Last call bad habits boo.., p.26
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       Last Call (Bad Habits Book 3), p.26

           Staci Hart
 
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  Seth stood and looked me over, his face thin and ashen, lined with pain and regret. “I can’t understand anything.” He turned and walked out of the apartment.

  I trudged into my room and began to pack my bag, stowing away supplies in their boxes, carrying them down the stairs and ultimately to the cab I called. And then, I went home.

  WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

  Rose

  THE BAR WAS STEADY ENOUGH that night to keep my thoughts occupied, and I was so grateful. I did my crying, and then I hitched up my britches and went to work. Red, red lipstick and black, black liner helped my mood considerably, or at least helped me hide it a little.

  I’d been far too busy to think about Patrick. Until Seth walked in.

  I couldn’t puzzle out why he was there as I walked over. Maybe he wanted to talk to me on Patrick’s behalf. But as I looked him over, I knew that wasn’t the case. He took a seat near the end of the bar, smiling at me, but that smile left me unsettled. There was something feral about him tonight — he looked more like the Seth I used to know than he had lately.

  I headed down to greet him with my best fake smile on. “Hey, Seth. What’s up?”

  “Oh, you know. Just living,” he said flatly.

  I tossed a cocktail napkin in front of him. “What can I get you?”

  “Jack on the rocks.”

  “Sure,” I said, glancing at him as I filled the glass with ice. “I thought Tricky said you’d quit drinking.”

  “Yeah, well. Guess he doesn’t know everything.” The words were wry and cold.

  Unease slipped through me. “Yeah. Guess not.”

  He seemed to try to shake off whatever was on his mind. “It’s been really good seeing you lately. I’m sorry about everything that happened with him.”

  I smiled and passed the drink over. “Thanks. Just one tonight? Or did you want me to start a tab?”

  He picked it up, his eyes hungry as he looked into the glass. “A tab would be great.”

  I glanced at the time. It was eight, early enough in the night to see what would happen with Seth. If he got tanked, I’d text Patrick. Maybe he’d behave himself and split after a drink or two, and I wouldn’t have to.

  But somehow, I doubted that.

  Patrick

  It took me two trips to get everything from Seth’s, including the painting I’d done that afternoon. And just like that, I was back in my old room, feeling more sure of myself than I had in ages, though still shaken from Seth. It was like being slapped back into reality, from a dark room to a light one, and I could see, even if not all that I saw was pretty.

  I set the painting down in my room, and Lily spent a long time looking at it with her fingers on her lips and her eyes shining.

  “It’s perfect,” she’d whispered as Lily, West, and I stood around it quietly.

  A little while later, I showered and changed, then sat down at my desk and wrote a note. It was the first step. The first word to tell her what she meant to me, and I wouldn’t stop until she was mine. Not this time.

  I would fight for her. For us.

  My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I pulled it out to find a text from Rose.

  Hey. I’m sorry to bother you with this, but Seth is at Habits, and he’s been drinking for a few hours alone. I’m not sure if he’s okay.

  I texted her back as my heart sped up. I’ll be right there.

  Thanks, Patrick.

  I stood and left the painting where it was in my room, no longer having time to leave it in her apartment, my fears about what was next with us replaced by something far worse as I hurried across the blocks to her.

  Rose

  I should have called Patrick sooner.

  It was getting late, late enough that the bar had cleared out, even Bob who paid his tab with a smile, nodding to Seth as he asked if I wanted him to stay. But I sent him on his way, sure Seth was harmless. I texted Patrick anyway, though, uncertain what else to do.

  When I made it back behind the bar, Seth sagged over his drink, shoulders sloped. He spun the glass around by the rim.

  “Doing okay, Seth?” I asked in my bartender voice.

  He smiled. “Great. Better than ever.” The glass spun around again, and he watched his fingers. “You know, I’ve been wondering about something.”

  “Oh?”

  Seth looked up at me, half smiling, half something else. “How come you and I never hooked up?”

  I chuckled uneasily. “Well, I did have a boyfriend when you lived with Tricky.”

