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Authors: Rachel Hollis

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #Humorous, #Literary, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #General Humor, #Literary Fiction, #Humor, #Romance

Smart Girl (8 page)

BOOK: Smart Girl
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I nodded at his hand.

“Is there a first aid kit in here?”

If he found it odd at all that I mysteriously appeared in the room, he didn’t say it. He took one step and then another before his back hit the wall. He slowly slid down it to the floor.

“In the closet,” he said as his head fell back against the wall behind him.

I grabbed the first-aid kit and sat down beside him. I was infinitely grateful I had decided to wear a romper that night instead of a cocktail dress, or that position would have been a whole lot more scandalous. When I reached out to inspect his bleeding hand, he pulled it back quickly.

“You’ll ruin your outfit,” he mumbled.

He seemed totally drained, like all the energy in him had fallen to the floor along with the whiskey bottle. I’d only ever seen him full of life, and this side of him made me sad. I lifted his hand again, careful to keep it away from the electric-blue material of my outfit, and slowly cleaned him up. It was not one cut but several, and they were deep enough to scar. He watched my hands work on his, neither of us saying anything.

“Ex-girlfriend?” I asked just to fill the silence.

“No.” He shook his head sadly.

I wrapped the gauze end over end to create a bandage and tied it off carefully.

“Who, then?”

His eyes narrowed. “It’s none of your business.”

I grinned. “Tell me anyway.”

He looked at me for a full minute before responding. “It was my mother.”

I wadded up the used gauze in my lap and got up to deposit it in the trashcan.

“Oh, that’s not nearly as seedy as I was hoping for.”

“Will you grab me the other bottle while you’re up?” He gestured at the collection of decanters in the corner.

I rolled my eyes at the request. “I think you should probably have some water instead.” I started across the room to grab him a bottle of Evian, but his voice stopped me short.

“I said it was my mother, not my stepmother. Not Viv. My biological mother, Elizabeth. She’s struggling to adjust to a new medication they’ve started her on. The nurses in her assisted-living facility have already had to sedate her twice in the last month. She’s calmer if she can speak to me, so I keep answering even though she’s manic and only repeating the same story over and over. She doesn’t even realize we’ve talked twenty times today already.” He sighed heavily. “She doesn’t realize a lot of things.”

I must have stared at him for a full minute with my mouth hanging open. I was totally unprepared for that. I glanced at the bottles of liquor in the corner and headed in that direction.

“Did you say you wanted the bourbon or the gin?”

When I turned around holding one in each hand, he smiled sadly.

“Both?” he asked.

I nodded and sat down beside him, handing him the bourbon and taking a swig of the gin myself. It was fairly dark in his office with only the lamplight, and the moment felt safe, perfect for secret telling.

“Why is she calling only you?” I asked him.

He took a long pull.

“Because I’m the only one who takes her calls.”

“How is that possible?”

He looked away from me, telling his secrets to the dark office.

“My parents’ divorce was messy.” He swallowed. “She cheated on him
. . . more than once. Brody never forgave her. Dad either. We were teenagers then, and she was always off on one adventure after another. She was—is—flaky. They didn’t really have a reason to talk after the papers were signed.” He took another drink.

“As a little kid I thought it was magical how much energy she had or how excited she’d get about something. She’d flit from thing to thing like a butterfly, and I just thought it was her personality. She was always a little bit manic, but she didn’t really experience the deep depression until after they were apart. It was like each year after the divorce, she got progressively worse. At first it was little things: spending all her money on a new business she wanted to start and then deciding she hated it a month later. I realize now that Dad was her straight man, and without him there to keep her in check, she started to implode.

“I tried—I tried so hard to help her, but it was early in college, and I was too focused on my own life to pay much attention. A few years ago it got
. . . bad. I’ve had her in care ever since.” He looked at me suddenly. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility, not an asylum or anything. It’s like a five-star hotel . . . only with orderlies and psychiatric care.” He tried to smile then, but it didn’t get anywhere near his eyes. He took another drink.

“Why didn’t you tell Brody about this? She’s his mother too.”

For a single moment his eyes flooded with tears, and I could feel his pain like my own.

“She wasn’t always like this. She used to be so
. . .
special. And when she started to get really bad, she begged me not to tell anyone. Brody hasn’t spoken to her since the divorce, and neither has my dad. I don’t blame them for that, just like they don’t blame me for still choosing to have a relationship with her. She didn’t want them coming around out of pity.” He looked out over the dark room. “I didn’t tell anyone, because she asked me not to.”

