” he tells me with a snort. “Surely you can come up with something better than that.”
“I probably could if my brain cells weren’t all frozen. I swear, I don’t know how anybody lives in this place.”
He yanks open the car door, starts to help me inside like he’s some kind of gentleman instead of a too-conceited-for-his-own-good snowboarder who also thinks he’s a player. “I’m fine here,” I tell him one more time, even as I slide across the smooth leather. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No. You—” He slams the door in the middle of my sentence, effectively cutting me off. I expect him to rush around to the driver’s seat, but instead he just stands there for a minute, looking at me through the glass of the passenger window.
I start to look away—the last thing his ego needs is for me to watch him like I’m spellbound—but I can’t. There’s something in his face, in his eyes, that keeps my gaze locked to his. It’s familiar, like I’ve seen it a million times before, and at first I think it must be the charmer in him. All smooth and smiling and I-know-you-want-me.
Remi was like that, and I figure that must be it, that there must be something of my old boyfriend in him. Except … except then he blinks, and the mask I didn’t even know he wore starts to slide back into place. Then I realize it wasn’t Remi that look reminded me of. It’s myself. It’s what I see every morning when I look in the mirror before I put my makeup on. Before I put my mask on and try to convince the world—and myself—that I really am okay.
This time when I tremble it has nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with the knowledge that deep inside, Z is as shredded as I am. The charm and cockiness aren’t just products of being too hot and too talented. They’re camouflage for something else. Something dark and dangerous and desperate.
Part of me wonders what it is, while the other part just wants to let it be. Let him be.
Still, my hand comes up of its own volition, presses against the ice-cold window. Z doesn’t see it, thank God. He’s already turning away, taking the long way around the SUV to the driver’s door. When he finally climbs in, that look of vulnerability is long gone. In its place is the Z I’m coming to know and tolerate, all oozing sexuality and wise-ass comments. Surreptitiously, I tuck my hand back into my lap.
I should be relieved he’s back to normal. After all, this Z is so much easier to deal with. So much easier to dump a drink on and just forget about.
Or at least he should be.
Except as he drives, his strong, long-fingered hands expertly handling the SUV on the icy roads, I can’t help but remember that moment in the ice cream parlor when I realized something was wrong.
Or those few minutes in the park when he teamed up with me, working so hard to protect me when it would have been much easier for him to have just left me behind.
Or how he stopped when he saw me at the bus stop and all but forced me into his car.
He could have left me. Could have driven right by and pretended not to see me. I never would have known. No one would have. But he didn’t. He stopped for me. Insisted that I get in the car. And now he’s going out of his way to make sure that I get home safely.
Again, I’m reminded of Remi. Only this time, the reminder is an empty, aching wound inside me, one that strips me raw and leaves me bleeding. Collateral damage to the wreck that was his life for far too long.
We’re silent for most of the drive, which is good and bad. I could use my sparring partner back. Right now I’d love something—someone—to sharpen my claws on. But as Z oh so graciously pointed out, my retorts aren’t exactly up to snuff at the moment. I guess that happens when it feels like your whole life is about to implode for a second time.
An old Nirvana song comes on the radio, “All Apologies,” and Z reaches over, starts to turn it off.
“No.” I put a hand on his arm, stop him. “Don’t.”
His face is grim as he glances up at me. “You like this song?”
He nods, swallows, then sits back as Kurt Cobain’s rough, emotion-filled voice fills the car.
It’s not true. I don’t like this song. I used to, a long time ago. I used to listen to it again and again and again, just to hear the subtle shifts and nuances in Cobain’s voice. But now … now I listen to it for an entirely different reason. I listen to it because it hurts. I listen to it because I hate it. I listen to it because, in my twisted, warped mind, it’s a penance I have to pay, a debt I’ll never get on the other side of.
Everything is my fault. I close my eyes for a moment, listen to Cobain sing about blame, sing about shame. Tears press behind my eyes, but I will them away. Crying is for pussies, for wimps, and I can’t afford to be one of them. Besides, tears don’t change anything. If they did … if they did, I really would cry a river. Maybe even an ocean or two.