  “Yeah, but I mean, I always thought we had the vibe, you know?”

  I shrugged. “To be honest, knowing your past was always chasing you was kind of a turn off.” It was honest, all right. Too honest, and the moment it left my lips, I wish I’d made up a lie or a joke or anything.

  He shook his head at me, eyes hard. “Tricky had the same past.” It was almost an accusation.

  “Not many people are like Tricky, though. You know he’s different.”

  “Right.” The word was bitter, and he picked up his drink and killed it. “Can I get another?”

  I laughed gently, looking for footing, trying to diffuse the tension, giving him whatever he wanted to buy time until Patrick showed up. “It’s late, Seth. Don’t you have work in the morning?”

  He shrugged. “I guess.”

  I watched him for a moment. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

  “Yeah, I’m good. How about that drink?” The words were sharper than before, so I smiled and picked up the bottle.

  “Sure.” I poured him another drink with my mind screaming, wondering when Patrick would get there. “Hey, I’ll be right back. Gonna grab a couple of things from the back.”

  “All right.”

  I walked past the bathrooms and into the stock room, propping the door open with the doorstop, letting out a breath as I walked toward the back wall.

  “You know,” Seth started, and I jolted, spinning around to find him blocking the doorway. “The first time I ever saw you, I was sure you and I would be a thing.” He took a step into the room, and I took an instinctive step back. “I wish Tricky hadn’t made me leave, but he always was the golden boy, you know? He got the job.” He took another step. “He got the girl, even if he lost her.” The corner of his lip curled into a smile. “Twice.”

  “He earned all that. No one gave it to him.”

  He took another step, and so did I. “He and I came from the same circumstances, but somehow he gets it all, and I get nothing. I tried, Rosie. I tried so hard. But it’s never good enough. It’s never enough.”

  Seth moved, and when I took a step back, my back hit the shelves, sending the bottles clinking into each other gently. I had nowhere to go as he closed in on me. “Seth—”

  He was close enough now that I could smell the whiskey on his breath as he reached out to touch my hair, running a strand through his fingers. “I’m not gonna hurt you, Rosie.”

  I didn’t believe that for a second. “What happened to you?”

  He shrugged as his eyes ran over my face, assessing me. “I’m not clean enough for Tricky, so he left. Moved out.”

  “Patrick only wants to help you. You know that.” Where is he?

  A shadow passed across his face. “Maybe I don’t want any help. Maybe I’m tired of bending myself into a shape that doesn’t fit. Maybe I’m tired of fighting what I want. I should just take what I want instead. Like you, Rose.”

  He pressed his body into mine, slipped a hand into my hair and squeezed until I cried out in pain. My arms were by my side, fingers gently groping for anything on the shelf that I could use as a weapon. They brushed the neck of a bottle, and I fumbled with it until I could grip it with my heart thumping so hard, so loud. I squeezed my fist around the neck and snarled.

  “Get the fuck off me, you son of a bitch.”

  But the angle was odd and slow, the bottle heavier than I thought as I brought it up, and I knew through every millisecond that it wouldn’t be enough. Hi
s face twisted, full of rage when he realized what I was doing, shifting into shock as he flew backwards, then sideways into the shelves against the other wall.

  Patrick stood in Seth’s place, staring at his back with his body tight, jaw firm and lip curled, voice dangerously low. “Don’t you ever put your fucking hands on her again.”

  Seth pushed off the shelves, roaring as he flew at Patrick. But Seth was too slow. Patrick barely moved, didn’t even flinch, just shifted and threw out a fist, catching Seth in the jaw.

  Seth spun around and hit the ground, lying there moaning for a second.

  I looked up just as Patrick stepped into me, cupping my face in his hand, searching it with his dark eyes. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

  “N-no. I’m all right.” My eyes moved back to the floor where Seth looked over his shoulder at us.

  “It’s okay. You’re safe. I won’t let him hurt you, Rose.”

  And when I looked up at him, looked into his eyes, I knew. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt me, not even himself.

