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Authors: Leighton Riley

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BOOK: Catalyst
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“No shit?”

“Yep. Remember that busted lip from a few months ago?”

“You said it was some drunk biker who was threatening our staff.” I remember vividly. My bars were classy enough to avoid fights. Or so I thought.

“Our staff, meaning Josephine, had gone on three dates with the guy before she switched and hooked up with his friend. Please, please let me start looking after it for you. She’s our best bartender, and as long as she stays in line, we’re good.” He’s all business now, and I can see the passion that gives me my answer.

“Sure,” I throw out, and he gives me back a sly grin like he’s just won a huge prize.

“They’ve, like, cleaned it up and all, right?” Noah suddenly backtracks. My throat closes up and tears threaten to spill.

After a moment of remembering the detectives talking to me about how they’d collected all the evidence they needed, I nod slightly. I hired some company to make it look like nothing had happened, but I had never checked it afterward.

“You don’t look very sure …”

“You know I haven’t been back! Can we please be done with this conversation? Handle Seasons 23 with Josephine. I’ll still go over all the necessary office work for it, but damn, can I go home now?” My head hurts, the alcohol is flowing freely, and all I want to do is lie in the fetal position until I pass out.

“I have just a few more things to clean up and then I’ll be ready.” He shakes his head and walks away from me to the other end of the bar.

“I could call Shannon to pick me up.” I mope. I don’t want her to come pick me up because I know she won’t take me home. The look Noah gives me tells me he knows this too. I chuckle at how protective he’s become over me since Liam died.

While Shannon is one of my best friends, she’s been trying to cheer me up and distract me from thoughts of Liam. I love her to death and she has my best interests at heart, but I’m just not ready for anything social right now. I need alcohol and my bed.

“If you get Shannon in the equation, I’ll have no idea where to tell the police to look when you go missing. That girl is thirty-five going on seventeen. I mean who goes to strip clubs anymore? And don’t say bachelorette-”

“Bachelorette parties.” I finish for him because really, those were the only groups of women there the last time she dragged me to one. We were the minority, and once the, ahem, men found out we weren’t part of one of the parties then they paid us no attention. That is until Shannon paid for a private dance in the corner and bit one of the guy’s nipples after stuffing a twenty down his underwear. She’s a mom who still likes to live a little, and I can’t blame her for that.

Having to choose between Noah and Shannon, I’ll go for the one who will get me to bed the quickest without questions. Thankfully, Noah knows his boundaries and knows my need for solitude.

On the drive home, it’s quiet. It’s a nice reprieve from the day, and I close my eyes, losing myself in my thoughts. My life feels so temporary right now. Not knowing where I belong and not having anyone to go home to really blows. The moment is ruined as I feel eyes on me.

“What?” I call out, not moving or opening my eyes. We’re at a red light.

“Do you think you need to talk to someone about all this?” Noah cautiously asks. I grind my teeth as I try to hold back what I really want to say.

“I talk to you. I talk to Shannon. I talk to Liam, sorta.” I look up as if he’s looking down at me and shaking his head in shame. “I’m dealing the best I know how. I know you’re just trying to look out for me, but I need more time. I’m still going through the what are they called, seven stages of loss?”

“Five,” he corrects me.

“Huh?” I look up and can see the stress radiating from him. For being behind a bar all day, he’s built like a runner. Lean and all muscle. His eyes, though—he can’t hide his feelings from me.

“Five stages of loss.”

“Oh. Well, yeah, I’m doing my own thing, okay? I kinda like being alone anyway. It gives me time to think and process the hell that’s going on around me.”

“You have a support system. We’re here when you need it. Promise you’ll go to someone if you need it.”

“Pinky promise.”

That earns me a big smile. Crisis averted.

Tinsley

 

Four months later

SHANNON HAS BEEN
looking up men on a dating website, swiping left and right on her phone, all in an attempt to find someone to fill my time this weekend. Sipping my Diet Coke on the couch, I am fascinated with how quickly she can veto or approve someone, just by seeing one photo.

Her facial expressions tell me all I need to know about each man she has swiped into the trash pile. Poor guys, they really never stood a chance, but my curiosity is piqued by who she deemed worthy. She can’t know this, though.

“Yes! He’s perfect. For you, that is.” Shannon squeals in excitement and tosses the phone my way.

“Nope. Not looking. Not interested.” I shake my head and have to will myself not to look at the photo on her screen. She waits, staring at me until I break.

“Ugh, fine!”

Damn curiosity.

I pick up the phone and try to act as if he’s repulsive, but her suggestion isn’t too bad. He has a gorgeous smile and oh, a man bun. I scratch my head.

“Man bun? I’m not sure if that’s cute or not? Is that ‘in’ these days? See. I’m not ready for this. I’ve been out of the dating game for years, and now, you expect me, after just five and a half months, to climb back into the ring?” I groan, thinking about how sad my life has become.

“They’re so sexy. I bet he’s a beast in bed. All Tarzan-like. Think about it. What would Liam want you to do? Mope around your pathetic apartment until you grow cobwebs up your hoo-ha or get back out there and find happiness?” She points to my private region when she says cobwebs, and I can’t help but cover said parts in defense.

“So gross. And leave my hoo-ha out of this conversation. I’ll find happiness, eventually. I’m finally starting to feel like myself again, and to be honest, I’m scared if I do anything too drastic, I’ll regress. I can’t go back to those dark times. I won’t let myself.” Even as I say it, my mind replays the past few months. Months spent alone, crying in my room to the point my stomach muscles hurt. Months wondering who would hurt Liam and why he was taken from me. Months feeling vindictive and hating everyone who was happy around me.

