It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (4 page)

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Gap? What do you mean?” I try to look busy by pulling a vase toward me and moving some of the flowers around. Allysa takes the vase from me.

“He brought you lunch. Why did he bring you lunch if the two of you aren’t actively talking? And if you’re actively talking, why didn’t you tell
me
about it?”

I pull the vase back from her. “We ran into each other yesterday. It was nothing. I haven’t even spoken to him since before Emmy was born.”

Allysa grabs the vase again. “I run into old friends every day. They don’t bring me lunch.” She slides the vase back to me. We’re using it like a conch shell, as if we need it for permission to speak.

“Your friends probably aren’t chefs. That’s what chefs do: They cook people lunch.” I slide the vase back to her, but she says nothing. She’s concentrating so hard, it’s like she’s attempting to read my mind to get past all the lies she thinks I’m spewing. I pull the vase back from her. “It’s honestly nothing.
Yet.
You’ll be the first to know if anything changes.”

She looks momentarily satisfied by that response, but there’s a flicker of something in her face before she looks away. I can’t tell if it’s concern or sadness. I don’t ask her, because I know this is hard for her. I imagine the idea of
any
man bringing me lunch who isn’t Ryle probably makes her a little sad.

In Allysa’s idea of a perfect world, she would have a brother who never hurt me, and I would still be her sister-in-law.

Chapter Seven
Atlas

“When you’re working with flounder, always hold your knife like this.” I demonstrate how to start with the dull end at the tail, but Theo looks away as soon as I begin to scale the fish.

“Gross,” he mutters, covering his mouth. “I can’t.” Theo moves to the other side of the counter, putting space between himself and the cooking lesson.

“I’m only scaling it. I haven’t even cut it open yet.”

Theo makes a gagging sound. “I have no interest in working with food. I’ll stick to being your therapist.” Theo pushes himself onto the counter. “Speaking of, did you ever text Lily?”

“I did.”

“She text you back?”

“Sort of. It was a short text, so I decided to take her lunch today to see where her head is at.”

“That was a bold move.”

“I’ve spent my life not making bold moves when it comes to her. I wanted to make sure she knew where I stood this time.”

“Oh no,” Theo says. “What cheesy thing did you say to her about fish and beaches and shores?”

I never should have told him what I said to Lily about
finally reaching the shore. I’m not going to hear the end of it. “Shut up. You’ve probably never even spoken to a girl; you’re twelve.”

Theo laughs, but then I notice an awkwardness settle over him when he thinks I’m not looking. He grows quiet, despite the ruckus going on around us. There are at least five other people in the kitchen right now, but everyone is so focused on their work, no one is paying attention to the conversation I’m having with Theo.

“You like someone?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “Kinda.”

The discussions I have with Theo are usually one-sided. As much as he likes to ask questions, he doesn’t answer very many, so I tread carefully. “Oh yeah?” I try to act casual with my response so he’ll expand. “Who is she?”

Theo is looking down at his hands. He’s picking at his thumbnail, but I can see his shoulders sink a little after my question, like I did something wrong.

Or
said
something wrong.

“Or
he
,” I clarify. I whisper it to be sure he’s the only one who hears it.

Theo’s eyes dart up to mine.

He doesn’t have to confirm or deny anything. I can see the truth written in the fear that’s resting behind his eyes. I give my attention back to the fish I’m preparing, and as nonchalantly as possible, I say, “Do you go to school with him?”

Theo doesn’t immediately answer. I’m not sure if I’m the first person he’s admitted this part of himself to, so I want to make sure to treat that with the care it deserves. I want him
to know he has an ally in me, but I also hope he’s aware he has an ally in his father, too.

Theo looks around to make sure no one is hovering long enough to follow along with our conversation. “He’s been in math club with me all year.” His words are quick and concise, like he wants to release them and never say them again.

“Does your dad know?”

Theo shakes his head. I watch as he swallows what look like nervous thoughts.

I put down my knife when I’m done scaling the fish and move to the sink closest to Theo to wash my hands. “I’ve known your dad for a long time. He’s one of my best friends for a reason. I don’t surround myself with people who aren’t good.” I can see the reassurance settle in him when I say that, but I can also tell he’s uncomfortable and probably wants to change the subject. “I would say you should text this person you like, but you’re probably the only twelve-year-old left on earth without a cell phone. You’ll never date anyone at this rate. You’ll probably be single and phoneless forever.”