  Seth tried to get up, but faltered. “Fuck you guys.”

  Patrick turned around, shielding me from Seth. “What do you want to do with him?” he asked me, though he stared down at Seth still, waiting. “Call the cops? Let him go?”

  “I … I don’t know.”

  “I can call them to pick him up, if you want.”

  Seth’s eyes flashed. “You can’t do that. I could lose my job.”

  Patrick’s face was hard and still as stone. “Maybe you should have thought about that before you came here tonight.”

  “I won’t come back. I shouldn’t have come here. I was just …” He looked down at his hands splayed on the ground, bracing him. The fight had slipped out of him, leaving him empty, a shell of a man on the floor in the back of a bar. He didn’t look up as he spoke, seemingly to himself. “I don’t know how many times I have to hit the bottom before I learn. Maybe I’ll never learn.”

  Patrick still didn’t move. “You’re the only one who can make that choice, but I don’t want anything to do with it.” He looked back to me. “What do you want to do, Rose?”

  I glanced at Seth, knowing that if he went to jail for this, it would be the end of him. Even if he didn’t, it might be the end. But I couldn’t be the reason. “I don’t want to press charges or call the cops, as long as he doesn’t come back.”

  “Go. Stay gone. If you come back I swear to God, I’ll …” His voice trembled, fists clenched by his side. “Just don’t come back.”

  Seth nodded, looking ten years older than he had only a few hours before. He hauled himself up and walked toward the door, turning just before he passed through. “I’m sorry.”

  “So am I,” he said.

  And we watched him walk away.

  The minute he was out of sight, Patrick turned again and pulled me into him. The adrenaline had waned, leaving me shaking, thankful for his arms around me.

  “I’m sorry, Rose. I’m so sorry,” he whispered into my hair.

  “You can’t apologize for Seth.”

  “I’m not.”

  I pulled back to look up at him, his face full of apologies and forgiveness.

  He touched my cheek. “I know I said we’d only keep hurting each other, and I may not be wrong. But my mistake was letting you walk away without fighting for you. I won’t let you slip away again, Rose, even if hanging onto you means I bleed from the thorns.”

  “Patrick …” I whispered.

  “I love you, Rose.”

  A tear slipped down my cheek. “I love you. Even when it hurts.”

  His eyes closed, brows knit with emotion as his nose brushed mine. “Don’t leave me.”

  “I won’t. Not again. ”

  And then, he kissed me.

  His familiar lips, the sweet softness that demanded and gave all at once — it was a kiss that erased what had happened before. It was the kiss of my dreams, except this wasn’t a dream. I could feel his warm fingers against my cheek, feel his solid chest under my palms, his heart beating against my skin.

  It was real.

  No more walking away. No more fighting him, fighting us. I saw the path behind us, saw the path that lay before us, and I knew we would survive, as long as we never gave up.

  He kissed me until I was breathless, and when he pulled away, I lowered my head to his chest. He wrapped me in his arms, and we stood for a long moment, just being.

  Patrick moved first, shifting to look down at me. “What now?”

  “Now, we move forward. Together.”

  And he smiled, one of the rare ones. “Together.”

  ANYTHING

  Patrick

  I SAT AT THE BAR, sipping my whiskey, still shaken, as we waited for Sheila and Brent to come down. Rose poured herself her second shot and slammed it, wincing as she set the glass on the bar top with a clink and got back to cleaning up. Keeping her hands busy made her feel better, she said, and I couldn’t argue with that.

  It was a half an hour before they got there, haphazardly dressed with worry all over their faces. They embraced her for a moment before the questions flew — Was she all right? Should they call the police? Who was he? Will he come back? Rose answered them calmly before they ordered her home and to take as much time off as she’d like, thanking me over and over again, telling me how glad they were that I’d shown up when I did.

  They weren’t the only ones.

  I pulled her into my side as we walked home, wrapped my arm around her shoulder to keep her close, as if I could protect her from the world. I watched every person as they passed, suspicious.