The words broke my heart. I wanted to hug him so badly my fingers tingled with the need to do it. Instead I let my head fall on his shoulder, as if we were old friends instead of people having their first-ever conversation.

“So why tell me?” I asked.

My head rose and fell with his sigh.

“Because you’re not real.”

I chuckled softly.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you took care of me,” he said conversationally. “Nobody ever takes care of me, so you can’t be real. I’ve had too much to drink, and so I imagined a fairy with big brown eyes and wild hair so I had something beautiful to think about it.”

I almost choked on my words, trying my hardest not to break the spell of this moment by getting emotional. I tried to keep my tone light.

“You believe in fairies?”

His lips brushed the top of my head before he whispered into my hair.

“I do now.”

I fell in love with Liam Ashton at that exact moment.

Liam doesn’t say much when he drops me off in front of Tosh’s house, except to point out that my brother’s car is in the driveway and he is clearly at home. I just thank Liam for the ride and walk slowly up the steps to the front door.

I wanted to press him into talking more, but I worry that, given all the emotions I unleashed in him today, I won’t like the results of that particular conversation. I hadn’t meant to bring up that night, especially since we’ve never acknowledged that it happened at all. We sat on the floor for the longest time as he told me all about his mother. I guessed he’d never told the truth to anyone, and because he was locked in the unreality of the night and the moment, it felt safe to tell me. But as the time ticked by, he seemed to come back to himself, and just like in
Cinderella
, the magic was lost.

When I saw him at Max’s birthday party months later, he didn’t even acknowledge me, though I caught him staring again and again. When we finally spoke at a dodgeball game, he pretended like it was the first time we’d met. I kept staring at him that day, trying to figure out what his game was or if he’d been so drunk that he genuinely didn’t remember our conversation. But then we went to breakfast as a group, and he was all smiles, congenial and telling jokes. Nobody but me noticed how often he touched that scar on his hand.

Chapter
SIX

“Why are we doing this?” I demand as I clomp along beside Max.

She’s running down the street in workout gear, looking like a gazelle. Beside her, Landon looks like jogging Barbie. I feel like a disjointed mule. Running is not my love language.

“Because you said you wanted to get in shape,” Landon calls across Max to me.

“No,” I grunt, barely able to speak over my lungs threatening to implode in my chest. This is what Hazel from
The Fault in Our Stars
must have felt like. Where’s an oxygen tank when you need one? “I said I needed to work out to counteract all of the licorice I’ve been eating lately. I never said anything about getting in shape, and I certainly wouldn’t willingly ask to run.”

“It’s just three miles.” Max grins at me, masochist that she is. “And we’re almost back to the car.”

Only three miles.
I grumble it in my head since I just used up all of my air supply on that last diatribe. I hate running, but I also just want this ungodly exercise to end, so I refuse to stop and walk, because then it’s going to take even longer to get back to the car. When we finally make it back around, Max suggests we stretch out our legs. I take this as an excuse to crumple to the ground in a heap and then do some random stretches I remember from eighth-grade PE.

“I’m going to miss you guys next week,” Landon tells Max. “I had so much fun with y’all last year.”

“We’ll see you, like, two days later. It’s not like you’re going off to war.”

Landon smiles.

“Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve never brought a man home to meet my parents, so I’m not totally sure how Daddy is going to react.”

“I’m more interested in how Brody is going to react.” I wink at her. “I’ve met your family, and that’s a whole lot of Texas coming at a person at once. I can’t wait to hear how he reacts to them.”

“Speaking of parents, I’m super disappointed I won’t get to meet yours.” Landon smiles at me.

My parents are coming to visit for Thanksgiving, and my mom is making a big lunch for us at Tosh’s place before we head to the Ashtons’ for dessert. Viv was nearly apoplectic when she heard they were coming into town and wouldn’t be coming to her holiday feast. She insisted on us joining them in some capacity. We agreed to come over for dessert. No one in my family is very good at baking, and everyone has heard about Max’s culinary creations, so it was an easy sell.

“Well, it should be a hoot to watch. My parents are absolutely nothing like yours,” I tell Max.

“Thank God for that!” Max grins. “Who could handle that much micromanaging in one holiday?”

“Speaking of holiday managing”—I wink at Landon again—“does Brody know you’ll be sleeping in separate bedrooms at your parents’ house?”

“Of course he knows.” Landon laughs at the frown Max is shooting my way. “Just like you know that we don’t—”

“I thought we talked about my disinterest in this particular conversation,” Max gripes.

