“I’m not staying,” I tell her with a quick smile. “I just need to talk to someone for a second.”
She rolls her eyes. “You can’t be trolling the kitchen for your next date, dude. If you disrupt service, there’ll be hell to pay. We’re just getting started on the breakfast rush.”
She grabs my arm, starts to propel me back toward the door that leads into the dining room, but I’m not ready to go yet. Not even close. Leaning down so that my lips are only a few centimeters from her ear, I say, “I won’t disrupt anything. I promise.”
“Yeah, like I believe that,” she says with a shiver. But she lets me go without complaint.
I drop a quick kiss on her cheek, then take the opportunity to dodge between two of the long stainless-steel tables that run down the center of the kitchen before she changes her mind. The last thing I need is for her to cause a fuss and get me kicked out—at least not before I do what I came here for.
Since it feeds three busy restaurants, the kitchen is huge and hectic, with waitstaff, busboys, chefs, and management darting through and around every square inch of open space. Still, it doesn’t take me long to find who I’m looking for in his little alcove off to the side of the main action. He’s taller and bigger than most of the people in the kitchen, and though his back is to me, I’d recognize him anywhere. Of course, the fact that he’s moving like he’s a ninety-year-old arthritic helps me identify him.
Maybe I should feel guilty about all the pain I caused, but to be honest, all I feel is the icy burn of regret. I obviously didn’t do enough damage or the guy wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone load a dishwasher.
I walk up behind him, clap a hand onto his shoulder, and start to squeeze. “Hey, Harvey. How you doing?” Though the words are perfectly polite, the tone I say them in isn’t. He jolts, tries to take off. But there’s nowhere for him to go. With the counter behind him and me in front of him, he’s trapped. Vulnerable. Exposed—exactly as Ophelia was when he decided to get rough with her.
“Leave me alone, Z. I’m working.” His voice is loud, panicked.
“I can see that.” I lean closer, keeping my voice low and calm in direct contrast to his. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to take up much of your time.”
“If you hit me again, I’m calling the police.” He reaches for a pan, holds it out in front of him like a weapon.
“Is that supposed to scare me?” I ask with a sneer. “You’re the one who tried to rape a girl yesterday. All I did was put a stop to it.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt her—”
“News flash, dickwad. You did hurt her.” I grab his shirt. Yank him forward so that we’re eye to eye, nose to nose. “You put bruises on her that are going to take weeks to fade. I’m not okay with that.”
“How was I supposed to know?” he whines. “She seemed interested. She was trying to get—”
“What she was trying to do was get away from you. I was four or five hundred yards away and even I could see that.”
“That’s not true—”
“Oh, it is.” I stomp the heel of my boot down on his tennis-shoe-clad foot even as I body check him, slamming him into the metal countertop at his back. “And you want to know what else is true?”
“No.” He watches me warily.
“Well, that sucks for you, since I’m going to tell you anyway.” I glance behind me, just to make sure no one’s paying attention. They aren’t. We’re in our own little piece of the kitchen over here, blocked from view by a half wall and a couple of tall shelves filled with kitchen equipment. Which means that as long as I’m quiet, I can do whatever the hell I want to this piece of shit and no one will be the wiser.
The thought is tempting—too tempting—and my fingers tighten on his collar. His face starts to turn red as he finally gets it. I could strangle him, right here in his little dishwashing area, and no one would give a shit. At least not until the dishes started piling up.
“I’m going to say this one time and you’re going to listen really well. Understand?”
He nods frantically.
“Good.” I loosen my grip a little—a very little—before continuing. “Ophelia’s a friend of mine. A good friend of mine. Now, if you know anything about me at all, you know that I don’t like people messing with my friends. So this is what you’re going to do.”
I tighten my grip again, pull him in closer. His eyes are wide, his pupils dilated with the same fear that’s making sweaty patches pop up all over his shirt, but he doesn’t even try to fight me despite the fact that he outweighs me by a good fifty pounds. Instead, he just clutches at his shirt, tries to rip it from my hands as he whimpers like the little bitch he is.
“You’re going to stay away from Ophelia. You’re not going to talk to her. You’re not going to look at her. You’re not going to think about her. You’re not even going to think about thinking about her. ’Cuz if you do, if you so much as say her name, I’m going to come back. And I’m going to end you. Do you get me?”
He nods, and I loosen up on his collar a little more, let him take his first real breath since I grabbed him.
He gasps, drags in huge gulps of air. He’s shaking so bad that he drops the pot he grabbed for self-defense. It falls to the mat beneath him with a thud.
“Now, I want to hear you say it. Acknowledge that you understand what I’m telling you.”
“I get it, Z. Jesus, I get it. I didn’t know she was yours.”
Rage, white-hot and ugly, rips through me all over again. “It shouldn’t matter if she’s mine or not, fucktard. You don’t touch women who don’t want to be touched. They deserve better than that. Ophelia sure as hell deserves better than to be raped by some loser who can’t get it up if he’s not hurting her. Understand?”
