“Toni took off in a hurry.”
I didn’t bother looking up at the voice from the doorway. I could practically hear the reproach in my little sister’s voice, although her tone was calm and easy. “It’s late. She’s been putting in a lot of time here, as you pointed out.”
“That is true, but is that why she left?”
The direct question was a lot harder to avoid, and Isadora knew I didn’t make a habit of lying to her. Others maybe, but not her. Shifting my gaze upward, I met her eyes. Green, like mine, but a different shade, more like our mother’s than our father’s.
I didn’t say a word, but she must have seen something on my face because she scowled.
“I guess not.”
She came into the library and went straight for the bottle of bourbon I’d left out. I frowned as I watched her study the bottle. Then, with a thoughtful expression, she poured some of it into a glass for herself.
“Iz, you don’t like bourbon.”
“I don’t like a lot of things, big brother.” She shrugged and turned to look at me. “I need something stronger than a Cosmo at the moment. Now, are you going to tell me what happened between you and Toni?”
I was careful not to lie. “What makes you think anything happened?”
“I saw her face as she was walking out.” She lifted the glass to her lips and sipped. Her nose wrinkled and she shuddered. “Damn. That’s strong.”
If she hadn’t been working on getting me to talk about something I didn’t want to talk about, I might’ve thought her expression was funny.
Isadora wasn’t giving up. “Plus, I can see your face right now. Something happened.”
I gave her a smile that I knew didn’t come close to looking genuine. “Everything’s fine, sweetie. Okay, it’s just–”
Her voice sharpened. “Don’t lie to me.”
I stared at her. Isadora didn’t talk like that to anyone, and definitely not to me. Not ever.
She took another drink, a longer one, deeper one. “I’m going to assume she mentioned Lily.”
“Fuck, Iz.” I tossed back the rest of my bourbon and slammed the cut crystal glass down so hard, it was a miracle it didn’t shatter. I couldn’t even look at my sister now. “Why did you tell Toni about Lily? Were you trying to hurt her?”
“No, Ash. I’m trying to protect her. Toni’s the kind of person who has relationships. You don’t. You just do sex.” There was a fierce protectiveness in her voice that made my chest hurt. “I don’t want you hurting her!”
“I didn’t want to hurt her, either!” The shout was so vicious, we both flinched. I turned away, disgusted with myself more than angry at my sister. “She thinks I was just using her for sex.”
“Well, you were.”
“No, I wasn’t,” I fired back. The last look I’d seen in Toni’s eyes had left me feeling hollowed out and empty. The feeling hadn’t faded with the passing hours or the amount of alcohol I’d consumed. I really didn’t want to be discussing this with my sister either, yet I couldn’t seem to stop. “I wasn’t, Iz. Not really. It just happened.” I sighed and ran my hand over my jaw. I needed a shave. “Anyway, it’s not like I’ve got time for a relationship.”
“You never have time, Ash.”
She’d come up to stand next to me without me realizing it. As she slid her arm around my waist, I closed my eyes. I’d been a jackass, to her and Toni. I didn’t want comforted. I didn’t deserve to be comforted.
“You spend all your time working or here with me. On the rare occasion you do go out…” She let the sentence trail off.
I was surprised to find myself blushing when she pointedly looked away. Shit. I hadn’t realized I’d been that obvious about it. I could only hope she didn’t know exactly where I’d gone. That was definitely not a conversation to be having with my little sister.
She continued, “When you do go out, well, it is all about sex. You can’t deny that. But maybe the thing with Toni was different. It’s not like you ever made a habit of sleeping with anybody I brought around the house before.”
“It was a mistake.” I’d come to that conclusion in the time since Toni left. It had been a mistake to ever go near her. I’d have to find a way to rectify it. For her sake, and for Isadora’s.
“Why? Because you actually let yourself care?”
Damn her. “I–”
“If you tell me that you don’t, I just might punch you.” She jabbed me in the chest. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit. I know you. I see how you are with her. You watch her, Ash.”
“She’s a beautiful woman.” Feeling defensive, I struggled with a reason to make her just stop talking.
“You’ve known a lot of beautiful women,” Isadora countered. “You watch her for other reasons.”
“No…” Then I stopped. Catching her hand, I squeezed it once before releasing it. Before she could reach for me again, I walked over to the window. I’d laid the rose I’d given Toni on the windowsill. She hadn’t taken it with her. I should have just thrown it out, but I hadn’t been able to do it. Now, I picked it up and studied the delicate velvet petals.
“I do watch her,” I admitted quietly. “I do care. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have time for a relationship, Isadora. I just don’t.”
“And I already pointed out that you never have time.” She gestured to everything around us. “What if Dad had decided he didn’t have time? Or Mom? What’s the point of everything you do if you never have time to share it with somebody? What’s the point of anything if you end up all alone? I know some people want it, but, Ash, can you really tell me that’s what you want?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. After a few minutes, she must’ve gotten tired of waiting, because she left.
I dropped down onto the nearest chair and stared at the abandoned rose.
What’s the point…?
I didn’t know.
I fell asleep.
I didn’t know how long I was out, but I startled awake when I heard the alarm being disarmed.
That put me on my feet.
The sound of the door opening took me out into the hall.
What I saw next had me clenching my jaw.
Dressed in a nightgown and robe. Wrapped in Colton’s arms. He looked like he’d just gotten off work and he had his face tucked against her neck, while she clung to him.
