I stared at my phone, and my stomach clenched again. It was another text from Evander, and I was such a mess that I’d been just ignoring them, rather than responding like a grown adult.
When I’d left the hotel suite, I’d been on the verge of tears. Everything Evander had done had felt real. Instead of treating me like a paid object to satisfy his needs, he had treated me like a true bed partner, and I had enjoyed every minute of it.
It hadn’t been until he’d been drifting off to sleep that the bucket of ice-cold water had been dumped on my euphoric sexual high. Just as Evander had been drifting off, he had reminded me about the money, suggesting that I put it in my purse, so that I didn’t forget it when we checked out. As soon as Evander had fallen asleep, I had grabbed my clothes, gotten dress, had a mini-meltdown in the bathroom, then had gotten the hell out of there.
Without the money.
I had barely managed a two-hour nap before I’d had to show up to the gas station, and lucky for me, regret had kept me awake and alert all day long. I had even managed to have a good dinner with Nan before my night shift had started. However, when I’d gotten home that night, I had crashed, and I had crashed hard.
When Evander had sent out that first text about his travel plans, I had immediately seen it for the brushoff that it was. Just like Sunday’s morning sunlight had me facing what I’d done, that same sunlight had probably made him see me the same way. I mean, how could he not see me in that light?
Then that second text had come in, and hope was a very frightening thing when you went so long without it. Evander had asked how my day was going, and he had even asked if I’d gotten any rest. I had expected a text about the money, but never about how I was doing. His kindness had sent me into a panic, and I’d been hiding out like a coward ever since.
“What are you doing out here?” Nan asked. “It’s so quiet that I was certain that you might have left somewhere.”
Our house had a small back porch, and though it was rickety as hell, it was still a nice thing to have. We had a second-hand patio set that I had saved up for three months to purchase, and we got a lot of use out of it. Nan liked warm weather, so she often sat out here during the nicer months. I liked rain, so I spent a lot of time out here during the rainy months.
“Just enjoying some downtime, Nan,” I told her. It was Friday, and though I had to work tonight at the club, my morning and afternoon had been free.
“Well, you work so much that I wasn’t sure,” she remarked as she took the seat across from me. “You simply work too much, Collins.”
“Someone has to keep us living in the style that we’ve become accustomed to,” I replied.
“Well, there is that,” she agreed, her lips twitching with a smile. “There really is no going back once you’ve experienced name-brand Pop Tarts.”
I grinned at that. “The horror.”
“Right?” she said, exaggerating her sweet voice.
Even though we were teasing, I knew that she had mentioned it seriously. “Nan, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t work,” I told her. “I’d be bored out of my mind.”
“Well, maybe,” she conceded. “But it would give you time to make some real friends, Collins. It’s a sad state of affairs when your grandmother is your best friend.”
“But you rock,” I pointed out.
“This is true,” she humbly allowed. “I do rock.”
“See? So, why bother with making new friends? None of them could ever measure up to you.” Though I was smiling, my statement was actually pretty true.
“Well, what about a beau?”
“A beau? Really?”
“C’mon, Collins,” she chided softly. “You can’t tell me that you don’t get lonely, honey.”
Ignoring everything about Saturday night, I said, “Nan, I don’t have time to get lonely.”
“Rubbish,” she replied. “Everyone needs that special person-”
“You don’t,” I countered. “Or are you telling me that you get lonely sometimes?”
“I’m different,” she claimed.
“I’ve already had the love of my life, Collins,” she said. “I don’t get lonely because I have thousands of memories that keep me company.” I did my best not to get teary-eyed. “I’ve led a full life, Collins. I’m actually enjoying my peaceful years.” She gave me a soft smile. “However, you’re still so very young. You’ve got a lot of life to live, and I’d like to see you live it with someone special.”
“I’m thirty,” I pointed out. “Now, while that might seem very young to you, I’ve lived life for thirty years, Nan. That’s a lot of living already.”
“Life doesn’t begin until you’re in love,” she insisted. “That’s when the real trials of fire happen.”
“I work three jobs, Nan,” I snorted. “Trust me when I tell you that I’ve felt the real trials of fire already.” Though I was grateful for all of my jobs, I worked at a gas station that put me in contact with the rudest people ever. I also worked at a strip club that had done wonders to rip those rose-colored glasses right off my face. Even though it was the most physical, my stocking job was the easiest. Other than a couple of lazy employees, it was simple and basic.
“That’s fair,” she replied. “I mean, the public in general is such a headache.”
“Amen,” I muttered.
“Sometimes, I just wonder if you’re taking care of me or hiding from life, Collins,” she continued. “Your life is so simple that it’s the safest that I’ve ever seen.”
“I can start snorting cocaine if it’ll make you feel better,” I teased.
Nan grinned. “While cocaine is much safer than falling in love, I still recommend love as the best thing out there.”
“That’s because you had a good man in your life,” I reminded her. “Not all men are like grandpa.”
“And not all men are like your father,” she returned pointedly.
“Nan, I’m not hiding from life,” I semi-lied. “I just prefer simple right now. I’m not in a hurry to get married or have kids.”
“This isn’t a lecture, Collins-”
“It’s not?” I snorted with a touch of sass.
“Stop it,” she chided again, smiling though. “I just don’t want life to pass you by, is all.”
“It’s not passing me by, Nan,” I assured her. “I work at a strip club. I see a lot of life there.”
Nan chuckled, and I loved how she didn’t look down her nose at strip clubs. “Okay, you might have a point there.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I did meet someone,” I finally confessed.
“And?” she asked eagerly.
“He’s rich,” I announced, making Evander sound like he had the plague.
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“It’s an odd thing,” I clarified.
“I can see how it might be,” she replied softly. “For someone who has taken care of herself since forever, I could see how a man with money might make you feel uncomfortable.”
“It’s more than that, Nan.”
“What do you mean?”
Taking a deep breath, I told her everything. Nan truly was my best friend, but more than that, she was the only person on the planet that loved me unconditionally. I knew in my heart of hearts that she would never judge me for any of my mistakes, or all the ones that I was bound to make in the future. I wasn’t afraid to bare my soul to her. I always felt the safest when I was with Nan, so telling her about Evander didn’t feel like a big deal. However, to spare her feelings, I hadn’t told her that it was the cost of her medications that had pushed me into accepting Evander’s offer.
When I was finished, she said, “Oh, my.”
“Yeah,” I agreed miserably.
After a heartbeat of silence, she added, “I take back everything that I said about life passing you by, because…oh, my…”
I laughed, and it felt good. “Is that all you can say?”
“At the moment, yes,” she muttered, but I could see her lips struggling to remain serious.
“It’s a complete disaster, Nan.”
This time, she finally smiled. “It sounds like an amazing love story to me.”
“I met him at a strip club, Nan,” I reminded her. “I slept with him for ten-thousand dollars.”
“Like I said,” she retorted. “Sounds like an amazing love story to me.”
It had to be old age.