A few group members still lingered as I approached McKenna at the front of the room, where she was leaning against a table near the window. I wondered if she was going to chastise me for not talking again.
“Still afraid to open up?” she asked, peeking up at me through thick lashes.
I wasn’t afraid, but I knew what she was trying to do. She wanted to goad me into talking.
“I don’t like this sharing bullshit in the group. I’m not saying I won’t talk to you—I will. Me and you. Someplace else. Private.”
She narrowed her eyes, searching mine. “You think you’re the first guy in this group to hit on me? Not by a long shot. I’m here to do a job, Knox. That’s all.”
I chuckled. She thought I was asking her out? That was ridiculous; I didn’t take girls out.
“Don’t judge me. You and your charmed life you lead—you don’t know anything about my life, sweetheart. And P.S. I’m here because I choose to be here.”
“McKenna?” a tall, lanky guy called out from the doorway. “Everything okay?”
I looked his way, noting that I hadn’t seen him in the group before, yet he seemed pretty familiar with McKenna.
“Brian? What are you doing here?”
“I thought you might like a ride home. Is everything all right?” His gaze moved between me and her, his expression radiating concern.
McKenna swallowed and glanced at me before answering. “It’s fine.” She nodded. “And I told you, I’m fine taking the bus.”
“Are you sure?”
McKenna fixed her friend with an icy stare, sending her message loud and clear without words.
“Okay,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “I guess I’ll see you at home later.”
Brian nodded and left reluctantly, leaving McKenna and me alone once again.
When she turned to face me again, I could see judgment written all over her pretty face. I was beneath her. She’d labeled me and stuck me in some damn box. Hell, I knew I wasn’t good enough for a girl like her, but I hadn’t expected for her to actually call me out on it.
I fixed a sneer on my face. “Better go get home safe and sound, away from all us f**k-ups, McKenna.” Then I turned for the door and strode away.
I could not have handled that worse. I hated the idea that I’d offended Knox; that was never my intention. Maybe he’d been serious about opening up one-on-one with me—perhaps it hadn’t been a pick-up line at all. And I’d overreacted. Horribly. A sour pit sank low in my stomach and settled there.
I noticed a small leather-bound notebook resting against the desktop where Knox had been leaning. Crossing the room to retrieve the book, I wondered if there was a way to find him, to apologize and return his journal. I should have just waited to return it to him next Saturday, assuming he came back, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted.
This group was supposed to be anonymous, but Knox gave his last name at the first meeting—Bauer. And his first name wasn’t all that common, so perhaps I’d have some luck finding him. I pulled out my smartphone and typed his name into Google: Knox Bauer + Chicago, and was rewarded with an address. A home in the South Loop, not too far from where I lived.
Since I hadn’t yet gotten around to buying a car, I took the city bus to a stop that would let me off two blocks from his neighborhood. Along the way, my mind drifted to Brian and the overprotective nature he’d been exhibiting lately. I knew I needed to have a talk with him soon.
After moving to Chicago, Brian had interviewed at several accounting firms in the city and quickly got multiple offers. He insisted that he wouldn’t have me living by myself in a strange city, and changed his entire career plan for me. Living here alone was part of the appeal, but of course I hadn’t argued. I had someone to hang out with Friday nights or go to the Laundromat with on Sundays. It was nice. And he was someone steady I could rely on. I couldn’t really complain; he looked after me and I wasn’t naive enough to think that a young girl alone in the city didn’t need a friend.
Of course there was a chance he might read things wrong between us if we lived together. Sometimes the way he looked at me for too long made me wonder if he and I were on the same page about our friends-only relationship status. But he’d insisted, and I hadn’t refused, even though I knew I’d never reciprocate any deeper feelings he might have. Maybe he was too safe a choice—he wasn’t broken—there was nothing for me to fix, so he held no appeal. But either way, I just wasn’t attracted to him that way.
My thoughts drifted as I stared out the window of the bus. Cars whizzed past and tall buildings loomed in the distance. There was a whole bustling world out there that I wasn’t a part of. My life had become something almost unrecognizable. I knew how I’d gotten this way: one tiny step at a time. A few months after I lost my parents, I began volunteering. The grief counselor I saw at school thought it might help, and she was right. Caring for others got my mind off my grief and reminded me that not everyone led a charmed life. I spent time at the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter, a center for special needs kids. It became somewhat of an obsession. It was my escape from the harsh reality my life had become.
My parents’ deaths had been my fault. Not literally, of course; I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that. But in a small way, I was responsible, and that was all that mattered. There was no un-doing what I’d done. They’d died in a terrible car accident at the hands of a drunk driver on their way to church one Sunday. I still remembered every vivid detail about that morning.
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