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I thought cutting Finn out of my life would fix everything. But instead, it left a gaping hole in my heart and nearly destroyed me. I can’t fight it anymore. I love Finn with too much passion to hide it. But with new threats around every corner, I’ll have to fight with everything I have to keep my new life and the man I love beyond reason.
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Breathe (Book Two)
Copyright © 2018 Lila Kane
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
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Sneak Peek: BREAK
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I thought cutting Finn out of my life would fix everything. But instead, it left a gaping hole in my heart and nearly destroyed me.
I can’t fight it anymore. I love Finn with too much passion to hide it.
But with new threats around every corner, I’ll have to fight with everything I have to keep my new life and the man I love beyond reason.
It was the longest week I’d ever had.
Even longer than the week I’d decided to leave Mark for good. That week had been full of planning and hiding and secrets and fear. I’d almost felt like I didn’t have enough time.
But this…this was a whole new kind of torture.
The kind that dug deep into my heart, my gut, and threatened to rip me apart.
I missed Finn.
Getting ready on Thursday morning in my apartment, I went through the ritual of dressing and putting on makeup and brushing my teeth. But it was just a routine. A way to zone out while my mind fought battles with itself.
I’d broken up with Finn last week. I’d given in to what Mark wanted. And since then, I hadn’t done anything but worry about my next step.
But what was I supposed to do?
Following my heart meant putting Finn in danger. Standing up to Mark meant putting myself and others in danger. But playing along meant staying safe. For now.
With a sigh, I dumped the rest of my coffee into the sink and grabbed the pad of sticky notes on the edge of the counter.
I jotted down Tables and Auction Slips and then tapped the pen against my lips. The Oasis Gala was this Saturday. I had my dress, I had all the details in order. The only thing I didn’t have was Finn.
We’d have to see each other at the gala. There was no way out of it. We had to present a united front. We were showcasing Oasis to the world.
Rubbing my hand over my cheek, I sighed. A speech. One—or both—of us was going to have to get up there and welcome everyone. Say a few words about the place and how it came about. Our vision for it moving forward.
How had we overlooked this? I had the itinerary, I’d talked with everyone else, I’d prepared. With another sigh, I wrote Finn’s name on the sticky note as well and ripped the small square of paper off the pad.
Of course. I hadn’t been talking to him this whole week. And last week I’d been distracted.
Shit. It was my fault I wasn’t on my game, and my fault Finn was stuck in the middle.
Checking the time on my phone, I frowned. If I didn’t leave now, I was going to be late. If nothing else, I had my job. I had the main thing I’d come here for. I couldn’t lose that.
And if Mark tried to make me give it up…
No, I couldn’t let that happen. I wouldn’t let that happen.
I snagged my purse off the counter and the sticky note vanished.
Grumbling, I turned around, looking on the floor. No note. I looked at the cabinets and even checked my skirt in case it had stuck to that. No luck.
With another heavy sigh, I rewrote the note and walked to the door.
When I opened it and saw Dustin, I yanked in a sharp breath.
“Sorry,” he said kindly. “I was about to knock.” He checked his watch. “Just making sure everything is okay.”
“I’m—I’m running a little late.” I closed the door firmly behind me and listened for the automatic lock. “You really don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do,” Dustin said with a smile that was just as kind as his voice. “It’s my job. Powell posted me here, so please, Ms. Evans, let me do my job.”
I gave a small laugh. I was well aware of how intimidating Curtis Powell could be. He was head of security but he had far more experience than simply working at Oasis. Finn hadn’t disclosed all of it, but Curtis knew what he was doing.
I trusted him.
Then why aren’t you telling him the truth? I asked myself. Because I was afraid. I was afraid of the cameras. I was afraid John, the security guy, would see. I was afraid he’d tell Mark. I knew they were working together—just as I knew I had to make a move soon—and it scared the hell out of me.
“Ms. Evans?” Dustin said, gesturing down the hallway.
“Of course. Sorry.”
Inside the elevator, I heard my phone ring from my purse pocket and pulled it out. The phone calls for the gala had been nonstop this past week. It was a welcome distraction.
I barely even glanced at the screen before answering. “Charlotte Evans.”
“Good morning,” he said in his deep, smooth voice.
My heart jolted. Mark. Words clogged in the back of my throat.
“I see you still have an escort,” he said.