Theo is relieved I’m ribbing him. “I’m so glad you decided to be a chef and not a therapist. You suck at advice.”

“I take offense to that. I give good advice.”

“Okay, Atlas. Whatever you say.” He seems to loosen up. He follows me as I head back to my station. “Did you ask Lily out on a date when you went to her work?”

“No. I will tonight. I’m calling her when I get home.” I walk by Theo and ruffle his hair on my way to the freezer.

“Hey, Atlas?”

I pause. His eyes are filled with concern, but one of the waiters pushes through the doors and walks between us,
preventing Theo from saying whatever it was he was about to say. He doesn’t have to say it, though.

“Not saying a word, Theo. Client confidentiality goes both ways.”

That seems to reassure him. “Good, because if you said something to my dad, I would tell him how cheesy you are with your pickup lines.” Theo mockingly presses his palms to his cheeks. “We finally reached the beach, my little whale.”

I glare at him. “That’s not at all how it went.”

Theo points across the kitchen. “Look! It’s sand—we’ve reached land!”

“Stop.”

“Lily, what the heck, our boat is wrecked!”

He’s still following me around the kitchen making fun of me when his dad’s shift ends. I’ve never been happier to see him leave.

Chapter Eight
Lily

It’s almost 9:30 at night, and I have no missed calls. Emerson has been asleep for an hour and a half, and she’s usually awake by six in the morning. I go to bed around ten because if I don’t get at least eight hours of sleep, I function at the capacity of a zombie. But if Atlas doesn’t call before ten, I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep at all. I’ll wonder if I should have apologized seventy more times for hiding him in a closet today.

I walk to the bathroom sink to start my nightly skin-care routine, and I take my phone with me. I’ve carried it with me every step since he showed up at lunchtime today and told me he’d call me tonight. I should have clarified what
tonight
meant.

To Atlas,
tonight
could mean eleven.

To me, it could mean eight.

We probably have two completely different definitions for what morning and night even mean. He’s a successful chef who gets home to unwind after midnight, and I’m in my pajamas by seven in the evening.

My phone makes a noise, but it isn’t a ringtone. It’s making a noise like someone is trying to FaceTime me.

Please don’t be Atlas.

I am not prepared for a video chat; I just put face scrub on. I look at the phone and sure enough, it’s him.

I answer it and quickly flip the phone around so that he can’t see me. I leave it on my sink while I speed up the cleansing process. “You asked if you could
call
me. This is a video chat.”

I hear him laugh. “I can’t see you.”

“Yeah, because I’m washing my face and getting ready for bed. You don’t need to see me.”

“Yes, I do, Lily.”

His voice makes my skin feel tingly. I flip the camera around and hold it up with an
I told you so
expression. My wet hair is still wrapped in a towel, I’m wearing a nightgown my grandmother probably used to own, and my face is still covered in green foam.

His smile is fluid and sexy. He’s sitting up in bed, wearing a white T-shirt, leaning against a black wooden headboard. The one time I went to his house, I never went into his bedroom. His wall is blue, like denim.

“This was definitely worth the decision to video-chat,” he says.

I set the phone back down, facing me this time, and finish rinsing. “Thanks for lunch today.” I don’t want to give him too much praise, but it was the best pasta I’ve ever had. And it was two hours old before I even had a chance to take a lunch break and eat it.

“You liked the
why are you avoiding me
pasta?”

“You know it was great.” I walk to my bed once I’m finished in the bathroom. I prop my phone on a pillow and lie on my side. “How was your day?”

“It was good,” he says, but he’s not very convincing with the way his voice drops on the word
good
.

I make a face to let him know I don’t believe him.

He looks away from the screen for a second, like he’s processing a thought. “It’s just one of those weeks, Lily. It’s better now, though.” His mouth curls into a slight grin, and it makes me smile, too.

I don’t even have to make small talk. I’d be happy just staring at him in complete silence for an hour.

“What’s your new restaurant called?” I already know it’s his last name, but I don’t want him to know I googled him.

“Corrigan’s.”

“Is it the same kind of food as Bib’s?”

“Sort of. It’s fine dining, but with an Italian-inspired menu.” He rolls onto his side, propping his phone on something so that he’s mirroring my position. It feels like old times when we’d stay up late chatting on my bed. “I don’t want to talk about me. How are you? How’s the floral business? What’s your daughter like?”

“That’s a lot of questions.”

“I have a lot more, but let’s start with those.”

“Okay. Well. I’m good. Exhausted most of the time, but I guess that’s what I get for being a business owner and a single mother.”

