Archie’s breath is a warm caress down my neck. I swallow, trying to keep it together. No man has touched me in months, and my skin is singing at the unexpected attention. Tingles shoot up my arm from where our hands are joined, and having his mouth so close to my ear is making my entire body heat.
With such proximity, besides touching, I can smell Archie’s scent. A mix of clean soap, an expensive citrusy perfume, and bare masculinity.
I swallow and meet his stare made of icy blue eyes now crinkled with mischief.
Another whispered word, another touch, and I’ll beg him to bring me to his room and make me forget my name. But thank goodness, he doesn’t add anything. The best man nods in farewell as he lets go of my hand and walks away toward the elevators, looking unfairly hot for someone wearing sweatpants.
Yeah, staring at his round behind bobbing down the hall doesn’t help me stick to smart choices, so I look away.
My gaze lands on the entrance’s revolving doors where, to my horror, two of my ex-friends, Susan and Daria, are walking into the hotel, carry-on luggage in tow behind them.
The first ghosts from my past have arrived.
I turn my face away, wishing I had an invisibility cloak under which to disappear. Or, to be more pragmatic, that I had at least a beanie to conceal my hair. I love my long, white-blonde locks, but the mane is hard to miss. In a panic, I hastily get up and ask the bartender where the restrooms are. The man points me to a hall to the right with a toilet sign above it. I hop off the stool and follow his directions. I’ve already signed the receipt and won’t need to come back to the bar. And to go back to my room, I can find another set of elevators or take the stairs, steering clear of the lobby.
Down the hall, I push the bathroom door open and hide in a stall for good measure. Gosh, this is terrible. How am I going to survive a week trapped in a hotel with all these people I never want to see again? Avoiding two of them for an evening won’t solve the problem, and I can’t be a bitch and ditch all the events. I’d be spoiling the celebrations for Winter. Before coming, I was aware I’d have to face people, but the real-life experience is worse than I expected. I’m not ready for the panic and shame assailing me even without a face to face. What about when I’ll be forced to really confront them?
I close my hands in tight fists, digging my fingernails into my palms, and sag against the metal door to stare at the ceiling. Two glasses of wine should’ve helped me relax, but no, I’m still a bundle of nerves. And if a little liquid courage can’t even help me chill out, this week is going to be truly horrible.
The bathroom door swings open, and Susan’s voice drifts in. “Couldn’t you wait until we got up to our room?”
“Sorry,” Daria’s voice replies, getting closer. A door bangs next to me; she must’ve occupied the stall to my left. “It was a long drive, and you’ve seen the line at the check-in.”
On alert, I push away from the stall’s door and backtrack to the rear of the tiny space, hoping my feet won’t show underneath. Could they recognize me from my shoes? I doubt it.
“Whatever,” Susan says, her voice closer now. I can picture her staring in the mirror while bouncing up the edges of her short bob of brown hair. “Are we going out tonight, or are you tired?”
“I don’t know,” Daria says. “You?”
“I texted Winter; they’re downtown at a French brasserie.”
“Who’s ‘they?’ Is the Scarlet Woman going to be there?”
Blood turns to ice in my veins; she’s talking about me.
“Yuck.” After the longest time, Daria flushes and comes out of the stall. “Then it’s a pass for me.”
“You’re still that mad at Summer?” Susan asks. “If Lana could move past—”
“Lana is an angel fallen from heaven,” Daria interrupts, turning on the water to presumably wash her hands. “I’m not.”
Susan must make a face, because Daria says, “Susy, drop it.”
“Okay, I will, if…” A pregnant pause follows. “If you explain why, just once.”
The sound of paper towels being yanked from their container on the wall is the only noise that fills the room for a few unbearably long seconds. In the ringing silence, I’m scared they’ll hear the pounding of my heart against my rib cage.
“What difference does it make?” Daria asks.
“I hate that our group fell apart and disintegrated. We were so close, the six of us, and now it’s just you and me most of the time. And I’m not saying I don’t love hanging out with you, but it isn’t like before.”