I glanced at Dustin. He was minding his own business, hands tucked behind his back and eyes on the display over the elevator doors.
“It makes the most sense,” I said tightly.
“Feisty.” There was a smile in Mark’s voice. “Just an observation. Soon you won’t need them. It’ll just be me and you.”
Bile rose in my throat. I blurted the first thing that came to mind as the elevator dinged. “I’m on my way to work. Can we talk later?”
I regretted the words instantly, but what else was I supposed to say? I didn’t want Dustin to get suspicious. I didn’t want anyone to get suspicious. I had to make Mark believe I was doing what he wanted. I had to play along or else I might not have another chance to make it through this.
“Absolutely,” Mark said. “I’ll be in touch.”
I ended the call, casting Dustin a smile at the same time. “Last minute Gala details.”
“Sounds like it’s going to be quite the party.”
We left Housing and walked into the Commons. It was bright inside, with people strolling or rushing on various paths to get to work or to get home, or to get coffee from one of the many kiosks Finn was smart enough to add. The air smelled like sunshine and water and it almost felt like I was taking a stroll through the park instead of walking inside a gigantic dome of a building to get to work.
But that was the point. It wasn’t supposed to feel enclosed. It was supposed to feel spacious and comfortable. Oasis was supposed to provide all the amenities and comforts of the real world, but with a lot more ease. So that people had time to enjoy the little things. To be able to free up time to have a real life instead of living for work and priorities.
So far, it didn’t seem to be working for me. Work was the only thing that had managed to keep Mark off my mind, although what I really wanted was time with Finn. A chance to explain. A chance to say sorry.
We reached the Business Community and Dustin held the door for me. “Powell would like for me to escort you to the gala and stick close throughout.”
I glanced up at him, a mix of emotions rushing through me. I was supposed to go to the gala with Finn. But it was better this way.
“So, I guess you’ll kind of be my date, then?”
He nodded at the security guard as we passed. “If you don’t mind me saying, it seems like a pretty good deal.”
I smiled. “I don’t mind you saying. I’ve got it from here.”
He waited with me by the elevator until the doors opened. “I’ll be close by.”
Inside, I let out a breath and closed my eyes, mentally preparing to see Finn. I had too much to do today to avoid him. We needed to make sure we were on the same page with the gala. I straightened when the elevator dinged, and the doors opened to release me into the lobby of our office.
Leslie smiled at me from her desk, turning her mouth away from the phone to say, “I like that skirt.”
I returned her smile. “It’s new. It makes me feel like my third-grade teacher.”
“Your third-grade teacher must’ve been hot,” she said and then continued her conversation smoothly while I laughed.
My gaze flicked to Finn’s office. I could only see the empty table in front of the window and a few chairs. But not Finn.
He was probably at his desk. Hopefully at his desk, so I’d have time to grab a muffin and get to mine.
I ducked into the break room and then nearly tripped when I saw Finn at the counter picking through a basket of fruit. He stepped forward with a smooth fluidity that I might have appreciated if he hadn’t been cupping my elbow to keep me from falling. His fingers were warm on my skin, sending tingles all the up my arm.
Oh, God, I missed his touch.
Exhaling, part in surprise, and part in longing, I stepped back. “Sorry.”
He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You okay?”
“Of course. I—” My words jumbled in my throat when he took a step closer to me again. “Finn.”
He bent and snatched something off my purse. He held up the sticky note that I had lost this morning, eyebrows lifting.
With a nervous laugh, I said, “My to-do list.”
His gaze swept the paper. “Tables. Auction forms…Finn?”
“No, that’s not—” I snatched the sticky note from him, wading it up even as heat wormed its way into my cheeks. I shoved the waded paper in my purse and then held it close to my body like it might somehow inspire me to stay calm. “I mean, yes. I put your name on the list because I need to talk to you.”
He tossed an apple from one hand to the other, his strong fingers dwarfing the fruit. It was only last week that those hands had been all over me. Seeking, taking, driving me crazy. And I missed them. But it wasn’t just his hands or his body, which was covered in a three-piece suit that nearly had my mouth watering. It was the security of him being there. The knowing that he was there for me. Only me.
It was the sweetness of realizing how much he loved me. And toward the end, I realized I loved him, too. Because of that, I’d had to let it all go.
But part of me wondered if I’d ruined it between us forever. Finn’s eyes were shadowed and he looked tired. But he didn’t look vulnerable. His jaw was tight, shoulders tense. Nothing in his stance or his face was welcoming. Open.