“Yes, let’s change the subject, please.” Landon adjusts her ponytail. “Let’s talk about Brody and my parents, because Miko’s right—there is a whole lot of southern coming at him at one time.”

“Oh, Brody has always done well with parents. The Barkers absolutely adored him.”

Max says it while folded over in a butterfly stretch, so she doesn’t see Landon’s face morph instantly into confusion. She must realize what she’s said, though, because she sits upright quickly.

“I’m sorry, Landon. I didn’t mean to bring her up so flippantly.”

I look back and forth between Max and Landon, having no idea what they’re talking about. Landon bites her lip.

“What are you talking about?” she asks.

Yikes! I guess I’m not the only one.

Gruff or grouchy or pissed or teasing—I have seen Max a lot of different ways. But at a loss for words? Never.

She gapes at Landon like a fish.

“It’s nothing,” she says finally, finding enough composure to attempt to sound casual.

Landon frowns. “If it’s nothing, then why not just tell me what you’re talking about? Who are the Barkers?”

“Barkers as in Barker-Ash?” I add.

Max glares at me.

“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.” I glare right back. “You’re only making her more nervous by being secretive about it.”

Max stands up and dusts off the seat of her pants. We stand up too.

“You should ask Brody about it,” Max tells her.

“I will.” Landon bites her lip again and nods. “It’s not that I haven’t known something happened in the past. I knew—I just didn’t know how to ask what it was. But it’s not your place to tell me. I get that. I’ll speak with him about it.”

Max walks the few short steps to the car while awkwardness comes off her in waves. Landon’s voice halts our progress.

“What’s her name?”

Max pauses in between one motion and the next and then sighs in defeat. She looks down at her shoes and shakes her head slowly, clearly battling with herself on who she should be loyal to. It’s too late now, though. She’s stirred things up, and any woman can understand wanting to know at least the name of the ex with whom the relationship ended so badly nobody wants to talk about it. Particularly when that relationship apparently went down with the daughter of his father’s business partner.

“Sloan,” Max says quietly. “Her name is Sloan.”

Brody and Landon are flying to Texas tomorrow, so we all agreed to meet for drinks on Tuesday night. I’ve asked her several times whether or not she’s talked to him about whoever this Sloan creature is, and she’s told me repeatedly that she doesn’t feel like discussing it. She says she’s come to the decision that his past doesn’t affect their current relationship, and she seems genuinely sincere in the statement.

“He’s had enough crazy ex-girlfriends hounding him about details of past relationships,” she tells me as we walk down the street to the bar. “I told him a long time ago that I couldn’t be upset about something that happened before I even met him, and I meant it. If he needs to talk to me about it, he will. Until then I’m not going to stir up a bad memory that isn’t currently affecting my life in any way.”

We slip inside the lounge out of the cold.

“Dude, you’re way more mature than I am,” I tell her as I pull off my jacket.

She fluffs her perfect golden hair a few times and then throws me a wink. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

I fuss with my own hair and try to think of something truly shocking.

“Um, I didn’t finish the third book in the All Souls trilogy.”

Landon actually gasps and looks at me like I’ve grown a second head. She grasps my hand like I might be sick or something. “But you love those books!”

“I love the first two. The truth is I think I love them too much. When the third one started to go off the rails, I couldn’t handle it, so I just stopped reading.”

Landon shakes her head slowly back and forth. “What would Deborah Harkness say?”

I return her look sincerely. “I hope I never have to find out.”

She laughs so loudly that people turn in our direction to stare. I spot our group in the back corner.

“Come on.” I nudge her ahead of me. “Let’s get some wine. This conversation about Matthew and Diana has upset me.”

I follow her through the crowd to a long communal bar table where the usual suspects have gathered. Brody envelops her in a hug and then gives me a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. I slide onto a barstool across from Taylor and Max and notice Malin talking up some random at the bar. I get her attention with a wave and pantomime glugging a bottle of something. She smiles and gives me a thumbs-up.

“Did you just use my little sister as your waitress?” Max asks.

“She’s young and sprightly,” I answer. “It’s good for her. Besides, I’m too tired to move. I spent all day yesterday on my feet watching a bunch of drunk actuaries dancing to a Neil Diamond cover band.”

“Whose name is . . . ?” Taylor asks.

“Love on the Rocks,” I tell them all with a grimace.

“How did that event turn out?” Taylor asks at the same time Malin slides a glass of red wine in front of me.

“What’s an actuary?” she asks before sipping her own drink.

