After hello, p.4
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       After Hello, p.4

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  What decorating madness had I stepped into?

  The suite was empty, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Paul hadn’t needed to worry about his job. Sam hadn’t needed to stay in the hallway. Whatever fireworks they had expected to happen had fizzled. Piper’s feminine chi—whatever that was—could be aligned without worry, because wherever Piper was, it wasn’t here.

  I had to admit it, I was a little disappointed. I had loved Piper in Sunflower Girl; she had played Claire, who, at sixteen, finds out she’d been adopted and then spends the rest of the movie searching for her birth mother and the family she hadn’t known she had. Claire was so brave and so vulnerable, and I could relate to her feelings of loss and abandonment. I’d seen the movie four times in the theater and had cried every time. And now I was going to miss out on my one chance to meet, in private and in person, the girl who’d brought Claire to life. Just my luck.

  And then I heard the sound of sobbing coming from a back room.

  The book suddenly gained weight in my hands, the grocery-bag paper rough under my fingers.

  Piper was here after all. My mouth went dry.

  Piper Kinkade. The darling of the media. The princess of popularity. A trendsetter. What she wore, what she said, everything she did—mattered. She was the reigning pop queen, the girl-next-door who had made it big. She was a movie star. She couldn’t really be as terrible as Paul and Rebecca had made her out to be, could she?

  The sob was followed by the crash of glass hitting the wall, the sound as sharp-edged as a scream.

  My heart quivered, shot through with an arrow of fear.

  Maybe I should just leave the book on the nearest table and quietly slip away like Paul had instructed. She would never even know I had been here.

  My hand hovered over the table, my fingers ready to relax and let gravity make the decision for me. But—

  But Piper was still crying. She was probably worried about her dog. Who wouldn’t be? Paul hadn’t struck me as much of a dog-lover. I’d be hesitant to hand over my beloved pet to someone who might not care for it as much as I did.

  I took a step forward, my feet somehow more certain than the rest of me was. The lush carpet was the color of eggshells.

  Gliding through the white landscape like a ghost, I crept closer to the door that muffled the shrill sounds of anguish.

  An echo of Paul’s voice yelled at me from inside my head, warning me back and away, demanding that I go—now.

  But Piper was in pain. How could I turn my back on someone who needed comfort?

  I’d just knock. Just once. And if she didn’t hear me, or didn’t answer, then I’d leave the book by her door and slip away. She’d get her book, Paul would keep his job, I’d get out of here intact. Everyone would win.

  My knuckles brushed against the door, sounding like a rasp instead of a cough.

  The crying switched off like a radio.

  The door fell away from my hand, wrenched open so fast I felt the pull of air past me like an inhaled breath.

  Piper Kinkade stood in the doorway, one hand clutching her hot-pink bathrobe at the throat, her other hand wrapped around the door handle in a fist. Her face looked soft, almost like her makeup had melted under the heat of her tears, but her eyes were hard. Angry. I knew she was only nineteen, but the fury in her face made her look older.

  “What?” she spat. “How did you get in here? Who are you? Why didn’t Paul stop you?” She kept her gaze locked on me and raised her voice in a shrill wail. “Paul-ie! Come here!”

  I cringed. It was the same tone most people used when calling their dog or reprimanding a small child.

  Piper drew in another breath, but before she could bellow for Paul again, I jumped in.

  “I’m Sam . . . antha,” I managed, touching the name tag pinned to my shirt. “I’m from Chasing Pages. The bookstore? And I brought you the book you wanted.” All my words ran together into one big lump of sound. I hoped they made sense to Piper. I wasn’t sure I could repeat them.

  Piper relaxed a little. Her hunched shoulders smoothed out, and she stopped strangling her bathrobe collar. She brushed her fingertips beneath her eyes, wiping away the smudges of black mascara. Red spots glowed high in her cheeks, but I couldn’t tell if it was leftover rouge or high emotion. Her famous blonde hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, a few wisps escaping like shooting stars. She didn’t seem to care that I had caught her at a time when she wasn’t all primped and polished and perfect.