If I lost Finn forever, this time it was my fault. It might keep him safe, but it might break us both in the meantime.
“I have a few minutes,” Finn said, still tossing the apple. “I’m assuming this is about the gala.”
I nodded. “I have the speakers lined up but I wanted to see if you were going to say something.”
“I have a few words prepared,” he said. “I’ll introduce the place. You.” His eyes softened just a little. “Say a little something about the inspiration for Oasis. And then encourage people to make donations, of course.”
Swallowing and taking my eyes from his, I nodded again. “Sounds like you’ve got it covered.”
I inched toward the door. “I’ll have you sitting at the table closest to the stage. I noticed Jake was on the list—I’ll make sure he has a place next to you.”
“You’ll be there, of course,” Finn said, bringing my gaze back up. “At the same table?”
I smiled. “Right.”
“I imagine you don’t want me to come pick you up.”
His words made my heart squeeze. There was hurt behind them that radiated all the way to my soul. “Finn…it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
I wanted him to take me but he couldn’t. It was a bad idea. And I wanted to tell him that. Then my gaze jerked to the corner of the room, the small camera tucked up at the ceiling.
“I should really get back to work,” I said.
Finn followed my eyes. His jaw flexed. “I understand.”
He looked like he wanted to say something else but before he could, I turned and hurried to my office. I passed Tucker with a quick wave but didn’t stop. Inside my office, I looked up to the corners of the room, searching for the cameras. There didn’t appear to be any. But that didn’t mean there weren’t.
Was there anyone else besides John who knew the locations of every camera? If there was some sort of list, I’d know the safe zones. I would know where I could talk to Curtis and maybe get this resolved. And then maybe I could talk to Finn, too. Explain to him the situation.
“Charlotte?” Tucker said from the doorway.
I jumped, whipping around with my heart racing.
“Whoa,” he said, holding one hand up. “I’m sorry. I thought you heard me.”
Rubbing my hand over my eyes, I seated myself at my desk. “I’m sorry, Tucker. It’s…It’s been a long week.”
He smiled, nodding his head in understanding. “I know. I already have ten messages for you just from this morning.” He set the papers on my desk and then pointed to the one on the top. A folded piece of paper. “And Mr. Moore asked me to give this one to you.”
I angled my head. “Just now?”
He nodded. “When you came out of the break room. He scribbled a note at Leslie’s desk and gave it to me.”
“Thank you, Tucker.”
He left the office and I reached for the paper. Easing it open just enough to see Finn’s strong, masculine handwriting, I read his message.
No cameras in my office. Will talk when you’re ready.
I slapped a hand over the paper, afraid for a moment someone might see it. One of those cameras I was worried about.
Did it really make sense to get Finn involved in this again? Before I’d made some sort of plan? If I talked with him, if there was a chance at a relationship with him again, it was just a matter of time before someone found out.
No, before John found out. He’d see us on one of the cameras. Or Finn would convince me to do something that would give us away.
And then Mark would know.
I slid Finn’s note off my desk and into the trash. No, I couldn’t talk to him. Not yet.
I’d get through the gala first and then I’d make my plan. I’d have to tell Curtis.
And I’d have to be discreet about it.
I’d already been on my feet for hours, arriving early to help set up and make sure everything was just as it should be for the gala. To my surprise, Finn arrived early as well, wearing an onyx tuxedo and stealing my breath. He was the epitome of success and sophistication, and he looked hot.
Although it was a masquerade ball, I got the pleasure of seeing him before people started to arrive and the masks went on. Mine was bloodred, the same shade as my dress. It glittered in the dim lighting of the room, the sequins sparkling and feathers ticking my cheeks every time I turned.
As guests were mingling and finding their seats, I located Paige at the table nearest to mine. I’d made sure she was sitting next to Tucker and Leslie for company. Her dress had hints of aqua that matched her mask and made me think of a mermaid.
“This is lovely,” she said when she spotted me. “Wow, Charlotte…that dress is criminal.”
I grinned at her, taking the seat next to hers to get off my feet for a few minutes. “You were with me when I bought it.”
“And I remember now why Leslie and I insisted you buy it.”
“Even though it cost a fortune.”
