Everyday it’s the same thing. I have wasted at least an hour in my office for nearly three weeks listening to Kelly give this or that reason as to why one or more of the selections are no good, only to turn the conversation into sexual innuendo or unwelcome advances. It’s been fun for a while, but I think I’m just done with it. I look up to see Kelly staring at me incredulously. “Am I boring you Porter?”
I release a heavy breath. Actually, you are. “No, of course not. I’m just all over the place today.”
Her expression contorts into a pouty, overdramatic mockery of sadness. “Aw…trouble at home?”
Here we go. I eye her like she’s forgotten her meds and huff out, “Please…I just have a lot on my mind.”
She uncrosses her left leg in a lewd manner before crossing her right one and leaning forward in a seemingly genuine attempt at caring. “Well, talk to me about it. I was married for more than ten years. Maybe I can help.”
I lean back and smile the most feral smile in my arsenal. “What makes you think my wife has anything to do with it?”
She smiles knowingly. “Oh please Porter…it’s always the spouse.”
I grin incredulously. “Kelly, it’s not…”
She throws her hands up and interrupts me. “Okay…fine…whatever you say…but I can tell there’s something wrong Porter…” She sighs dramatically. “…but if you don’t want to talk to me about it, maybe I can help another way…” She stands and braces her arms on my desk and leans in, leading with her cleavage. “Why don’t you let me take you to dinner tonight, and then you can come see my…collection. It might help if you see what I already have and the space I need you to fill.”
I stare at her for a moment and I can’t help myself. I start laughing, right in her face. She laughs with me though she has no idea that she’s the joke and comes around the desk, situating herself right on the edge next to me. I think I’m losing it.
I barely manage through my laughter to say, “Kelly, what are you doing?”
She smiles and says, “Cashing in an old rain check…”
I laugh harder. This is just too good. She thinks she can seduce me or that I give a single fuck about her anymore. I did, when she first got here. I cared to see her squirm, but I don’t any more. I put my hand up to cover my mouth as I lean over to try and help contain myself. She really doesn’t know who she’s dealing with, at least not this time. The worst of the laughter dies away and I lean back up to look up at her and freeze as I realize how close she is. She’s close, very close, and getting closer…and she’s kissing me.
It takes a moment for me to realize what’s happening, but as luck would have it, Malcolm returns with the keys to the truck and the paperwork of our latest delivery as requested, before I’ve pushed her off of me. She stumbles to the floor and I stare at his wide eyes in shock. Kelly gets up and scowls at me as she resettles her too short dress. She looks over to see who’s interrupted and she smiles that predatory smile. Fuck.
Malcolm sets the paperwork and keys gently on the desk and turns to leave the room without a word or even meeting my eyes. I stand to go after him but Kelly gets in my way. I shove her roughly and continue only to stop as she says, “Bette, it’s only a matter of time before you cheat. I know it, and your wife knows it, if the rumors are all true. We both know that you’re a player. Regardless of your relationships, you always have at least two other women on the side. I just want to be one of them…”
I turn and walk back up to her with rigid, angry strides. She stops and looks into my eyes and I can feel the disdain drip from my very soul as I reach up and grab her roughly by her hair. She winces as I lean in close and say, “I…want…nothing…to do…with you…” She closes her eyes as if she’s enjoying it and I shake her roughly until she meets my eyes and I’m sure she’s listening. “Did you fucking hear me? I said I want nothing…NOTHING…to do with you. You’re going to leave LA, and you’re going to stay away from me and Tina. And…you’re going to pray that this doesn’t wreck my marriage because I promise you…I PROMISE YOU…there is no natural force on this earth outside of God himself that could stop me from making you one sorry bitch.”
She heard me. I see it in her eyes, but she’s not the same person she used to be either. She laughs, maniacally, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s actually gone insane. This goes on long moments and I let her go with a shove. She eyes me incredulously. “Bette, the way I see it, the way he saw it…” She gestures to the open door. “…you have two choices: you can give me what I want and I go on my merry way, or you can deny me and Tina finds out what happened in here today…plus interest.” She grabs her purse and the altered portfolio and leans into me as she passes. “Somehow I don’t think she’ll be as willing to believe you, not after what you’ve done and not when I have a witness.” I can feel the predatory smile split her face. “I’ll give you a few days to think about it.”
I hear the door shut and brace myself on the desk, willing myself to think this through. Of course I won’t be blackmailed but how the fuck could I possibly explain this to Tina? If I tell Tina what happened…well, she’s already waiting for us to fall apart again. And the baby…there’s still so much pressure to have one before everything falls apart. It doesn’t have to fucking fall apart! And then there’s Malcolm…Malcolm! FUCK…
I grab my purse and run outside, nearly killing myself on the newly waxed floor with my heels. I step outside and scan the parking lot. Fuck, he’s nowhere to be seen. I get in the Saab and hope beyond hope that he’s at home. That Tina’s not there. That he’s not telling her what he saw…that he has enough faith in me to talk to me first. That Tina could have enough faith in me to know that what he saw was not reciprocated or even welcome.