“An accountant without a sense of humor,” Landon groans.

I give the group a deadpan look. “We heard that joke about a thousand times yesterday.”

“But the event was awesome, Tay. Thanks for asking,” Landon chimes in. “How’s that big order coming along?”

I listen to Taylor describe the desks he’s working on with fascination. I love anything creative, and his furniture design is incredible. It’s so neat to hear about the process. How he finds the reclaimed wood or how each different kind requires a different sort of finesse to restore.

I don’t know what makes me turn suddenly, except that maybe my nerve endings sense Liam before the rest of me does. He’s working his way across the room, looking incredible in jeans and a sweater. His winter scarf is slightly askew, which only adds to the hotness of the fact that he’s wearing a scarf in the first place. I imagine burying my face in that scarf or burrowing under it to get closer to his skin.

I’m staring at it so intently that when a well-manicured hand reaches out to touch the plaid material, my response is visceral. French-tipped fingernails tug playfully on the end of the scarf. I follow the line up her arm until I can try to take in what I’m seeing. She’s tall and thin with chestnut-brown hair that falls halfway down her back. Her skirt is too short and her makeup is a little strong, but beyond that she’s utterly gorgeous. She’s the exact kind of woman he always brings to something like this. This isn’t anything new; I’ve seen it fifty times at least. I have no idea why this time it feels like a betrayal. Now that we’ve finally acknowledged we’re at least more than acquaintances, I guess I thought that somehow might change the way he acts around me. Whatever I expected, I certainly never thought he’d be parading another woman in front of me a week later.

I look up into his determined, cold, steely blue gaze. His steps falter, and for a moment I swear he winces at whatever is on my face. He bites down hard on his molars and keeps moving towards our table. By the time he makes it to us, he has the woman by the arm. It’s not at all a sweet caress; it’s more like he’s showing her off.

“Hey, everyone, this is Cara,” he says by way of greeting.

Everyone at the table says hello. They’ve all met some variation of this woman plenty of times before. Liam arriving with a new woman on his arm has played out more times than I can count. They won’t try to establish any kind of real relationship with her. That would be futile, since they’re never going to see her again, but they also won’t be rude. They engage her in conversation as she takes her seat and Liam walks off to the bar to order their drinks.

I’ve finished my wine by the time he comes back.

I can get through this. I can totally get through this. I’ve been honest with myself about how strong my feelings are towards him for a long time. In the last year I’ve seen him with countless women. This is just the first time I’ve seen him on a date since he found out how I feel. But that he would parade someone in front of me, even in some lame attempt to teach me a lesson, doesn’t just hurt—it crushes me.

If he looks my way, I don’t know it, because I’m too busy pretending to be engrossed in my phone. The pictures in my Instagram feed blur as I scroll through them. Oh man, I cannot cry right now! The second I acknowledge my tears, they get worse. I want to get up and walk away, but there’s no chance I can do it without every single person at this table knowing that I’m upset. If they know I’m upset, there’s no way they won’t assume something is up, since I was fine until he walked in.

Gods, what is it about not wanting to cry that makes you feel like you have to that much more? A text from Landon pops up on my phone:
I’ll create a diversion.

I can’t even look up to let her know how grateful I am, because her kindness is pushing me over the edge. A tear drops onto the screen of my phone, and I’m grateful for the hair framing my face protectively.

A glass crashes to the floor, and Landon yells dramatically, “Oh Lord, now I’ve ruined this dress!”

All around the table, people slide their stools back to avoid the liquid that’s dripping everywhere, but I don’t look up to see it. I grab my bag and jacket and mumble something about making a call, not knowing or caring if anyone even hears me. I just have to get outside before I lose it.

I hurry down the street, feeling cold everywhere except for my cheeks, hot with tears. I turn one corner and then another, dodging groups of happy people on their way to their next destination. I pass a hipster coffee shop and a hipster gastropub and a hipster barber. This part of Silver Lake all looks the same, and I’m not really heading anywhere specific; I just want to get away. Maybe if I walk long enough, it’ll turn into the really shady part of Sunset, and I’ll be put out of my misery by a random ax murderer or a street thug high on methamphetamines.

Even the thought of possibly getting murdered doesn’t stanch the tears.

I can’t believe I’m the crying woman walking the streets alone. I’ve read this scene a thousand times in books. I’ve even purposely looked for stories full of exactly this kind of angst, because I love the emotion behind it so much. But I had no idea how it would feel in real life.

BOOK: Smart Girl
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