She lowered her mask and smiled at me. “Trust me, it was worth every penny. Too bad—”
She broke off and glanced away. But I already knew what she was going to say. It was too bad Finn couldn’t enjoy it. Too bad that we weren’t here together. “No, you’re right. It’s too bad.”
Paige shrugged. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”
Beneath the cover of voices and music and glasses clinking, I felt safe being honest with her. “It is your business because you’re my friend. I miss him.” I clutched my hand to my chest because it hurt so bad. “I miss him a lot.”
“Do you think you…made a mistake?”
Blinking back the sudden moisture in my eyes, I said, “I did what I had to do.”
A look of concern crossed her face. She reached out and touched my hand. “Charlotte. You didn’t break up with Finn because of…” She mouthed the name, Mark.
Stomach churning, I let my gaze roam the tables, the dancefloor, the auction booth to the side of the Commons. All of it was decorated with sparkling lights and candles and hanging paper globes that had transformed the place into an enchanted forest.
I should have felt safe with Dustin standing near my table and keeping watch. But instead, I felt alone. I felt empty. I wanted Finn.
I straightened when I saw someone coming toward me.
“Charlotte?” Paige asked, squeezing my hand. “What is it?”
I dawned my mask to help block my expression. I didn’t want to talk to John, didn’t want to see him. But I had to pretend everything was okay.
He stopped at the table, his own mask dangling from his fingertips. He’d attempted to clean up, but all I could see were his watchful eyes and the irritating twist to his mouth. I used to think he was friendly. Now I knew he was cunning. He was a liar. And he was watching me as much as Mark had been.
“I thought that was you,” he said.
I stood from the table, already thinking of an excuse to get away from him. “I’ll talk to you later,” I told Paige before turning to John. “Just getting off my feet for a few minutes.”
He rocked back on his heels with a nod. “A lot of work went into this.”
My smile was tight and I tried to soften it. “Seems to have paid off.”
“There are a lot of people here.”
He said it like it was a disappointment but secretly I was grateful. I thought it was going to be a nightmare for security but I was glad it had given me room to breathe. Even with all the cameras, there was no way they were going to pick up on any conversation I was having. I could get lost in the throng of people as well and it made me feel safer.
“Don’t worry,” he continued, mistaking my tension for worry. “We’ve got a lot of eyes on the cameras and security at each entrance.”
I tried another smile. “Good. Thanks, John.”
His eyes lit with his own smile, making my skin crawl. “No problem.”
I spotted Finn walking to the stage at the front of the dancefloor. “Looks like it’s time.”
I walked away without glancing back, heading toward the stage. My heart was racing and I automatically looked for Curtis in the throng of people. I spotted him at the side of the stage and my shoulders relaxed some. If anything happened, if John tried anything or even made me uneasy, Curtis was there. Finn was there and Dustin was there.
There were people I could go to.
The emcee made an announcement, the music faded back, and the stage lights came up. I lingered at the side, half paying attention when Finn took the microphone and opened with a joke. Everyone was relaxed and glamorous, and I wished I could enjoy the evening like they were.
Finn launched into his speech, drawing my attention. When he talked about his inspiration for Oasis and his eyes left the crowd, coming to rest on me, emotions swamped me. I realized I hadn’t loved Finn, really loved him as much as I could, when we were in college. And I knew that because I felt so much more for him now. My heart was his one hundred percent and I couldn’t believe I’d broken up with him because I was scared.
When he said my name and asked me to join him, I walked to his side, the skirt of my dress swishing against the stage floor. I could hardly see the guests at their tables because the lights were so bright but it was only Finn that mattered. His dark eyes captured mine the entire way to him like we were the only two people in the Commons. The only two people on earth.
He politely handed me the microphone when I reached him, but our fingers brushed. My heart broke a little more.
I had to fix this.
I held it together enough to say a few words and encourage everyone to enjoy their drinks and their meals, as well as take the time to bid on the items which stores, restaurants, and patrons had donated for the event.
Once we were finished, I turned as quickly as I could, heading off the stage while taking off my mask. I thought I heard Finn say my name but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t face him right now. Not without breaking down. When I saw John standing near Curtis, I turned in the opposite direction and promptly ran into someone.
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry,” I said, holding out my hands in an apologetic gesture. My mask dropped to the ground.
The man lowered his mask as well. “I’m not.” He grinned, looking almost like Finn when he did so. “Hi, Charlotte.”