“You don’t look exhausted.”

I laugh. “Good lighting.”

“When does Emerson turn one?”

“On the eleventh. I’m going to cry; this first year went so fast.”

“I can’t get over how much she looks like you.”

“You think so?”

He nods, and then says, “But the flower shop is good? You’re happy there?”

I move my head from side to side and make a face. “It’s okay.”

“Why just okay?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m tired of it. Or tired in general. It’s a lot, and it’s tedious work for not very much financial return. I mean, I’m proud that it’s been successful and that I did it, but sometimes I daydream about working in a factory assembly line.”

“I can relate,” he says. “The idea of being able to go home and not think about your job is tempting.”

“Do you ever get bored of being a chef?”

“Every now and then. It’s why I opened Corrigan’s, honestly. I decided to take more of an ownership role and less of a chef role. I still cook several nights a week, but a lot of my time goes to keeping them both running on the business side.”

“Do you work crazy hours?”

“I do. But nothing I can’t work a date night around.”

That makes me smile. I fidget with my comforter, avoiding eye contact because I know I’m blushing. “Are you asking me out?”

“I am. Are you saying yes?”

“I can free up a night.”

We’re both smiling now. But then Atlas clears his throat, like he’s preparing for a caveat. “Can I ask you a difficult question?”

“Okay.” I try to hide my nerves over what he’s about to ask.

“Earlier today you mentioned your life was complicated. If this…
us
… becomes something, is it really going to be an issue for Ryle?”

I don’t even hesitate. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“He doesn’t like you.”

“Me specifically or any guy you might potentially date?”

I scrunch up my nose. “You. Specifically you.”

“Because of the fight at my restaurant?”

“Because of a lot of things,” I admit. I roll onto my back and move my phone with me. “He blames most of our fights on you.” Atlas is clearly confused, so I elaborate without making things too uncomfortable. “Remember when we were teenagers and I used to write in my journal?”

“I do. Even though you never let me read anything.”

“Well, Ryle found the journals. And he read them. And he didn’t like what he read.”

Atlas sighs. “Lily, we were kids.”

“Jealousy doesn’t have an expiration date, apparently.”

Atlas presses his lips into a thin line for a moment, like he’s attempting to push down his frustration. “I really hate that you’re stressing over his potential reaction to things that haven’t even happened yet. But I get it. It’s the unfortunate position you’re in.” He looks at me reassuringly. “We’ll take it one step at a time, okay?”

“One very
slow
step at a time,” I suggest.

“Deal. Slow steps.” Atlas adjusts the pillow beneath his head. “I used to see you writing in those journals. I always wondered what you wrote about me.
If
you wrote about me.”

“Almost everything was about you.”

“Do you still have them?”

“Yeah, they’re in a box in my closet.”

Atlas sits up. “Read me something.”

“No.
God
, no.”

“Lily.”

He looks so hopeful and excited at the possibility, but I can’t read my teenage thoughts out loud to him over FaceTime. I’m growing red just thinking about it.

“Please?”

I cover my face with a hand. “No, don’t beg.” I’ll give in to those blue puppy-dog eyes if he doesn’t stop looking at me like he is.

He can see he’s wearing me down. “Lily, I have ached since I was a teenager to know what you thought of me. One paragraph. Just give me that much.”

How can I say no to that?
I groan and toss the phone on the bed in defeat. “Give me two minutes.” I walk to my closet and pull down the box. I carry it over to my bed and begin flipping through the journals to find something that won’t embarrass me too much. “What do you want me to read? My retelling of our first kiss?”

“No, we’re going slow, remember?” He says that teasingly. “Start with something from the beginning.”

That’s much easier.
I grab the first journal and flip through it until I find something that looks short and not too humiliating. “Do you remember the night I came to you crying because my parents were fighting?”

“I remember,” he says. He settles into his pillow and puts one arm behind his head.

I roll my eyes. “Get comfy while I mortify myself,” I mutter.

“It’s me, Lily. It’s
us
. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

His voice still has that same calming effect it’s always had. I sit cross-legged and hold the phone with one hand and my journal in the other, and I begin to read.

A few seconds later the back door opened and he looked behind me, then to the left and right of me. It wasn’t until he looked at my face that he saw I was crying.

“You okay?” he asked, stepping outside. I used my shirt to wipe away my tears, and noticed he came outside instead of inviting me in. I sat down on the porch step and he sat down next to me.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just mad. Sometimes I cry when I get mad.”

