Frustrated with their undefined long-distance relationship between herself and Bobby, Scarlett calls the whole thing off and tells him she was better off—had less heartache—being alone.
Bobby has to do something to hold on to her. He’s falling in love and can’t let her run now. He sends her a gift and invitation she can’t resist and at the masquerade ball, Cinderella starts to realize she just might have found her Prince Charming…even if they do live a couple of thousand miles apart.
Scarlett Morris sat down on the new leather couch, and the material made a rude sound as the air poofed out of the cushion. Frowning, she turned and lay down, setting her head on the armrest, and folded her hands over her belly. Wiggling her butt against the slippery leather, she tried to get comfortable.
“I knew it,” she whispered to the empty space of the cathedral ceiling above her. She had let the flirty, good-looking salesman talk her into this stupid sofa, and now she would spend the next ten years hating it—because that was how long the salesman said it would last. Maybe she could return it for a nice soft one that didn’t fart when she sat on it. It hadn’t done that in the store.
Rolling to her side, she reached for the remote sitting on the glass-topped coffee table. That had been a good purchase. She loved the antique look of the black wrought iron design. Unique. Well, not completely unique. It matched the TV stand where her new forty-inch HDTV sat.
It was her first night in her new condo. The view outside the windows was of the Chicago skyline. It was perfect.
Monday morning she could walk to work instead of dealing with trains or paying for parking. She didn’t have a five-bedroom house to wander around in, get lost in. No backyard that needed tending, pampering, weeding, trimming, pruning.
“Oh, my God,” she said as her chin wobbled and she fought the tears stinging her eyes. What had she done? She didn’t even have a plant in her condo! Her rug was beige. Beige! Who wanted a beige rug? She’d never be able to wear shoes in her own house again.
Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself she was only renting. This wasn’t hers. She had a six-month lease, and she could move back to the suburbs as soon as it was up.
But her house was gone. Sold. Not hers any longer. She had never loved that house, but it had been home for the last few years. And she did have a really big pile of cash in a money market account because of the sale of it. She could get another house. A smaller house. One with a small backyard.
In San Francisco.
Her heart clenched at the thought, and she pulled her cell from her jeans pocket and checked the display. Bobby hadn’t texted her today. He usually sent her messages either first thing in the morning when he got up and she was already at work, or in the evening after he got home. But it was only five on the West Coast, on a Saturday night, so he probably wasn’t home yet. He tended to work later on the weekends, saying he liked the quiet of the office when no one else was around. She understood that, having done it often herself.
Since their parting in the airport in Orlando five weeks ago, they’d texted daily and talked on the phone a couple of times a week. The conversation was usually light, discussing their day, or just to say, “Hi, I’m thinking about you,” but every time, it made her heart ache just a little bit more.
It would be much easier being apart if there was a foreseeable end to the separation. There was none. She worked here; he worked there.
She was just about to turn on the television so she’d stop thinking about him when the door buzzer rang, startling her so badly she dropped the remote.
Jumping from the couch, she ran to the door and pushed the intercom button, her heart thudding. Had he been thinking of her? Had he come to see her?
“Hello?” she said, cringing inside at the hope in her voice.
“Scarlett! Let us in. We brought booze.” It was her friend, Kate, and that made Scarlett smile. She pushed the other button on the intercom to unlock the outer door, and then moved to the apartment door, opened it, and stood waiting, staring toward the end of the hallway at the elevators.
Kate and Janice, her two best friends, got off the elevator among laughter and giggles. Both women carried a bottle of tequila and another bottle of margarita mix. Strawberry for Kate, and lime for her and Janice.
“Fancy, fancy!” Kate said, giving her a quick hug then moving into the apartment. “Wow. We can tell who doesn’t have kids, can’t we? White rugs, glass tables.”
“Hi, sweetie,” Janice said, more subdued than Kate as she gave her a hug. “How are you liking the new place?”
“It’s…all right.” She followed Janice into the kitchen where Kate was already in the freezer, digging out ice cubes for the glasses she’d taken out of the cabinet by the sink. The open plan of the small condo was convenient, with everything centralized; kitchen, living room, just enough space for a tiny dining table, all open to everything else. The two doors on the other side of the kitchen led to the bathroom and bedroom. The bedroom was as big as the living room, and Scarlett had fallen in love with it, but the rest of it was just…
“It’s a place to live,” she said, keeping her voice even.
“Look at that rug. And that TV,” Kate said, clinking ice into glasses. “Man, if they were in my house there’d be a stain in five seconds and fingerprints all over the screen within ten.”
“And can you imagine washing the kids’ messes off those windows?” Janice asked.
“Gross.” Kate handed Scarlett a margarita.
“Thanks.” Scarlett sipped. Tasted like way more tequila than mix, but it had been a long time since she’d had anything stronger than wine. “I guess you guys got a pass for the night?”
“We told the boys they had the kids because we were going to go get drunk with our one and only single friend who just bought a condo in the high-rent district.”
Scarlett smiled. “I’m only renting.”
“For now,” Janice said. “If I could live here…” She sighed when Kate handed her a drink. “What I wouldn’t give to have a little place like this all to myself. No kids, no Brad, just quiet and those gorgeous city lights.”
No kids, no Bobby…just city lights and silence.
Scarlett swallowed back the jealousy. These women had husbands and kids to go home to. Love and home. She had white rugs and a new television. She hadn’t thought of any place as home since she moved out of her parents’ house when she left for college. Though she’d tried to think of the house in the suburbs that way, it had never really worked.
