A thousand starry nights, p.7
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       A Thousand Starry Nights, p.7

           Addison Moore
 

  “It’s something I’ve been working on for a while. Sort of my take on Starry Night by Van Gogh only slightly less psychotic.” She frames her hands over the right bottom quarter. “This is where the almost lovers sit while gazing at the night sky.”

  A white-hot spear of emotion rockets through me. Aspen and I were almost lovers. We spent every damn night we could gazing up at that barren expanse.

  “I’m going to call it A Thousand Starry Nights.”

  “It’s brilliant. Why a thousand?”

  Aspen drops her head back a notch. Her eyes grow hollow as she slowly bears them into mine. “Because that’s how long they’ve been apart.”

  I quickly run the math. Aspen and I have been apart for exactly four years—over a thousand days.

  “A Thousand Starry Nights,” I whisper, breathless, never wavering my gaze from hers. “Sounds too damn long to me.”

  “It has been.”

  “Daddy!” Abby runs in with glossy slicks of blue paint in her hair.

  “I’d better get her home.” I glance at Aspen, my heart pumping wild. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I scoop Abby in my arms as she burrows her hair in my shirt, turning us both into a blueberry bloodbath. I glance over at Aspen once again. “I owe you lunch.”

  Abby and I take off, and I don’t look back. I’m so hopped up I could circle the globe with the renewed lease on life that Aspen just gave me.

  A Thousand Starry Nights.

  Aspen might be married to Henry, but it’s our love she’s erected a shrine to.

  That has to count for something.

  It does.

  The Blush of Dawn

  Aspen

  King Ferdinand of Spain and his wife Isabella famously funded the voyage Columbus took to the New World. Their daughter, Catherine of Aragon, was King Henry VIII first wife. Just months after mourning her true love, Arthur, she married his brother, Henry. But Henry had his wandering eye on one of Isabella’s lady’s-in-waiting¸ the ever-cunning, Anne Boleyn. In Henry’s defense¸ he tried to get out of his marriage by having it annulled, but the Pope refused, and a divorce ensued, the country’s very soul was now in peril. It was a fucking mess. Sometimes it’s not so easy to simply get out of a marriage.

  Ned’s café is a throwback to an era best forgotten with ruby-red Naugahyde booths and waitresses that look both exhausted and under-enthused.

  My phone buzzes. It’s a text from Stevie.

  On my way to pick you up! Let’s do breakfast!

  I text right back. Sorry but my husband beat you to it. Not home. See you at the office. I’ll take a rain check on breakfast.

  It’s unapologetically warm this morning, thus prompting Henry to wear his obnoxiously loud florescent green board shorts, which pair nicely with his deep marine murse, a gift from his mother last Christmas. He can’t quite fit his laptop in it, and yet his wallet swims like a goldfish in the sea, so I’m completely baffled by its constant presence whenever we go out. On some level I wonder if he does this to embarrass me. But, in truth, I couldn’t care less if he sauntered around with a fruit basket on his head. Henry is his own person. Our entities feel entirely unrelated—something much further from husband and wife than one can imagine. It’s like I’m visiting with someone I went to school with and haven’t seen in ten years, jarred a little by how much he’s let himself go in the interim. It seems self-absorbed and pompous of me to think this way of my own husband, and I hate myself for it. Henry and I should be evolving together as a couple and not drifting so far apart we’re not even in the same solar system anymore.

  I glance coolly at his outfit again. Carter wouldn’t be caught dead in either of those fashion offenses. But then Carter’s fashion offenses are none of my business. Henry is my from-this-day-forward-until-death-do-us-part, lime green shorts, murse and all.

  We’re quickly seated and peruse the diner’s pesticide-laden selections. I’m not one to trot to just any eating establishment, but Ned’s happens to be Henry’s favorite, and it was the only way I could lure him out of the house. If I want any chance of having a civilized conversation with him, I’ve learned it needs to take place in a public establishment preferably in an entire sea of gray-haired patrons—the only demographic to whom Henry is willing to show a modicum of respect.