When Susan says the six of us, she’s talking about them, plus me, my sister, Lana, and Ingrid, who’s the wife of Johnathan’s best friend, Mike. The moment the affair became public, Johnathan and I were sort of cast out and Mike stuck to his buddy, leaving the group as well and pulling Ingrid along. But I had no idea that even Winter and Lana didn’t hang out as much with Susan and Daria anymore. I’d just assumed I’d dropped off the invite list to their nights out.
“Sorry, sweetheart, but the group will never be the same,” Daria says. “That ship sank when little Miss I’ll Go and Screw My Best Friend’s Boyfriend torpedoed it by having an affair with Johnathan. I still don’t understand how Lana found the strength to forgive her, but I never will.”
Daria’s last words cut through my heart like a blade.
“But why? Summer didn’t steal your boyfriend.”
“Susy, she was my best friend. Summer supported me when Tom had the affair, and then Gabriel. She witnessed firsthand what being cheated on did to me, how destroyed I was. Now, tell me, what kind of cold-hearted bitch would consciously unleash all that pain on another woman, let alone her supposed best friend?”
The blade slices through my already-injured heart, fileting it to shreds. What I did to Lana was wrong, inexcusable. And Daria’s right: I didn’t deserve Lana’s forgiveness.
“No, no, you’re right,” Susan says. “She’s a total bitch.”
I cringe in my corner, flushing in shame.
“Lana got lucky she fell into a new relationship straight away, but she could’ve been broken to the point of no return,” Daria continues. “I’ve learned my lesson, and Summer Knowles is the kind of toxic person I don’t need in my life, thank you very much. And besides, she hasn’t had the guts to send me a single text since she was outed.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Susan says. “Honestly, I don’t know how she’s going to show her face around this week. I mean, everyone knows.”
Thank you, Susan, for pointing that out. As if I wasn’t worrying enough already. Susy is one of the most good-hearted people in our group, and if this is what she thinks of me… Anxiety twists in my stomach, and I fight hard to choke a sob in my throat. They can’t find out I’m in here, hiding and eavesdropping on everything they say.
“Serves her right,” Daria snaps. “Let’s go.”
Wheels roll on the floor, and the washroom door is pulled open.
“Speaking of Lana’s new relationship,” Susan says, her voice moving away. “I have it on good authority Christian Slade will come to the ceremony. He should arrive by Thursday or Fri—”
The door slams shut, and Susan’s voice gets cut off.
After they’ve left, I wait another ten minutes before coming out of the stall, in case they forgot something and bounced back in. When I exit, I’m half-stumbling and need to steady myself by bracing my arms on the marble sink. Their words hit me worse than if they’d taken turns punching me. They loathe me. Despise me. And I deserve every ounce of their hatred. Everything they said is true.
I take a hard, long stare in the mirror. My eyes are bloodshot, but I managed to keep the tears in. Still, my skin looks pasty, except for the bluish bags under my eyes. At this moment, I’d give anything to be anyone but myself. And I know just the person who can grant me that wish.
I storm out of the bathroom and head for the bar.
Archie is no longer at the counter, of course, but I need a little extra liquid courage before taking him up on his offer.
Not bothering to sit again, I wave at the bartender to attract his attention.
He comes my way at once. “You wanted something else?”
“A shot, please.”
The bartender eyes me slightly too long before asking, “Any preferences?”
“Whatever,” I say. “Make it strong.”
He nods and gets mixing.
When he puts a tiny glass in front of me five minutes later, I don’t even ask what’s in it. I raise the glass to my lips and tip my head backward, downing the liquid in one swallow. Vodka, mostly, with some lemon soda and sugar. The alcohol burns my throat and makes my eyes water. I do my best not to let it show, and drop the empty shot glass back on the counter.
An annoying smirk stamped on his lips, the bartender asks, “Another one?”
“No, thanks,” I say. “One is fine. Put it on room 452.”
I don’t wait for the bartender’s response, but head straight for the elevators. The best man is about to get lucky; the least he can do is buy me a drink first.
The ride up to the fourth floor is short enough to prevent any second-guessing, and in no time, I’m standing in front of room 452 knocking on the door.
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