“So hey,” Kate said, putting her hand on Scarlett’s back and urging her into the living room. Scarlett sat down on the sofa, that horrible farting noise sounding again, making Kate and Janice giggle like little girls. Kate sat on the other end of the sofa from her, and Janice in the deep recliner. “Tell us about work. How’s everybody there?”
Scarlett proceeded to tell them about everyone they’d once known, and about the new hires she had met or had heard about. The three of them had started at Cappapelli Manufacturing around the same time and had become friends because they hadn’t known anyone else.
Only a year into their employment, Kate got married and immediately quit to start having babies—she’d had five kids in ten years. Her husband was a banker and they didn’t need her income. Janice lasted three years longer. She’d been married when she started at Cappapelli and worked through her first pregnancy, returning after just a six-week maternity leave. But her second pregnancy had been rough, and she’d been on bed rest for a good portion of it. The child was special needs, so the decision had been made that she needed to be at home with the baby.
Even after all these years, the three of them were the best of friends, though Kate and Janice had grown closer, bonding over motherhood, while Scarlett was the outsider. Always invited along, but never really belonging.
Being alone with them, here, tonight, without the children or husbands in tow was a treat they seldom managed any more.
Scarlett took a healthy gulp of her drink and continued talking, telling them a juicy story about a couple of young engineers who were caught having sex at the office. Laughter and even a few tears were shed as they drank and talked well into the night.
The ringing of the phone pulled Scarlett out of a deep sleep. She was on the sofa, her cheek stuck to the leather and her legs entwined with Kate’s, whose head lolled over the opposite arm rest.
Scarlett sat up to find the ringing phone, and her head thudded, the bright daylight coming through the open curtains blinding her.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered, shoving Kate’s legs off with one hand and grabbing her head with the other. She rolled to her knees onto the floor, and her stomach heaved. “Oh, God…” She dug around in the sofa cushions until her fingers closed over the flat smartphone, and she yanked it to her face, trying to read the Caller ID with hangover blurred eyes.
* * * * *
“Yeah…” Scarlett’s voice was hoarse.
“Are you all right?” Bobby O’Brian sat up in bed, throwing the covers back as he spoke into the phone. He’d just woken up, having slept late since it was Sunday morning, and called Scarlett before his eyes were even fully open. “You don’t sound so good. Are you sick? I was worried when you didn’t answer my texts last night.” She’d never not answered in all the weeks they’d been apart.
He heard rustling on the other end of the phone.
“Sweetheart?” He ran his hand through his hair, his heart pinching in distress. “Scarlett. What’s wrong?”
“Oh, God.” The phone clanked as if dropped. And then he heard vomiting.
He cringed at the sound. Poor Scarlett. His poor baby. God, he felt helpless. He should be there with her, holding her hair, putting a cool cloth on her neck.
Pacing beside his bed he waited, listening. A few more heaves, running water, flushing toilet. Finally, more rustling over the phone.
“Sweetheart, have you been sick all night? Have you seen a doctor? Is it just a stomach bug?” He sank down onto the edge of the bed. “Aw, man, I wish I was there with you.”
“Well, you’re not.” Her voice was cold, flat.
“No, I’m not.” He rubbed that sore spot in his chest he always got when they talked. He missed her so much it physically hurt. “Are you going to be okay?”
“It’s just a fucking hangover. I’m not dying or anything. Oh, God.” And the phone dropped again. The water running. Flushing toilet.
A small smile curved his lips. She was hung over? He’d never seen her more than just the tiniest bit tipsy. Definitely never drunk enough to throw up. When he thought the phone was back in her hand, he said, “You there?”
“Sports drinks and lots of water today, darlin’.” He chuckled. “I hope you learned your lesson.”
His teasing was met with silence.
“Scarlett? You still with me?”
“No. I’m not with you. You’re on the West Coast and I’m here.” There was real bite in her tone, and it made him pause.
“You know I’d rather be with you,” he said, choosing his words carefully. They’d never really discussed their relationship, where it stood or where it was going. In fact, he thought they both avoided it because they disagreed.
“And when you do show up, will it be a quick one-nighter? Or do you expect me to drop everything for a full weekend? I’m not a fucking twenty-five hundred mile booty call, you know.”
“I know tha—”
“Do you? Do you know that? We’ve seen each other twice, and that’s what it’s been. Sex on top of more sex. What good is that? I just sit here waiting for you to call and let me know you’ll be in town? I can’t do it anymore.” A sob tore over the phone, breaking his heart. “I can’t do this. I need… I was better off before I met you.”
“Scarlett—” But the distinctive beep of the call being terminated had him pulling the phone away from his face and looking at the display, at her picture there.
He sucked in a breath and slowly released it. He didn’t like the burn at the back of his eyes or the way his stomach felt hollowed out. Why had he thought she was okay with their long-distance relationship? He’d pushed her into it. The second time they’d parted, she’d wanted to keep it simple, like the first, but he couldn’t do that. He really, really cared about her… Damn it, he loved her! She was everything he’d ever wanted in a woman, in a lover, in a life partner.
He rubbed his fingers over his forehead as he stared at her smiling picture on his phone. A picture he’d taken of her on sitting across from him at a little pub in St. Augustine as they shared a plate of nachos.
He took another deep breath. He had to do something about this. Looking around his condo, he felt lost. He needed her. But his life was here…