  Even in her less-than-perfect state, I could see why Piper was a movie star. There was an aura of confidence around her. A sense of expectation, like she knew exactly what she wanted out of life and exactly how she could get it. The sheer force of her presence felt like a hammer blow to my senses. We were only two years apart in age; so why did I feel like such a little kid standing next to her?

  I swallowed, wishing I’d listened to Paul and Sam and Will and Rebecca. They’d all tried to warn me, I realized. But I’d walked into the lion’s den and there was no going back now. Facing her now, seeing the anger in her eyes, I felt the façade of her movie role persona shatter into dust. She wasn’t anything like I had imagined she would be. She wasn’t Claire. Disappointment sat like a rock in my stomach.

  Her eyes flicked up and down, evaluating me, judging me. She was a sigh away from discarding me altogether when her gaze stopped on the book in my hands.

  “Give me that,” she snapped, yanking the book from my lax fingers and holding it close. “You didn’t read it, did you?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t even know which book it is,” I admitted. Curiosity burned on my tongue. I wanted to ask the title, but I couldn’t make myself speak.

  Piper relaxed another fraction. “Good. Let’s keep it that way.”

  We stood in silence for a moment, the awkwardness growing between us like mold.

  Piper finally sighed and rolled her eyes. She stepped back into her room, tossing the book onto her bed without a second glance. Then, pushing past me, she strode toward the front door.

  For one horrible moment, I feared she was going to call security and have me thrown out of her suite. I hurried after her; I didn’t want her to yell at me again.

  A small table stood next to the front door. I hadn’t seen it when I’d walked in, partly because, when the door was opened, the table was hidden behind it, and partly because it was the exact same shade as the wall. A stack of high-gloss, black-and-white photographs appeared to be suspended in midair along with a cup of a dozen identical silver pens. After a closer look, I realized the tabletop was made of clear, polished glass.

  Piper grabbed the top picture off the stack and a pen from the cup. She jammed the top of the pen in her mouth, bit down, and pulled the pen free from its cap. Scrawling her name across her head shot, she tossed the pen back onto the tabletop.

  “Happy?” She thrust the autographed picture at me, still holding the pen top between her teeth.

  I accepted the offering with numb fingers. “I’m sorry . . . I don’t—”

  “One per person. And no, I don’t do personalized autographs.” She smiled, but not like she meant it.

  “Oh, I see. I mean, okay, that’s fine.” I hated stumbling over my words in front of people, and to be reduced to a quivering lump of broken vocabulary now—in front of her—made me tense and uncomfortable.

  “You can go now,” Piper said, taking the pen cap from her mouth and waving her hands toward the door, shooing me away from her.

  I swallowed. Even though every nerve in my body was screaming at me to accept the invitation and flee from the penthouse, I couldn’t not ask, “Are you . . . are you okay? I mean, I heard you crying and—”

  Big mistake.

  Piper didn’t say anything; she didn’t have to. Her eyes narrowed and I could almost see the hair standing up on her arms as she bristled with suspicion and anger.

  I stopped talking.

  She tapped her index finger to her perfectly shaped lips. After a long mo
ment, she said quietly, “Paul sent you here, didn’t he?”

  “Well, I—”

  “Yes. Or no.”

  “Yes,” I murmured. It was almost the truth. And there was no point in bringing up Sam’s name. I didn’t want both brothers to get in trouble.

  “And you’re new, aren’t you? Samantha, was it?”

  I nodded.

  Her mouth stretched into a smile, but I wasn’t comforted by the sight.

  “You look like a nice girl. A responsible girl. An obedient little girl. So, Samantha, let me tell you what’s going to happen next, all right?” Piper leaned back against the door, blocking me from leaving until she gave me permission. “You are going to do me a favor. If you refuse, then when Paul returns from the vet with Bootsie, all that will be waiting for him will be his pink slip. And he’ll have you to thank for it, Samantha from Chasing Pages. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”

  I shook my head. My mouth was dry and cold.