  We climbed the steps to her apartment, stepped inside in the dark. Ellie was gone, the apartment empty other than Valentino. We found him perched on the back of the couch when she turned on the light, though he jumped down, purring as he wound his way through our legs.

  Rose turned to me, buried herself in my chest. I cradled her in my arms.

  “What do you need, Rosie? What can I give you?”

  She sighed. “This is a good start.”

  “Anything,” I whispered, chest aching. I closed my eyes.

  “I already have all that I need.”

  I squeezed her tighter, smoothed her hair, kissed her temple. Her eyes when she looked up at me were bright, clear, though they disappeared behind dark lashes as she kissed my lips sweetly, deeply. She took my hand and led me to the bathroom.

  Instead of turning on the light, she opened the cabinet under the sink and pulled out a few candles that the girls seemed to stow there for baths, along with a lighter.

  “I just want to wash all the bad off of me,” she said as she lit the first.

  I smiled and nodded. “I’ll leave you to it.”

  She lit the second. “No. Stay. Please?”

  I nodded again, stepping past her to run the water.

  When I turned around, she was pulling off her shirt, black hair against her creamy white skin. She unhooked her bra, undressing without care that I was there, without intent to seduce or lure. It was more intimate than that.

  I undressed too, simply, quietly as the water rushed, echoing off the walls of the small room.

  She reached under the sink again, coming back with something in her hand that looked like a scoop of ice cream. When she dropped it into the claw foot tub, it fizzed and bubbled, and I watched her step in after it gently.

  Rose looked back over her shoulder and reached for my hand. I took it, her fingers warm and slender in mine, and we sat together —her body nestled between my legs, the tops of her knees peeking out of the water, her arms resting on my thighs. Her skin shone in the candlelight.

  She sighed. The water was a soft, milky blue, and the scent of lavender and lemon hung in the humid air as she reached out a foot to turn the squeaking faucet until the water stopped.

  We lay that way for a long while, long enough for me to close my eyes, head resting against the curling edge of the tub, letting a little bit of everything go w
ith every slow breath. She sighed against me again. Neither of us seemed to want to speak, lost in our thoughts as they wound around each other.

  Her hair hung over her shoulder, the tail floating in the water like a ghost, and I gathered it all in my hands, twisting it until it was a rope as she angled her long neck. I tied her hair in a knot that slipped loose once I let it go, and she rested her head in the crook of my neck, her fingers idly traced the mandala on my knee.

  “Promise me something,” she said softly.

  “Anything.”

  “You have to talk to me. Even when you think you know better. Even when you think you’re doing the right thing by saying nothing.”

  “Promise me the same.”

  She took a breath. “I will. I do.”

  “I will. I do.” The words were quiet, reverent.

  “Promise me you won’t run away,” she said.

  “I’ll never leave you, not unless you tell me to go. Never again. I know now. I know what I stand to lose, what I didn’t understand before. I’m not afraid of you, of us. I’m not afraid of anything except losing you.” I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, kissed her hair, willing her to understand, to know how much I meant it. How much she meant to me.

  I could see part of her face when I kissed her hair — eyes pinned shut, chin trembling. A tear escaped, rolled over her cheekbone as she hung her hands on my forearms and squeezed.

  “Shhh. Don’t cry. I love you, don’t cry,” I whispered, my lips near her ear, hand moving to her cheek.

  She turned in my arms, tucking her head under my chin as her arms wound around my waist. Her breath was heavy, shuddering in through her nose, a sob racking through her chest as she tried to hold it in. And I held her while she cried, stroking her hair, waiting until she calmed.

  “I’m sorry,” she said after a while.

  “No. You don’t have to be sorry for anything, Rose. Nothing. Everything we’ve been through, these months … it’s my fault. It’s my fault, and I’m sorry, but you’ve already forgiven me for that. So I don’t want to think about it anymore. I don’t want to think about life without you. I just want to love you, and I want you to love me. I trust you, and I want you to trust me. And if you do, if you really do, then I believe we’ll always survive. We’ll always find a way through. Because there’s no one, Rose — not one person in the world who I could ever love like I love you.”

 
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