  The teenaged waitress comes over and takes our order with her Barbie pink lipstick, her cleavage rising like bread dough right out of the T-shirt she’s tied off in a ponytail in back.

  “Wow, you have really long eyelashes for a man.” She giggles at Henry, her doughy boobs bouncing in rhythm. He does, but is that any of her damn business? I bet she strokes the men, the gatherers of the receipt, hoping they’ll pad her tip. I’m betting it works every time.

  “All the better to see you with, sweetheart.” Henry bats up at her playfully, but his gaze dips to her ever-rising breast rolls as he gives a dark laugh. She takes off with a happy skip in her step, and his eyes linger on her rear—making sure she gets home safely, memorizing the curve of her ass.

  “I’m still here,” I tease, resentful and mostly pissed at myself for getting snared in this revenge-based marriage to begin with.

  “Relax. She’s just a fucking kid.”

  “Okay, kids aside. Can I ask you a couple of questions about our new boat?” I’d love to send Henry on a three-hour tour that ends on an uncharted desert isle.

  “I’ve got the keys if you’ve got the time. I can take you to the marina, and we can break her in.” His brows lift with the dare.

  “You have a slip in the marina?” I’m baffled. One of my stepfathers had a slip, and it was the undoing of his marriage with my mother. I believe she called it the hose they hooked up to their checking account.

  “Yup. Got it covered for the next six-months with a lease.” He smacks his lips, bored, as he scans the vicinity for his titty temptress.

  “Do you have any money left over?” My heart sinks at how far he’s fallen from the man I thought he was. Henry chased me relentlessly. He was all about us until one day he was all about the bottle, then about the mini-reefer farm he’s tilling daily on the back patio. He traded me in for Bacardi and a dime bag. I’m simply a relic from some part of his past he wishes he could dump over the side of that boat.

  My eyes widen at the thought.

  He shakes his head as his face brews with anger. His jaw tightens, the veins in his neck jump like cables.

  “Did you fucking drag me out of the house so you can bust my balls?” His voice is even-toned, measured with just the right amount of rage.

  My gaze flits around the establishment and snags on an older woman who must have heard him because she looks markedly concerned. Her eyes say I know his type. Run, sweetie, run.

  I clear the knot from my throat. “You owe me answers.”

  “I owe you shit.”

  The jolly teenage trollop bounces back with our coffee and orange juice, laying it down in front of the two of us with her dazzling smile positioned right at my husband, but this time he doesn’t reciprocate. She takes off like an injured bird, and a part of me feels sorry for her. I want to lecture her on the perils of marrying an angry man. I used to think his temper was something akin to passion. Henry was jealous for me. He was God, Old Testament, ready to protect and love me at the cost of his own flesh and blood, but now the Sonic Glass Company is hastily removing the blinders, and all I see is the devil himself.

  “Listen—” He swipes his coffee over the table so fast it spills and slaps its hellfire right over the soft inner belly of my arm.

  “Shit.” I pull back dabbing the burn with my napkin. Fucking Henry.

  “I’ve got those boys covered.” He tosses his napkin in my face, and I freeze, glancing at the older woman to see if she’s still watching. She is. Her countenance is one emotion removed from rage. She’s openly pitying me, and this revelation makes me want to get on the floor and crawl out of here sideways like a crab. “I’ve got this handled. I don’t need your mommy’s money, so d
on’t you fucking worry your pretty little head about it.”

  Tears come without my permission as I struggle to hold it together. Maybe it was me who couldn’t control her rage in public. Maybe I’m the real reason they’re about to set down two platters full of nitrates in front of us, and we’re not at home throwing kitchen knives at one another.

  “Henry”—I croak his name through the stone that’s settled in my throat—“do you want this with me?” There. If he says no, I’ll quit trying to hold together a covenant I made to God that I can never keep. I give. Uncle. I can’t hold up this burning building for another damn minute.

  He blinks back, surprised, the same way he did when I teased him about cheating.