  She pointed past my shoulder. “What do you see there?”

  Turning slowly, I followed the line of her finger. The wall to her left was dominated by an enormous gas fireplace. It was turned off at the moment, but I knew it would take only a small flip of the switch to ignite it into a roar. A marble mantel supported a handful of trinkets—all tastefully chosen—and a framed picture of Piper. It was the same head-shot image I held in my hands.

  “Um,” I started. My mind raced. What was the right answer? What was she looking for? What would happen if I said the wrong thing? A cold sweat slicked my palms, the backs of my knees.

  “Exactly,” she said. “You see it too.”

  I blinked and turned back to Piper. “See what? I don’t understand.”

  She fluffed the collar of her bathrobe like it was a mink stole. For all I knew, it might have been. Reaching for one of the random silver pens, she handed it to me.

  “Allow me to explain. And trust me—you’re going to want to write this down.”

  Chapter 8

  Sam

  Two paces to the wall. Two paces back. Two paces to the table. Two paces back.

  Sam kept his gaze fixed on the closed white door even while pacing. He hated waiting. Worse, he hated having nothing to do while he waited.

  He had returned Sara’s camera safely to her bag and had successfully resisted the impulse to see what else she might have in there. He wouldn’t want anyone snooping around in his bag; the least he could do was extend Sara the same courtesy.

  But now there was nothing left to do but wait.

  And he hated waiting.

  Movement helped. So he paced. And watched. And waited.

  He unzipped his hoodie. Zipped it again. The tiny teeth clacked as they met and separated, met and separated. The sound of being devoured was oddly comforting.

  His thoughts fractured into multiple, parallel tracks.

  Paul: How much time was left until his brother’s thirty-minute deadline expired? What would he do when he returned and found them both still there? Would Paul’s plan to distract Piper even work?

  Sara: He knew deep in his gut that he shouldn’t have allowed Paul to drag Sara into this mess—unaligned feminine chi or not. Even though she had agreed to do it, Sam knew Sara didn’t really know what she was getting into. How could she? Sam still felt unprepared to deal with Piper face-to-face, and he’d been working with Paul for almost eighteen months now.

  Before that—

  He stopped that train of thought before it could depart the station.

  Turning his thoughts to a safer topic—Bootsie—he wondered absently if a dog could even survive a dose of Valium.

  He knew that Valium was fast acting and long lasting. Not from personal experience, of course—Sam never touched anything that would alter his reality, no matter how much he wanted his reality to change—but his mother had once kept a bottle of the pills on the back shelf of the medicine cabinet.

  He remembered that dark night and even darker day when the bottle had first moved to the front of the shelf. From there it was a short trip to the bathroom counter, then to the nightstand by her bed, where it had taken up permanent residence.

  The level of pills never seemed to go down even though she had taken them like candy.

  No.

  He stopped his thoughts again. This time, his body followed and he froze in the hallway. Triangulated between the door, the table, and the wall, he was trapped.

  Sam inhaled deeply, imagining the white light that filled the air being drawn down into the darkness of his lungs. He swallowed, a part of him hoping that some of that light and air could seep into his bones and his blood. Hoping that it would sate the endless emptiness gnawing inside him.

  How long had Sara been in the apartment with Piper? Five minutes? Ten? What was taking her so long, anyway?

  Something must have happened. Something bad.

  He took a step toward the door, but slowly, like a windup toy not yet up to full speed. A faint jingling accompanied his footsteps. The military-style dog tags around his neck had slipped free of his unzipped hoodie. They chimed against the circular token of St. Christopher that hung on the same chain.

  He shoved the tags and token beneath the neck of his shirt, wincing as the cold metal touched the bare skin of his chest.

  Yet another thing Sam didn’t want to think about.