He doesn’t answer.
I tighten the shirt again. “I’m going to need an answer now, Harvey, or I’m going to drag your ass out back and beat you till you give me the one I want. Do. You. Understand?”
“I got it,” he finally says. He’s bitter, resentful, but smart enough to know I’m not joking.
I let him go, but at the same time I give him a little shove that sends him careening against the sink behind him. Water sloshes onto the counters, drips onto the cabinets, the floors, his apron. There’s a big wet spot over his pelvis now, one that makes it look like he wet himself.
Harvey grabs the counter to stop himself from actually falling into the sink, just as a couple of busboys turn the corner with huge trays of dishes. “Hey,” one of them says when they catch sight of the look on Harvey’s face. “Everything okay back here?”
“I don’t know.” I look at him questioningly. “Everything okay, Harvey?”
He glares at me, and for a second I think I’m going to have to deliver a more forceful warning. But finally he nods, tugging at his collar all the while. I can see the red marks the tight fabric left there, know that they’ll be turning to bruises before much longer. He’ll have a nice black-and-blue circle around his neck, kind of like the ring of bruises Ophelia has around her upper arms.
Just the reminder has me wanting to pound him some more. This as**ole really did get off way too easy.
“Everything’s fine,” he says in a raspy voice. “Z was just checking on me after my fall.” He gestures to the bruises on his face and arms. So that’s what he told people went down. Better than telling them he attacked the new girl, I guess.
I shoot an insolent smile at the busboys, who still seem uneasy with my presence. Then I give Harvey a two-fingered wave that’s as much threat as it is promise. “I’ll see you around, Harvey.”
“No, you won’t,” he says snidely, a lot braver now that he’s got backup. “You’ll be too busy treating women right—fucking them, using them, and then dropping them—to have time for me. Or Ophelia. Isn’t that how it works with you, Z?”
For long seconds all I can think about is launching myself at him and wiping that smug look off his face once and for all. A few missing teeth ought to do the trick. But we’ve started attracting a crowd—three waitresses and a chef’s assistant have joined the busboys—and I don’t want to give Harvey the satisfaction of watching my ass get hauled to jail if I start a fight in the lodge’s kitchen. Even if it would totally be worth it.
Besides, there’s more than one way to make my point. And, more important, to protect Ophelia.
I move forward, get in his face one more time. None of the chickenshit busboys try to stop me—big surprise—and I’m close enough to see it register on Harvey.
Close enough that I can smell the panic on him.
More than close enough that he knows I’m not going to walk away from this. From Ophelia and what he tried to do to her.
“Hurt her again—touch her again—and you’ll find out exactly how it works. Because the next time you go near her, I’ll chop your dick off and feed it to you. Then there won’t be a woman alive who has to worry about you trying to rape her ever again.”
I make sure the last sentence is loud enough to carry through the kitchen. Then, as the whispers start up all around us, I turn and walk away.
Mission. Fucking. Accomplished.
I wake up to the sound of my alarm blaring. I wait for a second, cuddled deep into the blankets, hoping Z will turn it off.
No such luck.
Finally I reach for it, slap it off, then sit up and push the heavy fall of my hair back from my face. That’s when I get the first real glimpse of my room and it hits me: Z isn’t here. He didn’t just crawl out of bed before me. He actually left before I woke up.
Even as the thought occurs to me, I push it away. After all, I knew what I was getting into when I slept with him. Neither of us pretended it was anything but what it was. No reason to blame him now just because he did exactly what I knew he would. It isn’t like I wasn’t warned.
Except … except last night felt like something more to me. It sounds stupid, especially considering I’m lying here alone and Z went God only knows where without even saying good-bye—but it’s still true. Which proves what an idiot I am.
I settle back in bed, think about going back to sleep—it is my day off, after all—but I’m awake now, my mind whirling in circles as it tries to assimilate this new reality.
I slept with someone.
I slept with someone who wasn’t Remi.
I slept with someone. No, not someone.
I slept with Z.
It’s strange to be thinking this, stranger still for it to be true. Up until now, Remi—my high school boyfriend and the love of my life—was the only guy I’d ever been with. For the most part, I liked it like that. It made it easier for me to point at our relationship and know that it was right and good and pure, despite what people have said since the accident. It also made it easier to accept that those years with Remi were all I was ever going to have.
Now that acceptance is gone and I don’t have a clue what anything means.
The old familiar sorrow weighs me down, the pain I’m so familiar with that it feels like an extension of my own body. An extra limb I carry around all the time. Yet it’s different, too. More regret, less devastation. A softening of all those jumbled feelings inside me.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe time—and great sex—really do heal all wounds.
Just the thought, sarcastic though it was, has guilt crashing through me. I lock it away, shove it down deep, just like I do with everything I don’t want to deal with. Then I climb out of bed and head for the shower. No use sitting around here all day, moping, when I don’t have to work. Maybe I’ll take the bus into town and do some sightseeing. Catch a movie. There’s got to be something to do in this town that doesn’t involve snow.