“Jake!” I gripped him in a hug before I could help myself. I was so happy to see a familiar face and one I trusted that I immediately launched myself into his arms. “I looked for you earlier.”
He held tight for a moment, murmuring in my ear, “I was a little late. And that’s some serious security you’ve got out at the entrance.”
I eased from his grasp. “Sorry about that.”
He shrugged and I couldn’t tell if he knew the reason for it or not. He bent to retrieve my mask. “I’ll give this back if you give me a dance.”
I nodded, even though my feet were killing me. It was easier than sitting at the same table as Finn and pretending everything was fine when my heart was being torn out of my chest. Worse, I had no right to indulge in my own sadness because it was my choice. I’d made things the way they were between us.
I didn’t know how badly I’d hurt Finn, but I had to fix it.
I just had no idea how.
Jake took my hand and led me to the dancefloor. The lights had dimmed again, and the shiny floor was only illuminated by the floating domes of light above us. It was romantic and a great way to get people interested in Oasis.
Keeping my mask in one hand, I joined it with Jake’s and let him pull me closer as other couples moved around us on the dancefloor. He looked so much like Finn, I had to blink. Jake was Finn’s older brother, the one who initially took over their father’s company. But, unlike Finn, he was more of a free spirit. He wanted to be able to wander and move from one project to the next. I wonder what would have happened if it had been him who’d stayed at Oasis, not Finn. Would that have made things easier?
“You’re quiet,” Jake said, mouth close to my ear.
I tilted my head back to smile at him. “My feet are killing me.”
He laughed and turned me in a circle. “I’ve missed you, Charlotte.”
“I’ve missed you, too. Are you going to be staying around a while?”
“Would you like that?” he asked, a smile in his voice.
I nodded before I realized how true it was. Jake had always been able to make me laugh, to ease the tension, to joke when Finn had been serious. It hurt my heart to hear he’d had trouble with his ex-wife.
“I’ve been in New York for the last few weeks but I’ve got most everything settled there. I think I might be able to hang out here a bit, annoy Finn, try to steal you away.”
“Not likely, brother,” Finn said, startling me. I glanced over, surprised to find him on the other side of us, hands in his pockets. “I was hoping to cut in.”
Jake only laughed, relinquishing his hold on me. I started to protest but Finn took my hand before I could move away.
“Lunch,” Jake suggested. “Tomorrow?”
He startled me by leaning in to kiss my cheek. “We’ll talk.”
Finn took his place, blocking my view. Filling the space in front of me with his wide shoulders. “Just one dance,” he said as if anticipating an argument. “That won’t look suspicious, will it?”
“Finn…” Suspicious? What was he talking about? I’d broken up with him, but he was still acting like it was just a mistake. And he was absolutely right. Either I was a terrible actress or he was more determined than I gave him credit for.
When he turned me in the other direction and I spotted John again, watching us, my grip tensed on Finn’s hand.
“What?” he asked. He followed my gaze, frowning. “Charlotte.”
I tried to even my breathing and smile. Pretend like we were just friends having one dance. “Nothing. You’re right. One dance is expected.”
“Did you get my note?”
I swayed with him, trying to keep my composure. When I didn’t answer, he continued.
“It’s not just my office. Your apartment and mine are both safe. No cameras. No—”
“Finn, please,” I said. “Let’s not talk about this right now.”
He wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. Just because there weren’t cameras in his apartment or even mine didn’t mean there weren’t cameras on the way to his apartment. In the hallways. Everywhere else. John, and then Mark, would still know who I was keeping company with. And then what? Mark would hurt Paige or go after my sister Jenna, or even Finn, and I couldn’t let that happen.
His hand slid down to my hip, and his words were just a low murmur. “You look beautiful tonight.”
I let myself look up into his fathomless blue eyes. There was more than appreciation there. There was love, forgiveness, and understanding. Would he forgive me if I said I was sorry? If I explained what I’d done was for his own good?
After all, I’d forgiven him when I’d come to Oasis. We’d started over. But our foundation for trust kept breaking under the strain of everything else that was being thrown our way.
“You look like you belong here,” I told him, taking another moment to admire his tuxedo. Trying to ignore the pain in my heart. “Like this is your world.”
“You’re my world.”
My breath caught. Our lips were so close, close enough anyone looking might think we were about to kiss.
I stumbled on my dress in my haste to back up. Finn didn’t release my waist, only tightened his hold. He said one word. “Please.”