Fuck! “MOVE ASSHOLE!” I lay on my horn and barely miss a car swerving into my lane. Fucking prick. I finally round the corner onto Harper and pull up to the house. Tina’s car is gone. How far ahead of me could Malcolm have been? Fuck. I pull my phone from my purse and text Tina. “Hey, are you at home?” I know she’s not, but it might sound strange to demand where she is. I wish Malcolm had a cell phone. He’s been working long enough to afford one by now. I tap my leg nervously as I wait and consider if it’s reasonable to be this panicked.
If Tina knows, then Kelly’s threat is void. However, she did all but profess directly that she would make shit up. If Tina finds out, and Malcolm doesn’t lie to cover me, then she’ll leave again… Fuck, this is just no way to live. I have to tell her and have faith that she’ll believe me. If she doesn’t…then the incomprehensible happens and I’ll just have to learn to live without her. No matter what, I need to calm the fuck down.
My phone vibrates and it’s Tina. “No, I’m with Alice. We’re looking at donor listings. Is everything okay?”
I close my eyes and let the anxious tears gather and fall. Okay, at least I can be the one to tell her, talk to her. I just need some time to calm down. I text her back, “Yes, everything’s fine. But there’s something that I want to talk to you about. Can you be home in an hour?”
I put the phone in my pocket and scrub at my face before exiting the car and making my way inside. It’s calm and quiet, and perfectly indicative of Tina. I remember standing in the old facsimile of this room and banish the thought and the sheer dread and emptiness of it. I don’t ever want to go to that place again. I close my eyes. She’ll believe me. She’ll believe me. This will be my mantra. I take off my blazer and feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pull it out and it’s T. “Sure. I love you. See you soon.”
I really hope that’s true because she’s got an hour to be ready to prove it. “I love you too.”
I set the phone down on the dinner table, hang my blazer over the back of the chair, and decide to see if Malcolm’s been here. I walk back to the spare bedroom and knock on the door. I wait a few moments and knock again. Still there’s no answer. I open the door to find the room neat and organized, and fully lived in. I close my eyes and let out a sigh. He hasn’t had a chance to grab his things or he doesn’t intend to. Either way, I have a chance to fix this before the worst of it happens.
Fuck I wish I could read him…or just trust him. But I can’t. I don’t know why but I can’t. This will be a shitty way to find out that I’m right if he fails to talk to me before Tina. I walk up the stairs to our room and head into our closet to change. I turn on the light and the string to the attic door sways with the swirling air of the door. Kit said she found the letters in daddy’s stuff.
I pull the string and set down the narrow wooden steps before slipping off my heels and carefully climbing the steps. It’s all new, so it hasn’t had a chance to get too disgusting with spider webs and the unkempt passage of time. Everything’s carefully organized and stored, so I walk to the plastic bins sitting in a row along the floor by the stairs, and sit down in front of them. There’s one marked keepsakes and I know what’s inside, but it can’t hurt to look again.
I open the bin to see my journals neatly stacked against the right hand side. There are a couple of my mother’s smallest paintings in the back, a few of daddy’s old photos. I sift through everything, the seashell from Acapulco, the paintings, the journals, and the photos but find nothing. Nothing until I come across the ultrasound photo of our son. I close my eyes against the tears that start to fall and stare at the snowy imagine of the child we wanted so badly and miss so much. The child that never got to open his eyes and gaze at his mommy’s, or hear our voices tell him how much he’s loved. He was so, so tiny, and he never even got a chance.
I cry piteously. I can’t help it. I can’t help but cry, cry for my son, our son. This goes on for a while but I finally start to calm down just in time to hear the front door open and Tina’s muffled voice fill the living room. I touch the worn, glossy image of my tiny baby boy but I don’t have the heart to put him back in the bin. He deserves better than that. I tuck him in my pocket and scrub my face before quickly putting the lid back on the bin. Tina’s voice is getting louder as she comes up the stairs, so I quickly descend the steps and shut the attic door overhead.
“I’m in the bedroom, T!” I take a deep breath and start to undress, throwing my clothes in the hamper and selecting something more comfortable. Just as I’m about to pull the tank over my head, Tina peeks her smiling face through the opening. She takes one look at my face and quirks a questioning eyebrow at me.
I smile with more confidence than I feel and force myself to be upbeat as I pull the clean tank down. “Hey, I’m glad you’re home.”
She furrows her brows but smiles back at me as she comes in and gives me a lingering, desire laced kiss. “You’re home a little early. If I’d have known I’d have been here to properly welcome you.” She runs her hands across my breasts suggestively but stops when she sees I’m not reciprocating. “Bette…?” I look into her eyes and force myself to be strong. I didn’t cheat and I shouldn’t act like it. But something in me feels the loss of her before she’s even gone. “Bette…what’s wrong?”
I release a huge sigh and take her hands, leading her to the foot of the bed where I sit her down and get on my knees in front of her. I bury my head in her lap and she strokes my hair. I can tell she’s worried and waiting but I just don’t even know how to approach this. But I have to; I can’t keep this from her.