He reached over and tucked my hair behind my ear. I liked it when he did that and I suddenly wasn’t nearly as mad anymore. Then he put his arm around me and pulled me to him so that my head was resting on his shoulder. I don’t know how he calmed me down without even talking, but he did. Some people just have a calming presence about them and he’s one of those people. Completely opposite of my father.

We sat like that for a while, until I saw my bedroom light turn on.

“You should go,” he whispered. We could both see my mom standing in my bedroom looking for me. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized what a perfect view he has of my bedroom.

As I walked back home, I tried to think about the entire
time Atlas has been in that house. I tried to recall if I’d walked around after dark with the light on at night, because all I normally wear in my room at night is a T-shirt.

Here’s what’s crazy about that, Ellen: I was kind of hoping I had.

—Lily

Atlas isn’t smiling when I finish reading. He’s staring at me with a lot of feeling, and the heaviness in his eyes is making my chest tight.

“We were so young,” he says. His voice carries a little bit of ache in it.

“I know. Too young to deal with the stuff we dealt with. Especially you.”

Atlas isn’t looking at his phone anymore, but he’s moving his head in agreement. The mood has shifted, and I can tell he’s thinking about something else entirely. It brings me back to what he tried to brush off earlier when he said it’s been
one of those weeks
.

“What’s bothering you?”

His eyes return to his phone. He seems like he might brush it off again, but then he just sighs and readjusts himself so that he’s sitting higher up against his headboard. “Someone vandalized the restaurants.”

“Both of them?”

He nods. “Yeah, it started a few days ago.”

“You think it’s someone you know?”

“It’s not anyone I recognize, but the security footage wasn’t very clear. I haven’t reported it to the police yet.”

“Why haven’t you?”

His eyebrows furrow. “Whoever it is seems younger—maybe in their teens. I guess I’m worried they might be in a similar situation to the one I was in back then. Destitute.” The tension in his eyes eases a bit. “And what if they don’t have a Lily to save them?”

It takes a few seconds for what he says to register. When it does, I don’t smile. I swallow the lump in my throat, hoping he can’t see my internal reaction to that. It’s not the first time he’s mentioned I saved him back then, but every time he says it, I want to argue with him. I didn’t save him. All I did was fall in love with him.

I can see
why
I fell in love with him. What owner is more concerned about the situation of the person vandalizing their business than they are with the actual damage being done? “Considerate Atlas,” I whisper.

“What was that?” he says.

I didn’t mean to say that out loud. I slide a hand over the heat moving across my neck. “Nothing.”

Atlas clears his throat, leaning forward. A subtle smile materializes. “Back to your journal,” he says. “I wondered if you knew I could see into your bedroom window back then, because after that night, you left that light on a hell of a lot.”

I laugh, glad he’s lightening the mood. “You didn’t have a television. I wanted to give you something to watch.”

He groans. “Lily, you
have
to let me read the rest.”

“No.”

“You locked me in a closet today. Letting me read your journals would be a good way to apologize for that.”

“I thought you weren’t offended.”

“Maybe it’s a delayed offense.” He begins to nod slowly. “Yeah… starting to feel it now. I’m
really
offended.”

I’m laughing when Emmy begins to work up a cry across the hall. I sigh because I don’t want to hang up, but I’m also not the mom who can let her child cry it out. “Emmy’s waking up. I have to go. But you owe me a date.”

“Name the time,” he says.

“I’m off on Sundays, so a Saturday night might be good.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” he says. “But we’re going slow.”

“I mean… that’s pretty slow if we’re counting from the first day we met. That puts a lot of years between meeting you and going on a first date with you.”

“Six o’clock?”

I smile. “Six is perfect.”

As soon as I say that, Atlas squeezes his eyes shut for two seconds. “Wait. I can’t tomorrow.
Shit.
We’re hosting an event; they need me at the restaurant. Sunday?”

“I have Emmy Sunday. I’d rather wait before bringing her around you.”

“I get that,” Atlas says. “Next Saturday?”

“That’ll give me time to line up someone to watch her.”

Atlas grins. “It’s a date, then.” He stands up and begins walking through his bedroom. “You’re off on Sundays, right? Can I call you this Sunday?”

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Treasures from Grandma's Attic by Arleta Richardson
The Stand-In by Evelyn Piper
Talon's Heart by Jordan Silver
The Naughty List by Jodi Redford
One Night with an Earl by Jennifer Haymore
Willing Victim by Cara McKenna