My chest constricted. “Oh, God, Finn. Please. I can’t—not right now.”
I pulled my hand from his. In that instant, I knew he’d forgive me. He’d forgive me and more—he’d take me back. Which is exactly where I wanted to be. And exactly the most dangerous place to be right now.
“I need to—” I glanced around for a source inspiration but found none. It was all too perfect. The lights, the dancing, the champagne, the music. All of it made me want to stay there in Finn’s arms and embrace what we’d started when I came to Oasis. “I need to use the restroom.”
I tried not to make a scene as I pulled from his grasp. My mask fell from my fingertips and this time I left it on the floor. I made myself take deliberately casual steps as I walked to the nearest restroom.
It was sheer will that had me smiling an almost genuine smile at John when I passed him in order to get by without any questions. But I couldn’t sidestep Curtis when he intercepted me at the end of the hall, his eyes vigilant.
He stopped far enough from me it looked like we’re just giving each other a casual greeting. He even smiled, a wide smile that came off strange on him. “It looks like the gala is a success.”
“Good work,” he said, reaching out a hand.
My eyes narrowed but I automatically stuck my hand out to shake his. I felt the piece of paper immediately, clasped between our fingers. A secret.
He let go and nodded. “Good evening, Ms. Evans.”
I closed my fingers around the paper and turned as he walked away. “Don’t forget to check out the auction booth.”
He waved a hand. “Will do.”
Clutching my purse close to me, I finished my trek down the hallway and then locked myself inside a stall in the bathroom. Away from cameras or people.
I uncurled my fingers, frowning when all I saw was Curtis’s business card. He’d already given one to me and I’d programmed his number into my phone just in case. Then why…
Flipping the card over, I froze. On the back was a time, scribbled hastily under a brief message. I’ll be alone tomorrow, no prying ears. My phone is safe. 2:30.
My breath caught. He knew. He really knew. I figured he might, but this…God, Curtis was too shrewd for his own good. And I was eternally grateful he was on my side.
I could talk to him. I could tell him John was behind part of this. The cameras, maybe even the flowers and notes that had been delivered to my apartment.
Curtis would know what to do. And then I wouldn’t have to lie to Finn anymore.
Stuffing the card into my purse, I left the stall and washed my hands. Tomorrow.
I’d go out to lunch with Jake if he was available. A meal with an old friend—that wasn’t suspicious at all. And when lunch was through, I’d find a payphone somewhere or use the restaurant phone and call Curtis. I’d handle this.
I’d been weak before. I’d let Mark hurt me. I’d even let him bully me when I got to Oasis, making me afraid to have a relationship with Paige or Finn or anyone because I was scared to lose what mattered.
But not anymore.
Taking a deep breath for courage, I touched up my makeup and left the bathroom. First, I hunted down a flute of champagne. Then I found Jake and insisted he dance with me once more so we could make plans.
The brilliance of my plan was in question. Once lunch started to wind up, once I knew I’d have to make that phone call, once I knew I’d be facing my past and all the consequences that came with it, I started to get nervous.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked, eyeing my mostly untouched meal.
“Oh.” I blinked. “Sorry. Not very hungry, I guess.”
We sat at a cozy round table toward the back of the restaurant. Every time the front door opened, my eyes flew to the entrance. But it was always just another customer looking to be seated. I didn’t know what I expected. Mark certainly wasn’t going to walk right into the restaurant in front of Jake and a dozen other people. Or would he?
That way I couldn’t make a scene. That way I couldn’t get up and run out or call for help.
“Finn said you’ve been going through a difficult time,” Jake said.
I shrugged, trying to be nonchalant even though my stomach tensed. What else had Finn told him?
“Nothing specific,” Jake said as if reading my mind. He set his hand on mine. “I asked him about your ex and he seemed pretty…” Jake gave an apologetic shrug. “He was pissed. I get the feeling you and your ex didn’t split on good terms.”
“No,” I murmured, picking at my chicken.
“I know all about the dangers of exes.”
I glanced up. He was smiling but I could still hear the slight bitterness in his tone. “I know. Finn told me—and he was specific. Sorry if that bothers you.”
“No. It’s not a secret. She tried to drag my name—and the family’s name—through the mud. And did a pretty good job of it until we dug up some stuff on her past. It wasn’t pretty but it’s over. I hope your situation with your ex is over, too.”