I look up into her waiting eyes and let it all out. “I had a meeting today with…” There’s a knock at the bedroom door.
We both turn our heads and I can literally feel my face harden as I stand and walk to the door to address Malcolm. I open it and the look on his face as he sees my own is almost comical. I’ll kill him, I’m about to, and he’s smart enough to know it. He steps back and I look to Tina and smile as I keep the door slightly ajar. I stare at him, confidently ready to snap his neck, and I don’t even have to ask what he’s doing at our door. His strong jaw hardens and he squares his shoulders but his eyes are soft and gentle. “I need to speak with you.” He looks to Tina over my shoulder and says, “Do you mind if I borrow her for a moment?”
She’s looking at us curiously but shakes her head and I smile with false indifference as I shut the door and start for the stairs. He follows me through the bottom floor and we step into his room where he shuts the door behind us. His voice is accusing and reproachful as he says, “What happened today Bette?”
How the fuck dare he jump to conclusions, let alone presume to scold or judge me? I stare at him incredulously before dropping my voice. “If…and I mean IF…it were any of your business I might feel inclined to tell you. But it’s not, and either way, you have no right to…”
“To what? To care!” His eyes are pained. “You’re my family!”
“You don’t know that!” His shock turns to defeat and his shoulders slump.
His eyes are soulful and warm as he says, “Even if I’m not, if you never see me that way, it won’t change how I feel. You’re my family…whether you want me or not.”
Wow. What the fuck do I say to that? I have no idea how to trust this man even if the DNA results conclude that he is my brother. I close my eyes. There’s no reason to feel this way. For nearly a month, he hasn’t been anything but warm and kind. My friends love him; Kit loves him; Tina loves him. I just don’t know how to let him in, not at Kit’s level. It took years to trust her implicitly but I’ve known her my whole life, and no one will ever get as close as Tina. I collapse onto the end of the bed and he sits next to me.
“Bette…I know what your friends say happened in your past, but I’ll be honest. I’ve lived here for nearly a month, and I know you love that woman more than anything. I just don’t believe you’d do this. I know I’m overstepping my bounds with you, but I don’t care. I love you both, and I don’t want to see either of you get hurt. Please…just tell me what happened?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you, no one will. I was just about to tell T…”
He jumps up from the bed and shouts, “What?!”
I stare at him shocked for a long moment before my face hardens and I stand to meet him, meet this, head on. “I didn’t kiss her; she kissed me, but I’m still guilty. I knew from the moment I realized who she was that she wanted me. I knew that she was actively pursuing me, but I didn’t care. I liked knowing that she wanted me and couldn’t have me because she deserved to know unrequited attraction. I did this. I’ve obviously learned nothing. Tina was right; I’m a vampire. I feed off of the attention and flattery and then, by the time I want to stop it, it’s too late. I should have kicked her out of my office the moment she showed any interest. It was childish and incredibly immature, but I liked it. I liked punishing her. But this time, I’m going to tell Tina. I won’t have her finding out through Kelly, or anyone else for that matter.”
I said the last part so directly that he felt the stab of it. His own voice drops and he narrows his eyes. “I would never…NEVER…hurt Tina like that or tell her something like that without talking to you first. Fuck Bette! Can’t you have even a modicum of faith in me?”
“No…I don’t know…I’m not sure yet. I don’t even know if we’re family…”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and I hear his low melodic voice say, “Does it matter?” I look up at him and he’s turned away but his head is lowered as he continues. “I don’t care Bette…I need…I need a family…I don’t care if it’s blood or not…there’s no one left and…I already love yours. Can’t I be a part of it? Would it be so bad for me to stay…and be part of it?”
I sit back down on the bed and close my eyes. “I just don’t know if I can…I don’t trust people Malcolm. It takes a tremendous amount for someone to get close to me…I just…I just don’t know…”
He sits down next to me and lets out a weary breath. “Well, even when I move out, I’m not going away without a restraining order.”
We both laugh and it’s just so frustratingly hard to dislike him. “Trust me, after I tell Tina…”
He puts his hand on my knee and I furrow my brows as I gaze at him. “You know there’s an easy way to get the proof you need for Tina right?”
I eye him incredulously and he chuckles again. “Trust me just this once. Don’t tell Tina yet.”
I sigh. “Malcolm, even if I did fully trust you, Kelly’s blackmailing me. She’s going to tell Tina and she as much as admitted to fabricating God knows what if I don’t give her what she wants. I don’t think she’s rational. I think people have given her what she wants right when she wants it, no matter how unreasonable the request, for so long, that she can’t handle being refused.”
He smiles brightly and shakes his head. “You’re going to kick yourself when I point out the obvious. But I won’t tell you unless you agree to trust me.”
I gaze into his soulful eyes and take a deep breath. What have I got to lose? Either way, Tina’s going to hear what didn’t happen and more. “Okay…what did you have in mind?” His smile grows maniacally wider and I chuckle at him. It’s so very hard to dislike this man…