These past few months have pushed me to the edge of breaking. Detective Sanchez called me a few times with leads, but in the end, nothing had been done and no one had been caught. Getting my hopes up time and time again just shattered me each time I was updated with their lack of progress. The last time the station called me, I let them know to only keep me informed regarding breaks in the case. Ever since then, it’s been radio silence.

Shannon scoots closer to me and snuggles me into her side. “I know, Tins. I know. You’ve had so much crap dealt to you. I just want to see you happy again. That’s all.” She rubs my shoulder, and I can tell she means well.

The question of “when will I be ready?” rolls through my brain, and I know that no matter when I decide to move on, people are going to judge me. Liam will always be a part of my life, and I know I shouldn’t care about what others think, but I seriously don’t want to be the girl who starts dating right after her boyfriend is murdered.

“Shan?” I try to hold my voice steady as I begin to freak out.

“Yeah, babe?”

“How do I even bring up Liam when I decide to go on a date? Do I tell them from the beginning? Or do I wait until they question me about my past relationships? Or what if they ask why my last relationship ended?” I’m bawling in her arms, trying to catch my breath.

“Oh, Tinsley.”

“See? Defective.” I sniffle as my breathing calms slightly.

There are so many things I never thought I’d have to do again once I found Liam. When we were together, I never worried about other men or, quite frankly, what anyone else thought. I had the man of my dreams. Learning to be single, trying to date again, and putting myself out there on the online dating sites was not how I thought I’d be living life. I have baggage now and I’m damaged goods. The instant I think about my baggage, I hit myself in the head with my palm at even thinking about Liam like that. He was so much more. I’m tainted now and the world might as well know it.

“You’re not defective. You will have to tell them but not until you’re ready. Only you can know when that will be, and if any of those guys see you as anything but a beautiful, kindhearted woman, I give you permission to ditch them when you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. The right man will understand the pain you’ve gone through and will be patient with you.” She kisses the top of my head, just as a mother would do. Even though she’s a wild one, she’s one of the sweetest and down to earth friends I have.

“You’re right. Thank you for that.” After a minute, I add, “You cannot find me a guy on that site. I’ll find my own the old fashioned way.” With how many men she swiped left, the dating pool seems to be increasingly smaller than when I was in college. All the good guys are married by now and there has to be something seriously wrong with the ones left.

“Whatever you say. I got you, girl.”

We spend the rest of the day reminiscing about bad dates from our past, but before long, we start comparing each of them to Liam and how incredible he was. Letting it all out and talking about him freely feels good.

“He was one of the good ones. We all knew it,” Shannon replies as she grabs her jacket. Fall is finally here and even though it’s Texas, Austin can still get chilly at night.

“Yeah, that’s what makes moving on so hard. Thank you for tonight, though. I think you’ve brought me one step closer to making my first leap.”

“You’re weird. Go to bed.” She laughs as she leaves.

As I walk through my apartment, I pass four photos of Liam and me. Each are memories I hold dear to my heart, and as I head to my room, I say aloud, “Please, please give me a sign that you’re okay with me eventually moving on. I love you and always will. Night, babe.”

I might be crazy, but I can feel Liam watching over me. If I stop believing in that, I fear I’ll lose him for good. For now, it brings me peace to think about him watching over me and guiding me in the right direction.

As I slip into bed, I pray I don’t have any more nightmares. I concentrate on my breathing and on the soft material covering me. I’m safe when I’m awake, but my mind messes with me as soon as I close my eyes. They’ve been coming most nights over the past few months, and they are never the same. Occasionally, I’ll have a beautiful dream of the times Liam and I spent together but others are far darker. Not knowing what I’m closing my eyes to, though, is like Russian roulette.

I toss and turn, never finding a comfortable position. Finally, I settle on my side with my body pillow behind me. Having that warmth against my back reminds me of Liam and all our nights spent together. My breathing calms as I give in to sleep, and my last fleeting thought is that I hope I make it through the night without another nightmare.

 

Slipping his arms around my waist, Liam slides in behind me as I apply my eye shadow. His firm hands spread out over my stomach as he whispers into my ear, “One day, Tinsley, you’re going to be carrying my child. A child blessed with your button nose and tender heart, and my height and eyes. It’ll be from our love, and he or she will be surrounded by good grace and full hearts. One day.” He places soft kisses on my neck as I close my makeup and turn to face him.

“You sure are being sweet about it. You really want to start a family, don’t you?” I look into his eyes and fall in love all over again.

“More than anything in the world. As long as it’s with you.”

“How am I supposed to go to work now when all I can think about is making babies with you? You know I’m going to be completely unproductive today. I blame you,” I say with a smile.

We’ve always been safe. I’ve been on birth control since high school and condoms were part of our routine. We had never questioned it before, but now, thinking about him bare inside me? Fuck if it didn’t turn me on.

“You’re wet for me, aren’t you?” he asks, and I nod as I bite my lip. “Do you think your boss will mind if you’re a little late?” We both laugh, knowing I don’t have anyone to answer to since I am the boss. Liam takes my arm and leads me into the bedroom. I hop on the bed as he slides off his boxer briefs and is completely ready for me. The sight of him has me unzipping my jeans and tugging them off my legs before yanking my top off.

He comes closer to the bed where I’m sitting and his lips and hands are all over me. All I can think about is him as I wrap my legs around his back. I close my eyes, losing myself to his touch.

Liam’s body, all of a sudden, falls on top of me, his full weight bearing down and making it hard to breathe. I open my eyes and see his eyes starting to glaze over and blood is pouring out of the two bullet holes in his chest. I scream and roll him over onto the bed and immediately look around for a phone.

Scrambling, I can’t find a phone anywhere, and I hear Liam gasping for air and choking on his own blood. I’ve never felt so helpless. My hands are shaking, and I can’t think straight. What do I do?

BOOK: Catalyst
11.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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