I swallowed, unable to answer. It was far from over.
Jake squeezed my hand. “What can I do to help?”
“You’re a terrible liar.” Jake laughed. “And always were. I won’t push you. But I’ll be around for a few weeks. Let me know if you need to talk. Better yet, let me know if you need an escape.”
“Sure. The cabin in Colorado. Great fishing this time of year.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Because you know how much I love fishing.”
“Hiking, relaxing, wine drinking—whatever you’d prefer.”
A trip to the cabin sounded like heaven, even if it meant fishing. I’d been there a handful of times with Finn when we were in college and it always did wonders for melting stress.
Jake straightened, grabbing the check off the edge of the table. “Let me know.”
I reached for the check, but he held it from my grasp. “Not this time.”
“No, really, Jake. I appreciate lunch and the talk and just…It’s nice to have you here.”
“It’s nice to be here.” He held my gaze when he saw there was more. “What else?”
I glanced to the door again. “Could you please tell Finn I’m sorry?”
“Yes. Just that. He’ll know what I mean.”
Jake’s inquisitive eyes narrowed on mine, a darker shade of blue than Finn’s. There were so many questions in them but they all went unasked. “No problem.”
Checking the time on my watch, I said, “I should get going.”
He stood as well. “I’ll walk out with you.”
Bad idea. I still needed to make my phone call. And Dustin was outside, keeping watch. I didn’t want Jake to know I had a bodyguard—that something serious was going on. I wasn’t ready for more questions, especially not when I had to lie about the answers.
“Actually,” I hedged, glancing to the back of the restaurant where the bathrooms were, “I need to make a phone call first.”
He angled his head, just like Finn did sometimes. “On the restaurant phone?”
“I forgot mine,” I blurted. A lie. No matter what, I still ended up lying.
“Here.” Jake pulled out his cell phone and passed it over. “Use mine.”
I opened my mouth to protest but I couldn’t think of another lie. Besides, it should be safe. It was my phone, or any other in Oasis I should be worried about.
“It’s sort of private.” I smiled at him and gestured to the back of the restaurant again. “Do you mind?”
He shook his head. “Take your time.”
Curtis was expecting my call any minute now. I dug in my purse for his card, my fingers brushing past my own phone before I found it in the side pouch. My heartbeat picked up. What if this was a terrible idea? What if it didn’t work out or Mark found out?
My hands were shaking by the time I got to the tiny hallway. I passed the restrooms and walked to the end, where there was a door for an emergency exit. A glowing sign above the door buzzed incessantly.
I forced myself to dial the number and pressed Send.
The phone only rang once before I heard his voice. “This is Powell.”
There was a long pause before I said, “Curtis…it’s me.”
“I’m glad you called.”
He didn’t sound glad, he sounded serious, like he was ready to get down to business. I guess he had been waiting for me to tell the truth. He already knew I’d been lying since the day I broke it off with Finn.
“Are you…” My voice lowered to a whisper. “Alone?”
Someone appeared around the corner, startling me. I gave a nervous smile to the man who walked into the bathroom and turned the other direction.
Curtis answered immediately. “Yes. I promise you, it’s safe to talk.”
“It’s…I would rather talk in person.”
“Completely understandable. Are you safe right now?”
“Wh—what?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder, afraid any minute Mark would walk into the restaurant and find me here.
“I mean, should I come there or can you wait until we’re able to set up a safe location?”
“Oh—no, I’m fine. But I’d rather not put this off for too long.” In case I changed my mind. In case Mark did something I wasn’t expecting. “I didn’t—I couldn’t tell you what’s going on because he’d know.”
Curtis was careful with his words. “We need to talk. It sounds like you know a lot more than you’ve told me.”
“I do. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.”
“No need to apologize. Will tomorrow after work be all right with you?”
“I…” The man left the bathroom, giving me a curious look as he walked away. I hesitated long enough Curtis started talking again.
“We’ll be discreet. I’ll have Dustin pick you up at your office. We’ll meet somewhere outside Oasis.”
I swallowed down sudden fear. “Dustin?”
“I trust him, Charlotte.”
Nodding to myself, I said, “Okay. Just—please don’t tell anyone else. It’s…” Looking over my shoulder again, I bit my lip. “It’s not just Mark. He’s got help.”
“It’ll be safe. No one will know.”
“Safe,” I echoed, trying to believe him. “Okay.”
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