  St. Christopher hadn’t provided much protection in the past; why did he still think the future would be any different?

  The white door swung open on silent hinges.

  Sam caught a glimpse of Piper’s blonde hair and her red, full lips above her hot-pink bathrobe before the door closed just as silently.

  Sara, disgorged from the apartment, approached Sam on unsteady feet. She clutched a rolled-up paper in her hands. Her eyes were wide, the green darkening to near-black. Clearly, she was still reeling from Piper’s gravitational pull.

  “How did it go?” he asked. Part of him wanted to touch her arm, to provide some kind of tactile comfort, but the jut of Sara’s elbows and the slant of her shoulders offered him only angles and planes. She was prepared to deflect and divert. There was no safe place to connect.

  “She . . . she . . .” Sara kept walking toward the elevator, the paper in her hands tightening from a tube to a straw. “That was . . .” She shuddered, then pivoted on her heel to face Sam, who was trailing a few steps behind her.

  He spoke before she could. “I’m sorry.”

  Sara pressed her lips together, rocked her hip to the right in a stance that was both a challenge and a warning. “Have you ever met her?”

  “Not in person. I’ve been in her apartment before, but always with Paul. And never when she was there. Paul doesn’t want her to know I exist.” Which, at the end of the day, was all right with him. Invisibility had its perks.

  “But you knew what she was like—in real life.”

  Sam hesitated, then said, “Everyone who works for her knows what she’s like.”

  “I didn’t. I thought . . . I mean, she was so good as Claire in Sunflower Girl. Nice. I thought that was who she was. That she was like me.” Sara shook her head. “She’s not nice. And she’s nothing like me.”

  “No,” Sam agreed. “No, she’s not.”

  A silent beat of time passed, each of them looking down or away. He could feel the air around Sara fluttering as she struggled to maintain control. He didn’t want her to cry.

  “Thank you for going,” Sam said quietly. “And if Paul was here, I know he’d say thanks too. You really helped him out today. You helped us both.”

  Sara sighed, her shoulders squaring a little. Her angled limbs relaxed into roundness.

  “Look on the bright side,” Sam said, offering up a smile. “Your work is done here, good citizen, and you’ll never have to see her again.”

  Tension snapped back into Sara’s body.

  “What?” he asked, frowning. Why did he always manage to say the wrong thing at the wrong time?

  “
Can we go?” Sara’s eyes flicked to Piper’s door and then slid to the wall. “I don’t want to talk about it here.”

  “Yeah, sure.” Sam knew words weren’t going to be enough to unwind Sara from the knot she was in. She needed distance, and time. And a distraction of her own.

  And if there was one thing Sam was good at, it was fulfilling people’s needs.

  “I know a great bistro around the corner. You still hungry?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

  Sara grabbed her bag and beat him to the elevator door by two long strides.

  Chapter 9

  Sara

  “You ready to talk?” Sam asked, stirring the slurry of melting ice in the bottom of his cup with his straw.

  I shook my head. Meeting Piper had taken more out of me than I wanted to admit. I was still trying to figure out what had happened, what she wanted from me, and what I was going to do about it. I didn’t want to think about Piper on an empty stomach, and I was grateful that Sam hadn’t pressured me to talk about it on the walk from the hotel to the bistro.

  I took another bite of the most delicious hamburger I’d ever eaten. I felt a cool streak of liquid along the edge of my mouth—ketchup, no doubt. I wiped at it with the back of my wrist. Sure enough, a red smudge appeared on my hand. I heard the echo of my dad’s voice in my head, telling me that what I had just done wasn’t very ladylike, but too bad. Napkins would have taken too long, and there was no way I was letting go of this burger until I had devoured it all.

  Sam didn’t seem to notice, or care about, my lack of dining etiquette. He just looked at me with those dark brown eyes of his as if he had all the time in the world to wait for me. It was nice. A little unnerving, but nice.

 
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