  “Come here.” He pulls my hands across the table and rubs my knuckles over his stubbled cheek, gritty as sand paper. “You’re my girl, Aspen. You know I love you. I’m just frustrated as shit.” He squeezes his eyes shut a moment. “Things are about to pick up for me. I just need to know you’re going to stay by my side through it all. Promise me that. Promise me you’re going to be my wife until the very end.” He gouges me with his heavy gaze, something just this side of a threat. Henry is just having a bout of bad luck, or so he’d like me to believe.

  A fresh lump blooms in my throat, this time the size of Carter’s little girl, and I swallow it down.

  “Of course, I will. I’m your wife.” The words come out mechanical, stale as three-day-old bread.

  The waitress sets down our food and sashays her tiny self right back into the kitchen. Henry doesn’t take his eyes off those swinging hips, and it feels like defiance, like an open betrayal.

  That’s the difference between Henry and Carter. We could be waist high in naked women, and Henry would be on the prowl with his unquenchable boner, but Carter—all Carter would see is me.

  * * *

  All the paranoid way to work, I comprise a mental list of pros and cons of the very legitimate reasons why I should leave Henry. He hates feet—ridiculously loathes mine. He’s cheap—although, he loves to spend money on himself. He’s rarely home. He’s always checking out other women—in front of me no less. No communication. He forgets everything I ask of him. He has his own friends and life. He has dating profiles for God’s sake. He claims they’re for shits and giggles. Something tells me our marriage was founded under exactly that premise. He doesn’t really want to be married. (However, I might be a tad guilty of that last one in some way, shape, or form.) I’m too smart for his dumb ass isn’t exactly a valid excuse, considering we hold the same educational background, but there seems to be an iota of truth, so I let it linger.

  Run, sweetheart, run. I still hear the old woman speaking silently to me even though, technically, I can’t be sure she would have said those words. If I were her—if I’m ever seated in her place, say twenty years down the road, that’s what I would say. Run.

  I wave to Pepper as I barrel into my office. The first thing I do is fire up my laptop and look into that purported expense fund earmarked for the Jinx 2 app. Carter mentioned it had the net worth of a small country, and, coincidentally, I’ll need exactly that amount to buy back my sanity.

  Logging into the expense account, I note the sum and gasp. It’s no secret that this feline enterprise is built on the shoulders of billionaires, but just seeing that many numbers in a row has me swaying with disbelief.

  “Oh my, wow,” I whisper as I maneuver from one account to the next. The expense accounts for all projects are interlinked. Huh. I wonder if Cash is aware of that? He’s the one in charge of the financial dealings at Jinx enterprises. Ironic that Cash is in charge of the cash. You’d think he’d have a tighter leash on the company finances. I mean, this way, just about anyone with security access can finagle her way into each of the supersized expense accounts. And if she were particularly devious, if she had her unbroken legs on the line, she might just dip her fist a little into each account until she had the exact sum needed to secure her neck from being snapped in half.

  “Huh.” I lean back in my seat and try to get my thiefly bearings. I could ask my father for a loan. A dull groan rips from deep in my belly. My father would scoff at the idea. Hans Lionheart is not one to perform a voluntary handout. But I know if I probed deep enough, batted my lashes, and threw my DNA in his face, he would soften and offer the loan with a premium, but fair, interest rate. He would require the truth, though. Even if I lied through my teeth, my father has his sources, and he would find out. That boat Henry purchased all but screams major debt to a rational human being, at least humans in my financial bracket.

  Stevie and Lincoln are out of the question. They would rather have Henry deep fry in hell than bail him out. Not that I’m particularly interested in bailing out Henry as I am in saving my own skin. And Kinsley might agree to lend me the money, but she could never keep a secret. She would want a very loud, and very public, thank you.

  Nope. I guess that narrows the field down to embezzling from my own company or at least my share. We still own this litter box, don’t we? It was such a mess after the takeover with Stevie insisting on gifting it back to Ford, but then she stayed on as part owner. I’m not quite sure where that landed Kinsley, Lincoln, and me. Employees? Not if my brother has anything to say about it. Something tells me the war for ownership is still raging on. Nevertheless, I can always siphon a little out of each account, and it would hardly be noticed. I’ll sacrifice half my monthly salary toward paying it off. That would take over two years, but at least all the money will have been restored.