They looked complete together, even if Isadora’s shoulders were rising and falling erratically, as though she was holding back a sob.
“I can’t sleep, baby,” she whispered against his chest.
I withdrew farther back into the shadows of the library, keenly aware that I was intruding on a private moment. Still, I heard them.
“I keep having nightmares. It’s like I wake up and I’m back there, all over again…”
“It’s okay, Dory,” Colton said, his voice low, harder to hear. “I’m here. I have you and I’m not letting you go.”
I turned away. Quiet as I could, I went back to the couch and sat down. I leaned back and closed my eyes. I hadn’t known she was having nightmares. How had I not known? I was glad she had somebody to talk to, to turn to in the night.
The knowledge made me feel more alone than ever.
Toni’s face was the last thing I saw before I slid back into sleep.
Morning dawned too bright and too early. Lying there in my bed, I tried to shut it out, along with the voice of my sister from last night.
But her words circled through my mind over and over in an endless loop.
What’s the point?
She was like a ghost, trapped inside my skull.
If you end up all alone…what’s the point?
I could picture her with Colton, him helping her shoulder the burden of everything that had happened to her. There’d been a time when she would have turned to me, her older brother. For as long as she had been alive, I had been there for her, even before our parents died. It was strange to realize I wasn’t the one she turned to anymore.
Realistically, I knew I couldn’t expect to be the only one in her life. Isadora was funny and bright and sweet. She loved people. People loved her.
Unlike me. I had wealth and power, and that attracted people. But that wasn’t the same thing as having people like me. Care about me.
I lived a very solitary existence, and it was becoming more solitary all the time. First, we lost our parents. Then I lost Lily. Once I’d stopped trusting everybody except my sister, it had been inevitable that I’d have no one but her.
Then Toni came along and shaken my world.
Pushing her away had been instinctive, and I’d done it from the beginning. I could see that now. She was funny and determined, and she didn’t shy away from anything. She was everything I didn’t have.
So, of course, I’d pushed her away. Tried to keep her at arm’s length like I did with my staff.
Other than Isadora, there was nobody I really talked to, and even my relationship with her wasn’t as close as it had been. It had taken seeing her with Colton last night to realize we were drifting apart. Or we already had.
What’s the point…if you end up all alone?
Twelve hours ago, this was the last place I’d expected to end up.
Twelve hours ago, I had convinced myself I was doing the right thing, establishing a safe distance between Toni and myself. I’d thought we could have a purely sexual relationship. I just needed to find the right way to propose my brilliant plan.
I could have my cake and eat it too.
Six hours ago, I’d had myself convinced it was best that she knew the kind of person I was.
Now I was just hoping she’d let me through the door.
I couldn’t quite remember how I’d gotten through the security door that first night. Maybe somebody had taken pity on a drunk bum. Or maybe somebody equally as drunk had been going through and I’d just followed.
I had no idea, and that actually bothered me. Toni should be completely safe, and it was clear that she wasn’t here.
Except right now. There was nobody around who looked interested in opening that door, and the memories I had from before were so blurred by booze and memories of being naked with Toni, I had no room in my skull for something as mundane as how I’d gotten inside.
The only memory I clearly recall was of those minutes when I’d woken to find myself in her bed. Even those memories were somewhat muddled by the miserable hangover I’d had. It likely would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for her pouring water and ibuprofen down my throat the night before.
Sometimes there’d be a faint flicker of something more. The brush of her mouth on mine. Her body pressed against me. Her voice sharp as she ordered me to drink water, and then soft as she cried out my name.
That was all I had though.
Dread gripped me as I lifted my finger to jab at the doorbell.
It was very likely she wouldn’t let me in. But I had to try.
Before I had a chance, the front door opened and a cute black girl just an inch or so taller than Toni stood there. She cocked her head to the side and studied me, lips pursed. With an intense scrutiny, she looked me over from head to toe and then propped her shoulder against the door.
“Well, hello. Can I help you?” She seemed amused to see me standing there.
“Ah…hello. I’m here to see Toni. Toni Gallagher.”
Dark eyes glinting, she said, “There’s only one Toni in the building. She know you’re coming?”
I thought about trying to charm my way past her, but the look in her eyes told me it wouldn’t work. I went with the truth. “No. And I’ll be honest, if she did, she probably wouldn’t let me up.” I fudged the next bit. Sort of. “We’ve been seeing each other and we had a pretty bad fight. I want to make it up to her.” I gave her a sheepish smile rather than a charming one. “I don’t suppose you’d help me out?”
“If you’re trying to make it up to her, where’s the candy? Roses? Something sparkly?” She glanced at my decidedly empty hands.
“Toni isn’t the kind to be impressed with it.” Also, I hadn’t thought of it.
“Huh.” She grunted out the noise, then shrugged. “That’s true enough. So, what if I say no?”
Sliding my hands in my back pockets, I looked away. “Then you say no. And I start pushing on that buzzer and play the waiting game.”
I felt like a bug under a microscope, the way she watched me, but whatever she saw must have satisfied her.
“Good for you,” she announced with a decisive nod. She stood aside and held out the door. Just before I would have crossed the threshold, she grabbed my arm. “Don’t make me regret this.”
I gave her a short nod, hoping neither of us would regret it.
As far as things went with Toni, I had more than enough to regret already.