  I bury my face in my hands a moment. This game of bailing out Henry can’t go on forever. I’ll have to give him an ultimatum. Get help, or get out. I’ve yet to pay my own mother back. I bite down over my lip and eye the laptop again. The numbers so large they’re dizzying stare back at me. I could borrow just a little extra and do just that. My mother would be thrilled to feed her 401K once again. I’m technically not stealing. I’m simply creatively borrowing and paying it back over time—with a premium but fair interest rate. I’ll throw in another month’s salary to cover my guilt.

  Now, how to do it… I can’t simply siphon cash from Jinx to my private bank account. Nope. I’ll have to open a brand new account. Crap—that’s still technically me.

  Pepper walks in and lands a hot coffee at the foot of my desk.

  “You look like you might need this.”

  “Thank you, but unless it’s filled with gold coins, it’s not going to make this day any better. Hey”—I look at Pep a moment—“do you remember when the Robards went down in that huge money laundering scheme last fall?” It was all over the news. The Robards was a tech company that dissolved under a disagreement between the founding members. They were once-upon-a-time frat brothers, each one greedier than the next. “They had some clever scheme that the government got a hold of, and it landed the three of them in prison.”

  “I do remember that. Technically it was a not-so-clever scheme. My cousin, Godfrey, was their accountant prior to the debacle. Thankfully they fired him that summer, or they probably would have taken poor God down with them.”

  “Oh, wow. I’m betting the nickname God wouldn’t have gone over well in prison. So what was it? Some Ponzi scheme that flat lined?”

  “No. They put everything in offshore holdings, but the paper trail was enormous. You could find Amelia Earhart and the Ark of the Covenant with those idiots in charge.”

  Ixnay on the offshore account. I give a dry smile. I’m not into making anybody’s Raiders of the Lost Ark dreams come true, especially when it lands me with an orange wardrobe for at least a decade. The last thing I need is a paper trail that leads to my temporarily borrowed funds like some pinhead Peter Cottontail.

  She turns to leave. “I would have at least opened a charity account and pumped money into that. Some people.” She shakes her head all the way to the door.

  Next on the to-do list: open a new charity account. Maybe I can call it the husband relief fund.

  I don
t think I’ll ever get any relief from Henry.

  * * *

  Carter arrives early for our lunch date, his eyes flashing like silver. He swings open the door, and I’m double teamed by his stealth good looks and the warmth of his cologne. My body twitches as he offers a brief hug hello. I move past him gingerly as if our bodies might snag on one another if we touch for too long.

  It’s strange like this with him. I sit silently as he drives us to Misha, a high end Asian fusion restaurant just north of Shipwrecks. We’re seated outside with a stunning, cobalt view of the Pacific.

  When you live and work so close to the water, you might see a snippet of the divine deep blue here and there, but you forget how powerful it is, how majestic it can be, until you’re right upon it.

  “I didn’t think you could wow me, but I love this,” I say breaking the strangled silence that we’ve suffocated in all the long way here.

  Carter presses out a slow grin as if his devious plan is working, and it warms me to the pit of my frozen, stubborn bones. Carter has lit a fire beneath me. He’s thawing the ice, determined to see if my heart still beats for him. I don’t want to tell him that it does. That it beats only for him and has all these long lonely years because then, in some small way, I lose. What do I lose? I’m not sure—sanity, pride, my bloated ego, some small part of me that wishes we could turn back time and have Carter pick me in the first place. I lose the girl who cried so many tears for him and simply push her off the side of a cliff as if she never existed, as if her pain didn’t matter. Now, that’s not fair to her. Is it? She deserves a little revenge. She deserves to dole out a little bitter medicine that makes him cry I’m so sorry. It always should have been you. But “she” is greedy, and I’m not sure if any such proclamation would ever be enough. That’s what real pain does to you. It clouds your judgment and makes you overshoot “enough” by a mile. She wants penance, suffering, and heartache that is deeper and far more agonizing than anything she’s ever felt.

 
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